Playwriting

Woe is Cratchit

I consider myself a cynical romantic.  Every year around this time, I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Bad Santa” and both films make me cry.  Put another way, I could use a good therapist. Instead, I wrote a short play about the holiday season and wish to share it with you. The title of the play is “Dec. 26.”

Happy Holidays!

SYNOPSIS:
It’s the day after one very special Christmas and Mr.  Ebenezer Scrooge, skinflint extraordinaire, finally has a solid good night’s sleep under his belt.  In a word, he’s back to his old self, fit as a broken fiddle.  The good-natured Cratchit, on the other hand, is in his usual inexplicable high spirits and, unfortunately, is ill prepared for what lurks ahead.  Woe is Cratchit.

CHARACTERS:
Ebenezer Scrooge – Stock character, the old miser himself
Bob Cratchit – Stock character, generally upbeat, plays the manic to Scrooge’s depressive

SETTING: Victorian England.  Scrooge’s office.  A large comfortable chair–Mr. Scrooge’s favorite chair–and next to it a small table covered in cloth.  A hat rack in one corner.

TIME: Early morning, December 26, the day after Christmas.

AT RISE:  A happy BOB CRATCHIT, wearing his trademark ratty white sweater, whistles a holiday tune while cleaning up the office.  Beat. EBENEZER SCROOGE enters, covered in his trademark dark winter wraps, overcoat, and top hat.

CRATCHIT
And a good morning to you, Mr. Scrooge.  A very good morning indeed.

Cratchit reaches to help Scrooge off with his coat.  Scrooge slaps his hand.

SCROOGE
What’s good about it?

CRATCHIT
Why, sir, everything.  The sky is clear, snow fresh, air brisk.  London’s never been prettier.  And, I might add, I have never been happier.

SCROOGE
What day is it?

CRATCHIT
The twenty-sixth of December.  Boxing Day.  A day when charity reigns supreme.

SCROOGE
Hah.  And what day was it before that?

CRATCHIT
Christmas, sir.  The most glorious day of the year.  Of course you remember.  You promised me a raise.

SCROOGE
A raise?

CRATCHIT
And we were to discuss, ahem, “affairs.”  Today, I believe.

SCROOGE
Discuss affairs, with a little man like you?  Poppycock and balderdash.  What I remember is I fired your worthless ass on the twenty-fourth of December and you’re still here.

CRATCHIT
Fired?

SCROOGE
I meant to, probably didn’t get around to it.  Bloody memory problems.  The wisdom of the ages gets more forgetful as it ages, Cratchit.  Remember that.  If you should live so long.

CRATCHIT
But, sir, but, but I thought.  You said.  Yesterday.  At my house?

SCROOGE
Today is different.  I wasn’t myself yesterday.  I hadn’t slept.  A bit of undigested beef and all those nightmares.  But last night —

CRATCHIT
— Yes?

Scrooge grabs the medicine bottle; it’s a bottle of chewable pills.  Scrooge and Cratchit turn to the audience.  They walk forward to the edge of the stage.  Scrooge points to the bottle.  They break character for a product placement commercial.

SCROOGE
Last night I took Digestiva, a powerful over the counter antacid that works miracles.  Ask your doctor about…

CRATCHIT
…  Digestiva.  When you want to sleep through the night and wake up rested, in good spirits…

SCROOGE
…Take Digestiva Chewables.  Now in twenty-four tropical flavors…

CRATCHIT
…  Side effects may include headaches, swelling around the eyes, heart palpitations or aches and pains in the joints…

SCROOGE
…  Fluid retention or excessive hair growth…

CRATCHIT
…  May cause fast heart rate, dizziness or a drop in blood pressure when you stand up, cold hands and feet, tiredness or depression, a slow heartbeat or symptoms of asthma…

SCROOGE
…  A skin rash, loss of taste, a chronic dry, hacking cough, and in rare instances, kidney damage…

CRATCHIT
…  Anxiety, back pain, breakthrough bleeding, breast tenderness, depression, flatulence, flu-like symptoms, restless leg syndrome and an urge to gamble…

SCROOGE
…  Bleeding of the eye, convulsions, seizures, decreased or double vision or in extreme cases blindness…

CRATCHIT
…  And prolonged, painful, or inappropriate stiffness of the willy that could last longer than four hours… Do not take Digestiva if you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant.

