The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Mmm…my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 84 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig, how are you?
Craig: Oh, recovering. I got sick again.
John: Oh no, Craig.
Craig: Yeah, you know, enough already with this. But much better now. Feeling good. I think I’ll be less phlegmy in this podcast. And recuperating from, you know, traveling with… — You ever have that thing where you’re descending on a plane but your ears are all stuffed up?
John: It’s the absolute worst.
Craig: It’s the worst. And you feel like something inside of you is dying.
John: Yeah. It reminds me of the classic scene in Star Trek II where they’re putting the little bugs inside, is it Chekov’s ears?
Craig: It is. It goes inside Chekov’s ear. And it is a scene that I have tortured my sister with for… — I mean, when did that movie come out? 1981?
John: Sounds right.
Craig: So, I’ve been torturing her with that for 32 years.
Craig: It’s just so awesome. What a weird Jungian nightmare that they just sort of uncovered.
John: Yeah. I think anything going into your eyes, or honestly, the knife going across somebody’s eye is the thing that I just can’t possibly stand.
Craig: You know, but the knife going across somebody’s eye, like, Un Chien Adalou did that very famous thing, it’s so ridiculous that I don’t even like, eh. Because there’s a lot of stuff that they do in movies where you’re like, “Oh god, that would really, really hurt.” But there’s something about a thing crawling into your ear. It’s an opening you already have, so they’re not cutting you. And then it’s going in you and staying in there.
John: We’ve already lost half of our listeners by disturbing imagery.
Craig: But we may have picked up some new ones.
John: Ah! Maybe so. Well, hopefully they’ll enjoy listening to our topics for today which include the First-Sale Doctrine, which is a big copyright concept that has important ramifications for people who make movies and people who like to watch movies.
John: Second, I want to talk about what’s funny on the page versus what’s funny on screen.
Craig: Hmm, like I know?
John: Yeah, I think you can answer a couple of those questions.
Craig: I have no clue.
John: And a couple of other just random listener questions that have been in the mail bag that I think we can tackle today.
Craig: Great. Before we do that, real quickly, how’s everything going over there?
John: Things are going really well. So, I’m in Chicago right now. This was our first week of previews for Big Fish. And it was terrifying but really, really good. Everything kind of came together. And our Tuesday night went terrific. And our Wednesday night really well. And Thursday night was even better. So, it’s really been amazing.
The strange thing is we go through this tech rehearsal where you’re trying to put all the pieces together and you’re never quite sure what the whole show looks like. And it was literally not until we started on Tuesday night that it was like I thought we could get through the whole show.
John: And people cheered at the right things, and laughed at the right things, and it was great. That said, you still keep doing work. And so we are performing every night but we have rehearsals starting at noon. So, basically 11am we meet with the creators and talk about sort of what we want to try to fix. And then you’re scrambling from noon to five to make changes, to make cuts, to change lines, to move stuff around.
And then everyone has to go have dinner and come back and put on the show with those changes in it.
John: So, it’s been amazing. But, I’ve said before, it’s like production and post-production at the same time. This is like being at the Avid but the people are actually in front of you and you’re trying to make this thing happen. And every night there’s — you don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s actually live in front of you. So, the second or third night one of the lack scrims didn’t come up in time. Last night we had one of our actresses get sick during the show.
John: Like she got food poisoning during the show. A swing had to go in. And our swings are brilliant, so Cynthia stepped up and did the job. So, that’s remarkable and that’s been fun to watch and experience.
Craig: Wow. Yeah, it’s funny, I have a friend who has been in musical theater for a long time, and while I don’t think she ever quite made it to Broadway she did a lot of Off-Broadway stuff and a lot of theater out here, like Santa Barbara and stuff like that. And we went to go see her in Peter Pan and she told us that the night before she had food poisoning and actually puked, I think puked on stage, [laughs], which I think is amazing.
And the great part about it is that it’s Peter Pan, so there’s all these kids in the audience. And they’re just like, “Why is Peter Pan throwing up?”
John: Yeah. Hopefully she wasn’t like in the aerial sequence of Peter Pan when the vomit happened.
Craig: God, you know, if she had been. “Unforgettable,” says the Santa Barbara News.
John: And one of the most remarkable things about Big Fish here in Chicago is a bunch of people from our podcast and from the blog have come to see the show. And so I had an open invitation, like if you’re coming to see the show send me your dates, and your times, and your seat numbers and I’ll try to come visit you. So, I’ve sort of done that Where’s Waldo thing of trying to find people in the balcony. And that’s worked only okay.
It’s actually much more difficult to find people up there than I thought it would be. I really needed Nima and Ryan to like make me an app to find people, but it’s been challenging.
Craig: Well, why don’t you just tell them when they see you to hold up something?
John: Yes. I’ve asked them just to grab me if they see me because I’m pretty identifiable. And so many people have grabbed me and said hello and they’ve enjoyed the show. And it’s been remarkable for them to come. So, I look forward to shaking more hands as we go through our five weeks here in Chicago.
Craig: Great. Awesome.
John: Let’s get started. First off, the First-Sale Doctrine, which is this legal concept that exists in US Copyright Law, but I think probably other countries’ copyright laws as well. What First-Sale Doctrine means is that if you make something that is subject to copyright, so let’s say you make a movie or a song, or a book is a good easy example.
John: Let’s say you created a book. You have the exclusive right to distribute that book. That’s one of your rights in copyright. What First-Sale Doctrine holds is that once you’ve sold that book to somebody, they can go off and resell that book again. And that’s why we have used book stores. That’s why we have libraries to some degree. It’s an important thing that’s one of the important tenets of US Copyright Law.
So, these last couple weeks, two big cases came up that challenged our conceptions of First-Sale Doctrine. And I thought they were important to talk about because they have big implications, not only if you are making movies, but if you are watching movies.
Craig: Right. I think one of them definitely has implications for the movie business. Maybe more so than the other.
John: Great. I’ll be curious which one you think is more important.
