Wednesday, June 17, 2009

You won't believe this story

A lively discussion ensued from Saturday’s post about breaking the 4th wall. My big problem with it in the case of our movie VOLUNTEERS (available in remainder bins everywhere) is that it changed the tone of the movie two-thirds of the way in. One minute it looks so real it could be a National Geographic documentary and then the next it turns into ROAD TO UTOPIA.

You have to establish your world (whatever it is) and then just stick to it. Breaking the 4th wall is a fine convention if used correctly. I’ve seen it in movies, plays, musicals, and my favorite example is George Burns on the old BURNS & ALLEN television show. Not only did he address the audience, he also would turn on the TV in his office and watch along with us as the other characters played out the story. In a sense he was the only one of the cast who knew he was also in a TV show. I know it sounds confusing but it worked. And was hilarious. I’ve yet to see a more original bending of the sitcom form in the last fifty years.

But if Frasier suddenly turned on the TV and watched Niles having dinner with Daphne you’d go WHAT THE FUCK?!

Flashbacks and time travel are established in LOST. But on 24 if you interrupted a chase scene to show a flashback of Jack torturing a kitten as a kid, it would throw you right out of the show. A few years ago I would watch 24 then THE SHIELD. And whenever Vic would leave the station and they’d cut to him pulling up at his destination I thought, “Hey, how’d he get there so fast?” and then I’d remember, oh yeah, this isn’t in real time.

You can make your world as crazy as you want as long as you stick to your own rules. In the SEINFELD world and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM world absurd coincidences are commonplace. If Diane Chambers was having trouble writing a paper on terrorism and Osama Bin Laden just happened to walk into Cheers at that exact moment you’d throw your shoe at the screen. But on Seinfeld that would be perfectly plausible. And Osama would be eating the same box of Junior Mints that Carla lost on the train two years ago.

It is because of that coincidental world that SEINFELD and CURB established that the following REAL LIFE story is so utterly astonishing.

In 2003 Juan Catalan was tried and convicted for murder. He had claimed he was at a Dodger game at the time of the crime. But he had no proof and the evidence was strong enough to convict him. His lawyer went back through the telecast of that game and tried to see if by some miracle he could spot Catalan in the stands. Of course he couldn’t.

Then the lawyer learned that the night in question CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM was shooting a few scenes of Larry David at the game. He obtained the outtakes and talk about finding a needle in a haystack, there was his client in one of the shots. The tape was time coded which proved conclusively he was not at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. Catalan was released and sued the city for police misconduct and received $320,000.

Can you believe that? It’s absolutely true. What do you think the odds are? A billion-to-one? Twenty billion-to-one?

But what if the lawyer was Sam Waterston and this was a plot for LAW & ORDER? You get my point.

Houses can fly, ghosts can return, people can break into song, DeLoreans can take you back to the 50s. Just don’t do all these things in the same movie.


D. McEwan said...

LAW & ORDER has it's own fantasy elements. We get from the crime to the conviction on every case in just a few weeks, instead of three to four years, and the DAs are always handling only ONE case at a time.

IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW used some of the BURNS & ALLEN fantasy conventions, consciously modelled on B&A. Sadly though, it lacked a VITAL component. No Gracie Allen! (Gracie, up in Comedy Heaven, I still miss you, 50 years after your death. You were the BEST.)

Certainly anything could go on THE JACK BENNY SHOW, but it was closer to a sketch show. (And sometimes WAS a sketch show)

WEST WING was a wishful-thinking Liberal fantasy, so we could pretend we had a good president for an hour each week.

THE NANNY pretended that Fran Drescher was funny each week. That was TOO MUCH fantasy.

ROSEANNE played with talk-to-the-audience, fantasy elements, but they were always confined to the tag over the credits. My favorite was when an actor playing Becky's rebound-boyfriend for one episode tried to talk the audience into writing in to keep him on the show.

And then there was the talking dog on THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE. It wasn't so much that the dog talked, it was that the dog talked to the audience, and only to the audience. I remember it being funny, but I was a little kid.

THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS had Dobie talk to the audience, but it was kept as a framing device, and I KNOW that was a great show.

An example of keeping to different show's different realities centers on George "Superman" Reeves. (Whose murder was 50 years ago yesterday. I miss you, George.) On THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, he could fly, but on I LOVE LUCY, he only pretended he could fly.

Anonymous said...

It's 1 AM and now I have to find a Law & Order rerun. Shouldn't be hard.

i'mnotkellygainesboyd said...

Larry fuuuucking David!!!!!


gottacook said...

You gave me a welcome chuckle at the end of a long, arduous day (which included taking my younger daughter to the dentist) by causing me to imagine BACK TO THE FUTURE as a musical. Makes me wonder whether the musical version of James Brooks' I'LL DO ANYTHING will ever be generally available.

