The Major Line In When Harry Met Sally You Probably Didn't Know Was Improvised

Improvisational comedy in film can be an incredibly tricky tactic to use. If the film is built around improv, such as the entirely improvised mockumentaries from Christopher Guest, they can create bizarre, wholly unique, hilarious moments that may never have made it into a script, and here we are thinking about them decades later. At the height of Judd Apatow-produced comedies, improv could incite plenty of laughs but also make the film come to a screeching halt, spending endless minutes on riffs that would go nowhere and would not serve the story in any way. If the film is not entirely constructed around improv, you better make sure the people involved have complete awareness of the film's characters for it to actually create lasting, impactful comedy. In recent years, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were one of the few consistently successful people who could implement improvisation in a natural way, making their creative split even more sad.

Being able to come up with a line as funny as one written by one of the greatest comedy writers of the last 50 years is an even tougher task. Nora Ephron's Oscar nominated screenplay for "When Harry Met Sally ... " (don't forget that ellipsis) still reigns as one of the finest entries in the romantic comedy genre. It is filled to the brim with iconic joke after iconic joke, and for me, it is an annual New Year's Eve rewatch. So someone else coming in to do some of their own punch up work on that script has a lot to live up to. As it turns out, the signature joke from "When Harry Met Sally ... " was not just an improvised line but a result of a beautiful collaboration between artists to create one of the most indelible comedy moments in cinema history.

"I'll Have What She's Having"

Chances are strong that the first scene you think about in the story of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) takes place in Katz's Deli, where Sally informs Harry that all women have faked orgasms during sex and openly demonstrates what that looks like in front of all the patrons. Over 30 years later, the scene is still gobsmacking in its boldness. But the key to the scene comes from the button, when we cut to an older woman in the deli who says to a waiter, "I'll have what she's having." It is the perfect cherry on top on the sundae, and every time it makes you laugh so hard that you miss what happens at the beginning of the next scene. This perfect line was not in Nora Ephron's screenplay but improvised by Billy Crystal. That being said, a lot of decisions had to be made in order to create the right circumstance for Crystal to be able to come up with that scene capper.

According to the commentary with director Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron, and Billy Crystal, the origins of that scene came during the development stages of the screenplay because they needed a scene where Harry learned something about women that men didn't know. Ephron suggested the notion that women fake orgasms. Reiner did not believe that this happened and ended up asking all the women in the Castle Rock production company office if it was true, which of course it was. This was probably a flagrant human resources violation, but it happened. When reading and rehearsing the screenplay, it was Meg Ryan who suggested that the conversation happen in a public place and that she demonstrate a faked orgasm. It was then that Crystal came up with the famous line, and Rob Reiner knew exactly who should deliver it: his mother Estelle Reiner.

Watching the film, this scene feels as natural and easy as a cinematic moment could feel. It is the only way that scene could have been made. You have no idea how much thought and collaboration between people had to occur in order for you to uproariously laugh the way you did. The Katz's Deli scene perfectly demonstrate how no film is just the product of one person. Peopll looking to achieve the same artistic goal, who listen and react to one another with an open mind, make the best films. You cannot attribute the success of that scene to only the director, writer or even the star who came up with that memorable line. Everyone involved is responsible.

Too Much Pepper on My Paprikash

"I'll have what she's having," is nowhere near the only improvised moment in the film. One of my favorites is a scene between Harry and Sally at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which Harry begins using a funny voice to talk with Sally, saying things like "Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash." Crystal and Reiner wanted to implement the idea that couples sometimes have a weird voice they use to talk to each other sometimes. They purposefully did not tell Meg Ryan that Crystal was going to use this voice and say a bunch of weird things. She just had to lock in and improvise the scene along with him. There is even an instant, which you can see above, where Ryan looks off camera to Rob Reiner for a brief second to see if she is supposed to be going along with it. It is such a genuine moment between these two characters, created by actors who know those people inside and out, who can play any situation they are put in perfectly.

Way more of the film is improvised than you would think, including the tremendous "baby fish mouth" game of Pictionary. What makes this improv work so well is no one is improvising for the sake of showing off. Every moment created on the spot comes from enhancing what is already on the page. Nora Ephron's screenplay is already filled with a ton of jokes, but more importantly, she writes fully realized characters with inner lives that can exist in the world when they aren't on camera. You need that kind of structure and grounding to make improvisation effective, and "When Harry Met Sally ... " finds the exact right way to mix written and improvised jokes to create what truly is one of the greatest comedies of all time.