In my head, I think I’m still in Austin, going over what I learned from panelists I heard speak, from the films I saw, and from the overall experience. Probably the absolute highlight for me was being chosen to participate in a live edition of Meg LeFauve and Lorien McKenna’s podcast, The Screenwriting Life. What that entailed was coming up on stage and describing (not pitching) a story that I was working on, but in the process of which I’d gotten stuck, and needed to be unstuck. Mine was the first name they pulled out of the hat, so up I went to talk about a story that I haven’t even properly started writing (as opposed to outlining, which I have done) because I didn’t know the ending.
And boy, were they helpful. The experience was like story doctoring as therapy. By asking the right questions, and listening carefully to my answers, LeFauve and McKenna were able to hear where I was resistant to solving my own problems, and simply by forcing me to make choices—before a huge audience I really had no alternative—to make those choices real, and therefore possible, and therefore tangible, and therefore writable. It was just extraordinary.
I've had the experience before of readers who I felt had really gotten inside the work, who understood what I was doing and why and could help me see what I was missing—or, better, avoiding—and how to address it. But it’s a rare experience, and I’d never experienced it before at the story stage, nor at such simultaneous speed and depth. It really blew my mind. I went in thinking: I have a situation, and some characters, but not a story, because I don’t know what I’m driving towards. I left feeling like I finally knew what I was driving towards (and what work I still needed to do to get there), but why I was interested in telling this story in the first place.
If you’re interested in hearing me on the story couch, you can listen to the podcast here.
The other experience I’ve been mulling over since returning from Texas was something that happened at the pitch finale party. All through the conference, the festival held pitch competitions where participants had ninety seconds to pitch their story—whether for a feature film or series or what-have-you—to a panel of judges. The winners of each of these competitions got to pitch at the finale before a particularly august judging panel—Meg LeFauve was one of the pitch finale judges—and a large and boisterous live audience of their peers, for the title of best pitch of the festival.
I didn’t participate because I hadn’t gotten my act together to actually buy a pass for the festival until long after the pitch competition slots were all full. I was relieved by that fact, but also regretful, because I hate pitching and am terrible at it, and so I really ought to practice it more. The ninety-second limit is entirely artificial—it’s too long for a log-line or elevator pitch, and too short for a proper pitch in the room—but that isn’t important. Regardless of the length, the key thing is to be able to see your own work well enough to be able to distill it down to a focused point of clarity, and then to understand how to communicate that in a way that is enticing to the intended audience while still being accurate.
So I attended the finale as an observer, keen to hear how my peers approached the problem. The answer turned out to be: diversely. Some tried to tell the whole story; some focused on the premise. Some did a lot of performing; some were matter-of-fact. But regardless of style, it wasn’t hard to tell which ones were the best. They were the ones that, listening, made you feel like you could see the movie or the pilot of the show, not in the sense of being especially visual but in the sense of transporting you to your seat so that you felt what you were going to feel.
One pitch, though, was a catastrophe even though to an extent it succeeded on this most important mission. That was the story of the cure for micropenis.
I don’t remember all the details of the pitch, but I remember the basic idea. It was a raunchy comedy about the development of a drug that could reliably increase penis size, and the shenanigans that ensue when various parties scramble to get control of it. Those parties include the North Koreans who, the writer pitching declared, “have the world’s smallest penises.”
As soon as he said that, the audience—led by a burly Asian guy who was sitting near where I was standing—erupted in anger, and that angry reaction basically buried the rest of his pitch, and shaped the feedback he got from the judges as well. The first judge to comment had been a judge in his original pitch competition, and had therefore heard this pitch before and judged it sufficiently better than its rivals to merit promotion to the finale. But now, she said, she realized that she had done him a disservice by not warning him about negatively stereotyping groups of people. The other judges concurred, then tried to move on to talking about the rest of the pitch, but really there was nothing else anyone in the room heard, including the person doing the pitch. Apparently he was later seen crying in a corner somewhere, mortified, ashamed or just hurt.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him since, and my thoughts run on conflicting tracks. On the one hand, I didn’t think his pitch was particularly good. He seemed to think that merely talking about penis size was funny, and I’m sorry, that’s a subject for a joke, not an actual joke. The whole invidious stereotype thing about Korean penises, meanwhile, is a very real and live issue. There was an uproar earlier this year, for example, about ads in Korea that men’s rights groups denounced for impugning their endowments. Moreover, while it isn’t easy to find good databases comparing penis sizes across countries or ethnic groups (the difficulty with getting a representative sample should be obvious), there have been studies of Korean men that suggest a strong correlation between depression and low self-image on the one hand and underestimation of their own actual penis size on the other. So telling him, “you need to be careful in this area” doesn’t sound to me like terrible advice.
All of that having been said, though, I am absolutely confident that you could make a really funny joke that lands right where he wanted it to land. I recall a piece I wrote almost a decade ago comparing the racially-stereotyped penis humor of “Blazing Saddles” with that of “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” In that piece, I was charting what I thought of as a decline, but what the two movies still shared is that they both had skin in the game (as it were). I strongly suspect that if the person pitching in Austin had started there—with whatever hangups he has about his own penis size—he’d have managed to bring the North Koreans into the story in a way that made it about their own perceptions and anxieties, and, because of that empathy, would have been able to bring the audience along with him as well.
That’s insanely hard to do in ninety seconds, of course. It’s even harder if you’re worried not just about losing the audience in the sense of boring them, but in the sense of being seen by them as a bad person. So I really do wish that the judges, in addition to telling him to tread carefully, also told him to keep working on it, reassured him that the fact that the story he pitched angered the audience didn’t mean that he had to abandon it, much less that he had committed some offense for which he had to atone. And I wish they had told the angry audience the same thing. Everyone in that room was a fellow writer or filmmaker; all of them should know how hard it is to do this well, and how important it is for criticism to be constructive. That’s no less true when you step on contemporary sensitivities. Everyone in that room should expect that they will also do that, at some point, and think about how they would want people to react to them when they do, what they, when they are in his shoes, would find constructive.
And look: this is not an unselfish desire on my part. I’ve written multiple scripts that, as part of what they are doing, poke the hornet’s nest from one direction or another. I hope I’ve always done so in a way that brings my audience with me, so that I can confidently say to myself that people who get upset (and some people will always get upset) weren’t really listening. But I know I’m going to need compassionate and constructive criticism to make sure I get there, and not either careless support that leaves me exposed, or the panicked rejection that usually follows after the blowback.
The alternative isn’t a world where all humor hits approved targets. It’s a world where more and more humor doesn’t hit the target at all, and laughter is increasingly replaced by clapter, whether of the woke or anti-woke variety.