Amy Schumer and Finding Your Voice

One thing I’ve noticed about comedy writers is how afraid many of them are of their own emotions.  Jokes are a way to hide from our feelings.  We learn to make jokes when we’re kids so that other people won’t notice how terrified we are.  If we get good at making jokes, we can bury our feelings forever.  Or so we think.  But it is those uncomfortable emotions, the ones that made you want to make jokes in the first place, that may be the key to your success as a comedy writer.  I offer as an example, Amy Schumer.

Amy Schumer has certainly made a name for herself with her fresh voice.  It’s not that she’s necessarily saying things that no one has said before, but she’s coming at it in a new way.  She has found an audience, particularly among young women.  Like her or not, she found a way to get attention and to express herself.  Her success is worth noting if you’re trying to find success for yourself.

When I broke into TV writing nearly forty years ago, it was enough for a young writer to be able to mimic what other writers were already doing.  I wrote spec scripts for existing TV series.  I tried to write like the writers who had already made it.  I was good at mimicking what was already being done, and that was enough to launch my career.  But that environment no longer exists.  (I received an e-mail just the other day from a wannabe writer who asked me what he should do with his spec Mike and Molly script.  I gently told him to use it as practice and then write a spec pilot.  But really, he wrote a Mike and Molly and thought he could use it to get a job?  If you’re that out of touch, you’ve got a long, steep hill to climb.)

The way for me to succeed when I was trying to break in was to mimic the voices of others.  I was lucky because I hadn’t really found my own voice yet so mimicking came in handy.  You need to find your voice now and use it to get attention.  I don’t envy you that challenge.

From what I’ve seen of Amy Schumer, one of her techniques is to tap into things that really bother her.  And not in a Seinfeldian “Did you ever notice…” kind of way.  From my perspective, Amy Schumer seems to say to herself, “Hey, I see other young women doing this or saying that, and it troubles me because I don’t think they’re helping themselves,” or “Wow, here’s another way young women are perpetuating stereotypes about themselves,”  or even more important, “Here is something about myself that really troubles me.”  Then she finds a way to dramatize what is troubling her.  Key and Peele do the same thing, and they do it brilliantly sometimes.

One way to find your own voice is to dig down into your own emotions.  Figure out what bothers you.  Not just what annoys you about other people.  We don’t need more superficial complaining about the lines at Trader Joe’s.  I mean reaching down to your deepest insecurities and fears, trusting that what troubles you or handicaps you also is a problem for others, and then finding a way to dramatize what you’re feeling.  That is your voice.  Maybe you turn those feelings into drama, or maybe, like Amy Schumer or Key and Peele, you find a way to twist those emotions into comedy.

You have to find your own voice.  You can’t just do your version of what someone else is already doing.  Finding your voice may be difficult and it may be uncomfortable.  But look around at the people who are making a name for themselves in comedy.  Look at Louis C.K. or Jim Jeffries or any of a dozen other younger comics. Look at Chris Rock when he burst on the scene.  The brightest stars in comedy are the people who take the most chances with their own feelings.  Richard Pryor was the master of them all.

Success is about taking risks.  The risks don’t all involve quitting a safe job or moving to a new city, even though those are two big risks you likely will have to take to make it in comedy.  The risks also involve tapping into emotions inside of you that you don’t like to look at, and then turning those emotions into your own unique voice.

 

I’m On Your Side

When I was trying to break into show business forty years ago I didn’t have to move far away from home.  I already lived in Los Angeles.  I was still in grad school when I got my first writing job on a TV series.  I was very, very lucky.

I don’t remember my parents saying much to me about my pursuit of a show biz career.  No one else in the family was in show business.  No one else in the family was in the arts.  No one else in the family had ever finished college.  My mother tried to encourage me toward a business career.  My father wanted me to work at the aircraft manufacturing company where he worked. My boss at the public library where I worked part-time wanted me to be a librarian.  I don’t think anyone thought for one minute that I’d succeed in show business.  Older people who knew me wanted me to be safe and secure.

My grown daughter is not pursuing a career in show business.  But I can understand the concerns of a parent whose kid moves away from home to Hollywood or New York and then struggles to make it.  Unless that parent is an artist already or is just unconcerned with their child’s future, it’s natural to be worried and wish the kid would pursue a more sensible and dependable career.

But the heart wants what the heart wants.

