Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

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The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

The Last Laugh – review

Last Laugh poster

As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

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Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

Life is Beautiful

Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

No parity in parody

Parody

Mel Brooks is a god! Carl Reiner is a god! Carol Burnett is a god! Mike Myers is a really funny Toronto boy, who flew pretty close to the sun. (He may yet be a god, but he has to get back on his feet.)

And among their many talents, these people share the amazingly delicate talent of creating parody…a talent I have yet to seriously attempt beyond the scale of sketch comedy.

Delicate talent? Seriously attempt? Isn’t parody just a matter of picking a genre and inserting dirty jokes and/or completely ham-fisting its various tropes in the mathematical assumption:

Absurd + Puns + Dirty = Funny

I increasingly understand why people think this as I watch more of the recent fare of parodic films that appear to have taken this equation to heart.

Last night, for example, I watched Paranormal Whacktivity, a sexed up romp through the found-footage haunted-home segment that includes films such as Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch. This film was horrific, but not in a good way…nor was it particularly funny or sexy. And it wasn’t very good as a parody because it didn’t even stick to its genre, mixing Paranormal Activity with Ghostbusters, which both involve spirits but are hardly cinematic siblings.

It was useful, however, to my understanding of parody.

When I compare Blazing Saddles, Airplane, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery to Disaster Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, and Breaking Wind, I realize that the truly classic parodies have something that the new ones don’t: a strong central story.

Somewhere in the evolution of parody films, the movies became less about story and more about ripping off as many genre clichés as possible, offering no firmer links between these scenes than bad jokes, fart noises or perky breasts.

Blazing Saddles wasn’t about taking a bunch of classic scenes from Westerns and simply linking them. It was more about taking iconic characters from the Westerns and creating a classic, if twisted, story. The sheriff abandoned by the town folk, the washed up gunslinger, the evil cattle rustler, the crooked politician.

Similarly with Shrek; although this film has such a strong central story that I’m not sure whether I should even include it in a list of parodies. Yes, it played up almost every fairy tale gimmick, but the story really didn’t model itself on any given style or pre-existing story.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is another odd case. With a strong through story led by Steve Martin and Rachel Ward (directed by Carl Reiner), it takes parody to a whole new level by incorporating actual scenes from noir films within the scenes with live actors. Thus, Martin’s character may find himself playing across from Barbara Stanwyck or Edward G. Robinson. Now, that is great film writing and editing.

Interestingly, the Wayans’ brothers first entry into this genre—Scary Movie—offers another lesson about parodies: the challenge of dipping into the same well too often.

Although horror/slasher movies are not to my personal tastes, I thought the first one or two films of this series were particularly well done. But as the series continued, picking on more films from within the horror/slasher genre, it started to become a parody of itself. The jokes were no longer fresh. All the best tropes had been used up in the first two movies and so the later films just seemed to be running in place.

Six Star Wars films, one Spaceballs. That works. (NOTE: Spaceballs is one of my least favourite Mel Brooks movies, much to the chagrin of many friends.)

Even the much stronger series of Austin Powers and Police Squad films showed this sense of comedic fatigue.

The original film is a surprise. The first sequel may be enjoyable. Anything after that is milking a dead cow.

I have no doubt that bad parodies will continue to be made…if nothing else, they seem to require little writing and typically have poor production values, and are therefore inexpensive.

My hope, however, is that another Mel Brooks, Keenan Ivory Wayans or Mike Myers comes along to raise us from these creative and comedic doldrums. (NOTE: At present, my money is on Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have the comedic talent and the Hollywood clout to do it right.)

 

A few personal favourites (hyperlinked to trailer or favourite scene, where available):

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Airplane

The Cheap Detective

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Hot Shots (not so much the sequel)

Rustler’s Rhapsody

Shrek

Scary Movie

Blazing Saddles

Silent Movie (I may be only person who likes this one)

Young Frankenstein (all time favourite)

 

It’s a sad, sad, sad, sad world

Go to YouTube and search for Sid Caesar.

Right now. Don’t wait.

I’ll still be here when you get back.

Comedy lost another titan today with the passing of Sid Caesar at the age of 91.

A man who defined television sketch comedy as we know it today.

A man who trained and/or gave voice to some of the greatest comedic minds of the 20th century, including Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkein, Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Woody Allen through shows like Caesar’s Hour and Your Show of Shows.

A physical giant, Caesar was capable of playing the brutish husband or the nebbish boyfriend. He brought laughs and tears. And he was the first to let his co-stars shine. Stars like Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner.

I am confident that all of these people would have influenced my life in one way or another without the likes of Sid Caesar, but he formed the nexus around which my comedic galaxy spun.

Thank you, Sid. Know that you were loved.

 

Related posts:

My Favorite Life

My Creative Journey

Jonathan Winters

 

My Creative Journey – Part Two

Picking up from my first realization that my passion might also be a gift, as explained in Part One.

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Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to display my creative demons before an audience. An effective little soap opera episode in Grade 12. Geeky science humour in my own magazine. Heart-wrenching poetry following the end of a close friendship that might have been much more.

I worked my way into the magazine world, writing interesting stories about interesting discoveries and advances, but it wasn’t the same. The words poured forth and the story-telling skills improved, but I was always a chronicler of someone else’s story.

Creativity expressed itself in my approach to the story. In seeing a story that no one else saw. In context that was invisible to everyone else. Creativity manifested itself in identifying authors and writers from all walks of life to fill gaps in the magazines. I may not have been the best project manager, but I was definitely the most creative.

As I matured in my jobs, I extended this creativity to everything I did. Looking for effective solutions to seemingly intractable problems. But it wasn’t enough. That voice within me cried out to be heard. And the more I worked—and overworked—to distract it, the louder it screamed. So loudly, that even my wife could hear it.

While sitting in an Orlando hotel bar one night, she finally challenged me and my workaholic tendencies, demanding that we come up with a hobby for me. When pressed, I admitted that I had always felt like I’d been born 30 years too late. That if I could have any miracle in my life, it would be to work on those old sketch comedy shows from the 1950s as a comedy writer. Sid Ceasar’s Show of Shows came to mind. Imagining myself in the writers’ room with Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Neil Simon.

Neither of us knew how to make that happen, but my wife challenged me to find something at home that would set me up in that direction. The next week, I signed up for my first improv class at Second City.

Although it still wasn’t where I wanted to be—more performance than writing—the improv classes were amazing; therapeutic on a variety of levels. Eventually, though, I stumbled onto their sketch comedy writing program and that’s when I hit my stride. A wonderful instructor, talented zany fellow students.

The words flowed incredibly quickly. Within weeks, I had dozens of sketches and felt like I was making serious headway in my education of what worked and why. If there was a problem with the class, it was that my production vastly outstripped the need. I tried new things. I broke out of my comfort zone. I pushed my limits. My only goal was funny.

As I honed my sketches, I prepared for the reality of rehearsals with actors, when all of this work would really come true; when my efforts became more than an academic exercise. Rehearsals went well. Out actors seemed genuinely grateful to be performing our work. I saw what worked and what didn’t, even in the work of others.

Interestingly, I wasn’t in control of the process and I was okay with that. There’s something to be said for being so far out of your element that you recognize the limitations of your control. I had complete faith in the director and our actors. I believed they too wanted this to work as badly as I did.

And then the day of the performance arrived. Nervous energy ran through my body and I couldn’t sit still. I could barely communicate. There was no fear. Only anticipation and potential validation. Was I funny?

The day we premiered Da Tory Code was easily one of the best days in my life. The audience laughed. Not at everything, which was a valuable lesson, but they laughed at enough to validate my talent.

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