Profile in Comedy: Bill Braudis
Bill Braudis is one of the best joke writers around. Just ask any comic. In addition to his stand-up performances (including an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) Bill has written for and performed in the animated shows Science Court, Home Movies, and Metalocalypse.
When did you first realize that you were uniquely funny?
In retrospect, I think I realized I was “funny” at an early age. Probably at around the age of seven or eight. That's when I entertained everyone at family gatherings by imitating my father's daily ritual of coming home from work, sitting in his chair, eating supper, watching TV, falling asleep in his chair, and snoring. I remember getting big laughs. I remember knowing what would get a laugh and I remember loving it.
Who do you think were your influences?
Although my mother always encouraged me to write (because I was pretty good at it) and I used to love listening to my father's wild stories about growing up with his four brothers, I'd have to say that one of my first true leaps into the world of comedy came from Bill Cosby. I was twelve years old when a friend let me borrow some Cosby albums. I remember one bit in particular about “Old Weird Harold” that had me laughing so hard I fell off my chair. Little did I know a seed had been planted. Then, when I was about thirteen, my sister took me to see Woody Allen's movie Take The Money And Run. Again, I literally fell off the chair in the theater laughing. Slid right down to that dirty, sticky floor. Comedy from Bill Cosby and Woody Allen were forever imprinted on my young mind. (Reading Woody Allen's books, Side Effects and Without Feathers, didn't hurt, either, and were probably my springboards for writing humor.)
Do you remember your first original joke?
First “official” joke came about while taking a sitcom writing class at a local continuing education program. (It was taught by an ex-staff writer from the TV show The Jeffersons.) The first assignment was to write a joke. He told us to pick a stand-up comic, use his or her persona, and write a ten-minute monologue. For some reason, I picked Rodney Dangerfield. I guess because not only had I seen Rodney Dangerfield a bunch of times on TV, but his was an easy personality to lock into — “no respect.” (I always leaned a little toward the self-deprecating stuff anyway.) So one of the jokes that I wrote in that assignment (this was in 1980) went like this … “I'm supposed to be going downhill skiing next weekend, but I've never gone downhill skiing before in my life. So I've been practicing. Every morning I get up, go out into the hallway and throw myself down three flights of stairs.”
When did you realize that comedy was something that you had to do for a living?
Probably when I wrote that assignment, because when I read the jokes in class everyone laughed and that was the first time I had ever written a joke with the intention of getting a laugh, and then actually got the laughs. But what solidified comedy as my career was my first time on stage, in 1981, at the Comedy Connection in Boston. I, as we comics say, killed. My first time ever on stage could not have gone better. Five minutes of material and I got a bunch of laughs, several rounds of applause, and I still have the cassette tape to prove it. That single appearance on stage solidified my goal to write comedy. And even though my next time on stage, the following week, I bombed so badly I was shaking, it didn't matter. I was hooked.
What was your first job in comedy writing or performance?
First paid gig as a stand up comic was at a restaurant in a western Massachusetts town. I was supposed to do twenty minutes. I did about eight. The cruel thing is, material flies by when you're bombing — usually because you don't have those pesky laughs to slow you down. But of course, the actual time, even eight minutes, crawls painfully by when people are just staring at you. It was my first paid gig. I was actually splitting the set with another comic. It was his first paid set as well. We were supposed to split the time of forty minutes and the pay of eighty dollars — cash. Forty bucks for bombing, horribly. I felt very guilty taking the money. There would be many more nights like that to come.
What is the biggest difficulty you've encountered being a comedy writer?
Tough question. Do you mean work wise? As in getting paid work? Because that would be the biggest problem. Especially living in Boston and getting paid for writing scripts is not easy. I've been very fortunate to have the opportunities I've had. Like anything, it takes perseverance and some talent. And, every now and then, you've got to step out of your comfort zone. It's funny — I like to write, and writing for the most part is a singular experience. But to sell yourself and pursue work, you have to come out of that cocoon. As comics in the early '80s in Boston, we used to pride ourselves on being our own everything. Our own writers, performers, managers, booking agents, travel agents, etc. We had to do it all. Part of that is still true today. Especially if you're not living in New York or LA. Gotta push yourself to sell yourself.
As far as the biggest difficulty in actual writing terms, for me, would be an honest rewrite. No matter how many times one might rewrite one's own stuff, another pair of eyes is always the real test. While writing for several TV shows, I learned a lot about having your work rewritten. It can be very humbling. But, as I eventually learned — and now preach to any writer who'll listen — you shouldn't fall in love with the stuff you write, you should fall in love with your ability to write it. That way, it's not unthinkable to go back and chop up your babies. (By “babies” I of course mean your “writing,” not the little things that poop.)
Sometimes you get too close to your material. You think, “This is good stuff, I don't care what they say. A zebra giving birth in an elevator is perfect for our show.” There were many times while writing scripts for TV shows that I thought I'd written some really good stuff. But not everybody saw it that way. That can be jolting. I have to think there are few writers alive whose skin is thick enough to never be bothered just the teensiest, tiniest bit by what others think. It's the nature of writing. People naturally judge and critique. As a writer, what you put on paper is almost always some measure of your ability, your intelligence, your station in life.
