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Friday, July 11, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Reclusive Writer (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

The Reclusive Writer

I’ve always romanticized the idea of the reclusive writer.

One of my idols, John Swartzwelder, is a recluse to the extreme. He’s credited with writing 59 episodes of The Simpsons; the bulk of those being works of sheer brilliance: Homer at the Bat, Krusty Gets Kancelled, Rosebud, Homer the Vigilante…the list goes on. Not only do hardly any pictures exist of the man, but I’ll be damned if I can find an interview. In fact, when the writers call up John Swartzwelder during The Simpsons commentary track, the man on the phone does about 4 minutes of commentary before stating “It’s too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder”, before hanging up.

Some people have speculated that he doesn’t actually exist. How cool is that? To be shrouded in such mystery that people question your very existence, and stories begin to be passed around, as if reciting tales of ancient lore. Pretty soon it becomes almost as much fun to talk about the writer as it does to read or view his work. For example, did you know that John Swartzwelder is the only writer on The Simpsons who didn’t have to show up to the writer’s room? He would send his scripts in, after writing them from the comfort of his own home, sitting in a booth he bought from a diner he used to frequent, before the diner instituted a “NO SMOKING” policy. Classic Swartzwelder…or so I’m told.

The thing is, John Swartzwelder is the exception, not the rule. I’m not going to be John Swartzwelder, and odds are, you won’t either. (Note: It’s really hard to write the name Swartzwelder over and over again. Microsoft Word doesn’t seem to like it either.)

Before I moved to LA, I read The Comedy Writer by Peter Farrelly. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale that chronicles when Peter moved to LA to make it as a writer. There’s a part of the book where Peter goes to a party, and he’s really nervous about people expecting him to be charming and funny because he’s a comedy writer. (A common fear of mine.) In the book, his agent instructs him that he’s a writer, and nobody really expects a comedy writer to be funny or talk much. I remember breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank God. I don’t need to be funny…or talk to people.” I’d be re-assured whenever I’d see the stereotype of the reclusive writer show up in movies and TV. You know the stereotype: socially awkward, hunched over, and most likely wearing grubby clothes. I took solace in the fact that I had chosen a career that rewarded merit, not how I acted or what I looked like. I could be John Swartzwelder.

Flash forward to an interview at Nickelodeon Studios for the position of writer. I had wowed them with my sample pieces, but now it was time to seal the deal with my personality. The interviewer stopped me 5 minutes into the interview and basically told me I needed to lighten up. I wasn’t “on” enough for her. I thought I had been doing a good job, but I wasn’t playing the part of the fun-loving writer that she wanted. “Tell me a joke”, she said. “Uhhh…”, I stammered back. I hadn’t ever been asked that in an interview. “Tell me a funny story”, she said after I stuttered my way through a joke. A funny story? My mind went blank. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I went in expecting one thing and it was something totally different. My boss at the time told me my mistake was thinking that there was ever a time I should be “off”. As a writer, people want a show. They want you to be as entertaining as your stories. If you’ve ever pitched your idea to a friend or family member, you know the difference between enthusiastically telling your idea and muttering out a few plot points. Obviously the former will pique people’s interest more.

So, practice your conversational skills. Take an improv class (it’ll help you turn off “the filter”). Think of a few amusing anecdotes. And most importantly, if you’re a comedy writer: learn a joke. Here’s the one I used:

Why did the cow go to the moon? Because it was one small step for man, but one giant leap for bovine.

…yeah, I wouldn’t have hired me either.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

2 Comments so far

1.

Rick Kinsella
July 13th, 2014 at 3:58 am

Seem to be hearing this more and more…about how important it is for a writer to be able to command a room and pitch the idea.

It’s a very strange concept, when you think about it. You would think it was wiser to actively ignore the writer’s personality as much as possible and just focus on the work. There’s a lot of people who can talk well but haven’t actually got any talent.

2.

marnieml
July 13th, 2014 at 11:14 am

This doesn’t make any sense. If they believe a comedy writer should be able to act funny, then should fully expect a comedy actor to write funny.

I’m convinced that unless someone is a writer themselves, they have no idea whatsoever just how hard writing is. That alone can make writers somewhat reclusive.

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