Written by Dylan Callaghan
If you were to dream up an ideal married comedy writing duo, you'd want them to have the backgrounds of Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, the pair behind the new laugher The Rocker. They come from not only a shared love of funny, but from the respective crucibles of two of modern television's great small screen comedies -- Curb Your Enthusiasm for Forbes and The Simpsons for Wolodarsky.
The two have been Mr. and Mrs. since '04 and were brought on board this latest project to write a script from a story by Ryan Jaffe. Rocker is a Pete-Best-meets-Spinaltap yarn centering on Robert “Fish” Fishman, a drummer unceremoniously booted from his '80s hair metal band, seemingly never to recover... until, two decades later, his nephew's high school band needs someone on skins.
From their home office in New York, Forbes and Wolodarsky spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how they write, rewrite, compete and, most importantly, stay funny as a working, married comedy team.
Here's an awkward question: which one of you is funnier?
Wally Wolodarsky: It depends. When Maya's being a parent, she's much funnier.
Nice, well done.
Maya Forbes: I think Wally's much funnier. [But] I am a much funnier parent.
Wally Wolodarsky: It kind of breaks down along the lines of a lot of the partnerships I've witnessed: Maya tends to be very character-oriented, and I'm desperate to tell jokes.
So there is a little bit of a skill set breakdown in your partnership?
Photo: © 2008 20th Century Fox
Rainn Wilson stars in The Rocker.
Wally Wolodarsky: Yeah, I would say that Maya tends to look at the movie from the perspective of the characters and is always trying to write something that is emotionally true to a character, and I dutifully listen to her and then try to throw jokes in.
Maya Forbes: But I will say this: Wally always writes the one line that crystallizes the character for me. I've got the character in mind, but I always feel like Wally writes the line that makes me understand the character's voice.
You can't buy that kind of praise.
Wally Wolodarsky: You have to get married to get that kind of praise.
With jokes and gags, are you mathematical about them in terms of pacing? Do you want a certain amount per number of pages?
Wally Wolodarsky: No, I wouldn't say that. Obviously we're in a culture where the set piece has become a very important element to writing comedies. Other than knowing that that's a current demand of the marketplace, we don't have any formula beyond keeping it consistently funny.
Maya Forbes: If there are few pages with no jokes, we'll say, “We're writing a comedy here, so there should be some jokes,” but we don't have it down, like we need three jokes per page.
How do you deal with the issue of the rhythm and pacing of jokes?
Wally Wolodarsky: One thing I would say is that, having been employed as a writer for 20 years now, I've often come across people who have different formulas and rules… that, for me, almost always get tossed out the window pretty quickly.
What's great about working in a partnership is that you're always vying to make that other person laugh. If you can make the other person laugh, then you know it's good enough to be in the script. That's really the only formula we follow: is this funny to us and are we enjoying ourselves?
How do you deal with the loss of perspective where you start laughing at stuff because you're delirious or your radar just gets out of whack?
Wally Wolodarsky: Part of the rhythm of writing comedies is that sometimes everybody's flat, other times one person's sharp, sometimes everybody's on the ball. Sometimes all the air goes out the room, and you're in a delirious state where nothing gets used…
Maya Forbes:...where literally nothing is usable. I'd say we hit that, where we just go off on a tangent of unusable material.
Wally Wolodarsky: I'd say to me it's very much akin to being a baseball player; if you're a great player, you get a hit maybe once every three times you're up. When I walk in at the beginning of the day, I don't expect that every joke I tell is going to be a winner.
To me it's a really hit-and-miss business. Even when you think you've scored, you go and see the movie in a theater, and the thing that gets the biggest laugh, you weren't so confident in, and the thing you were sure was gonna kill, gets nothing.
It's humbling work.
Wally Wolodarsky: Yeah, but I like it. The things you didn't think were gonna get laughs, but did, you take credit for immediately.
How crucial is rewriting to improving that comedic batting average?
Wally Wolodarsky: Rewriting is crucial. For me the worst and most painful part of the script writing process is the reading of the first draft, because you can see, almost like a roadmap, this was the day I was on fire, this is the day I was distracted and this was the day I felt uninspired. It's all there for you. So the rewriting is essential. I would say we spend equal time rewriting our initial draft as we do writing it.
You are somewhat of an anomaly, not only as a male-female team, but as a married couple, as well. What sort of unusual benefits have you drawn from being a married writing team and what great perils have you confronted, if any?
Wally Wolodarsky: I don't want to sound too Pollyannaish, but I haven't experienced peril...
Maya Forbes: I would say the benefit is that we spend all our time together. That's my benefit. I don't know if Wally feels that way.
Wally Wolodarsky: Of course, I feel that way.
Maya Forbes: So I feel like the benefit is that we're very in touch with each other -- we're not alienated, just seeing each other in passing in the kitchen or whatever. I guess the only peril would be that disappointments are shared. A married couple always shares disappointments, but often it's one person having the disappointment about, say their work, and the other can be support. So that can be hard sometimes. If you're both down and uninspired, or if you're both struggling with something in a script, that can be frustrating.
Wally Wolodarsky: Yeah, I would agree with that, but I also find that our natural writing rhythm is one that mirrors our relationship -- when one person is down the other person is more up and vice versa. I don't want to make it sound too much like a Disney movie where Hayley Mills is gonna walk in at any second, but I do feel that that's what makes our marriage and our writing partnership so fruitful.
Would you say you're funnier because of the marriage?
Wally Wolodarsky: Absolutely. I'm trying hard to make a person whose opinion really matters to me, laugh. I would also say that -- very much like I feel in a writers' room -- I feel competitive. I want to be as funny or funnier than the person I'm facing.
Maya Forbes: We have a really hard time with credit -- who wrote what joke.
Wally Wolodarsky: That's true.
See now this to me smacks of peril. I mean to have that level of competitiveness…
Wally Wolodarsky: Honestly, that is not something that haunts our relationship. Think of us as Lennon and McCartney, without the great songs...
Maya Forbes: Or the wild success...
Wally Wolodarsky: Right, or the break up and the lawsuits.