Q and A with John
When did you start writing? How did you know you were a writer?
I didn’t know I was a writer until I started doing stand-up comedy, literally the day after I passed auditions. I wrote my own jokes for my audition, and the day after I was made a regular I was at Catch A Rising Star, where comics like Richard Lewis and Elayne Boosler told me how much they loved my material and spread the word that I was a writer. I’m gullible so I believed the rumors.
The next day I just sat down and started writing jokes. Then I went on stage and tried them out. After identifying the ones that worked I would keep them in my act. Over time I realized that I could write a lot of them, more than most comics, so I figured I was probably a writer. I worked four to six hours a day on jokes. My goal was to be able to produce a joke on any subject I wanted.
One of the hardest things to do in stand-up are one-line jokes strung together, aka pulling to an inside straight. It’s like a joke that fits between two jokes. Woody Allen was my comic hero, so I wanted to be like him and I kept writing while learning his routine structure. With each stage of development, going from jokes to sketches to movies etc., I realized it was just a matter of making adjustments.
Jokes were the building blocks. Once I learned how to write them I would stretch my abilities and learn how to get laughs out of characters and situations. Writer friend Alan Zweibel, who had just started writing for SNL, taught me sketch writing—to come up with a good premise, and not be afraid, because the laughs will reveal themselves.
The next phase was learning the story. I did that by watching the work of TV and movie writers I admired. I got hold of some of Woody Allen’s original scripts, before they were shooting scripts, and noted the changes he made compared to the movie. I had a rich imagination, so for me the hardest part was to make it fit into what I was writing.
Much of writing is character-driven, so I watched movies or taped episodes of shows and played them over and over until I picked up the rhythms of each character and the actual work itself. I did that until I could feel each character or the tone and style of the story.
What was it like being a stand-up comic? How did you go from being a stand-up comic to being a full time writer?
In the beginning being a stand-up comic was like being a pyromaniac in hell—someone who loved fire but didn’t enjoy being burned by it. I always loved stand-up comedy and had wanted to be a stand-up since I was a kid, but I was terrified of performing. Until I did stand-up I’d never been on stage, so I had no idea how difficult those first few years would be. I discovered that I was a natural comedy writer, but that performing was something I had to overcome. Again, it was persistence—something I did every night, bombing most of the time, until I built up a crust so bombing didn’t bother me and I could feel how to deliver jokes and have fun doing it. From there it was just hard work and spending almost all of my waking hours with my comic friends. Back then we all helped one another out.
I had gotten offers from Alan King to write for his production company, but I turned that and other TV offers down because I wanted to be do stand-up. I even turned down an offer from ABC to create and star in my own series. I was young and had a naïve vision of the business. After a year or two of living off cab fare from clubs, which was eight bucks a show, I did an audition for SNL and they hired me as a writer. I performed stand-up whenever I found the time, but I kept receiving writing offers. The writing jobs just flowed naturally from there.
Was it difficult transitioning to book writing from stand-up, TV, and movies?
Like I stated earlier, it’s all adjustments and a lot of trial and error. Eventually by listening and settling on a goal I naturally, or in my case unnaturally, worked towards it. Seven years of group therapy also helped.
There’s a learning curve with every format change, so I expected that with each step I’d fall on my face now and again until I figured it out. Writing a manuscript was actually easy since I had learned much of the process already. And I read a lot. Writing movie scripts depends so much on bare bones structure. You can’t say what a character is thinking–everything has to be shown and moved along super quickly. Books gave me more leeway to get into a character’s head and to describe the locations in a fun way. In movies, the descriptions are done with as few words as possible. If you really want to see bare bones writing check out the script for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Standup Guys is nonfiction, so I wrote from personal experience in an entertaining way, without worrying about getting laughs every few seconds. That is so much easier.
How do you know if something is funny?
It’s really a gut feeling or instinct. I have no idea why or where it comes from. Some writers make lists and cross reference them, but I just let things go in my mind. A shrink once said that I had a very fluid mind that allowed me to write crazier stuff. I do make lots of phone calls asking my friends if this or that is funny. I know that if I laugh out loud at something I write, it’s a sign that it’s not funny. Again, I don’t know why that happens. I do know that over time the more I wrote, the more accurate my gut feeling would get. Eventually my percentage of writing funny stuff got better with instinct and my experience from repetition and learning what works on stage.
What is the most important thing in writing comedy?
To me the most important thing in comedy writing is to find your voice, to be hard on yourself, and not to stop at the first thing that you think is
funny–to keep digging deeper until you find the funniest thing you can think of. Now, that’s not as important in a book, because the need to be entertaining and readable is more important. If I sat long enough I could probably get a laugh on almost every sentence, create more metaphors and wilder descriptions, but that makes reading a book more tedious. In fact I had to teach myself to back off from being funny and too descriptive in order to make reading my stuff more enjoyable.
