My 2¢

Did I Go to Starbucks?

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Of course I went to Starbucks. I went at the first opportunity — which opportunity didn’t present itself until late Saturday afternoon, when I finally got a chance to walk around Sofia in the daylight. Map in hand, I boldly set a course for… well… home. I had my heart set on adding to my collection of Starbucks storefronts in languages other than English. I fondly remembered (well, remembered) this one from Moscow.

And since the Bulgarian language uses the same Cyrillic alphabet, I imagined I would find something similar. So here’s a picture of that.


It seems that since I last traveled to this part of the world, the Starbucks corporate overlords have decided that the countries of the world have gone on long enough using quaint little “languages” of their own, and from now on everything — all signage at least — will be in English. This is how we conquer the world, my American friends: one coffee shop at a time.

Still, it was pleasant to step in out of the cold and into the friendly confines of a place I know so well. Charming barristas, free wifi, comfy seats, strong joe… what more can the idle expatriot ask? This would have been a perfect opportunity to strike up a local conversation and soak up some local culture. Meet some new friends. Take their pictures. Here’s a picture of one of my new friends.


Hey, it’s not that Bulgarians are not friendly (they are; very much so). And it’ s not that they don’t speak English (enough do that you expect it.) And it’s not that I’m particularly anti-social (I like to say sdrawei — hello — as much as the next man.) It’s just that I had my stupid iPhone with me — and did I mention the free wifi? — so instead of being present in my world, I was absent in my device.

That thing is really starting to get on my nerves.

Because it’s so damn entertaining, with it’s web browser and kindle and stupid, pointless, mind-numbing games, and apps, apps, apps, apps, apps. It’s like having your head buried in a good book, except the book is fully multi-media and goes off in a thousand directions at once. At one point I looked up at all the people and thought, they’re just like the images on my iPhone, except in 3-d. I found this strange.

Finally, in self-disgust, I shut off my phone (after checking my email one last time) and headed back out into the cold.

Into the not-too-cold, I’m happy to say. Those of you who followed my Moscow winter adventures will perhaps remember my sliding (as in sliding on a sheet of ice) scale of cold: cold; really cold; stupid cold; ridiculously cold; and “are you freakin’ kidding me?” So far, Sofia has presented only cold and really cold, with just a hint of stupid cold, and for this I am grateful.

I walked in a big, awkward circle through the streets around my hotel, filling in my mental map, acquiring not just the Starbucks, but the local Greek restaurant, one or two casinos where one might play poker (though why that interested me, I cannot imagine) plus various shops and stores, malls, underground passages and random Russian churches. Truth is, I’m less interested in seeing the sights than I am in just filling in that map. I want to feel like I know where things are, so when I walk, it’s a mapping mission. After this afternoon, I think I know my way around.

I am, of course, almost totally wrong. But in a world where Starbucks insists on English-as-the-only-language, I guess one more arrogant American does not rock the balance.

I will say this about Sofia, and from my heart: The city really works for me. After Bucharest, which was a challenge, and Moscow, which made Bucharest look like Moscow, Idaho, it is great to be in a place of civil size. Sofia contains 1.1 million people, I’m told; the country tops out at under 9 million — about the same as Los Angeles County. Downtown is walkable. The streets and roads handle a decent amount of cars. Rush hour — trust me — is nothing. Seriously, Sofia rush hour compares favorably to Moscow (where rush-hour never really ends), Bucharest, even Managua. You can get around. It’s lovely.

Tomorrow is an off-day, then Monday brings me right back to the exciting grind of making television in a place I’ve never made it before. Fact is, I suffer Sunday. It’s nice to have time off (time for more mapquesting) but the truth is I can’t wait for Monday. And who can ask more from a job than that?

The report from the front, then, is that I’m happy in my work, happy with the geography, even happy with the weather (for now, though I know this will change).

So far, Sofia.

More later, -jv

The Jagged Pieces of My Sleep

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Thanks to Dr. Feelnothing, I got my hands on some Ambien for this trip, and so have been taking jet lag by brute force. It’s not a bad way to go — certainly healthier than Scotching myself into a stupor — but it has its disadvantages. For one thing, sleeping pill versus jet lag is a bit of a “clash of the titans” between a stubborn biological clock and the forces of forced unconsciousness, as a result of which, my sleep is a tattered, dream-splattered thing; brief, and not all that restful. Anyway, in the upshot, it’s not quite 6 AM in Sofia, but I’m up and at ’em already. Not complaining! Definitely not complaining. Between yesterday and today I discovered six new challenges of this job (the scope and timetable of it; the present lack of cast for the show; the present lack of set; the fact that I’m expected to teach a five-day, not a two-day, workshop) that excite me no end. Once again I’ve been thrown into the deep end, where the creatures are strange and the water is WARM!

On a note of personal discovery, I just love the found objects of the places I go. The first one presented it to me yesterday morning when I looked out upon daylight from my hotel room window for the first time, and saw this lovely bit:

And you know, it’s not the insects that concern me so much as the etcetera.

