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Exclusive Interview: Laurie McGuinness talks directing documentary Funny Tweets

In an exclusive interview, director Laurie McGuinness talks helming Funny Tweets, an innovative and eye-opening documentary starring some of the greatest minds in comedy today.

Funny Tweets is an intriguing documentary that explores the minds of the great comedians and comedic writers behind some of our favorite shows — and our favorite Tweets.

Laurie McGuinness had questions. He was curious about what made Tweets funny, where this style of communication originated from, and how the minds of Twitter celebs work.

He answers all of those questions and more in this very entertaining movie featuring the likes of Andy Richter, Dan Duvall, Danny Zuker, Elijah Daniel, Amber Tozer, Matt Selman, Dani Fernandez, Alec Sulkin, Damien Fahey, and many others.

For those unfamiliar with those names, these are some of the writers behind some of your favorite shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, Modern Family, and other popular programs. And what do all of these creators have in common? Their careers were more or less jump-started by Twitter.

McGuinness was kind enough to share in great detail about the process of creating this documentary, and it is a truly fascinating tale of a man who caught a vision and ran with it.

Here’s what Laurie McGuinness had to say about directing Funny Tweets.

Director of Funny Tweets, Laurie McGuinness.
Director of Funny Tweets, Laurie McGuinness. Courtesy, October Coast

 

Commyounicate Interviewer РRyan Mekkes: When did you begin getting into film? What was your journey like getting on that trajectory? 

McGuinness: Well I’ve worked in advertising for a long time as a copywriter and a director and creative director. And I’ve been on sets and I’ve directed and produced a lot of TV¬†spots. And I understood the process of making a 30 second TV ad, and I assumed that would transfer over to making a film — and in a lot of ways, it does. The physical components are all the same — it’s just the scale of it: you don’t realize how big it is until you really start putting this thing together. And for me, it was just the fact that I understood the technical aspects of it, and I thought, I want to do this. So I did. And I learned as I went; it was like I went to film school.

Mekkes: You’re kidding me. Was this your first documentary?¬†

McGuinness: Yeah.

Mekkes: That’s incredible. I wouldn’t have even known.¬†

McGuinness: Oh, that’s cool, man. Thank you! You know, I look at it now and I can see all the seams and the zippers and I can see what I’d do differently next time. But I was also lucky to have incredible help. The people that I work with making commercials also work on feature films and stuff. So I could access people that really knew what they were doing. And that really helped me. You know like as far as color grading and audio mixing and all the elements that went into making it polished and professional at the end — I had access to [proffesionals who helped me make all that happen]. So while I was a first-timer, a lot of the people working on it weren’t.

Mekkes: It kept you on your toes, too, the way it kept moving along. I’m an easily-distracted millennial, you know what I’m saying? And it kept me engaged the whole time. So I loved it.¬†

McGuinness: Oh that’s cool! Yeah, when I watch it now, I think, I should’ve been a little more ruthless with the editing.¬†But it was really just a question of following my notes. It was an interesting story. Dan Duvall, the guy in the doc, I was following him on Twitter. I live in Vancouver up in Canada. And I realized he said something about the ferries. So I thought, ah, he probably lives in Victoria —¬†which is on the island just across from us here. And so I sent him a message, and then we started chatting.

And then he told me a story and he said,¬†I just came back from LA. I was in the green room at the Conan show¬†(Conan O’ Brien).¬†And I’m like, You work at Pharma Said, man — how does that work?¬†And so he told me his story. And I said, Well, can I come over with a camera guy and interview you?¬†And then that interview — I only interviewed him once — that was like the spine of the whole movie. It was really just his story about getting an opportunity through social media. And it’s legitimately changed [since we filmed]. He’s¬†working as a standup now. He’s got development deals and everything.

Mekkes: Wow. So did you do all the interviewing yourself for this? 

McGuinness:¬†Yeah. Dan made all the introductions. Those guys from Family Guy and The Simpsons and Modern Family — and Andy Richter, who is just a lovely guy — they all agreed because they were Twitter buddies with Dan. So he would set those connections up, and me and my camera guy would go and interview them. Dan would come and sort of make the introductions, and I would do the interviews with them. I had sort of a set list of questions, but I’d just go wherever the conversation took us. And we got some really interesting stuff out of that.

