Failing to make an audience laugh is Paul Feig’s worst nightmare.  “That comedy fear never goes away,” he attested at a talk at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

You wouldn’t think it, noting his successful career as a writer-director, which includes such beloved titles as Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, The Office, Bridesmaids, Spy, and Ghostbusters, among others. 

Feig (pronounced ‘FEEg’) began as a comic. His comedy career started with stand-up back in ‘80s, then transitioned into writing and directing. For him, the transition felt seamless: “I put movies together the exact same way I used to put together my set.” Known for unpredictable segues and jokes buried inside surprising narratives, he approached film the same way—and succeeded. His best work is hilarious, but the laughter didn’t come without pain. Here are some of the best takeaways we got from his Tribeca Talk:

Paul FeigA young Feig sports a crop top in Heavyweights (1995)Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Expect Failure

What pushed Feig offstage? With stand-up, there’s no longevity: “You’re back the next night doing the whole thing all over again.” Often to mixed results. Yearning for more satisfaction, Feig found himself drawn to film and TV: “You do it once and it can live on forever.”

Take Freaks and Geeks, Feig’s Apatow-produced, writing/directing breakthrough. Freaks is not only revered as a cult-classic TV series, but also as the jumping off point for the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest names in comedy, including Apatow regulars Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segal. Even so, Freaks was cancelled after just 12 episodes. Like the real high school characters whom Feig’s show was based on, the show was not fully appreciated or understood in its time.  

The packed Tribeca auditorium listened intently, hoping against hope to crack the comedy code—but the message Feig delivered wasn’t all fun and games. As he told it, his long career has taken raw courage, spilled guts, lessons learned, and even time spent in what he calls “Movie Jail.”

Even if you work really, really hard, and even if people really, really like your material, it can get you nowhere.

Suddenly, an impassioned voice from the crowd interrupted Feig’s flow. “The creator of Freaks and Geeks can never be put in movie jail!” Feig’s smile spoke volumes: don’t be so sure. 

This shout-out was emblematic of the longevity that Feig is still seeking: the power to keep his audience laughing. It also raised a red flag for aspiring comics. Even if you work really, really hard, and even if people really, really like your material, it can get you nowhere.

But success-story Feig, while refusing to sugarcoat comedy’s challenges, offered pointers to help the audience get through the night. 

Freaks and GeeksFreaks and Geeks regulars: James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, John Francis Daley, Martin Starr and Samm Levine.Credit: Paramount

Mine Your Experience

The moderator of the talk, comedian and SNL writer Michael Che, squinted at Feig’s tall frame.

“I look at you now, you don’t look like a freak or a geek,” Che observed. “You’re a very stylish man, you don’t look like you would’ve had a hard time in high school…”

Feig deadpanned back with tangible honesty: “Oh. Oh, yeah. Really?” The audience sensed his sarcasm, and erupted with laughter. “Yeah,” Feig continued, “high school was great.”

The truth? Freaks was based on Feig’s own high school experience, where he was relentlessly tormented by student and faculty bullies–just like his character Sam Weir.  Now, however, the adult real-life Feig has clearly blossomed into a well-adjusted, thoughtful man, more like the sensitive cop character (played by Chris O’Dowd) in Bridesmaids than any F&G victim. 

Feig switched into advice mode. “When I first started,” he confided, “I thought I had to invent crazy sci-fi stories. But the minute I started mining into things I went through and finding the funniest way to tell those stories, it clicked.” 

Feig's off-the-cuff humor resembles his characters, too;  his self-awareness is almost palpable. He has a natural, almost lyrical comic delivery, a mix of mumbled modesty and radio-personality precision. His timing impeccable. But his true secret weapon is women.

BridesmaidsThe Bridesmaids castCredit: Universal

Appreciate Funny Women

Like his actor Chris O’Dowd, Feig seems to connect with female psychology. And he clearly has fun working with female comedians.

“I’m not a guy’s guy,” he declared. “When guys are throwing around a lot of dick jokes, I’ll be like ‘oh that’s funny’ but I won’t participate really.”  He likes the dynamic of women’s humor. And the edge. “It’s not all good-natured, y’know. Sarah [Silverman] and Amy Schumer and all these people can get as down and dirty as any of ‘em.” 

He also likes working with incredibly talented people–and he knows how to use them. Among his repeat offenders: Melissa McCarthy. Kristen Wiig. Leslie Jones. Rose Byrne. Kate McKinnon. 

Michael Che agreed. “You’ve cast the funniest people I know.”

It didn’t happen by accident.

MflAudrey Hepburn and George Cukor on the set of oscar-winning My Fair Lady (1964)Credit: Warner Bros

“When I got into the business, I just got so frustrated watching comedy,” Feig explained. “Women had such terrible roles–but I knew it didn’t have to be that way.” Feig’s first introduction to comedy was watching TV with his mom: “all these movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, with Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, where the women were really equals to men. And then I watched the whole thing just devolve to where women were just eye candy, or they were perfect, or they were mean.”

Feig reacted by changing the rules: he cast more women in dynamic roles–and to the amazement of most in the industry, they were funny. Beyond funny. Hilarious.

“I knew so many female comics,” he said, “and I’d see them in movies, being underused. There just weren’t enough roles for ‘em.” So Feig set out to make room for funny women, starting with Freaks and Geeks.

At the time, this was radical. Especially because he didn’t just cast funny women. He hired them as writers as well. In fact, many have become his best friends–and he relies on them. Especially his wife, Laurie Karon, who is his first and most trusted reader.

Looking at Feig, you can tell why women like working with him so much. While he’s by no means ladylike, he is far from the stereotype of the macho male director. He exudes sensitivity, self-deprecating humility. And, with his affinity for 1940s Hepburn comedies, he may well be the modern reincarnation of sophisticated comedy director George Cukor.