I wonder whether the first talk-to-the-audience moment on film was in the Marx Brothers' ANIMAL CRACKERS in 1930: Groucho's "Pardon me while I have a 'Strange Interlude,' " etc. (Does anyone know whether that was part of the stage version?)

ALLY McBEAL is a good example of an initially popular show that wrecked its own established fantasy world when a central character (played by Gil Bellows) died. This was only made worse by his reappearance as a ghost.

A. Buck Short said...

Gee, one of the Native Americans in our office is trying to establish an alibi for a smoke signal obscenity charge. Can anybody tell me if this shot we are introducing as exhibit A is Turner Field in Atlanta or Progressive Field in Cleveland?

In either case, our guy in the middle seems to be “manipulating” four potential witnesses who have only two legs to stand on. Couldn’t find the ballpark performance, but I think the following does finally answer the question, “What killed Henny Youngman?”

The People’s Choice! Man, I can’t remember the last time I ever even thought about that show. Now Jackie Cooper was the kid who got to keep his money right? Coogan was that Uncle Fester.


geewits said...

When I am relating a true event that seems crazy, I always say, "If this were a movie plot, people wouldn't buy it."
I loved your comparisons on what works where and how they couldn't cross over. Now I'm going to be playing with that in my head for a while. Like Archie Bunker having a "Scrubs" fantasy. ack.

gottacook said...

Of course, now that I think about it, Steve Bochco must have gotten a similar idea in his head in the late 1980s, specifically imagining HILL STREET BLUES as a musical -- and furthermore, convincing himself (and others!) that it was a good idea; hence COP ROCK.

Dave said...

"The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" is my favorite sitcom and has one of the greatest moments ever in TV and certainly one of the best examples of breaking the fourth wall.

Fred Clark and Bea Benaderet were doing a scene as Blanche and Harry Morton in the Morton kitchen. They finish the scene and George comes in, walks up the camera, and tells the audience that Clark is leaving the show to work on other projects, but is being replaced by Larry Keating. Clark gets up, Keating enters, and they shake hands. Clark exits, Keating sits, George exits, and Keating and Benaderet repeat the scene she'd just done with Clark.

And gottacook, the "Strange Interlude" dialogue was indeed in the stage version of "Animal Crackers." (It may still be, for all I know.)

VW: "ihaleor." Asthma medicating device for egomaniacs.

Ref said...

What made West Wing great was its believability, at least until they started depicting Republicans acting for the good of the country above partisanship!

404 said...

Ref - always great when people hijack a non-political blog with their own useless political commentary. Thanks!

Ken, I love this post. I'm a huge sci-fi fan (read: geek) and I always get in arguments with people when I call a sci-fi show "realistic." Well, maybe realistic isn't the best word, but what you've written about here is precisely my point. Just because something is science fiction doesn't make it unrealistic. I mean, what would happen if Kirk suddenly become telepathic or clairvoyant? It would kill the "realism" of Star Trek! A show might have lasers and faster-than-light travel etc etc etc, but you still expect it to stick to its own rules.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, the Catalan story is one of those that if put in a book would make every reviewer blast it as too contrived and implausible.

How fortunate for Catalan that his lawyer found out about the television shoot.

Could you imagine if it hadn't played out this way, but Catalan went to jail? Years later, while watching reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm on TVLand, he'd see himself in the crowd, get his verdict overturned and successfully sue the city for five times more than he received. He would also appear on all the morning shows.

If that was a Seinfeld episode, it would happen to Kramer.

wv: cablens -- Whatever you were thinking of doing in the backseat of that taxi, don't. The driver is watching you with his cablens.

Emily Blake said...

This is true of any artistic endeavor. Just yesterday my yearbook staff was trying to determine next year's theme. They wanted to do swirly elegant hoolanders and they also wanted to do a Tetris theme where everything is boxy and bold.

They kept trying to make me let them have both, but you can't have both. Hoolanders AND Tetris? How gauche!

Cool story about the Dodgers thing. That dude had a great lawyer.

LouOCNY said...

Two of the best self referential/semi-fourth wall moments in TV:

One of the ROSEANNE 'under the credits' pieces was the Connors sitting on the couch, watching TV. The Bewitched them is playing, and they are discussing the 'which Darren was better' topic (or, if you prefer, 'Which Dick was better?). Everyone starts saying better how much better he 1st Darren was...until Sarah Chalke comes out with, "I don't know why, but I like the second Darren better.."

On BARNEY MILLER, in the last season, Harris and Dietrich ae holed up in a hotel room with a Chinese waiter, who supposedly saw a gang murder, trying to get him to tell what he saw. After two weeks of being forgotten by everyone, Barney finally shows up to see what is going on - there are pizza boxes and chicken buckets everywhere, everyone one, including Harris, is unshaven, and sitting on the couch watching some unknown tv show. When Barney shows up, Dietrich invites him, telling him, "Hey, come join us, TAXI is about to start." The gag being of course, that TAXI was just about to start (over most of these ABC stations)! So just what were they watching?

