Friday, December 21, 2007

Comedy Structure

Larry David

Early this year, I came across this article in the New Yorker about one of my comedy inspirations - Larry David. See Angry Middle-Aged Man.

A part of the article that grabbed my attention is how he weaves his plots together for his great show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Referring to his tattered notebook:

He leafed through the notebook. “Most of the ideas stink,” he said. “But you’d be surprised. See, a lot of these I’ll use, not as a big story but like a little piece of filler. And then all of a sudden it somehow leads into something.”

When the time comes to begin writing the new season, David scans his notebook for possibilities. “He’ll go through the notebook and find three or four stories and extrapolate them to worst-case,” ... “He starts to weave them together. Sometimes you can brainstorm ideas with him—you can even pitch B stories to him. He’s used stories from Larry Charles and me. Cheryl got a story in there. And then he just sits down and sweats it out.”

Larry David is the master of the setup. He places his characters in innocent situations that usually escalate to an unexpected catastrophe. The humor just pours out of those situations because of what the characters have to suffer.

It's the comedic structure that keeps his stories fresh and interesting.

Most stories have an 'inciting incident' that sets the protaganist (main character) on their journey, however Larry David gives his characters multiple inciting incidents so that they get boxed in and can't get out.

The hero in Curb Your Enthusiasm usually doesn't win the prize at the end (but he does in that great restaurant ending episode to season 4), but instead of the hero's loss being upsetting or depressing, it's usually hilarious.

I know his humor doesn't appeal to everyone, but I enjoy how he tackles human suffering seriously, which is fairly typical of American Jewish humor. Larry David clearly stands in that tradition.

He reminds me of that old joke attributed to the ancient Israelites, God's chosen people, "Next time Dear God, please choose someone else."

Semicolon Abuse

Dr. Who spots a misused semicolon

In a lot of technical material, it's very common for items to be introduced and listed in point form, for example:
  • Point 1
  • Point 2
Did you notice I introduced those two points with a colon?

I've lost count the number of times I've seen this instead;
  • How can I hear you
  • When you offended me with that semicolon?
There. I feel better now.

So please remember, hold down that shift key when pressing the button that has the colon/semicolon.

I found this site of a lovely man who is doing a good thing for the apostrophe, The Apostrophe Preservation Society.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Hot Writing

Someone hand this man a razor!

I came across this quote today:

"Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience."
~ Henry David Thoreau
It's true - writing is fast and easy when the thoughts are hot.
Too often for me I get ideas in the most inopportune moments.
The trick is setting aside the time for the ideas to heat-up while I'm AT THE KEYBOARD.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Capturing Streaming Video

Not Internet Explorer

If you use the Firefox Web browser, there is a useful extension called Video Downloader: which will let you download streaming video from YouTube and a select list of other sites.

The video clips will download in .flv format, but there are freeware converters out there that will change it to .avi or .mpg, such as

Splicing other clips into your own video projects could lead to some interesting results!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

3 Awful Things About Germany

I took off on a trip through parts of Europe and North America, so I haven't made an entry in my blog recently, but I kept some notes which I hope to use to reminisce about my trip.

The first point I want to make about my trip was how overwhelmed I was by a few things I just couldn't comprehend about Germany:

1. Lufthansa. This is a well known airline, but you would think they designed their economy seats for Hobbits. I'm not the tallest guy in the world (six feet), but my knees were pressed for 13 hours into the seat in front of me. After 8 hours, the pain turned to numbness and the trip became bearable after that.

Here the Hobbits line up for their specially designed airplanes

2. Smoking. It seems that when a child is born in Germany, they are given a free packet of cigarettes. It appeared to me that MOST people in Germany smoke, especially if there's food and drink around. I couldn't understand how a nation known for being aware of health and environmental issues could have such an addiction to cigarettes.

