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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (2/22/09) 8:04pm - ... wherein Peter posts thoughts about the "Pimp My TV" Sketchwar.

Okay, I'm finally catching up on some more commentary entries for Sketchwar.  The week of 2/20/09, the topic was "Fry and Spiner".

This topic also needs a bit of explanation.  Quoting from my earlier post

[...] this time around, we took our cue off of this this chirp from Chicago Tribune TV columnist Mo Ryan:
Now I am daydreaming about a TV show with @brentspiner and @stephenfry. Who will make that happen?
She was referring to a twitter conversation between actors Brent Spiner and Stephen Fry where they had speculated about opportunities to work together.

And as it turns out, the Sketch Warriors have been perfectly happy to jump in and help, with the theme of "sketches that would star Brent Spiner and Stephen Fry" -- quick comic bits that hint at larger, TV-show possibilities.
This time around, we went back a more manageable six entries:  "Curtain Call", an untitled entry from Mr. Robertson, "The Mates Running the Asylum", "The Modernistic", "An Old Fashioned", and my own "Grosvernor Square".

Okay, let's start with "Curtain Call".  Putting them backstage in The Theatre is promising indeed, and the bon mots given to Stephen Fry's character are pretty good.  And this one established right off the bat something that I found to be true throughout this particular War:  writing for particular actors made our characters approximately one billion times sharper.  Oh, sure, part of it is that I'm just imagining those actors, but part of it is that the dialog and behavior are informed by the sorts of characters those actors play.

That said, this particular sketch felt muddled to me -- like there were things in Mr. Wilson's head that didn't quite make it to the page.  It started out a little vague -- what sort of past do the two men have? what sort of show are they putting on? -- and it feels like the rest of the sketch never really answers those questions.  Instead we get more questions -- what sort of theatre show has a director saying, "Cut!"? what's up with the bizarre gun? why the line change?  And then rocks fall and everyone dies.

I felt like the concept had promise, it just needed a much clearer and simpler execution.

(Technical note:  avoid alliterative names.  "Bobby" + "Brody" = "wait, which one is that?")

On to Mr. Robertson's entry.  As usual, I say:  less prose.  All the details about Elton are nice, but you need to be more selective -- maybe pick three details and let those speak for the rest.  And again, screenplay prose wants to be noun-y and verb-y, and starts to feel sluggish if you bury it in too many adjectives and adverbs.

And again, I like the basic structure -- Gene brags about his lecture, Elton finally tells him off, Elton realizes that Gene can teach him to attract the ladies -- but it needs to go faster faster faster.  You've got a zillion passive-aggressive insults from Elton in the first half of the sketch, and they're all great, but you still need to winnow that down to just the *best* insults.  Odds are, Elton's 'explosion' needs to be just one short speech -- if it isn't drawn-out, the outburst becomes more powerful.

Same thing with Marjorie:  get to each of the beats quicker.  Elton can't work out how to talk to Marjorie, Marjorie comes on to Gene, Marjorie exits.  Don't dawdle.

Find the sketch that's half as long and twice as funny.

"The Mates Running the Asylum" goes a bit lengthy on its initial character descriptions, but it gets going with a lovely parody of psychoanalysis that I could see Stephen Fry really sinking his teeth into.  That said, I might not have gotten the end.  I assume Bob is running the asylum, and Percy is his therapist? and why does Bob change clothes?

The characters are sharp and the situation is interesting -- I just got afflicted with a minor case of not-knowing-what's-going-on-itis.

Mr. Stinton took a similar tack on "The Modernistic".  I should point out that Mr. Stinton graciously swapped deadlines with me -- he had Friday, I had Wednesday -- when it looked like I wouldn't be able to submit a piece on time.  So he seriously threw this together at the last minute.  And he came up with something that's solid the same way that the other pieces were solid:  sharp characters, and a promising scenario for a TV show. 

