Canned Laughs

A government agency tries to make our movies funnier

Director filming a scene of a comedic play
Illustration by Joren Cull

In 2009, Telefilm Canada joined forces with the Canadian Film Centre and Just for Laughs to establish a development program called the Features Comedy Lab. Compelled by its mandate to increase the tiny presence of Canadian movies in their own market, especially among English speakers, the federal film agency identified comedy as a key part of its strategy. Great movie comedies do not require the same king-size budgets as superhero blockbusters; they can succeed on concepts and gags, not stars and visual effects. In theory, at least, Canadian filmmakers should be able to do them well, and do them cheaply.

SCTV veteran Eugene Levy agreed to chair the lab, which, despite a modest annual budget of $315,000, managed to put together an A-team of guests, consultants, and mentors, many of whom volunteered their time to help emergent filmmakers make their comedies more appealing to prospective producers, financers, and most importantly viewers. The objective, explains Kathryn Emslie, CFC’s chief programs officer and a driving force behind the program, was “to help increase the chances of a project becoming a film—and a good film,” by relying on the expertise of such comedy mavens as Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Ghostbusters), producer Jimmy Miller (Elf, Bad Teacher), director Jay Roach (Austin Powers), and writer Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder). By walking mentees through the making of some of Hollywood’s biggest comedy hits, maybe, just maybe, Canada could crack the comedy code.

The fact that our film industry needed something like the lab was a sign that something had gone seriously amiss in the land of SCTV, Kids in the Hall, Trailer Park Boys, and Russell Peters. Homegrown movies such as Meatballs and Porky’s became worldwide hits in their day, and we have exported some of Hollywood’s most successful comedy stars: John Candy, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, and Seth Rogen to name a few. Yet with a few exceptions (the bilingual buddy movie Bon Cop Bad Cop, or the bruising hockey comedy Goon), Canadian-made comedies elicit little notice from audiences and little love from critics.

Five projects were selected to receive the lab’s TLC, and the first was green-lit for production in 2010. Based on writer-producer Michael Sparaga’s experiences as a waiter at a Keg restaurant, Servitude had the potential to be an Office Space in a steak house setting. Sparaga had written the first draft in 1999 and left it in a drawer for a decade. A hasty rewrite earned him a spot in the lab and the script attention of Reitman. Sparaga was thrilled—he had taken his first date to see Ghostbusters—and the lab encouraged him to risk an R rating by deploying a more vulgar brand of humour. It also sent Sparaga and his script to Los Angeles, where a round table of writers from Family Guy, Friends, and other shows helped to punch up the jokes.

Meanwhile, Servitude director Warren P. Sonoda was getting pointers from Miss Congeniality’s Donald Petrie. Despite the number of bigwigs involved, Sonoda maintains that he and Sparaga never felt as if they lost control of the script. The garrulous director is resolutely upbeat about the experience. “It wasn’t like we were handing the script over to a bunch of writers who rewrote it and gave it back to us,” he says. “We gave scripts to people at the highest level, and they came back with notes, suggestions, and feelings about them.”

Sonoda had already shown great promise with Coopers’ Camera, a wickedly acerbic portrait of familial dysfunction that starred Jason Jones and Samantha Bee at the height of the couple’s Daily Show fame, but the film’s 2008 TIFF premiere coincided with the global economic meltdown. Prospective buyers scattered to the winds. Quips Sonoda, “I could do a master class called ‘What Happens When You Make a Really Good Movie and No One Comes to See It.’”

Servitude had other problems. Despite careful nurturing by the lab, a budget of about $1.25 million, and decent marketing support from the film’s distributor, Alliance Films, it tanked on release in 2012. Reviewers were merciless, with critics in the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star coughing up one star apiece. While plenty of bad movies can still become hits, Servitude earned a negligible response from devotees of lowbrow comedy. Crass but not funny-crass gags involving vomit eating and much use of the word “gunt” (don’t look it up) failed to please audiences.

