Why We Write

January 17, 2008

Why We Write – Number 20: Eileen Heisler

Number 20

Today’s piece is written by Eileen Heisler, Writer/Producer of “Murphy Brown,” Creator and Executive Producer of “Committed,” Developer of “Lipstick Jungle.” 

 

I write because I sucked at gym.

Seriously, I have thought this through.   If I’d been remotely good at the shuttle run, or able to keep my head suspended above the chin up bar for more than two seconds, I’m convinced I never would have become a writer.  I wouldn’t have had the need for it.  I would have been just fine.

But as it is, I was horrible at gym.  Horrible at gym in the Midwest, land of swinging blond ponytails and Friday night football games… last picked, familiar with the shouts of “Move in, move in,” to the outfielders when I was up to bat at softball… right field, spotter, “manager” of the pom-pom squad… yep, you heard me right… manager.   Of the pom–pom squad.

I pressed the button on the boom box.

But don’t feel bad for me… I did okay.  Because something clicked in me very early.  Something that saved my life.  One day during “Presidential Physical Fitness testing, (yes, it was as horrible as it sounds and mandatory every single year of my school career) as I struggled to hold my chin above that blasted bar, arms shaking like crazy, fellow classmates watching my dismal failure as I tried to last three… yes, three measly seconds… it hit me. 

Hey, I can be pathetic up here, and people will laugh at me… or I can make fun of myself… and get a laugh.

Ahhh… what a world of difference there is between getting laughed at and getting a laugh.

A laugh earned is a beautiful thing.   And it feels good.   Maybe as good as hitting a home run, or making that touchdown, or doing that perfect cartwheel.  (Yeah, I had trouble with cartwheels, too.  Full disclosure).  And like those feats of athletic prowess so seemingly effortless among the most graceful of the blond ponytailed set… getting a laugh is hard. 

And not everybody can do it.

Well… that was it for me.  I was funny.  And making people laugh was fun.  It was fun in elementary school, it was fun in jr. high, and fun in high school… when one day in gym class I was walking my assigned laps around the track, freezing in the Chicago cold (yes walking, I was in a play that night and wanted to save my voice) when I was loudly and publicly informed by my gym teacher, a Mr. Mike Battista, that my refusal to run instead of walk indicated that “my priorities were all screwed up.”

I knew they weren’t.  They were exactly right.  And I hoped I’d have the chance later, free from the pressures of Midwestern gym classes, to capitalize on my strength instead of suffering through the public humiliation of my weakness.  To use what I was good at in a land where talent was currency and nobody cared if you could do a chin up.

And not too many years later, I did.

‘Cause if making one person laugh was fun… the possibility of making millions laugh with words I thought of was a dream come true. 

So I packed my stuff and drove it in my mom’s Honda from the cold to the warm.  And I wrote, and I kept writing, and I got myself a writing partner who, ironically, has a swinging blond ponytail (don’t know what the hell reason she has to be funny, but she is,) and after a few years of making ourselves laugh in our apartments way into the night… we finally earned the pleasure of making people laugh for money.

And the kick of it was still the same.  Getting to spend that many hours of your life laughing is a pretty beautiful thing.  Because sitting around a table with funny people takes the sting off the hard part… the lack of sleep, the lack of exercise, the scary pressure of deadlines and network executives and fickle audiences, and empty pages waiting to be filled at 1am, for run-throughs set to happen the very next day. 

It was 17 years ago I first got paid to write a script, and I’ve had the privilege and the curse of working pretty steadily since.  I’ve eaten more dinners in styrofoam at tables in writers’ rooms than dinners at home with my family.  I’ve run shows, taken network notes, not taken notes, reveled in hits, and mourned shows cancelled after 13.  I’ve remembered how much fun it is and how lucky I am … and forgotten how much fun it is and not felt so lucky.

And the strike has given me time to think… given us all time to think about why we do what we do and whether it’s always worth it.  Why do I write?  What do I miss when I’m not writing?

And I think it comes back to the laughs.  There’s an image in my mind of one particularly fantastic Murphy Brown filming where I looked up at the audience and saw rows of people actually throwing their heads back in laughter at the scene they were seeing before them.  I still remember it as though I could see them in slow motion.   It felt amazing.  And I did remind myself to freeze it there for the future, knowing it was special, and that I might need to pull it out later.  And it’s that moment I think about today.

It sounds whore-y maybe, but I’ll admit it — I still love the thrill of knowing something I thought was funny is funny to other people too.

And I love that long after high school I got to write a joke in a script about that gym teacher, a Mr. Mike Battista.  You remember, the one who told me my “priorities were all screwed up?” 

And it aired on tv for millions of people to see…  giving me what I believe people commonly refer to as… the last laugh.

And that, my friends, is why I write.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

8 Comments »

  1. I can SO-O-O-O relate to most of what Eileen has said, here (all but the part about finding full-time employment).

    Knowing that something I’ve said or written holds the power to amuse others is a real high. When someone tells me that I made them laugh, whether it was at me or with me, I feel I’ve done my part to improve his or her day– if only momentarily. And that is all the encouragement I need to keep writing.

    Comment by totallyskewed — January 17, 2008 @ 8:08 am | Reply

  2. I remember that gym class: the one where no matter how many sit-ups you did, it wasn’t enough; where the guys always made the push-ups look so easy but when you actually tried it, you found out otherwise. I never did master the chin-up. And the Presidential Physical Fitness testing is still horrible. On the other hand, having study hall because your gym teacher blew out his ACL playing a variation of dodgeball was quite nice…it gave me plenty of time to write and I enjoyed every minute of it.

    Comment by Kay Lynn — January 17, 2008 @ 8:31 am | Reply

  3. The creativity of writers is the only area of the entertainment business that cannot be
    easily substituted by the industry. Award shows keep honoring each other, but every time a venue for new talent is shown, we see how many undiscovereds are out there. The ONLY group that is responsible for the level of entertainment is this magical number called
    writers. It does not matter why they write, only that they keep dong it.

    Comment by perry bolkin — January 17, 2008 @ 11:16 am | Reply

  4. Outstanding. For so many reasons. I love this one. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Comment by Bon — January 17, 2008 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

  5. […] liked this essay by Eileen Heisler, Writer/Producer of “Murphy Brown”. I particularly liked the story about people laughing out […]

    Pingback by Why we write — screenwriters’ blog | The Skwib — January 26, 2008 @ 7:48 am | Reply

  6. THANKS FOR THE LAUGHS THEY ARE RARE AND IT IS A GIFT AND YOU ARE GIFTED.
    GRAZIE

    Comment by Stefania Girolami — December 27, 2008 @ 5:50 pm | Reply

  7. I just fell off my chair Eileen, I was in class with you and Battista, The wrestling coach, you forgot to add.
    It is wonderful to see your success. I have a nice batch of photos of you in childrens theatre!!
    Love AR

    Comment by Adam — July 2, 2009 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  8. Glad to see you posting Eileen. Glad that you’ve come into your own since jr. high. But really, you’ve always had enviable talent. From musicals to innumerable performances on the flute. Hey, and you were a darned nice person to boot. So don’t cut yourself short because of p. e. I remember p. e. being painful too, but it was more fun when people like you were in class!

    Comment by Jenny B. — October 25, 2010 @ 12:18 pm | Reply


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