Monday, June 17, 2019

Bring back sparkling dialogue

I received a lot of good buzz from this weekend's post where I featured a scene that wasn't shot in the original movie of ARTHUR by Steve Gordon.

What everyone reacted to was the sparkling dialogue.

And I don't think it's an age thing.  As many younger readers responded as older.

The sad thing is you don't hear dialogue like that in movies today.  Or TV.  Or even a lot of plays.  Theatrical comedies have to be dark black comedies as is the current trend.

And I say why?

Now, I must admit I'm not an objective bystander here.  I've always loved smart, character-driven funny banter.  Steve Gordon is one of my idols.  Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Herb Gardner are a few others.    So that's the kind of dialogue I try to write.

Happily, that style was in vogue during my TV writing career.  MASH, CHEERS, and certainly FRASIER appreciated and celebrated the value of witty dialogue.   Every play I write I strive to reach the level of ARTHUR.  And it's very rewarding when lines get big laughs from the audience.

And understand, I'm not talking about "jokes."   I'm talking about dialogue that is in character, moves the story along, is generally attitude-based, and is funny in context.

I suspect witty dialogue is not so prevalent because it's very difficult to do.   Easier to do a gross-out scene, sophomoric sex jokes, dripping irony, or moments that are mildly-amusing at best.   And of course, those who can't do it or are intimidated by it claim it's a style that's "old school" and passe today.

But ask an audience.  Or, more accurately, listen to them.  Listen to them laugh at well-crafted funny lines.   Watch ARTHUR again (only the original.  The sequel and remake -- neither by Steve Gordon -- suck!).  Forget that it's a timepiece and in today's sensibility you couldn't do a number of the things they did in that film.  You're going to laugh your ass off.  For 90 minutes you're going to be bombarded with one hilarious line after another.

It's a style that I feel should come back, and I'm out there every day doing what I can to revive it.  This one's for you, Steve.

UPDATE:  from Jon Emerson.  This is a Twitter video from Nicole Silverberg on 90% of movie jokes now.  Couldn't like agree, y'know, more. 


Jim S said...

Good dialogue is its own reward. I still remember this line from the pilot of "The Rockford Files" in which Rockford has caught someone following him. He asks the guy what is he doing. The guy says nothing.

Rockford says "there's all kinds of nothing, what's your flavor?"

Great line and it would have been so easy to have some hack line like, try again.

I also remember a line more than 30 years after hearing it from the show "Wiseguy". The Atlantic City Mob is angry at a guy, and someone says, "if he's not careful, he'll end up being the poster child for rigor mortis." No mobster was ever that articulate, but it sure beats saying "we're going to effing kill him."

If you want great dialogue, see any episode of "Justified." They often used actual Elmore Leonard lines, but they also were great at coming up with Elmore Leonard-esque lines, and that's not easy.

All too often dialogue is used to present information, and is not considered something in and of itself. You know the dialogue is good when you can tell what character said something merely based on the dialogue. You know it's bad when lines can be said by any character in a scene.

Gary said...

Total agreement about how funny ARTHUR is. When Hobson says "Steal something casual," that may have been the hardest I've ever laughed in a theater.

John E. Williams said...

I recently re-watched the CHEERS episode where Diane schemes with a reluctant Sam to seek therapy from Frasier in order to restore Frasier's confidence as a psychiatrist. Sam and Diane plot out the details of their scam in a fairly long scene taking place in Sam's office. It is a brilliantly written scene in which through back-and-forth dialogue we see the layers of confusion and denial between Sam and Diane's still-burning romance. It is more complex and delightful than pretty much anything we have seen before or since - I can't imagine Ross and Rachel having a scene this well-written (and acted) in any season of FRIENDS (though the epic "we were on a break" is at least an attempt).

This kind of scene was something I took for granted back in those days, something we saw routinely on both CHEERS and TAXI, and it is astonishing that standard network sitcoms today can't seem to come anywhere near its excellence.

E. Yarber said...

This month I've read a few books by a nearly-forgotten but once incredibly prolific writer named W.R. Burnett, as well as watched movies adapted from his work: LITTLE CAESAR, HIGH SIERRA, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Tremendous ear for dialogue, sprinkled with classic lines like, "After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor." Entire scenes of the films come intact from his original prose.

