This year the In Memoriam section of the Oscars is going to be longer than the award ceremony.
I’m writing this shortly after hearing about Carrie Fisher dying. Yeah, I’m a Star Wars fanatic, so of course I dig Carrie Fisher. But to me, she was something more. When I found out that she was a script doctor and wrote screenplays, that was the first time I really considered screenwriting as a cool endeavor. She was sharp and funny.
So that’s why I’m here in Hollywood. I want to write. I want to be like Carrie Fisher and be known for both my writing and my personality. She was amazing, guys. Yeah, she was also bat shit crazy, but aren’t we all?
Here is a more in depth look at my favorite films of 2016. I’ll steer clear of spoilers.
Starting with a cheat…
Tied for #10: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Both are super funny comedies, but the two couldn’t be more different. Wilderpeople is Taika Waititi’s follow up to What We Do In the Shadows (possibly the funniest movie of 2014). I think a lot of the New Zealand specific jokes go over our heads in America, but Wilderpeople is still a really touching and funny movie that’s essentially an odd couple road film…a very tried and true formula. Popstar is a modern day Spinal Tap from the Lonely Island guys. Their reign on SNL is a blind spot for me, so I really find their absurdly silly songs fresh and new. This is one that I saw in a screening very early on in the year (Judd Apatow was there) so I don’t know what’s different from the version I saw versus the final release. I’m guessing they trimmed down the final release, but the DVD/Blu-Ray features a lot of deleted material. Like Spinal Tap, the sheer number of jokes is mind blowing.
#9: Don’t Breathe. Again this is another one that I saw an advance screening. From what I understand, a few minutes of the Blind Man explaining his motivations were cut from the final release, but are on the DVD/Blu-Ray as well as a little bit of maybe a redemption moment for Jane Levy’s character. Jane Levy is becoming one hell of a scream queen. She’s great in this and writer/director Fede Alvarez’s previous Evil Dead reimagining. Don’t Breathe features a pretty realistic look at many of the vacant neighborhoods of Detroit too.
#8: 10 Cloverfield Lane. I missed a screening for this when it was still called Valencia. I think maybe the Cloverfield tie in hurt it at the box office. Did enough people see the original Cloverfield to warrant a kind of/not really sequel? The cast of this is phenomenal. I love stories that could work well as plays too. I’d love to see a stage adaptation of this. It’s really a master class in writing plot twists. I’m trying to piece together who is probably ultimately responsible for the great screenplay since there are three writers credited. Since the first two also have “story by” credits, I’m guessing Damian Chazelle, who will pop up again on this list later, is largely responsible.
#7: Sing Street. I’m probably the perfect age to really love this love story/80s musical. I’m the same age as writer/director John Carney. Like Carrie Fisher, Carney is very vocal about his opinions. Unlike Carrie Fisher, his opinions kind of made him sound like a dick. He took down Keira Knightley after making Begin Again with her. I loved Begin Again, as well as his debut Once. Sing Street, like those two films, is also the story about a boy who loves a girl and making art with that girl.
#6. Midnight Special. This is a phenomenal sci-fi allegory about parenthood. Jeff Nichols is just a master story teller. I’m really bummed that I wasn’t able to see his second movie this year, Loving. Midnight Special is wonderfully acted too. Michael Shannon and Adam Driver both play against type. Shannon is the protective dad and Driver, fresh off of The Force Awakens, is the socially awkward and clumsy NSA agent tracking Shannon and his son, played by Jaeden Leiberher, who held his own opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in the sweet St. Vincent.
#5. Other People. Nobody has been talking about this movie that has my favorite performance of the year. It opened on 12 screens in September, but is now available to stream on Netflix. This was written by Chris Kelly, who was one of the head writers at Saturday Night Live as well as almost every other funny sketch thing. I’m guessing this is a semi-autobiographic story because it’s about a struggling comedy writer, played by Jesse Plemons, who has to go back home to take care of his dying mom played by Molly Shannon. Molly Shannon is nothing short of amazing in this. The fact that she isn’t even being considered for an Oscar nomination is a real shame and says a lot about the politics of show business. She is by far my best performer of the year. Like films along the lines of Skeleton Twins, Other People is a perfect balance of super funny in one moment and then heart wrenching in the next.
#4. Arrival. I love a movie that makes me look at life differently after seeing it. Arrival did that. I ended up going for a walk before I went to my car just so I could process what I watched. I think time jumps are really difficult to write. Arrival does that in a way that, without spoiling anything, is simultaneously clear and ambiguous at the same time. I can’t think of another film that expertly doles out information as precisely as Arrival. I’m bummed that it was based on a short story, because this is a film that I wish I could visit a more thorough version of in prose.
#3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yes, I’m biased. I’ve loved Star Wars my entire life. I’m not only a prequel apologist, but I’ll argue the merits of Jar Jar Binks. With that being said, Rogue One is the prequel we deserved. The last ten minutes of this film, the ten minutes where you know what’s going to happen, still end up being ten of the most edge-of-your-seat tense minutes of the year. I’ve been worried that Disney was going to do to Star Wars what they’ve done to Marvel and just drown us in content both good and so-so. I was cautiously optimistic about a Star Wars movie without the core characters, but Rogue One calmed any reservations I may have had.
