March 31, 2016

Original Theft

There is a saying that some people think is useful to newly creative people:  "Don't copy others, because it'll stop you from finding your own voice!"

This is nonsense.

It's nonsense in the same way some people think following stylistic rules will somehow hamper the imagination or stifle creativity.  Sure, 'rules were made to be broken' is a fine thing to say (and occasionally do); but if you don't understand why those rules exist, then you have no idea if breaking them might be a good idea.  Without understanding them, you won't know how to break them effectively, and if you're breaking rules, you're doing it for effect.

No, when you are starting any new project, learn the rules.  How you learn best is by copying people who DO know what they're doing. This is true for a lot of different things: watch someone build an engine, then build it with them (if you can), then try for yourself while carefully following the instructions from a manual.  Then when you understand why it's built that way - what the final purpose of the engine is - you'll have the knowledge to modify it, in pieces or entirely.  Or maybe just build the same thing again, just in your way.

But try building one from scratch and you're probably going to end up with something that sputters feebly, or shakes itself to death, or doesn't start at all.  And most of us want to roar.

I bring this up because of the dying of both comedian Gary Shandling and Ronnie Corbett, of The Two Ronnies fame.  Well, maybe not fame any more, as their show was on many, many years ago; but certainly of fond memories.  I caught their show because of KVOS showing them when the parents weren't home to monitor my TV consumption.

(Side note: I'd like to thanks KVOS for shaping lots of childhood memories for me.  Without them, I wouldn't have seen to much good comedy: MASH, Barney Miller, Monty Python.  And for my first Celebrity Girlfriend, Elaine from Taxi.)

Watching The Two Ronnies was an object lesson in wordplay, delivery, and most especially in timing.  Not only did I copy out their sketches word-for-word (or what I could remember of them), I also listened for their silences and how they were used.  What was the most effective time to deliver a punchline, and when was it best to do a rapid-fire back and forth, and how to steamroll effectively so the audience comes along with you instead of being left behind.

They even copied their most famous sketch - or at least Ronnie Corbett did - years later.  The Four Candles(?) sketch was as sacrosanct as anything in comedy, and here they are changing it while showing the audience they knew exactly what they were doing.

As for Gary Shandling, his amazing The Larry Sanders Show absolutely crushed the barriers between audience and performer; featured an unlikable, successful star that you pitied more than anything else; and had changing formats and styles inside the episodes themselves.  Still, somehow, it worked and worked brilliantly.  He changed the rules by showing how breaking them could still fit the most rigid and timid format TV has (it was, after all, a sit-com).  Having brilliant guests guests helped, of course; but it was easy to convince them to come on to the bottom-rated cable show because of what the show was.  Six seasons and a Who's Who of appearances to rack up with the awards it won brought HBO tons of credibility; but it wouldn't have happened without someone who understood the rules deeply and knew where they were most vulnerable.

Writing, acting, painting... go ahead and copy the masters, new and old.  They are masters for a reason: learn everything you can from them - most especially see what rules they break - and explore why they do it.  And that will help you find your own expression with a nice, solid base to launch from.


posted by Unknown at 11:15 am


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