Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Howard Baker Quote on Writers

A theatre which honours its audience will demand of its writers that they write in hazard of their consciences, for writers are paid to think dangerously, they are the explorers of the imagination, the audience expects it of them.

Howard Barker
Arguments for a Theatre


A problem I often see with sketch writers is too strong a focus on witty dialogue without enough focus on character, relationship or location. The resulting scene tends to be two characters speaking in the ether with one having the funny lines and the other poor soul being saddled with only set-up lines. Nothing wrong with this, except it's not a scene, it's a comedy duo routine a la Burns and Allen or The 2,000 Year Old Man, and usually not as funny or inspired. But if that's what you really want to do, great, go start a comedy team or go find one that needs material. But if you want to write a scene, use what you have as a starting point and be willing to shed the witty dialogue that doesn't support the story that emerges. Totally unfunny lines can get huge laughs when said by the right character at the right time in the right situation. A good example of this is in When Harry Met Sally in the deli-orgasm scene when the woman says "I'll have what she's having." Not a funny piece of dialogue on its own and the laughs would have been greatly diminished if, say, Harry had said it instead of that woman. Mainly, because that woman means it.

Start by taking your non-descript characters and giving them some clearly defined perspectives.
Let's start with this typical exchange between George Burns and Gracie Allen. By the way, this is just done as an example of how to tinker with straight dialogue to finesse it into a scene, not meant as an example of how BRILLIANT! I am...
Gracie: This always happens to me. On my way in, a man stopped me at the stage door and said, "Hiya, cutie, how about a bite tonight after the show?"
George: And you said?
Gracie: I said, "I'll be busy after the show but I'm not doing anything now," so I bit him.
Now, see how it affects the dialogue when we give them clearly defined character-types. We want to raise the stakes. Let's try to do that by making them something really important, like cops, politicians or big time corporate lawyers. I like that one. Let's make them corporate lawyers.
George: Mrs. Allen, you look very upset. What happened?
Gracie: This always happens to me, Mr. Burns. On my way into the office, a very unsavory fellow stopped me in the foyer and said, "Hiya, cutie, how about a bite after you get off work?"
George: The cad! He called you "cutie"? I hope you slapped him with a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Gracie: I said, "I'll be busy but I'm not doing anything now," so I bit him. And then I had him sign a waiver saying he wouldn't sue me.
George:'ve got a little blood right there...
So, now the characters are a little more grounded and both characters have a distinct way of speaking and they look at the world through the eyes of lawyers. Their highbrow way of speaking gooses the humor a bit on this dusty old nugget. But it's still just a bit and there's no place for it to go if we wanted to develop it into a scene. Let's get them out of that generic, boring "office" and into a new location. Something that will help raise the stakes. How about a courtroom? Let's make George a judge.
Gracie: Your honor, may I approach the bench?
George: Approach away, Mrs. Allen.
Gracie: Your honor, I may have to recuse myself from this case. On my way into the courthouse, the defendant stopped me in the foyer and said, "Hiya, cutie, how about a bite after the hearing?"
George: He called you "cutie." That's highly inappropriate behavior. I shall reprimand him sharply.
Gracie: Don't bother. I said, "I'll be busy but I'm not doing anything now," so I bit him. I'm afraid he might sue me.
George: Too late, I see you're on the docket right after this one. ... You've got a little bit of his sweater in your teeth...right there...
If I were to keep tinkering with this, I'm sure I would lose the "so I bit him" joke altogether and focus more on a judge and attorney that might have a thing for one another and they keep finding reasons to have her approach the bench to have cute lovey-dovey talk in the middle of a brutal murder trial. Or something like that. As I expand on it and develop it, it might take me somewhere else. Now, I don't in any way believe I improved upon the genius of Burns and Allen. But the exchange is no longer about the witty banter, it's about characters and relationships. There's nothing wrong with witty banter. But witty banter alone is icing without the cake. Witty banter that forwards a well told story is very fattening, but worth blowing your diet for.

Um, yeah, took the cake thing too far.

You get the idea. It's the difference between a stageworthy scene and a comedy routine.


Yep. They exist. What does it say about our country when people pay just to cuddle with strangers. Be afraid. Be very afraid. And if you don't have someone in your life to cuddle with, get a cat. For fifty bucks, Don Hall and I will come to your house and cuddle you up good.

Bent Objects

Here's a fun website with lots of pictures like this one. It's called
Bent Objects and they are all done by the same artist from Indiana. Pretty cool, funny stuff.