It’s all in the timing, they say. I was watching deep ocean swells come flying to the beach to crash—yeah, all in the timing. Some would arrive with a deeply satisfying whoomp and an ornate quiff of white lace; others would, well, just arrive and gurgle for a bit.
I watched their timing. There was no predictable formula, but for each one it was clearly critical how their height, speed, and arrival time confabulated with the unseen architecture of the ocean floor to produce the visible effect. A moment sooner, a moment later, and everything would be different.
That’s how comedy works. You play a comic beat to build the laughter slowly, but you don’t give the audience the release cue until the pressure is nearly unbearable. Then you get a whopper of a belly-laugh. If you release a moment too soon or too late, you don’t get that whopper.
Or if you keep releasing too frequently, the pressure doesn’t build, and you get a series of titters or giggles. That’s friendly, but not deeply satisfying. Let’s not get into how you give the audience the “NOW” signal, that’s another riff, but we have our ways.
I look at this and realize that I’m describing how attuned lovers play each other like instruments. I’m not sure if comics make the best lovers, because so much of their work is solo, but hey, that works too.
We just went to a real movie theatre to see Moonlight and loved it. The final scene has been building for the whole film, and every fiber of my being was waiting for that final release. It held and it held and it held, and about the time I was about to go on strike, there it went. Damn, that felt good. Not all directors have the courage to push it to the limit, but when it works, it really works.
As progressive agitators, let us remember that.
In keeping with my fiction-writing obsession, I’ve enrolled in a five-week writing class in San Francisco, Saturdays 3-5:30pm, first session yesterday. It’s promising.
First assignment was to say three things about ourselves: two true, one false. For me it was: I’m an actor and playwright. (True.) I once broke a frozen cat in half. (True, though it might have been only the tail—third grade, long time ago, hard to remember.) I was born in Yakima, by accident. (False: I was born in Denver; the accident part was true, referring to the fact that my mother was planning to follow my father to Yakima.)
We were then asked to take any one of those statements—our own or others—as inspiration to write for three minutes. I spun out the start of a comic riff based on someone’s brief career refurbishing classic video games. I don’t expect it’ll be our next novel, but it had a few good lines and an interesting pushy brother-in-law.
A quick three minutes of writing doesn’t make a writer, but I gleaned several things from it. First, a glimpse of how writers who’ve written hundreds, maybe thousands of stories manage to do it: they start with the first thing that pops into the head and then follow where that leads. Discomfort indeed, like hopping on the first bus that comes and letting it take you where it will, perhaps to an entirely different life—to a rock concert, to a terrorist training camp, or to Kansas. And secondly, a reminder of what I already knew, that “free writing,” like theatrical improvisation or panning for gold, can produce a pile of irrelevant dreck but with luck a few nuggets you couldn’t find any other way.
Coming home, the bus was a half-hour late. I might have hopped another bus, but I wanted to get home.
Yes, timing is everything.