Books

‘Arrested Development’ writer knows a truth about comedy: Find pain, be funny

Maria Semple, who appears at Miami Book Fair to talk about ‘Today Will Be Different,’ is also the author of ‘This One is Mine’ and ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’
Maria Semple, who appears at Miami Book Fair to talk about ‘Today Will Be Different,’ is also the author of ‘This One is Mine’ and ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’

Like all the best comedy writers, Maria Semple knows the funniest stuff often comes from a dark place. That’s why, when she was late producing a followup to her bestselling novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” she forced herself to confront reality.

“I hadn’t started writing a book that was already due three months before I sat down to think about what my new book was,” confesses the author, a sitcom writer whose credits include “Arrested Development,” “Mad About You” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” “I was way, way overdue.”

One day she’d had enough procrastinating. Clad in pajamas, coffee in hand, she ventured into her writing studio.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to write for an hour, and I’m just going to see what’s a source of pain in my life and what I’m afraid and ashamed of and don’t want people to see,’” she says.

What she saw — and what she wrote — looks almost exactly like the first page of her hilarious new book “Today Will Be Different”:

“Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which I will actually attend.” It goes on, but you get the idea.

The best kind of joke is a ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. . . . That’s an example of a set-up that was so strong you could almost say anything, and you’ll get a massive laugh.

Maria Semple, author of ‘Today Will Be Different’

“I felt a really scary energy coming from those pages,” Semple says, adding that she quickly called her editor to announce she would not be writing the book she’d originally proposed. “I said, ‘Here’s what I wrote’ and read it to her, and she said, ‘Hang up and write that book.’”

So Semple wrote “Today Will Be Different,” which she’ll talk about Nov. 19 at Miami Book Fair. The book, her third, follows a day in the anxious life of Eleanor Flood, formerly the animator of a cult TV show called “Looper Wash.” Eleanor fears her life has careened beyond her control. She’s years late on a graphic memoir she’s supposed to be writing (sound familiar?). Her son Timby, who she’s pretty sure is gay, is faking illness to avoid school. A colleague from the past brings old humiliations rushing back. Her sister isn’t speaking to her. And something’s up with her usually reliable husband, Joe, who has told his office he’s on vacation (but he hasn’t told Eleanor).

A universally funny story about the frustrations of modern life — parenting, marriage, familial estrangement — “Today Will Be Different” takes place in Seattle, the setting for “Bernadette” (and Semple’s home). At first, Semple says, she struggled with the idea of writing another Seattle novel even though she satirized the city so expertly in “Bernadette,” about a woman slowly going crazy in the land of constant rain, oppressive skies and belligerent blackberry vines. (Her first book, “This One Is Mine,” is set in Hollywood.)

“When I wrote ‘Bernadette’ it never occurred to me it was a Seattle book,” she says. “I honestly thought I was writing a mother-daughter book. ... I like that it has become this iconic Seattle book, but it’s an odd experience. It’s one of the delights of being a novelist — the novel is specific and personal to you when you put it out in the world, then it gets digested and spit back at you. It’s one of the rewards of writing a novel. You get a new experience in how it’s reflected.”

So those asides you read in “Today Will Be Different,” about the way Seattle-ites won’t cross a street against the light, even if there’s no car around for miles? They’re true.

But funny lines alone aren’t enough to make comedy work, Semple says. In her experience, most of what goes on in TV writing rooms involves working on the story.

“If the story isn’t stable, your script is in trouble, and during production week you’re writing and rewriting because you’re not on solid ground,” she says. “Luckily I came to novel writing with an overdeveloped story muscle. That’s why it’s called situation comedy — the comedy is in the situation. I was fortunate enough to know [director] Mike Nichols and spend time with him. I remember him saying to me a long time ago, ‘You can’t do this in the first scene. You need to get to the place where the premise of the scene is funny.’ So you’re laughing before someone even makes a joke. That’s what I try to do — set up scenarios.

“The best jokes are never the sweaty ‘Murphy Brown’ jokes that are eight pieces of information doing gymnastics. You’re more bewildered than laughing. I can’t follow that. The best kind of joke is a ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ [from “When Harry Met Sally”]. It’s a simple comment on what’s going on. That’s an example of a set-up that was so strong you could almost say anything, and you’ll get a massive laugh.”

Semple’s TV background may have helped her become a better novelist, but fiction writing still has one advantage, she says.

“I can take naps whenever I want, unlike in the rewrite room. There’s so much freedom!”

Meet the author

Who: Maria Semple with Emily Giffin and Gayle Forman

When: 2 p.m. Nov. 19

Where: Auditorium, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami

Information: www.miamibookfair.com

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