Bob Gillen on Storytelling

Month: January 2014

Comedy Writing

“I personally appreciate extremely dark humor,” says Dublin-based comedy writer and performer Valerie Ní Loinsigh. “I think that it is an Irish trait to be enormously dark in your humor. I don’t appreciate superiority humor or humor at the expense of others quite as much. I like self-deprecation and black comedy.”

I am pleased to share an email conversation I had with Valerie Ní Loinsigh about her experiences with comedy writing, playwriting, acting, stand up comedy, and comedy workshops. We talked largely about comedic playwriting and stand-up comedy.


Comedy writer Valerie Ni Loinsigh

Valerie Ni Loinsigh

Ní Loinsigh recommends the essay ‘Elinor Fuchs’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.’ “I think that every aspiring playwright should read this,” says Ní Loinsigh. “A play is your own world and it is your job to convince the reader that that world is worth exploring. It is your responsibility to interest them in what you have to say. Making somebody laugh is always a useful tool in appealing to them.”

Ní Loinsigh says, “With comedic plays, I believe you should set the tone from the get-go. Convince the reader with a strong opening and after that, a consistent tone helps to keep their attention. With playwriting, you have a hell of a lot of scope. Anyone could read you. You could talk about anything… I find that my best scenes always have an element of truth in them, or I am always thinking of somebody from my real life and their voice when I am writing.”

Be Fearless

“Personally, with my playwriting, I always strive to be original. This is a blessing and a curse. It is either a success or a failure that you are completely responsible for. As with stand-up, you must be influenced, you must keep reading, never be too confident.

“It’s comedy. Laugh at yourself. Be fearless!

“It is also important to have your own standard. I have sat through plays of mine and felt like vomiting at what I felt was a terrible performance, and then received compliments afterwards. I have sat through plays of mine where I have squealed like a piglet in delight at how much laughter I was getting from the audience, only to be told afterwards that the play was obscure.

“Have your own standards but don’t shut yourself off from people. It is only when there is an element of doubt in ourselves that we are so sensitive to criticism. Be intelligent about which opinions you take on board and which you don’t.

“Be open to evolving,” Ní Loinsigh says. “My latest playwriting adventure is something that I am extremely excited about. It’s an original musical comedy called Fox Live. I wrote this in collaboration with two musical composers (Rowland Bennett and Tom McGrath). In writing it, we were honest with each other, we were brutal and insensitive, and the end result is something that I look forward to performing in. (Good playwrights always cast themselves!)”

Stand-Up Comedy    

Ní Loinsigh has been voted “Ireland’s Funniest” on RTÉ Radio One. “Humor based on misfortune” is the subject of Ní Loinsigh’s dissertation at Trinity College. She says, “This intrigues me as a concept, as essentially it is turning something that is utterly terrible into something that is positive. The three comedians that I am looking at are Tig Notaro, Francesca Martinez and Joan Rivers. Tig Notaro’s set documents a series of horrendous tragedies in her life that happened in quick succession. Francesca Martinez documents a lifetime with cerebral palsy. And Joan Rivers needs no explanation.

“What all of these ladies have in common is a sense of evolution. Comedy progressing. Comedy changing. Comedy being fresh. Freshness equals good stand-up comedy.”

Keep It Fresh

“With your writing, understand that comedy is ever evolving and your writing should be too.” Ní Loinsigh insists, “Don’t allow your writing to get stale, in topic or performance. Always be fresh!! What helps to keep your writing fresh is allowing yourself to be influenced: by other comedians, by satirical magazines (The Onion/The Daily Mash), by the world. Don’t shut yourself off from the world (trust me, this is extremely easy to do in stand-up). Mix with other comedians, as it is nice to get opinions.

“Understand that influences and what you expose yourself to are extremely important. I have underestimated how important it is to have influences in the past. You are what you watch, what you observe, what you appreciate. This does not mean copy exactly one influence but rather sample a lot of influences and learn about yourself. Develop a unique voice; the more influences, the better. You always need to be practiced, poised and fit. You are never just ‘funny.’ You must observe others at work and constantly be thinking of how you could improve your act. Like the music that you listen to, the comedy that you listen to will affect the end-product of your stand-up.”

Regarding the content of your writing, Ní Loinsigh says, “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you conclusively what makes ‘good’ comedy writing per se, as everybody has a different taste. You will need to develop your own comedy voice, through practice and by listening to potential influences and noting what you find funny. Watch a comedy gala. What do you laugh at? What don’t you laugh at? Make note.”

Humor Can Be So Subjective

Comedy writer Valerie Ni Loinsigh

Comedy writer Valerie Ni Loinsigh

Ní Loinsigh’s advice: “With stand-up, take each performance as a separate challenge. Never become transparent. Always do your research. Take a notepad with you and if something does not work, write it down and reflect intelligently on why you think it didn’t. If you genuinely find something funny and deliver it with conviction, then have the confidence to believe that the problem was with the audience, not you.

“Be aware of when you are getting tired of your own material, it really translates when one sees a comedian perform material that he is sick of. Make an effort to be fresh and excited about your material.

