This is my storyline.

 

While listening to a recent episode of The West Wing Weekly, a story that Josh Malina told about a conference he had early during the filming of the show’s fifth season struck a chord with me.

Showrunner John Wells told Josh “Here’s the plan I have to keep you on the show,” going into detail on his reasoning for having Josh’s character, Will Bailey, change jobs and accept an offer to work in the office of the new Vice President.

Josh said he wasn’t used to this kind of explanation from a writer or producer, and that while he appreciated the additional conversation about the reasoning for some dramatic changes for his role in the show, his overall reaction floored me.

“At the time I didn’t dwell on it much, because I don’t think that enhances one’s acting, to obsess about the storyline. Your job is: Here’s the script – act it. I never really gave it two seconds of thought. I never really cared deeply about Will’s decision. That’s not the kind of actor I am… it’s not going to improve my performance to go through the mental gymnastics of whether or not I like the storyline. This is my storyline. This is what I have to say. Go say it.”

– Josh Malina

I want to frame that quote on my wall.

There are a lot of times in life where the unexpected changes our plans, or we get straight-up served a shit sandwich.

But no amount of thinking about the situation is going to essentially change it.

While we don’t all have the convenience of a script to feed us our lines, there’s still the option to train ourselves to not get caught up in the emotional side of the response and focus on the task at hand.

We can shut down the response to procrastinate, to fume, to come up with any number of alternate scenarios that would be better. Or we can live with what’s presented to us and move forward.

This is what’s happening. It’s your story. Do what you have to do.


If you want to listen to the whole story (or the entire episode), you can check it out here.

My Post-4.jpg
Suitable for framing?

 

Plants and Payoffs in Comedy Writing: Parks and Recreation

Comedy Has Structure

Long form comedy isn’t just a series of jokes. Whether it’s a sitcom, a film, or a stand-up set, there’s a structure to humor that relates to dramatic structure.

Over time, strong comedy builds. New jokes call back to previous jokes. By the end, you haven’t just watched a string of unrelated funny moments, but you’ve seen how one joke leads into a joke later on.

Great comedy builds. It lifts the audience up.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’d like pick apart the inner workings of an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Parks and Recreation Episode 4×11 – “The Comeback Kid”

There are a few key elements of the larger story of this season that help set up this episode:

  • Leslie and Ben are in a relationship, but Chris had a policy forbidding romantic relationships between co-workers.
  • The discovery of this relationship created the scandal that damaged Leslie’s candidacy for city council and lead to Ben resigning his position in the government.

A quick synopsis of the episode:

With Leslie still reeling from her poll numbers plummeting and her campaign staff abandoning her, she recruits her co-workers as a replacement staff to stage a re-launch for her city council campaign at the Pawnee Sports Building. Seeing that Ben has spiraled into a depression brought on by resigning his job, Chris attempts to lift his spirits.

There are three main plot lines to this episode:

  1. Leslie and Ann attempt to convince former Pawnee High School basketball star “Pistol” Pete to appear at the event and endorse Leslie.
  2. Ron leads a group of the rest of the new campaign staff in preparing for the event.
  3. Chris attempts to break Ben out of his funk, which needs to start with getting Ben to recognize he’s depressed.

Plants and Payoffs

A plant is when a writer offers a piece of information to the audience early on in a story ahead of when they absolutely must use it. It’s making sure the audience is thinking about some aspect of the story, be it the stakes, a task some character needs to perform, or even a specific object important to the story.

A payoff is when the writer cashes in on the audience’s memory of that earlier plant, using that information to resolve a story, tell a joke, or throw a twist at the audience.

There are two specific payoffs in this story that weave together the three story lines, and we need to talk about them first to get a better idea of what to look for in their construction.

Payoff One – The Climax

Leslie prepares to walk out into the Pawnee Sports Building believing that she doesn’t have Pistol Pete, her stage is incomplete, the banner she ordered has an error, and to make matters worse, the basketball court she thought she’d be walking out on has been resurfaced as ice for an upcoming hockey game.

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Leslie’s campaign staff vows to go out and help her try and save face, only to see that Tom couldn’t order a red carpet that leads all the way to the stage.

