Sunday, May 17, 2009

In which the Coming of Bob Comes

Tell ya what. Reality does not respect one's writing schedule. Ah, well ...

Gumby's in. What else ya got?

Around this time we drop the kazoo theme and go straight to the cold open. Our sense is that the kazoos trigger an expectation that MT is going to be thus-and-such a kind of show, a zany or wacky show if you will ; it cues the viewer into expecting certain things, which we will have to deliver -- the catchphrase to catchphrase effect of SNL. We're not snobbish about it (well, probly we are) -- we like to think that we are far more pragmatic than theoretical -- but we want to do Something Else, which will keep the show interesting to create and presumably interesting to watch.

We also are weary of the adverbs "zany" and "wacky" turning up constantly in WLEX' publicity. To put things in 80s avatar context: Fozzie Bear is Zany. We aren't. Whenever I see those words used to describe MT, I immediately remember a little indica from an ancient Mad magazine parody of a TV Guide listing: "Funny Cannibal: Jerry Van Dyke." Henceforth, we shall use said adverbs only as on-air synonyms for "contemptuous".

Keith pushes back on dropping the kazoos. He thinks we're heading into too disorienting territory; at some point, the audience has to know what to expect. We're thinking that the overall tone will provide the necessary orientation. Keith points out that for copyright purposes we do have to identify each show somehow with a consistent brand -- that's the point of the consistent opening titles. Oh, yeah ... the law ... FCC stuff ... right ...

Say, btw, about that copyright bug -- what the heck is "Ghastly Things & Avatar Productions", anyway? Turns out "Ghastly Things" is Barb and me, "Avatar Productions" is Keith; and, according to Copyright Law 101 whatever entity is identified by the copyright bug is the legal owner of the work. So WLEX doesn't legally own MT. Which would probly be news to them if anybody was watching the end credits all the way through, and would certainly give the Legal Department a Righteous Conniption, but what's Done is Done. O that scamp Keith!

So we compromise: no kazoos, yes animated title (Keith worked hard on the title, so he's happy), yes cold open. The cold open forces us to put something interesting on immediately as the show opens; that's our rationale and we're sticking to it.

What else we got? By this point, we're barely acknowledging the movie other than as a springboard for the night's concept. Performance-wise, the show runs better as a barely-connected riff. Barb is concerned about this, because she likes a clearly defined throughline; so we spend more time on Writing Nights talking about how Position 1 connects not only to Position 2 but to Position 5 and 7. We read each night's drafts out loud to check pace and flow; that also quickly shows what's not hanging together, so we're doing more fixes on the fly.

Millie's voice starts to change to the definitive Millie as a result of this. If we're going to speed things up, we give Millie more words and less open vowels. Shifting to riffing puts Millie in control of the performance, because the show becomes whatever she shifts it to. Millie's lines become long run-ons where the rhythm and flow become dominant. Millie speeches become long jazz saxophone credenzas, rolling along, punctuated by ... well, there's the problem.

Barb's evolving Millie voice and Keith's voice are pitched sort-of harmoniously; but Keith's job is to direct the show, which is becoming a fairly complicated piece of work for a live-to-tape shoot except that we're still live-to-live. Teevee direction has to stop when he's reading lines; he's got to use one hand to push the talkback button, the other to flip script pages, and he's got to take his eyes off the monitors to read. We can't get into extended Millie/Keith exchanges; we learn that we've got to limit the call-and-response to no more than three volleys for any given segment, and we really need to limit the exchanges to the Open, Mail and Close segments: we're on adrenaline for the Open, Mail is a run-on/locked-down camera segment anyway, and the adrenaline comes back up for the Close. So meta takes a back seat to practicality, as it always must. And we're still stuck where we were all those weeks ago: Millie needs a straight man.

In classic funny man/straight man duos, the straight man is actually the harder working performer. The straight man sets up the funny man, controls the pace of the gags, and feeds the toppers. Interestingly, in vaudeville the straight man was the higher paid of the duo: in some circles it was considered a sign of the apocalypse when Lou Costello demanded a 50/50 cut with Bud Abbott. If, as many dying actors are alleged to have observed on their deathbeds, dying is easy but comedy is hard then finding a funny man is a piece of cake (especially if you're married to her) compared to finding a straight man when the Artistes are still Boycotting the Lowbrow. So thought I until I happened to listen to Bob n Barb after makeup and wardrobe one night.

