Writing Craft Q&A, Vol. VI: Sean Devereux of The Pushers (Part One)

Sean Devereux of The Pushers during a recent rehearsal at his Norfolk, Va., condo. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – I caught up again with Sean Devereux of comedy and improv group The Pushers at Colley Cantina for a beer and a talk about writing comedy, improvising and how far a joke can push.

Devereux serves as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. Additionally, he and fellow founding Pusher Brad McMurran teach classes on improvisation and comedy writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, and also are involved in Improvageddon, a long form improv competition between teams.

And Devereux recently was featured here in a Belligerent Q&A.

This is a long talk, broken into two parts, but those interested in comedy writing and other forms of writing — particularly finding the core structure of a work — should stick around.

This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. That mostly in the next part of the talk, which I’ll post in a couple days, but there is some adult language below.

For those who may be coming to this blog for the first time, I write it to learn from other writers and artists. I appreciate their time and honesty, and I have respect for the direct discussions they agree to be a part of. So thanks to Devereux. And thank you for reading.

Without further ado, part one of the conversation …

Q: How did you start writing?

I’ve always been a comic book nerd and my mom has comics that I wrote when I was five or six years old. I’m not a very good drawer but I could trace my hand. I would then turn (it) into a character. She has just pamphlets and pamphlets of these pages that I would draw one drawing per page and then write a caption and staple them together.

I always was very interested in comedy. … (W)hen I was in junior high and even high school, I would write scripts for The Monkees TV show. … Say what you will about their music and whether or not they played their own instruments, but their TV show still holds up as pretty funny. It’s a lot of absurd humor. It’s breaking the fourth wall type of stuff. I’ve always been fascinated with how they were kind of playing exaggerated versions of themselves, and then there were times they would break that character and go back to their real selves. I was always a big fan of that. I was a fan of Saturday Night Live.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw SNL?

No. I do remember always liking the Coneheads. I always liked Bill Murray, but I’m not sure if that was from Ghostbusters and Caddyshack first and then Saturday Night Live after. I guess by the time I really was kind of aware of him, he must have already been off Saturday Night Live … so I must have seen repeats.

They did a big interview with (the SNL cast) in Rolling Stone and I got that issue and I must have read it a million times. It was kind of around then I decided I really would like to write for SNL, which I had forgotten about until my high school reunion a year or two ago. A lot of people were bringing it up. ‘That’s so cool – you were always talking about writing for SNL and now you’ve got your own comedy group.’

Q: What was it about the show that you liked?

I have a very short attention span so I like the sketch format better than sometimes even a half hour sitcom. Again, I always gravitated more toward comedies than dramas or even action movies. There’s just something about laughing I really enjoy.

Q: Did your folks have a good sense of humor?

My mom has a very weird sense of humor and my dad was kind of a life-of-the-party, lampshade-on-the-head type of guy.

Q: What’s a weird sense of humor for a mom?

She was a very strict mom growing up, but then there would be other times when we would be eating dinner and she’d be like, ‘Wow, these mashed potatoes smell kind of weird.’ And when we’d go in to sniff them she would push our head into them, which if my sister or I ever did it to one another we’d get in big trouble. That was our biggest joke. She always liked doing that.

She’s not like a joke teller or anything like that, but she’s really good at telling stories. She’s from New York and worked for ABC Radio in the early to mid 1960s, and her office was two doors down from Howard Cosell’s office. So she has a bunch of great stories about going out with Howard Cosell. Not dating, but just everybody from the office going out. She saw, when the Beatles came to New York, she got to go to the concert at Shea Stadium. When they gave their first press conference, she was actually in the room. She was the assistant program director at one point in time. She has a horrible taste in music. I always wonder how many really good bands never really got their shot because my mom would just toss their stuff before it ever got to the program director. She just has a way of telling a story and making it funny.

Q: You got that from her?

I think I kind of did. I’m not a joke person. When people find out I’m in The Pushers they go, ‘Oh, tell me a joke.’ I don’t know any jokes. I know maybe one knock knock joke.

Q: The one with the interrupting cow?

Well, there’s the cow one and there’s the other one where you start it. Start the joke.

Q: Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Q: (Uncomfortable silence, then laughter.)

