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Being Charlie Kaufman: The Self-Consciousness of Absurdist Comedy

By Kevin Nelson · January 31, 2022

Funny, odd, and awkwardly hilarious — Charlie Kaufman’s work reminds us all to rebel.

Charlie Kaufman is known for being a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. He has broken the laws of every screenwriting rulebook and is celebrated for it. He paints outside of the lines, blurring reality with the wondrous fantasies of an overly analytical mind with titles like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

However, sometimes in order to change the game, you have to play the game. That’s exactly what Kaufman did. He followed the path that he thought writers were supposed to take and it took him a while to find his voice and the true originality that he’d later be known for.

After attending NYU’s film program, Kaufman did what a lot of aspiring screenwriters did: found a trusted writing partner, sent unsolicited scripts to anyone who’d read them, and wrote spec TV scripts in hopes of landing an agent. In fact, fellow NYU alum Paul Proch would visit Kaufman at his second shift and they’d write specs for Married… With Children, Newhart, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and The Simpsons. Eventually, one of his specs managed to secure an agent, who encouraged Kaufman to move to Los Angeles if he was serious about screenwriting. 

So he did, but aside from a dream, he had nothing lined up and gave himself two months to make something happen. He had a rough time of it and couldn’t even land an interview, so he decided to move back to Minneapolis.

Jessie Buckley & Charlie Kaufman behind the scenes of 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'

Jessie Buckley & Charlie Kaufman behind the scenes of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

He had his bags packed in his rusty old Jetta when he got a call from David Mirkin, creator of Get a Life!, starring co-creator Chris Elliot. He liked Kaufman’s work. Kaufman was hired and would go on to write 30 episodes of television, most notably for The Dana Carvey Show, but always found it hard to fit into writing rooms. 

Being an introvert, he was always a quiet observer until he felt comfortable enough to speak up. He has written about suffering from crippling social anxiety and how he couldn’t bring himself to talk for six weeks in his first writers’ room. His sense of humor and penchant for surrealistic approaches to storytelling often clashed with the structure of conventional sitcoms. He became frustrated in writing in the showrunner’s voice, and not with his own original style. 

After yet another show cancellation, Kaufman decided to set out into his own solo world. Some people work best in solitude, and Kaufman certainly found his stride once he took full control over the vision of his stories.

So, let’s take a look at his brand of absurd, philosophical, and rule-breaking comedy.

Scripts from this Article

Being John Malkovich

In 1994, Kaufman wrote his breakout script Being John Malkovich and it made waves throughout the industry. Its innovative concept opened a lot of doors and got Kaufman plenty of meetings, mainly just to tell him that a film like this would never be made. In an attempt to find a producer, Kaufman sent the script to Francis Ford Coppola, who passed it along to his daughter’s then-boyfriend and future husband, Spike Jonze. 

Jonze was a budding young director known for his music video work who was looking to take the next step in his career into features. Jonze used his connections with Michael Stipe of REM, whose production company Single Cell teamed up with Propaganda Films to produce the film. 

Kaufman wrote the script in the hopes of landing more work and never thought it’d get made. He wrote it for himself, by himself — and penned a classic example of an F’ It Script. He included his odd sense of absurdist humor like the Floor 7 1/2 and the protagonist’s occupation of puppeteer, which is symbolic of the main theme.

For Being John Malkovich, Kaufman combined two ideas that weren’t going anywhere on their own; that someone finds a portal into someone’s head and about an affair. Kaufman sought to show that as stories are told, they change — especially depending on the perspective.

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Human Nature

The initial rumblings of success over Being John Malkovich’s ingenuity gave Kaufman plenty of momentum, and he’d release three films within two years. One of those was Human Nature, a screenplay that he wrote while Being John Malkovich circulated around town and a different show that he was staffed on was canceled. 

Although it suffered from a lack of publicity and a limited release, a lot can be learned from the screenplay. There’s been a lot said about the importance of the first page, and that is also true about the first image you spark in a reader’s mind off the first line of action. The opening line from Human Nature makes you buckle your seatbelt, ready for the ride. 

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Adaptation

All screenwriters should read and see Adaptation. It’s the ultimate examination of the mind and madness of a screenwriter. The screenwriter and protagonist in question? None other than Charlie Kaufman himself. He again blurred the lines of reality, this time after hitting a massive writer’s block after being hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s Orchid Thief. Knowing that the idea he wanted to write would never sell, he just wrote the script without studio approval and turned it in with Donald Kaufman’s name on the title page. His genius and originality couldn’t be denied.

The script is full of self-critical inner monologues that are self-deprecating – showing what it’s like to be a screenwriter grappling with imposter syndrome. The fictional Charlie Kaufman is much like the real Charlie Kaufman, neurotic, antisocial, analytical — while his brother, who never wrote a script in his life, buys into all the trappings of screenwriting gurus such as Robert McKee and finds instant success. 

It’s a satirical jab at conventional storytelling that inevitably spirals and devolves into the very conventions and tropes it criticizes. It’s a genius examination of what it takes, and how far one must go, in order to write the perfect story about a guy trying to write the perfect story.

