Thursday, November 10, 2016
How do you write funny when you're distraught?
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.