Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Were there times in your career when you were having trouble writing and you needed some type of inspiration to help prime the “funny pump”?

Yes there were, Italics Man. And thank you for your interest.

Could you please tell us about it?

I will, since you asked me so nicely. Early in my career, though I’d given up my apartment in Toronto and had had my Mazda driven down to my apartment in Los Angeles – reflecting some confidence on my part that my career here was solidly established – I was still subject to the periodic waking nightmare of, “I don’t know how to do this!” I was certain I would shortly be returning to Canada, which would have been unfortunate, not to mention inconvenient, since my Mazda and my apartment were now down here.

I remember being given two weeks to write a script, and spending the first of those weeks doing nothing, and by “doing nothing”, I mean hugging my severely cramped-up belly and rocking back and forth as I stared, helpless, at an immobilizingly empty page. These crises in confidence were regular occurrences during my Mary Tyler Moore years, when I was contracted to write eight scripts per season. At those moments, the assignment seemed insurmountable. How do you write eight scripts when you are unable to pick up a pen?

The problem wasn’t writing; it was writing funny. I know drama writing is hard too – doing anything at a high level is hard – but during those episodes of agonizing self-absorption, I imagined it was a lot easier than writing comedy. In drama, you just put down what happens.

Say it’s a police drama:

The detectives drive down the street.

They park the car.

They get out.

They walk up to the house.

They ring the doorbell.

A guy (say his name is Markison) answers.

“Mr. Markison?”


“You’re under arrest.”

The detectives cuff Markison, while reading him his rights.

Like, how hard it that? Half a page, it took thirty seconds.

You write a police drama, you just write what they do.

Yuh duzzn’t have to make it funny!

I know that’s ridiculous, but, I’m tellin’ ya, my brain was on fire. In reality, my assignement that difficult. I had an outline. I know where the story was going. The problem was, my bosses were counting on me to make it hilarious.

And I was too freaked out to breathe!

After three days of torturing myself in various ways, including visiting the Help Wanted section of the newspaper to investigate alternative careers – they seemed to need a lot of “Backhoe Operators”, which wouldn’t have been a good job for me, since I had no idea what a backhoe was – I decided to put myself in the mood by seeking inspiration from the funniest book I had ever read.

The plan was simple. The book’s funniness would get me in a funny mood, and that would get me started. Laughter breeding laughter. That was the concept. It was certainly better than my current situation – panic breeding knots in my stomach.

The funniest book I have ever read is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. When I lived in England, I had stolen a copy of it from a kiosk in the London Underground. I hadn’t meant to steal it, but the line to pay for it was long, and my train was coming. So I walked away, book in hand.

I remember convulsing with hysterics reading Catch-22 on the subway. Thunderclapping peals of uncontrollable laughter. Nervous passengers were changing their seats. Some actually changed cars.

An early laugh-inducer from the book:

A guy lying motionless in a hospital bed, sheathed entirely in bandages. A bottle hangs from a pole, delivering liquid nutrients through a feeding tube. A tube from his groin carries liquid waste to a second bottle. When the “feeding bottle” was empty and the “urine bottle” was full, the nurses simply switched the bottles and the process continued.

Catch-22 sparkled with many such sidesplitting set-pieces. I was certain re-reading them would release me from “panic mode” and unleash the funny impulse I knew I possessed.

I was comedically constipated. The book would be my…whatever you take for that.

I picked up Catch-22. I turned to the section I described above, eager for the welcome, and hopefully motivating, relief of laughter. I re-read the “guy in the bandages” scene.

It made me extremely sad.

Instead of laughing, I now felt terribly sorry for the guy in the bandages. I mean, that guy was really messed up! I quickly flipped to other remembered funny moments, and discovered that my reaction to them had been diametrically altered. The situations now seemed excruciatingly painful. I couldn’t believe I had found any of them funny before.

It was a devastating experience. The funniest book I had ever read had let me down. I had reached for a lifesaver and found it made out of lead.

Now what?

The first week of my scheduled writing period went by. Not a word on the page. The second week began.

I’d like to deliver an epiphany here, some celestial “Oooh-Ahhh!” moment that liberated me from my torment and miraculously got me going. What happened, in reality, was this. And I apologize if it feels like a letdown.

Sometime during the beginning of that second week, I simply sat myself down and I started to write.

Act One

Scene One

Fade In:

And off I went. Tentatively, at first, but then, following a detailed outline – crafted by myself but mostly by the show runners – I worked my way through it, building confidence as I proceeded.

By the end of the second week, accompanied by a “How did that happen?” feeling, it was done.

With no thanks to Catch-22, I had somehow completed my assignment. My inspiration, it turned out to my perpexitude, amazement and surprise,
was me.


Anonymous said...

Catch-22 is in my opinion one of the all-time funniest books ever.
The TIMING in it is amazing to me. I have probablt read it 12 times, and then 2 more translated into norwegian (seriously...I now live in Norway, and was amazed that even translated it was just as funny) and what gave me the creeps was as soon as George Bush Jr. got elected, what I took as total satire and parody...was our new reality.

That and a few books by Mark Twain, have moments where you just plain laugh out loud, on subways or wherever.

I can see where the book wouldn't be condusive to WRITING though...

A. Buck Short said...

No fair, everything's funnier in Norwegian. Like in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, where the Russian sub marine crew knocks on Carl Reiner's door and claim to be "NorWEEgans."

But wise move passing on the backhoe position. From what I understand the backhoes have to do certain things the fronthoes won't -- and sometimes it hurts -- even when the clients pay extra.

At least you had the outline. I would give anything to have even the most difficult or impossible premise given to me to develop, than to have to start with absolutely nothing at all. That's why it took two years to complete my thesus. The first year-and-a-half was just coming up with the topic. How about you?

Tomorrow let's try to do something with keypunch operator. At least that was indoors.

Unknown said...

American artist Bruce Nauman, in a recent New Yorker profile, said his father used to tell him, "You don't have to invent the world every day." Nauman said he thought he did: "Well, maybe not every day. But nearly every day."

I've heard this from many a comedy writer. You really do start with nothing. (And, if you're in reality or animation, that's what you end up with.)