Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

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The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Is Bill Nye really helping science?

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So, Netflix Canada has started showing Bill Nye Saves the World, a science series designed for adult audiences, and in the first two episodes, he has tackled issues such as climate change and alternative remedies. The premise of the show is that Nye will use the scientific method to debunk the myths.

In theory, I am all for this approach. Unfortunately, the entire show is theory. In two episodes, I have seen nothing of a scientific method.

Episode 1: We’re going to heat a liquid to show you that heat causes things to expand. We’re going to tell you that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that things get hot because the gas traps heat energy. The rest of the episode is mostly just people yelling about how silly deniers are.

Nye greenhouse

Bill Nye, the gimmick guy

Episode 2: Magnetic patches don’t cure disease because there is nothing to magnetically attract in the body. Oh, and this is how clinical trials work. But we’re not going to test magnetic patches in a clinical trial because we don’t have to. There was one scientific experiment to show that Milk of Magnesia neutralizes acid while a Whole Foods purchased stomach remedy did nothing to neutralize acid. Thing is, there is more to upset stomach than acid neutralization, and we don’t know the mechanism of action of a lot of FDA-approved medications. The rest of the episode was Nye yelling “that’s stupid” (not literally).

Despite his self-proclaimed mission, Nye seems to be playing into the hands of the anti-science faction by trying to cram complicated subjects into 30-minute windows of reality-style television that is more Jerry Springer than Mr. Science.

Nye-Springer

Ridiculing the other side with unsupported taunts and name-calling is NOT good science. Shoddy, make-shift experiments that don’t actually prove your point are NOT good science.

If you say claims have not been supported by scientific evidence or clinical trial, then run those studies to prove the claims aren’t true. THAT is good science. But it is lousy television.

So, Bill Nye; are you a television personality or a science advocate?

If you remain the latter, then cut the bullshit and get back to the method.

If you are the former, then take off the lab coat, and I’ll go back to Thomas Dolby.

 

Whither the losers

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History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

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Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

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Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

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And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Lives of love and beauty – Kevin

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Kevin is the one on the left

Kevin Bruce Scott: son, actor, puppeteer, integrity trainer

The man I affectionately dubbed Sweetums on our first meeting in honour of his impressive size, hirsuteness and rolling voice has wondrously become a constant in my life, even despite his gregarious activities that see him crisscrossing the North American continent. I first met Kevin when he auditioned as a puppeteer and actor for a sketch comedy show I was helping another friend develop (Nicholas Lemon’s SomeTV!), and it was bromance at first blush.

To know Kevin even for a few moments is to experience an earthquake of enthusiasm and playfulness that has been rivalled by very few in my advancing lifetime. Quick of wit, clever of brain and charming of eyebrow (you have to see it), Kevin routinely explodes with volcanic laughter and excitedly joins any creative moment with love and insane bonhomie. To merely stand in Kevin’s presence is to experience unbridled love…but dive in for the amazing hug, if you get the chance.

I say without hyperbole that should Kevin reach out with any idea, I am an eager participant because I know that even if the idea amounts to nothing tangible, I will have had the best time working on it.

Thanks you, Sweetums, for going on that audition and making my face hurt with smiles.

 

See also:

12 Days of Gratitude – Kevin

Effortless Alpha (Kevin’s blog & mission)

SomeTV! is alive!

SomeTV! poster

As some of my ever-patient followers of long ago may remember, there was a time that I co-wrote a sketch comedy show called SomeTV!, that we essentially described as the love-child of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Muppet Show.

Like any good creative project, this was a labour of love and mass insecurity…and took for-freakin’-ever to see the light of day. Well, seems that day is next Friday (March 11) at 10 pm (ET).

Kevin Scott

In its inaugural run, SomeTV! will air as a one-hour special on Rogers Television in Toronto (think Wayne’s World), but it should be available shortly thereafter online. So happy to see this project and all the hard work that went into it (not just mine) finally come to life.

Still waiting for my producer, director and Godhead Nicholas Lemon to post the teaser trailer…will update this post when he does!

See also:

Writing for puppets

SomeTV Pulse

Feedback, not criticism (or worse)

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A friend of mine recently wrote a screenplay for a sitcom. Not a spec of an existing show, mind you, but rather an entirely new idea she developed.

In accomplishing this feat, she joined rarified company. For every person who has written a television pilot, there may be a thousand people who have written a spec script and millions who have never put pen to paper (finger to keyboard).

And like any good writer, she wanted her work to be as good as it could be, so she asked a handful of people she knew—including me—to read it and give her feedback.

Unfortunately, as I later learned on sending her my feedback, she was ready to chuck in the writing game because of scathing criticism from another reviewer, who essentially told her that her pilot was complete crap (or worse).

My friend is talented and is in the process of maturing her style. And the feedback I gave her was honest and critical, but it was also designed to help her improve, not make her quit. The pilot was still raw, but there was merit in many aspects of it, and the rest could be easily improved.

Sadly, it seems her other reviewer was less interested in helping her find the gems in her work.

To the writers out there, I say, pick your reviewers wisely, and before you take any of the feedback to heart, consider the source and get input from more than one person.

Feedback that is overly critical or overly praising is largely useless…and potentially lethal.

To the reviewers out there, I say, be honest but be constructive. It does no one any good to rip a work to shreds and leave it in tatters. It doesn’t make you more powerful. This isn’t even about you but about the work.

