A Comedy of TERRORS

A Comedy of TERRORS

Spoiler alert for Stranger Things. And Breaking Bad, kinda. And comedy in general.

If you ask any jackass on the street to define comedy, they’ll likely just say “It’s funny. BURRRP.” Well, that ain’t helpful. So let’s talk comedy. Specifically, let’s talk what comedy looks like in literature and television and study its spine.

Let’s start by saying that comedy, by definition, isn’t always funny. And what’s less funny than talking pretentiously about William Shakespeare? A professor once told me (so it must be true) that Shakespeare* distinguishes comedies and tragedies thusly:

A comedy is the story of an outsider joining an in-group / society. (Integration)

A tragedy is the story of an insider forced out of an in-group / society. (Isolation)

That’s it. Apply it to any modern movie and you’ll find that it works. What about a story about a family man who alienates his friends and family in the pursuit of power at the cost of societal decay?

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Tragedy. That one was easy.

What about the story of a guy too cool for school that has to go back to school and falls in with a group of lovable ragamuffins?

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Also easy. C’mon, it’s in the title.

Dan Harmon is the premiere television comedy writer of the decade(s), having championed Community (above) and half of Rick and Morty. Here are his rules of writing every episode of anything ever:

  1.  A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2.  But they want something.
  3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4.  Adapt to it,
  5.  Get what they wanted,
  6.  Pay a heavy price for it,
  7.  Then return to their familiar situation,
  8.  Having changed.

When you think of the Shakespearean definition of comedy, you see why this works so well episodically, especially with the Community series in which the zone of comfort is literally being accepted by a society. You have the tragic turn of an insider becoming an outsider, and then the comedic reintegration in a linear progression.

Sometimes you have comedies and tragedies playing out in parallel– take the story of a weird girl with psychic powers becoming best friends with a bunch of adorable dorks (integration) searching for their missing dork friend (broad integration):

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Exploding G-men brains: comedy gold

…and mix it with the story of a sweet girl hanging out with a bunch of cool kids (integration) who drink beer and have sex and pay no consequences whatsoever.

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Oh right.

The tragedy of Stranger Things lies in the alienation of Barb– the cost Nancy pays to trade up into a higher in-group. You can chart out a hell of a whole lot of micro comedies and tragedies in that show and you’d still be hard pressed to label it solidly in either camp. Because it’s rooted in horror.  More on that later.

Now that we’ve covered the macro structures, let’s back up for a bit and examine the basis of all comedy so that we can cover the micro– I’m talking irony. The definition of irony is simply a contradiction of expectations. Now, the primary theory  of laughter is that it creates a social bond between those in a group, signaling that theirs is a safe place. I think of why I laugh nervously– to tell others that I’m not dangerous (or sometimes to awkwardly attempt to make a tense scenario a more amicable one). So let’s blend that with a model that explains why irony is funny to us on an evolutionary level:

A group of hunters are walking through the woods looking for food to kill. They hear some grass moving violently and they think it’s a tiger waiting to pounce on them. They send Kevin, agreed to be the biggest asshole of their group, to go and check it out– Kevin looks in the grass and finds… nothing. It was just the wind. He laughs to the other hunters to nonverbally communicate that everything is fine and they laugh back to confirm everything is indeed fine.

If you dissect that, you essentially have, in my terms:

  1. Set up (We’re hunting!)
  2. Expectation (Kevin’s gonna get et!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (It was wind all along! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! We’re hunting!)

That’s the basis of every joke ever written. You’ll notice it’s almost impossible not to tell a joke without telling a story and that it’s elements are not unlike any other particular scene.

I tend to write humorous books. Here’s the first paragraph of the 9th chapter of The Fish Fox Boys in which our heroes enter a dilapidated mall after the decline of civilization:

Adam and Fred walked carefully through The Mall’s vast, moss-covered corridors, past windows of the storefronts and restaurants that were now strangled by vines and shattered by trees growing through the glass. At first they were startled by what they thought were several people frozen in time, until upon closer inspection, they discovered that these were simply what the old world had called “mannequins.” Fascinated, they poked and prodded a mannequin sporting capri pants and a vest.

Without really thinking about it, I had written through those four steps:

  1. Set up (We’re walking through a scary old mall!)
  2. Expectation (There are frozen people!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (Oh, those are just giant dolls wearing clothes! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! Let’s poke ’em! We’re farting around in a scary old mall!)

