Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Make 'Em Laugh

I knew when I bought my ticket to Blogher that I would worry about getting my money's worth out of it. Spending $200 on myself felt so decadent. Would I have to go to a lot of sessions to make it feel properly spent? Would those sessions be things I wanted to hear or things I felt I needed to hear? I went to a session in every available slot and I went to every keynote address. I was not disappointed by even one of them.

One I waffled about, though, was the humor writing session in the last slot of the conference. Lizz Winstead stand up comedienne, co-creator of The Daily Show and Tweeter extraordinaire was on the panel. I wanted to hear her. There was, perhaps, another session in that time slot that would have been "good for me" but to see Winstead live would be a true treat. Back when Comedy Central actually showed stand up comedy all day long - full-length shows, clip shows, theme shows - 24 hours a day I was a devoted viewer. I could recite Brian Regan's "You Too" riff and sing Kevin James' "Fatty Bumbalatty" song and fell in love with the smart, biting commentary of classic female stand ups like Joy Behar, Judy Gold, Elayne Boosler and, of course, Lizz Winstead. Yet, some Puritanical throwback in my DNA made me wonder if I needed to deny myself the thrill of seeing Winstead in person in order to have made a wise purchase.

My DNA is a fucking buzz kill.

Fortunately I didn't listen and I went to the discussion and for once my DNA could not have been more wrong. I needed to hear and to learn everything that went on in that room.

Luvvie was moderating and she was such a delightful intro to the group. I'm never getting in a cab with her, though. Dang!

Jessica Bern was in from LA, fighting laryngitis and still funnier than most people are 100% healthy with a script in their hands. She is so familiar to me. I can't tell you why, though. I don't think it's that she's a type because she is the cream of whatever type people might file her under. I feel like I worked with her on something but I probably just watched her in something. I don't know what it was but I do know that I am in love.

Of course Lizz Winstead rounded out the panel and I've already told you how much I respect and adore her.

I spent the whole time laughing, tweeting and writing down quotes. I'm lucky my hands didn't fall off at the wrist. I'll hit you with a bunch of the quotes at the end but alone they won't convey the overall feel of the discussion.

Winstead and Bern have been friends for about 20 years. They have a shared language and experience that made their casual conversation into a well-oiled performance. Which was a good thing since they  had to share a microphone. At one point Winstead was making merciless fun of Bern and refusing to give her the microphone to defend herself. So Bern and her croaky throat stood up, walked around Winstead and borrowed Luvvie's stationary mic to deliver a devastating one word punchline that had the assembled falling out of their seats.

The other clear result of their bond, though, was the theme that rose seemingly effortlessly out of the banter. As funny as these two women are, they are deadly serious in their support of women in their industry, in their lives and in the world. If you don't believe me ask San Diego Momma.

Every session at Blogher was being recorded which meant that even audience members asking questions needed to speak into a mic for the quality of the end product. To make this easier there was a "mic wrangler" for every session whose job it was to identify people with questions and spread the mic equitably around the room all while being unobtrusive so as not to draw attention from the speakers. In all the other sessions I'd been to the panelists had deferred to the wrangler, letting her choose the direction of the Q&A  according to the way she was navigating the room. The Mizzes Winstead and Bern aren't ones for giving over control of a performance. After a while Luvvie saw that moderating was going to be more about stepping back and letting this discussion go where it needed to go. The mic wrangler would be on one side of the room and suddenly Jessica would call on someone. Someone totally other and elsewhere. At first glance that might seem as though she wasn't paying attention when in fact the exact opposite was true. She'd been watching the room and she knew who had put her hand up first and wanted to make sure that they got to every question and served everyone in the order we'd arrived. It's a small detail perhaps but that level of attention to the audience is simply not something you see every day. Perhaps it's because Jessica and Lizz are women, perhaps it's because they are observational comediennes or perhaps, and this is what I'm banking on, it's because they are simply brilliant and good people.

On a similar note they were honest and open about their work and their lives. Usually in a funny way but not always. Someone, inevitably, asked about a dust up started a while ago by a blogger called Jezebel when she went on a rant about the lack of women involved with The Daily Show. You can imagine how well that went over with the ovary-laden co-creator of the series. She could have gone off angrily about the blogger and let that be it. She could have gotten defensive. She could have refused to answer the question and referred us all to the many conversations about it online. Instead she led with how little respect she has for Jezebel and then proceeded to explain, calmly, why. If you're interested here's the why.