Michael Green said...

Some of the most brilliant television ever was during the credits of "Roseanne." Some all-time favorites, in addition to those mentioned:

--Laurie Metcalf won a deserved Emmy and was sitting on the couch, polishing it, humming, as I recall, "Hurray for Hollywood." Roseanne, who had yet to win one, looks at her and says, "Gimme." She starts chasing Metcalf around the couch, John Goodman walks in and joins the chase, and they chase her up the aisle through the audience.

--John Goodman's character winds up in jail. As the credits begin, he's standing in profile, snaps his fingers a couple of times, you hear some chords, and he starts singing, "Jailhouse Rock." There are prisoners behind him--in stripes. They were The Jordannaires, Elvis Presley's old back-up group.

mac said...

If I remember correctly, John Cleese said Marty Feldman explained it once this way (paraphrasing): You can have a skit where everyone is sitting in wheelbarrows, but if someone came in not in a wheelbarrow, you'd better have a damn good reason.

Marv said...

Having just watched a few of the very old Burns and Allens, including the first episode, they were breaking the fourth wall from the beginning with George walking off the set and standing by the curtains, commenting on the action that just happened or going into one of his Vaudeville monologues. There's also a great episode where someone picks up a magazine from a living room coffee table and walks out the front door with it. Instead of following, George walks from the living room set straight out to the stage, and as the man who left by the front door walks past him, George takes the magazine, moves back into the set and lays it on the table again. Utterly brilliant and it works. And since they set it up from day one that George is addressing us directly, you don't question it or that nobody else realizes they're being filmed. What's so amazing is, even with their first show, they were doing bits that they could never have done on radio. They understood the visual aspect of TV and played to that rather than continue to do what they'd been doing for 20 years in radio. Masterful.

Rock Golf said...

A new (and very funny) show that regularly breaks the 4th wall is "Better Off Ted". The title character regularly talks directly to the camera, and no one else on the show pays any attention.

It's not quite Arrested Development good, but it's better than 30 Rock or The Office good.

Shown earlier this week, the episode "Racial Sensitivities" is the funniest thing I've seen on TV this year. The energy-saving motion detectors in the office fail to pick up on black people's skin. Doesn't sound like much of a premise, but neither did "Malcolm and his family go bowling" or "WJM's clown is killed in a parade".

If you enjoy Mr Levine's work, "Better Off Ted" is the only series showing new episodes that meets that level of funny.

John said...

Paul Henning was incredibly underrated as a surrealist, both for his writing for George Burns in the 50s and his work with Jay Sommers in the 1960s on "Green Acres" (ostensibly part of CBS's line-up of rural comedies at the time, but one that made the sophisticated urbanite the target for attacks on his reality 20 years before "Newhart").

You can make your world as crazy as you want as long as you stick to your own rules. In the SEINFELD world and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM world absurd coincidences are commonplace. If Diane Chambers was having trouble writing a paper on terrorism and Osama Bin Laden just happened to walk into Cheers at that exact moment you’d throw your shoe at the screen.

Well, except for the "Andy Andy" Halloween-timed episode, where Sam ends up as a pipe-smoking sophisticate before Diane wakes up the second time from her dream. (On the other hand, Osama was probably a little too green a TV actor in 1984 to handle a role in that episode)

D. McEwan said...

"Dave said...
the 'Strange Interlude' dialogue was indeed in the stage version of 'Animal Crackers' (It may still be, for all I know.)"

I'm fairly sure that ANIMAL CRACKERS closed 80 years ago, but I haven't checked the current Broadway listings to be sure. The "Strange Interlude" speech was certainly in it. Groucho doing asides to the audience was a Marx Brothers staple, going back to THE COCONUTS, before ANIMAL CRACKERS.

"Ref said...
What made West Wing great was its believability, at least until they started depicting Republicans acting for the good of the country above partisanship!"

I must have missed that episode, and I thought I saw all of them.

"Chuck said...
Just because something is science fiction doesn't make it unrealistic. I mean, what would happen if Kirk suddenly become telepathic or clairvoyant? It would kill the 'realism' of Star Trek!"

