Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Fighting The Format"

When I started out in half-hour comedy, I noticed that all the episodes we did invariably included six scenes – no more and no less.  Being curious about this seeming obligatory structure, and also inwardly though never outwardly rebellious – “outwardly” can get you in trouble – I asked the master of multi-camera comedy James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi) how come there were always six scenes. 

His answer was that it seemed to work better than way.

That answer was not entirely satisfying to me.  Although Brooks appeared to be correct – a six-scene format did seem the most successful way of telling the story – it was not like, to that point, the show had tried it any other way, leaving the answer a less than comforting

“We do it that way because we do it that way.”

We have visited the Kahala hotel in Hawaii, like, twenty-five times.  When we try another Hawaiian hotel, the experience never satisfactorily measures up.  Leading me to wonder, is our preference for the Kahala because it is incomparably fantastic, or because we are habitually familiar with it?

Do you see what I’m analogizing here?

Is something right because it’s right, or is it right because it’s what you’re traditionally used to?

… is what I’m saying.

(By the way, Seinfeld, which was filmed like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi shot as many scenes as they wanted to.  And that turned out just dandy.  So there’s that.)

This question of structural inviolability returned to my mind after reading…

Wait.  Just a second.

On one of those rare occasions when I secured a movie writing assignment, the producer handed me a stapled “Instruction Guide” delineating the precise elements required for a successful screenplay, according to the teachings of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell. 

“All great movies follow this format,” I was instructed.  The implication being,

“Follow it assiduously or you’re wrong.”  (And, not coincidentally, you’re fired.)

When it comes to writing – as opposed to assembling Ikea furniture – I am not enthusiastic about following instructions.  I like to figure things out for myself. Without the assistance of Joseph Campbell whom I had seen once on PBS and he wasn’t funny.  It seems stupid to follow directions.  I’m a writer, dammit!  And they’re telling me “connect the dots”?

The problem is… two things.  Possibly three, I have not written them yet.

One:  Based on evidence of repetitive similarities in mythological storytelling throughout the ages, Joseph Campbell could actually be right.  Two:  I am temperamentally not a risk taker.  If there’s an authoritative roadmap available, though I may reflexively grumble a little, I invariably surrender to it.  

What are my options?  A tried-and-true direction.  Versus…

“I’ll think I’ll go that way.”

Leading to immobilizing writer’s block due to “unlimited options”, or a standard fifty-page episode ballooning to hundreds of unusable pages, followed (in my darkest fantasies) by my employer handing me a plane ticket back to Toronto.

I may reactively disagree.  But I do not want to see winter.


I just finished a book (on Kindle) entitled The Secret Life of the American Musical (2016) written by Jack Viertel (whose decades-long credentials scream “I know my musicals.”) 

In his book, Viertel deconstructs the essential elements in classic musicals, covering (although not exclusively) Broadway musicals’ “Golden Age”, which for Viertel spans from Oklahoma (1943) to A Chorus Line (1975) where they began telling stories in a more fragmented manner.

Distilling key moments in successful musicals, Viertel assembles a credible template for subsequent endeavors.

I’ll give you some examples, though not all of them because that will spoil the book for you, and I can’t remember them all.  (And it is dificult to re-find stuff on Kindle as there are no designated pages.)

An “Opening Number”, Viertel instructs us, should reflect the conceptual intention of the show.  The out-of-town tryouts of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum famously floundered until a “show doctor” brought in to save the production observed that the audience was confused by what kind of evening in the theater it was.  Hence the introductory insertion of  “Comedy Tonight”, telling the audience, (READ GARRY MARSHALL-STYLE):  “It’s a comedy.  You laugh.” 

And from then on, they did. 

Ditto the issue with Fiddler on the Roof.

When badgered by the director to tell him what their show was about, exasperated lyricist Sheldon Harnick finally explained, “It’s about tradition.”  To which the director replied, “Then write a song about that.

They did, the song “Tradition” providing at the outset the classic musical’s theme. 

Because of that “Tradition”, everyone knew what the show was about and what the audience was expected to do.

Other mandatory elements in the time-tested architecture of musicals are the explanatory “I Want” song:  “All I want is a room somewhere…” (My Fair Lady), the
“Conditional Love Song”:  “If I loved you…” (Carousel) and the raise-the-roof “Eleven O’clock Number”:  “You Can’t Stop The Beat” (Hairspray.) 

The “Creatives” may place their inimitable stamps on the specifics, but, according to Viertel, even “nothing-before-like-its” like The Book Of Mormon seem still to accommodate the “Necessities.”

Of course, there are exceptions.  Viertel dutifully includes such deviations from the rules.  (But be prepared for the punch line.)    

“This {having cited an exception} underlines the reality that good musical theater writers rarely write to the pattern, even though this book keeps describing the pattern they don’t write to… The best writers are always trying to break the mold they perceive in their predecessors and their mentors… and yet when the dust settles, the result often fits the pattern anyway.”

Because, according to Viertel, and Jim Brooks, and Joseph Campbell…

There is one.

But honestly,  (bringing us “full circle”, reflecting a contrarianity lessened not significantly by age)…

Is there?

1 comment:

JED said...

You never know what you're going to be reading about when you flip over to Earl Pomerantz: Just Thinking... but it is always interesting.

Not being in show business, my ideas come from the consumer's point of view. I certainly enjoy familiar stories but I don't read the same story over and over. While I do watch old TV shows, I want to see something new once in a while. I remember being taught the five parts of a drama in grade school and trying to match that with my favorite shows at the time (The Twilight Zone and The Dick Van Dyke Show) and not being able to match the Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Dénouement to those stories. No one bothered to tell us that the Dramatic Structure came from a German fellow analyzing ancient Greek plays and Shakespeare's plays.

But then the more I thought of it, I realized that Rob and Laura always did resolve their problems in a half hour. Rod Serling always had a good guy and a bad guy in the show but you didn't necessarily know who they were - until the end. There are "rules" for the stories and I always tuned into those shows because I had enjoyed them in the past and sort-of knew what to expect when I tuned in the next time - but not exactly. When Alan Brady was talking with his line of toupees about how Laura had announced his use of them to the nation, I never laughed so much. I knew what to expect from the show but I never expected that!

I can see the need for some structure to TV shows and stories in general, but it's the variations that delight us. I took my parents to see The Raiders of the Lost Arc and they loved it. They talked about it for years. The story was just like the old serials they had seen as children but its differences were what excited them.