Thursday, January 27, 2011

"A Writer's 'Voice' Redux"

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but there are always new readers coming aboard, and they may have missed it.  Plus, I am writing in response to a Commenter’s question.  I get so few of these that, when a question comes along, I pounce on it, like a prisoner in “solitary” when the food shows up. 

Joe asks,

Is a writer’s “Voice” (in your opinion) something he acquires by training or is it something innate?  Who, in your opinion, are the writers who write (and by that I mean writer well) in more than one voice?

Okay.  Let’s tackle the second question first.  Looking back over my career, which involved primarily half-hour comedies, I have experienced a variety of comedic voices, but no single writer writing in more than one of them.  It is my belief that a comedy writer only has one voice.  There are two possibilities for that belief.  One is because it’s true.  And two is because I only have one voice.  And I’m speaking in it right now.

There is, however, the question of the strength of a writer’s voice, by which I mean its dominance.  Think about actors.  Consider, for example from the old days, people like John Wayne and Cary Grant.  They’re called “movies stars”, or “onscreen personalities”, as if to say, (READ WITH A SNOOTY, CONDESCENDING TONE) “They’re not really actors.  They’re just playing themselves.”

It’s not that easy.  Audiences were willing to shell out good money to watch these folks “just playing themselves” for half a century.  It may not have been acting, but they must have been doing something worth seeing.  Most people “just being themselves” are really boring.

Other actors, more recently, Ed Norton, for example, or in the old days, Sir Alec Guinness, seem to be nobody except the character they’re playing.  These people wear the mantle of “real actors.” 

What I say about that is this.  Both the “onscreen personalities” the “real actors”, in the specific choices they make, are speaking in their own voices.  The “real actor’s” voice is just quieter.       

When I was twenty-one and attending The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, I remember hearing myself pontificate,

“Nobody does ‘me’ better than me.”

There’s a converse side to that pronouncement, which is this: 

“This is all I can do.”

This latter evaluation of my abilities turned out to be correct, both as an actor, and later, as a writer.  My personal range is inordinately narrow, covering from the left side of me to the right side of me, and from the top of my head to the bottom of my shoes.  Or my socks, if I’m not wearing shoes.

We have now segued everso subtly from “voice” to “range.”  One voice, says I.  Range within that voice?  It varies.  I remember meeting a new writing team who were just starting on Cheers.   I said, “Where did you guys come from?”  The Jeffersons”, they replied.  My outside voice said, “Great!”  But inside, I went, “Huh?”  How do you write for Cheers when you wrote for The Jeffersons?

Range. 

Born from, first, having range, plus, hunger, desperation, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to get where you want to go.  I was never tested that way, because the first place I worked, The Mary Tyler Moore Company, was the place I wanted to go.  If, “working my way up”, I had been required to deploy my severely limited range on shows for which it was wildly unsuited, I’d have been back in Toronto faster than you can say, “I’d like to reapply to Law School.”

This circuitously brings me to Joe’s first question.  Is a writer’s “voice” innate?  Yes.  As innate as their face, though unlike your face, which is pretty much set after puberty, where, if you’re Jewish, you receive a prominent nose with a bump on it, your innate “voice” emerges gradually.  For two reasons.

One, before your voice can flourish, you need to pay your dues mastering the structural elements of the medium you have chosen to speak in.  This apprenticeship is invaluable.  You may have a first class automobile, but you are destined to get lost, if you don’t first take time to you study the map, to figure out where you’re going.

Second, when you start out, you’re generally working on someone else’s show, where the show runner, more than life itself, needs you to write, not in your voice, but in theirs, so to be a helpful staff member, that’s what you try to do.  It is only when you write your first pilot that your voice comes fully to the fore.  By then, hopefully you know how to write, you have a few miles on you to deepen your outlook, and you have the confidence to let your voice speak loudly and clearly. And, most excitingly,

Distinctively.

There is one group Joe didn’t ask about.  I will throw it in as a bonus.   These are:

The Writers Who Don’t Seem To Have A Voice.

They’re funny.  They’re professional.  They’re hardworking.  And, quite often, they’re extremely successful.  What these writers lack, which is a judgment but so be it, is any kind of unifying point of view.  Their intention is simply, “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

It would appear that it takes all kinds. 

And I will leave it at that.

4 comments:

Chuck Sigars said...

OK, now this prompts MY question.

Having missed The Larry Sanders Show in the early 90s (didn't have HBO) but having heard great things, when the first four seasons popped up on NetFlix Instant View last month I had a little Sanders marathon.

Have to say I was disappointed. Shandling was excellent, I thought, but at some point in the first season it seemed they moved from script to improv (a lot of which consisted of Rip Torn throwing in a bad word when things got slow). I could be wrong.

And suddenly, it got better. Tighter episodes, fleshier characters, better endings (instead of what looked like just freezing the frame when they reached 22 minutes and running credits).

Amazingly enough, this coincided with the name "Earl Pomerantz" scrolling by at the end.

So, my question, regardless of my dumb opinion about a particular show: Have you seen one specific writer's voice change the tone of a show with some seasons under its belt, for better or worse? Do you notice this, or look for it?

I always enjoy hearing what you have to say, at any rate, thanks.

Miles said...

This is probably very off-topic Earl, but hopefully you'll see it here...

Just wondering if you've watched the show "Men of a Certain Age"? What are your thoughts on it if you have? If you haven't... you may want to check it out, the humour reminds me very much of your style.

joe said...

This post has made another question pop into my head. At the end of your very kind and gracious reply you mentioned that subspecies of writer whom we'll call the "Make 'Em Laughers" or, to save some bandwidth and typing, MELs.

How accurate would it be to state MELs are like those baseball pitchers whose success is a function of throwing "heat?" (i.e., a practically supersonic fastball)

They may throw an outrageous number of wild pitches, they may not be able to place the ball within millimeters of their intended target, but, dammit, they can throw, even if they lack...er...control.

My thinking -- assuming this analogy of mine a) is in your opinion, correct and b) won't break down before it takes me where I want to go -- then is that a writing staff, like a pitching staff, needs some guys who can throw with finesse, some guys who can knuckleball, some guys who are closers, etc.

Jeff said...

Earl, how difficult is it for you (or any TV writer) to suspend disbelief? I'm catching up on "Dexter." In a scene from one of the episodes, a bad guy uses his cell phone to call and leave a message for another bad guy in Dexter's presence. Yet neither Dexter nor his detective buddies thinks to check the guy's cell phone to track down the guy's partner in crime. Does the writer of this episode figure viewers won't think about that--or does he just not care what the viewer might think?