A few months after I turned 21, I quit my job writing ads for college textbooks, and began my life as a freelance writer. I managed to get assignment writing about comedy in New York, which meant I got to hang out in comedy clubs and watch a hundred self-loathing guys self-destruct. I also stumbled upon an “all-girl comedy troupe” called the High Heeled Women.
We went out for drinks after their performance .I’d written jokes for comics, I knew a little about how to structure a sketch, and given my expertise, they agreed to pay me ten dollars an hour to write for them. Or with them.
There were four High Heeled Women, but two of them, Mary and Cassandra, wrote the act. None of us had air conditioning so we used the Blimpie’s on West Tenth Street as our office. Mary laughed at everything I said, Cassandra was less animated. Once in a while she’d nod and say, “Funny.” In hindsight, they were good cop/bad copping me. We’d start a sketch, I’d come up with a good one-liner, Mary would laugh, and Cassandra would shake her head. “Why would my character say that?” “Because it’s funny?” I’d reply. She was appalled. Cassandra had been with Second City, she’d performed improv with people who’d gone on to superstardom, she’d played in front of more drunks than I could imagine. Along the way, she’d developed a code.
Comedy came from character. If you wrote a joke that wasn’t true to the character, you were cheating, or “schmuck-baiting the audience.” You also needed to have “conflict.” One character has to have something the other character wants. I was reeling. The comics I’d written for, they just wanted one-liners that could get the drunks to listen. Cassandra wanted one-liners that made “internal sense” to the character, furthered the plot, and still got the drunks to take their hands off their neighbors’ laps.
It was not a dream job. Ten dollars an hour didn’t go very far, sometimes checks bounced. Also, for the first year, my credit read as follows: “the girls write all their own material.” Even so, Mary and Cassandra were the first actors I wrote for. The idea that lines could not be randomly distributed among the actors on stage was annoying at first, but over time I internalized it. I learned about “ticker moments”, about high jokes and low jokes and how to pair them (“blow me” sounds funniest in a high British accent, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice). I learned to make sure nightclub owners paid in cash.
After a while, Cassandra began to feel she’d shortchanged herself. Others in the group were booking all kinds of work because of the material we’d crafted for them; meanwhile Cassandra no longer had a signature piece in the show. I started to write a monologue in her voice, about a neurotic woman facing a romantic conflict, between her high feminist ideals and her low desires. Arnold Schwarzenegger courted her in the bit by saying “blow me.” Eleven times. The first night Cassandra performed it, she killed. Anytime anyone else performed it, they died. As Cassandra had taught me, the audience always knows when they are being schmuck-baited.
Warren Leight is the show runner and Executive Producer of the FX drama Lights Out. Formerly, he has been the show runner and Executive Producer of HBO’s Emmy-nominated In Treatment (Peabody Award, Humanitas nomination), and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Warren’s play “Side Man” won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, and was a 1999 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Other plays include No Foreigners Beyond This Point (Drama Desk nomination), Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine (ATCA nomination), and the book to the musical Mayor (Drama Desk nomination). Warren was the former President of The Writer’s Guild of America, East, and is a current member of the Dramatists’ Guild councils. Warren was raised in New York City. He lives with his wife and daughters in New York.