I’ve gotten a few e-mails over the years from worried parents.  I tell them that if their kid is unmarried and has no children of her or his own, the best thing to do is to let them follow their bliss.  Maybe they’ll make it.  Probably they won’t.  But at least let them try.  At least let them give it a go until fortune smiles or until they get tired of rejection and go after something else.  A person can move to LA to be a writer or an actor and find a satisfying career in another field.  LA’s a big place.  There’s a lot of opportunity here for a bright person.  Maybe opportunity lies inside the studio gates and maybe it doesn’t, but what’s the harm in trying?

If you’ve been in LA (or NY) for a few years, and success hasn’t happened yet, and your family is growing more and more concerned, I understand the stress you may be feeling.  I understand it as a fellow artist and as a parent.  My advice is, keep trying until you don’t want to try anymore.

Do the thing you love.  Maybe you have the talent and the drive to get rich, and maybe you don’t.  But you’re better off pursuing your dreams – if you’re lucky enough to have dreams – than to settle for safety and a life of silent regret.

I grew up with people who had dreams and people who didn’t.  Most of them settled into quiet lives, and that’s fine.  But I wouldn’t know who I was without my dreams, so I was very reluctant to let them go.  For me, it paid off.  I also know people who never got rich financially, but have enjoyed a great deal of satisfaction from working in the arts.

I am a champion of anyone who has a passion.  Few people feel a passion for something. Maybe your passion is writing, acting, music, drawing, designing, running, cooking, whatever.  If you have a passion, thank your lucky stars.  A life of passion – and all the misery that goes with passion – is, in my opinion, richer than a life lived in neutral.

I saw a wonderful documentary the other day called, The Wrecking Crew.  It’s about a group of studio musicians in LA in the 1960’s and 70’s who played on many of the top record albums of the era.  Few of these people ever got rich or famous, but they all had a passion for music.  They all loved what they did.  And they all made music that we are still listening to today. That’s a life well lived.

I followed my dreams, and I’ve never regretted it for one minute.  If you’re following yours, I’m on your side.

Without a Union, Who Am I?

Throughout my nearly forty years in (and out of) the TV and motion picture business, I have regularly heard writers complain about their labor union, the WGA.  I, too, have complained at various times.  I’ve complained about the health insurance, the issues argued at contract renewal time, the clumsy way that the union sometimes deals with members, the embarrassing magazine, Written By, that we all throw away without reading.

I’m also a member of the Directors Guild.  As a member of both unions, I can tell you that DGA membership feels like belonging to The Jonathan Club.  WGA membership feels like belonging to the YMCA.  The DGA has a magnificent headquarters on Sunset Boulevard with lovely screening rooms, a beautiful lobby for receptions and events, and a crack staff upstairs.  DGA health insurance is the Rolls Royce of the industry.  I’ve never even been to WGA headquarters. It’s too far away from where I live, and few Hollywood luminaries show up there to screen their movies.  The WGA events I have attended, infrequently over the years, always felt like amateur night.  DGA and SAG are made up of the beautiful people of Hollywood.  Both unions are powerful because they can shut the town down tomorrow.  The WGA is the red-headed step-child.

The complaint I have heard most often from other writers about the WGA is that our strikes accomplish nothing.  We end up worse off than we were before we went on strike.  Our feckless union leaders do a poor job of negotiating with the giant media conglomerates that own the town.  I’ve also heard writers complain that the arbitration process is unfair.  The health insurance isn’t what it ought to be.  The WGA doesn’t do a good enough job of making our case to the town.

Every writers room I have ever worked in has rung with hollow threats about “going financial core.”  Most writers don’t even know what that phrase means, but somehow “financial core” suggests that a writer could still belong to WGA and enjoy all the benefits of membership but not have to go out of strike.

“Who are these writers who want to strike, anyway?” I hear working writers ask in rhetorical dismay.  “It’s the loser writers who can’t find work!  They’re to blame!”  “It’s the retired writers who are crazy old socialists!”  “It’s fools and dreamers.”

Most of the complaints that I hear about the WGA come from writers who, like myself, have barely lifted a finger to help the WGA.  I’ve never served on a WGA committee.  I’ve never run for the board.  I have never gotten involved with the union for two reasons:  One, I live in Pasadena.  The WGA headquarters is a million miles away at the Farmer’s Market.  It would take me forever to drive there and drive back in terrible traffic.  Two, I have no patience for committees.  I get in a bad mood very quickly when I feel my time is being wasted.  I do not have the temperament to sit in a room for hours while other people drone on and on.

