This is an old insight of mine, from the years I wasted writing screenplays. As it is the case now with prose, some of my screenplays were comedies, some not. As I received rejection after rejection, I noticed a certain pattern: some of the rejections recurrently suggested that the readers found the screenplay too raucous and pedestrian for their expectations, while a second group of rejections suggested that the readers found the screenplay too sophisticated, hence not marketable enough for the masses.
I realized with that the world of comedy, at least as we know it today, is composed by two boulders separated by a rift. Let’s call one of the boulders the Snob Rock. That’s where highbrow comedy and the likes of Wes Anderson dwell and thrive. The other boulder is called Slob Rock. That’s the den governed by lowbrow comedy and every film Adam Sandler made after 50 First Dates and before his Netflix deal. Snobs hate Slobs. Slobs hate Snobs. There is only one thing they hate more than each other: anything that is in the rift in between them. There used to be a bridge connecting the two rocks. They burned it. It’s a shame, because at some point there wasn’t a bridge for the simple reason it was not necessary. There was no rift. Comedy works with a harmonic combination of low brow and highbrow comedy were the norm.
One day the boulders will crumble and the pebbles will cascade toward the rift, filling it. On that day I, a dweller of the depths of this rift, will ascend. I just need some matchsticks. It’s dark in here, but I’m pretty sure I found some TNT in this hole.
I’m writing a story that involves a space elevator and a fart. The title: The Fizzles of Paradise. My spouse hated the concept so much that he said he wouldn’t even take a look at it nor do the initial proofreading that has been an essential part of my writing being viable in the anglophone market. I had to get some confidence fuel from my online buddy Jordan Chase-Young to continue writing it.
I’m almost done with the vomit draft of this story. Like the Arthut C. Clarke novel that I reference in the title, it has three POVs and maybe that’s where the similarities end. The story was very contaminated by issues going on in my life (I quit my day job this week after I realized that my supervisor was asking me to put myself in more situations of potential exposure to COVID 19 than my non-Latino colleagues, but that’s not what I want to talk about here).
I don’t remember if it was Alex Shvartsman or Ira Nayman, during an online panel on comedy and SFF earlier this year during Amazing Con, who said that if you write comedy, you don’t get respect, but you get love. That reminded me of movie I watched during a film festival in Mexico. It was called La Delgada Linea Amarilla (The Thin Yellow Line) and it was a beautiful, even solemn tale of a man with a crew hired to paint in a very rustic way the yellow line in the center of a new road. The movie was not a comedy, but it had one minor character that was a comedy relief – a very mild one. For some reason every time he would show up in the screen the audience would laugh their asses off, even when the scene had nothing funny. Someone explained to me that the actor was one of the greatest comedians in Mexico. The mere sight of him summoned all the skits he performed.
The Fizzles of Paradise is a comedy with a social commentary. It was deeply influenced by the professional struggles I went through this week. Anybody who reads my stuff knows that gallows humor is my lane. Can one love someone who writes gallows humor, though? Will I ever get the love that the chubby Mexican actor – or Pratchett -, used to get from people who appreciated their humor?
Do I want to be loved?
I would still have a job if I were respected.
I kinda of needed that job.
COVID 19 wasn’t an acceptable trade off for employment.
Nor was the double-standard or the condescension.
Did I want that job?
I wish I could make a living out of writing.
No, not that type of writing.
Fuck you too.
Can satire, especially a dark, unforgiving one, change the world, by ridiculing power structures and vicious social dynamics?
I never liked the dogma that comedy is subjective. Yes, there are things that make me laugh and wouldn’t make a child or an elderly person amused. Comedy does rely on having access to a framework of knowledge and experiences (or lack of those, what explains why slapstick works so well with children). It IS subjective at its rudimentary core. But as we move away from such core, towards grounds where, ideally, the intellectual field is leveled and anyone could, in principle, get a joke, what would the make a set up, the subsequent punchline and the narrow interstice between them appealing to all or at least most? What would give it (a relative) universality?