A lot of that humor has to do with irreverent tone and pointing out absurdity, but the tone doesn’t become irreverent and the absurd isn’t examined until the end of the paragraph. And I’m going to posit that #4 is where the true humor lies (Let’s poke ’em!), instead of the punchline (Just mannequins!). If you think about how Mitch Hedberg delivers jokes, the laughter is almost always a beat after he says the punchline and comments how dumb his jokes are which also serves to recenter the audience before his next joke. You also have TV comedies like The Office where the punchline is delivered followed by a talking-head shot to capture the more human, often funnier reaction to the punchline (which also contextualizes the audience to the true nature of the characters on screen). The last step is even the funniest in the hunter-tiger model which tells the universal truth that laughter is contagious. You don’t need a joke to make people laugh, you just need laughter.

Back to horror (you thought I forgot! Shame on you!). A while ago, I had to the opportunity to see Robert Brockway read from the second installment of his brutal and genius punk-rock-horror series, The Vicious Circuit, and during the Q&A, a woman asked him how he could take subject matter that’s so inherently foul and horrific and still make it so goddamned hilarious. His answer was that the set up of a joke and the set up of horror is almost exactly the same, just with a different outcome. To use the hunter-tiger model again, there could have just as easily been a tiger waiting in those bushes to eviscerate Kevin. And writers like Brockway prove that the other hunters can still laugh at the end.

In my paragraph from The Fish Fox Boys, the punchline could have been replaced with a horrific payoff– that the people frozen in time were exactly that, stiff inanimate bodies standing around. Again, I think, what counts is the #4 Return to Normalcy (and how you define normalcy in your work). Fred and Adam could have screamed and runaway… or they could still poke the bodies and make fun of their clothing.

It makes a lot of sense to me, that laughter is so closely related to fear. We know that it’s the social cue of safety and the release of anxiety. It’s one of the reasons why going to a standup comedy show feels almost like a more powerful religious experience for me– the catharsis of that internal anxiety being coaxed out by a charismatic comedian and diminished by a room full of other homo sapiens telling each other nonverbally that everything’s fine. But that initial anxiety is necessary. You ever have to switch a sitcom off because it made you feel too anxious? Because you inadvertently mumbled, “Oh God”? Exactly. What makes us feel uncomfortable is also what makes us laugh. As a sidenote, I think that’s why slapstick was/is so popular. (See Buster Keaton’s House Falling on Buster Keaton)

It’s on that anxious axis that all  stories swivel.

But don’t forget that laughter is also the language of play and, whether you’re torquing the tension of a horror or a thriller piece or polishing the jokes and tone of a humorous work, remember that there’s a lot to play with here using the simple mechanics. And if you ain’t hip to this writing scheme, then, well, do what makes you laugh.

Unless that includes, you know, doing real-life horror stuff. GET THOSE KITTENS OUT OF THAT BURLAP SACK, KEVIN.

 

*I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare himself didn’t actually make those distinctions and that definition likely precedes the bad bard by some hundreds of years.

Actively Engaging Media

Actively Engaging Media

I’ll never understand people who don’t read. That’s not true. I’ll never understand people who passively ingest media. Thems the kind that just let the TV happen at ’em.

You’ve probably heard it said a good writer is a great reader. It’s an alright adage, despite having been repeated to the point of redundancy–and with good reason. Because whatever mechanism that drives human ambition is blind to the amount of work that goes into a piece of working literature. You may keep meeting the people that want to write a book who don’t read any books. You may keep running into people who call themselves writers who don’t actually produce anything. But if you meet a writer who does produce and doesn’t read? I don’t know, write their teachers from high school and inform them how much of a disappointment their students have become. The point is that this writing schtick takes work and that work primarily consists of reading a butt load. If you don’t like reading, then, Jesus, dude I don’t know why you’re here. But if you’ve been putting reading books on the backburner, remind yourself that it’s as much work as it is play and crack that sucker open.

So rejoice, all ye wordsmiths, for yer work be entertaining and usually pretty fun. Reading is a good time and don’t forget to enjoy it. But lets take it a step further. I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog about the worth of analyzing films and video games.  I want to ruminate a little further on that, such that that in addition to becoming great readers, we also become great purveyors of art of all kinds. So maybe don’t take off your writing lenses when you treat yourself to a Netflix binge or video game marathon.

The good news is that you were probably going to watch movies and television shows anyway. The challenge is sussing out a lesson in works that exist for us to disappear into– and feel free to become absorbed into a film, that means the storytellers are doing something right. It’s up to you, however, to figure out why it was so effective in ensnaring your attention.

