“America: Horror Story” head writer and cast member, Dan Gold, shares how the show was born and his experience on the project.
I was very excited to serve as Head Writer for 4 Days Late’s newest sketch revue for the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, and I was very eager to lead a team of intelligent, talented, and creative writers.
Right before Thanksgiving, we had our initial ideation session for our new show, and we discussed a lot of “big picture” goals that we wanted to achieve in our newest revue. First, we wanted to create big characters that are still grounded. There’s fun in flexing the type of writing muscle for creating zany, silly, creepy, exotic, and larger-than-life characters, and it’s doable without creating cliché caricatures. If big personalities are built in to the written page, they’re that much more powerful when they come to life on stage. I didn’t intend for that to rhyme.
Second, our group discussion also yielded some great ideas about what we wanted to say with this piece. We wanted to deliver a sketch show with very sharp political and timely satirical commentary. We wanted to push some envelopes, we wanted to be biting, and we wanted to make people think. Some of the best lessons comedy teaches happen when stakes are high, and people are uncomfortable. However, it’s not helpful to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. There’s a delicate tightrope to walk to achieve this successfully, and it’s extremely rewarding when we, as writers, acrobatically balance it to make people stop and think.
These two overall goals don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. It’s one thing to create a big, silly character. It’s an entirely different thing to write biting commentary. But it is even more challenging to marry the two, and still say something unique. And we can’t forget that at the end of the day, we want it to be funny : )
I am an avid reader of The Onion, the satirical newspaper that I consider to be the absolute best writing that makes people laugh, but also stop and think. It’s silly, but brilliant. In October, I enrolled in a writing class at The Second City called “Writing with The Onion,” taught by The Onion’s founding editor, Scott Dikkers. In this class, we explored the depths of various types of written prose that The Onion is known for. We discussed the “science” behind what makes their satirical delivery funny, how to find that, and how to play with it in the way that The Onion does so masterfully. Each week, we would dive deep into prior articles as examples, analyze the breakdown of the articles’ comedic science, and have specific writing assignments geared towards the focuses of that week. I was in “Onion Nerd” heaven.
Behind all of The Onion’s writing is really strong subtext…the underlying message intended to be conveyed. In terms of finding that subtext, it’s more relatable for audiences when the writers have an honest, natural discovery of it. This comes from everyday listening, observing, and staying informed. Even more crucial is taking an extra step to form strong opinions about it. From there comes the real fun…putting the unique spin on that message and playing the game…in that spin is where the comedy lies and where creativity starts to flourish. That’s when people say “Oh wow, that’s smart humor. That’s great writing.”
Importantly, this model is so similar to the 4 Days Late writing process, and what I love about our organic discovery of “finding the funny” as sketch comedy writers. We listen, watch, and observe. We form strong opinions. We collaborate as a collective to discover how we want to deliver our messages. We play with the unexpected, and work under the 4 Days Late mission of creating genre defying, original work that implicates our audience and ourselves.
For something of this nature, it’s essential to find the “what” of our show. We ask ourselves, “What have we all observed, what do we want to say, and what is the way that it hasn’t been said before?” For a strong message, it’s not enough to just observe; it’s crucial to process it, and form an opinion about it. Our discussions for this particular show began with a very general discussion of current events in the news. We emailed out links when we weren’t in the writers room, stayed informed, and always brought each discussion back to “how do we feel about this?” This helped find the show’s voice. As writers, we then figure out how to deliver those opinions, through the device of sketch comedy and a solid thematic through-line.
The particular conversations that we had always led to aspects of our country that are awful. We can all admit that while it’s certainly a great place, America is full of things that are just plain terrible. Things that are jaw-droppingly scary. Things that horrify us… “America: Horror Story” was born.
We now had a unified theme to continue the writing process with a pointed message. We created big characters and wrote sharp commentary around them, keeping in mind our clarity, purpose, opinion, and a ton of fun moments that we wanted to inject in the piece. I’m extremely proud of the writers and our script, but even prouder to watch it come to life. Our awesome director, Anna Schlegel, has a wonderful vision for the show, and is using her brilliant creativity to make this edgy, smart, different, creative, and funny. The cast is diving right in to execute Anna’s vision. They’re working hard and having fun playing such a wide range of character types, and never forgetting the big picture of our show’s message.
No spoilers here though, if that’s what you wanted. You’ll just have to come to our Sketchfest show on Sunday, January 12th at 8 pm at Stage 773. We’re very proud of our newest sketch revue. So lock the doors, check under the bed, and come scream laugh with us during “America: Horror Story.”