So, the first one that came up, the ruling came back, it was a Supreme Court Case called Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. And so here’s the situation that happened in that, and this was actually a book situation. It was a textbook situation, like literally it was about textbooks.
Somebody from Thailand came to the US to study and found that the textbooks were incredibly expensive. But they found that, “Oh, wow, if I actually bought those same textbooks back in Thailand, they’re much, much, much cheaper.” So, not only did he buy the books in Thailand for himself, he started bringing in those books from Thailand and selling them in the United States to help pay for his college education.
John Wiley & Sons, which was the publisher, said, “No, no, no. You can’t do that.” And they sued him. They won at a lower court, but the Supreme Court overruled that 6-3 and overturned that decision, and ruled that First-Sale Doctrine holds true even if the books were purchased in Thailand or outside the US, that concept still holds true.
John: So, that’s a fascinating issue because a lot of times we want to discriminate on price based on different markets. And so from a movie perspective, a lot of times we may say like, “Okay, we’re going to price this movie at this price in Asia, but it’s a higher price in the United States.”
Craig: Yes. And if we were still living in DVD culture I would say this would be definitely — this is an issue. Because first, I think the notion is that the First-Sale Doctrine is kind of a US thing. I mean, our copyright laws are different from other countries in a number of ways.
So, okay, First-Sale says you’re the copyright holder and the reason that the word “copyright” is copyright is because that’s the biggest right of all, to make copies. You’re the only person that can make copies of your work. You’re the only person that can distribute your work.
However, you get the right of the first sale. You don’t get the right of the second, third, and fourth sale. Once you sell it to somebody they can sell that discrete copy to someone else — as you said, used book store. The same goes for textbooks.
What this case seemed to be about was basically, look, Thailand maybe doesn’t have the doctrine of first-sale, or even if it did it’s a different doctrine of first-sale because it’s a different country. So, if you go and you sell intellectual property in somebody else’s jurisdiction, with somebody else’s copyright laws, and they take that and they come back to the United States, does the Doctrine of First Sale somehow magically appear all of a sudden, even if it wasn’t purchased originally in a place where Doctrine of First-Sale exists?
And the Supreme Court said: Yeah, it does. If were still living in a world of DVDs, and the studios were selling DVDs here for $20, and overseas for $5, then it would make total sense to just start buying your DVDs overseas and then selling them here. The whole point, this guy didn’t just buy a textbook in Thailand, bring it over, and then sell it to somebody. Nobody bothers with that. He was running a business. He was basically arbitraging the difference between the textbook prices of the same textbooks, reselling them and keeping the profit.
So, you could say, “All right, I’m going to buy 100,000 copies of Transformers in India where it costs $2.00 and sell them over here for $8.00, which is still cheaper than the US price and make a lot of money.” True, that there’s this whole DVD region thing that makes it a little more difficult to do, but really that’s not as big of a deal for us right now in the movie business because we are increasingly out of the physical object business, which is why this next case was so, so important.
John: Yes. So, the second case is Capitol Records vs. ReDigi. I think they call it ReDigi. And what ReDigi does is it says, “Okay, you have bought these mp3 files on iTunes or through some other store. We will let you resell that mp3 to somebody else who might want it. And in selling it we will delete it off your computer and put it on their computer.”
And ReDigi was the company that was serving as this broker. It was doing this work of moving your mp3 to the other person’s computer, the buyer’s computer.
This is much more sort of obviously troubling for people who are making digital goods, such as digital movies or songs that are mp3 files. The studios really did not want this to happen. It was Capitol Records in this case who came in.
So, it was a lower court decision, but this lower court said that ReDigi’s business model, their plan of doing this, was not realistic. Was a violation of the First-Sale Doctrine. Wasn’t covered by First-Sale Doctrine.
Craig: Right. Yeah.
John: And I do like that the judge in the case actually cited Star Trek’s Transporters and Willy Wonka’s Wonkavision. And so as a writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I love that he cited Wonkavision.
Craig: He did cite Wonkavision.
There’s a lot going on in this case and it’s not final obviously. I have a feeling that this one will be appealed and maybe make its way to the Supremes as well. But, it was an encouraging decision for us.
So, the crux of it is this: You buy a digital file from the copyright owner. And the question is how does the First-Sale Doctrine apply to you? Okay, they made the first sale to you; how do you then resell this? And really the truth is you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because the First-Sale Doctrine doesn’t say you can make a copy of what you’ve bought and sell the copy. It says you have to sell that thing you bought. So, because copyright is exclusive to the copyright owner — only they can make copies — unless they’ve licensed you some limited ability to make copies for personal use, which they can do.
So, how do you sell a digital file you have purchased without making a copy? So, ReDigi’s argument was, “Easy. We just take it from you and move it over to here. And we make sure that you’ve deleted it.” But, the judge rightly is pointing out, “Well, that’s still a copy.” Once you transmit the file to another space, you’re copying it. The fact that you are copying the book and then burning the other book behind it doesn’t mean you haven’t made a copy.
The truth is there is nothing that discrete about these digital files. The only real way to resell digital files, I think, and still be consistent with the First-Sale Doctrine is to sell them with your hard drive to someone. But barring that, you have made a copy. Furthermore, it’s really impossible for any business to ensure that they’re not making a copy, because the only way I, as ReDigi, can ensure that I’m not making an illegal copy when I accept your file from you is to make sure that you haven’t already duplicated your file on your end.
And that, of course, is where the opportunity for abuse is and it would be abused. Why wouldn’t any starving college student want to sell his entire music library knowing full well it’s copied, [laughs], and it isn’t going anyway? It’s sort of an obvious one.
Now, here’s what I think is interesting about this: When, I would say about two or three years ago, the movie industry got together and was trying to figure out how are we going to sell movies digitally, away from physical objects, and I suspect one of the things they were wrestling with was this very question, even though it hadn’t occurred to a lot of us. If they do sell things that are re-sellable, it’s not good for them.
