Posts Tagged ‘comedy writing’

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

Back to Nicaragua

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

No time to write about it — I still haven’t packed for it — but I’m heading back down to Nicaragua in the morning. Here’s one of my favorite photos from the last time or the time before.

More later, -jv

Anchored Down in Anchorage

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

I’m having an odd sort of flashback.

I’m on a plane over Canada, flying up to Anchorage to address the Alaska Writers Conference. This plane is like many planes I’ve been on in my professional life, like any plane whisking me to Managua or Moscow or wherever. And, as usual, I have a laptop open on my tray table. I’m either working or not working. Knowing me, I’ve probably just finished playing a game, or just about to start. It’s how I fly: I should be working, and sometimes I am, but often I’m not.

Usually on these gigs in wherever, I’m arriving as the expert from out of town, the consultant expected to teach and train writers (possibly even enlighten writers) but not necessarily to be a writer himself. And there have been many, many times in the past when I frittered away all the hours on the flight doing two things: not-writing, and feeling guilty about not-writing. I understood that, as a hard working and dedicated teacher and trainer, I had a pretty damn good excuse for not, at that moment, being a writer. Yet I felt guilty. Down deep in my heart, I felt like a fraud, and simultaneously loved and hated having a handy excuse for not advancing on my own writing front. And felt guilty. Like I was letting myself down, and really not living up to my reputation.

I recognize in this moment that this feeling of guilt is gone. I have finally, finally, written enough, achieved enough as an author, that I no longer feel like a fraud to me. No one can doubt my body of work. It’s there. It exists. There’s simply no way they can pin upon me the label of “those who can’t do, teach.” I do. I do plenty. I teach, too. So as I sit on this flight, monkeying with my next novel, I need not fear flying into a situation where someone asks, “What have you done for you lately?” I’ve done plenty for me. I still am. I’m the writer I always wanted to be. It’s a pretty sweet feeling. It’s nice to leave guilt behind.

I’m finally starting to fill the bottomless hole. It’s not full, but it’s not empty, either, and I, at last, seem to recognize that. I’m either growing up or growing old. From here at 35,000 feet, it’s hard to tell which.

Anyway, Alaska. More writers to meet and teach, more pulp to push, more sights to see. I’ve never been to Alaska before. I hear they have moose.

More later, -jv

1000 New Words by Christmas?

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I’ve been having fun making up new words lately, sort of as a hobby or a mental exercise more fruitful than Sudoku. Some recent goodies…

Gagnostic. Someone who believes God’s a joke.

Panticlimax. A dry hump.

Rantiquity. An old, old argument.

Hobotheosis. Elevation of the bum.

Wordsword. When you can’t say anything nice, use this.

Not all of ’em are winners of course, but, to quote myself, “Is the point of the game to win? Or to have fun?” And I’m having fun, so much so that I’m contemplating giving myself the challenge of coining 1000 new words by Christmas. These I can then package, I suppose, and sell as a slender ebook, A THOUSAND NEW WORDS BY CHRISTMAS, VOLUME 1 (which would set me up for more of same mayhem next year, but whatever.) I think I may do it, for I’m like a dog with a bone with these things, but on the other hand, will I kill the fun of it when it becomes an obligation? Or maybe I’ll just do as many as I can, and then package them as, say, 475 NEW WORDS BY CHRISTMAS. No one will know except me and both of you, my readers. So what do you say? All in favor of new words say, “Neologos!” The neologos have it. More later, -jv

Oh the Ridiculousness

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

I have a new book out. Well, a bookette. Well, an e-bookette. Anyway here it is.

And here is what’s said about it.

“With tongue planted firmly in cheek, noted novelist and poker raconteur John Vorhaus pulls off the devastatingly rare “self-spoof,” going to town on his and Annie Duke’s bestselling book, DECIDE TO PLAY GREAT POKER. Study the ways of the drunken master (an Ascended Stairmaster). Correlate drinking frequencies to bluffing frequencies. Learn not to drink with Finns. Also contains the complete rules of Hold’em War and important breakthroughs in strip poker.

“The good news about drinking and playing poker is if you’re a really, really, really, really bad player to begin with, drinking won’t materially hurt your game. Same with this book: If you have no game to begin with, this won’t make it worse.”

So there you have it. And if you must have it, go straight to Amazon and DECIDE TO PLAY DRUNK POKER.

