On June 22 and 23, Paul Bellini (writer for Kids in the Hall and This Hour Has 22 Minutes) will be teaching Second City's LGBT Writing Intensive, designed to teach queer comedians how to write fully realized non-heteronormative characters. I had the chance to sit down with Bellini over coffee to talk about the class, his experience writing for television, and his newfound love of teaching.
[Image via proudfm.com
JF: What’s new with you?
PB: Teaching -- that’s my new schtick. You know, I realized the other day I no longer make any money from professional writing. For the first time in almost 30 years.
JF: Really? Like, nowhere?
PB: No, because the Fab column was the last thing. I haven’t written in about two years.
JF: Well, you still have screenwriting to fall back on. And places like Second City would be happy to have you . . .
PB: Well, I love Second City. It’s been a real home to me, and it also saved my life. I have shit in development, but I haven’t earned a cheque from anything. Not counting royalties; I still get some royalties from Kids in the Hall. But other than that, it’s become all about teaching and performing. Because you know, I do Flying Beaver all the time; I just did this Elliot Lake Pride gig, and it was great. So I make a little bit from performing, but most of it’s from teaching. And I love teaching! I never knew I liked it! It’s totally a surprise, like it’s one of those career turns when you’re kind of old.
JF: Oh please . . .
PB: I’m 53.
JF: That’s not that old!
PB: I started writing for television when I was 29, so well over 20 years of doing that, and then all the work drying up? Weird.
JF: It’s hard for anyone to get on TV nowadays. It’s so oversaturated.
PB: Back then, I had friends on TV shows. The TV shows I worked on were major award-winning TV shows, so there was some heat. But what happens is that at a certain point your heat dissipates. And unless I keep coming up with one hit after another, your name gets further and further down the list of choices for networks. It’s conceivable I might never work in television again. It’s entirely possible. It doesn’t bother me because it was always slightly grating because it’s a million notes. Nothing you ever write is yours; it has so many imprints on it, and you put up with it because it’s a big paycheque. Teaching, though, is like doing your own little show with a captive audience and it’s so one-on-one, and it’s bizarre because there are smart kids and dumb kids and sometimes you get surprised.
JF: And you’ve been teaching at Second City since January?
PB: Yes, I started the first week of January.
JF: And how did that come about?
PB: Luck. [Luciano Casimiri] is an old friend. I’ve known him since I was in my 20s, and he said, “You should be teaching at Second City; they really need people like you.” And I was like, really? So I visited Kevin Frank, and Kevin was very open and said they were looking for another writing teacher anyway, so I just came in and learned the curriculum and I started doing it. I realized it’s a real process because, first of all, a lot of people want to learn how to write, which is interesting. A lot of people think they can write, like they can just do it.
JF: You were writer for Kids in the Hall, which happened right in the time between when being gay went from the underground to being something people talked about in public. It was before Will & Grace--
PB: Long before.
JF: Long before, yeah. You were the first show to really put gay into the mainstream.
PB: Our show hit the airwaves in December of ’88 in Canada, and January ’89 in the States, and at the time there was very little of a national presence. Even gay characters were very rare. There was sort of the Munroe type who never stated to be gay.
JF: The coded gays, yes.
PB: Honestly, the earliest gays I remember were on Melrose Place. Doug Savant on Melrose Place was the first gay character that I remember. But the thing I remember is that the first year, Scott Thompson breaks out of the scene and approaches the camera and says “I’m the fag.” It was to answer a question that I think, when Michael Musto wrote about them, he said something like, “One’s gay, one’s dyslexic.” So everyone was wondering who was the gay one. Honestly, people didn’t know! Dave Foley was a very delicate, feminine guy, and Kevin was a light-handed guy, Marc had an ambiguity
. . . Any one of them could have been gay. So Scott announced, “I’m the fag!” You expected the newspapers to be lining up the next day for this scoop, but we weren’t very big stars, to be fair. Sketch comedy is buried characters, and it’s hard to break out. Even SNL stars, it takes seven or eight seasons before you understand the name Bill Hader, but you’ve probably watching his characters for years.
JF: You’re doing the LGBT comedy writing intensive now, right?
