Dylan Brody: The Terribleminds Interview

I love me some stand-up comedy. My own writing voice is shot through with a distinct DNA thread from various stand-up comedians, from Bill Hicks to George Carlin to Jake Johannsen to — well, the list would crash the blog. I think humor is an essential component to storytelling, so it is with great pleasure that I introduce the first interview here with stand-up comedian, humorist and storyteller, Dylan Brody. Brody, like with my most favoritest comics, knows not only how to be funny, but also how to tell a right good tale. Find him at dylanbrody.com and on the Twittertubes @dylanbrody.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

I’ve been very excited about these stories I’ve been writing. The idea of nesting stories within stories to give me two or more angles on a single theme seemed like a new approach to explore. I felt as though I was moving beyond my days as a stand-up comic, evolving as a writer and a performer, boldly exploring my craft in new and innovative ways.

I realized recently, though, that both the nested stories and the idea of time-travel of the mind have fascinated me for decades. The stories are not new. The structure is not new. The concept is not new. They are the current evolution of ideas that have been developing since I first began exploring my perception of the world around me.

In the late eighties I wrote LAUGHS LAST*, my first dramatic screenplay. I’d written screenplays before but they had all been light science fiction and fantasy pieces. This one was the first to really deal with people in this world doing things that did not require fictional technology. I suppose the piece was loosely autobiographical, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. It was about a guy who was both a writer and a comic as was I at that time and it was about the way his life and relationships are influenced by his relationship with his dead grandfather, who approved of his work even when his parents didn’t.

The story set in the present was designed as a series of seemingly disjointed events – a death in the family, a comedy gig, moving from one apartment to another, proposing to a girlfriend, an argumentative phone call, a trip to visit Mom, an appearance on television, the birth of a child, the publication of a first novel – the sort of things that happen in a person’s life and feel, because life is not fiction, somewhat random and unplotted. Each scene, though, was interrupted by a flashback – sometimes the flashbacks themselves were interrupted by further flashbacks so the script would have to leap back to the first flashback and then to the present before life could move on. These flashbacks would be bits of images and stories from the lead character’s life that informed and affected him in his current situation. As new things happened, more of these historical stories came to be revealed. The film actually told several stories, a bit at a time, as nested flashbacks. As time passed, things we saw happening in the present near the beginning of the film found resolution in flashback, as they became part of the character’s history, the passage of time giving them context and completion.

The present is this incomprehensible rush of events. In retrospect, though, themes and patterns begin to emerge. Stories get told in full. Close up, the tapestry is just a jumble of colored stitches. Only with a bit of distance can the image be viewed clearly.

Because it was not science fiction or fantasy, this was the first thing I ever wrote that my father really liked at all. He said very complimentary and supportive things about the script on the phone. The next time I visited him after that, he gave me his old, hardcover edition of Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past. He said, “I know you probably had to read this in college, but now I think you’re really ready to understand it. You should read it again.”

The truth was, I had not read it in college. It had been assigned, but one of my gifts is the ability to absorb through conversational osmosis enough information about any book – fiction or non-fiction – to fake my way through classroom discussion and tests, even essay tests. I would often create the illusion of a real working comprehension of the material by devising casual jokes that revolved around the central themes of the book and offering them up as off-handed wit. In high school I forgot to bring my copy of Moby Dick to class. When asked why, I said that the book had had a profound effect on me but I had lost it long ago and had been searching for it ever since. The teacher chuckled and assumed I’d not only read the book but had a firm grasp on the story. I hadn’t read the book, but now as class discussion continued and the teacher made an effort to involve those students he feared were less-than-comprehending of the story and its implications, I was free to doodle abstract line drawings in my note book and jot down catchy turns of phrase I might later use in heartfelt poems about relationships I had never actually had.

I didn’t tell my father that I hadn’t read Proust, though. I accepted the intimidating multi-volume set and thanked him. I implied, though I did not promise, that I would read it soon. And I implied that I would be re-reading when I did so. The books still sit on my shelf where I can see them now as I write these words.

LAUGHS LAST was not my first exploration of psychological time-travel either, though. To find that, I have to look all the way back to my childhood.

