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

Monday (4/6/09) 10:49am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Andy Barker, P. I., Robot Chicken:  Star Wars
Books:  The Fix

Andy Barker, P. I.
I talk sometimes about the rare "solid, three-star film".  This is a film that doesn't swing for the fences, but sets small, tenable goals for itself.  It's usually just a little story concerning just a few characters.  It's about craftsmanship more than innovation.  And I would take a solid, three-star film over a bloaty summer blockbuster or a pissy, self-absorbed art flick any day of the week.  The solid, three-star films just don't get enough credit.

That said, it's rare that I see the same thing in television.  The way the medium is going these days, artistically, there's an even starker split than one sees in modern film.  The TV shows that matter right now are the ones that put it all on the line artistically and struggle to do things that have never been done before in the medium.  Generally speaking, everybody else is wasting my time with (say) bland procedurals geared towards old people who use the TV as something to fall asleep to.

Andy Barker, P. I. is a solid, three-star TV show, which makes it something of a rarity.  It has no ambitions beyond making you chuckle for twenty minutes, but (unlike 99% of sitcoms) it actually succeeds.[1]

And the weird part is, it really *shouldn't* succeed.  It has a premise that feels like a feeble SNL sketch:  Andy Barker is a genial CPA who stumbles into a side job as a private investigator.  So it's your classic "fish out of water" premise, coupled with some light genre parody.  It's the sort of SNL sketch that works fine for the first two minutes, and then gets beaten into the ground for another five, somewhere in the vicinity of half-past-midnight EST.

So how do they manage to squeeze six 20-minute episodes out of that?

First off (and perhaps most importantly), there's a lot of genre material they can draw from.  We collectively know hundreds of scenes from classic noir gumshoe movies, and that means there are hundreds of situations where we can plop our genial C. P. A.  All they have to do is ensure that Andy Barker is a distinctive character who doesn't belong in the P. I. universe.

Similarly, there are lots of opportunities for genre parody, even if it's something as simple as showing a foot chase down an alley at a dutch angle.  All the episode titles are noir-title ripoffs ("Fairway, My Lovely" and so on).  All the plots are familiar, well-worn detective-dime-novel plots with some surreal twist thrown in.

They add a solid supporting cast, and give them their own quirks to make their scenes work comedically.  Andy's marriage is such a picture of innocent, minivan-in-the-suburbs happiness that it becomes a joke in and of itself.[2]  Lew Wasserman (the retired private eye and ex-owner of the office) always has a tirade against (say) Communist government infiltrators and other such anachronisms.  Tony Hale plays Andy's sidekick (the owner of the adjacent video store) ensuring that his scenes will be funny.

The weird thing is that writing this description makes it all sound so *easy*.  Just set up a viable comic premise, create some interesting secondary characters, and cast funny people.  And yet almost every sitcom ever made has been jaw-droppingly anti-funny -- so there must be something more to the process.

Hell if I know what it is, though.

Robot Chicken:  Star Wars
This is the 22-minute Star Wars special from Cartoon Network's stop-motion sketch-comedy show.

I've takled on occason about how it's easy to end a scene, but it's hard it is to end a sketch.  In a scene, you have two characters with conflicting objectives.  This is the big 'question of the scene'.  How do you end the scene?  You have one guy win and the other guy lose.  Then the question is resolved, and everybody in the audience knows that it's resolved.

Sketches have it tougher.  Sketches aren't about characters with conflicting objectives.  A sketch is about doing something funny, and then making the funny thing funnier.  So... how do you know when a sketch is done?  There's no central question to resolve, so theoretically, you could just make that joke funnier and funnier forever.

There are ways to cheat.  You can write a sketch that's actually just a funny scene, and then end it the same way you'd end a scene.  You can be like Monty Python and just segue to the next sketch.  (Quick:  how does "The Spanish Inquisition" end?)

But Robot Chicken perhaps has the best cheat there is:  make the sketches so short that nobody cares about an ending.  Long before the audience can wonder, "how will this end?", they're already onto the next sketch.  We're talking a minute, minute and a half, tops, all the way down to little five-second vignettes.  "Get in, ha-ha-ha, get out," as the old Catskills comedians used to say.

And it strikes me that it's the stop-motion format that lets them get away with these blipvert-sized sketches.  Typically, sketches with live actors, even ones that exist solely to make a quick pop-culture joke, have to have setup.  You have to make sure that the audience knows what celebrity this comedian is playing, what celebrity the other comedian is playing, what situation they're in, and so on.  With stop motion, they can get around that:  okay, it's Emperor Palpatine talking to two Sith Lords on Coruscant.  Got it in that first image.

