Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Are You Funnier When You're Tired, Or Do You Just Think You Are?"

Which is the gist of Mac’s comment on January 31st to a post about “Page One” rewrites.  I get a shiver just writing those words.  Man!  Those things took years off my life.  And right now, I could really use them back.

Mac writes:

And of course when the AM comes round again, your capacity to be funny has diminished along with your energy, blood sugar level etc etc.  Nothing is funny when you’ve been up all night.  Or everything is – hysterically funny, because you’re on a manic high through sleep deprivation, which is when you’re in no position to judge what’s really funny.

Overall, I agree with Mac’s observations.  Though sometimes…

Wait.  Let me start at the beginning.

The goal of all rewrites is to, yes, revise the script in a hopefully upward direction, but equally importantly, and your more immediate objective is

To get to your car.

You really want to go home.  Because you’re beat up and you’re tired and you need to recharge your batteries, because you’re returning tomorrow to do it all over again.  On top of that, me being me, I always had the feeling that staying late meant I messed up.  It felt like detention. 

“You wrote bad.  Therefore, your punishment is to stay late.  And write better!”

The question is, “Can you?” 

And the answer is, it’s possible. 

Some writers write their best when they’re under the gun.  They need a crisis to, like Superman, squeeze the script with their prodigious talents, and forge diamonds out of coal.  It’s just their process.  They shine under that late night pressure. 

Also, you know like when you’re drunk – not the “mean drunk” who hits people, or the morose drunk who hangs mopily over their drink waiting for a train to streak through the bar and run them over – similar to being (the non-pathological kind of) drunk, when you’re exhausted, sometimes, your inhibitions are pared away, and you emerge from your shell, both creative barrels blazing. 

That happened to me once, as a performer.  I was serving as a stand-in for a celebrity panelist on a pilot of a game show.  My job was to get the “civilian” participants in the show familiarized with the process, before the actual taping.  With the actual celebrities. 

The first hour and a half, I was inhibited and dull.  Then we broke for lunch, and I had half a beer.  When we came back, I was “Shecky” Pomerantz, rapid-fire funny and knockin’ ‘em dead!  I was an entirely different person.  People wondered if I’d swapped places with my enormously funnier twin!

As with alcohol, late hours can work as a de-inhibitor.  In some ways, it’s better.  If you’re pulled over on your way home, you can breathe in the thing and not go to jail.  (There were also writers who were abetted by both de-inhibitors.  I imagine their livers might have preferred if they’d stuck to one de-inhibitor – the one where you don’t wind up on the “transplant” list.)

Personal experience reflects that sleep deprivation is not always a negative.  I recall, once Bill Cosby asking me how I was feeling, and I told him I was tired.  Brandishing the script we had rewritten late into the night before, Cosby proclaimed, “You guys write good tired.”

Sometimes, I did.  And sometimes, I didn’t.

I recall once an actor, having read the rewrite we had spent many black-sky hours reworking, shaking his head incredulously and saying, “What were you guys on?” (Meaning drugs, because our revisions had failed the “reality test” of the inevitable light of day.)

In reference to Mac’s “depleted blood sugar” observation, an episode director, realizing how hard (and late) we were working on a script that needed tons of work, treated us, at their expense, to a traveling “Sundaes Wagon”, which arrived around midnight, with a generous assortment of ice creamical delights.  We were grateful and excited, and took gluttonous advantage.  An hour later, we collectively crashed, tumbling into a stupefying torpor, in which we were unable to feel our extremities, or remember our own names.      

Finally, a late-night rewrite story not about when you’re wrong but you think you’re right, but precisely the opposite – you’re right, and it’s less that you think you’re wrong than that you’re too punchy to trust your own judgment.

We were working on the climactic scene of an episode of Major Dad.  It’s one-thirty in the morning.  The Major is helping his High School-aged stepdaughter cram for a Geography midterm.  What was needed is a mnemonic device to assist her in assimilating the material, and Major Dad being a comedy, we required a funny one.

After many false starts, I came up with the idea of the Major – being a longtime military man, and all – drumming the information into the girl’s head with the use of a familiar marching accompaniment, the traditional, rhyming “Cadence Call.”  (“I don’t know but I’ve been told”, etc)   So, for example, learning the capitals of foreign countries, he could chant…

MAJOR:  Here’s a fact that really neato.  The capital of Ecuador is….


The writing staff was not enthusiastic about my idea.  And frankly, I wasn’t that certain of it myself, though my instincts told me it was pretty good.  Especially at one-thirty in the morning.

When further efforts to crack the scene proved fruitless, I decided (as the show runner) to call it a night, publish the rewritten script “as was” with a Final Scene “To Come”, that scene to be written by the reassembled writing staff the following morning.

The next morning, as there were no better suggestions proposed, we took the “best available” idea, and wrote the “cramming” scene using the rhyming “Cadence Call.” Later that afternoon, arriving for the runthrough, we were treated to a crisply performed “Cadence Call” scene that worked like a charm.  The idea fit the concept of the show.  And it was funny. 

I should have realized that the night before.  But exhausted and unsure, I lacked the clarity to pull the trigger.  So, sometimes, it’s your “funny” that’s diminished by the late hour, and sometimes, it’s your confidence.    

Late night rewrite experiences are inevitably a mixed bag.  With only one constant.

You always want to go home.


Chris said...

Hi! Just an hour ago I watched your episode three of Taxi season one. Great story with lots of heart. Did that take many black sky hours of pencil chewing?

Mac said...

Very interesting. I'm glad to see my comment inspired some thought; that rarely happens.

I hope Cosby's conclusion wasn't that you write great when you're tired, ergo you should always be tired. A bit like the budget cut that you come up with the brilliantly inspired idea to get round, which is taken as proof that all budget cuts are great as they force brilliant inspiration.