Monday, December 10, 2018

"The Intangible Difference"

Deep down, I have always harbored…

Wait.  I won’t make this about me.

“You won’t?”

I know.  “Alert the media!” 

Lemme start this another way.

Twice in the recent past, I have heard stories about exemplary veteran television writers – one of them created a long-running hit comedy series – who, after eschewing “day-to-day” employment to, I don’t know, stop and smell the juice oranges, or quietly develop projects of their own, whatever it was, in order to keep their creative hands in – and also to have fun – committed to part-time participation in rewrite rooms of currently ongoing productions.  They did not solicit these assignments.  They were eagerly recruited to do so.  It’s not like,

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know.  I walked in, and they were already sitting in the room.”

Somebody asked them to show up.  And, seeking an available “outlet”, they did.

The striking – and disturbing – similarity in those two stories I heard was that, after a relatively short period of time, the veteran writers both abruptly dropped out.  Despite the sensible idea of having a seasoned professional in the room so the relative “Newbies” could partake of their recognized wisdom, the “Grand Experiment” had fizzlingly failed.

Wanting to know why, I (politely) grilled one of those excellent writers to find out what specifically went wrong.

It seemed like a promising idea.  You take a new generation of talented writers, burdened or blessed – depending on your perspective – with a television series to produce, you drop in a gifted practitioner whose been through the punishing or invigorating process – again, depending on your perspective – that should be be a recipe for collaborative pay dirt.  It works in baseball.  Why not half-hour comedy?

And yet, instead ,it was…

“Oil and water.”

And the elder participant had to go home. 

Possibly forever.

Why didn’t it work out?

Well – and this is specifically about comedy, though it could apply equally to drama as well – it seemed like every idea the longtime writers proposed met with the rejecting reaction of,

“It sounds a little ‘too jokey’.”


“It feels like we’ve seen that before.”


“You’re old!

Rendered subliminally, if not actually out loud.

In a way, their negative response is entirely understandable.  New writers want to “bust out of the mold”, the prevailing rationale being, “Who wants to do something that has already been done?”

(Putting the most benign interpretation on the issue, rather than “Don’t tell me what to do, Mother! Or “Father!” depending on the gender of the “interloping consultant.”)

Dismissing anything suspiciously “passé” today’s writers want to put a revitalizing stamp on the traditional format, delivering a shiningly rebooted “Sitcom 2.0.”

Which was precisely my impulse, when I originally started out.  Till I quickly learned they actually wanted “passé.”  (Which they interpreted as “Doing it right.”)  I tried my best to comply because the unwanted alternative meant “Hello, Toronto, I’m back.”

The bizarre, confusing and disconcerting thing – because why use one word when you can redundantly use three – is that, to the experienced practitioners, it felt innately like their proposed “pitches” were right.

And yet, from the head-shaking responses they were getting,

They weren’t.

Being repeatedly – and, to them, inexplicably – “shot down”, it was like, “What’s going on?”

“You mean 5 plus four is not 9?”

“It used to be 9.”

“Well, what is it now?”

“We’re not sure.  But we will know it when we hear it.”

Ergo, the inevitable impasse, where what would have previously been joyfully embraced “Bull’s Eyes” were now consistently turned down.  Conversely, in the name of ‘”Doing things different”, like avoiding the classically recognized “joke structures” and reliable comedic “turns” in the narrative, what was made it into the script was perceived, by the “Outside Observers” as disorientingly “less funny.”

Which is, arguably, debatable.  Statistically less debatable, however, is that from the “Recent ‘Big Hits’ in Network Comedy” perspective, the desired “upgrade” has produced downgraded results.

So, “Hm.”

Or is it “So there!

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