Screenwriting wisdom via six-second snippets

Brian Koppelman is a writer, director, and funny guy who I'm lucky to know as a friend (we began doing standup together at the same time). He wrote/co-wrote the movies Rounders, Solitary Man, Ocean's 13, and lots of other stuff. And now he's giving screenwriting advice via Vine. Everyday he puts out a new clip of screenwriting how-to that's six seconds or less. Easy to digest and lots of good advice for any creative endeavor in there too. Some of the clips at that link and you can watch the rest by finding him on Vine (username is Brian Koppelman).


What comedians and NFL players have in common: They're madmen who have lost the ability to empathize

Football player Nate Jackson wrote a book about his time in the NFL. Here's an excerpt from "Slow Getting Up."

After morning practice we have a few hours to ourselves. I don’t like to fall asleep between practices. Instead I sit in the locker room and shoot the s— with Domonique Foxworth and Hamza Abdullah and Brandon Marshall. I’m learning to play acoustic guitar. I sit on the floor and strum the only three chords I know. If someone walks through the locker room we make up a song about him. It’s meant to humiliate and cut deeply, in the hopes of unearthing a crippling insecurity. The more distraught our victim, the more aggressively we laugh at him. The longer he stays, the worse it gets, until he finally realizes he is dealing with madmen who have lost the ability to empathize, and he scurries off. I’m not concerned about another man’s feelings. I don’t even have time for my own. This follows me off the field and out into the world, where people’s concerns seem weak and pointless. Pain is a choice.

I don’t realize it at the time, but the ability to relax and be an a—— between practices is a product of becoming a seasoned pro. My early years in the league were fraught with nervous tension. I was in no mood to joke around. How could I? I was on my deathbed. But as the years have gone by, conquering the daily struggle has become ingrained in my psyche.

Silly to compare the "pain" of comedians and football players but I thought it was interesting how much Jackson's description of an NFL locker room sounds like the stories of comedians sitting around the table at The Cellar. Or a roast. That search for the one thing that someone actually feels sensitive about so you can then mock 'em ceaselessly. The probe for weakness. And the ability to both give/take it as a sign of professionalism.

Vaguely related: Sarah Silverman Was Bummed About the Ageism at James Franco's Roast. Wait, people said offensive things at a roast!? "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"


Justin Timberlake, Bob Dylan, and lying to be more real

The Enduring, Multigenerational Appeal of Justin Timberlake talks about JT and Bob Dylan and constructing a performance character.

Which brings us back to his role in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and the Village folk era. Timberlake reveres Dylan, but he also understands Dylan as largely a construction, an artistic projection. “I always bring up Robert Zimmerman. ‘Do you know who Robert Zimmerman is?’ They say, ‘Who’s that?’ Look it up.” Van Ronk, in his memoir, describes the Dylan persona as a kind of freestyle riff on who he thought Woody Guthrie really was. Van Ronk’s memoir describes Dylan as so cosmically full of it that he himself probably had no idea what was true and what wasn’t.

Timberlake takes a different moral from the story of Van Ronk and Dylan. He sees the Dylan persona as “methodical,” and that constructedness, he says, is the very essence of how an artist connects with his audience. It’s called performing, and performing is a noble calling, a kind of greater realness. The authenticity is in the ability to make the connection. “I try to talk to people about how much acting goes into music,” he says. “How much of a character goes into what you put on stage. You ever sit down with Jay? He’s not the guy he is on stage. I’m not the guy I am on stage. I am a performer. It’s an elevated idea.”

Interesting angle: Over-the-top performing is ultra-authentic because it is a kind of "greater realness." Constructing a fake character is the most real thing you can do because it lets people get through to you in a way they wouldn't if you were just yourself onstage. Making the connection is the authentic part, even if you have to lie to get there. Not sure what this means about Dick in a Box, but, well, you know.


The evil of wanting to be liked

The least likeable thing to do is try really hard to be likeable. Yet if your audience doesn't like you somewhat, they're not gonna be with you enough to take 'em anywhere. It can be a wrestling match for comics who want to touch on edgy topics or go places that might turn off large chunks of the crowd.

That's what makes Stanhope and Patrice so amazing. They seem to WANT to walk 20% of the crowd. Because they know that's the way to get others in the room to LOVE them. If no one hates you then no one loves you perhaps? Hmm.

Anyway, Andrew Sullivan's Readers Should Be Ruffled talks about a similar battle that writers face. He quotes novelist and art critic Katie Kitamura:

The desire to be liked is acceptable in real life but very problematic in fiction. Pleasantness is the enemy of good fiction. I try to write on the premise that no one is going to read my work. Because there’s this terrible impulse to grovel before the reader, to make them like you, to write with the reader in mind in that way. It’s a terrible, damaging impulse. I feel it in myself. It prevents you doing work that is ugly or upsetting or difficult. The temptation is to not be true to what you want to write and to be considerate or amusing instead. I’m always trying to fight against the impulse to make my readers like me.