In part, this was because the movie felt like it had been developed by committee, displaying a wildly disparate array of comedic tactics and jokes that might have looked funny on the page but died onscreen. Playing the restaurant’s hapless manager, the Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley provided the only spark of vitality amid an overabundance of dated gross-out humour.

With its first outing, the lab had inadvertently demonstrated the inherent fallibility of the comedy divining process. Even the people who have had hits don’t know how to crack the code. “I’m not a guru,” says lab mentor Daniel Goldberg in a phone interview from his office in LA. The former Torontonian has toiled in the comedy trenches for decades, co-writing Meatballs and Stripes, and later producing such hits as Old School and the Hangover trilogy: “With every movie you make, you’re just guessing. For all of the big comedies that work, there’s a ton that don’t.”

Even the ones that seem disastrous may turn out to be classics. Co-writer Marshall Brickman considered Annie Hall “completely unsalvageable” before Woody Allen, Ralph Rosenblum, and Wendy Greene Bricmont found the film we know and love in the editing suite. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy may have helped to cement the pre-eminence of Hollywood’s two most influential comedy directors, Judd Apatow and Adam McKay, but it did so poorly with test audiences that the original plot line was reportedly abandoned.

Comedy is stubbornly subjective. Daniel Perlmutter, an unassuming but sharp-minded writer and filmmaker now in post-production on his own lab project, Big News from Grand Rock, observes that it can be frustrating to convince others that a gag or a line will play right when it’s in the hypothetical stage. “I know somebody who was a comedy writer for TV and film, and they just stopped doing it, because they couldn’t stand getting notes from people on what’s funny and what’s not,” he says.

There are other obstacles, too. Good or bad, a premiere needs the right timing and the right promotional support (like the word of mouth screenings Apatow used to build buzz for The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) if it has any hope of success. Marketing is a perennially scarce resource for Canadian filmmakers, and not something a development-oriented program such as the lab can supply.

When it comes to making movies with wide appeal in the marketplace, Hollywood’s skill set is markedly superior to that of Canada’s industry, which may be more comfortable dealing with more rarefied fare. This became apparent to Vancouver actor and writer Sonja Bennett when she started circulating her script for Preggoland, a comedy about a thirty-five-year-old woman who fakes a pregnancy to gain acceptance from her mom peers. Before joining the CFC program, she received an early report from a reader at a funding agency, who criticized her script as “very commercial,” she says. “They used that like it was a bad word.” She thinks a big reason her movie made the near-impossible leap from development to production was the surge of interest in female-centric comedies after Bridesmaids. “I hit the jackpot,” says Bennett, who shot the film in Vancouver this past March with director Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky).

She developed her script with input from Legally Blonde screenwriter Kirsten Smith, under the auspices of the Telefilm/CFC program, which was retitled the Feature Comedy Exchange in 2012. The name change coincided with a shift in focus toward more modestly scaled projects with less nakedly mainstream sensibilities, after many of the Hollywood players involved had advised their charges to “go smaller.” Kathryn Emslie now wants the exchange to focus on movies with a “more independent film approach.” It makes sense for the program to develop the next Little Miss Sunshine, rather than the kind of big-budget gross-out comedy that needs an Adam Sandler to carry it.

The new approach is reflected in the program’s second completed feature, released in Canadian theatres in April. That Burning Feeling stars Paulo Costanzo as a condo salesman whose life takes a turn after he has to tell his latest set of sexual conquests that he may have given them gonorrhea. More mild rom-com than sex farce, the film certainly marks an improvement on Servitude, even if it could use more of its predecessor’s ruder energies. Costanzo is too milquetoast to provide the necessary bravura, though Tyler Labine and John Cho from the Harold & Kumar movies score big laughs in their supporting roles.

The film is being distributed by Search Engine Films, a small company run by Canadian movie biz veteran John Bain. He is cautiously optimistic that the current initiative will lead to more funny pictures, the perennial lack of which he calls “a little vexing.” Still, he is keenly aware of the many challenges, including the difficulty in casting (and affording) the name actors financial backers want before they open their wallets.