Craig: So, what his all points to ultimately, I think, and the way around this mess for the movie business, and the music business, too, is that ultimately we’re never going to own any of these copies ever. We’re never going to have them. We are going to have to own access because if I’m the movie studio, here’s what I know: The person at home wants to watch the movie when they want to watch it. And they’re happy to pay to watch the movie. I do not want them to have a copy of the movie for so many reasons. So, I stream it to them.
I stream it to them and what they’re paying for is access to that stream. And on their end it ought to be no different than popping in a DVD. Now, that’s going to require infrastructure improvements to download speeds and all the rest of it, but that’s ultimately where it has to go.
John: I would agree with you. I also feel like this coming generation is sort of used to this “assetlessness.” It’s been interesting even just me living in like two corporate apartments over the last two months, I’ve kind of come to treasure the fact that I don’t actually have anything I need to own. Like I don’t have any printed books here. I don’t have any DVDs here. I don’t even know if I have a DVD player in the room, because if I want to watch Game of Thrones I just pull it up on my iPad and connect it to my Apple TV. I don’t want to have to own those physical things if I don’t have to own those physical things. And not owning those physical things is wonderful.
The problem comes when I don’t have an internet connection. That breaks down. And that is a huge flaw in this.
So, just so we can talk it out better, I’d like to try adopt the opposite point of view so I can see like these are the real problems with what you’re describing and sort of what the issues here.
John: So, I will now be the counter voice here.
Craig: You’ll be the “copy-fighter.”
John: I’ll be copy-fighter. So, here is the challenge. What you are doing by saying that you cannot transport this material from one person to another person is you’re essentially going back to the dark ages where things were written on scrolls, and like only certain people had access to certain things. Because what you’re saying is like only — you can’t ever own anything, that you can only license something. Then you’re controlling who can have access to anything that you don’t want them to have access to.
So, right now it’s the corporation saying, “Oh, we don’t want to license that movie in certain countries.” But then you’re denying everyone in that country the ability to experience that movie.
John: Or even to import that movie, or to find a physical copy. We’re saying that 100 years from now there may not be a physical copy that somebody could use in a library. You might say that a copyright extension is a whole separate other issue, but it’s sort of meaningless to say, “Oh, it will become in the public domain eventually,” if there’s never an ownable copy up until that point.
Craig: My response would be this. I think that there’s a reasonable case to be made that there ought to be full and open access to these things, and I don’t know how you legislate this. Because ultimately, well, maybe not. I mean, look, the copyright owner has the right to distribute, which also includes the right to not distribute. I don’t have to sell my novel in Wisconsin.
Craig: No publisher is required to sell a novel in Wisconsin, nor is any publisher required to translate the book, nor is any publisher required to sell it in any particular country. So, I would say that that’s actually not that different than it is now. The only difference is that you can’t — we’ve effectively barred those people from any kind of re-buying of that.
And, all I can say is, again, I tend to side with the rights of the content creators. I also feel like in general the marketplace tends to solve this problem. The whole point of making movies for these companies is to have people watch them and pay for them. So, I have a feeling that they would be all for open access as long as it didn’t feel like they were letting the foxes in the henhouse.
As far as libraries, I think their day is coming to a close. And I love libraries, but they are not going to be — libraries will ultimately not exist. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
John: So, let’s go to books, although of course you can apply it to movies as well. If libraries cease to exist, if you are a person who doesn’t have the economic means to get that book, to purchase that book, to purchase whatever the license is to read that book, then you have no access to that book. And that is a potentially huge problem for not only the educational system but sort of our system of culture.
Craig: Yeah. I think there will ultimately become some sort of virtual library. And I don’t think that we’re going to live in a time 30 years from now where access to the internet will be seen as the privileged outcome of owning a device. I think at some point it’s going to — for instance, telephones.
Craig: — were just given to people, you know, the impoverished got telephones. At some point they were like, “Everybody needs a phone. You’re going to have to have a phone. And they’re so cheap and here’s a phone. And here’s a connection.” And everybody that uses — even to this day — when you pay your bill, part of your bill is a tax for people who are poor and can’t afford a phone.
And I think that’s where it’s going to go. I think ultimately everybody will be connected. I think there will be literally hobos in the street with tablets.
And there will be some sort of access to free material through there in some form or another.
John: All right. Let’s go back to our core demographic here of writers and screenwriters. How do these issues affect screenwriters, people who are making movies?
Craig: Well, the biggest way is that by shooting down the ReDigi model we’re essentially protecting our residual base. So, we get paid when the studios get paid. Our residuals for reuse, our percentage of their gross for reuse, and in a ReDigi world where people can just sell each other these copies over, and over, and over, there’s just little incentive for them to buy the premium copy from the studio, which means we just don’t see the revenue.
It’s a little bit like eBay. You know, eBay is an enormous underground market. It’s a huge flea market of resale and the manufacturers get nothing of that resale. And that’s fine. I mean, people are selling objects and that’s the deal with objects.
For us, however, it would decimate what is already a wobbly system and what is already a system that has been knocked down so severely since the fall of the DVD. And by extension, continues to put pressure on screenwriting as a viable career.
Forget the average person, since it’s never been a viable career for the average person. It wouldn’t even be a viable career for the average screenwriter today. And that’s the scary part. So, that’s where the rubber hits the road for me.
John: Yeah. I would say going back to the Wiley decision, the ability to bring in things from other places, I’m glad it sort of ended up where it ended up. I feel like if we are not able to import things from other places, to see them, to experience them, then all the Japanese anime that you might want to go see could become locked off to you.
So, I think it’s important to be able to have access to — to bring stuff in from other places — or sometimes things that you would want to have a copy of that is just not available in the US market. And so I think it’s generally a helpful thing for people who want to see movies, that you can bring stuff in from other places.
Craig: Well, that decision didn’t really say that you could now do that. What it said is you can now do that and then resell it.
Craig: Which is a different deal. I mean, any of us can go online right now and buy a textbook from Thailand. It was just that this guy was pretty enterprising about it.
