Erica Lies, Comedy Polymath, on Writing Sprites & Hillbillies
Erica Lies is a critic, comedy writer, and marketer. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Vulture, and The Hairpin.
Erica’s screenwriting has won numerous awards, and she is a long-time producer for the live storytelling phenomenon, Mortified.
You write in several comedic forms: screenwriting, sketch writing for the stage, and satire writing for the internet. Do you have a favorite aspect of each? What do you feel the advantages of each are?
I like that short, conceptual pieces are done quickly. It’s nice to be able to bang something out in a couple of days, as opposed to a pilot script that takes a lot more planning before execution. I also just enjoy the practice of punching up and pushing jokes further and then stylizing them so they have a certain rhythm.
What I love about pilot writing is that you can actually develop a character and the dialogue can be outlandish but still grounded in a clearly defined reality. And also creating visual jokes.
Sketch, I think, is the hardest, at least for me. Because you can write those most incredible jokes in the world and they can still fall flat in the actual performance if the performers aren’t really stellar or you just didn’t write in their voice. So, basically, I just enjoy torturing myself.
Do you think the added difficulty of sketch writing comes from the performance variable, i.e. you can’t control how your written material will come across on stage, or how it will be delivered?
Oh, totally. But if that happens, it’s usually because I concerned myself more with my beautiful words than with what’s funny about the performers actually doing the sketch.
You are a writer after all. But I see your point.
I write for myself mostly, and I know the rhythm of my own voice and how I sound when a line hits, but with a lot of the sketches I’ve written, it’s hard to tell if it would hit if someone else performed it, just because that person is funny in a different way and that is what I need to write toward.
When I wrote things for my old sketch team, I would just try to write in my teammates’ voices. That way when they picked up the script, it was just in their rhythm and tone and they knew how to say it already. But even with all of that, two things can still get in the way: not rehearsing it enough, and not having a director to push a certain direction. And also, if the performer is under the influence when they do the show, well, that can sink your sketch immediately because it just slows everything down.
Performing under the influence is a variable I wasn’t thinking about. It’s good to choose your troupe-mates wisely.
Now let’s talk about co-writing. The two of us have written a few humor pieces together, such as this McSweeney’s piece, “What Your Myers-Briggs Type Says About Whether You’ll Take the Myers-Briggs Test.” How does co-writing feel different from writing on your own?
I love it because I’m definitely an overthinker and co-authoring means I’m not alone with my own thoughts; I’m part of a team. So somewhat like improv, it makes it so much easier to forget myself and just focus on playing. And it makes me even less precious about what I write. Having another person to spitball with helps push a premise to a stronger place, to begin with, too. If something makes both of you laugh, you know that joke or rep probably works. If the other person doesn’t get a joke, it tells me that it’s either not clear or completely not working. That said, writing with a partner has likewise gotten me to keep some jokes that I might have otherwise tossed or been too harsh with.
This whole process, of course, has one big caveat, which (again) would be: choose your team wisely. It’s easier to write with someone who looks to build things rather than tear them down and who isn’t so in love with their own voice that they can’t let a few things go. And then it’s important to be that kind of teammate, too, because otherwise, why would anyone wanna make anything with me?
“It makes you both laugh” is probably my favorite aspect of co-writing. It gives you this very quick feedback mechanism to know that a joke works. It feels very… efficient.
What’s something that you’ve changed your mind about recently regarding your creative process?
I don’t find page one rewrites to be such a big deal anymore. Nothing is precious. If it isn’t working, I toss it out no matter how much I love it, no matter how long I worked on it.
And also I’ve realized I write best very late at night. Being tired but not ready to go to bed yet puts me in a mind set where I judge myself less. Sometimes I don’t even remember having done it and I get this little surprise the next time I open the doc, like, ‘Who was the kindly sprite that did all this work whilst I dreamed?’ So I’d recommend: get imaginary creatures speaking outdated English to do your work for you.
I’m also a night-owl, but I’ve been writing in the mornings or afternoons for a while, because it’s made me more consistent. Why do you think you judge yourself less at night? Less energy for the filtering and judging part?
I like writing at night because it also gives me a deadline. i.e. I’ve gotta get to a certain place before my head starts tilting ever and ever closer to my keyboard. So the other time I can write is under a time constraint. Like usually if I already have a premise and a beat sheet or outline, I can churn out a crappy first draft of a sketch in about 45 minutes. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but there’s a least a skeleton there to be worked on.
And another thing I do in editing (like the final, final edits) is I’ll print out the sketch, underline where the premise becomes evident, and mark every laugh line. This lets me see just at a glance if I have a decent joke/laugh distribution and if my premise is clear and early enough in the sketch that it will get an audience’s attention. It also gives me the chance to interrogate every word and cut it if I don’t need it.
Print it out, read it out loud, and take a pen to it is advice I keep hearing from good writers. I think you’re in good company.
What do contemporary comedy writers do that annoys you?
I’d have to say lazy jokes about hillbillies. I’m from hillbilly country and I think all it does is hold them back and make the rest of the country care about them less as human beings. We don’t even treat hillbillies as though the *are* human beings. They’re the last group of people it’s considered okay to make fun of it, but it makes me bonkers, because a) it’s punching down, and b) Appalachia has been systemically oppressed for a century and those jokes only perpetuate it by making the rest of the country not care about the environmental destruction of and underinvestment in that region because “they’re just dumb, uneducated hillbillies.” Furthermore, it’s attacking the wrong people. Make fun of the companies, the executives, not the oppressed.
Oh my god, I’ve become a comedy Bernie Sanders. I went balding and grey-haired just typing that.
Do you have any rules that you abide by as a writer? i.e. A personal code you follow.
Like Nike says, Just Fucking Do It.