At the end of this post, I have links to pieces I have written previously on receiving and giving feedback. And below, without giving away my friend’s identity or her concept, I offer the opening of my notes to her.

Good luck and good writing to everyone!

 

My favourite insight of all time on writing for television is that pilots suck. Let me repeat that:

PILOTS SUCK!

The challenge with a pilot is you have to do soooo much structural heavy-lifting and still try to tell a coherent story.

  1. You need to establish the premise.
  2. You need to establish the perspective of your protagonist and therefore your concept.
  3. You need to not only introduce all of the regular characters and their relationships to each other, but also make them engaging.
  4. You need to give the audience a sense of what a typical episode might look like so they know when they can go pee.
  5. And did I mention that you also need to tell a coherent story?
  6. Oh, and one last thing for the sitcom writers…you have to be funny.

 

So, massive kudos to you for writing a sitcom pilot and doing a decent job of it. You’ve covered all of the points above, but you haven’t really nailed them yet. And for me, nailing them hinges on your decisions about point #2…

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See also:

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Receiving Feedback – Part One

Receiving Feedback – Part Two

Oh Muppets, where are’t thou (UPDATED)

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Yesterday, Deadline: Hollywood announced that Bob Kushell, co-creator and showrunner for The Muppets, would be leaving the fledgling show while Bill Prady and a new showrunner (possibly Kristin Newman) would work on retooling the ABC series that has garnered vast quantities of media and social media coverage.

As the Deadline article suggested:

“But after a highly-rated premiere, ratings dropped. The Muppets has done an OK job opening Tuesday night for ABC at 8 PM, with its numbers on par with lead-out Fresh Off The Boat, but because of its marquee title, The Muppets has been held to a different standard, so its performance has been  considered somewhat disappointing, and there has been a concern about its creative direction.”

I am part of that ratings drop, for reasons I will discuss shortly, but I have several friends and associates within the puppetry community who have struggled mightily to stem the tide, lauding the show’s freshness and energy and chastising its critics. I feel bad that I have let these people down, but I feel it is for good reason.

Briefly stated: The Muppets (the TV series) is a pale, anemic shadow of the Muppets (the icons).

My biggest concern about The Muppets is that the Muppets aren’t leading the way…they are following someone else’s formula. This feels like total anathema to all of what Jim Henson was.

The current incarnation is little more than The Office but with felt-fleshed characters. Look no further than the show’s logo which is presented in the same manner as that of The Office and with an almost identical typeface. And the setting within a late-night talk show makes it a pale imitation of The Larry Sanders Show.

the Muppice

Although parody has long been a staple of the Henson way—consider “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and “Pigs In Space”—The Muppets is not a parody but rather is being sold as original. And ironically, while the new content is supposedly more adult, I would offer that it is not nearly as edgy as it used to be. The humour isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it was in times past. (I appreciate that it is now property of Disney.)

Case in point: References by members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem to illicit drugs and rehab have become much more overt in the new series whereas they were only really implied previously. It is as though the showrunners don’t have faith in the audience “getting” the jokes.

“Oh, my God! Did Floyd say rehab? That’s edgy.” No. No, it’s not.

But back to the leadership discussion.

Henson and his gang were innovators. They took an ancient format—the puppet show—and brought it to heights never before imagined. They didn’t pander to their audience but rather challenged them to follow along or be left behind.

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Sometimes that became wildly popular: The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock.

Sometimes it never found a wide audience: The Dark Crystal, Muppets Tonight.

[NOTE: Dear purists, I know that Muppets are Muppets and the others are not…I am trying to make a point about innovation here, so please bear with me.]

And, as I understand it, even the now idolized The Muppet Show almost never existed for lack of interest by American networks that couldn’t see the vision and felt variety shows were on their way out—in 1976, only The Carol Burnett Show remained, Sonny & Cher and Tony Orlando & Dawn having ended a year earlier. That’s why the show was created in the U.K. under the financial benevolence of Lew Grade.

From a mechanical perspective, the artists working on The Muppets are doing an admirable job. These are incredibly skilled men and women performing a technically challenging art form that combines the illusory world of puppets and the frailties of human flesh.

But all that skill and effort is for naught without a heart and soul. And these, in my opinion, are what the current show is lacking.

Ironically, when I watch The Muppets, all I see are puppets, characters trying to entertain an audience. I don’t sense the humanity within the puppets, and it was that humanity that made the Muppets so special in the first place.

Perhaps this is just a case of old-man-itis on my part—“when I was a boy…”—but sadly, I am putting down the empty toys that The Muppets represent and mourn the (hopefully temporary) loss of old friends—the Muppets.

I wish everyone the best of luck with the reboot.

PS I love the work of Bob Kushell and Bill Prady, and place no specific criticism on anyone’s shoulders for my concerns about The Muppets. Not saying this is the case here, but sometimes talent and creativity is not enough to overcome a bad match between artist and vehicle.

See also:

Breitbart‘s “The Muppets’ Reboot: What Hollywood gets wrong about family entertainment”

Although I think the writer (Melissa Henson) has made some valid arguments about the writing of The Muppets, I think her overarching belief that this was intended as family viewing is wrong. Although these are beloved characters from film and television, this show was very much centred on an adult audience. To repeat an earlier point, calling this family entertainment would be to ascribe the same to The Office.