By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
The Associated Press
JACKSON - Wise guy, eh?
Screenwriter David Sheffield won this year's Faux Faulkner contest by imagining what it would've been like if William Faulkner - a Nobel laureate known for thickets of challenging (often parenthetical) prose - had written scripts for the Three Stooges.
Sheffield returns to his native Mississippi this weekend to perform his "As I Lay Kvetching" during the 31st Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha literary conference in Oxford.
Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness novels brought him little financial success early in his career. To make money, he toiled unhappily - and with only marginal success - as a Hollywood studio writer off and on during the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
"I think screenwriting is the antithesis of Faulkner," 56-year-old 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 comedian Eddie Murphy.
Sheffield, who graduated from Biloxi High School in 1967 and the University of Southern Mississippi in 1972, was head writer for "Saturday Night Live" from 1980-83, a job he landed after mailing comedy sketches to "SNL" producers while he was 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 (Good God!) 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 now on the screenplay for an updated version of "Romeo and Juliet," with plans to have Murphy play several roles.
Sheffield worked alone to create the 550-word Faulkner parody of Larry, Moe and Curly - "slack-jawed and splayfooted" - renovating a home. The eye-gouging, nose-twisting slapstick is guided by complicated, Faulknerian narrative and 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...."
Faulkner's niece, Dean Faulkner Wells of Oxford, is founder and coordinator of the Faux Faulkner contest, along with her husband, Larry Wells. She said Sheffield's parody jumped out in the 15th annual contest.
"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," Faulkner Wells said. "This one was unique. It looks exactly like a script that they were going to shoot from."
Larry Wells said he thinks "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."
Sheffield lived in Oxford as a child in the early 1960s. He and his brother, Buddy, would go up the hill near their home to play with black children from an orphanage.
This was before integration in most Mississippi schools, and it was unusual for white kids and black kids to run around the neighborhood and jump on pogo sticks together.
David Sheffield believes that interaction influenced both him and his brother. They're both NAACP Image Award winners - David (along with Blaustein) for "Coming to America" and Buddy for his work as head writer for the irreverent TV show, "In Living Color."
Sheffield and his wife, Laurel native Cynthia Walker, still own a trawler in Biloxi and land in Jones County. He said they try to visit Mississippi a couple times a year. He attended a film festival in Oxford last year and visited Faulkner's rural hunting camp with Wells. Sheffield still has a souvenir from that visit - a brick he keeps on his mantle.
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 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 said he 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."
Sheffield's winning parody, and two runners-up, were published in United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine.
On the Net:
Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference: http://www.outreach.olemiss.edu/events/faulkner/