Sullivan adds his own .02: "You don’t want to piss readers off unnecessarily or gratuitously, but you also don’t want to be subtly seduced by the idea of popularity, and fall into the trap of pandering to readers in any way."

Maybe the ideal is to walk that line. The joke that draws both groans and belly laughs. Or the one the room hates at first but slowly comes around on. There's something awful satisfying when you can feel people laughing in spite of themselves.


Comedians on Instagram and some pics from the road (PDX-SEA-BC)

Some comedians on Instagram who are darn good photographers:

Don Stahl
Joe List
Jason Burke
Scott Moran

Anyone else ya recommend? Here are some of my shots from recent road trip out to Pacific NW (and a couple of Vine vids too)...


Videos highlight process tips from Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, Judd Apatow, Dave Attell, Judah Friedlander, W. Kamau Bell, Kumail Nanjiani, etc.

Inside Joke is a new series from Grantland that takes ya inside the process of Dave Attell, Judah Friedlander, W. Kamau Bell, and Kumail Nanjiani.

Over the coming weeks, we will be featuring new episodes of Inside Joke, a series that pulls back the curtain and takes you into a stand-up comedian's process. In each episode, we'll follow a different comedian as he prepares and performs his set, develops new material, and reflects on his work.

And IFC posted How to Be Funny: 7 Comedians Give Awesome Advice, featuring clips from Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, Judd Apatow, and more.

Being a comedian is hard. Being an aspiring comedian is even harder. To help jump start your career in comedy, we’ve compiled a list of established comics giving advice on how to write, perform, and make it in the funny business. Most of this advice applies to any occupation, so read on and get inspired.

Gervais' story about the teacher who encouraged him to write what you know is a nice one.


Meisner Technique with JoAnna Beckson

Ray Romano. Dave Chappelle. Jim Gaffigan. Dave Attell. Matt Ruby. We've all taken acting classes with JoAnna Beckson. Now you can too.

The Meisner Technique

Acting Foundation Classes With Acclaimed Acting Coach

JoAnna Beckson*
Fall 2013

DATES: October 8 - November 5, 2013
WHEN : Tuesdays and Thursdays
TIME: 6:30pm - 9:30 pm
LOCATION: J. Beckson Studio - Paul Michael's The Network:
located at 242 West 36th Street (between 7th/8th Avenues) on the 3rd floor
COST: $495

I spent the past 8 months or so taking a few Meisner classes with JoAnna and they were fascinating on many levels. Highly recommend her if you're looking to learn some acting basics. Can really help with your standup too. She's a no bullshit teacher who will push you and "gets" comedians. And she doesn't offer classes for newbies very often so...


Billy Crystal looks back on his career

Billy Crystal killed it on The Daily Show the other night:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Fun to watch Jon Stewart get out of the way and just let him roll with it. Some good, heartfelt talk about his early days doing standup, the importance of "leaving a tip" onstage, and how silence is when you know you've REALLY got a crowd.

And here's From Presentation Skills to Masterful Performance: 12 Tips from Billy Crystal by Victoria Labalme.

Variety of Tone - notice the variety in his speaking tone, which ranges from warmth to humor to respect for nominees. In other words, he is not speaking in "one color"...Use the full spectrum of what you have. The audience craves variety. Important note: Keep in mind that tonal shifts must always come from the "inside out." If you force the shift, you will sound inauthentic.


I officiated a wedding and here's what I said to the bride and groom

One year ago, I officiated a friend's wedding. She's muslim, he's not. So they wanted someone who was not religious and also comfortable speaking in front of a crowd and, voila, I landed the gig. They had me say some stuff they had written and then I added my own bit. Not comedy but, well, you know. And I guess I did use the old comedy technique of commenting on the room (or, in this case, the hotel where we were all staying). Here it is:

So I was waiting for the elevator at our hotel yesterday and thinking what advice I could give to the two of you, two of the smartest people I know. And the elevator got me thinking.

For those of you not staying at our hotel, the elevators there don't have buttons. They have sensors. If you just push the button like you normally would, the elevator never comes. The sensor needs to feel your skin pressed against it.

And it occurred to me that maybe that's a lesson for the two of you as you move forward in life. See, smart people tend to rely on logic. In your life, when you face problems with each other, it's going to be tempting to try to solve them with logic. To look for a solution. To press the button.

