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Three Screenwriting Lessons from Mike Judge and Etan Cohen

May 16, 2018

The Groundbreakers Screening Series, presented by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW), shows films that made cultural impacts with themes that were progressive for their time.

On May 3, the series’ double screening featured Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). Both films proved relevant to themes we face today, despite being made in very different eras. After the screening, Emmy-nominated television producer, screenwriter, playwright and novelist Ken Pisani moderated a conversation with Idiocracy writers Mike Judge and Etan Cohen. Here’s what we learned:

Find inspiration through everyday interactions

Judge said his ideas for Idiocracy came from various sources; his love for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and a trashy interaction between two mothers in line for the teacup ride at Disney World, to name a couple. “I was thinking about the movie 2001 and here we [were] in 2001 and I thought, wouldn’t that be cool if in the movie instead of there being pristine monoliths … it was a giant Walmart,” he said. He and Cohen began drafting the treatment, which reflected aspects of what they observed in life at that time.

“There wasn’t really an agenda,” Cohen said. “In retrospect, it seems like we [were] making fun of whatever … It was just anything that pissed you off can go in the script.”

The lesson for screenwriters? Listen to people interact and discover nuances in character. It will help you realize the world you’re building, whether it’s in a dystopian future or the White House. Drawing on your own experiences will bring out your voice.

We are, after all, selling our scripts and ourselves.

On writing satire: “For comedy to mean anything at all, it has to be funny”

Judge made that statement before advising against masking a self-righteous message with humor. “The minute it gets preachy, whatever you’re trying to preach isn’t going to work,” he said. “I wanted [Idiocracy] just to be really funny and entertaining and maybe a little bit scary.”

According to Cohen, there is a balance between the message itself and the way you pass it on. “What I really loved about [Idiocracy] is that it’s like this grail of comedy … where you can pretend to be smart and make fun but at the same time, you can watch a guy get kicked in the balls,” he said. “That’s what’s fun about it; being stupid and making a point at the same time, maybe even by accident.”

Judge and Cohen’s process included testing the material on each other, too. “When you write with someone else, you’re trying to make the other person laugh,” Judge said.

Here’s the takeaway: There are times when truth is so absurd, it must be presented comedically. Audience members will interpret it through their respective lenses but when you tap into a well of relatable facts, everyone will find the meaning.

If you ground your comedic writing in authenticity, the hilarity will flow naturally.

Good stories are always relevant

After Judge and Cohen finished the Idiocracy script, it was shelved for two years. Even after production, the film was listed on Moviefone as “Untitled Mike Judge Project.” But 12 years later, the story is still relevant — perhaps more now than it was then. That was clear as fans crowded the theatre to revisit its world and that of All the President’s Men just a week ago.

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