Monday, January 7, 2008

Hollywood Update #21: A One-Eyed Duck

December 10, 2005

“I type in one place, but I write all over the house,” Toni Morrison said, capturing a fundamental, yet often overlooked, truth about writing, which is that writing is not as much about putting words on paper as it is about mentally generating the ideas represented by those words. Six thirty-somethings sitting around eating Pop Rocks, drinking Red Bull, and laughing about the dual meanings of the word “boner” might not sound like writing, but that’s exactly what it is. If you want to get all Six Traits about it, this is “brainstorming” or “pre-writing” and it is the bedrock of what we create.

I would argue, in fact, that nothing more important happens on Veronica Mars than what happens between the writers at the table. Rob just returned from a three-week absence—he was in San Diego prepping and directing episode eleven—and his homecoming re-invigorated us. Not only is he the Boss, he’s also the funniest and liveliest person on board our ship of fools (witness his demonstration of his eight-month-old daughter learning to walk by running around the house in her Flintstone-style plastic automobile). We also welcomed a new member to our group—a freelancer who will be writing episode fifteen—and something about having a guest at the table put us on our best behavior. And by that, I do not mean most polite.

One of the great joys of writing with a group of professional writers is that we all love words, and wordplay becomes a major source of our humor. Puns and jokes lost on others generate big laughs at the writers’ table. We’ll spend five minutes laughing about whether a disturbance should be called a brouhaha, a carfuffle, a mêlée, a skirmish, a fracas, or a fray, and we can amuse ourselves for hours giggling about naming yet another character after a penis. And though these discussions often lead nowhere, like everything else we laugh about, they go a long ways toward building camaraderie. And when we can’t find existing vocabulary to amuse us, we invent it. That’s what we do after all—we make stuff up.

Shakespeare is credited with introducing as many as 2000 words and phrases into the English language. We’re in the same position, although not for the same reason. When Standards and Practices said no, you cannot use the word “starfucker” to describe a character infatuated with a celebrity, we invented “starstroker” (take that, CBS). Need to name a “deprogramming camp” for gay youths? How about SelfQuest? A store that sells unicorn ephemera? John’s genius idea: Unicornicopia. Some of our funniest moments arise out of misunderstandings, like when I thought Phil said he’d tasted “elf jerky” and Rob referred to a college dean as the “emissions counselor.” Occasionally, we’ll invent something out of the blue, such as the One-Eyed Duck. The One-Eyed Duck is nothing more than a goofy illustration that will show up on a character’s bowling shirt, but like “hummer” or “fluffer” or “wet willy” it begs to be a sexual euphemism. So it is. What is a one-eyed duck, you ask? All I can say is this: nothing is as fun as a one-eyed duck.

Like with most groups of people who spend a lot of time together, we’ve begun to recognize each others’ favorite turns of phrase and linguistic quirks. John, for example, is known for using the word “chicanery” or “high jinks” at least once a day; Unnamable Female Writer 1 for her extraordinary hyperbole (OH MY GOD, that is the funniest thing I’ve heard EVER!!), Rob, in his role as facilitator, for getting us back on track by directing towards this or that “bit of business” in the story, or starting us on a new track by asking, “is there a world in which Veronica…” And because he is the benevolent leader of our crew, we all seek his approval, which though not stingily distributed, is truly reserved for ideas he genuinely admires. Getting a “That’s fantastic!” or “Yes! That’s genius!” delivered with a smile and an enthusiastic point of his finger can make a writer’s entire week. I know, because it happened to me twice last Friday (in episode 15, look for the disposable camera, the tattoo removal, the bachelorette party scavenger hunt, and the bowling team).

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowieki argues that contrary to popular thinking, groups are not necessarily mindless mobs. People do lose control and inhibition in certain masses, but in problem-solving situations—such as the creation of a story—a group of diverse thinkers with myriad life experiences and backgrounds can come to better conclusions than one super-smart individual. “We assume that the key to solving problems or making good decisions is finding that one right person who will have the answer,” Surowieki writes. “[but] under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” Individually, the writers at the VM table are among the funniest and smartest people I know (Pop Rocks, Red Bull, and boner jokes notwithstanding), but I doubt any one them—including Rob—could create the show alone. And I know for certain that not one of us could have fun even attempting it without the others. And we couldn’t even try a One-Eyed Duck.

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