Partners in Love and Comedy Writing

For nearly five years, despite the pleas of common sense, I’ve engaged in a steamy office romance. But it’s not what you think. There aren’t any break room rendezvous or synchronized trips to the water cooler. No, our workplace is our Jersey City apartment.

You see, my girlfriend and I aren’t cubicle mates. We’re writing partners. And although it defies logic and peace of mind, we actively choose to work together.

Diane and I both come from comedy backgrounds. We met as Daily Contributing Writers for The Onion and spent the majority of our relationship creating jokes, specs, pilots, and failed late night comedy packets. Through the years, we’ve been commissioned to produce a book in the Would You Rather…? series, hired by Comedy Central to write a pilot about Nerdcore rap, represented at William Morris, and handpicked to be the unlucky runners-up to the occasional staff position.

The courtship began in the typical fashion: Mr. Show, UCB, MST3K. But while snowed in on my 26th birthday in her Hudson County apartment, it was a glitchy VHS copy of Chris Elliott’s Action Family and FDR: A One Man Show that made me realize I didn’t want to date anyone else. Seven months later, I actually followed through on that.

As our hearts grew fonder, the more we dabbled in writing projects. Soon, workshopping the perfect rhythm for an Onion headline evolved into collaborating on monologue jokes for Conan packets. In writers mode, our arguments were as fleeting as the paying gigs. Our focus remained on churning out as much material while comedy websites were still actually cutting checks. At that point, we didn’t have time to quibble over every little detail. “Keep submitting FriendSpaceBook profiles before VH1 kills it!”

It wasn’t until after we moved into our Clinton Hill apartment — a year and a half into our relationship — that we decided to cowrite an original spec script. It was to be a Twilight Zone parody and the first project where irritation hit a fever pitch.

The lengthiest task we ever tackled together, the script quickly became a frustrating ordeal — tone being the very first point of conflict. On its surface, a Twilight Zone satire is a relatable concept, but stylistically, there are many directions in which to take. Should the comedy rely on the dry absurdities of the original series or be filled with wacky Zucker Brothers sight gags? Do the cheap sets and heavy-handed moral lessons deserve to be mocked or celebrated like a “love letter” to 1960s science fiction teleplays?

Needless to say, we disagreed on countless jokes before settling on a style.

I deemed a sight gag involving a trash bin on a mission control set spilling over with cigarette butts as too broad. Diane maintained that a line of dialogue referencing Mercury Retrograde was too obscure. A half hour was spent discussing which was the funniest food item to be stolen from a communal refrigerator. Egg roll, pastrami sub, Ding Dong. Each had their merits.

Arguments folded into themselves like a Möbius strips. A contested joke in the style of 30 Rock led to a clash over unique voice versus what networks found accessible. While poking fun of gravity in a spacecraft, we butted heads on the difference between a script writer’s crutch and a science fiction trope. And should either of us sigh or roll our eyes during a brainstorming pitch, a shouting match about knee-jerk judgment would erupt.

As unbelievable as it sounds, the end result was well worth it. The script, in our opinion, was fantastic. It caught the eye of Comedy Central producers and helped us establish a relationship with the network. Of course, it led to more rocky writing sessions, but at least for those times, it was for pay. The rewrites on the other hand…

Blending both the personal and business relationships is incredibly difficult, something we’re constantly trying to improve. Is it an even balance? Should there be a complete removal of the “couple” from the “writing team?” Does every act break need to be punctuated with a dual “I love you” and gift exchange? There never seems to be a consistent harmony, but when it works, when it all comes together, when we’re holding those bound 30 pages and smiling like two idiots, it doesn’t seem to matter.

For nearly five years, we’ve heard every variation of, “Oh, you two are comedy writers? You must just sit around and make it each other laugh all day.” And it’s true, we crack up and get punchy by singing alternate lyrics to the Friskies jingle or yelling imaginary Judge Judy interjections. But while Diane and I may be comedy writers, we have problems just like any other couple — one that’s been conditioned to overanalyze the subtle nuances of a person’s phrasing, tone, and motivation.

The trick is remembering to keep that level of scrutiny only for fictional characters.

Mike Schuster has somehow molded a lifelong proclivity of crackin’ wise into a steady paycheck. He is a staff writer for Minyanville.com and a survivor of chronic petulance.

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