There is no reasonable answer to that question, which is usually phrased as “Is this funny?”, tout court. As creators of humor it is only natural that we seek what’s funny, it’s a tautology to state that. Yet, it’s a necessary tautology as I assume that it is the wrong approach. Yes, we summon humor and put it on paper. That’s the work of creating comedy. But when it’s up to labeling it as good or bad or not-comedy-you-are-not funny-never-write-again-kill-yourself-your-hack, then the the approach should be, in my opinion, the opposite. We should ask not what makes us laugh, chuckle, etcetera, but what doesn’t.
I suggest a very simple exercise: think about a piece of comedy you read or watched that not only failed at amuse you in any way, but made you either sad or angry. It doesn’t matter the source of that emotion, it could be that the comedy piece made you triggered due to personal experiences (e.g.: a cancer joke after you lost a loved on to cancer), to social affinities (a racist joke when you happen to not be a racist scumbag), a joke that was just plain weak, cliche, that made you frustrated with the fact that someone got paid big money to create it while you are having instant noodles for dinner.
In my case I could give examples from pretty much any Wes Anderson movie I forced myself to watch, or from a Adam Sandler movie produced in the period after he gave up and just used the loyalty of his fanbase to shoot weak ass movies to make cash and before he got that juicy netflix deal and started giving a fuck again. I will keep it simple, though. There is an animated TV show called Brickleberry about park rangers. I watched 2 episodes of that show before giving up because it was just plain bad. But there is a joke that was particularly bad and I will never forget. A character needed an organ transplant and the doctor told him “Mr. Whatever, we have a liver available right now, but we can’t give it to you because it is reserved for an illegal immigrant”.
The thing that frustrated me the most about the joke I mentioned wasn’t the cheap shot at immigrants, but the fact that it was not even remotely based on a fact. Immigrants are not a hindrance to the health system and they certainly don’t have privileged access to organs. That’s when I realized: comedy needs to be based on truth. You can distort it to make the caricature work, but it still needs to be a product of tangible experiences accessible or at least conceivable by us in a reality that has rules and social dynamics. That’s the first step to make a joke funny, one that most comedy writers don’t consciously take. Sometimes they land in comedy gold without being aware of that, but that’s still a step they took. And their next joke can incur in a misstep.
I started writing these posts with the intent of talking about how my itinerary as a reader of Science Fiction was unique, but the last posts became detours, as I got distracted from my original goal and talked about writing instead of reading. But the fact is that I would not be able to summarize my reads in science fiction in the last 15 years or identify in them a pattern that took me to where I am right now as my previous reads did.
My original point stands, and I can now give it some depth by including my main motivation in writing this series of posts: in the last years when I moved to the US, and particularly last year, I had the chance to meet Science Fiction aficionados. The men and women who once were kids that had good access to good libraries and book shops and didn’t have a language obstacle The people who once were teens who connected to other teens with a similar mindset and an appetite for science fiction, and had important forums to gather, exchange, exist, such as conventions.
Last year I attended the Nebula convention in LA and Worldcon in Dublin (the last only possible thanks to a grant that funded by flight). I struggled in both events to connect with people and make the most for it. In my life I had a weird alternation of moments of popularity (middle school, college) and of social retraction (high school, professional settings). My social retraction trend has been lasting for several years now, and the fact that I have a thick accent, that I’m an immigrant, doesn’t help. But mostly, I feel that my experience has been different. You have the old school of science fiction readers who are very brash about how the “new generation” doesn’t read Asimov, Heinlein, Vance etcetera. And then you have the “new generation” that is all about authors that have been publishing in the last 10 years, while my reads tended to focus either on the ones I perceive as being in between (Le Guin, Bradbury, Adams, etcetera), or the ones before Science Fiction was a genre. Not that I haven’t read novels from the writers of the so-called golden age of science fiction, but I know who my influences are. I still believe, for example, that is more pertinent to read L’Isle-Adam than Vonnegut if you want to write humorous science fiction.
Am I really part of a community if I don’t partake on what is mainstream for them? I was talking to a recent acquaintance, the brilliant Jordan Chase-Young, about how a recent story of mine where I frame my premise intellectually before moving on to the narrative (like Douglas Adams used to do sometimes when starting a new chapter) was perceived as meandering and unfocused by some readers who just wanted the action to happen ASAP.
