Comedian Lawrence Leung shares his dirty little writing secret – his habit of filing away life moments for use in his work, even while he’s living them.
I was trying to write – or to put it another way – trying not to procrastinate.
Then the phone on the desk rang. This was unusual because I had just started at the office and no one knew my number. I didn’t even know my number. It was 2009 and I was so new at the ABC Television offices that someone in the corridor asked me for help with their computer problems. Okay, so I’m Asian and I wear a Darth Vader T-shirt – I’m not the IT guy. I’d just moved into the ABC to make my very own TV series! Well, that’s what my Facebook update said.
I picked up the phone. ‘Hi,’ said a young male voice, ‘Is Chas there?’
‘No,’ I replied, looking around the office I had been appointed. It had been the writers’ war-room of whiteboards, scripts and satirical souvenirs from the frontline of The Chaser’s War On Everything. Staring down from a newspaper clipping above me was Chas Licciardello in full Osama beard flanked by the Federal Police.
‘Do you know when he’ll be back?’
‘No. They’re doing a live stage show and won’t be back for a while.’
‘Oh,’ said the voice, ‘is there another celebrity around? We’re doing the Sydney Uni Scavenger Hunt and we need a celebrity.’
‘There’s no celebrities here’, I explained, ‘It’s the ABC.’
‘We’re down at reception. Bring us someone famous. Please.’
He sounded needy. Girls always tell me ‘Needy is unattractive’. I had an idea.
‘I can send down Lawrence Leung.’
‘Lawrence… he’s a comedian… and TV writer.’
‘We need a real celebrity.’
I realised I was the one who sounded needy. I went back to my work, re-opened the blank document for Episode 1 and pretended not to procrastinate.
Times have changed a lot since then. These days, people stop me in the street because they immediately recognise my face from the TV and say: ‘Are you that Asian guy who won Masterchef?’
No. I am the Asian Guy With The Beard Who Writes Comedy.
Recently someone did confuse me for a writer. At a party, I was approached by a cute girl who had that vintage Amelie-wrapped-in-your-grandma’s-wallpaper vibe going on. Her smile made me spin like a carnie carousel at Moomba.
‘Are you Benjamin Law?’ she asked.
I replied, ‘Yes.’
She continued to tell me how much she loved reading my stories in Frankie and how she wished straight men were more like me. I took her hand.
‘The bad news is I am not Benjamin Law. The good news is I am straight.’
Okay, I lie. I didn’t say that. I just sat there politely accepting her compliments and answered all her questions about my inspiration for Frankie articles, my family and my mother (for some reason). I was literally a literary fraud.
What happened next I can not control nor forgive about people of my profession. As she continued, my mind drifted from her I-Found-You-On-Etsy eyes to how I could one day fashion this moment into a ‘bit’. This is a particular mental disorder for comedians who silently file away tiny moments of inspiration into a memory bank of potential comedy. This is the reason you should never come near me. You might one day end up in one of my routines. Any snatches of ironic awkward interaction are recorded in the ‘bit bank’ for later telling.
I analysed the comic situation before me. There’s admiration, lust, lies, mistaken identity and selfishness. I began wondering what would happen to author Benjamin Law’s gaysian reputation if I tried to bust a move on this female woman.
Since I was a coward and a comedian, I didn’t bust a move. I went home alone with my thoughts about whether there was enough comic tension in the story for a future stand-up routine or just a pithy tweet.
I often feel guilty about this comedians’ affliction to observe the world for laughter rather than for living. Am I no better than that guy in the crowd who videos an entire rock concert on his mobile phone? He’s a douchebag. I refuse to be him. Besides, my iPhone battery won’t last that long.
Writing comedy isn’t easy. I am constantly in admiration of authors who bash out thousands of words about fictional worlds and the convincing characters who inhabit them. When I sit in front of a computer, my screen isn’t full of my genius prose. Just cat videos. I have to daydream or obsessively extrapolate any comic moments from my daily existence. It sounds romantic but I’m not some whimsical butterfly catcher of Comedy Gold. I’m a plagiariser of my own everyday life.
Inspiration can come from the strangest places. Once I had a dream about doing a stand-up routine. In the dream I was doing brand new material and I killed. The crowd went nuts. I woke up and took notes on my iPhone, thinking this was the easiest way to come up with new sure-fire jokes. But in the cold light of morning, none of the jokes made sense. I like taking Pringles to a tennis match and pulling tennis balls out of the tube. Huh? My dream gig was a disappointment.
Over the years, I have learnt that simply finding great gags isn’t the only thing that makes good comedy. In fact, the audience may not even remember any of the punchlines I have toiled over. After my show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, a Scottish bloke slapped me on the back and proceeded to recount his favourite gag in the show.
‘I love the bit about … the bit … you know … the bit about … Anyway, it was so true! Can I get you a drink?’
I declined but he brought over some pints anyway. He introduced himself and began to deconstruct my act.
‘What I like about your show is you come across all shy but really you’re a tit, you are.’
I think what he was saying is that he regarded me as a unique character that he related to in a way he wasn’t expecting but enjoyed. Or something like that. In performance, they call this a comic persona or schtick. In writing, it’s called having a voice.
He then accidentally knocked the pint of lager all over me. We laughed. He waved his finger at me: ‘Don’t be turning this into one of your bits now, you hear.’
Lawrence Leung is a writer, documentary maker and comedian who has performed award-winning solo shows in London, Edinburgh and at the Sydney Opera House. He has created two TV shows for ABC1 called Choose Your Own Adventure and Lawrence Leung’s Unbelievable.
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