Writing for puppets

Monty meets Muppets!

Monty meets Muppets!

As some of you may know, I am one of the comedy writers for a sketch show called SomeTV!, which is currently in production in Toronto. As our godhead Nic likes to describe it, the show takes the no-sacred-cows approach of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and combines it with the playful anarchy of The Muppet Show (no hubris here, eh?).

Now, for some, that may sound like the greatest writing gig ever. Those some have clearly never written for puppets.

Human actors—or as we call them, Fleshies—can be tricky enough to deal with. Prone to completely misunderstanding the point of a scene or sketch, they tend to have difficulty learning lines that make no sense to them.

Luckily, their natural insecurity, despite the outward facing ego, means that they can be molded into subservience, if only in two- to five-minute chunks, the longest most are willing to go without checking their make-up or cell phones for calls from their managers.

At their core, Fleshies are the rhesus monkeys of the performance world, clinging to each other for some semblance of affection but ultimately willing to give that up for warmth and sustenance.

Not so puppet actors, aka the Felts or Felties.

Flesh v Felt

These are the apex predators of the performance world and should always be treated as such. Sure, they look cute and cuddly, with their giant heads, bulging eyes and disarming colours, but that’s exactly what they want you to think.

You don’t write for Felties so much as start a sentence that is perpetually interrupted with ideas or lines the bastards think are smarter, funnier, crazier.

Fleshies forget their lines because they’re not too bright…Felties “forget” because they are malicious egotists.

Adding to the challenge is the near-impossibility of figuring out a Feltie. He, she or it is the poster-child for multiple personality disorder.

You think you’re writing a scene for a young Spanish girl, when out of nowhere a tall Jovian Codswadder shows up to take the scene in an entirely new direction. (To this day, the only thing I know about Codswadders is they come from Jupiter, where given the crushing gravity, their height makes no sense.)

Not the home of young Spanish girls

NOT the home of young Spanish girls

It’s like dealing with someone with hyperactive comedic Tourettes, and trust me, I’ve taken enough improv classes in Toronto to know what that looks like.

Felties are also astoundingly lazy creatures. Sure, they look frenetic on the television screens, but in reality, these buggers will literally not lift a finger without someone doing it for them. Our show has an entire team of Feltie fluffers whose entire job is to see to the every-last needs of these freaks. We’re talking major OCD: obsessive-compulsive demands.

Trust me, the dictionary writers of the world have the concept of “puppet master” completely backwards.

Masterclass

To be fair, the Felties do sometimes come up with lines that are funnier than the stuff I wrote. But on the flip side, they get away with lines that no intelligent Fleshie could ever hope to pull off.

This has two impacts: 1) the Feltie doesn’t have to try very hard to get a laugh, and 2) they can be as crude, rude and insulting as they want, knowing everyone just thinks “awwww, how cute”.

There’s a reason you don’t hear a lot of puppet radio programs…the shit they come up with is repugnant.

NPR = Nasty Puppet Radio

NPR = Nasty Puppet Radio

So, why do I stay? Why do I continue to write for these self-glorified hand-warmers?

Most days, I don’t know.

But then the rent comes due and I realize that my best chances at succeeding as a “comedy writer” is to have my words (or some semblance thereof) come out of a Feltie’s mouth…and those lint-sucking leeches know it, too.

 

SomeTV! is being produced by Lemon Productions Inc.

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Cadence and Orson Welles

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

Being a good writer necessitates having a good eye and a good ear.

The good eye is the attention to details that will help you paint a word-picture of what you have seen with your physical eyes and processed in your mind’s eye. It’s not necessarily about writing long-winded passages of backgrounds or going into minute detail of a character’s physical attributes (I’ve done plenty of that), but rather in choosing the most precise and meaningful words to describe the environment or the person.

The good ear is the attention to how people communication and how they speak, not always the same thing. Again, it involves finding the right words and inflections (at least implied inflections) that give the reader and actor clues as to who this person is. And perhaps just as importantly, it is about finding just the right cadence for your character’s speech patterns.

If you listen really closely to a conversation, you’ll realize that there is little difference between speaking and singing. There is a rhythm, a cadence to speaking. Conversation is an improvised duet sung a capella. But unlike a traditional song which may have a subset of arrangements, each of us sings to our own tune, with our own rhythms and inflections. It is one of the many things that sets us apart from each other.

