“Comedy is not funny.”
So said my perceptive, plain-spoken, quotable friend Domenic Bucci.
I couldn’t agree more.
Understand, I love comedy. Good comedy. I’ve made it my career.
Domenic was referring to comedy that works too hard to make you laugh.
Hard-working comedy can annoy you, in the same way someone saying, “Relax!” can make you tense, and “Cheer up!” can make you grouchy.
Of course, over the years I’ve created a lot of not-very-good comedy. But I’m learning. I’ve kept practicing, always striving to create the funny kind of comedy.
Effortless comedy. Not strained or predictable. Or hard-working.
I will be forever grateful for the years I spent in Hollywood, on writing staffs of TV sitcoms. They were good jobs, and I made a lot of smart funny friends. But the pressure to create so many scripts in a short time led, frequently, to diminished quality.
We envied British series, like Fawlty Towers, of which there are only twelve episodes. Twelve really good episodes. The target for American sitcoms was one hundred episodes, which meant syndication, which meant big bucks for everybody.
Really hard to keep up the quality when you’re shooting for a hundred.
My fellow writers and I did our best, but usually the results were underwhelming. I would rarely watch the episodes we created. They didn’t make me laugh.
Again, I’m grateful for the work. But it was a factory. And not a dream factory, no matter what Hollywood tells you.
Speaking of dreams…
I’ve kept dream journals, off and on, for most of my life. I’ve always dreamed vividly. My most vivid dreams demanded to be written down.
Around the time I was writing for sitcoms, I picked up an old dream journal. I read my dreams—and I laughed. The simple description of the events in my dreams was, in many cases, hilarious. The humor was effortless. There were no set-ups or punchlines. No predictability. Unexpected nonsense. The experience was not unlike the first time I saw Monty Python’s fish-slapping dance. https://youtu.be/T8XeDvKqI4E
Could I bring the effortless humor of dreams into my writing? The idea began to percolate.
There’s nothing new about writers finding inspiration in dreams. Many books and stories have come to authors while they dreamed:
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
Misery, Stephen King.
Stuart Little, E.B. White.
And how about this one:
“One morning, when Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” The Metamorphosis apparently came to Franz Kafka in a hypnopompic state, the twilight land we pass through when we awaken. Later I’ll tell you about a hypnopompic song that came to me.
Years ago, when I was writing sketch comedy in Chicago, I learned that Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by a dream to write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Soon after learning this, I dreamed a parody of the old American Express TV commercial:
We see a doctor in his lab. He says to the camera, “Even though I’m a prominent London physician, most people don’t recognize me, especially after I’ve gone through a chemical transformation. That’s why I carry the American Express card. American Express… “
He drinks a potion, changes into Edward Hyde, holds his credit card up, and says, “Don’t leave home without it.”
Close on the card as the letters appear: Dr. Henry Jekyll.
The sketch was never performed. If it had been performed, and it bombed, I could’ve said, “Don’t blame me. It was a dream.”
During my most obsessive periods of dream journaling, I’d wake and make notes, anxious to capture details before they faded away. I’d do this two, three, sometimes four times per night. In the morning, exhausted, I’d try to read my illegible scrawls. Later I wised up and got a hand-held voice recorder. Then I’d spend an hour the following morning transcribing my groggy mumblings.
I noticed patterns.
For example, I occasionally dream of having pleasant encounters with young women. Don’t think me a dirty old man. These are non-sexual encounters. These young women seem to be manifestations of my personal muse. They come to me when I’m writing a story or a song, and I’m seeking inspiration.
I suspect we all have dreams of being unprepared. Because of my experience as an actor and musician, my unprepared dreams involve acting onstage without a script, or playing a concert without the musical score, or worse, without a piano. I wonder about the anxiety dreams of folks in other professions. Do surgeons dream they’re forced to make an incision without a scalpel? Do plumbers dream they’ve forgotten how to unclog a drain? Please respond, surgeons and plumbers, I need to know.
Young women, lack of scripts or pianos—these dream symbols are my own. One dream symbol, however, is universal. If we dream we’re urinating, it means we should wake up and urinate. Ignore this interpretation at your peril.
Many books on dreaming describe instances of prophesy. I wondered if any of my recorded dreams were prophetic, so I went back over a couple years of journals.
Here’s what I found:
When the director Stuart Gordon was alive, he had the idea to turn our stage musical version of the film Re-Animator into an animated feature. We met with the Chiodo brothers, three stop-motion animators known for Killer Klowns from Outer Space and the Large Marge scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Right there in my dream journal was a dream about sitting around a table at a business meeting with three brothers. I’d made the entry two years earlier.
So, one prophetic dream. One sketch. Not really a bottomless well of inspiration.
But if my dreams have failed to provide me with specific comedy content (aside from that riotous Dr. Jekyll sketch), they have at least made me aware of an unreal quality I aspire to in my writing.
I’m still obsessed with dreams.
Cynthia Carle, my songwriting partner, co-creator of Christmas Smackdown, also dreams vividly. That’s why she got on board when I suggested we create a musical revue built around dreams. We call the show Dr. Dung Beetle’s House of Dreams.
Some of the songs are explicitly about dreams. In “I Am Morpheus,” the titular character of the song, the Greek god of dreams, tries explaining who he is to idiots who keep confusing him with Laurence Fishburne’s character in The Matrix. Many more songs are simply surreal. “The Dung Beetle Song” is a lilting ‘get along little dogie’ Western tune about an insect and a ball of shit.
Dr. Dung Beetle’s House of Dreams was performed once in Los Angeles, for an enthusiastic audience. Cynthia and I continue to do rewrites and hope to bring the show back for an extended run.
As promised, here’s the song that came to me in a hypnopompic state:
TURN THE LITTLE KNOB
PUT IT ON THE RUG
PUT IT ON THE RUG
TURN THE LITTLE KNOB…
(repeat ad nauseum)
Seems to be a good fit for Dr. Dung Beetle.
Sleep well. May all your dreams be funny.