Putting it Together – Where’s that Line?
Today, I’m re-starting my Putting it Together blog. I’ve been using this blog series to share thoughts that arise from creative projects, like the Fringe Festival.
For the Minnesota Fringe this year, I wrote a show called “Top Gun: The Musical.” The show was very successful and my writing got an amazing assist from a talented cast, great choreography, and really good music co-written with Chad Dutton. Most of the feedback was positive and I felt like the audience really enjoyed what we put on stage.
When I was writing the show, I spent a lot of time watching the film and as I watched, I was taken with all of the homoerotic subtext. I mean, there are dozens of Youtube videos on the topic but I hadn’t watched any of them. Yet. To me, the romance between Maverick and Charlie was not at all interesting and there seemed to be more chemistry between Maverick and Iceman.
When I wrote the script, I wrote it with those thoughts in mind. I told the actors that as far as I was concerned, every pilot in the show was a closeted gay man.
The serious subtext was the idea that in the 80’s, you couldn’t be an openly gay man in the military. It was hard to be an openly gay man at all. It is remarkable how far we’ve come in such a short time.
Now the show wasn’t at all serious and the idea that these characters were in the closet was played for laughs. That made me nervous.
Because while I wanted to make fun of the fact these characters were in the 80’s closet, I didn’t want it to come off as making fun of the fact that they were gay. I wanted it to be very clear that it was OK they were gay.
And yet I knew that there would be a certain percentage of my audience that wouldn’t get what I was trying to say. Someone was going to be offended by my approach.
I had talks with Chad (who is gay) and he felt that we were doing a good job keeping our comedy focused on the right things.
As we expected, a few people felt we crossed the line and told jokes at the expense of homosexuals. Interestingly enough, the blowback seemed to come almost exclusively from people who weren’t gay. Every member of LGBT community I knew said they totally got the humor and weren’t offended at all.
Does that mean I didn’t offend any members of the LGBT community? Not at all. I probably did.
All of this raises the point of the responsibility I as a writer have to my vision and to my audience.
One the one hand, I had a very specific angle I wanted to take on the material. On the other hand, I knew that angle had the potential to offend if I wasn’t very careful in my approach.
No matter how careful I was, though, I was going to offend someone.
I think comedy writing is always flirting with that line of going too far. As a comedian, I’m always wondering how I can push the boundaries of what is acceptable to an audience because that is frequently where the most fertile ground lies for comedy.
Highlighting how the volleyball game in Top Gun is homoerotic and completely out of place isn’t enough. To make it work, we all felt we needed to push the homoeroticism as far as we could. The result, I thought, was brilliantly funny.
But to get that result, we had to take a risk we would go to far.
The question is this: how many people is it OK to offend?
I don’t think the answer is zero because if you are going to try to write something that offends no-one, you are probably going to write something safe and bland.
People are too different. You can’t try to please everyone or you will end up with something so safe, it loses all impact.
So instead of writing to offend no-one, I wrote what I thought was funny and accepted that someone was going to think I went to far. The hope was that most people would see the intent behind the production.
As a creator, you always have your audience in mind. If your audience is not entertained, you have failed in your most basic responsibility.
Yet you also have to stay true to what you want to create. The line you have to walk is not the line between offending and not offending but the line between your vision and what your audience will accept.
I think if you want your work to truly be your work, you have to be true to yourself first.
Yes, there will always be people who think you did it wrong. That is an unavoidable consequence of taking risks.