I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I know that putting sex and violence into your content is the sure way to become popular. But because I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer I don’t do that. Not usually. Sometimes people think I do, but I don’t. That doesn’t even make sense, does it? Either it’s there or it’s not there. Either there’s liftoff or Houston we got a problem. It’s been scientifically proven: you cannot be just a little bit pregnant. But I beg to differ.
I’ll show you what I mean. This past weekend I hosted a playwrighting workshop in my hometown. I write fiction, my fourth novel is coming out in August, blah, blah. You’ve heard all that before. But I’m taking a break to write strictly dialogue—my favorite part of any story. Let’s not go into the arrogance of thinking I can simply dash off a few he saids/she saids and call it a play. The point is, I had one of my first attempts at this artform critiqued this past weekend.
The result? I was duly reminded of the arrogance of passing off a few pages of conversation as a play. I was rebuffed, rebuked, chided, scoffed at, humiliated, crucified, immolated, flayed alive, and drawn and quartered. Finally I was requested to leave the theater. Fortunately I’m a masochist and enjoy that sort of thing. There’s nothing quite like having your intestines boiled before your own eyes first thing in the morning.
I limped home, enjoying my pain. Then the night closed in. The curtains on the outside world were drawn, leaving me to my own sordid thoughts. Before I knew it, it was two a.m., the thinking hour. I tossed and turned, haunted by one particularly acidic comment. It kept replaying in my head, even as I couldn’t get my head around it: it did not compute.
The comment came from an angry man who stood up and stated, “there’s one thing in your play that had no business being there. This thing did not further the action. It did not contribute a thing. I’m talking about the hard-on. It had no business being there.”
I nodded my head and muttered something about it probably had been put there by somebody to say something about the character’s character. Or maybe the dynamics of the marriage. In my own head I was writing off the old sourpuss as a prude, a Podunk morality pusher that didn’t like anything racier than Disney.
But that didn’t make sense and that’s why I couldn’t get to sleep. There was a cognitive dissonance rolling around in my brain. See, the play opens with the married couple completely in the nude, and that hadn’t bothered the guy. It wasn’t the sex at all. He just felt the hard-on was misplaced. He felt it didn’t need to be in a play about environmental disasters. In his mind, I was just trying to shove in a little sex or violence to get the numbers up.
Then I realized why I was rolling around, punching the pillow at two a.m.: there was no hard-on in the play! There was a one liner that used the word “hard-on,” but that was it. Using a word in a conversation is a very different thing than actually putting what the word describes on the stage.
At about 2:15 I finally realized that the guy simply didn’t get the joke. It was a throwaway line not meant to further the action but to illustrate a character’s character or maybe portray the dynamics of the couple’s marriage.
So the problem wasn’t that a hard-on doesn’t belong in the play, but that the set up for the joke was weak and ineffectual. Maybe the dialog was too choppy. Whatever, the guy missed the joke. Can it be fixed? I hope so, but I don’t know. You tell me. Here’s the lines pulled out of context. What do you think? Do you get it? What’s wrong with it?
Big news, Jackie, baby! Big news!
(sarcastically) Don’t tell me: a million gallon spill of flesh-eating bacteria off the coast of Jersey. Thousands of faceless victims flooding area hospitals. Summer trade threatened.
(DEAL returns from the closet with his shorts on. He walks to the mirror and inspects his face one last time.)
Not that big. Not that big.
(rises, grabs the robe, and heads to closet)
Careful dear, you’re getting a hard-on.
That’s it. There’s the joke. The line. Do you get it that he’s not really getting a hard-on, that he’s just excited about a huge environmental disaster? And Jackie is making a statement about him?
Anyway, you can see how sex can be there even when it’s not there. Sex is in the mind of the beholder, I guess. Sad thing is that far from removing what offended this critiquer, I’m going to leave it in. Try to give it a prominence in fact. Because nothing sells content like sex.