But here’s the thing: Without the WGA, who am I?

If there were no WGA, I would not have enjoyed reliable health insurance over the past four decades.  I try not to forget that WGA members before me went on strike and lost huge amounts of money in order to win health insurance for me.  I try not to forget that my health insurance has saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

If not for the WGA, I wouldn’t be paid residuals.  I try not to forget that WGA members before me went out on long strikes to win my right to residuals.  Without those writers of the past, and without the union of today, I would be paid nothing when a series episode with my name on it is rerun on TV.  I still get checks for MASH.  Writers in the 1950’s and 60’s went out on strike and risked their homes and their futures to get me those residual checks.  I am grateful to them.

If not for the WGA, there would be no minimum pay scales for work in movies and TV.  I currently work for guild minimum in my pay class.  It’s a generous number, and a fee that I am pleased to accept at my age.  Writers before me, and I, went out on long strikes to win those minimums.  It was worth it, and I am grateful to my fellow members for their sacrifice and courage.

When you make it in this business, it’s very easy to start believing that you did it all yourself. Some writers have achieved enormous success, and that success is due largely to their own talent and effort.  I applaud my highly successful colleagues.  I understand the frustration that some of them feel when the guild goes out on strike and their income temporarily stops.  At the same time, when I look back at my own career, I have also been pretty successful.  I have never won any awards, and I won’t be in anyone’s hall of fame, but I have had a pretty good run.  I’ve been more successful than I ever dreamed.  I’m more grateful than I can ever say to be working again.  I would hate to have to go out on strike right now, and I’m very grateful that the WGA was able to negotiate a new MBA.

After nearly forty years, I feel strongly that without my union, I’m nobody.  I would be alone against a cartel of gigantic multinational corporations who couldn’t care less whether I live or die.  Those corporations don’t value my talent or my effort.  Those corporations would be delighted to replace me tomorrow with someone who would work for less money and demand no benefits. Those corporations know that they could easily find people who would work for less money and no benefits.  The only reason I have any rights at all as a writer, the only reason there are any rules of fairness in my workplace, any minimum compensation, any protection for my intellectual rights or my health, is because of my union.

The WGA has many flaws and shortcomings.  But without the WGA, I’m nobody.  I’m probably not even working in Hollywood.

We stand together or we fall apart.  I stand with all the writers who came before me, those who were blacklisted and those who went out on strike to win the rights and benefits that I enjoy.  I will never go financial core.  I will never turn on my brethren.  And if I can’t lend a hand to make things better for writers, then I’ll shut the fuck up.

The Best Picture of 2014

A number of years ago a friend told me of a conversation he had with two screenwriters.  The screenwriters had just attended a meeting at one of the studios.  The screenwriters had gone to the meeting to hear an idea for a new feature film.  According to the story that I heard, the pitch from the studio executives consisted of one word.  That word was “Lego.”

The screenwriters left confused.  “Lego?”  That was it?  What were they supposed to do with that?

I don’t know if the story is entirely true.  I don’t know if the two screenwriters ever went back to the studio with an idea.  I do remember that when I heard the story, I thought, “typical screenwriter nightmare.”  The studio had bought the rights to a toy.  Now they wanted to make a movie about the toy.  This wasn’t surprising or even new.  Studios were making movies about theme park rides, comic books, old TV series, anything perceived to have a built-in audience. When The Lego Movie came out, I had no intention of seeing it.  My one child is grown, and she never played with Legos.  There was no reason to bother with it.

Then I started hearing from some of the writers I work with who have small children that The Lego Movie was really good.  One day over the holidays I started watching it on TV.  I was immediately sucked in.  I called my wife and suggested she watch it with me.  “You’re kidding?” she said.  “I know it sounds silly,” I said, “but this movie is fascinating.”  I started the movie over. We watched it together.  We loved it.

Since then I have watched nearly all of the screeners I was sent.  Birdman was innovative in the way it was shot, but as for the story and the characters, I felt I had seen it before.  American Sniper is gripping and exciting, but ultimately panders to our worst instincts.  I very much liked The Imitation Game.  (Of the movies nominated for Best Picture, I would vote for The Imitation Game.)   Selma was heartbreaking, but felt more like a movie of the week than a feature film.  A Most Violent Year had its moments, but ultimately was slow and derivative.  Boyhood I found to be pretentious, self-indulgent, cliched, and achingly dull.  The Grand Budapest Hotel was the best Wes Anderson movie in a while, but that’s about all you can say about it.  I loved The Theory of Everything, but figure it wasn’t ambitious enough to win.

