Here’s the transcript from our third #ComedyScribeMonday — a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.
Our guest this week was Alexander Danner (@alexanderdanner), co-creator with Jeff Van Dreason (@jvandreason) of the audio drama podcast Greater Boston. He’s also a writer of prose fiction, plays, comics and even a textbook or two, as you’ll hear, and the audio producer for “psychedelic noir” drama What’s the Frequency? written by James Oliva (@JamesOliva76).
Sean: We are super excited to have @alexanderdanner from @InGreaterBoston on today’s #comedyscribemonday as he has literally written the book on comics! (It’s called Comics: A Global History, 1968-Present.) Not to mention writing across a crazy number of styles and mediums.
Alexander: Hello! I’m excited for our chat!
Sean: I adore Greater Boston. One of my favourite audio dramas.
So many of your works seem to dance between, or even push the boundaries, of comedy into tragedy. Is there something in this dance between the two forms for you?
As one example… I think of your two stories, “After The Wedding” and “The Woman Who Could Smell the Future”, which people can find for free on Smashwords.
Alexander: I’m not sure I’d describe it as a dance. We go at it as a drama first, and find the heart of the story. But I think we both gravitate toward the odd and the humorous in our writing styles, so we don’t usually have to work at getting that element in there.
“The Woman Who Could Smell the Future” is a fun case where I started at the other end: it’s a deliberately ridiculous premise, but my challenge to myself was to find something dramatic within it. So it became a story about learning to take yourself seriously.
Sean: Interesting. And I think this is what makes the piece work. I can relate even though I don’t have such a strange superpower.
Alexander: I do find works that blend humor and pathos particularly compelling. It’s rare that I actually think of my writing as “comedic,” but humor is a big part of how I explore my dramatic themes. To me, humor makes the difference between drama and melodrama.
Eli: Oh, I love the way you put that.
Although a lot of the characters in Greater Boston are big and comedic. (I think you said in a Radio Drama Revival interview that you enjoy creating characters who were as annoying as possible while still being lovable.) How do you go about getting to know your characters? And how do you explore the pathos within those big, seemingly-comic characters?
Alexander: Well, like a lot of writers, there’s a lot of myself in most of my characters. Gemma’s ineffectual railing against her job in her first appearance was all me, from my office days, for instance.
Leon is my personal nightmare — I hate having precise schedules. But as much as that can annoy his friends and family, he also uses that trait very much to their benefit.
Sean: Which is crazy as he is one of your most beloved characters!
Alexander: A lot of this gets complicated by the fact that there are two of us writing these characters. Dimitri was my personal wish fulfillment character, but Jeff saw him as an irresponsible jerk! So that works to complicate and develop the characters too.
Eli: Nice! There’s a great argument for your collaboration right there. (And interesting that both Stamatis brothers, Leon and Dimitri, are physically absent from Boston in very different ways, but still so integral to the story.)
Alexander: One of my tricks is to look at the character you can’t stand through the eyes of someone who loves them. That’s certainly a big part of why listeners came to love Leon so quickly — we dedicated an entire episode to all the people who loved him telling us why.
The real question is going to be how people’s attitudes change towards Poletti now that we’ve brought in his family. 17 people who love the least lovable character in our show!
Sean: I do love how you brought me on a journey from hating to loving Poletti.
Alexander: That was always my hope! He was always unbearable, but even back at the start, he had some legitimate complaints about how Gemma treated him. But because she’s the more relatable character, it’s easy to overlook his valid grievances.
Sean: I love that idea of blending pathos and humour. I remember when I read your comic, “Gingerbread Houses”, I was both disturbed but also drawn into the story. It was deeply human. And in places touching and even funny.
Alexander: This is a case where the art of @edwardjgrugiii makes a big difference. I knew I was writing something particularly dark, so it was important to me to work with an artist who understood the darkness, but whose personal style pushed back against it.