Most people's words and thoughts and ideas are on the inside and private. They may come out in a conversation, but then they probably disappear into the ether. But the written word, oh man, it just sits there on the paper for all to see. That's why it's so scary. When writing for a living, you learn to pick your battles or swallow your pride for the good of the show, the good of the relationship, or the good of the pay check. But, as I said, it's better to fall in love with your ability to fix things — because after all, “writing is rewriting” — than to fall in love with what you've written. You can like it, just don't marry it.
Are there jokes that you do “just for you?”
I never really subscribed to the “I do that joke for me” theory, mostly because I don't think it truly exists. In other words, I don't believe a comic is really doing stuff only for themselves and the hell with the audience. The only time you usually hear a comic say this is right after a joke bombs. They're trying to dig themselves out of the hole they just made. As a stand up comic, when you're on stage, your job is to get laughs. That's hard enough. I don't go out and try to dig myself a hole by doing jokes that I like but aren't that funny. If a joke I like consistently stops getting laughs, then I stop doing the joke. Or I try to fix it.
Sometimes a new joke works on 90 percent enthusiasm and after a while you realize the joke isn't getting the laughs it used to, even though it's the exact same wording. In those instances I like to stick a “crutch” in there. Something to help the joke. Maybe a little throw-away joke, or some rhetorical line along the way to the punch line. These help to put the crowd in position to better get the final punch line. The funny thing is, I'd say that there are jokes I do just for them, the audience. Jokes that I've grown tired of over the years, but they still get laughs, so I do them. But if a joke doesn't get a laugh, even if I like it, I don't do it.
What are the differences between writing for yourself and writing for others?
The biggest difference is the personality or character of the person you're writing for. You have to be able to get inside the character's head, whether it's a character you've created in a sitcom or an established performer. You really have to know a character well before you write for them. Real or fictional. I spent one season writing for Dennis Miller and when I got the job, even though I felt I knew his comedy, I still rented a couple of his videos to watch and become more familiar with his delivery, preferences, nuances, voice, etc. As far as writing for yourself, you probably know your character better than anybody. You're probably willing to take a lot more chances than somebody else with your material. And if it bombs, you only have yourself to blame.
How do you balance educational material and comedy?
In writing educational shows for kids (Science Court on ABC and Joy Learno and Between The Lions for PBS) I don't really think of maintaining a balance between delivering the educational content and creating humor. Educational shows for kids have to be one thing first and foremost: entertaining. If it's not entertaining, they won't watch it. When I would sit down to write a script for Science Court, I was given an outline of the educational points I had to make. But I wasn't looking for a balance. I wanted humor to be pretty much everywhere, except when delivering the key educational points. Imagine you're going to paint your bedroom white and you're going to do some stenciling on it. Well, you're not going to paint a little white, then do a stencil, then paint white in another spot and then do another stencil. You'll paint the entire wall white first, then go back in and put your stencils where you need to. That's kind of the idea I had with humor and educational content. Be funny first. When the educational stuff comes along, you'll be able to hit it on the nose, without taking anything away from the story or the humor.
What do you find exciting about comedy right now?
Comedy to me is always exciting and fun. It's fun to make people laugh, whether it's performing or writing. The Internet has certainly opened up a lot of possibilities for new creative outlets.
Where do you think the future of comedy is headed?
Comedy goes where the tragedy goes. Comedy goes where the celebrities go. It goes where the politicians go. It goes where the Internet goes. Comedy goes where life goes.
As audiences become more specific and more segmented, is your job becoming easier or more difficult?
I'm not sure what you mean by “more specific and more segmented.” Joke writing doesn't change. Subject matter changes. Mores change. Lines that once were never crossed are long gone and new ones are drawn. Levels of exposure and sophistication of audiences have changed, but a joke is still a joke. A joke is still the unexpected. A set up and a twist. The subject matter may be different. The audiences may be different. But, the steps needed to get a laugh — a punch line — remain the same and seems to me, always will.
What is the best thing about being a comedy writer?
I'm going to say something that might sound stupid, but it's my opinion. It's a lot easier to write drama than it is to write comedy. (I think a lot of people actually share this opinion.) Most people can't write good jokes and certainly even less can get up and perform them. That's one of the cool things about being able to write jokes — knowing that most people can't do it. Now, as a stand-up I've been lucky to perform on national television several times. I've also attended fancy dinners — no sneakers, dark socks — with my wife, who is a clinical nurse specialist in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit of one of the most important hospitals in the world. I'm a little uncomfortable at these functions because I don't feel I have a lot in common with nurses and doctors who work on baby's hearts. I certainly can't comment on cardiac stuff. (Of course, I agree that when the heart stops, that's not good.) But the funny thing is, these dedicated and brilliant doctors and nurses pretty much say the same thing to me: “I could never do what you do. I could never get up and tell jokes.” It either awes them or outright scares them, the thought of trying to be funny in front of a crowd of strangers. They're opening up a two-week-old chest to repair a hole in the heart, but telling jokes on national TV scares them. That's what I love about being a comedy writer.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming comedy writers?
Advice for comedy writers … this is kind of tricky. Be funny. Be original. Study the old comics and writers, and learn the rules so you can use them or break them to your benefit. Go out on a limb as often as possible. Be honest with yourself. If you think it might be a hack joke, chances are it's a hack joke. Challenge yourself. And remember the words of the great Lenny Bruce, comedy is tragedy and a nice clock. Something like that.