The Avengers has Nick Fury. Wu-Tang Clan has the RZA. And Broken Lizard, the comedy collective behind the pantheon-status Super Troopers, has Jay Chandrasekhar. Like Nick Fury and the RZA, he’s the guy who put the crew together, oversees their missions, and holds his own in any other capacity he’s needed (in his case, acting–rather than superheroism or rapping, respectively.) Of course, he’s also taken on a multitude of projects beyond Broken Lizard. After all, the only way to maintain a 20-year career in making funny movies and TV is to constantly create, like a comedy shark.
If Broken Lizard sounds like an odd name–it is literally meaningless, just two words put together in an order that tickled the guys–it could’ve been worse. The group started out under the moniker Charred Goose Beak back at Colgate University. A generation before YouTube became a medium of instant wide distribution, Broken Lizard put out videos the old fashioned way: on stage, in front of boisterous crowds of drunken students. After returning to Colgate from a summer of performing improv and stand-up at Second City in Chicago, and bragging about his comedy exploits, Chandrasekhar was coerced into putting on a weekly live show on campus. The part of this show he enjoyed the most, however, became the pre-taped commercial parodies and interstitials played onstage while he and the other performers changed costumes. He’d recruited the funniest kids at the university to be involved, and the videos they made together changed the course of their lives.
The first film Jay Chandrasekhar directed, a college comedy called Puddle Cruiser, was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. Even though his second and most famous movie, Super Troopers, truly put Broken Lizard on the map, Puddle Cruiser earned the group a pilot deal at NBC. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but it was seen by Judd Apatow, who jumpstarted Chandrasekhar’s TV career, by having him helm episodes of the short-lived college sitcom, Undeclared. Since then, the Broken Lizard mastermind has kept busy as the group’s in-house director, as well as a TV journeyman–in front of and behind the camera.
Although the current crop of aspiring filmmakers cutting their teeth on YouTube may not face the same kind of challenges Broken Lizard did getting off the ground, they can still learn a lot from what those challenges forced the group to figure out on their own. As he finishes shooting Super Troopers 2, Co.Create had a chat with Chandrasekhar about not only how to make a funny movie, but how to make a funny movie into a long career.
Broken Lizard believes in opening movies with a bang, as fans can attest. Their approach is modeled after James Bond flicks–but the group only learned to work that way after not doing so with their first at-bat.
“With Puddle Cruiser, the first 15 minutes are the weakest,” Chandrasekhar says. “When you’re total unknowns and you have a weak opening, it’s a real problem. At some screenings, we’d see the odd walkout before the movie even got going. But to counteract that, we’d do sketches before the show, to introduce the film. We did a gag where we’d pretend the projector had eaten up the film print. Like, ‘Don’t worry, a new one is being sent to us, it’s in a car on the way here.’ And the audience would groan and somebody would start heckling us–and it’d be one of us, of course. And then someone else would start heckling the heckler–and it’d be another one of us, of course. And then that guy would offer to kill a little time, and pull out this dummy puppet named Billy he happened to have with him, and he’d start doing this preposterous ventriloquist voice. And then the audience was like, “What is this?” But they’d be laughing. And then a guy would come in wearing a UPS uniform with this huge film print and everyone would cheer and then he would trip and unspool the whole thing all over the place. So we’d get them laughing and then we’d show them the movie and because we’re the same guys in the movie as on stage, we’d usually be able to roll through the first 15 minutes. But it was annoying to have to do this. So we said when we make the next movie we’re gonna make a fucking kick ass opening scene so we never have to do one of these goddamn sketches again.”
“With Super Troopers, I thought we missed again. We’re on the way to fly to Utah for Sundance and I literally call one of the guys, like, ‘Bring the dummy puppet, we’re gonna fuckin’ need it.’ But when we go to the screening, it was a very stoned and mildly buzzed crowd, because this is about 11:30 on a Friday night. And it immediately started to get a little laughter. Then it very quickly just became explosive. I mean, it was like when the title came up, all 400 people burst into applause and it was just, like, ‘Okay, we don’t have to do this fucking sketch ever again.'”
Chandrasekhar is a member of the Editor’s Guild, even though he still uses other editors onhis projects. He cut his teeth working in an editing bay, and the experience helped tighten up his comedic instincts.
