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When comedian, actor, and game show host Drew Carey was starting out he tried doing standup “as a goof” while in college and it didn’t go well. After a few failed attempts, he was glad he gave it a shot and get it out of his system.

After he dropped out of college, he joined the U.S. Marines.  Carey served in the military for six years and was waiting tables in his hometown of Cleveland when a radio host he knew said he’d pay him $20 a joke. He was hoping to pick up an extra $100 a week and ended up building over his career (so far) an estimated net worth of over $100 million.

This is how Carey told Terry Gross on Fresh Air how he learned to write jokes.

Drew Carey: I went to the library and I finally got a book on how to write jokes. And from reading that book, that’s what really started me. I thought, oh wow, there’s a formula to this. I can write jokes.

Terry Gross: How did the book help you to write jokes?

Carey: There’s formulas for every kind of joke writing. There really is. The example they used in the book is you take driving and write it at the top of the page. It’s all about list-making. Then you write down everything that relates to driving: angry drivers, slow drivers, fast drivers, new cars, old cars, junk cars, car washes, red lights. You write all this stuff down and then you try to exaggerate something to make it bigger than it is. Then there’s words that sound like other words and you try to make puns up that way, and use all these different techniques to take all this little lists you’ve made—angry women drivers, angry men drivers—when you detail it down you try to exaggerate it, or minimalize it, or twist it around. And then you try to make 20 jokes and try to get one good joke out of that, and that’s how you come up with one good joke. If you’re starting out, it takes you like three hours.

P.S. He didn’t say in that interview what that book he read, but if you’ve seen it in others interviews let me know and I’ll put a link to it here. In the meantime check out Comedy Writing SecretsThe Hidden Tools of Comedy, The New Comedy Writing Step by Step, and Jerry Seinfeld’s doc Comedian.

Scott W. Smith

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When Neil Simon was 31 years old and had yet seen a play of his produced, he was called into a meeting with Max Gordon, who was “the archetypical cigar-smoking Broadway producer” known for producing many Kaufman-and-Hart classic comedies. This is how Simon, in his book Rewrite,  recounted the story of meeting Gordon around 1960:

In this business you look for bread crumbs and settle for what the pigeons couldn’t get that day. The meeting with Max Gordon in his office was brief.

‘I read your script, kid. Good dialogue. Funny. Someday you’re going to write a great play. This isn’t it.’

I nodded, waiting for more. None was forthcoming so I pushed my luck. ‘Can you tell me what’s wrong with it?’

He looked up, surprised to see I was still there. Out of some sense of benevolence, he shared his wisdom with me. ‘A play is like a house. It has to be built on a solid foundation. You don’t have a solid foundation here. What you’ve got is a house built on sand. Once the curtain goes up, your play is going to sink right into the sand. You understand what I’m saying?’

‘Yes. Too much sand.’

’Right. One last thing before you go.’

I hadn’t even made a move toward the door.

‘Characters.’

‘Characters?’

‘There’s no play without characters. First you get your characters, then you get your story, then you get your dialogue. If you got a story and dialogue but no characters, what have you got?’

‘A sand castle.’

’Now you understand. Okay. Nice meeting you, kid. If you ever write a great play, let me read it first. Close the door.’”

Simon would go on to earn a Pulitzer Prize, be nominated for 17 Tony Awards (win three),  and be nominated for four Oscars. May you find (or give) breadcrumbs of encouragement in the coming days.

P.S. I’m not sure what play that was (probably Come Blow Your Horn)—or what version of the early play it was. Or if he made any changes based on what Gordon told him. But Come Blow Your Horn soon afterward had a three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. (Simon called summer stock “a last ditch for his play.”)

That playhouse—which first opened in 1939— is still operating and tonight the play Million Dollar Quartet (book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux) begins at 8:00.