#2. Green Room. This was, by far, the scariest movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Mostly because I’ve been in situations that could have easily broken as bad for me as it does for the band in this film. I worked in a punk/metal club that sometimes featured Nazi bands, which drew Nazi crowds. We locked ourselves inside when fights between Nazis and SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) spilled outside and become near riots that attracted the Detroit Police. And in my later years, comedy has taken me to some really shitty dives in the middle of nowhere. Green Room, like Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film Blue Ruin is an uncomfortably grounded story about real people stuck in unreal situations.
#1. La La Land. I’m a sucker for a musical. I’m a sucker for a Hollywood story. I’m a sucker for a love story. I’m a sucker for a bittersweet story. I’m a sucker for a story about pursuing your dreams. I feels like Damian Chazelle made La La Land specifically for me. This, like Rogue One, ties a perfect bow on a really stellar piece of art in those final moments. The music is so good. I just saw this yesterday, otherwise I’d have already overdosed Allyson (my fiancé) with the soundtrack. I think I caught all of the “hidden” edits in Birdman. If there are hidden edits in the opening number of La La Land, then I didn’t find them…although, as soon as I finish writing this, I am going to dive deep into all the information I can find about how this was made. The cinematography was just amazing. Simply amazing. Linus Sandgren takes places I see every day and shoots them so beautifully.
So that’s the list. I haven’t seen Silence yet, but I really want to. I love stories about people whose faith is pushed to the limit. That’s why Calvary was my favorite film in 2014. I didn’t get to see Edge of Seventeen or the aforementioned Loving either. I think I’ll really like them both when I do catch up with them. One film I did see this year that will definitely make my 2017 list is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I saw a preview screening and if it came out this year, it would have easily been in my top three. I think it screened at Sundance or South by Southwest, so I guess technically I could have included it, but we’ll hold off until everyone gets to see it.
Here’s what’s going on…all in one convenient place!
Tonight! Super fun show. I was there last month with DJ dangler when he was in town. Plus look at this line up! A whole lot of funny!
Tomorrow! It’s insane that I’m on this show. Joshy Fadem is bizarre and wonderful. I’m really honored to be part of it.
My buddy Casey Moran let me put together the line up for this show. A bunch of my favorite people all in one place. It’ll be material that’s not on any of my albums or on Youtube.
And then you can find me almost every Sunday at the Comedy Store in the Belly Room with my West Coast comedy family at Candy!
I write best with a partner. I’ve tried a few different ones over the years before finding one who I really click with. And I found him completely by accident.
The hardest thing I found about writing with a partner is that one person is always going to be more motivated than the other. Some days you may be the motivated one, while other days it may be them. No relationship is truly 50/50 all the time.
Whenever I write something, I send it out to a bunch of people to get feedback. Very few people actually ever get back to me. DJ Dangler always does. And when he does, he’s thorough. The first thing I remember critiquing was a spec script I wrote for Bob’s Burgers. We went through it line by line picking apart dialogue that didn’t feel true to characters and moments that didn’t feel like the show. It was incredibly helpful.
The thing that he and I just pitched was originally written as a live action show. As it developed, it became clear that changing it to an animated show would open up a universe of opportunities.
DJ is a few years younger than I am, and those few years make a big difference. I went through most of teen years without a cartoon aimed for my age group. The Simpsons were just bumpers during the Tracey Ullman Show for most of the time I was in high school. And the Beavis and Butt-Head “Frog Baseball” short didn’t even debut until after I graduated. In order for me to get into an animated show, I really have to get over the fact that it’s animated first. DJ is different. He’s always had cartoons in his life.
Having someone with experiences and strengths different than yours is great to have in a creative partner. DJ’s brain works in ways mine simply doesn’t. We’re both pretty opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m more of a classical story teller, tuned into the mechanics of script writing, while DJ’s brain works without restraint. We pull each other to the center.
I romanticize things and thought that he and I never say “no” to each other and that we always went down paths together until we hit a mutually agreed upon dead end. He pointed out that I’m definitely seeing our relationship through rose tinted glasses and we argue a lot! And he’s right. I can remember a few nights where I was shooting down every idea he had and then we agreed that we got about as much work done that day as we were going to do. Because we lived within walking distance of each other, I’d sometimes walk him half way home and we’d decompress. My memory is that we never ended a writing session angry with one another. Frustrated, definitely.
Writing with a partner is about compromise. I’m stubborn and spoiled. My parents not only gave me everything I ever needed, but they gave me everything I ever wanted. I get crabby if I don’t get my way. I’m a child. When DJ and I would work on a script, it was very hard for me to accept the fact that DJ has his own timeline. That’s my biggest hurdle with writing. I wrote a screenplay with a single mom in Michigan and was constantly grouchy about the fact that she had other responsibilities beyond our story. It’s easy for me to take ownership of my issue while I’m not currently collaborating with anyone.