That’s part of the beauty of comics. You can write a script, but what the comic really is can be completely transformed by the illustrator. “Gingerbread Houses” could easily have been all angst and edginess. But that’s not what I wanted to see in it.
On comics and writing visually
Sean: I have a bizarre question for you. Does your love of comics affect how you write scenes in other mediums? ie: Do you see visuals when you are writing a comic? And if so, does that translate into when you are creating an audio drama?
Alexander: I do try to think in visuals when I script comics, but not to the same level of detail that the artist will. But I give a lot of thought to the visual organization of the story — comics requires very precise choices about the pacing and moments of focus.
In some ways, it teaches a narrative concision, much how writing poetry teaches concision in imagery. Jeff will laugh at my describing myself as concise. But I think my ability to go back and make brutal cuts owes a lot to comics.
But more than that, I think working in the limited space of comics does a lot to help a writer identify which scenes are essential to a story and which aren’t. There’s no room for unnecessary introductions or transitions.
Sean: Speaking of pacing, I have to bring up “Five Ways to Love a Cockroach”. OMG. It starts so sweet. And then you hit #3. Dear Lord. LOL.
I feel like this is your trick of looking at someone unlikeable through the lens of someone that loves them? Or maybe you love cockroaches? too much?
Alexander: Ha ha — I still love that piece. It started as a poem, which @vonfluestudios adapted. I didn’t script that one — I gave Neal the poem, and suggested “stages of a relationship” for the visual theme. He ran with it from there.
But it was a deliberate exercise in cynicism. I was just recently married, and feeling especially optimistic when I wrote it, and challenged myself to write a piece about love that ran completely counter to my own feelings.
I actually just presented that one to a live audiences just last week at a reading. The way the audience squirms when I get to number 3 is very satisfying!
Narration and monologues
Eli: The feel of Greater Boston is more like literary fiction than most audio drama, and a lot of it is down to the narrative voice. Can you talk a bit about the way you explore the characters’ thoughts and experiences through the narration?
Alexander: Oh, boy, I have a lot of thoughts on narration. I’ve been meaning to write something about that. For Greater Boston, Jeff and I both have backgrounds in prose fiction as well as playwriting. So those two impulses naturally combine in our styles.
But of course narration in audio works very differently from narration in prose. It’s never neutral — there’s always a voice delivering it. So more important than anything else is to remember you’re writing for performance. It can’t just be exposition.
Eli: I love the way you’ve been trading off narrators, with Braden/Leon stepping in for a line here and there as the Voice of Reason.
Alexander: Yeah, that was a fun little twist to introduce at the beginning of season 2. I’ve always enjoyed playing with formal and metafiction elements (there’s a lot of that in my comics), but this particular twist was Jeff’s idea.
Eli: Not to mention the sound design you use to evoke each character. There’s a real rhythm to it: the music stops and starts, the sound effects dance in and out, often to comic effect — but of course, not always…
Sean: OMG. The hamsters kill me EVERY time!
Speaking of narration, your monologues are GOLD and not an easy form to work with! So much we can learn from your work with them!
Alexander: I love writing monologues! Jeff made me trim back on them after season 1, which I think was the right thing to do. But that just makes the one’s we still do, like Jeff’s beautiful monologue for Isabelle about the bus riots, stand out that much more.
Sean: Okay. I can’t have this platform and not speak up for all the Leon and Michael lovers out there. Is Michael all right? They delivered food, but is he able to eat it? And why hasn’t Leon saved him???
Alexander: I’ll say this much — we’ll be looking in on Michael very early into season 3.
Sean: I tried, people. I tried! :)
I can’t believe it’s been an hour! We want to thank Alexander for taking this time to spend with all of us writers today! Where and how can we learn more about your work?
Alexander: Well, Greater Boston is at GreaterBostonShow.com.
And my comics and prose are at TwentySevenLetters.com, which desperately needs updating. Thank you for having me!
Be sure to join us for our next #ComedyScribeMonday.
They take place just about every Monday at 9am PST, noon EST and 1700 hours UTC (UK).