Writing comedy from the heart

It feels like there have been a thousand times Rachel Bloom has said something in an interview and I felt like shouting, “YES THIS!” but this is a new flavor of that:

I came from a very… rigid is the wrong word, but a very set technique of sketch comedy writing. When you study at UCB, if you do improv or sketch, you find the game of the scene, you heighten the game. It’s almost mathematical. And I think that for so long, some of the sketches I wrote, I wasn’t necessarily bringing my full self to them, because I was trying to fit into this like mathematical technique. I was surrounded by guys. So everything I wrote was probably subconsciously trying to, like, be acceptable to the male gaze. So when I started writing songs, because it was combining what I learned from sketch comedy with musical theater, my first love since I was 2 years old, it felt like I was bringing myself fully into my writing. I wasn’t trying to be anyone else, because I could bring in emotions, I could bring in those tropes that I’d been absorbing for my entire life, and then use my techniques to shape that.

Like Rachel, I have loved musicals from a young age. Like Rachel, I trained in improv and sketch writing at a school/theater that emphasized game: you begin a scene, find the first unusual thing, repeat it, heighten it, and break the pattern with your punchline. Not only did we learn that structure, but we also learned how to write particular flavors of sketch: fish out of water, comedic duo, commercial parody, satire, superpowers, torture game, literalization, and mapping.

I had a lot of fun and I got really good at recognizing game, if not initiating it, but there was a fundamental disconnect between how most other people in my comedy community did comedy and how I did comedy.

When I showed up at sketch class eager to show everyone Mike O’Brien and Tina Fey’s crazy car salesman, in my mind a brilliant example of a commercial parody combined with literalization, the class tore it to shreds.

My strongest sketch was one in which several adolescent girls show up at a county fare to participate in a literal melon growing contest and express their insecurities about their produce. (It’s a mapping scene, mapping their growing bodies onto the growing produce, see?) It was a deeply personal sketch, drawing on my own experiences with never feeling like I had the right body shape as an adolescent, whether that shape was too small or too big.

Eventually, I ended up on a hip-hop improv team – thanks almost entirely to developing a Hamilton obsession. (Seriously, if you want me to like something, just write a musical using/about it.) Again, I was a little sideways from the group sensibility; my favorite raps drew on my impostor syndrome and my frustrations with family holiday gatherings. My favorite scenes were often quiet little things, with comedy arising from the awkwardness of two people trying to connect, or things that used my heavily pregnant body as a punchline itself (I was pregnant for my entire tenure on that team), or preferably, things that combined both, like one scene where I had ended up on a blind date and ended the scene responding to my scene partner’s “This’ll be a funny story to tell the kids” with the line “Ohhhh… You want kids?” while I was eight months pregnant.

(We do comedy in our bodies. They are one of the tools we have, and we don’t leave them behind, even when we take on characters with different physicalities than our own.)

While everyone was very nice, I often felt out of place. And reading this quote from Rachel Bloom pinpoints a lot of the problem, I think. I imagine that, while she wasn’t writing with her whole self, Bloom was very good at writing that kind of sketch. I can even imagine some parallels between her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend character Rebecca Bunch’s success as an attorney and Bloom’s as a writer, both getting good at/pursuing the thing everybody says you’re supposed to want (in Bloom’s case, right down to auditioning for Saturday Night Live).

And I love that in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom has gotten to finally write more personal things and bring her full self to the table. It’s such an important piece of art for me, personally, and reading about this part of her experience has led me to rethink how I engage with comedy and what types of writing and performance I want to pursue in the future.

So Rachel, thank you.

Photograph by Greg Gayne/CW.

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  • Kimberly Hirsh Mother. PhD student @ UNC SILS studying information literacy & connected learning. I do a bunch of other stuff, too. (She/her/hers.)