Start with Drama

Like Cukor, there’s a method to Feig’s madness. With each movie, “I’m  basically writing a drama, then I bring the ‘funny’ up,” he told the crowd.

“I find that when comedies start out being written as a comedy,” he elaborated, “you end up having to drill down to get the emotion. That’s why you have comedies that start off crazy, then have this super maudlin scene by the third act.” Feig grimaced, yuck. “I think you’ve gotta have a real story, real stakes. That’s why I love playing with genres, taking the story to dark places. That fear makes the comedy funnier.”

As he explains it, no matter how funny your jokes are, you need an airtight plot in order to sustain an audience’s attention. If you try to do a comedy that’s just all jokes, “They better be the funniest stuff in the world,” he warned. “And even then it’s hard to keep the crowd with you.”

"I think you’ve gotta have a real story, real stakes. That’s why I love playing with genres, taking the story to dark places."

“In order for humor to work,” he continued, “you have to care about your characters.” He cited two dinner table scenarios as an example. “Number one:  You’re at a restaurant with all your friends who you’ve known forever, just cracking each other up, having the greatest time. Number two, you’re seated at the table next to those people, by yourself. And you’re just like, ‘What the fuck. Who are you people, that’s so not funny.’  And that’s because you’re not invested in those people.”

Feig paused for emphasis: this is his mantra.

“Out of the gate, you’ve gotta make an audience best friends with your character,” he insisted. “Once they care, then it’s funny. Then you can subvert expectations.”

Stay Out of Movie Jail

Feig’s mega-hit, Bridesmaids, came at a pivotal moment. “I was in movie jail,” he sighed. “I had made two movies that were HUGELY unsuccessful.” Per Feig, movie jail is the fickle purgatory between studio successes.  One moment, you’ve made a hit and everyone loves you; the next you’ve made a flop and all the work disappears. “Boom, you’re in there. And they don’t let you out easily.”

Clearly, it was painful. Describing the process, Feig’s words shoot out rapid-fire, each sentence bookended by hilarious throwaways. 

“And then right after that, in 2006, I did this Christmas movie called unaccompaniedminorscheckitout.” Feig muffled the name of his failure for the sake of the audience. They laugh. “So I went back to TV, but the most sobering moment was when I was up for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I loved those books, so I was like ‘Oh cool, I wanna do this.’ I got all the way to the top, had the job, then suddenly they didn’t want me. That was hardcore, scary, movie jail. Like ‘if I cant do the kind of thing I’m known for, a teen comedy, then I don’t have a job.’ Thank god for Judd [Apatow] who asked me come to a reading of what would become Bridesmaids.  I always referred to that movie as ‘Strike 3, Bridesmaids’: I thought I might never direct again.

“Out of the gate, you’ve gotta make an audience best friends with your character.” 

Then came his all-female Ghostbusters reboot. “I’m a people pleaser, so this was the hardest thing for me. Before Ghostbusters, I had this really lovely relationship with the Internet. But when that first volley of terribleness came in, it honestly threw me off for a couple years. I just wasn’t used to it. If I could have a time machine now, I would be like ‘Just don’t read it, put it away.’”

Since then, Feig has had both ups and downs, most notably taking on internet trolls for Ghostbusters—remarkable not just for the film’s post-release trouncing, but for the online backlash which began even before it came out. The pain is still very present.

“You go into it so pure of spirit, you just wanna make everyone happy. It’s a weird, thing but it toughens you up.” He paused, suddenly comically childlike, “I never wanted to be toughened up, though.”

GhostbustersFeig with his Ghosbusters (2016) leading ladies: Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnonCredit: Columbia Pictures

Make it Look Easy

Feig makes funny look easy. But as he reminds us, it’s not. At all.

“That’s the worst part about comedy,” he declared. “It’s incredibly hard. But in order for it to be done right, it has to look easy. Comedy is at its best when it’s completely not showing.”

According to Feig, not many comedies today–with the exception of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which he loves—possess that seemingly effortless quality. As he describes it, they’re “sweaty,” a common comedy phrase for jokes that are working too hard. “They’re simply too obvious. Heavy handed. No surprises. And that’s unfortunate.”

He shook his head ruefully. “This is why Steve Carell never won an Emmy for his performance on The Office. Which is a crime. You think he just shows up and is crazy every day? This guy works so hard to be that character; it’s not who he is at all.” 

At least Feig understands the economy of prestige. He knows that aiming for mainstream success is a creativity-killer–and he has learned from his own disappointments. “You can’t make it about the awards,” he insisted. “The worst thing that can happen to filmmakers is wanting to win awards, because they start serving too many masters. “

Paul FeigFeig at the CCMACredit: NBC News

So where does personal taste meet public approval?

Feig wants you to know: he isn’t your typical award-chasing auteur. “Not a fan of Oscar bait,” he asserted. “Just look at my subject matter!”  He has a point: Freaks. Geeks. Female-driven R-rated comedies. “When we made Bridesmaids, the last thing we thought was that it would win awards. The fact that we even got nominated, was like, cool. But I just keep moving forward, trying to do the best I can. If it comes, it comes. I simply wanna entertain my audience: the reward comes when I make people laugh.” 

Much like his best work, Feig’s journey has had plenty of drama along with the laughter; but despite being “toughened up” by his failures, he still has a boyish enthusiasm for his work. Even in his adult form, lingering traces of the naïve, late-bloomer geek Sam Weir are still obvious–and that may be the best tool in his arsenal. As he keeps pointing out, the world of comedy is indeed unforgiving…and this is one way to dispel the fear.

After all, bullies can take many brutal forms–but with writer-directors like Feig taking aim at the pain, laughter can help keep it at bay.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.