I got to where I am now – releasing my debut novel and my first pro-market short story -, by being different, and that difference was a product of my sui generis process of becoming a science fiction enthusiast. I’m not sure where I’m headed to. Terminal 3 may flop and I might never sell a short story again, what probably will steer me to return to my origins, where science fiction was a solitary hobby. And I think I will be okay if that happens. There are worse ways to crash and burn.
It’s December the 10th of 2016. It’s a sunny morning as I disembark from the airplane in my final destination: Pittsburgh, which is partially covered in snow. The man I was going to officially marry was waiting for me by the conveyor belts. We hugged, we kissed, we went to our home to start our lives together.
Jim was an enthusiast of my screenplays, he read all of them. He is pretty much a champion of my writing until today, proofreading all my fiction before I start sending it out. We decided that maybe I should give a shot at one of them, called “Too Big for You”, a superhero comedy, which I could maybe try to turn into a graphic novel. After working with 2 different artists I realized that I didn’t have the knack as a storyteller for graphic novels. I just couldn’t cram my long, snappy dialogues in that medium.
One thing that I didn’t mention in my last post was that after college I wrote a second novel. Inspired by a friend. I showed that novel to that friend to see if she was okay with me publishing it. She stopped talking to me and showed the novel to everybody else in our shared social network. Lots of people stopped talking to me. Well, at least I was read… But that made me stop writing prose for years. That’s the other reason why I tried my hand at screenwriting besides the one I gave in my last post. Now that screenwriting didn’t pay off and writing for comics was clearly not my thing, I decided that maybe it was time to get back to writing prose.
I wrote a novel called “Serpentine”, a very dark science fiction noir. Too dark. No sales, not representation (although an expanded version of the first chapter was sold as a story to Hybrid Fiction). That’s when I decided to use a teleplay I had written some years ago and did well in a TV writing competition for my next novel: Terminal 3.
Terminal 3 was supposed to be a sitcom about the security staff of a spaceport terminal in the early 22nd century. With my novel it went much beyond that. This novel was sold to a small publisher and, if things go as planned, it will be released in September.
The chapter of my life that will describe below was quite painful. It took me a while to sit down to write it for that reason, and I did so in a way that is very shallow on purpose, basically just vomiting facts and omitting emotional experiences. I’m just filling a gap in the narrative I’m trying to convey as I don’t want to go too deep in that part of my life. Feel free to skip this part if you are bored.
I was in senior year of high school when I wrote Vazão and my dad passed away. The following year I moved to Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, as a social sciences freshman at the University of Brasilia (UnB). Despite the fact that Brasilia had amazing libraries, including UnB’s, my interest for fiction drifted away for a while. That happened, in part because studying social sciences, especially sociology, make you and your sensibilities very grounded to reality – and our tools of escapism tended to be less intellectual (our ongoing joke in college was that you could tell the difference between an anthropology and sociology student because the former was a pothead and the latter was hooked to Prozac). Another factor was the fact that I developed a relatively big entourage of friends for the first time in my life, as I was very involved with my academic life including student representation within the University’s administration. Reading the translation of Douglas Adams’ novels (as mentioned in my last post) was the main exception to that moment as I would keep myself busy with my social life.
6 months after finishing college I applied to work in the now defunct Ministry of Cities, the federal government branch in charge of housing and urban infrastructure. That happened at the same time I had also been selected for UnB’s master program in anthropology. However, I couldn’t juggle working 40 hours/week while reading an average of 2 difficult ethnology books a week, attending classes, preparing my research project (which was going to be about reports of UFO sightings and contact with aliens, understood through the same frame that analyzed how Portuguese navigators in the 15th Century thought that blue whales were dragons). I remember that I was enrolled in a special class in the master’s program on colonialist perspectives. One of our assignments was to review one work of a list that featured a list of ethnographic studies and…. Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. We all know which book I picked.
