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A&E Blog

What's behind the wit?

by Austen Diamond
- Posted // 2012-01-25 - "There's nothing less funny than talking about being funny," said Jon Korn to begin the Sundance Film Festival's "Wide World of Wit" panel at the Filmmaker Lodge. But that old adage held little truth for the four funny folks on the panel.

Korn hosted Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me), Mark Duplass (Your Sister's Sister), Lauren Anne Miller (For a Good Time, Call ...) and David Zellner (Kid Thing) to shed light on the importance of comedy in storytelling and how these pros pull it off.

All of these films (and filmmakers) share this principle: "Comedy should be used as an instrument to tell a story, not an end on to itself," Birbiglia said. It is certainly a fine balance.

"You need those emotional moments to make the comedy play out better," added Miller, who wrote her movie in addition to acting in it. Soon after, Korn poised a question about how all of the filmmakers performed multiple roles in front of, and behind, the camera, and if that were confusing for the mainstream industry. "When I say I am an actor, [people think,] there's only 4 million people do that. But when I tell them I'm a writer, as well," Miller said, but was interrupted as Duplass chimed in, "Only 2 million people do that." Miller laughed and said, "Well, people get stoked on that."

Korn then asked the best question of the evening: "Why do the fucked-up people do comedies?" 

"I didn't think this was going to be personal," Birbiglia said with a laugh, although his movie is a deeply personal one. He then talked about hanging out in Ira Glass' office to run through stories for This American Life, and Glass would say, "That's predictable" after many of his pitches. "But then I would tell him one of the ones that I wouldn't share with anyone -- like about being beat up in middle school," Birbiglia recounted. "And he would say, 'That's the one.'"

"I work in a genre of comedy where I tell stories that I'm not comfortable telling. For me, that's where comedy has to go. If it doesn't go there, who cares?" Birbiglia said.

In the same vein, Duplass later said: "I don't have a problem that The Hangover exists [because it entertains a large majority of people]. But, thank god, we can make fun of ourselves a little bit, because we're weird, and there's an audience for it."

The audience then had a turn to ask questions. The best one came when a gentleman asked if a quote -- from Eric Idle, he thought -- rang true: "If you're laughing while you're writing, it's not funny."

"I disagree. I have a rule: If you are laughing, it's a good thing. If you imagine people laughing, like, 'This will be funny for people,' it's probably not funny," Birbiglia says.

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