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As they shuffle together across the ice, a short clip of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” loops (a clip that would’ve been a perfect duration for a brisk walk across a basketball court).

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Champion, April and Andy’s new dog, starts peeing on Ron.

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In the scramble to get up on the stage, Leslie’s notecards got out of order, and she starts delivering an incoherent speech.

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At the last moment, when Leslie admits to the crowd that this campaign event was a disaster, Pistol Pete shows up in his old jersey to endorse Leslie. When he attempts to make a slam dunk at the end of his speech, he slips on the ice and injures himself.

Screen Cap 8.png

Even out of context, these moments are funny, but there’s more at work. Each of these jokes has an origin point earlier in the episode, planting these ideas to play with the audience’s expectations.

Because you were taught what to expect by the earlier parts of this episode, you’re rewarded for your attention and your patience with even bigger laughs.

Payoff Two – The New Story Direction

After Chris talks Ben out of his funk and gets him thinking about how to make better use of his time, Leslie and the rest of the campaign team show up, fresh from the disaster at the Pawnee Sports Building.

Leslie approaches Ben and asks him to step in and be her new campaign manager. After seeing what happened without someone with political experience at the helm, she wants Ben there, no matter if his connection to her scandal and polling problems could damage her chances.

This launches a new phase of the story where Ben and Leslie will directly work together on her campaign, but the emotional payoff of this moment requires us to see how much Ben and Leslie need each other (due to seeing the disasters they have to deal with when they intentionally keep themselves apart).

Turn by Turn Directions to Our Destination

So let’s take a look at the big picture. In the following graphics, I’ve charted out, scene-by-scene, what happens, and what information is used to build the story toward the climactic moments.

Some things to pay attention to:

  • Notice how the writers keep most of these plot threads separate from scene to scene until we get to the final act. These individual threads and stories have a distant connection at first, but they start to interact the deeper we get into the story.
  • Look at the way the narrative moves between the different storylines. We spend a little time with Ben & Chris, then back to a part of the main storylines dealing with the “Comeback Kid” event.
  • The sheer density of this show’s writing. There are moments that barely qualify as having a setup, like how Jerry’s job to pass out flyers to get an audience is a note on a whiteboard, yet it comes back at a crucial moment to raise the stakes for Leslie.

The Comeback Kid - Chart 1.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 2.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 3.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 4.png

Sleight of Hand

But the writers can’t just have the characters look at the audience and say “Hey, here’s a new dog for Andy and April! Pay attention to this dog’s wacky hi-jinks and get ready for it to do something really funny near the end of the episode!”

When planting an element to set up a later joke, it needs to be introduced to the audience so that they’re only mostly paying attention to it.

A successful plant lets the audience know something is there without giving away that the writer wants their attention drawn to it.

Think about a magician. They’ll tell you where they want you to look, and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do, but they’re always conscious about drawing your attention away from the actual work of the trick.

They want you to know you’re being fooled, but they don’t want you to know how.

It’s the same with comedic storytelling. The writer wants the audience to laugh as much as possible, but they know that laughter will be stifled if the audience is too aware of the construction of the jokes and the dramatic storytelling underneath.

Nothing kills a joke like telling somebody that it’s going to be so funny.

So let’s break down one scene as an example.

Anatomy of a scene

(Please note, this isn’t the actual script for the episode. It’s a transcription I made to help explain this point.)

I’ve added some notes to the scene highlighting where important plot threads are referenced or introduced, and adding specific notes on how these jokes introduce exposition and plant information in a way that avoids falling flat.

Comeback Kid - Example Scene 1.png
Comeback Kid - Example Scene 2.png

By disguising the planted elements with conflict and humor, the writers keep the audience’s attention on the present moment and don’t give too much away about what they have planned for Champion and Ben.

Tying it all together, these elements of conflict and humor are based in what the audience already knows about the characters. Ben is rigid in his behavior and frequently doesn’t understand other people’s enthusiasm. April & Andy are impulsive, and they regularly go all-in with their enthusiasm if it’s something they both care about.

We know these characters because we’ve grown to care about them. Without that emotional connection, the jokes can’t help to obscure the intent of the planted material, and the payoffs won’t land with full force.

