Thursday, February 28, 2013

"The Thing They Leave Out"

There’s this famous story – to the people who know it, though considerably less so to the people who don’t – about a dog food manufacturer trying to figure out why a new dog food they’d been marketing was such a miserable failure.

“I just don’t get it.  We have a great label.  Beautiful packaging.  A tremendous ad campaign.  Why isn’t this dog food selling?”

And the answer is…

“The dogs don’t like it.”

This story came to mind when I recently read about Netflix which, for those who don’t know about it – but also those who do – is a place where, for a monthly fee, you can download (or get mailed to you) a movie or TV series, to watch whenever you want to in the comfort of our yown home. 

(That explanation may be partially wrong, because I have no hands-on knowledge of Netflix, making the information I received second-hand, and I was only listening with one ear, because, since I am never going to avail myself of Netflix, I don’t really care.  But I believe it’s something like that.) 

Someone loves Breaking Bad but they missed the first season, because it sounded depressing and they did not know it would be depressing and popular – and, apparently, well made.  So they sign up for  Netflix and they catch up on the episodes they missed, sometimes, I am told, binge-viewing multiple episodes at once.  (Not literally at once – you’d have to have a number of televisions to do that, and if they were playing simultaneously, you would be unable to hear what anyone was saying.  Sequentially is what I meant.  And without interruption.  (Though that other way may be coming.)

For me, Netflix is an advanced technology.  I know how TiVo works – no, I know how to work TiVo; I have no idea how TiVo works – or at least I knew a couple of years ago when I arranged to TiVo all the Have Gun, Will Travel episodes off the Westerns Channel, though, as mentioned elsewhere, I have never watched any of them.  I have explained why this is before, that explanation being too indefensible to repeat.  I just prefer watching things when they are actually on.  So sue me.

“Binge-viewing” of TV series has become increasingly popular.  I have nothing to say about the process, though I wonder if – and how – “binge-viewing” affects, if at all, the basic episode-watching experience. 

In the past, you had to wait a week to see the next thrill-packed adventure of a cancer-ravaged teacher who sells drugs, or months between seasons.  Now, you can self-create a personalized schedule, every viewer becoming essentially their own programmer.  No more watching shows when the network requires you to.  You can see late-night shows in the morning, and afternoon shows at night.  (Though, when you look outside, it is still going to be dark.)  

I wonder if “binge-viewing” of TV series is to “regular” TV watching as “Books-On- Tape” is to reading – a new way of assimilating material which in some manner alters one’s visceral or comprehensional relationship to the content.  Maybe if you engage in “binge-viewing”, you can tell me how it’s different. 

Not that I’d ever try it.  Because it would involve watching shows when they’re not actually on.  (I did once receive a boxed set of The West Wing and watched a few episodes one after the other, but I gave up at some point, because, it just didn’t feel, I don’t know, exciting.  Dr, M has a similar response.  I would buy her a video of her favorite movie and she’d never watch it, preferring, instead, the enjoyment derived from discovering that the movie she loves is scheduled to air that night on regular TV.)

Okay, so “binge-viewing” is happening, and there is a (relatively) simple and (relatively) inexpensive way to access the programming.  Now, aware of this trend, and wishing to boost their subscription orders via an advancing step in their evolution, Netflix, I read recently, has produced an original series of its own, available only on Netflix, and intended, with its first season’s 13-episodes complete, for the Netflix audience’s much-practiced “binge-viewing” pleasure. 

It was reported that Netflix has committed a hundred million dollars over two seasons to a political drama called House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey.  For me, however, there is an essential element missing from their strategy.

There is a difference, I shall argue, between making available a previously broadcast binge-viewable series and originating a binge-viewable series of your own.  The former series, before becoming available on Netflix, had developed a “buzz “ through, as it’s called in television, “water cooler chatter”, drawing curious latecomers to see – and catch up on – what they had missed.  Commercial networks scrupulously monitor their debuting series, ready to yank them if they fail to appeal. 

House of Cards, with an investment of a whopping hundred million dollars, is appearing on Netflix minus the inoculating “water cooler chatter” and the networks’ cut-their-losses scrupulosity.

The question is,

What if the dogs don’t like it?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Improvisaton And Sitcom Writing"

Back in the early seventies, I saw Dan Aykroyd (whom I had known since he was seventeen and was part of a team with the wonderous Valri Bromfield) perform onstage in a review, mounted by the Toronto-based chapter of Second City.  In one sketch, Danny played a White Collar office drone returning home from work.

