Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (I)

I’ve found DVD commentaries to be an excellent source of reassurance and comfort. Every time the writers talk about their process, I’m reminded that I really don’t have to worry so much. Whether you like The Simpsons or not, the insight and advice offered by the people who create the show is of immense value to anyone who writes.

Writing Lessons from The Simpsons

If you’ve ever watched The Simpsons, you’ll know the show contains a large number background jokes. Each episode, particularly the earlier ones, contains funny signs, clever book and movie titles, and bizarre product names. In addition to being humorous, they often contain a sly and accurate observation on the subject they are parodying.

I used to envy the writers so much for their talent and insight. There was no way I could be as clever and witty. I told myself they must be extra smart or have special comedy training to do what they do, and that I would never measure up. When DVD’s became widely available and I was able to listen to the commentaries, I found out that I was wrong.

During the commentary for the season one episode ‘There’s No Disgrace Like Home’, one of the writers, Mike Reiss, said this:

“The funny signs you see in the background on The Simpsons are come up with by the writers and again, often an hour or two is spent to come up with a two-second sign joke.”

It took a while for the importance of this line to sink in. Once it did, it changed my thinking completely. The deciding factor wasn’t talent or training. It was time. It took an hour or two for an entire team of writers – not just one person, but a team – to create those background jokes I loved so much. This is a sentiment that is repeated throughout the commentaries from seasons one to ten (which is as far as I’ve got).

It’s true that many of the writers do have formal training or many years of experience in their field, or both. That doesn’t negate the reality that what they do takes time. That was the secret of their success. Instead of worrying so much about how I wasn’t as good as other people, I needed to spend more time revising my work.

This is not to say that funny or clever lines can’t come to you quite quickly, because they can and do. For the times they don’t, though, remember to be patient with yourself. If it takes a team of writers an hour or two to perfect a two-second sign joke, then it’s logical that it’ll take you just as long to craft something special. And that’s okay.

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This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words.

1. The fish broke through the surface…
2. The heavily-laden branch…
3. Hasty scribbles on the…
4. Bricks flew in every direction…
5. “I always add glitter to my magic spells,” said…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line any time at zee@twomarshmallows.net.

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