Sunday, February 27, 2011

Comedy Writing: British Shenanigans, Barney Fife and a Bucket

By Kimberly Johnson

“The Bouquet residence. The lady of the house speaking!”

There’s a lot of ha-ha packed into that line. And Hyacinth Bucket is just the social-climbing lady to give it you. By the way, it’s pronounced boo-kay.

In PBS’ Keeping Up Appearances, this middle-aged English housewife bumbles her way, in earnest, to keep up with the Joneses. Think Carol Burnett meets Lucille Ball and brings along Ruth Buzzi for the ride.

These telecasts highlight the mischief and mayhem created by Hyacinth. In one episode, the lady of the house chases her man-hungry, scantily-clad sister, Rose, around the churchyard to prevent her from making moves on the unsuspecting vicar.

Full disclosure—I am not an admirer of British wit and its exports of entertainment: John Cleese (Fawlty Towers), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), and Peter Sellers (Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther films). Good heavens, remember the vaudeville-esque Benny Hill?

My confession…I like Hyacinth Bucket. She reminds me of Lucy and Ethel’s highjinks of yesteryear. So, what makes Hyacinth’s antics so humorous?

Veteran television writer Fred Rubin offers some insight in “Five Secrets For Improving Your Comedy Writing.” (

Secret #1: Be specific.

Secret #2: Put the funny word at the end. According to Rubin, if the writer uses a word that is paramount to the punch line, put that word at the end of the joke.

Secret #3: Words with a hard “K” or hard “C” sound are funny. “Watch any great comedy movie or any classic sitcom, and you will find across the board that a good majority of the jokes rely on the use of a word with these sounds,” Rubin states. He cites an example from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: a tearful Annie gets Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) to come to her apartment to kill a spider. He charges into the bathroom with a tennis racket and after much off-screen noise and combat he comes out to announce, “You got a spider in there as big as a Buick!”

Secret #4: Rubin advises: “Never write to a joke; let the joke come out of the character or situation.” He adds that good humor originates from well-developed characters with specific and uncommon behaviors. Rubin adds that comedy grows out of the conflict of the situation. Think Barney Fife making Ernest T. Bass a temporary deputy sheriff and having Gomer Pyle ride shotgun in the patrol car.

Secret #5: Exorcise the jokes that don’t fit, even if you love them. “Don’t be afraid to edit, trim back, and discard, because pacing (again rhythm) is also a key ingredient to a successful comedy."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Creative Process

By Laura P. Valtorta

As I begin writing a sequel to Carmen’s Universe – my novel about the future – I contemplate the pathway from idea to finished product. How does it happen for me? Some people read the newspaper for inspiration. I look inward and outward, at my neighbors, and in my shoe closet.

Step One – the Conflict. I have a complaint about my body, and it’s driving me crazy. My feet are too big. (Substitute butt, stomach, nose, ears, teeth, or whatever might bother a woman or man trapped inside the Merry Homemaker/Gold’s culture of the United States). Paranoia sets in. The shoe salesmen are laughing at me. The Gold’s Tiffanies are talking about me.

Some men might fret about a body part being too small. Women have the opposite problem.

Step Two—Solution. I create a fierce female character with large feet. She is 6 feet tall, Chinese and African, and she plays a musical instrument. The world is against her because of her feet, or so she believes. She gets fired from her job. Is it because of her feet or her attitude? She moves away from the city and forms her own orchestra. She falls in love with a suave attorney. She learns something about herself.

A novel is born.

Published books by Laura P. Valtorta:
Family Meal, published in 1993, Carolina Wren Press
Start Your Own Law Practice, published in 2006, Entrepreneur Press
Social Security Disability Practice, published in 2009, updated yearly, Knowles Publishing
Cavi -- a Novel about Italy, available as a PDF download at www.infinite-

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Coming of Age

By Alex Raley

I recently made a trip with folks who kept referring to me as “sir.” Most of the people were well past fifty years. This was a simple gesture of courtesy on their part, but it spoke volumes to me. Am I really a fossil as my grandsons delight in calling me? Am I beyond elderly? Is my fatigue due to aging and not carousing? I do know that in recent years I have begun to think of my life as having a stopping point, though that may be twenty years from now or it could be tomorrow. Such a thought never occurred to me thirty years ago. I was too busy with career and family, too busy with life.

What has all this to do with writing? This new view of life has given me a new perspective on writing. I no longer write because I think my writing is publishable. Writing is just a natural process, like breathing, sleeping, eating, thinking, talking and all the other things we do routinely. This does not mean that I will stop submitting things for possible publication. It means the rejects will be less important.

Age has also given me a unique view on publishing. With all my years of reading, I have come to know that publishing is more accident, or whom you know, than a sign of quality. I have just finished reading Super by Jim Lehrer. On his or her worst day, any one in our workshop writes as well, or better, than that novel. The real story of the novel barely would make a short story, and the remainder of the book is filled with interesting stuff, but not for a novel. One can only surmise that Lehrer can get something published on his name alone.

In spite of these thoughts of age, I still know that the unexpected does happen. In a recent prayer-breakfast speech, Randall Wallace, script writer, director and producer, told the story of his being near bankruptcy. After some soul-searching, he wrote Braveheart. Though I don’t expect to write a Braveheart, I will keep my eye open for the unexpected. Who knows what may lurk around the corner even for a fossil.

In the meantime, I will enjoy the youngsters who stand to offer me a seat on the Newark Airport bus transfer from Terminal C to Terminal A, the young man who offers to help me lug my wife’s carryon up a stair at Tel Aviv, and the many persons who ask, “How are you doing?” as we trudge over Masada. Maybe there is a story or a poem somewhere in all that solicitation.

My advice to you is to keep writing and submitting, but to relax and enjoy what you do. Fossilization creeps up on you.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Putting Memories Into a Memoir

By Deborah Wright Yoho

When I last read a selection at our writers' workshop, someone remarked, "How can you remember all these details?" I understood the question both as a compliment and as a sincere query, since I am writing a true story that took place more than 35 years ago. Besides, I turn sixty this year. This graying old mare ain't what she used to be, especially her memory!

Much of the pleasure I stumble upon as I struggle with the hard work of writing a memoir is the delight of savoring old times, old friends, old places. So I thought I would share how, indeed, I work to retrieve detailed memories to include in my writing. It isn't rocket science, and what works for me may be useful to any writer.

My secret: I work with photographs. You could be astounded at how much you will notice in a photograph you haven't looked at for some time. A picture of myself at seventeen playing a guitar while sitting on my mom's sofa brought back all sorts of things: my mom's interest in watercolor (the photo showed a picture on the wall behind me); how I felt about my body at the time (I wasn't really playing the guitar, but hiding my stomach); the heat and humidity of Charleston, where my parents lived while I was in college; and how I hated the Greyhound bus rides I endured to visit them. The next thing I knew I was remembering, in detail, a conversation I had with a soldier on the bus about the Vietnam War.

I talk before I begin to draft a piece of writing, to anyone handy, even to myself if necessary. Details come to mind as someone else asks me questions, or when I am literally thinking out loud as my own mind wanders and wonders. I find that actually hearing words helps me compose in black and white what my mind "sees" in pictures while I'm talking.

I must be an auditory learner, because music, an evocative medium in its own right, has been another powerful catalyst when calling details to mind. I'm writing about the 1960s, so I immerse myself in the popular music of that time, not just while writing, but all day long.

When I first became serious about my writing, I was highly selective about what details I included, thinking only "relevant" items advancing the storyline would be of interest to the reader. But our group set me straight! Readers want detail, if your writing makes them curious enough to want to know more.