About six months ago, I got an e-mail. Here's what it said:
Hi Dave, it's Steve Martin.
I'm hosting the Oscars this year and am trying to put together a team of geniuses to help me write it. Here's my question: do you know any? HA! I'm wondering if the idea appeals to you at all. You, me, Rita Rudner and a few others. Best Oscar monologue ever. California. Tickets to the show. Fame.
I know you won't do it, so go (bad word) yourself.
Never miss a local story.
Needless to say, I was excited. I've been a big Steve Martin fan since he had an arrow through his head. To have him ask me to work with him was an honor.
On the other hand, I worried that I'd embarrass myself. I've never tried to write jokes for somebody else, and I knew the other writers on Martin's team would be show-biz pros. So I showed the e-mail to my wife, and told her about my concerns. She told me to think about it carefully, and make whatever decision I truly thought I would be comfortable with, as long as that decision was yes, because if I turned down a chance for us to go to the Academy Awards, she would kill me with a machete.
That was all the encouragement I needed. I e-mailed Martin that I'd do it. My exact words were: ``The Oscars? (Bad word) YES.''
Even though the first meeting of the writers was two months away, I immediately started trying to think up Academy Awards jokes that would be good enough for Martin to deliver to an audience of extremely famous movie stars, plus something like one billion TV viewers. It was intimidating, but within a few weeks, I had: no jokes. I didn't even have any funny-sounding words that might eventually be assembled into jokes. I had zero.
My wife, meanwhile, was making substantial progress. Within a few days, she had a new dress and a matching purse, and was actively pursuing earrings. She also had ordered a pair of shoes that cost roughly the same as a year in medical school. There was to be no turning back.
In November, I went to California for the first meeting of the writers, in a Beverly Hills hotel. We sat at a round table in a conference room. Martin was to my immediate left, taking notes on his laptop computer as the other writers tossed out idea after idea. This group process was unfamiliar and intimidating to me; I've always written alone. I tried to have an idea, but my brain had frozen into a cold, hard mass of lifeless tissue. For about an hour, the only coherent thought it could form was: I'm sitting right next to Steve Martin!
But gradually my brain began to thaw, as I realized a surprising thing: These people were all remarkably generous. I'd assumed that they'd be competitive -- lobbying for their own jokes, maybe even criticizing other people's. But it wasn't like that at all. In fact, it was the opposite: If somebody came up with something good, the laughter around the table was instant and genuine; if somebody came up with a joke that needed help, everyone tried to think of ways to improve it.
Many jokes mutated through a number of forms, with various people coming up with various elements, until eventually there was no way to tell whose joke it was. This is the way it works in Hollywood; almost everything is collaborative. All of these people had spent many hours sitting in writer-filled rooms just like this, dreaming up stuff.
As I became comfortable with the process, I also got to know, and become friends with, the other writers, my collaborators. In alphabetical order, they were:
• Beth Armogida, an awards-show veteran who writes jokes for Jay Leno and for two seasons wrote for Drew Carey on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
• Dave Boone, the head writer for Hollywood Squares and a collaborator on four previous Academy Award shows, creating material for Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg.
• Andy Breckman, who has worked for Dave Letterman and Saturday Night Live; wrote a bunch of movies (including Rat Race and Sgt. Bilko); created the TV show Monk; and is insane (I mean this in a good way).
• Jon Macks, an Academy Awards veteran and a staff writer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and who is nicknamed the ''Machine'' because he is so prolific. This is a guy who, as far as I can tell, thinks entirely in jokes. If Jon were sentenced to die on the guillotine, he'd fire off three jokes while the blade was coming down and at least two of them would be really good.
• Rita Rudner, the very funny standup comic lady and TV host, who also turns out to be a sweet person.
• Robert Shapiro, our dryly amusing liaison to the Academy Awards, who kept us updated on which stars were coming, which stars were not coming and which stars were actually deceased.
• Bruce Vilanch, actor, comedian, Hollywood Squares fixture, big hairy funny guy and award-winning writer who has worked on every Academy Awards show since 1989 and knows all the dirt on everybody who has ever been anybody in Hollywood (we are talking about a lot of dirt).
By the second meeting, we were comfortable with each other and with the way Martin liked to work. There was a clear pattern to the way he reacted to ideas. When somebody tossed out a joke, Martin would, most of the time, nod and say, ''Ya, ya, ya.'' This meant: ''no.'' He almost never actually said no, because he's a genuinely nice guy, and he wanted to let the joke-tosser know he appreciated the effort. But ''ya'' definitely meant no.
When Martin liked an idea enough to at least consider using it, you could tell because he typed it into his computer. The taptaptap of his keyboard was kind of like applause. If he really liked the joke, he'd perform it, trying different wordings and deliveries; sometimes he'd even stand up to do this, giving it the full standup-comedian treatment. And if it was your idea, you'd think -- at least I did -- Steve Martin is performing MY joke.
The most interesting part for me was listening to the group work on a joke that wasn't quite right, trying to figure out why, using a kind of shorthand developed from countless hours of making humor for a living. Like, Macks would toss out a joke (he does this every 30 seconds, awake or asleep) and Martin would go, ''Ya, ya, ya,'' meaning ''no.'' And Macks would go, ''Too roast-y?'' And Martin would go, ''Yeah, too ba-dump-BUMP.'' With that cleared up, it was on to the next joke.
AIR OF THE DOG
We met eight times over the course of three months. Most of the meetings were in the living room of Martin's home, a fine place to sit and laugh. In addition to the writers, these meetings were attended by Martin's Labrador retriever, Roger, whose contribution to the process was to periodically emit eye-watering blasts of flatulence. We'd be sitting around, tossing out jokes, and suddenly, WHOA, the air would turn green. When this happened, Martin would give Roger a stern lecture.
''Roger,'' he'd say, ``do you want me to do to you what I did to the cat?''
Roger would cower and look guilty, to indicate that he was sorry and would never do it again. But he always forgot.
Some of our jokes stunk, too. But I thought a lot of them were pretty funny. Of course some of these couldn't be used in the show, because they were too insider-y, or too vicious, or too obscene (defined as ``very funny''). We also had to steer clear of certain topics, the most obvious one being the looming war. Since we had no way to know what the news would be on the night of the show, Martin decided early on -- correctly, I think -- that although he'd probably have to acknowledge breaking news, he'd focus his monologue on the movie industry, which is, at least theoretically, the subject of the Academy Awards.
In the end, Martin took the mass of jokes, winnowed it down to the ones he liked and thought would work well together, and shaped these into his monologue. In the process, a lot of jokes got cut, including a few I'd grown attached to. My personal favorite -- I lobbied for it at every meeting -- was one Breckman came up with one day while we were going over a list of the movies that came out last year.
''Halloween 8 came out,'' Breckman said. ``I thought it was the best Halloween ever. It made Halloween 7 look like Halloween 5.''
For some reason, I love that joke. But you won't hear it on the show tonight. In fact, I don't know exactly what you will hear: Martin continued working on his monologue right up to the end.
But whatever you hear, I hope you'll be entertained. I don't presume to speak for the Academy Awards, but I believe the general feeling of the people involved in putting on the show is this: We know you have more important things -- MUCH more important things -- on your mind right now. We know that, in the context of world events, it makes absolutely no difference who wins these weird little statuettes. We just hope that -- if you feel up to it -- you'll enjoy this brief and harmless diversion from real life.
OK, maybe not ''brief.'' But however long it runs, we hope you like it. We especially hope you like the jokes.
And if you hear any jokes you don't like, those were Roger's.