Chuck Ross

Something Familiar, Something Peculiar, Something for Everyone — Though Nothing Sacred: The WGA Picks Its 101 Funniest Screenplays

Nov 17, 2015

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

Thank you Stephen Sondheim. It’s the opening number of his “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a Tony Award-winning Best Musical, which was not as well-received as a movie.

But I love the song and it’s a terrific curtain opener to talk about the Writers Guild of America’s release, last week, of the 101 Funniest Screenplays.

Here were the ground rules, according to the WGA: “Films were eligible if they were exhibited theatrically; live-action, animation, silent, and documentary features were all eligible; and films must have been written in English. Short films (under 60 minutes in length), films that initially premiered on television, and films that do not feature on-screen writing credits were not eligible for consideration.”

Later I was told by a WGA spokesperson that the entire membership was asked to participate, and each member could list up to 15 films.

For reasons I cannot imagine, the WGA spokesman declined to say how many members the WGA has, nor how many voted. According to an L.A. Times article last year, the WGA has about 8,200 members who are eligible to vote on its contracts. A source of mine said that the WGA has about 4,000 additional non-voting members. As to how many voted for this list, I have no idea.

What I do know is that it’s a list that has most comedies that most of us love, with one glaring, screwy exception. More on that later.

Here are the top 20 funniest screenplays on the WGA list:

1. Annie Hall (1977)
2. Some Like It Hot (1959)
3. Goundhog Day (1993)
4. Airplane! (1980)
5. Tootsie (1982)
6. Young Frankenstein (1974)
7. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
8. Blazing Saddles (1974)
9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
10. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
11. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
12. The Producers (1967)
13. The Big Lebowski (1998)
14. Ghostbusters (1984)
15. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
16. Duck Soup (1933)
17. Bridesmaids (2011)
18. There’s Something About Mary (1998)
19. The Jerk (1979)
20. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

To see the entire WGA list, please click here.

No. 5 on the list, “Tootsie,” is my all-time favorite comedy. For a number of years now, I re-watch it at least once a year. Besides terrific comic lines and situations, it’s got the best comedy structuring of almost any movie I know. From what I’ve read, that came particularly from Elaine May, who is one of many writers who contributed to the film but is uncredited. That “Tootsie” works so well is one of those miracles of Hollywood, as it survived a long list of writers contributing at some point to its screenplay, and the fact that the star and the director, Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack, respectively, were at war with one another during the making of the picture.

On the film itself, screenplay credits go to Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, with the story credit to Gelbart and Don McGuire.

Gelbart, in his 1998 book “Laughing Matters,” talks about what an unpleasant experience he had working on “Tootsie.” He says when he was first brought into the development of the film, “The draft I read was the fourth incarnation of the screenplay, the second draft written by the third writer assigned to the project.”

Later Gelbart writes, “Murray Schisgal was the third and fourth writer to take on the script. Down the line, he became the seventh or eighth as well.”

And there’s this: “There are whole sections of ‘Tootsie’ that are stitched together: a bit of my dialogue, then a bit of someone else’s, then someone else’s, then back to mine. I call it writing with a stapler.”

And, finally, this: “In Hollywood, when people are listed as co-writers of a film, it’s a good bet that they never sat down and worked together, but that they merely sat down with one another’s pages. In 1983, when the New York film critics honored the [credited] writers of ‘Tootsie’ with an award, it was at the lectern, while being handed the critic’s citation, that I met my ‘collaborator,’ Mr. Schisgal, for the first time.”

Speaking of screenplays, my guess is that the name of the Writers Guild List, “101 Funniest Screenplays” is a bit of a misnomer, and that the vast majority of those who voted for the list hadn’t actually read the screenplays of most of the films they voted for. Instead, they were voting for what was seen as the final film. As proof of this, I point to No. 11 on the list, “This is Spinal Tap.” The script for that film was four pages, and the actors famously improvised the movie.

The last time a prominent and respected organization connected with Hollywood came out with a similar list of comedies was the American Film Institute, which in 2000 released its “100 Funniest American Movies of All Time.” You can find that list here.

Comparing the two lists, of the top 20 movies on the WGA list, all but three can be found somewhere on the AFI list, and nine of them are in the AFI’s top 20 as well. (Of the three not on the AFI list, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” isn’t on it because it’s a British film, not an American one, and “Bridesmaids” hadn’t been made yet. The third film, “The Big Lebowski” was ignored by the voters of the AFI list.)

The AFI list was done by first coming up with a list of 500 films to chose from. That preliminary list was then sent to 1,800 people — those who worked in the industry as well as some critics and historians.

