Friday, September 10, 2010

"An Example of a Multi-Camera Episode That Moved"

A response to the claim that multi-camera comedy episodes were slowly paced.

This one wasn’t.

It was an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart.” It won the Humanitas Prize and was nominated for an Emmy.

Brag, brag, brag, brag, brag, brag, brag.

Synopsis: Ted Baxter, the obnoxiously self-absorbed anchorman suffers a heart attack, and returns to work, obnoxiously self-absorbed in an entirely different way.

As with almost all of the multi-camera episodes I wrote – “multi-camera” meaning a process in which scenes are shot with three, and later, four cameras running at the same time, making it possible for the episode to be filmed in front of a live studio audience –“Ted’s Change of Heart’s” structure broke down into six relatively equal-lengthed scenes.

Scene One: The Studio.

Ted Baxter is reporting the news, when he suffers a heart attack on the air.

Right off the top, the episode opens with a wallop. A series (in its seventh a final season), whose stock in trade centered on the lead character’s personal embarrassments and unfortunate dating experiences was taking on a serious problem.

That’s why I suggested the idea to the show runners. I was tired of episodes I ungenerously, though not incorrectly, bunched together as, “Mary Breaks a Nail.”

“Let’s give somebody a heart attack,” I enthusiastically proposed.

And the show runners, thankfully, agreed.

Was I worried about making a heart attack show funny? I was not. I was certain of the story’s sturdiness – that’s what matters most – a story you can your hat on. And when it was appropriate, I was confident that the “funny” would be there.

We move on to

Scene Two: A Hospital Room.

Ted’s co-workers (and the audience) are informed that Ted’s heart attack was a very mild one. All sitcom heart attacks are mild, so they don’t scare the audience.

Despite this good news, Ted continues to see the glass as half empty. When his doctor assures him that he knows people in Ted’s condition who have lived to be a hundred, Ted grumpily snaps back,

“Yeah? And then what?”

The episode’s tension is sustained by the fact that, though the prognosis is good, a heart attack is serious business, and there is no certainty about what happens next. It is noteworthy that the “Ted’s Change of Heart” episode did not include a secondary “B” story. The “A” story was deemed to be strong enough not to need one.

We continue to

Scene Three: The Newsroom

It’s Ted’s first day back at work. His co-workers are uneasy. Mary feels an urgency to get Ted’s “fill-in” anchor out the door before he arrives, explaining, though no explanation is needed,

“You know how he is.”

But when Ted comes in, after giving all his co-workers big bear hugs, he spots his “fill- in”, goes over…and he gives him a big bear hug too. He then goes on to propose that the “fill-in” remain on the show. They do the news together, as co-anchormen.

Ted’s quiet but observant wife, Georgette, “buttons” this turn of events by understatingly announcing,

“Ted’s changed.”

This is the pivotal comedic turn in the episode. As a result of a brush with death, a congenitally self-absorbed idiot has been transformed into an effusive appreciator of life.

We are now faced with a character who’s behaving differently than we have ever seen him behave before. The suspense is thus heightened. With our expectations crossed up, we are excited to see where this is going to lead.

A story can’t feel slow when you’re genuinely curious about what’s going to happen next.

Scene Four – Mary’s Apartment

Invited to dinner, Ted continues to demonstrate his “change”, insisting that Mary stop eating and take a moment to appreciate the miracle that is salt.

“Tiny, little grains. So white. So pure. And every single one of them….salty.”

You can tell that Georgette has had enough of this.


“You showed me salt yesterday, Ted.”

The problem escalates in

Scene Five: The Newsroom

Where Ted, impeding their preparations to cover a liquor store hold-up, insists that everyone interrupt their frantic racing around, sit down at their desks…and breathe.

Ted’s behavior has now become disruptive. Somebody has to tell him to knock it off. The assignment inevitably falls to Ted’s no-nonsense, unsentimental boss, Lou Grant.

The problem is,

Scene Six: The Newsroom, the following day

Lou can’t pull the trigger. His explanation? After hours of serious soul-searching, he realizes that…

Ted’s right.

“What’s wrong with being a little more appreciative about things?”

Rather than insisting that Ted change, they determine, instead, to be more like him. After opening up and expressing their appreciation for each other (It’s the third last episode of the series; it’s time), they proceed to take a break in their work to go to a window, and enjoy the splendor of a beautiful, Minneapolis sunset.

