There are a few things at SXSWi that I wanted to be sure not to miss, one of which was a chance to actually see one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, live. In case you’re not familiar with him, here’s a little background. (If you are familiar, feel free to skip right to paragraph two!). Gaiman first got notice with his long-running comic book, “Sandman”, on DC Comics. ”Sandman” is absolutely aimed at adults (and more mature teens), and quite frankly as fine an example of the fact that, just like any other medium, high-quality work can be done in graphic form — which the Japanese have known for a long time, of course.
Gaiman was the writer on “Sandman” and worked with various artists, but he is hardly a “comics-only” guy. He has had several books on the NY Times best-seller list–both for adults (“American Gods”) and for young readers (“Coraline”–also an award-winning film). He’s written multiple movie scripts, had several of his books turned into films, and written TV episodes for multiple shows such as “Dr. Who” and “Babylon-5″. He can be comic, serious, fanciful, and fantastical. I think his greatest gift is being able to juxtapose the mundane with the bizarre, as in one of his earlier works, “Neverwhere”. And oh, he wrote a biography of Douglas “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Adams; did I mention that?
As you can tell, I’m a fanboy. (You can check out a piece I did here on Gear Diary about the radio dramatization of Gaiman’s “NeverWhere”. It’s wonderful — if you like Urban Fantasy, of course — and you should check it out post-haste. You can get details on the BBC Radio NeverWhere site.)
I’m not going to try to give you a complete recap of the talk; there are probably lots of places you can get something like that. (I think Hugh Garry has a really good overview on his site, for example.) These are just my flash-card impressions, as it were. The format of the talk was a little odd for me: One famous person (Gaiman) interviewing another famous person, Chuck Lorre, a TV writer and producer who has worked on such shows as “Roseanne”, “Dharma and Greg”, and of course most recently, “The Big Bang Theory”. I wasn’t there to see Mr. Lorre, so I apologize if my observations are a bit slanted towards Gaiman. Sorry, Big Bang Theory fans!
Chuck Lorre is known in the fan community (so I gather) for using “Vanity Cards” on his show to display his thoughts on, well, whatever appears to be flickering across his consciousness that week. Vanity Cards, for those of you not in the know — as I sure wasn’t — are cards that they display on the screen at the close of the episode. Lorre uses his like a telephonic blog, apparently, putting cards up there on all kinds of topics. You can’t read them in the second or so they appear on the screen — you can only freeze your DVR and look at them that way. Lorre also puts them up on the web sites for the shows, or so I gathered.
Now Lorre has put out a book that collects a bunch (or all?) of those cards called What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Bitter, which was the jumping off point for their discussion. Here are some of the things I picked up from the talk that I hoped you all might find interesting. Hope you can forgive the abrupt presentation!
- Lorre considers his vanity cards as a sort of blog. Gaiman told Lorre that he began his own blog back in 2001 (almost pre-historic in the blogging era), and they discussed fan interaction. Gaiman noted that he struggles with the right level of fan interaction. He currently interacts very little via his blog, but he does interact. (He also sometimes responds in Twitter as well; he answered one of my own Tweeted questions about how to listen to the “NeverWhere” radio drama. But Lorre told Gaiman that he wants no interactivity with the fans at all; he doesn’t want to know “what people don’t like” about what he is doing. Which might strike some as arrogant in this age of instant feedback and quick artist access, but reminded me very strongly of what Chuck Jones wrote on a similar topic in “Chuck Amuck” (Which I really cannot recommend highly enough if you are thinking of going into a creative career [and which is dying for someone to turn into a high-quality iPad app]), i.e. that they did cartoons that made them laugh, figuring that would make the fans laugh, too. Gaiman didn’t disagree, and noted that fans always want more of what they have–more Sandman stories, more “American Gods” stories, what have you–so if you as a writer want to do something different, you can’t listen to them too much.
- Lorre on “The Big Bang Theory”: “We never set out to write about nerds.” He said that what he asked himself at the beginning was, “Let’s see if we can write a series about brilliant, brilliant characters who can’t manage life. Make ‘A Beautiful Mind’ with the paranoid schizophrenia.” (Full disclosure: I don’t like “The Big Bang Theory” much.)
- In a funny aside, Lorre admitted to Gaiman that he was a fanboy himself, and one of them — I forgot to note which one — still had a set of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cookies. Neil said that if you ate those cookies now, they would give you strange powers. (You heard it here first, kids; the plot of Gaiman’s next story!)
- Lorre described writing and producing a TV show as being like “Running down a tunnel with a train behind you for 9 months; you can’t stop.”
- Lorre said that the question writers ask themselves during development of a story is, “What if?” ”What if a character did this?” This prompted Gaiman to remember that director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”, along with many others) once said that “A character changing their mind about something is more powerful than one throwing a punch.”
- Lorre had a lot of love for actors that show loyalty, or who do things for people who maybe don’t help their careers. He cited Ashton Kutcher for “keeping ’2 1/2 Men’ alive.” And also pointed out that John Travolta stayed on “Welcome Back Kotter” even after he became a huge star. ”That was cool,” Lorre noted (and I would have to agree, although not about “2 1/2 men” — some shows really, really need to die at some point, and that one definitely reached that point a while ago in my view.) Kutcher was in the audience, which I thought was pretty decent of him.
- Lorre says that he not only doesn’t use “sweetening”–i.e. a laugh track machine–for his shows, but they actually take out laughs because they drown out the lines. ”Make it funny or cut it,” is his rule. He feels that if it isn’t funny, it needs to be rewritten because the material isn’t working. Sometimes they rewrite on the spot. (Which must be tough on the actors, or so it seems to me.)
- They spoke together a bit out putting out stuff for free. Gaiman noted that when he gave “American Gods” away for free online, his sales in other areas went up 300%. It’s clear Gaiman doesn’t fear the online world.
- Piece o’ news: Gaiman is currently working on the “third draft” of an “American Gods” TV show pilot!
- Neil was asked about collaboration, and what happens when they disagree about something. (Gaiman collaborated with Terry Pratchett on one of my very favorite comic SF/Fantasy novels, “Good Omens”.) ”The one who cares the most wins,” he said.
- Gaiman was asked about why he stopped doing Sandman and said that it was because he still loved it, and he didn’t want to reach the point where he hated it. (I really admire people who go out when still at or near the top. Think Sandy Koufax, or Ted Williams.)
- Gaiman also said he’s “Feeling incredibly 1996″, because right now he’s working on Sandman, and a new NeverWhere story, “How the Marquise Got His Coat Back.”
Now the famboyish part: I really, really wanted to meet Mr. Gaiman. I haven’t met many of my favorite authors over the years — Dan Simmons and Neal Stephenson are pretty much it — so I grab the chance when I can. So I accosted the poor man as he was trying to make his way from one event to the other. And I have to tell you that he was incredibly gracious. ”I just wanted to thank you,” I said, holding out my hand for him to shake (which, to his credit, he took). ”Thank you for so many hours of enjoyment that I’ve gotten out of your books.” He smiled at me and said, “Thank you! That means a lot.” And bless his heart, it sounded like he really meant it. Speaking as a very, very minor writer myself, that’s certainly what I wish for with regard to people reading my stuff (or to be informed, since I mostly write technical stuff), so I hope he really felt that way. And I think he did. End fanboy gushing.
So there ya go; my take on the Lorre/Gaiman discussion. Did you get a chance to see it? If not, what are your thoughts on Gaiman, Lorre, “The Big Bang Theory”, or events like SXSWi in general? Share them below!