Friday, October 29, 2010

Mary Scruggs on Humor at OCWW

The Off-Campus Writers' Workshop hosted comedienne and writer Mary Scruggs yesterday. Mary is currently the head of Writing and Education Programs for The Second City Training Center in Chicago. Her work has been produced in Chicago at Live Bait, the Annoyance Theater and the Circuit Court of Cook County, as well as at the New York Fringe Fest, the LA Women's Theater Festival and LA's Sherry Theater.

Some of Mary's tips:

Separate creation work from revision mode. Improvisers can't second guess themselves. Let the first draft be a mess, a discovery. If it's different than you expected, follow that path.

(At the front of the room, Mary beautifully personified these ideas and the old improvisation adage to "never say no" - every audience suggestion and question was greeted by her with delight. Her glee was absolutely infectious.)

One of the reasons we all get annoyed with our dear old friend Saturday Night Live is that often the skits fade away rather than have a punch line. Mary's take is that the SNL formula has become Premise + Gimmick, and repeat.

Her secret to a satisfyingly comic ending: Figure out what the character wants. This is the "character objective," or the engine that drives the plot. (Works in all narrative, actually, not just the comedic.) A good ending for comedy will be when the character gets what she wants or is definitively thwarted.

What makes for rich comedy is when the character goes about getting what she wants in the worst of ways. (See Steve Carrell's character in The Forty Year Old Virgin looking for love in all the wrong places.)

Our writing job as creators of these characters is Exploring and Heightening the process of their endeavors. Looking for "comic traction," as Mary put it. Exploit it. Traditionally, three times. ("Three guys walk into a bar...") During all this exploring and heightening, Mary urged us to "feel the fear and do it anyway," advice I particularly love.

A comic character has (of course these "rules" are meant to be broken):

- that necessary objective

- a skewed perspective

- flaws ("Heighten them," said Mary. "Hit them hard.")

- a redeeming feature we can relate to. Here is where Empathy is created, where the character's flaws and essential humanity collide.

The set up of a scene, or the exposition, is typically where non-comic or new comic writers spend lots of time, said Mary, to the nods of our description-loving group. (My last short story spent its first 25% just setting the scene. Yeah, I counted.) At Second City, the writer-performers will typically give the audience the least, rather than the most, amount of info that the audience needs to enjoy the scene - Who, What and Where in, at most, three lines. In a two character scene, the first line establishes who one character is, the second line who the other speaker is and what they are doing, the third line raises the stakes. Our spontaneous OCWW example:

"The take-out guy didn't give us potatoes with the order!"
"But that's our last seventy-five cents!"
"What about our hungry kids?"

Not terribly funny, but pretty efficient at setting the scene and conflict, don't you think?

A classic Second City skit has two sisters and their husbands playing a game of Pictionary. "It'll be fun! It'll bring us closer!" say the women. (Can't you already see where this is going to go? Don't you want to see the disaster?) Instead of couple vs. couple, the women and men group up. When one woman draws an X on the board, her sister yells, "Tuna salad!" - the right answer - and the two tell together a story about when they were kids, each chiming in, one hated tuna salad, the other warned her when it was in the fridge with a post-it note, etc. etc. Cute. The men get "Around the World in 80 Days" and bomb, the man drawing taking it all hilariously literally, drawing a big round circle, then starting what you realize, to big laughs, will be eighty hash-marks around it. Cute.

Here's the story point where the scene can go on too long. We've established setting, characters and their objectives, now is the time for a "transformational midpoint" to reframe the scene. The "now it's personal" moment, to borrow from cop movie trailers. In "Pictionary," the men decide they want to actually win. Game on.

"It'll bring us closer." Ha ha.

To end the scene, you need a second turning point, a break of some kind. You don't need to resolve everything - as Mary suggested, "Don't be afraid of leaving a lingering stink in the air." Just break the tension by answering the prevailing question. Using the interminable (to all but Lord of the Rings fanatics) thirty-minute denoument AFTER the famous ring's fate was determined, Mary warned us of the energy slump immediately after climax (giggle, giggle, sorry.) Second City will bring it back up with what they call a "run out" or a "blow" - it's a final punchline before the blackout that gets the comic energy up again, a version of "here we go again!"

Mary's example sounded like one of the character-driven pieces that Second City does really well but whose moderate pace and lack of hard punch would never work on sketch-based TV shows.

