Interview with Greg Grabianski on Humorous Screenwriting Techniques

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I recently had the opportunity to bounce some questions off Greg Grabianski pertaining to his work as a comedy writer. He joined the staff of Beavis & Butt-head writing a number of original episodes, along with a couple episodes in the updated 2011 season. Greg also helped with writing Scary Movie and Scary Movie 2, along with directing and producing a number of his own series.

As a fan of Beavis & Butt-head I knew this would be such an inspiring interview. But Greg has so much talent from other areas like directing animated web series, writing for late-night talk shows, even publishing comical sections in print magazines. Definitely check out this interview if you have any interest to broaden your creative ideas.

Jake: How did you first get interested in screenwriting? Can you share what it was like when you were just getting started?

Greg: In the mid-90’s I was writing a lot of movie and TV parodies for Cracked Magazine, and those stories had to be scripted.

That became Beavis & Butt-head: longer scripts now. And by the time I was hired to rewrite Scary Movie it was an easy transition into writing full scenes. We didn’t write the whole script, we just split up the movie into scenes the director assigned us to parody.

Around this same time I pitched the idea for my first movie screenplay “Completely Pathetic” to producer Matty Simmons(of Animal House and Vacation fame). He immediately loved it and told me to write it. I had no idea what the hell I was doing, I just did what I thought was right and attacked it with wild excitement and energy. A couple months later I had a 250 page comedy script, haha! Matty and I cut it down to a more manageable 115 pages and we sold it to Warner Brothers.

Jake: Do you follow any typical process when sitting down to write or edit a screenplay? And do you generally work better alone or in a team, or possibly both?

Greg: No process, just sit my ass down and do it. Maybe some coffee and some heavy metal to get it going.

I’m fine working solo, with a partner or in a team if the chemistry is right between the writers. It’s like a musical group — everyone has to gel and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses or it’s complete fucking torture. Too many producers think they can just stick a bunch of guys in a room and demand magic. That was the genius of someone like Keenen Ivory Wayans: his ability to put together a team of writers with the right chemistry.

Jake: How do you approach the idea of character development? I mean how would you come up with a set of characters, their wants/needs, personality traits, etc.?

Greg: How does the character best serve the story, that’s a big one. But also how much of me can be found in the character is important if he/she/it is going to be written with truth!

Jake: I really love Beavis & Butt-head so I’m hoping to ask about that just a little bit. First I’d love to get your personal thoughts on the series, even before you came on as a writer. What do you think made B&B special in relation to other animations during the ’90s?

Greg: B&B were special because they were real — the characters were the single strong vision of one guy(Mike Judge). They weren’t created by a committee or by some executive in an attempt to service a perceived audience.

Unlike other shows, it wasn’t defanged by executives and focus-groups until everything that made it special was removed with surgical precision. Like anything cool, it somehow slipped through that Gauntlet Of Mediocrity and got on the air the way it was intended.

True story: At the time I had very few credits, nobody knew me. But when I first saw Beavis & Butt-head I loved the show so much that I immediately put down the TV remote, picked up the phone and called MTV in New York. I didn’t know anybody there. I said to the switchboard person: “I want to write for Beavis & Butt-head”!

And she replied “Hold please.” — A few days later I was pitching story ideas to head writer Kris Brown!

Jake: How would you approach the task of writing dialogue or plot points in an episode? Could you objectively tell the difference between “good” and “bad” dialogue?

Greg: As long as the dialog is true to the character and serves the story it kind of writes itself.

It’s actually really easy and fun to write Beavis & Butt-head dialog because those characters are so strong. You can drop them into any situation, let them loose and just write down what they do in your head (“head”, huh-huh-huh).

Jake: The animation style seems very realistic as opposed to the outlandish slapstick-style animation found in other cartoons(ex. Ren & Stimpy). Do you think this fictionally realistic world of Highland TX affects the writing and tone of the show?

Greg: Yes definitely. Great comedy is always extraordinary characters in ordinary situations.

Jake: What was it like putting together an episode from start to finish? Are there any specific lessons you learned by working so closely with the B&B team?

Greg: The main lesson I learned is how important it is to have strong characters with a definite point of view. Can I picture this character in any situation and know what he/she/it will do?

When we did the original batch of episodes in the mid-90’s I was living in Chicago. I’d fax (!) a sheet of story ideas to Kris. He and Mike Judge would pick the ones they liked and I’d develop them further into an outline to see if there was a story in there. Then I’d write a script. Me and Kris would get on the phone and discuss it, then I’d rewrite the episodes until they were tight.

