A friend of mine told me that a certain legendary television writer and executive producer once dispensed this bit of wisdom, which for my money is the single best piece of advice I’ve ever heard: as my friend walked nervously into the room on his very first day in the television business, the old pro took him aside, and said to him in a gravelly murmur, “Keep it shut.”
To test his advice, he spent a week early in his career saying absolutely nothing in the writers room – just sitting quietly with a pleasant smile on his face. He was rewarded, on Friday afternoon, as he walked to his car, with the executive producer sidling up next to him, putting his arm around his shoulder, and saying, “great work this week. Really great.”
In television, risk-taking has its penalties; cowardice its rewards.
A few years ago, we had a show on the air and we were stuck writing an advice scene. You know what I mean: main character is in some kind of quandary, goes to another set somewhere where a colorful supporting character is often found, asks colorful supporting character for advice, which is given, in interesting and amusing dialogue, thus preparing the way for the conclusion and resolution of the quandary.
Sounds simple, but those are actually quite hard to write, because the advice usually has to be good and interesting and funny and believable, which means that a lot of writers are going to be sitting around the writers room staring at their shoes. You see, if advice is funny, it’s probably not good advice; and if it’s believable, it’s probably not interesting. So when you get to that part of the rewrite, you usually end up waiting for the youngest writer on the staff to pitch something heartfelt and real, at which point you all turn on him and spend the next hour or so belittling his pitch and questioning his manhood.
Keep it shut, is the operative advice here.
Performers, too, can be famously risk-averse. An old friend of mine – a guy who got his start years ago, writing monologue jokes for a couple of famous comedians – remembers being summoned to a bungalow deep in the jungle of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
One of the biggest names in television wanted him to write some new material for an appearance on the Tonight Show, and then later for his show in Las Vegas. It was my friend’s first big break. So he paced all night, working and reworking and worrying a collection of jokes, tooling each one into the famous comedian’s idiosyncratic speech, until he had what people in that business call “a solid hunk” of material. So the next day, he drove up to the hotel, skipped nervously to the comedian’s bungalow, and sat quietly in the living room, while the comedian, in a too-small robe and nothing else, stalked around the room, reading the new material. Finally the comedian put the pages down, ran his fingers through his Brylcreemed hair, looked helplessly at his manager, then back to my friend.
“What is all this?” he asked, gesturing to the stack of jokes. “These are all….these are all new.”
“I thought you wanted new material,” my friend said in a tiny voice.
“No, no, no. I don’t know these jokes. These are new. I don’t want new. I don’t know these jokes. I don’t know if they work. How do I know if they work?”
Again, he looked helpless and agitated. He turned to his manager.
“Get this kid out of here,” he said. “And get me some new material that I know already, get me some new stuff that already works.”
Which pretty much crystallizes the problem of the entertainment industry. We all want new. But we also want to know that it works. So we hedge and we focus group and we tinker and we fiddle and what we often end up with is a version of new pretty much indistinguishable from a version of old. We end up giving the audience what they’ve already seen, rather than giving them something surprising.
Surprise, of course, means risk.
Charlie Chaplin once explained that there are two ways to film the old guy-slips-on-a-banana-peel joke. The first, unfunny, way goes like this: cut to the guy walking, oblivious. Cut to the banana peel, lying in wait. Cut to a wide shot of the guy approaching the banana peel. Cut to a close-up of the banana peel, just as the guy’s foot hits it. Cut back to the wide shot, as the guy slips on the peel and lands on his ass, which as everyone knows from cartoons, is the funniest part of the human body and one which registers no real pain.
The second, funny, way to film that same sequence is as follows: cut to the guy, walking. Cut to the banana peel, lying in wait. Cut to a wide shot of the guy approaching the banana peel. Cut to a close-up of the banana peel, just as the guy’s foot almost hits it. Cut back to the wide shot, as the guy deftly steps over the banana peel, smiling smugly…and falls into an open manhole.
Now that’s surprising.
So, on second thought, let’s do it the first way. At least we know that way works.