Posts Tagged With: comedy

Penny. Bernard. Dan.

OK, something a little silly.

I suspect there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to sitcom writing. There are so many different ways of doing it. The establishment of conflict is perhaps the most important thing, provided that the laughs come first. There are, instead, a huge number of Things That Work: the recurring gag, the catchphrase, or the unusually named pitbull cameo (the establishment of a particularly funny, frequently gimmick-laden character who appears for only a short space of time in each episode, steals whatever scene they’re in, and promptly disappears – cf. Inspector Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo). Indeed, unusual names for such idioms is the order of the day, frequently deriving their origin from the shows that were known to pioneer them. The Very Special Episode is one such example. Hey, even the terminology for a show that’s gone down the pan is named after a specific incident in one specific instalment of an otherwise much-loved institution.

I dearly, dearly wanted to come up with something special for the trope I demonstrate in this video, but I couldn’t come up with one. Instead, you will have to cope with the utter banality that is ‘the joy of repetition’. I make no apologies. It was getting late and I wanted to get the thing finished; it had taken far too long as it is.

When I was in my late teens / early twenties everyone was crazy for a man named Alan Partridge. He’s still very popular. Partridge’s appeal lies in his incredible lack of tact and generally disgraceful conduct with people he knows intimately and the complete strangers with whom he interacts. He is sneaky and uncannily self-aware, but is very good at getting himself off the hook, or so he thinks. He is the master of the awkward moment (he interrupts a grieving widow at a funeral so he can take a call from an electrical store) and the politically incorrect retort (when talking about the Irish potato famine, he reflects that “at the end of the day, you will pay the price for being a fussy eater”).

But one of the most famous scenes in the history of the show comes when Partridge greets a new-found friend (who turns out to be a lecherous swinger) by shouting his name across a car park. For thirty seconds. It’s not clever, or well-written, but by God is it funny, for no reason other than that it is utterly absurd.

A few years after Partridge swept across our screens for the first time, comedian Dylan Moran teamed with Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig (with the writing skills of Father Ted creator Graham Lineham) to bring us Black Books, the tale of a sociopathic alcoholic bookshop owner, his hippyish assistant and the dysfunctional girl next door. Black Books started well and then swiftly jumped the shark once Lineham departed, but the early episodes are awash with absurd dialogue and ludicrous situations – Manny hides inside a piano, playing it with spoons so that the tone-deaf Bernard can impress his girlfriend; Fran masturbates to The Shipping Forecast only to have it interrupted by a book reading from Joe Pasquale; Bernard turns the bookshop into a restaurant, drinks as much red wine as he can so that they can use the empty bottles as candle holders, and shoves pieces of the oven into a pie that poisons his guests. And that’s before we get to the tower of soup.

But one of the funniest – and most memorable – scenes in the show was in an early episode that features Manny wearing a head massager and shouting ‘Bernard!’. For thirty-four seconds. It’s not clever, or well-written, but again it’s funny, even without the punch line.

And then there’s The Big Bang Theory.

I blogged about this just the other day – chiefly concerning Thomas’s uncanny resemblance to Sheldon – but certainly TBBT is built on recurring gags. If you produce twenty-four episodes a year, you have to repeat yourself a little, so Raj’s inability to talk in a room while Penny is around (at least for the first two and a half series, which is how far we’ve got) is almost as common a theme as Sheldon and Leonard’s verbal tennis over the contents of the evening’s takeaway, or Sheldon’s bewildered astonishment whenever anyone takes ‘his’ seat.

But the most common recurring gag in TBBT is the door-knocking: it’s always three groups of three, and it’s always funny – particularly so when they subvert it, as you can see in a couple of the examples here. It encapsulates Sheldon and his relationship with the characters around him – and, in turn, their own relationship with him. It has its own poster. It’s something I do whenever I want to lightly annoy Emily without making her cross. She even laughed the first time.

But let me confess something. If I’m honest, I put this together for my brother, who loves all three shows. I’ve gone on about characterisation and pacing and repeated gags, but that’s just commentary. I have no real point to make – the ‘sitcom tropes’ I spoke of are really just an afterthought. In my head, the segue from Bill Bailey into Jim Parsons into Steve Coogan worked rather nicely – and it even worked on screen, once I’d tightened up the editing. So this is a moment of unabashed silliness from yours truly; a deeply personal dip into nostalgia and shared nights over a couple of beers with my younger sibling. Still, I may do a part two.

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The Titles of Repetition

If you’ve watched enough Doctor Who, you’ll spot patterns in everything. There’s the way stories are constructed. There’s the spacing between the in jokes. There’s the catchphrases-that-aren’t-quite-catchphrases. There’s the repetitive companion behaviour traits and obvious characters who won’t make it past the second reel. This is how drinking games are formed. Then, of course, there’s the episode titles.

