Tag Archives: storytelling

The Dangers of Comedy

I was complaining (possibly whining) to a fellow writer the other day that I had themed myself into a corner with this blog. By setting it up as being “About the importance of Story” I was creating the pressure on myself to come up with a good story for each post, or at the very least, relate my musings to the principles of storytelling in some way. Raising the bar like this, it’s been easy to talk myself out of posting for the last few months, thinking I had nothing to say.

“Bullshit,” she said. (I’m paraphrasing) “Everything you experience is a story. Us having coffee is a story. Write about that.”

Well, I won’t today (waitaminute, I just did) but yesterday as my wife and I were installing another garden bed in our yard, as I was coiling up the hose, I suddenly had a flashback. Something from my childhood that I’m not sure I’ve ever even told anybody.

My dad was not a terribly handy guy. He must have been at one time, but years of drinking and complacency had made him more like a piece of furniture than a father. This was not a sad thing (to my memory). It meant he was around a lot. He was part of the couch. The lumpy bit on the end of it, next to the stack of beer cans, that could recite the intro to “Days of Our Lives” along with Macdonald Carey. And on the very rare occasions he did attempt to do something useful or handy, it was cause for excitement.

I have a distinct memory of him in the side yard, a screwdriver in one hand and a beer in the other, trying to fix the sprinkler. I was fascinated by his spare, economical movements. He didn’t really seem to be doing anything, yet he was committed to fixing the thing somehow. Then my focus totally shifted. I realized that I was standing right next to the valve. And Dad had the sprinkler pointed right at his face. Suddenly I was no longer in control of my actions. Every goofy sitcom, every boffo comedic movie I’d ever seen in my short life directed me to one irresistible imperative. I had to turn the water on. If this were a movie, that would be an absolute inevitability.

So I did. And he got sprayed. And I laughed, but only for a moment. Then I realized he was running at me faster than I’d ever seen him move.  I ran for my life. And damned if that old drunk didn’t catch me after a mere lap and a half around the yard.

That was one of the few times I got spanked. The pain throbbing over my ass told me that life was not a comedy. I had somehow misjudged appropriate timing and physical humor.

But yesterday as I ran the episode back in my mind, I realized it was damn good comedy. I was laughing. I still am. I suppose what makes comedy funny is our distance from the pain.

Or maybe I just had really good timing.

Ooberbloo Kazoo

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The What vs. the How

I saw the movie Irreversible recently. It’s one of those movies that is REALLY tough to watch, but is a brilliant piece of cinema. What sets it apart is not the story it tells, but how it tells it. It’s a simple plot about an average night out, a horrifying attack and brutal revenge. And the entire story is told in reverse. I will leave it to Roger Ebert to explain in more detail why this is so incredibly effective (see his review). What struck me, besides being simply riveted by this astonishing piece of film, is that it reminds me that the art of storytelling has less to do with the stories you tell and more to do with how you tell them.

Roger Ebert himself ascribes to this philosophy, which may be why he’s my favorite critic. One of his “Laws” for movie criticism is “It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.” This is true for any form of storytelling. The same jokes have been making the rounds since the Sumerians discovered irony. The same melodies have been getting rearranged since the Gregorians first started chanting. And we’ve all been watching the same sitcom plot over and over since Gracie Allen first said “Goodnight Gracie.”

This is not bad or surprising news. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, only 12 musical notes, and the human body only bends so many ways. But dance, music and story live on. Because we don’t have to constantly re-invent the wheel. We just have to find a new way to roll it.

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