Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I had a bizarre dream last night

I was at some party and bumped into Allan Burns, one of the co-creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It was the final year of the show (in my dream). I asked if David and I could write one of the last episodes. Our dream had always been to write a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. He was thrilled we wanted to do one. I guess in the altered world of my dream we had a track record (or I just have the world’s most inflated ego).

Now we flash to the filming of our show. David and I are on the floor. That’s the beauty of dreams – you can skip the actual “writing” part. In INCEPTION everyone dreams elaborate action sequences and fantastical adventures. I dream filming nights.

The episode we came up with, I have to say, was pretty damn good. Someone filed a sexual harassment suit against Murray. So to prove his innocence he came out of the closet. This set up some fun reactions from his co-workers. Mary couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe she sat right next to a person for years and couldn’t detect that he was gay. Lou was unfazed. He knew it all along. Ted started asking Murray questions about what it was like. Too many questions and way too detailed to just be out of curiosity. Sue Ann came in and said something so offensive I can’t even repeat it but it did get a big laugh and clearly there were no CBS censors in my dream world.

What struck me afterwards was this: how different the storytelling is in sitcoms now as opposed to back then. No, this isn’t one of those “back in MY day we knew how to tell a story. Not like these young pissants today” rants. Just an observation. Comedies today are much faster paced. They’re usually jammed with story. Quick scenes, multiple plots. Or in the case of BIG BANG THEORY – just a barrage of jokes.

Storytelling in the 70s and 80s was generally a little more leisurely. I say “generally” because MASH was just as fast paced as today’s shows (or faster) and maybe that’s one reason why it still holds up so well.

But as a rule series used to be constructed differently. You’d have a collection of colorful characters that all had very disparate points of view. You would toss some issue into the middle of the room and watch as they all had their takes and interacted with each other. You allowed room for the characters to breathe, to just have discussions. The downside was the stories moved slower but the upside was you got to really learn more about these characters. And hopefully you would make a connection and start to truly care about them. So their plight in stories took on an added importance.

Now that’s great when it works. When it doesn’t you’re left with a boring half hour where nothing happens and nothing’s funny. Even that the industry got away with for awhile, renaming them “dramedies”.

Anyway, that was my dream. And it was a refreshing change-of-pace. Usually when I dream about Mary Tyler Moore she has big fangs and is trying to run me over with the car from DEATH RACE 2000.

24 comments:

lillispad said...

Ah, so you've worked with her I see.

benson said...

Be happy you didn't wake up from your dream to Patrick Duffy coming out of the shower, and finding out your career was nothing but a dream.

Brian said...

When I think about differences in TV pacing THEN and NOW, the example that most often comes to mind is "THE TWILIGHT ZONE". A classic, yes...

...but some of those episodes now seem to take a loooooooooong time getting to their O.Henry payoff.

It's hard to imagine today's audience keeping their finger off the remote control for 5 minutes, let alone 30, waiting for some of those dramatic punchlines.

Then again, back in the days of "ZONE", people had lost their taste for Vaudeville, which was as chronologically distant as "ZONE" is today.

"Imagine a world with only 3 broadcast networks..."

Boolie said...

Yeah, my jaw hit the floor when I saw there was a picture of Mary on your blog today, Ken! Couldn't imagine what you were going to say.
I just finished watching season 10 of CHEERS. I've been catching lots of the earlier ones, too. Who was the redheaded barfly? Alan Koss? Was he also in MOONSTRUCK (playing a plumbing customer)? But I digress. All the best, Ken!

johnnyboymalloy said...

Best. Dream. Ever.

For a writer anyway.

You're right. That would make a fantastic episode of TMTMS! I'm dying to know what Sue Anne said.
Was she 90 year old Betty White?

Anonymous said...

Comedies today have to cater to the "short attention span" viewer.

Blitzen said...

Last night I didn't dream at all, because I didn't sleep. ;)

But I do have something more than tangentially related to the subject at hand. I watch a lot of movies and TV shows, but never old ones. The apparent production values bother me, as well as the limited sets, but I now realize the stories are way too slow to maintain my 21st-century attention span.

See, even right now I'm watching a boring movie on my second monitor and reading a blog on my laptop as I check RSS feeds. I'm glad TV show pacing serves the contemporary need for moving-fast-things.

