I love a good script. And I mean the word script two senses. First, I love when someone else takes the time to write a good script–the students in my public speaking classes, the creators of movies, podcast hosts–because I can tell on the backend how much more I appreciate and invest in things that have been carefully scripted than those that have been un-carefully scripted–think rinse-and-repeat-Hallmark-movie-formulas. Don’t get me wrong, I get down with a Hallmark movie, I just don’t appreciate them; I can’t because they don’t contribute anything new. I enjoy them, certainly, precisely because they rehearse a tired-out formula, but I don’t invest in them.
The second reason I love a good script is because I have learned–most recently in the process of creating this podcast–how important the act of writing the script is to the shape of the idea. Ideas do not take shape in our minds; at best, pieces of an idea start making provisional connections in our minds.
In my mind, I can formulate a few intriguing thoughts about scripts, make a connection to scenes from Rick and Morty and Hulu’s reboot of the British rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral, and could, from that set of brain-notes, probably put together a reasonably coherent episode.
But by skipping the actual process of sitting down to write a script, a word-for-word, full-sentence, full-content outline of the episode, I miss the most painful part. And the most painful part is where the idea gets elevated.Tweet
We think the point of writing a script when we’re giving a speech or recording a podcast or whatever is so we don’t mess up the final product. That’s not true. We plan a script because without it the ideas are always only barely hatched in our head. They remain, at best, second-best ideas if they go directly from your head, through your mouth, to your audience’s ears.
We have this romanticized notion that manuscript speaking–speaking from a script–is less authentic than impromptu speaking–speaking off the top of your head. Hence the, “throwing out the script” cliche that we see everywhere. One of my favorite websites, TV Tropes, in fact has an entry for “throwing out the script.” Here’s what they say about it:
“Whatever the case, you decide to get started, and you realize that, despite all the work that has gone into this speech, those aren’t the words you need to say. Those aren’t the words your audience needs to hear. You push away — or maybe crumple, or tear — your notes. And you speak from the heart.”
Ima tell you right now that the ONLY words waiting for you in your heart are cliches.
TV tropes references an episode of Rick and Morty where Rick gives a speech at the wedding of his best friend, Bird Person. What’s unique about this particular scene is that it is self-referential about the act of throwing out the script; it draws attention to itself using the trope. Rick stands up to give his toast; he pulls out a script from his pocket; and the audience sees that it says the following: “Uh, hi everybody. I’m Rick. You know, when I first met Birdperson, he was.” Then, in parentheses the note says: “trail off” “crumple up notes” “ad lib.” At that point Rick delivers a fluid, high-minded speech about the vicissitudes of love and marriage that ends abruptly and uncharacteristically in generic wedding well-wishes.
Rick’s weird non-script script draws attention to how derivative and cliche the act of “throwing away the script” is because it implies a kind of “speaking from the heart” as if the things in our “heart” weren’t already 100 percent scripted, namely, by cliches that circulate in culture.
Also, you have to remember that the words that come out of Rick’s mouth after he throws away the script have, themselves, been scripted, by the writers of the show. Rick’s sophisticated ad-libbing reinforces our collective belief that, if we are telling our truth, our truth will automatically have panache and sophistication. That’s simply not true. You can deliver the ultimate truth like a bumbling moron and the deepest lie with a silver-tongue. Like Rick, you can also be carefully scripted and then throw out the script to give the appearance that you are speaking authentically, from the heart. There is no strategy or sign or gimmick that you can employ that is going to make it any easier to know which of those things is genuine and which is disingenuous.
Rick, as a character, is simultaneously authentic and full of shit, every time he opens his mouth and every time he thinks a thought. There is no “real” Rick; there are just different performances of Rick’s thoughts that yield slightly different effects. Rick has no truth. Just like I have no truth. Just like Ferris Bueller has no truth. Just like you have no truth. We are all just a collection of rhetorical performances.
When we say that we “speak from the heart” what we mean is that we are accessing the part of ourselves that is genuine and does not need fancy words because we have the pure expression of our true intent. That part does not exist. You cannot speak from your heart any more than you can speak from your ass; you just have a brain with a bunch of thoughts and the work that you do, or do not do, to give those thoughts shape and, in doing so, create new thoughts.
