Future, Fame, and Writing a Sitcom

Friday, May 21, 2010

Everyone has those friends—the people you grew up with, went to school with, or perhaps even dated—regular people by all accounts, who have somehow gone on to make it big in the very same time it's taken you to lead a decidedly normal existence.  I first learned of the phenomenon when news came in two years ago that a couple of old friends from high school started a clothing company selling neck ties and pendants that have become increasingly popular in my fashion-forward hometown.  Additionally, two acquaintances at Oberlin, in an attempt to beat out the recession, have begun a self-produced weekly online cooking show that is garnering thousands of views a week.  Lena Dunham, a former classmate in one of my creative writing workshops has gone on to write, direct, and star-in a feature-length film called Tiny Furniture that is winning accolades at some big film festivals nationwide, and—according to me—looks to be the Juno of my generation of jobless college graduates.  A fellow intern of mine at Popular Mechanics last summer (and indirect subject of a rant on my recent nixing from their website) has settled into her own corner of the internet as an intern at another techie blog site.  And even fellow Oberlin grads living in China, Jordan and Maia, are getting a crack at music stardom by playing shows all around Beijing as the duet La Loupe.

Thinking about those people fills me with a certain helpless admiration, of staring longingly from afar at accomplishments that are not mine to savor.  It doesn't matter that I'm happy with the decision I made to come to China and enjoy the life that I've made for myself here in Taigu.  In fact, when I stop to think about it, there's really nothing that I would want more from life than to be exactly where I am right now.  I enjoy my job, have enough free time to pursue other interests, found a great community of people that I never feel bored with, have enough money to lead a lifestyle where I am able to travel and experience new places—all while acquiring valuable life skills that will help me immensely in the real world (independence, responsibility, communication, leadership, etc.).  It also helps to know that this is a relatively temporary position—that after the next year I will be returning home to take on the next chapter of my life.  But when exciting events are happening elsewhere, when weddings or birthdays are being celebrated by loved ones, or when pictures of friends having fun together surface on the internet, I can't help but wish that I was somewhere else.

All of the benefits withstanding, it's still sometimes hard to feel completely positive about the choice I made to come here.  Any glimpse I have at a potential future that I previously didn't consider leaves me feeling that I'm somehow not doing enough or that there is something out there better suited for me.  It's not that I myself am yearning to become rich or famous, but rather, simply having the knowledge that others my own age are excelling in one or both of those fields that leaves me feeling ineffectual by comparison.  Why can't I have a regular spot on an internet news wire, or be written up by major publications for my achievements, or be given an award as a token of my meritorious contributions to making the world a better, more artistically-inspired place?  In spite of all of the fame, though, when I begin to think deeper, I am actually happy that I don't have to face some of the hardships of my more “successful” newfangled icons—the risk of failing as an internet celebrity, stuck writing for yet another website or magazine not suited to my interests, or devoting a lot of time and resources to producing a semi-autobiographical film about my quarter-life crisis.  Of course, what I eventually ended up pursuing in Taigu would have shocked my more rational self by comparison too.

Dan's Ex-Wife from Daniel Tam-Claiborne on Vimeo.  Before Gerald did any actual shooting for his movie, he wanted to test the capabilities of his new CGI software, and thus needed an actor.  This, as well as the next video, were each done in one take, and were a result of a painstaking number of hours of method acting training on my part.

By the time me and Gerald sat down to start writing the script to the sitcom, we realized that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing.  Though Gerald had co-written (and directed) a film project in his college days, and I had written the 20-page screenplay to an imagined short film as a creative writing assignment my freshmen year, neither of us had any experience with this form of writing nor knew the best way to approach learning how to do it.  Aside from a laughable (pun intended) stint in high school stand-up club, I have never done comedy, nor do I ever really write strictly comedic poetry or non-fiction.  But given that I was coming from a writing background, Gerald wanted me on board for creative input and direction, not to mention general companionship, in the script-writing process.  The only thing we did have going for us was that we had both watched an obscene number of sitcoms in our youth.  Gerald and I, in addition to most of the foreigners here, have wistful memories of the TGIF line-up on ABC, featuring the likes of Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step by Step, and Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, among others.  And though I contribute most of my comedic upbringing to Seinfeld, I confess that I only began watching it in syndicated form well after the series ended.

The likes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had already been established as a long-standing joke with my friends back home, owed largely to the Sunday afternoons we spent watching Will Smith's antics on TiVoed reruns of the show in Tahira's apartment.  But the recent re-fascination with Family Matters is owed almost entirely to living in Taigu.  It all started with one of our Saturday night dance parties back in February.  During the party, Gerald sneaked about a half-dozen songs—the theme song to the show included—onto the master playlist on Anne's computer and by the time I played it at the end of the evening, all of us unexpectedly, but almost instinctually, converged in a group hug and broke riotously into song.  That rendition was quickly followed up by two encores, and every dance party since, it has been a nightcap staple.  Finally, when it was revealed that Dave and Matthias would soon be living together (after Dave and Gerald's old house was slated for renovation), Nick joked about how hilarious it would be to film an Odd Couple-esque sitcom featuring the two mismatched roommates using Gerald's new camera.  That suggestion quickly snowballed into our idea for a Family Matters spin-off about our lives in Taigu.

In the Kitchen with DTC from Daniel Tam-Claiborne on Vimeo.  This week's specialty: Oreo milkshakes.  Additional thanks go to Gata Mane Boy Boi for creative inspiration.

