Deb Dana is more Liz Lemon than Tina Fey

When I first told my parents I was writing a romantic comedy, my dad widened his eyes and smiled and, after getting over his apparent initial shock, said, “Wow.”

“What do you mean, ‘wow’?” I asked.

“It’s just surprising, that’s all. A comedy. Because, you know, you’re so…serious.”

Which I guess I can be, some of the time. Or maybe a lot of the time. My brother, Brian, is the jokester of the family. He tells stories that make everyone at the dinner table laugh until we can’t breath, our faces bright red and our eyes filled with tears. He’s the one with the sharp comebacks, so that when one of his friends swears he has been working out and “doing crunches,” my brother, without missing a beat, shoots back, “Yeah — Nestle’s crunches.”

I, on the other hand, usually need a good few hours — possibly days — to come up with a witty retort, but once I do, let me tell you, I will NAIL IT. In the heat of the moment, however, my comebacks usually sound something like this:


That’s Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s alter ego on 30 Rock. Whereas Tina Fey is sharp and witty and known for her ability to improvise, Liz Lemon is awkward and nerdy. She also really, really likes cheese. Lemon makes us laugh, but more because we are laughing at her, not with her. In the world of 30 Rock, she is the head writer on a comedy show, which means, in theory, even if Lemon is not a standup comedian herself, she can appreciate humor. She can write funny, even if she isn’t a so-called funny person.

For some like Tina Fey, “being funny” and “writing funny” are the same thing. But for many writers out there (including Liz Lemon and myself) they are not. In the Tina Fey/Liz Lemon dichotomy, I am most definitely Liz Lemon. I have awkward comebacks and strange dance moves and also enjoy working on my night cheese while wearing my Snuggie. But I don’t have to be that person when I write. You know that famous quote by former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography? Well, that’s what humor is like for me: I know it when I see it. I can take as long as I need to come up with the perfect comic comeback, but when I do — BAM! — there it goes into my manuscript, straight from my character’s mouth. I can make my characters hilarious and quick-witted, even when Dana Bate The Person is not.

That’s why writing is so wonderful. You create these characters who take on lives of their own and do things you would never — or could never — do. No one would want to read a book about what I did this morning or last night (unless you, too, enjoy working on your night cheese, in which case…let’s talk), but I can invent characters whose lives are filled with adventure and activity and whose commentary on those adventures and activities can make people laugh out loud. Even if it takes me a while to make that happen.

What about you? Are you quick with the witty retorts, or do you, like me, stand in front of the mirror a day later and say, “Oh, yeah? Well…you have unfortunate feet! Booyah!”?

10 Replies to “Deb Dana is more Liz Lemon than Tina Fey”

  1. I’m like you – it takes me hours to come up with a comeback but then it’s spot-on. It’s frustrating. If I could just write my life instead of living it, my retorts would never be tardy!

    Great post, Dana!

  2. I’m always scared to say the comebacks that come into my head. I over think. “If I actually say that, will somebody be mad, hurt, offended? Will I be sorry later?” And then the moment passes and I’ve done nothing more than mutter something inane. I created a character who can actually say all the things that come into my head, and she is snarky and witty and I love her. Ironically, having not been published, she’s just as silent as I am, lol. Great post, Dana!

    1. I’m the same way! I probably should have clarified and said the few times I do come up with an amazing zinger on the spot, I’m too afraid to say it, for fear I’ll hurt someone’s feelings or have to deal with confrontation. But I don’t have to worry about that with my characters because I want as much conflict as possible!

  3. I’m a little of both! I do tend to have the snappy comeback more often than not – but I usually keep the snarks caged so I don’t say the thoughts aloud. Sometimes, however, the snarks break free and then … well, my comments yesterday pretty much explain what happens then.

    I love Liz Lemon. She reminds me so much of the nerdy kid I was in high school. Ironically, it wasn’t until I embraced that inner nerd that I discovered humor’s amazing power to unify as well as to snark.

    1. I love Liz Lemon — which you probably guessed, as two out of my four posts have featured clips of her ;-). She is such a great character!

      And as I said to Kerry, I should probably have added that now and again I do think of a good comeback, but I’m too afraid to say it because I hate confrontation. Good thing I don’t care whether my characters like confrontation or not!

  4. No matter how much behind the scenes tinkering you do, it’s so great that it comes off looking perfect when it’s finally on the page. Like you nailed it the first time (No one has to know otherwise-I promise I won’t tell!).
    People tell me I’m funny in person, so I guess I’m lucky that way. But yeah, I get a lot of comebacks arriving hours/days later. Remember George from Seinfeld? The episode with the Jerk Store comeback? Heh.

    1. THE JERK STORE! I loved that episode. I love pretty much all episodes of Seinfeld, actually (and reference them more than I probably should…).

      And yes, revising is a beautiful thing — although, when it comes to writing humor, I do think you either have a knack for it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But clearly you do!!

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