But sometimes the best answer is to just let the other person feel your touch. To press your cheek against theirs and whisper in their ear, "I love you. No matter what, I love you." And when you do that, the elevator shows up. The doors open wide. And it can take you places that logic never could.

The poet Rumi once wrote:

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.

So on this day I'd like to wish you a lifetime of being drunk, crazy, mischievous, and losing your mind. Remember, those are essential ingredients to any great love story.


How tension and curiosity can help you become a better storyteller

This answer to How does one become a better storyteller? at Quora talks about the importance of tension and curiosity.

What happens next?

The number-one ingredient for a story is the tension of an unsolved mystery. Stories set up a questions and delay answering them. The simplest example is a question in the first sentence with the answer delayed until the second sentence:

"You know who Bob's favorite singer is? Meatloaf!"

That's not a very interesting story, I know, but compare it to this:

"Bob's favorite singer is Meatloaf."

The first version evokes (just a little) tension. The second doesn't.

Now imagine telling the first version but walking out of the room after the first sentence:

"You know who Bob's favorite singer is? ----- "

That agony is what you should strive for. Because the most basic human urge that makes us want to listen to stories is the need to know what happens next.

Interesting how much that relates to the concept of punchlines. "Always end with the funny part" is one of those simple/obvious rules that I wind up needing to constantly re-remind myself of when writing new bits.

There's also a bit on curiosity:

Curiosity is the juggernaut that drives storytelling.

If you immediately tell us what happens next -- or if there is no next ("Bob's favorite singer is Meatloaf") -- then there's no hook.

Practice this simple question-delay-answer structure over and over, in all your communications. I mean in emails, text-messages, Quora posts, and so on. You're not going to become a good storyteller by learning how to go into storytelling mode. Instead, turn yourself into someone who tells stories all the time. Make stories a natural part of the way you communicate.

I don't mean you should start emails with "Once upon a time..." I mean you should always be aware of posing a question, pausing, and then answering.

"You bet I'll come to your party tonight, and I'm going to bring something tasty! My grandma's snickerdoodles!"

"Practice this in all your communications" is good advice. Whatever you want to do onstage, you should do it a little bit all the time. That way, you're not trying to go from zero to 60 the second you hit the stage.

There's more good info at the rest of that piece. Also related to this stuff: Patton Oswalt on pointing fingers and building tension.


Garry Shandling on ego, comedy, and heart

Garry Shandling talks about his journey and ego on The Green Room with Paul Provenza. An excerpt: "We need something in our society that says there's some importance to heart and authenticity and not just money, power, and how are we gonna control the world."

Along these lines, Shandling's WTF appearance is really fascinating too. Also, given the company, it's a ballsy opening salvo by Bo Burnham at 3min in.


I've got PDX-SEA-BC dates coming up

I'll be Pac NW-ing over the next week:

Friday, September 6
Fly Ass @ Brody Theater (Portland, OR)

Saturday, September 7
Mixology @ Curious Comedy Theater (Portland, OR)

Sunday, September 8
Weird and Awesome @ Annex Theater (Seattle)

Monday, September 9
Bogarts Comedy Showcase (Seattle)

Tuesday, September 10
The Grotto - in the basement of the Rendezvous (Seattle)

Thursday, September 12
Level Up! @ The Capitol Club (Seattle)

Friday, September 13
Heckler's (Victoria, BC)

Saturday, September 14
Heckler's (Victoria, BC)

All shows listed here.


Portlandia director on why he wants a guerilla operation

Interview: ‘Portlandia’ writer/director Jonathan Krisel. He talks about the advantages to doing a (relatively) low budget show.

It definitely is a guerilla operation. That’s the way I wanted it; I would not want it any other way. You can change gears easier, since the show is totally improvised. I mean, there are scripts (later described as a loose outline), you can meander and it’s nice to have the ability to go, “Something came up in that last take, let’s maneuver to change the story a little bit”. That’s nice, to have sort of a nimble crew and options available, that we can sort of be inspired in the moment and be able to actually do something about it, as opposed to, “Oh, that would have been great, but we can’t actually do that.”The Portland crew is really essential to that; I felt like the people up there are more interested in making artistic things. There’s a real value in it. There’s not as much value in, “Is this going to come in exactly on budget?” or, “We got the day done!”, it’s like “Well whats the creative… what do you guys really need, what do you want?” and there’s a real satisfaction from everyone when we go, “That was really funny and we got it."

It's part of why I like the run and gun style we use when shooting Vooza. Flexibility gives you more room to be funny. The bigger the budget = the more people want you to stick to exact script and production schedule = it gets tougher to capture those funny moments that just pop up. Guerilla style means you can wing it instead of feeling ball and chained.

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