There are a lot of advantages in writing with someone. Dialogue is going to sound more natural when you have a person to actually speak it to out loud. You’re going to be able to catch spelling and grammatical errors quicker because you’re proof reading one another. With this article, I’m going to have to wait until Kent Tucker texts me. And I’m going to be so mad at myself if I transposed to and too again. You’re going to generate content you couldn’t have come up with on your own. DJ and I wrote a screenplay and in it there’s a joke that DJ wrote. I don’t completely get the joke. I understand it enough from context, but I didn’t know the reference. I like that. It makes the story feel more “real” for me because there’s plenty in the world that I don’t know. Your characters will also have distinctive voices because a lot of times you’ll find you and your partner start taking ownership of certain characters.
My favorite thing about writing with someone is that you have a teammate who can pick you up while you’re down. Living in LA is brutal. Everything is so expensive. Nothing moves quickly enough. The traffic is a great metaphor for show business. Nothing is moving and there’s no explanation why. Once you get to the end of a jam, things go smooth, until they stop again without rhyme or reason. Hollywood is dirty and smells like urine. The soundscape is a constant barrage of sirens, helicopters and car horns. There were so many times where I thought this was all hopeless until DJ would say or do something that made it better. And I hope I did the same for him.
My advice to other writers is try writing with a partner and see how it goes. If you have someone who gives you good feedback on your solo stuff, then maybe that means they like what you do enough to want to team up. Steer clear of people who don’t give you feedback. If they can’t find the time to do that, then they’re probably going to struggle to find the time to write too. Find someone who brings out the best in you, who you like spending time with. You can’t have DJ though. He’s mine!
I’ve been fortunate over the past year to shadow an established television writer as he works on various pitches for his own shows. He works predominately in procedurals and political dramas, while I’m mainly a comedy guy. But I knew the fundamentals I was learning were universal.
He always starts with a brief, but catchy biography about himself and why that makes him the best person to write what he’s pitching. His origin story has become like folklore. He was a Washington DC speech writer, but some of the details change a little bit here and there. Most importantly, the drama amps up in a way that always hooks you right out of the gate.
From there he goes into the teaser for his show. If you don’t know, that’s basically the thing you see before the first commercial that, if done right, keeps you from changing the channel for the next thirty or sixty minutes. My mentor is great a teasers. Political drama and procedurals are pretty much at the bottom of the list of things I like to watch, but more often than not, his teasers grab me.
Then he talks about the pilot episode while giving pertinent information about all of the key characters. He gives you enough of their backstories to get you to really know who they are as people. Sometimes if the teaser doesn’t grab me, his ability to create interesting characters does. His characters are always flawed. They feel real. Most importantly, they’re interesting. We always know what their needs are and why they need it.
After he gives a pretty detailed beat by beat run down of the pilot episode, he goes over story beats for the entire first season of his show up to the cliffhanger ending. He wraps up by touching on the themes of further seasons so that whoever he’s pitching to knows he’s thought through this entire world.
Off the top of my head, I’ve sat through seven very detailed pitches in the past year from him. He’s a work horse. In addition to learning how to pitch, I learned how to manage time and projects. I’ll write more about that in the future.
So that brings me to our pitch.
Along with comedian DJ Dangler and artist Axel Ortiz, I created an animated show. My friend Joe Apel has been working in animation for the past ten years and directed me to someone at a network who might be looking for something maybe along the lines of what we created. I sent an email and a meeting was set up pretty quickly.
DJ spends most of his time on the road making his living off of stand up, while I’m currently choosing to take a little break from the road and focus my attention on California right now. When the meeting was set, DJ decided to fly back to not only be there for the meeting, but to make sure we were prepared.
Axel is just as much of a work horse as the aforementioned television writer. He’s a veteran of the pitch meeting, but pointed out earlier that if we had a star attached to our show, that would give us an advantage. Over the past six months, I’ve been working on getting the biggest name I know attached to it. The week before our pitch, we got him. He looked at what we were going in with and said that he was happy to be part of it and if it lands, we can hammer out the details then.
I researched the person we were pitching to. She was a guest on a comedy podcast and spent an entire hour talking about the pitching process. In that interview, I also found out that she, like DJ, is from Indiana and her wife, like me, is from Michigan. She and I both nerd out over character actors too. So I knew we had a conversation opener and I wasn’t going to have to overly explain things like if I said, “Oh this character is a little bit like Miller from the movie Repo Man, played by Tracey Walter”, she was going to know who Tracey Walter is. For the record, many of the scripts I’ve written have characters that I imagine Tracey Walter playing. I know why Jonathan Demme puts him in every movie, because Tracey Walter is a national treasure! I once told DJ that I would be more excited about meeting Tracey Walter than I would be about meeting George Lucas or Harrison Ford. I think Tracey Walter lives within a mile of me too. And if you think every time my girlfriend and I walk around the neighborhood, I’m not on a constant look out for Tracey Walter watering his plants, then you’re wrong!
Axel went in to pitch on another show three weeks prior to our meeting and told us what the executive asked from them. DJ and I wanted to make sure we were over prepared. We had a pilot script. We had ideas for story beats for our first season and I knew what I wanted to happen in the final episode of the entire series. But DJ and I detailed out episode by episode the entire first season of our show. We knew the story beats and what themes each episode would explore. A friend of mine who works in printing made us a really nice pitch packet too.
