This post is not about group identity. Although in a certain way it is. (Nothing like building suspense with some perplexing ambiguity.)
I was invited to participate in a lunch gathering with four other writers, arranged by a writer I have known for twenty years whose father I once went to High School with. The four other included writers, all highly regarded, were unilaterally a generation my junior.
I had credits older than a couple of them.
I was delighted to be participating in that lunch. It was wonderful fun. And a welcome respite from dining with people my own age. Two hour lunch, there wasn't a single mention of doctors or medicine.
(Whereas with my contemporaries, we have to deliberately put a “time limit” on such conversations or they will dominate the agenda till the check arrives. And continue on the way out to the car.)
So here’s what I learned about myself during that lunch.
It may not be true of writers two generations my junior, but with these guys, I could still feel like we were speaking the same language. Their opinions, experiences and observations, if not always matching my own – I at least knew what they were talking about.
As opposed to, say, some of the writers in their 20’s and 30’s speaking ”First Person” in The Daily Show – The Book that I am currently plowing through who often speak in an undecipherable dialect most accurately identifiable as… young.
You remember how when you read Shakespeare in high school you had to look in the “lexicon” to find out what “Odds bodkin” meant? Well similarly, with some of their generationally-derived modes of expression, I craved the helpful assistance of external clarification. I thought I knew English, but I apparently only know “old English.” (As opposed to “Olde English” which is even older than mine.)
At our lunch, one writer – the one who had graciously organized the occasion and had kindly and generously included me – spoke about working for the past two years or so on series produced and broadcast – if they still say that – on Amazon, an experience he attested he thoroughly enjoyed, particularly the comparative – to network television – lack of “outside interference.”
He wondered, in fact, if, having tasted unlimited creative independence, he would be able – or even willing – to work for the more constricting “Major Television Networks” again.
His speculation led me reflexively to an oft repeated – but would once more really hurt? – recollection/slash/rant. Piggy-backing on the writer’s concern about returning to an opposing environment, I rotely related,
“Bill Cosby used to say, ‘Working on this show will make it impossible for you to work anywhere else.”
What he meant, I went on to explain, was that writing in the Cosbyesque patois of “observational comedy” would make it very difficult to return to the traditional “setup-punchline” formulation of virtually every other situation comedy on television. (Including the best ones, like Cheers.)
I retold this thirty year-old anecdote, making minimal effort to disguise which mode of sitcom writing I myself personally preferred.
Having endured this snooty sermon before – as we’d had numerous similar lunches in the past – a writer at the table – a respected professional and superior joke writer – reminded me that audiences consistently enjoyed “joke driven” offerings, which, in the end, was simply an alternative method of confecting a comedy.
Comedy, his reaction reminded me, came in more than one package. And so, concomitantly, did comedy writers.
A short digression (rationalizing my prejudice without asking for forgiveness.)
Throughout my career, but especially at the beginning when I was “climbing the ladder”, even though I had garnered demonstrable laughs with my “observational” approach especially during the enthusiastically received Best of the West pilot, I was regularly chastised – and concomitantly paid less – because, as was repeatedly thrown directly into my face,
“You can’t write jokes.”
My detractors were undeniably correct. I could reliably get laughs – which went curiously unmentioned during contract negotiations – but I could not – or was at least unable to consistently – write jokes.
Is there any wonder then that I harbored – and frequently verbalized – an angry hostility towards joke writing?
Well, acknowledges this blogster, in a reflective posture consistent with advancing longevity…
I was wrong.
Good is good, and bad is bad. And no style has a monopoly on either.
One last nagging consideration.
It’s a weird thing, a sort of “chicken and egg” proposition. What comes first, do you think? – one’s aesthetic preference for a certain style of comedy writing or one’s awareness that that style of comedy writing is the one you are inherently able to produce?
It seems more than a coincidence – and also shamefully self-serving – that the style you like most is the style you can naturally deliver. Barring such a coincidence, how exactly does this happen? Do you do what you like? Or do you like what you do?
This murky mystery may be ultimately unsolvable. But I’ll tell you what isn’t.
My reaction to good writers whose style differs discernibly from my own.
Though I may undeniably harbor a preference,
Quoting the great Bang The Drum Slowly,
“From now on, I rag on nobody.”
If I can possibly recall not to.
(This conclusion sounds suspiciously familiar to me. I wonder if I have written it before. And have therefore not fully internalized that lesson.)