Related post:
Flaming Rejection—Garry Marshall’s brutal run-in with a famous veteran comedian

Scott W. Smith

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There was [The Wizard of Oz actor] Bert Lahr sitting with the cast of his latest vehicle . . . Stash [Prager] introduced me, saying ‘This is Doc Simon. The kid’s written a funny play Bert.’ Bert looked at me an said quite earnestly, but still in that Cowardly Lion’s voice, ‘Is it about anything? If it’s not about anything, they won’t like it. Make sure it’s about something, kid,’ then wished me good luck and turned back to his party.”
Playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon
Rewrites, A Memoir

P.S. That brief exchange happened in a restaurant in Philadelphia shortly before the opening night of his first play (Come Blow Your Horn) in 1961. The first performance received, according to Simon, “a partial standing audience.” Critic Ernie Schier of the Philadelphia Bulletin agreed with the audience writing, ”The theater season has bounced to its feet with Come Blow Your Horn, a laugh happy, bell-ringing farce which opened last night at the Walnut.”

And that’s how Neil Simon launched his playwriting career. That success in Pennsylvania paved the way for the play to make it to Broadway and eventually get produced as a movie featuring Frank Sinatra, Molly Picon, Jill St. John, Barbara Rush, Lee Cobb, and Tony Bill.

Related post:

How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (and where Michael Arndt gives basically the same advice as Bert Lahr)

Scott W. Smith

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“The whole thing is a mystery to me. It’s like I go to work and I sit around taking a nap and read a couple of books and curse myself for being a lazy swine. And at some point a work of some description shows up and I say how did that get there?…What I’m trying to do—I’ve written a lot of books [on acting and writing]—is understand a mysterious process. Try to get closer to a mysterious process.”
David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Verdict)
WTP with Marc Maron podcast interview 

Trying to understand the mysterious process of writing pretty much describes what I’ve been trying to do on this blog for the past decade. It’s why I’ve quoted over 700 sources of writers, filmmakers, artists, and others talking about the creative process. And if you’ve been reading this blog for long you’ll have read that many quiet successful people have had contrary views on the topic.

And if I was limited to listing just a couple of things that set people apart I’d go with talent and hard work (get stuff written/produced). But there’s a lot of mystery involved in the process. And while I agree that it’s a little tricky to dissect the creative process, I do think there’s a lot of wisdom the following advice:

“Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘you must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works…and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. Your work needn’t be modeled after the ‘well-made’ play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art.”
Robert McKee
Story

Every once in a while you hear a writer say they’ve never read a book on writing, or taken a class on writing. But what they have done is read a lot of books/screenplays, watched a lot of movies, and/or gone to a lot of plays and in the process learned basic principles (conflict, character, plot devices, etc.) that are common in Greek plays, Shakespeare, Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Billy Wilder, Nora Ephron, Ang Lee, Sam Shepard, Aaron Sorkin, Jordan Peele, etc., etc.. etc.

P.S. David Mamet’s newest book, Chicago, is set in the 1920s.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Refugee, music and words by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell

“I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate…I remember hating him even when I was in diapers…I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.”
Pat Conroy
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

While I could continue with my run of posts centered around rocker Tom Petty who died earlier this month, I found a way to turn the corner listening to the Scriptnotes podcast, Episode 321. And, actually, at the same time this post makes a connection to the roots of much of Tom Petty’s pain throughout his life.

Before we get to the concept of method writing, first let me set the stage by letting Petty recount a traumatic event he had as a youth that involved a slingshot, a Cadillac, and a belt.

“I had this crappy slingshot my father had given me, a plastic thing, the first one I ever had. I was in the yard shooting this slingshot. And cars are driving by. I’m just like, ‘I wonder if I can get a car’. And whack! This big Cadillac. It was going by pretty slowly, and I just nailed the fin on that thing.

“The car came to an immediate stop. The driver got out, and he was so f**king mad. … I felt kind of weird, not ­knowing what was coming next. But when my father got home later, he came in, took a belt and beat the living s**t out of me.

“He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. Five years old. I remember it so well.

“My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.”
Tom Petty
 Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

That may have been the first beating Petty got from his father, but it wasn’t the last one. And I don’t know if that first beating left a physical scar, but I do know it left an emotional scar. Petty knew that his childhood was far from the aspirational Ozzie and Harriet life that he saw on TV, but it would take decades for him to realize that being a successful rock star—or drugs and alcohol— could heal his childhood scars.