For me, the Best Picture of 2014, hands down, was The Lego Movie.  It was visually stunning.  It was packed with more action than all of the other movies of the year put together.  The characters were compelling.  The story was fascinating.  And it was perhaps the most political film of the year.

So why didn’t The Lego Movie even get nominated for Best Animated Film, much less Best Picture?  I don’t know why it was ignored in the animation category.  As for Best Picture, based on the last few years, the Academy seems determined to recognize only movies that are dark and hopeless or about “serious” subjects.  If you enjoyed a movie, it must not be any good.  If watching a movie is an ordeal, then it gets nominated.  Based on the “ordeal factor,” I figure Boyhood should win.  It was certainly the biggest “emperor’s new clothes” movie since The Tree of Life.

When The Lego Movie came out, I figured it was going to be a two-hour advertisement for a toy. Instead, it was charming, exciting, and invigorating.  It’s the one movie of 2014 that  you don’t want to miss.

On the Death of an Old Friend

In 1977, when I was but a fledgling in show biz, I had the great privilege to work briefly with two British writer/producers, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd.  I helped write a pilot script based on their iconic British series, Are You Being Served?  The pilot was not picked up, but I enjoyed a wonderful few months with David and Jeremy at Paramount Studios under the guidance of Garry Marshall.

I read with sadness this morning of Jeremy’s passing at the age of 84.  (NY Times – 12/27/14)

Jeremy, as I briefly knew him, was a rake, a rogue, and a hell of a lot of fun to be with.  He took me to lunch one day at The Daisy, which in the late ’70’s was a private club on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.  I remember we lunched at a small table on the sidewalk.  A beautiful and shapely girl in plastic, transparent jeans sashayed by and Jeremy had great fun chatting her up.  (Young women had to be very selective about their under garments when wearing see-through jeans.) That same afternoon, Jeremy introduced me to O.J. Simpson, who at the time was a very popular figure, famous not only for his football heroics with the Buffalo Bills, but also for his TV commercials for the Hertz car rental company.

I remember Jeremy inviting me to a dinner party at his apartment on Doheny Drive in West Hollywood.  The female guests were Jane Seymour and Barbara Carrera (both Bond girls at the time) and Irene Miracle who had appeared in the movie, Midnight Express.  I confess I lacked the sophistication or self confidence to make much of that experience.  I mostly sat on the floor with my mouth hanging open, as if I were Raj from The Big Bang Theory.

David Croft claimed that Jeremy could pick up any beautiful woman anywhere.  David once described to me how Jeremy would meet a beautiful woman in an airport, ask her where she was going, and then buy a first-class ticket on the same flight so he could continue to romance her.

Jeremy was a wonderful raconteur.  My favorite Jeremy story was about how Sir Lew Grade, a famous British producer, wanted to hire Jeremy to write a script for him.  Instead of negotiating a fee, Jeremy insisted that he be paid with a white Rolls Royce Corniche.  Upon taking delivery of the Rolls, Jeremy, accompanied as always by a beautiful young woman, drove the car to St. Tropez.  He pulled up in front of his favorite hotel, handed the keys to the doorman, and said, “Sell the car and send the money to my room.”  As Jeremy told it, “I didn’t give a damn about the car.  I just wanted the experience of driving up to that hotel in it.”

Jeremy had style, and it was a style very much planted in the sixties and seventies.  He was part 007 and part Monty Python.  He was a great dresser, tall and lean with pale skin and a full head of sandy blonde hair.  He was the kind of Brit who could wear an ascot or a monocle and pull it off with no sense of irony.

He told me once that he had been sickly in his youth and spent much of his childhood in bed.  I think he was determined to make up for it by living his adult life to the fullest.  He enjoyed wine, women, and song at a time when there was nothing wrong with that.  I’m sure he broke more than a few hearts, but I also suspect that most of the women he romanced were on to him, and hopefully had as much fun with him as he had with them.

Then was a gentility to Jeremy that I greatly admired.  He was soft spoken, scrupulously well educated, gentlemanly, and always gracious.  You just don’t see that in men anymore.

