Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with screenwriter, director, and producer Scot Armstrong, the writer behind hit movies like Road Trip, Old School, and Semi-Pro who served as executive producer on shows like Best Friends Forever and Playing House and made his feature directorial debut in 2014 with Search Party starring starring Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, and Adam Pally. This year, Armstrong created his first TV series with Showtime’s Dice, which wrapped up its six-episode debut season last night. Instead of a sketch, Armstrong chose one of his favorite film scenes from the 1981 Albert Brooks movie Modern Romance, where Brooks’ character briefly switches roles from film editor to Foley artist in attempt to make the mediocre film-within-a-film slightly better.
Hey Scot! How’ve you been?
Well it’s been a crazy week, because the Dice finale airs Sunday night and it’s also the launch of Search Party, which I’m thrilled about. And on a side note, my new podcast with Matt Walsh just dropped, so it’s a hilarious week. Usually I’m not this prolific. [laughs]
Search Party was your feature directorial debut, and Dice was the first show you created. How’s it feel to take on those new roles?
It feels very natural. It doesn’t feel to me like too much of a stretch. It was more that I was ready to commit a year of my life to the show and a year of my life to the movie. The thing about screenwriting is you can kind of do something for four months and then do something else for four months and then take two weeks off, and I’d gotten opportunities to do TV before and opportunities to direct before, but nothing where it was like “Okay, I wanna spend this much time on this,” you know? But I was inspired by these and went for it.
How’d you like directing a movie for the first time?
It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I feel like it’s a combination of all the skills I’ve been practicing for my whole career – it incorporates the things I’ve learned in improvisation, the things I’ve learned as a writer, the things I’ve learned as a producer. And it was actually fun, you know? I was a little nervous at the very beginning, but I really enjoyed it. I was also worried about the work – you’re waking up at whatever time in the morning and shooting all night, and sometimes I was a little intimidated by that. Directing is a daunting task to start, because you know you’re absolutely responsible for the script, the prep, the locations, ultimately every department, and then the budget, and then every single day of shooting has to go flawlessly all the way through, and then editing and testing and redoing and watching. It’s a big thing to commit to, but then once I jumped in I loved it and it was great, because you don’t have time to overthink it once you’re in it. I was also surprised by how much I loved the camaraderie of being on set and all being in this thing together. I love making films.
Was it strange shifting from the role of writer to director? Did your approach as a writer change at all knowing you’d also be directing?
I felt like I was really ready to direct. I don’t think I would’ve felt that if I had jumped into the same job ten years ago. I just loved it because I could get what I wanted and it was faster. [laughs] I didn’t have to explain it to anybody else or tell people to do something a certain way – it was just like I knew what I was doing and I was in charge and it was great. That was very satisfying.
What were some of the first things that got you into comedy?
Well I’ve answered this before and I always say The Blues Brothers. I mean, Blues Brothers is my favorite movie, it blew my mind, it was my first rated R movie. I love that movie. The reason it stuck with me is just the tone was so ambitious. It’s just such a great tone, it had original characters, it was very Chicago-style, and it was definitely big, silly, funny stuff but still believable. And it was also obviously a musical that was incredibly ambitious and one of the most expensive action movies ever, and it looked really real – I believed it the whole time, you know? That knocked me out when I was young. I didn’t know comedies could be like that. I thought they had to be silly and kind of thrown away and disposable.
They blew up a gas station near my house – I grew up in in Wheaton, the same town as John Belushi, so he was kind of like my idol. And they blew up a gas station that they shot near us, and they didn’t use it in the movie, and I was like “What kind of power do these people have that they can explode a gas station and that’s just extra and not use it?” So that knocked me out. And I didn’t think about it at the time, but it probably made things seem possible – that that is a job you can do, you can work on movies. Another thing that knocked me out and I haven’t thought about in a while was that Steve Martin special in the ‘70s. I remember we taped Steve Martin specials on VHS and watched them over and over and over again. And listening to his albums was a big influence too. Also Caddyshack – all of Harold Ramis’s stuff – obviously Caddyshack was massive.
You originally were thinking about choosing Blues Brothers or a Mr. Show sketch, but you ended up wanting to talk about a scene from an Albert Brooks film, Modern Romance. Why?
I know this is weird, but I’m not that big of a fan of sketch. I know that that’s so sacrilegious, but the things that make me laugh are almost always in movies or in shows that are more longer form. If I know something’s really short, it just puts too much pressure on everything, and I don’t know… [laughs] …just the fact that it’s short sometimes seems like it’s trying too hard, whereas with the Albert Brooks movie, it’s this great scene in the middle of a subtle movie, and it makes me laugh harder than anything.