“How was your day, Dear?” inquired his wife.

“My desk blew up,” replied Aykroyd.  “But otherwise, it was fine.”

To this day, I recall the laugh that projectiled out of my mouth, so explosive, it nearly blew the head off the audience member sitting in front of me.  If they’d been wearing a wig, the back part would have shot right up into the air.  It was that funny.

I don’t generally like to explain comedy.  Why?  Two reasons.  One, it’s too boring.   And two, my explanation could easily be wrong.  People laugh for different reasons.  And also, don’t laugh.  A standup, during his act, does an innocuous dead armadillo joke and someone comes up after the show and says,

“I was desperately looking for relief after my beloved pet armadillo Andre passed away, and I have to be subjected to this?  For shame, comedian!  For shame!” 

(Apologies if you’ve had a recent armadillo loss.  Had I known, I’d have changed the reference to lemur.  But then, of course, there are grieving pet lemur owners, and it never ends.  There is not one dead animal you can safely malign.)

Going back to “My desk blew up.”

Let’s say for argument’s sake that, rather than simply reviving a classic Second City comedy sketch conceived by one of the great improviseurs or improviseuses from Chicago – they often did that, most notably with the classic sketch set at a funeral where the most recent arrival asks the person who arrived immediately before them, “How did he die?”, only to have the story repeated once again that, while trying to get the last remnants of pork and beans out of a large tin, the deceased had gotten their head stuck inside the tin, and had suffocated – let’s say that, instead, Danny Aykroyd had originated the line “My desk blew up” for the first time, right then and there.

Which is precisely what improvising means.

He made it up on the spot.

THE INNOCUOUS SETUP:  “How was your day, Dear?”


That’s what made me laugh so hard.  That a guy on stage had come up with this hilarious incongruity on the spur of the moment, while I was sitting there, watching him.  He didn’t read it off a paper.  He didn’t memorize it and then deliver it.  He didn’t improvise something considerably less funny like, “I got my tie stuck in my stapler.”

“How was your day, Dear?”

“My desk blew up.”

Followed by the contrasting calmative:

“Otherwise, it was fine.”

That’s improv at its best.  How does it work on television?

Not nearly as well. 

I once consulted on a series where the show runner had been a member of an improvisational group for twenty years.  One of the writers on the staff had a similar background.  The latter, when I asked him what there was about his improv experience that served him well in his current job, replied, “I am never afraid to pitch.  Because if one joke doesn’t work, I can come up with a hundred more that are just as good.”

When you’re constantly on the lookout for a better joke, it is valuable having someone in the room, fearlessly machine-gunning pitch after pitch.  Where we part company, however, is in the assertion that all jokes are equally as good.

For me, jokes more deeply rooted in character and most sensitively attuned to the situation are of a higher quality than jokes that are merely funny.  They resonate more.  And the laughs they elicit are deeper and more satisfying. 

I believe this is true not only for the sitcoms of yore but for contemporary sitcoms as well.  In 30 Rock, the character played by Tracy Jordan is bizarrely surreal, but there’s a reliable consistency to that surreality.  

I know it seems strange to say about such an “out there” character, but I can imagine writers pitching “surreal” jokes for Tracy Jordan, and the show runner saying, “That’s not Tracy.”  I would get that.  I would not know what they were talking about.  But I would get why they said that.

Unlike sitcom-type comedy, improv’s greatness derives from its “flash of the moment” immediacy, where the audience is thrilled, not just by the funniness of the line, but also by the quick-minded magic they are witnessing in front of them.  The problem is, just like with actual magic performed in TV, in scripted comedies, the enhancing immediacy is no longer a factor. 

Other than live sporting events, TV flattens everything out.  There are no surprises on TV because everything always works.  If it didn’t, they’d do “Take Two”, or how ever many takes it required to get things right. 

Watching it on TV, you expect the magic to work, and are therefore less than electrified when it does.  The same goes for comedy.  Scripted comedy is supposed to be funny.  So there is no jaw-dropping amazement when it is. 

Also, unlike improv, there are no “Bonus Points” for their making the jokes up in front of you, because they don’t.  Even improv on television is not terribly exciting, there being the suspicion that, if it was not funny the first time, they could simply have inprov-ed it again.

A complete writing staff needs a variety of contributors.  If you want a perpetual “pitching machine”, you could not do better than a writer with “improv” on their resume.