“To try to allow for the subjectivity of humor, it is so important to know your audience and know your context in advance of the gig. Decide what material that you will use to get optimum laughter, based on where you are performing, the amount of people in the audience, whether people have been drinking, whether people know each other, whether it is a pay-in gig or an open microphone gig. Predict what they will find the funniest of all of your material. Always have a particularly strong five minutes of material that you can perform should everything else go wrong with your set.”

Workshopping Comedy

Can comedy be taught? “Yes, absolutely. I am the Head of Department in Long Lake Camp for the Arts in New York,” says Ní Loinsigh. “With teaching, what is most important, beyond anything else is discovering what makes a person funny and not trying to shoehorn your style onto them. With my students, I can’t teach them my funny but I can certainly draw their funny from them.”

Characterizing Irish Comedy

A final thought: I asked Ní Loinsigh if she thinks there is a signature tone to comedy in Ireland. “I wouldn’t dare to generalize all of Irish comedy but I can make a comment on a selection of Irish films that I love and are relatively current. They say what people laugh at tells them a lot about themselves as people.

 The Guard. An Irish guard who is behind in his political correctness, perpetuating an Irish stereotype as we can’t help but to love this likeable, morally corrupt man.

Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges.  Very dark, crass. Martin McDonagh who enjoys violence in his work, particularly violence against animals as evidenced in Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh certainly has a very stylized voice which shines through in his work.

Man About Dog. A Pierce Elliot creation featuring Pat Shortt… The craic is mighty in this.


For the full version of the interview, see our related website The Filmmaker Lifestyle.




As Though Your Words May Die

All creative artists reach a point where they have to let go of their created work. Publish it, display it, sell it, screen it. Let it go.

For some artists an even deeper sense of abandonment is at play in their creative process.

Street Art: The Trojan Women

Street Art: The Trojan Women

Several years ago I attended a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, his epic indictment of war written in 415 BCEOutside the black box theater, located in the arts district of LA, a street art mural publicized the current production. The artist – I don’t know who – created the piece knowing that it would only be there for a month or two, then be painted over for the next show’s ad.

Here are a few pictures of the street art. Can you see the desperation that the street artist captured? The dread, the bloody horror in the women’s eyes? The Trojan women’s nation had just been defeated in war. They lost their husbands and children. They faced a life of servitude.

A Trojan Woman - closeup

A Trojan Woman

Closeup of The Trojan Women

Closeup: A Trojan Woman

The artist knew going in that the art would be destroyed. It reminds me of the Zen monks who create intricate sand mandalas (paintings), only to ritually obliterate them, as a testament to the impermanence of life.

For a writer, this holds a lesson. Create with abandon. Let the abandonment free up the creative process. Don’t worry about whether your words will endure. Ray Bradbury once said, “In quickness is truth. The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”


Reporter Meyer Berger’s New York

Author and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg insists that every writer have a mentor. When a student bemoaned the fact that she had no one to mentor her, Goldberg said, “(Authors) are your mentors… Enter their minds. Don’t let any obstacle keep you away.”

 Here’s a piece I wrote on back in November of 2010 about a writer I consider to be a mentor: Meyer Berger of The New York Times. His writing still shapes my own.

Camden shooter

Captured Camden shooter.

On the morning of September 6, 1949, a mentally unstable war vet, armed with a Luger pistol, walked up and down his own block in Camden, New Jersey, shooting men, women and children. He killed 13 people and wounded more before he ran out of bullets and police captured him.

Meyer (Mike) Berger, a New York Times reporter, got the story assignment just before 11 a.m. that morning. He jumped on a train to Camden, interviewed 50 people, wrote a 4,000 word story, and submitted it at 9:20 that night, in time for the printing of the first edition the following morning.

Berger won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for his Camden story.  The Pulitzer honored Berger for accurate reporting and skillful writing under pressure.

In the early 1960s I found a copy of Meyer Berger’s New York in the public library. The book featured many of Berger’s Times columns, published between 1953 and 1959.  Reading his columns taught me to look for the color, the detail, the small pieces that filled in a larger picture.

New York was the skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, the subway, the crowds. But for Berger it was also a story on the birthday of the Tennessee pink marble lions that still guard the public library on Fifth Avenue. It was the story of the farm in the East River, on Rikers Island, where prisoners grew vegetables and raised chickens. It was the interviews with Canadian Indian steel workers, commuting each weekend between Montreal and New York, who helped construct much of Manhattan’s skyline.

Meyer Berger's New York

Meyer Berger’s New York

Berger tells of the gray-haired lady who painted daily on her third-floor terrace on Gracie Square, overlooking the East River. Her paintings of the river and its boat traffic grew so popular that passing tugboat captains would toot their horns in salute to her.

As a kid I grew up reading newspapers: The New York Journal-American; The New York Daily News; The New York Daily Mirror; and on Sunday mornings the huge New York Times (accompanied by bakery rolls and jelly donuts). I continue to read the papers daily, although always online now. And I will always go to the color stories first, the pieces that go behind the facts. Always look for the background details to a story. The map, the diagram, the chart, the interviews with witnesses and peripheral participants. No television news program will give me that.

Reporter and columnist Meyer Berger worked for The New York Times for 30 years until his death in 1959.

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