Thursday, June 3, 2010

Should I write a satire of bad scripts?

Michael wrote in last week with a question:

I wrote an over-the-top script with the intention of satirizing the tongue-in-cheek style of professional screenwriters and the 'breaking all the rules' style of amateur screenwriters. The problem is, now that I'm done, I'm worried that it reads less like parody and more like emulation.

Do you think most script readers would appreciate the joke or just lump it in with the rest of the too-clever-too-stupid shitfests?

My hunch is the latter, but them I'm in the group that thought that BALLS OUT was a painfully unfunny way to punish a reader and considered its inclusion on The Black List to be reason to call into question the credibility of the list.

To me BALLS OUT was like enduring one of Andy Kaufman's less funny pranks. Kaufman gags came in two flavors: there was the outlandish "is this real?" put-ons like those I linked to a while back. Stunts like wrestling women and staging fights on Letterman and Fridays would fall under this category. Essentially, they were Punk'd-type gags on his entire audience. (And that's probably the only time anyone has ever compared Andy Kaufman and Punk'd.) The outlandish Tony Clifton deception also fits here. The reason these jokes work is that they're something that a person can enjoy whether or not they're in on the gag. People who "get it" have fun with the reactions of those who don't, but even so, those who don't "get it" aren't really hurt. They're harmless participants.

And then there are the ones that I call the "screw the audience" variety. These are the gags that are funny to exactly one person - the perpetrator. Even when you're in on the joke, it's not funny, you're just aware that the perp is a dick. One of Kaufman's regular stunts was something he'd pull when facing a crowd not amused by some of his sillier gags. To punish the audience, he'd stop his act, pull out The Great Gatsby and then spend the rest of his stand-up set reading from it.

I don't find that sort of filibuster funny, and if Andy did that during a comedy set that I was paying to attend, I'd be sorely tempted to ask for my money back. Sure, it's funny to him, but no one in the audience is going to find that entertaining.

That's BALLS OUT, as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, I get that it's an "exaggeration" of every bad aspiring screenwriter trope, but that doesn't make it funny in and of itself. This isn't a case where I need the joke explained to me. I get exactly what the writers are going for. It's just utterly unamusing to someone in my shoes.

Here's the reason why - no matter how much you try to exaggerate the "bad writer" tropes I can guarantee you I've seen a script that commits the same sin in all earnestness at the same proportion. There are a lot of talented people who read this blog, but I bet if I gave you an assignment to write a deliberately over-the-top ultraviolent scene, no one would come close to the worst offenders. If I told you to grow write the most misogynistic and violent rape scene you could imagine, grossly exaggerated and made inappropriately sexual, none of you could touch a scene I read years ago that still makes me wretch.

Guys like me have seen it all at levels that are so intense that you'd think the writer MUST be aware of their own hackitude. Voiceover narration that never shuts up the entire script? Seen it. Shane Black-like asides to the reader amused with their own cleverness on every page? Seen it. Inappropriate camera direction and editing notes? Seen it.

You know those off-tune singers who turn up every season to annoy Simon Cowell at American Idol tryouts? The real nutjobs who show up in strange costumes with odd gimmicks and can't hold a note if it was covered in crazy glue? How would you parody them? The reality is already so over-the-top and so insanely ridiculous that it defies parody. No matter what you tried to do to "spoof" the Idol contestants, there's bound to be a legitimate head case who's already done something crazier.

I'd ask what you're trying to achieve with this "parody." It's not easy for most people to get their material read by pros who are in a position to do something with it. What makes you think you're better off rolling the dice with a joke that's so inside baseball that it only really would land with people who read scripts? (That's my other issue with BALLS OUT - it's completely unproducable as a movie, which means it fails as a screenplay.) Even in a best case scenario, you're still going to need a "real" spec to get your career going, so what are you gaining by leading with this inside joke?

Best case scenario - You write a parody of bad scripts. The reader totally is into the joke, but since his boss can't do anything with it, they ask you to submit something else. They read your second script, love it, decide it can be a movie and sign you.

Worst case scenario - They read your parody, decide you're a hack and the door slams shut.

Thus, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by leading with this script because it's still your "real" spec that will made the final decision for them.

Don't think I don't get the impulse to write something deliberately bad just to get a reaction. I flirt with that idea every now and then. I've even considered writing one and putting it on one of those peer review sites just to gauge how effective said sites really are. I never do because it's time consuming enough to write something that I'm serious about. I can't see spending almost as long writing a script that isn't going to lead anywhere.

The sheer length of a screenplay usually precludes this joke from being funny. If I got BALLS OUT as a work submission I'd know within a few pages that finishing the script would be a waste of my time, but I'd still have to finish it and write it up. Is the meta-joke really so funny that it's worth 105 pages and potentially 3 hours of my life? (More or less the time it takes to read and write up a script.)

Most of the time, I satisfy my urge to tell bad stories by coming up with lame pitches like those that KG Madman regularly posts as part of his Bad Query Letters series. The joke doesn't wear out its welcome, and neither the writer nor the reader have wasted valuable time that they'll never get back.

Just my opinion. Thanks for the question. It came at a time when I was again considering writing a terrible spec, so you saved me a lot of time.


  1. From how things went last year, I assumed I was the only guy who SERIOUSLY didn't enjoy Balls Out. It's good to know someone sees it for what it REALLY is...A funny script that could never EVER be made into a film and thus, as you put it, fails as a screenplay.

  2. One of the writers of BALLS OUT is a regular on Done Deal and he's always got really useful and insightful things to say, plus he's funny.

    But that script was annoying as hell to read because it insists upon itself. It worked for those guys, but nobody should ever do that again. It was a one-time thing.

  3. It occurs to me that some readers might not be familiar with BALLS OUT. Head here to check out the homepage of the writers, which will lead you to more than you could ever need to know about the script and the guys behind it.

  4. Thanks for posting a link to our "unproducable" masterpiece.

    Sorry you didn't understand the script.

    Even though you think you did.