Tell us a bit about your book and what inspired you to write it.
The book is a memoir about my stand-up days, a very unique time. My purpose in writing the book was to give people an idea what is was like to be a stand-up comedian back then—to experience the amazing camaraderie, what it was like to go on stage for the first time and to go through the different stages of becoming a good stand-up comic. My story acts like a through line that puts you in the middle of those golden days of stand-up comedy, with guys like Larry David, Richard Lewis, Gilbert Gottfried, Rita Rudner, Richard Belzer, Paul Reiser, Bill Maher and on and on. I think it’s a fun, informative read, something that regular people as well as aspiring comics would enjoy. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back but I really do believe that every young comic would benefit from reading this because it’s our history as comedians. There’s a great book called The Last Laugh about comedians in the late 50’s and early 60’s (the original version) that we all read. It gave you a feeling of being back there. I wanted to do the same thing, except from a comic’s point of view, and hopefully I succeeded.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline? How long did it take you to finish your manuscript?
A wonderful writer friend, David Black, suggested that I write a short story about my stand-up days. While writing, I realized that no one had written a book about stand-up from this point of view, at least not about that time period. And there wasn’t a book that let you learn and feel the process and, of course, the fun we had. I’d think of different chapters or subjects about that time and meld them together. Sometimes they flowed naturally in a certain order or other times I had to figure out where in the story they belonged. The hardest thing for me is always the spelling and punctuation. As I mentioned before I also tend to use too many metaphors or jokes.
I didn’t do an outline. Sometime I do that with screenplays, but never a whole outline. I take it in chunks of about ten or twenty pages. I use index cards to lay out the scenes so I can visualize where things are going. Another writer friend, Charles Kipps, uses a calendar.
I really don’t know how long it took me to write the book, since I did it in stages. I’d work on other stuff and then come back to it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
I don’t know if you’d call it writer’s block, but there are times when I can’t think deeply enough to really delve into my imagination. When I’m going good it’s almost physical for me, like there’s a click or a buzz in my brain and my leg starts to shake. Sometimes that happens as soon as I sit down and other times it comes after an hour or more of nothing. One good image or thought can set my creativity off. And then there are other days when nothing comes. I never think of those days as wasted, though. I think of them as the time to get all the bad stuff out so I can get to the good stuff. It’s like digging for gold in a mine. I try to stick it out knowing that it will be easier the next day. Whenever I start a new project, especially when it’s visual, like a screenplay, it takes me about four days. Three days of nothing and then on the fourth day I usually get that buzz and images start to flow. It will usually start with an image or a good line.
What is your favorite book of all time?
James Crumley’s The Wrong Case. It’s detective noir, but offbeat in an almost Rodney Dangerfield way. It’s not funny like Rodney, but tragic in the way Rodney’s character in life would be if it wasn’t made up of jokes. Crumley’s main character is poor–his grandfather left him a ton of money which he can’t inherit until he’s 52. The story takes place in a small town in Montana. His father is an alcoholic who commits suicide. His mom hates his father and doesn’t want her son to grow up like him, so she gives his father’s clothes away to the Salvation Army. That way he grows up seeing bums wearing his father’s clothes. There’s more ironic stuff, but you get the idea about the tragic character. Throw in some hard-boiled dialogue and crazy characters, and to me it’s perfect.
Do you have another book in the works to share with us?
I’m usually working on at least one long term project, sometimes two, or I’m fixing up some other work, so I have three or four things I’m fooling around with. One is a book about my experience making my movie, “The Last Request.” The book is called How to Make an Independent Film in Less Than Thirty Years. It’s a real crazy story with several strange twists. Another is Misery is The New Happiness – The Neurotic’s Guide to Living. That’s completely written and just needs to be edited and proofread. Then there’s a screenplay about time travel, and a screenplay that I’m turning into a book, called “Ghost Father”. It’s about the mob in a haunted house. There’s other stuff too. Sometimes I bounce around between them. The screenplay stuff I have to stick with for several days at a time, sometime a few months, because the thought process is so visual and restrictive.
What was it like writing for TV?
Honestly, for the most part I hated it. On the majority of shows they insisted that you write “down”. I even had one producer pull me aside to say that I was too funny and should try to not be so original. Basically, in Hollywood they don’t want anything original, unless it’s been done before. When I worked with Billy Crystal on a short- lived show he had, they tried to separate Billy and me because they said my originality was a bad influence on Billy. Billy was super creative himself and we brought out the best in each other.
One of the people I admire most in TV is my friend Larry David. LD is one of a kind. He couldn’t care less about money. LD just wanted to do the kind of show he and Jerry Seinfeld wanted to do. LD quit a few times and Jerry (who I really respect for this) would back up Larry and say that if Larry quits he quit. They kept offering Larry more money and a larger percentage of the show. Now he’s worth a fortune and I love it.
