Friday, April 25, 2014

"Answering Wendy M. Grossman"

What is this, “Letters Week?”

It appears to be.  Though I am simply going with the flow.  (And I’ve been criticized for not being spontaneous.  Ha!)

In response to a response of mine concerning I no longer remember what, reader Wendy M. Grossman – and I thank you for your patronage – writes:

“I guess the obvious question is can you still write characters like yourself when they do things that embarrass or scare you?... So if you are writing characters who are close to you, do you have the problem of a protective instinct kicking in or are you able to let them crash to the ground if that’s what they’re going to do?”

Various thoughts come to mind in response to Wendy’s question.  Clearing the underbrush before wading into the jungle:

“Can you still write characters like yourself when they do things that embarrass or scare you?”

Answer:  Allow me to divide that question into two parts.  I can write about characters that embarrass me, because, in real life, I am not (at least not retrospectively) ashamed of being embarrassed.  As a regular reader, Wendy, you have seen me express embarrassing opinions (though I have kept a couple of the “doozies” to myself) and seen me admit to behaviors that were decidedly less than commendable.  (A recent e.g.:  I abandoned Major Dad after producing its twenty-second and, I had been led to understand, season-ending episode and decamped to a health spa, even though the network order was expanded to twenty-six episodes.  My “Finest Hour”, that was not.)

I can therefore write embarrassing moments for my characters because I am not neither unfamiliar nor uncomfortable with that unfortunate emotion.  As for “scary”, I do not recall a situation where I wrote a character who was legitimately frightened.  “Nervous and anxious”, absolutely.  But, for me, comedy and “really scared” have never inhabited the same venue.  (Of course, there is always “funny-scared” – see almost any movie starring Abbott and Costello – but I never wrote for Abbott and Costello – I was too young which is possible even for me – nor for anyone else in comedic jeopardy.)

My next point, I shall excavate more deeply on another occasion, perhaps even tomorrow.  But for today, responding to Wendy’s

“….do you have the problem of a protective instinct kicking in or are you able to let {your characters} crash to the ground if that’s what they’re going to do?”

This question appears premised on the idea of “failing” being a negative, and that I would consequently want to insulate my characters from it, either because I am proprietary on those characters’ behalf, or because my characters are a reflection of “me” and portraying their failure may be disquietingly “too close to home.”


Answer:  As I am no stranger to embarrassment, I am at least equally if not even more familiar with failure.  Although I shall delve into failure in greater depth anon, let me simply assert here that though “handling failure” is measurably “Light Years” from my shiningest attribute, my difficulties in that department have never kept me from examining the issue in my scripts.  (With hopes of possibly learning something.)  (And also, we should remember, comedy is virtually entirely about failure.  Deleting “failure” from the “play list” leaves you with successful people who aren’t funny.  “How did that work out for you?”  “Magnificently.”   Where’s the big “ha-ha” in that?)

Here’s the thing, and, as with “failure”, it probably deserves a blog post of its own, but I am not busy, so I’ll keep going.

One of the great distinctions between the “new” and “old” comedy is that the line has been moved concerning “what’s acceptable to say”, and whether you as a comedian are willing to say it. 

Starting with Richard Pryor (with a nod to Lenny Bruce and Professor Irwin Corey), the boldest practitioners ventured uninhibitedly into areas other comedians steered scrupulously clear of, feeling either too uncomfortable themselves or fearing they would make their audiences uncomfortable, therefore failing at their intended goal of entertaining them and summarily getting fired.

Taking one recent example of “The New Comedy”, judging from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David appears to be almost entirely shameless, and, as a result of his apparent shamelesness, comedically liberated.  (At this point, though the narrative requires it, I am too uncomfortable to offer examples.  I suggest we go “interactive” at this point, and you fill in with examples of Curb Your Enthusiasm taste-barrier obliterators of your own.)

“But Earlo,” you say, “you are confusing ‘Larry David’ the ‘comedic construct’ with Larry David the actual person.”

Am I?  (He replied skeptically.)

Who made those ideas up, or at least approved them when they were proposed by one of his writers?  And who went in front of the camera and delivered that material?  And what was the name of that “comedic construct”?

The answer to all three: 

Larry David.

The less you feel required to conceal – that the regular person reflexively conceals – the more “cutting edge” funny you can be.  As long as there’s “taboo” – and comedians willing to “go there” – there will continue to be comedy.  We hit “Anything goes”, however, and all bets are off.  The Supreme Court sanctions “inter-species marriage”, and it is “Game Over” for comedy.  (Though there will always be “Take my ewe – please!”)

Which is not exactly what Wendy was asking about but it peripherally came to mind.

Overall, in response to your question, Wendy:  I do not protect my characters.  I primarily protect myself.

Did that inhibit my writing ability?

Within my range, I was pretty good.  But, in retrospect, I may have left too much of the playing field to Larry David.

And perhaps I still do.


Frank Paradise said...

For embarrassing episodes you can't beat George's mother catch him doing "you know" with a Glamour magazine.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I appreciate the lengthy answer to my question and apologize for not having the chance to say so sooner.

The reason it occurred to me was simply that I remember reading some advice to writers that you should save your protective instincts for the people you care about in your life and allow all manner of miseries to happen to your characters. Since you sound like a kindly sort of person, it just occurred to me to wonder if you found it at all difficult.

You have given me thoughts to chew on, a high compliment.