Formulaic titles are the norm in many TV shows. In the late 1980s there was a sitcom over here called Watching, in which every episode title contained a present participle – ‘Pairing’, ‘Moving’, ‘Wrestling’, ‘Hiding’, ‘Shagging’ (OK, I made that last one up). The mercifully short-lived Ardl O’Hanlon vehicle Blessed featured song titles. And it seemed that about half the episodes of Bottom (‘Gas’, ‘Accident’, ”s Out’ were designed to be dropped in as a suffix to the show’s title, presumably before the writers got bored.

Across the pond, The Big Bang Theory melds scientific / mathematical terminology with something that’s discussed (however briefly) in that week’s episode: ‘The Jerusalem Duality’, ‘The Vengeance Formulation’ and ‘The Middle Earth Paradigm’ are but three of over a hundred. This sort of thing was also very popular in the 1990s with Friends, which spent years starting every episode with ‘The One With / Where / When’, or occasional variations thereon – the first two words were abbreviated, so all over the internet you can find lists of titles like ‘TOW Ross is increasingly whiny’, ‘TOW you can see Matthew Perry’s eating disorder’, ‘TOW the inappropriate product placement’ , or my personal favourite, ‘TOW Joey’s rampant stupidity devolves into an even bigger parody of itself’.

Other shows aren’t so lucky. 24, for example, has nothing but the hour as an identification marker, meaning episodes are titled ‘Day 7, 12:00-13:00’ and so on. This is fine if you possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, or a smartphone with the Wiki page bookmarked, but unless you’re as obsessed as I was you’d have no way of knowing purely from the title that this was the episode where [CHRONIC SPOILER], [SPOILER] gets [SPOILER] by [SPOILER] just before revealing the location of the [SPOILER], or [SPOILER] suddenly reveals that they’ve really been [SPOILER].

But what about Doctor Who? Well, there are ways and means. A surefire way to get a Doctor Who title that sounds like a Doctor Who title is to call it ‘The adjective of villain’, or ‘The object of planet’. Or, if that sounds too much like hard work, you could start with ‘The object’, although that sounds a little less Who. But that’s how it’s done, or at least more often than not, and particularly during the Tom Baker run, where almost every story seemed to fit that criteria.

Some numbers will help here, and so I’ll reveal that I did a little counting. There have been 229 titled Doctor Who stories since 1963 (a healthy mixture of pre-2005 serials and post-2005 one-shots), including the five that are currently being broadcast. Of all these, 93 were prefixed with a ‘The’, and 75 used the ‘X of Y’ format. (I haven’t touched the BF stuff or the spin-off media; there’s just too much of it. In the meantime, I do the stats so you don’t have to. You may thank me later.)

Parodies of Who exist, of course – The Curse of Fatal Death’ is one of the more famous ones, although Big Finish have done some of their own – and they tend to stick to the formula. And a few years ago, a BBS bulletin board of which I am still a member hosted a user-generated discussion where members were invited to submit their own Doctor Who titles, the sillier the better, using words from existing Who titles as a starting point. Gareth kindly dragged out the file from the archives, and we can confirm the submissions ran as follows:

  • The Of of the Of
  • An Unearthly Earth
  • The Daleks of the Daleks
  • The Green Polo
  • Mission to Time
  • The Five Four Three Two Ones
  • Revenge of Vengeance
  • The Faceless Face
  • The Tenth Greatest Seeds Meddler
  • The Green Mutants Within the Daleks
  • Happiness in Paradise
  • Doom, Death and Destruction
  • The Evil Face Operation
  • Survival of the Monsters
  • The Galaxy Galaxy
  • Four of the Daleks
  • The Horns of Smugglers
  • Marco Trial
  • The Evil Abominable Curse of Horror Death and Terror Doom
  • The Greatest Snowman in Paradise
  • From Genesis in Eden, to the Ark in the Sea, to Revelation in Armageddon

And then, only yesterday, the BBC added a new one:

Cheers Gareth.

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“I believe in Silicon Heaven!”

And behold, it is written that in the last days, the iron shall lie down with the lamp…

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Bigger on the inside

Watch this. Right to the end, and sorry about the ads.

Right. Now watch this.

You see what I mean…

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Darth Gene

Masked characters are, for obvious reasons, very easy to redub. The better known the original voice, and the deeper the contrast, the more effective the result. Darth Vader is thus ripe for lampooning, being one of those few instances where the voice arguably supersedes the appearance of the character – in other words, as many people could tell you what he sounds like (usually in the form of awkward, barely recognisable impressions) as they could describe him visually. Thanks to James Earl Jones’ delivery, Vader’s voice is an integral, inseparable component of his character, to the extent that removing it means he’s simply not Darth Vader (cf. the end of Revenge of the Sith – you’ll know what I’m talking about). You do have to wonder how they cope in the foreign releases.

