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!”?
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