Writing the Comedy Blockbuster, by Keith Giglio

Jack Thompson
10 min readOct 31, 2021

The Inappropriate Goal

And here comes the inappropriate review.

Before the book starts properly, there’s a section called Foreplay. That starts things in style, as it thrusts in and out with a few sexual references… but any thought of that nature can be put to bed, because there won’t be any of that hijinks in this review.

I mean, there could be, but clear your mind of it.

Done? Good. See, not too hard.

Straight away, you get a taste for funny films. Every decade from the 1940s to the 2000s is looked at (the book came out in 2012). That’s a quick view of what the years brought, with a short film list for each period.

Here are some; Adam’s Rib, Pillow Talk, The Jerk, The Big Lebowski etc. Plenty (37 films) to choose from for a fun education.

After that is a breakdown of the different comedy film genres. It’s a little bit pointless, but you get further film suggestions included, so not a complete waste.

Then an exercise to finish you off for the chapter. To do this, you’ll need to be able to remember a reasonable number of comedy films — at least in good enough detail. If you can’t, lay off the drugs and booze, buy some of those listed, and have fun watching.

The book moves swiftly on to the foundation part of getting the comedy blockbuster written.

Pay someone else.

In truth, the book informs you of the three main ingredients you need (you’ll have to read the book to see what they are). The first one of these gets a near three page walk through, and leads nicely into the film pitch.

This part is where you come up with your own ideas for the basis of your film. Giglio provides a way to do this by using existing movies, another in the form of a fill in the blank slip, an exercise to help the process, as well as some things to avoid.

Now for the Comedic Characters.

Which is where you’ll need your index cards. You’ll write down how you see your main character at the start of the film, how they are at the end.

You’ll discover them by the chapter’s pointers, the tips on making them real, and by the questions posed in these pages.

Here, there’s also a simple and crucial question that will drive your film.

What you’ll notice is that Giglio asks you a lot of questions in this part. In fact, Giglio asks a lot of questions throughout this book. And as a final step, Giglio asks you, to ask a lot of questions.

Be prepared to put in the work.

But while you’ll need to dedicate yourself to the task, the topics are easy to understand, with continual references to films, to help add clarity.

Just be warned, if you have any on a watch list, beware the spoilers throughout the book. Crucial film plot points get touched on throughout the book, and while it doesn’t make a big spoiling, it’s like the way modern trailers spoil films.

A little way above in this review, was the first of the three main ingredients. While that first one had three pages, the second only gets half a page.

it’s not a problem itself, because the prose understandable, but the issue might be contradiction. You’re told the first two ingredients together = laughs. But at the top of the second ingredient, it implies the first ingredient might not be needed.

A comedy without laughs? Is Giglio mad? The ingredient equation is out of balance! The entire Western civilisation could collapse.

Either way, the third ingredient is covered more than sufficiently, starting near the bottom of page 71 , and stretching all the way to the absolute bottom of page 71.

A mighty single paragraph. Watch out China.

In fairness, you’ll see throughout the book that the real understanding of this last ingredient comes from the reading of film scripts.

Before the book moves on from characters, you get nine sub types to look at. The book’s short length mean they don’t go into detail (you’ll need other books to explain this bit better).

Near the mid point of Writing the Comedy Blockbuster, comes Hilarity and Heart.

The book ushers you towards this with a suggestive dance… hang on, no. With chapter four, Hilarity and Heart, the book sets you up to complement the ideas you’ve already come up with. It does that by examining the use of index cards for the imminent scene building.

The questions and general process it outlines will put you in a strong position for that. You’ll understand the author’s way of doing the initial work and how to make best use of the index card cork board.

There’s also the author’s take on the three-act structure, another exercise that will have you watching a film of your choice, and a specific way to use the index cards to build events.

Then, to round out the chapter, there are some secret ingredients of comedy scenes. These five pages are a little weak. I mean, who knew a dumb blonde would be considered a secret ingredient?

Not so secret now, eh Giglio?

And to make that caustic comment even more cutting, I write this while I’m wearing a long, blonde wig. The tips touch the floor. And I’m at a standing desk.

Take that!

While the dumb blonde device sucks, the best device is given more than a page, and suggests a film where it works, and one where it doesn’t. The same device, the same actor. It’s a fair comparison.

The other secret ingredients are too short to tell you very much, apart from working as a brief categorisation for things that appear in comedy films. Thankfully, the references to the films they’re used in does help you out.

Over to you to for watching those films.

Giglio, Giglio, Giglio.

Pronounce it with hard Gs, and you can see why the two men on the cover are laughing.

That’s despite one being hit in the back by a typewriter, while the other gets a its full weight to his knee caps. Still, it’s a bit of fun.

Part three of the book is the comedic Roadmap. It’s where the preparation (not) done in during the earlier chapters is put to use.

This is where the index cards get a proper work out. Unless you like being a pantser, and don’t like plotting first, then this is where you should give up.

On the book, not in life. Your life is more important than that.

If you do feel like giving up, maybe instead put your life on pause. To do that, try writing reviews about books on comedy.

Back to the Roadmap, where Giglio gives it to you in an A-H format. He uses The 40-Year-Old Virgin as an example, with small descriptions across the length of a page, to show you the way.

The exercise to go with this is a powerful one. He says that if you’re new to the index card cork board, you won’t be able to do it at this point, but are asked to do it as you progress.

The exercise, that is.

Then the single bit of most important advice on page 112, with it distilled down to one line:

A comedy should make people laugh.

