By Travis Johnson

Screenwriter. Steve Faber, was all set to be a lawyer when a simple twist of fate set him on the path of the written word. Cutting his teeth in the writers rooms of sitcoms like Married With Children, he soon turned his attention to writing features such as Wedding Crashers and We’re the Millers. In an exclusive interview, he gives us some inside tips on the writer’s life, the nuts and bolts of writing comedy, and explains how, at the end of the day, we all write about the same thing.

How does one go from law school to comedy screenwriting? What prompted this fairly radical change of direction?

First of all, I’ve always found life amusing. Apart, of course, from life’s great tragedy (see below). I just simply did not know how to express that feeling to a group, ultimately an audience. The “law” or the practice of the law is not a night at The Giggle Canteen or the Ha-Ha Room or one of the other 10,000 stand up comedy venues.

I think this decision was a combination of an inspiration issue and a class issue. We don’t talk about class all that much in the United States. It makes us uncomfortable because it suggests our class issues are out of whack (they are). I grew up without much money at all. I figured the choices I had were lawyer/doctor/lawyer/doctor/lawyer/doctor. I never felt I could make a living being a writer, particularly because so many people told me that I probably couldn’t make a living being a writer. Subsequently, I realised the people that told me this had agendas, primary of which was they didn’t want the competition. There just weren’t many platforms by which a writer could succeed before boxed set cable shows, streaming content, stuff like that. I also realised, when I began my career in show business, writing in particular, it was all a gigantic stew made from “Old Boys School Club” and Cult. You had to know someone who knew someone who was a friend of someone else, etc.

That being said I always wanted to be a writer, without losing the one thing that did and does keep me inspired: Politics. I was very political and still am. I went to Nicaragua during the war – a protest movement, one of many I organised, some successful, some not. I still write about politics and have a monthly column. And of course our politics, given the recent election, just got a whole lot funnier.

Why comedy? After I got an agent and was staffed at a sitcom on a major network, everything seemed to be going my way. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. This was fifteen years ago. I’m fine now. Everything was going my way and and I slipped on a malignant banana peel. I felt I had two existential choices: Give up, wait around to croak, appear stoic in the face of something that is quite frightening without really showing I was giving up, or exercise my particular brand of cynicism.

Oddly, things that previously I had not found funny began to strike me as funny. Cancer does that to you; it strips away a lot of the bullshit and allows you to see past the multiple personas we create for ourselves. Of course, technology, the social connection type, allows one to build out so many layers of persona, I don’t think anyone knows who they really are and that strikes me funny. Living in LA, actually in Hollywood, I see this phenomena every day. Re-creating, re-constructing who we are, day by day, aiming those personas at different audiences, utterly divorced from one’s core, who one “really is.”

I think I was always funny, even as a small child, but that was a coping technique, my humour was infused with anger. It probably still is, but hopefully more subtle.

So I suppose the idea was solidified: cancer is funny. Or can be. Or utterly tragic. For me, funny. And honest. And honesty is a funny and rare gem. I write on a variety of platforms and staying honest is part of me, funny or not. I wrote We’re The Millers while getting chemo – how about that for a load of contradictions?

Addressing the above, life’s great tragedy, and I think the reason we all laugh at the same sorts of things is that life… ends. And there’s nothing we can do about our mortality. This feeling is buried, for the most part, very deeply in our consciousness. But watching an audience laugh at something tells me that we are all trying to cope with this truism. Watching someone fall flat on their ass, probably creating at best, a very sore ass, makes us laugh because we connect on a level we can all relate to. We all suffer. Manipulate benign suffering and you have comedy.

What do you consider your first major break as a writer? How did that come about?

This is a boring story, I’ll keep it short. I wrote a spec script for a television show. An executive, moving her office, had lost the script, found it a year later behind the credenza of her desk, read it, loved it and helped get me representation. I thought she hated it. She lost it. For a year. And for a year, I thought she loathed what I wrote. That’s kind of amusing. Apart from the gut-wrenching year I spent knowing what I wrote was good, but believing a highly placed TV exec thought it was such crap that it didn’t even warrant a form-like rejection letter.

The first gig I got was on a CBS prime time show as a writer. I think in retrospect (this was the ’90s, I was young), this experience taught me that big network sitcoms are so strange and in general, with some exceptions, are so utterly manipulative… I mean, solving life’s problems in twenty-four minutes (again this is pre-Netflix, Amazon etc.) was an act in Fellini-esque absurdity. However, at the time that was the track a writer was supposed to take: the network sitcom, writing the pilot, writing your ticket to anywhere. I took that ride, was fairly well unsatisfied, the cancer came, the chemo, the recovery, and I saw the light. Write what you’re passionate about and hope others see that passion.

wedding_crashers_2Who are some of your inspirations as a writer? Who do you look up to?

I was the nerd kid who read five books a week at the library because I was socially awkward (I still am, I just hide it), so I grew up admiring and being inspired by wonderful novelists: Styron, Bellow, Updike, Capote etc. I think a comedy writer has to have a great grip on dramatic narrative before he or she tackles the absurdities in life’s comedic narratives. A writer has to take, in my opinion, a trip to hell, before truly understanding the many contradictions of heaven.