My first sight of Frankfurt from Hobbit airlines. I thought they were clouds but later discovered it was passive smoke

3. Shelf-toilets. A friend warned me before using his bathroom in Munich that the German 'shelf-toilet' is one of the most disgusting things he's ever seen. I was equally appalled at the proximity it makes to one's feces and the resultant pungent odor it leaves in the bathroom. I asked an Austrian aunt about this style of toilet and she said she preferred it in case her doctor ever requests a sample of her stool. If my doctor ever wants my stool, then I'll do a poo for him at his place, thanks all the same.

Scatalogical nirvana

Bonus awful thing about Germany:

4. Autobahns. One of the words I heard the most while in Germany was their word for traffic jam: Stau. Autobahns are famous for having no speed limit, but that's of little use when there are traffic jams everywhere. What the Germans really need are AUTOBAHNS.

National past-time: Germans stop to watch Hobbit airplanes fly overhead through clouds of cigarette smoke
Apart from these awful things, I still had a great time in Europe. Some of those good things will follow.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

So you wanna be in the movies? Make your own!

Don't talk about it, just shoot it

I have the good fortune of being able to make videos for the fine software company I work for, plus I've created some for myself for my own amusement.

I've discovered that "creating content" in audio and video format can be far quicker compared to the laborious task of writing and editing text.

I was going through some old e-mail and found these links that might be helpful for future reference:

The most enjoyable part of making video clips for me is adding music and sound effects (sfx), they can add a lot of humor to dry and dusty material.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why being a bloody idiot doesn't hurt Guy Sebastian

Sorry Guy, you can't please everyone...

Some Catholic friends of mine recently complained that the 2003 Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian, will be singing his theme song 'Receive the Power' at the World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.

Their complaints focused on two things that they thought were quite unCatholic about this famous Assembly of God church member. Apparantly, he made some favorable comments about the homosexual lifestyle in a news report last year (so he's a poor role model for Christians), and the other was that even though he is a Christian, he's not Catholic, so this should be enough to disqualify him from participating in the Catholic-run World Youth Day.

Someone asked in exasperation, why are we "having some bloody 'Christian' idiot singing at a Catholic do."

So being suitably irritated by their pointless whinging, here are the TOP 10 Reasons why we are "having some bloody 'Christian' idiot singing at a Catholic do"...

10. Because Catholics can't sing.
9. Because Catholics don't have a 'personality'.
8. Because Catholic 'personalities' have really bad hair dos.
7. Because Guy Sebastian can supply his own band.
6. Because Guy Sebastian's band members can play without needing sheet music.
5. Because Catholic musicians don't know how to tune their guitars.
4. Because the organizers will get a cut of Guy Sebastian's CD sales.
3. Because nobody will buy CDs from a Catholic singer.
2. Because Traditional Catholic hands are too exhausted to hold a microphone from all that hand-wringing.

And the number one reason why we are "having some bloody 'Christian' idiot singing at a Catholic do"...

1. Because all the Catholic idiots were busy.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mantras for the Improviser – Part I

How do I get out of this one?

Nick Byrne of ACT Impro Theatre has given his students of the Stage 1 Workshop a list of mantras and jargon terms for improvisers that will I put here for easy reference.

It's best to think of these mantras as though you're standing on stage and you have to respond to whatever is going on around you - and you have no idea what's coming next.

It's one thing to think you understand these mantras when you read them, but it's quite another to remember to practice them while in the middle of performing. The only way to really appreciate these mantras is to practice them over and over again with other improvisers.

I'm currently doing the Stage 2 workshop and no matter how complex the games and scenes are getting, I seem to be OK if I stay focused on the moment, with these rules blaring in the back of my mind.

Ask me, I’ll say “Yes”! I accept what you’re saying. I love what you’re doing. I yield to your wishes. Ask me, I’ll say “Yes”!

What is it you need? I’m ready and listening and I’m coming to save you. What is it you need? I look good when you look good. What is it you need?

I might say it. I do do it! I act first and ask questions later. I do do it!

I have something to offer. All offers are good. My first thought is my best offer. Here it is, now!

It's hard to beat that advice. This open and fast attitude is helpful too for comedy writing. You have to kill that left-brain critical editor and give your ideas a chance to live...