We need to care if we’re going to laugh.

We need to care about Ben’s mental health, and his rebound from losing his job and sense of identity. We need to care about Leslie’s desire to win the election and become part of Pawnee’s City Council. We need to care about the desire of her friends and co-workers to help her.

We even need to care, at least a little bit, about Pistol Pete. A character we just met needs to be human enough that his decision to embrace his past and endorse Leslie with a dunk means something.

A man choosing to do something foolish, like try and dunk a basketball on a hockey rink, is funny. A man choosing to do something foolish because we know, in his heart, this is about rising up and coming to terms with a deep, internal pain… That’s comedy gold.

Mounting My Own Comeback

I used to write a lot more about film and television. I used to make a lot more time to watch film and television.

This blog was something I approached from a place of intense study and small a authority. Coming fresh out of grad school, I had a lot of information in my brain and not always a lot of clear outlets for it.

I don’t know what it is now. You’re just as likely to see me writing about my daughter and our cat as you are to see me dissect a television episode.

I’m not sure what it’s going to become, either.

I know this is my place on the internet to do what I wish. I know that I’ve got lots of ideas. I know that there are other things I’m writing and working on that aren’t even related to it.

Life is a lot messier than fiction. Not everything you plant pays off later.

But I care deeply about storytelling. And I care deeply about putting these ideas out there. I want to make sure I don’t leave that behind as I head toward whatever happens to come next.

I’ll leave the last words to Leslie Knope:

“Well, um, I can assure you people in the bleachers that, if you follow my campaign, it will be interesting.”

 

Heavy Clicky Touchy Feely

I ponied up the money for a mechanical keyboard.

I get it. People buy in, hook, line, and sinker to this craze the way marketing used to tell kids shoes would make you run faster and jump higher.

But it’s genuinely pleasant.

The Matias Laptop Pro for Mac

Does having a nice keyboard make me a better writer? Not in and of itself.

But does having a nice keyboard make me feel like my time spent writing is more enjoyable, encouraging me to favor this activity over other ways to spend my time? You bet!

The only thing that helps a person work on their craft is time and deliberate practice. You could argue any tool that helps create those conditions has some degree of positive impact.

But there’s also the nostalgia.

It reminds me of that feeling of the first time I learned how to type, working on a Commodore 64 in my parents’ living room. The chunkiness of the keys. The orange glow of the text when I fired up the word processor to do a research paper on Mars. The satisfying click as I made things happen on screen while following along with one of the library books that said they would teach me how to program in BASIC (Ron Howard Voice: “They did not.”)

It’s not that I wish that the computer I was using had the same limited capabilities as that old machine. What I wanted from purchasing a mechanical keyboard was comfort and joy.

There’s a strong sensory connection between the tactile experience of the keyboard and the sensation of enthusiastically discovering something new. An attempt to trigger those beginner’s mind feelings, even after years and years of using a computer.

Because there’s still so much to learn.

But even without any guarantee of that, I can say for certain that sitting down to type feels more joyful. It’s no longer just the pleasure of actually taking time to write something down and work out my ideas. There’s a rhythm to the keys that keeps me motivated just as much as any well-crafted writing playlist.

Hamilton GIF 'Why do you write like you're running out of time?'
Because he got a clicky mechanical keyboard, of course.

It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not just content-creation algorithms, trying to spit out data for dopamine rewards. There should be joy in the process. An awareness and appreciation for not just our ideas, but the tools we use to make them tangible.

Little touches can make a world of difference, like the right coffee mug.

My favorite breakfast place in the entire United States is the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, MA. If you’re familiar with the love Leslie Knope has for J.J.’s Diner, you have a general idea of how much I rave about this place.

Leslie Knope: 'Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?'

On my family’s most recent trip out to the east coast, I made sure that I took home a mug from Deluxe Town, because it is the perfect mug.

Mug.jpg

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This isn’t just nostalgia for the countless brunches over sour cream waffles or their perfectly tender and juicy in-house corned beef hash.

There’s a satisfying weight to the mug. It doesn’t make coffee taste better, but it makes the act of lifting the mug up to my lips feel substantial. You pay attention to the feeling in your hand and your arm as you raise it up.

