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Bobby Farrelly Says Comedy is About Flawed Character and Surprising Your Audience

March 7, 2023
6 min read time

Bobby Farrelly, along with his brother Peter Farrelly, are known for their iconic comedies like There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Fever Pitch. These films have firmly established the brothers as one of America’s premiere comedy directing teams. But now, Bobby is directing solo and his new film Champions is the feel-good story we all need right now. Not only does Champions have a lot of heart, it brings big laughs and a hard-earned love story.

When Marcus (Woody Harrelson), a minor-league basketball coach, is court-ordered to manage a team of Disabled basketball players, he questions his abilities as a coach. With the help of jilted love interest, Alex (Kaitlin Olson), Marcus sees the courage in his team that he can’t seem to find within himself. As Marcus teaches the team basketball, they ultimately teach him to become a better person.

From a script by Mark Rizzo (known for the animated series Gravity Falls and Green Eggs and Ham), Champions is based on the Spanish film Campeones, Spain’s biggest box office hit of 2018 that won Best Film at the Spanish Film Academy’s Goya Awards. With its clever mix of heart and humor the movie was destined to become an American sports movie classic.

Farrelly says he came to the project when Woody Harrelson, with whom he last worked on the 1996 film Kingpins, asked him to watch the original film.

Campeones had a little bit of a different sensibility to it than what we did, but it set itself up to be remade over here,” says Farrelly. “Woody [Harrelson] asked me to watch the movie and the script had already been written by Mark Rizzo. I read the new script and I thought [Rizzo] did a brilliant job taking the best parts of the story and added some elements that weren’t in there that made it original too. The Kaitlin Olson/Woody Harrelson love story element – that was all Mark’s working and I thought that was an important part of the movie,” he said.

Flawed characters

From the opening scene in Champions, it’s obvious that Marcus (Woody Harrelson) has some issues. He’s emotionally shut down and doesn’t take the needs of anyone around him seriously. While he wants to advance in his career, his life is in complete disarray which creates obstacles to his success both on the court and off. According to Farrelly, however, Marcus’s flaws are the key to the entire story.

“Almost all the comedies that my brother Peter and I have made start with a character or two that have their flaws for a number of reasons. One – flaws can be funny. You can laugh at them because they’re not doing everything exactly right. But also, it sets up your character arc. By the end of the movie, they will have realized some of their flaws, hopefully changed them or grown from them. The beginning of the movie and the end is like a before and after picture,” Farrelly says.

Authenticity in a sports film

When you study screenwriting, it’s easy to get bombarded by so-called “genre rules.” But Farrelly says not to worry about following any expected tropes in a sports film. “In any screenplay or any movie, there’s nothing you have to do.” But it is crucial to make the sports and action feel authentic. “The one thing that’s important in a sports movie is that you believe the actors are actually good at what they are doing, or into what they’re doing. If you make a baseball movie, they’d better be good baseball players because the audience will be able to tell, they’ll be able to smell it out. In this one, we’re using Disabled actors in Disabled roles but we went right to rec leagues and the Special Olympics to make sure that anyone we considered was a basketball fan, liked to play, played a lot and knew what they were doing,” he says.

Winning isn’t everything

When you watch a sports movie, you’re not watching to see a team or player win at their sport –you’re watching to see the emotional journey that team or player is going through that will make them not only a better athlete, but also a better person.

So while the protagonist’s team, “Absolutely does not have to win,” says Farrelly, “You want to have something happen at the end that justifies spending an hour and half watching the film and hopefully bring them to a satisfying ending. It doesn’t always have to be a happy ending. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they were killed at the end. I imagine that if they made that movie today and showed it to test audiences, they’d insist [on keeping them alive]. They were bandits, but they were likable. So they don’t always have to win.”

If they do win, they must do it through unconventional means

Farrelly says the element of surprise is very important in a story. “If they win in the traditional way, then it feels like the audience is going to be a little bit ahead of you because that’s what they expect. To me, that’s always a mistake when you’re writing a screenplay or making a movie. If the audience is expecting something to happen and it happens just like they expected, it’s not a good way of doing it. Go down that path and try to give the audience something a little bit different without disappointing them,” he says.

Fish out of water trope to create comedy

In the movie, Marcus’s ego is getting in the way of his success. He thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, a better coach than anyone else so it makes sense that his journey will be humbling in some sense.

“Woody’s character [Marcus] wants to move on but he gets court-ordered to stay in Des Moines and coach a rec league team of people with Disabilities. It’s the last thing he wants to do and he knows nothing about that world except for his own preconceived notions and what he thinks they’re like,” says Farrelly.

But the Disabled characters are far more dynamic and intriguing than Marcus could have ever imagined. He really likes tsketball players], he realizes all of his preconceptions were wrong. He coaches them at basketball but they teach him things about being a decent person. He learns more from them than they do from him,” says Farrelly.

Love story

Though it might sound simplistic to say that love heals all wounds, it sure does go a long way in comedy – especially if the love interest, like Alex (Kaitlin Olson) has flaws of her own. Alex’s brother is on the Disabled basketball team and her need to protect him from the outside world is stifling him. Her journey is about finding a way to loosen her grip on the brother she loves so much so he may grow emotionally and become a fully-fledged adult. Both Alex and Marcus must overcome fears of intimacy by giving up control.

“It’s not just about Woody [Marcus] coaching this team, it’s about him fixing his life. Before that, he was too busy for a relationship. Too busy to care about hanging around long enough to make a relationship. Alex helped him fix that when he fell in love with her,” Farrelly says.

Humor is physical

There are many different types of comedy, some very broad and outlandish, like the Farrelly Brother’s The Three Stooges (2012) and others that are more grounded in reality, like Champions. Farrelly says the physicality needs to be gauged accordingly.

“The more broad the comedy is, the more physical you can get. We made the movie the Three Stooges and of course that’s incredibly broad. It’s a different reality. But it’s very physical. The Three Stooges, Dumb and Dumber, those guys, they can be more physically funny than our guys in this movie, because this movie is set in reality. You can’t break the rules of reality and maybe the physical humor doesn’t go as far, but, of course, all these guys are playing basketball. It's still a very physical movie, there’s a lot of motion, a lot of athleticism.” Even for a more realistic comedy, there’s plenty of ways the sports play in the movie can add humor.

Bobby Farrelly’s advice on writing a comedy

Farrelly says the most important thing you can do when writing a comedy is to keep it in your own wheelhouse but watch out for old clichés. “Anytime your screenplay is heading toward a well-known cliché, try to veer off and go in a different direction where you can surprise the audience, do something that’s fresh. I always compare it to having a fish on the line, if there’s a little slack on the line, you want to keep it tight and make sure the fish doesn’t get off the line. The fish being the audience – if they get ahead of you, they’ll lose interest and go out and buy popcorn. The best way to keep their interest is to keep surprising them.

Champions opens in theaters Friday, March 10.