Thursday, June 1, 2023

Why Mrs. Maisel was wrong

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Season Five of
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Peak TV may be the best thing that ever happened to comedy. While the big screen has largely given up on the funny, instead churning out an endless array of comic book movies, streamers like Netflix and Hulu have filled the gap with a wealth of sitcoms. Ted LassoBarry (at least that one started out a comedy--what it ended up as was brilliant). What We Do in the Shadows. Hacks. And what may be my personal favorite (depending on what day you ask me), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

But these shows aren't just funny. They're also smart. Prestigious. Groundbreaking in a whole host of ways. And they have a lot to say about, well, stuff.

"I know funny"

Mrs. Maisel is definitely one of those shows with something to say. A lot of ink (pixels?) have been spilled about its portrayal of feminism, especially with regards to Midge Maisel's struggle to find her place in a male-dominated field. And that's wonderful. But I also love what it has to say about making comedy.

All through the first four seasons, we watched Midge slowly build her career around a new concept in stand-up: making the jokes about your own life, in your own voice, about your own experiences.

But Midge's career took a significant detour in season five, episode two ("It's a Man, Man, Man, Man, Man World") when she lands a gig as a staff writer for Gordon Ford, a Jack Paar-like talk show host.

At first, she struggles to switch her comedy style from personal anecdotes to topical gags, but before long, she comes up with what she's convinced is a sure-fire hit and she pitches it to the other writers:
MIDGE: There's going to be a baby in the White House, little JFK, Jr. It'll be a clean transition. White House staff already learned how to change diapers with Eisenhower.

ALVIN: "A" for effort. Cec?

MIDGE: Oh, now wait a minute.

ALVIN: Yeah?

MIDGE: I'm sorry, but that last one was funny.

ADAM: No, it wasn't.

MIDGE: Yes, it was.

MEL: No one laughed.

MIDGE: I think the audience would, and it's topical. He wants topical.

CECIL: A joke is not funny just because you say it's funny.

MIDGE: No, it's not funny because I say it's funny. It's funny because it's funny.

MEL: And you know funny?

MIDGE: Yeah, I know funny.
Those last couple lines of dialogue don't capture the mounting hostility between Midge and the other writers. But it was definitely there. And that's where Midge was wrong.

Not because the joke isn't funny. I think it is. Midge is wrong because she "knows" it's funny.

Humor is the most subjective thing in the world. Whether something is funny depends on a thousand variables. The flow of the joke. The timing of its delivery. The person delivering it. The time period in which it's told. Recent current events (nothing was funny immediately after September 11). And perhaps most of all, who it's being delivered to. and the identity and mood of the people.

Because of all of these variables, nobody--not even an experienced comic--can know whether a joke is funny. You have to test it out, and then see if people laugh. If they do, it's funny. If they don't, then it's not, at least not in that time and place.

The wrong joke

A perfect example of this is a joke she wrote in episode three, "Typos and Torsos." Here she came up with another joke, and it became the first of hers to make it to air:

"Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, was recently in a car accident. He's recovering nicely, though authorities are still questioning the voice of Elmer Fudd."

This one doesn't work at all. Why? Because Elmer Fudd's unique speech habits aren't primarily noted for being slow. They're noted because of his speech impediment--that whole "wascaly wabbit" thing.

A better choice? Porky Pig. His stammer made him take forever to finish a sentence.

Gordon seems to have agreed that the joke didn't work, because he purposely fumbled it during his monologue. After the show, Midge confronts him about it.
MIDGE: You blew the joke. It's okay.

GORDON: I did that on purpose.

MIDGE: You blew a perfectly good joke so you could point out to the audience that you blew a perfectly good laugh?

GORDON: Yes. They love that. It makes me human, and I got a laugh.

MIDGE: Yeah, but it was the wrong laugh.

GORDON: A laugh is a laugh. There is no wrong laugh.
Maybe I don't know as much about comedy as an experienced stand-up comic, but I do know that joke was never going to get a laugh. It was the wrong joke.

