From the Cambridge Circus to The Whole Nine Yards: Jonathan Lynn on directing & writing comedy
Jonathan Lynn, born in 1943, was accepted into Cambridge University when he was 17 years old. Despite having a serious interest in the performing arts, he decided to pursue a law degree to ensure his parents could still sleep at night knowing that their child had a legitimate career to fall back on, just in case. As a freshman, he met Eric Idle, an energetic young lad who suggested they try to get into the university’s Footlights Dramatic Club. Of course, it was “not a dramatic club at all” as then-members John Cleese and Graham Chapman clearly indicate.
Making the committee laugh was the only way to get accepted, so Idle suggested they write a funny sketch. “I can’t write,” retorted Lynn, not yet knowing writing would become one his greatest loves. So Idle wrote it, they performed it, and both got in. The following year, the club did a show called the Cambridge Circus and Lynn was part of its musical ensemble. Enjoying an incredibly successful run, it was later transferred to London’s West End. Soon, however, its run ended and the show went on tour; Lynn went back Cambridge.
The week he completed his degree, Lynn received a call informing him that the Cambridge Circus was going to Broadway in New York. They wanted to know if he would go with them. “No. That’s a silly idea,” he told them. “There’s a musician’s union in New York and they’d say no!” “Do you want to join the cast?” they clarified. So, he said, “OK,” and became an actor. At only 21 years old, Jonathan Lynn made his professional acting debut on the world-famous Broadway stage. But, his luck didn’t stop there.
The revue ended up making an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the fall of 1964; an astounding 70 million viewers watched it live, which Lynn recalled, “was a bit scary.” He returned to England after the closing of the production and, wanting to become a “serious” actor, he decided to join the regional theater. After just a few months, Lynn secured the leading role in a play with a cast of two, which opened at the Edinburgh Festival and later transferred to West End. “I was really astoundingly fortunate when I started out in this business,” he reflected.
From there, Lynn’s career took off. He was part London’s original cast of Fiddler on the Roof; he was directed by the great Orson Welles himself, although the film was never finished; and he acted in a couple of plays by Harold Pinter, who happens to be one of his favorite writers. By the time Lynn reached his late 20s, he started directing on stage and writing for television. Today, however, the multi-talented Lynn is a self-described “recovering lawyer” who resides in New York City.
Did you ever study acting?
When I joined the Cambridge Circus, I went to an acting class with a wonderful teacher called Mira Rostova. I learned a great deal from her. But, inhabiting a character and imagining their grief or their joy — that’s something you either can or you can’t do. Acting classes, drama school and all that can teach you techniques — improve your voice production, teach you dance or perform choreographed fights, all kinds of technical skills — but no one, really, can teach you to act.
What was the most attractive thing about acting for you at the time?
Acting is just fun! So much better than a proper job. You meet new people all the time. You go places. And then, whenever you do a new play you get to learn something new. It’s endlessly interesting and informative! Also, I’ve had the great pleasure of standing up on a stage and having everyone pay attention to me! I gave it up, of course, because I found out in the end that I really didn’t like being an actor.
I didn’t like the life of an actor. A lot of plays and television shows I acted in were directed by people who, I thought, knew less than I did. I hated the auditioning process. And, I didn’t like the periods of being out of work, or being dependent on other people for work. So, I started writing.
How did you get into directing?
Two friends of mine asked me to direct a show they had written. I don’t remember how they knew I wanted to do that, or that I could. Anyway, it went well. So, around the time I started writing I also started directing and found that both gave me the feeling of being in control of my own destiny in a way that acting did not.
How did you write your first series?
I was acting in a television show called Doctor In The House, which morphed into Doctor In Charge. I left the series, but another actor who was still in it — George Layton — phoned me one day and said there’d been a problem; the producer needed another script in a hurry, he asked if we could write one. So, we got together, came up with a story idea, and pitched it to the producer, who liked it. It went really well and after that we were offered a lot more work for the same series and became part of its regular writing team. I was about 29-30 years old. Then George and I were asked to write for lots of other shows. In the space of about five years, we wrote about 35 episodes of various shows. We were very busy.
How did you get the idea to write your most successful series, Yes, Minister, with Antony Jay? What was the most insightful thing about that experience?
I wanted to create something I’d never done before. [In the process,] I learned how government works. I learned how the world works. People would tell us all kinds of things, everyone leaked like crazy! When the series went on the air, to our astonishment, it was popular with politicians and civil servants alike. We thought they would be offended by it, but they actually loved it. It was extraordinary! Yes, Minister became terribly famous, and so did we. I found that I was invited to very fancy dinners and I got to know a great many people in positions of power, all of who were desperate to leak information to us.
Did that help you form your own political opinions?
No. I think I had my own political opinions from an early age; I even toyed with the idea of going into politics. The interesting thing is that Tony and I — we wrote the show together for many years — didn’t agree politically. I would describe myself as left of center, he was definitely conservative, and that – I think – helped the show, because it meant that it was balanced. It didn’t argue a particular point of view; it just showed what was going on and how things were. While we hardly ever agreed politically, we’ve never had what you would call an argument about it. Disagreements about how the show should work and whether a line was funny or not, sure, but there was never any ill feeling.
What is it about writing that’s interesting to you?
Well, it’s such a challenge! You get an idea. You sit down with the proverbial blank page in front of you, or a blank computer screen, and then you have to conjure something up — characters that are interesting, funny, quirky, and yet completely believable. It’s also a chance to explore ideas and the particular nuances of human behavior.