Walking to and from school each day I had much time alone to think. I devised a little internal game. I didn’t think of it as a game, though. I thought of it as important investigation and experimentation in the building of time bridges. As I walked along Pearl Street I would imagine myself the next day at lunch. I would imagine a particular seat in the cafeteria. I would try to inhabit my future body, to see what I would be seeing, hear what I would be hearing. Being a clever kid with a natural understanding of language, I called this “premembering.” I would set it in my mind to remember this moment tomorrow and to think back on what I was seeing and hearing now.

Some days I would remember at the appropriate moment, reaching a day into the past to re-inhabit my body as I walked home from school a day younger. Other days I would forget until hours later, until I was again walking home from school. On those occasions I would complete the bridge from where I was at the moment of remembering, accepting that some of the bridges would be a little lopsided, reaching forward only two-thirds of the way across the expanse and back from a bit further on. At some point it occurred to me that I could take a moment to revisit the moment at lunch when some unforeseen distraction had prevented the timely completion of the bridge I’d designed. Thus I could retrofit the time bridge so that it spanned the distance from yesterday to today in two joined sections becoming a success despite its imperfection.

On other occasions I would remember at some odd moment, as I was going to sleep or as I was eating breakfast, that I was in the middle of a time bridge. I had set the start in the afternoon and would have to remember a few hours hence to complete it. When that happened, I would take the moment to remind myself of the minor obligation but I would also set a second marker, sometime between that moment and the end of the bridge, when I would have to look back on this moment and build a smaller bridge within the bridge.

I was too young to have much of a history to inform my present experience but I was already playing with the idea of nested time spans.

One afternoon, I reached farther into the future. I tried to imagine what I would be like as an adult. I imagined myself in a house somewhere with a dog. I imagined myself drinking coffee because that was what grown-ups did. I tried to plant the idea that I should think back, once I was grown, to this moment with the sun on my face and my lunch box in my hand and complete a long, long bridge in time.

When I wrote LAUGHS LAST I didn’t recognize it as being in any way connected to these games I played as a child. I was wrapped up in early adulthood, desperate to find success, to sell a movie. The script just seemed like another event in the confusing jumble of incidents and activities that made up my life.

I began sending out copies and trying to get meetings. The project, while funny and touching, had the kind of intellectual, artsy feel that made it far more suitable for independent production than a studio sale. I began learning about how to raise money for an independent film. People kept telling me that I needed a name actor attached.

At a charity gig, I worked with an aging comic whose work I had admired for years. I’m not going to give his name because I am going to say that he turned out to be sort of stupid. Back stage I told him that I’d written this script and it had a terrific role in it for him. I told him the role was the grandfather of the lead character, the most influential person in a young man’s life. He was interested. He asked me to get him a copy of the script. I sent it off to him.

I took some more meetings about the script. A month or two went past. I got a job writing on a pilot for a local, late night television show. I came home to a message on my answering machine from the aging comic. He said, “Dylan. I read your script. I can’t give you a letter of intent on this thing. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it. He’s old, he’s young, he’s a kid, he’s a grown-up. The grandfather’s dead, the grandfather’s alive, the grandfather’s dying, the grandfather’s alive, there’s a funeral. Whattaya, need a time machine to make this movie? Good luck, kid. Why dontcha try writing something with a normal story?”

It was sad to hear the script dismissed that way but by then I was involved in moving from one apartment to another and didn’t have time to wallow much in the disappointment.

So I’ve been writing these nested stories to read on the radio, completely unaware that they were really only the latest round of experiments in an intellectual investigation that started when I was eight years old. Then I realized that the pieces are similar in structure to this movie script that I wrote eighteen years ago. Then I remembered the time bridges I’d built as a child.