You don’t have to look far to see where Petty’s rebel spirit, angst, and bouts with depression came from. Though it would take Petty himself a few decades and some counseling to recognize his scars.

Everyone has scars and on Scriptnotes, Episode 321 screenwriter John August and Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, have this exchange about using your scars in your writing:

GRANT FAULKNER: I like the method acting approach to writing that you’re really applying your own personal emotional experience to the characters you’re creating. Actually there’s a Shelly Winters quote where she says, ‘Act with your scars.’ And so you can apply your scars to any character. But I do think that requires, like method acting, a lot of introspection.  

JOHN AUGUST: When I read writing the feels very real, when the characters seem like they have flesh and blood,  I do think that’s because the author has invested a bit of himself or herself into their experience. That author has a very clear sense of that character’s inner emotional life  because he or she is using things in their own life to sort of proxy for it. When I was doing the script for Big Fish there is a sequence at the end where Will is going through the story of his father’s death and I knew this was going to be incredibly emotional thing for the character, but also for the audience watching it. So I was incredibly method writing where I’d bring myself to tears and then start writing. It seems crazy and ‘why would you do it that way?’— but I’m pretty sure the only reason I got to those specific words and those specific images was because I was at that emotional state as I was writing it…I would encourage people to try those things, because what’s the harm of trying those things? …Write those feelings that you know. Use the things that are specific and unique to you to help create something specific and unique moments for your story.

GRANT FAULKNER: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think the stories that I connect with most—I agree with you—the writer or creator has done something that is just so personal, he or she has made themselves vulnerable— they’ve gone deeper. I really think vulnerability on the page is more important than any craft advice, or craft tips that you might write with. And that’s where with [the] Shelly Winters [quote] “Act with your scars” is really going deep. Be willing to reveal your scars on the page and go there. 

P.S. I don’t always find a direct Iowa connection to these posts, but couldn’t miss on that Scriptnotes podcast that there was a guy from small town Iowa talking to a guy who did went to college in Iowa. Grant Faulkner was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa (and went at Grinnell College in Iowa) and John August did his undergraduate work at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Related post:
Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
Nostalgia: The Pain from an Old Wound
Screenwriting Quote #182 (Richard Krevolin) “All characters are wounded souls…”
Tom Petty and The Untold Story of Rock & Roll  (In a word; scars.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I write in layers. so there’s the first draft, second draft, but somewhere near the end—the final layer, I look at every word I use and I think is there a word that will work on an emotional level…something that’ll keep you awake that means exactly the same thing? So here’s an example, if I said to the audience, say one of the two words—they both mean about the same—that’s the funnier one.  Which is funnier pull or yank?
Dilbert creator Scott Adams
Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

Adams says that people choose yank over pull because yank has what he calls as “two levels of funniness built into the word”—the “y” and the “k.”

“So I will consciously make a choice to get rid of a more accurate word to put in a word that has more of a programing control. You want people to have an experience because that’s what they’re going to remember. They’re not going to remember what word choice you use.”
Scott Adams

Bonus #1: From his blog post Writing Funny  Adams says what he looks for in topics is “at least one of the essential elements of humor”:

Clever
Cute
Bizarre
Cruel
Naughty
Recognizable

Bonus #2: The Day You Became a Better Writer blog post by Scott Adams.

Bonus #3:

Scott W. Smith

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“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.

I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look at myself but at what went on behind my face.

It was only when I began to discover the treats and tricks that came with word associations that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a  live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.

I began to put down brief notes and descriptions of loves and hates. All during my twentieth and twenty-first years, I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.

I finally found it one afternoon when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote the title The Lake on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later. Two hours after that I was sitting at my typewriter out on a porch in the sun, with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up.”
Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing 

Bradbury sold The Lake to Weird Tales for $20. And his original voice was off to the races.  Do the math… all it took for Ray Bradbury to find his voice was 2 hours of writing —plus the 1,000 words a day for 10 years.

Scott W. Smith

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