Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Proactive Debilitation"

That’s a “grabby” title, isn’t it? And you wonder why I’m not more commercial. Or maybe you don’t.

“Proactive Debilitation”, a concept I learned about years ago in a psychology class, came to mind yesterday when I was writing about summer camp. I was thinking about badminton and tennis. “Proactive Debilitation” explains why, because I learned to play badminton before I learned to play tennis, it was harder for me to learn to play tennis. (The fact that I wasn’t strong enough to hold up a tennis racket may have also had something to do with it.)

“Proactive Debilitation” basically means that mastering “Task A” first makes it more difficult to master “Task B”. Even though tennis and badminton appear to be similar – stringed rackets, a net and something you hit over it – in essential “mastering of them” ways, they’re not. Badminton involves wrist action; tennis involves the arm. Transferring your badminton-learned wristiness to tennis, it seriously inhibits your progress.

Isn’t that interesting?

What if it was about show business, would that make it any better? Let’s find out.

Consider this observation. Don’t tell me there are exceptions – there are always exceptions – but generally speaking, writers and directors who start out in television rarely have successful careers when they transition into movies.

I’ll stick to comedy, where I know something. I’ll start with directors. Why? Because directors should want to be in the movies. Movie directors are treated like gods. Writers are treated poorly everywhere, so the incentive’s not quite as obvious.

Directors of half-hour comedies – and I’m not talking about second-rate shleppers here, what they call the “traffic cops” – the greatest half-hour comedy directors of all time have had little to no success in movies. Or they’ve stayed away from them entirely.

Examples? Three of the best sitcom directors that ever was:
Jay Sandrich (Soap, The Mary Tyler Moor Show, The Cosby Show) directed hundreds of television episodes.

And two movies.

Jim Burrows (Taxi, Cheers, Friends and almost everything else) directed, according to TV.com, 764 episodes.

And one movie.

Andy Ackerman (Seinfeld) directed 362 television episodes.

And no movies.

How come?

Talent is talent, isn’t it? It should be easily transferable to another medium. And yet…

764 episodes, one movie.

The great sitcom directors claim the pace of movies is not to their liking. Compared with the speed of television production, the movie production process is glacial. (They’re referring to big-budget studio movies, not the low budget “indies”, whose pace, I imagine, is considerably more brisk.)

The “go-go” pace is generally the great sitcom directors’ standard reason for favoring TV work over movie work. I will now add some reasons of my own.

Regular Employment

Successful TV directors can work as often as they want to. With episodes and pilots, they can toil pretty much all year round, season after season. Successful movie directors, on the other hand, because of the pace of movie production, and because they don’t make as many of them, work considerably less often.


I guess, if you’re big, there’s money everywhere. But a successful TV director (say, like Andy Ackerman), if he shares in the profits from a series sold to syndication (say, like Seinfeld), we’re talking the Gross National Product of a mid-sized nation. So there’s that.


Sitcom directors work on a soundstage and are generally home for dinner. Movie directors spend months shooting in Namibia.
These are persuasive reasons why sitcom directors would prefer TV to the movies. There’s really only one argument on the other side.


Big budgets, big stars, seventy-foot screens. The movies is Casablanca and Gone With The Wind. It’s Rocky and E.T. Star Wars and The Matrix. People pay money to see them. You have to actually put on clothes and go out of the house. There’s a mystique about movies.

Did you ever hear of “Television Mystique”?

And yet, all these great directors favor TV. You can’t help wondering what’s really going on.

Let me drop the directors at this point, and switch to writers. (My argument applies equally to both.) I know a lot of excellent of television writers, with multiple awards, and credits on the most respected comedies ever broadcast. Still, as with directors, the number of television writers who’ve made the successful jump to movies is remarkably small.

Why should that be? It’s just a script, right? Movie scripts are longer, but so what? You use more paper. Otherwise, it’s the same, isn’t it?


Why not? They’re both writing.

They’re different kinds of writing.

What do you mean?

When TV directors talk about television’s faster pace compared to movies, they’re referring to the production process. But in my view it goes far deeper than that. The main difference between television and the movies is the rhythm and pace of the product itself.

The nature of that difference?

Television doesn’t have time to take its time. The episodes are (now) twenty-one minutes long. Every second counts. TV audiences are also clutching remotes. If the energy of what they’re watching flags, they’re gone.

When you’re sitting in a movie theater, your viewing options are considerably narrowed. There’s only one thing you can watch. (Although you can fall asleep, which I’ve done on numerous occasions.)

With control of the running time and a monopoly on the audience’s attention, movies can proceed at an appropriate – which generally means a more naturalistic – pace. You can take time for “character” moments. You can build a plot or a relationship more gradually. You can have totally, and meaningfully, quiet interludes.

I’m not saying movies can afford to be boring, no entertainment medium can. But they do have the luxury, not available in television, of simulating the recognizable rhythm of actual life.

Television’s not set up to do any of that. So when TV writers switch to the movies, they have to totally recalibrate their timing. In some ways, the more experienced they are, the more difficult that is. Many of them have great difficulty cracking the code.

In comedy, television’s insistent pace requires writers to construct scripts in manner consistent with the demands of the medium, resulting in juiced-up storytelling and a “three laughs per page” joke rhythm. Move this writing approach to the big screen, and the result seems stilted and embarrassingly out of place.

With the emergence of the more cinematic single-camera comedies (30 Rock, The Office, etc.) rather than the live-audience shows that I wrote, the transition of current writers and directors to the movies will likely be smoother, and as result, more common. But in my day, it almost never happened.

The reason in a nutshell?

Proactive Debilitation. *

* There is also Proactive Facilitation – Learning Task A improves your ability to perform Task B.

Retroactive Facilitation – Learning Task B improves your ability to perform Task A.

And Retroactive Debilitation – Learning Task B diminishes your ability to perform Task A.

Congratulations. You now own the entire set.


Joe said...

Much wisdom in this, Mistah Earl. If you keep this up, they'll slap robes on you and stick you atop one of the Himalayas.

A. Buck Short said...


And isn't Proactive Facilitation that Zitz-B-Gone glop that Jessica Simpson sells in the infomercials?

But it is good to know the technical/scientific terminology for things. With events of the past several days, I revived mine for "moonwalking" - negative ambulation.

A. Buck Short said...

Incidentally, this concept doesn’t work for everything. I understand there is no truth to the old wives tale that proactive depilation makes your hair grow back thicker.

Anonymous said...

I suffer from "Inactive Facilitation"... I'm just lazy.
"Anonymous Brian"

John S said...

When I was a theatre student, the professor that taught stage combat told us that knowing how to fence makes it impossible to learn armed stage combat.

It makes sense.

The instructor said people who were fencers insisted on calling their scene partners "opponents".

Wrong mindset right away...!

Max Clarke said...

Good article, Earl.

As a kid, I knew how to play badminton, so when I decided to teach myself tennis, I found some tennis balls and tried them out with the badminton rackets. Broke them all. I couldn't believe how badly made all those badminton rackets were, snapping when I hit the tennis balls.

growingupartists said...

Lucky 7! Ranks up there with your one-camera versus multi-camera taping. A technical expert, indeed!