The Importance of a Second Read

16 10 2009

I used to not like rereading my work. Not my writing or homework or anything. I had already read it once. Hell, I wrote the thing.

If you’re like this, get over it, please. Reread your work. And reread other people’s work. Give a video a second viewing. You owe it to the piece.

It isn’t that first reads/viewings are worthless. First reads give you insight. After all, most of your audience will only give it one go, so it’s important to know how they may react.

But there’s so much to be learned in the second read/view. You’ve put all your preconceived notions to bed. You’re not infected with the giggles, like so often happens around a writers table. The second go is less reactionary, but more honest, and you’ll get more out of it. It’s where you really absorb what’s being said, and can finally start to dissect the piece.


Not like that! Like this!

14 10 2009

My first real education in film making (not that I ever make films) came in the form of a Dov SS Simens weekend film crash course seminar. It was good. I highly recommend it. The most important thing he taught me was that no one needs a license to make a movie. But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is the second most important thing he taught me: let actors do their jobs.

On set, everyone has a job to do. The director envisions a project and tries (often in vain) to steer the project in that direction (see? that’s where they get the word). The lighting guys do lighting. The cinematographer does the camera work (yes, I’m drastically underplaying their roles, but I don’t want to get off on a tangent), and the actor is charges with pulling life and humanity out of the words on his/her script.

The writer, often enough, isn’t even there. And when they are there, they should not go around telling people how to do things. You’re stepping on the directors toes by doing that. And you should never repeat a line back to an actor (say it like this: “YOU”RE out of order. This whole COURT is out of order!”). It’s stepping on his toes.

Some actors get insulted by that. Others don’t. Even if they aren’t insulted, still don’t do it. Because all that’s going to happen is they’ll start taking their cues from you, and you’ll be the one doing the performing. They’ll be your puppet. And yes, they may start saying lines just the way you want them, but you’ll be losing out on different, often better takes on your characters.

This is a rule I’ve lived by in scripting, and why I often don’t even go to shoots. However, I’m starting to reexamine my position on this, slightly.

Last week, pretty much because I wanted to get out of the house, I went to a Transylvania Television shoot. They were shooting my material exclusively, and I technically went under the pretense that I’d be available for consultation and rewrites, but I really didn’t expect anyone to want my help. It’s not because they’re rude, but because everyone on this show knows their jobs.

They filmed a couple of short bits with Charles, and though he did an outstanding job, he wasn’t hitting the same tone for the character that I intended. In fact, there was one or two jokes he didn’t get at all. Firstly, that’s my fault. If you have to explain a joke to someone, it’s not funny, or at the bare minimum it’s not clear. Scripting is tough. You can’t really write in the inflections much. And a lot of people in the business frown on even italicizing words. You just have to be as clear as possible, and let the director and actors add their magic.

But eventually it did come up that someone wanted me to chime in on a line. Again, I was very uncomfortable with saying the line the way I wanted it said, but I did tell them which words in the line I’d like stressed. And the line came out better. In fact, the producer said having me on set for that was a big help!

So where does this leave us? To interfere or not interfere? Is it helpful, or stepping on toes. I suppose there’s no good answer; everyone is different. So the answer is, find out who you’re working with before you chime in. Would they find it helpful?

Second, do your job in the scripting stage. Make it as clear as possible. I don’t want to use the term “idiot-proof” but that’s sort of what you have to shoot for. Have someone else read it and give their take, or read it dry. If the comedy comes from the inflection and performance and not the writing, then you’re not really writing comedy, are you? You’re acting on paper.

Third, take some time to have a read-through with the director if you can. He calls the shots on the performance, but if he doesn’t know what the writer is thinking, then that’s information he can’t bring to the set. He might find it useful, and if he doesn’t like you’re take, he’ll have a jumping point to take it somewhere else.

And just to twist the knife, I got a preview of the first bit they filmed, before I chimed in, and while I think people will like it, I know it could have been better if I chimed in at some point. So lesson learned…hopefully.

Transylvania Television and Going For the Dead Baby Gags

4 05 2009

My work on Transylvania Television continues. As of January I became head writer for the show, and as such everything filters through me before it gets to the showrunners. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. Creatively, it’s been going really well (getting hard to dedicated the time, though, but I will press on!), and the script output has increased a lot. We’ve lost some writers, but the team we have now is very talented, and I love their work. it’s a pleasure to do rewrites on it. I’ll have to make a post soon about rewriting a colleague’s work. For now, though, I’d like to revisit an older topic: being offensive.