Comedies may not be expensive, as feature films go, but they still benefit from bigger budgets. There are costs associated with the more freewheeling, time-consuming methods preferred by Apatow, McKay, and their collaborators. “If you want it loose on set and have time to improvise,” says Bain, “then you need more time and therefore more money.” Test screenings, re-edits and reshoots get sacrificed in budget squeezes, too. Given such hurdles, perhaps the real wonder is that anyone can make a decent comedy in Canada.

Director Michael Dowse has consistently beaten the odds, starting with 2002’s FUBAR, an anarchic but oddly sweet mock doc about a pair of Calgary headbangers, which he and his friends shot on a budget that didn’t cover much more than beer and smokes. A linebacker-sized Westerner now based in Montreal, Dowse is the closest talent we have to an Apatow. He shows prowess with both the improv-heavy methods that yielded FUBAR and the rigour required of better-funded projects—such as his 2011 hockey comedy Goon, and The F Word, a whip-smart rom-com starring Daniel Radcliffe that hits theatres in August. His comedies boast a necessary brazenness and unpredictability, as well as characters and stories with enough depth and richness to engage viewers in between the one-liners and big gags. (He also wrote The Grand Seduction, the English-language adaptation of the Québécois hit La grande séduction, which was released at the end of May.)

He thinks making a great comedy is not so complicated. “Finding people who are naturally funny is probably 80 percent of the battle,” he says. “Having a story that holds weight and holds people’s attention for ninety minutes is the other major challenge.” If nothing else, he hopes the Telefilm/CFC program will allow more filmmakers to learn by trial and error. “The bottom line is, you have to do it and fail a lot to understand how to do comedy,” he says. Flops are an essential part of any comedy learning curve. “You just don’t know,” echoes Daniel Goldberg. “You have to be willing to swallow that failure to get to the good stuff.”

In March, lab alumnus Perlmutter and I convened at his dining-room table to watch clips from the latest cut of Big News from Grand Rock on his laptop. The premise is endearingly loopy: The hero, Leonard Crane—played by Ennis Esmer, a Toronto actor most familiar as comic relief on CTV’s otherwise stern-faced drama The Listener—is the editor of a newspaper in a small town that is not exactly hopping with excitement. To generate the kind of buzz that might save the paper, Leonard starts making up articles, pilfering ideas from old movies he rents. Even Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money gets milked for a human interest story. In line with the exchange’s scaled-back ambitions, the movie’s tone is more low-key quirky indie than crass Hollywood hijinks.

Perlmutter’s script went through the rounds at the lab and the exchange, and won special attention from Eugene Levy himself, through a mentorship arranged by the National Arts Centre, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, and the CFC. Despite so many thumbprints on the material, it doesn’t feel as if it has been (to use a favourite phrase of Goldberg’s) “noted to death.” I can still hear Perlmutter’s voice in the movie, which is a good thing: I loved his earlier work with Automatic Vaudeville, a Montreal sketch group and film collective that never received the recognition it deserved. (The troop also made a very funny movie called Peepers, about a daffy but surprisingly organized subculture of peeping Toms.)

I see flashes of the same lunacy in Big News from Grand Rock, but ensuring that all of these bits and pieces add up to the funniest possible incarnation is another thing altogether. “Just seeing it so many times, I started cutting out all the jokes,” Perlmutter says of the first edit. “I made this really short, lean, plot-driven cut, but all of a sudden the jokes were gone. The people at the first test screening were saying, ‘It feels like it could be funnier.’” So the jokes went back in. Cracking the comedy code may just be a matter of time—and timing.

This appeared in the June 2014 issue.

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson teaches film criticism at the University of Toronto, and is the director of programming for the Kingston Canadian Film Festival in Ontario.
Joren Cull
Joren Cull is an illustrator and animator. A Brief History of Goth, which he directed, received a 2017 Webby Award for best animation.