Head into any Starbucks in LA and you’ll see a bunch of people with laptops trying to fix broken second acts. Since neither of us barely can get our writing done in a book-lined study where the sound of a pin dropping is likely to ruin a morning’s work, it’s amazing to see these laptops clacking over the sound of loud conversations, toddlers having temper tantrums and music we didn’t select. As we looked around, it made us think of Hemingway’s famous answer to the question, “How do you write?” His often quoted line from the Paris Review interview is, “With a no. 2 pencil.”
Similarly, we notice that some screenwriters enjoy the solitude of writing alone, while others enjoy working with partners…and some go both ways. Writing with a partner is a unique sociological study that we’re sure will be undertaken someday, when a sociologist can be found who has enough patience to work with screenwriters. Until he or she comes along, we’d like to share some interesting patterns in the way writing partners approach the writing task in our book Now That’s Funny! The Art and Craft of Comedy Writing.
In our book, we gave solo writers and teams a generic comedy premise about a mother who had to move in with her grown daughter and asked them to develop it. We told them there were no rules, no boundaries…they could go any way they wanted with it. That was just as well since they are writers not accountants; they wouldn’t have followed our instructions anyway.
Of the 24 interviews in the book, five of them were with writing teams. Although we found many differences in the way these teams worked, there was one common thread that ran through all of the interviews. We asked everyone the question, “How do you know if what you come up with is funny?” Each team came up with the same answer. “If I can make my partner laugh…it’s funny.”
As we point out how Marc Sheffler and Paul Chitlik work, what struck us was how each idea triggered an idea in the other. As you read the description, notice that we were too lazy make actual quotes and just keep saying, “Then the other guy…” It’s just because we wanted to capture the idea of the flow of ideas between them:
When Marc and Paul begin developing the premise, one yells out, My cousin just moved to Phoenix where tons of old people are retiring. Then the other one says, Jews don’t square dance. Then the other yells out that square dancing is really hot. Everybody gets laid after a square dance…little known fact. The other suggests that it might be better to have the story set in San Bernardino cause it’s sort of similar desert country, but closer to LA which they know more about. The other says, that’s where the Hell’s Angeles started. The story could be set in a Harley Shop, his partner says. Yeah, and they only turn out two bikes a year because the shop is populated with ex-cons who are really using the shop as a front to sell crystal meth.
Marc and Paul’s modus operandi is that one comes up with an idea the other says, “That gives me a great idea,” and they go back and forth until they both agree that they’ve gotten to where they need to go. Marc and Paul work on the story and then one of them takes a shot at writing the script. When he finishes it, he emails it off and this process continues until they agree that the script sounds like it was written by one person.
By contrast when Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio work, as one gets an idea the other partner immediately begins to embellish it. Cinco and Ken changed the premise from a mother and daughter to a father and son, which they said they related to better. One partner suggests they make the father a famous retired jingle writer who created jingles for famous products. His partner immediately said like “plop, plop, fizz, fizz.” The other says and “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper.” They each take the other’s idea and take it farther.
Jon Stark and Tracy Newman both have backgrounds in improv. They met at the Groundlings, LA’s premiere improv theater group. The key to improv is the ability to take any idea that is fed to you and build on it rather than stopping the flow and questioning it. Never block your partner. This background shows up in how they work together. When either of them throws out an idea, the other grabs it and runs. In this way their method combines the best of Marc and Paul and Cinco and Ken. But, while improv is all about fluidity and dealing with surprise, Tracy embraces structure. This comes from her songwriting background and gives her a strong sense of story. In the premise they created, an adult daughter is forced to take care of the mother she has been taking care of her whole life. Tracy insists on figuring out where a story is going before writing a word of the script. Once that happens, Jon steps in and develops character and dialogue. This combination has a lot to do with the success of this Peabody and Emmy Award–winning team’s amazing success. The other part of the equation is that they try to make each other laugh as they work. They depend on it. If it works for them, they say, 50 percent of the audience is guaranteed to go along.
The team that is the most unusual because of their unique situation is Bill and Cheri Steinkellner. They wrote for such shows as Cheers and Taxi. They also wrote the book for the Broadway version of Sister Act. So what’s the difference between Cheri and Bill and the other writing teams? They are really partners…they’re married. They turn the mother and daughter premise into a cautionary comedic story about what happens when a divorced empty nester becomes a “helicopter mom” who follows her children to college and hovers over them. As we sat with them at their kitchen table they threw in stories about their own children, their own foibles and spun them into gold. They have the gift of taking real people they know and real events they saw or heard and exaggerating them until they become more believable than the material they are based on. Where most partnerships are done at the end of the day…Cheri and Bill’s is 24/7. It was a challenge for us to figure out where the marriage ends and the writing partnership begins.
While all writers have to face the blank page, partnerships have an advantage over the solo writer when it comes to the cure for loneliness…someone who believes in and helps you build your ideas into something better. You’re also working with someone who doesn’t think you’re crazy.