Hi-Tech Comedy: John Vorhaus

Today I’m honored to be interviewing John VorhausJohn is the author of the seminal comedy writing book THE COMIC TOOLBOX: HOW TO BE FUNNY EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT, plus THE LITTLE BOOK OF SITCOM, several wonderful comic mystery novels and a dozen books on poker, including (with Annie Duke) the best-selling DECIDE TO PLAY GREAT POKER. He travels the world teaching and training writers, and creating television shows in countries as far-flung as Nicaragua and Romania. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from johnvorhaus.com, where he welcomes your visit.

1. You’ve previously written The Comedy Toolbox which was published as a real book and became a best seller. Your newest book, The Little Book of the Sitcom, is only available electronically. What was your thinking behind this?

Once I decided to embrace electronic publishing – and I resisted it at first, for reasons discussed below – I developed a strategy of mixing up big “marquee” titles with smaller, more targeted stuff. I plan to roll out novels every six months or so, or however fast I can write them, with smaller projects – 10,000 to 15,000 words – in between. On the big side, thus, we find DECIDE TO PLAY GREAT POKER, and on the small side, its self-spoof, DECIDE TO PLAY DRUNK POKER. I thought that there was a need for a smaller, targeted workbook for sitcom writers, so I decided to fire it out. It took me less than a month from concept to completion, which is the way it should go for smaller projects. Write it, format it, throw it out the window, and see if it lands.

As to why The Comic Toolbox is not available digitally, that’s its own story. I published The Comic Toolbox long before anyone, myself and my publisher included, ever contemplated digital rights. Now that the digital age is here, we both want to do an eBook version – but we simply can’t agree on a royalty split. It’s a shame, but it’s a fact; I’m being asked to accept a smaller share than I feel comfortable with, and until that changes, the venerable Toolbox will be available in print only.

2. Where do you see book publishing in ten years? Will we ever go fully digital?

We’re heading there so fast it’s making my head spin. I myself have grown quite accustomed to reading books on my iPhone, and damn near consider it the default value. But if you’re thinking about the next ten years, I suggest you broaden your time frame. As a writer interested in his “legacy,” I’m not thinking about ten years, I’m thinking about a hundred, two hundred or more. For a long time, I thought that a book wasn’t a “real” book unless it existed between covers. Now I’m not so sure. Granted, eBooks are ephemeral – pull the plug and the book goes bye-bye. Then again, with so many copies and so many platforms out there, today’s eBooks benefit from a multiply-redundant system. If electricity continues to exist – a big if, I grant – eBooks will live on. I won’t bet against them outliving paper ones.

Will we ever go fully digital? I believe we will. Writing, after all, is just encoding information for transmission from point A (my brain) to point B (yours).  Printing on paper is inarguably less efficient than electronic transmission. Within in a generation, eBooks will be the norm, and “kids today” will think it quaint that we ever bothered encoding anything in “dead tree” format. That said, there will always be print books. Motion pictures didn’t kill stage plays, and TV didn’t kill movies. Books and eBooks are viscerally different experience. There will continue to be a market for both.

3. You’ve mentioned you’re currently in Bulgaria helping develop an adaptation of Married… With Children and will then supervise the rest of the project back from the US via skype and email. What are the benefits/frustration of working remotely? Would this project have been possible ten years ago?

Oh yeah, it was possible. I was doing it ten years ago. The fundamental issue is file transfer. If I can look at a script on my computer, it doesn’t matter where it originates. That technology sorted itself out years ago. Know what? I have a colleague I’ve worked with for years, and only just the other day saw her face for the first time – via Skype video. So yes, it’s possible to have fruitful distance-consulting relationships, and it’s possible to work effectively that way. For me, the benefits of distance consulting are obvious: I can work at home, in California, in my underwear (if I so choose), rather than brave a Balkan winter. The frustration is mainly that communication becomes slower and less organic. At best, you have to schedule Skype conferences (rather than just walking down a hall and sticking your head in a colleague’s office). At worst, time zones and language barriers intrude. But it’s all quite doable, and the distance-consulting model is much more efficient than travel; you don’t have to waste time on planes.

But I would never want to switch over to distance consulting completely. For me, the fun of the job – the bliss – is going to places I’ve never been. I describe my business model this way: I travel around the world exchanging information for experience and money. That deal is so heavily in my favor that I would never, ever want to let it go.

4. You still had to travel to Bulgaria to meet face to face first. On the one hand it seems that a person can get in touch with anyone and be “discovered” or hired. On the other hand, with so many more blind pitches, it seems like personal connections are more important than ever to help the filtering process. Has this been your experience? How do you envision this going forward?

Well, if it weren’t for the internet, I wouldn’t have the career I have. Just as the Comic Toolbox hit print, the internet was emerging, so that people who liked what they read could reach out to me and ask me if a “concert” version of the material was available. That’s what got me started on my international career (27 countries on 4 continents at last count). But as I said, part of the fun for me is going to the place and meeting the people, and I will always try to hold onto that part. The beauty of the modern world is that it’s so much easier to connect with the specific parties who might be interested in what you have to sell. I don’t consider it impersonal. It’s just a different kind of personal, that’s all. As for filtering, without glorifying public opinion by calling it “crowd sourcing,” the fact is that the market wants what the market wants. If you have a product and you have a buyer, you’re in business. That’s true whether you’re selling Jack some magic beans or delivering a sitcom script halfway around the world.