At only $2.99 it’s bound to make a great bathroom book — if you take your Kindle or laptop to the bathroom, that is. Or maybe you’ll read it with your breakfast cereal. I don’t know. I only know that I stand beside this product 100 percent: You must be completely satisfied with your purchase or your money cheerfully retained.

More later, -jv

A Short Treatise on Time Shares and Hard Times

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

In a moment of weakness, Maxx and I went to a time-share presentation. It wasn’t horrible, and we got some lovely parting gifts, but it did go on and on…and on and on. The goal, of course, was to grind us down to the point where a terrible investment looked like a good one. Never happened, but whatever…

The thing that struck me is that we had 14 different people dealing with us at one time or another. That’s a LOT of wages to pay, not to mention the lovely parting gifts, transportation, meal, facilities, etc. It’s an expensive proposition, trying to get the suckers to sign on the line that is dotted, and it must work well enough to pay for all that overhead, because this organization was doing a TON of presentations. Guess there are a lot of suckers out there. Well, no news flash that.

Economically it makes sense. You’re bringing in fresh money from outside the state of Quintana Roo, and if you can do that on a consistent and ongoing basis — which you can when you’re a tourist destination like Cancun — then you have a thriving economy. And this, of course, is exactly the pickle America is in right now. Where is our source of outside revenue? China is lending us money like crazy, but that doesn’t build an economy. We have tourists, but not enough to impact our economy. And what we make and sell overseas can’t compete against what everyone else makes and sells overseas. So we end up with a pretty closed economy. It’s just us selling to us and us buying from us. Whence comes our growth?

As I’ve blogged before, I think it’ll get worse, for globalization is creating a globally closed economy. When we all become citizens of the world, it’ll all be just us selling to us and us buying from us. We really need the Martians now. Specifically, we need Martian tourists — lots and lots of them who have never been to Disneyland and don’t mind paying inflated prices because the Martian Glorx is such a strong currency right now.

Of course, if that happened, if Earth became an acclaimed tourist destination, then we’d be reduced to hustling the Martians for time-shares (“Tierra del Fuego is lovely ANY time of year!”) and that might not be so good.

I don’t know where I’m going with any of this. It’s been a solid week of nothing but sun, sand, reading, shelling, swimming, quaffing umbrella drinks and stewing in my own juices. My brain is a little cheesed. Well, it must be if I thought that visiting a time-share presentation was in any way a good idea.

At least I didn’t sign on the line that was dotted.

More later, -jv

Postcards From Paradise

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been too long since my last blog post, but I find that I really only have something to say when I’m away from home base, and I haven’t been away from home base since, well, since the last time I was away. Anyway, I’m in Cancun now, on vacation with Maxx, and enjoying the to-die-for view out my hotel window.

We’re staying at a Westin Something-Something, not quite a hotel, as it has vaguely a kitchenette, which I guess makes it sort of a fallow timeshare unit. Good for us: we can stock up on real food and eat in our room, and not be subject to the tender mercies of the Planets Hollywood and Señors Frog that litter the Cancun hotel zone. The plan for the week is pretty much sleep, sun, swim, repeat. There will be little, if any, sightseeing, though I imagine that I shall be able to bestir myself to make the walk to the Mayan ruin next door. Maybe not. When we get away on these tropical laze-abouts, the general idea is to stew in our own juices and let our batteries charge back up to full. I guess my idea of a hard day’s work is this here blog post, so, whew, am I exhausted.

This is the “safe” part of Mexico, very touristy, very Americanized, high penetration of English and low penetration of narco-bandits. Though I suppose if you drove due west across the Yucatan, you could get yourself into some sketchy situations. For that matter, I guess the wrong cab at the wrong time of night would turn the same trick. Not that I’m likely to stumble into any cabs in small hours; the lively nightclub scene in Cancun will have to be enjoyed by others. Me, I’m happy with an interesting movie on cable or a clear view of the stars.

Those who have followed my vacation posts know that I’m fond of mystery photos. Some of you have proven quite good at answering the question, “What am I looking at here?” But this time I think I have a real puzzler for you, so here it comes.

First correct response wins a laurel, and hardy handshake.

More later, -jv

I’m All A-Twitter

Friday, June 17th, 2011

So I decide to spend this week honing my social networking chops, and now I’m more social than ever – but also more confused. I started by friending everyone in the known universe (well, in the universe of people known to me) and I’ll friend you, too, if you but ask. I’ve bulked up my twitter feed (@TrueFactBarFact) to almost 200 (well, almost 170) followers. Then I pimped out my Amazon author page, adding photos, videos, news of upcoming events, blabbity blabbity blah blah blah. I think I’ve even arranged for this blog feed to go straight there, so if you’re passionate about reading the same thing twice, why, now you can.

