Sad & Miserable & Noir - Interview with Robert Bohl

Hey Rob, thanks for sitting down with some questions about your game Sad & Miserable, and noir. First off, I ask this question of everyone, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why? 

R: Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. He’s an inveterate fuckup whose makeup makes him perfect as an investigator, and absolutely shit everywhere else in life. Jimmy wants to win, not to dispense justice. He’s compassionate, and tries to help people when he can, and can’t stand bullshit or pretension, but what makes him so great as a “death po-lice” is his insecurity and desire to be seen as the smartest guy in the room. As with many things in that show, it’s sad, fucked-up, and seems real.

Sad & Miserable is about the lives of comedians. You might not consider this to be part of the noir genre (setting aside comedic detectives like Inspector Clouseau), but noir often looks at the places that society fails its citizens, as well as the ways our human failings turn us against one another--or help us try to find redemption. How might those themes play out in your game?

R: I do think there’s a heavy overlap, there. In researching S&M, I’ve saturated myself in fiction and non-fiction about the stand-up world. A lot of stuff has been covered in the fiction, but I think one big area that hasn’t been dealt with very much is poverty. Most stand-ups, even ones you know, are not rich. It’s an art that almost never pays and if you want to do it right, you have to break yourself from the 9-to-5 cycle, take lower-paying, service-industry jobs that are at odd hours until you can live off being a comic. And if you get there, you have no idea how long you’ll stay there, so you wind up looking for shitty, unsatisfying entertainment-industry jobs to tide you through.

So when I get deeper into it, I want to make sure S&M honors that struggle. I want to make sure that the fight to keep yourself fed and housed is a significant part of the game. I don’t think comedians are any crazier than the norm, I just think in order to be a comedian, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to endure way more stresses on how you’re going to make your monthly nut than most middle-class people are. If you have underlying mental illness, or a tendency toward it, that can be exacerbated by the stress.

Also, I want the game to be about the dark parts of comedy. The stories of drug abuse and sexual compulsion and twisted thinking that leads to bad ends. And the comedy that comes from all that.

What were your influences as you’ve worked on Sad & Miserable, in film, books, games, etc? You’ve studied stand-up as well. Can you tell us about how that affected your work on the game? How have you incorporated elements of them into the game?

R: The originating moment for me was watching season 1, episode 6 of Louie, titled “Heckler/Movie Cop.” Louie decimates this woman who heckled him, then she comes out after his set and yells at him. In responding to her, Louie points out that these comics whose work she’s ruining, work all week, trudge through mountains of shit, for 15 minutes on stage that maybe might carry them over until the next week. I thought, “That’s a game right there.”

From there, well I had already been listening to WTF? with Marc Maron for a while, but I got the app and listened to every interview he’s ever done on the show with a stand-up. Add his show, Maron, Jim Jeffries’ Legit, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also other podcasts, like Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour.... I could go on ad nauseum; unfortunately I’ve spent way too long in research.

And I wound up doing some stand-up (so far I’ve done 20-something sets). I wanted to be able to write authoritatively about what it feels like to be on stage. This was very instructive. I did pretty well, but open mics are brutal (not in judgement, just in the yawning chasm of nobody-gives-a-fuck because they’re all comics waiting to do their 5 minutes). Let’s just say I got plenty of material for feeling bad on stage, and a few moments of feeling good.

But there’s a whole other problem: Initially, I wanted the game to be written so people could play huge-time ex-sitcom stand-ups as well as open mic'ers, to be able to play Jerry Seinfeld and me, but I began to realize how limited my experience as an open mic'er was, and how little it accurately represented even what people who were at the hosting level were experiencing, much less people who are getting paid for it.

So I’m kind of stymied now, a bit, with regard to that. I bet I could write a pretty good game about what it’s like to be an open mic'er in the 2010s in NYC, though.

Sad & Miserable is a game in process, about a genre in formation: there have been many shows about comedians (both Seinfeld and the Burns and Allen Show were shows about comedy shows), but there is an honesty, tragedy and a kind of psychological exploration to Sad & Miserable that feels much more like recent shows Louie, Maron, Broad City and The Maria Bamford Show that are all carving out new territory. Is there a language of this new genre that you are finding for your game?

R: You absolutely picked up on the aesthetic I’m going for (and gave me a few more I need to look into). Honesty and personal exposure is becoming ascendant in stand-up right now. More comics—prodded by the need to fill podcasting airtime, I suspect—are going to their own personal lives and revealing things about their pasts that are bitter, horrible, awful, and hilarious. You’re seeing that in the stand-up, and in all the related media that is booming right now. I have to get off my ass before people’s attention has wandered and we get another comedy bust!

Comedy Noir, though, is probably an accurate description for this aesthetic. Hm, maybe I have a sub-sub-title. Sad & Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-Up Comics: A Game of Comedy Noir.

Nah, that’s a bit wordy.

An underlying theme of noir tales is the alienating notion that all life is determined by the stories we spin about one another, that what we believe and live is based not so much on fact, as on how our lives are framed by ourselves and others. Comedians can speak truth to power and frame the major issues of our day (as we see with Jon Stewart and Key & Peele). They also make light of their own trauma, yet are expected to entertain others with their pain and suffering. Their role is to find the stories of our time--whether public or private--that speak to us all, and make us laugh along with  them. How does storytelling, and framing one’s life matter in Sad & Miserable? What kind of experience would you like players to have through play?

R: What a wonderful question. I imagine people getting their characters into incredibly awkward situations, things that are maybe even genuinely tear-jerking. But they’re chuckling darkly or laughing uproariously. These scenes of shitty life I’d like to have broken up by some hang-time with other comics, and then all of this becomes mechanical and topical grist for the performance scenes. Those, I hope to feel like a tense battle, like a really good D&D fight. It’s not a stand-up set any more than a fantasy RPG battle is a direct representation of a fight. But the mechanics need to be high-stakes: cathartic when you kill, crushing when you bomb.

It’s a tall order and I have to get off my ass.

Thanks so much, Rob, for talking with us about this unique and important game!

R: Thank you, for interviewing me about the game and lying about its importance.

Robert Bohl has been playing RPGs since he ran the introduction adventure in the Basic Set [of D&D] on the way back and forth from his grandma's in the early 80s. He works in higher education and lives in Brooklyn, New York City with his son, his girlfriend, and two cats who have a complicated relationship. 

Rob is the designer/author/publisher of Misspent Youth, a game of teenage rebellion in a fucked-up future. It's about standing up against oppression, friendship, and growing up. He's working on a game, tentatively called In Production, where you tell the story of one person trying to get a movie made. This has been a creatively prolific time for Rob; he just wrote two more new games (designed in Paul Czege's  Threeforged RPG design contest) which he's considering polishing up and publishing.

To follow the development of Sad & Miserable, join Rob at his Google+ Community for Robert Bohl Games.