Friday, January 20, 2017

Respect The Fourth Wall

Process has never been my favorite subject. Since my beginnings as a comedian and actor, I've treated The Fourth Wall, that invisible and yet impenetrable barrier between performance and audience, as sacred.

"See, you sit over there. I stay up here. That's how the magic happens."

I remember late nights, at coffee shops, with a bunch of comedians all dissecting and rearranging each other's material after an open-mic at whatever workout rooms we'd crawl through. We'd openly lament the bits that went wrong. We'd accept praise for the bits that went right, with faux humility. Someone just got a television spot. Everyone pats them on the back. The one guy with the preternatural sense to go to the bathroom just before the check arrives does it again. Then it's on to the next room. The next stage.

A young comedian had to sit in on those sessions. In many respects, these gatherings were more important than stage time. It was the chief networking medium. It's how folks got to know you. If you were funny yet unknown, you had less of a shot at precious stage time than if you were a hack who picked up the check more often than not. It wasn't enough to be funny. You had to be trusted. You had to sit there. So I sat there. 

Damn, I hated to sit there.

Milton Berle would rather shoot you in the face than sit at your Comedic Actors' Roundtable.
Richard Pryor would set it on fire.

I think of acting. Years of study, training, and experience marbles my work. Chicago is a theater town. I trained there. Los Angeles is a film and television town. I train here. I'm a regular supporter of Rogue Machine Theatre here in L.A., where my dear friend and master teacher Joshua Bitton is a principal. A few playwrights I admire and with whom I'm on good terms have mounted their works with the company. I may be a fringe member of the tribe, but I'd never go backstage. I don't even like to be in the lobby when the cast comes out after a performance. I stand there long enough to wink and blow kisses and then I disappear into the night.

I love The Fourth Wall so much, I even don't want other comedians and actors to break it for me.

I enjoy a close friendship with Joe Clifford, author of the most excellent Jay Porter Novels. Joe and I share a love of golf. We'll play in any weather, any course, anytime. Now, that's five hours together, just us. Joe is doin' it, doin' it well, and doin' it the way I'd like to do it, so you'd think, since we tight homies, I'd be picking his brain and sounding out my ideas and harvesting whatever insights he'd be willing to share. Here's the extent of the writing and publishing conversation from Tuesday's round.

"Goddamn, it's cold, dawg."
"Two degrees warmer than our last round together."
"Thank Bejeezus."
"You go first, Danny. I hit the ball better when I follow you."
"Yeah. Put that shit on me."

Woosh. Ding.

"Tee it up again."
"That's alright. I'll play it. It ain't gonna get any better until I warm up. I'm so stiff this cold and early."
"You have a shot from there."
"My thing, Joe Clifford? I just got too much muscle."
"That's my problem, too."

Woosh. Ding.

"Nice shot, Joe!"
"Thank you. Thank you. So, how's your book coming?"
"Fair to middlin'. What's with that new thing you have out for query."
"Don't know. Don't wanna know."

Done. Joe and I can walk and ride and sip and eat together for six frickin' hours. That's all we're going to say about the craft. We sound like a couple of guys from the Electrician's Local on their day off.

In my mind and heart, there is always a proscenium arch. Everything I do creatively is mise-en-scène. If I'm preparing anything—the next book in The Tales of Elliot Caprice, my feature set at a comedy club, my piece from Fences for scene study class, what I'm making for dinner—it all happens backstage. The audience is not allowed backstage. I have a curtain over my kitchen doorway.

I have an usher, too.

We're all friends here, and you've all shared with such willingness. I'll honor that with some tidbits.

  • I plot until I pants. When it get tired of the pants, I plot. My plotting is actually lounge pants.
  • I write to music until it gets in the way.
  • I hold utter disregard for daily word count. I don't write for the what. I write for the why.
  • I write constantly. My mind is my literary oven. Nothing comes out until it's done. The page is my serving plate.
  • I leave the work feeling strong, rather than cease working once I'm spent. That way, I have a deep jones to get back to it. It's that jones that gets me done by my deadline.
  • I don't make stuff up just to keep going. I hate placeholders. If I cut corners, I lose interest. I can hold my inspiration long enough to get my research just right. Accurate facts keep me inspired.

Now, please, I must get back into makeup.

- dg


Art Taylor said...

Hey, Danny --
Terrific post here, start to finish. I love the reflections on behind the scenes and after hours at comedy gigs, love your conversations with Joe (a writer I also admire tons), and love those glimpses at your own process, and thanks indeed for sharing. Keep up the great work!

Unknown said...

Thank you, kind sir. As I mentioned to you earlier, blogging here is certainly a writing pleasure.

Unknown said...

Good to get your POV on all this sometimes confusing writing business. I can relate to most of the process you've laid out here, except golf. I'm also not much for talking about the how, or counting words, or working self to death. I do lack the literary oven - too scatterbrained! An inspiring post, so thank you Danny.