Flawed heroes

But I don't want be too hard on Midge. The media has been hard enough, with essays and editorials slamming her for everything from being an absentee mom to outing her boss when it was a possible death sentence to do so.

Here's the thing. I don't think series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino intended Midge to be a heroic figure or someone we should all seek to emulate. And why do we need her to be? She's deeply flawed, something we've seen a ton of male protagonists be without feeling the need to trash them (Calling Tony Soprano! And Walter White! And Barry Berkman!). But somehow, when the protagonist is a woman, it's cardinal sin to be less than perfect.

No, the whole point about Midge being brash and outspoken and obsessively focused on her career is to show that that's what it took to succeed in a man's world.

In a lot of ways, it still is.

Friday, May 26, 2023

On intelligence--artificial and otherwise

There's been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence lately. Your local news show tries to explain what it is. The financial media talks about all the industries it'll disrupt. Trade journals warn about the jobs it'll eliminate. Heck, the Writers Guild of America is currently on strike because of it.

But is it really as bad as people say?

Well, yes and no.

A test case

At least that's the conclusion I came to after reading a fascinating article in The Hollywood Reporter. In it, reporter Lesley Goldberg asked ChatGPT to write a scene for the sitcom 30 Rock.

Goldberg gave the chatbot simple instructions. Write a scene about four of the characters from the show going on strike and how it impacts the show-within-the-show that they work on.

As it turns out, the plot it came up with was pretty good. There was plenty of conflict and the narrative flow made sense.

But there were two major flaws with the script. One, all of the characters sounded the same. This is a biggie. Every story, every TV show, every movie has to give each character a unique voice or the writing will came out flatter.

And two, it didn't come up with a single gag. Obviously, this is an even bigger biggie.

I'm not surprised. AI engineers have yet to figure out how to impart a creative spark to their chatbots. All they can do is scrounge the internet looking for patterns and then rearrange those patterns into a poor semblance of originality.

The real danger

I'm not worried that AI will replace writers. It won't and I honestly don't think it ever will. Creativity doesn't come from dumping existing works in an electronic blender. It comes from creating something new.

No, my worry is that Hollywood producers will think AI can replace writers--and act accordingly.

I support the striking writers. They need--no, they deserve--guaranteed more money and longer employment terms. But I think they took the wrong tack on this vitally important issue.

Of course, they want to prevent producers from using AI on their own to generate story ideas and write scripts without the input of, you know, actual human writers. But they also want to protect their right to use AI in their writing. And not to share any credit with it.

I don't understand why any writer would ever want to use AI. If I reach the point where I'm that hard up for ideas that I need to rely on a computer to provide them, I'll quit writing.

Plus it sets a bad precedent. If writers can use AI, why shouldn't producers also be allowed to use it?

Not all bad

Sure, if you're an office drone putting together a financial presentation, go ahead. Use AI to make your job easier.

Or if you're the only reporter on a small-town newspaper and you just don't have time to fill those pages every day, fine. Newspaper articles are supposed to have a uniform voice anyway.

But in a creative field, where you're paid to be creative, original, to really say something? Never. Never. Never ever. And the WGA writers need to get that in, well, writing. Now.

If they don't, then I fear for our future. Not just because thousands of writers will be out of work, but a much more dismal fate. That all of our entertainment will be bland and unfunny as that 30 Rock scene.

We can't let that happen. Not now. Not ever.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

My 12th year sales

Gangbusters. That's the best word to describe this, my 12th year of publication. After three down years, theater is back--and bigger than ever.

It was a very good year

My total revenues were 19% higher than my previous best year, the just-before-COVID theater season of 2018-2019. Weirdly though, this wasn't my best year in terms of the number of productions. I had a total of 328 productions vs. 361 in that now long-ago record-setting year, a 9% drop.

So how did I make more money on fewer shows? Did Pioneer raise their royalty rates and script prices? Not that I know of.

Did the mix of plays produced skew more toward the pricier big-cast plays? Maybe. It's hard to tell.

