Monday, April 26, 2010

"Searching For My Voice (Again) - Part Two"

There are going to be three parts. I can’t help it. It’s the “Rule of Threes.” It’s in stone.

I’m searching for my voice in an arena beyond the boundaries of where I normally work. After a number of years, maybe seven, I found my voice in half-hour comedy. It’s a strong and (relatively) confident voice. (A lot more confident than my “inner weightlifting voice.”)

My “inner comedy voice” works as a sounding board. I imagine something funny, and I test it against that voice. If that “something funny” passes the “inner comedy voice” test – which in comedy means it makes me laugh – I put it in the script. If it doesn’t, I let it go, and keep trying.

I trust my “inner comedy voice.” I’ve relied on it for thirty years, and it got me a house.

But what happens when I try a different arena? How will my “inner comedy voice” help me in that situation?

Answer: It’s pretty much useless.

Let me be clear here. I’m not saying we only have one voice. We express ourselves in many voices, or more precisely unless we have multiple personalities, various shadings of the same voice. Why the shadings? Because there’s social etiquette involved. Understood, if unwritten, expectations. I’m not talking about “indoor voice” and outdoor voice”; that’s just about volume, or maybe volume and intensity.

I’m talking about the way we verbally relate to people. Different people – your drinking buddies versus, say, your rabbi – different voices. You may even use different “voices” with the same person, for example, when talking to your rabbi in synagogue versus encountering him at a ball game.

It’s a different situation. In one place, he’s wearing an embroidered yarmulke and holding a prayer book; in the other place, he’s wearing a Dodgers cap and holding a (hopefully all beef) hot dog. He’s not exactly the same guy.

It’s natural to make “voice” adjustments. It’s like appropriate wardrobe. You don’t wear a bathing suit to a funeral, unless, maybe, a swimmer died. It’s not like you’re behaving falsely. You’re simply acceding to the rules. And avoiding getting “those looks.”

Still, there are places where, for me at least, my “inner voice”, in whatever shading, comes up disappointingly empty. When I worked at Universal Studios, I once shared an office suite with a guy who wrote one-hour police dramas. I have never written a police drama. Which I self-consciously expressed to my office-mate this way:

“In my entire writing career, I have never once used the word ‘careening.’”

You can ad to that list, “Shot’s fired” and “Read that dirt bag his rights.”

Okay, let’s stop there. “Read that dirt bag his rights”, to me, is funny. It feels like a parody of police drama dialogue. (And there is evidence that it is. I’ve been advised by a talented writer friend that you would only hear dialogue like that on bad police dramas.)

The problem is, working on my own, I am in no way certain whether that, or any other line of dialogue, is on the money, or not up to snuff. Why? Because I don’t have a reliable sounding board, no determining “inner police drama voice” directing me to put the line in, or leave the line out. I’d be totally in the dark.

I once imagined a police drama “rewrite” session, similar to the ones that regularly took place on half hour comedies. Lacking a personal police drama “quality gauge”, I would have no basis for knowing whether my suggested revisions were an improvement, a lateral move sideways, or whether, in fact, I was making the script worse.

Here then is my impression of a police drama rewrite session:

The suspect’s car careens blindly around the corner. The suspect loses control, his vehicle crashing into a parked car – no, a van – no, a fire hydrant. The suspect bolts from his vehicle and runs – hotfoots it – races down the street. A squad car screeches to a halt. Two officers emerge from their vehicle and yell, “Police!” as they unholster their guns – no, pistols, no, firearms.

Disregarding the warning, the suspect continues down the street. Shots are fired, one catching the suspect in the shoulder, wait, the butt, no, that’s too funny, in the ankle. That’s good, the ankle. The suspect falters, but continues running – wait, he was shot – limping…away.

Suddenly, a woman holding a baby – that’s terrible – an elderly couple, no, a blind man with a dog, emerge from a convenience store, no, a pharmacy, no, a bodega. Using the bystanders as a human shield, the suspect slowly backs away, unaware that officers are approaching from the opposite direction. The officers yell, “Don’t move!”, no ,“Hold it right there!”, no, ‘Freeze!’ Realizing that escape is futile, the suspect reluctantly drops his gun – knife – switchblade – canister of poisonous gas – no, gun – and surrenders.

“Read the dirt bag his rights.”

That’s terrible, right? Too cliché? I mean, it “connects the dots” okay. The guy runs away and they catch him. It gets the job done. But it’s crap. I think. Could I do it better? I’m not entirely sure I could. And it’s not because of a lack of experience. My “inner voice” is of absolutely no help.

Because my “inner voice” is for comedy.

It’s okay. I never wanted to write drama. (And I wasn’t writing drama there, just stupid stage directions. I’d be too embarrassed to simulate my version of dramatic dialogue.)

It isn’t important to me to be able to write drama, any more than it’s important for me to be able to draw, without people constantly saying, “What’s that?”

The problem arises when I want to try a different arena, say, like writing a commentary for a serious political blog like, and I can’t connect with a reliable “inner voice” to show me the way. That’s when it gets frustrating. And a little upsetting.

So upsetting that I put off writing about it for another day.


growingupartists said...

You nail comedy, Earl. Never seems to me you can't tell the distinction between good and bad humor. Oftentimes you use bad humor to everyone's entertainment. Stand taller Earl!

michelle said...

my inner voice is like my outer voice, isn't it? it doesn't speak without direction. it's not the source of what's said, but a vehicle and an amplifier for the source. you taught me that the best funny has to come from what's real. so does the best drama, and commentary, and email for that matter. (not tweets though. that's just noise)

you lead with funny. you've won awards for funny. but funny is what you're used to letting out. it's not all that's in there, or the funny would be selfish and narrow, not thoughtful and resonant; keeping me focused on you, not allowing me to see myself.

this blog is a generous gift. you are a generous gift of a man who happens to be really funny.

A. Buck Short said...

Pretty sure the forensic term for your writing procrastination is, in fact, also "freezing." I'm still waiting for the scene where the "perp" is finally under control and in cuffs. To get him over to the squad car the arresting officer now commands, "OK, thaw. And watch your head."

Sure it's hard getting into the game late; there are only so many Goldmans and Saches to go around. You can do it.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to heartily second what michelle wrote. There's much more to you, Earl, than just funny. Besides, why does political commentary need to be serious. Couldn't you make your points and still be funny? Try using Uncle Grumpy's voice.

Max Clarke said...

I appreciate your problem finding your voice for this Politics Daily commentary, Earl, but you'll find a way to write it well. Politicians are a permanent source of humor. They are always doing something so ridiculous, it makes you laugh even if it's straight news.

Why not take a look at the work of Art Buchwald. He was funny for decades, it didn't matter who was in power. He created fictional characters and put them into his satires of governments and corporations.

Or you could put real public figures into stories. A bit like Saturday Night Live.

Harry Shearer is also a good source. His Le Show had some great fictional conversations between President Bush 41 and President Bush 43. It helped that Harry did great impersonations of each Bush.
The premise of those episodes was a phone call between President George W. Bush and his dad.

There's a blog in which a journalist assumes the character of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. It's Fake Steve. It's mean a lot but also funny a lot.

Or maybe create your own fictitious news network, Earl, and write the news from that point of view. If you aren't happy with the state of current news or media, that would be a way to get your points across.

I would avoid doing a serious commentary, though, there's enough of that. Just look at the website for the Drudge Report. Their list of commentary writers is in the dozens, but they aren't funny.