'The Sound and the Fury' And the Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk
By Emily Wagster Pettus
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page C03
JACKSON, Miss. -- Wise guy, eh?
Screenwriter David Sheffield won this year's Faux Faulkner contest by imagining what it would have been like if William Faulkner -- a Nobel laureate known for thickets of challenging (often parenthetical) prose -- had written for the Three Stooges.
Sheffield's 550-word script, "As I Lay Kvetching," has Moe, Larry and Curly -- "slack-jawed and splayfooted" -- renovating a home with the eye-gouging, nose-twisting slapstick guided by plenty of Faulknerian stage directions:
"At last it is Curly who picks up the plank, rough hewn and smelling of sweet gum, and -- feeling the weight and heft and fiber of it -- swings it innocently (bending to retrieve the tool, the ball-peen hammer dropped casually on Larry's toe) and feeling the awful force of the blow as it (the plank) catches Moe upside his head."
The 56-year-old Sheffield, best known as a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and a string of Eddie Murphy movies, returns to his native Mississippi this weekend to perform his script at the 31st Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha conference in Oxford.
Faulkner's niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, who has coordinated the parody contest for 15 years with her husband, Larry, said Sheffield's script clearly stood out.
"What I cannot believe, from the hundreds and hundreds of entries we read, is that there could be something this fresh and this new and this funny," she said. "This one was unique."
Larry Wells thought "Pappy" would've liked seeing his highbrow style superimposed on the lowbrow Stooges.
"His favorite TV show was 'Car 54, Where Are You?' " Wells said. "He liked comedy."
Like Sheffield, Faulkner toiled as a Hollywood screenwriter but enjoyed only marginal success and even less fulfillment in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
"I think screenwriting is the antithesis of Faulkner," Sheffield said from his Los Angeles home. "Faulkner is about the joy and profundity of language and words. The best screenwriting is invisible. The words should disappear into the faces of the actors."
Many of Sheffield's own words have disappeared into the malleable face of Murphy.
Sheffield was head writer for "SNL" from 1980 to 1983, a job he landed after mailing comedy sketches to the show's producers while working at a Biloxi ad agency. With writing partner Barry Blaustein, Sheffield helped create some of Murphy's most memorable characters: trash-talking Gumby, goofy Buckwheat and James Brown in the hot tub.
Sheffield and Blaustein's movie writing credits include Murphy's "Coming to America," "The Nutty Professor" and "The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." They're working on the screenplay for an updated version of "Romeo and Juliet," with plans to have Murphy play several roles.
Sheffield lived in Faulkner's native Oxford as a child in the early 1960s and he still tries to visit the state a couple of times a year.
He attended a film festival in Oxford last year and took a pilgrimage to Faulkner's rural hunting camp with Wells. Sheffield still has a souvenir from that visit -- a brick he keeps on his mantel.
Wells remembers that day clearly. He and Sheffield were up to their chests in scrubby bushes and a buzzard lit on a tree nearby.
"I know the buzzard looked at me and established eye contact," Wells said with a laugh. "I knew it was Pappy."
Faulkner, who died in 1962, told people once that he wanted to be reincarnated as a buzzard, Wells said, "because it's protected by law and can eat anything."
Sheffield didn't think he deserved the Faulkner brick when Wells first gave it to him.
"Now that I've won Faux Faulkner, I think I've earned that brick," Sheffield said. "At least I hope so."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company