John: Yeah. But I respect the business model, and you see it more in big cities, but like the place that just sells the stuff that they brought in from Asia. And that can be kind of great. And I think it’s good that you can actually get some of those physical things from other places, copyrighted works.
John: And I would worry that had this decision done the other way you could see many more barriers put up to being able to do that.
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, for the textbook industry and for the — let’s just say the widget industry where people are selling physical objects, sorry, physical manifestations of intellectual property like books, and CDs, and DVDs, and works of art, this is a little bit of a challenge because they do price things for their marketplace.
I mean, yeah, obviously we pay more here in the United States for the same thing than they do in the developing world. And while we could stop and say, “Well, wait a second. That means we’re getting ripped off.” Uh, yeah, I guess we’re getting ripped off, but then again we have a lot more money than those people do and we’re willing to pay for it here. And, so, that’s that.
John: A couple reasons I think for the price discrimination. First off, we have more money, so therefore they can just afford to charge more for it. Second off, I mean, the reverse of that is they don’t have the money in those other markets, so if you price certain things, not only can no one buy it but you’re incentivizing piracy. Essentially like you’re trying to compete with free, or nearly free.
Craig: Right. I mean, there’s a little part of me that gets annoyed when I see, okay, well, if you can price it for that in Thailand, and still make money, because I know for sure you’re not pricing it below your cost, then you’re just up-charging me a massive amount for the privilege of having enough money to pay for it.
But, then again, I think, okay, but they sort of average it all out. And there’s like a medium price. The thing is, what do they do about — it does make a challenge for them because they can’t… — The only reason they can charge $5.00 in Thailand is because they charge $25.00 here. If the average is, you know, whatever, is $15.00, well, we’ll all buy them for $15.00 merrily, but they can’t in Thailand. So, what happens then? You know?
John: I suspect that the real costs are considerably different based on just the market. So, you know, a lot of the costs that we’re associating with our movies is all the — it’s the store, it’s the shipping, and all the other stuff, which might be quite a bit lower in other markets.
Craig: Yeah. But like for instance textbook publishing, I mean, look, I don’t know, but I suspect that most of the books that we buy here are actually assembled and published overseas.
Craig: So, it’s just that, you know, and yeah, maybe we’re spending a little bit extra for the — you know, because they have to ship the books over, but not that much more. We’re getting gouged. We know we are.
Craig: And so I’m kind of… — In a weird way, who this ends up hurting are the people getting the lower prices. Their prices will go up and that hurts them more than our prices coming down, if this becomes like a huge thing. We’ll see if it does.
John: Yeah. Cool. Let’s move onto our next topic which his about comedy. So, a completely different thing. This is a question that actually starts with Joe D. who wrote in to ask.
Craig: Where is Joe D. from, by the way?
John: He didn’t say.
Craig: Oh, because that sounds like a New York guy to me.
John: Joe D.!
Craig: Hey, Joe D.!
John: So, yes, if you’re writing in with a question, and I should stop and say that if you have questions that you want me and Craig to talk about, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. And so a big list of questions comes in, and I cull them, and Stuart culls them, and eventually we answer the ones we think are interesting.
So, Joe D. wrote in to ask: “When writing a comedy script do you think there is a one-to-one correlation between funny on screen versus funny on paper? Meaning, should a laugh out loud moment seen on the screen be equally laugh out loud moment on paper? In your experience, has this rung true? At what point does a smile on paper become a chuckle or a laugh?”
Craig: There is not a one-to-one relationship at all.
John: Not at all.
Craig: Not even close. You know, there are books that have made me laugh wildly, but if you were to shoot them they wouldn’t work at all. I mean, prose designed to make you laugh is very different than prose designed to be produced and make you laugh. It’s just a different thing.
Similarly, the same goes for situations that you’re describing. Knowing what to write to turn into something that makes people laugh, that’s why there are so few people that write comedy in movies. It’s not easy. And it’s an art. You know, it is an art in and of itself. It’s a strange debased, silly art, but it is an art.
And there are very few times where I’ve… — You know, sometimes I’ll write a line and I think, “That’s gonna work.” And it does work. And I think, “Okay, so there you go. That was a one-to-one moment, you know.”
John: But, I mean, that’s not quite what he’s phrasing. Like how often do you actually laugh when you read a script? For me it’s almost never.
John: I mean, I’ve read very funny scripts that become very funny movies, but they’re not funny when you’re reading them on the page because they’re funny because you’re visualizing, like, “Oh, this is how it’s going to work.” And you can tell that, “I think that’s going to be funny,” but you have no idea.
John: You aren’t laughing as you’re sitting there with the script on your iPad in front of you.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t remember reading any script that made me laugh through it. And, frankly, if I did I would be suspicious that something was weird, because it was designed to do the wrong thing.
Sometimes producers or executives will say, “I laughed out loud when I read this,” or “I laughed out loud when I read that,” and I’ll think, okay, yeah, you’re probably lying. You know the way people say LOL but they never really LOL?
Craig: I think it’s that. But, no, there’s not a one-to-one thing. Comedy is about performance. You’ve probably heard the old saying about timing. So much of comedy is about timing. So much of comedy is about staging. So much of comedy is about editing, or more specifically the lack thereof. And you simply can’t get that from the page. So, comedy writers are basically putting down a chemical formula and then you’re mixing the chemicals in front of the camera on the day.
So, no. No one-to-one relationship with there.
John: That said, that’s not to give a carte blanche to not try to be funny on the page. And so I’ll definitely notice that as you refine your work you’ll be taking out certain words, or trying to put back certain words so that it will read funnier, and so that you will give the actor a plan for like how that line can actually be funny.
And I’m sure we’ve both had situations where an actor just doesn’t understand how to make that line funny, or they’re trying to change something that is actually cutting into how that thing should be funny.
Craig: No question.
John: A classic example is an actor will change the tense in a sentence. They think, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter,” but it actually makes it not funny because of how they’ve changed the tense.
John: Or, it’s a misdirect. So, one of the lines in Big Fish that every time I watch the show I have like my little scribbly piece of paper and I take notes on what things are. And because I know every line of the show, if a line isn’t delivered right I can make a note and we can give that line reading back.
