BANGING MY HEAD AGAINST THE WALL: A COMEDY WRITER’S GUIDE TO SEEING STARS - ANDY COWAN
"The Opposite" wasn't just the classic Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza followed the opposite of his instincts to land success. The method behind the madness has been championed in industries worldwide and even likened to the rise of Trump. The award-winning writer who helped Costanza win, and first pondered "the opposite" in his own life, identifies traces of it in the legends he mined for anecdotes before the cameras rolled at his first high-profile Hollywood job on which he also became a recurring performer, and in numerous stops along his unique road of comedy writing and performing twists and turns, as the only scribe associated with Cheers, Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun. (Multiple episodes and staff)
For a Tinseltown backstage pass, lessons from film and television icons, in-the-trenches comedy writing and performing strategies, Seinfeld episodes that might have been, talk show, sitcom and single panel cartoon development, and pitching the decision makers (or doing the opposite of playing their game) you'll want to keep...Banging My Head Against the Wall!
Martin Matthews:Well, I'm excited to bring you an interview with a man who actually needs two introductions, mostly because everyone in the room was laughing too hard and missed the first. Where to begin? He's the award-winning writer and performer and only scribe associated with Cheers, Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun, he's hosted a radio comedy talk show, hosted his own TV talk shows, has written for comic panels -- including my personal favorite Bizarro, he's done voiceover work for audiobook and television...the list goes on and on. Isn't there some kind of Wikipedia page for people this famous? It's a pleasure to introduce Mr. Andy Cowan to Martin Matthews Writes! Andy, welcome!
Andy Cowan: Thanks, Martin. I am in Wikipediaand also the phone book, which is an honor considering no one uses phone books anymore.
MM: Well, I hope I didn't miss anything in your introduction, Andy. You've had a long and varied career, to say the least. But we're not here to talk about just one element of your multifaceted talent, but a high-fructose comedy concentrate, if you will. We're of course talking about your new book, Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars. (And yes, there is a foreword by Jay Leno in it, at the front!) Andy, please, in one-hundred-thousand words or less, tell us a little about your new book? Let's start with why you decided to write it.
AC: This book was really my creative explosion.
MM:Okay. Sounds...messy? Tell us more.
AC:It’s cathartic to shine a fun and at times maddening light on what pursuing a creative path is really like. This book represents four years of writing about forty years of writing, performing and creating comedy from the ground up. I’ve been wandering the desert of Southern California and show business the amount of time Moses wandered his desert. This book is my Ten Commandments. Let My People Go! They let people go in showbiz all the time. The main reason I wrote the book: I always believed if I could circumvent the endless decisions by committee that prevent most TV projects from seeing the light of day, I would have had my own shows on the air, based on my sensibilities and the lessons I’ve learned from the iconic shows I was fortunate enough to work on. Along with dozens of “new” Seinfeldepisodes I pitched that never landed on the air… and personal reflections from over 50 big stars I interviewed on my first Hollywood job in the '80s (Orson Welles, Andy Kaufman) as a talent coordinator, writer and performer on The Merv Griffin Show… cartoons galore… sketches, stand-up, tons of comedy… this book is my chance to finally present painstakingly crafted original projects, including sitcoms that generated plenty of heat short of being picked up, and let the reader, the audience, be the judge. I structured the book so the readers go on the journey with me -- the nerves and strategies that go into performing comedy on national television, pitching projects to the decision-makers, and dealing with their reactions back.
MM: So, Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars is not just a comedy goldmine, or a time capsule into how comedy has evolved over the last several decades... There's a method to your particular brand of madness, correct? Tell us a little bit about "The Opposite". What is it, and how has it affected your own life and career?
AC: I often used to think, somewhat jokingly but with a hint of truth, that I should have done the complete opposite of whatever I'd done up till then. Maybe I would have been better off. I wound up pitching that to Larry David, to whom I was faxing ideas as a freelancer at the time.
MM: So, what happened? Did he go for it? I mean, the rest is history, right?
AC: He immediately saw something in it and sent me off to write what would become the basis for that season's finale, where George Costanza's opposite approach lands him with the Yankees and later landed me on the Seinfeld staff. "The Opposite" is cited to this day in all walks of life, art, economics, politics. Just a few months ago The Wall Street Journaladvised readers to invest like George and do the opposite! Also in the book: Years later in 2010, I experienced a writer's dream in hearing my original words from my first draft of "The Opposite," performed by me as Jerry and none other than Jason Alexander as George, in my talk show pilot, Another Talk Show!with Andy Cowan. The opposite is a recurring theme throughout Banging My Head Against the Wall -- whether it's the ups and downs of show business…or how “the opposite” applied to some of the big stars I interviewed on the Griffin Show, or how “the opposite” can be mined for humor in all aspects of comedy, in the switch.
MM:So you applied "The Opposite" not just in your life, but in your work, too.
AC:For example, in just one cartoon among hundreds I wrote for Bizarro, a wife tells her miffed husband, "Yes, I cheated on you with your twin, but I thought I was cheating on him with you!" Or a briefcase-toting lion arriving home tells his lioness wife, "It’s a city out there." Other original projects in the book double down on the opposite theme, like Inside Al– lover of great indoors vs. Benny, lover of the outdoors… and Up & Down Guys…one of my most creatively fulfilling projects, a web and later radio show I co-hosted in which I saw the glass half empty, and my co-host therapist saw it half full... or Opposite Andy, an optioned TV comedy project which featured my character, the guy who created George Costanza's method to the madness, trying the opposite in his own life.
MM: Is there an example in your book where life imitates art?
