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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei, 5762

Steve Young

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Diary Of A Young Defense Department Comedy Writer


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Dear Diary,

I could hardly wait to get home to put pen to you. I'm not supposed to tell another person what happened today but since you're not a real person (except to me), I guess it's okay.

You know how, in the wake of the tragic Sept.11 attacks, the federal government and the U.S. Army went to Hollywood action writers for help in brainstorming possible terrorist plots against American targets? Well, what isn't known (right up until this very second), is that they have also gone to Hollywood comedy writers for help. Me included! I'm not kidding.

When I woke up this morning and was about to start applying my Clairol For Men, I found a note on the bathroom mirror that said I should go to this address and not tell anyone. I don't normally pay attention to notes I haven't written, but this one was different. It was written on official "Your Government Needs You Now" letterhead.

While driving to the location, the NPR radio station I was listening to was interrupted by a voice that addressed me as "Steve." No one had ever talked directly to me from the radio, except for that one time I got through to Terry Gross, so I felt compelled to listen. Only later did I find out that it was Bush spokesman, Ari Fleischer, and that he addressed everyone as "Steve." What he had to say sent shivers up my spine.

"We need you, Steve. Your country needs your twisted perspective and ability to set up witty situations that end with satisfying yet unpredictable resolves."

Unpredictable? Obviously he didn't know I wrote sitcoms. He went on to say that the President's seeming mispronunciations and malapropos were only an attempt to "get things started"; that the administration was running against the clock and didn't know when or how the next terrorist attack might come. They believed there to be a significant number of Taliban comics who appeared regularly on "Evening At The Jihad" on Al Jazeera TV. Suspicions were that they had already started meeting with develop zany suicide possibilities. Ari set the agenda. "We've got to beat those evil-doers to the punchline."

The words reverberated like a shot of red, white and blue adrenalin. I thought the only possible thing a patriotic comedy writer could think of at a time like that. "A job!"

I floored the car, then had to immediately slam on the brake as I was on Ventura Boulevard during morning rush.

I parked and was given a blindfold to wear so that the location would remain a secret, but the rush of corned beef and kishka smells filling the room and the fact that I heard Paul Williams talking with Jon Voight, I knew I was in Art's Deli. I removed my blindfold and was ushered to the large corner table in the back. The back corner table at Art's. This must be important.

Seated about were comedy film writers, episodic staffs, talk show and sketch guys, even the brilliant team behind the Carrot Top phenomena (for those insidious terrorist prop attack possibilities). There were veterans of parodies, romantic comedies, black comedies and satire. NBC had even sent over what was left of TGIF.

So dire was the government's need that , even comedy writers over the age of thirty were called in to help.

Due to the covert nature of the meeting I can't disclose any of the names, but among the group was anyone who had anything to do with SCTV and almost every Brooks they could find.

With no compensation, other than a complimentary car flag and simple honorarium of $18,760.00 (sufficient for a year's health plan coverage), the lords and ladies behind some of Hollywood's biggest jokes, were ready to be funny for our country and the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico.

Only those involved with Pauley Shore movies were kept out.

Egos were left at the door, except for show runners with long term guaranteed deals.

Following a couple hours of lox, light cream cheese and the onioniest bagels you ever tasted, and after fifteen minutes from a warm-up comic I think I saw at a taping of "Will And Grace," a serious man in sunglasses and a boring black suit stood up to speak.

"Gentlemen and ladies. Thank you for giving your time and talent in America's greatest time of need. We have dubbed our project 'The Comedy Writers Coming Up With Common Defense Ideas And Wild And Wacky Scenarios Alliance,'" The TCWCUWCDIAWAWSA representative did not identify himself as he wished to remain anonymous due to his embarrassment over not coming up with a more succinct name that might have provided a more clever acronym. He then introduced Major Lenny Bobby, Commandant at the Army's Simulation, Training and Borcht Belt Command, based in Lake Titicaca, Fla.

"The military has a long history of working with comedians and comedy writers," said Bobby. "Remember the Bay Of Pigs? That was an Ernie Kovacs and Allan Funt thing. Look, plain and simple, humor is generated by a sudden radical deviation from expected patterns of behavior in a situation characterized by incongruous or inappropriate elements, right? I see you comedy guys as real similar to the terrorists. The difference is that instead of using weapons of mass destruction to kill, you guys use jokes. I'm pissing my pants just thinking about some of your stuff," said the pee-stained Major.

With our national security at stake, nothing was considered out-of-bounds, some writers even breaking the rule of threes. Everyone pushed the envelope, except for Mel B., who actually got in the envelope. No joke was considered invalid. Pipe was being laid from L.A. to Kabul, no matter how cheap, easy or done, they were evaluated equally. Exploding cigars, bio-germ squirting flowers, kick me signs and whoopee cushions loud enough to embarrass entire cities; double, triple and the never before attempted, quadruple entendre, filled the room. Classics like Stooge-type fingers to the eyes, self-inflicting fists to the head and baked bean generated, round-the-camp-fire, gas attacks were simple yet not thought not beyond terrorists' sinister possibilities. Spit-takes, Polish jokes, pratfalls, pies in the face, and even the ever annoying, sitcom, see-it-coming-from-a-mile-away misdirection, were all under consideration.

At one point a separate group of writers were sent out to come up with terrorist catch-phrases that might evoke such reaction that they could be repeated infinitum. Some of those generated included, "Da-n, this poi tastes poisonous," "Oh, Shoot," "Lookee there," "Don't you tell me that ain't no bomb," and, of course, the time-honored "Dyn-o-mite."

I never saw a comedy room so bent on cooperation. Everyone treated each other as peers, except for some term writers who we would belittle unmercifully. It was exhilarating. There were buttons placed on blows placed on call-backs that landed smack dab in the middle of an irony. And although only six of these meetings had been planned, Major Bobby said he expected the project to be picked up for the rest of the war.

Yet with all the exuberance of the creative process and the full year of health coverage, we all knew that we were writing for something more important.

We were writing for peace.

We were writing for freedom.

And if I might be so bold, Dear Diary, to borrow from Brother Elwood Blues... "We're on a mission from G-d."

In the end I realized, it was not any new terrorist plan they wanted from us. No conspiratorial idea so that they might be one step ahead of the bad guys. What they needed, was to make America laugh again. To show the bastards that they might have knocked out our buildings but they couldn't knock out our humanity. And when we were told to get back to "normal," it would be up to us comedy writers to our part, to make America laugh in between the tears

. And in between free meals, that's exactly what we did.

G-d bless America and G-d bless the WGA health plan.

NOTE: The only hints of discontent came after to moving to a studio office where there were a few battles over who would sit on the side of the couch nearest the fruit as well as brief fisticuffs over which restaurant they would order out from.



Steve Young is a Prism Award winner and a Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing and is author of "Great Failures Of The Extremely Successful. (Tallfellow Press). Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Steve Young