Mekkes: Your cast is awesome. You have Alec Sulkin (Executive Producer and Writer for Family Guy), Dani Fernandez (Writer and Comedian), Matt Selman (Writer and producer for The Simpsons), Amber Tozer (Auther), Andy Richter (Announcer for Conan O’ Brian), Dan Duvall (Writer and Comedian), Danny Zuker (Writer and Producer for Modern Family), Elijah Daniel (Comedian and Internet Sensation), and a bunch of other people — all awesome, talented individuals. How does it feel to have all those people in this film?¬†

McGuinness:¬†It was remarkable! I didn’t really realize what I had as it was happening. [Dan] said, Oh, Matt Selman, and then and I look and it’s like, he’s one of the five executive producers of The Simpsons. Him and Al Jean and Matt Groening¬†are the real heavyweights that run that place. He was really, really funny too. But yeah, it all started for me with Dan’s story, but then all these other elements started falling into place.

Mekkes: When did your fascination with Twitter begin? 

McGuinness: When I joined. I was the same as Dan — I was just following funny people, people making me laugh. That’s what really got me. You know, there’s so many funny people out there. My wife said,¬†You’re the right guy to make the Twitter doc because you’re addicted to it.¬†I’m like… yeah.

Mekkes: What was it like putting this thing together from a logistical standpoint? 

McGuinness: I was down in LA doing some corporate work. And I had my camera guy and a sound guy with me, and we¬†did the first round of interviews. And then we came back and got some help from Creative BC — it’s like a government agency up here. They gave me 1500 bucks to go to Hot Docs. And I went there trying to pitch the idea. But one of the things that happens when you’re a first-time filmmaker is you get a lot of attaboy and no money. So it’s hard, until you’ve got a producer credit, to actually convince anybody to give you any money. But I went there and then I realized that I could do this myself.

I saw this documentary, it was with Persian kids that were going into the desert doing raves with a generator. And they shot the whole doc on iPhones. And I watched that, and it just kind of hit me like, what are you waiting for? Just go. Just make the thing and figure it out as you go.¬†And as I started pushing and just making it happen, things started falling into place. It’s like the momentum that I created started causing its own momentum. And then people were helping and things came together. So that process of going around and looking for money and looking for permission and getting approval and all that stuff — as soon as I abandoned that, everything started to happen.

Mekkes: You made a point in the documentary that people have been Tweeting without a platform for a long time. You mentioned Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, and Groucho Marx were sort of like early “Tweeters” before Twitter.¬†And then Andy Richter and Matt Sellman mentioned Jack Handy as another founding father, of sorts, of that style of communication. When did you make that connection that this is really a timeless thing?¬†

McGuinness:¬†We’re doing it with a phone now, but it always existed. It’s like these little, perfect Bonsai trees of comedy or humor. There’s not an extra syllable in the Winston Churchill or Dorothy Parker quotes; they’re just perfect little comedy bombs. And now, the difference is that people can fire one off on a phone and it’ll be read by millions of people all over the world. But back then, you’d get them through the newspaper or maybe through a speech or whatever. But Tweets have always existed; we just didn’t have the technology. But that style of writing, it goes way back. And it hit me as I researched this — I was trying to see if there were any parallels in history — and that sort of revealed itself and I thought that was cool, you know?

Mekkes: That is cool. I think that was one of the coolest parts of the documentary to me because I love the fact that things change, but then there are parts of new things that often echo history. Like Winston Churchill’s quote, that you mentioned, “A modest man, who has much to be modest about,” — that’s a total Tweet!¬†

McGuinness: (laughs) Right! And he was known for that stuff, just firing off a good one-liner.

Mekkes: Another thing I really enjoyed was hearing creators reminisce about rising in the ranks and realizing they were gaining a following — making a name for themselves. Like, Danny Zuker mentioning Slash following him and Matt Selman mentioning Jonah Hill shouting him out and then getting followed by Pam Grier. And seeing their faces — they’re still excited about it! You know?

McGuinness: Yeah!

Mekkes: Was it surprising, for you, to see how humble these people were? 

McGuinness:¬†Oh yeah. It was remarkable the conversations we had. These are very very smart, accomplished people. But they just opened up, talking about Twitter. It was a thrill for them to have people that they thought were cool follow them and dig what they were doing. And they were very open and honest about it. You know, I think one of the things that happened, too — they’re used to people coming at them asking for stuff. And all we asked for was half an hour of their time. Maybe forty-five minutes. And so we just wanted to talk about writing and Twitter. And they’d all had such great experiences with it, so they just opened up and talked to us.

