6 Comedy Filmmaking Tips From Nicholas Stoller

By  · Published on May 18th, 2016

How to craft the best penis and fart jokes and more.

Nicholas Stoller is an Ivy League funnyman. He went to Harvard, wrote for the famous Harvard Lampoon, and was a member of the school’s prestigious improv group. After graduating, he worked in TV and then movies, coming up through the Judd Apatow factory of comedic talent, and he’s written, produced, and directed humorous hits for all ages. Outside of helping to resurrect The Muppets, however, he mostly targets an older audience, the kind that appreciates a good dick joke. But also maybe a good fart joke, too.

Basically, his main target demo is people like the lead couple (played by Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen) in his movies Neighbors and its new sequel, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising youngish adults coming into parenthood and more responsibility while not yet ready to give up the bongs or the constant cursing. And he does have another family film out this year, too, the animated feature Storks. Below, find advice from the 40-year-old filmmaker on how to craft a great comedy and balance the kiddie and R-rated fare.

All Farts Must Come From Character

During a 2014 Reddit AMA, Stoller was literally asked, “What is your process for developing a legendary fart joke? How do you improve it after the first pass?” His answer:

Fart jokes need to be like all good jokes: must come from story. A gratuitous fart joke stinks. Pun intended. My favorite fart joke I shot is when Jonah Hill has to hold drugs in his bottom and farts. Neighbors features a marital fart joke. As Robert Towne said, “All farts must come from character.”

Begin With Drama

Stoller is only really interested in making comedies. He could probably do something more dramatic, “but it would still most likely have fart jokes,” he says in the Reddit AMA. In that same open Q&A, he acknowledged through his relay of advice from Apatow that good comedy makers could easily pull back and be good drama makers, too: “Judd Apatow my mentor always told me to go for truth and honesty above all else and to start with a dramatic story and build the jokes out from that.”

It’s something he also told MTV he does back in 2010 when asked about the amount of heart in Get Him to the Greek:

I always start with a kind of dramatic structure– I think the best comedies have kind of an inherently dramatic structure and then that really makes the comedy stronger. The audience cares about the characters more if there’s an actual dramatic story being told and so you laugh harder when bad things happen to them or awkward things or whatnot.

And it’s not just with writing comedy. Stoller answered another question in the AMA about casting by recognizing that the best comedic acting talent isn’t necessarily firstly a comedic player. “People who play it real, who bring a specific energy to the part,” he says about who he looks for. “I’m less interested in if someone is funny than if they bring an honesty to their performance.”

He has seemed to contradicted himself there, however. “I find people that are just hysterical,” he told Nerdist around the same time. “It’s a waste of a line to not have someone really funny delivering [the lines].”

Comedy is a Collaborative Party

Once you want to turn your dramatic premise into a comedic movie, you need to find a writing partner and then work with people on set who can add to the humor. Below, Stoller discusses comedy as a collaborative art in an excerpt from a 2011 interview with Collider conducted on the set of The Muppets, which he co-wrote and produced.

Writing is solitary, but, obviously, movie making is so collaborative. With Jason, I love writing with Jason. I’m writing Five Year Engagement with him because we really have the same kind of comedy ideas, like we come at stuff the same way. He’ll start a punch line and I’ll finish it. We share kind of a brain in a weird way when it comes to writing. And I can’t speak to other genres. I think suspense, drama, that kind of thing might benefit from single writers. But I think that with comedy, the more collaboration you have, with a strong voice…like James Bobin on this is a very strong voice, but the more collaboration, the funnier it gets, the more jokes you get, the more where the puppeteers can improv; you’re always going to get funny stuff.

Stoller believes that studying improv, which is all about collaboration, is important for learning the craft of directing. Here’s a clip from an interview with the American Film Institute on how to then actually bring improvisation into the filmmaking process and how to direct it:

Jonah Hill, Nicholas Stoller and Making Movies with Friends

With each of the Neighbors movies, much of the shoot involved filming literal parties ‐ “There was one moment when we were shooting a party in a hot tub and it suddenly turned into a real party,” he admits in the AMA. But Stoller actually believes in maintaining that sort of fun atmosphere on his set regardless of what’s being shot. Here’s what he told Split Sider last fall about his directorial process:

The thing that’s a little tiring, but also fun is it’s a little bit like being the host of a giant party. That’s the way I look at it. You have to pretend that everything’s going smoothly. I do a lot of hiding of my actual stress, usually about how much time we have left in the day. I like to keep it really fun and light on set just because that’s, I think, the best way to discover the funniest stuff.