The idea of writing stories with an overall point of view or theme is something that I would accidentally sometimes hit, but other times missed completely. DJ and I have a mutual friend in comedian turned television writer Nick Anthony who really hammered into us the idea that we sometimes missed that. So when DJ and I started the conversation about each episode of our show, we started with what was the theme for that episode. It really helped us figure out where the other characters were going to be in their individual arcs.
The night before our pitch, DJ and I walked home around five miles from West Hollywood to the far eastern side of Hollywood really exploring every character we created. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their backgrounds, and their secrets.
So going into our pitch I knew we created something cool, timely, we have a big name attached and we were prepared.
The meeting was great. I told her that I enjoyed the podcast she was on and we found out her dad and sister both went to Purdue, same as DJ. Her wife and my girlfriend are from the same small suburb of Detroit. She asked how DJ, Axel and I knew each other. DJ and I have a fun origin story where we both showed up early at Nick Anthony’s home to go do a show in San Diego. Nick wasn’t there yet. I was parked on the street waiting. A guy pulled up on the other side of the street, got out of his car, put a large pizza on the roof and just ate the entire thing in front of me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. He was so full of unadulterated and gluttonous joy. From that moment I wish I could be that guy’s friend. That guy turned out to be DJ. We hit it off that night and have been friends ever since. Axel and I met at San Diego Comic Con last year and our origin story gave me a chance to really talk about how much I love his work and why he was the perfect person to design our show.
Then she wanted to know about our characters. DJ and I were able to speak passionately and deeply about each of them. I like writing female characters. This show features two really strong female characters. The main character is, in some ways, man boy with arrested development not completely unlike DJ or myself. One of the women in the show is his daughter, the other is basically his boss. Both are strong. Neither of them are bitchy. Both of them are just as cool and quick as he is. They’re strong women, but they’re perfect. They’re deep and rich characters. I can see how it would be an easy trap for a guy writing a woman to over compensate by trying to make her too perfect. Ours aren’t at all. They both have real human foibles. Also, I’m hoping I just used the word “foibles” correctly.
At the end of our meeting she asked us what our roles would be if the show were picked up. I explained that when Garth Ennis created the comic book Preacher he gave artist Steve Dillon co-creator credit because he felt the look of it was just as important as the story. I believe in that. When I asked Axel to draw the characters, I told him very little. And aside from changing the hair color on one of them, I didn’t have any changed. I love his art. DJ and I are great at writing jokes and character, but we still struggle with story and conflict. An analogy a script reader gave us of a screenplay that we wrote was that there’s “a lot of icing, but not much cake”. That’s fair. So I said DJ and I care a lot about our characters, but if the show were picked up, it would probably be best if we were teamed with a producer who was better at breaking stories. So I think that showed that we were flexible and going to be easy to work with.
There’s another show, which I can’t name, where the creators were fired because they were way too difficult and had very unrealistic expectations of what they were entitled to. Hollywood is a city built on collaborative art. Nothing here is a single vision. You have to be willing to trust others to help you create the best product possible.
According to the podcast our executive was on, because she sees so many people, her pitch meetings rarely go more than thirty minutes. Ours went 45. She laughed a lot and seemed engaged. There’s nothing I would have done differently about our meeting. We gave her our book with the character art and descriptions as well as additional information about the show. We’ll know more in a couple weeks.
Yes, at this stage a hundred things would have to happen for this to be a show any of us would ever get to see. We’re going to move forward and continue pitching to other places too. But on the flipside of this meeting, I thought it would be nice to share some of the tips that I learned.
- Know as much about the person you’re pitching as you can. As they say, “knowledge is power”.
- Be prepared to explain why what you’re pitching is important to you personally and why you’re the best person to write it.
- Television is a medium based on characters. Make sure you have interesting ones and you can talk about them.
- As with any speech writing, pepper in a joke or two if it suits the mood. I don’t think I’d try to make anyone laugh if I were pitching Schindler’s List: The Series.
- Keep it pithy, punk. Metallica songs are like three hours long and feel like they include every idea that everyone in the band had. In the time it takes to listen to two Metallica songs, you could listen to seventeen Ramones songs. Be a Ramone. Leave them wanting more.
- Don’t just talk. Listen. We were prepared to talk nonstop for 15-20 minutes, but were totally able to let our exec lead the pitch in a much more conversational and informal manner.
- Television is a flexible art. We didn’t get any notes in this first meeting, but my mentor has. He digests them all and if he has complaints, he does it later to his manager, not in the room.
- Know what you’re talking about inside and out. DJ and I know every in and out of our show where it stands right now. And if you had a question for us that we didn’t know the answer to, we’d make something up. We have an alien character who is the last of his kind. What planet is he from? Zaphodbrock. He’s a Zaphoid from the planet Zaphodbrock. I just made that up. It’s one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and one part late singer of Gwar. If you wanted me to talk about Zaphodbrock, I could. And DJ could jump in and we’d piggy back on each other’s ideas. Executives want to feel safe. The words, “I don’t know”, has never instilled security in anyone.
