A framed black-and-white photograph hangs on the wall in my office, a photograph I received thirty years after it was taken. It’s a picture of me, age about twenty, dozing in front of the Camp Ogama Rec Hall, the place where we put on our shows. My eyes are closed, a pencil's dangling from my lips, and a script leans comfortably against my chest. If you wanted to caption that photograph, the inevitable label would be:
The signals were obvious when I studied that photograph thirty years after the fact. I was indisputably a writer. Amazingly, I had no idea at the time.
I should have known. In Third Grade, my teacher, Mrs. Knight, would drag me from classroom to classroom and make me stand on a chair, where I’d read aloud my latest story; one, I remember, was called Bugs Bunny and The Banana Factory. Hey, I was eight!
From age sixteen to twenty-one, I wrote camp musicals, inventing the scripts and putting original lyrics to songs I lifted from Broadway shows. I never thought there was anything special about it. It was just what I did.
Which reminds me of a kid in my High School math class named Tom Jefferson. (This name means nothing in Canada.) Tom always got a hundred in math, and I was in awe of his ability. Once, I said to him, “Tom, how do you get a hundred in math?” This is what Tom replied:
“Well, I just sort of …look at the questions and kind of…figure out the answers.”
Tom Jefferson was a natural in math. I was something like that in writing. At least, in writing comedy.
I’ll stop again to tell you something important. It’s kind of harsh, but it’s something you need to know. There’s a quirky, little movie called Funnybones, starring Oliver Platt and Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis plays a successful comedian; his son, Oliver Platt, is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. The problem is, the son is not funny. After bombing with his comedy act, Platt goes to Lewis for some fatherly advice. Jerry takes his son for a walk, where he lays things clearly on the line, telling him,
“There’s this thing called ‘Funnybones.’ You either have them or you don’t. You don’t.”
If you want to write comedy, make sure, make really sure, you have ‘Funnybones.’ ‘Funnybones’ are a prerequisite for writing comedy. Not that lacking ‘Funnybones’ means “Game Over” for your writing aspirations. I recently met a writer on the picket line who tried comedy without ‘Funnybones’ and didn’t make it. He went on to create one of the most successful dramas on network TV.
I keep getting sidetracked. The challenge with blogs is, with unlimited time and space, there’s a tendency to take too much of both. Also, I’m not sure what you want to hear.
When I was twenty-three, I was telling a story to some people during lunch. Afterwards, one of my lunch companions said to me, “If you write up that story, I think I can get it published in the newspaper.” Lacking both job and career aspirations – remember, I had no idea I was a writer – I decided to put the story on paper and submit it to the paper’s editor, who was my lunch companion’s friend.
I wrote another story to remind the editor about the first story. Nothing again. Then, I wrote a third story, to remind her about the first two stories. Again, nothing. Finally, the editor called.
“You’ve written three good stories,” she said.
“How would you like a weekly column?”
You know, it’s amazing. Just writing that sentence gave me “butterflies” all over again. I’m not a brave person. If someone had asked me to write a column before, I would certainly have said “No”, fearing my ability to come through on a weekly basis. In this case, I was already three stories ahead. So I said, “Yes.”
That weekly column was my first professional writing job. The paper allowed me to write about anything I wanted; in two years, only one story was ever rejected; it was about the Viet Nam War. I loved doing the column. I was paid was twenty dollars a column, which, over the years, rose gradually to fifty. I was writing in the sixties, and I called the column Where It’s Near. You know, not Where It’s At, but Where It’s… Hey, I was twenty-three!
I’d probably still be writing that column, but after two years, I was unexpectedly fired. A month later, the entire newspaper, the second biggest paper in Toronto, went out of business. I guess I was fired earlier with the hope that cutting my fifty-dollar salary would allow the paper to remain afloat, but it didn’t work out.
I think I’ll stop there. Next time, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you how I made the jump from Canada to Hollywood. Looking back, the success I achieved resulted from a mixture of talent, timing, determination and luck. It’s amazing, when I think about it, how it could very easily never have happened.