Writing Lessons from The Simpsons (V)

Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s also the mother of comedy.

In the episode A Streetcar Named Marge, Marge Simpson is cast as Blanche DuBois in a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

This storyline was not originally conceived as a musical. In fact, a complete script was written with Marge and other characters performing the stage version. But then the network’s lawyer informed the writers that Tennessee William’s estate would only allow them to quote two lines from the play.

The same lawyer, however, saved the day:

Mike Reiss: One of the unsung heroes of The Simpsons is Anatole Klebanow…he always was in our corner, always pushing for us to get stuff that was marginally legal on the show

Al Jean: …So the lawyer said, ‘If you write original songs based on those characters, that you can do’. But actually, it made the show better because the songs are funnier than the play

The writers followed the lawyer’s advice and A Streetcar Named Marge is now consistently named as one of the top episodes of the series. (They have 26 seasons, so that’s pretty good.) As writer Jeff Martin said, “When we got that and we decided to make it a musical, I remember thinking, ‘Well, this will be a lot of work but I bet it’ll be funnier.'”²

He was right.

The lesson here is not just to listen to your lawyer. It’s to be tenacious. There’s an obstacle in front of you? Find a way around it. That way is blocked? Find another way.

When it comes to writing, tenacity is everything. Tenacity is allows you to finish a piece and start a new one. Being tenacious is how you hone your skills; how you revise and edit and get your words just the way you want them.

Tenacity is how you make your work better.

In this particular instance, being told ‘no’ allowed the writers of The Simpsons to go deeper into their work and produce something with real emotional resonance. If they’d simply followed the original play, they would not have been able to write clever and catchy songs that also supported the emotional arc of the show.

Where are you hearing ‘no’ when it comes to writing? Who’s telling you that you can’t do it? How can you work around the blocks and obstacles? Where can you go deeper into your work and explore what it’s truly about?

I’m not suggesting you break copyright law to achieve your goals. I am saying to be your own lawyer; be the person who’s always in your corner and pushing for you to write.

1. DVD Commentary from A Streetcar Named Marge, Season Four, Episode Two.
2. Ibid.


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing piece or to just have fun with words.
1. A semi-melted plastic bottle…
2. The cutlery clattered into the draw and…
3. “I don’t believe you,” said…
4. Slats of wood lined the…
5. A very tiny pumpkin rolled…

Please note that this newsletter is changing form. This is the final article I will send and next week’s email will be the final Mini Marshmallow.

Remember When You First Laughed (Writing Lessons from the Simpsons IV)

By Zee, Two Marshmallows

I am so grateful for the commentary function on DVD’s. Even though they don’t know it, the writers of the early episodes of The Simpsons have supported me, given me practical advice and boosted my confidence in my work.

No one really got my sense of humour when I was younger, so I always thought I just wasn’t funny. Over the years, I’ve come to trust myself more and more; mostly because the advice of professionals was to trust yourself. Here’s one of my favourite exchanges (bolding mine):

David Mirkin: One of the secrets, I believe, of good comedy and being a good comedy writer, is to remember the early response and not get tired of it. You know, what can happen is you’re writing, and you’re writing something that’s really funny and you hear good laughs and there’s a good response. And then because you have to live with it for a while, you start to lose confidence in it. You have to have a good memory and remember that it was funny, and remember what was funny about it, because a lot of writers panic and at the last minute, they start rewriting everything. And when they’re rewriting everything, they’re doing it in a very short amount of time so it can’t be very good. It’s only going to be something that you’ve rewritten in a week instead of something that you spent months honing. And so it’s a bad idea to do too much rewriting if it started out good.

David Silverman: Remember when you first laughed.¹

We all second-guess ourselves. It’s hard not to, I think. Many of us have been taught to please other people right from the start. Write to get good grades. Write in your best handwriting only. No mistakes allowed. You don’t want people thinking badly of you, do you?

And if other people respond well to our writing, then we start to second-guess everything else we do. “They liked my work last time, I have to make sure they like it this time! Is this sentence okay? What about this one? I should rewrite it yet again, and hold on, I see that I’ve used that word two times in three paragraphs, WHAT WAS I THINKING?”

Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Yours, not someone else’s. How did you feel when you wrote that line? Your response is what matters.

Remember when you first laughed. Remember when you first smiled. Remember when you first giggled uncontrollably. Remember when you first burst into laughter at a random moment because you remembered that funny line. And this doesn’t just go for comedy. Remember when you first became teary-eyed. Remember when you first got chills up your spine, or got angry on behalf of your character. Remember when you first said to yourself, “Yes, this is exactly what I wanted to say!”

The truth is that our first response is often the best indicator of whether our writing works. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Remember when you first laughed.

1. The Simpsons, DVD Commentary on Homie the Clown; Season Six, Episode 15

This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one or to just have fun with words:

1. A big, plush, yellow toy…
2. Crystal prisms, dancing in the…
3. “I’m shocked that you….”
4. The drawer slowly slid open…
5. A burnt out match…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. Use the sign up box to receive the newsletter (and future offers) directly. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (III)

Writing Lessons from The Simpsons (III)

“People say, ‘How do you get your ideas for episodes?’ With Mike [Reiss] and me, we thought, ‘Lisa likes ponies. We’ll give her a pony’…It’s not that hard sometimes.”

– Al Jean, DVD commentary for Lisa’s Pony (The Simpsons: season three, episode eight)

When we say we have to have a good idea in order to write, what we actually mean is an original idea. We don’t want to write another generic romance, murder mystery or supernatural-themed trilogy. We want something fresh and exciting, something that will grab the reader’s attention! We want people to ask us, “Where do you get your amazing ideas?”

But it’s not our ideas that people will love. It’s the way we write about them.

If you haven’t seen this episode of The Simpsons, the idea might seem like a cliché: oh, an eight-year-old girl likes ponies, how original. But the resulting episode is far from a cliché, because it’s not about how eight-year-old girls like ponies. It’s about how Lisa likes ponies and what happens when her dream finally comes true.

In the episode, Homer buys his daughter a pony to overcompensate for his poor parenting. He then has to take a second job to pay for it. It’s only a matter of time before Lisa realises that the price of her dream is too high – figuratively and literally. The moment she has to give up her pony is genuinely moving because her bond with the animal was real.

How many of us have had to give up something we wanted or loved because it turned out to be unfeasible? How many of us know have overcompensated for behaving badly instead of doing the hard work of changing our behaviour? How many parents know what it’s like to be unable to give their children what they really want? Or work so hard to give their children everything that they exhaust themselves in the process? (Granted, Homer wouldn’t have had to take on a second job to buy a pony if he’d been an attentive parent in the first place, but it’s still something to which people can relate.)

All of this came from one simple idea – Lisa likes ponies. Readers and viewers don’t dismiss something because the central idea isn’t original. If that were the case, then no one would be writing love stories or murder mysteries or supernatural-themed trilogies. It’s what the writer does with the idea that counts. If something resonates with you, write about it. And if you’re stuck for something to write about, remember that ideas don’t have to be that hard sometimes. Just pick something and start writing. You never know where it will take you.

This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words.

1. The window stuck and…
2. The hard beak of the crow pecked…
3. It was raining yet again…
4. Eggplant sneak attack!
5. I found an old VHS tape…

Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (II)

Of all the characters on the show, Lisa Simpson should be the one most capable of writing a book. Even though she’s only eight, she’s smart, academically gifted and she has a good command of language. When the time comes, though, and she has her opportunity, things don’t go as expected.

In the episode The Book Job (season twenty-three, episode six), Lisa and her father, Homer, discover that publishing agencies use ghost writers to churn out best-selling books, mostly in the young-adult genre.