I loved the financial autonomy having a salary gave me and hated my work with all my heart, especially the inherent stupidity and corruption of Brazilian bureaucracy, what was particularly hard as I was at the bottom of the food chain and honest. I was sick of Brasilia and decided that it was time to take risks. I applied for the equivalent of a Green Card for Canada as a skilled worker and got selected. I moved to Montreal after 3 years working in the Ministry of Cities, leaving behind a stable work and leaping into the unknown. It was a little challenging at first as I couldn’t find work quickly and had to work with weird stuff for a while like distributing flyers in the street to make do. After a few months I finally got a job in social services in a shelter for homeless people living with the HIV. I was replacing a worker who was in paternity leave (in Canada couples can decide who gets to take a one-year leave), covering for his 10 30pm-8am graveyard shifts.
My goal, when I moved to Canada, was to write again and although I had a series of tasks that kept me busy during my shifts in the shelter, it was quite lonely with lots of time to think about my stuff. In my day (actually night) offs I didn’t have much to do. I first tried to write a dystopian novel in French. Then I remembered that lots of people praised my novella Vazão “because it read like a movie”. I never took it as a compliment, but made me realize that I should give TV and film writing a shot. I tried my hand at screenwriting and I liked it a lot My favorite part of writing is dialogue and screenwriting gives you lots of room to play with that aspect of fiction. I decided to use my savings to move from Montreal to Vancouver to improve my English and attend film school there and it turned out to be a massive waste of time and money.
I had to move back to Brazil but kept writing screenplays that nobody cared about while working mostly with translations. Most of the screenplays and teleplays were comedies, although I tried to write in every genre.
One day I was arguing with an American guy on an LGBT internet forum about a certain issue related to current affairs. Our stances on the discussed matter couldn’t be more different. But we decided to keep discussing the issue on skype. Our skype conversations drifted to other subjects and started to last hours every day. We decided that we had to meet each other. I applied for the 3rd time in my life for a tourist visa to the US to visit him and for the 3rd time in my life the tourist visa was denied to me, without explanation (THANKS OBAMA!). Then my friend had to come all the way to Brazil to meet me. He proposed on the first day. I accepted. One year later I moved to the Southern suburbs of Pittsburgh, where my creative life went through a massive shift…
Moving back to Brazil was hard in so many ways. I had friends in France that I would never see again. My only good friend prior to moving to France who became my pen pal when I was there started attending a different school 6 months after I moved back.
As usual, I read a lot, although I didn’t have access to French libraries anymore, so I had to resort to my dad’s personal collection. Before we moved back my dad bought lots of ultra-cheap public domain classics of French literature which I devoured. Some where proper for my age like Mallot’s melodramatic “Sans Famille” (Without a Family, literal translation, not sure if that’s the title in English), about an orphan raised by a benevolent peasant spinster but then forced to become a minstrel who would perform across France as he grew up. It’s a novel that by all means, glamourizes poverty, an anti-Dickens/Zola sort of work, even though in my home we had a much more humanized vision of stray kids since my dad worked with the issue for a while.
Most books, however, were for adults, but I would read them anyway. Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris” (I think it was translated as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) became my favorite novel until today for the way it conveyed my emotions and gave me a taste for beautiful prose (the segment that portrays Frollo’s death is maybe the most beautiful piece of description that I can remember). The list is long and I won’t mention every author and novel but, to keep it in track, as I’m talking how I became so passionate about science-fiction, there were also Jules Verne and Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. I don’t think I need to explain how Verne was influential, even people who never read him surely read about him and his huge contribution to the Science-Fiction and Adventure genres. L’Isle-Adam is way less-known, and somehow I don’t think we would have Adams, Pratchett and other masters of SFF satire without him. Most people know him mostly by his L’Ève Future (Future Eve), which is an important work in terms of concept (and how it was foundational to the concept of robots) but quite cringy considering the politics it conveys. His Contes Cruels (Cruel Tales/Short Stories, again, just guessing the titles in English), on the other hand, are a master piece that is still an engaging read today. It contains short stories that can go to Flaubert/Balzac’s realism (with an extra-pinch of hopelessness) to properly fantastic stories describing machines vowed to manipulate our consciousness, such as a giant spotlight that would project ads on the Moon’s surface or a theater filled with gadgets (like mechanic clapping hands) that would ensure that any play would be received with tremendous success no matter how shitty the performance was. Outside that personal French language library I would read a lot from my dad’s collection of horror novels (he was a big fan of the genre). He had every Stephen King book translated to Portuguese and was a big fan of Clive Barker (that he would read from Spanish editions). He had all the works of Lovecraft too, which he personally didn’t like and, for some reason, I liked it much more than Barker or King. Obviously I would read lots of Brazilian literature too, but I’m trying to stay on track here.