SCROOGE
…  Do not drive heavy machinery while taking this drug.

CRATCHIT
…  Of if you have a stiff willy.

SCROOGE
I’m sensing a pattern here.

CRATCHIT
… If you have nightmares or insomnia or get depressed, tell your doctor.

Scrooge sets the bottle back down. They return to their previous spots and to their respective roles.

CRATCHIT (CONT’D)
What about Tiny Tim?  What about what my young Tim said?

SCROOGE
What about it?

CRATCHIT
He said, “God bless us everyone,” and you cheered.  In my very house, in front of my wife and children.  You cheered.  We all cheered.  You cheered the loudest.

SCROOGE
I told you I wasn’t myself yesterday.  Whatever I was, is, well, over now.  End of story.

CRATCHIT
You said I would get a raise?  You were suddenly generous.

SCROOGE
Poppycock!  I pay you but fifteen bob a week.  Nobody would call that generous.  Not even I.  Frugal, yes.  Parsimonious, perhaps.  But generous?  No.  I should say not.  Absolutely not generous.

CRATCHIT
But, but…  From now on it was going to be different.  You said so.

SCROOGE
In the many years you’ve known me, Cratchit, would you expect me to be generous?  Ever?  Did the words “Scrooge” and “generous” ever appear together in the same sentence?  Except, perhaps, as a contradiction.  All these years.  Ever?

CRATCHIT
Of course not, sir.  But, but something changed you.  The other night.  You said you had a revelation.

SCROOGE
I had constipation.

CRATCHIT
But we all saw it.  You changed.  And you promised me a raise.  On Christmas Day.

SCROOGE
Balderdash.  Christmas is over or haven’t you read the papers.

CRATCHIT
Over?

SCROOGE
A leopard can’t change his spots.

CRATCHIT
Spots?

SCROOGE
Because of one night you expect a raise?  Think hard, little man, did I put it in writing?

CRATCHIT
No.  But, but — why just yesterday you were such a philanthropist.

SCROOGE
That was yesterday.  Today I have philanthropist’s remorse.  What’s one day of the year compared to three hundred and sixty four days?  I ask you one question, Cratchit: which me, do you think, is the real me?  Which Ebenezer Scrooge is the real Ebenezer Scrooge?

CRATCHIT
Now that you put it that way, sir, I’d rather you were generous the rest of the year and a cheap bastard, if you pardon my French, only on one day.

SCROOGE
Oh, I imagine you would.  Your kind always would.  And with such attitudes you would destroy the hard-earned, dog-eat-dog foundations of capitalism itself, the bread upon which your very crumbs depend.  We have a word for your kind.

CRATCHIT
Yes?

SCROOGE
Poor.

CRATCHIT
But, but — Oh, my God, Mrs. Cratchit is out shopping at this very moment.  Spending my raise.

SCROOGE
Shopping you say?

CRATCHIT
At those after-Christmas specials.

Cratchit takes several tablets from the bottle and chews.

SCROOGE
Bully for her.  Shopping is good for the economy.

CRATCHIT
You just said I had no raise.

SCROOGE
Quite right.  No raise indeed.  And no job.  I say, pitiful circumstances you find yourself in, eh, Cratchit, on this twenty-sixth day of December?

CRATCHIT
Yes.  No, but — my Tim said, “God bless us everyone.”  Those were his very words.  God bless us everyone.

SCROOGE
God helps those who help themselves.  It would behoove you to remember that, little man.  Which reminds me, Cratchit, on your way out help yourself to one lump of coal.

CRATCHIT
A lump?

SCROOGE
Of coal.  Just one lump, mind you.  We’ll call it your severance package.

A despondent Cratchit grabs a piece of coal.  He returns and faces Scrooge. Cratchit shakes his fist with the coal in it at Scrooge. Cratchit turns to leave, then returns quickly and grabs the bottle of antacids.