PB: We’re designing it as a two-day intensive, two classes over the weekend, running from 10am to 4pm. It’s timed for Pride, which may or may not work. They’re doing one in Chicago this summer. I got the email from the publicist from ProudFM and thought really? They’re doing a gay workshop? I’ve got to get involved in this! I talked to Kevin Frank and he said, 'Do one. If it’s successful, maybe they can add it to the curriculum occasionally.' My feeling is, there are a lot of LGBT kids who would love to get involved, but maybe they don’t feel they have the confidence to be in the room. Even when Scott and I were the only two gay writers on Kids, and you’re constantly with the group but slightly apart as well. You need to be able to hold your own and negotiate. I remember we wrote a joke once that started a three-hour argument. Buddy said that when he was a child, he was gay. To the rest of the group, this sounded like child abuse. How could we put that on the air? We tried to explain that we just knew we were gay when we were five years old, and they said how could you? I wasn’t denying who I was. We had this awareness of who we are. It was a long time ago, but I don’t think this discussion happens anymore.
JF: What’s the difference between general comedy writing and LGBT comedy writing?
PB: Gay spirit. It was the difference between writing Scott’s Buddy character and writing one of his straight characters. They came from a totally different perspective. Buddy’s perspective was pure; it came right from our hearts. Our experiences of living in the Village, AIDS -- so the gay spirit was essential. I want people to understand that gay character can mean anything. Straight people are ready for gay comedy. It would be great to see more trans comedians. I know a lot of the dyke comedians; they love standup and they’re good at it, whereas gay men are a different thing. They like sketch comedy.
JF: Is there a huge difference between writing a gay character and writing a straight character? Because there are times when you look at a character and think, you know, why couldn’t this character be LGBT? It wouldn’t be that difficult a stretch.
PB: Why was Niles Crane straight? They could have just as easily made him gay, and they had one of the best gay writers in Hollywood working on that show, Joe Keenan. Who knows? One time we pitched a Buddy Cole cartoon, and they said “We love it! Except for Buddy.” Wait a minute, then all the other characters are straight! It’s just like any other cartoon!
JF: Kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
PB: Does it ever. And it’s stuff like that that pushes you away from television. But is there a big difference? Not really, because every character is built the same way. When we were creating Buddy Cole, we went out of our way to create a character who was the embodiment of every gay stereotype on the surface but had so much dimension inside and was such an alpha male. The one thing we never wanted him to ever be was a victim. He had to be the instigator. He had to be the Bugs Bunny, not the Daffy Duck.
JF: Every time Buddy Cole appeared, he was always the centre of attention, flanked by adoring spectators.
PB: And it didn’t matter if he was on an island, or in jail, or in a flaming bar, he sat with complete composure and self-satisfaction. His calm was absolute. Those were the important elements for me, not the fact that he sucked dick or had a limp wrist. It was the strength.
JF: His demeanour was always very much, “You know what, bitch? I’ve got this.”
PB: The thing with Buddy was that it was very difficult. We felt he was a new gay voice, but we did get a lot of flak for his affectations. This was at a time where it felt like if you were gay, you couldn’t ever be the brunt of the joke, not even by your own people. AIDS had decimated us and political correctness was on the rise. It made people question everything as an insult or a slur, and everyone was always insulted. Our feelings were hurt that our beautiful creation was misunderstood. It was a tough lesson.
JF: Buddy was exceptionally flamboyant, but he was also a pioneer character in the sense that there were few like him at the time, and he was so out and proud. Nowadays it seems like gay characters are overtly political because you have to tiptoe around what people would think about it. Buddy didn’t seem like the tiptoeing kind.
PB: I’m very proud of Buddy Cole. I think he’s a major comic creation, and I wish he was more successful for us. [Sacha Baron Cohen’s] Bruno took the wind out of our sails, because he was an interesting character, but he was also the brunt of the joke. I liked his boldness and his character, but he was always the brunt of the joke. I want anyone who comes out of this course to create a character they feel truly proud of and that is truly queer in the way they want it to be. If it’s a butch dyke or a trans man who’s very together, I want them to come away thinking, “I wrote a great character, and I think I can do something with them.”
(Second City's LGBT Writing Intensive takes place on June 22 and 23, 10am-4pm, at the Second City Training Centre, 51 Mercer St. For more information, visit the website.)