Going forward, I expect to continue striking a balance between building relationships with clients I know personally and selling product to people I’ve never met. But I’m catholic in these matters. To me, “whatever works, works.” I don’t assign value judgments to any of it. Nor should anyone; value judgments are bad, tee-hee.

5a. How has technology changed the book writing process from when you started out up to now?

It must be confessed that I go way back – all the way back to before the dawn of the PC age. My first computer was the IBM PC junior, the Dinosaur of the Computer Age, and it completely remade me as a writer. Once I discovered the delete key, and once I discovered that I could save old versions and go back to them if I wanted to, I became free to explore whatever damn idea crossed my path. Nothing was wasted and nothing was lost, so I became much less precious about my words. As a writer, it’s great to be free to make mistakes, and word processing certainly set me free in that respect.

Within the past three years, though, the publishing model has completely broken down. When I sold my first major novel, The California Roll, my buyer was Random House, and their market was bookstores. Now their market is dead, so my buyer is gone. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a new buyer: you; your cousin; your ex-girlfriend; everyone. It’s harder for me to sell to everyone than it was to sell to Random House, but that’s the reality I’m living in now. It’s not a good thing, not a bad thing, just a thing that is.

Consider this, though: The gatekeeper is dead. It used to be that you couldn’t sell a novel unless it impressed an agent and then a publisher enough to take it on. Now, all you need is a PC and an internet connection, and you can self-publish. And by the way, the stigma of self-publishing is dying daily. There was a time when authors looked down their nose at “vanity press,” but you know what? Even big authors self-publish now, because it makes economic sense. My thinking is this: “If it’s good enough for Stephen King, it’s probably good enough for me.”

5b. How has technology changed TV show writing process from when you started out up to now?

Wow. Try writing a TV script on a PC junior. Better not make your file too big; the computer will crash and the file will corrupt. Script writing software? What’s that? Learn to write macros, dude, and don’t give your characters similar names like Dave and Duncan, because your computer won’t know which one you mean by alt+d. When I first delivered scripts, I delivered printouts – printed on dot-matrix printers, no less. These days, every smart show uses Google Docs or something better to manage document flow. Everyone with a need to know, from writers to actors to production, can see the latest revisions on anything at the click of a mouse. It’s SO much more efficient. When I was coming up, we used color-coded pages to indicate revision, and some poor benighted writers’ assistant had to pull out the brads in the script and replace the white pages with the new yellows or blues or whatever.

But guess what? My great-uncle Bernard Vorhaus was a Hollywood writer/director in the 1940s. He worked with carbon paper. Kids, do you remember carbon paper? Primitive…so primitive. And fifty years from now, writers will think we were ridiculously quaint and archaic, too. My advice to any writer of any age is: embrace the new technology, because it’s going to blast past you whether you embrace it or not.

6. How are you using the internet/social media to promote your career?

Social media lets me connect directly with people who have a pre-existing interest in my work. I write about poker and I write about writing; I also write comic mystery novels. Each of these areas is of interest to some people, and social media lets me reach them all so easily, just by broadcasting my noise and news. It’s direct marketing, really, without the hassle and expense. But you need to “sell between the lines.” If my Twitter feed weren’t generally amusing, I would have no audience for when I use it to promote stuff. So for me it’s part narcissism – look at me, world! – and part target marketing.

7. Have you noticed the payoff yet?

Oh, yes. I’m selling on Amazon and receiving literally tens of dollars every month from that source. Behind this joke is the reality that I can afford to sell small amounts of many products, and this is my model. I write what pleases me, try to let people know it’s out there, and hope and trust that the quality of the work will create its own demand.

8. You have a twitter link on your website, but not a Facebook fan page or any other social network links, what’s your thinking behind that?

Not thinking – laziness. My website is already an artifact of an older technology (WordPress! Yikes!) These days I put my energy into Facebook and Twitter – and will put new energy into whatever comes next. But you know, I was an HTML early adopter. I taught myself HTML in 1995 and posted my first website then. I thought it was “one and done.” What did I know? Frankly, I’d rather just write than do any of that other stuff, but it’s not practical: If you don’t promote, no one knows you’re out there.

9. How much information do you tend to share on social networks?

I blather about my life a little. I especially share when I’m in exotic places like Bulgaria. Mostly, I try to be witty and entertain, with stuntwords, TrueFact/BarFact and other affectations.

10. What’s your weirdest online experience involving your comedy career?

I don’t know if it’s the weirdest, but it’s the most recent weirdness. Just last week I was trying to determine the provenance of a quote I love – and my Google search led me to a webpage at bigbencomedy.com, where The Comic Toolbox was heavily quoted. In other words, my search led me to me, via you. And because I promote at every opportunity, I reached out to you and, well, here we are. You know, my philosophy is pretty much this: Go off in all directions at once; you’re bound to get somewhere eventually.

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