How would you describe the movie to someone who hasn’t seen it?
Just Albert Brooks wondering around thinking about life and then being in and out of love with the same girl and never being satisfied with anything, like a “grass is always greener” kind of thing. But you don’t need to know anything about the movie to watch this scene. It’s a scene you could never do now, I don’t think. I think any studio executive or anybody who was giving you money to make a movie would say “It’s too inside. Why are you writing a scene about sound editing a movie in the movie?” It’s just a total no-no from the get-go. I’m sure that if you pitched this or had this in a script today people would say “You’re gonna have to educate the audience on what a Foley artist does and what a sound mixer does and no one cares about this stuff, it’s too inside,” but then when I first saw this movie, I had never been in a sound mixing stage or any of that stuff, and I thought it was awesome.
So yeah, that’s why I picked it. And there’s always stuff about technology in all of his movies – all of his ideas are getting filtered by technology in the wrong way, and that’s why the Foley artist scene is such a perfect encapsulation of his style of comedy. And he was so ahead of his time. Obviously Woody Allen was first, but I feel like Albert Brooks was like a sillier, funnier version of Woody Allen. I mean, believe me, Woody Allen was funny – he was great. He’s one of the greats of all time. But Albert Brooks was just stupider in some ways and it was more of a comedy voice I could relate to in my life. And I think he had a big influence on so many things after him. Everyone talks about how Louie is such a big influence on other things, but Albert Brooks was before that, and it was even before Garry Shandling’s Show or The Larry Sanders Show and Curb and Seinfeld and all of that stuff.
Everything about this scene is laid out so perfectly. It builds a foundation, and you get everyone’s attitude in the scene. It’s so easy, so effortless, and you believe you’re in that scene with them. And just the subtlety and detail of how stupid the movie is that he’s editing. The main thing that I love about this scene is how positive I think he is. He takes pride in this thing, and there’s a love there – there’s like a love of life in him – and seeing that life get sucked out of him slowly is so good. And that’s how I feel sometimes…I can sometimes be overly enthusiastic, if you ask anybody who knows me. [laughs] I’ll be so enthusiastic about something and really believe that it’s great just because I decided it is great. And that’s sort of what he does there, and he’s so excited about it.
And I think there is some weird meaning of life in there too. I think that the healthy person is trying to make every moment in their life as good as they can, and there is something cool about what he’s trying to do. But it’s also so stupid. That’s what’s so funny about it – obviously that movie sucks, and no matter what he does it’s completely pointless, but because he’s committed to it and loves it, it does have a point. And then there’s the joy you see in him when he thinks he’s solved it and the cocky strut he has when he really thinks he’s solved something and he’s like “What do you think?” and the guy’s like “I think you saved the picture.” It’s just the best ever. It’s also just a good example of deadpan reaction shots. It’s perfect casting and really good comic acting and not Albert Brooks doing standup – it’s a different kind of comedy and really subtle comic acting.
It’s funny you mentioned how the life gets sucked out of him, because after checking out some other interviews you’ve done, I noticed you’ve said a few times that a lot of what first drew you into writing comedy was getting to work around funny people and having that supportive atmosphere. And this scene shows an environment that’s not exactly supportive.
But you know what? It wouldn’t work if he didn’t have his best friend there. I feel like those situations where two best friends are connecting there but then the other people are almost antagonists – that almost brings you closer. I mean, it’s overanalyzing it, but if he was just alone, it wouldn’t be as funny. He needs that window character, that other guy there, to join forces with him.
I have evolved though. When I first started out, that really is why I got into it. I wanted to be in the creative department in advertising, I wanted to be in the writers’ room, and I always liked that vibe. But then I was like “I just wanna get paid to write. I wanna be able to write and get paid.” And so just to get that as a job was a victory. But then I got a little more interested in each time where I achieved these different goals I had, and now I’m excited about what I can do next.
So it’s not always about the camaraderie anymore, but even now I like being on set with the gaffer and the boom guy and the script supervisor and all these people who aren’t really creative, but now I respect the labor that goes into the entire production, and all the trucks that show up on location in the dark that somehow turn it into a giant set that looks brilliant onscreen and disappears in the night. There’s something really cool about being in it together that I like. I mean, people have friends when they go to work, but in film you don’t have the same office every day, and you get much more intense relationships that last for three months.