How to write in the voice of a celebrity’s most famous character

Recently, I had the pleasure of writing a script for one of my favorite actors, Alec Baldwin. Alec is currently acting as spokesman for a campaign by Capital One for their Venture Card, called the Venture Match My Miles Challenge.

During this challenge, Capital One is making a fantastic offer to match your airline miles (up to 100K) on your new Venture card. Meaning, you prove to them that you’ve got, let’s say, 23,500 miles on your current Delta card, and once they approve you for a Venture card, you get 23,500 miles on that, too. You don’t have to give up your other miles. You just get Venture Miles, free. The Capital One folks had a total of one billion miles to give away in this campaign.

It’s a great deal, which made it easy to focus on the task at hand, namely, ensuring that the words I wrote for Alec were true to one of his most famous characters, Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock.

And here, I have to confess, this wasn’t in the brief. Nor was it a directive by the client or the agency, Clock Four.

It made sense to channel Alec as Jack Donaghy because this is currently his most well known role. Plus, as the quirky yet brilliant network executive, Alec offers up a very unique brand of humor, delivery and executive charisma that made sense for this financial client. Being a fan of the show (which helped immensely), I’d say the humor is a “you know it when you see it” thing. So here’s what I did:

1. Study their moves. As familiar as I am with the character, it still required study to get into the role. Here, my experience writing screenplays helped. Writing dialogue for a character that will be portrayed by someone facing the camera is different than writing voiceover. You have to take into account the person’s physical portrayal and visual delivery. You have to study the way they move and how they deliver their dialogue.  And you need to understand the rhythm of the dialogue, the way the words flow, and which phrases, word pairings and odd observations are in character, and which aren’t. So I spent ample time re-watching him in character on 30 Rock.

2. Rehearse the voice. I often rehearse a brand voice and tone before I write. For example, years ago, when I was working on Microsoft, they had adopted a very unique tone in their brand advertising that really was a character in its own right. It had a spark and flow to it that was unique. In order to “get into character,” I would read a few ads for the brand to get the rhythm and tone down, then I’d jam on the copy, riffing on the product benefits as if I was running it down for someone in person. For Alec, I had to get in character just as an actor does—by watching him work and rehearsing the tone.

3. Do a live read with an understanding audience. For each Donaghy-inspired script version (of which there were nine), I did reads with a trusted colleague who is also a 30 Rock fan. There’s no substitute for a live read, or for getting feedback from others who understand what you’re trying to achieve.  In an interview on NPR, writer/director Harold Ramis talks about how different judging something as “funny” is when it’s on the page versus with “a thousand extras and a Mercedes Benz on the set.”

4. Do a live read with a less-than-understanding audience. When you’re writing to be funny, you really need to do live reads with people who aren’t in on the joke because humor is all about someone else’s cold reaction. In the same interview, Ramis mentions that focus-group tested material is considered funny if 30% of the audience chooses the word “funny” from a list of interview questions. That’s about the same as major league baseball players’ batting average. Pretty low because of how tough the challenge is.

5. Be funny or die trying. Years ago, I started playing volleyball because I was dating someone who played volleyball. The more I played, the better I got…to a point. The reality was, I still sucked. It probably had a lot to do with my lack of binocular vision and two-inch vertical leap. The point is, I got better, but I never got good. I simply wasn’t gifted at it.

If you aren’t naturally funny, don’t try to write funny. You may get better, but you’re never going to get good. Plus there are plenty of other writing styles you’re probably better at, so play to your strengths and hone those instead.

So, was I successful? Think so. The script ended up pretty lean in the end once Alec agreed to be green screened. You be the judge.