Monday, May 14, 2007

The right material for the right moment

Are your readers lost?

One of things I do at the fine-software-company-I-work-for is create documentation for other staff so that they know what it is they're trying to sell or support.

A couple of other writers on my team also create training materials: training manuals and online video (we use Techsmith's Camtasia, a great little product for creating videos of screen shots.)

It has become apparant to me that over time, we've placed this material in different places (database, ftp directories, intranet directories) to serve immediate demands, but now you have to know where to go to find this material.

One idea I picked up from John Catlin of TACTICS Consulting, who presented at AODC 2007, was to arrange an entry point to all of this information from the 'moment of learner need':

  • Doing something for the first time
  • When wanting to learn more
  • When trying to remember
  • When things change
  • When something goes wrong

How this could be applied to the material we create could look something like this:

  • Doing something for the first time
    - Video of existing functions
    - Training manuals
  • When wanting to learn more
    - Help files
    - Podcasts
  • When trying to remember
    - Quick help cards
  • When things change
    - Video of new functions
    - Release notes
    - Big fixes
  • When something goes wrong
    - Wiki knowledge base
    - Specifications & limitations
    - Community forum

Where this information might be located behind the above 'portal page' doesn't really matter, but it would make life easier if all these different files and formats were stored in a central database, like a document management system and the portal page served as an entry point to this information.

But either way, I appreciated seeing what I produce from a 'higher' perspective and not merely discrete projects that have their own files.

People need to access the right kind of information at the right time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Melbourne the magnificent

Melbourne has a definite creative 'buzz'

I enjoyed a great week in Melbourne last week, attending the annual Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) run by Tony Self of Hyperwrite, followed up by the Business Mastery Secrets event run by Marc Dussault of Jay Abraham Asia Pacific.

I stayed at the wonderful Rendevous Hotel in Flinders street and then stayed on for a couple of days at my sister's place in Fitzroy. Melbourne is such an incredible, friendly city. I always have an awesome time when I go there.

One of the reasons why I wanted to attend AODC this year is because I wanted to see how Microsoft have changed the way they present online help in Windows Vista, and how that will affect me as a help author.

Microsoft have gone from one extreme to the other. For years they followed a minimalist model, presenting what they hoped was JUST the minimum information a user required to get the job done.

(Side note: What's the number one thing users want when they go into help? To get out!)

The problem however has been that they often didn't give enough information.

Now in Vista, they have reams and reams of text that people will need to wade through.


Even though the Vista help is well written, I know from personal usability testing that if people don't see something that immediately answers their question, then they will close the Help and ask someone else.

I believe the help model we're using at the fine-software-company I work for in Canberra is the better way. We give people an outline of what they might like to see (context-sensitive), then using DHTML, we display the more detailed information when a user clicks on it. That way, users are not put-off by reams and reams of text when they first open help, but they can quickly see what's relevant to them and BAM! the information they want is there.

At the Business Mastery Secrets event I met lots of people and was impressed by the caliber of the presenters and attendees.

Of the presenters, Ed Dale convinced me to finally pursue my long-held desire to apply my writing skills to a specific online project, so I will be pursuing that and many other web site projects as the year progresses.

Of the attendees, I was pleased to meet Leela Cosgrove, a fellow-writer who has applied the marketing principles of Jay Abraham to her career as a writer with great success. This opened my eyes to the possibility of broadening my horizons as a writer. Thanks for the inspiration Leela!

I'll do follow-up posts about how I've applied the various lessons I learned from those conferences. There's plenty to do...

Monday, April 30, 2007

How improvisation can help with comedy writing

Improvisation = mind mapping in time and space

Last night I performed in my first ever stage performance as an actor, in the "Schlocky Horror Improv Show" run by Impro Theatre ACT. I was nervous, but once I hit the stage I focused on the job at hand and discovered doing improv is a lot easier than worrying about it.

One of the reasons I took up improvisation was to enhance my comedy writing. I wasn't exactly sure how it might help though. I've never heard of strategies one can borrow from improv and apply to writing, but I thought there might be something to it.