I have noted that the difference between myself and normal people is that they take pictures of people and I take pictures of things. What can I say? Things are so amusing!

Anyway, I have no shortage of homework. I have just reviewed the first episode of Married… with Children and noted all the cultural context issues, dated references, and lost-in-translation word plays that make adapting these scripts such a challenge. According to the contemplated production schedule, I only have 119 scripts to go. Fun!

Oh, and not content to do one job when three will do, I’ve just posted a new column on FISH BITES MAN, my soapbox at    You’ll find it at

If you’re liking these blog posts, be sure to tell your friends, foes, co-workers, dogs, members of Congress, whoever. Remember that whatever my text is, my subtext is always the same: Get them hooked on the drug that is John Vorhaus. Also available on facebook and on twitter @TrueFactBarFact.

More later,

– Johnny Jetlag

Ghosts of Sheremetyvo

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

It was a last minute flight change, one that didn’t entirely make sense to me, but instead of flying from LA to Bulgaria via London or Paris, I’ve transited through Moscow. Its lovely Sheremetyvo Airport I know so well from my frequent ins and outs through it over last winter and the winter before. The weather hasn’t changed here. Still crappy. Russian friendliness is unchanged. Still absent. And the smokers…OMG. If you’re reading this in America, I promise you, you haven’t been among smoke like this since your last trip to the 1980s. They have these “smoking areas” about every ten feet. Yes it’s a designated smoking zone, but no one has taught the smoke not to waft.  One must run a certain gauntlet. They should put the smokers behind glass. Where’s a damn smokequarium when you need one?

Anyway,  since I’m in Moscow, I thought I’d post my favorite pink pig picture, from my very first trip here in 2007.

I’m awfully glad to be just passing through this place. I have no real desire to work here again. Apart from its vast and overwhelming Russianness, I just a sucker for the unknown. That’s why I’m so excited to be going to Bulgaria. I mean, the place could suck, but I won’t know until I get there, and until I get there it’s like buried treasure in my mind. I mean, I know NOTHING about the place. There were some wars and crusades and such. The language looks much like Russian. The weather seems to be much like Moscow (oh boy). Apart from that… “I couldn’t find Bulgaria on a map of Bulgaria.” So I’m flying blind, which is just how I like to fly.

Speaking of flying, they seem to be calling my flight (though they’re calling it in Russian, so how do I know for sure?) Time to go run the gauntlet of the smoke.

More later, -jv

See Ya in Sofia

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Hi Campers,

As some of you know, I’ll be decamping this week to Sofia, Bulgaria, where I will be recruiting/training the writing staff of the Bulgarian adaptation of Married… with Children. I undertake this enterprise for Sony, for whom I did similar work in Russia two winters ago. (Why do they always send me places with crappy winter weather? Don’t they have any nice shows in Barbados?) I’m really looking forward to the trip, and looking forward to filling in some blanks in my (and maybe your) understanding of Bulgaria.

Here’s what I know about the country so far.

So… good news… we have nowhere to go but up.

Anyway, right now I have to go pack my mukluks. You can never have too many mukluks in cold climes.

More — well, everything — later, -jv

Sent From My iPhone

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Little did I know that having a new iPhone would lead almost instantly to a Shroud of Turin moment; however, today I saw Jesus. He was on the grass. I got his picture.

iPhones are awesome!

More later, -jv

NOW Pay Attention

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Hey campers,

My brand-new book on sitcom is now available. Here’s the blurb:

Writing situation comedies isn’t really that hard. So much of what you need to know is already defined for you. You know that your script needs to be a certain short length, with a certain small number of characters. You know that your choice of scenes is limited to your show’s standing sets and maybe one or two swing sets or outside locations. You know how your characters behave and how they’re funny, either because you invented them or because you’re writing for a show where these things are already well established. Sitcom is easy and sitcom is fun. Sitcom is the gateway drug to longer forms of writing. It’s a pretty good buzz and a pretty good ride, a great way to kill an afternoon, or even six months.

And now, thanks to comedy writing guru John Vorhaus (author of THE COMIC TOOLBOX: HOW TO BE FUNNY EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT), writing situation comedy is easier than ever. In THE LITTLE BOOK OF SITCOM, you’ll find a whole trove of tools, tricks and problem-solving techniques that you can use — now, today — to be the sitcom writer of your wildest dreams. Ready to write? Ready to have fun? THE LITTLE BOOK OF SITCOM is the big little book for you.

Tell your sitcommy friends: this is an ebook they’re going to want to have.

More later, -jv

Pay No Attention To This

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

I’ve been working on the cover art for my new sitcom book and wanted to see how it looks in thumbnail online. It looks like this.

But pay no attention to it. This is for me, not you. More later, -jv

An Excerpt From My New Sitcom Book

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

world premiering here and now…

What is Comedy?