For some reason, that’s my favorite knock knock joke. … It’s more to get back at people asking me to tell them a joke.

Q: You don’t see yourself as a joke teller, but you have to write comedy.

My comedy is very situational, or it’s more about taking something in everyday life and just exaggerating it. With the exception of the super hero sketches I do, most everything I do is more relationship based. A lot of it’s usually based on something that happened to me, and then just retelling that in sketch form and exaggerating the hell out of it.

Q: So how do you get from wanting to write for SNL to forgetting all about that dream and then (to The Pushers)?

A failed marriage.

Q: A failed marriage?

Yeah. That’ll do it. One of the reasons is I had the desire but had no idea how to act upon it. I went to George Mason University and my first semester I was actually a theater major. I did theater in high school. I had no desire to be on stage, but it was about being around the kind of people I had a kinship with. Mason at the time had a pretty competitive theater program and I couldn’t get into any of the theater courses, not even intro to theater. The only one I could take was actually taught by the Religion Department. It was themes and motifs in contemporary theater. So after my first semester I switched to English composition with an emphasis on fiction writing.

Q: What did you want to do with that?

I had no idea. At one point I thought about teaching. I still harbored thoughts of eventually writing for TV in some form.

Q: You didn’t want to write short stories or the Great American Novel?

No. I love reading those things but for some reason the actual mechanical act of writing I’m not a big fan of. Which is why I think I love sketch writing. It’s only four or five pages. … I did do a lot of short stories. I would still kind of dabble in script writing. I also ended up getting a minor in film and media studies, but it was in their Communication Department.

During my junior year, myself and some friends decided we were going to do our own TV show, kind of interview program, like a very localized The Larry Sanders Show, mocking the late night TV format. I wrote five scripts for that. We actually started filming pieces for it. The problem was, instead of going with other communication majors to help me do this, I had my friends who had no idea what they were doing and as soon as exams rolled around they abandoned the project to go study.

Q: So what was an early sketch?

Early sketches were a lot of mocking Mason campus life. They had just unveiled a new bus system that students could use, but it had weird stops. It wouldn’t stop at the Metro station, so if you needed to get to D.C., you’d stop like a half mile away and you’d walk. … Essentially they spent all this money for this new bus line that nobody ever bothered using. So we’d do live reports – it had some kind of name, like the Tide – so we’d always have a roving reporter trying to interview people on this bus. There would never be anybody on it. …

The summer between my junior and senior year, I got an internship at Channel 13. I started in the news department, because I gave a brief thought at trying to be in journalism. Two weeks in the news department, I realized that journalism really wasn’t the thing for me. You had to stick with facts. I do like exaggerating. My version of the story was always much better, or I thought was much better than what actually happened.

Q: And they frown on that.

Yeah, they do frown on embellishing. So after two weeks I moved to the production department. … So a lot of it was going out to Harborfest or Bay Days and handing out t-shirts. I went back to school and graduated and had planned to move to New York with two really good friends. My girlfriend at the time who was a year behind me had visions of the three of us going roughshod all over New York City, so if I moved up to New York she would break up with me. So I picked her over New York and moved back home to Virginia Beach.

Q: Do you know how many women they have there?

I know.

Q: Just putting that out there.

Yeah, it was not one of the smarter moves I’ve ever made.

Q: Well, I’m sure at the time it was very noble.

I don’t think so. It was sheer stupidity on my part, and then I had to go and marry her. So once I moved back here, I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to Regent for about two semesters. They actually really have a good program.

Q: Masters of communications?

Yeah. It was going to be with an emphasis in screenwriting, but I quickly found I had to start editing some of the work I turned in. Nothing against their form of Christianity, but it is very strict. I thought I could fake it for the sake of getting a degree and using their equipment and stuff like that. I only lasted probably a semester and a half before I decided to drop out. …

For me, I didn’t mind it so much at first. I come from a pretty strong Catholic family. I had an uncle who was a priest. So the fact that you had to pray before every class, I was okay with that. Not really my thing, but I was okay with that. I had a script analysis class, which was actually pretty good and then one day the professor never showed, and then the next day, the next class, she was very apologetic, but (a family member had been injured; and this incident became a distraction for the class). … We had to spend the rest of the class praying for her (relative) and by that point in time I was pretty tight on money so I started calculating how much money I was wasting by praying …

Then I was taking a television scriptwriting class, and I loved the class. The guy actually had credits to his name. … He was really cool. There was probably 40 people in the class, and the first week or two we had to pitch him ideas. We had to take an existing TV show and then pitch him ideas for possible scripts, kind of like you would do pitching –

Q: In a writers room.

