Sergio Sarria, author and screenwriter on shows like “Nasdrovia” (adapted from his debut novel “The Man Who Hated Paulo Coelho”), “Capítulo 0”, “Malaka” and “El Intermedio” discusses comedy screenwriting with us.
Beyond this mild Russian roulette, I consider myself a responsible individual, carefully meditating my every decision. At least that’s what I thought. Apparently, some weeks ago, and coinciding with the nominations for Best Screenwriting award at the Premios ALMA, where The Mediapro Studio cornered the market in two categories: Best Comedy Series (“Nasdrovia”, “Mira lo que has hecho”, “Vamos Juan”) and Best Program (“El Intermedio”, “Late Motiv”, “La Resistencia”) I consented to penning an article about what it’s like to be a comedy screenwriter. Obviously, I did so without considering the consequences, without giving it a second’s thought as to whether I was the right man for the job. A compulsive double-click as if I were updating WhatsApp and now I find myself sitting here, clueless about what to write.
It’s grave, pretentious, or overbearing, more terrifying than donating my pancreas to Roncero. What was I thinking when I said yes? Why didn’t they ask Diego San José, Berto Romero or Carmen Aguilera, they’ve much better hair and far more to contribute? Maybe they did ask them, and they all refused because they’re much sharper that yours truly here. I bet that’s what happened, I bet those guys are the kind of people who read every last letter of those conditions before installing Word. Not I. I’m a despicable, talentless creature who doesn’t even have what it takes to install the Office package without forking out 60 euros for the pleasure every year.
So, here I am, 60 euros out of pocket and asking myself what comedy screenwriting is all about. I suppose it’s a bit like this; giving a lighthearted spin to tragedy, seeking an original perspective for the day-to-day travails we’re all exposed to. Is it possible to talk about loneliness, death, heartbreak, or how to write an article you’re entirely unprepared to write without taking yourself too seriously? Yes, we can. At times when we have the impression that to write about a conflict you have to be melodramatic or pompous, which often leads to involuntary parody. What has always awn me to comedy is the spontaneity and apparent simplicity in confronting a tragic event. I don’t think there’s any better interpretation of the Cold War than Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three”, capable of deconstructing capitalism and communism in an hour and a half without one highfalutin sentence and with ingenious one-liners. Sixty years after it was first released, and the odds are only Díaz Ayuso has given us more laughs than Wilder discussing communism and freedom.
But comedy does not live by spontaneity alone, which is probably the first thing I learned on “El Intermedio”; humor resides in the element of surprise, in the unexpected. A joke is exhausted once it becomes predictable when you can see it coming miles off. For me, any comedy writer worth their salt will run a mile from the mechanical and instead dares to forge fresh paths. There’s nothing worse in comedy than predictability. The second thing I learned on the show was that between elevnenses and dinner time, there are an infinity of other meals available. The computer is not the best friend of the “El Intermedio” screenwriter. The vending machine is.
In general terms, the bottom line in comedy is to avoid complacency and always doing what you know works. It’s important to take risks and try new things. That’s probably what prompted me to leave “El Intermedio”; to have no more to dowithSpain’s Popular Party’s slushfund. In a way,Bárcenas was not only the straw that broke Rajoy’s back, he was mine too. After eleven years at “El Intermedio” I felt the need to try greener pastures. The logical transition would have been to start making jokes about the Spanish socialist party, the PSOE. But alas, and thanks to Globomedia and Movistar, new roads were opened and along them I did travel, adapting my first novel and shaping it into a series, “Nasdrovia”.
If I had the talent of Svetlana Aleksiévich or Chaves Nogales I’d be writing major dramas. Unfortunately, I don’t, and I think I’m incapable of writing about war or the survivors from Chernobyl. I’ve had to roll with the punches my own flair was throwing. That’s why I write about minor conflicts like the mid-life crisis, the end of a relationship or the feeling of failure, where I can better feign that the only thing me and Chaves Nogales have in common is that we’re both from Andalusia. Thanks to this trick, I’ve managed to continue writing comedy shows including “Capítulo 0” and “Dos años y un día”, and even a thriller like “Malaka”.
Over the years, I’ve learned many things about this trade, but perhaps the most important of these is, less is more. When I first started out writing fiction, my priority was for every sentence I wrote to come across as a dazzler, or side splittingly funny. I was somewhat anxious for people to know that I knew how to write good comedy. Observing others I admire writing comedy daily has helped me to take it down a notch and now I aspire to ensuring the story is above the writing. I give greater relevance to the characters and the structure. I want everything to sound unaffected and vanilla. Something similar happens with the use of jokes. I’ve reduced them, only to deliver one when it contributes something to the story. I’ve realized that the comedies I relish don’t hinge on the wisecracks. I believe the characters are greatly improved when they react with a certain degree of the supine or proximity. In other words, if they’re sad or going through some traumatic experience, they should act accordingly. I find it hard to believe they’d respond with a joke or an enlightening one-liner when their backs against the wall. In real life, if you did this, people would think you’re a psychopath… or a comedy screenwriter trying to get off the hook of writing an article feigning they know what they’re talking about.