Like Nathaniel West, Burnett worked as a night clerk at a seedy hotel and absorbed the language and attitudes of the characters he observed from that position. He hung around with crime reporters, one of whom took him along to the scene of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre while the bodies were still warm. When he finally settled down in Hollywood, he brought a deep well of human experience along with him, and it shows in the character-driven force of his stories, which aren't just about thugs but people driven by various needs and haunted by their pasts.

When I talk to would-be writers, most of them have apparently spent their lives doing their absolute best to skip any such inconvenience. They've spent their lives around people in their own social level and take the norms of that group for granted. That's fine for personal security, but it also means that they really have trouble thinking out of the limits they know. The dialogue in their work is less about conflict and surprise than naturally settling into a consensus, always trying to return to a safe space rather than pull in different directions. At best, they may imitate lines they've seen in movies or TV, but even then you can tell they regard some characters as "others" rather than bring different voices into play.

Maybe you don't need to attend gangland killings, but you certainly need to broaden your outlook. A writer needs to draw on a wide range of human understanding, not just passive viewing, in order to produce dialogue that entertains and draws a viewer forward. It's not just being glib, but being able to articulate moments in a way that instantly make sense to an audience on a general level. If they're only drawing from a narrow track of awareness, or worse yet stuff they've seen on screen, you can't expect rich, memorable exchanges. When I find myself talking to a would-be screenwriter who talks like an entitled fourteen-year-old, it's a strong bet that's pretty much all his or her characters can hope to sound like.

One other thing I learned: remember the sexy teenager who drives Sam Jaffe crazy in a diner at the end of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (a scene which nearly killed Louis B. Mayer)? The role was uncredited, but was played by a dancer named Helene Stanley who went on to a career with Disney, modeling animated characters like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. A show business career can go in all sorts of directions.

Peter Grossman said...

A worthy crusade. To paraphrase Arthur as he pats the giant moose head at his future father-in-law's home, "This is a tough room, but I don't have to tell you that."

BTW, for those not familiar with the original, all the moose jokes kill, including "Where's the rest of this moose?" "You must have hated this moose." The visual setup is funny and, damn, even the word "Moose" is funny. Works a lot better than deer or bear, and you can bet Gordon crafted this.

And BTW, don't get bent-out-of-shape that there's a mounted moose head on the wall, it's to further emphasize what a prick his future father-in-law is.

Karan G said...

Bravo! Please keep interesting dialogue alive. It's amazing to me how in real life, that many people don't get a basic concept that discussion with them at a minimum should be interesting. Vomiting their first thought or emotion isn't really a good plan. Taking 20 minutes to tell a story and meandering off the rails..... He or she who can come to a discussion with an interesting thought or two in their head and craft their wording in a skillful way will win over those who are listening. It seems to me that the most interesting tv shows, movies, etc, have very well crafted and interesting dialogue...not a wasted word...natural humor, layers and nuance, etc. Ken, you're a master at it.

Michael said...

George Burns loved to tell the story of what Jack Benny told him got the biggest laugh ever on his radio show, and it wasn't the one you think. The line consisted of three words: "Oh, shut up!"

Hilarious, right?

Except, Benny said--and this goes to your point--the best jokes take five years to set up. For years, Mary Livingstone, his wife in real life and girlfriend on the show--would deflate him, often very sarcastically. And besides being cheap and all that, the show had established that Benny just had to be involved in whatever was going on around him. So, on this show, the guest was opera singer Dorothy Kirsten, and she and the announcer, Don Wilson, an opera buff in real life, were discussing operas and arias and sostenutos and who knows what else, and everybody knew Benny would say SOMETHING. Finally, there was a brief pause and he said, "Well, I thought--" and before he got out another word, she said, "OH, SHUT UP." And the audience went bananas.

VP81955 said...

Old-school comedies such as "His Girl Friday" or "Libeled Lady" (the latter ignored for decades until Robert Osborne -- who lovedthat film -- and Turner Classic Movies aired it frequently and brought it to public attention).

Frank Beans said...