Did I get more performances per play? Quite possibly. I had a 15-show booking, a 10-show booking, and an 8-show booking (all for The Enchanted Bookshop), which is much higher than I've ever seen before. I also had several 6-show bookings.

Also, streaming has become a popular addition for a lot of schools and that may have boosted my average number of performances per production as well.

Whatever the reason, I'll take it.

The top five

The Enchanted Bookshop was my best-selling play for the sixth year with 107 productions. That's down 31% from the 156 it got in 2018-2019, but it's still triple digits and should be enough to kept it on top of Pioneer's list of top-selling full-length plays. I already have 35 productions booked for next year and I even have one production booked the year after that (talk about planning ahead!).

Second place was shared by two plays: my new coffee shop comedy, Whole Latte Love, and my perennially popular collection of driver's ed skits, You're Driving Me Crazy!, both at 28 productions. What's more, You're Driving Me Crazy! gave me my 21st country with the International School of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia doing a show in December (it's also been done in South Korea, The Philippines, Panama, the UK, and Australia). 

My restaurant farce Million Dollar Meatballs continues to do amazingly well, snagging 26 productions to come in third. Not bad for an eight-year-old-play.

Placing fourth was another one of my new plays, It's a Madhouse!, which got 19 productions. That makes me very happy. After a few dry years with my new plays, it seems that I've finally figured out what producing groups are looking for. For that reason, I'm veering away from multi-set genre plays (The Stinky Feet Gang, Wicked Is As Wicked Does, and Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras all had disappointing results) to focus more on single-set contemporary or near contemporary comedies (The 1950's setting of It Happened on Route 66 counts, right?).

Final thoughts

All of my plays had at least one production, although the still struggling Babka Without Borders got exactly one. A few months ago, I discussed a possible title change with my editor. I may need to start thinking about that again.

One last point. Virtual plays were all the rage during the height of the pandemic. For obvious reasons, of course. The thought then was that they'd remain popular even after the pandemic ended as an easy-to-product alternative for schools that don't have that much money to spend on their theater programs.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. In fact, the bottom seems to have fallen out of the virtual play market. Or maybe that's just me. In any case, my only virtual play You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! dropped from a very respectable 21 productions in its first year two years ago to one lonely production this year.

But the rest of the play market is on fire, and I'm here for it. A very big and heartfelt thanks to all of you who've helped make this my best year yet. Your support means the world to me.

Monday, April 24, 2023

On laptops and Goldilocks and repair scams

I'm not one of those writers who can write longhand. I live and die by my laptop. If it's not working, I'm not working.

A writer's best friend

Which is why I was devastated a couple months ago when my three-year-old Lenovo died. Or maybe I should say it was wounded. The laptop still powered on. It still let me open Word and stuff. But it wouldn't talk to the internet. It didn't even see my home wifi network.

In fact, just before it broke the little window that pops up showing you what networks are available started freaking out, flashing though all of them, one by one, until in a spectacular display of pixels, it crashed.

Okay, I made that pixel part up. But the laptop was totally incommunicado, at least where the Internet is concerned. I assumed the network card had blown, which could be a very pricey fix. Even just having a technician open a laptop to take a look inside can run into hundreds of dollars.

Did you ever open one up? A long time ago, on another laptop far far away, I thought I could fix a loose power cord socket. Boy, was I wrong. I was able to open the laptop, all right, but as soon as I did, the guts spilled out all over the places: cables and cords and teeny tiny chips. It's crazy how much stuff they cram inside on of those things. And even crazier for me to think that I'd be able to cram it all back in. Spoiler alert: I didn't.

But I digress.

The point is, I had no internet connection. And without the internet, I lost access to Movie Magic Screenwriter, the software I use to write my plays. (Don't get me started on Final Draft.) I needed to do something. 

Trial and (lots of) error

So I started looking for a new one. And like Goldilocks, I tried two before settling on the third. The first one, a 15.6" Lenovo, was too big. The keyboard was just a lot, and when you spend hours a day typing, typing, typing, the feel of the keys are, well, key. So back to Amazon it went.