One of the things that’s happened a couple of times is exactly that. A very specific thing — in this case it was a joke where if you say, “Luckily, years earlier I had been bitten the Chucalabra snake of Tanzania.”
John: “Luckily, years earlier,” it’s important that it be that way. Because we say “luckily years before I had been bitten by the Chucalabra snake. “The years before, before I had been bitten,” it becomes a separate clause that makes it not funny. So, earlier versus before is actually a very important thing.
Craig: You are hitting on something interesting and sometimes I seethe quietly over this, because comedy requires a certain mastery of grammar. There is a reason why things are funny in their order with specific words. You can look at two versions of a joke where it’s slightly different, and one is clearly funnier than the other. And you could spend all day talking about why, but really nobody has the time for that. Either you know or you don’t.
And the people who write comedy routinely tend to know. And the people who don’t, don’t. And it actually requires quite a bit of intelligence. And just instinct. And that’s why… –What’s so great about comedy, too, is that unlike drama, which I think drama is always about representations of tragedy. There can be new comedy invented. Comedy actually can just come out of nowhere — and suddenly there’s a new comedy that didn’t exist before it.
And those people and their instincts are incredible. But it is so instinctive and so scientific. And, frankly, it’s OCD. Comedy is OCD. If you’re not OCD about the language that you’re using, comedy may not be your thing.
John: Yeah. One other thing I want to make clear, when I say like it’s not necessarily funny on the page, that’s a different conversation that voice. And I remember when we had Aline on the show we talked about voice. And the successful writers, the ones you can tell like, “Oh, this person is going to succeed,” a lot of times it’s because they have a voice. And many times it’s a funny voice.
And so the good comedy scripts tend to be funny even in the places that aren’t necessarily jokes. It’s just enjoyable to read in the right ways and it has a sense of humor to itself that’s not just scene, scene, scene, line, line, line.
John: It’s a hard thing to describe. But even not just what the characters are saying but the way that the script actually feels on the page is funny, or it is just the way it should be.
And so even if people aren’t laughing out loud, they’re going to the next page because they’re hearing a voice. And they’re having confidence that this person knows what they’re doing.
Craig: And there are writers who are really funny and write really funny stuff. They don’t have necessarily a great mind for structure. They don’t necessarily have a great mind for theme. They don’t necessarily have a great mind for drama. They’re just funny.
A lot of times those writers end up having incredible careers working on hysterically funny television shows, because television shows do rely less on a kind of self-encapsulated structure. I mean, there’s a structure to each show, of course, and there’s a room full of people to kind of help you get there. But a movie is a self-encapsulated structure. It’s its own thing that begins and ends. Permanently.
So, a lot of times they do that. But then there are a lot of writers who also work in movies who really do come on to projects to make them funnier. They’re not there necessarily to write something that is comedically dramatic or dramatically comedic.
John: Yeah. And there are cases where like you just literally need a laugh here. And so that’s where a writer who’s good at figuring out what could be funny in that moment can be really valuable.
You and I have both been on comedy panels, roundtables on movies that are about to go into production. And those are not ideal situations for figuring out the big funny of a movie, but they can be useful for figuring out those little surgical moments of like how do we get a laugh here that can propel us into the next moment.
Craig: And it’s funny because you’ll have a lot of people in a room — we do this all the time — where we go through a screenplay that’s about to go into production looking for opportunities for jokes. And all of these really funny people, I mean, I’ve done these things with Patton Oswalt, and Dana Gould, and big comedy writers, Lennon and Garant, and we all go around the table and we do this stuff. And at the end of the day on a movie if two jokes come out of that whole thing and end up in the movie, that’s a good day.
Craig: Because it’s really hard to just sort of come in and throw stuff into a movie that would actually work in that moment, in that tone, is doable, consistent with the characters, translates from what was funny in the room to funny on screen. It’s just a whole different thing.
John: Yeah. Sometimes those sessions can help get the other writers, or the writers who are working on it longer term, or if it’s a writer-director, can get them in a good spirit to be thinking for other things, thinking of other moments that can help. So, that can be useful.
And, honestly, if those two jokes end up in the movie but they also end up in the trailer, then you’ve just made things…
Craig: Big time.
John: Big time. It’s been completely worth everyone’s time to go do that.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. For sure.
John: Our next question comes from Michael who asks — again, I don’t have locations on people. Tell us where you’re from. We’d love to know where you’re from. Michael asks: “It seems like you get a lot of things done with screenplays, musicals, the website, podcast, apps, games, etc. Do you have any tips on time management and self-actualization?”
Craig: Well, I mean, this is all about you, because I really only get one thing done.
John: [laughs] What I liked about this question is that the actual question is like time management and self-actualization, and weirdly I think those things have been bundled together in a way in the last couple years that’s not necessarily healthy or productive.
So, time management is basically, you know, getting the stuff done in your day that you can get done and not being so stressed out about it. And that’s good. And so I do have some things to say about that.
Self-actualization is really a different thing. And self-actualization is sort of feeling good about who you are and what you’re doing and sort of how life works. And overtime management is probably bad for your self-actualization. You’re like a machine who gets stuff done, but isn’t anything other than a machine who gets things done.
So, I think it’s just weird that we packed those two ideas together.
John: For time management, when I’m back in my normal Los Angeles I have pretty good stuff and I can actually churn through a lot of things. Since I’ve been doing the show, it’s all gone out the window. So, I’ve barely my OmniFocus which is where I store all that stuff. I’m late for everything. Stuart, god bless him, sort of keeps his master list of who’s coming to what show of Big Fish every night so I can try to find those people. But then I forget to print it out. I forget that people travel cross-country to see the show.
So, I don’t have like a perfect system for this.
Craig: You’re a bastard.
John: I’m a terrible, terrible person.
John: Like literally in the lobby, I just happened to be in the lobby and three people I knew sort of separately came up and said like, “Oh, John, thank you for meeting.” I’m like, “Yes, I planned…” No. I didn’t plan to be here at all. I just happened to see you.
