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Two Kinds of Stage Fright For the Price of One

There is stage fright in which you worry about how well you’re going to pitch your producer. And there is the other kind, in which it doesn’t matter how well you pitch it …

There’s an old saying; “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who believe that there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.”

Within the spirit of that saying, there are two kinds of stage fright. The first is the fear that you won’t be able to perform your pitch well enough. In our book, "Show Me The Funny,"  Lew Schneider told us that he was in the writer’s room on "Everybody Loves Raymond"  when the writer next to him whispered a joke in his ear and asked him to pitch it.

This writer didn’t think she could tell the joke well enough to have it go over. Since she knew that Lew is also a standup comic she figured Lew would get her joke accepted. If you believe that you will get confused, forget key parts of the story you are pitching or even worse, come across as boring, the idea of pitching will seem like an exercise in terror.

Our friends in the music business talk about the horrible moment when a record exec places their CD in his computer and proceeds to listen to five or six seconds of each track and says, “Sorry man, I just don’t hear a hit.”

For screenwriters, there’s an even more frightening version of this scenario. They manage to get through two or three sentences of their pitch when the producer says, “Sorry, but we’re not doing any more sci-fi thrillers.”

Or: “We’ve got six of those in development.”

You worked really hard to get into that producer’s office and you don’t want to blow your opportunity. He says, “What else have you got?” But you don’t have anything else. What do you do?

You have to improvise as if that was only one of five “brilliant” ideas you had ready. Or, he might say, “We own the rights to an interracial World War II love story. What could you do with it?” You have to believe that given this opportunity, you can wing it.

The second kind of stage fright centers on the fear that your audience won’t accept or appreciate you or your work.

Every standup talks about the “flopsweat” they experience before going on stage. Going into a pitch session, it’s difficult not to worry about whether your story will hold a producer spellbound.

What if you are worried about what the producer had for breakfast, what mood he’s in at the moment, how his date went last night and countless other events over which you have no knowledge or control? 

Add to that, the fact that you have little knowledge of his taste, background, intellect and current taste which may be very different from his previous taste, which could have been just yesterday for all you know. Not to mention you have some real concerns about whether your project will amuse or enchant him.

In his interview in "Show Me The Funny," Walter Bennett, veteran of "The Cosby Show"  talks about an experience he had on his first sitcom.

He was the new kid in the Writers’ Room and when he finally got up the nerve to pitch a joke everyone stared at him as if he had just turned into a Rembrandt oil painting. According to Walter, the room was deathly quiet for a few minutes then work started up again.

Maybe a half hour later, one of the more experienced writers pitched the exact same joke. Walter had come up with. The more experienced writer broke the room up. There was a full minute of uncontrollable laughter. In a whiney voice, Walter managed to say; “Hey, I just pitched that identical joke and nobody laughed.” The show-runner leaned over and in front of the entire writing staff, the assistants and the network representative, said; “C’mon…don’t be like that.”

The disadvantage you have as a writer is that when you are pitching, it’s only your livelihood that’s at stake. Hey, what’s that? Too bad you are addicted to eating three meals a day and indoor plumbing.

Seriously, pressure like the mortgage or rent you might not be able to pay, makes the pitching problem even more stressful. We will present more tips for handling this stress in future blogs. If you just can’t wait…buy Peter’s book, "Speaking Scared Sounding Good" from Square One. You’ll get some great tips and techniques and it’ll help pay for his daughter’s tuition.

Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis provide readers a glimpse into the quirky inner workings of the comedic mind with their book "Show Me the Funny! At the Writers Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers." The book presents 28 top comedy screenwriters from the revered figures of television's “Golden Age” to today's favorite movie jokesters. Desberg is a joke writer, California State University Dominguez Hills professor and a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the area of stage fright. Davis is a produced screenwriter, playwright and the Screenwriting Department Chair and associate professor of film and TV writing at Loyola Marymount University. Find out more information by visiting www.smtfo.com or ‘like’ them on Facebook.com/SMTFfans. More info at www.smtfo.com