The second, a 14" Lenovo, was the right size and the keyboard felt good, but it wasn't a touchscreen, even though Amazon said it was. And that was a showstopper. After just an hour of playing around with it, my fingers ached from using the touchpad to move the cursor around. Back that one went as well.

For the third one, I tried something radical. I went to an actual store--my local Best Buy--to try out their selection of laptops before committing to one, and I ended up taking home a 14" HP (apparently, Lenovo no longer offers a 14" laptop with a touchscreen). I'd never had an HP before, and it felt pretty good under my fingers, even though the keys were a little clunky. At the store, I practiced typing for what must have been an hour and it seemed like something I could get used to. I was sure what few typos I made would stop once I got familiar with the layout. So I bought it.

But after two months of daily usage, I was still making a lot of typos--the keyboard just never felt quite right--and I was starting to miss my Lenovo. The keys on that laptop were nearly flush with the surface and required only a very light touch. Seriously, typing on that baby made your me feel like they were gliding across a velvet cloud. 

So I decided to take the Lenovo to my nearest Data Doctors and at least find out what it would cost to fix it.

After the obligatory patronizing advice ("It could be your home network") and then confirming that the problem was in fact with the laptop, the Data Doctors guy said they'd charge me $60 to diagnose it and would offer me a little something they called...


Despite the ominous sound of that, I thought it was a reasonable deal and accepted it.

A day later, the guy calls me and says they don't know what the problem is, but they think it may be the driver and they can fix it for $250 membership which includes one year of repairs, their own cloud service (which I don't know what it is), and their own anti-virus software (ditto). I said no, I just want them to fix problem that, you know, I brought it in for. They said sorry, that was one option they didn't offer. 

So I took my laptop home. And guess what? The problem was gone. As soon as I fired it up, the Lenovo saw my home network and connected to it. Apparently the problem had been the driver, of all things, and Data Doctors happened to fix it while they ran their diagnostics. A potentially serious problem taken care of for a relatively paltry $60.

Which leads to two possibilities: 1) Data Doctors knew they'd already fixed the problem, in which case they were completely shady by attempting to strong-arm me into paying another $250 for essentially nothing, or 2) they didn't know they'd already fixed it, in which case they were completely incompetent.

I don't know which is worse.

But the bottom line is I now have two working laptops: my beloved Lenovo, and a reasonable backup in case that one crashes again.

Eat your heart out, Goldilocks.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Gopher State Bookshop welcomes all

I love this time of year. Not because of the warm weather or the flowers blooming in the garden or the birds singing in the trees (although they are nice).

No. I love this time of year because of all the spring productions.

In still another article from the Gopher State, the Kenyon Leader of wonderful Wanamingo reports that after a four-year break, Kenyon-Wanamingo Middle School will be putting on a show next weekend. 

What show, might you ask? Well, none other than The Enchanted Bookshop.

The kids are excited. Not just because they get to show off their acting skills once again, but because it provides an opportunity to rekindle friendships. Friendships that were formed four years ago during their last production.

"We did a group of about six tiny, 10-minute plays," says actor Gunner Carlstrom, remembering that long-ago show. "So I mean, that's when I really got to meet them. And so after that, our bond kind of strengthened. Nowadays, I could consider a few of them my good friends."

Co-director Blair Reynolds echoes the sentiment. "The theater department is always a place where anyone can feel welcome. It's one of the few places where kids feel like they belong, which is a great thing."

Sunny days. Songbirds. Flowers bursting out all over. And friendships, both new and old.

Looks like it's going to be a great spring. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

How to Enchant a Bookshop to be published

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's true even when the story sprawls across several plays.

The Enchanted Bookshop was really the end of the story (spoiler alert!). Of course, the play ends with the book characters disappearing into their books as they sacrifice themselves in order to save the shop. No possibility of a follow-up there.

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas was the middle. It takes place before the original play, and although everyone knows the characters won't disappear, there's still plenty of tension as the audience wonders how the missing bookmark will be found.