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it, but comedy is cruelty. A thing isn’t funny to the person it’s happening to. It’s funny to the rest of us watching. Tell me you haven’t been funny a thousand times by making yourself the butt of your own joke. “I’m so stupid I couldn’t pass a blood test.” That’s you being cruel to you for the benefit of others. Seriously, that’s really all you need to know about writing comedy. Find a character. Put him in a bad situation. And then make the bad situation worse. So then –

Wait, wait, hang on. I’m just sitting here wondering why comedy is cruelty and you know, I can’t think of a good reason. I did, though, think of a joke.

In the years before World War II, in a little Polish village, a learned rabbi used to teach his students, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One young student was particularly taken with this philosophy, and he carried it with him through the long years of the war, which he barely survived. Later becoming a rabbi in his own right, he moved to Philadelphia, and taught all his eager young students, “Life is like the ocean.” Year after year, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One year, though, a student asked, “But Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” And the rabbi had no answer. Why is life like the ocean? The question haunted him. It plagued him so much that eventually he returned to his home village, hoping against hope to find his teacher still alive. Incredibly, the rabbi had survived the war, though now was quite old and in fact lay on his death bed when the young man arrived. He knelt by the old rabbi’s side and entreated, “Rabbi, Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” The old man looked at him through watery eyes and replied, “Okay, so life isn’t like the ocean.”

Now, who’s getting the cruelty here? Is it the hapless young rabbi who invests his life’s work in an empty premise? Or is it the reader, who expects some sort of significant payoff and gets a smirky slap in the face instead? Actually, it’s both. They’re two sides of a certain coin. The young rabbi gets an unpleasant surprise, while the audience gets a startling defeat of expectation.

I’ll tell you one more joke to illustrate the point.

These three ducks walk into a bar. They go up to the bartender and order drinks. The bartender says to the first duck, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Huey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Huey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Huey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes to the second duck and says, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Dewey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Dewey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Dewey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes down to the third duck and says, “I suppose you’re Louie.”

“No,” says the duck, “I’m Puddles.”

I’ll bet you did not see that coming. So the punchline defeated your expectation, but that’s not why the joke works. The joke works because of poor Puddles. We feel his pain. And since it’s his pain, not our pain, we can go ahead and laugh. Poor Puddles.

Now here’s how this plays out in sitcom. (Notice I still haven’t said why comedy is cruelty. Maybe I’m hoping you’ll just let that slide.) To delight our audience, we consistently make our characters miserable, and to make our characters miserable, we just invent other characters designed to give them the worst possible time. Let’s have a peek at Big Bang Theory’s Leonard. Who makes his life hell? For sure you’re going to say Sheldon, whose idiosyncrasies, phobias and Roommate Agreement daily drive Leonard up the wall. You should also say Penny, for while she’s never intentionally cruel to Leonard, she is the object of his unrequited love, and her very presence in his world gives him grief of the deepest kind, because it destabilizes his worldview that “the nerds are alright.” I don’t think Howard really makes Leonard miserable – but look who makes Howard miserable: that’s right, his unseen mom. You could profitably go around from character to character in that sitcom, or any successful sitcom, and make a list of who makes them miserable and how.

Notice that these lines of cruelty run in much the same directions as the lines of conflict we discussed earlier. That’s not by accident. The same things that drive the narrative drive the comedy. If you have a story with lots and lots of problems for your main character, you also have a story with lots and lots of jokes, because each one of those problems will make that character suffer and comedy is cruelty, so there you go.

I don’t want to go too deep into this (I’m well over my head already) but not only do comedy and story line up together here, so does theme. This is because the truth is revealed under pressure, and no character will move from denial to acceptance of the theme – admit the truth, that is – without sufficient pressure forcing him to do so. That pressure moves the story along. And it generates the jokes. And it drives the character to new understanding. That’s some triple-duty pressure there. It’s pretty marvelous stuff.

Are you worried about being cruel to your characters? Don’t be. They’re characters in a story. They don’t really exist and you can’t really hurt them. If you ever find yourself holding back, it could be a case of conflict avoidance. Many writers are conflict avoiders in their real lives. I am. You might be, too. I can’t say from here, and sure don’t want to get in a fight over it, but I do know that to make real people laugh, you have to make fake people ache. So if you’re averse to cruelty, you’d better get over that, or you’ll never be sufficiently funny on the page. Comedy is cruelty. If you want to be funny, you’d better be cruel.

So, are you still waiting for me to tell you why comedy is cruelty? Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy, I should be able to pull that off. Maybe I’ve studied the world’s great humorists: Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Twain. Maybe I’ve peered into the depths of my own soul and sought the answer there. Maybe I have found out why life is like the ocean. But you know what?

The exercise is left to the reader, ha!

More later,  -jv

What I Have To Say About EBooks

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Well, three minutes’ worth, anyhow. Click below to view a clip from my appearance at the Southern California Writers Conference.

Now here is an unrelated photo.

More later, -jv

I Smoke ‘Cause I Like To Cough

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

It’s Smokeout Day, yo. The day when millions of people all over America will celebrate the cigarette. Okay, I may not have my facts straight (maybe they’re trying to quit) but I happen to have a song.


Now if only I had a light…

More later, -jv

PS: Please forward. Let’s get this baby viral!