Sometimes the biggest laughs on a brilliantly written show like FRASIER are from a simple line like "What?" or "No..." because they are effectively punchlines to a dialogue-driven setup. The wordy part is kind of your homework, and you get the payoff with the simple line. And of course established characters are key in this.

I sometimes listen to the gold standard shows--MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER (I could add THE ODD COUPLE and early seasons of ARE YOU BEING SERVED) without watching, half asleep, and almost always catch more bits of dialogue. My favorite example was a last season FRASIER episode where Niles, referring to his future son said "who else will teach him how to catch a football ball" and I literally woke up laughing.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Thanks for mentioning the wonderful Helene Stanley, who also played Polly Crockett. Here she is on Guest Star Day on the Mickey Mouse Club

Guffman said...

It amazes me how few people are even aware of Steve Gordon's "The One and Only" - his "other" movie, released only a few years before "Arthur." Not as brilliant a comedy, perhaps, but his genius certainly shines through.

Frank Beans said...

John E. Williams:

Completely agree.

One of the many brilliant things about the early years of CHEERS was the way they handled the transitions between seasons. Far from being contrived cliffhangers, there were story arcs that kept the show going and evolving. The introduction of Frasier in season 3 is a great example, and probably did a lot to keep the show afloat in a rather chaotic period.

J Lee said...

There's something I can't quite fully explain, but there's something about what passes for witty dialogue on some of today's sitcoms that falls flat because the way the lines are written and spoken seems to come across as the people involved being too in love with their own cleverness.

The lines don't flow the way the best of comedy lines that are set up properly do. Instead the dialogue by Character A is too unnatural, but gets a response from Character B as if real-world people always talk that way. It's almost a bit of a throwback to some of the comedy shows of the single-camera sitcom 60s, where people weren't supposed to care if the characters acted unrealistically, because the comedies themselves were in many cases based on totally unrealistic premises (or, I suppose, a Saturday Night Live skit, where oddball behavior was OK because we're only going to be with the characters for 5-10 minutes, not for 22 weeks per year).

Ben K. said...

I think the best place you can find "sparkling dialogue" on TV today is in the work of husband-and-wife team Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino ("Gilmore Girls," "Bunheads," Amazon Prime's "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"). Their shows aren't perfect (you'll find some dumb plots, soap-opera romances, and a general tendency toward strong female characters and lunky or awful male characters). But if you want fast-paced, funny dialogue between intelligent people who really know how to talk, these shows will provide it.

Andrew said...

When it comes to humorous, sparkling dialogue, I think that many dramas do it better than sitcoms. Examples: the original Law and Order; The Wire; The Sopranos; Breaking Bad. I had more laugh out loud moments from those dark shows than from numerous so-called sitcoms.

1) Law and Order: virtually any opening segment involving Lenny Briscoe.
2) The Wire: the Rules of Order business scene. "Do the chair recognize we gonna look like some punk ass bitches?"
3) The Sopranos: Christopher's intervention. "When I came in to open up one morning you had your head half in the toilet. Your hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting."
4) Breaking Bad: Walt tries to talk Jesse out of killing a drug dealer. "Murder is not part of your 12-step program."

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

While he tends to gravitate towards monologues, Sorkin definitely has a deft hand for creative rapid-fire dialogue, seen not only in his shows but also in his more recent films (STEVE JOBS; MOLLY'S GAME).

David E. Kelley has his quirks, but can always reliably generate crackling dialogue between antagonists given the right setting. Some of the best Mandy Patinkin moments on CHICAGO HOPE had that spark. Sadly, the structure and context of BIG LITTLE LIES rarely allows for Kelley to express his impulses.

And of course, David Milch goes without saying. DEADWOOD was a masterclass of dialogue and character-driven storytelling. Here's hoping the movie continues that streak.

Lemuel said...

KOJAK was pretty hard-boiled but had great dialog. Can't imagine Telly saying
"Could you BE anymore uncooperative??"

John H said...

"Tell her Chief Inspector Flanigan from homicide is here. That should get her down in a hurry."

Gets me every time.

Steve said...

Hope you can access this Ken. I was reminded of this Nicole Silverberg video from just a few days ago. All the jokes in 90% of movies these days. I think she nailed it.