I took the opportunity to fulfill an obligation. I reached back to the sidewalk in 1975 and walked home again, hearing the drone of a lawnmower and the occasional whoosh of a passing car. I walked home again in my little shoes with my mind reaching forward and for just a moment allowed myself to remember what it was like not to know that I would have a computer, not to know that I would move to L.A. and write screenplays nobody would understand, not to know that it would be a hard, long, sometimes sad series of incomprehensibly disjointed events. Sitting at my desk, sipping coffee, with my dog snoring beside me, I whispered across the expanse, letting my voice echo softly down the bridge, over the gulf of time. I said, “I remember you. You created me”

Occasionally, I think I really ought to read Remembrance of Things Past. I take the first volume down from the shelf and feel the rough surface of the old-fashioned hard-cover. If, in a moment of reverie and contemplation, I hold it to my lips before putting it back, the smell of dust and binding glue takes me back to the moment that my father handed it to me, proud of my writing at last, certain that I was ready. It makes me think, for no reason I can imagine, of a weird little seashell-shaped cookie I once ate, dunking to soften it a bite at a time with a cup of English Breakfast tea which is odd as it’s not something I usually drink.

*in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that, since writing this story that you are reading, I’ve revisited LAUGHS LAST and turned it into a novel. I’m currently shopping it. I say this partly because I feel as though there’s another time-nesting to get out of that somehow, but also because if any of you readers is a powerful figure in the publishing industry, it doesn’t hurt to mention it. I have great blurbs on it from Paul Krassner, Carl Reiner and Budd Friedman.

Why do you tell stories?

If I’m really being honest and not glib, I think I tell stories because I love the feeling when a room full of people comes with me, silently, into my own narrative. There’s a level of narcissism in it, sure. Also, there’s a sense, sometimes, that by baring my soul I make others feel safer and less shameful in their own lives. But none of that is really it. It’s about the sense of acceptance I feel when I express my own experiences, share my hidden self, and feel the support and the interest and the engagement and the acceptance of a roomful of other humans. Also, I’m not convinced that I have any other marketable skills.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

If you’re going to talk or write for strangers, have something to say. Share your truth. Screw the facts. Use the story to make the point that matters to you.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“You should try to write more like {insert name of successful writer or performer here}”

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A strong character is one who has both an internal and an external life. That is to say, any character who deals with his world – work, love interest, kids, what-have-you – AND has to grapple at the same time with his or her psyche — personal history, quirks, a moral compass — holds an audience’s interest and sympathy.

The character Louis CK has created for himself on his current TV series leaps to mind. There’s a rich human being there, striving to be a good dad, facing personal insecurity, living in a city with his daughters but also wrestling with his own questions about how he’s doing.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Local Hero, the William Forsyth film is one of my favorites. The story is brilliantly small and structured in a way that masks the devices at work. For a straight-up lesson in how to write page-turning story, check out the Harry Dresden chronicles by Jim Butcher. They’re good silly fun and Butcher’s ability to keep you rapt is truly a wonder.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

My favorite word, I think, is Moribund, though I don’t know that I’ve ever found an excuse to use it in anything. I just love the sound and the feel of it.

Favorite curse word is probably “fuck,” but I shy away from the use of curse words in my professional life except under certain, very fucking specific circumstances.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Scotch. Johnny Walker Gold Label is probably my favorite, even though Blue is more expensive and real connoisseurs would probably say that a single malt is fancier.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

I can provide linguistic conundrums that will cause the robots to repeat “does not compute” until their voice modules give out and then slow down like a record player set to the wrong speed. After a few moments their heads will smoke and then they will collapse. Also, I make a pretty good spaghetti with meat sauce.

So, how does comedy tell a story?

Ultimately, every joke tells a story that either illuminates a topic by providing new insight or perpetuates a take on a topic by reinforcing a previously held belief. Whether it’s a street joke about two guys who walk into a bar or a one-liner, a story is always told that is more complex and nuanced than the words of the joke itself. “Take my wife. Please.” This joke has lost almost all meaning now, because comics no longer regularly say, “Take the butcher . . .” and then do a joke about handling meat, or “Take my son. . .” and then do a joke about moochers or generational differences and so on. At the time that Henny Youngman started with this joke, though, it was common idiomatically. So, the actual joke lies in the literal use of the common idiom. Easy. But the story it tells is implied. It is a story of an unhappy marriage, a desperate man, a hostile woman, a tense home. One has, almost, the sense that the performer sneaks out a message, pleading for help, through the masking fabric of the humor.

Different — and harder, and probably impossible to answer — question: how do you “be funny?”