A glance over the internet finds any number of Star Wars parodies, many of which involve Jones, using dialogue from The Lion King and any number of other pictures that starred or featured him. For a bit of comic relief you could also do a lot worse than look up the original dialogue as recorded by Dave Prowse while he was stomping around the sets in character. The result is Darth Vader as performed by the Wurzels: a slightly effete pirate captain, perhaps. (There’s an urban legend that says that Prowse genuinely thought his own voice would feature in the final cut. I wish I could believe that.)

But it was the reuse of dialogue from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch – specifically the primary antagonist, Brick Top – that resulted in one of the funniest videos ever to hit YouTube. I am not including a link to it here, simply because Snatch Wars (go on, look it up if you must) is basically funnier than anything I’ve ever done and anything I’m likely to do. As redubs go, it’s the pinnacle, Everest, the holy grail. It’s where we’re all trying to reach. I was ambivalent about even mentioning it in this post, but I have to, simply because it was so influential.

The last videos I posted – i.e. the two Ashes to Ashes ones – were constructed while I was leafing through footage for this, almost as a side project. The idea of taking the hardest copper in Manchester / London and sticking his voice onto Vader the Grand Inquisitor was so obvious I couldn’t believe no one had done it before (I eventually found out why, but more on that later). Hunt is blessed with so many classic, instantly quotable lines throughout his forty-odd television appearances that this seemed as natural as breathing. So I rented the DVDs, ripped out the audio, and sat down at the computer.

And it took the entire summer.

All right, I was away for three weeks, here and there. But even leaving that aside I don’t think I had any idea what I was getting myself into. For a start, there was so much dialogue. I had to abandon my original idea of actually listening to every episode, and instead opted to read through transcripts for both shows, which I’d helpfully found online (although one is no longer available), and then skipping through each audio file to find the appropriate dialogue passages. Even then, a lot of stuff had to be ditched – lines and sequences which looked great on paper were, as it turns out, entirely unusable as they were undercut by music or background noises that meant their inclusion in Star Wars would have jarred completely. There were tears over some of the stuff I had to cut. Actual tears.

Even once you have enough dialogue – and there was enough, even with the net losses – actually putting the thing together was fiddly and problematic. The Dalek Zippy video had been much easier because I rarely had to contend with any sort of musical background; the score is minimal and where it did pop in I could remove it completely, because the Daleks were mostly speaking to each other. This doesn’t work in a film where half the time the character you’re dubbing has to react to dialogue from other characters, which means putting their lines in, and finding that you have to paste the appropriate part of the score back in underneath the dialogue you’ve inserted. And whatever section of the trilogy you happen to be watching, there is usually something playing in the background. Half the time I found I didn’t even have the right segment on what I’d assumed were fairly complete CD editions of John Williams’ music; even when it did exist I had to contend with the PAL DVDs of the trilogy, which were marginally faster. Have a look at the scene on the Death Star between Darth Vader and Moff Jerjerrod (yes, I looked that up; even I’m not that geeky) at 7:39 and you’ll see what I mean. It hangs together, but only just.

After all the technical stuff was done I had to sequence everything and come up with credits, and it was then that I had the idea of a little ‘next time’ preview at the end, which is worth watching even if you don’t watch the rest. And out of consideration to those of you who don’t really have sixteen minutes to spare, I have contracted the best of Darth Gene into its own two minute trailer, originally so that I could submit it to The Trailer Mash, but I found I liked the trailer even more than the full edition. What was strange was that I’d expected the whole production to be, like Dalek Zippy before it, a mixture of random moments and nothing more. I wasn’t expecting to tell the story that eventually took shape.

A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this, and that’s why the subsequent YouTube embargo – related to Fox’s ownership of the material – really sucked. I should have thought about it at the time (although copyright infringement isn’t really a reason not to do something like this, you just have to be careful about where you put it). It’s a bit of a downer to find that a video that was months in creation has been blocked worldwide. I tried unsuccessfully to contest it under not-for-profit fair use (which I think is a reasonable argument) but after weeks of non-response from Fox I gave up and uploaded it to Viddler instead, where it is left undisturbed but largely unwatched. (The subtext behind this? Please pass this on, if you like it. The more exposure the better.)

It is occasionally patchy, and a little rough around the edges, and could probably do with some trimming in the Jedi sequences. But it remains, perhaps, my favourite of all the videos I’ve done, simply because I learned so much from the process – how not to do it, as well as how to do it – and it may be a while before I attempt anything of this magnitude again. And may the Schwartz be with you.

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