You can’t ignore this mug. It’s not a paper cup. It’s not a cheap ceramic nothing. You are aware that you are drinking a good cup of coffee (so long as you put some good coffee in it).

Damn Good

If I appreciate my tools, the objects I surround myself with, they help me to remain present in time and space with them.

It’s not about the price tag. This isn’t a call for unchecked consumption, or for an endless deep dive into the world of The Best X You Can Buy listicles.

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It’s a call to look for those objects and moments you interact with that matter. To consider how best to appreciate the tools of your trade.

What do you touch every day? Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter? Should it matter more?

When you are asked to give more and more of your mental energy and presence to things happening away from where you are, what things help anchor you? What objects can you use to keep yourself from drifting too far away, or getting lost down rabbit holes?

I am drinking this coffee. I am typing these words. I am here.

Let’s Talk About Cats

Picture a cat.

Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.

What do you imagine that cat doing?

Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.

Got it?

So, what did you imagine?

Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?

Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.


Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.

“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”

I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”

Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”

I didn’t see that one coming.

What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.


You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.

This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.

Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.

And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.

You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.


I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  1. There’s Luna.

  2. I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.

  3. I am small, and so is Luna.

  4. I am growing.

  5. Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.

  6. I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.

  7. If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!

  8. When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!

Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.

It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.

It's just a picture of He-Man on Battle Cat.
I am absolutely certain Sprout has never watched He-Man in any form, so I’m ruling out this as an influence.

However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.


So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?

What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.

It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.

It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.

While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.

The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.

Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.

And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.

Yoda: 'You must unlearn what you have learned.'

In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.


There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.

Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.

Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.

Then chase that notion.

It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.

To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.

What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.

It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.


One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.

I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.

Learn to Make Chili

Some days, things are out of your hands. You don’t know what to expect, but you’re wrapped up in anticipation.

So make chili. Give yourself something else to anticipate.

If you want to, look up a recipe. Or you can think about the things you like to put in chili and play around. Chili is usually pretty forgiving when it comes to proportions.

Get a slow cooker or an Instant Pot. Get comfortable waking up early to put all your ingredients into the pot. Or make room in the fridge and dump the meat and fresh vegetables in the night before. Anything canned can go in quickly, without much effort after you wake up.

If you have to leave the house, you know you’ll come home to the wonderful, spicy aroma filling every corner of your home.

If you’re spending the day at home, the smells will remind you to focus on the chili. Get nervous? Open the lid and give it a stir. Work out the tension with a big wooden spoon.

When you’re full of anxious anticipation, make chili. No matter what happens, you’ll be full of chili by the end of the night.

10 milligrams of Endocet

I went to West Virginia to see my grandfather, because he told my mom that he wanted to see all of his children at the same time. I read between the lines, and drove down with her.

He’s been in and out of the hospital for transfusions in the past few months. He’s started canceling future appointments. And for the first time in his 88 years, he’s shuffling.

He freely tells people that he does not fear death. He sees it as something natural, and that he’s proud of the life he’s lived and what he’s accomplished.

Even so, it’s like seeing a great tree uprooted by a storm. Before you could marvel at how high it reached, or see the vast shadow it cast. Now you see gnarled roots sticking out above ground, unable to cling to the soil.

On the bad days, the days when he needs the medication he gets from the local pain clinic, he takes a 10 milligram tablet of Endocet. It’s a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone. An opioid.

It makes him more talkative than usual. Cuts out the inhibitions.

There’s a thin barrier between the calm exterior and the years of frustrations and disappointments. It’s a wall so thin that a single tablet pokes a hole big enough to let all of those things burst out in a stream.

I heard about some of the more dramatic grievances he filed on behalf of his union when he was working, in minute detail. I heard about family members and friends who he thought had made bad choices, gone down the wrong path, and met an early end. And I heard a boisterous running critique of the current federal government, catalyzed by his daily MSNBC binge.

Side Note: if I was going to guess my grandfather’s D&D alignment, it would definitely be Lawful Good).

It’s not really possible to divert these monologues right after he’s taken his prescription, because of both the potency of the drug and his hearing loss.

