Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In which we Do Do that Voo Doo that We Do so Well

Here we are waiting for the schedule change that will allow us to shift over from live shows to taping the shows (something to do with the painfully slow commissioning of all that new equipment). Hi-jinx continue unabated (one of these shows' cold open is a fake crawl for the-then Lexington cable company, complete with the same awful typeface and orange background; Keith has an excellent future as a forger), while all n sundry are reporting various Odd Encounters with citizens n taxpayers. Dougie's is typical: in his tale he's on the studio floor doing something or other with a grand high poobah from state government in prepping for the Sunday public interest show, while the grandee fixes him with the steely eye of command, then ahems and States for the Record: "You're on that Monsterpiece show. That's pretty funny." In parsing this comment, the group is divided on whether it's pretty funny that Dougie is on the show, the show is pretty funny, or someone broke wind (which is always funny but seldom pretty).

Meanwhile, the next movie up in our story is Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. After the letdown from Plan 9, we're just crankin' them out. Many years later, I come to realize that there are three rules of creativity and the Children show illustrates these rules quite handily. The rules are:
  • Just sit down and crank it out every day. Keeps the craftsmanship in shape.
  • Don't assume beforehand it will be a masterpiece, a signficant event, or anything out of the ordinary. The work won't conform to your expectations.
  • If it wants to go in a different direction than you intended, take that road. You can always backtrack if you have to; but if you force your original intention, you'll always wind up in a cul-de-sac.

We knew from our up-front research that this was a Bob Clark laff riot, and were quite prepared to lade the show up with Porky's references. We did not expect to find that this was quite an effective little retelling of Sake's The Monkey's Paw. Barb was off auditioning that week, both in and out of town, so the first time she would see the script would be after it went into production (this being in the Dark Dark Ages before email and whiteboard wikis, however in the world could we do our work I wonder? The kinder remain amazed when we describe these legendary days. No, revise that last to read: The kinder remain bored when we describe these legendary days). Two center-of-show gags wrote themselves:

  • Since the conceit of the movie is that the Beloved Son returns from the dead, it seemed logical to resurrect Dougie from the dead. Actually he was not dead, but merrily toiling away in Master Control; he had not been on the floor during show for months, which limited Millie's opportunities to act with him. So we pulled the Dead Guy mask from the trunk, put it on Dougie, and had him interrupt Millie's learned discourse on the movie with the immortal entrance line "Here I am, Millie, back from the dead!" Keith put Little Jeff on audio (an amusing choice, since the two of them tended to spontaneously combust when in close proximity) so that Dougie could step away from the board. Once I had written "Here I am, Millie, back from the dead!", the follow-up line flowed automatically: "P-U, Dougie, you stink!" and the topper just fell right on top of it, right on cue: "That's because I'm dead." I don't remember any other writing session where the lines just flowed like that.
  • As has been noted by the Teeming Masses, Dougie was armed with one or two Dr. Demento albums for audio cuts, which albums included the equally immortal Ogden Edsel tone pome, "Dead Puppies Aren't Much Fun". Well, why not? The script called for this to to be staged like the Beatles' Hey Jude video, where the camera pulls back to show the population of a small city gradually filling the stage for the interminable Na na na nas. (This being the Dark Dark Ages as noted, I was rewarded with blank stares with the reference to the Beatles and their Hey Jude video. So much for shared cultural heritage.)

We didn't have the population of a small city available to rush the MT set on cue, as our pathetic little band of studio groupies had long since found other ways to amuse themselves at 2AM Sunday morning, but there were a few night owls in the newsroom who came down to feel the love. This represented the last appearance of Wags (the Obnoxious Battery Powered Puppy), with Millie pulling out the Infamous Cast-Iron Skillet to dispatch Wags to the Doggie Hereafter in spite of management's directives to administer no further on-air whackings to small adorable creatures. Keith interrupts Millie to stay her hand in administering corporal punishment to Wags because (cue music).

Somewhere someone's going to find that cut and post it. Dougie had put a hot mic into Master Control, and you can hear Dougie and Keith singing along with the track.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

In which we need a new Plan

So three cheers and a tiger for us, victory is ours, darn the torpedos and full speed ahead, and just in time too because we were in the run-up to Plan 9 From Outer Space and had Great Plans for appropriate related video mischief. Plan 9, as all fanboys n grrls knew, was The Worst Movie Ever Made. I actually saw a snatch of Plan 9 as a wee prat, on the 4PM after school monster movie program (a desperation move by the local ABC outlet to combat the NBC affiliate's capture of the kids market with its Kowboy Kartoons, the CBS affiliate's capture of the kid's market with its Paramount Popeyes, and the indy station's subversive Three Stooges hour, as it was programmed with American International rubber-suit pictures and ultimately replaced by Dialing for Dollars) -- dimly recall being disturbed by the concept of zombies, if not the execution as it were -- but hadn't seen the whole masterwork, it being too horrific for viewing on the public airwaves no doubt. But if it surpassed The Carpet Monster, as our desk references said it did, then we would surely be in high cotton. So we made great plans to make great mockery, and proceeded on our assumptions.

