Writing Great Dialogue – Use of One-Liners in the Comedy Film “Defending Your Life”

Writing great dialogue is key to the preparation of a successful screenplay. This is especially true for comedies. In particular, the use of one-liners in screenplay dialogue works very well with witty statements in a comedy screenplay. This was especially true in the 1991 comedy/fantasy/drama film entitled “Defending Your Life.” The screenplay was written by Albert Brooks, and he directed the film, as well. He also stars in the movie (as Daniel Miller) along with Meryl Streep (as Julia).

This screenplay is about Daniel Miller who dies in an automobile accident. As he arrives in Judgment City, he enters a waiting room where he then awaits having to defend the life he lived on earth and whether or not he is worthy of moving forward. If he is not able to defend his life before the court of judgment and provide convincing evidence that he did not live a life ruled by fear, he will have to return to earth and live it all over again. However, during his time in Judgment City, he meets Julia and falls in love with her.

During Julia’s trial, the court is amazed by how she rescued helpless children as well as a pet cat life from a building that was on fire. Hence, she impresses the court and is most likely going to move onto the next place in the afterlife. Not wanting to be separated from Julia, Daniel Miller does all he can (as his life is replayed back on a large motion picture screen) to convince the court he effectively overcame his fears while he lived on earth. (Internet Movie Database, 2010).

The screenplay dialogue used in the comedic film “Defending Your Life” was hysterical. Albert Brooks has endless one-liners that make you laugh, laugh, and laugh again. The interesting part of his character was that he delivered his funny statements in a serious manner. Then, when Meryl Streep responds in an unusually strange way by not laughing at his funny comments, it makes the comedy all the more funny.

The funniest part of the movie (although I must admit there were countless ones) was the dialogue that Brooks had when he was defending his life before the court based upon his snowmobile story (e.g., the “wet dog” smell of the seat covers, etc.). I also enjoyed the dialogue in his conversation at the Sushi Bar when the chefs repeated in a brief, loud, and happy manner everything the customers said.

This movie proves that comedy is very much wrapped up in the conversation of the actors. For example, when Brooks’ prosecutor came into the restaurant and saw him eating dinner with Meryl Streep, he got all nervous and scared. In response to her admonition to “Relax” because they were just having dinner, I laughed when Brooks responded, “She’s gonna be eating a residence portion while I’m over here eating a fishing boat.”

As noted in the Wikiquote Website for “Defending Your Life: Dialogue,” examples of one-liner dialogue excerpts from the film are as follows:

Excerpt #1:
Jeep Owner: I like this car.
Daniel Miller: It’s not a car, it’s a battering ram. This is what Patton drove: “Hey you, soldier! Follow us!”
Jeep Owner: Make fun, but in an 8.5 earthquake, you’ll beg for a Jeep.
Daniel Miller: In an 8.5 earthquake, I’ll beg for a coffin.

Excerpt #2:
Bob Diamond: For example, I use forty-eight percent of my brain. Do you know how much you use?
Daniel Miller: Forty… seven?
Bob Diamond: [laughs] Three.

Excerpt #3:
Club Comedian: And you sir. How did you die?
Daniel Miller: On stage, like you.

Excerpt #4:
Lena Foster: What did you finally invest in, Mr. Miller, do you remember?
Daniel Miller: [under his breath] Um, uh… cattle.
Lena Foster: And what happened to the cattle?
Daniel Miller: I don’t know; I never got a straight answer. All I know is that their teeth fell out.

Lesson Learned: The one-liners interspersed throughout the dialogue of the screenplay for “Defending Your Life” was the source of the film’s great success. The dialogue in this film is good example of a successful, humorous screenplay. Hence, the use of one-liners throughout a script dialogue is a well-proven approach for screenwriters to adhere to when writing a screenplay for a comedy film.

Internet Movie Database (IMDB). “Defending Your Life.” Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101698/ on 13 June 2010.

Wikiquote (2010). “Defending Your Life: Dialogue.” Retrieved from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Defending_Your_Life on 13 June 2010.