Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"The Perpetual Pest"

“Crack the case!”

These are the words the voice-over announcer intones as one Law & Order rerun episode dovetails seamlessly into the next. I have publicly come out as an addict of Law & Order reruns. I am, however, no fan whatsoever of “Crack the case!”

I hate “Crack the case!”, because “Crack the case!” is wrong. “Crack the case!” has nothing to do with Law & Order. Law & Order isn’t Perry Mason or an Agatha Christie mystery. There is no case to crack. Ninety per cent of the time, you know “whodunit” half way through the episode.

The issue on Law & Order is whether “Jack McCoy” and his attractive assistant have persuasively convinced the jury that the defendant is legally guilty, meaning, if the case the prosecution has presented proves the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

What the voice-over announcer should be intoning as one Law & Order rerun dovetails seamlessly into the next is,

“Guess the verdict!”

But he doesn’t. He intones, Crack the case!”, even though “Crack the case!” is wrong and “Guess the verdict!” is right.

I will explain the reason for that shortly. But first, I will direct my monumental pestiness in a totally different direction.

I’m learning a song on the piano. It’s “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” from Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1948), words and lyrics by Mack David (the brother of the guy who worked with Burt Bacharach), Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. It’s a beautiful song, and I’m practicing it, to play and sing.

For my personal enjoyment. I do not play when others are around. With the exception of our wonderful housekeeper, Connie, who is ironing in the laundry room nearby, and doesn’t seem to complain about my practicing, likely because ironing to music, even not extremely well played music, is better than just ironing.

The song’s title is also its first line, and it’s a beauty. To my mind, it is up there with the greatest poetry ever written.

A dream is a wish your heart makes…

Sometimes, songwriters start with a great first line, and then it’s a matter of filling in the rest. It’s almost as if there are two levels of inspiration going on – the exquisite first line, and the rest of the song, which is okay, but feels considerably less special. Almost as if it were written by somebody else. And considering this song has three credited writers, that may, in fact, be the case.

I am reminded of a character Martin Short does, an vaudevillian songwriter, who comes up with the “opening hook” for a song, and then lets his acolytes finish it up. As in,

I took an apartment in Tampa Bay

It cost me a mint, but ‘what the hey’….

Da-da-da, dee-dee-dee

And whatever the heck you want to put in there…”

The process sounds very much like what happened here. Though I could not possibly know for sure. It just looks like it, ‘cause the opening line is so great, and the rest of it’s so pedestrian.

The lyric, in its entirely, goes like this:

A dream is a wish your heart makes

When you’re fast asleep

In dreams you will lose your heartbreaks

Whatever you wish for you keep.

Have faith in your dreams and someday

Your rainbow will come smiling through

No matter how your heart is grieving

If you keep on believing

The dream that you wish will come true.

All right, here comes “Mr. Pesty Pants” again. Check out that last line.

The dream that you wish will come true.

There’s a problem with that line. If, as the first line explains, a dream is indeed “a wish your heart makes”, then the last line should not be

The dream that you wish will come true.


The wish that you dream will come true.

You see what I’m getting at? You’re dreaming the wish. You are not wishing the dream. Therefore, logically, the lyric should be, “The wish that you dream will come true”, not “The dream that you wish will come true.”

Just like it should be “Guess the verdict!”, not “Crack the case!”

Why, in both cases, did they do it wrong?

My thinking is it’s because, in these two cases, and perhaps in other examples you’re aware of, the wrong version is better than the right version.

“Crack the case!” is unarguably more “grabby” than “Guess the verdict!” That’s why they say, “Crack the case!” “Guess the verdict!”, though factually more correct, is “If we said that, only Earl and maybe two other people in America would watch this.”

They say “Crack the case!”, because, for “grabbing the audience” purposes, it’s right. Even though, from a factual standpoint, it’s wrong.

It’s the same with the song. For some “pixie dust” reason, “The dream that you wish will come true” has a more lilting lyrical flow to it than “The wish that you dream will come true”, which, by comparison, sounds a little clunky. For aesthetic reasons, therefore, the songwriters chose the logically wrong line, because, to the ear and the sensibilities, it sounds more right.

Not much more right. If you sing the logically right line enough times, it starts to sound almost as lilting as the right one, the one that’s logically wrong. But on the first hearing, the wrong one sounds better, so there you go. In this case, once again, wrong turns out being righter than right.

(It is also possible that the songwriters didn’t even notice their last line was logically wrong, and no debate on the matter actually took place. In fact, it’s probably likely. They just finished the lyric, and that was that. Unless, of course, one of the three songwriters was a pest.)

Why am I a stickler about these things? Because I’m a student of the game. As well as a practitioner. As a practitioner, I am always struggling to “get it right.” The thing is, as we’ve seen, sometimes – I don’t know what percentage but I am thinking it’s small – “getting it right” can actually mean “getting it wrong.”

And that kind of throws me. “Wrong” is right? And “right” is wrong? In a world when this can actually be the case, on what basis are you supposed to decide? The measuring stick has been turned upside-down. What do you use for a standard?


That’s all you’ve got left. If “wrong” in the situation feels better than “right”, you have no alternative but to go with “wrong.” That’s the “creative” in me talking. But you must make totally sure it’s true, and you’re not just letting yourself off easy.

That’s the pest.


Keith said...

There's a comedian who talks about the Friends theme song with the same analysis.

Opening line:
"So no one told you life was going to be this way"
then, later, they have:
"Your mother warned you there'd be days like these"

As far as the Disney song, I have trouble suspending disbelief to be hooked by "A dream is a wish your heart makes" as a premise. I don't know if I've ever had a dream that I wished would come true. And if it's my heart that is wishing it, then my heart should be in a mental institution.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you are quite pesty in the pants today. There must be a name for the situation where a phrase or situation just isn't right and causes consternation, or even outrage in a viewer.


Earl Pomerantz said...

I m unendingly curious about how things work, especially in writing. How can "wrong" be "right", and how can you know when it is, and how can you know when it isn't?

My belief, or at least, hope is that if I knew, I would be the wrong kind of " wrong" less often. I do not believe this is always a subjective issue. I have this suspicion that sometimes, there is actually a real right and a real wrong.

And not just in writing.

Jim Russell said...

Sorry to be a pest, but Hal David (Mack David's brother) was the one who wrote with Burt Bacharach.