What Can We Steal From Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s Reefer Madness?

Title of Work and its Form: Reefer Madness, the movie based upon the musical based upon the propaganda film.
Author: Lyrics written by Kevin Murphy.  Music composed by Dan Studney (on Twitter: @danstudney).  Both wrote the book.  The equally talented Andy Fickman (on Twitter: @andyfickman) directed the first productions of the show and the movie musical.
Date of Work: The world premiere was in 1998.  The New York premiere was in 2001.  Showtime made the stage musical into a movie musical in 2005.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The musical is staged all over the world.  The movie is available on DVD.  You really should buy it.

Bonuses:  Here is the musical’s official site.  This is where you go if you would like to buy the right to stage the musical.  Guess what?  The world-class cast of the film (aside from Kristen Bell) did a live event at Joe’s Pub.  I wasn’t there, but some folks who had cameras were there.  Look how much fun it was when the whole cast sang “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Wordplay

Jimmy Harper is a kind young man with a bright future.  He likes a girl—Mary Lane—and she likes him, too!  What could go wrong?  I’ll tell you: reefer.  The Lecturer (a mid-century snake oil salesman type) shares the truth with all of the concerned parents in town.  There’s a terrible threat out there just waiting to destroy your children and turn them into jazz musicians and trick them into dating outside of their race.  This deadly assassin captures Jimmy, who spends all of his time with his dealer.  He even begins to ignore Mary Lane, who heads to the drug den to save him…she is soon captured, too.  (The role of Ralph, sadly, is the only one I would be able to knock out of the park onstage.)   Mary Lane gets shot and Jimmy is framed for the murder and is sentenced to death.  President Roosevelt shows up to offer a pardon and a reminder: the government always tells us the truth and always acts in the best interest of its citizens, right?  Right?

The show is a lot more complicated than that, but it’s also simpler somehow.  I came to love the musical almost by accident.  I’m not usually a big fan of drug humor, but something possessed me to look at the reverse of the DVD.  I saw Kristen Bell (an actress I admired from Veronica Mars) was in the film, so I gave it a chance.  When I popped the DVD into my player, I was immediately hooked.  (Kinda like Jimmy!)  The musical is not about DRUGS.  It’s about important social issues and how the government and other agencies attempt to regulate behavior.  It’s also hilarious and a ton of fun.  Mr. Murphy, Mr. Studney, Mr. Fickman and the cast all do their jobs at a high level and there really is no more enjoyable way to pass a couple hours.  (Mr. Fickman’s direction should not go overlooked; he somehow brings even more joy and laughter out of a script that is already bursting with it.  The film looks as though it cost twice as much as it did to make.)

Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney stole a LOT in the creation of the musical.  (The good kind of stealing, of course.)  First of all, they stole the plot and title of the original Reefer Madness film.  The movie was intended to prevent young people from using marijuana, but was so melodramatic and poorly made and unrealistic that young people started watching it WHILE USING marijuana.  Further, all of the statistics that the Lecturer spouts were actual quotes from long-ago anti-drug people.  Not only did Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney get shock value by having The Lecturer repeat some of the horrible things that were said about drug use (lots of sexism and racism and the like), but they also reinforced the film’s message.  Several phrases from the song “Romeo and Juliet” are lovingly borrowed from the Bard himself…which is also the point of the song.  The public domain and other public-type resources are ripe for literary theft.  Further, you have the Fair Use Doctrine on your side.  You can steal all you like within the limits of the Doctrine.  Reefer Madness is definitely a parody of Tell Your Children and similar anti-drug efforts.  Tina Fey got a ton of laughs (and influenced the 2010 election in some way) by stealing and repeating Sarah Palin’s comments verbatim.

I’ve probably confessed to one of my earliest desires: to become a Tin Pan Alley lyricist.  (I set myself up for disappointment from the start, as Tin Pan Alley went away decades before I was born.)  The rhymes in a Gershwin song or a Rodgers and Hart song or a song from Reefer Madness are awesome for many reasons, not just because they are funny.  A rhyme in a musical theater song is a promise.  When Reefer Madness’s Jesus sings, “Just say no to marijuana,” he’s promising that he’s going to complete the lyric with a rhyme.  What will it be?  By the time you figure out your own, Jesus has already told you.  (“This comes straight from the Madonna.”)  A musical theater rhyme also attracts and retains the audience because they are a playful surprise.  We can’t help but be attracted by fun wordplay, even from childhood.  Here are some particularly enjoyable rhymes:

The wafers now don’t taste so great

They won’t transubstantiate


Without you near, the gospel choir sounds askew

Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.