When writing characters, it is important to keep this in mind as all too often, a group of characters can have a certain monotone, which I use not to imply flatness so much as sameness. Often, I believe, it occurs when the writer neglects to add variety to his characters’ speech patterns and instead writes them with one voice; his or hers.

The best writers don’t make this mistake…or at least minimize its occurrences. Each character he or she presents us is truly unique, jumps off the page or screen, provides his or her own internal musical accompaniment.

One of my favourite writers of the last decade or so is Aaron Sorkin whose overall writing has its cadence but whose characters also tango (or more often tarantella) across the screen. Read the pilot to The West Wing or the screenplay for The Social Network and you will know you’re reading Sorkin.

But for me, perhaps a better example is Orson Welles, the man who would be Kane.

Recently, someone discovered a long-lost unproduced screenplay by Welles called The Way to Santiago, written in 1940-41. Another blogger discussed the find recently, and provided a link to the actual screenplay (see link below). You only have to read a couple of pages to remind yourself (or educate yourself on) how Orson Welles wrote and the energies he imbued in his characters, each one a snowflake of facets and reflections.

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

Now, listen to the films or read the screenplays of The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil. Although you may question the choice of actors, you can clearly hear or see the distinctions in the characters. Bathe in the richness and depth of each one as he or she is captured for this brief moment. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

It is also interesting to consider that Welles got his start on stage and in radio, where the human voice plays such a larger role in conveying a story than it does in film. There is much less to occupy the mind onstage or in radio and so dialogue carries a significant burden of not only informing but also entrancing the listener.

Although the stories I write are distinctly different from the Wellesian oeuvre, there is much I can and do learn from this master of the written word. He is worth the read and the listen.

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

Links of interest:

The Way to Santiago at Cinephilia and Beyond

The Way to Santiago, starring Howard Hesseman on Vimeo (A valiant but not brilliant attempt)

“Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur” at Curnblog.com

“Screenplays by Orson Welles” (listing) on Wikipedia

Me and Orson Welles A light but adorable movie that probably portrays Welles’ character better than Welles

Microcosms

Image

A thousand years ago (give or take), I listened to a radio theatre program called X Minus One, which told a story about a society that makes its first attempts to leave its planet only to slowly realize it lives within a bubble of water in our universe.

I have not been able to look at a dew droplet in quite the same way ever since.

The writer who… (UPDATED)

As an advertising copywriter, I was constantly called upon to summarize a client’s product with a single line, as few words as possible that would capture the brand essence of the product or service. The almighty tagline.

As a magazine writer, I am also called upon to summarize the stories I write into a sentence or fragment. Something that will give the reader the kernel of the story so they can decide whether they want to read it or move on.

And finally, as a budding screenwriter, I am asked to summarize my entire story in a single sentence so prospective producers can get my idea and see the possibilities, artistic but mostly commercial.

And yet, with all of this practice in concise summarization, there is yet one product that eludes my abilities: me as a writer.

At last year’s Austin Film Festival, during a session on how to work the festival, the Langlais brothers—that’s how they describe themselves, but Gene and Paul, for the record—challenged each of us to define ourselves in a single sentence as “the writer who…”. They suggested that if we could define ourselves as producing one type of screenplay, it would make it easier for producers and directors to wrap their heads around who we were and where to go when they needed that kind of screenplay. Call yourself something and then be the best that you can be.

The challenge for me was that I couldn’t even decide on a medium or genre, let alone determine what types of stories I wrote.

About the only medium I have not yet written for is radio and that’s more the result of lack of opportunity than lack of interest.

I am naturally inclined to write comedy, but my last two screenplays have been family drama and murder thriller with the possibility of a horror on the horizon.

For nine months or so, the question has plagued me. I am “the writer who…”

Recently, however, because of a screenwriting course and completely separate conversations about life with a friend, I have had a bit of a breakthrough, if not an actual answer.

Maybe, I’m looking at this challenge on the wrong level. Rather than focusing on the details of what I have done—genres, media, angles, etc—I need instead to take everything I have done to its most basic level. Stripped of the decorative details, what is the essence of what I create?

What is at the core of my favourite comedy sketches? My screenplays? My television shows? My magazine articles? And what am I doing that makes it mine?

I still can’t tell people I’m “the writer who…”, but I think I’m a little bit closer.

(Image is property of owner and is used without permission, about which I am of two minds.)

 

UPDATE

Interestingly, the Canadian film organization Raindance Toronto just posted an article called Creating a Personal Genre. Although aimed at filmmakers, the article clearly has overtones of what I presented above. Check it out.