(Randy and I saw one of these in Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies in July where a couple of food tent workers in Grant Park, the man recently from Senegal, the woman from Eastern Europe, take down their restaurant booths and compare notes on the Chicago institution of Taste of Chicago. Charming, lovely, funny. TV-friendly? No way.)

In Mary's example, a woman flips through an invisible rack of clothes when another enters and says, "Honey, I've been looking for you all over the mall!" (Lightening quick exposition.) The mom and teenage daughter spend the scene disagreeing over clothing choices and you come to realize it's one of the last places where they will come together - the daughter moves farther away as the mother criticizes and clings to her declining ability to exact influence over her daughter. Opportunities for funny here, of course, (the daughter's slutty clothes choices, the mom's shock) and also empathy and emotion. The "run-out" line encapsulates all these poignant themes, but also hits a comic high point.

Daughter, as they leave the store: Will you buy me some beer?

Mom: I told you, it was just that one time!


Mary Scruggs generously shared much more, but I'll cut it off with this - "K" words are funny. "Kentucky Fried Chicken" just makes us laugh, for some reason. (For my girls these days, it's all about the "P.")

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Fireflies" by Mia, 8

It was a hot summer night when I yelled "DAD'S HOME!!!"

We rushed out the door to meet him.

We gave him a giant hug.

"Fireflies!" I said.

We ran inside to get some jars.

Then we ran out the door.

"I caught one!" I was so happy.

"I caught two!" said Nora.

I looked at Nora. She did not lie.

I wept. My dad came to me and said, "What happened?"

"Nora caught more than me!" I wept. "And she's littler." Nora: I caught three. No, four. No, five. No, six!

Nora looked at me. I looked at Nora.

"Want to twade?" Nora said. So we did.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Words Are Like" - They Might Be Giants

My Daughter's Memoir is Strangely Similar to Mine

It was so fun when I was getting my pets for the first time! I got frogs!

But! It was not fun when the frogs died.

The next day I went to school. But I was still sad.

When I got home I saw the pets were in the backyard.

"What did you do!!!!!!!!" I screamed to my mom.

I was furious at my mom when she said what she did.

After that I felt a bit gooder.

The next day I told my dad.

My dad came closer and said...

...why Mom put the pets in the backyard. But I was still sad.

I felt better when my dad was done.

(Ed. Who is the smiling figure on the box throwing the tadpoles into what looks like fire? Very mysterious.)

Even now I do not have a pet. I am still happy!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Paul: "No Conventional Phrase"

This may be the oddest grief I've ever felt. Years ago I had to necessarily suspend feelings for this person, although his deeply sentimental streak was one of the traits where we had most kinship. We were not good for each other.

His early death was inevitable; I knew this not long after I first met him twenty-two years ago. But I carried a persistent denial - it made the relationship that we had possible - that his body would be as big and unique as his personality and he would beat the devil.

He died in December but I found out only this week. It's been a week of heart-filling beauty - limpid blue skies, trees on fire. A week to be grateful for life. Today I wrote for hours -- Randy took the girls costume hunting -- then biked, hard, down the Green Bay trail, trying to get out of my head. I walked the bike down the sandy slope to the Wilmette beach below Plaza de Lago, then left it to run to the water. After an icy bite, the little waves were cool and good on my legs. Kids in swimsuits, moms in beach chairs. The horizon was hazy; closer in, white sailboats and sailboards dotted the brilliant surface.

I needed to get lost in this beauty. "He's not dead," I told myself this week, because the memories that flooded in were so vivid. I could hear his voice. "I remember it like yesterday," said my friend Dianne. Yeah. But it wasn't yesterday, thank God, and yes, he is gone.

I left my shoes at the water's edge and ran to Gilson beach through the shallows. Waved to our neighbor at his sailboat. Pulled off my sweaty shirt and shorts and walked into the water. July and August had colder water than this. Kept walking, kept breathing through the chill until the water hit my chin and I turned back toward the shore. The cottonwoods have turned pale gold. I sobbed once, twice, three times, - this brilliant life, this lovely, lovely life, an abundance of riches, no more for him. I took a breath, ducked under the surface and emerged. Moved out of the heavy water back to shore.

There were tears enough when we were together. More than enough.

How do you talk about your first lover? How do you forgive him? How do you forgive yourself?

