Wednesday, August 02, 2017

"Hey, Mae!"

Half-hour sitcoms always used to be two acts. The big act break would come in the middle. It was (hopefully) suspenseful enough to keep you through the commercial break. When the great Carl Reiner was running THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW he strove for “Hey Mae” act breaks. He defines that like this: You’re in the living room watching the show. Your wife is in the kitchen. And the act break is so compelling you yell, “Hey, Mae! You’ve gotta come in here and see this!”

Storytellingwise (yes, I know that’s not a real world), it was ideal. You want to build the first half of your show to a big crisis point, and then take the second act to resolve it.

Now sitcoms are by and large three acts. Instead of one big “Hey, Mae!” you get “Hmmmm?” and then “Hmmmmm?” again. A show now will set up the story in the first act and end on a problem. Act two will extend that problem and up the stakes a bit. And Act three will resolve the story. It’s not as clean, it’s not as elegant, it’s frankly not as dramatic.

But of course, networks don’t give a shit about that. They’ve added commercial content and are looking for the best ways to slip it in without causing tune-out.

And the changing of dramatic structure is not just exclusive to television. It’s happening in the theater as well.

For most of the 20th Century plays were in three acts. There would be two intermissions. And not just heavy dramatic pieces. Neil Simon plays like THE ODD COUPLE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK are three acts. For the money you spent for theater tickets you got your money’s worth. If curtains went up at 8:00, many of them went down at 11:30. That’s a long night, even for a light romp.

Not sure why but plays shifted to two acts – one intermission.

And now the trend is one long act, no intermission. So if the curtain goes up at 8:00 it now can come down at 9:30.

So why the change? What’s surprising to me is that theater owners seem to embrace this new trend. I would think they’d want an intermission to sell more orange drinks.

Some claim the new template is to prevent people from leaving at intermission. I get that, but the theater already has their money. Why do they really care whether they stay for the whole show or not?

Others claim that with this fast-paced blitz of media we have now, people have shorter attention spans and want to get to things much quicker. That’s true. You can’t fast forward a play you’re attending.

And there’s the cost of babysitters, which trust me, is a factor.

Interestingly, another factor is that people don’t smoke as much. They needed that intermission to light up. Or drink.

Theater owners say that after intermission people forget to once again turn off their cellphones and there are a lot more ring tones in the auditorium and a lot more texting going on. The lack of intermission nips that in the bud.

Some theatergoers complain that they need intermissions to use the bathroom. 90 minutes is too long a stretch. Yet, for a movie, 90 minutes is short.

The bottom line for all these new directives – the decisions are not being made to improve the shows creatively. They’re done for financial reasons, or other factors of convenience.

And times change. Big movies used to have intermissions. When Tarantino did that with THE HATEFUL 8 the audience thought it was self-indulgent and ridiculous. And the texts in the second act all said so.


Kosmo13 said...

I don't know. Here's a couple of guesses:

--the longer the audience is in the theater, the more it costs to insure the theater?

--the longer the audience is in the theater, the more it costs to heat / cool the theater?

Craig Gustafson said...

Actually, with a lot of plays, what you're getting is structure, not length.
A lot of community theaters look at "The Odd Couple" and yell, "Three ACTS?! We'll be here all night!" And they then ruin the structure by having only one intermission, usually sticking it in the middle of Act II - which means that the curtain comes down on Felix and Oscar *planning* to have a date with the Pigeon sisters, not with the disastrous results. This is not a "Hey, Mae!" break. It also leaves NO time for the stage crew to clean up the apartment between Act I and Act II.
The text of "The Odd Couple" lasts a little under two hours. It's not a longer play because it's divided into three acts instead of two.
If you have two ten minute intermissions instead of one fifteen minute intermission, it's only an additional five minutes to the running time. Suck it up and obey the structure.

ADmin said...

Well, would be people's time constraints to consider, right? E.G.: "I've got to be somewhere at 9:30, so I'm going to catch the 7 show." An intermission might foul that up. Also, for a guy that likes to be in bed by 10:30 p.m., a 9 p.m. show is almost a non-starter. Add an intermission and you've lost him completely? I like the idea long as no one steals your seat! ;)

Michael said...

In Las Vegas, the showroom shows were supposed to be 90 minutes because the management didn't want the gamblers away from the tables any longer than that. Two stories come to mind:

--When Spamalot debuted on Broadway, Steve Wynn sat next to Eric Idle and whispered that he wanted it for his hotel. Idle said later he purposely kept the show close to 90 minutes with that in mind.

--Jack Benny once had a show running about two hours and the executives in Las Vegas were actually screaming at him and his manager, Unswerving Irving Fein, to cut it. Yes, Jack Benny.

Glenn said...