All submissions to be considered for the writing staff of The Daily Show are wiped of their identifying details in order to eliminate prejudice of all kinds, not just those that are gender related. These submissions are evaluated for their qualifications as a media consumer, a humorist, a satirist and their ability to work with the tone of the show. To quote Winstead, "It's not a gender thing, it's a nerd thing." When they searched for people to fill the writers room they got 150 applicants. Once the selection process was concluded and tallies could be made it turned out that 3 of those applicants were women.  So, you know, you can't win if you don't play.

This all prompted Bern to grab the mic back and say, quite sincerely and forcefully, "Please don't stop [writing]....The only way we can't be ignored is if we don't ignore each other." I told you I was in love before but now you're really starting to believe me, aren't you?

There was some dishing certainly. We were told in no uncertain terms that Dennis Miller has never written his own material. So that's kind of interesting, especially when he gets brought up as a shining example in political debates. We learned that Leno's writers room need only have a men's room. And, in the midst of it all Winstead commandeered the mic and a questioner and tried to give an impromptu stand up workshop. I was crushed the woman wouldn't take it.

The questioner laid out a scenario where she had told a joke, using humid female genital imagery, in the swag exchange room at the conference. It bombed. Crickets. We eventually learned that she was using it as an example to ask if either of the comediennes ever censored their material depending on the audience. However Winstead took the bull by the horns before she even got that far and said (I'm paraphrasing a little, I couldn't write fast enough), "Don't tell us the joke, you don't have to tell us the joke, but given the same situation, the exact same one, would you tell the joke again?" I think people pay hundreds of dollars and spend years of their lives studying comedy to get that kind of lesson. Was it the fault of the joke or your delivery or your timing or were you in the wrong place at the wrong time? Would you tell it again in the exact same circumstances because you believe the joke is funny and believe that it will get the laugh if you can just figure out how to sell it? Bern then chimed in that she had at least one joke she's told over and over despite being the only one who thinks it's funny. She then addressed the rest of the question by removing the word "censor" and telling an anecdote about realizing that, for everyone's enjoyment, it's wise to pull the drunk jokes from a set at a Mormon event.

Which all kind of boils down to something that Winstead repeated a number of times in several forms, that the writer must take responsibility for what she writes (do her homework, stand by her convictions, understand her own boundaries) and the reader or viewer must take responsibility for how she feels about it.

So there you have it. Keep writing. Do it well. Believe in yourself. Keep reading. Keep supporting. Keep telling others about what you read. Take responsibility for yourself. Laugh.

I leave you with a few quotables before I go off and do as they taught me.

"I heap ridicule on those who have power and use it for evil." - Lizz Winstead

"Saw whatever you would like and realize there's a consequence to that." - Lizz Winstead

"You know what happens to a car when it drives down the middle of the road? It causes accidents. So stay on the left or stay on the right." - Lizz Winstead

"It's always going to be offensive to someone." - Lizz Winstead

"Always link to shit you think is important because you are important." Jessica Bern (I may have paraphrased a little there, my handwriting is atrocious, but I think I got her gist.)

"If you believe in God then God created scientists. So shut up!" - Lizz Winstead

"The one thing I do not do is write about things I do not know." - Lizz Winstead

I wish you had all been there with me.

*I could not find online images of Jessica Bern or of Luvvie that would copy correctly into this post. Please forgive me and enjoy a range of photos of Lizz Winstead in this post. Click through to Bern's and Luvvie's sites to feast on their beauty.


  1. I'm going to look this woman up; here is the first experience I've had of her. Also? I'm stealing this;

    Keep writing. Do it well. Believe in yourself. Keep reading. Keep supporting. Keep telling others about what you read. Take responsibility for yourself. Laugh.

    to put on my classroom wall. Thank you.

  2. You're one of 2 people who seems to have managed to make it all the way to the end of the post so I guess you have every right to a take home prize. :)

  3. I get to the end of all your posts, Sweet...