Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Labeling Is Important"

There’s a catchy title, don’t you think? Maybe we can have a contest, and you can suggest a better one. We’ll have an official “Title Change Ceremony”, and the replacement story will be registered in the “Just Thinking” archives.


Of course, you have to know what I’m talking about first, which is this:

Unfortunate labeling.

As exemplified, for your enjoyment, by the current “I-know-you-can-top-it” title. In this case, the labeling is unfortunate in that it inspires insufficient interest, generating a minimal desire to read further. I actually did that on purpose, “that” being I made up a boring title – in a “show and tell” effort to delineate what I’m talking about. I can do better. But I was trying to make a point. (Are you buying that at all?)

Primary Labeling of Me

I am meeting somebody for the first time, and they say,

“I hear you’re a comedy writer.”

My response is an immediate sigh. What a burden that is.

“You’re a comedy writer. Always with the ha-ha. Make me laugh, Mr. Funnypants Comedy Writer. “

Conjuring the threatening implication that if I don’t make them laugh,

I’m a fraud.

The label “comedy writer” triggers an unmistakable expectation. If you fail to live up to it, the Comedy Police shows up, and they revoke your “Official Funny Person” membership card. And, logically, it is indisputably correct that they should.

Comedy professionals make people laugh.

I failed to make this person laugh.

I am not a comedy professional.

Venn Diagram. Philosophy 101.

To which, I reply,

“I don’t need this.”

My strategy for averting the possibility of undergoing some Dreyfus-like stripping of my comedic epaulets is to eschew the label “comedy writer.” What I say instead, which, by the way, is what I believe is considerably more accurate, and has the concomitant advantage of lowering the expectational bar, is this:

“I’m a writer. And an encouraging amount of the time, it comes out funny.”

That’s realistic. That I can live up to. Making it a significantly more comfortable brand than “comedy writer”, a crowd, who, I believe, is also known to wear loud sports jackets and paisley pants, of which I have neither in my clothes closet. You can look.

In the political arena, it’s been said, “Whoever frames the issue has wins the argument.” “Framing the issue” is another way to describe labeling. You frame gun ownership as a “personal liberty” issue rather than a “safety from ricochets” issue, and its Game Over, especially if that argument is backed up – albeit ambiguously for many – by the United States Constitution.

Result: Hundreds of millions of guns in private hands. Why? They kicked ass on the labeling. That’s how important it is.

Steven Spielberg once made a big flub on his labeling. Do you remember Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories? (I wrote two episodes of that show, so I’m not just pulling it out of the air.)

To me, “Amazing Stories” is a classic example of unfortunate labeling. Why? Because the title gives away the ending of every episode.

The pilot episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories was entitled, “Ghost Train.” Very expensive. Very high tech. Cinematic wizardry like you have never seen before in any half-hour television series ever. I give ‘em credit for that.

I don’t remember the pilot’s story details, except for this one. The episode is structured to build to the suspenseful climax over whether the much argued about “Ghost Train” is going to appear. That’s what we’re waiting for. That’s what the story is about.

“Will the “Ghost Train” appear, or won’t it?”

Think about it.

The series is called Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.

The story hinges on whether or not the “Ghost Train” is going to appear.


If the “Ghost Train” doesn’t appear,

It’s not amazing.

Because of the series’ title, the “Ghost Train” has to appear.

Eliminating, as a consequence, any possibility of suspense.

There are precedents in auteurs offering their names to shows that reflected the genre of entertainment they were famous for providing. But consider the much wiser labeling they chose for their series’ titles.

It wasn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s Scare The Pants Off You Stories. It was

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

It wasn’t Rod Serling’s Creepy Tales of the Supernatural. It was the considerably more ambiguous

The Twilight Zone

Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for ten seasons. The Twilight Zone ran for five. Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories was cancelled after two.

The difference between the first two hits and the third miscue?

Superior labeling.

I’m almost certain of it.

“Did you mention your concern to Steven Spielberg?”


“Did you tell Spielberg you had trouble with his title?”

“I thought about it.”

“But did you?”

“No, okay? Gimme a break! It’s Steven Spielberg! The guy’s a genius!”

Though he did lay a big one on the labeling of that show.

And you can tell him I said so.

If you feel you have to.


Neal... said...

'I Can't Believe It's Not Better'.

Not the piece, obviously, just the title; that's my alternative.

In the UK we had Roald Dahl's "Tales of the Unexpected", which scuppered itself with a title prompting viewers to work out what was the least expected outcome of the story and to therefore expect it, making the unexpected totally expected.

Mr. said...

The way you present it, it actually would have been pretty amazing if the ghost train hadn't appeared.

Alan said...

Dealing with civilians is always a problem, not just for comedy writers, but practically everyone.
I know PhDs that have been asked to cure a rash, and accountants who have been asked why they aren’t rich.
But show business seems to be everybody’s other business. I have developed a passive aggressive (I’ve been told) way to re-frame the conversation.
If somebody demands I make them laugh, I ask them (depending on their line of work) to cure cancer, give me a suit or teach me something I don’t know.
Not that I’ve had to do that lately.
I don’t get many invitations to any more.

Zaraya said...

Mr. Pomerantz; your title (label) sums up your thesis wonderfully. Did you need to rewrite it to get it right?

Mac said...

If I tell someone at a party I'm a comedy writer and they say "make me laugh", I always think why? It's my time off, I'm not getting paid to make you laugh. Do you greenlight scripts? Do you commission comedy shows? If I met Garry Shandling and I made him laugh, I'd be over the moon - it would feel like validation from one who excels in his craft. But some guy at a party? For all I know he could be a fan of Dane Cook.
But rather than say all that and spoil a party, I usually just avoid the whole thing at the outset and say I work in Systems Analysis. No-one's ever asked me to analyse their system on my time off.

Anonymous said...

I remember your two eps of Amazing Stories. They were pretty good. Especially the mummy one.

Bruce said...

Global Warming. oops can we get a do over on that.