Again, the Fry character got some plum lines ("Now attach yourself to the nutrient-rich lining and grow!"), but I think Harry had the best one-liner, with "[...] it means you can’t name them."

Like many entries this week, this was more of a pilot-scene than a sketch, so it was less ha-ha funny, but it worked fine as a scene.  Richard had an objective; Harry had an objective; they both sort of got what they wanted, and the scene ended.  Done and done, and nicely-done at that.

(Technical note:  maybe this should have an EXT./INT. INTERCUT sort of slugline?  You could do that instead of specifying when we cut to Harry and when we cut to Richard.)

That said, "An Old Fashioned" was completely not a pilot-scene and completely a sketch -- which is great.  This one wasn't really my thing, but that's just my own idiosyncratic taste, and in spite of that, I'm glad to see a sketch that's so different from all the other sketches.  It's very short, very simple, and it does what it sets out to do.  Further commentary is pointless.

My own sketch came about during an IM-conversation (~ 9:14am on 2/10/09): 
hujhax: So I'll probably have to make a post about this.
hangingfire: THIS MUST HAPPEN
hangingfire: YES
hujhax: Is there any way they could do a Doctor Who spinoff?
hangingfire: oh my god, a Whoniverse show with Stephen Fry and Brent Spiner.
hangingfire: I might die.
hujhax: "This is called a 'timey-wimey thing'."
hujhax: ^^^ Either actor, saying that line, would put me in stitches
hangingfire: oh yes.
hujhax: Oddly, if I were god of the world, I might try putting those guys in something like The West Wing set at the American Embassy in London
hangingfire: oh, that would be amazing.
Now, I've talked before about how, when I'm brainstorming something for Sketchwar, and I come up with something I'd love to see in a sketch, my policy is that that is what I go with.  It doesn't matter if it doesn't promise an especially funny sketch.  It doesn't matter if it means the sketch will be incredibly difficult to write.  That's what I go with.

So now I'm stuck writing a Sorkin-esque show about these two guys at the American Embassy.  Right.  And... um... I know nothing about domestic politics, let alone international politics.  I tried begging for assistance, but no luck.  (I eventually bounced story ideas off of Ms. hangingfire anyway; she graciously listened and offered feedback.)  I begged for a short extension on my deadline, and Mr. Stinton agreed to switch places with me.

Me, I'm just proud that I managed to bang something out at all.  It runs too long, it has no jokes, and the whole thing is marinated in my sad political ignorance, but I managed to write something I was 100% convinced I couldn't write, so:  go me.

Really, there were a lot of things I liked about this.  I was happy with making the characters "Brent Wagner" and "Stephen Whitcombe", so it was perfectly clear at all times which actor was which part.  I was happy with giving them a situation rather uniquely suited to two guys of their ages and nationalities.

I liked how I introduced the characters.  I hunted like hell for the opening poetry quote.  abbandono came up with a couple of good suggestions, but I finally went with the Yeats one.  I'm not 100% happy with it, but I knew I wanted Stephen's first line to be a poetry quotation, and for Brent to surprise him by recognizing it.  I figured that was a good introduction for both men.

From there on... well, it's sort of a balance.  On the one hand, I'm blasting through a ton of exposition, and exposition = dramatic kryptonite.  On the other hand, I set up a clear conflict for the guys -- Brent wants Stephen to spring someone from jail, Stephen wants Brent to back the hell off -- and that might be enough to keep the scene going.  Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't, but in either case the scene shouldn't run *five pages*.

There were bits and pieces along the way that I liked.  I liked how Stephen knew more about how Brent's phone worked than Brent did.  I was happy to give Stephen a couple of witty rejoinders.  I think I get away with Brent threatening to dump all his intel with the Guardian, even though that stretches credibility quite a bit.

I dunno.  Generally, I think I failed at writing a good sketch, succeeded at writing a good scene, and contributed nicely to the variety of works we had this time around.  Huzzah!

[Note:  this is mirrored on the Sketchwar site.]

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