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More Dispatches from the Front

Last time I reported on my recent adventures recruiting and training writers for the Bulgarian adaptation of Married…with Children. People responded pretty positively to that and asked that I share other aspects of the experience. Well, it would be my pleasure. There’s much I discovered there, and much that I learned.

The best thing about the job was that I got to recruit and select the writers myself. This meant that I could eliminate the big egos and head cases before they ever got a chance to get inside – and possibly poison – my writer’s room. I told all the candidates that there were three things I needed from them: commitment, consciousness, and creativity. Of these three, creativity mattered least because all their cleverness would be wasted if they lacked the willingness to work hard or the self-awareness to confront the emotions and feelings that naturally crop up in a writing staff situation. It’s funny: The prospect of self-awareness was much more daunting to some writers than the prospect of hard work. Or maybe they weren’t into all the touchy-feely stuff I put down when I’m running a writer’s room. In any case, the process was self-selecting. The writers who fled at the first sign of emotional risk were the very ones I didn’t want.

I also asked the writers to sign on to my notion of “problem solving and good process,” wherein we would not only address the creative problems that presented themselves but also spend a fair amount of time looking at how we solved them. Those who took to the notion that creativity can be logically apprehended and improved found a place at my table. Those who did not, who were afraid to approach creativity by some means other than random, well, let’s say they were excused.

Key to the adaptation process is what I call the strategy of keep, fix, change. For every joke or story beat or even entire episode, the first choice is to keep what’s in the source material. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. But if it is broke – if it won’t work in Bulgaria for one reason or another – the question then becomes, can it be fixed? If so, fix it and move on. If not – and only as a last resort – change it into something completely new, completely unrelated to the original script. It’s amazing how simple and effective the creative process can be when you let yourself do the least you can do to get things right.

Key to fixing or changing jokes that don’t work is the tool of abstraction, and it works like this. You start with a problematic joke from the original material and ask yourself, “Why is this funny?” The answer may be, for example, that it attacks the bad manners of a rude politician. Of course you can’t use the original American politician because that person is unknown in Bulgaria (and likely in America after all these years). But once you know the essence of the joke, it’s a simple enough matter to, if you will, Balkanize it. You derive the abstract quality of the joke (attack on rude politician), shift it to a different context (Bulgaria), and rebuild it on a foundation of new nouns (insert appropriate local politician here). And once you’ve mastered that trick, you’ve basically solved the whole problem of adaptation.

Was the new joke funny in Bulgarian? Often I didn’t know, and often I couldn’t know, because I had no information at all about the new butt of the joke. I mean, seriously, what do I know about Bulgarian politicians, rude or otherwise? But now here’s where the touchy-feely stuff comes in. Because if a writer tells me, “It’s funny in Bulgarian,” a couple of different things might be true. One is that it’s really funny in Bulgarian, problem solved. Another is that it’s not funny in Bulgarian, and the writer is trying to convince me that it is, either because she’s too wary or weary to undertake the task of changing it. How will I know which it is? In a word: trust. Remember, I’ve recruited and selected writers who have commitment and consciousness. Those are writers I can trust. When they told me it was funny in Bulgarian, I knew they believed it.

Which is not to say that sometimes they weren’t wrong. Maybe the joke was too obscure even for a Bulgarian audience. Maybe it was tired because it had already been done to death in Bulgarian pop culture. Again, I could never know for sure. But I could for sure ask, and if I trusted the writers I’ve hired, then I could trust the answers I got back. By this process, joke after joke, story after story, script after script, we collaboratively built outstanding episode adaptations that were a hundred percent true to the spirit of the American original and a hundred percent true to Bulgarian culture as well. In the end it was a thing of beauty. I mean, it wasn’t a heart transplant or anything, but still…no mean feat.

Speaking of non sequiturs, did you know (I will wager you did not) that there is no Bulgarian word for feet? Their word for leg describes everything from the waist down, and doesn’t differentiate between foot, knee, thigh or whatever. Weird.

On the other hand, the Bulgarian language has dozens of different words for penis, and I’m here to tell you that any language with lots of words for private parts is bound to serve sitcom well.

Well, that’s a little bit more about my ongoing efforts to make the world safe for situation comedy.  Many of the strategies I employed there (good process; keep, fix, change; the tool of abstraction) are useful in pretty much any creative context. Try them yourself and see.

About John Vorhaus [1]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!