- If you can’t come up with ten items, don’t just make stuff up to fill time or space. See #5.
So there you go. I’m far from an expert, but I know a week or two ago I’d love to have this information compiled in one place. I hope this helps or at least makes for some interesting reading.
In 2014 I made a huge leap of faith from my long time home in Michigan to the great unknown in California. It was and continues to be scary.
This is a place that’s much more open to helping you when you’re a visitor than it is when you’re a resident. When I would visit, I got on the best shows in town because I knew a handful of people and could say, “Hey, I’m going to be in LA the second week in June, can you put me on?” Now that I’m here, there’s no urgency. I’m just another mouse trying to get a piece of the cheese. As far as comedy goes, honestly, I’ve done more here as a visitor than I have as a resident.
For free entertainment, I managed to get myself on the list to get free movie screening passes. Recently, this has gotten me into a couple of super advance screenings of movies that aren’t due out for months and months. Contractually, I’m not allowed to say anything about the movies, but there wasn’t anything in the confidentiality agreement about talking about the screening process. So let’s cover those in the broadest terms.
After the movies everyone in the audience gets questionnaires. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Every opinion is the same. My opinion doesn’t matter any more or less than the guy in the American flag shirt with the cut off sleeves…and yeah, that guy really exists. My opinion doesn’t matter any more or less than woman who kept misplacing her child because she was doing something else. My opinion also doesn’t matter any more or less than that child, who also gets a questionnaire! Technically, my opinion matters less than all the aforementioned people because I’m too old.
Maybe it’s nerves or the adrenaline rush of doing what we’ve waited all day long to do, but many comedians tend to talk a bit too fast on stage. Comedian and owner of the Komedy Korner, Leo DuFour once suggested when I got off stage that I slow down and enjoy my time like I would a delicious meal. Maybe that was a health tip and I’m forgetting that I was scarfing down a Poutine platter at the time….it was Canada after all. Let me find another example.
One of my best friends asked me after a show why I don’t speak on stage like I speak normally off stage. He was right. I didn’t believe in my material at the time so on stage I would yell and ram my jokes down the throats of the audience as quickly as I could.
Last week I was at one of my favorite clubs, The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin. I absolutely love this place. Gus and Mary who own it are two of the nicest people I’ve ever had the good fortune of meeting. Their daughters Eve and Anna are beautiful inside and out. Joe, the room manager runs are super tight ship and is an hell of a guy too. The waitstaff is stunning. The bartenders all handsome. Both on the surface and beneath it, everything about this place is fantastic.
Originally I was supposed to be doing this week as a split week where I would headline Thursday and then Eddie Brill who used to book Letterman would come in on Friday and Saturday. Eddie got into a little trouble earlier this year for being misquoted or having his words taken out of context about female comics. So he canceled the gig. Instead I was working with Ian Edwards. Read the rest of this entry
I’m in Appleton, Wisconsin right now. Appleton is probably best known as the first American home of Harry Houdini. I went to the Houdini Museum today and it struck me how much I could take from Houdini’s life and apply it to comedy.
Erik Weisz was constantly reinventing himself. His earliest performing was as a trapeze artist. When he moved on to magic, he took the name Harry Houdini. For some comedians it’s easy to find your groove and stay in it. I think sometimes there’s little difference between a groove and a rut. I doubt anyone today would remember Houdini the trapeze artist, or Ehrich The Prince of the Air as he was calling himself at the time. I don’t know how many of us would even remember Houdini the magician. It’s that third reinvention as an escape artist that brought Houdini his fame. Read the rest of this entry
When Lesley and I initially started writing our script, we were writing it with the intent to find a local production company to shoot it for us with us in the leads. Once we changed our minds on that, we dream cast it so that we’d both be writing towards the same vision.
I know a lot of writers say they don’t do this, but it helped me a lot. Like with writing jokes, most of it happens for me while I’m lying in bed at night unable to sleep. I’ll just lay there with ideas racing through my head until I have to jump up and find a notebook. Sometimes ideas hit me first thing in the morning, which honestly, beating the alarm to jump out of bed with some creative inspiration is a great way to start the day!
Writing with someone in mind helped me find the character’s voice fairly easily. Final Draft has a profile on Facebook where every day they have some sort of writing tip or question. Recently they posed a question asking if you were to block out the names of the characters in your script, would you still be able to tell who they are?
Once we hammered out our first draft, we assigned each other characters and we went through the script focusing on each piece of those lines trying to make sure there was a flow. One thing that came from this that I liked was I had one of the characters often times refer to another by a nickname. I think this was a nice little touch to show that they had some sort of history. The unfortunately short lived television show The Middle Man did this too. The lead was named Wendy Watson. Her partner called her Dub Dub. A little touch like that was nice because it not only showed a little bit of familiarity, but it was so out of character for the straight laced Middle Man to use a nickname that it really humanized him. It gave his character a little more depth.
Another thing Lesley and I did that helped was we had our friends over to read through the script assigning them different roles. Some lines didn’t flow as smoothly out of other mouths, so as we did the readthru I took notes on how the actor initially wanted to read a line.
