Thursday, November 10, 2016

How do you write funny when you're distraught?

I imagine there a lot of people still in utter shock. They’re at work or school but just going through the motions, walking zombies. Whatever your task it must be very difficult. Suddenly work-related projects that felt so important two days ago are now viewed as almost inconsequential. Imagine you’re a comedy writer churning out a weekly sitcom.

The question is always asked: “How can you be funny when you’re distraught or grieving?”

And the answer is: you just do.

Now I’m sure sitcom staffs are not turning out their most inspired stuff today. But I bet they’re all in session. They’re not just paying you because you’re a good comedy writer; they’re paying you because you can create on demand.

There’s no waiting for the muse to touch you. Scripts have to be fixed NOW. Story problems have to be solved NOW. Scenes need to be way funnier NOW.

To be able to do that requires a certain skill set. It’s one you learn over time, motivated more by fear than artistic passion. But the good ones learn it. There are times it’s crazy. David Isaacs and I had to pitch a pilot to CBS the day after 9-11 (and we sold it).

How each writer goes about learning that skill set depends on who they are and their temperament. For me, strangely enough, I find it somewhat easy.

When I was a kid, one of the things I thought I might want to do when I grow up was be a cartoonist. As a pre-teen I drew my own elaborate comic books, and when I was 16 I got a comic strip in the weekly Woodland Hills newspaper. I made $5.00 a week. I was eventually let go for budgetary reasons. But I flirted with the idea of having a nationally syndicated comic strip. I discarded the notion because of the pressure. I would have to come up with seven jokes a WEEK. Now I laugh, of course, because as a comedy writer I have to come up with seven jokes in five minutes. But at the time that seemed enormous.

But drawing proved to be my salvation. The weekend John F. Kennedy was killed was one of unspeakable national tragedy and sadness. The entire country stopped. For three days everyone stayed glued to their televisions. Every channel had it. The independents worked out arrangements with networks so every station on the dial carried either CBS, NBC, or ABC. I was 13 at the time.

Monday was the funeral. And I had had enough. I went to my room, shut the door (to drown out the set in the living room), played my rockin’ 45 records (radio stations were still all tragedy all the time) and drew a comic book. It saved my sanity. And I learned something about myself.

Writing during periods of despair is not a burden; it’s an escape. At least for me. For a while I can shut out the real world and enter the fantasy world I am creating. I can put my emotions on the shelf and concentrate on the characters’. In this bubble I can even write funny.

For me, having a writing project in times like these is like having a life raft. Thank goodness I have a new play that I’m working on. That’s how I got through yesterday, and once this post is written, today. Is it denial? Burying my head in the sand? Reverting to childhood? I don’t care. It’s who I am and what I do. Whatever your process with dealing with grief, I hope you have an outlet too.

32 comments:

Johnny Walker said...

I'm glad you're pushing on, Ken. I can only imagine how people feel there :(

It's worth noting that only a small portion of the nation voted for him (and more people voted for Hillary), and that every Trump voter I've spoken to deplores the things he's said (they just excused them, or overlooked them, and voted for him for different reasons). The Democrats have to take some of the blame for not being able to defeat such an unstable candidate, too. That's doesn't help anything now, but I do think a more liked candidate would have *easily* trounced him. Trump barely won.

Also, does anyone really believe he will last four years? I give him 18 months before he gets frustrated at not being able to get his way all the time, and steps down.

And let's hope there's a lesson that's learned from all of this. As the saying goes, “Men and nations act wisely once they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

Peter said...

Beautiful post, Ken. Great tragedy can often lead to great art being produced.

And let's look at the quality of the "celebrities" who've welcomed the election of a sociopath. Steven Seagal! Greatest actor of his generation! Stephen Baldwin! Brando called him his natural heir! Ted Nugent! He reinvented music! Chuck Norris! He disproved evolution by just saying the magic words "Evolution is not real"!

Wow, what a stellar bunch of human beings!

To you and everyone, I just say: It's only four years. Yes, it seems a long time, but it'll go by in a flash and hopefully the Democrats will have a dynamo candidate who will destroy Trump in 2020.

Stay hopeful, folks!

B.A. said...

I also recommend Colbert's monologue as a tonic ("maybe it takes a Pearl Harbor to get us to fight"). I'll keep counting on Colbert as long as CBS lets him be.

John Lloyd said...

We're still counting your non-post yesterday as a post but welcome back anyway! Appreciate all the work you put into this blog.

Stoney said...

You mention JFK and 9/11. So you consider this election to be a national tragedy? That's yet to come!

VP81955 said...

