Every writer has their own style, which, if you are planning to write professionally, is a style someone must be willing to pay for. You want to be original – to prove your imaginatorial uniqueness – but it would be sensible not to go overboard.
ASPIRING COMEDY WRITER: “Everyone writes across the page. I like to start at the top right corner and write diagonally down to the bottom left.”
My professional assessment: An unhelpful deviation from the norm.
ASPIRING COMEDY WRITER: “You didn’t think it was funny?”
POTENTIAL EMPLOYER: “We don’t know. We couldn’t read it.”
Of course, I am not speaking of the way you literally write things on paper; that was a – hopefully humorous – allusion. Which coincidentally reflects an element – perhaps the dominating element – of my writing style – a combination of absurdity – nobody would submit a diagonally-configured writing sample – and identifiable reality – nobody would be able to read it if they did.
The preceding is a substantial portion of what I do – blending the observed with the ridiculous. There was, at least in a classic novel and imaginably in real life an actual “Last of the Mohicans.” There is no evidence, however, that they assiduously rejected sitting near open windows to avoid health-endangering drafts.
I made that part up for a long-ago blog post. Though it is hardly an illogical supposition. Being the last surviving Mohican, you would reasonably want to protect your physical wellbeing. Whether that intention evolved in into “Chronic Hypochondria”… that is – hopefully again – the “funny part.”
I did pretty well with my style of comedy and I have no complaints. Although at times, I had difficultly justifying its pecuniarial significance. Okay so I have one complaint.
When the Best of the West pilot was picked up for series, due primarily to a sensational “show night” – I’ll tell you how successful it was; the audience responded so enthusiastically that ABC, whose president reportedly hated the project, immediately abandoned their objections and ordered the series. (It took a year to finally get on the air but we made it.)
With the show scheduled for broadcast, it was now time to talk serious turkey:
How much would they pay me to work on Best of the West?
Here it gets somewhat complicated. Although Best of the West was my unilateral creation, since it was my first time in that position, I was assigned a team of more experienced overseers to run the actual production. A team, which, without informing me ahead of time, appropriated the series’ “ownership credit”. (Okay, I have two complaints. Which for me is really not many.)
So there I am, negotiating with my bosses to work on a show I had originally created.
During the course of these negotiations, I am informed that my salary would be lower than expected because, it was explained to me,
“You don’t write jokes.”
(I do not know what that means but that was exactly how it felt – THUNK!)
Being at a distinct status disadvantage – and being non-combative by nature – I dutifully accepted what I was offered. Admittedly no small amount, but imagine if I could actually write jokes.
The truth is, I couldn’t. Being a “quick study” and wishing to survive in a joke-worshipping environment, I learned to imitate my superiors. But it was never natural to me. I was simply a talented mimic.
The thing is – and the idea occurred to me later, by which I mean years later – though it was “unconventional” comedy writing, something about that Best of the West pilot had made the audience laugh hard and the non-supportive network change its mind about airing it.
Who was it that wrote that pilot?
And however I had accomplished it, I had generated big laughs and gotten the show ordered for series.
The problem was, I had done it a different way.
A way they apparently paid less for.
Eschewing the traditional “setup-punchline” approach, I relied on assiduous observation mixed with a calculated infusion of comedic exaggeration.
Elvira, the pampered Southern Belle, marries ex-Union civil war officer Sam Best (whom she had met when he burned her family’s plantation to the ground) and, along with Sam’s son Daniel (who abhors the West because he realizes, anticipating Seth MacFarlane by a hundred and-fifty-years, that there are a million ways to die out there) the three find themselves living in a rudimentary sod house in frontier Wyoming.
While Sam and Daniel dispute Sam’s decision to move the family into “harm’s way”, Elvira frantically attacks the cabin’s floor with a homemade broom. Distracted by her frustrated activity, an exasperated Sam says,
“Elvira, will you stop sweeping, please?”
To which she responds,
“Sorry, Sam. I just can’t seem to get the dirt off this floor.”
To which Sam exasperatedly explains,
“Elvira, it’s a dirt floor.”
The line got a big laugh from the studio audience and “positive mention” in subsequent reviews. Where did it come from? Poring over the Time-Life series of books entitled “The Old West”, I discovered that many of the original sod houses had dirt floors.
With this in mind, I constructed a joke grounded in verifiable reality.
It got one of the loudest responses of the evening.
I also read that a lot of the time, due to faulty manufacturing, the ubiquitous pistols did not always work the way they were supposed to – they frequently blew up or shot sideways.
That historical tidbit triggered – sorry about that – a climactic gunfight in which the two combatants hit everything but each other.
That one got an even bigger reaction than the “dirt floor.”
Those moments – and others like it – rooted in reality rather than writerly “one-liners”, unquestionably sold that series. And yet, that style was adjudged to rate an inferior paycheck. Looking back – and then too but I was too timidly tongue-tied to articulate it – that does not exactly seem right.
I would love to renegotiate my contract.
But that was thirty-five years ago.
It may possibly be too late.