Does good comedy writing come from story or character? That was one of the first questions we set out to answer when we began interviewing comedy writers for our book, Now That’s Funny! The answer is…neither. They go for the conflict. Conflict, of course, comes from both story and character.
There’s an old saying, “The autobiography is the highest form of fiction.” In other words, when you ask a writer how they write they are actually telling you how they wrote. We wanted to see how comedy writers create so we came up with something a little different than a standard Q&A. The process interview. First we came up with a loose comedy premise about a fiftyish mother whose husband dies suddenly leaving her bankrupt. Broke, without discernible skills and with nowhere else to go she is forced to move in with her grown daughter. We gave this premise to 29 writers and writing partners to develop. Without rules or boundaries. That was just as well…they’re writers not accountants they wouldn’t have followed rules anyway. The result: 24 unique stories and approaches to story and character, but all with one thing in common. Conflict at their center.
Laughter off the T’wuck
One of the most enjoyable things about these interviews is hearing the writers “thinking aloud” as they developed their stories. Walter Bennett (The Cosby Show) used the occasion of the mother moving in to begin creating conflict on page one. Walter told us that he wanted to create the most awkward situation possible to heighten the conflict. He began by having the mother show up unannounced with a truckload of furniture from her house and a relative we have trouble understanding because he lisps. Walter further ratchets up the stakes by giving the daughter a tiny apartment.
Then he goes in for some interpersonal conflict. It’s the middle of the day, and the daughter is in the bedroom when the doorbell rings, but she is not alone. Her new boyfriend is with her and they are in a compromising position. Now she has to contend with the chaos of her mother moving in with all this furniture, while trying to hide the man in her bedroom.
In A Family Way
As an additional possible arena for conflict, we created grandparents who relate more to their Type A granddaughter than to their free spirited daughter. Lew Schneider (Everybody Loves Raymond) created intergenerational conflict between the mother and her parents. Lew talks about the awful moment when a father must teach his teenage daughter how to drive. Then he magnifies it tenfold when he has an eighty year old father teaching his fifty-five year old daughter to drive.
Several of the writers borrowed conflicts from their personal lives. Heide Perleman (Cheers, Frasier) talked about how her mother used to drive her nuts by insisting that she always had to be right and being right always took the form of forcing her daughter to agree with her. “You love tunafish, right…right? Don’t you love tunafish?” She imbued her version of the mother’s character with her own mother’s traits.
Hostility in these stories runs from mild, inter-family conflicts to a severe and dangerous story. David Breckman (SNL, Monk) turns the mother into a sociopath who is out to ruin her daughter’s love life. Hank Nelkin (Saving Silverman) throws out the daughter altogether and comes up with a topical story in which the mother goes after a Bernie Madoff-like character who cheated her family out of everything they had.
One of our favorite forms of conflict involves a piece of furniture. Peter Casey (Wings, Frasier) told us that the pilot for Frasier treated Frasier’s father’s recliner as a character. Frasier was a spinoff character from Cheers. On Cheers, Frasier was always a damaged character, and in the new show, he restructured his life into one that would fulfill his dreams. He got a great job as a radio psychiatrist making him a minor Seattle celebrity. He got the perfect apartment, hired the best interior decorator in town and was set to begin living the fantasy life he had created for himself.
The conflict entered in the form of his father coming to live with him. The tangible evidence of this conflict came when his father insisted that he have his chair implanted in the center of Frasier’s new, upscale living room. They took an old, beat up barcalounger held together with duct tape. They found the ugliest fabric possible and then brought in two books of fabric samples that were variations of the ugly fabric to make sure that the colors clashed as much as possible.
The chair was treated like a character that told Frasier, “I am here to remind you, on a daily basis, that you will never have the life you dreamed of. And if you forget, just take a look at me as a reminder.”
In Your Face Conflict
In one of our favorite interviews, Dennis Klein (The Larry Sanders Show) not only creates conflict in his story development, he begins attacking us personally during the interview, turning the interview into theater. At the end of the interview, he made certain that we understood that he was “just doing shtick” to make the afternoon more interesting.
For a completely different take, Leonard Stern (The Honeymooners, Get Smart) says he doesn’t like conflicts coming from hostility. Instead, all of his conflicts come from love. His characters have nothing but the best of intentions toward each other, but those great intentions always lead to the worst of outcomes. When a comedy writer needs a cheap laugh, he has a character at the height of engagement…and the phone rings. To goose it up even more, who is it? Mother! Why does that get such a big laugh? A lifetime of good intentions gone bad. This is at the center of Leonard Stern’s method. No one loves you like your mother, nobody can make you as crazy. That’s conflict.
Or, that phone call from her is the mother of all conflicts.