Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"I Once Broke My Own Dictum"

So I’m writing about how much I enjoy springboarding my stories off of historical events – you may recall my recent fact-generated foray concerning the promotion of the guillotine as a case in point.  That was enjoyable, wasn’t it?

While assembling that post, I considered personalizing the proceedings by including a chunk about how, when I was writing the pilot for Best of the West, in the course of my research, I discovered that the reality about the guns in the Old West was that many of them were shoddily manufactured, making them unreliable in action, often shooting sideways, or blowing up in gun user’s hand.  This, along with the inherent danger of the activity itself, explains the reluctance of many people to participate in gunfights. 

“I drew first, but my sixgun blew up,” a shootout “runner-up” might have reported before succumbing to his wounds, one delivered by his adversary, the other, self-inflicted.

I retained this interesting factoid as I was structuring my pilot story to its inevitable – the show being a western – climactic showdown.  “Wouldn’t it be funny”, I asked myself, though without quotation marks, “if there were a classic gunfight, and the guns didn’t work?”

My answer to myself was a resounding “Lets’ do it!”

With the confrontational moment sewn into the lining of the genre itself, I now had a sitcomical strategy for pulling it off.

I was happily on my way.

The scenario builds to the gunfight.  Sam Best, a tenderfoot newly arrived from “Back East” refuses to pay the “protection money” demanded by the town’s corrupt, local kingpin.  Best is subsequently goaded into a gunfight with a notorious desperado hired by the kingpin, known as the Calico Kid (named after his preferred fabric for shirts.)  How menacing is the Kid?

SAM:  I don’t have a gun.  And shooting an unarmed man won’t be good for your reputation.

THE CALICO KID:  That is my reputation.

Sam is provided with a gun by Mountain Woman Laney Gibbs, though he is reluctant to accept it.

SAM:  I don’t want to shoot at this man. 

To which Laney, wise to the ways of the West, replies,

LANEY:  Suit yourself.  But he’s sure as hell’s gonna be shootin’ at you!

The gunfight ensues, the bullets smashing liquor bottles, shattering the mirror, scattering stacks of shot glasses.  The gunshots fly in all directions.  Except in the direction of the dueling adversaries.


Because I read in the Time-Life series The Old West that, quite often, the guns didn’t work.

But wait!  But wait.  (The second “But wait” read with the deflating confidence of a punctured balloon.)

I promise you, this observation arrived only recently, more than thirty years after the fact, when I was thinking of including a Best of the West mention in my “guillotine” story, deciding ultimately not to.

One of my unswerving “Rules of Comedy” – arguably my unswervingest – a dictum I have referenced on numerous occasions – I recall it appearing prominently in my critiquing the “food poisoning” scene in Bridesmaids, where a group of women started pooping and throwing up uncontrollably after eating at a restaurant – that dictum being that, in order to maximize the impact of a comedic payoff, without exception or deviation from the rule – all together class, I know you’ve been listening –

The payoff has to be set up!  

(Why?  So that the comedic payoff has an previously introduced context and does not confuse us by arriving entirely unexplained.)

Did I set up the “the guns don’t shoot straight” in my Best of the West “payoff moment”?

I unequivocally did not.

I am so ashamed.  You should see me.  My face has “shame” written all over it.

In my head, I had set up the moment – Research:  The guns don’t work.  Scene:  The guns don’t work in the shootout.  The problem was, I had set it up in my head, but nowhere in the script!  Did I consider inserting some suggestion early in the script that there were occasions when the guns in the Old West were not entirely reliable? 

I did not even think about it.

I had this “can’t miss”, what they call, “block comedy” scene in mind, involving a gunfight where the guns didn’t work, my intention, backed up by my research so I felt historically justified.  Somehow, that felt like enough. 

The problem was, the audience hadn’t read the research, delivering them a “funny gunfight” without a setup.

And you know what happened?
The audience still went nuts.  No setup whatsoever.  And the reaction was through the roof.


I do not know.  I am stymied, flummoxed, discombobulated and confused. 

I suppose I can fall back on this one:  It’s possible that, if I had set up the malfunctioning firearms, the response would have been even greater.  But the truth is, I can’t imagine how – the studio audience shrieked, howled and applauded, providing something I had written with one of the most extended laughs I have ever received. 

Of course you can’t prove what you didn’t do.  My rationalization is just me trying to defend my belief in the face of tangible evidence to the contrary, like the guys who say lowering taxes on the rich creates jobs, even though it rarely, if ever, has.  (I like to include other people’s disproven assertions along with my own, so I don’t feel quite so alone.)

Despite this inexplicable anomaly, I still believe that a moment – comedic or otherwise – needs to be set up to be maximally effective.  I nonetheless acknowledge that one time I didn’t.  And it didn’t seem to matter.

Apparently, this writing business is more complicated than it appears.
Note:  This post was accidentally published two weeks ago.  If you read it then, you do not have to read it again today.  Upon further consideration, this note should probably have been at the top.    

1 comment:

scottnottheotherscott said...

Hi Earl,

Thanks for letting me comment on your blog!

I think you were saved by an alignment of two shards of circumstance. The first is minor, but the second is rather more important. In fact, the first can be thought of as just an aspect of the second.

The first is that audiences have already been set up for the concept of a gun misfire. We have seen before (other shows?) that sometimes guns don't work.

The second is a painful rule of life, a rule that extends as deep philosophically as you care to follow it. I'm pretty sure it's a natural rule of storytelling - one that you followed without ever articulating.

Every one of us is conditioned to accept this rule by the hard experience of our own lives. Particularly, every one of us who has ever given a powerpoint presentation.

At the moment of truth, technology will fail.

I remember once setting up lab computers for a computer class. I logged into each one of them with my own hands. Not just one or two. _All_ of them. Five minutes later the class comes in. Eight of the twelve machines mysteriously can't accept keyboard input from *their* hands. Why? You can't question a rule like this; it just is.

Honestly, you could have had the guns explode into a cloud of doves and tiny unicorns. As long as the audience knows they are holding some kind of technology in their hands, it's a sure bet that when life is on the line, it ain't. gonna. work.

We all know the pain.