You are not serious, are you? The "Realism of STAR TREK"? I've seen every episode of the original series at least 4 times over the years. Ignoring for a moment faster-than-light travel (impossible, according to Einstein), Spock being the product of cross-breeding between species which evolved on different planets (You'd have an easier time cross-breeding humans with dogs than humans with aliens), McCoy's amazing abilities to find cures for previously-unknown diseases within a single episode (wish we had him working on cancer or AIDS), the episode where Spock's brain is removed and later replaced, the numerous planets with earth-style civilizations that froze at some point, with one where the United States Constitution has also been written, in the EXACT SAME WORDS, and written in THE EXACT SAME HANDWRITING as ours, all the time travel and time paradoxes, history depending on Joan Collins's death (Hmmm. Might be something to that one), Spock mind-melding with what was essentially a sentient rock, and the episode where Kirk switches bodies with a woman, there were still the flimsy, silly-looking sets, the perfect English spoken on planets that had had no contact with earth before (at least DOCTOR WHO has an explanation for why he and his companions understand every language they encounter), women falling for Kirk wherever he went, and Shatner's acting. STAR TREK was great silly fun, but it never achieved anything remotely resembling "realism."

I agree that science-fiction can be written to be realistic and semi-believable. I've enjoyed science-fiction all my life. I live for the current incarnation of DOCTOR WHO and I love LOST, though I never argue either is "believable."

But STAR TREK was about one step above SPACE 1999, where a colony on a chunk of the moon is shooting off through space, and passes a different inhabited planet each episode. To get from planet to planet that fast would involve seriously faster-than-light travel, yet passing each planet slowly enough to have interaction would mean it kept SLOWING WAY DOWN, and then SPEEDING BACK UP to faster-than-light travel, yet it had no engines or controls, and was essentially an inhabited meteor. (and it took place in 1999.)

But yes, Science-fiction and fantasy has to establish rules, and then stick to them, or it's a mess.

KJ said...

How about the realism of LOST IN SPACE?

On second thought, don't even go there.

Dave said...

D. McEwen:

Of course I know Animal Crackers has long since given up the Broadway ghost -- though the prospect of a stage filled with the rotting corpses of the Marxes is food for thought.

What I meant was, that I assume it's still part of the version that Sam French currently licenses.

Dave said...

D. McEwen:

Of course I know Animal Crackers has long since given up the Broadway ghost -- though the prospect of a stage filled with the rotting corpses of the Marxes is food for thought.

What I meant was, that I assume it's still part of the version that Sam French currently licenses.

Anonymous said...

Another great Roseanne end credit scene. John Goodman and Michael O'Keefe, who played Jackie's husband Fred for a couple of seasons, recreating the driveway basketball scene from The Great Santini in which O'Keefe played the oldest son.

D. McEwan said...

"Dave said...
D. McEwen:
Of course I know Animal Crackers has long since given up the Broadway ghost -- though the prospect of a stage filled with the rotting corpses of the Marxes is food for thought."

Only if you're a cannibal.

I knew you knew it, I was just using your phrasing to make a little joke.

COCONUTS is closed too.

And were I foolish enough to want to restage it with other people playing the Marx Brothers, and I ofund it wasn't in the Sam French script, I'd certainly stick it back in, even though only Theater Arts Majors still remember O'Neill's STRANGE INTERLUDE.

David Arnott said...

Ken, I totally agree with you, and have been making this "realisim" point for years.

But you can't really use SEINFELD as an example here, because that show pulled a 180 in the middle of its run.

What that show started out as, what it was for, like, its first 3-4 seasons, was, as they always liked to refer to it: a show about nothing. It was about all those little commonplace moments in life, and how they could actually be interesting. And have repercussions. And be funny.

The one-story episodes represent this best: waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, trying to find your car at the parking garage. But most of their other episodes in those early seasons also did this. There was one, for example, where each of the characters told only ONE of the other characters a "secret,” with the admonition, of course, to not tell anyone else. And, of course, they all blabbed to each other. And the brilliance here was that ALL of the secrets were trivial and silly - EXACTLY the kind of secret one might decide wasn't worthy of keeping. Oh, and they all got mad and indignant when they found out their friend blabbed, even though they did the exact same thing.

The show was truly amazing in that its "nothing" was really "everything." It was about the little situations in ALL of our lives, but blown way out of proportion for laughs. And, in a sense, for catharsis.

And then the show got crazy popular.

And completely changed into the exact opposite of what it was. "Nothing" changed into "extraordinary coincidence." The show stopped being about stuff that happens to all of us, and became a show about stuff that happens to NOBODY.

It's like they read their own subtitles 3/4 of the way through the movie.

So naturally the show became even more popular. And revered. And I felt like I was in The Emperor's New Clothes. How could this be?

Kramer hitting a golf ball into a whale's blowhole? After 3 or 4 solid seasons of Chinese Restaurant? After the genius of Jerry laughing at a piano recital because of a PEZ dispenser, they're gonna be allowed to drop an UNNOTICED Junior Mint into a OR patient?


Anyway. You shouldn't bring up SEINFELD when discussing this topic, is all I'm saying.

And great blog, by the way.

And go, Blue!