A gloomy church that you’re not in

Could lead a girl to mortal sin


Mary Jane, oh, Mary Jane

You’ve conquered me like Charlemagne


Jimmy’s a rube, provincial and dull

Don’t be tricked; he’s strictly quadrilateral.


Satan went and conned ya’

Musn’t touch his evil ganja

Rhymes (and other consequences of structure) also involve other parts of your brain.  While you’re enjoying the simple fun of hearing an actor sing “conquered me like Charlemagne,” you’re dipping into another section of your mind to put everything together.  It’s a beautiful feeling to empathize with a character while you’re wondering how the heck they found such a great phrase to rhyme with “transubstantiate.”  It is easy to tell you to create powerful rhymes.  It takes a lot of brainstorming, a vast amount of knowledge already in your brain and, perhaps, a rhyming dictionary.

A smaller observation: I LOVE the structure of the song, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.”  The song is constructed in such a way that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney can simply toss in entertaining couplets that allow Jesus to have a lot of fun and get a lot of laughs.  The character of Jesus may not be as strong as the others, but there are also two thousand years of people  in Western culture telling us about the guy.  (“Don’t let reefer kick your kiester/ I’m the poster boy for Easter.”  “I floated down from Heaven when I heard a lamb had strayed./  Look at you here, your brain has turned to marmalade.”)

Fun songs?  Check.  Lotsa jokes?  Check.  Subject matter that appeals to young people?  Check.  Reefer Madness goes the extra step by actually being solid dramatically.  (Especially in its own universe.)  I love this example from the song, “Lonely Pew.”  First of all, I am thinking that Mary Lane is not JUST singing about the empty seating place beside her.  At the point in the show when she sings the song, she’s quite repressed and scared and afraid that Jimmy no longer loves her.  If this were just a silly drug humor play, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney would not have taken the time or effort to make the characters well-rounded.  I love the moment in “Lonely Pew” when Mary Lane sings the following:

In a fog or lost at sea,

Or could it be you’re tired of me?

It’s a line of thought I’d rather not pursue

Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.

A simple character that could end up a caricature is given a moment of great depth that is certainly paid off during “Little Mary Sunshine.”  (And I LOVE the internal rhyme of “not” and thought.”)  Think about Mae, the woman who runs the drug den of sin.  She is given a meaningful backstory!  (She was a good student until The Stuff.)  There is real pathos to the character, particularly when she sings about the way Jack mistreats her.  I think the broader point is that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney give each and every character a lot of laughs and a few meaningful moments.  (The actors in the movie version certainly take advantage of the opportunity.)

A great deal of drama and comedy are derived from shifts in power; a very clear transfer of power occurs during the song, “Little Mary Sunshine.”   Reefer fiend Ralph (played to perfection by John Kassir) intends to turn Mary Lane into a Sally-like drug addict and to take advantage of her.  He tricks her into trying the reefer and believes that he will soon have her in a compliant state.  What’s the allocation of power?  Ralph 100%, Mary 0%.  The tables are turned on Ralph.  The marijuana turns Mary Lane into a nymphomaniac and she begins to force Ralph into bondage games that he didn’t quite want to play.  Check out what is one of the most enjoyable scenes in the history of film:

(Weren’t the actors great?  I love the versatility that Mr. Kassir and Ms. Bell possess.)  This effective technique does a number of things.  Mary Lane acquires agency; gaining some control over her life.  The audience laughs because the hunter has become the hunted.  We also feel a kind of vindication because we likely disapproved of Ralph’s intentions…his own medicine is fed to him and he doesn’t like the taste.

What Should We Steal?