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Released in the same month as Adaptation, and on New Year’s Eve no less, 2002 ended well for Kaufman with the release of George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The life rights to Chuck Barris’s wild story changed hands over the years. Kaufman was hired to write the film in 1997, two years before his big breakout premiere. Barris was the perfect character study for Kaufman, as he’s an unreliable narrator – one of Kaufman’s specialties. 

A lot of times when screenwriters are hired for these sorts of assignment jobs, they are paid to write screenplays that may stall for one reason or another. Months and years of hope can be dashed with a single detour. If you’re lucky, it does get beyond the millions of things that can go wrong and make it to production. 

After Clooney came on board, Kaufman’s original script was changed considerably. Many of his “funky scenes” were reworked entirely. He holds no animosity for the changes and understands the nature of the business. He was hired to write something, did, and from that point on it was out of his hands. 

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director Michel Gondry and co-writer Pierre Bismuth came up with the idea of erasing people’s memories after a friend agreed that she’d delete all memories of her ex-boyfriend. Gondry spoke with Kaufman about this idea, and they developed a pitch they were sure wouldn’t sell. The idea created a bidding war, but they stayed with a familiar face, Steve Golin of Propaganda Films, who had already produced Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

He might have been feeling a little burned out because he postponed the writing of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind until after he finished his prior three screenplays. He was a busy man and pressure mounted. Not to mention that Christopher Nolan had just released Memento, which worried Kaufman because it also dealt with memory. Contractually bound, he got to work but struggled through it.

Two main problems faced him, how to access and layer the memories in a way where the story remained cohesive. He solved the issue by making the protagonist conscious of the degrading memories. After all, memories fade — they don’t just disappear with a snap. A complete reset would occur upon waking. By observing how the human brain functions, he was able to fix a major plot issue. We can often look to nature for lessons to apply to our writing.

Charlie Kaufman would win his first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, sharing the Story by credit with Gondry and Bismuth.

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Synecdoche, New York

Further blending the lines of fiction and reality, Synecdoche, New York marked Kaufman’s directorial debut after Spike Jonze became engrossed in making Where the Wild Things Are. The two filmmakers were approached to make a horror film. True to his nature, Kaufman explored what scared him most — the mind of an ailing man.

Theater director Caden Cotard’s life falls apart when his family leaves him. His body is equally failing him. The protagonist’s last name is a nod to Cotard’s delusion or syndrome, named after neurologist Jules Cotard, who studied psychiatric cases of patients who suffered from the delusional belief that they were dead or did not exist. From the jump, Kaufman is pointing to one of the main themes.

Much of Kaufman’s work resembles nesting dolls, where he peels away layers or deconstructs the story like an unpacking of thoughts. A common motif he likes to explore is writing hyper-realism that dances along the edges of surrealism. This script perfectly captures the meta nature of his plays within plays, also called mise en abyme. As Cotard burrows more inwardly, the world he creates becomes more real while the outside world falls away. His work becomes more important than the real world.

It’s an interesting exploration of the deterioration of one’s mental state as one obsesses over their work and age. It’s cool to see how Kaufman is able to make an 8×10 blank canvas come alive with simply the words on the page.

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Anomalisa

Building strong relationships within the industry is key to anyone’s success. You never know when someone you’ve worked with or have known for years will reach out with an opportunity.

Kaufman had been working as a freelancer for a few years after Synecdoche, working on rewrites, pilots, and feature assignments. That’s when a former colleague from The Dana Carvey Show, Dino Stamatopoulos, reached out to Kaufman about adapting the audio stage play, Hope Leaves the Theater, which Kaufman wrote in 2005. 

Reluctant at first because he wasn’t sure if the drama would transfer well from stage to animation, he relented. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Kaufman agreed to co-direct the film with Duke Johnson, who had experience working with stop motion animation on shows like Community. The film pretty much stayed the same from the audio stage play and the original cast returned to reprise their roles.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel of the same name that was released in 2020 on Netflix. It’s a psychological thriller with a strong lean into horror. Again, it deals with themes about the line between reality and delusion. As with many of his characters, Kaufman likes to play with the reliability of the narrator. It starts slow, with dialogue about the philosophy that strikes at the heart of the story.

Jake

That’s why I like road trips. It’s always good to remind yourself that the world is larger than the inside of your own head. Y’know?

Young Woman

(tapping her temple)

Perspective.

If you want to see how Kaufman incorporates dialogue sequences from multiple media sources within the characters’ world (radio and tv hosts), read the first ten pages. We’re given information that the young woman in the car is planning on ending the relationship while Jake seems to be trying super hard to impress her. 

As readers, our expectations automatically become set on this issue, and we know they’re going to have to confront it at some point. So when things really start to get weird once they arrive at his parents’ house, we’re already primed to be shocked by the misdirection.

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Despite all his success, Kaufman still feels the effects of imposter syndrome. He’s always questioning his work, the world, his role in it. He’s analytic and obsessive. He’s a perfectionist and perhaps that’s why he’s able to write unbelievably complex concepts with crystal clear clarity. Still, he has speculated on his inability to capitalize off his initial success, despite standing out as perhaps one of the most innovative screenwriters to ever type THE END

Scripts from this Article