Why I write screenplays...keeps me from going off the deep end.

emily said...

Will you be grumbling much longer?

L'Atalante said...

The Dick Van Dyke show filmed an episode the day of the Kennedy assassination. Nobody was at their best, but they somehow got through it.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

OK. To help us all...

Our 95 year-old grandma Betty yesterday for her weekly "Joke Club" at the senior center won the day with this one:

"Auntie Smith says to her elderly friend, 'Did you have mutual orgasms?"
And her friend says, "No, dear. We had 'Mutual of Omaha.'

Grandma Betty is a caution...and knows all about moving forward and making the best of rotten circumstances. II think I'll be asking her advice often in the next four years...



Donald said...

Ken: I, for one, would love to hear the story about pitching your sitcom in the wake of 9/11. Could you take us inside that pitch meeting? If you've told the story before, please provide the link. Ironic that this is the 70th anniversary of "It's a Wonderful Life" now that there is a serious threat that America could be transformed into Pottersville.

William said...

It's healthy to have a reaction, but not an overreaction. This blog used to be fun.

Mark said...

To me this has felt like people felt they had an infestation of cockroaches in their house, but some of them were real and some (most) were imagined. They complained and tried to get help with their cockroach problem but no one would take their concerns in the way they wanted or needed. So they decided to burn their house down to get rid of the darn insects. But, in spite of that, I bet they're happy they did it becuase it, to them, solved the problem.

Peter said...

Kamala Harris for 2020.

Let's start the campaign now!

MikeN said...

I don't get it. Doesn't all the good art come from unhappiness?
Even the comedy has got to be better with Trump and no subject out of bounds instead of comedians who get hounded as racist for making fun of Obama. Sure there might be some bitterness that makes it difficult to keep politics out. I think this hurt SNL which hated Bush so much they couldn't bring themselves to write the obvious Baghdad Bob sketch.

Fred said...

I'm told that writing puts you in your right brain, the logic center, and takes you out of your left brain, emotional center. This is why writing is a healthy way to deal with stress. While your conscious mind is working logically, your emotional mind is doing what it does behind the scenes. You come out the other end not only feeling better but being better.

I'm not a doctor or psychologist. This is just hearsay.

Joe C said...



Johnny Walker wrote
"It's worth noting that only a small portion of the nation voted for him (and more people voted for Hillary)"

If only a small portion of the nation voted for Trump, then an equally small portion
voted for Clinton.

59,938,290 to 59,704,886 (.00389 difference)

Stubblejumpin Gal said...

Grief is definitely the correct word for what so many of us are feeling.
I hear a lot of people hoping aloud that DT may be a better man in office than he was on the campaign trail and before.
Pfft. As if.
Why kid ourselves?
Oh we must think positive, they say.
I say, how about we allow ourselves to admit our disappointment, fear and disgust?

Peter said...

I just read up on Mike Pence, who I've not taken much interest in till now.

Holy shit.

This guy's political views are straight out of the Westboro Baptist church. Not even W Bush was this bad. Trump being impeached would not be much to celebrate, given he would be replaced by a guy who is just as bad, if not worse than, him.

I think the way forward is for all the blue states to secede from the Union and form a new country, and then all the red states where they believe in creationism, hate gays, want machine guns in every home, want poor people to have no healthcare and want to ban abortion and stem cell research can have their own country.

Anonymous said...

The problem with hoping Trump doesn't last the four years (a very real possibility for a variety of reasons) is that Mike Pence is even more of a maniac. Look up his positions to see a truly scary person -- plus he knows how to play the political game better than Donald.

JR Smith said...

Since the election, I've been throwing myself into work, keeping my mind as busy as possible. Taking a break from TV news too. This weekend, I am going to get outside a lot, hike, take some pictures of things that please me, get some fresh air. I know avoidance won't change what has happened, but for the time being, it is the only way I can deal with this thing. This awful thing.

Ken said...

I'm as disappointed in the election result as many but I don't understand why everyone is so shocked. Disappointed, yes. Shocked, no. Have that many people really insulated themselves from people who don't think like them? Was there seriously no understanding that Trump had some support beyond the lunatic fringe? Was there no awareness that the slow death of landlines disrupted the bedrock of polling data collection? Was there no awareness that Trump wasn't supposed to win the nomination either? Was there no awareness that he had adopted the tone of reality TV and social media that so many people, left and right, have embraced. A little more inclusion of diverse opinions and less demonization from both sides might keep us from choosing between the two least popular candidates of the modern era next time around.

To be shocked by this is to be disingenuous or to have made an effort to avoid anyone with different opinions.