I tend to flip sentences. Not like Yoda, but a little bit like that. Right now, I’m totally blanking on an example. Hmm. I guess that was an example in itself. Where a lot of people may have said “I’m totally blanking on an example right now.” I lead with the “right now”. I think I’m better at that now. A long time ago a friend asked me where I originally hail from because he found my sentence structure so foreign.
So there you go. That’s a little insight in our process in trying to give our characters unique voices. Does anyone else have any tips?
I mentioned before that Final Draft is the most important tool and screenwriter can use. Another, almost as important, tool is this great book called Writing Movies for Fun and Profit.
I’ve read a lot…a few…books on writing scripts. This one by far is my favorite. It’s written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon who are most visibly known for Reno 911. What you may not know is that they’ve also written pretty much ever third comedy made since 2000. They don’t write giant award winning masterpieces, but they do write extremely marketable and successful comedies like the Night at the Museum movies and Herbie Fully Loaded. They’ve also done a literal shit ton of punch ups on movies they’re not credited for.
In their book, Ben and Thomas take you through every step of the career as a screenwriter. They go in depth about the different kinds of writing jobs you can get and really dive into the business side of writing. It’s also a really practical writing guide too. They cover everything form pitching your script to dealing with the Hollywood powers that be once it’s in development.
It’s a really quick and light read that’s full of humor and really great information. I can’t recommend this book enough. In fact, if you’re a screen writer and you don’t own this….then you’re probably and asshole.
I’m in LA right now as you’re reading this. Unless of course you’re reading this sometime other than August 2012. Chapter 22 will tell me what I need to know now that I’m here. Okay, I’m not supposed to write in public because everyone will assume I’m a douchebag. Okay, there’s a list of all the In-N-Out Burger locations as well as a guide to their secret menu. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and go write in private.
I get flack sometimes for being friends with the Yoder family, but that’s how it’s been with every job I’ve had. When I managed a Gamestop, I regularly hung out with district managers outside of work. When I worked in a call center, my boss not only became a friend, but he became one of my closest friends and even stood up in my wedding. It’s not that I’m an ass kisser, I’m just a hard worker. I’ve been in situations too where I hung out with employees and became friends. The only way friendships like that can start and last is if the lines are clearly drawn between work and play and no one takes advantage of the other.
My friendship with the Yoders gives me a unique perspective on the business side of comedy. I feel lucky to get that behind the scenes point of view sometimes. I think about this season of Breaking Bad. Last season, Walter White thought it was all about him. As comedians, we tend to do that a lot. Now that Walter is running the show, he’s seeing how much work goes into the business. He was just one piece in the puzzle. Yes, like a comic, you could argue that he’s just about the most important piece, but there are still lots and lots of other pieces.
John Yoder founded Funny Business years and years before many of us ever picked up a microphone. Now he’s taken more of a back seat approach to the family business and turned the reigns over to his three sons Jamison, Eric and Michael. I got a chance to bounce some questions off of the two elder brothers (because Michael’s dashing good looks are too hypnotic) to give you a behind the scenes look at the company that employs so many of us. I hope you enjoy.
I was surprised when I found out how long the Yoder family had been involved in show business booking and the fact that it sort of started with music. Can you tell me about the history of Funny Business?
Eric: Well, to keep it short and simple – my dad, John Yoder, started out in college booking bands for some of the bigger local music venues. Later he also begin running a foreign film arts theater here while continuing booking bands. An opportunity came up for him to break into comedy right before the boom hit and became a major player in the years to come as somewhat of a pioneer in the comedy club world. When club business slowed down a bit, he made the wise decision to diversify into the college and corporate markets and we have continually been building off of all these over the last many years.
A lot of comedians are quick to want to move to New York or LA, but it seems to me like a bulk of the paying work in comedy is in the Midwest. Have you noticed a trend for where some of the cities where comedians are coming from besides New York and LA?
Eric: I would say that it really depends on what you are looking to do, and which direction you want to head in your comedy career. I see some incredible acts coming out of the Minneapolis and Chicago areas over the last couple years. The Detroit scene has been steadily rising as well, and I can see it returning to its former glory as a comedy and arts hotbed.
NYC and LA have always been the cities to be in for TV, Movies and for acts looking at specific careers in comedy. They both have their ups and downs. I believe the Midwest has some of the best club crowds for comedy, and for those just breaking into forming longer, full feature and headliner sets, there are more opportunities to do this, and more stages that provide the necessary stage time. In NYC and LA – it’s a lot of places providing 5 or 10 min. sets, which is great for building that short tv set , but not so much building a full 30 or 55 min. set that almost all clubs require.
With the internet and all the opportunities on it, there are so many things you can do to gain exposure and build your “brand” now despite where you are based out of. But of course a time will always come where you need to decide what you plan to do with your career and if living in a city like LA or NYC is going to provide you with more resources for that goal.
Funny Business has had much more of a presence in a lot of the festivals in North America. What do you look for when you go to these?
