5 Tips From Paul Feig on Rising to the Top in Comedy

Article Image
Photo Source: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

During his many years in the business, Paul Feig has done it all: standup comedy, actor, writer, director, game show winner. It’s that last one that really helped him launch his career.

A year out of film school, Feig went on “The $25,000 Pyramid” with the goal of winning enough to quit his day job so he could do standup comedy full time. He ended up doing just that, walking away with $29,000. “I have a soft spot in my heart for Dick Clark,” Feig says with a laugh. Feig went on to create the beloved “Freaks and Geeks” for producer Judd Apatow, who he’s known from standup since age 17, and direct some of the most seminal television of recent years with shows like “The Office” and “Arrested Development.” He hit it big in film in a big way directing 2011’s “Bridesmaids” and this month re-teams with that film’s Oscar-nominated star Melissa McCarthy for “The Heat," which hits theaters on Friday. Feig shares some of the secrets that have led him to be one of the biggest names in comedy.

Work fast.
After the success of “Bridesmaids,” Feig had been looking for the next project to direct, but admits, “Nothing felt quite right.” Then Katie Dippold’s “Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy” came along—he read it on a flight to New York and “cracked up the whole way.” Sandra Bullock was interested in playing the straight-laced FBI Agent who teams with the brazen Boston cop, a role Feig knew was perfect for McCarthy. “The only problem was, she was shooting ‘Identity Thief’ and had to be back on her TV show soon,” he says. “So it was eight weeks from when I picked up the script to the day we started shooting.” He says it was hardest on McCarthy. “She was in L.A. doing ‘Mike and Molly’ and on the weekends and days off she’d fly back to Boston to work with us. She had to do an eight-week shoot in six.”

Switch up careers.
Feig’s original plan was to be Woody Allen. “I was going to write, direct, and star in my own stuff,” he says. And as an actor, he did fairly well. “I was a regular on like five TV series—they all got cancelled except the last one, ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch.’ That was a hit. And they wrote me out after the first season,” he says. Over time, he segued into directing and realized how much he enjoyed working with actors. “I’ve worked with enough directors who didn’t appreciate actors, who would yell and create a tense atmosphere. That’s the last thing I want my actors to do—I want them to make stupid mistakes," he explains. "I never tell somebody no or not to do something. As much as I like being on camera I think it’s more fun for me to just pull all my energy into watching and guiding my actors, making sure I’m capturing them the best.”

Don’t dwell on the disappointments.
Feig has had his share of hits and misses in his career. Though beloved by critics, “Freaks and Geeks” suffered from low ratings and lasted only one season. And one of his series regular jobs was a show for ABC starring Tom Arnold called “The Jackie Thomas Show”—at a time when Arnold was not terribly popular. “People were so gunning for us, it was crazy. I think we have the honor of being the only show to get cancelled while we were in the top 20,” says Feig. “And the irony is, the minute we were done, he did ‘True Lies’ and suddenly everybody fell in love with Tom Arnold! We were like, Why couldn’t that have happened last year?” While he admits disappointments can wear on you, he says, “It’s a business and the minute you forget that, you lose your mind. With ‘Jackie Thomas,’ I saw we were dropping and could see the rational of the studio. With ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ it was very hard to get upset because we were just at the bottom of the ratings.”

Keep it funny—but honest.
For Feig, comedy only works if there are real stakes to play. “If you just string a bunch of jokes together, it can get tired. You want to engage people emotionally and then the jokes come naturally,” he says. To that end, he has cut funny bits if they didn’t serve the scene. "The minute you lose an audience is when they go, ‘Come on, why would they do that?’ " he says. "I like coming up with absurd, crazy things that someone would do and figuring out how to make it happen. If you can hit those two, it’s comedy Nirvana.” He cites the bathroom scene in “Bridemaids” as an example. “It’s not just shit and vomit flying around," he says. "It’s about people trying to stay composed while all having this meltdown.”

Have an eye for talent.
From discovering future superstars James Franco and Seth Rogen on “Freaks and Geeks” to getting the cream of the comedy crop in his films, Feig is known for his stellar ensembles. He works closely with casting director Allison Jones, who looks all over for new talent. For “The Heat,” they cast YouTube star Spoken Reasons in his first film role. “We were chasing an A-list person for a part but couldn’t get the schedules right and out of the blue Allison goes, ‘This guy is on the Internet and he’s got a following and I think he’s funny.’ I put on his video and a minute in, I wanted to cast him," he says. "He was so charismatic and different and he had the energy I wanted for the character.” Feig admits that his history as an actor has given him a certain compassion for actors. “Judd Apatow’s joke is, ‘Every actor leaves an audition with you thinking they have the role,’ " he says. "I had so many bad audition experiences, as we all have, with assholes, and I never want to create that.” Most of all, he wants actors to be themselves. “No matter who you are, you have to get out of your head that the industry is conspiring against you," he says. "You just have to be who you are. If you’re 40 or 50, don’t try to be a 20-year-old. I think so many people try to be someone they’re not or who they were. Who you are is more interesting to me than who you think I want you to be.”