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Is There No Greater Motivator Than Commitment to a Bit?

Two friends, one bet and a 1,000-page novel

Comedians will tell you that they have differing opinions on “bits.” I have heard many complain that when watching performers go on extended insider joke runs—incessantly sarcastic or those never-ending impressions—they have to leave the room for 10 minutes, until it’s over. In comedy, slapstick comedians are known to go so far as to injure themselves in the pursuit of a laugh. Even amateurs know: It’s all for a laugh.

But how far are you willing to go for a bit?

Very far, I recently discovered, when I learned of what a friend had accomplished — all in service of a bit.

It began during an uneventful conversation between two friends in their mid-30s — Thomas Hamilton and Paul O’Brien. I met them when we all took a comedy sketch writing class at Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. Paul was excited about writing live sketch comedy, and would often urge us all to get together and write. Tom is a high energy writer-performer who seemed to take more pure joy out of writing and acting than the rest of us. He’s also kind of nuts. I once agreed to do a live sketch with him, and when I showed up to the theater, he handed me a ball gag.

That’s how a casual, now mostly forgotten remark by one friend led to three committed years of secret work by the other. Tom joked that he had always wanted to write a 1,000-page novel. Paul jokingly suggested he write a page a day for three years. Tom shot back: “Okay, so three years from now I’m gonna hand you this novel.” After three years: a single-spaced, 1,000 page novel titled Magnum Opus.

Paul and Tom used to be close. But when I sat down with them recently to discuss the Opus, they hadn’t seen each other for a year. I thought it might be awkward for the two to reconnect as they recounted the events of “the bit,” but the Magnum Opus served as a testament to friendship in a comedy community where people eventually drift apart.

And these 1,000 pages were far from just a bit. Tom had used it as a way to motivate himself to complete a grand artistic vision. He also inspired Paul, and everyone Paul shared the story with, to create and work toward their long-term goals, no matter how lofty they might be.

Here is their story, in their own words.

How did this all start?

Paul: We were in line for a show at UCB, and we were just bullshitting…talking about ideas, sketch ideas probably.

Tom: I mentioned that I had this idea for a novel that was just gonna be about these people in Los Angeles that had super powers, but didn’t really do anything with them and just kind of dicked around. With that premise also came the idea that it should be a 1,000-page novel.

Paul: The way I remember it was you said I’ve always wanted to write a novel and wanted it to be 1,000 pages long.

Tom: I had maybe the first five pages. Every day I come up with the first five pages of a novel in my head.

Paul: You had five days of work down!

You really get an idea for a novel every single day?

Tom: An idea for a novel or some grand artistic expression that it would be impossible to get around to. I get all these ideas and they’re are all non-starters.

Paul: I don’t think you should question a man who has written a 1,000-page novel about that.

What did you think, Paul, when you heard Tom suggest the novel?

Paul: I jokingly said, “Well, you know if you write a page a day, in three years you’ll have your 1,000-page novel.” And I literally think that was the end of that part of the conversation. Tom laughed.

Tom: I probably said, “Okay, so three years from now I’m gonna hand you this novel.” I started it the next day. By the time we got into that show it was solidified in my head that I will be doing this.

Paul: He didn’t listen to anything else I said that night because he was just thinking about this bit.

So you started the next day, on April Fool’s Day 2012, and finished it on Valentine’s Day 2015. And every day, you always made time for it?

Tom: Yes, well almost. If I didn’t get a page done, then the next day I owed a page. It happened a lot when I would go on vacation. The biggest page deficit I had was 12. But for the most part I would find time.

How did you feel about the task set out in front of you?

Tom: I would definitely look at it in increments. When I hit my first 100 pages I thought, “All right, 100 pages. All I have to do is that, nine more times.”

You could have quit at any point, and no one would have known that you had even started.

Tom: That was definitely in my head for the first week to 10 days. After I got that much of a start, I thought, there’s no way this is stopping.

Paul: Is there a sequel? 10,000 pages?

Tom: [laughing] No. This will not be happening again.

Why do you say that?

Tom: Because I didn’t really enjoy writing it. And I’m not necessarily proud of it. I don’t think it’s a good read.

Why not just quit? What drove you to keep doing this?

Tom: I had to finish. It’s like if you wanted to climb Mount Everest. You would keep going toward the top despite the fact that it would be unpleasant.

Were you writing with Paul in mind?

Tom: There are references to Paul. There’s also something that’s called T-PALs [what the two called their group of friends], but isn’t actually T-PALs. There’s a part where one of the characters meets these guys at the bar that call themselves that.

Paul: What a bunch of douchebags.

Tom: There’s also definitely a part, assuming you don’t finish it… I’ll just tell you. Should I just tell you?

Paul: Is it going to be a huge revelation in the moment?

Tom: It’s basically just a part where I get very meta about what I’m writing about, and how it’s implausible and bad writing. I say, “How do you like that Paul?! You like that?!” and just spend a little while saying to you, “You made me do this.”

Paul: That’s not isolated.

Tom: There’s only one part where I call you out by name.

[Editor’s note: Actually, there are three parts.]

Page 924:

Page 940:

Page 983:

Paul: One of my other notes is, “this is a Tom line.” Because it’s something you’d say.

Page 36:

Tom: Yeah. And while the story itself doesn’t have a lot of value, the fact that it is a whole thing has value. And if you get to the end, you get that out of it. The fact it exists as this thing is more important than the plot.

Did you feel accomplished as a writer, or even as a person, in the process of doing this?