E. Yarber said...

Glad to see the Stanley clip. I've got Davy Crockett in a tin box, like Prince Albert in a can, so I ought to let him out again soon.

There's a slew of familiar fleeting faces in ASPHALT... Strother Martin, Gene Evans, Henry Corden, Frank Cady, Ray Teal. Whatever happened to that Marilyn Monroe gal?

And if you think nepotism is a recent development in Hollywood, "Pard" in HIGH SIERRA was played by Humphrey Bogart's own dog Zero. He was a pretty good actor despite his boost to fame.

Kaleberg said...

I'll put in a good word for the dialog in the Marvel Comics Universe movies. I was watching a few, ramping up for Endgame, and I couldn't help notice that good comic book dialog, as in those movies, is a lot like the great dialog common in movies back in the 1930s. Good dialog isn't natural. Most people don't have snappy come backs. The French acknowledge this with the phrase l'esprit d'escalier, the wit of the stairway, which is where one comes up with the bon mot or mot juste, on one's way out. No one expects anything natural in Marvel comics, least of all dialog.

I enjoyed Arthur, but it made me uncomfortable. I knew too many people who had serious problems with alcohol to take lightly what needed to be taken lightly. The plot seemed a bit forced. I probably knew too many people who had dealt with that kind of money and got involved with kind of marriage. As I said, I had a hard time taking it lightly.

Tom Galloway said...

Here's a guess as to why you don't hear sparkling witty dialogue in the movies these days; it's too hard to translate it into multiple languages and still have it be sparkling and witty.

The majority of box office, at least for the big budget films, is outside of the US these days. Do they have translators who can capture wit in Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Spanish. etc.? And how much of that wit is US culture and mores dependent in the first place?

Anthony Adams said...

here's some pretty Snappy dialogue:
Diane: [about her friend, Rebecca] Sam. That woman over there is a dear friend of mine. Now she is going through a very difficult period. So whatever she asks you, please, just say no.
Sam: [confused] What?
Diane: No.
Rebecca: [approaching Sam and Diane] Diane?
Diane: Yes?
Rebecca: Would you excuse us a moment?
Diane: Fine.
[as she leaves Sam and Rebecca alone, Diane emphatically mouths the word "no" to Sam]
Rebecca: Would you object to joining me in my hotel room for a afternoon of wild animal passion?
Sam: [loudly so that Diane can hear] No!
[Diane nods her approval]
Sam: What's your name?
Rebecca: Does it matter?
Sam: [loudly so that Diane can hear] No!

I also like this:
Norm: What do you want to do tonight, Cliff?
Cliff: Eh, I dunno, what do you want to do?
Norm: I dunno.
Rebecca: You guys, you do this all day long for hours!
Cliff: Face it Rebecca, we're bored, nothing ever happens around here.
[enter Andy Andy covered in dynamite]
Rebecca: [gasps] Oh my God!
Norm: Hey, it's Andy Andy.
Rebecca: What, you know this person?!
Cliff: Yeah, former major felon. Once killed a waitress.
Andy Andy: Where's Diane? I demand to see Diane!!!
Woody: Well, Miss Chambers hasn't worked here for 5 or 6 years.
Andy Andy: Oh really? Well, okay.
[walks out]
Cliff: So, what do you want to do?
[Rebecca turns around and gives them a look of disbelief]

Mark said...

Talk of sharp dialogue provides a good segue to a Friday question. No one wrote it sharper than Hammet. Just finished the complete Continental Op stories and it was fascinating watching him find his voice.

Here's the question. Other than one minor subplot in the novel, Huston virtually transcribed the Maltese Falcon into the script. Other than that (and possibly Shane) what are your choices for great novels faithfully adapted into great shows?

blogward said...

What's yout take on this?

Covarr said...

I've been thinking, of all things, about the movie MATILDA. You know, the kids' movie based on the Roald Dahl book. It is just filled to the brim with lines that serve several purposes at once. For example:

She can multiply large sums in her head.

So can a calculator.

