Friday, June 25, 2010

When Life Intimidates Art

One aspect about writing or play-writing is that you can choose to be topical and place your characters and/or story in present day. You can litter your prose with pop culture references in an effort to appear "fresh" and "hip" with your audience. I know. I've done it.
The problem is that "present day" soon becomes yesterday and moves on to last week which becomes last year and so forth. The freshness of a present day joke becomes past tense. A writer must keep in mind a famous phrase attributed to a Persian Sufi poet: "This too shall pass." Sorry, but one day that Sarah Palin joke in Act I scene 2 won't have the punch is delivers now.

I confess, in a few of my murder mystery plays, I'm guilty of sneaking in jokes or references that were ripped from the headlines. It didn't seem to be an issue until one day I received an email from a student in a High School theatre group asking "What a 'Bruno Magli' shoe was?" and "Why was that supposed to be funny?" Umm well.. you see, back in June of 1995, Bruno Magli shoes were a topic of conversation during the O.J. Simpson trial.. and back then, in '95, you see... that joke killed! But now I guess, the joke is dead. It too has passed.

I remember being perplexed as a kid by a punch-line in a Bug Bunny cartoon called "Falling Hare". Bugs battles a tiny gremlin in an airplane which eventually begins plummeting toward the ground. Just before it crashes, it runs out of gas, stopping inches above the Earth. Bugs quips: "You know how it is with these A Cards". Uh..no actually. I don't. I just assumed it was a reference to something. A reference that would hold meaning for a kid growing up around World War II. Specifically, a kid familiar with ration cards. Me? Not so much.

Anyway, from time to time, I will go back to my scripts and update any old jokes or references that are dated to keep them "fresh" and "hip". Lately, I tend to stay away from being to trendy with my material. This saves me from having to recycle it every few years. I have found it's safer to paint jokes or reference with a very broad brush. Example, making a joke about "Political Elections" in general as opposed to a specific campaigns or politicians. Sure, "Death Panel" jokes and "Bridges To Nowhere" references may cry out to you but remember, you may get an email 10 years from now, asking you what a 'Death Panel' is. If you have to explain a joke, it's not funny.

One other aspect about reflecting real life in your art, is that one day it may turn on you and no longer be appropriate. Example: if you are familiar with the show "Avenue Q", you will know that there is a character named "Gary Coleman" based on.. you guessed it Gary Coleman. As you know, Gary recently passed away so the question is.. what do you do? There is a great article on Playbill.com by Robert Simonson called "Reality Bites: When Fate Messes With Broadway Shows" Click Here to read it.

The point is, if you're writing something for the moment - something with a short shelf life, then I wouldn't worry too much about your content's statute of limitations. If you are writing something that you intend to endure for years or at least stick around for a good long while, it helps to take a few moments and peak down the road. Are my references strong enough to last? Will they travel well and not rust with age? Could some unforeseeable event throw a wrench into your work?
Or can you just ride out the expiration date of your material and sail into the future?
If a work is good enough and strong enough to outlast dated references, such as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde or even Bugs Bunny, then it can happen. Pick up a copy of "The Adventures Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn" and note all the footnotes that define what a particular word or phrase meant during the period it was written.

But then again, it will take a long time to reach the class of Twain, Wilde and Bunny. Until then, I will continue to update my work every few years.

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