As a result, the promise by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that writers Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks and Larry Gelbart would crack the code of contemporary screen comedy turned out to be only marginally true during an event held at Oscar headquarters in Beverly Hills on Friday night.
If there was one rule dispensed by the comic scribes, albeit late in the evening, it was that the situations that cause labor strikes are not especially amusing.
Gelbart, the two-time Oscar nominee and screenwriter behind Tootsie and the TV series MASH, kicked things off by telling the audience that the adage Dying is easy, comedy is hard isnt true.
For the record, he said, dying is harder.
The unofficial fourth guest of the night was Apatows mentor Garry Shandling, star and writer of HBOs 1992-98 series The Larry Sanders Show.
The comedian dressed for a night at the academy, donning an unexpected maroon velvet sports coat over the standard-issue writers uniform of jeans and sneakers.
Shandlings contributions to the evenings conversation were shouted from his seat in the roped-off Guest of Apatow section in the audience. He provided some of the best zingers of the night.
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How many masters of comedy are there? he shouted at Apatow, who once wrote for Larry Sanders.
Dont think I dont know that you should be sitting up here and not me, Apatow responded.
Because comedians are notoriously awkward when they are not telling jokes, the event was wisely structured around clips of the speakers favorite on-screen moments.
Apatow chose a scene from Paul Thomas Andersons Punch Drunk Love (2002) in which Adam Sandlers character tells his brother-in-law that sometimes he cries uncontrollably for no reason.
Youre a doctor, so I thought I could talk to you about this, Sandlers character says.
Im a dentist, his brother-in-law replies.
James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, The Simpsons) selected the masturbation scene from the Farrelly brothers Theres Something About Mary (1998), in which Ben Stiller meets Cameron Diaz with semen hanging from his ear.
I think that scene changed movies a little bit, Brooks said. To be repulsed one moment, and enchanted the next, that is the gift.
Gelbart dug deeper into the archives -- all the way to 1942. He picked a scene from Ernst Lubitschs To Be or Not to Be in which a Polish actor (played by Jack Benny), posing as a Nazi officer nicknamed Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, tries to stall a German spy.
In the pre-spermatozoa days, I used to say that everyone who writes comedy should see this movie at least once a year, Gelbart said. They took the least-funny subject, Nazis, and made it funny. Nazis were hot then.
The event, open to all members of the academys writing arm, coincided with the end of the first five days of the writers strike, but if Writers Guild of America members were hoping for a rallying cry from their heroes, they were disappointed.
The strike barely came up until the end of the evening, when the conversation turned to the difficulty of writing comedy for television.
Organization is the death of fun, and television comedy is plagued by having suits sitting around telling you whats funny, or pitching lines, or getting in on casting extras. Were striking just in time, Gelbart said to uproarious applause.
Apatow, who acted as a kind of Dick Cavett host through the night, asked Gelbart to talk more about the labor situation.
Its new technology and all the old tactics, he said. We have a case, but I think its going to be a long strike, unfortunately -- to kill the evening. I think it suits them [the producers] to make us look greedy and grasping .
Then Gelbart stopped himself, before adding: This is probably the unfunniest thing we could talk about.