Craig: You’re such a bastard because even the lies you successfully told to hide your bastardy have been undone right here.
John: Right on the show.
There are general theories on time management. One is that you should focus on whatever the most important thing is and get the most important thing done, to the exclusion of all other stuff. And that’s sort of been how I’ve treated Big Fish this time is that there’s a lot of other stuff in my life, work stuff in my life, that needs some attention that I just can’t give it.
So, I’ve been sort of stalling on phone calls, or just not engaging on stuff because I can’t I have to sort of devote every brain cell to this.
But, in my normal life I will sort of — I’ll look for what the easy things are and just knock out a bunch of easy things. And I think that sometimes people, and I’m definitely one of them, get sort of paralyzed because they know that the big thing is too hard to do. So, the trick is to break it down into smaller steps and just get those little smaller steps done.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: In terms of writing, sometimes there’s that scene that I just don’t want to do that. And so, like, well don’t write that scene. Write the other scenes that are around that scene that are simple that you can do right now.
Craig: A lot of times when I don’t want to write that scene I have to confront the fact that something’s wrong with the scene. [laughs] That’s usually the big thing. But I have to say that my approach to scheduling stuff, writing, this, you know, I do a lot of charity work in my town, I do work with the WGA, I’ve got a family — that’s a big one. We’ve often talked about our kids are killing us.
Craig: I have come to accept in a self-actualized way, I think, that I have a method that is methodless, and that through various impulses — guilt, desire, whatever they are, shame, happiness, excitement — the things that I want to get done get done. And what I would say to you out there is if you’re having trouble with these things, there’s no problem whatsoever with looking for help. Maybe there’s a system out there that you would find services what you want. Just make it what you want.
Don’t follow some plan, some artificial plan, to your nature. Because that’s not going to work, either. And you’re absolutely right. It is going to get in the way of you just being a happy person. Productivity is not the same thing as happiness.
Productivity in something that makes you happy is the same as happiness. And we can always get better at things. If it excites you, it’s a good thing. If it exhausts you, it’s a bad thing.
John: Yes. That’s definitely been my theory with sort of the app stuff I’ve done and sort of Highland has shipped, and Bronson, and the other things. I did it because it was really interesting to me. And so I have no trouble sort of spending a lot of time on things that are actually fascinating to me and exploring how to do that.
And so the musical was a brand new thing, and it was terrifying, and it was fascinating to do it. It’s exhausting right now, but I recognize that I’m sort of through the sloggy/exhaustion part of it. But I also get to see it every night, and that’s a remarkable, amazing thing.
So, I will say that sometimes — here are the two sides of it. The bright shiny things are always going to be bright, and shiny, and attractive. And sometimes you just have to go chase them because they’re what you sort of want to do. And sometimes you’re going to be in the third draft of something that is just a slog. And it’s recognizing that it’s a slog because it’s a slog. But then you’re going to get through it and you will finish it.
Craig: Yeah. Don’t be a child. There is delayed gratification. We all have the experience of not wanting to work out, and then working out, and then feeling great that we worked out. So, writing is no different sometimes. Sometimes writing is awesome and it’s fun. Sometimes it’s working out. But then when it’s done you feel great.
John: Craig, I think we’ve talked about the marshmallow test on the podcast, because you as a psychology major must be familiar with the marshmallow test. Have you seen this?
Craig: Maybe not under that name. Is it the kids who are given the marshmallows and told to wait and they get more marshmallows. Is that the one?
John: Exactly. The classic setup is that you have a young kid who is presented with like a marshmallow on a plate. And the tester says, “If you can wait, I’ll be back in a few minutes. And if you can wait, I’ll give you a second marshmallow.” So, basically they time the kid, like how long it takes the kid to not just eat the first marshmallow and delay gratification in order to get two marshmallows.
And I’ve always been the kids who like I could probably wait there a day to get that marshmallow.
Craig: Yeah. And it is interesting because they find that some kids are just better at it than others. That there is a kind of innate capacity for delayed gratification.
For some people it seems that gratification is only gratifying if it’s immediate. Those people do tend to become drunks. But, [laughs], or substance abusers, or sex addicts. They are also sometimes the most fascinating people in the world.
Writing, unfortunately, is not for people who find gratification only in the moment. It is not an impulsive person’s task.
John: I would say sketch writing might be, writing for like a Jimmy Fallon. That could be that.
Craig: Yeah. I think that might be so. Writing for stuff that’s immediate like that, sure, like a daily variety show where every night it’s a new thing and you just burst it out. Absolutely. Yeah. I can see that. That is fun. That is as close to standup comedy as writing gets probably.
But writing anything long form — writing anything that’s not being shot that day requires a sense of delayed gratification. Screenwriting requires a sense of delayed gratification that is monastic…
Craig: …in its requirements. You need to be willing to not only write for a very long time to reach the gratification of finishing; you need to be aware that you haven’t finished at all and that you may have another six months, another year, another lifetime ahead of you on that movie. Or it may never gratify in the end ultimately which is the movie experience.
So, those of us who screen-write, yeah, we’re waiting for the second marshmallow.
John: I have a theory that perhaps the ability to delay gratification is partly the ability to visualize an alternate future. So, it’s the ability to see a future in which you had waited and this is the result of having waited. Because that’s really what you’re talking about is being able to picture yourself as the person who got the two marshmallows because you waited.
And a lot of the projects I’ve been involved with, it’s knowing that, okay, it’s going to go through all these different steps, but this is what it’s going to look like at the end. And both the movies I’ve written and now the show, and even the apps I’ve done, it’s being able to see like, “Okay, this is what it looks like at the end.” And because I can see what it looks like at the end I am willing to go through all of the stuff that gets you to that place.
Craig: Well, that’s an expected confluence for somebody who writes because, after all, writing is imagining stuff and being excited about what you imagine. So, it seems like that would go hand in hand.