“What makes Broken Lizard, I think, is our timing. You can like it or not like it but it is ours and that’s because of the edit,” he says. “I remember walking into the editing room when I was a junior in college and I watched the guy make cuts and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. He was just putting these shots together and telling the story, and it was amazing. When Broken Lizard got to New York, I got a job at an editing house as a manager because we were getting ready to shoot a 30-minute film. I had been going to this place called Film Video Arts to cut Broken Lizard shit and I never really could afford an editor so I would ask the manager to teach me how to do the cuts. After a while, I felt like I should just get a job there, so I could edit for free. And I eventually started cutting, and I was managing and cutting, and we basically would shoot stuff and then I’d work from nine to seven or eight at night and I’d go shower and then we’d come in at ten o’clock and cut till four in the morning. It was exhausting, but it was an invaluable education.”
As a director who also acts, Chandrasekhar has to hit the right notes–and prefers to have an outside perspective to help him know that he has.
“What I do when I act and direct is I do a small version, go a little bigger, do a medium one, an over-the-top one, and then even bigger than that. I’ll do six readings of the line. And they’re not all the same,” Chandrasekhar says. “Just so I know if I was wrong about what I should have done, I luckily have this more subtle version. You make your decision as an actor, and you become convinced that it’s a great decision, and you might be right. But then somebody’s watching you and they’re like, ‘You know, you’re not loud enough on that, you’re not big enough, you’re not small enough. You’re missing the joke.’ Only somebody watching you can see that. You need somebody there to say, ‘I don’t know if it is.’ Or, ‘Yes, it is. But try it this way.'”
Writing a screenplay is where a movie first takes shape, but only in rewriting do all the little details and nuances appear and the dead weight drops away.
“We did 22 drafts of Super Troopers by the time we shot it,” Chandrasekhar says. “When you show up on set, in the worst case scenario, your script should be so great that if all you have time to do is shoot it as is, you’re fine, and you’re psyched. You can improvise on top of that, but you’re not counting on the day-of jokes to put you over the top. Judd Apatow and I have a different school of thought on this. He likes to make really compelling narrative stories and then have comedians come in and improvise on top. And more lately he’s been improvising, shooting the improv, rewriting and then shooting another round of improv. We have always been a much lower budgeted sort of outfit and so we have instead written, written, written, and when we have a script we love, we just improvise a couple lines on top of it. In any Broken Lizard movie, I would say we’re probably eight percent improvised at the most.”
One of the great jokes in the Broken Lizard film Beerfest is when [SPOILER ALERT] one of the main characters, Landfill, dies, only to be immediately replaced by a previously mentioned twin brother, who also wishes to be addressed as ‘Landfill.’ The replacement is handled in such a silly, yet self-aware way as to off-set the sadness of seeing a main character die in the movie you’re watching.
“Like everybody in Hollywood, we are well versed on three act-structure, and at the end of the second act, you have to have your ‘all is lost’ moment,” Chandrasekhar says. “When we were discussing writing it, we realized what would put us at our lowest point is if somebody died–somebody actually died. It just pokes at the taboo of you don’t kill your main characters. Everyone said, ‘I don’t wanna fuckin’ die at the end of the second act!’ And then somebody who was really on their game that day came up with the idea of Landfill II. At first, the rest of us were like, ‘Are you fuckin’ crazy?’ But eventually we decided that if it works it will be cool. If you’re gonna have your characters hit rock bottom, you can find a funny way for them to do it. Things don’t have to get serious all of a sudden.”
The best case scenario for making a funny YouTube video is that, afterward, you begin to get calls from people who want to help you make your next, bigger project–which is why it’s important to have one of those in mind.
“If you want to get into the big game, what you need to do is create those shorts, get a lot of attention, and somebody like me or maybe a studio, will call you in and say, ‘We love that short, it’s hilarious, you’ve got two million followers, oh my God, you’re fantastic, what do you want to do?'” Chandrasekhar says. “And what it really means is: ‘What do you want to do that’s gonna make us money?’ Do you have a TV show or do you have a film? That’s what we wanna know. We don’t give a shit about the shorts. To work in Hollywood what we want to know is do you have a movie and can we put a big star in it and do you have a TV show and can we make it for cheap? What’s it gonna be? What is the narrative, 22-minute version of this? And if you want to actually get to go make any of that stuff, you had better have an idea already when you get that call.”