The toughest thing about writing for TVTV is this edict that we have to be edgy. It was said in the first meeting that we wanted to be an adult show in the vein of South Park. In the year that followed, that didn’t really play out. At least not with me. Edgy is about pushing the envelope on what’s comfortable. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s supposed to “make you think” but it is supposed to make you pause. And being edgy is equal parts of testing people’s sensibilities, and digging on their preconceived notions.

It’s hard to write.

It’s easy to mess up.

Shock is not the same as edgy. Artists make this mistake all the time. They want their audience to feel something, and if they go balls out offensive and illicit shock, then they think they’ve made them feel something. There are two problems with this, however.

One – Shock is the only emotion they ever illicit. They ignore joy, sadness, peace, anger, envy, etc, which are all much better emotions, because those are the ones which have been so dulled with the information age.

Two – Uhh… shock isn’t an emotion, losers. Shock is the lack of emotion. Your brain sees something, overloads, and switches off. Worse yet, is switches the amygdala back to the lizard brain, which turns the viewer into an emotional “fight or flight” personality. I mean, do you get this? Shock actually de-evolves the mind.

I haven’t been writing anything particularly edgy since we’ve started. Oh, I’ll throw in a butt rape reference here or there because it makes me laugh, and that’s fine, but for the most part it’s been all I can do to keep the show from becoming a parody of a sitcom, complete with sitcom cliches.

The reason is because I’m pretty out of practice writing edgy things. Luckily, however, that stuff comes back with practice.

Half the point of a writers meeting is to try to make the other people laugh, even if you’re not scripting, just screwing around. You can tell all the crass and offensive jokes you want around a writers’ table. The easiest way to know if you’re pitching something shocking or something edgy is to gage the reactions. If the immediate gut reaction is uncontrolled laughing, it’s edgy. Put it in a script. If the reaction is nothing, or pensive in some way, shitcan the idea, because you’re not doing any favors.

The main thing, I think, is to explore humor and ideas, and let the filtering be done, by you or someone else, later, because sometimes even edgy isn’t exactly smart.

And, of course, some things aren’t even exactly edgy, they’re just flippin’ funny, like the occasional dead baby gag.

Context is important, though. Dead baby jokes on Friends doesn’t work. Dead baby jokes on South Park are fine. 5/8ths of context is audience expectation.

Writing instructions

14 12 2008

At work, for the foreseeable future, I’ll be writing work instructions for security at the business I’m at. Writing instructions is always a tricky business. It’s technical writing. You have to relay step-by-step instructions. You have to do it in a way that’s approachable and readable enough for the security officer, and yet technical enough to impress the bosses who don’t actually have to do any of the work.

Luckily the security officers at the facility are pretty sharp, so you can use the 25-cent words that good technical writing shouldn’t use. But readability isn’t just about the words you use. Formatting is really important. The spacing between lines and after paragraph breaks, the fonts you use, the bullet points you use. All of these are surprisingly important in writing clear, concise instructions.

It’s always surprising how many people, even in the highest levels of management, are perfectly okay with a terrifying, blinding wall of text.

That’s where you come in. Stop it before it gets to that!

The politics of writing

4 12 2008

My wife told be she thought it was a bad move to post those Assholic articles on my portfolio. People are so easily offended nowadays. I can’t argue with that. People are easily offended, but not for the same reasons they used to be. People used to be offended by smut or Communism or something. Now people are offended by the notion that someone out there might consider their opinions wrong or invalid, and the easiest way to make someone feel like their opinions are wrong and invalid is not by rubbing them in other peoples faces or being argumentative, but simply by holding different ones. If you have a different opinion, and you have even a tiny bit of success, you’ve offended someone out there.

Well, as for my Assholic columns, I’m not really worried about them biting me in the ass. They were written not only under a different name but a different character, and when I was much younger. And frankly, I don’t think they’re that “edgy” anyway. But that does bring up an interesting problem some people have, and that is politics among colleagues.

I’ve worked in environments where I knew for a fact that my coworkers, who seemed genuinely nice (and they were) but who held different views than me on a cornucopia of topics. And not just different, radically different. And they were not just political people, they were rabidly political. Luckily, they were smart. Smart people know not to bring it up.

Not every workplace has smart people in it, of course, but you have to work with what you’ve got to work with. Don’t bring it up. Just don’t. It’s inappropriate. No matter what you’re opinions, you’ll get into fights, and that creates a whole new chapter of problems.