Since we got our show rhythm going, I hadn't had much to do with Bob on show nights; my focus was in the studio. Paying a bit more attention now, I noticed that Bob was warming up Barb, feeding her snarky little zingers that she would top with a wave of the cigarette holder. He wasn't a linear thinker; he'd wander all over the board in talking about stuff. His voice was pitched about an octave higher than Barb's Millie voice; and it fit into the same harmonic triad that Barb and Keith were in. He had a kind of offbeat rhythm; in setting Barb up he could look innocent but. And he favored a sort-of Rat Pack/Fat Jack E. Leonard fashion that fit the found-object aesthetique we were ransacking (see Gumby above).

Plus, his name was Bob. In my particular Universal Theory of Funny, "Bob" is the funniest name in English. It's hard, flat (if delivered properly Midwesternly), punchy, and ridiculous if coupled with a pretentious professional, governmental or social title (e.g., "Count Bob, Vampire").

So one night I asked Bob if he wouldn't mind having lines on the show on a regular basis.

Well, obviously he didn't mind at all. But we soon discovered that Bob didn't read lines anywhere near as well as his impromptu warmups. Like anybody else, put a script in his hands and he wanted to Act. But I didn't want him to Act; I wanted him to Be Bob. So the early experiments with Bob the Straight Man did not go as I hoped -- which were my fault, because I had forgotten the lesson I had learned in writing for Keith. Keith's dialog was what Keith would have said in the situation, only amped up. I had to do more listening to Bob's riffs with Barb, so that I got a feel for Bob's own rhythms; then adapt his rhythms and words to the character "Bob".

About this time, I came across an interview with Letterman's writers talking about life with Letterman (a very demanding editor, who threw out 80 to 90% of the pitches right up to air time -- writing four or five MTs every day for years! Sakes, the mind boggles!) and the perils of writing for Calvert de Forest, a/k/a Larry "Bud" Melman. It seemed that the sight of de Forest would send Dave into near-hysterics, which is why they used him; but de Forest was so nearsighted that he couldn't read the cue cards. If they gave him the script ahead of time, he'd memorize his lines and push through them no matter what happened; but he apparently didn't understand many of the things he was given to say, and so he'd make up his own pronunciation for the words he didn't know. Since Letterman was a control freak of the first water, this would send him over the edge as often as it would amuse him to tears; the writers soon learned that de Forest's inherent unpredictability was more anxiety-producing for The Boss than was healthy for career maintenance. So the writers hit on the idea of walking de Forest generally through his sequences, and then springing his cue-card only script on him only for broadcast. This prevented de Forest from coming up with his own ideas for interpreting the script (usually looking for a place to throw in his guffawing laugh), and opened the door for an unending series of spoonerisms and idiosyncratic line-readings that reduced Letterman to wheezing laughter. Well, if it worked for Letterman's guys and won them a bushel basket of Emmys, it would work for us.

So Barb and I worked out Da Rules for Bob (comedy must always operate within its own rules of engagement). Bob would not get run-on sentences; Bob would become the sort-of Ed McMahon enabler of Millie (who could turn on her without warning); Bob's through line had to be straight-ahead, veering off only on occasion; and Bob would not get his script until just before the segment aired. We'd run through the segment with him as fast as possible so that he got the flow, and then go live almost as soon as we finished the runthrough. We hoped to get a little of that idiosyncratic unpredictability into the show at the expense of a polished delivery. Bob was quite fine with all this machiavellian stuff, as far as we knew; he only pushed back once, which happens to be one of the YouTube sequences (look for Bob in his Queen's Hat).

Things were coming together. Now we've got Keith, Dougie and Bob as semi-regular talent (not Talent); we've got a handle on production that seems to be working; we've got some recurring elements of the strange courtesy of Gumby; we've got some walk-ons from time to time.

But we don't have enough obnoxiosity. We need some obnoxious regulars, that grate on the ears, to make sure that people aren't going to fall asleep during these still-wretched movies.


  1. I love the fact that there are scenes in what I've put on Youtube where Bob was basically reading from the script right in his hand on camera. Didn't notice that as a kid, but I think it's especially funny now (see the scene with him refusing to wear the shorts for an example).

