Episodia 1.1: Making Comedy and Paper with Liz Lemon

If you didn’t have the pleasure of viewing “30 Rock” before its finale on January 31, allow me to introduce you to the funniest female sitcom character since Lucille Ball. Her name is Liz Lemon, and — as the head writer for “TGS with Tracy Jordan,” a live comedy show that airs Friday nights at 10:30 pm (unless there’s wrestling) — she doesn’t just know how to be funny; she knows how to use it to pay her bills. So no matter what your genre, the seven tips below will help you make comedy and paper, Liz Lemon style, by finding your niche as a writer in an overcrowded industry.

1.       Secure a business mentor.

Liz Lemon’s life got a major upgrade once NBC Executive Jack Donaghy became her mentor. Even though Jack defines art as “paintings of horses,” he doesn’t need to understand the creative process to provide his favorite mentee with access to opportunity. Under Jack’s quip-laden care, LL surpassed the confines of sketch comedy. She diversified her resume, penning the “MILF Island” spin-off, a few Telenovela episodes, and a made-for-TV movie titled “Kidnapped by Danger: The Avery Jessup Story.”

Take a lesson from Liz: A mentor is NOT a sugar daddy (or mama), and the relationship remains most beneficial when it stays platonic. Let’s be honest—if the success of “30 Rock” hinged on whether or not Jack and Liz would get together, the show would have tanked after season two. Like Sherlock and Watson, Seinfeld and Kramer, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the best chemistry (onscreen and off) never relies on sexual attraction.

2.       Learn to pitch your ideas.

Never assume your writing is so amazing it doesn’t need your own help. I learned this tough lesson last year when I realized I couldn’t tell publishing professionals that my book was about “growing up.” Crafting a one-sentence book pitch won’t rob your work of its complexity. It will help you find its narrative spine.

It’s also important to get feedback on your pitch, as LL demonstrates in the “Plan B” episode from Season Five:

Liz: Speaking of TV ideas, would you buy a show about a girl television writer trying to have it all in the city, and also she’s a vampire, I guess?

Jack: I like the end part.

Sometimes the most valuable feedback comes from someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings.

3.       Stow a terrible short story on your hard drive.

You know you have one. And if you don’t, what are you waiting for? Isn’t there a story you’ve been dying to tell? Put it on paper, already, and let it be bad. A bad story on paper is worth so much more than an ideal one that lives only in your imagination. It will fuel you to do better.

In her terrible short story, “The Two Paths of Virginia Apple,” Liz Lemon wonders what would have happened if she’d never left her hometown. Mine is called “Honey Child” and it’s about a woman who works as a janitor in an abortion clinic and keeps honey bees in her backyard. I challenge you, fellow raconteurs, to write something worse than that.

4.       Genre hop.

In addition to short stories, Liz Lemon has dabbled in a handful of other writing genres as well. Her one-act play, “Seahorses of Warwickshire,” explores what the world might be like if men could get pregnant. She also turned her popular “Dealbreaker” sketch into a book, and before her days as the head writer for TGS, LL put on a show titled “Are you there, God? It’s me, Improv.”

Are you a novelist? Try writing a play. Hate the way books are currently reviewed? Write a review yourself. And don’t be so quick to eschew social media—writing a witty and insightful tweet is an exercise that can boost your sentence-level writing skills while granting you some additional exposure. Think of each genre as a different square in a writer’s game of hopscotch, and get skipping.

5.       Be a beginner.

Though Liz Lemon excels at writing sketch comedy, she isn’t afraid to be an amateur. While juggling the demands of her day job, she still found the time to join a singles’ dodge ball league, dance for a WNBA game with the troupe “The Timeless Torches,” and throw a few punches in an all-female fight club. Every two years, she also picks up knitting for a week. What do you want to try?

Attempting new things is one of the best ways to expand your creativity. A new sewing project often pulls me out of a writing rut, even if I continue to accidentally stitch things to my pant legs. Try learning a language, taking a ceramics class, or even spending an early morning with your community’s bird-watching clan. If you’re like me and you tend to avoid the unfamiliar, ask a friend with an adventurous spirit to join you.

6.       Confess like a pro.

Kate Chopin called it the “unaccustomed taste of candor,” but you and I know it better as diarrhea of the mouth. Though Jack named her the “Picasso of Loneliness,” Liz Lemon is also the Jackson Pollock of confession. A few gems from her airplane ride with Oprah:

“I saw your show about following your fear, and it inspired me to wear shorts to work. It didn’t go great.”

“One time at summer camp I kissed a girl on a dare, but then she drowned.”

“I hate my feet.”

Whether we write fact or fiction, writers trade in the art of self-humiliation. It never fails to pull readers in close, so get a pen—or a mirror, if you dare—and start confessing.

7.       Don’t be perfect. Be fearless.

Liz Lemon has enjoyed a successful career, but she also invented a fake-astronaut-boyfriend named Mike Dexter, she accidentally sold NBC to a German television network, and she even spent a weird night out with James Franco and a body pillow he named Kimiko. Perfect is boring. Perfect won’t get you past your pilot episode. You don’t need a laugh track to help you bounce back from your foibles, and you certainly don’t need the applause of a studio audience to know you’re fly.

Have the cojones to say 2013 is going to be YOUR writing year, and go out and do it Liz Lemon style, which means with a sensible pair of glasses, some gender neutral shoes, and carp po’boy sandwich with extra chuckle from Fatty Fat’s Sandwich Ranch. So put on your best writerly blazer, get out your pen, and as LL would say: Get to work, nerds!

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Amy Jo Burns

Amy Jo Burns hails from the land of abandoned steel mills and four-wheeler accidents, and her memoir CINDERLAND is forthcoming from Beacon Press. She currently teaches writing workshops at the Arts Council of Princeton, and you can find her on Twitter at @amyjoburns or at www.amyjoburns.com.
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15 Responses to Episodia 1.1: Making Comedy and Paper with Liz Lemon

  1. Sangu says:

    Thanks for the great post! Liz Lemon gets things done.
    Also, “transitioning pajamas into daywear” is perfect fashion advice for writers too. Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Troy says:

    This is a great article! Thanks for writing it :)

  3. Awesome. And I really want to read “Honey Child” now! (While eating night cheese…)

  4. Pingback: Required Reading – Making Comedy and Paper with Liz Lemon « What Alana Found

  5. I *love* this post (and of course I’m using that word in the way our Anglo-Saxon forefathers would have used it in reference to, say, a hot bowl of bear meat…).

    *windmill high-five*

  6. Emily Coon says:

    “Put it on paper, already, and let it be bad. A bad story on paper is worth so much more than an ideal one that lives only in your imagination.” So very true! Banishing the inner perfectionist to a small, dank corner of the castle is imperative to getting anything done.

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  9. brigitte says:

    Great article! Fun and insightful. Can’t wait for the next one.

    Brigitte

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