Presumably there are production differences, too, that make tiny little sketches more reasonable for a stop-motion sketch show than for a live-action one.  Honestly, I don't know.

Does it wind up being funny?  Eh, like all sketch comedy, it's hit-and-miss.  It starts strong, it has some great running gags (my favorite being the janitor who has to clean up all the dead bodies from the two trilogies), but there's a very long segment of "Star Wars on Ice" that's basically just an excuse for several minutes of Star Wars filk -- and, like 90% of filk, this is pretty much plot summaries set awkwardly to music.  And for some reason, I am supposed to find this sort of thing entertaining.  (Instead, it just makes me hate music.)

Odds are, one is better off just catching the best bits of this online when you have nothing better to do.

The Fix by Tod Goldman
This is a tie-in novel for the TV show Burn Notice.

Tie-in products for TV properties are always a mixed bag.  For every Battlestar Galactica board game, there are a half-dozen Bad Twins that are reviled by fans and showrunners alike.  I imagine it's a matter of finding the appropriate product for the show.  A board game that's sufficiently hellish and paranoia-inducing is appropriate for BSG.  To my mind, the only passable LOST tie-ins have been the massive ARG games[3] that have cropped up in between seasons.

So one thing that The Fix has going for it is that it is a trashy beach paperback.  This is ideal for Burn Notice, which is basically a trashy beach paperback in TV form.  It feels like it's adapted from a light, fast-moving book from some local Florida writer -- something with actors striking a pose with guns on the cover -- something you find in the discount bin at the airport bookstore.  So it's perfectly natural that Burn Notice should spawn a series of tie-in paperbacks with the poster art for the show:  two actors posing with guns.

How does the book do on its own terms?

It does some things well and some things poorly.  Fortunately, they tapped a decent writer for the job; Tod Goldman does a pretty good job of replicating Michael Westen's voice and worldview, and he creates interesting backstory scenes that are consistent with the universe of the show.  Mr. Goldman is at his best when he plays out scenes of Michael and Nate as kids, or of Sam Axe working his various government connections.

Mr. Goldman does less well with his thriller-novel plot.  All I know is that the bad guys were running some sort of real-estate conspiracy that seemed eerliy prescient of the current real-estate meltdown.  Oh, and there was some agent after Michael for some reason.  Um, yeah.  Then there were lots of explosions and the book was over.

So the book was steadily entertaining, but it felt like it never really added up to anything -- which is, perhaps, exactly what a trashy beach paperback *should* do.

For next time:  more Richard II and a bunch of movies -- right now I have A Very Long Engagement, Rachel Getting Married, and When We Were Kings out from netflix.

Music-wise, I'm finally finishing off Chopin.  Sonatas now.

I'm trying out PodCastle, EscapePod's sister podcast of fantasy stories, this week.  So far it's just okay.  Maybe I don't like fantasy as much as I like science fiction.  Or maybe the narration isn't up to par with what Steve Eley does for EscapePod -- the recordings are sometimes warbly, and the narrators tend to overpronounce the hell out of dentals like "t" and "d".  (Why?)  Hopefully PodCastle will improve as they work some kinks out of their production process.  Lord knows, I could use the dragons & such.

[1] I wonder, sometimes, what the standard multi-camera sitcom is even *trying* to do.  Is the idea that, if the fat comedian with the hot wife shouts his punchlines loudly enough, the audience will be browbeaten into not bothering to change the channel?

[2] Side note:  I swear they're using music cues from Pushing Daisies to score these scenes.  On the one hand, the shows do have a little bit in common, in that they both have heightened, off-kilter universes.  On the other... it's just really weird to hear that soundtrack anywhere else but Pushing Daisies.[2b]

[2b] Additional side note:  I was a bit swoony over Clea Lewis.  IIRC I had the same response the few times I watched Ellen.  Odd.

[3] Yeah, I know that makes about as much sense as "PIN number."  Deal.

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Date:Tuesday (4/7/09) 10:20am
Man Stroke Woman is a great live-human example of a sketch show that does the funny and then GETS THE HELL OUT of the sketch. Seeing as most five-minute sketches contain about ten seconds of actual funny, it's a brilliantly obvious thing to do.
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