I had a nice chat about comedy with Jacob Sager Weinstein, blogger of Yankee Fog
, London resident and veteran of Dennis Miller Live
Some of the things we talked about...When you write for a comedian, underwrite.
Jacob noticed that lines that read like Dennis Miller on the page sounded too brainy and too harsh when Dennis Miller said them: "His comic persona is like him only more so. He really is sarcastic and does make obscure references. In real life he's just not on all the time. ... When we got free lance submissions, they sounded too much
like his comic persona. Anything he said on the air would seem even more sarcastic and smarter than the way it was written. So you had to underwrite so he wouldn't come off too harsh. If you wrote like he sounds, it would seem like he was parodying himself. So I learned to leave a gap between what I wrote and how he was going to say it, to let him fill it. ... One of the biggest mistakes comedy writers can make is putting too
much of the character's voice on the page.
"Another mistake you can make is holding yourself back. You need a lot of bad jokes to get a few good ones. On Dennis Miller Live
we pitched 500 jokes each week and he'd do 10 in his monolog. And some of the things I thought were brilliant got cut by the other writers, and some of the stuff I just wrote to fill up the page would get on the show and kill. That's why you need a writing staff: to tell what's funny. Don't censor yourself, because you don't know. Let the other censor you."
"I think the best sitcoms have their own
persona, not just the characters. With Friends
it's tricky to separate the characters from the show's persona, because the characters are making jokes themselves. It's osrt of a sympathetic but wiseass persona, sort of like Chandler's personality. But a show like Frasier
is very aware of its character's foibles in a way that the characters are not. It's very aware of pretention and likes to puncture it. Frasier himself is a little aware of his own pretention. Martin's very aware of his sons' pretention. Or take The Simpsons
: it's incredibly smart and satirical, in a way that none of its characters are. Lisa's smart but sincere. No one's sharp and satirical on that show the way the show is itself."
"I got my job writing for Dennis Miller by being in the right place at the right time. At the end of my first year at USC, I got an internship at Second City Productions, which was supposed to be the movie arm of Second City. It was just two guys and two unpaid interns trying to get something to happen. They got hired by Microsoft to do a comedy web page. And Dennis Miller was their spokesman, so he was always coming around and hanging out. So he knew I could type fast. So when he was looking for an assistant for Dennis Miller Live
... One good thing about the show was that the showrunner, Eddie Feldman was very open to submissions. So from the very beginning I was pitching jokes. At a certain point they made you a writer. So I think if you can get a writer's assistant gig it's a very good way in."
"I never did standup. Any urge that process gave me to do standup -- well, I heard horror stories from the writers on staff who'd done standup. They loved being on the road but it sounded like a tough life. I got the feeling that standup you shouldn't do unless you really love it for its own sake. You have to love the process. I don't think doing standup is necessary to writing comedy. But you do need to do something where you see what makes the audience laugh. I'd written sketch comedy in college, and that's another advantage of the assistant job: I had seen three years of the show, that's 75 shows. I'd seen the writing process."