Homer immediately sees dollar signs and he puts together a team, promising them a cut of the money. Lisa is appalled at both the manipulation of the readers and Homer’s mercenary attitude. She decides to write her own book, believing that a person should write for the love of the story, not money. While Homer’s team is busy writing, however, Lisa does the following:

• Puts on music for inspiration;
• Organises her CD collection;
• Plays game after game of online Boggle;
• Goes to write in a coffee shop, but instead spends her time setting up the wi-fi and buying coffee;
• Builds an intricate structure from wooden pencils;
• Watches cat videos;
• Obsesses over a smudge on the window before cleaning the entire pane, inside and out;
• Watches all five seasons of Friday Night Lights.

I love this episode and laugh every single time because I very much see myself in Lisa. How many excuses and distractions did I come up with to avoid writing? How many pointless activities did I pursue instead of sitting down and writing? Too many, I’m afraid. My all-time favourite is abandoning work to try and find out what dust was made of. The runner-up is writing my name on the underside of my stapler with white correction fluid…because then if someone broke into the house and stole my stapler, they wouldn’t be able to sell it? I don’t know, it seemed important at the time.

The lesson of this episode is two-fold. First, the only way to write is to sit down and write. Homer’s team did just that. Yes, they were purely motivated by profit. Yes, their story was basically a by-the-numbers supernatural mystery. But they did the work. They created their characters, put together a plot, and then sat down and wrote.

Second, we need support, especially if we’re writing on our own. Homer’s team did have it a little easier, and not just because Neil Gaiman brought them food. They worked as a group, and were able to keep each other focused and on track. I do wonder whether Lisa would have written her story if she’d had just one sympathetic person to support her.

You might write on your own but you’re not alone. Turn to someone if you need help or a sympathetic ear. You can even write to me if you want. I’ll help if I can and be honest if I can’t. And remember that if there’s one constant in this world, it’s that there will always be distractions. They’re not going anywhere. If you ignore them and write, you’re a success, whether you make money or not.


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words:

1. A wooden stake…
2. “What’s that on your head?” said…
3. The staircase spiralled…
4. Colourful cushions galore!
5. The pond wasn’t filled with water but…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (I)

I’ve found DVD commentaries to be an excellent source of reassurance and comfort. Every time the writers talk about their process, I’m reminded that I really don’t have to worry so much. Whether you like The Simpsons or not, the insight and advice offered by the people who create the show is of immense value to anyone who writes.

Writing Lessons from The Simpsons

If you’ve ever watched The Simpsons, you’ll know the show contains a large number background jokes. Each episode, particularly the earlier ones, contains funny signs, clever book and movie titles, and bizarre product names. In addition to being humorous, they often contain a sly and accurate observation on the subject they are parodying.

I used to envy the writers so much for their talent and insight. There was no way I could be as clever and witty. I told myself they must be extra smart or have special comedy training to do what they do, and that I would never measure up. When DVD’s became widely available and I was able to listen to the commentaries, I found out that I was wrong.

During the commentary for the season one episode ‘There’s No Disgrace Like Home’, one of the writers, Mike Reiss, said this:

“The funny signs you see in the background on The Simpsons are come up with by the writers and again, often an hour or two is spent to come up with a two-second sign joke.”

It took a while for the importance of this line to sink in. Once it did, it changed my thinking completely. The deciding factor wasn’t talent or training. It was time. It took an hour or two for an entire team of writers – not just one person, but a team – to create those background jokes I loved so much. This is a sentiment that is repeated throughout the commentaries from seasons one to ten (which is as far as I’ve got).

It’s true that many of the writers do have formal training or many years of experience in their field, or both. That doesn’t negate the reality that what they do takes time. That was the secret of their success. Instead of worrying so much about how I wasn’t as good as other people, I needed to spend more time revising my work.

This is not to say that funny or clever lines can’t come to you quite quickly, because they can and do. For the times they don’t, though, remember to be patient with yourself. If it takes a team of writers an hour or two to perfect a two-second sign joke, then it’s logical that it’ll take you just as long to craft something special. And that’s okay.


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words.

1. The fish broke through the surface…
2. The heavily-laden branch…
3. Hasty scribbles on the…
4. Bricks flew in every direction…
5. “I always add glitter to my magic spells,” said…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line any time at zee@twomarshmallows.net. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.