One of the reasons that the fantasy of throwing out the script stays alive in our imaginations is because we rarely see what life looks like when you throw out the script and it’s a disaster. Luckily, I started watching the Hulu reboot of the British rom com “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and, in the first episode, got a very accurate portrayal of what “Speaking from the Heart” actually looks like when Maya (Game of Thrones‘ Nathalie Emmanuel) loses her notes for the reading she is supposed to do at her best friend’s wedding and decides to, “ad lib from the heart”
The scene is pretty accurate to how I imagine this would go down if you had scripted something thoughtful, practiced it a few times, and then decided to throw out the script. Maya manages to remember the beginning of the poem, then starts spouting off cliches that sound pseudo-biblical: god created love, thank you lord for love, thank though. Then she switches to a piece of a different prayer that rapidly turns into the lyrics from Coolio’s radio rap single featured on the Dangerous Minds soundtrack, Gangsta’s Paradise; then more cliches and song lyrics, “all you need is love,” and, finally, an awkward holla back featuring Ru-paul.
What’s interesting is that over the course of the next three episodes it will emerge that Maya is in fact an incredibly talented speech writer. It’s her flagship accomplishment as she interviews for political staffing positions.
Maya is a much better example for what “throwing out the script” looks like than Rick. Unlike Rick, whose impossible contradiction of carelessness and eloquence would only ever work in fiction, Maya could be a real person. Despite being a person who is gifted at speech writing, likely has a wider range of expression than the average person, and is immersed in various formats for putting together a speech, when left to ad-lib and speak from the heart, she immediately falls back on cliches and pop culture references. Why? Because, if there is a true, genuine self, it is that; a person whose mind is occupied by movie quotes and song lyrics and phrases like “live, laugh, love” that are available for purchase in any home goods store across America.
That is why I do not want you ad-libbing, or riffing it, or, above all else, speaking from the heart; the heart is where your most greeting card word choices lie. It’s where all of your potentially brilliant and insightful ideas get covered over by your limited range of expression. I don’t say that as an insult; I just mean that, considering how many languages there are and have been throughout history, we are working with a remarkably tiny set of options for expressing ourselves.
You know what’s way better than speaking from the heart? Taking the time to thoughtfully craft what you plan to say. Put the shit that’s in your heart down on paper. Look at it. If it’s a cliche–which it will be–throw it out. Be in pain because thinking is hard. Then dig for aTweet
I’ll tell you what; I script this podcast. I probably recorded a dozen episodes from a paragraph of notes, thinking I’d just ad-lib it. You’ll never hear those episodes because they are garbage. And I’m really good at this. And I can tell when someone has taken the time to script and when they have not. The former is always better provided that they can deliver it without SOUNDING scripted; that’s an episode for another day.
That said, there is one time that throwing out the script can be something more than a cliche; that is when you are throwing out a script that someone else has written for you, metaphorically or otherwise. In that sense, the phrase “stick to your script” is menacing; as in “you’d better stick to the script or else. Stay on message.”
This other sense of “stick to your script” is exemplified in the grossly under-circulated 2018 film, Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley. To make a long story short, Sorry to Bother You is about a Black telemarketer who becomes successful when he learns to use his white voice. There’s a moment in the film when the main character, Cassius Green, is being reprimanded by his telemarketing superior, Anderson. As Anderson wraps up the meeting, he says, “One more thing, Cassius: STTS.” Cassius asks, “STTS?” clearly not knowing the acronym. Anderson points to a sign above his desk that reads “STTS. Stick to the Script.”
In this context. the script is a metaphor for not only capitalist ideology–the script of manipulation and exploitation ala Boiler Room–but also the script of whiteness. When Cassius goes off the white script, he sounds too Black; when he sounds too Black then he can’t sell.
In this particular case, the ethical thing for Cassius to do is to, in fact, go off script but it’s a script that was written for him that he does not claim as his own. That’s why the name of this episode is stick to YOUR script; I’m no sell-out; I’m not telling you to do what the man says. I’m saying that if you want to say something worth saying then don’t hide behind romantic fantasies that your truth will just emerge from you, fully formed. If you lay claim to the idea, then script it–both literally and metaphorically. The suffering that scripting requires, as you wade through being a superficial imposter, is in some ways the most worthwhile part of the act.