Speaking of writing interesting characters that resonate with people, can we talk about some of your films, like CLUE (1985), My Cousin Vinny (1992), Sgt. Bilko (1996), and The Whole Nine Yards (2000)?
Certainly. If you like. I actually didn’t write Sgt. Bilko. Well, I wrote parts of it. The script — it never really worked for Steve [Martin] and me, although, we did our upmost with it. The problem with Sgt. Bilko was that the original series, on which the movie is based, aired in the 1950s. At that time, all men, virtually, had served in the military; they all knew how it worked, so, it was intrinsically funny to them. [But] when we made Sgt. Bilko, the country had been essentially at peace for a long time; only a very small portion of Americans had ever had that experience. So, we struggled with the script. A lot. Essentially what happened was during the shoot every week Steve and I would meet on Saturday morning and talk through what’s coming up during the following week. Then I would write up everything we talked about, so that we had new pages. This did not negate what Andy [Breckman], our writer, had done — a great deal of the material is his, and very funny too — but some of it was put together by Steve and me during the shoot. It was an interesting experience. And it was great fun working with Steve, who is a comic genius, I think.
How did you get involved in writing CLUE? How did you come up with the multiple endings? And why would you go through the trouble of directing so much?
I was told to. I was not the director when I was asked to write the film; John Landis was. There was a producer called Debra Hill, who had had the idea of turning the game into a movie — the house where the film takes place is called Hill House; I named it after her — she took the idea to John Landis and the producers. Apparently I was the sixth writer they approached, though I didn’t know this till much later. Anyway, one of them came to London and saw a theatre production of mine and decided that I was the right person to write CLUE. I had a free week, and they wanted to fly me to LA. I’d never been to the West Coast, and I’d never flown first class, so I thought: Oh well, why not? I accepted the ticket, went out and met John, who was very charming and nice. He pitched me the story and included the idea of multiple endings. I really didn’t know what to make of it. In ten minutes he sort of rushed through something that somewhat resembled the first two thirds of the film, and then he said: “The butler said, ‘I know who did it.'’’ Well, by this time I was on the edge of my chair. “Well, who did do it?” I asked. And he said: “I don’t know, that’s why I need a writer!” I called my agent and told him: “These people are mad. Can I come home now?” And he said: “Well, while you’re there, why don’t you try to think of something?” So, I came up with a few feeble ideas, I thought. The next day, I presented them to John, who seemed to like them. As a result, I was hired to write the screenplay and it was quite difficult.
What were you able to use from the game?
There wasn’t much in the game that could be used for the film. There are nine rooms, six characters with idiotic names named after colors, and six weapons. John described the story to me — essentially the main events — but there was no reason for any of them, which is why there was no solution. So, I had to come up with reasons for everything. I started with why all of these people are named after colors; I realized they all had to be aliases, and the aliases had to be given by one person and, therefore, that person had to be the mastermind. Mr. Boddy was going to be the first victim, obviously. Anyway, I worked logically through the whole thing. I finished the script and, to my surprise, they liked it. By this time John was committed to anther movie and did not want to do CLUE anymore. He very kindly suggested that I direct it and he would become an executive producer. Of course, if anyone says to you, “Would you like to direct this Hollywood movie?” you say, “Yes!” which I did. In reality, it would not have been the first film I would have chosen to make, but there it was — an opportunity.
Is it more or less difficult to write for the opposite sex?
It’s always the same creative process. I mean I’m neither Colonel Mustard nor Miss Scarlet. I don’t really think it’s any different writing for women than writing for men. You have to just be imaginative. The part of Mrs. White was rewritten a bit when I heard Madeline Kahn was interested, I was a huge fan of hers. Apart from that, nothing was really changed. There’s one adlibbed speech, which is Madeline Kahn’s about flames on the side of her face. She said to me: “Would you mind if I improvise something here?” And I said: “Not as long as we stick close to what I’ve written.” So she did her improvised version and it made me laugh so much! She was wonderful; she was a delightful person, as well as an extraordinarily good actress.
Do you always invite actors to audition for you, or do you offer parts based on their previous work?
Well, Bruce Willis was already attached to The Whole Nine Yards, which is why the film was being made at all. And, I knew Mathew Perry’s work from television; I thought he was a very funny man. But, everyone else had to read. For My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci joined when I joined, but I found Marisa Tomei. Agreeing on her was very easy — the producer and I thought she was great — but then I had to persuade the studio, which was not so easy because she was unknown. You have to go on instinct. Albert R. Broccoli, who produced the first 16 James Bond films, used to say: “Judge people on their best work!” I think that’s very important, because nobody gets it right every time. Actors sometimes give less-than-good performances because they’ve been misdirected or were asked to do something in a way that didn’t work for them. So, you judge people on their best work, and if their best work is really good you can be confident that in the right working conditions they will give their best work again. Of course, the other thing is most actors have a choice; they won’t take a part offered to them unless they think they can play it well.
Which of your films are your favorites?
Oh, I don’t know! Obviously, I am fond of them all, but I would have to say, Nuns of the Run.
What are some of your favorite films in general?
The Third Man (1949). The Godfather Part II (1974). Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Tootsie (1982). The Apartment (1960), with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, which I think is one of the best comedies ever made! Some Like it Hot (1959). Double Indemnity (1944), Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) is a masterpiece! The final scene is so overwhelming that it will make you laugh and cry simultaneously.
Note* Check out Jonathan Lynn's book, Samaritans (2017), here.