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Writers Price, Belli and Loh on buttons, big breaks, lousy jobs

Sandra Tsing Loh shared her path to writing during a panel Saturday at the Festival of Books.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

There was no shortage of chuckles, guffaws, sniggers, giggles and flat-out belly laughs at the Saturday afternoon panel discussion “Make Me Laugh! Humor Writing Across Genres” at the Festival of Books, which featured Mary Lou Belli, Sandra Tsing Loh and Michael Price, and was moderated by M.G. Lord.

The panelists held forth for an hour (they and the audience seemed full well ready to clock a second hour), in front of an overflowing crowd, about the TV shows that helped shape their sense of humor (“F Troop,” “MASH” and “Get Smart” among them), and whether funny can be taught (“Yes, I’m proof that it can,” said Belli) .

And while they do, indeed, make their livings from different parts of the humor beast -- Price is a writer on “The Simpsons,” Belli is a TV sitcom director (her credits include “Monk” and “Charles in Charge”), and Loh is a memoirist who regularly can be heard on KPCC -- the stories of how they ended up mining -- and being wildly successful in -- their respective genres were surprisingly similar.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

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Price’s early gigs included driving a cab, low-budget sketch comedy and his big break (though it didn’t seem like that at all) working on a one-season UPN sitcom called “Homeboys in Outer Space.” Al Jean of “The Simpsons” “was a consultant on that show,” he said, “and when ‘Homeboys’ was canceled, he gave me call.”

His advice? “Go on, work on the crappy show. You don’t know where it will lead.”

Loh said her laundry list of past gigs included a stint studying at CalTech, musical performance she likened to “Victor Borge on acid” and helping out with a West Hollywood drag act whose wardrobe included a risque take on chaps.

“If you stay out there long enough, like Michael said about his UPN job, something will find you.”

Loh’s break came, she said, when she was working at Buzz magazine and the editors wanted a “Valleys” counterpart to a column called “Hills” penned by Holly Palance (daughter of actor Jack Palance). “They were like ‘Sandra, you live in Van Nuys ... ' I eventually read one of my columns on the air at KCRW and that was the beginning of it. Radio picked me. It will find you - across genres.”

Belli, who, in addition to directing TV shows has also penned a book called “The Sitcom Career Book,” said she found herself forced to deconstruct scripts and decode the funny parts because while pursuing an early acting career she didn’t understand the humor in the scripts she was reading. “I was probably the only person who could read a Neil Simon script and not know where the jokes were,” she said.

After striving to break scripts -- especially those for sitcoms -- into their component parts, she found herself working on a Steve Martin show (the cast of which included Martin Mull) on which someone pulled her aside and suggested she try her hand at directing.

“Within two years I was a director on ‘Charles in Charge,’ ” Belli said. “And the youngest one too.”

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INTERACTIVE GAME: How to be a writer

One of the nuts-and-bolts parts of a script Belli offered by way of example was “button” -- a term that refers to the last line and final joke of a sitcom script. And as the discussion drew to a close, she unwittingly set up a seriously sitcom-worthy button for Loh to drive home.

When asked how changing times -- specifically the growth of cable TV and the Internet -- has affected comedy, Belli answered: “Well, we can say [expletive deleted] now.”

To which Loh -- who was famously canned from her KCRW gig in 2004 for an on-air floating of the F-bomb, responded: “Too late for me!”

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And ... scene.

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com


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