What makes a joke work, in almost every case, is the suspension of bits of information that can only fall into place when the audient (the singular of audience), adds a crucial bit of his/her own knowledge to the mix. Often this bit of knowledge is purely linguistic – “it’s funny ‘cause that word sounds like that other word!” – or cultural – “Hey! George Wendt is too BIG to be a successful jockey!” The real key to humor lies in the ability to trust and elevate the listener. The more sophisticated the nature of the connections the audience must make, the more satisfying the laugh.

One of my favorite jokes from my own repertoire revolves around Stephen Hawking. I talk about the scientist doing the lead in a musical theater production — “The singing wasn’t great, but the choreography was innovative. Some people are uncomfortable laughing at that joke, but I think that’s ridiculous. Professor Hawking himself has heard me do that joke and he tells me I am a very funny man. Although, in fairness, it’s impossible to tell when he’s being sarcastic.”

Now, to break it down, the initial joke here about the show relies on the image of a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic being utilized in dance sequences. I never say that he is a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. That piece of information must be inserted by the audience. There’s a naughtiness about joking about someone’s disability, so some people really are too uncomfortable to laugh and that feeds the rest of the joke, but there’s more in that first bit, as well. There is, very subtly and as what seems like off-handed set-up, a reminder that he speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer. “the singing wasn’t great . . .” This reminder ensures that Hawking’s weirdness of speech is floating somewhere near the surface of the consciousness of everyone who knows who he is. Even people who don’t know him right away by name, if they have some awareness of him, are up to speed by the time I’m talking about the audience discomfort in the room. Then, I call them on their squeamishness about the joke, show that I can respect the man even while making a joke about the disability by calling him “Professor Hawking” and by the time I get to “impossible to tell when he’s being sarcastic,” people who might not ordinarily get that as a stand-alone joke are equipped to drop all the pieces into place and the joke always gets a great laugh and sometimes an applause break.

I’m proud of the piece because it is, in its way, a small text-book lesson in how to be funny:

1) Offer up unexpected juxtapositions and images

2) Keep the audience up to speed without condescending

3) Put the audience at ease

4) Let the audience provide the key elements on their own

Part of what makes it work so well is that I remind the audience of everything it needs to know in what seems like the main joke and then allow it to pay off fully in what seems like a tag when they get to put those pieces of information in place all on their own after they think I’m done messing with them.

Comedy is really a process of taking an audience by surprise with the same set of tricks several times in a row. This is why comics used to be known for saying, “but seriously, folks.” Any tool one can use to allow the audience a momentary suspension of disbelief, a moment of genuine commitment to the idea that what is being said right now is different and not part of a joke will allow the joke to play far better.

I hope I didn’t just ruin a good joke for anyone by breaking it down that way. I really do think about this stuff an awful lot. I might have to write a “How Funny Works” book soon.

What’s the source of humor? Can you mine it? Extract it? Cultivate and craft it?

The source of humor is the shared nature of the human experience. Yes, yes and yes.

Favorite three comedians: go.

Carlin, Pryor, Cosby, Newhart, those guys don’t need my approval or to have their names mentioned or their greatness further acknowledged. My current favorites are Marc Maron, Lee Camp and Maria Bamford.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I would very much like to take my THINKING ALLOWED show to radio. There are some terrific story-tellers and spoken-word artists around whose work I would like to introduce to a larger audience. If I could, I would be next in line to pick up Garrison Keillor’s mantle on NPR. In the short term, I’ll be recording my fifth CD for Stand Up! Records at some point in the next several months for release in 2013 and travelling the East Coast for a while this fall.

 

1 Comment

  • “A strong character is one who has both an internal and an external life. That is to say, any character who deals with his world – work, love interest, kids, what-have-you – AND has to grapple at the same time with his or her psyche — personal history, quirks, a moral compass — holds an audience’s interest and sympathy.”

    Man, that is all you need! Love that! I’m gonna use that for wallpaper right now.

    I didn’t care much for the first Harry Dresden-book though. I was like: “I can see the strings!” But that was kinda useful to notice for an aspiring writer, so I think I got my money’s worth.

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