Eric: Festivals are a huge part of my role as a club booker, and they are great because you are able to see so much talent over the course of a couple days, that are all already hand-picked acts – thus giving you the opportunity to see some of the top talent all in the same venue(s). It’s also a chance to have face time with a lot of acts you may deal with regularly but don’t always get to meet face to face. I look at each act in comparison to the clubs I book, and what markets I seem them being the best fit for. I look for all the usual things, unique – well written material, confidence, stage presence and experience, etc. and a lot of time it’s a no-brainer who stands out to you as someone you want to get on the books right away.
Very successfully, Funny Business has helped out a lot with Gilda’s Laugh Fest in Grand Rapids. How did that union begin?
Jamison: I think they originally got in touch with us through the owner of The Bob. Knowing that we book Dr. Grins here in town as well as several corporate events and our roots here in the community was what got us started. From there it’s been a great marriage with a great organization and group of people we really support and work very well with.
The first two years of Laugh Fest have been humongous! I know you can’t really say much now, but I know planning for the following year pretty much begins as soon as one year wraps. What can people expect in 2013?
Jamison: You’re right…Can’t say much. Suffice to say that people can expect the same caliber and diversity of talent as the past years. Our hope is that each year builds on the next and support and visibility for Gilda’s Club continues to grow along with it.
So we’re getting ready to go back into the busy season of comedy when you’ll be booking emcees again. For people looking at transitioning from open mic to emceeing, what’s the best way to get noticed by you?
Eric: Performing at open mics in clubs we book and asking the club owners for referrals are a quick way to get on my radar. We speak with them frequently and they always mention the acts they see consistently improving and who they would like to see given a chance to host a weekend – sometimes we don’t always agree, but it definitely will put them at the top of the pile for review. Having quality tape, with minimum 10 mins of CLEAN material, suitable for an emcee set is important and almost ALL bookers require this.
Another important thing is being prepared. Have all necessary items before emailing bookers. Know what they will want/expect from you. Come across as a professional, it is essentially a job interview when applying to work at a professional level. Check your references, I’ve had guys use references, probably assuming we won’t check – then those references have no idea who the act is that used their name. That automatically puts a bad taste in my mouth, personally. Their also a handful of acts that work regularly for us that have consistently introduced us to high quality acts, so names they bring us we tend to take notice of quickly.
What do you and the clubs look for in a good emcee?
Eric: Clean material, confidence and good energy. An act open to feedback and willing to be taught. They need to recognize their role as an emcee. You are NOT the star of the show. Your job is to warm up the audience, promote the venue and the acts on the bill – not yourself. Being humble and recognizing your position on the bill is important. Hosting is not an open mic – and not the time to try out new material. The audience paid for this show, and deserves your top performance.
Eric was surprised when I told him I thought it was easier for me to go from middle to headliner than it was to go from emcee to middle. The reason was that I felt I didn’t have to ask for it. The clubs where I started closing the shows at first were the ones that requested me to do so. Generally speaking, how do you decide to move people up to the next spot?
Eric: Typically at the time you are prepared to move up to the next level, we are already hearing that you should be. Sometimes mentioning or making your case to be moved up is what needs to be done, but at that point most of the time we’ve already begun to get that type of feedback. We closely check progress, and monitor feedback and new clips, performances, etc. The biggest mistake some comedians make is pushing to move up before they are ready. It’s important to be honest with yourself about where you are at. Asking for honest feedback from club owners and comedians you work with is important.
The business side of comedy is so incredibly important. Is there one thing you think all performers, in general, could do in order to be better business people?
Eric: Ask for advice, take the time to learn and soak up knowledge about how the other side works. I see all the time that the acts that are consistently working on writing, building content, contacting venues/bookers and actually putting in full days of work to build their career tend to genuinely reap what they sow. The comedy business isn’t just writing and performing, it’s learning, promoting, building and growing your own business – and you are your own business as a comedian. Balancing working on your act and learning the business side of comedy is incredibly important.
If a bar or a club are looking to either start comedy or have someone help them with booking, how do they get in touch with you?
Eric: They can check us out online at www.funny-business.com for more info and to request quotes – and we are also always available to discuss further via phone at (888) 593-7387.
I’m in Vegas right now. Even though I’m writing this on Sunday, the 12th, I can assure you I’m not having a good time. I’ve only had a good time once in Vegas and that was when I was trying not to cry in the hotel room of a man I met earlier that month.
During the day I work part-time doing marketing for an entertainment company. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say, so I’ll leave it at that. Every year we have our conference in Vegas. I don’t generally enjoy it. Yeah, the conference itself is fine. It does what it’s supposed to. It gets you pumped up for the coming busy season. It’s also great to see in person the people who also work for the company across the country. There are a handful that I have a lot in common with so it’s nice to see them outside of Facebook. I don’t gamble, so Vegas holds no appeal for me there. I generally don’t party either. Although last year a ton of little things piled on top of each other and just caused me so much stress and anger that I ended up drinking way too much Scotch, much to the dismay of the guy with whom I was sharing a room. I coated the bathroom from both ends.
I’ve been to Vegas to perform at Trooperfest, the first Star Wars convention specifically for the 501st. I got to hang out with all sorts of nice and wonderful people. Every time something cool happened, I felt like I was verbally and emotionally punched in the face when I wanted to share that with the person I was closest to at the time. It was years ago, but my overall memory that festival wasn’t a happy one.