Why was he so nice to me?  We couldn’t have had less in common.  He was worldly and sophisticated and twenty years my senior.  I was neurotic, insecure, and woefully inexperienced.  But his kindness toward me is something I have treasured all of my life.

We talked on the telephone occasionally in the years after our short work experience.  But the time difference between Los Angeles and London, and the distance, made those calls more infrequent until they finally stopped.

You work with so many people in this business.  You lose contact with most of them.  But there are a few you remember with deep affection for the remainder of your days.

Jeremy, thank you for being so kind to me.  Thank you for the stories.  Thank you for the meals shared.  Thanks for the memories.

Jeremy Lloyd (1930-2014)

Intimidation and Taste

No one knows who hacked Sony’s computers.  Maybe it was the North Korean government, as some in the media and apparently some government sources have suggested.  Maybe it was hackers working on behalf of North Korea.  Maybe it was someone else.  Regardless of who the hackers were, they did something wrong.  They illegally broke into a data base just as “the plumbers” of the Nixon Administration broke into the offices of a psychiatrist and into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee a generation ago.

People have long understood that no property is safe from someone who is determined to take it.  If one is to believe some news reports, our own government illegally breaks into data bases every second of every day.

The media chatter machine was alive this week with opinions of whether Sony should or should not have pulled the new Seth Rogen movie.  President Obama and Aaron Sorkin, among others, say Sony should have released the movie so as not to give in to intimidation.  Theater owners and many in the public were worried about having an American multiplex turn into a scene of carnage on Christmas.  Let’s put aside the terrible truth that a multiplex can become a scene of carnage any day of the year and already has, and that Congress works overtime to make sure that a multiplex can turn into a scene of carnage every day.  We’re concerned about some forms of public safety and utterly unconcerned about others.

Big corporations make bad decisions every day.  The decision to not release this movie will cost Sony around $70 million.  I’m sure we all feel very sorry for Sony.

What may be included in all of the e-mails from Sony that were hacked, or may not be, is the discussion that was held inside the company over whether or not it was a good idea to make a satirical movie about the assassination of a living world leader who is still in office.  Would it have been a good idea to make a satire about assassinating the leader of China, or the leader of Iran, or Vladimir Putin?  I mean, unless you’re a Republican you probably don’t like Putin, and right now he is a much bigger threat to our security that the guy in North Korea.  So should a Hollywood studio make a satirical movie about the CIA using two bumbling reporters to try to kill Putin?  Oh, and succeeding?

How happy would we self-congratulatory Americans be if a foreign country made a satirical movie about assassinating President Obama?  And to Republicans, who would no doubt cheer a movie like that, I ask, okay, once you get one of your guys back in The White House, would you welcome a movie from Iran about assassinating Jeb Bush or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz?

I’m just curious to know what the conversation was inside Sony between their executives and the artists who wanted to make a satire about assassinating a sitting world leader.  Was there a single person present who suggested that maybe that wasn’t a great premise for a movie?

I wonder if there was a single person present in any of those discussions who might have suggested that this story idea was in bad taste.  Not because it might upset terrorists or the North Koreans, and not because it wasn’t going to make enough money to justify the budget, but simply because the entire notion was a crude, punkish, immature idea?

And yes, bad taste is subjective.   Little in life is more subjective that taste.  Hollywood has made millions of dollars off of gross-out comedies.  The R-rated comedy that is almost exclusively about how far can one go within the widest bounds of taste has become a staple, and Mr. Rogen has appeared in several such comedies.

Your idea of bad taste may be completely different from mine.  That’s okay.  There’s room for disagreement.  But when you have to keep pushing and pushing the boundaries of whatever taste is in order to get young males to step away from their X-boxes long enough to pay for a movie ticket, then eventually all of that boundary pushing is going to make you lose your way, and it’s going to bite you in the ass.

Sony could have saved themselves $70 million dollars by simply saying to Seth Rogen, “You know, dude, I’m sure you’ll write a really funny script based on this premise, but this just isn’t the kind of movie that we at Sony want to put our name on.”  And then Seth might have taken his idea to another studio.  And probably someone else would have made some version of it.  But the executives at Sony could have gone home that weekend saying to themselves, “There is a line we won’t cross.”  And maybe Seth Rogen might have thought to himself, “Do I really want to base my entire career on being a jackass?”

Maybe we can’t always agree on what taste is.  But when you abandon even the consideration of taste, then it may end up costing you your career, your dignity, an election, or, worst case scenario, a lot of money.