CRATCHIT
You’ll regret this, Scrooge.  What goes around comes around.

SCROOGE
The only thing I regret is not getting a good night’s sleep.  And the only thing going around is you out of my shop.  Now be off with you or I’ll call the constable.

Scrooge settles into the chair. He reaches under the table for what’s hidden behind the table cloth.  He pulls out another bottle of antacids and sets it on the table.

CRATCHIT
Bah!  Humbug!

Cratchit puts on his overcoat slowly.  He grabs his hat and moves to exit.  But he can’t.  Head down, he’s frozen, unable to move.

SCROOGE
“Bah humbug?” I kind of like the way that sounds.  Bah.  Humbug.  I’m feeling more like my old self.  Lonely.  Bitter.  Miserable.  A dependable bottle of tropical-flavored antacids within arm’s reach to make sure I sleep through the night.  Bah.  Humbug.

Scrooge opens the bottle, shakes out a couple of tablets, and puts them in his mouth.  He beams.

SCROOGE (CONT’D)
(almost giddy)
I’m back.

Suddenly, Scrooge CHOKES on a tablet.

SCROOGE (CONT’D)
Cratchit!  Help me.  Get over here.  Cra-Cra-Cratchitttttt!

Cratchit turns and watches.  Scrooge GAGS and CHOKES.  It’s a drawn-out, ham-encrusted dying scene worthy of a melodrama.

Scrooge slumps in his chair [or falls on the floor]… dead. Cratchit rushes over and checks Scrooge’s pulse.

Cratchit picks up the bottle and reads the label to himself. Cratchit stares at the audience.

CRATCHIT
Hmm.  Dickens was right.  There appears to be a nasty side effect to being a cheap bastard after all.

Beat.

CRATCHIT (CONT’D)
Here’s the thing: apparently when it’s all over and you die, you die alone, unloved, slumped or fallen, in a ratty old chair or on a cold floor, in the middle of a quiet room.  No more alive or memorable than a lump of coal.  Saddest of all, nobody cares whether you had lived or died.  Out, out brief candle and all that.  Dead as a doornail, to quote the bard.

Cratchit ponders his own comment.

CRATCHIT (CONT’D)
Oh, well.  Chin up.  The sky outside is still clear, the air still brisk.  Fresh snow covers the ground.  Life goes on out there even though there is death in here, inside, behind these very closed doors.  No more tomorrows for Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, Esquire, I dare say. Hmm.  I suppose I should start boxing up his things to sell.  It is, after all, Boxing Day.  And Mr. Scrooge most certainly didn’t take any possessions with him, try as he might.  Why he, himself, told me to help myself.  Those were his very words.  God helps those who help themselves, he said.

Cratchit starts to box a few items.  He stops and stares at the audience again.

CRATCHIT (CONT’D)
You know, just between you and me, I don’t think Mr. Scrooge ever understood how God helps.  With the exception of one sleepless night, perhaps.  But the rest of his life?  Bah, humbug.

(END OF PLAY)

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When Irish Eyes are Winking

One more comment on writing dark humor and then I’ll leave the dark side for kinder, gentler thoughts. Here is an excerpt from the deliciously wicked play The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh. Context: Someone has killed Padraic’s cat named Wee Thomas. Padraic is an Irish Liberation Army enforcer. He loves that cat more than life itself, and someone is going to pay. The topper in this exchange is Donny’s final words; Donny is Padraic’s father. Remember, always save the best for last.

DONNY. Why else would I be upset? I don’t get upset over cats!

DAVEY. Not your Padraic?!

DONNY. Aye, my Padraic.

DAVEY. Oh Jesus Christ. Donny! Not your Padraic in the INLA?!

DONNY. Do I have another fecking Padraic?

DAVEY. Wee Thomas is his?

DONNY. And was his since he was five years old. His only friend for fifteen year. Brought him out to me when he started moving about the country bombing places and couldn’t look after him as decent as he thought needed. His only friend in the world, now.