I also like to foster a vibe, I call it open source movie making where anyone feels, within reason, they can pitch jokes and pitch ideas to me. Because then the more stuff you get while you’re shooting the more stuff you have to cut later.

Faster is Funnier

You don’t need to have the experience in television that Stoller has to do comedy as well as he does. Just follow what he learned from having that experience, specifically regarding the slightly unrealistic pacing that is best for funny shows and movies alike. This quote is from a 2014 interview with Fast Company on how to direct a modern comedy:

In TV, you only have 22 minutes, so you really need to cover yourself. When I was filming a pilot for CBS, I was literally timing scenes so that I’d have a version that could play for 10 seconds and one that could play for 20, and it actually helped my movies because sometimes you won’t notice actors are speaking slowly. They’ll just be speaking normally, but when you’re watching in a theater, it seems slow. A lot of times on the TV pilot, I’d be like, speak faster, speak faster, and I brought that to the movie, and it actually helps bring up the energy sometimes.

Watch Stoller talk about the importance of not letting in a lull (and also about how he first got the chance to direct a movie):

Keep It Innocent, Honest, and Relatable ‐ In Other Words, R-Rated

“We live in an R-rated world,” Stoller says in most interviews he gives. “People curse, talk about sex. In [Forgetting Sarah Marshall], I was like, it has to be R because no one in history has ever been dumped and not said ‘fuck.’ So for me to tell honest stories that tear the house down, the R rating is the way to go.”

Specifically, the above quote comes from a 2014 interview with SSN Insider, in which he also discusses the importance of writing comedy from a personal place. Here’s a quote on why that means comedy movies also shouldn’t have villains:

With comedy it’s all about relatability. It’s, ‘Do I see myself in these characters?’ People laugh harder the more they see themselves. You can’t see yourself in a villain; a villain does not have a legitimate point of view, so you stop laughing, you lose sympathy. It’s satisfying to watch a character figure their shit out and with a villain there’s no lesson, he’s just bad.

And here’s a quote from the same conversation on how the honesty relates to his work requiring that he go more family friendly than his preferred R-rated material: “Even if some of them have dirty words and jokes,” he says of how his R-rated characters relate to his PG-rated characters, “there’s an innocence to [them]. I don’t think I’ve ever made a cynical movie. Even if the characters are doing crazy stuff, they’re all trying to figure out how to be better people.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Stoller likens the Neighbors movies to a set of G-rated Disney family films. In a new interview with Entertainment Weekly focused specifically on tips for how to craft a great comedy sequel, he says: “The Toy Story movies are all about, ‘Your kid’s getting too old for you!’ And the theme of this is being afraid of the next stage of life. If the first Neighbors is dumb, gross, R-rated Toy Story, this is dumb, gross, R-rated Toy Story 2.”

Nicholas Stoller Takes on Expectations and Surprises with ‘The Five-Year Engagement’

Flop Left to Right, Not Up and Down

There’s a funny gag in Neighbors 2 where a character takes a bit way too far by pulling out his penis. Stoller knows all about what it means to go over the line with dicks in your show. His advice isn’t to not show them but to keep them flaccid ‐ if you want to avoid an NC-17 rating, that is. Sure, it may be an obvious tip, but the way he put it to Cinema Blend recently is too good not to share:

I never had any issues with MPAA. If it’s R rated [targeted], you can basically do anything. You just can’t show erect penis. This is the thing with a penis (holds out hand with fingers curled, and slowly flattens his palm), it’s like R, R, R, R, NC-17. Including flopping. If you want to flop, you flop left to right, not up and down. That’s an actual thing.

What We’ve Learned

Stoller is a guy who is down to earth in his comedy, and that means finding jokes in situations that are otherwise real, relatable, dramatic. Except where boners are involved, because that real thing is just not allowed ‐ not his rule. But it’s more than just documenting the truth of how people swear, fart, and look naked. You have to have some exaggeration of pacing here, some on-the-fly improvisational collaborative augmentation there. At the end of the day, and film, though, all of the comedy stuff has to come from character.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.