Why a Podcast?

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What should I do with all of this useless information in my head?

Though I would be flattered to think anyone cared about the depths of trivia I think about, the bottom line is that even most nerds let their eyes gloss over if I start to talk about the adaptation of Shakespeare into Saturday morning cartoon shows. Could I write a book on animated television show writing? Yes. Should I? Maybe.

They say great wisdom is knowing when to use great power.

So what do you do? When I can't talk to people on the street about cartoon writing, and there isn't exactly an M.A. in animated dramaturgy... When I can't go from zero to animated TV show writer, what is one to do? Chris and I started a podcast.

Writers Get Animated is part-theory, part-improv. In it, we try to explore all of writing's little nuances in cartoon shows. Everything from the most emotional moments of Futurama, to the best-constructed fart jokes. Usually the fart jokes are more fun to talk about. The podcast is only a thinly-veiled attempt to meet people in Big Animation. In addition to academic breakdowns (aka English-majoring-the-crap-out-of-things), we also just have fun. 

It Writes Itself! is an improv game we developed to showcase our creative (and ridiculous) talents. Chris and I spin some metaphorical wheels (they're in an app), and then spend 7 minutes developing a pitch for a crossover concept between two properties and an added gimmicky cliche. For example: Popeye and Akira as teenagers. In this concept, Popeye fills the roll of the titular Akira. He has a jet ski instead of motorcycles and eats some bad spinach that turns him into the monster. Ultimately, it is Popeye's untamed tweenage rage that prevents him from controlling his temper.

There's also a healthy portion of commentary in there, though. We dish on diversity in animation, how cliffhangers work, and what 'tone' means in animated television writing. Hopefully many more meaningful topics. Though like with any podcast, we have more fun along the way than we should.

Here's a primer in Writers Get Animated:

If you like that, subscribe to us on iTunes. Leave us a nice review! Keep posted at @WGAnimated on Twitter. Like us on Facebook. Tumble around with us

...okay, the last one doesn't work as a call to action.

Make English Majors Show Their Work

Make English Majors Show Their Work

If you didn't know, I moonlight as a copywriter. It's nice money and I control how much money I make / how much work I have at a time. Don't get me wrong; it's also a huge pain in my ass. For many reasons. But the biggest is without a doubt the fact that everyone in America thinks they can write. You can't.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming that this blog is a shining beacon of quality. I usually write these in one quick session and maybe, maybe, I'll proofread them. This blog is a hobby. My professional one gets a little more scrutiny from me.

The Hubris

Any copywriter can tell you about the client (or agency superior) who has constant edits for their writing – most of which actually detract from the writing. That's because they do no have in mind how the audience would read it; they have in mind how they would write this. As a writer, you can never match their voice. It's a faulty way of measuring the subjective quality of a piece.

But advertising is a stubborn old mule.

Most people are only concerned with getting the right answer. For those of you who did not grow up in 80s or later, this may sound familiar. There was a time that math class was only concerned with the right answer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIKGV2cTgqA

Math Education ('Maths' to the British in the audience) hit its stride and started teaching how to do math instead of how to get the right answer. I never got multiplication in elementary school until a teacher showed me how to do lattice multiplication. I never got another multiplication question wrong ever again. Because I didn't have to do it in my head. I learned how to multiply.

Unfortunately, writing never received the same treatment.

The Problem With How We Teach Writing

At best, students will be able to do a rewrite of their English paper. They'll get spelling and grammar corrections, but not edits of how to improve the structure of their paper. If they do get structural edits, they may be based on a premise that the student didn't intend to convey.

In math and physics, we'd always have points taken off for not showing our work. The same should be true for English majors.

When students turn in a paper for English class, they should have to turn in an outline, short responses to the research books they read, and quick answers about what their premise was. Otherwise we're not teaching writing; we are teaching students that getting the right answer is more important than doing it right. And that's how we get clients and bosses who think they can write – but never had to work for it.

Sadly, it'll take more than just changing how an English degree works to fix this. Not every professor knows how to write or even how to grade work in progress. They're a product of this system, too. I got my English degree from one of the most renowned programs in the country. I didn't learn how to write until I became an intern at a magazine after graduation.

