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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Profanity, Done Right

Writing profanity into a screenplay has many pitfalls. It can become meaningless via overuse. It can become boring due to a lack of imagination. It can indicate lazy writing, or can feel wrong due to being out of character for the speaker.

Hence, when I see it done well, I love it.

I've often mentioned to friends a few of my comic axioms -- things that in my opinion are simply funny. Period. Monkeys, for instance. They're just funny. I'm not saying I'm going to write a movie with monkeys in it (although... nah), but I just think they can't help but be funny. Pet monkeys are even funnier. You know, people have to put diapers on them things?! Get a baby, for God's sake! At least they grow up and learn to take care of themselves. And don't you realize how silly you look with a diaper-wearing yet hairy primate perched on your shoulder or hanging onto your back? Let's not even discuss the way that relates to the old cliche about such animals and the place you've got it latched onto.

Anyway, to get back on track, another axiom I've mentioned is old ladies cursing. I just think that's funny. Or at least I did. I'm learning to revise my list of comic axioms and remove that. It is definitely overplayed, and not quite as funny as it once was. So I guess it wasn't comedically axiomatic after all. But I think the principle behind it remains true. It is funny because it is unexpected.

Well, I just was watching a film in which profanity was used in similar fashion. It was not unexpected because the character wouldn't talk like that (in fact it would be bad writing if the cursing, or "swearing" as some people call it but I never did, were actually out of character). It was unexpected because it was virtually the only time there was any profanity uttered in the whole film. Thus it was hilarious, and worked so wonderfully.

I'm referring to My Best Friend's Wedding. I had never seen it before, but was watching it now as research for the next screenplay I intend to write, whenever I finally finish Hell on Wheels. I always like to think ahead to my next project while I'm still in the midst of one. Anyway, the next one is a wedding themed comedy, not out of line with this film, or even Monster-in-Law, which I also watched recently.

So anyway, if you don't want to read any details of this film, stop reading now. But for those of you who have already seen it, or don't care, I'm referring to the part when George, Julianne's gay best friend, is introduced to Michael, the titular best friend. (Heh heh -- I said titular.) Anyway, Julianne tells Michael that George is actually her fiance, and George is visibly flabbergasted. Julianne covers for him by continuing to ramble at the mouth, and spouts the following line:

He's racing back to New York. He just came in for a few hours to, uh... to uh... fuck me!

The curse word at that point was completely unexpected, and thus truly hilarious. And though I've never been a huge Julia Roberts fan, I actually did gain a lot more respect for her acting in this film. Her facial expressions were fabulous throughout, and the deadpan look she gives Rupert Everett as she utters that word is priceless.

That, my friends, is the right way to do profanity in a screenplay. Well done, Mr. Bass!

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Blogger taZ said...

This post is funny to me for two reasons:

1. I saw a movie with unexpected profanity in it yesterday...

2. The movie I saw was a vampire-movie, as is "Hell on Wheels".

The movie was awful, but it had this line toward the end that made me smile a bit (although I almost cried for the rest of it). Yes, you probably guessed right - the UWE BOLL film (I wonder if his name isn't a curse by itself) "Bloodrayne".

I don't remember the line that well, cause I tried to forget as much as I could from that movie, but it was the vampire of vampires, the most powerful of them (Ben Kingsley), that said something like this before his attempt to kill... someone:

"You ungrateful BITCH."

Although I think that wasn't intended and just a result of the bad dialogue in the film, it worked pretty well.

1:11 AM  
Blogger deepstructure said...

another great example of this is, believe it or not, from the original critters movie. that film had two of the funniest momemts i've ever seen in film.

3:22 AM  
Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

"Anyway, to get back on track, another axiom I've mentioned is old ladies cursing. I just think that's funny. Or at least I did. I'm learning to revise my list of comic axioms and remove that. It is definitely overplayed, and not quite as funny as it once was."

Jeez, you mean this has gone the cliched way of hitmen spouting philosophy? Damn shame, I should've known that after Betty White in "Lake Placid," it would go downhill.

4:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the East Indian dude in 40 Year Old Virgin had a few choice words... "alligator fuckhouse" still cracks me up

4:08 PM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Hey, Joel. First of all,let me say thank you for the comments at my site.

I agree with the moviequill, the East Indian guy was a riot. Another one I like is the stuttering bartender with a touch of Tourette's in a movie called The Boondock Saints. "F-f-f-fuck. ASS!" He cracked me up.

