As a rule, I don't read Q&A books. I've learned my lesson from one too many Conversations With...., or a bunch of take-it-or-leave-it Q&A books with a bunch of TV showrunners where apparently all the author(s) cared about was getting a chance to sit down with Joss Whedon.
(Um...now all I can think about is writing a book proposal for something called Joss Whedon Talks About Stuff.)
But, luckily, I'm full of shit, because I was recently given a copy of Show Me the Funny by Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis. The short: Desberg and David take a single premise and give it to 22 different comedy writers to see how they would develop the same comic premise.
And that's where this book got me. It's basically a series of casual, relaxed conversations. Which is why it works. There are a few things that certainly benefit from running at the mouth:
1) Getting to know someone better.
2) Developing an story premise.
3) Finding the funny.
Anyone who's pitched an idea or broken a story with a friend or co-writer knows that nothing works better than sitting down and talking it out. And that's what I found in this book. I wasn't particularly interested in the comic premise, but listening to 22 different people approach in 22 different ways was fascinating.
Yvette Bowser went straight for the characters' psychology. Bob Myer compared it to past and current shows to immediately shed his first ideas in favor of his second and third pitches in an attempt to find something that would survive in the marketplace. Cheri and Bill Steinkellner bantered and performed off of one another like a comedy duo to find a strong, funny idea. Peter Casey went straight to the core conflict and built the concept back up from there. It's amazing what you can learn from simply listening to someone talk. Not just answering questions, but really talking out loud.
But maybe the strongest aspect of the book is that the chatty slant lends itself to some particularly funny gems that I'll end with:
From Phil Rosenthal:
Lew [Schneider]'s role on Raymond was room monkey. He'll admit this. When you needed to jump-start something funny, a comic spirit in the room, he would pretend to have sex with the thermostat. It's essential to have that monkey... [Lew's] absolutely hysterical to the point where you are working and you have to say, "You must stop. Please put your pants back on and come back to the table because we need you."
From Dennis Klein:
All I care about as a writer, just like in a sex act, is just being turned on... I'll see these other movies, or plays, and they're crappy, and people say they're great and I want to kill them. I have these moments. But it's just an important discipline to focus on what's great. I've been saying all kinds of bullshit and you guys are going to cut it down...hopefully, you're going to do a good job. There's a couple of minutes there where it was really worth something... That's nice to have that as part of the writing thing and the rewriting. You write a lot and you whittle it down, and that's our job in writing.
From Lew Schneider:
That comedy stuff is all icing. You don't start with the comedy. You certainly don't start with the dialogue. Funny dialogue, that's really the last part of the icing, and before that it's funny behavior that might get comic. And before that it's all the story... Sometimes I'll pitch a bunch of stuff, and someone will say, "that was great, why didn't yo pitch that first?" "I don't know. I just like to talk."
ps. Check it out at their website, www.showmethefunnyonline.com, where they also have video of the interviews with the comedy writers.
pps. Desberg and David also take and answer questions about writing, pitching and comedy at their Facebook page.