Tom: As a person, yeah. To start something and finish it … if I was just doing it for myself, then I wouldn’t have done it. But the idea that I could pull this prank, or whatever, was something that gave me the added impetus to finish it. It could’ve been better, it could’ve been worse, but I was proud of what I did.

What happened when you finished writing it?

Tom: Maybe I had a whiskey. I finished it on Valentine’s Day. I took two weeks of just, “I’m not gonna look at this shit.” And then I read it in a month and gave it to Paul on April Fool’s Day.

How did you feel when you read through it for the first time?

Tom: It was kind of cool to go on that journey again. The last day before April 1st, I think I still had 150 pages to read. So I just thought, “I have to finish reading this thing.” I finished it, went to sleep, and woke up the next day and sent you that email.

So after all this, why did you send an email instead of having the pleasure of seeing his face when you handed him 1,000 pages?

Tom: That’s a good question. Probably because I didn’t feel like printing it out.

You spent three years writing it and after all that you didn’t feel like printing it?

TOM: I think I was wedded to the symmetry of giving it to Paul on April Fool’s Day. I had started it on an April Fool’s Day. If you look at it first and foremost being some kind of prank, it makes sense to me that he would find out on April Fool’s Day.

But eventually you printed it.

Tom: I did, on my home printer. I went through three ink cartridges, which was totally dumb. That cost more than it would have if I had gone to Kinko’s. It took hours to print, I think I had to re-print sections. It wasn’t stacking it correctly, I had to restack the whole thing. But the relationship I had with this at that point dictated that it had to come out of my own computer.

Did you feel awkward sending Paul the manuscript even though your friendship had kind of waned? You haven’t seen Paul for a year since you sent him the novel.

Tom: I feel like our friendship is one that even if we didn’t see each other for a few years we would’ve probably stepped back into it.

Paul: I think we did today.

That’s not compelling enough.

Tom: We did hang out less. In those times we did, it was certainly on my mind.

Paul, how did you feel when you got the email?

Paul: Let me pull it up. … It’s still loading. It’s a 9-megabyte attachment. My first reply was, “OH NO, it won’t open! All your hard work!” Because, it’s fucking April 1st. I thought he was fucking with me. So then he Dropboxed it to me. And I said:

What did you think when you started reading?

Paul: I have to tell you, until tonight I wasn’t sure exactly what this was.

Tom: How so?

Paul: I knew that because Tom is Tom, that “the bit” was a big part of this. But I didn’t know what percentage of this was a bit. I went through the whole thing looking for repeating sections. Was I going to spend 1,000 pages reading this and find out that Tom fucked me over because of this bit?

Tom: Let me parse this. Up until tonight you still believed that potentially there were just 100 pages repeated over and over?

Paul: Yeah.

Tom: I love that.

Paul, you only read 100 pages of 1,000 before you stopped.

Pual: I was treating it seriously. This is my friend who wrote this manuscript and I’m reading it. I really enjoyed your writing style, but I feel like the idea of sitting down and knowing that you’re going to write X number of pages is a really odd and unique place to start a novel from. Especially if that number is 1,000. It had to have caused you to pace things the way that they were paced, which was a big problem for me.

Was the pacing very slow?

Paul: It was a little bit herky-jerky, which I can totally get from writing a page every day. That made sense. But then the pace, you were feeling a lot out while you were doing it. I felt like you weren’t that far ahead of yourself.

Tom: I wasn’t.

Paul: So I went along for the ride for a while. At this point, I could sit down with Tom and tell him what I think about what I’ve read. I think you could get this down to 300–400 pages and you could have something — with a talented editor at your side.

Tom: Cool, thanks, man!

So you don’t begrudge him, despite that he read it critically, that he never read the next 900 pages to at least see what happens?

Tom: Not at all, and in fact I think that is the mark of a good friend. He actually read it as, “I’m going to evaluate it as a piece of artistic output” whereas when I was writing it I was not necessarily thinking this was art.

Paul: You’ll see my notes. They’re page by page, down to the point of correcting spelling errors and questioning your science, like about who wrote the Bible.

Tom: [laughing] We all know Jesus wrote the Bible.

Tom, do you feel like you are a person who’s more committed to bits than the average comedian?

Tom: Maybe. But not every bit deserves to be committed to. I come up with all these ideas that could be this grand artistic expression, but most of them aren’t worth writing. And maybe this one wasn’t either. But, it is worth writing a 1,000-page novel.

Paul: I would pay $50 for a hardcover published version of this book.

$50? To pass down to your grandchildren?

Tom: To also not fully read?

Paul: Not for the content of the book necessarily, but for the artifact and its personal nostalgia and my relationship to you guys. But also because it’s inspiring. I think that’s why people responded to my Facebook post! It got more likes and comments than anything I’ve ever done.

Paul: Most of those people weren’t clued in to the fact that it was a bit. They were clued in that here was a guy who decided to write a 1,000-page novel a page a day and actually did it and it took him three years. Probably a lot of the people who read that haven’t done anything creative for three years in a row.

Tom: I had never put myself in your head before tonight. When you found out about it, that was the first day you knew this existed. And it had been inside my head for three years. So it’s hard for me to put myself in that mindset of, “Oh, here’s this thing.”

Paul: On April Fool’s Day.

Tom: It was impossible for me to imagine he all thought it was a bit. I can’t imagine what his experience was until I heard him say it just now.

Can we read it?

Tom: Well, I am curious if someone would read the whole thing. I’d be curious to hear what that person had to say.

Paul: You know Leo, if you read a page a day, in three years …

If you want to set out to read this whole 1,000 page novel, and only if you want to commit to reading the full 1,000 pages, email Tom for a copy at