By the way, how do feel about cursing in blog titles?

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

"Scarface" (1983) in a hilarious way -- they focused exclusively on the "F-BOMB". I wasn't aware that it was uttered so many times... it's probably a record! If you want to see this clip, follow this link (also posted on my blog):


It's shocking... yet hysterical!

Have a great weekend everybody!

Best Regards,

5:28 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Yeah, while that guy in 40 Y.O.V. was pretty funny, he was also a bit of a ripoff of the guy in Office Space. "Mother-shitter! Son if a.. Ass!"

Re: cursing in blog titles, not for me, but I have no problems with others doing.

I never saw Critters. Could you give us the example?

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

Oops... for some reason, the top part of my initial post was truncated. What I meant to say was that I agree... profanity can be used to some truly refreshing, hilarious, unexpected ends. It’s still the morning, and I can’t think of any examples to give.

But... not to leave you all empty-handed – remaining post goes here –

Have a nice weekend!

Best Regards,

6:08 PM  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

I think profanity is so overused in film that eventually it will be funnier to see an old lady, business exec or cop who doesn't curse.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Devin B. said...

It almost masks a lack of story or substance -- like Hollywood-style blockbusters, heavy on the 'eye candy' but not much else. As much as I love a good, well placed/well executed expletive, the same goes for a special effect – too much is boring. I want to be lead into a scare or a surprise, not BONKED over the head (or kicked in the nuts) repeatedly by it. That’s not to say that a good sudden jolt isn’t refreshing (minus the kick to the nuts – I can always avoid that). We’ll see how the movies stack up. Tonight, I’m heading out with my lady to see “An American Haunting”. It looks pretty cool!

I'm working through "National Treasure" on DVD... another one-of-many. Kinda glad my neighbor lent me her copy -- no $$ out of my pocket to rent it/buy a ticket.


6:38 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

Someone wise once said: one misplaced fuck and you're fucked.

I think profanity works better on TV. Shows like Rescue Me, Deadwood and Entourage are brilliant in its use. The writers weave them into the dialogue in a natural way, making the characters sound like real people.

A good example of not using profanity is Big Love. It would be out of character for them to say anything more sever than ‘gosh’. Which was why in one episode, it was hysterical when the youngest wife said 'fuck' in a moment of panic—it was unexpected.

So I think it’s all how you use it—profanity for shock value or spicing up dialogue makes for poor writing, in my opinion.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

The part that a lot of people seem to forget is that dirty words are still just words. Use the right one at the right time and you get a cookie. Use the wrong one and you end up looking like a paste-eating dipshit.

Profanity gets trotted out nowadays as a sort of Betty Crocker "Character Helper™"-- something you can toss in there to make your pound of low grade verbal burger serve a family of four in fifteen minutes or less.

"My characters are not very well-drawn, and they seem a bit lifeless... Oooo! I know! I'll have then drop the F bomb a lot! YEAH!"

As often as not I'm left feeling like Madeline Kahn as Lilly von Schtupp when Hedley brings her flowers:

"Oooo... how oooh-dinawy."

I have been known to dabble in the occasional profanity (in much the same way that fish have been known to occasionally swim), but when I fling a naughty word I try to at least make it fun, or surprising or emotionally satisfying.

Cuz I care, dammit.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

From my own perspective, I know that I'm not speaking as the characters when the curse words start flying. At that point, it sounds "natural" and that's trouble when I'm writing dialogue.

So many people curse - it's a regular thing. I don't know that it's used for shock at all anymore. I believe it's used (as in the old lady examples) as a surprise. Although, I believe that putting curse words in the mouths of old women or children just isn't as shocking to us any longer. We have much worse things going on.

I think one film that had a fair amount of cursing (or pair of films) was the Grumpy Old Men films. It was in character for those guys to speak the way they did - and I think that's still where cursing comes in with the least amount of flack. If it looks/feels natural for the character.

My take on the My Best Friend's Wedding excerp was that it's part of her character to curse. I don't see her being a "lady" at all. However, she's very good at putting on that lady mask in mixed company - but at that particular moment, she was lost - she forgot her mask and just blurted out what she would in private company.

I believe that's what makes it funny for us - the fact that we knew it was her and that she was blowing her image that she works so hard to keep. It was all about character and what we "knew" to expect from her.

But I could just be totally off-base. We could all go ask Ron. That'd be cool.

6:20 AM  

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