There’s an interesting experiment that — a little game that they play. And so you at home can play along with us. I want you to take out a piece of paper, or if you’re in your car just imagine this. You’re going to draw three circles on the paper. The first circle represents how important the past is to you. The second one represents how important the present is to you. and the third one represents how important the future is to you.
And by important I mean to say how much of your thoughts and your mind are occupied by these things — the past, the present, and the future. And, you know, for me, when I did it was sort like a very small circle, pinpoint, huge circle. [laughs] Because, you know, I really don’t think about the past that much at all. I just don’t. I’m not one to go roll over things. If anything, it’s all very dream like behind me. The moment to me right now is the moment right now. But it’s hard for me to access. I’m constantly thinking about tomorrow. I’m constantly thinking about the future.
John: Yeah. I would wonder whether that’s necessarily the healthiest balance. I agree that the past is maybe not as instructive and people tend to dwell too far in the past. And therefore we have terrible world situations.
But what’s interesting about the future, and if I could improve one thing about myself, and find myself doing it, I would say I clock it that I’m doing it, is I will visualize the future and I will visualize conversations — hypothetical conversations with people that are not productive. I will visualize, like, “I’ll say this, and then they’ll say that, and then I’ll say this, and I’ll do that. And you know what? That’s not going to really work out so well.”
Craig: [laughs] No. No, no, it’s true. I have occasionally caught myself in loops like that. I remember when I was on the board of directors of the Writers Guild, after the first few meetings it became clear to me that the nature of those board meetings was endless talking.
And it was frustrating talking because, frankly, so much of it was just wrong. You know, it was just sitting in a room listening to people say things that were wrong. And saying them with conviction. And when you hear people saying wrong things with conviction, something happens inside of you that is — well, maybe something happens inside of me. It was terrifying. [laughs]
And I would find myself sometimes at night playing out conversations in my head in which I attempted to make them see why they were wrong. And it never worked. Ever. It is, in fact, a waste of time.
But, it may also be neural flotsam and jetsam that is unavoidable to those of us who write because that is precisely the mechanism we use when we’re creating characters and writing dialogue.
Craig: So, it’s hard to make that muscle stop being a muscle.
John: Yes. But I think it is important to recognize that writing yourself into imaginary fights with people is not maybe necessarily the healthiest thing to be doing.
John: So, I’m recognizing when I do it and hopefully not doing it as long as I’ve done it.
Craig: How many fights have we had in your head?
John: I don’t know that we’ve had that many fights. Maybe two.
John: And I’ll tell you, one of the fights I had in my head was over a script of mine that you read. And in a lovely way you were trying to talk about some aspect of it, but you said it did not hit my ears especially well.
Craig: Oh, I’m sorry.
John: And so therefore I started having the very unproductive conversation with you, the imaginary conversation in my head. How about you? How many fights have you had with me?
Craig: None. [laughs] Because, well, and I’m sorry. You know, that’s why I hate reading people’s scripts and talking about it because then I think like, “How can I say something here and not upset them if there’s something that I feel is wrong, or incorrect, or I don’t like.” And I don’t want to be pedantic about it.
But then there’s always the risk that that will happen. And it’s certainly not intentional.
Craig: I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.
John: Oh, no, it’s fine. And people who are working on Big Fish know that I have about — you can sort of watch me and know sort of like where my meter is at. Because I can start crying at about 15 seconds at any given point. It’s been a very sort of stressful time. But it’s gotten to the point where it’s just like it’s almost kind of funny because it’s like I don’t have — I’m aware of it, and so it’s not so terrible.
Craig: I didn’t make you cry?
John: Oh, you didn’t make me cry at all. Not at all.
Craig: Because I thought that script was good. I really liked it.
John: Well thank you. Thank you.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, any thoughts I had were just — they were probably, you know, if you heard anything strange in my voice it was probably that I was encountering things that I had done in the past and paid terrible prices for. And maybe there was memories of old mistakes that may not necessarily have translated to your script, but maybe that was what it was.
John: I want to thank you for that.
Let us wrap up with our One Cool Things.
Craig: But now I’m going to have a fight in my head with you later though.
John: Oh, good. See? “How dare he be so sensitive about that thing? And how dare he call me out on a podcast about it?” That’s really what you’re fight is going to be.
Craig: Yeah. I think the more, frankly, the more you do that to me the better the podcast gets.
John: [laughs] Because it’s really the podcast where I knock Craig Mazin down a little bit.
Craig: But the best podcast. I wish every podcast were me defending myself. It’s my natural position.
John: Good! Yes. I very much enjoyed our Veronica Mars podcast for that reason, because we genuinely did disagree.
John: And I didn’t have to just take the opposite point of view.
Craig: That’s right.
John: I have a One Cool Thing this week which is actually courtesy of two members of our cast. Alex Brightman and Cary Tedder. And this is a recurring joke in the dressing rooms. It’s Carl Lewis “sings” The National Anthem at an NBA game. You may have seen this. This is from a long time ago.
Craig: Seen it! Seen it!
John: It’s really just amazing. So, it’s not a surprise — he does a terrible job. And there’s moments in it that are just brilliant. Because he recognizes, like, oh, this is not going well, so he says, “Uh-oh.” That uh-oh is great.
Craig: I know. That’s my favorite.
John: And so we’ve had some uh-oh moments in Big Fish. And nothing has gone horribly awry, but there are cats that have fallen out of trees when they weren’t supposed to. So, there have been some uh-oh moments, shot guns that are broken. And so “Uh-oh” has become sort of a recurring thing. So, I will include a link to it in the show notes. It’s only 30 seconds long, so it’s not going to take up a lot of your time.
What I think is fascinating about it is it’s not just to make fun of Carl Lewis, or not even to make fun of him. He’s given us a great illustration of why our National Anthem is so problematic. And I think some guidelines on sort of if you do need to sing The National Anthem, here is my personal piece of advice: You need to recognize that our National Anthem can only be sung if you start at near the very bottom of your singing register.
John: So, National Anthem, the third note is the lowest note in the whole song.