Like most bad ideas that sound good at first, the focus of our sitcom changed dramatically.  Instead of focusing strictly on Dave and Matthias, we decided the sitcom would encompass all of the foreigners as well as some of our Chinese friends, and speak more to the comedy in cross-cultural misunderstandings as a result of living in China.  We'd have dialogue in both English and Chinese, but the focus would be on our experience as teachers here—in some instances using snippets from actual conversations and jokes to give it a hint of authenticity.  Me and Gerald wrote the majority of the script over the course of three weeks, on weekday afternoons in the hour-and-a-half of dead time between when lunch ended and when I had to teach again at 2:00.  In the pilot episode, we decided to have the plot center around James' character as he tirelessly attempts to secure a date to the big dance party over the weekend.  More drama ensues when the audience discovers that two separate parties are scheduled for the same night.  Along his quest is a fair deal of hi-jinx where we also learn a lot about the other main characters.  Sketching out archetypes for all of the characters was a project in itself, but one that paid off in dividends when it came time to write the script.

It would seem that we got most of our bases covered—James, the straight man; Nick, the wise-cracking know-it-all; Dave, the well-meaning, but slightly dense friend; Anne, the girly, yet gutsy female; Gerald, the mysterious, advice-giving neighbor; and me, reviving my 12th-grade role as the hapless playboy.  In doing the actual writing, the first shock was in how difficult the entire process was, but relief came in knowing that there was someone else there to bounce ideas off of.  Some lines came naturally as holes in the plot gradually got filled, but there were moments where Gerald and I spent twenty minutes trying to decide the punchline to a single joke.  It's amazing when you consider how many directions a joke can go—with possible responses ranging from sarcastic, crude, biting, or excessive, to literal, cheesy, misinterpreted, or downright ignored by a character.  We tried to employ everything in our combined humor toolbox to make the show as believably witty as possible, without being self-consciously so.  It doesn't hurt that we are also employing actual laugh tracks extracted from old sitcom episodes to bolster those sections that inevitably fall flat.

It's Not Jackie Chan sitcom intro from Gerald Lee on Vimeo. The opening scene of our sitcom, complete with authentic turn-and-smile introductions reminiscent of the original Family Matters, masterfully shot and spliced together by Gerald.  He captured footage for the first frame through the window of a plane on our return flight from Shenzhen to Taiyuan.

We finished the script on a long weekend trip to Hong Kong—something I admit, knowing fully well that everything about that statement reeks of being smugly pretentious.  We went to a bar on Sunday night and didn't leave until we had finished drafting the final scene over a pair of imported beers.  It was as close as I'd been to feeling like a laptop-toting Starbucks-sipping young professional, since, well, being back home.  All told, what we eventually put together was a 20-page script, enough to field a full-length episode.  We finished revising and printing out copies of it the week after we returned and immediately got to work shooting.  The initial shooting was slightly haphazard—what Gerald would call “guerrilla”—owing largely to the fact that he was still getting used to the immense amount of equipment he had accrued and had not fully developed a method for how to efficiently shoot each scene.  Though most of the scenes were quite straight-forward given the nature of the project, they were made more complicated because of scheduling conflicts and the inability to shoot group scenes together with the whole cast.  Continuity issues have also posed a concern in the shift in people's clothing and the general placement of objects in the scene.  But barring minor difficulties, the shooting gets easier and more fun every day, and the sitcom is shaping up to be the most interesting project we've taken up since being in Taigu.  The final product is still in the works, but I will certainly be posting the video in its entirety as soon as it's completed!

*

As for my own future fame, I might need to put it on hold for a while.  Recently, I've come up with a four-year plan for my next moves after my fellowship ends next July—all of which involve absolutely no chance of stardom.  Though I've known for a while that I want to go back to school, I didn't know what kind of grad school program would best fit my interests.  Recently, I was introduced to the idea of doing a Master's in International Relations (IR), through a program that former Shansi Fellow Morgan is currently enrolled in at Yale.  Researching it on my own, I discovered that you can also complete a three-year joint-degree program in IR and Environmental Science, two subjects that, too my discredit, I have close to no background in whatsoever, but have nonetheless become extremely passionate about since moving to China.  Before I came to China, I had narrowed the scope of my potential graduate school study to four fields: poetry, environmental science, journalism, and Asian American studies.  But considering how my interests have changed in the time since, I feel that doing a program like this would combine some of my life's biggest goals: to travel the world, be able to speak and write critically about world politics and history, and find solutions to solve the biggest problem facing the globe today. 

Aside from the obvious issue of finding a way to pay for it all, the big problem now is that both degrees require a substantial number of prerequisites, and aside from the language requirement, I have completed none of them.  Thus, my plan first involves applying to become the Shansi Returned Fellow at Oberlin, which would allow me to take those required course for free, all while working and earning a salary at my beloved alma mater.  During that time, I also plan to take the GRE and apply to grad schools with the hope that I can enroll for the fall 2012 semester at Yale or (perhaps more realistically) anyone of a handful of mid-level schools that offer the program.  All that being said, I still have my doubts.  Every trip I make out to Beijing leaves me feeling that I want to stay in China a little longer.  The journalism industry here is in much better shape than in the states, and I'm relatively confident that I can hold down a job doing that—or in the worst case, keep teaching English—in addition to continuing to pursue other interests like writing and becoming fluent in Mandarin.  Either that, or this sitcom will become so successful that TV stations county-wide will be clamoring to get us to sign lifelong contracts.  Regardless, I'm extremely glad that I still have another year to sort it all out.

Margaret –   – (May 22, 2010 at 11:15 PM)  

pengyou, so happy to see the environmentalist in you coming out muaha...

Mariko  – (May 26, 2010 at 8:49 AM)  

Nice post Daniel! I am excited to see more of your sitcom :)

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