But both of these plays hinted at a mysterious beginning, the story of how A Likely Story became enchanted in the first place. Sure, in the first play, Book Fairy provided a vague explanation of why she gave the gift of life to that beloved band of literary characters. But she never explained how she did it. Or how she learned the spell. Or who those first characters she brought to life were.

Which is why I wrote How to Enchant a Bookshop. Call it the origin story of the Enchanted Bookshop universe.

And that leads to an interesting story. I don't think I'm giving anything away by admitting that Pioneer Drama Service originally rejected the script. They were worried it would water down the stories I already had. And I get that. I was a little worried about that too.

But I told them I felt it was a story that to be told. Again, the beginning to the wildly popular middle and end. And they were generous enough to reconsider it.

Under one condition. That I revise it as a one-act play.

It made a lot of sense. Although The Enchanted Bookshop is relatively short for a full-length play, at sixty minutes it's too long to perform during one class period or as part of an evening of short plays. Making it a one-act would allow me to complete A Likely Story's story while opening a whole new market for Margie and friends.

The editing turned out to be a slam dunk. I cut two characters. The first was a customer who parodied those who prefer buying their books online rather than from a friendly, knowledgeable bookseller but didn't advance the plot. The second was none other that Cosette from Les Miserables, who was an interesting addition but never came alive for me on the page.

More importantly, I cut 16 pages, slimming the script from a plump 63 pages to a much more svelte 47. It wasn't as hard as you might think. Cutting those two characters accounted for about 5 of the pages and the rest came from deleting gags that didn't work (I had way too many of those!).

The result? A tight, charming, and hilarious play (if I do say so myself) that's perfect for elementary schools, not just because of its length but also because the story is lighter in tone and most of the new literary characters I added would appeal more to younger folk.

Who are those kid-skewing characters? Well, one is Cinderella, who's described in the script as "not the Disney version". The other two are the answer to that question I posed earlier: who were the first characters to be brought to life in Margie's bookshop?

And here they are:

TOM THUMB: Oh, Hunca Munca! Have you ever seen such a glorious sight?

HUNCA MUNCA: What is this place, Tom Thumb? It certainly doesn't look like the dollhouse.

TOM THUMB: No, indeed. Why, if I ventured a guess, I would say that we're in a bookshop.

HUNCA MUNCA: A bookshop? What, pray tell, is a bookshop?

TOM THUMB: A bookshop is a place where humans store books so that mice like us may dine upon them.

HUNCA MUNCA: Oh, Tom! I should so like to sample these books! They look simply scrumptious!

TOM THUMB: And so many of them! I should think we should feast for weeks!

Give up? They're the titular characters from the Beatrix Potter story, The Tale of Two Bad Mice. And boy, are they hungry!

I'm hoping some schools and community theaters will see the benefit of performing both How to Enchant a Bookshop and The Enchanted Bookshop in a single afternoon or evening. After all, the total playing time will be around an hour and 40 minutes, comparable to a normal full-length play. And they offer roles for two whole sets of casts, adding up to a whopping 41 parts!

I'm excited to see how this new play fares. Look for it to be available for the new school year this fall.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Minnesota university brings Bookshop to schools

If the groups producing my plays were a pie, the biggest piece--about 90%--would be elementary, middle, and high schools. The rest would be community theaters, except for one tiny sliver representing colleges and universities.

So it's always a nice surprise when one of those university productions comes across my radar, especially when it's targeted for younger audiences.

That's the case with Southwest Minnesota State University's production of The Enchanted Bookshop (another Gopher State hit!). As reported in this Marshall Independent article, the university is presenting four shows to the general public this weekend. But they're also offering special weekday shows for elementary school classes.

The cast members, some of them first-time actors, are having a lot of fun exploring their characters. 

"She's a lot less timid in this play," says senior Tailer Benson about her character, Dorothy Gale. "She's standing up for people, and standing up for herself, in a way."

But with close to 600 kids expected to attend the show, that's not the greatest reward from performing. It's the reaction of the audience.

"I love how their faces light up when something happens," says Alyster Schmidt, who plays Tom Sawyer.

My face lights up just hearing that.