The only thing the two have in common is an actual office.
Brent Forrester, former writer for the Ben Stiller Show, the Simpsons, and King of the Hill and one of the "current" (well, they're not working right now, are they?) staff writers from the Office, was gracious enough to come out and chat with me and my fellow screenwriting students last night. I'm not a television or a comedy writer, but he still had a lot of interesting things to say.
He said a couple of really insightful things about situations. He quoted Charlie Chaplin who said, "A man falls into a manhole; that's slapstick. A man steps over a manhole and gets hit by a bus; that's irony." And it's so much more creative and complex, too. The Obvious doesn't always make a bad story, but the Unexpected always makes a story better (the justified Unexpected. Can't be throwing random, unmotivated things in everywhere. We call those stories "Films that frustrate film students because their professors will teach them not to do such things then show 'classic hits' that do just that." But I digress). Or he used an example from the Simpsons of when Bart was running away from someone (I'm not up on my Simpsons lore, obviously) and ran into a room, looking for a place to hide. There was a huge fish tank that he ducked behind - making his head ten times bigger. A solution that just ends up being a bigger problem. The other thing he mentioned was that when he was just starting in comedy writing, a comedy writer who was his friend's mother gave him the advice of writing about what is difficult, maybe even a little painful. His first script to get attention drew on some of his personal experiences and feelings about his brother which were difficult for him. Comedy isn't silly, he said. It really isn't just about getting a laugh. It's about good story telling, and those principles can be applied no matter what you're genre.
On characters, he suggested that when we write, we think about what a character does in an attempt to conceal himself and how that reveals the character. How does your character try to portray himself and how is he actually portrayed? I think this is a fascinating concept for either comedy or drama, because it's so real. I try to be a really honest person, an open book, and even this week I realized how much I wanted people to think I am a certain way when I emotion/word vomited all over my poor friend. But then again, I may be a little biased, because I think the risk/gain aspect of relationships is one of the most film worthy things around.
Perhaps the funniest moment was when he was talking about how he gets hired to comedy "punch ups" on films and his contributions to one particular movie, and he said, "I don't know if any of you have seen Office Space?" Does he not realize it's a collegiate cult film?
In my own office, I do a lot of mailing, data input, and it's always fun to look at the names of our participants. I finally came up with a good last name for a character today (I have particular trouble with last names). I once mailed off a package to a Prick. The other day I found a "Vondermark," which sounds suspiciously like "Voldemart." And today I stumbled across the worst possible name ever - Horst Bormann. Why would you ever do that to your child?
The most embarrassing last name I've come across? I'd blush to tell.