Okay, folks. I’m givin’ it away. A one-time offer. For today only, I am benching my fiercely competitive impulses to reveal to all and sundry the secret of how to be a better writer than I am, or ever was. No build-up. No pussyfooting around. No beating around the bush. (Except for those last three sentences.) I’m getting right to it.
A fundamental obstacle to becoming the best writer they can be is that writer’s obsessive compulsion to elicit laughter. The obligation to deliver comedically may provide you with a rewarding career, but the price for that unilateral focus is your ability to communicate on all creatively expressional cylinders.
It’s not that you make a deliberate choice here. It’s not, “I know it will cost me that, but I’m committed to doing this.” What it’s more like is, “I feel uncomfortable working in those other creatively-expressional modalities – an opaque euphemism for “expressing certain emotions” – so I’m sticking exclusively to comedy.”
This is hardly an unreasonable adaptation. You look around, and you think, “I can’t dunk, and I can’t drive a car. The only way I can get any attention is by being funny.
No problemo. “Make way for the ‘Belly Laugh Express!’”
Not the worst solution, when you think about it. It’s a lot better than “I can’t dunk, and I can’t drive. I think I’ll get attention by setting myself on fire.” Comedy is (comparatively) painless to the provider, and as an attention-getter, it reliably does the trick.
The liability of comedy is that, as an avenue of communication, it is seriously limiting. Marketed as “Captain Comedy”, you cannot write anything incapable of delivering a “Ha ha” at the “Finish Line.” Everything else, by process of elimination, is eliminated by the process.
Comedy’s great at other things. For example, comedy can be a wonderful encapsulator of an original thought. I heard the great social satirist Will Rogers once say in one of his movies, “Americans are great at helping people who don’t live close to them.”
When I heard that, my head started to explode. Not only had I not heard that insight articulated so succinctly before, I had never heard it articulated at all! What Rogers offers is a rib-tickling expression of the contradiction between Americans generously opening their hearts and wallets to far-away tsunami victims, and their Scroogian close-fistedness toward the person down the street who has just lost their job.
Comedy can memorably crystallize an idea. But it is traditionally less successful with feelings. Other than aggression. A student mercilessly mimics the dictatorial Vice Principal, and their schoolmates crack up, reveling in this welcome recess from their collective victimhood. (Until they discover that, throughout the performance, Herr Kreever has been standing directly behind them.)
Comedy can hilariously deflate pomposity, the “Upper Class Snooty Guy” slipping on a banana peel, or Larry David doing almost anything. Comedy can turn the tables on an insulting aggressor, the classic example being Pee Wee Herman’s resonating, “I know I am, but what are you?” Comedy can also be a medicating distraction. See: Every situation comedy on television.
Comedy, in its darkest form, can additionally be helpful with unhandleable pain.
There’s a joke where, at a burial at a cemetary, a person comes up to a very old man and inquires, “If you don’t my asking, how old are you?” The old man reveals, “I am ninety-seven years old.” To which the person replies, “Well, there’s not much use in your going home then, is there?”
But as a medium for other difficult emotions – humiliation, uncontrollable rage and shame come to mind, oh yeah, and bottomless love – that’s not what comedy’s meant for. It is generally more a deflection from those emotions.
It’s not that comedy can’t be an essential part of the mix. The writing is unquestionably better when it is. Check out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Virginia Woolf minus the acerbic repartee is just a husband and wife tearing each other apart. The play ascends to classic status due to the deliciously modulated blend.
But comedy by itself? For laughter? Yes. Intellectual insight? Sometimes. But for emotional catharis? You’re pretty much knocking on the wrong door.
A complete writer uses the entire pallet.
Writers who don’t can be good at their level.
But they will always be looking up.
Tomorrow: Another limitation that keeps me from being a better writer, but in that case, I’m not certain I’m unhappy about it.