I was recently reading a book about mind mapping and I finally realized a connection between improv and comedy writing.

One of the core rules about improv is to "accept all offers." That means no matter what someone says or does, you HAVE TO accept that it's now part of the story and you go with it and use it.

Applying the technique of mind mapping, you start with a main, primary idea (such as a murder weapon - "pink flamingo"), and the actors build a narrative around or towards that main idea. As a story progresses, it's like branches spreading in multiple directions from the main idea: someone might add to your branch of the mind map, or they might create their own branch.

Sometimes when someone comes out with an idea, you've got no idea how it connects to your branch or the main idea, you might think to yourself, "What's that go to do with pink flamingos?", but the rule of improv is to accept ALL offers, which means that there is a connection, and if you don't see it now, your quest is to make that connection. That's part of the creative challenge of improvisation.

In comedy writing, the lesson I've learned from improv (so far) is to start with a basic idea or premise and take multiple points of view, mapping out the possible direction or related ideas that stem from the main idea, and accept that all ideas are legitimate, and even try some seemingly random ideas, but connect it somehow, someway back to the main idea.

Unlike improv, when I'm writing by myself, I have to do all that brain-storming by myself, but with a tool like mind mapping, I can replicate the seeming randomness of improvisation and still have it connect together and make sense.

I can transfer the idea of a group-acted mind-map to the page and make my own comedy mind-map.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Stand up comedy in Canberra

The silence can be deafening

I went to see my first stand-up comedy in years last night at the Front Gallery in Lyneham. It's a very small venue, primarily catering to university students. Most people sat on the floor.

All of the acts were fairly new, but they were surprisingly polished given their lack of experience.

I was invited to attend by someone I met through Impro Theatre ACT who's trying to break into the whole comedy-thing.

Canberra presents some challenges if you want to do stand-up comedy. There aren't many venues and you'd probably need to take the 3-hour drive to Sydney most weekends if you really wanted to break into the scene.

That's not for me. I'm happy to continue with Improv Theatre. There's safety in numbers. It's awfully lonely-looking standing there all by yourself at that microphone.

Years ago I wrote stand-up material for Gary Bradbury, which he never paid me for. That kind of dulled my interest in trying to write professionally for comedians (show me the money!), but hanging around the impro people lately has rekindled my interest in comedy writing.

Microsoft: Hate the CHM Love the XML

It's not every day that there's a change for technical writers who make Help files for software applications running on Microsoft Windows.

The compressed HTML format (.chm) is now ten years old and with the release of the Vista operating system, Microsoft have abandoned the .chm format in favor of a new XML-based Help system.

However for the rest of us who don't work for Microsoft, they are still recommending that we continue to make Help files using .chm.


To help me better understand the changes Microsoft have made, I will be attending presentations by Joe Welinske and Matthew Ellison at the 10th Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference to be held in Melbourne in May 2007.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Even Mailer and Morrell get it wrong

I was reading David Morrell's book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft. On page 183 he refers to the easy grammatical errors that even experienced writers can make:
A momentary carelessness took possession of me, as it occasionally does every writer. Norman Mailer once began Harlot's Ghost, a novel about the CIA, with a massive grammatical mistake in the first sentence.

On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.

No one spotted the error until the book was in stores. That first sentence was fixed in the second edition. Pray for an attentive copyeditor. If you don't see the error, look at rule eleven in Strunk and White's popular English-usage book, The Elements of Style, a copy of which should always be at your desk.
After reading the above statement in Morrell's book, I looked up my own copy of Strunk and White. The eleventh rule states:

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
It goes on to give examples.

In case you're wondering, the second edition of Harlot's Ghost now reads:
On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving my car through fog along the Maine coast road, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mists, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.
It pays to own The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by Strunk and White.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Another blon is borg

I've had blogs before that focused on specific topics, this time I want a generic blog that covers my broad professional and personal interests in writing: technical, ficiton, humorous, travel, screenplay, etc.

Feel free to make comments.