Tone Deafness

Read an interesting article today called “Just Like That, But Funny: How to Kill a Joke (and Your Boss)” by Todd Levin. He is one of the writers for Conan O’Brien. In a list of factors that can derail a comedy piece, under a heading called Tone Deafness, he opens with the following:

If there were a late-night comedy show completely run by comedy writers, without any interference from a host, producer, or network, that show would probably be called The Darkest and Most Impossibly Horrible Things You Can Imagine, Presented as Comedy. Every sketch would end with a gunshot or an infant’s stroller engulfed in flames, and the show would be canceled halfway through its opening titles. That’s because most comedy writers are so inured by humor that only the most shockingly toxic ideas can achieve the proper velocity to penetrate their indifference.

This statement underscores the point made by so many successful writers, which is the need to read outside of your genre. I think that applies to fans of a particular genre as well — readers, film enthusiasts, art enthusiasts, et al. It explains a situation I’ve mentioned before in certain types of crime stories, where writers seem to be trying to one-up the last person in terms of grossness or depravity. I’m not much of a horror fan, but based on what I’ve absorbed from the fringes that seems pretty common there as well, particularly in movies. Certainly in fantasy. Literary fiction? No doubt. And don’t get me started on music.

I know I’m guilty. I read plenty of good crime fiction this year, but not nearly as much knocked my socks off as the stuff I read last year did. There were exceptions, of course, but most stuff I finished after enjoying was forgotten as soon as I was on to the next thing. However, when I jump around from type to type of fiction, then to nonfiction and back again, I find returning to those genres I enjoy the most to be that much more pleasurable. Goes for movies too.

There’s no doubt that dwelling on one genre is going to have a significant influence on what one creates as well. How could it not? As a writer, it almost seems like it would be better to not read at all than it would be to read only one thing. There is probably a strong argument against that idea, but I’d be hard to convince. I’d say the bulk of my inspiration for writing comes from things other than books. Reading absolutely improves one’s craft of writing, but I don’t know that it’s necessary for the actual creative juices.

This is something that doesn’t come easy to me. I get a little obsessive. If I read something and love it, I tend to want to devour all I can of it and then anything like it. That goes for writers (and everything they wrote), bands (their entire back catalog), filmmakers and actors (every movie they’ve made), etc. It can be expensive, and it’s also a great way to burn out on something. Really, the only thing I’m not like this with is food. I could probably live on a rotating menu of a half-dozen options or so for the rest of my life and be perfectly content. Which is probably good, because I have a hard enough time dealing with my obsessions over those few choices and not blowing up morbidly. If I ever became an actual “foodie” I’d probably quadruple in size. And that wouldn’t be pretty.

So hopefully I’ll remember to challenge myself a little more over the next few months with the various types of art I choose to experience. At least until the next “holy-shit-this-is-the-be-all-end-all-of-everything!” thing comes along.


5 thoughts on “Tone Deafness

  1. Kent

    I’m a lot like you in that when I find a writer, filmmaker, band… I have to have it all and just gorge on it. Sometimes it works out to my advantage when someone is new on the scene, and I have to wait for the next thing instead of being able to go whole hog on it.

    Still, I do try to seek out and enjoy other things. And it usually pays off.

    My food palette is not as varied as it should be, but to paraphrase what you said, no one really needs me getting even bigger.

  2. Chad

    I have the same obsessive tendencies. You don’t know how many times we’ve been watching a movie and the wife says, “Why are we watching—oh, I see, it’s got so-and-so in it. What’s your deal with so-and-so?


Leave a Reply