This is, hopefully, common sense. But what this has to do with writing can get very tricky. There’s a balance in every writer’s world where they have weigh being safe with being interesting, because they don’t have much to do with each other. Interesting usually means controversy. It was one of those writer’s rules I was told a long time ago. If you’re writing and you feel yourself tensing up, like you shouldn’t say anymore, that’s exactly when you need to press forward, and explore those thoughts.

It’s perfectly true. Going to dangerous places makes for good writing.

But…it doesn’t make for the best choice. Office politics seeps into a writer’s world every bit as much as politics politics. So how do you make the choice between safe and dangerous? That’s not so easy to answer, but I think the best thing to ask yourself is “does this target need to be attacked?”

Our country’s history is steeped in great political writing, but the point of political writing is to actually affect change, and going after the other side is the crux of the piece. If you offend them by stating your position, that’s fair game. That’s the idea, after all. But if it’s not the point of the piece, then why include it? In entertainment writing so many people like to throw in a dig at their political enemies, even when it has nothing to do with the plot. Yes, you’ll get an extra chuckle from the ones who agree, but you’ll like as not get cold disappointment from the ones you just attacked. Cold disappointment, and a station change. Is it too touchy of them? Maybe, yeah. But that’s not really your business, is it? When you’re doing any type of entertainment writing, your business is to entertain the audience. All of the audience whenever possible. Or at the very least, your job is to not make them switch you off. So who are you writing for when you do that? You or them?

Journaling is writing for yourself. Entertainment writing is for others.

Memory Lane needs some roadwork

9 09 2008

This portfolio isn’t just for all the truly impressive things I’ve done. I’m trying to put together everything I’ve ever done. Which includes the suspect stuff.

I’ve just added a section called “The Vault” that has my works best lost to the sands of time. I’m not ashamed of them. Even ten years later the writing still pretty much stands on its own. But they were all rants and my attempts at being edgy, back when edgy was actually… well, edgy.

Some of my stuff, like my years worth of columns for–the most popular wresting website from they heyday of modern wrestling–really are lost forever, it seems. But a curious hanger-on is my Assholic column, which I wrote for the zine Devil Shat, a sub-department of This was in the days immediately prior to the oncoming blog storm. In fact, just to rub it in, you may notice that the very last issue of DS–which I did not write for–actually talks about the new and gitchy

I don’t know why Devil Shat stopped, which it did very suddenly. kept going, and is still going down, with many sub-departments. I reckon Morbus, the admin, got as suddenly tired of ranting as I did.

I lost my taste for commentary maybe around 2001. All of the sudden I just didn’t feel passionate about telling people what to think. My own site, (don’t bother, it’s a heap of nothing now), was a political commentary site and ended shortly after it began because HTML was a hassle. Looking back on the blogging revolution, I should have stayed angry and chatty. Ah well. I kept my integrity. Sort of.

So they’re up there for reading. Like I said, tip #1 is stand by your work. Tip #2 is put your name on anything you write. This is a tip I should have heard earlier. Assholic is written under a pen name, Rown Garnbii, because I thought that would be fun. A lot of my work is written under the name, Matt Tougas, which was my birth name (I changed it after I got married). So my credits are a bit scattered, and that’s no fun for anyone, since I can’t prove that I’m actually Rown Garnbii. But who else would admit to that, right?

Anyway, it’s all a hassle. If you write it, and you’re proud of it, put your real name on it. Don’t get cute.

The most important thing a writer can do is write an amazing post title

8 09 2008

I’ve finally started a writing blog. To all my fans out there, and they are legion, there will be much rejoicing. Please do subscribe.

Check out the Videos section for a new TVTV sketch I wrote. My name’s in the credits and everything. I’m very proud.

In fact, here it is.

Transylvania TV is a great group of guys, and the show really deserves some play.

Writing sketches, or anything that gets shot for the screen, is an interesting experience in “low man on the totem pole” existance. When you write an article, it gets edited, but no one really changes it. That’s not kosher. When you write a book, your editor rips it apart and tells you to change a bunch of stuff. But in the end it’s you who has the final say. They can’t make changes for you. It’s not kosher.

But when you write for TV or movies, you don’t have anywhere near the last say. It goes through a hundred changes. And even on a little internet clip like this, it goes through changes. For instance, my version had “butt rape” but that was replaced with “ass rape” which is certainly less funny. But I stand by it as a funny sketch. You should always stand by your work. That’s tip #1.

Why am I writing scripts about butt rape? Well, I guess you have to know TVTV, but long story short, it came out of a writers meeting. One of the writers, who’s very good, submitted a script with a surprising amount of rape in it, and although the script was funny, the discussion was even better. It had to become a sketch.