We teased the upcoming movie during the three or four weeks of February previews, usually through the Millie/Keith dialogs and supplementing with inappropriate crawls at inappropriate moments. We also began using George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone regularly as the music out, because power chords are always a Good Thing, one should always Leave Them Wanting More, and because we felt like it (Gosh!). I also had decided that we would open with the Fox Fanfare (with Cinemascope extension) because nothing announces a bombastic movie like the full Fox Fanfare with Cinemascope extension, complete with standup foamcore graphic and crew guys waving flashlights for the searchlights. Couldn't miss, I tell you.

Then we actually got the movie. And, as Jack Benny so aptly put it, "Well!"

It was not what I expected.

Remember the drill: the Millie MT show hijinks always sprung as riffs on the movie. And Plan 9 opened promisingly, with Criswell ranting, the paper plate flying saucers, and the two-chairs-plus-a-stick cockpit set. But then it veers into the Bela Lugosi footage, which is a fatal wrong turn at Albuquerque, and loses the audience. Historically, we have not yet arrived at full-blown Ed Woods revisionist scholarship yet -- we just have the work itself as Sola Scriptura to deconstruct, and no matter how many times we run and rerun the tape, none of us can get around the Time/Lifesuck of the Lugosi sequence.

I expect we were trapped by our expectations. Based on the rumors, we expected balls-out incoherent disregard for form and structure from start to finish. We had boxed ourselves into the Count Floyd box, building the movie up to an acme of awfulosity only to discover that the real thing just wasn't very bad, now, was it? Well, no matter because we still had to produce a show, and staring at the teevee wishin' and hopin' that inspiration would leap forth and smack us upside our pointy little heads wasn't going to work, and we had production deadlines to meet. So I started typing, and Barb started editing. We gave up trying to produce the show we wanted to make from Plan 9, and started work on the show that we could make from Plan 9.

There was one gag that we wanted to try, having talked about it conceptually several times with Keith. Much time was spent colorbalancing the cameras before we went on the air, so that there would be no visible change in quality from one camera to another (typically, the problem child was the minicam); the balancing was done with a white card placed in the three set areas. Film directors of photography often stacked several color-correction filters in their primary lens, and some were experimenting with filming through somewhat stronger color filters. Since gelling the studio lights for mood or effects was still off the table for the moment, we were toying with the idea of mounting theatrical lighting gel in front of one or more camera lenses as an effect; the idea was that after color and white balancing, we could keep the engineering department happy for the majority of the show while achieving a desired effect (whatever that would be) as a one-off gag. With a wide variety of colored gel available, we could quickly tweak the effect by swapping color. Keith liked the idea, and we had gotten sidetracked in testing by the recent office politics. The infamous day/night cemetary scene would be our test bed.

So we wrote a completely straight fanboy dissertation on the movie for Barb, pulling out all the academic buzzwords that we could remember. Barb would read sections of it for our friends n neighbors, and if anything induced a laff we took it out: we wanted one minute of terminal stultification. Then for the sequence, we taped a blue gel over one of the two cameras that would be used for the sequence: we wanted this to be textbook bad direction, with Point 1 assigned to Camera 1, Point 2 to Camera 2, Point 3 to Camera 1, et cetera. Except that Camera 1 would be "daylight", and Camera 2 "night". Keith's final tweak was to have Barb pivot from one camera to the other, holding the cut until she completed the pivot. It was metalicious.

The problem with making meta-comedy is that too often you're making comedy for an audience of one, two or three. You can rationalize this any way you want as a Tortured Creative Soul and feign cosmic indifference as to whether anybody gets the meta-point, but getting all wrapped up in your own cleverness is not a good place to be. That's what happened to the Plan 9 show; it was good enough, but too self-indulgent to be anything better. I was irked n offended that Ed Wood hadn't given me material to work with. Now that we had unequivocal creative freedom, it was time to get over my particular bad self and get to work -- especially since Barb had just landed auditions for several out-of-state graduate schools. The future was coming fast, and it was definitely the place where we were going to spend the rest of our lives.