How can you tell what’s on the page will be funny on the screen?

Long, long ago I learned not to care. There’s no “objective funny.” We laugh at different things. If I write something that strikes me funny, it’s funny to me and maybe a few others. That’s good enough for me. Advice: Never write to what you believe someone else will think is funny. It just never works.

As a writer, do you leave room for improv by actors (which seems to be a go-to for a lot of American screen comedians) or are you rigid in your structure and joke construction?

Let me break this up into two sections: Story and Jokes. A story is like a deck of cards or that weird game the name of which I can’t remember where (in my opinion) people who must be unbearably anally retentive stack little pieces of wood into tall towers of little pieces of wood which, then, generally, crumbles into a pile of little wooden chips. [That would be Jenga] No offense to people who enjoy this game. You cannot improvise a story. If you do what I and countless other writers do, that is write a complex outline, prior to writing the screenplay or teleplay, such that no line is wasted and every action drives the story, there is no room for improvisation. Or one of those pieces of wood drops and your wooden tower falls into a pile of little wooden chips. In other words, it’s crap. Billy Wilder said that all third act problems are first act problems. How right he was. If a writer doesn’t properly construct a story from beginning to end, it’s going to be garbage.

I’m always taken aback, amused, befuddled (pick your word) at writers who know better who tell me they “just open their computers and start writing their films.” NOOOO! That doesn’t work! Maybe a few exceptions. However, a writer has to know every aspect of his or her story, every detail, nuance, that drives the characters into actions that both make sense or don’t make sense (except to the writer), which leads to the comedy. In other words, your audience has to understand the story, and thus characters, whose foibles are the stuff of laughter. If the story sucks, the jokes will suck. Period.

And in terms of jokes, most big American comedies are re-written. Other writers are brought in to punch up the dialogue, juice the jokes, etc., so in a way all jokes are improvised, even if only by the original writer. But again, that’s dangerous, as well. Again, my strong feeling is that the most important aspect of every piece of content is the story. Thus even a joke can affect what’s about to come or what we’ve seen. And of course, as a writer dealing with a lot of producers who may not like a joke… well, sometimes you have to steamroll a bit. Insist the joke is absolutely vital. Of course, it’s not joke fascism – if the talent wants a red car rather than a green car, well, who cares. There are bigger battles to be fought.

wtm-00372rWhen you see your work on the screen, do you feel your voice is represented and to what degree? How much does the work of the director and cast affect the final outcome, from a writer’s perspective?

I think you can quantify this into an algorithm: The more people in the room, producers, and the more they speak, the less your voice resounds. But I don’t really know. I think if my story stays intact, and again, I’m obsessed with story, writing very long outlines… that’s my voice. I’ve gotten to the place where my jokes aren’t really tinkered with too much. Is tinkered the correct word here? There’s a more vulgar word, but I want to pay deference to your readership. All that being said, I’ve never felt my voice wasn’t being heard. It may not have been the greatest, funniest thing you’ve ever written or seen, but so it goes. It’s my voice. And I fight very hard to keep it that way. And it pays off. I think that’s why Wedding Crashers did so well – lots of fighting. That being said, the fact that it did do so well is not what I’m most proud of. Rather, I’m most proud that the Writers Guild of America read thousands and thousands of screenplays, going back to silent film (I have no idea how that worked) in a multi year project and named Wedding Crashers one of the Top 100 Screenplays in American (Comedic) Screenplay history. Other writers, many long since passed away (their votes didn’t count), recognising what you’ve tried to accomplish. There was a nice reception and I felt good about the whole thing for, let’s say, twenty minutes. The whole self-criticism thing…

What’s your writing routine? Do you keep to set hours?

I write every day, seven days a week, and so should every other writer. Writing is, for me, an obsession. Cerebral plasma. Since I cannot speak all the words I want to speak in the manner I want to speak them, I write. I disguise my psychoanalysis in my writing. I think every decent writer does.

Even if one is writing a poem, a haiku, word-association, anything… keep writing. I start in the morning with a lot of coffee and an obscene number of cigarettes and write until I’m tired.

Do you try and write funny characters or funny situations, or are the two inseparable? I guess the real question here is, what do you find funny?

That’s a good a question. I’ve been asked it before. And the honest truth is that I don’t find anything I write funny. I suppose my formula is honesty and the roads we take to avoid honesty, the manipulations, if done well, I suppose, turn out to be funny. At least to me. And some people. Some. Others won’t enjoy it. But again, I don’t really care, primarily because I give a big piece of myself to everything I write, I work my ass off and if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t like it. I’d much rather have three people in an audience laugh at a joke I thought no one would get, than 500 people laughing at something that a small pit in my stomach tells me is obvious.

Do you try to make your work function on a thematic level, or do you concentrate purely on the surface and making it as funny as possible first?

Another great question. I start big – I guess that’s the best way to put it. The big issues in life we all tackle and work my way down to the tiniest aspects of human nature. That process enables me to at least try to be funny.

But let’s be honest: in some way, form, set of contradictions, what-have-you, we all write about love and our relationship to it. Every kind of love. Brotherly love, romantic love, familial love. I think writers want to save each other and their readers the heartache of a loveless life. How they do that can be quite funny.


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