Saturday, April 29, 2006

Today's lesson: Don't collaborate with anyone under 30

Last week, I enrolled in a sketch comedy workshop. Over 20 years ago, I created, produced, wrote all the material for, and performed in a sketch comedy group. I had a major reservation: that not only the students but the instructor would be much younger than I, with a corresponding aesthetic divide.

It didn't take long for those fears to materialize. At the first class, I quickly understood that I was at least a generation older than the instructor, and even more senior to the students, who were all in their 20s. When we were asked about which comedy groups we admired, the other students mentioned the State (of which the instructor was a founding member), Stella (an offshoot of the State, and probably the most infantile, embarrassingly meretricious comedy group I've ever seen -- they made the Ritz Brothers look like the Bloomsbury Group), and other assemblages who achieved notoriety in the last ten or so years, such as the incredibly overrated Kids in the Hall. I extolled Monty Python, justifiably, as the apotheosis of sketch comedy.

We were given two sketches to perform, one of which was a Kids in the Hall piece, the other written by the instructor and performed by the State. It involved a restaurant whose staff tried to conceal the fact that they had no food by ridiculing the diners. It was undeveloped and devoid of wit. Yet the students gleefully worked on it and expressed a high regard for it -- even out of earshot of the instructor. The sketches the students had brought to class were no better, yet they were received as if gifts from the comedy gods, by both students and instructor. One involved two NFL draft experts whose differences of opinion cause them to hyperbolically inflate the aptitudes of their favored players. A second was about a corporate executive who rained vitriolic abuse upon everyone he encountered (for no apparent reason), only to soften at the sight of a rabbit who occupied his office. Again, junior-high-level profanity and vituperation were substituted for wit.

Still, I wanted to give my fellow classmates the benefit of the doubt, and approached a couple of them after class. I complimented one young woman on the premise of her sketch: a man who insists to a date he met through a lesbian website that he is indeed a lesbian. As it turned out, the instructor paired me off with her and another woman as part of a collaborative assignment. To get our relationship off to a good start, and as a writing exercise, I rewrote the woman's sketch -- at least most of it -- taking it in a direction that I thought made it much stronger (and keeping in mind the class's response and suggestions). The three of us arranged to meet at Au Bon Pain. That's when things really took a bad turn.

Unbenownst to either me or the instructor, the two women were lifelong friends. Both were Jewish, in their mid-20s, from Westchester. One was short, pretty, with the ubiquitous Valley Girl/MTV accent. She brought her iMac. The other was plain and whose stomach protruded to an unusual extent, given that she wasn't terribly overweight. At first, I thought she might be pregnant, but then discounted that conjecture. I started out by asking if either had any ideas. The un-pregnant one said that her ideas were "really gross." I asked her to pitch one. "Well, it's about this old man in a nursing home who is causing trouble because he's taking Viagra and he's choking all the women in the nursing home with his [pause] cock." Oh. Right away, I knew that this wasn't going to be, "The Importance of Being Earnest." I was noncommittal.

The other woman then suggested a piece about a woman who believes her dreams are real because I had this dream the other night that my boyfriend turned into a real jerk who was like putting me down and wouldn’t it be funny if she went to the boyfriend and said, 'You asshole! Why are you being such a jerk?' and he's like 'What are you talking about?' and she's like 'In my dream you called me a fat whore...'" She looked at me, and again I expressed no enthusiasm. Finally, we settled on an idea of mine -- not the first I pitched -- about an escort service for men who want to be emotionally abused. I came up with the line about how they promise "an unhappy ending," which the women liked. So we began brainstorming. After a couple of hours we had an outline of the piece, and some of the dialogue, although we disagreed on the tone. They pushed for illogical trash-talking -- for example, they had the Escort enter the john's apartment and immediately call him a "retard" (an insult I didn't think was used by anyone over the age of 12) -- and I tried to steer it in a more subtle, elegant direction. At the end of our session, I thought we had agreed on the basic premise and tone. We would each go home and polish it, then email each other the results.

I finished my draft early the next morning and was fairly satisfied. I tried to include at least one or two of each of my collaborators' better lines, in an attempt to be collegial and not be perceived as solipsistic. They had no such compunctions. Without consulting me, Ms. Valley Girl/Westchester decided to rewrite the piece the way she initially wanted it: short, vulgar, inane, and illogical. Although I don't know this for a fact, and the emails the three of us exchanged do not substantiate it, I believe the two conspired to break our agreement and rewrite the piece, dismissing me in the process. (That they clearly demonstrated that they were in unison against me, the outsider, was clear from the way one positioned her computer, only allowing her friend to take over the keyboard when she went to buy a cup of coffee.)

I wrote to one of the women the following:

Well, I guess you and I disagree. (I haven't heard from Jesse.) I see this as a realistically played piece. There's no reason a sketch has to be two minutes, and much great sketch comedy is, as you put it, “realistic" (think: Nichols and May). Also, don't underestimate the audience. The fact that initially they're exactly sure of the characters' motivation can intrigue and involve them. Any seeming ambiguities in the writing could be sharpened by the actors and the direction. You may be right that my vision of it may be too subtle and more appropriate for a one-act play, but the other way is too much like a hitting the audience with a blunt instrument. Too many of the lines -- calling someone a "retard" and a "hag" and describing them as smelling like "a decomposing raccoon carcass covered in horse shit and piss" – are obvious and too vulgar for my taste. Vituperation and invective, in and of themselves, are not a substitute for wit.

To which her friend (who must've been forwarded my message) replied:

If you'd like I’m sure we can take your name off of our version. By the way, what is Nicholas and May?

First, they offer (threaten) to take my name off the piece. Except it was my idea, my structure, and the best lines are mine. Second, the great mystery of Nichols and May continues to stymie Gen Y. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Here is what you have -- another example of the younger generation at its most typical: Ignorant, ahistorical, and with a self-satisfaction totally inverse to the quality of their work. It's the literary equivalent of a two-year-old whose parents dote on every last fart as if it's been handed down from Mt. Parnassus. If these women -- overentitled Westchester Jewesses -- ever pulled a deceitful stunt like that on the staff of an actual TV show, they wouldn't last the day. Yet these two -- who have written a grand total of three sketches between them -- saw fit to lecture me -- the guy with book and major magazine credits who has produced his own comedy group and collaborated with Emmy Award winners, and who's been a professional writer for 30 years.

It's astonishing, really. But this is America, circa 2006: a mediocracy.

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