Bill Scheft discusses the differences between comedy fiction and monologue writing, and his latest novel, “Everything Hurts.”
Question: What are the differences between writing for the Late Show and writing comedic fiction?
Bill Scheft:Well, here’s the difference between writing monologue jokes and writing fiction. Well, first of all you use the word intern much less and waterboarding much less when you write fiction. It’s a different muscle. Writing monologue jokes or writing jokes for a nightly show is a volume business—you’re just turning out quantity and then panning for gold. In the words of the Steroid Universe, you‘re using your quick twitch muscles. You’re just firing quicker and you’re reacting quicker and it’s all about “How many different takes to a premise?” That’s writing comedy for television.
Now, writing humorous fiction, everything slows down. It’s a different muscle and it’s a state of mind. I think writing jokes is a real physical practice, all free association, and writing fiction, it’s getting into a state of mind where you’re inhabiting this world of these characters you created.
For me, writing fiction: I want to be funny, I want my premises to be funny, I want my situations to be funny, I want my characters to be complicated— but, however chaotic, it must be plausible. The thing about a lot of great monologue jokes is that they are not plausible. They are sort of a little, “Really?”
If you ask me, “How did you learn to write fiction?” Well I learned to write fiction writing for Dave. We’ve had some jokes about Hilary Clinton and Dave would say, “Let’s just start it with, ‘Hey, have you heard? Hilary Clinton’s going to jail.’” Well she is not, she never was, but he loved that. It was a grabber. You could get a laugh and then he could come down off it and laugh off the joke.
That might find its way in somebody else’s novel, but it’s never going to find its way in mine. I’ll give you an example: when Hillary was elected to the Senate and then Bill was out of office, there was a story in the “Times” that he was a little lonely in Chappaqua. He was sort of rattling around the house so he would go down once a week and have breakfast in a coffee shop in Chappaqua and that’s kind of quaint, it’s kind of charming.
Well, that wasn’t good enough for us. It wasn’t good comically, so we did jokes for two weeks about him hanging out in singles bar in Chappaqua. We just made up all these, it was great, and we had a ball with it and is it. I guess I’m sort of arguing against myself because it is a little plausible that Clinton might go to a singles bar, but we just made it up and people knew we had made it up and it was very valid as comedy.
The best advice I ever got about writing fiction was “make your characters’ lives complicated because, we all have a story unless it’s our autobiography.” I know we think our lives are fascinating. God knows I do, and it may be very well fascinating, but it ain’t complicated.
Question: What challenges and opportunities are presented by writing fiction about your own life?
Bill Scheft: This is my third novel, Everything Hurts, and it is born of real life. This is a book about a guy trying to get rid of a psychosomatic limp and he seeks the aid of a legitimate self-help guru. He’s an accidental self-help guru, and to cure him of his psychosomatic limp he seeks the aid of a legitimate self-help guru. This is born of real life because for three and a half years I dragged a foot. I limped. I was in constant pain, and it confounded doctors. X-rays and MRIs turned up nothing. The pain moved around. There was no consistent symptomatology. It came and went of its own accord. It made no sense to anybody, but I was in constant pain and so I sought the help of guy who specialized in psychosomatic pain. He believes that the pain is caused by unconscious rage driving to your conscious mind and your conscious mind is so threatened by the coming rage that it tries to distract you by giving you pain to a vulnerable area. That’s his theory. I still believe in it.
His approach is to examine your past. So, I’ve been seeing him for a little while and I said, “You know, what I’m going to do? I’m going to write a novel about a guy trying to get rid of a psychosomatic limp and try to out myself out of this pain.” and I started writing it. It took me 2 years to finish. Two years later I’m finished with the book, son of a bitch, and the guy in the book is fine. I’m still dragging a foot and in constant pain. So, I sold the book to Simon and Schuster.
Ten days after I sold the book, I went to yet another doctor, took another look at another x-ray and said to me, “You need a hip replacement. I’m not telling you you should get one. I’m telling you you have to get one.” This is a no brainer, and so last July I got my hip replaced, I’m out of pain, I feel great, and everybody who suffered along with me said, “You must be furious. Three and a half years limping in constant pain.” and I say the same thing to all of them: ”If I haven’t done that I wouldn’t have gotten the book out of it.” So, you know, the journey is the destination, right?
Question: Is writing about a traumatic period in your life a cathartic experience?
Bill Scheft: Was it cathartic to write this book? You have no idea, because as I mentioned, I was in constant pain and one of the few times that I was not in pain was when I was writing—I mean writing at the Letterman Show or working on the fiction, but at the end of the, I’d come home and relax, put my feet up, with incredible pain that could not be relieved by any pill or anything like that.
This book is a reflection of that and I’m sure people have said this before but, “Artists create because they have to, not because they need to, and not because they think they should—because they have to.”
This was a classic case of it, so it was very fulfilling. It was very ambitious because I was suffering while I was writing it, and the guy is getting better, and I was aspiring to the character I was writing about. Boy I’d love to recreate that in my next book. Wouldn’t that be great?