Strolling the Bonepile A Guided Tour of a Comedy Writer's Mind by Martin Higgins
The form and content structure of this piece came about as a series of, graphic, rapid-fire, interconnected thoughts at 3 a.m., as I laid in bed alongside my ever-patient, slumbering wife.
I threw on a robe, splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth and looked at my pillowcase-creased face in the bathroom mirror. This is worth investing a half hour of keyboard tickling.
So, I headed downstairs, stopping in the main floor kitchen to grind up and brew some French Roast before taking the second flight down to my office/editing suite/music room. One of our cats sauntered into the kitchen and gave me the "feed me" meow. I have been trained well by the cats. To think training works in the other direction with felines is to linger in the laughable notion that people are the owners. I shook the autofeeder and a tiny avalanche of Moist Chunks clattered down into its blue plastic bowl.
To the cat, I had simply disappeared. Chunks. Eat.
For the last few years, I've worked with a brilliant editor friend, to identify and sort out various short stories, film script, and magazine article concepts, pitches, one-sheets. In other words, working the speculative side of the writer business. A lot of great pieces – and cash – came out of this period. But each article merely chiseled small pieces off of my Big Message. This mercy-sculpting allowed me to package and market my Moist Chunks, but nurtured a growing, gnawing realization that there was a fundamental connectedness about everything I wrote.
Still, I was hidden behind the fractured monolith of my published worldview,
The full expression of this point-of-view is held within a problem-child project I initially titled Nation of Nine-year Olds, later revised to NONYO's - Wimps, Neuts, and Metrosexuals. These stick-scratch headings were never meant to be finished project titles, but rather an attempt to grasp the scope of the material; a broad layout of buckets to hold diverse topics.
So, at 3 a.m, all the buckets came prancing through my brain like Sorcerer-apprentice Mickey's endless parade of water-toting broomsticks in Fantasia. Booosh! A wall of water and floating buckets advanced in this uncalled-for deluge, then receded, revealing a simple, yet life -changing fact.
I have, for the past twenty-five years, rigorously forced my mind into a most unnatural state of perception. I not only followed Aretha Franklin's admonition to "believe half of what you see, Son, and none of what you hear," but I started "not believing half of what I believed."
I fully embraced the walking schizophrenia of being a comedy writer/stand-up comic. Commenting on what I saw made me sound like a babbling idiot to friends and family. I saw the comedy all around me. It was like stepping into alternate reality, an ironic shadow world where Alice's travails in Wonderland seemed like a benign afternoon contretemps.
A year or so later, my friends and family started laughing with me. Next I perfected gag-line set-ups, sharpened and targeted my references to each audience, and whittled precise descriptive language to set the timing and rhythm. This enabled my audiences to ride along on off-road observations and appreciate trip-hammer realizations that undercut their expectations. In response, they laughed more, I got more bookings, and I was hooked.
Obsessed with the process, I dove in headfirst.
The result was maintaining a level of perception that demanded 100% attention to every input - television, radio, conversation, news-release, sermons, adverts, pillow talk, Robert Johnson lyrics, Rand Corporation White Papers on Swarming Battle Theory, televangelists, Gay Activist jargon, Rose Garden photo-op blather, tenured-professor drivel, doctor's office euphemisms and fear-allaying codes, street gang cant, flak-catcher weaselspeak, self-help chatter, Talk Show Ego-case palaver, heart and soul social commentary schmooze; literally everything that poured into my eyes and ears.
I also developed a hypersensitivity to nuance and intonation and metaphor. I bristled at ham-fisted attempts at lying through careful re-telling; that lawyer-honed nonsense that allows people like Nixon Press Secretary Ron Zigler to announce with all seriousness, "The President did not lie. The President spoke an untruth." And by the time a majority of the American public realized they had been hoodwinked, their pants were already down, around their ankles.
In addition to this communication gluttony, great comedians (people who say funny things) and natural-born comics (people who say things funny) maintain a constant chum of this torrent of minutiae to identify and polish absurd insights that shake audiences into snap-realization laughter. It like the lapidary rock-tumbler I had when I was a teen: find some interesting stones, pop them into a rotating container with other smaller, gritty stones and sand for a few weeks and out comes a handful of glittering gems.
All that happens is, by rubbing these weathered, unremarkable chunks together, their dull exteriors are ground away and the beauty, the soul of each mineral, if you will, is brought into high luster. Some are fascinating, faceted mini -universes of light and refraction, some merely smooth shiny gray blobs, but all of them are far more different that they were when they were first tossed into the tumbler. Such is the process of bringing perceptions, language, ideas and beliefs into high relief by comedy writers.
Touching back to why I woke with my tumbler rumbling... Friends, after a quarter century, most of my stones are done. And I want to share them with you.
Now, saying this may bring up the fear that there will be lots of shiny gray blobs. But I assure you, my brain tumbler was constantly expanded and reloaded. Now I'll sift out the abrasive that, having done its job, serves no further purpose. The result is this book, each chapter a normally unseen view of the very cobbles we walk on, unaware of the hidden intricacy within every one.
I created nothing here. I merely ground the everyday dullness into clarity and then sorted the gems by crystal structure, hardness, color, and clarity. Like a Hassidic diamond trader, I will lay out what I have on the black velvet of objectivity and let you chose those you wish to own and those you push back across the table.
I love that image. I just wish I had the ability to grow a prize-winning beaver of a beard.
As for the bonepile mentioned in the title, it serves as a better image of what comes out of the tumbler. Making one's bones. The bones of a routine. Funny bones.
A comedy writer works like most other writers, except the output is puny by comparison. It's not unusually for a competent writer to work 8 hours and wind up with as few as 3 or 4 great jokes. In some cases, I a day is acceptable. That's 480 minutes worth of brain work - churning the aggregate - to produce less than 1 minute of finished comedy. Even a prodigious comedy scribe winds up with vast amount of insight and observation that are not funny enough to sell off and not dull enough to discard. It's all great concepts and skewed re-definition, but not until a bit shines and reflects laugh-producing brilliance can it be set into the pinky ring of even the most pedestrian yukmeister.
And here's the most amazing part of this brain-breaking labor: there's more truth, enlightenment, humor and stress-reducing catharsis found in the striking similarities and differences of the tossed-back jewels. The macro view comes into high relief: the underpinnings of our perceptions and self deception, our genuine communications and linguistic ploys, our eliberate blindness and desperate search for the light, the undeniability of logic, the relief at replacing clouded concepts with honest acceptance.