That’s the main selling point of the book. All in that single line.

Anyway, it’s part of a wider piece that puts the line into context. In that wider piece, the author suggests how to begin the movie with a hook and what needs to be present for it to lead into the rest of the film.

Then come six different devices to open your screenplay. Unlike the secret ingredient devices with the blonde sucker, these are appropriate and give you something to decide on.

And now it’s your time to take a card. An index card, that is (what type did you think it was?).

That starts you on the first scene and the start of the film. After a bit more explanation, you get to the second card.

There’s even a couple of Nascar analogies… and it’s a quick start to the cork board.

Fast forward another five pages, and it’s another three cards down.

While the first four come in a little ‘to do action’ box on the page, this one’s in the text.

Which is a bit annoying, because when you revise the process, it’s too easy to miss. Admittedly it’s in bold capitals, but for the ease of quickly checking back through, it would have been nice to have it in a box, like the others.

Comic sequence B continues act one. You’ll go through a similar process to before, with concise explanations for your index cards, and films referenced as examples.

And you’ll find that there’s already leeway for creative control. One of the cards, he advises you to introduce a particular character, but he mentions to put it in, only if you haven’t already.

So if you happen to have placed it before, no harm.

At the end of this sequence, Giglio references the number of cards you will have completed in the stage. Again, one gets missed from a box, but unlike before, when it was shown in bold capitals, this is a bit more buried in the text.

A bit of an annoyance, but apart from that, the steps get introduced and explained in an easy to understand way. This sequence ends with an interesting exercise on point of view.

Sequence C is change; Giglio can’t be there to see what your film is about, and now you’re left a little more on your own. While the chapter walks you through the different elements, there’s no longer a card by card approach.

This sequence has another strong exercise to finish (it gave me an idea for a scene, with only on a glance through it).

To get you to the midpoint, sequence D follows the same pattern as C. The elements are explained, while the index cards are up to you.

One more exercise on page 168. This one might resonate. Especially if you tap the book against a glass.

Duh dum, tish!

While it’s not really an exercise, it’s certainly useful for putting you in a state of mind for writing (this reviewer already does it, which means it has my two thumbs up).

Sequence E ends with another request to add more cards to the cork board. With more points as a guide, it will help you get through this immense ordeal.

A page 168 exercise asks you to look at comedy blockbusters you admire. Select one, look at a certain time in the film, then ask yourself, is it as funny as the point before it? For the film I selected to watch, it certainly wasn’t.

I chose Silence of the Lambs.

Sequences F, G and H take you through to the end of your screenplay. These sequences follow the same pattern as the ones just before, with more guidelines to follow. You’re shown more examples from films as you go, which takes you to the end.

As a side note, out of all the sequences, H feels the weakest in terms of explanations, but only by a little way. It’s no disgrace to the book.

How can such a weak book be further disgraced?

Now you’re at the final chapter, I want to congratulate you. Not because the book is hard to get through, but because the page begins with the word ‘Congratulations’, and I’m looking at it. A bit lazy, but that’s the world we live in.

While the sequence chapters covered the film layout, the last chapter covers writing the screenplay.

You get another exercise to start off. It’s a strong way to build into script writing.

Then what follows is a quick go through formatting. It’s only a quick brush, which means you’ll need to be up to speed with the rules, before you submit anything (having said that, a lot of it is taken care of by modern software).

Some more general advice follows, and while it’s reasonable, this bit in particular could do with more elaboration:

However long it takes to read is how long it should play on screen.

Helpful, but not quite enough. Reading speed matters.

Dialogue isn’t really covered in this chapter, unless you count three paragraphs. To get a handle on it, you’re advised to read the scripts of four people.

A snippet of Giglio’s way of working, shown by his food on the table analogy is nice, as is the amusing paragraph about the Farrelly Brothers, and the crucial help they received from Eddie Murphy. That will remind you of the need to do something important.

And that leaves only a little bit more of the book remaining, which if you’re interested, you can read for yourself.

Time to finish this review.

Verdict

This is a solid book.

While you may want to bolster the bits on character and dialogue with other resources, this one shows you a way to layout a film, and how to put in place the foundations before you begin to write.

With a slight twist on the three act structure, the author provides a workable framework that lets you approach the subject with ease.

Recommended for:

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together for a film. You could potentially use this for planning a fiction novel, if you want to challenge that other medium.

Not for:

Dialogue.

There are maybe four paragraphs in the whole book about dialogue (there might be others sprinkled here and there, but it’s late, and I’m working from memory). For writing a comedy film, you’ll definitely need funny dialogue. Thankfully, Giglio points you in the direction of published scripts from existing blockbusters.

There’s no better education.

Other thoughts

A revision could delve a little more into character types, while fixing the few errors that exist in the text. A sentence without a full stop, a sentence that’s given a question mark when it doesn’t need it, a bit of clarification here and there.

Length

215 pages.

For reading, it’s closer to 200. Take five off for blank spaces, and another ten off for the film reference list at the back of the book (351 films are listed).

But I missed the Roman numeral acknowledgments, the introduction, and the bit titled Foreplay. Add 10 back on, oh dear!

Quicker readers will be through in a day, to a day and a half.

Slower, more dedicated readers will be around a week.

If you actually do the exercises, you’ll be much longer at this. One you’re familiar with the card system, probably a month or two to set out the film before you write.

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Jack Thompson

Writes serious book reviews. Other ideas in the works.