DAVEY. Was he fond of him?

DONNY. Of course he was fond of him.

DAVE. Oh he’ll be mad.

DONNY. He will be mad.

DAVEY. As if he wasn’t’ mad enough already. Padraic’s mad enough for seven people. Don’t they call him “Mad Padraic”?

DONNY. They do.

DAVEY. Isn’t it him the IRA wouldn’t let in because he was too mad?

DONNY. It was. And he never forgave them for it.

Comedy v. Tragedy, Round 1

Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Mad Magazine proposed a similar definition when it said (paraphrasing from memory): Humor is something funny that happens to someone that if it happened to you it wouldn’t be funny. Likewise, Erma Bombeck offered this explanation: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

Here’s playwright Nicky Silver speaking about the connection between pain and humor:

Like most couples [referring to his parents] they certainly weren’t always happy, but somehow I saw the violence of their pain and their humor simultaneously. There is a moment in Raised in Captivity [one of his plays] that really exemplifies this. The play opens at Bernadette’s mother’s funeral, and she is distraught to the point of near-hysteria. At one point she wails ‘I never said goodbye! I never told her I loved her!’ Her husband tries to calm her. “Yes you did, I heard you.” She replies: “But I never meant it!!”

Every night the audience would howl at this line. But to me it’s really slice-of-life stuff. I mean the character is simply being honest. Her pain is so oversized that it erupts in this grand explosion of sadness and rage all mixed up together. It feels theatrical to some people. It feels like home movies to me.

From “On Comedy,” Nicky Silver, The Dramatist Magazine

 

Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar

IQT_SMAConfImage taught a 90-minute workshop at the wonderful San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival in 2013 and had a blast.

The title of the workshop was “Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar: Punch Up Your Writing with Humor.” More than 40 conference attendees were in my class.

They learned how to incorporate humor into their own writing, whether working on an essay, a novel, a memoir, or a response to an invitation to their ex-spouse’s next wedding (sarcasm can be quite effective).

We looked at a mix of humorous literary genres and styles, including parody, satire, black humor, comedy of manners, screwball, and sentimental. I shared examples from a range of writers, including Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Portis, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, T.C. Boyle, and David Sedaris.

QT_SilentFilm2And we did exercises to develop their use of literary devices such as hyperbole, irony, nonsense, inversion, puns, and wordplay.

I also covered valuable techniques employed by humorists and standup comics alike, including the rule of three, running gags, repetition, choosing funny words, specificity, surprise, and callbacks.

Mark Twain called humor “mankind’s greatest blessing.” In more recent times, Larry Gelbart said: “One doesn’t have a sense of humor. It has you.” To twist Joseph Conrad’s famous line, the workshop’s task, before all, was to make us see … humor.

We covered a lot of territory, not to mention humor, in ninety minutes. In this blog I plan to share some of what we discussed. I hope you’ll stick around.

Hasta Manzana!

 

Me, Myself and I Don’t Know

QT_Bigfoot4

In my last post, I was talking about writing my first play. So this post is still all about me (sorry; I’m almost done).

I continued writing plays, short plays befitting my height and attention span. As a part-time writer trying to squeeze in my words before going to work in the morning, late at night, or over the weekend in hourly chunks, I felt as if I never had enough time to tackle anything more substantial.

I’m a Boomer. My gratification meter was stuck on Instant.

In the winter of 2001, I applied for and won a Walden Fellowship, which was awarded to three Oregon writers or artists each year. I accepted the fellowship, took an unpaid leave of absence from work, and spent six weeks during the spring of 2002 in a small cabin in the Southern Oregon woods on an organic farm.

The experience was liberating. For the first time in my life, my job, the entire point of my day, if you will, was to write whatever I wanted to write, eat when hungry, look for Bigfoot, and walk the dog. How cool was that?

After a few years of writing stage plays, I started writing screenplays. My first film script landed me a literary manager in L.A. and was a hot product for about 15 seconds. Maverick Films, at the time co-owned by Madonna, loved the script and took it into studios, all of which passed.