But if you’re looking for “stick to your ribs” comedy, where the jokes are richer and the laughs are hardier (and heartier), keep looking, because that’s not what the improv people do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Why Don't You Teach Sitcom Writing?"

I am hoping to be relatively brief.  (Though, for reasons unknown even to myself, I probably won’t be.)

I do not consider it bragging to assert that I have the qualifications to present myself to any institution of learning – higher or lesserly accredited – as a legitimate candidate to teach a course, to either full-time students or “Extension” students at night, entitled,

“How To Write Successful Situation Comedies During The Mid To Late Seventies And Most of The Eighties.” 

Being brutally honest, I cannot imagine anyone seeing that class listed in any school’s catalogue and shouting, “Finally!  Just what I’ve been looking for!  I never wanted a career in the first place.  I just wanted to write like my favorite shows from the past.”

There are comedies currently on the air that, though I may admire their intelligence, reflect a defining sensibility I do not understand.  Sure, there are still joke-driven sitcoms similar to the ones I wrote but with an increased mentioning of vaginas, and I could probably teach people to write them, but I hate those shows, and would shoot myself before encouraging aspiring TV writers into that taste-ravaged inferno. 

So that’s out.

Leaving the more ambitious contemporary series that, though of undeniable quality, are alien to both my experience and my comprehension.  For example…

Recently, 30 Rock ended its highly praised but remarkably low rated seven-season run.  I am not a television historian, but I am guessing that 30 Rock may be, or at least is very close to being, the lowest rated long-running series of all time. 

TV powerhouse Lorne Michaels’ being 30 Rock’s Executive Producer made me wonder if, at least one of the reasons 30 Rock remained on the air despite its Mexican programming-equaling ratings might be that no one at NBC was brave enough to call Lorne up and tell him it was cancelled. 

Finally, perhaps, there was an executive who was leaving show business for an entirely different career, or being extremely ill had but a short time to live, who was pressed into contacting Lorne and informing him it was over.  

But that’s just conjecture. 

Maybe 30 Rock had sensational demographics, and everyone who watched it immediately went out and bought a Lexus.  Or maybe, the numbers were actually larger than those accumulated by the traditional measuring systems – as a result of people DVRing the show or watching its episodes on On Demand or on their phones – though I am not at all clear on, if these alternate streaming options (if “streaming options” is the term) elude traditional measurement, how then exactly are they measured?

But that’s secondary.  (Albeit naggingly so.)  The main point is, though I admittedly did not watch 30 Rock on a weekly basis, I did watch it a lot, and over that period categorizable as “a lot”, I recall only two jokes that really made me laugh.

The first joke, funny then but inaccurate in retrospect, involved a character before the 2008 election revealing that they would tell everyone they were voting for Obama, then go behind the curtain and vote for McCain.  That’s what smart people back then thought, or at least feared, would be the case.  Today that joke, which, at the time it was delivered, appeared searingly insightful, serves as a quaint reminder of the liberal underestimation of the American electorate.

             The second joke, which seems destined to make me laugh in perpetuity – I plan to laugh again when I mention it – involves the actor Oliver Platt playing a network film editor, who, when he is asked what he is currently editing, replies, “I’m working on a piece for The Today Show about how next month is October.”

Excuse me while I stop and laugh yet again. 


Okay, I’m finished.

I adore that joke because it’s about a show I’m aware of, and its point is how hilariously lame it is.  That’s why I laugh.  Because I’m familiar with the reference, and, through their sublimely selected example, I take joy in their skewering its banality dead center.

The rest of 30 Rock’s approach – and appeal – is fundamentally beyond my comprehension.   

I read a couple of thoughtful retrospectives published the week 30 Rock was ending, which I’d have saved for reference and quotation had I known I’d be writing this blog post, but I didn’t.  What that leaves me with is a barely adequate paraphrasing of observations I could not entirely follow concerning a show whose Cool Kids-appreciating deliciousness, for the most part, eluded me.

Basically, what the reviewers were saying, I think, was that 30 Rock made fun of things, then made fun their making fun of those things, while at the same time, taking the things they were making fun of seriously, thus reaping both satirical and emotional benefits at the same time, quoting one of the reviewers, though perhaps not precisely, “eating their cake and having it too.” 

What I guess that means is that 30 Rock worked on multiple levels, producing a kaleidoscopic result that is  “win” (on the satirizing), “win” (on their refreshing self-awareness) and “win” (in its emotional effect.)

