Sundance London Festival Debates Where to Draw the Line in Comedy

Sundance London Panel - H - 2013
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U.S. stand-up Mike Birbiglia, British writer/actress Alice Lowe and screenwriters Tony Grisoni and Lynn Shelton were among the featured panelists.

LONDON - The second annual Sundance London festival put the spotlight on screenwriters and comedians in a couple of well-attended panel discussions Saturday.

An afternoon panel on comedy featured such topics as a discussion about differences between U.S. and U.K. humor.

The panel featured such people as U.S. comedian Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk With Me), writer/director/actress Lake Bell (In A World…), writer/actress Alice Lowe (Hot Fuzz, Sightseers) and writer/director/actor Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Mash Up).

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Birbiglia, who told the audience that he is in the middle of adapting his one-man show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend for the big screen - as previously announced after the success of his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me, highlighted that some comedic differences are purely based on time and distance to major events.

For example, he said he saw British comic Jimmy Carr tell jokes about Watertown and the Boston bombings this week. "They were funny to me, but I'm a comedian, so there is no line," he said. "But I don't think any talk show host in America could make those jokes. You guys can do that here, because you are over the ocean."

How are comedy audiences different between the U.S. and the U.K.?

"Truth is funny. That spans different nationalities," Lowe said. "But British comedy is much more obsessed with class." Quipped Vogt-Roberts: "Yes, we don't have any class."

Lowe also highlighted that in Britain, TV comedies are typically written by one or maybe two creatives, while U.S. sitcoms use writers' rooms.

When her American counterparts argued that those are responsible for some of the world's most popular shows though, Lowe said she didn't mean to criticize that approach and actually liked the idea of having a test audience for jokes. "But in the end, I'm really vain and want all the attention on me," she quipped.

Most on the panel agreed that Hollywood studio comedies are not as funny for them as smaller independent fare. "The studio system is diluted," said Bell. "That's that machine out there that's just churning out movies."

At that point, Birbiglia quipped that nobody on the panel was making hugely successful comedies though.

Vogt-Roberts, when asked who or what he considers the biggest American comedy export, referenced a big name. "Tyler Perry - which really embarrasses me," he said without going into detail.

Lowe said she felt that "it's really hard to get a film made as a comedian" in the U.K. She said she felt lucky that her movie Sightseers got made. After all, "it took Rowan Atkinson 11 years to get a feature made," she added.

The American representatives on the panel said it wasn't easy for most people to get films made these days. And if they are made, "comedy doesn't get assigned the same weight" as dramas, including in awards ceremonies, lamented Vogt-Roberts.

Lowe echoed that, saying she couldn't even get comedic movies into film festivals in the past. "People said it's not art, because it's comedy," she said before lauding the BFI London Film Festival for having introduced a comedy section.

Earlier in the day, Hollywood star and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford introduced a screenwriting panel featuring Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely, Your Sister’s Sister) and Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Men Who Stare at Goats).

"I noticed new directors were already focused on the technical aspects of film," while the arts of writing and acting were sometimes neglected, he said in explaining why the Sundance Institute had launched its Screenwriters Lab. "They wanted cranes and [special] lenses."

He said that one key experience in the lab has been that failure is an important part of the learning process for filmmakers. "You should have failure," Redford said. "Don't treat failure like the end of the road. Treat it like a step forward."

Sometimes, creatives have to "hit the wall to rebound and really get back on track," he added. "We're all about the value of risk-taking. It's a risk not to take a risk. Stumbling is part of the process."

Failure and fear of it became a central topic of the panel discussion. "You can't make great art without great risk," said Shelton at one point, lauding independent films for giving creatives the opportunity to take more risks than in Hollywood studio productions.

Picking up on the topic of failure, risk and fear, Straughan said he was not happy with one comedy he wrote, which led him to stay away from comedy for a while. "Then I wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so I guess I was right I was crap at comedy," he said. But the success of that film and other work helped him. "It gave me the confidence to go back to comedy," he said.

Grisoni argued that failure is hard to define, but creatives sometimes leave a project with negative feelings, blaming others on a production - although that is an easy excuse.

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"It's an art form that's a social act," he said about film though. "It's all about the dynamics between people." That means that "I'm pretty sure you find a few things you didn't do well," he added. "You can [always] change your bit and who you work with."

Like his peers, Grisoni expressed a passion for his job despite all the challenges. "It's certainly better than having a day job," he quipped, drawing a round of laughs.

The panels took place at the Cineworld movie theater complex next to the British capital's O2 Arena.

The Sundance London film and music festival offers live music, U.K. premieres of U.S. independent films from the Sundance Film Festival, panel discussions, Q&As and other events. The festival ends Sunday.

Twitter: @georgszalai