So I sat. I witnessed this moment. I knew that I would rather have any additional time with him than have passed up on this trip, even if this was part of the bargain.


But listening to that open faucet of grievances got me thinking.

I know it’s not entirely possible to control for something like this, but I don’t want that to be how I make my way toward the end; full of regrets and disappointments bubbling up under the surface.

The things that we do in the here and now resonate for the rest of our lives. One best case scenario is that we live a long, healthy life, but even that comes to an end eventually. Even the best case scenario for a person’s life ends in decline and death.

And a long life comes with a long catalogue of memories. A history of choices and reactions.

I’m not foolish enough to make this into a call to throw off responsibilities or live selfishly; to isolate yourself and do exactly what you want to do all the time. Even people who live simply and only for themselves can still have regrets.

And one thing that resonated so clearly from listening to my grandfather was that so many of the things fueling his anger had to do with the people in his life who mattered the most to him. People free to make their own choices. Perceived mistakes that weren’t his own.

Now would be a good time to start making things right with yourself and the people around you.

You can’t prevent anyone from doing something hurtful to themselves or to you, but you can take the time to remind your people, the ones who are Your Phone Call, Your Late Night Text, Your Long-Winded Email of Despair and Desperation, that they matter to you. What they do matters to you.

Now’s the time to make lists.

Not about the things you wish you could do, but the things you can do today to start making those larger things happen. The things you can do right here, right now, so when it’s over you can tell yourself “I gave it my best,” or “I made use of my time.”

Now is a good time to care deeply and purposefully, because what you choose to care about now may very well be what comes out of your mouth twenty, forty, or sixty years from now.

What you fill yourself with now is what will come bursting out at the moment you can no longer control it.

Now’s the time to make sure that the things you store inside yourself are things you’re not going to mind saying later.


Austin Kleon gave a talk where he tells a story about Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard.

In the months before World War II, Virginia called to Leonard while he was in the garden to tell him that the radio was broadcasting another of Hitler’s speeches. Leonard, fed up with listening to Hitler called back:

“I shan’t come. I’m planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.”

There are many reasons I love that story, and have been re-telling it as often as possible when the situation calls for it. In this moment, it means something else to me.

I want to plant my iris. I want to do the good, lasting works that I will be able to look out on if I’m fortunate enough to reach 80 or 90 years. I want to cultivate a life that I can speak proudly of, even if I feel my tongue loosening under the pull of a prescribed opioid.

But if I want that, I know it means a change in attitude. A change in action. A commitment to efforts made to last instead of snap reactions. Playing the long game.

Or put another way:

Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.

Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.

Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior becomes your habits.

Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.

Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi

And this is hard. It’s hard to do when there’s a pull in the everyday toward outrage, schadenfreude, and simple distraction. Every day is a test of your convictions not only in how you do The Work that is truly important to you, but to how you relate to the people most important to you.

But it makes sense that carving a path toward the future based on acting kindly toward your future self, and the future selves of the people in your life, could be worth the effort.

Feel Today Today

Lately, Sprout demands to wear a dress every morning. The twirlier the better, because “You can’t twirl without a dress!”

The only problem is, she has a finite number of dresses, and they’re not always the best outfit for, say, playing in the sandbox at school.

Sometimes we convince her that there’s a logical reason to wear something other than a dress if the situation requires it. Other times we make lots of first-thing-in-the-morning compromises.

And then there was this morning, where she got upset about the dress we said she could wear tomorrow.

“But I don’t want to wear the carousel dress! It’s not twirly!”

Okay, so on a scale of one to Vera-Ellen, I concede that this dress isn’t her most twirly.

White Christmas - When We're Dancing.gif
This is pretty near the upper limits for twirliness.

But that’s not the point.

I asked Sprout to come over and talk, and I told her:

I know you’re upset. I hear you. But we’re only going to feel today today.

It was one of those moments where I take a step back and realize that I’m saying this as much for myself as I am for her.

There are times when we let ourselves fill up with anticipatory pain. The bad feelings of things yet-to-come.

But each day has more than enough feelings to feel on its own. You’ve got plenty of things to feel today. Maybe even some good feelings you haven’t anticipated.

Make room for them.