  • Pluck what you need from the public domain and government resources.  Guess what: you own a lot of space-type pictures.  Use them in your play.  You paid for the research that went into the drug war in the twentieth century; feel free to steal the conclusions those folks made. (Consult an attorney before you do anything crazy, of course.)
  • Craft powerful rhymes in your work.  Is it easy to come up with unanticipated rhymes?  No.  It’s worth the effort; a great lyric can accomplish a great deal more than simply getting the writer a laugh.
  • Offer all of your characters a moment in the sun and a real personality.  Perhaps this is a good way to think of the principle, particularly when writing fiction and poetry: would an actor be able to use your piece as a kind of script?  He or she wouldn’t need to know EVERYTHING about their character, but they would need to know enough to construct enough of a backstory to allow them to give a great performance.
  • Emphasize changes in the power relationship between characters to increase drama and earn laughs (if you want them).  It’s really the oldest trick in the book.  We laugh at a politician who gets a pie in the face because the person loses his or her status in that moment.

What Can We Steal From Michelle Herman’s “Auslander”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Auslander,” novella
Author: Michelle Herman
Date of Work: 1998
Where the Work Can Be Found: The novella originally appeared in Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America’s New Young Writers and was subsequently published in A New and Glorious Life, a collection of three novellas by Ms. Herman.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

“Auslander” will never be made into a movie by Michael Bay.  There are no explosions or alien invasions and audiences would never accept a fight between giant robots in the third act.  (The incessant spinny camera would also likely run into the wall of the title character’s tiny New York City apartment.)  “Auslander” could, however, be made into a short film by Ang Lee or Paul Haggis or some other director who is great with characters.

The novella maintains a tight focus on Auslander, a woman who makes a living as a proofreader and translator and all-around literary person.  She realized early on that she was never going to be a great poet.  Instead, she has dedicated her time to serving those whose pens are blessed by the divine.  (And some whose aren’t.)  The story begins when Auslander gets a call from Petru Viorescu, a Rumanian man who admires her translations of poetry.  At first, Auslander figures Petru wants her to translate his own poetry.  Instead, Petru wants a wider audience for his wife, Teodora.  Auslander falls in love with Teodora’s work, but the poet does not want her work translated.  This disappointment melds with the other disappointments of Auslander’s life, reaching a perfectly appropriate ending that I don’t wish to reveal.

What do I admire most about the work?  Ms. Herman managed to keep my attention focused on a fairly simple story about a translator from the very beginning.  The story doesn’t mess around with the reader, opening with the INCITING INCIDENT that disrupts STASIS.  Auslander’s life was just rolling along normally until she received Petru’s call, the moment that sets all of the other events into motion.  The reader immediately knows that Petru wants something and Auslander is reluctant to give it to him.  The inciting incident not only introduces tension, but forced the reader to ask questions.  (“What does Petru want?  What will happen when Auslander says no?  Why is Auslander somewhat cautious?”)

The primary story is certainly the relationship between Auslander and the Viorescus.  Ms. Herman uses this primary plot thread to comment upon Auslander’s life and to build her character.  This is fortunate, as the protagonist is a somewhat passive character and her actions don’t necessarily drive the narrative.  (That would be Teodora, the woman who actually produces the work that must be translated.)  The relationship between the Viorescus sheds light upon Auslander’s personal life, particularly with respect to her relationships with men.  Dealing with the Viorescus causes her to revisit the work of Farrell, a poet with whom things did not end well.  Isn’t this the way life works?  We go with the flow of life and we usually only consider our motivations in-depth when forced to do so.  Petru has given Auslander the same gift that Ms. Herman gives the reader: a break from the normal procession of life that offers the potential of greater understanding of self…if we choose to accept the challenge.

What Should We Steal?

  • Destroy stasis in your character’s life with the inciting incident…and do it quickly!  Make sure that your reader knows why you have chosen to immortalize this day out of all the days in your characters’ lives.  The sooner you break up the monotony of your character’s life, the better chance you have of drawing in your reader.
  • Employ subplots that reflect upon each other.  Each of us are influenced by countless people and countless events.  Allow your characters to be the sum of all of these experiences.  Farrell is in Auslander’s past, but the events of the story kick up memories that bring her emotional struggle to the surface.
  • Choose appropriate names for your characters.  My five-and-a-half years of German come in handy sometimes.  An “Ausländer” is a foreigner, a person from elsewhere.  Even though Auslander (the character) is not out of place in a literal sense, she is an outsider in a lot of other ways.