Exactly. On the first day he shot down every single idea that anybody came up with. He was very harsh and mean about it. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really weird for Regent.’ So the next class, like half the people dropped and we had to go through the same process, pitching him ideas. This time a couple people would be close to him saying, ‘Okay, that’s a good idea.’ Then something would happen and he’d say, ‘No, that sucks. Give me your next idea. No. Horrible. Move on.’ Finally, at the end of the class he said, ‘A lot of you had really great ideas, you know – things a producer might actually pick up, but when you go into a meeting  with a producer it could be right before lunchtime. He could have just been chewed out by his boss. You know, you could have the best idea in the world, but if this guy’s having a rotten day, there’s a good chance your idea is going to fall on deaf ears. … I’m going to get you ready for the real world.’

Devereux later dropped out. He had written for class, among other things, a script for Mad About You, but lost much of his Regent writing when a computer virus software apparently ate the disk.

Q: Are you sure it was the virus software?

It could have been God.

Q: He’s gotten pretty tech-savvy in the past few years.

He has. I have an uncle who was a priest who died a while back, so I’m assuming that he’s up there looking out for me. Although he had a pretty weird sense of humor, too. … I remember a Christmas, and, again all my family was in New York, and his parish was in Brooklyn. We’re all at my grandmother’s house, and my mom is one of six kids who all had pretty large families. Every Christmas was just a mass of people at my grandmother’s house. We’re all starving but we’re all sitting around the dinner table waiting because we can’t start eating until Uncle Marty came. He ended up showing three hours late. My grandmother made no bones about it that Marty was her favorite because he was a priest, so we were all kind of annoyed when he finally showed up. My mom was like, ‘Where the hell were you?’ And it’s like, ‘I’m really sorry, but a family in my parish, you know, the husband died this morning so I had to be with the family.’ And my mom was like, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible, what do you say to a family who has a loved one die on Christmas Eve?’ And without blinking his eyes, straight-laced, he’s like, ‘I hope you saved the receipts.’

So my uncle the priest had a very morbid dark sense of humor, which I’m a big fan of as well.

Q: Were you an altar boy and the whole bit?

Yeah, I was an altar boy, in Sunday School, I taught the youth group.

Q: I still have my cassock. I put it on every now and then.

Really.

Q: No.

When we first started, Jeremiah (Albers) would play all the priest roles. Back then we were always going for the cheap (jokes), so the fact that he was gay, you know, naturally he would be the one to play the priest. Now that he’s out of the group, I’m regulated to all the priest roles.

Q: Have those jokes died down?

They have. The priest character I have is an angry priest … We have a recurring series of sketches where Brad plays a kid with Tourette’s. With sketches that have recurring characters, the game of the sketch is always the same. It’s just the situation that would be different, kind of like John Belushi with the samurai character. … So Brad does this character, this kid who has Tourette’s, and either it’s at a wedding or at a funeral or just a church service where I’m giving my homily and he keeps on interrupting with more and more profane outbursts, and my character is trying to keep his cool until he finally loses it and berates the kid in front of the whole church.

Q: So what happens?

It always ends with Brad having one last outburst … so I repeat it, and my out line is always ‘God is dead.’ … and then I toss the Bible at him, and it always hits the actress behind him.

Q: Wow. A little hardcore.

Yeah.

Q: How did it play?

It’s, ah, there’s always a shock when I say it, but then when I toss the Bible it always hits the girl smack in the face and she’s a pretty good physical comedian and falls over the back of her chair, that cuts whatever – because people like watching other people fall down. … Whatever moral indignation they had at me saying God is dead is quickly forgotten by a girl getting hit in the face and falling over the back of a chair.

We discussed how Devereux came to work at a local news station after working in retail and doing freelance production assistance, which led to a full-time job. The interview picks back up with how he returned to writing.