My second script was optioned by a production company but no movie was made. At least their check cleared the bank.

I have since had two more full-length scripts optioned, as well as two short scripts, one of which was made into a dreadful movie.

Then Arlene and I moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I wrote a book about our experiences as inept expats, a humorous memoir titled Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak, published by Fuze Publishing. It was voted the #2 book in San Miguel. I’ll talk more about my humorous memoir in future blogs.  Better still, don’t wait for me — go ahead and click the Buy My Book tab for details.

In my blog entries, in short (and I am), I plan to dangle the occasional modifier, split an infinitive or two, mix a batch of metaphors, and chat.

Vaya con nachos!

Freeing the Narcissist Within

Geodesic Dome

Post-college my resume read like a good-grief of odd jobs: military journalist, medical librarian, college instructor, book packer, mill worker, business owner, technical writer, software documentation manager, marketing manager, marketing director. If I could have thrown in gold prospector and hobo, I would have been Jack London.

Between and during those jobs, I always worked on creative projects, mostly writing and cartooning and, like many writers and artists, all of it in my spare time.

While at work, in addition to doing my regular job, I’d also be doing what’s known in the computer industry as “background processing,” working out story problems in the garage of my mind and jotting down notes so I wouldn’t forget. If I happened to get mugged coming home from work, the unlucky guy would get scraps of paper and Post-it Notes with bits of dialogue, plot points, and partly developed scenes on them.

Not exactly stuff you can easily fence.

For a few years, after hours, I even tried standup comedy to get over my shyness and really sucked at it—the standup part, not the shyness. Comedy bits about attending the Hemlock Society’s Christmas Party (“Stay away from the punch”), and lines like “What do you say we go up to my place and exchange bilabial fricatives?” did not exactly kill in biker bars.

On the other hand, the tobacco smoke nearly killed me.

One night a member of a successful improv group complained to me that she couldn’t write or tell jokes. In fact, she confessed to knowing only one joke and told it. She said: “I like my men like I like my ham—cured.”

I thought it sounded more like a cheesy pickup line than a joke, and used it as a jumping off point for my first play. When I was done writing it, I gave the play to my wife, Arlene, to read. She’s always my first and most honest critic.

“This play is about dating,” she said. “What the hell do you know about dating?”

Arlene was right, of course.

 

The Man Who Knew Diddly Squat

Mark-photo-for-web

My name is Mark Saunders, and there’s a lot I can’t do. I can’t tune-up a car’s engine. I can’t cook, unless grilled cheese sandwiches count. I can’t run marathons. I can’t rewire a house or unclog a drain or put down floor tile or build a tree fort.

Or write software code.

I can’t sing. In fact, I had the early, sole distinction of being banished from the seventh grade choir in Holy Family Catholic School, Citrus Heights, California. Look it up.

I’m not allowed near the family bank account.

Both physics and technology baffle me. I can’t understand how a Boeing 747 weighing 900,000 pounds when fully-loaded can stay in the air. I once saw a poster of the insides of a computer; the intricate pattern of a motherboard made my head spin. I felt nauseous and had to sit down.

I currently live in the central highlands of Mexico, and I can barely speak Spanish. In short, if I starred in a Hitchcock movie it would be titled “The Man Who Knew Diddly Squat.”

EXT. STREET – DAY
A rotund Rod Steiger look-alike in a police uniform stares at Diddly. The cop chews on a toothpick. Spits it out. Hikes up his pants. Beat.

ROD STEIGER LOOK-ALIKE
What do they call you down there?

DIDDLY
They call me Mr. Squat.

What I can do, however, is talk about humor, because that’s the one link that’s connected me from childhood until now. And that’s what I plan to do in this blog, sharing everything from brief essays to tips on writing humor to samples of my gag cartoons to the occasional funny quote from someone else.

For instance, here’s one of my cartoons:
QT_RightBrain

And I’ll share quotes like this:

“In elementary school, in case of fire you have to line up quietly in a single file line from smallest to tallest. What is the logic? Do tall people burn slower?”
Warren Hutcherson

Stick around. We’ll have fun.