Working with Words: Lee Zachariah
Lee Zachariah writes for magazines, newspapers, television and film. He co-created the ABC2 comedy series The Bazura Project, has since written for The Hamster Wheel and Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, and writes on politics and social issues for VICE Australia. Lee spoke to us about comedy, writer's block and contradictory advice.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
The first proper piece of printed journalism I ever had published was in May 2008 for Inside Film. It was an article on film editing. I think I came out in favour of it.
What’s the best part of your job?
I was going to split this into the journalism answer and the TV answer, but then I realised they were largely the same: prosecuting an issue in detail. So much of social media (and too much of general conversation) is about reducing your argument to the smallest digestible nugget; all the nuance is being sucked away. So I value those longform opportunities more and more, whether it’s writing an article for a magazine or writing a sketch for TV.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Having no clue what I’m doing. A lot of writers dismiss the idea of writer’s block, but it’s a very real phenomenon. If I didn’t experience it, then the pendulum probably wouldn’t swing the other way into almost preternatural inspiration, and I’d really hate to lose that. Although the terror that takes hold when the deadline is rocketing towards me and I don’t have any ideas is usually the thing that snaps me out of it and gets the blood rushing.
Over-explaining is a bad instinct, particularly in comedy.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
I know you’re probably after a moment of triumph, but honestly the most significant moment was a placeholder joke we had at the end of a Bazura sketch. We all knew the last line of the script wasn’t working, but we couldn’t think of anything better, and I think we assumed (or, at least, I did) that we’d think of something by the time we got to filming. And we didn’t. We couldn’t think of a better way to end the sketch, so we filmed what was written. So, watching what I felt was a completely unworthy joke pass every level of production and go to air on ABC2, and knowing I was the one primarily at fault, was a big eye-opener. I mean, it’s completely insignificant: it’s one single word at the end of a sketch with hundreds of words, but it helped underscore for me the thing that producer Lorne Michaels has said many times about Saturday Night Live: ‘The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it’s 11.30pm, Saturday night’. If someone hands you the keys to a show and you write a bad line, nobody’s going to step in and tell you to fix it. It’s just going to go to air. Biggest learning moment for me, easily.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
It wasn’t given to me personally, but it was hearing Press Gang/Coupling/Sherlock/Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat dismiss the idea that writers start with a subtext and then create a story around that. And then hearing Buffy/Angel/Firefly/Avengers writer Joss Whedon talk about how he always starts with a subtext and then builds a story from there. Two of my all-time favourite screenwriters giving the complete opposite advice taught me that everyone has their own way of doing things and you’ve just got to go with what works for you. I’m going off memory, so I’m now really hoping they both said those things.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
We had a joke on Bazura that made fun of how sexist Hollywood is. Someone tweeted angrily at us, because they thought we were the ones being sexist. It’s times like those I get tempted to over-explain gags so that if people are getting angry, it’s for the right reasons. But over-explaining is a bad instinct, particularly in comedy.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’m genuinely not sure. Teaching, maybe? I’ve literally never considered doing anything else. It’s a bit disconcerting to even think about doing something else. Stop it with your disconcerting questions, Wheeler Centre.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
The debate comes down to the thing I said earlier about Moffat and Whedon giving completely opposite advice. Of course some people will think creative writing is useless if it all comes naturally to them, and of course others will find it essential if they get something out of it. But there are rules and tricks and bits of advice that can be passed on. If you find that, say, Dan Harmon’s circle formula of writing a half-hour sitcom perfectly suits your own working method, then someone teaching that to you is going to be perfect.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
To directly contradict what I said earlier, there is one piece of advice that I don’t think is subjective, and believe is genuinely universal: if you wake up every morning desperate to write, if you have ideas flowing out of you, or jokes, or turns of phrase, or concepts, whatever it is, if you have that bubbling up and you have to get it out, then there’s no advice worth a damn that will dissuade you from doing it. And if you find it a slog that you could easily give up tomorrow, then nothing will persuade you to stick at it. Actually being successful at it is a whole other story, and is so much about being in the right place at the right time.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Online when there’s something very specific I’m looking for, but most of the time it’s being in a physical bookshop and not having any self-control.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I never have a good answer for these. I get too caught up in the rules. I mean, I have a number of questions for Macbeth, but would he necessarily be a good dining companion, or would he keep staring off at ghosts behind me? Would we be able to communicate effectively, or would this scenario involve him updating his speech patterns and idiom to something I could recognise, and would that erase his personality so much that I may as well have picked someone modern anyway? It opens up all kinds of philosophical arguments about – oh, who am I kidding? President Bartlet from The West Wing. That’s the exceptionally boring and predictable answer. I’d ask him why he and his staff suddenly became less intelligent and articulate six months after his re-election, and if he did notice this, what did he put it down to? Actually, now that I think about it, he'd probably attribute it to his multiple sclerosis. I feel sad now. I might go back to Macbeth.
If someone hands you the keys to a show and you write a bad line, nobody’s going to step in and tell you to fix it. It’s just going to go to air.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Honestly, it’s The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams, the posthumous collection of his writings. We should always be wary of the ‘bottom drawer’ compendia published after an author has died, but there’s very little Adams wrote that is not worthy of publication. The Salmon of Doubt is filled with unique profundities that say more about the human condition than any thousand-page literary tome ever could. But the reason I mention it here is that it literally made me an atheist. What should have been a personal journey became a very impersonal one as I found myself completely and irrevocably swayed by Adams’s own reasons for being an atheist. It’s the only argument I’d heard either for or against religion that hasn’t begun from a subjective baseline. It was just logical. I remember being completely morose for three days afterwards because all the doubt had been removed, and I’d taken a lot of misplaced comfort in that doubt. Which I guess was the point.