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Write On

Comedy = Showing Up + Timing

“Showing up is 80 percent of life”– Woody Allen, cited in The New York Times, Aug. 21, 1977

It’s hard to discuss writing without sounding fatuous (for proof, read on). That may be one reason I don’t have a lot of pet theories or guidelines. It’s not that I don’t find certain writing rules useful, or won’t spout the occasional truism when a friend pesters me for notes. It’s more that my approach to learning about the craft is to hang out on Fairuza Balk fan-sites. Wait—that’s my approach for learning about The Craft. My approach for the other thing is to read a bunch of writing books, listen to a bunch of writing podcasts, and then take a bunch of naps, hoping that everything I’ve absorbed will synthesize itself into a grand unified system. It’s an approach that suits my lifestyle, combining, as it does, magical thinking and laziness. I turn to rules mostly when I need to solve a problem—when they’re prescriptive they hem you in. When diagnostic, they suggest solutions.

What I do enjoy is the occasional grand pronouncement. And my pick for grandest is the Woody Allen quote above (the most definitive version I was able to find, though you may have heard it as “90% of everything is just showing up”—the additional 10% is, I assume, due to inflation). It’s become my guiding principle, in ways that both comfort and taunt me.

Comfort because it reminds me that, if you make a genuine effort to pursue every avenue, year after year, someone will take note. (Not always, but surprisingly often.) Yes, it usually takes longer than you’d like, and the prize is never what you expected, but there’s real value in simply being the one hanging out, in the back of the room, long after the others have gone. If you can’t have luck, you can have longevity.

Sticking it out can be a lonely act of faith. For most of my career, it seemed every word I wrote might as profitably been tossed down a well (which is saying something—your average well pays peanuts). Then, over the past few years, things began to happen. I got my first TV staff writer interview. My webseries got noticed by the Writer’s Guild. This summer, in the space of one month, I was contacted by a cable channel to do interstitials, had a piece in Slate, was selected for a screenplay reading, and got into the New York TV Festival. Why then? Such things are often feast or famine, but I think it has to do with showing up. If you keep doing it, you become difficult to ignore.

That’s half of the good stuff—call it the “you’ve got to be in it to win it” part (although that phrase’s lottery associations are uncomfortably apt re: the odds of making it in television). The other half is the “when the student is ready the master will appear” part. I’ve talked about being a “success,” but what about being a good writer? I wasn’t tossing brilliant scripts for The Office down that well. I wasn’t even tossing scripts for Small Wonder. But, while no one was paying attention, I became more worthy of attention. Part of showing up is writing long enough to have something worth saying.

As for the taunt, it has many sides: Am I really showing up, or am I just waiting around? I know people whose page count dwarfs my own. I’m showing up, but once I’m there, am I easily forgotten? I write in part because I have no head for business, yet it requires savvy and hustle beyond imagining. Am I showing up to the right places? Comedy writing is a different beast than most other kinds. So much depends on becoming seen and known within a community of performers. Rather than writing that spec, would I be better served spending my nights at—say— stand-up shows, even if I don’t have the specific passion that stand-up demands?

And yet, mostly I find it comforting. Showing up is a more encouraging phrase than paying dues, even though it encompasses that idea and makes it easier to swallow, like putting hunks of bacon in your Brussels sprouts (actually, I like Brussels sprouts… let’s say like taking your vitamins with some whiskey, unless that reveals too much). Showing up reminds you to write that script, pay that entry fee, make those revisions, reach out to that agent. More importantly, it helps me look at the (small) success I’ve had so far and have faith that there’s more to come. Eventually that well has to fill up.

But that’s beside the point. What I really wanted to ask was: wanna drink whiskey and watch The Craft?
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Dan McCoy is the creator, co-writer, and co-star of the web series 9 AM Meeting, which won the MTV Animation Award at the 2010 New York Television Festival, and a development deal with the network. He’s spent nearly a decade skulking in the margins of the NYC comedy scene–writing for stage shows starring Emmy-winning comedians Sara Schaefer and Elliott Kalan, and performing sketch and (much more infrequently) stand-up. His freelance work has appeared on/in Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Slate.com, Gawker, Cinemax, Whim Quarterly, and NPR’s Morning Edition. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat and his wife, not in that order.

3 Responses to “Comedy = Showing Up + Timing”

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Elana_Brooklyn and Flop House Podcast, Dan McCoy. Dan McCoy said: BLAH BLAH BLAH, I'M A WRITER. WAH. http://www.wgaeast.org/blog/?p=264 [...]

  • Jenny:

    Thank you for the insights Dan. I wanted to ask, “Which podcasts do you suggest?” And as an aspiring comedic writer, do you think doing stand-up is helpful?

  • Podcast-wise, I always listened to the Creative Screenwriting Podcast, but I think they’re no longer doing new episodes. The archives are probably still around, though. I find interview shows useful, like The Sound of Young America and WTF.

    I don’t think that doing stand-up per se is key to writing comedy, but it’s good to have some sort of performance background – improv, sketch, even acting in comic plays – so you get a feel for what material works when spoken, and how performed comedy is different than prose.

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