  2. That particular setup was goofy.

    We used handmade cue cards throughout because we didn't have the manpower, computer expertise (damn show was written on a C-64, fergoonessakes, and we couldn't figure out how to change the font sizes outputted to our Mighty Sears Printer), so we couldn't use the teleprompter setup, which was a downshooter setup: the TPT screens were on the cameras just above the lens. Because the visual joke was that Bob would disappear in a Huff, he had to be positioned in front of the blue wall, and was matted in next to Barb. The cameras were so clunky, big ol' pedestal floor cameras, that it was easier to turn Bob than it was to turn the camera; but the best way to turn him in order to get the best matte was away from the cue cards. We all wanted the cleanest matte possible, because the matte lines would give away if not the joke itself then the likelihood of the joke; so we were all fussing with the tech. By that point we were doing the show live-to-tape, but we had a time budget to get each segment set up, run through and shot. So we were running out of time. Bob wasn't feeling well that night, so he just grabbed the script and said in essence tell widdit, let's just do it. I winced all the way through it at the time and during the original broadcast, and 20-odd years later in retrospect it's just a big ol' goofy "See? We used scripts all along! Neener neener!"

    Besides, the hat is so ridiculous-looking that you almost don't see the script. Almost.

    But if I was obsessive ol' George Lucas, I'd be tempted to spend a few million to digitally paint out that script.

  3. You know, I find it fascinating that they made such a big to-do about the blue-screen and Millie's fringe and that it might not look professional, etc. Back then, I don't remember it EVER looking that great, even just during the weather maps (although I seem to remember they were just getting around to the blue screened maps back then). I know it is also just a personal thing, but I felt a shoddy chroma key kinda felt like it belonged in the show. Like, in Frankenstien? Dracula? Where Millie's cleaning the castle. Oooh, you can tell it's blue-screened... so what? It was funny. Weird. But, I guess I was kind of perfectionist like that with my radio promos too though.

    I have to tell you this: you guys made me look really good this past weekend. I went to visit a friend in Salem and we went to Count Orloff's Nightmare Gallery, which was a kind of wax museum of horror movie history. Some really amazing displays there. Towards the end the owner was going to play a game with our group, "Name that Zombie," as the tour ended with a wonderful display of zombies through movie history.

    He was impressed with my knowledge, although honestly any horror movie fan is going to recognize Bub from Day of the Dead. But at one point he points to a Grim Reaperish spectre and asked, "Do you know who THIS is?"

    I believe the Italian vampire movie I posted was Fangs of the Living Dead, yes? Well, years ago when I first moved to Dallas, Netflix had just started and I tried them out, and one of the movies I rented was another in that trilogy, which had a storyline about the Knights Templar in it. Which looked exactly like the thing on display.

    "Is it one of the Knights Templar?" I totally freaked his brain out. Based on his reaction, I think maybe I'm the only one who has ever identified that display.

    Of course I got the werewolf display wrong. Not Silver Bullet, it was The Howling. BAH! I don't like werewolf movies anyway, aside from Ginger Snaps.

  4. I think there were a couple of drivers for the blue screen obsessing.

    While our guys were down at the bottom of the food chain, they took a lot of pride in their work. This was their "real" teevee job, not skool project stuff. A lot of the commercial work that the day shift did was all chroma key, so their ability to move up to any day shift openings apparently depended greatly on their ability to do clean chroma key. The new studio equipment was supposed to solve the equipment issues; but there was the attitude that a real pro was able to do high quality work with mediocre equipment.

    Plus, it's easy to yammer on about a deliberate shabby esthetic; but when you're actually going to show the work to the public, it's hard to keep your hands off the work and leave it shabby. None of us could do it.

    They fussed over the chroma key; I fussed over the rhythm and timing; Barbara fussed over likability. Probably our version of proto-Pixar, sorta kinda; everybody on that show did the best they could.

    Me poor overtired brain is telling me that the Knights Templar is a plot point for Howling 2, but I doubt anybody going to Howling 2 cared about the nuances o history. Howling 1, OTOH, has Dick Miller uttering the immortal line "Werewolves! I hate 'em! They're worse than cockaroaches!"

  5. Keith still uses Avatar Productions.

  6. Keith was an avatar before being an avatar was cool.