Unscripted, by Elayne Riggs
Last weekend, New York City had its annual Del Close marathon. I’m sure our esteemed editor Mike Gold and my fellow columnist John Ostrander were somewhere about, if only in spirit. I was home doing housework, lounging about and occasionally glancing at the Olympics. Which can be tough, by the way, if you’ve got a female gaze. I do wish the men’s and women’s sports getups bore a bit more resemblance to each other, kinda like the outfits most of the countries wore during the Parade of Nations.
But instead we have women’s volleyball team uniforms, for both the indoor and beach variety, that consist of either porn-movie short-shorts or bikini bottoms, while the guys get to wear nice loose regulation exercise-type shorts. I cry unfair! Butt shot after butt shot, and the only time my prurient interest is slightly catered to is when it rains and the boys’ clothes start to lovingly cling to them… er. Ahem. Where was I? Oh yeah, and what’s with the creepy male coaches for all the women’s teams? In this day and age that’s as unseemly as me drooling over young nubile volleyball-playing boys… Uh. Well.
So, I’ve been sitting here improv’ing on my computer keyboard. I do that a lot. Maybe it’s the writer’s version of riffing on a jazz tune. Or was that reefering? I’m so not hep. Robin says our marriage sometimes feels like a never-ending improv routine. I think the best marriages ought to be like that, with two well-matched partners constantly playing off each other. Of course, as accident-prone as I am, I could wish my particular situation involved more wit and less slapstick, but there you are.
I used to love improv. I don’t know that I was ever any good at it, the few times I tried way back when, but I’ve always been more comfortable with scripts. I liked writing them and hiding behind them as various characters. I never took the acting bug beyond high school dramas and a college TV show I did with my best friend Bill-Dale Marcinko and a bunch of others (Pulp Secret’s David Levin, another classmate from my old Rutgers days, swears he has videotapes of Hello Reality, but for my sake and others’ I kind of hope they never appear), but I used to go to low-rent shows all the time. It’s hard to believe I haven’t been to one since Steve Wacker was heading up Ka-Baam! in the years before he became a big-time comic book editor. Maybe it’s just a young person’s game, like so much other entertainment these days.
Some people believe reality shows are improvised. Anyone who’s read even a little bit of Mark Evanier’s blog during the writers’ strike should have been quickly disabused of that notion. One of the writers’ hopes was that the WGA would someday encompass reality show writers, animation writers and so forth. Yes, hard as it may be to believe, these exercises in voyeuristic bottom-feeding are scripted, however loosely. After all, we can’t have interesting things happening of their own accord, can we? That’d be like showing non-telegenic people. Outside of Jerry Springer, who wants to see that?
But even scripts can have an improvised feel to them. Some of my favorite conversations with comics pros are “process wonk” talks, where they discuss how they go about putting a comic together. And I remember Roger Stern explaining, after one Ithacon, how he does dialogue. He calls his first pass at a given issue’s dialogue “Bizarro Speak” — it indicates that he wants to get the idea of something on the paper, and will go back to it later to polish it, but for starters he’s mostly concerned with making some point and remembering what it is he wants to say and plot. (Roger, if you’re reading, I hope I got that explanation right!) I’ve seen a number of old Kirby pages where he lettered pretty much the same way. It’s not Scintillating (or even Stilted) Stan dialogue, it’s almost nonsense syllables in some cases, but it reminds the writer of what he or she wants to convey when the script is further refined. I’ve even started using the technique with my current boss in preparing a seminar he’ll be putting on. Just get the basic idea out, and you can riff on it later.
The Bizarro Speak concept doesn’t come easy to me. I’ve always preferred first drafts, I don’t generally like to refine my writing unless a piece is 100% written. That said, I self-edit pretty quickly, and have been doing so even through this piece. (For instance, I just killed an awkward-sounding phrase in that last sentence. Oh, and in that one too.) It takes me a few seconds, and gives me a sense of personal structure while at the same time I still get the feeling I’m free-wheeling through the column. And it’s mostly an unconscious process by this point. That’s when I know I’m really “zoned,” when I can self-refine on the spot at the same time as I’m thinking about the end of the column.
At which we’ve more or less arrived. Improvisation can be somewhat exhausting, particularly when it all takes place in your mind and you have no audience feedback until well after the fact. That’s not to say I don’t love doing it, but when the cat is demanding attention and the shower is beckoning me and Robin is typing answers to an interview that I’d much rather read than write this, I know my attention span is shot, and interruptions, however placid, can pretty much put pay to any improv routine.
Besides which, I’m sure I haven’t seen all the badminton qualifying tournaments yet.
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web, when there’s time, and always goes for the gold.