I was writing for work. Occasionally I would come up with an idea of like, ‘Oh, this would be a good movie or a good sitcom.’ And I would jot it down, but I was really not writing other than for work for a long, long time.

Q: What would you do when you had an idea?

I would put it in a notebook. A lot of times I would start working on something. At the time I had a work ethic when it came to writing. I would write and if I would get to a sticking place instead of plowing through and keep on writing I would stop and then go back to the beginning and reread what I wrote … and I immediately would start editing myself. I can’t write directly onto a computer. I have to write longhand first. I would just start rewriting. So I have an amazing first 15 minutes of a movie because, you know, I’ve edited the hell out of them, but nothing past that. Nowadays, even if I getting to a sticking point and it’s crap I just keep on writing and then go back and start rewriting.

Q: Did you ever want to try to write a comic book?

Yes, I thought about it. I actually met an editor back in the late 1990s. … We went to the San Diego Comic-Con, and this was right before it blew up to what it is now. … There was one point in time where I had a drunken conversation with an editor from DC Comics and I don’t know how we got into it, but I actually pitched him a couple of ideas, which he was receptive to. He was actually pumping me for information. But it was almost like – not work, but it made me look at comic books with a more critical eye, which I really don’t want to do. It’s a guilty pleasure, and I kind of want to keep it a guilty pleasure.

Q: One of my short stories is about a guy who gets out of the Navy and opens up a comics shop in Norfolk.

During the period when I was kind of directionless in my writing, the one idea I kept going back to was, and I probably had close to 90 pages written, was a screenplay that is kind of a cross between High Fidelity and Clerks set in a comic book shop. A lot of it is kind of autobiographical, which is I guess is the same as the idea you had, which is the guy has a lot of great ideas for comics but he’s afraid of failing. So it’s one of those things, if you don’t try, you know. …

Today, because of the interview, I pulled up the ‘Justice Crusaders’ sketch. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a couple years. … I don’t know if it would ever make it in The Pushers these days.

Q: Why not?

It’s long. It’s like eight minutes long. Right now we’re down to if you had something five minutes long, maybe that would make it in.

Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a NSFW sketch we will discuss in some depth in the Part Two of this talk, especially some of the jokes about race and sexuality:

Q: Well, let’s talk about that sketch. I think you were here when I was talking to (McMurran and Albers) about it.

Well, let me ask you what is it about the sketch that you like?

Q: It’s got all kinds of little crises, which I like in comedy. It’s interesting and it’s absurd. Number one that all these people would answer an ad and show up. It’s got these layers of absurdity, and then I don’t want to say that it’s obvious but it’s, the setup is … Aquaman shows up, there’s a reveal that it’s Aquaman, and they don’t want him to be in the group. Which is funny.

It is. It’s Aquaman and no one wants Aquaman in the group. All he does is talk to fish. That’s not a new joke.

Q: But it’s also funny that he’s the only person who is an actual superhero.

Right. Exactly. I’ve always had a love-hate with that sketch. I think I told you this before, but when I joined a group it was strictly as a writer and then I got thrown into the performing aspect as a necessity. The entire first summer of the group I was always playing little bit parts. That scene, I wrote it, but it was the first time I essentially had the lead and was the one driving the sketch. I was scared shitless walking out on that stage. …

I think I noticed in the video today that I started out with a really kind of geeky voice and halfway through the sketch I ended up losing the voice I created for the character. Going back to what I said about comic books, where I said I never wanted to look at comic books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten to the point now where I do look at the sketch and sketch comedy. I can still enjoy it, but when I watch Saturday Night Live now, it’s never I can kick back and relax. It’s always, ‘Oh, I see what they did there. Oh yeah, that didn’t hit as much as it should have.’

Q: I always remember liking the late sketches.

Me too.

Q: They take a risk. It’s like when you go to a jazz show and the polite people stay for the first hour and leave, and the musicians open up.

I always loved the last sketch. The first sketch is always some recurring character they know is going to hit. I was really disappointed with the Betty White episode. Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and all the girls came back and it turned out to be – the Dana Carvey episode turned out to be the same thing. It was nothing but recurring character after recurring character. There was nothing new. You know, I have a stable of characters that I play, but I’m more about writing something new or trying to take a character out of a standard format. …

I’m trying to find out where can we put this character and make it work.

Part two is on the way …

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