And then my uncle Luis Francisco (Desco) died of complications associated to AIDS, maybe one year before the big pharmaceutical revolution that made an HIV+ diagnostic no longer result in a death sentence. Tio Desco liked science-fiction and I wish my contact with him wasn’t only sporadic (he lived in a different city and we only saw him very eventually) before he passed away so early. We got maybe 30 science-fiction novels translated to French from his library (I think another uncle claimed the books in English). My memory of the short-stories anthologies were a blur when it’s up to authors but I’m sure I read all the golden age stories (I can tell the plot of many of them even if I can’t associate them to authors). For some reason he had lots of Ray Bradbury novels, and I read them all.
I would buy books too. It felt, to me, that Brazil was becoming more intellectualized in the late 90s. In the state of Goiás that happened mostly with the fall of a political oligarchy that was very averse to culture as Governor Perillo was elected in 1997. Governor Perillo became a a political oligarch on his own terms, but in his early years in power we saw a cultural boost as he was sincerely engaged in leaving his mark and shake things up in the state. That’s when Goiânia developed a symphonic orchestra that would perform in the spacious, new Rio Vermelho theater, and a literary contest offering publishing to local writers allowed me to release my literary novella Vazão, and I wouldn’t be able to release Vazão if, in the country as a whole, the editorial market was back in track, translating and releasing for affordable prices public domain classics that could go from early SFF like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to high literature like Dostoevsky. I read them all.
But I never forgot that crazy ass book that gave me a literary high in the Massif Central. My memory of it was a blur, true. Couldn’t remember for sure the title, or even the author’s name for sure. Not that it mattered since Google was not a thing (and Altavista was shitty, let’s all agree on that). One thing I never forgot was the name of one character. The French have this tendency to translate English names, what wouldn’t be a problem if the translation was to make a joke that worked in French. If Zaphod Beeblebrox was named Monsieur Baguette Camembert I wouldn’t be mad. But no, the fucking French named him Zappy Bibici (pronounced Beebeecee), because you know, the translator thought he was funnier than Douglas Adams (they do that a lot to Hollywood movies too, giving different English names that are often corny and/or nonsensical). Knowing about the book wouldn’t have made a difference, though, as I don’t think it was ever translated to Portuguese. Until it was. I found it in a bookstore, just hanging in there, waiting for me in a super glossy cover with a fun art and a really cool font design: O Guia do Mochileiro das Galáxias. They released the first book. And then they would release another one of the new tomes every 3 months or so, which I would purchase and read and reread like a junkie.
The big issue with my SF passion was that it was a very lonely one. My dad was weirdly supportive, as he was not into Science Fiction but would eye me having an interest with satisfaction. For example, I fell in love with Babylon 5 (still my favorite SF TV show) when my family signed up for cable and the Warner Channel would broadcast (terribly) subtitled episodes. The problem was that after season 2 the show was moved to mornings, when I was at school, so my dad helped me set up the VCR to record it so I could play the tape after I came back from school. My dad was also a big advocate of my writing. I didn’t write SF back then. SF was my lonely, guilty pleasure, after all. I wanted to communicate with people, so I wrote literary stuff. My dad was my beta reader, the nicest one could have. He would return my typed drafts covered in red marks and notes. If something had potential he would say so. If something was shitty he would say that “it was a good exercise”. He helped me with a short story that won the biggest/only state-wide literary contest. I was 16 and the contest was for adults. The price was 500 reais (in a time when 1 real = 1 American dollar, I bought a Playstation console that cost me 250 reais). I never got to see my dad’s red marks and notes on an early draft of my novella Vazão though, since I finished it a few months after cancer took him away from me. He was my best and only advocate and I stopped writing for many years.