TimmyD said...

Your dream sounds a bit like the episode of The Office where everyone found out Oscar was gay.

Max Clarke said...

The fast cuts and rapid fire jokes may be the current style, but they don't hold my attention.

If you like your characters and respect the actors who play them, you give them some breathing room. Or should.

Cheers was good with that. They would play with an idea sometimes, and it was like following a volleyball.

For example, there was the time Frasier entered Cheers to read his article about the movies of Ingmar Bergman. Each Cheers character played with that. Norm loved Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, and that led to the mention of famous boxers such as Ingmar Johansson and then Joe Louis and Abbot and Costello. Eventually, Frasier stormed out with his article.

Kirk Jusko said...

Nothing to say really, other than just looking at that picture of Mary, Ted, and Murray makes me smile.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, if these bizarre dreams keep happening, you may have to go see a competent therapist to help you out... I know a good one in Chicago I can refer you to, named Hartley....

Chalmers said...

Not really apropos to the post, but in this interview with Alan Sepinwall, "Parks and Recreation" creator Michael Schur talks about his affinity for the "Bar Wars" episodes.

http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/interview-parks-and-recreation-co-creator-mike-schur-previews-season-three

"I was a huge fan of “Cheers,” where once a year you would get that episode, and I remember distinctly whenever I realized it was a Gary’s Old Towne Tavern episode, a sense of excitement would wash over me, you know?"

normadesmond said...

lou knew because lou was shtupping murray.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Schtupping Captain Stubing? Ach!

A. Buck Short said...

Katherine Heigl wanted me to ask, in your dream, was she good?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Wasn't Everybody Loves Raymond sort of a deliberate throwback to that earlier type of pacing? Phil Rosenthal banned "B" stories from most episodes, and returned to the old system where you have a small story and if characters aren't directly involved in the story, they comment on it. It was his rebellion against the multiple plots that Seinfeld and other shows were using.

I think both systems (the single-plot MTM show and the multiple-plot M*A*S*H-type episode) can work, but I find it weird that comedies got more heavily plotted as the running times got shorter and shorter. Mary Tyler Moore or Taxi had minimal plot with 24-5 minutes of running time; 30 Rock has 97 plots per episode with 21 minutes. You'd think it would be the other way around.

J S Swanson said...

All in the Family & Maude are prime examples of the leisurely comedy approach from the 70s. And Damn Fine, too!. I think that this approach to the Sitcom is why Modern Family is a hit today.

YEKIMI said...

Glad it was a bizarre dream you were describing, if it had been a wet one I would have been outta here!

A_Homer said...

The fast speed-cuts and uptempo can be numbing and work to avoid developing set-ups and characters while substituting 3-second shots of grimacing figures, hip pop references and mash everything into one sonic/visual consistency. But there were shows like "Malcolm in the Middle" which introduced that new uptempo speed in a way while also developing plot and character.

I've always championed the better tv cartoons for their ability to do this all while being well-written and funny too. Today's "Penguins of Madagascar" has at least seven full, well-developed characters on their "set" at any time, better written and also funnier than most of the sitcoms today. The same could have been said about the PowerPuff Girls from an earlier decade. Script was there, character was there and speed was there. Usually 11 minutes.

That would be a good tv channel re- imagine these "great" sitcoms today in the timespan of a cartoon, around 11 minutes. It's VERY doable.

Anonymous said...

>>>Comedies today have to cater to the "short attention span" viewer.<<<

Ah, yes, for those days of the sophisticated and complex plots of "I Love Lucy."

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

All in the Family & Maude are prime examples of the leisurely comedy approach from the 70s.

I catch reruns of AITF, and they do those silent dinner table scenes, or Archie stalking a fly through the kitchen, only two or three minutes, tops, but you can't imagine wordless comedy on TV today, can you? But it seems to me David Hyde Pierce had a couple of long, wordless scenes on Frasier. Can't remember the details, though.

Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...

It's the same way in news (my field), too. Nobody "writes silence" anymore. No time.

Bob Summers said...

Murray came out, then went to work on a cruise ship. That would be perfect.

When you dream about Death Race, is Don Steele in it?

VP81955 said...

You mean Joyce Bulifant was...a beard?