On Writing a Novel, Shooting a Movie, and Something in Between

 

Cartooning is for people who can’t quite draw and can’t quite write. You combine the two half-talents and come up with a career.

– Matt Groening

And, in my opinion, so is creating a comedy TV show — creating a comedy TV show is for people who can’t quite make a movie and can’t quite write a novel.

I’ve always wanted to write a novel. But I just never could. Oh, I think I write acceptably well. Sentence structure and grammar and all that. Good, but not great.

And certainly not good enough to write a novel. Not that I haven’t tried. Oh, how I’ve tried. But I’ve just never been able to slog through it. That cursor on the white screen, just blinking at you. And then you have to describe things. How a scene looks or how a character feels. You get judged on how “snappy” your prose is and how “emotionally deep” your words are. Invariably I’d sit there, typing out a scene. Then I’d go back and re-read it and say to myself, “Oh, that sounds terrible,” and then delete delete delete delete. At the end of the writing session, I’d have that same blank white screen staring at me.

I’ve also always wanted to make movies. Ever since I set eyes on George Lucas’ “Star Wars” in 1977, I wanted to make movies. Good ones. Big, epic ones, like “Star Wars.”

But making movies, like writing novels, is extremely hard.

I’d say, in fact, that it’s much harder to make a movie than it is to write a novel.

To make a movie you need actors. And a crew. And time. Lots and lots and lots of time. Which makes actors uneasy, as all those time demands conflict with their day jobs…unless, that is, you’re in Hollywood, where your actors get paid $10,000 an hour to sit in an air conditioned trailer while you burn time shooting and re-shooting some other scene that doesn’t involve them.

I mean, when you attempt to write a novel, the only person’s time you’re wasting is your own.

In both cases, though, those are things that I just can’t quite do well enough for whatever reason.

But then I discovered, quite by accident, the “art” of writing and producing comedy TV.

After so many attempts at writing bad novels, the practice of writing a script was a cinch. When you write a script, you just write what a scene looks like. If it looks awesome, well, you just say so: “A giant spaceship approaches. It’s awesome!”

And dialogue? Cake walk. You just put the character’s name in all caps on top and then write what she says underneath, like this:

CAROLINE

Bob, are you having an affair with the maid?

Compare that to this: Caroline spun around abruptly to face her husband. Her expression went dark. Her eyes narrowed in accusation. “Bob,” she hissed, “are you having an affair with the maid?”

And filming a movie? Goodness gracious. You can easily require 12 different camera angles just to capture one two-minute scene. Shot reverse shot. Shot reverse shot. Angry actors shouting, “What do you mean, I gotta do it again?!” Other actors, off camera, fidgeting, waiting for their turn on set: “How much longer? My ride’s waiting for me.” And then, invariably: “Damn. The mic is in the shot. How did I not notice that? We have to shoot it again.”

Filming a comedy TV show, especially a simple one-camera deal like “Yesterland Waltz” relieves you of all that. Set exposure, focus, check sound, go! Missed the punch line? Inflection wasn’t quite right? No problem! Just do it again!

I’m not saying that it’s easy, because it’s anything but. We have set endurance records, I believe, shooting episodes of “Yesterland Waltz,” often shooting 18 hours straight. And when the 18 hours were done, I’d look at the shoot schedule and realize, “Ah, hell. We’re so far behind…”

This, I believe, is the modern barrier to entry to TV and movie production — time and determination. Back in the films days, film was extremely expensive and so were film cameras. So production cost was the main barrier. But nowadays with advanced DSLR cameras, digital memory cards, and NLE software, you might be tempted to think anyone can do it.

And maybe anyone can. But then, how good are your funny stories to tell and how good are you at standing on your feet 18 hours a day?

One thing I will say for myself and I’ll say the same thing for Justin Michaels, star of “Yesterland Waltz,” is we are both willing to walk a thousand miles in blazing sun through a cloud of angry honey bees to make this thing a success.

 

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