An honest evaluation places my writing on one level.  Leaving me two levels short of the current requisite amount. 

This, in short – though not nearly as short as I’d have liked it to be – is why I do not – and will not ever – most likely –

Teach sitcom writing.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"A Lesson In Writing...Or Am I Just Wasting My Time?"

I have always wanted to try this.  Last Friday, I published a post recounting my Purim recollections.  I rewrote it twice, before finding it acceptable – or at least acceptable enough – to publish.

Today, to provide you with an “Insider’s View” of the process, I shall republish that post, illuminating the changes I made to the Purim piece.  If you’re like me, this will be interesting.  If you’re not, probably less so.

I never like reading the “Shooting Script” of a movie.  If I want the final version, I can simply watch the movie.  For me, it would be far more educational to read the earlier versions of the script, to get a sense of how the version they decided to go with evolved.

So it won’t be impossible to follow, I have chosen a post where the revisions were less substantial than in other posts.  Also, though I did two rewrites, I will combine those revisions, again to enhance readability.  Otherwise, it’s a hodge-podge, and who of us has time in their busy lives for that?

I have excluded the revisions involving “typos” or accidentally omitted words, because there is nothing you can learn from that, other than that I am slowly losing my mind.  Or possibly not that slowly.

I hope this exercise is of, at least, some minimal value.  Of course, I feel that way about all my posts.  This one seems of specific interest to writers.  But, hopefully, not just writers.

Let me know what you think.  (So I can do it again sometime.  Or, conversely, never.)

Okay, here we go.

“Singing The Purim Blues”

Purim is supposed to be a happy Jewish holiday, in contrast to, say, the High Holidays, which are primarily spent begging for your life. 

Purim, depicted in the biblical Book of Esther – which is also a scroll, which is unscrolled and read on Purim – tells the story of how a plucky Jewish woman named Esther (changed from “a Jewish girl named Esther”, to avoid feminist “feather ruffling”) who had won marriage to the Persian King Ahasuerus in a contest where she was accorded “Prettiest in the Land” honors, reveals her religious affiliation to her husband, thus averting a massacring of the Jews, engineered by the King’s second-in-command, Haman, whose odiosity (a made-up word, because I could not come up with an actual word) is perpetuated through eternity (streamlined from “throughout eternity) by Jews on Purim eating fruit-filled pastries molded (changed from “constructed”, for streamlining – two syllables are better than three – and because it seemed more “pastryatorially specific” ) in the shape of his hat.

A “good news” story – the Jewish people rescued from destruction.  A perennial “Best Seller” in Hebraic circles.  And yet, for me, the holiday of Purim has a bittersweet component, based on two troubling events from my personal experience (changed from “of my personal experience”, because “from my personal experience” seems better, though I am admittedly shaky on – or is it “when it comes to?” my connectives.)

In no particular order, an order required, because you cannot tell two stories at the same time:

When I was in college at the University of Toronto, determined not to take any courses that could even remotely lead to career, I selected, (comma deleted, and then reinserted, in a struggle concerning enhanced readability) during my graduating year, (ditto with this bracketing comma) to study Near Eastern Literature, which was the Bible, not as “You better believe this, or you can count on big trouble in the Afterlife”, but as historical literature.

I am reminded that, as a much-needed break from studying for my college “finals”, my friend Alan and I escaped, spending a weekend in New York (changed from “spent a weekend in New York”, for upgraded dramatization), where, between visits to the theater and sampling escargot, I studied for my Near Eastern Literature exam by reading the Gideon Bible generously (“generously” added, in a possibly misguided display of understated irony) provided for us in our hotel room. 

I remember the first page of it (“of it” added for clarity) saying, “Leave this Bible in the open; the next person might need it.”  I did, in fact, need it – to bone up for my Near Eastern Literature exam (“Near Eastern Literature” added, for specificity, which made it seem a little funnier) – so when we left, I packed it in my “carry-on”, and I studied it on the plane ride home (“ride home” added, again for laugh-enhancing specificity.)
I also saw The Gospel According To St. Matthew on the trip, so it was not an entirely frivolous undertaking.  (Added “on the trip” in the middle, and changed “trip” at the end to “undertaking” – I am not exactly sure why.)

Among other eye-openers - and indeed the eye-openingest eye-opener of them all - was I was apprised that the Story of Esther - a young woman (changed from "girl"; see above) saving her people from destruction – was, in fact, not real (changed from “not necessarily real”, for enhanced accuracy.)  Or, at least, not original to the Jews.  Our professor explained that strikingly similar stories appear in other people’s holy writings as well.  Esther was simply the Jewish incarnation of a multi-cultural myth.

