Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Answering A Question Somebody Else Asked Somebody Else"

JED asked me a question based on a question someone asked Ken Levine on his blog’s “Question Asking Day.” No problem with that. I too “borrow” questions from there sometimes, offering variations on Ken’s answers. I could institute a “Question Asking Day” here, I suppose. But for that, I’d need a regular flow of questions. And to be honest, based on the answer I’m about to give JED – I have already heard it in my head – I’m not certain I’d be up to the task.

JED writes, in part:

“Ken was answering a question about storylines where two characters are in love but can’t reveal it to each other for one reason or another. He was asked how he decides to pick the right time to allow the characters to get together.”

JED forwarded this question to me, because Ken Levine used Rhoda as an example of “when the wrong decision was made”, and I wrote for Rhoda, though as JED correctly reports, it was after the first season, and they already married.

Let’s start with this. Comedy is fueled by tension, of which there are a number of different varieties. There’s the tension underlying the maintaining of a secret (two “girls” living in a Girls’ living facility are actually guys in drag – hello, Bosom Buddies.),

Tension also feeds the comedy based on a surprise or a practical joke (though this is less a series underpinning than an episode’s. In a drama, you can harbor a secret till the cows come home – unless the secret is that there aren’t any cows, in which case they never come home – but in comedy, after a while, the harboring of a secret gets tiresome, and stops being funny – goodbye, Bosom Buddies.)

Another way tension can is generated is from fish finding themselves precariously – and hopefully hilariously – out of water. In Best of the West, I had a clueless family migrating to the wild and woolly West, where the “tenderfoot” Dad, goaded into a gunfight exclaims, “I don’t want to shoot at this man!” To which a local citizen, more experienced in these matters replies, “Suit yourself. But he’s sure as hell’s be gonna be shootin’ at you!”

Yet another source of tension? Ideological adversarialism. That’s Major Dad. A “by-the-book” Marine major meets and quickly marries a widowed Liberal journalist with three daughters. Watch the sparks fly!

(Until, after I exited the series, when the male lead, who was also an Executive Producer, started dismissing his “wife-adversary’s” point of view without discussion, leading Major Dad to lose its engine and reason to exist, and turn silly.)

Finally, a longstanding source of comedic tension is male-female tension, otherwise known as sexual tension. The Taming of the Shrew, 1591. It doesn’t get more longstanding than that. (And more recently, though less so on network television, same sex versions have been added to the mix.)

I don’t do “sexual tension” very well. That’s why two of my four Cheers episodes were about “Coach”, and one featured Rhea Perlman. The fourth was involved Sam saying “I love you” to Diane, but he didn’t mean it “that way.” Diane had just presented him with tickets to a boxing match Sam intensely wanted to see. It was an appreciative “I love you”, and the funny part was that Diane embarrassingly misunderstood. Oh, yeah. And misunderstanding also creates tension. As does embarrassment.

Owing to personal discomfort, I will limit comment on this area of inquiry. I will ask only one question. At what point is there the most powerful sexual, and therefore comedic, tension – the point before the battling adversaries “get together”, after they “get together”, or after they’re married, or its more recent sitcom alternative, are living together as a couple?

Do we agree it’s the first one?

Right there is the answer to JED’s question. From the point of view of the comedy – and that’s what they’re paying us to do – the decision as to when to get the couple “together” is based on, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson might say if he wrote for television, and he wasn’t at his best – the maximal extension the sexual tension.

That decision is easy in movies and plays. You delay the “getting together” till the end. On the other hand, Cheers ran for eleven years. Can you imagine – assuming that Shelley Long had stayed on – Sam and Diane not “getting together” for eleven years? That would be quite a wait. Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty did it for twenty on Gunsmoke. But those were entirely different times. (Though the process was impeded by the marshal’s continually getting shot.)

There is like an algorithm at play here. The optimal point of getting two characters together is the point at which the couple can no longer stay apart, without their appearing to the audience to have “time traveled” here from the fifties.

In an era when couples are “getting together” earlier and earlier in their relationship, including before the relationship even starts, the “getting together” issue has become quaintly academic. With television mirroring real life, when couples wind up in bed together by the end of the pilot, the series will need to be premised on some other source of tension. The sexual option has been deleted from the menu.

In my view, Rhoda’s mistake was not getting Rhoda and Joe together at the wrong time; it was getting them together at all. Rhoda, at her funniest, was a hilariously sharp-tongued single woman, who was constantly struggling to find a man. Getting her involved and then married deprived her of her edge. And getting her divorced was just sad.

“Okay,” you might say, “but the woman was turning forty. And this was the seventies, when woman still overtly aspired to get married. (This is perhaps still the case today, but the pressure is demonstrably less intense, the word “spinster” being no longer in regular use.)

“The Rhoda show runners had to do something!” you might add. “How funny – and again, we are talking about the seventies – is a situation comedy about a seemingly desirable single woman, rapidly approaching middle age? ”

It’s true. That was quite a problem.

The good news?

It wasn’t my problem.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Since you "don't do 'sexual tension' very well", how did you wind up writing episode 2 of Cheers?

The pilot set up the situation, but there was no sexual tension. The second episode (which you wrote) set the basis for the whole Sam-Diane relationship.

I thought it was done quite well. However, that may be because I only remember the re-watching of it (with knowledge of the series) and not originally watching it (when I was eleven).