Last year I was in Vegas for the World Series of Comedy. Again, trouble in my personal life kept me from enjoying this potentially awesome networking opportunity. My head wasn’t in the game and I was out in the first round. I remember getting ready to go out on stage and just deciding to wing it and riff with the crowd even though everyone in that situation should know that the last thing a judge wants to see is how well you do crowd work. Yeah? Well, my crowd work is right up there with the masters like Pardo and Iott. Mike…you idiot! I got off stage and Eric Yoder from Funny Business just gave me a look like, “What the hell was that?” Technically, I was doing my Bear Calendar joke, which isn’t really crowd work. It’s my magic trick. It’s a slight of hand. It looks like crowd work, but it’s mostly scripted….or at the very least flow charted.
So, I was in Vegas after having crapped out in the first round of The World Series of Comedy and I still had a couple nights left until my return flight. Earlier that month I worked with Carl LaBove in Grand Rapids at Dr. Grin’s. Words can not explain how great I think Carl is. He’s like Yoda and the Dude from Big Lebowski rolled up into one. He’s wise and care free. He’s a master story teller…and what’s great about his stories is that after you’ve enjoyed them and you’ve had time to reflect, you see that his story that he picked to tell you at that moment was serving a point.
Early the second morning of the World Series of Comedy, I was sitting in the hotel lobby trying to decide if I wanted to walk to the casino where Carl and I were to meet for lunch or if I wanted to take a cab. I was trying to use Google map on my phone, but Vegas is deceptively large. Comedian Brad Tassell stopped in and we started talking. We worked together years and years ago and his comedy group Hoosier Daddy was kind of the inspiration for me forming the Desperate Houseguys. Brad had a rental car and offered to drive me to the Riviera for my lunch appointment.
I called Carl when I got there to let him know I was downstairs. Minutes later he burst out of the elevator as upbeat and cheerful as ever. We took off for lunch, and without giving any details in where or how he did it, Carl managed to scam both of us free meals.
If you’re not a huge comedy nerd, then you may not know that along with Sam Kinison, was one of the founding members of the Outlaws of Comedy. Carl was Sam’s best friend and they worked together through Sam’s entire, albeit short lived, career. Carl has seen it all. He was there in Los Angeles during the comedy boom. This morning, the wild man who partied with rock stars and porn legends was working a grift to get us breaded fish and mac & cheese! For dessert, stolen ice cream!
During lunch I brought Carl up to speed on where I was personally. It always seems like when things are going well professionally, they’re hurting personally. When they’re going well personally, professionally they’re suffering. This was one of those times where both personally and professionally things weren’t going well at all. I was down and I needed my happy sage to pick me up.
We went back up to his hotel room before his show and he opened his iTunes. He started playing me song after song and telling me the story of how he found the song and what it meant to him. Those songs spoke to me at that moment and speak to me now as the best memory of have of Las Vegas. Here are a couple of them.
I sat there listening to the lyrics of about a half a dozen songs and felt like they were written just for me. I knew I was experiencing a profound and beautiful moment that would last with me for the rest of my life and I had the foresight to know and appreciate that. It was a perfect moment. I tried to fight back the tears. Carl took a break from getting ready for his show and sat down next to me smiling and seemingly pleased that this moment he orchestrated didn’t fall on deaf ears.
We jumped on Youtube and he showed me a couple things he was working on. We talked about great guitar players and shared our love of music. He shared with me some of his guitar playing. This is a song he wrote about his life. I love it a lot. I hope he records it…or someone helps me lift the audio from this so I can put it on my iPod. Even through the turbulent moments of this song, I feel a peaceful and soothing rhythm. The song has momentum and makes me feel like things are going to move forward no matter what you do about it. Check out Carl’s playing.
I’m in Vegas now. I’m not having any profound moments, but things are moving forward no matter what I do about it. And that’s okay.
The first few things I wrote years ago were done with a regular old word processor. It was a pain in the ass. Every time I went to do a new draft, I’d have to manual go in and change the “continued” and all that stuff. Setting the tabs was awful. Making sure everything was formatted correctly caused me so much panic.
I was never able to full jump into just the creative part of screenwriting because the mechanics were always in the back of my mind. Well, truthfully, they were front and center.
A year or so ago I got Final Draft. It’s the industry standard for screenwriting and I totally see why. It’s basically a word processor program specifically designed to write scripts. I don’t have to think about anything other than the story when I use it. When you hit Enter to go on to a next section, it asks you if you want this to start with a character, dialogue, scene header, whatever. With a click, you can be back on track. It becomes second nature and it makes the whole process so much quicker and easier.
Here’s something else I just found out about Final Draft. Okay, I mentioned before that Lesley and I are going to start on a spec script to show that we can write television as well. I Googled Modern Family scripts and found a link to a template that plugs right into Final Draft! There are plug ins for pretty much every popular show out there. And if you’re writing a spec script, the best idea is to do it for a popular show. As much as I loved The Middleman, writing a script for that would make little to no sense!
Yes, the software is a little expensive, but if you’re serious about writing, I can not recommend it enough. Here’s a link if you want more information.