The biggest difference in the two lists — and the reason I favor the AFI list more, even though it was chosen 15 years ago — is the difference in the comedies picked, per decade.

Here’s the breakdown of the 101 movies chosen, by decade, on the WGA list:

Up to 1929: 2
1930s: 6
1940s: 7
1950s: 2
1960s: 8
1970s: 15
1980s: 29
1990s: 18
2000s: 13
2010s: 1

Here’s the breakdown, by decade, of the 100 Funniest American Movies chosen by the AFI in 2000:

Up to 1929: 5
1930s: 19
1940s: 15
1950s: 8
1960s: 10
1970s: 16
1980s: 22
1990s: 5

The awful truth is that only 6 movies from all the screwball comedies made in the 1930s made the WGA list, while 19 of them were deemed all-time bests just 15 years ago. Is nothing sacred? Seems to me that there’s trouble in paradise here. Not being mentioned on the WGA list makes these screwball comedies libeled ladies. What would the good fairy say? Any platinum blonde watching TCM knows that not including more 30s comedies is clearly a slight case of murder. Perhaps it’s a case of too much easy living by the WGA members, who voted for this new list. Personally, I think an oversight like this should be on the front page.

Likewise, the 1940s get short shrift on the WGA list. I would have thought that the more the merrier from this decade as well, but don’t get me started.

But let’s close on a more upbeat, funnier note. Back in 1992 the late, aforementioned Larry Gelbart was approached by the legendary producer Ray Stark to write a screenplay based on a best-seller that Stark had just convinced Columbia Pictures to option — the non-fiction book “Barbarians at the Gate,” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. It was a business book, about the sale of RJR Nabisco to KKR for billions of dollars.

In his book “Laughing Matters” Gelbart says that when he finished the screenplay Columbia passed on the project, not knowing how to market it. Fortunately for all of us, Stark was able to sell the screenplay to HBO, and the “Barbarians at the Gate” movie won the Emmy for best TV movie. The movie contains one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen in movies. Here it is:

In this scene, Nabisco CEO Ross Johnson (James Garner) gets a report from his executives about a smokeless cigarette, called the Premier, that the company is developing and has tested on a sample group of smokers.

Gaines (Raye Birk): Their reaction to Premiers was almost uniform.
Horrigan (Matt Clark): They all said it tasted like shit.
Ross: Like shit?!
Horrigan: Like shit.
Ross: They all said that? Nobody liked them?
Gaines: Fewer than 5 percent.
Ross: You said you heard the results were terrific.
Horrigan: Nothing wrong with 5 percent. I’ll take 5 percent of the smoking market any day of the week.
Ross: Jesus Christ! How much are we in for?
Horrigan: To date?
Ross: To date. To here. To now.
Horrigan: Upward of 750.
Ross: We’ve spent 750 million dollars and we’ve come up with a turd with a tip? God almighty, Ed. We poured enough technology into this project to send a cigarette to the moon, and all we got out of it is one that tastes like it took a dump.
Horrigan: You want to talk about the smell?
Ross: What’d they say that was like?
Horrigan: What’s first cousin to shit?
Ross: What does that mean? A fart? Is that what we’re saying?
First Scientist: We’ve got an awful lot of fart figures, sir.
Ross: Tastes like shit and smells like a fart. It’s one goddamn unique advertising slogan. I’ll give you that. I don’t believe this! (Using his lighter on one.) What the hell’s wrong with that. I don’t smell anything.
First Scientist: That’s not the way to find out. If you light a Premier with a match instead of a lighter the sulfur reacts badly with the carbon in the tip.
Ross: Do we have to have the carbon?
First Scientist: That’s what makes it smokeless.
Ross: Well, how do we get it shitless?
First Scientist: Hard to say. Given enough time …
Ross: We haven’t got any time! We’ve announced it’s coming out this year! (to Horrigan) You insisted on it!
Horrigan: Because you did!
Ross: Because you said it would be ready!
Horrigan: They are ready! We just need some adjustments.
Ross: Jesus, Ed, I don’t have to tell you what’s riding on this. (taking a drag) And what the hell’s wrong with the draw? You need an extra set of lungs just to take a drag.
First Scientist: It’s a little difficult.
Ross: A little difficult?
Second Scientist: It’s what we call the “hernia effect.”
Ross: Oh, is that what we call it? There’s another great billboard. What do we do? Give away a truss with every pack? “Warning: This cigarette can tear your balls off”?

[To read an account by Hillary Atkin of the WGA event wherein they announced their 101 Funniest Screenplay list, please click here.]

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