What Playwriting Gets Right

Even though my English classes didn't teach me how to write, my Playwriting professor did.

(See? There is a reason this is on my creative writing blog!)

We had to talk about concepts for scenes in class. Our monthly journals were reflections on our writing processes. Our peers even helped us describe in one sentence what the main character's objective was in each scene. We were graded on process.

Later, while trying to figure out how to be a journalist and copywriter, I'd return to my playwriting knowledge. Writing in both of those fields has a goal of conveying a feeling to an audience. Oh hey, that sounds like an objective. And each paragraph is a tactic for getting the reader to feel something. What's fun about writing for the web is that you get to UI/UX design, writing a new pages for if you succeed or fail in your objective to make the reader feel something.

So if you have a playwriting education, you're probably more qualified for that technical writer job than a run-of-the-mill English major.

9 out of 10 Things You Write Are Crap

9 out of 10 Things You Write are Crap

In college playwriting, we only ever talked about the structure of a play and how to construct it. We approached it from the artistic point of view. What I've found myself longing for is an approach to writing from the business perspective. Second City, while also a very funny place, has been expanding and making money for more than 50 years. They know a few things about the business of writing.

9 Out of 10 Sketches Suck

Second City produces a lot of work. They have at least four shows running at a time. Each show has up to 30 sketches in it. That's 120 hilarious sketches. That means that about 1080 sketches were also written that really blew. Thinking of it that way, I feel a lot better about my own writing.

With that in mind, the focus of our class was on idea generation. We worked with various ways to come up with new ideas, individually and collaboratively.

The Del Close Set Up

Del Close was a Second City actor and director who put a lot of thought into how to come up with new ideas quickly. The idea of this exercise is to write the first three lines of a sketch and then move on. After you have a bunch of beginnings, you can choose a few things that are working.

Here’s the outline:

  • A: Who is Character B, and where are they?
  • B: Who is Character A, and what’s happening in the scene?
  • A: Raise the stakes and center it on the relationship between the two characters.

For example, here’s a bit that funny guy Mike and I put together.

  • Mr. President, we have a situation in the ball pit.
  • For the last time, you’re my Secretary of Balls, I need you to take care of this.
  • Fine, I’ll take care of it. But if you shaft me one more time, I quit.

From there, we both continued the scene and went in different directions. The Del Close set up inspired both of us with the first three lines, though.

Pitching in the Writer’s Room

Our class also worked on how to pitch a sketch idea to a group. This is great for sketch comedy companies and TV writing (SNL, 30 Rock). This was a pretty straight-forward way of thinking about a sketch.

Each pitch needs:

  • Set up - Who, where, what’s the relationship
  • Problem - What’s happening in the scene
  • Solution - What’s the end result

We briefly touched on structuring a whole show. For example, Saturday Night Live has most of the best sketches in the first half. These all have good solutions. Ending a sketch is the hardest part. So the sketches that are a little clunkier get relegated to the last half of the broadcast, when fewer people are watching.

Miscellaneous Concepts

Finally, a few random ideas for how to generate ideas for writing.

  • What’s Different? - Take something mundane and normal, then make it absurd. Example: a drive-through where you buy emotions.
  • Relationship Triangulation - Two characters against a third. The humor ensues when they take opposing sides. Example: parents vs. child.
  • What’s Before/Beyond? - Take an event we’re all culturally aware of and explore what happens immediately before or after it. Example: what happened to Lincoln on his way to the theater?
  • Clash of Context - Take two opposing ideas and merge them together. Example: we watched a sketch from Paradigm Lost (Second City) where office mergers change management style at work like a radio station changing its format (ie: country, electronica, hard rock).

Start Writing Now

…is a mantra I tell myself. It’s amazing that in five days of sketch comedy class, we covered something I was really craving in college playwriting and never got. Not to say that college classes didn’t teach me anything – they absolutely did. Studying under Wendy MacLeod was amazing. I’m just glad to have covered some idea generation concepts to bust through periods of procrastination.

With these exercises, I hopefully won’t feel a dry spell ever again.