We’re all brothers and sisters in this world of storytelling and there’s a lot to be learned from analyzing other mediums. Think critically of how a film is shot–think of the technical nightmare it takes to pull off a scene like this. This is important to pay attention to because, to dust off another overused adage, “Writing is like directing a movie in someone else’s mind.”

Think about how a single frame can tell a story by its composition:

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

 

By this screen grab alone, you see evidence of Norma’s vanity (the mirror), her break from reality (as she’s not even looking at herself, or the police in the mirror but somewhere far away) . You understand the severity of the situation– there’s been a murder (gun being held as evidence) and Norma’s suspect (police. duh.). And as far as tone goes? An unsettling clash of dark darks and bright lights.

How would you write this scene in a book? How would you write it in a short story? A poem? A song? You’d write it differently for each, I’m sure, because you aren’t half-assing this. Do you get a different feeling from the writing? How so? What details are you leaving in? Out? Why? What changes? Asking ourselves a lot of questions helps to understand the choices being made in other’s work and asking the same question of our own work leads to bigger realizations and (ideally) a clearer focus of what we’re trying to achieve.

So we’re paying attention now, effectively “reading” all forms of art. But where to start? What does a balanced media diet look like? You already know what you like to read, right? Start there and keep at it. And if you find yourself merely entertained and reamin unchallenged, hit up a booklist and maybe pick up one or two of those the next time you’re strolling past your book store. Film? How many of IMDB’s top 250 have you viewed?  Read analyses of film, film, video games. (Hell, I watch hour long videos summarizing Final Fantasy plot lines, because I remember being moved by them as a kid and want to identify the successful elements those stories hit upon.) Read The AV Club after your favorite episode of whatever airs and get your brain juices flowing.

We live in an age when criticism outnumbers content 1000:1 and there’s a lot of content out there. Identifying the useful, educational criticism should help cultivate storytelling instincts and give you the tools and vocabulary to dissect your own stories and see what’s working and what is not.

Read. Watch. Listen. Read.

And don’t forget to write.

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Spoiler alert up top: I’m going to delve into Chinatown, LA Confidential and True Detective. If you have any interest in being surprised by those works, you might want to stop reading now.

I’ve heard it around the way that a successful Sci Fi or Fantasy book reveals its built up world gradually through the fresh eyes of the main protagonist. I got to thinking that maybe noir does the same thing, except in reverse– we’re introduced to a fantasy and then what follows is the revelation of our very own dark and gritty universe (usually) through the eyes of the protagonist who can see the true, underlying reality.

In my post on character sketching, I quoted Raymond Chandler’s bit on Phillip Marlowe. The relevant piece is this:

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth

That’s not breaking any minds to tell you that The Detective archetype is searching for some veritas in noir detective fiction. But I want to pause first on why these guys feel the need to pursue that hidden truth, or rather, what makes them the type of character that knows something is there.

Sherlock Holmes is a good place to start. He solves crimes by deductive/inductive reasoning. He looks at something from above and in the solving of the case, elevates the crime to his own level. He’s simply smarter than the crime.

But noir heroes slum along the bottom. The Noir Detective yanks down the case to his level. Because his world is the truthful one and the illusion spun by the conspiracy of his social betters doesn’t sit well with the reasoning of the cynical world.

In the first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle has been through the hell of losing a child and living deep undercover for years, well acquainting him with the pain of living and how the criminal world operates. When he transitions into a homicide detective, he’s aware that the structures in place are illusory– he can sniff corruption on his fellow police and the investigation is being misdirected by an invisible hand. Cohle also extends this to the broader subject of the world:

“It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space.”

Rust works outside of the agreed upon societal norms, because he outright rejects them as an illusion. He rejects authority, he rejects human relationships, he rejects society. Which is what makes his and Marty Hart’s relationship so powerful– Marty is discovering that his suburban American dream is ultimately immaterial, realized in the bitter disintegration of his marriage and the troubling sexual pressures his daughters encounter. And he’s ultimately powerless to stop it (owing to his own sexual infidelities, alcoholism, and heavy handed parenting methods). It’s only when Marty is dragged to the bottom, to the world of harsh truths where Cohle is waiting for him, that they are able to finally solve the murders.

The mechanism of noir is the progression of interviews and interrogations. In there lies the fabric of the illusion– everyone provides deceitful information to obfuscate the truth. Let’s take a look at Chinatown in which Jake Gittes (a veteran of the harsh realities in Chinatown) is approached by Evelyn Mulwray who turns out to a be an actor. The water department covers its tracks of diverting irrigation to the orange groves. Hollis Mulwray is found drowned in freshwater, but had salt water in his lungs. Katherine Mulwray is supposedly Hollis’s mistress, before it’s revealed that she is Evelyn’s sister before [redacted]. Everything seems to be positioned in such a way that it seems normal at first glance. By the end of the film, every threaded lie is unspun and what remains is a sinister and grim reality dressed up as a caper. In other words, it’s still Chinatown where base crimes are the norm and it turns out that the rest of LA is no different. Again, normalcy is the fantasy.

