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About three years ago I thought it would be funny to write a blog called Having A Poo With… In each entry I would parody the thoughts of a famous person as they went to the toilet. To do a poo.
It would show off my keen ear for language that was ripe for parody (it didn’t); it would be a regular and hilarious addition to people’s inboxes (it wasn’t); and be an excuse for a lot of jokes about bums (it was). The whole thing was prompted by an image of Will Self describing the “proleptic, anti-peristaltic turtle’s head” of a stool that was proving difficult to shift from his duodenum. This would show that Craig Brown…
Needless to say, I got bored after doing one entry. It sits there, alone in a corner of the Internet, unloved, leaking misery and loneliness into the ether. As it should be.
I was reminded of this when seeing another piece of advice to young writers in which they were sternly admonished to finish those things they started. That that was what separated the professionals from the rest of you. We finish what we start. We don’t leave abandoned half-drafts all over our hard drives. We don’t start without a plan, we know where we’re going, we finish what we start.
Balls. Unalloyed donkey-balls.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that you can never get anything made (or published) unless you finish it, I think that there’s another risk just as great as starting something you never finish. And that’s never starting the thing at all.
Whereas in the past I would have happily ploughed in to a new idea whenever it occurred to me; now I have pinboards, charts mapping out act breaks, the will to muscle on through bits of writing that might not be working the way I’d hoped, and a huge pile of projects that I haven’t ever started because I’m not happy that I’ve got a complete grasp of them yet. Before writing was my job I would have played with these ideas, tried writing them. Now that seems irresponsible unless I know how they are going to turn out.
So they sit there.
And I look at them and think that if I’d taken that first moment when the idea seemed so brilliant and written everything that enthused me about it then, then I would have at least have a bit of them written. At least a bit I could look at, decide whether there was anything in it and carry on with. A bit that would have the fire in that initially excited me. Rather than a bunch of denatured plans for incomplete ideas.
Sometimes we have to play. Sometimes we have to just follow what excites us. Sometimes we have to fail.
We have to do the bit we think is excellent to realise that we don’t want to do the rest of it.
Which is why I’m glad i wrote the one entry on Having A Poo With… It’s a testament to doing something incompletely, but still having something that you like at the end of it. Its one entry is short, but still funny, and written. It’s there.
As opposed to all the well-worked through, not-quite ideas I have planned. So whilst it’s great advice to young writers to learn to finish the things you start, I wonder whether it might not be just as important to start things you have no idea how, or even if, you are ever going to finish.
That one entry? Having A Poo With… Charlie Brooker. Here it is:
Have you ever noticed how tawdry and awful doing a shit is? No, really. It is.
You sit there with your trousers around your rotten ankles, waiting for death, and straining so hard you look like Popeye wanking himself into a stupor, as he lies alone in bed imagining Olive Oyl being savagely bummed by Bluto. Who’s dressed as a clown.
Not only do you grunt and squeal like a piglet drowning in a bathtub full of razorblades and gin, but you’re actually squeezing actual human turds through your foetid ring-piece. You disgusting cock. Get some fucking dignity.
You’d almost feel sorry for yourself if you weren’t as despicable as the rest of the human sodding race. We should all have our heads replaced with bums, so that instead of going around having opinions, we could just spoot noxious clouds of toxic guff in each others’ bum-faces. Like cocks.
As if that weren’t bad enough, you’re then expected to wipe your own arse like some sort of idiot slave with nothing better to do than to smear actual shit around a piece of semi-absorbent paper. The shame of this makes you leak hot twat-tears into the uncaring toilet bowl.
The only thing that makes the process half bearable is the knowledge that the whole degrading process is at least confirmation that you’re still alive, and taking up precious space on this rubbish planet. For now.
Yes, I know that title doesn’t really work. But bear with me…
For the last couple of days, David Mamet’s advice to writers on The Unit has been bounced approvingly around writers’ blogs (I refuse to use the absurd appellation ‘Scribosphere’ – it makes writers sound like 22nd-century content production droids, memeing out ultragigs of infotasms and authotainment from the factory pods floating in their translucent scribosphere).
In it he gives fairly standard advice in a typical pithy fashion. He also gets in a few good swipes at the ‘blue-suited penguins’ who are in charge of developing new television shows.
(This is actually true. John Birt introduced a flock of emperor penguins into middle management at the BBC as part of a round of ‘efficiency savings’ in 1996. They quickly began to roost in the East Tower, leading to an unfortunate incident in which Ronnie Corbett was placed on a penguin’s feet, and sheltered from the cold weather for eight months until he had matured enough to survive on his own. This is why they are trying to sell TV Centre now. It is infested with penguins. Infested.)
Anyway, Mamet’s advice is good and well-expressed, and well worth a look if you’re interested in writing good drama. It contains things like this:
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TOOVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC,ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
The best thing is that it’s all in CAPS LOCK, so it’s like he’s brought you into his office to TEAR YOU A NEW ASSHOLE, while at the same time distributing writing tips.
However, I’ve begun to suspect that that advice is very helpful if you’re writing drama, but not so helpful if you’re writing something else. Like comedy.
Earlier in the month I was working on a screenplay, and came to a scene that I loved. It was really, really funny. However, it didn’t really move the story on, didn’t tell us much about the characters that we didn’t know already, and was more of a comment about the drama that had already happened than being dramatic in its own right. So I pulled it out.
And the sequence was less funny as a result.
So now I’ve begun to think if maybe, as comedy writers, we don’t have a duty that trumps the need to write good, solid dramatic scenes. The duty to write funny things. Maybe people come to a comedy to be made to laugh, rather than to be compelled to watch every thrilling scene.
Try applying Mamet’s advice above to The Goon Show, or Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Although they do nominally have dramatic through-lines, the dramatic structure is an excuse to go and play with whatever they find funny.
This Is Spinal Tap has a weak move into its final act (Nigel Tufnell just turns up, there’s nothing that dramatically impels him to rejoin the band). In Four Weddings And A Funeral it isn’t clear if Andi MacDowell has any needs, dramatic or otherwise, as her character is just to wander mysteriously in and out of the script as needed. What does Borat need?
Comedies are allowed to break the rules because they have one, higher rule: Be funny. As long as they fulfil that one we’ll forgive a lot.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to be gleaned from Mamet’s advice. A lot of comedy comes direct from the frustration of a character’s wants, needs, and desires, and the lengths to which we, as writers, will go to frustrate them. But we should also accept that there are other ways of getting laughs: silliness, visual jokes, musical numbers, and that the highest purpose of a comedy is to make people laugh.
(You’ll have to excuse all of the pompous talk of the ‘duty’ or ‘purpose’ of a writer. It consists, in my case, of sitting in a shed thinking up knob gags, so it’s nice to think of it as a little more noble than it might appear at first.)
I may be becoming unconscionably relaxed. I can see it in the In The Gloamings. In the first, Dead Skinny, we went through it at the script stage, and then in the edit, and took out everything that didn’t move the narrative along, no matter how funny I thought it was. The outtakes from that one are lovely.
By the time we reached this month’s A Grave Mistake, however, I was writing much simpler stories with more time to play, and leaving things in that were only there because they were funny. They may well be an unnecessary 10 seconds dramatically, but they make me laugh. And that’s what it’s meant to do. There is one two-second outtake from that one.
In the past I was the king of prick who demanded that each scene justify itself dramatically. In the past, I was that Mamet-y glans.
See. Told you to bear with me…