John: Yeah. So, [sings] “Oh, say…” You have to figure out — well, that was a terrible one — but you have to figure out where your lowest note is.
John: The lowest note that you can sing well should be the “Say.” And then you have a chance, just a small chance, of being able to get through the song.
Craig: Basically you’re going from “Say” to “Glare.”
Craig: That’s the range of the song. And it’s a long range. And it is very difficult.
John: And if you don’t think about it ahead of time you’re going to make a natural assumption for most songs that you sing, which is that the first note is going to be somewhere in the middle of where that song is.
John: And that holds true for America the Beautiful. It holds true for Happy Birthday. Through most of the normal songs you sing. It’s just a fluke song. It requires far too much of a range.
So, figuring out this piece of my own, everyone is like, “Well, someone else must have given some good advice on how to sing the national anthem.” So, I’ll also include a link to this ten-point guideline for how to sing The National Anthem without embarrassing yourself. The zero point on that is never sing The National Anthem.
John: You basically can’t win with The National Anthem, unless you’re Whitney Houston, or Zooey Deschanel did a great job, too.
Craig: Lots of people can sing The National Anthem. And I actually like singing The National Anthem. You just have to know — you have to know that you can do it. The only way to sing The National Anthem is to sing it confidently, because the whole point is it’s a song about confidence. It’s a song about victory.
Craig: And you cannot be confident if you, while you’re singing or thinking, “I wonder if I’ll hit the word Glare.” Maybe not. [laughs] You know?
John: One piece of advice in this blog post, and then I’ll stop talking about The National Anthem, is don’t look at a printed copy of it. Instead, listen to the song and handwrite out all the words so that they make sense to you. So, you can detect the through line of the story and that will keep you from messing up the “rockets’ red glare” and a couple couplets that always get messed up when people try to sing it.
Craig: [sings] “Bunch of bombs in the air.” You gotta put Leslie Nielsen’s version as Enrico Palazzo is the greatest version of The National Anthem ever.
John: I’ll have Stuart find that and link to it.
Craig: “Bunch of bombs in the air” is the greatest. You want to talk about one-to-one writing funny and being funny — “Bunch of bombs in the air.” That’s just amazing. Yeah.
John: Craig, do you have one this week?
Craig: I do. Yes. This is a Cool Thing that a lot of people already know is cool, but perhaps you don’t out there, and it’s the video game BioShock Infinite.
John: People love it.
Craig: People love it. I love video games. I loved the first BioShock a whole big ton. I’ve really enjoyed the second BioShock as well. This one sort of takes it to another level. So, BioShock, the series created and masterminded by a guy name Ken Levine who’s super duper smart. Interestingly, started his career — attempted to start his carrier as a screenwriter, and didn’t happen for him.
So, then he went out east to New York to become a playwright. Didn’t happen for him either. He is, however, I would argue the preeminent video game writer of our generation. No question he is actually. I mean, you could argue maybe that the Houser Brothers who do the Grand Theft Auto games are up there, too. But, frankly, I think Ken Levine is in a class all of his own.
The game is easily the most fascinating world conceived for those of us with a brain in the video game genre. It is remarkable. It is incredibly literate. It is incredibly literate almost to a fault. I will say — so I’ll give a little spoiler alert here — I’m not giving away the ending at all. I’m simply talking about the nature of the ending.
The nature of the ending is presented in such a curious way and is so much about you figuring out. I mean, there’s that metric of how much do I tell you, how much do I let you figure out. So, okay, I need you to know that Bruce Willis is really dead. So, I’m going to let you figure it out by showing the breath and then showing little flashbacks from the movie and then you’ll get it.
I’m not going to just have somebody announce, “He’s dead!” Well, end of BioShock Infinite, I think, errs a little too far in the “you figure it out — here, we’ve told you everything you need to know.” I couldn’t actually quite understand all of the intricacies of it until I went online and had people sort of explain it in depth, which reminded me a bit of the second Matrix film.
Craig: Which had that scene with the architect, which if you understand, is amazing. What he’s saying is amazing. And what they are presenting there is amazing. It’s just that nobody understood it, so it doesn’t matter. You don’t get credit for it. So, I think that the end of BioShock Infinite got a little too that way for me. But, now that I understand it, it’s pretty awesome. I just wish that it had been presented sort of in the way that Ken Levine presented the big twist inside of BioShock the first, which was done flawlessly and hits you like a ton of bricks.
And not only — that may be the greatest twist in video game history because not only did it create a twist in the story, but it created a twist for you as the player. You realized you hadn’t been playing the way you thought you had been playing, which was wild.
So, anyway, BioShock Infinite is a game worth playing if you are a writer, if you are intellectual, if you are fascinated by the connection between humanity and the crimes of humanity. So, that’s my big Cool Thing of the week.
John: Wonderful. I’m looking forward to that when I get back to Los Angeles. I will barricade myself and play some of that.
John: Craig, thank you for a fun podcast. Our standard boilerplate here at the end. Anything we talked about on the show today you can find at johnaugust.com/podcast, along with back episodes. If you like our show, it helps us if you give us a rating in iTunes so other people can find us. We are just Scriptnotes on iTunes.
If you have a question for us you can write at email@example.com. Even better, you can go to johnaugust.com/podcast and there is a little thing, a link, that shows how to send a question in and the things we will talk about and the things we won’t talk about.
For example, we’d love if you’d put your location so we know where you’re writing from.
John: I am @johnaugust on Twitter. You are @clmazin?
Craig: That’s right.
John: And thank you, Craig, again for a fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.
John: All right. Bye.
- First-sale doctrine on Wikipedia
- Reselling Digital Goods Is Copyright Infringement, Judge Rules from Wired
- Capitol Records LLC vs ReDigi Inc.
- New York times on the ReDigi ruling
- Carl Lewis “sings” The Star-Spangled Banner
- Jonas Maxwell’s tips for singing the national anthem
- BioShock Infinite on Amazon.com
- How to ask a question
- OUTRO: Leslie Nielsen (as Enrico Palazzo) sings the national anthem