Also, how good is it that Gittes gets his nose sliced up, metaphorically making him an impotent detective coinciding with him unable to decipher the pageantry in front of him? Pretty sweet.

There’s a lot to play with here and a good example of flipping this script is James Elroy’s LA Quartet. If you think about the main characters driving the novels, they are actually somewhat naive and too obsessed with outperforming their peers to realize the fallacy the of the criminal justice system they participate in. Perhaps because of this, they are often casualties of their own investigations, one way or another. Meanwhile, the common thread through all of these stories is the ever terrifying Dudley Smith, a man who understands the dark reality of crime and departmental (even federal) corruption. Instead of being a The Noir Hero, he chooses to perpetuate (and occasionally even create) the illusion to benefit himself financially and further his career. I can’t think of a better noir villain than Dudley.

At the end of the day what you have is a character interacting with the setting. Interacting is the operating word. I feel as if many books in various genres offer a passive protagonist who allows the world to happen at them. What I appreciate about noir is that the protagonist digs his hands into the guts of the setting and shows the reader its entrails and shouts, “THIS! THIS IS WHAT WE’RE MADE OF.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Routine: more Art than Science

Routine: more Art than Science

I’ve been trying to get on a consistent writing routine and almost every author who gives writing advice provides the simple maxim, “Write Everyday.”

I’d like to add the caveat, “…except when you don’t.”

Days and weeks are busy. If you, like me, work a joe job schlepping for the man, then you’ve got to take care of the time you have with some delicacy. You need to unwind, you need to eat, you need to be (occasionally) social, you need to  read and ingest other forms of media (which is half of what this writing gig’s about). And you need to write.

I myself have been trying to hit a quota of at least four times a week. In my more frantic pushes to finish projects, I’d set aside 4-6 hours at night of non-stop writing action. The results were very productive– I’d get over 20,000 words a week. That’s not always possible but what I learned from that is that it helps to anchor your routine to rituals. My rituals were:

  1. Brew a pot of coffee at 6 PM
  2. Drink coffee, start project, catch up with Twitter
  3. Get a burrito between 7-8 PM
  4. Eat burrito while writing
  5. Brew decaf pot of coffee, see what’s happening on Twitter
  6. Get zoned in on writing until 12:30 AM

It’s probably not the most feasible schedule ever written– I’m not entirely sure I can write off burritos for tax purposes– but that framework of regularity took care of life’s stressful little details such that I could focus on the work. If I got lost along the way, I knew how to click back into the groove (“Oh, I haven’t brewed the decaf yet. I’m on it.”). I also knew when I was going to stop (which is sometimes more of a suggestion if the writing’s hot).

You’ll also notice that I included farting around on social media into the routine. I feel like it’s necessary to distract yourself a little bit to keep the gears in your head properly oiled. Writing emails, chatting a buddy on Facebook, Tweeting, these are all ways to exercise the writing component of your mind, while also exorcising certain ideas that have no place in your fiction (e.g. if I have a joke that’s inappropriate for the book I’m working on, I’ll throw it on Twitter or simply just send it to a friend, instead of trying to jam it crudely into some prose).

These days I’m allowing a little more time to finish projects, I find myself asking myself the question of setting up a word count quota. How much should I get down?  I’ve used quotas in the past and they can be incredibly helpful. In fact, I still use them but I’ve ratcheted it down to ~400 words per session instead of 1,200.

Because I think the more important thing to set up is the time allotted to write instead of a hard number to hit. You ever read a listicle that tried so hard to hit the word count that it strung a sentence along twice the length it needed to be? There are tales of NaNoWriMo cheating their word counts in all sorts of ways– and it misses the point. If you set up a beginning time and a finishing time, you’ll hit your quota. You’ll exceed it beyond your wildest speculations.

I still haven’t created a perfect schedule and I’m still tweaking what works. There are the days where I just squeak by with the minimum 400 and then there are days when I can’t stop and I’ve got 20 more pages compiled. And maybe that’s just what works for me– like a runner training for the big marathon.

So, if this entry has a point it’s this: The big push will yield a big pay off, but so will the accumulation of regular sprints. You just need to make the time.

If you’ve got suggestions, hey, lemme know.