The Emmy-winning writer is in her California kitchen, and we can hear dishes clattering through the phone as she cleans her kitchen and talks about her upcoming visit to the Vineyard. “It’s one of my favorite places on earth,” she says.
Anne Beatts — one of the original writers of Saturday Night Live (SNL), editor of National Lampoon, creator and executive producer of the CBS comedy series “Square Pegs,” and the first season of “A Different World,” Writer’s Guild Award winner and five times Emmy nominee — is going to show a fortunate few participants how it’s done on Wednesday, August 11, in a three-day workshop and show, “How to Get in Touch With Your Inner Funny Bone,” sponsored by The Yard.
“You can’t teach people to be funny, but you can teach them to be funnier,” she says. “You can’t say, ‘Okay, be funny now.’”
She is an animated speaker, pausing to laugh and react, and sounding as relaxed and as familiar as a friend.
“We start with an idea and think of how to best to express that idea,” she says, describing the workshop. “There are people who say, ‘I know I’m funny, but I don’t know what to do with it.’ So you have to say, what format would it best be suited for? What would be the best way to express it? How do you get that idea out of your brain and into the world? It’s trying to get people to start to develop a comic sensibility, and to hone the sensibility they already have.”
Ms. Beatts (pronounces “beets”) has been to the Vineyard many times over the years, recently to work with her friend Judy Belushi Pisano on an hour-long television pilot they’re writing based on The Blues Brothers (“Not Dan and John,” she says. “It’s Jake and Ellwood”).
Although she’s constantly teaching and writing —there’s nothing she hasn’t done, from a newspaper column (“Beatts Me!” in the Sunday Los Angeles Times), to Broadway — she laughs when it’s suggested that for someone with her credentials opportunities must be abundant.
“Unfortunately, I think in some way what’s happened in television reflects what’s happened in the rest of our society, which is to essentially wipe out the middle class,” she says, “so that those who are working in television now tend to be really brand-name kind of people — young and hungry. It’s always been a business that places a lot of emphasis on the new,” she explains. “And also there’s an economic reason, because it’s cheaper to hire new young people.” She pauses. “And then there’s sexism and ageism.”
But she’s enjoys teaching aspects of comedy writing in University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Art, and at Chapman University in the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, in Orange, Calif., where she teaches writing for late-night television.
SNL was innovative and introduced a new and irreverent style of comedy for mass consumption. “It got away from ‘Take my wife, please,’ and ‘A man walked into a bar,’ and got into a different kind of imagining,” she says. “Sometimes, it was quite cruel and disgusting. Now, it might be harder to shock people.”
According to her, successful comedy involves both the material and the personality of the person delivering the material, and she quotes SNL star Gilda Radner: “Comedy is when you slip on the ice, but then try to make it look as if you did it on purpose.” Ms. Beatts says, “It’s as a good definition as I’ve heard…I’m a fan of planned spontaneity.”
When pressed, she offers one rule for writing comedy: “It has to make you, the writer, laugh,” and adds, “I can tell you what’s not funny: If no one laughs. The test of funny is getting it out there in the universe and seeing how people respond to it.”
The students taking her workshop (a maximum of 25) should expect to have a good time, in addition to mastering new skills. Ms. Beatts laughs and says, “I’ve often described my classes as the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
The first day will be devoted to getting to know each other. The next day each person will work on developing an idea. Then students will read either their own or each other’s work, as Ms. Beatts believes, “If you hear your work read out loud it helps to edit it. You get a better idea of how it works.”
Work will be critiqued, suggestions made, reactions exchanged. On the fourth day the work will be performed.
It all sounds like a lot of fun — but aren’t comedians supposed to be suffering inside? Anne Beatts sounds too happy, too well adjusted, when she talks of her eight-year-old daughter Jaylene, who’s coming with her to the Vineyard to take The Yard’s Kids’ Creative Theater with Music and Movement, and when she gets emphatic about thanking artistic director Wendy Taucher for her hospitality, and enthuses over The Yard’s efforts to expand its offering of classes.
She admits “Square Pegs” was based on her trying to fit in in high school, but says, “Yes, you have to have some kind of understanding of pain, but it doesn’t mean you have to continually.” And she sounds another laugh: “Pain is necessary; suffering is optional.”
“How to Get in Touch With Your Inner Funny Bone,” Wednesday, August 11 through Friday, August 13, 9 am to 12 noon; Saturday, August 14, 1 to 5 pm, The Yard, Chilmark. Limited to 25 students. High school students with permission. $300. 508-645-6552.