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Dying Is Easy. Comedy Is Hard.

by Jon Danziger

I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? Brad Schreiber, who teaches humor writing at UCLA, has just published a book on how to be the class clown for fun and profit. A review by our own court jester, Jon Danziger.

What Are You Laughing At?
How To Write Funny Screenplays, Stories & More

By Brad Schreiber
278 pp.; Michael Weise Productions

Explaining a joke is the surest way to kill it. And so writing about comedy has much in common with forensic medicine: you may come to understand how the thing works, but whatever it is that you've dissected is dead. It's a problem inherent in the challenge that Brad Schreiber has set himself in this book?he writes in a breezy, engaging style, and is good company for these 278 pages. And while this is a good-natured and an easy read, it doesn't provide you with a whole lot of insight, unfortunately.

Schreiber surveys comic writing through the ages, and at times his prose reads sort of like a book report: Steve Martin is funny. Woody Allen is funny. Erma Bombeck is funny. The Onion is funny. Robert Benchley is funny. Robin Williams, Lenny Bruce, This is Spinal Tap, Lily Tomlin: funny, funny, funny, funny. (No doubt we've all got our own predilections and preferences?hold the Bombeck for me, thanks, and add another helping of Tap.) What he doesn't do, unfortunately, is answer that question for the ages from Tommy De Vito: Funny how?

Schreiber teaches classes on comedy writing at UCLA, and really, his book is at its best when he's relating incidents from the classroom, or with the frequent writing exercises he suggests to his readers. (There are several of them in each chapter.) What would have been terrific, though, would be to read about him (or a student) working a piece of material, finding the comic possibilities in it, seeing how best to mine the territory for laughs. He refers on more than one occasion to one of his former students, an EMT worker who thought that charred bodies in a burning building were hilarious; the teacher and other students were disgusted, sickened by the bit of writing that this guy brought to class. Now, that's not my idea of a yukfest, but I can certainly see how, if part of your job description was in fact pulling charred bodies from burning buildings, you might work up a mordant and dark sense of humor about death and dismemberment. Schreiber says that by the end of the term he got this guy to write stuff that made everybody in the room laugh?just what did he do? How did he get his student from Point A to Point B? I bet it's a great and worthy journey, but unfortunately Schreiber doesn't guide us through it.

Another problem is that Schreiber is inordinately fond of quoting his own writing, especially from his column for L.A.'s Entertainment Today?and you won't find yourself rolling on the floor laughing at his stuff. He reprints one column in its entirety, a mock memo from Martians witnessing the Florida fiasco of the 2000 Presidential election?it's all right, I suppose, but it's not hilarious, and it's already certainly dated. He was also clearly cutting class the day that he was supposed to learn about avoiding split infinitives, because he's brutal with these (e.g., "To quickly yet colorfully describe").

Having dumped on him a little bit, let me say that the best parts of the book are when Schreiber isn't trying so hard to be funny, when he's busy being positive about writing, about developing the intestinal fortitude a writer needs in the face of rejection, the need to make rent, the inexplicable success of others with less talent, the feeling when you walk out of a financially successful but artistically disappointing movie thinking, "Hell, I could do better than that." He offers some advice that I don't know that you need to follow (for instance, he's adamant that every writer must have a website?I don't know if John Updike and Robert Towne, say, have gotten the memo on this one), but anybody who has done any writing knows that it's a lonely business, and hearing about others traveling the same path offers at least a small amount of comfort. There's nothing as disheartening as the tyranny of the blank screen, and if you can't convince your writer buddies to go out for coffee or to the movies, you can provide the illusion that you're getting some work accomplished by reading this book.

I do wish he were better on character, too, though?comedies are funny for their audiences (or they should be), but not for the people in them. Characters in comedies may be even worse off than those in other genres?there's nothing funny to Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, for instance, about having to put on dresses, because if they don't, the Mob is sure to pump them full of lead; and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day is pretty much in agony for the entire run of the story. How to find the humor in the misfortunes of others while making it palatable, even enjoyable, for spectators, is the heavy lifting of being a comedy writer. Schreiber will wish you luck and give you a firm pat on the back, but once you get past FADE IN, you're on your own, pal.