In 1993 I was 10 years old and my family moved to Strasbourg, France, as my mom had dreams of obtaining her PhD outside Brazil. My mom had first prepared herself to do that in Upstate New York, even spending three months there learning English back in the late 80s, but my dad was not exactly an Americanophile and vetoed any plan to move to the US (although, in his case, might be also a lack of willingness to leave his life in Brazil for a few years). When my mom applied and obtained the scholarships that could fund our stay in France, there is not much that my dad could argue against the move. François Mitterrand was a socialist, after all…
I know it’s corny, but I feel compelled to describe those two years of my life as magic, although the expression cultural shock would be more accurate (in its best meaning) would be more appropriate. There was so much to discover as a tween who was raised in such a backwards place like the state of Goiás back in the late 80s and early 90s when you land in a reality that values culture and intellectuality. In Goiânia, a city over 1 million persons back then, we only had one major theater. Quality children plays would come over only when there was some theater company touring the country thanks to a private donation. Strasbourg, which was four times smaller than Goiânia, had a whole theater focused only on children (Théatre du Jeune Public).
As the legislative capital of the European Union, Strasbourg felt cosmopolitan despite being just a medium sized city. The European Union flag proudly flew on top of its pink medieval cathedral’s spire (seconded only by Cologne’s cathedral in height). I was in classroom where most kids went to the conservatory twice a week and had recently been invited by ZDF to sing with German children in a TV ad lauding the European Union. There was an optimistic and energized vibe related to social existence in that time and place that I thought it would be the standard for life in a first world country (personal experiences and more awareness later in my life about how your mind too can be colonized showed me that it wasn’t the case).
And then there were the libraries. I had to take a bus to go to Strasbourg central library and dive in what was for me the novelty of the French-Belgium comics universe. You have the usual suspects such as the René Goscinny fare, in which he would partner as a writer with an artist to create hilarious comics such as Asterix (with Uderzo), Iznogoud (with Tabary) and the Dingodossiers (with Gottlieb), among so many others). The solo work with these artists was never as great as the one they delivered when teaming up with Goscinny. There was also a very cool science fiction and fantasy fare prone to feature strong (and somewhat flawless) female leads such as Yoko Tsuno (a brilliant engineer), Isabelle (a witch in training) and Marine (an aspiring pirate). And, of course, there were plenty of gamebooks that I could borrow with my Library card which featured a cool drawing from Tommy Ungerer (an elephant reading a book with a line up of glasses on his trunk). And then, if I was not feeling like taking the bus all the way to the central library or do the 30 minute walk to the branch in Neudorf, every Friday the Bibliobus would park on my street in the Esplanade neighborhood with a very decent catalogue of comics and books. But the fact is that I lacked guidance to get the right books in science fiction, as my dad was only into horror and thrillers/crime. That changed in 1995, just one month before I returned to Brazil.
My dad enrolled me in the French boy scouts a few months after we moved to France. As a kid prone to sedentariness it took me lots of adjustment to integrate a movement that required me to sleep in relatively uncomfortable tent and walk many and many kilometers in their activities. I grew fond of it, though, even if I was the chubby kid that would trail behind. That was specially the case in our 2 week camping trip in the Massif Central, the mountain chain that sprawls across France’s rustic and not particularly industrialized Auvergne region and beyond. After two weeks of breathtaking yet exhausting daily excursions in the area, we all needed a break, so the chiefs gave us a lazy day. One of the chiefs was a SFF enthusiast but he kept it to himself. However, in the lazy day he showed us a metallic crate filled with part of his personal library. I sat down in the morning in a shady comfy tent filled with cushions and picked a book that intrigued me, a certain “Le Guide du Voyageur Galactique” from a certain Douglas Adams. By 4pm I was done with it, and I hated that the book was over. I wanted more of that crack, I wanted to go where Arthur Dent went, because that place was as cool compared to where I was as France was cooler than Brazil.
And then I moved back to Brazil the following month and couldn’t find the Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy anywhere, but that’s a matter for my next post.