We actually did a bunch of the interviews at the Hollywood Roosevelt. It’s a famous old hotel. But we brought some kind of old school kino lights. And we brought all our stuff in and the manager talked to us; he thought we were going in to shoot a porno. It was like, no, no, it’s just interviews, man. Nothing that exciting. (laughs) But these guys all came in one after another [for the interviews]. And it was interesting, too — Danny (Zuker) and Matt (Selman) knew each other. And so they were shooting the breeze in between the interviews and talking. They couldn’t have been nicer. Just down to earth, funny, authentic guys.

Mekkes: I wanted to ask about something you touched on in the doc. You know Twitter is multi-faceted. In addition to the fun of it, there’s also a lot of pressure for celebrities that use it to use it wisely. And the people you interviewed came up through Twitter, but as Damien Fahey says in the documentary — it can make you or break you. It can be your undoing. Did you sense that pressure when you were talking to them about that?¬†

McGuinness:¬†Well, I think they’re all very aware that it’s like fire, you know? It makes an excellent servant and a terrible master. Like, if it goes off on you, if you do the wrong thing — and Matt talked about that — try the wrong way to be funny and it can really damage you. Damien hasn’t been on Twitter in a year now. It landed him that job on Family Guy¬†and then he just stopped. In fairness to him, he’s writing for Family Guy. He’s busy. And Twitter certainly got him where he wanted to go. But yes. And Matt Selman talked about that, about the damage that people did to themselves. So, you know, it can really mess people up. And for some people, it’s like ruined their lives.

Mekkes: That’s, I think, the most interesting part of Twitter in relation to comedy. Because in comedy, they play with fire. They address elephants in the room, right? And yet if they lean too far one way, or if they miscalculate, it can literally destroy them.

McGuinness: Yes.

Mekkes: But I think they’re really crucial because — and¬† I guess I speak for my home country, the USA here — but you know how divided we are right now. It’s a really tense time right now in The United States. And I feel like comedians and comedic writers have a serious role to play in uniting us by just helping us to take ourselves less seriously.¬†

McGuinness: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. My wife lives in Boston. Actually, she’s moving to D.C. So I’m back and forth all the time. I’m down in The States once a month, and the division you talk about is real. Your politics are tribal next to ours.

Mekkes: Yeah. 

McGuinness: And yet! Americans, one to one, are awesome. Best people in the world. Open, funny, kind — but yet you see the way that the tribes go at each other. And it’s like I can’t connect that to the people that I run into in the day to day.

Mekkes: And I can’t, either. (laughs)¬†

McGuinness: (laughs) Right?

Mekkes: And that’s another aspect of Twitter that’s really interesting because Twitter is such a fun place sometimes, and yet it’s also the battleground where we figure out every issue in the whole world. And the people that you talked to for your movie are right in the middle of it. It’s just really interesting to me. So, what are your overall thoughts after concluding this documentary, and what do you have in mind moving forward?¬†

McGuinness:¬†I’m thrilled with how it went. We’re being well-reviewed, which is weird the first time you read a review of something you made, because people don’t review car commercials. But I’m thrilled with how it turned out. I feel like we did a great job with what we had. I’m dying to get started on the next one. I want to keep doing this. It’s fun. It’s interesting. You just turn on your curiosity and follow it wherever it goes.

The next one I’m going to do is about Reddit, the comedy on there, which is awesome as well. But it’s different because it’s anonymous. Everybody’s anonymous on Reddit. And the way that the comments get uploaded and the comedy gets uploaded — it’s kind of like a shared, collective sense of humor. And that I find really cool. It’s like, WE all think it’s funny, and so the [most popular] stuff rises to the top. And some of the comments where people are one-upping each other are hilarious! These people don’t even know each other and yet they’re combining to make millions of people laugh. And that’s the whole point of it: to make some dude riding a bus, reading his phone — laugh. And I think that’s one of the nicer things about humanity.

Stay Tuned for the latest news on upcoming projects from Laurie McGuinness.

Funny Tweets is out now! Be sure to take a look and share it with a friend!