Thursday 22 April 2010

Some Refreshingly Robust Criticism

I've been aware for some time that the creators of South Park do not care for Family Guy. It seemed in keeping with the 'bad boy' image of South Park to publicly hate something that's popular. And since Seth Macfarlane was a new kid on the block, it made sense. But recently, I stumbled across this Youtube clip (just audio) about their reason for disliking. Have a listen:

Their view is actually quite nuanced and considered, as you'd hope from highly successful multi-millionaire comedy producers. And I respect them for going on record for giving their opinion robustly, and without saying 'It's just a personal thing but...'

In case you can't be bothered to listen to the clip, their view is that Family Guy has too many unrelated jokes in each show. This is true. The show keeps cutting away to flashback or fantasy scenes, often introduced with lines like "Hey, this is worst than that time that I..." etc.

I agree that it makes the overall show less elegant and well-crafted. To be unequivocally wonderful, a statue should be chiselled from one rock. Personally speaking, these unrelated flashbacks and set-piece scenes don't ruin the show for me, especially since the show is animated which means that these jokes can be done at lightening pace without harming the overall narrative - even if the overall narrative is not helped.

When I first saw Family Guy (I think I saw the second episode, where Meg knocks out cable) I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. In fact, I made quite a lot of my friends watch it. I was pretty evangelistic about it. I still like lots of it, especially when they play with the pace of animation and suddenly slow things down massive (Peter trying to throw a frog out of the window and taking nearly a minute to do so it joyously hilarious).

In actual fact, I've gone off Family Guy in later series because I found it's moved away from 'edgy and funny' and towards 'vile and mean'. Quite often it's unnecessarily scatological, which is not really to my taste. (Which also explains why I've never liked the jerky, spikiness of South Park) And they seem to make personal jokes about people who don't deserve it which can be morally reprehensible.

But it's great to think about these things and argue about them, without descending to personal abuse on one side or just saying everything is a matter of taste on the other. Or even worse - saying nothing at all.

Monday 12 April 2010

The Wonder of Narration

I've been so short of things to watch on TV that a couple of things have happened. Firstly, I have rejoined Lovefilm, which is exciting. (We have another baby due next month, so I'll be chained to the sofa significantly more than at the moment.) Secondly, I rewatched some old DVDs including the joyous wonder that is Arrested Development. Just looking at pictures of the characters below is making me smile. The characterisation is so clear and crisp. Quite often, non-audience, single-camera shows pull their punches on their characters and nuance things a little too much. They're too, well, real. The characters below, however, are huge monsters who have really strong motivations and we know exactly they will react in any situation. That is so important when putting together a comedy show. And often those starting out think they can have characters who change their minds more often or aren't so extreme. Treatments and outlines include phrases like "Something Peter gets really angry for no reason, but other times he's really calm" or "Sally loves her boyfriend, but sometimes doesn't, and she doesn't really know why". I exaggerate, but take a look at the characters below and you'll see what characters need to be. Buster is dumb and frightened. Gob ludicrously overestimates his own abilities and is incredibly selfish. Tobias is living in a dreamworld. And Michael is a slave to being 'responsible'. Simple clear character points are essential. If you don't have them, you don't have a show.

Arrested Development is one of those problem shows that in some ways highlights the gap between those who have mainstream and non-mainstream sensibilities. The show was a critical hit, won plenty of awards and the esteem of everyone in the media. Media-types and writers forever gush about The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Arrested Development falls into that category. (By the by, Curb does nothing for me, really. It's masterful in it's plotting. Almost a masterclass. But I want a properly honed script. Gimme Seinfeld any day.)

But, as with The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development was never a ratings hit. Middle America just did not take the show to its bosom - and nor did the English (as if that would have made the difference). The show looked expensive and needed more viewers to pay for itself. You can't pay for a TV show with boxed-set sales (yet). And so, the show was cancelled halfway through it's third season. I believe the last four episodes were all dumped on one night. The show itself made references to it's own cancellation in some of the most skillful self-referential comedy I've ever seen. But nobody watched it. Most Americans, it turns out, would rather watch reruns of Friends, than a brand-shining new episode of Arrested Development.

It's hard to pin-point why this is the case. The show contains mostly unlikeable characters, which can alienate mainstream viewers. But then, Michael, George-Michael and Buster are very likeable. And Seinfeld's four main characters are all unlikeable and selfish. The Office has two key unlikeable characters. I'm sure everyone has a theory as to why Arrested Development 'failed' (in the ratings sense). I'd be very interested to hear the views of others on this one.

So why do I mention this? Firstly because it makes me feel good, just thinking about Arrested Development. But secondly, the show contains one thing that most out-and-out comedies do not - Narration. The narrator makes a huge difference to the show, and I view the narrator device with envy. Often, one of the hardest things to do in a sitcom is move the plot along, purely with people talking. In a novel, you can simply say what's happening. In a film like Austin Powers, you can have a character called Basil Exposition - who tells Austin what to do next. In sitcoms, characters have to say things like "I have to go and pick up my son from his football session", but you have to think of a characterful joke to glue to it. That can be very hard.