Ken, you might be able to turn this into a Friday question: when Neil Simon re-wrote the Odd Couple (now titled "Oscar & Felix"), he went from three acts to two. The biggest cut was slicing down the poker player roles. That all seems fine, but now the poker player characters have huge personality swings. They all angrily storm out in Act 1 when Felix ruins the card game, but the next time we see them (after Oscar has thrown Felix out), they all basically say "Eh, Felix is a pain in the ass, but give him a break." You get more explanations in the original show why they all want him back, but a lot of that is cut in a two-act show. I get that the audience should be caring about the leads, but the poker players now are almost cartoon-ish. Thoughts? (I will admit that Simon making the two women Spanish instead of English makes their roles much funnier.)

Unknown said...

I found this out at the Geffen theater where most of their plays are an hour to an hour and a half. The Play next door to us called, "Constellations" only ran for 80 minutes with some cel phones going off and some audience members talking back to the actors on stage. Alfred Molina was there while I was rehearsing my Play, "Letters From A Nut." which ran a little under 70 minutes. Molina was doing, "Long Days Journey into Night." They cut that down from 3 hours to 2 1/2 hours with cel phone interruptions and some loud talking. Even our show had audience members talking back to the actors on stage unprovoked. I can only say it was an education into the new theater experience but still glad to be back on a real stage.

McAlvie said...

"Others claim that with this fast-paced blitz of media we have now, people have shorter attention spans "

Well, that nicely puts the responsibility on the audience, doesn't it? A bit like the networks claiming a few years ago that nobody watches sitcoms anymore. That made the decline of sitcoms SOMEBODY ELSE'S FAULT. Couldn't possibly be that the sitcoms themselves were lousy. Oh no, with more network oversight than ever, it was never going to be the network's fault that something didn't work.

In truth, if people have shorter attention spans its only because the media output is so lousy these days that only a short attention span makes it tolerable.

Unknown said...

For me any entertainment should be 90 min no break or 2 hours with a15-20 min break. Otherwise I get uncomfortable sitting and my brain starts to wander. Bring back the 90 min movie. It's also one of the reasons I watch soccer instead of baseball.


Paul Duca said...

Michael...I hope "Unswerving" Irving Fein lived up to his nickname in that situation, and told them no.

gottacook said...

In June I traveled to NYC (East Village) with my family to see a version of Pacific Overtures that had been cut to a 90-minute one-act with only 10 actors (including George Takei as the Reciter) and a much-more-than-adequate small orchestra plus synthesizers. A few musical numbers were cut, presumably with Stephen Sondheim's consent. The result was a terrific, involving show with momentum from beginning to end.

VincentS said...

I don't buy the short attention span argument. I was raised on television and some of the best experiences I have had in the theater was watching a full-length play. I was angry when Hal Holbrook's MARK TWAIN was over after only two acts. I could have listened to him all day (it was a matinee) and I will never forget Brian Denehey's Willie Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN and last night I saw a terrific A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM with Phylicia Rashad in Central Park. As for younger generations, my nephew sat me down once to watch the DVD cut of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING with him which ran four and a half hours! If something's good, people will watch it regardless of the length.

ELS said...

I can speak from the other side, being an actor in community theatre.


Obviously NOT a professional opinion, but I can safely say that we need a pee break. I mean, I tell my fellow performers that the five minutes call really means "Go urinate now!"

Even so, it's terribly hard for a performer to stay up that long. Intermission gives US a break too. I know that some shows I've done have had first acts that ran 90 minutes, leaving intermission and maybe an hour for second act... but that's kinda rough.

I CAN do it, and have done it. But given my druthers... I could use a good sit down out of character for ten minutes!

VincentS said...

....Sorry, it was THE RETURN OF THE KING and to the point, my nephew was about ten years old at the time.

Will said...

I think the difference between a play/musical and a movie when thinking about length is that I feel there is much more of a stigma against leaving a play or a musical to go to the bathroom vs. leaving a movie theater.

Steve said...

"Not sure why but plays shifted to two acts – one intermission."

Maybe those playwrights were watching Dick Van Dyke. 

Liggie said...

The first three-act sitcom I remember is "Murphy Brown". From what I've seen, most multi camera shows are two acts, like "Big Bang Theory" and "Mom". The single camera sitcom I watch, "Superstore", uses three acts.

I usually think of intermissions/acts as an artistic choice by the playwright. I heard John Patrick Shanley wanted "Doubt" as a one act because he didn't want the audience to discuss a major character's culpability during intermission.

I can handle two intermissions because I'm a hockey fan. I find that the second intermission is the best one for shorter concessions lines, though at the risk of some food selling out.

E. Bernhard Warg said...

Thank you, Ten!