When Ted arrives, and they excitedly invite him to join them, Ted yawningly dismisses their invitation, explaining,

“You’ve seen three sunsets, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

It appears that, over time, Ted’s appreciation of life has worn off. Lou remembers the same thing happening while serving in World War II:

“During combat, I never held life more dearly. But the feeling went away a little after the Germans surrendered. I never forgave them for that.”

In the final beat of the story, Ted’s co-workers decide that, despite its inevitable disappearance, they will enjoy the feeling to the fullest while it’s still there.

The last shot in the episode shows Mary, Lou and Murray, huddled together at the window, appreciating the sunset.

After two surprises earlier in the episode – Ted’s unexpected heart attack on the air, and his startling “change of heart” as a result of it – there are three more in this final scene. One, instead of requiring Ted to be more like them, they decide to be more like Ted. Two, Ted’s feelings of genuine appreciation eventually went away. And three, his co-workers determine to hold onto that feeling as long as they can.

With funny joke writing and a series of believable reversals, you can keep the story moving along briskly, and bouncing with energy.

Even if it’s filmed with multiple cameras.


Miles said...

“During combat, I never held life more dearly. But the feeling went away a little after the Germans surrendered. I never forgave them for that.”

That is pure gold.

A. Buck Short said...

Having been out of commission recently, I hope it’s acceptable to gang-comment the blog entries I’ve been diligent in catching up on. Unctuous devotion, what can one say?

1) Of all your blogotry, I think I enjoy the fence posts most. OK, went right for the pun; but, because our own pool could also not be left unenclosed, a decade ago I spent 3 full months single-handedly reconstructing the cedar fence around ours. Never again; the neighborhood association contemplated a “contractor’s bonus” for every day I finished early. With our other dogs having been “hipped” into the deep end by our German Shepherd, let me testify that a collar lynching or death in the pool aren’t the worst possibilities. That would be the mouth to mouth. We now bring Labrador retrievers over to demonstrate pool safety, but ours won’t get within the 10-foot pole length of the leaf net.

2) Hope it is truly cockle-warming to know some of us actually remembered your tree falling in Indiana -- and apparently not having been able to get up. May have had something to do with no one being there to hear it. Wasn't a telephone service outage also involved?

3) Seconding Miles that Lou Grants ’ “during combat” observation was pure gold. My question is “how pure?” You may be in for a windfall?” Due to a dental implant procedure gone somewhat awry, I’ve been up nights lately – as much on a strangely energizing reaction to hydrocodone as to the pain it was intended to address. Were you aware that, without cable, there are certain hours when one's only TV viewing choices are between two shows featuring guys playing poker? The banter only rarely approaches Algonquin standards. OK never. On the upside, the commercials have drawn our attention to at least three different companies willing to remit you cash, no questions asked, the economy being as it is, if you can find any other unwanted pure gold lying around, gather those up in an envelope, and ship ‘em off to be melted down in their on sight refinery.?

4) I really do love jokes of the “Lou” structure – especially being so of the character. Years ago I began telling one about the old lady who could be seen every morning from out apartment window out on the corner feeding dozens of pigeons. Complaining of these filthy, disease spreading flying rats, I announced that -- although not proud of it -- I did the only thing I could to rid the neighborhood of the infestation. I purchased a 12-guage shotgun, and, when the moment was right, shot the old lady.

5) With your great Harvard Business School case study approach to illustrating valuable comedy wisdom, are you constantly being offered sitcom teaching opportunities? Haven’t you already written the syllabus here, and isn’t grading enough like consulting? Not only are all sitcom heart attacks “mild” for the reason you indicate, but my guess is so are all sitcom rapes and dismemberments. Or as the late comic Milt Kamen once said, “That’s disgusting, why can’t we ever have one without the other?”

6) Finally, shame. You should feel remorse over relating the Drew story. Had you only been circumspect enough to change “shed” to “riding mower” the rest of us would have had no idea who Drew actually is. However I wasn’t aware of any actual physical transformation for Mr. Carey. I do remember when the cartoonist Scott Adams’ blog posed the question of who would play Dilbert if the comic strip were ever made into a live action movie. Four out of 5 answers came back Drew Carey, based mostly on physical appearance alone. I think it’s more that you can’t look at Carey without thinking Dilbert than the other way around. Or as his agent might say, “What, and give up gameshowbusiness?”

Happy new year.