When we did the last season in 2010 it was different. I met up with Mike and the new head writers one day in LA and pitched story ideas. If Mike saw something in the idea we’d start playing with it right in the room. Mike would start doing Beavis and I’d do Butt-head(or vice versa) and we’d see what came out of it and where the story wanted to go. I remember laughing my ass off at that meeting it was a lot of fun doing that. We decided on the strongest stories, then I went home and got to work writing them.

Jake: Just as a side note, who are some of your favorite minor characters from Beavis & Butt-head?

Greg: I’m a fan of Harry Sachz, the violent biker dude who we introduced in my first episode “Prank Call” and who later made a comeback in my 2011 episode “Doomsday”.

When “Prank Call” aired, a bunch of kids found a real Harry Sachz in the phone book and kept calling him and flushing the toilet until the man called MTV and threatened to sue. The MTV lawyers called me and I was on a conference call. They asked where I found the name “Harry Sachz”. I said “uhh… in my pants”.

They weren’t amused.

beavis butthead screenshot harry sachs toilet prank

Jake: Do you have any favorite memories of working on Scary Movie and Scary Movie 2? Also did you take away some greater knowledge by jumping into writing work on feature films?

Greg: Man, I have a lot of great memories working on those films. One that that comes to mind right away is that Marlon Brando was originally the priest in the opening Exorcist scene in Scary Movie 2. I was on set watching them film and I remember Brando saying one of my jokes and I’m thinking “whoa, fucking Brando acting my lines”. Then he suddenly stops, turns to the director and goes “I don’t get it”. Ha!

Unfortunately he got sick after 1 1/2 days of filming and had to quit. That footage exists somewhere though.

Another memory is when we were filming the first Scary Movie in Vancouver and call time that day was at night. We were doing the scenes where the kids are partying in the speeding car and hit the guy in the road. I remember crossing the Lions Gate Bridge out of the city, looking up to my left at the mountains and seeing from a distance these enormous fucking Klieg lights on cranes lighting up the entire mountainside.

It was my first time working on something of that scale and it hit me: all this massive equipment, all these trucks and manpower, all there to bring to life the silly shit we came up with while just goofing around and making each other laugh. So if there was any “greater knowledge” I came away with from those two movies, it would be the awesome power of a stupid idea!

Jake: What is it like to do writing for a late-night talk show and what are some of the biggest differences compared to script writing for a TV show or movie?

Greg: The biggest difference being on a talk show is the immediacy, and the pressure to be funny on command.

You pitch ideas at 10AM and they’re on the satellite at 5PM. When a talk show is operating smoothly, that kind of pressure is a lot of fun — you’re able to right away make fun of events happening in the world at the time. And you have to do it fast, which allows some crazy shit slip out to the world.

Jake: Will you share some thoughts on Internet-based web series vs. television network programs? Do you think it’s reasonable for someone to get started by publishing their first project(s) online instead of pitching to a network/producer?

Greg: When there’s no money involved you get lots and lots of freedom to do what you want. Once there’s money on the line, you have suits to answer to.

My shows that are on the web: “Goodbye Kitty”, “Trailer Trash”, and “Executioner” were pretty much only limited by what we could accomplish on a small budget. There were hardly ever any notes on content so we just went fucking nuts. Everything was done quickly, nothing was over-thought and belabored. That gives it an energy and madness that I enjoy working in.

From my experience, network TV will typically wring their hands over something and second guess it until most of the inspired craziness is systematically removed. If I was someone starting out right now in cartoons I would try to hook up with cool animation studios like Titmouse or Six Point Harness. They have one foot in the underground and one foot in the mainstream. That’s the sweet spot where I’d want to be.

Jake: Are you working on any current projects that people should look out for in the near future?

Greg: I’m working on a ton of insane new stuff, but can’t say anything about it right now.

Jake: Can you share any final bits of advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Greg: Don’t listen to what agents, managers, and all the other suits want you to write. Don’t ever chase the dollar. Stay true to yourself and write what excites you.

As a writer, you have this awesome gift. Don’t waste it writing bullshit for some clueless businessman. Another mistake I’ve seen people do is comparing themselves to other screenwriters: the development deal or million dollar sale they supposedly just cut. You don’t know what it took to get there or what kind of price that screenwriter paid for that supposed success.

To me success is being able to get together with crazy, creative people and laughing my ass off while making new fucked up stuff with them. Everything always works out when all you’re chasing is a good time.

I want to extend my sincerest gratitude out to Greg for taking his time on these questions. His creative style of writing is beyond inspirational, and it shows adequately in his work. Check out Greg’s IMDb page or his personal website if you want to learn more.

Tyler is a true culture fanatic with love for comic books, music, movies, video games, and all forms of pop culture.

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