Now, remember, in my formative years, I was educated at the Orthodox Toronto Hebrew Day School (replacing “I attended the Toronto Hebrew Day School”, for increased comprehensiveness, clarity, and literary prettiness), where you received a month’s detention for eating a non-kosher hamburger.  (If it had cheese on it, I think they killed you.)  We were instructed to believe that the Bible actually happened.  As written. 

I remember being reprimanded for mumbling dismissively (replacing “chortling derisively”, for enhanced accuracy, though, to be honest, I don’t think I ever found what I was looking for) when we learned that, when the Ten Commandments were delivered from Sinai, the blind could suddenly see, and the deaf could suddenly hear.  I somehow found that difficult to believe.  (“Somehow” inserted, for enhanced skepticism.)  Although, with my eye problems, that could have just been a sour grapes response for missing out on that healing opportunity.  (Changed from, “a sour grapes response for my missing that healing opportunity”, though, from a laugh-inducing standpoint, the wording is still not entirely satisfying.)

My Near Eastern Literature professor explained that it was not uncommon to appropriate mythological tales from other religions (changed from “My Near Eastern Literature professor backed up his claim that ‘Esther’ was a borrowed story”, the “replacement version” being less clunky and more accurate), citing that (replacing “with the evidence that”, because two words is better than four) the Biblical story of “The Flood” was predated by the Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, which originated “The Flood’s” deluginary (a made-up word, because I could not come up with an equally evocative actual word) narrative. 

My drummed-into-my-head beliefs (changed to “My indoctrinated beliefs”, then changed back, because I use “indoctrinated” later, and writers are invariably penalized for using the same word twice) were dropping like flies.  Esther apparently didn’t happen, and “The Flood” had happened before.  It’s a good thing my college professor hadn’t gone to my Hebrew school (“Hebrew” inserted for religious specificity.)  Peddling that nonsense, he’d have gotten detention for Life!  And possibly stoning.  (“And possibly stoning” added.  It could be a “reach”, or it could be a laugh.  I took a shot.)

Purim, for me, had been mortally wounded.  And on top of that, there was this:

I was thirteen years old.  (Changed from “I am thirteen years old”, to enhance the “presence” in the storytelling, then changed back, because I am congenitally unsteady with my tenses.)  I had just had my Bar Mitzvah.  (The same story with “have just had” and “had just had.”)  

It was my last year attending the Toronto Hebrew Day School, and, at an assembly, the graduating students (changed from “the older students”, for increased specificity) were putting on a Purim play.  Reenacting the historic events I would later learn had never taken place.  (Changed from “had not taken place” because “never” seemed funnier.)

I did not have a big part.  In fact, I was an “extra.”  A palace soldier (changed from “a soldier”, for enhanced specificity), or something.  (Not only did that school try to indoctrinate my brain (there’s that word, “indoctrinate”), they did not know I had talent.)

The soldier’s costume, I was instructed – since the location was Persia – involved a turban and a robe.  My turban would be a bath towel, my robe, the exquisite Scotch plaid flannel bathrobe I had recently received for my Bar Mitzvah, and adored.  (“and adored” added, to enhance the bathrobe’s significance, raising the stakes for what ultimately occurs.)

I looked good in the play. 

Afterwards, it was back to class, where I removed my wardrobe, folding my bath towel into my school bag, and hanging my treasured bathrobe (“treasured” added; see above, Re: “enhanced significance.”) in the cloakroom.

That night, I left for home, forgetting the bathrobe in the cloakroom.  When I returned the next day, it was no longer there. 

I was totally devastated.  (Allotted its own paragraph, for enhanced emotionality.)

An orthodox Jewish child had made off with my bathrobe.

Such, for me, are my tarnishing memories (“tarnishing” is a misplaced modifier and not exactly right, but I couldn’t think of anything better) of Purim Past (changed from “memories of Purim”, in an effort to echo “A Christmas Carol” and enhance my modest narrative’s comparative ‘weight.’)  To this day, I am not certain which loss was more significant – the debunking of a longstanding belief, or the pilfering of my bathrobe.

I believe it was the bathrobe.

And there you have it.  That’s how I spend a number of hours of my day.  Am I making it better?  Or am I just fooling myself? 

If you have a definitive answer to this question

I don’t really need to hear it.