This post was inspired by a post I read yesterday on Ken Levine’s always-rewarding blog, bykenlevine.com. One of the things I appreciate about Ken’s blog – perhaps the thing I appreciate most – is that Ken mentions my blog in a list of blogs he recommends as worth checking out, and people come here because of that. Maybe some of them are you. Hello.
Yesterday, Ken offered his opinion on Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, which he liked but didn’t love. Our assessments are close on this movie, which I liked a lot, but didn’t love. Though I did love it in certain spots. But I also didn’t like it in certain spots. Add them together and divide them by the total number of spots, and it comes out “really liked but didn’t love.”
The part I liked the best was the structural conceit of, you’re walking down some quaint little side street in Paris, and an old car shows up and drives you to the 1920’s. This exercise in fantasy was masterfully executed. The Owen Wilson character, who was chauffeured to an earlier era, displayed precisely the right amount of incredulity at this unexpected turn of events. Woody Allen did not belabor the unlikelihood, nor did he did blithely shrug the situation off, consigning it conveniently to the category, “Stuff happens in movies.”
Either alternative would have compromised the moment. But like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Woody Allen did it “just right.”
Ken’s less than rave response to Midnight in Paris was not what caught my attention, and – not exactly raised my hackles, but definitely stirred them around a little. My adrenalin perked up when Ken zeroed in on a particularly weak scene in the movie.
Needing a last-minute present to give somebody from the past, the Owen Wilson character appropriates his fiancee’s diamond earrings. The particularly weak scene involves his fiancee’s frantically searching for her earrings, while Owen stammeringly, and less than persuasively, tries to cover up.
I agree with Ken that this scene exhibited “lazy writing.” If this were a film school project, I, as Woody’s teacher, would have scrawled, “Upgrade!” across the scene’s indifferently written pages.
Having accurately identified the slackly written scene, Ken then, in my view, proceeds a bridge too far, by saying,
“On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions.”
To which I say,
Ken. Anyone who wrote on Frasier can be indisputably proud of their accomplishments. But – and not meaning to be glib about it – there’s a reason there was no Frazier – The Movie.
Television comedy – and here, I am not referring to mini-movie sitcoms, like The Office and Parks and Recreation, but to comedies filmed in front of a studio audience, like Frasier – is an entirely different animal than feature film comedy. To criticize a movie scene for not measuring up to its sitcom equivalent, is like criticizing a rhinoceros for not having a trunk.
Not since the Bob Hope era were movies required, or expected to, fling rapid-fire one-liners at its audience. Movies proceed at an entirely different pace. There are considerably more scenes in movies, so a dependence on one “block comedy” scene – standard in the almost invariable six-scene sitcom – is not as essential. Movies also display a more naturalistic reality level, both in the situation, the thought processes of the characters, as well as the dialogue.
The fact is – and it’s what I resisted most vigorously when I was writing for television – the sitcom format itself is fundamentally artificial. (And way more than it needs to be.)
There are legitimate reasons for this. When you are required to turn out twenty-two episodes a year, you inevitably surrender to, let’s not say a formula, because it sounds “hacky”, but at least a template, so you are not re-inventing the wheel every single week.
Also, there is only so much space on a studio soundstage, limiting the number available sets to two “standing sets” – sets that were used on every episode, and one “swing” set – a restaurant, a doctor’s office, etc, a location needed to tell that particular story.
In addition, earlier on at least, as yet unavailable technology meant there were no monitors for the audience to view scenes that were not being shot directly in front of them, again limited the locational opportunities, which, in turn, constricted the storytelling options.
These logistical considerations generated a straightjacketing sitcom format comparable to a crossword puzzle, where structural maneuverability was at an, often frustrating, minimum, thus leading to a greater reliance on the jokes – virtually the only avenue for creative flexibility.
Two finishing points, possibly three. Throughout my career, I was continually berated for my inability to write jokes, despite the fact that my two most successful pilots, Best of the West and Major Dad, though conspicuously joke-lite, garnered enormous laughs from the audience, and, on occasion, applause.
You can definitely be funny without jokes. As proven, considerably more successfully, by Seinfeld, whose series concept is premised on natural-sounding, everyday conversation (between funny and hyper-observant people.)
Seinfeld also shattered the sitcom mold by multiplying the number of scenes in their episodes. Plus, the show regularly went outside, shooting “New York Street” locations on the studio backlot, in both cases serving the story rather than the Kabuki-like requirements of the situation comedy format.
“A character trying furiously to keep another character else from finding something out.” This is “Hide in the closet!” comedy, a staple in farces of all nations for centuries. Plays would do the scene one way. Sitcoms would handle it similarly, but faster, due to time constraints. And movies would execute the scene their own way, for want of a better word, and I’m getting tired ‘cause we’re nearing the end, cinematically.
Compare a lackluster Midnight In Paris “keeping them from finding out” scene with the brilliance of similarly motived scenes in Some Like It Hot, and I’d say, “Now you’re talkin’!”
But ya duzzn’t hasta compare it with sitcoms. Unless you’re arguing that, generally speaking, television comedies, judged in their own contexts, are better written than comedy movies.
In which case, I wholeheartedly agree.