AC: I associate a department from one of my favorite projects, Up & Down Guys, called "The Sick But True Future Prediction of the Past," where we'd go back into the past and make a prediction that sounded sick in the context of the times but eventually became true. And I tied that concept into some sick but true future predictions in the book I detail from my own past that applied to an original comic strip, turned animated script, turned live action script that Jason Alexander loved and sold to Fox, that... well, readers can find out the rest.
MM: So, Andy, tell us a little bit about your writing method. We all have the same 26 letters (at least in the English-speaking world), so why do your letters come out so much funnier? Does the book give us any insight into this?
AC: In addition to "funny," "clever" is an adjective I've always aimed for. My hope is that readers gain a heightened understanding of what goes into smart comedy and concepts that respect readers' and viewers' intelligence, but are nevertheless accessible and shine a light on human behavior in a fresh way. Carefully crafted... that's another description. I'm a wordsmith, strongly attuned to dialogue that still sounds natural, not too written. I appreciate good timing and well-executed high concepts.
MM: Something I strive for in my own writing. There is a poetry, a rhythm to dialogue and comedic timing. In my limited experience, to be funny you need to be somewhat intimate with the darker side of life. Maybe be a little bit of an outsider, an observer...even suffer a little (or a lot). But you have a very positive message in the book, don't you? To keep going and do your very best, even if it's very difficult. That's something I know many of us, not just writers or those who happen to work in the industry, can take from the book, wouldn't you agree?
AC: Yes, comedy can be a coping method for us outsiders. With all of the head banging, it really is about not letting the inevitable pitfalls prevent you from maintaining hope and pushing forward. The disappointments shouldn't define who you are. They're just snapshots in time. For readers who think others don't occasionally struggle, no matter their credits, this book provides a little therapy. I also provide an example or two of turning lemons into lemonade. Like when an initial pass on a comedy segment I'd produced and hosted for a CBS talk show on which I was a writer at the time turned into an award-winning comedic send-up of 60 Minutesfor Showtime, garnering a letter of praise from the show's creator himself, Don Hewitt. As I say in the book, if you fall down along the way, do the opposite... get back up!
MM: Of course! The opposite. You make it sound so simple. But it's not always easy to keep going in the face of opposition. Tell us a little bit about some of your writing influences, in comedy and beyond. Who inspires you to keep going?
AC: Speaking of "clever" as I had earlier, Albert Brooks and Steve Martin were among my early influences. The MTM shows - Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and later, Taxi, influenced me in the multi-cam world. As of course did Cheers, especially when I and my writing partner at the time, Dave Williger, wrote a spec script that resulted in three Shelley Long era episodes. Larry David is one person who inspires me to keep going.
MM: Can you tell us what you're currently reading?
AC: Sinatra, The Chairman, by James Kaplan. I also illustrate in Banging My HeadSinatra's influence on me, including when I performed on The Merv Griffin Showin '82 with the Mort Lindsey Orchestra answering the musical question, What if Frank Sinatra were starting out today? (He/I sang Macho Man and Whip It among a medley of pop tunes.)
MM: Great, I feel a YouTube search coming on! So what's next for you, Andy? Are you going to take Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars live? Do you have any projects in the works?
AC: The book's logical end journey is the new comedy reality docuseries project, The Lost Sessions with Andy Cowan, co-created with Emmy-winner Rich Ross. It's a creative, funny, honest, visual and musical interpretation of an actual therapy session with a millennial therapist and outside field pieces, where this 20th century guy tries to eke out therapy in a 21st century world. Veteran comedian and comedy director, David Steinberg, has been a big champion of mine and this project. One of the parts he "loves" is my singing a snippet from the classic songbook with my jazz group (a musical mission that's been continuing for decades around Los Angeles) at episode's end that touches on one of the therapeutic themes from that episode. I was very humbled to hear David relay his conviction that this show could make me "a star." Veteran reality producer Eddie Barbini and Lia Carney, with TopSpin Content, are preparing to take it out. And we even have sponsorship interest from Talkspace, a hot startup therapy app.
MM:I can't wait to see how it all turns out. By the way, I want Jay Leno to do the foreword in my next novel. Think you could swing that for me? No pressure!
AC: Well if he doesn't do it, you can tell readers your book left him speechless.
MM:Well, Andy, with that I've been left speechless. It's been great to get to talk to you about your new book, Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars, and also getting to know the man behind so many great comedy moments throughout the years, and I hope many more to come. Mr. Andy Cowan, thank you for your time.
AC: Thanks, Martin. Much appreciated.
The award-winning writer and performer and only scribe associated with Cheers, Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun — who first reflected on doing everything the opposite in his own life before helping George Costanza grab onto the brass ring — unleashes decades of creativity in…
Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars by Andy Cowan, Foreword by Jay Leno
“Andy Cowan lives the life we generally leave unexamined. He examines. Then he re-examines. Then he postulates, examines again and finally writes about it. The result is insanely wise, madly funny and completely endearing. Read this book. Laugh, enjoy and discuss.”
– Jason Alexander
“Wonderfully written, Banging My Head is a creative tour de force and personal journey of admirable determination that shines a light on what it takes to keep going in Hollywood even when you feel like doing “the opposite.” After absorbing the wealth of funny, smart and painstakingly rendered projects Andy has generated over the years, you’ll understand how the arbiters of what gets on the air don’t always represent a meritocracy.”
– Dan Piraro, Creator, award-winning King Features panel, Bizarro
“Andy Cowan’s career is a ballad of talent and tenacity in equal measure. Banging My Head Against the Wall offers an unflinching and entertaining account of the show business roller coaster, which for Andy always seems to flicker between sky-scraping exhilaration and deep nausea.”
– Rob Burnett, Executive Producer/Head Writer, Late Show with David Letterman
You can find more of Andy Cowan on his website.