It's one of my favorite exchanges in the movie, because all at once it manages to reaffirm Matilda's intelligence and how in awe of it Miss Honey is, it shows just how little Trunchbull understands or cares about education, it sets up the inevitability of Miss Honey's failure at moving Matilda to a more advanced class, and it's funny on top of it all.

And the whole movie is like this. The sheer quality of dialogue in MATILDA is a large part of what got me interested in writing, and I think it's a real shame that the young age of its primary target audience means it often doesn't get the credit it deserves.

Peter said...

Example of sparkling dialogue by Paul Feig in Spy:

"I've read all the Hunger Games novels."

And the audience I saw it with actually laughed at that.


E. Yarber said...

Hal Wallis and Henry Blanke of Warner Brothers were surprised that Huston asked for THE MALTESE FALCON as his first directorial assignment, considering that the novel had already been done unsuccessfully twice. As Huston put it, "The fact was that FALCON had never really been put on the screen. The previous screenplays had been products of writers who sought to put their own stamp on the story by writing new, uncalled-for scenes."

The story goes that Huston had his secretary transcribe the dialogue in screenplay form as a starting point for an adaptation, but the bare text read so well that he filmed it as was, refusing to drop a single line.

I didn't get around to Hammett until I'd worked in Private Investigation myself and could immediately recognize that Dash caught the essence of ferreting critical details from a witness. The way he developed a case through successive conversations was meant to reach a peak in FALCON, which he intended to be the Platonic ideal of a detective's job... the equivalent of an athlete playing a perfect game. Earlier films of the story missed the point entirely and had Spade goof around while information was handed to him.

If you want to talk about excellent adaption, Huston has a great record from Hammett, Burnett, Travern, Williams, McCullers, and finally Joyce himself. He was an excellent reader who deeply understood his source material and sought to bring it to the screen intact.

McAlvie said...

Whether it's a movie or a book, I'll take great dialog over great scenery anytime. Shakespeare used sets very sparingly. If there was a tree, that represented an entire woodland setting. No cinematic whatsises, but the English language is chockful of words and phrases he made up that we still use without realizing it. And dialog is why I still prefer old movies over most contemporary movies. Great banter, and actors who knew how to deliver it.

sueK2001 said...

Sparkling dialogue is an art form. As a wanna-be writer, I cannot write dialogue to save my that's why a lot of my novel ideas are unfinished. Still, the gold standard of MASH, Frasier and even Murphy Brown call to me to at least try.

I am glad someone else mentioned Gilmore Girls. I was in college when this show originally aired and completely missed it. So, to watch it on Netflix for the first time is a thrill.
I will also add this to your discussion Ken. The lines you and David and other writers from Cheers, MASH and Frasier live long after they were originally spoken. On good days, on bad days..and with conversations with my Mom, We recite the dialogue that you wrote..So, writers do have their impact.

Scottmc said...

Your entries on Arthur inspired me to watch my copy of the DVD again. It is a full screen, no extras DVD. It would be great if Criterion or someone could release an special edition with bonus material. Watching it again for the umpteenth time I was surprised that the scene at Mr.Johnson's house made me laugh out loud; 'No one in my family drinks'-that's great you probably never run out of ice your whole life' and 'when I was 11 years old I killed a man'-'when you're 11 you probably don't even know there is a law against that'. Watching it again I was reminded of a line that was the favorite of a friend of mine:Hobson and Arthur at the bus stop with Linda. Hobson;'Thank you for a memorable afternoon. Usually one must go to a bowing alley to meet a woman of your stature. It was nice being reminded of that.

Dan Ball said...

Bill Goldman wrote some of the best dialogue for me. BUTCH & SANDANCE, the Mel Gibson MAVERICK, PRINCESS BRIDE. Not to be outdone, though, also Billy Wilder/Izzy Diamond writing ANYTHING and then also Hitchcock/Lehman on NORTH BY NORTHWEST. SO MANY great lines for Cary Grant.

"I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself 'slightly' killed."

This is what I aspire to achieve in my writing. I've always enjoyed writing dialogue and my teachers always thought that I had a knack for it. I love the wordplay and messing around with the subtext in the scene with the characters. Also just masking the important stuff with unimportant-but-witty drivel. Love, love, love it.