But you know what? It all seems like a great big circle somehow. I point my Facebook friends to my Twitter feed, tweet on Twitter that I can be found here in my blog, blog about my Amazon page, and promote my Facebook presence on Amazon. Goodness! Is it any wonder that I have a big, fat, socially networked headache right now? Meanwhile, my lovely dog, Temp, dozes at my feet, and the only social network he cares about is the one that delivers him treats.

I guess all I care about is treats, too, where treats = presence and, ultimately, book sales. Because that’s what all this social networking is all about in the end. I’ve got books to promote (the new one, DECIDE) and workshops (LIVING THE WRITER’S LIFE in Pasadena on August 13) and, more broadly, my “brand,” such as it is. One thing I’ve learned as an author is that no one promotes you harder than yourself, not your publisher, not your publicist, no one. So if the word is going to get out, it’s up to, well, me to make it so.

It could be a colossal waste of time, of course, but you know what they say: “Self-indulgence is its own reward.” So follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, www.losthours.com. Or, you know, don’t. I’ll be wasting the time either way.

Speaking of wasting time, I just searched losthours.com and it turns out that no one owns that domain name yet. I’m bipping right over to my GoDaddy account to register it right now, because who knows? It could be the big viral breakthrough I’ve been looking for.

Off to Amsterdam tomorrow. Reports to follow.

More later, -jv

What Do You Think of This?

Monday, May 30th, 2011

I’m writing my memoir. It’s called BUT IT’S FUNNY IN RUSSIAN: A WRITER’S ADVENTURES IN TEACHING OVERSEAS. I’m posting the first chapter here, and I’m interested to know what you think. Do I sound snarky? Sincere? Is this a book you’d invest time and coin in? I welcome your comments here, or via email through the link you’ll find on this page. Tyty. -jv

ONE: MR. NEEDY

The story starts with a job I couldn’t hold.

It was the late 1980s and I was writing for a situation comedy called Charles in Charge, not the original network show but its reincarnated syndicated cousin, starring the estimable Scott Baio as a college student-slash-nanny to three problematic tweens. I had scored big with a freelance episode called “Dorm Warnings,” in which Charles gets fed up with family life and moves into a college dormitory with his buddy, Buddy (the somewhat less estimable Willie Aames), and hilarity – as it so often does in sitcoms of a certain ilk – ensues. I’d also written an episode called “May The Best Man Lose,” which featured, as God is my witness, a dunk tank. On the basis of these twin triumphs, I was offered a six-week contract as a staff writer for the rump end of the 1987 season, running from late October until the Christmas wrap. This was my first staff job on a TV show and I was agog at the pay: $2,000 a week, which was big money in 1987 dollars and not chump change even today. (more…)

The Doo Dah Bookfest

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Hello Campers,

I had a fun weekend here in sunny SoCal, dropping in on the semi-famous Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena on Saturday, and rocking the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday. At the latter I signed a bunch of books and pontificated most punditally on a panel (on writing comedy, natch). At the former, I just sat in the crowd, agog, as tortillas and marshmallows (the traditional projectiles of the Doo Dah Parade flew.

Brief photo essay:

Well, this wasn’t really from the parade, but from my pre-parade breakfast at Denny’s. We live in a perfect world, folks; you can get bacon on your sundae.

Everything old is new again at the Doo Dah parade.

And even dogs get into the act. Meanwhile, at the LATBF…

…I signed books at the Vroman’s tent (note the fan agog in the background — as if.)

…signed somewhat less frantically after my panel appearance.

…a panel I shared with (l. to r.) Don Winslow, Lee Goldberg and Thomas Perry, estimable authors one and all. Thanks especially to Lee for moderating so immoderately.

And so how do you feel about the death of Osama Bin-Laden? Me, I feel, well, not much of anything at all. I can’t see it making much of a difference on the geo-political scene, can you? I mean, it’s not like those with a suicide-bomber bent are suddenly going to say, “Well, that’s over, we can all go home now.” If anything, I imagine it’ll fan the flames.

Oh, like those flames need fanning.

You know what? That’s too bummeresque for a pleasant Sunday night. Let’s go back to the Doo Dah. This here is Snotty Scotty and the Hankies.

And on that musical note, let’s say…

More later, -jv