He was a charming scoundrel, a rabbit trickster, a gambler and a con man. He was a sentimental sap and a brilliant writer, an inspired teacher, a comedian, an artist tortured and capable of torture. If what sets us apart from the animals is knowledge of our own deaths, his human burden was unfairly, onerously heavy - he knew all too well the early outcome. He carried the disease not only in his genes, and in his lungs and gut, but on his very skin. Cystic fibrosis obstructs the cells' proper absorption of salt, leaving a salty rime that a mother can taste on her baby's skin, that a lover can taste.

We were together in Iowa, when I was barely earning my master's in film studies and he was a member of the Writer's Workshop. We were together, and then we weren't, then we were again. Then I left him for my friend Greg in the English program, then I cheated on Greg with him and left Greg to return to him.

He bought a dog and we drove with her to his parents' summer house in Manchester-on-the-Sea, north of Boston. He wrote; I waitressed and tried to find production work. After a year, his parents leased the house to a paying tenant and Paul and I had a terrible fight. I left him for two days. He pleaded until, exhausted, I took him back and we moved to a house in Lexington, Massachusetts with his depressed but sexy friend, with whom Paul could not believe I did not cheat. I left him. I got a job in Chicago. He came to Chicago. We were together somewhat; I left to date a man I worked with. And then cheated on the man. With Paul. I left the man I worked with, not for Paul, but because I shouldn't have been with him in the first place.

The eventual end, after four on and off years, spiraled down to dust and nothing amid the debris of quick and angry sex ("I'm a monster," he said the last time, with remorse and guilt, then got up and left), infuriating phone calls that left me pounding the phone with the receiver, revelations of betrayals so far in the past that they almost didn't hurt, and amnesia to all that had been good between us.

If at the beginning of all this lying and cheating and sex, I learned that he had a fatal and incurable disease, and yet continued the lying and cheating and sex, does that make me inhumanly cruel or could it please maybe mean that I looked beyond his disease and dared to grapple with the heart of a real and brilliant and terribly complicated man who happened to be ill and yet refused to be defined by it?


Could I have been a girl in her stupid twenties who had a huge hole in her heart and in her family and whose neediness was confirmed and partly satisfied by the intensity of his persistent desire and sometime love? Could we have been a match, even if a bad and destructive one, like magnets drawn by the other's weaknesses and absences?


Could the prescribed steroids he took to remediate his symptoms, and the self-prescribed drinking and tobacco he took to remediate the stuff in his head have exacerbated the rages, the irrational jealousy, the self-destructiveness and the search for temporary oblivion in me and all the other women? Yes, of course.

The last years, the Chicago years, he taught me the Cyrillic alphabet and the ever useful word "Schadenfruede." He introduced me to my beloved Richard Yates and Ivan Turgenev. We laughed at their black and beautiful work, and at the unrelenting sorrows of Young Werther. We recited lines from Dr. Zhivago back and forth in bad British accents: "The walls of his heart were like paper!" "I don't want to believe it if it isn't true!" "They shot the Czar! And all his family!" I called him Pavel when things were good. He wrote my boss a nasty letter about me when things were bad.

The last time we spoke, I had been content, safe, good and happy with Randy for years. I'd gone back to school, jumped with gusto into teaching full-time. He called to tell me he had to put down Lady, the chocolate lab we both loved. I took the phone into the bathroom; the former bank building where Randy and I lived had no reception in the basement and I didn't want to talk in front of Randy. I had nothing to hide from him -- I would share the entire conversation later, but this moment needed to be private. Paul and I wept together as he told me how he held her as she received the injection and as she died. We had loved her; she was funny and good and innocent. We shared this moment of remembering her. I thanked him for calling to tell me and said good-bye.

I have ten thousand regrets, but the only really important one is that I wish I could have been kinder.

He loved to recite the sixth stanza of Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben" - a poem where the poet speaks of himself and his own death in third person. He always recited the words in a rushed, joyous gallop that irked me because I couldn't understand what he said. He laughed at his own drama as he intoned the last lines.

Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Interview with Emma Donoghue

The From Left to Write website has an interview with Room author Emma Donoghue today, including questions from yours truly!

Her novel Room was stunning to read and it's very exciting to have this added insight to her process. I love her voice and her sense and her candid advice so much. Here's a great quote: I find the parent-child relationship infinitely interesting; it changes every week, it’s never stable or symmetrical, it can swing between tyranny and zen-like acceptance, passion and banality every couple of minutes.

You can read the entire interview HERE and my original post here. And here is a round-up of all the posts inspired by Room from From Left to Write contributors. Writer-Mommy's post comparing mothering as a verb to motherhood as a noun is particularly moving.