Fact is most of the Hillary supporters I know are decent people. Most of the Trump supporters I know are decent people. I didn't expect Trump to win but it wasn't a shock.

Anonymous said...

When people talk of secession or grief on the scale of 9/11/Kennedy assassination it suggests they have very little confidence in the American system or American form of government with checks and balances and frequent elections to correct wrongs.
That's really sad.
It's not easy to find respect for those type. Perhaps they missed Civics class when they were young.

Cap'n Bob said...

I didn't want Trump to win, but I did want Clinton to lose. And remember, all of you who are mourning or consumed by anger, you had your chance to nominate Bernie Sanders, who polls indicated would win big over and Republican I was a Bernie delegate in my state and he won our caucuses by a wide margin. But the political hacks who were superdelegates wnet with Clinton. Talk about rigged. So if Hillary was your girl, fine and dandy, but remember that you backed a shaky horse. You could have backed a winner.

VP81955 said...

I think most of the Hollywood community has to stop being so insular, so smug (and I say this as a progressive with no love for Trump). The elitism that envelopes the industry -- look at the derision a decent man like Joe Biden received for years, simply because he didn't have the requisite Ivy League background -- is easily detected in "flyover country." If the Democrat party bosses had not greased the scales to benefit Clinton and Bernie Sanders had earned the nomination, his freshness and enthusiasm (and similar drive against the status quo) would've easily trounced Trump. But hey, we don't want Wall Street to blanch with fear, do we? And after electing a black man president, wasn't it time for a woman (despite enthusiasm for her being an inch deep and 24 tiring years of being in the public eye)? The machine set things up for Hillary, then broke down. Karma...hope my fellow Dems learn for 2020.

Diane D. said...

i just saw Bernie on CNN, and it certainly does not appear that he is going to "go quietly into that good night"!! I couldn't agree more with Cap'n Bob and VP81955. Bernie would have won. Listening to him today, you realized just how much Hillary lost that message. During the primaries she kept adding his ideas to her platform and everyone was glad, including Bernie. But during the general election all of that gradually disappeared, and I didn't even realize it. I feel worse today than yesterday, because I was reminded that we could be celebrating Bernie right now!

J Lee said...

Ken, I did see on the Huffington Post today that voters in California City took your and David's script idea from 'The People Speak' episode of "The Tony Randall Show" and ran with it on Tuesday. Small consolation, but it is a life-imitates sitcom moment.

Anonymous said...

People who were supporting Bernie, while you are right, it was clear that Bernie wasn't interested in winning. He was just looking to change the party.
Now we see from Wikileaks that he had an arrangement with the Clintons. They didn't just rig the party apparatus in their favor, as well as the debates- they handpicked their opponents.
If Hillary had won, you would never get anyone like Bernie. The party establishment would just keep doing what they are doing. You need to focus on how to get the elites out and fairness in.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Most disturbing to me is how the Russians apparently influenced this election, if you agree with national security officials who say the hacking of Clinton campaign and DNC emails came from them. Equally troubling is how WikiLeaks allowed itself to be used as a pawn in a presidential election. Julian Assange certainly had a score to settle with the Obama administration.

There were no leaks of the RNC or Trump campaign. Why? There were no leaks of any Russian government emails. Why? And if Russia did the hacking, why were they so intent on seeing Clinton lose and Trump win? I scratch my head and worry about the answers to those questions.

I'll give the new president time to show how much of his campaign banter was bluster to pander to the non-college educated audience he carried so overwhelmingly, and how much was from he truly believes. This was a campaign with a lot of hate and a lot of fear. Too many voters - on both sides - voted against the opposition candidate,not for their own. And far too many eligible voters (more than 50 percent) stayed away from the polls entirely.

Mr. Trump was secretive about his finances and vague on how he would accomplish his goals of creating jobs. The stock market is already hitting highs, two days after plunging 800 points, believing he can carry through on his promises to bring prosperity and security to the U.S. We can only hope he can - without alienating the rest of the world doing it.

MikeN said...

Relax. The office is bigger than the person. The people are bigger than the office. And people trend toward good.

Scott Adams

Steve McLean said...

I'm picking causes in which I believe and making donations. It honestly makes one feel better and channels my anxiety info something good in the world.

Salman said...

While you're so distraught, consider this- the Hillary Clinton campaign promoted Trump as part of their election strategy. Wikileaks shows they were planning to have the media promote him and Cruz and Carson to make it easier for them to win.

Barry Traylor said...

The only thing I can compare how I feel to is how I felt on November 22, 1963. Sad, angry, sickened and shocked.