Always Listen to John Cleese

In which I discuss some of his more salient points in my post re: writing advice.

John Cleese is a genius. And “genius,” like the words “avuncular,” “jazzercise,” and “zoftig,” are not words I use lightly, which is why they won’t be appearing in this post (apart from just then, obviously.) That Cleese wrote some of the most inventive, witty, and brilliant stream-of-consciousness comedy of all time, and that he could tether both the highly cerebral with the aggressively silly, often within the same sketch, is in and of itself testament to his brilliance.

That he could then go on to co-author with his wife (and then ex-wife Connie Booth) one of the most brilliantly scripted, character based, wit-driven, situational comedies ever in Fawlty Towers seems almost unfair for the sheer malleability of his comic gifts. As an actor, he has one of the greatest senses of comic timing I’ve ever witnessed (one random, and obscure example – listen to his “Bookshop Sketch” recording on Monty Python‘s Contractual Obligation album. His pause after Graham Chapman asks for “the expurgated version of Olsen’s Book of Standard British Birds” is mathematical in its precision for utmost comic effect).

But Enough About Him

But I come not praise Cleese, but to analyze something he urged me to do in his post to me last week. He gave the sage advice (no less wise because of its popularity as a dictum) to look inside myself and see what interested me. A more eloquent version of “Write what you know.” I wouldn’t dare disagree with Mr. Cleese (in addition to his legendary status, he’s also significantly taller than I am); in fact, he’s totally right. I would simply add that this is, I think, not only inevitable among most writers, but to a certain extent, impossible not to do.

Finally, On To Me

I’ve written only one overtly autobiographical play in my life (and I found it both clunky and traumatizing – too soon, as they say); my other plays range in subject matter considerably. From the early days of Beatlemania, to the checkered career of a potential Poet Laureate, to the tangled relationship between/among Mariyln Monroe, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller, to a play in part about a secular Jewish family on Long Island wresting with its son’s post 9/11 conversion to extreme Zionism.*

Yet, there is inevitably some inextricable piece of my mind and experiences embedded in each play’s DNA. It’s been pointed out to me by those who’ve seen several of my plays that, despite variety subject matter, they often tend to concern themselves with the same over-arching ideas: the search for and importance of community, the struggle for true connection with each other, and how societal forces often chafe against our better natures.

Wherever You Go, There You Are. I Hope They Have Pizza

It’s possible. I certainly never – well, seldom – set out out to write a play with a specific theme in mind. In fact, when I’m excited about a play idea, I’m often hard-pressed to articulate exactly why I am. For me, in fact, half the fun in writing a play is discovering what in fact I think and feel about a subject. But, inevitably, your mind finds you.

Do I self-consciously lift moments from my life to insert into my plays? Absolutely. But more often, for me, anyway, the more often I can stop thinking so much and plotting out in advance and let the characters lead me where they want to go, there better off I am. I’m not trying to be mystical about this at all. I just think when a writer feels as if they’re “channeling” their characters” (a term at which I instinctively lapse into a Liz Lemon worthy eye-roll), what I think is happening is that they’re merely letting their subconscious minds take the wheel.

Generalizing the habits and minds of writers is a fool’s errand, and yet, watch me: we are, wittingly or not, always absorbing the language, gestures, and behaviors of others, while simultaneously, more than often than not, trapped in our own heads, replaying incidents and moments from our lives long-since forgotten by everyone else on a loop like a psychological Zapruder film. And, at best, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether such talmudic analyses of one’s inner-self yields positive change or merely deepens the pit.

But when we write (especially dramatic narrative) it can free us from our self-concisousness. We’ve got too much else to worry about: why does a character need this particular thing (fork, liposuction, gun, Delta flight to the greater Tampa-St. Pete area) in this particular scene, why does another character need to stop her, how does this scene advance the story forward in as streamlined a way as possible, what’s a funnier word – “knish” or “kugel” (spoiler alert: it’s “kugel.” It’s inevitably “kugel”)?

In other words, when it’s working, it clears the clutter. It allows, for me, anyway, the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a term that’s a too casually tossed around these days: mindfulness. All I know is, my head is clear, and I’m focused only on the now and the now’s immediate consequence. We’ve all heard, “I don’t like writing, I like having written.” And yeah, OK, for sure.

The Good Stuff, Though

But those other moments, the ones where you’re not even aware you’re in the room, that’s usually when the best stuff happens. That’s why I’ll keep writing for the rest of my life. Well, that, and all the prestige, acclaim, and financial stability that writing plays in America brings. Seriously, it’s like living in Uganda and dedicating your life to being a speed skater.

As for Mr. Cleese’s lovely citation of Blaise Pascal’s famous quote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” I think I have a theory on why that is, which this mass quarantine has confirmed. I can’t imagine it’s too original: it’s just not in our nature. We need others. Desperately, as it turns out, even we introverts, even when – sometimes especially when – we know it’s not good for us. As I believe these past weeks have driven home with brutal clarity.

I hope we’re finding ways to get by. For me, it’s been a roller coaster, honestly. Actually, no: roller coasters are often fun. I’m just trying to be productive and go easy on myself when I find that I haven’t.

Hang in there!

*I have Jewish ancestry, but was raised Catholic. Bebe Netenyahu’s brother attended an Off Broadway performance one night of this play, Jericho – why he was there to begin with is another, not interesting story- and sought me out loudly after the performance, embraced me to him and, tears in his eyes, exclaimed to the whole lobby with clear pride, “Only a JEW could have written this play!!” I didn’t have the heart to recite the Rosary for him)

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

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