Today’s piece is written by Billy Frolick, Co-Writer of “Madagascar.”
When I was a kid, I was always the smallest in my grade. Every time the boys were lined up in size order, I was first. Every time teams were picked, I was last. There was absolutely no advantage to being small. I was useless at sports, invisible to girls — who seemed to grow three times faster — and a perpetual target for random schoolyard beatings.
Hoping to get noticed for something other than shiners and fat lips, I cultivated skills of mimicry. While imitations of my teachers may not have improved my grades or increased my height, this burgeoning talent at least distracted from my vertical deficiency, kind of like a magician’s patter. And I realized something else: Girls were paying attention. They were laughing at what I was doing.
If I couldn’t be an athlete, at least I could rank on them. And maybe some girl who hated herself for crushing on jocks could fall for a brace-faced, four-eyed, seventy-pound boy who helped illuminate that the football team was just a bunch of of retarded apes.
But if you’ve ever seen an impressionist who didn’t have material, you know that the shelf life for such an act is awfully short. Thus, I had to start thinking funny. Inspired by the parodies in Mad magazine, my routines started getting a little more inventive. I imagined songs the school principal might sing in the shower, or what it would be like if the star point guard was the transvestite bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, and worked in these new bits.
After graduating from film school, I was hired as an ABC page, wearing a stifling polyester uniform and escorting geriatric bus groups into tapings of Family Feud. Soon after, I worked at ICM as a secretary, in a slightly less uncomfortable suit. A dozen other hell gigs on the fringes of the industry followed. After almost ten years, I had “ascended” to a dead-end position as a low-level development executive. It didn’t seem like things could get any worse. I was powerless, I was depressed, and — once again — I was invisible.
Then the 1988 WGA strike began, and I was unemployed.
I turned my tragic agency experience into an 800-word comic roman a clef, and Premiere magazine bought it. Then I wrote a screenplay, and got an agent. It all seemed so much easier than waking up early, putting on a suit, driving to an office, and staying awake during staff meetings. I vowed to keep writing, and try to make it my livelihood. After the strike, I somehow got hired to write an episode of AMEN, a sit-com I didn’t even like. That got me into the Guild, got me health insurance, and put braces on my kids’ teeth.
Looking back, the truth is that I was no better at those entry-level jobs than I was at junior high school sports. But what ultimately saved me was the one thing I could do: think funny. That’s all you really have to do to write comedy. And you don’t have to wear a suit.
Would I still rather be able to hit a fastball?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.