The only show where I ever got any real freedom was a small syndicated political satire called DC Follies. It starred Fred Willard and life-sized puppets of politicians and celebrities. I was the head writer and the producer Lorne Frohman was great. He kept me on a long leash and I had a great staff of writers.
What was it like seeing your work being made into a movie? Did being a writer and stand-up comic help you in directing a movie?
Well, it took a long time to get the money for the movie, several years. The crew I worked with was great, especially the Director of Photography, Dan Karlok. The actors were super as were everyone else except three of the four producers who caused all kinds of problems on the set with their clashing egos. Seeing the written word come to life and being able to direct it was fun and would have been great if we weren’t interfered with by the producers.
Some of the scenes came out better than I thought and others were not as good. In more than a few scenes, because of the in-fighting, and a tight schedule with forty locations, we didn’t have time to move to the next location. It is very difficult for me to look at the film now, because I see all the mistakes and how it could have been better made.
Being a stand-up helped in that I knew what would work, especially verbally. Having written for TV also helped because when we couldn’t get to locations, I sometimes wrote scenes on the spot where we were. In one instance we were at a church and couldn’t get to the next location where the lead, T.R. Knight, tells Frank Vincent he’s leaving the seminary. So we were stuck in an old church and all I had to work with was the altar. I made up a scene that could take place on the altar (which made it crazier). I had a poker game with the priests using communion wafers instead of poker chips and it worked well.
In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you most?
My first writing influence was, believe it or not, Phyllis Diller. I loved her weird crazy comic character’s life that was so much fantasy, especially her crazy husband Fang. I got to work with her once and she was just the nicest sweetest person. Then there was Rodney Dangerfield, who I became very good friends with. He was a very special man who was so incredibly kind to young comics. His “I get no respect” character may be the greatest comic character of all time. From Rodney I found myself drawn to the greatest comedy writer of all time, Woody Allen. At first it was his stand-up, which to me was also the best ever. His routine structure was seamless, and this led me to his movies. The range of his movies was extraordinary. There may never be another writer like him.
I also read a lot of detective mysteries. Guys like Crumley, Loren D. Estleman, and James Lee Burke all described things in such unique ways. Burke is more poetic, Crumley grittier, and Estleman had the best metaphors. Joe R. Lansdale is another great writer with action packed endings.
Do you write every day? How does each session start? How do you proceed? How, where and why does your writing end?
I try to write everyday, but if I said I did I would be lying. There are some days I have things to do, or I just want to watch ballgames. I get so into the games that I’m usually too blown out afterwards to work. When I did stand-up I wrote just about every day for four to six hours, seven days a week. When I moved to LA I was surprised to learn that writers only worked five days a week. Today, I try to work at least five days a week, most of the times six. The hours are usually late morning to the afternoon and then if I’m home, I’ll putter at night (after the ballgame). If I’m really into the writing, I can go for 8 to 10 hours, until there’s a red line across my eyes and my head starts splitting. I usually take that as a sign that it’s time to stop, rest, or get a CAT scan.
Which aspects of the work did you enjoy the most and why?
What I enjoy the most is coming up with the unique wild visuals that happen in screenplays. In joke writing it is something either really out there or something that has a cleverly ironic meaning. In books it’s playing around with descriptions and metaphors. I can’t really tell you why, other than I enjoy stuff where I have to use my imagination in one way or the other. My father always told me that I had a good imagination, so I guess I wanted to live up to that. I love to see work finally put together and flowing. That’s a good feeling. After I finish the project I can’t read it again except for a passage here and there. Not only would I be bored, but I’d see where I could have made it better.
What sets the book apart from the other writing you’ve done?
The big difference between this book and other writing was the joy of the story. I wrote about the best time in my life. I never had more fun or felt so alive. I was a kid in the clubhouse with my very best crazy friends doing what we were driven and meant to do— and boy did we have fun and lots of laughs. We spent most of our days together laughing, sometimes until we would fall over. We had one comic who was in a wheelchair at a diner, who would somehow get out of his chair and crawl under tables asking people if he could taste their food. We’d end up on the floor with him. Being a comic meant your job description was to have fun and to see who could act more immature.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
I do. It’s called 920spot.com. The 9:20 spot at night was my favorite on Saturdays at the Improvisation. I loved doing that so I could run across town and do another early show at Catch a Rising Star. I kept running back and forth between Catch, The Comic Strip and The Improvisation.
I could get in between four to six shows a weekend night that way, and the 9:20 spot became my trademark.
About a month ago I was driving down to San Diego with Larry David and he received a call from a comic friend of ours, Bob Shaw, who I hadn’t seen in a while. LD asked Bob to guess who he was with. Shaw asked for a hint and LD said, “the 9:20 spot.” And Shaw, immediately said, “DeBellis”.