But Arrested Development has a narrator (and what a wonderful voice that Ron Howard has). He can say things like 'meanwhile' to emphasise that something is taking place at the same time as another scene - which may be significant. The narrator can say 'this would have been okay, but unfortunately...' and give you a heads up on something bad happening. The narrator can remind, mislead and even do jokes of his own. (There are plenty in the show)

The narrator means that 'the plot' is often as funny as the jokes or the characters, which doesn't happen all that often. In Seinfeld, this can happen, but usually the calamity in a sitcom means that the characters do or say funny things. But careful, skillful plot can be genuinely satisfying in its own right, almost apart from the characters. There are two notable British writers who are brilliant at this. The first is David Renwick whose One Foot in the Grave plots were very clever indeed, hiding crucial bits of information and revealing at just the right time to create wonderfully daft situations and moments. The other is Steve Moffat - who wrote some episodes of Coupling that were superbly plotted, as if a West-End play (a good one). There's is much to learn about plotting from these guys. Plot or story should be satisfying and service the characters. But sometimes it can exceed all expectations and be hilarious in its own right.

So here's the point and the warning. When you're plotting an episode of sitcom, one can be very ambitious in the amount of story that can be crammed in. But if you take Arrested Development's lead, you may come unstuck unless you have a narrator, or a clever device to enable you to cut through plot very quickly. Normally, I find I have too much plot and have to cut back. This can be painful if you've got funny dialogue that you've sweated over in order to get it across. And we return to the importance of proper planning. The best jokes often occur from thin air, when you're writing the script itself, but you need that bedrock of a strong outline. At least I do. (Carla Lane doesn't. And she did okay, didn't she?)

Sunday 11 April 2010

Archive of American Television

Simon Dunn has found something splendid on the internet. It's called the Archive of American Television, put together by the EMMY people. To say it's in-depth is an understatement. There are hours and hours and hours of interviews there. The first names I found that I really wanted to hear from are the Charles brothers (Les & Charles) here. They don't seem all that talkative, which may be a surprise given the length of the interview, but I'm sure it contains some really fascinating insights.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Habits of Highly Effective Writers

There are dozens of lists of how to be a better writer. Lots of good advice generally, but often advice can seem conflicting and confusing. Ultimately, on you know how you're doing, in terms of pursuing a creative vision and actually knuckling down and doing the work.

As lists go, this is one of the better ones I've come across. I'd especially endorse:

2. Make your characters bleed. “The next time you watch your favorite sitcom or drama, observe that all of the scenes are arguments,” writes Tom Sawyer in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists.

A very good point. Stories are about heroes overcoming adversity. If there's no conflict or adversity, there's no story. So our characters need to bleed. And if they bleed, we'll squirm. And if we squirm, it proves we care about the character. We need to invest in characters and they need to be real. So, make them real, then beat them up before our eyes.

3. Stop comparing yourself to other writers. “There will always be someone who writes faster, or slower, or gets a bigger advance, or better advertising,” writes Carrie Vaughn in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “Everyone’s career and writing process is a little different. Follow your own path.” You’re not Stephen King or Martha Beck? No worries. Be yourself.

I'd only add to that something even more pompous. You're not Stephen King. And he doesn't get to be you. You can be anything you want to be. He has to be Stephen King. Just make sure you're something - and actually get out there and write stuff.

4. Build a firm foundation. “The plot, like the foundation of a house, is the structure on which all else is built,” writes Mary Higgins Clark in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “No matter how glib the writing, how enchanting the characters, if the plot doesn’t work, or if it works only because of flagrant coincidence or seven-page explanations of the climax, the book is a failure.”

Again, top advice. I'm currently writing with Miranda Hart on Series Two of Miranda for BBC2 - and we are taking ages to get the stories right, to get the beats in the right order, to find the right moments and give the character the right goals. It takes way longer than you think it's going to, but it has to be done or else your script will, at best, a shambles, and at worst, unfixable. Build you car on a decent chassis.

Then we can skip to:

7. Get used to disappointment. “A writing career is nothing more than a long series of disappointments punctuated by occasional moments of success,” writes Michael Bracken in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “Maintaining a long writing career involves a little bit of talent, a little bit of luck, and a great deal of determination.”

I just had something turned down today, and it was annoying, but things fail far more often than they succeed. It's part of life. Deal with it, move on - and use these knock-backs to motivate you (without become embittered... Or at least too embittered).

Anyway, read the rest here. It's primarily about novels, but the lessons apply across the board. Save yourself some time, energy and money by learning from mistakes other people have made. I wish I had.