What the Writers of 'The Mitchells vs. The Machines' Can Teach You About Great Family Comedy
Co-writer/directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe explain why the best gags are ones that push the plot forward or reveal something about your characters…
Each week on my podcast Script Apart, a famous screenwriter (or screenwriting duo) shares with me their first draft of a beloved movie, dissecting all the ways it changed en route to the big screen. When Jeff Rowe and Michael Rianda sent me their initial screenplay for their brilliant Netflix animated comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines, I quickly found myself laughing out loud at jokes that didn’t make it into the finished film. When I asked why so much great material had been taken out, I got an incredibly valuable insight into how great comedy works.
“Writing jokes is almost an insecurity,” replied Rowe. “It's hard to know if an audience likes a dry line, but a joke becomes binary – the audience either laughs or they don't. It's a great way to know if your screenplay is doing its job.” It wasn’t till he worked with The Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein that he learned about “something called load-bearing jokes. A joke that isn't just funny but reveals something about the character or moves a plot point forward.” This changed everything for Jeff – and became an important part of guiding where to place jokes in their acclaimed cartoon adventure.
That’s not all there was to learn about writing enthralling family fun from the pair. Read on to discover some of their other screenwriting tips and tricks, or listen to the full episode below…
Be Ruthless About Who Your Story Is About and What It Needs
The Mitchells vs. the Machines – or Control Alt Escape as it was then titled – originally featured the Mitchell family on a mission with the President of the United States. “His character arc was that he was kind of a weak President. People always called him spineless. So the end of his arc had him ripping out ten robot spines and screaming ‘who's spineless now?!’” recalls Michael.
After writing that draft, the pair realized that this was supposed to be a story about the Mitchell family and that having them aid someone else on a quest wasn’t as gripping or satisfying as placing the fate of the world in their hands alone. “In the rewriting phase, we realized it was slowing down the movie,” explains Michael, who decided with Jeff that they had to go backward to go forwards, redrafting the movie without the POTUS character.
Even Family Films Need Strong Thematic Connections
"Pal was always the hardest character to write. We started with this idea that Pal is super intelligent and was going to be monologuing about how horrible humanity is. But it’s funny, we found people just switched off,” Michael remembers. There wasn’t an emotive element to the character in their draft. So the pair went back to it to find one.
“The tech story and the family story were totally different. There was no thread connecting them. So we said, ‘Okay, if Katie is leaving Rick, and if Mark is leaving Pal, then Pal and Rick could have that connection of being left behind and feeling obsolete – maybe there's a thematic connection there.’ It makes the movie feel a little bit more cohesive,” he adds. It may be a joyously silly (and kid-friendly) cartoon romp, but that’s not to say you can’t have hidden emotional depths to your story to really make audiences respond to it.
What was your biggest takeaway from the episode? Let us know in the comments below.
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.