Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Like American BADiators

A couple of weeks ago I went with Akela to a taping of American Gladiators, which she had scored an invite to through her kickball league. Apparently joining a kickball league for grown-ups is not only a great way to meet people and get some exercise, but also helps you get into TV tapings. Who knew?

I met up with Akela at a bar where she and her kickball friends were eating, and we headed for the Sony lot. There was a certain awkwardness driving onto the studio lot, which felt queasily like crossing a picket line. But we weren't there to work, and it was a weekend, so there were no writers picketing, so it seemed okay.

A long line of people had formed inside the parking garage. After doubling back to our car to stow away our camera-equipped phones, we joined the line, only to be notified that the start of taping would be delayed by an hour to an hour and a half or so and we were free to leave and come back later. The kickball gang adjourned to a nearby bar and returned at the appropriate time, only to spend another half-hour or so waiting in line in the very chilly parking garage. As kickballers idly tried to remember the names of the original American Gladiators, I discovered that automobile terminology seemed to be fertile ground for Gladiator-sounding names. Nitro! Ignition! Diesel! Sparkplug! Hubcap! I don't know how many of these were actually names of Gladiators, but they sounded convincing to me.

Finally, a group of us were led onto the lot... where we emptied our pockets at a security checkpoint and were herded into yet more lines waiting to enter the studio. Eventually, I resorted to playing the brick-busting Arkanoid game on my iPod as Akela cheered me on. Shortly after I started my second game, our line was allowed into the studio.

The American Gladiators arena was big, but not as big as you'd expect. Somewhere, a smoke machine filled the air with just enough smoke to make all the spotlights look impressive. And there were lots and lots of lights. Other than that, it all looked pretty cheap.

So, we took our seats in the arena, which didn't exactly seem like brain surgery. One wonders why it takes the staff hours to fill the seats with people when it seems like you might do just as well to let everyone in and say "Find yourself a seat." I mean, even if you personally assigned every individual person a seat, you should be able to get people into a room faster than this. Good grief.

Anyway, the warm-up guy was doing his duty keeping the crowd occupied with a spelling bee, which stumped a few audience members until someone correctly spelled the word "daiquiri," which, I was surprised to discover, I would not have known how to spell. The winner received an impressive Target gift card for something like $300. Next, Warm-Up Guy called on some more volunteers for a contest he called, with no small amount of fanfare, the Man-on-Man Slow Jam. He began the long process of recruiting ten guys from the audience, finding a place for them to stand, then climbing up to the bridge in the middle of the arena in order to pull up a particular song on his iPod (Couldn't he get someone to help him press play? It didn't seem very efficient that it took Warm-Up Guy five minutes to get to his iPod every time he wanted to lift our spirits with a song). All the while Warm-Up Guy continued to build up the Man-on-Man Slow Jam: "I promise you... you have never seen anything like... the Man-on-Man Slow Jam!" By the time he was through, nothing could have delivered the astronomical heights of awe and disgust described by his build-up.

In the end, the Man-on-Man Slow Jam was what it sounded like: Five pairs of guys were made to slow dance with each other, to amuse the audience with the unusual sight of two men dancing close and even touching! Eww, gross! The whole thing seemed like it would have been a bit more shocking and hilarious a few decades ago, before gay people were invented. But I guess as long as no one at the taping had ever seen one before (except for maybe some of the Gladiators), the game still worked. Some of the guys threw themselves into the gag with more explicit abandon, popping their shirts off and wrapping them around each other while freak-dancing away, while other pairs, perhaps intimidated by their competitors' rapid escalation of warfare, quickly gave up on attempting to dance at all. One pair was disqualified during voting when a guy reached into the game course, plucked a ball from the ball bin, and attempted to throw it into one of the ball baskets. As the hours wore on, Akela became more and more concerned that no one would ever retrieve the ball.

She needn't have worried. Here's why:

You would assume that when you go to an American Gladiators taping, what you will see is a reasonable approximation of the show American Gladiators. That is, you will see an episode unfold more or less in sequence: You will meet the contestants, see a few events, and end up with winners. Sure, there will be down time, and it will take a bit longer to set things up than it does on TV, but you will be rewarded for your patience by getting to watch the whole spectacle live.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that at all. Instead, they needed to film interviews and promos first. The interviews seemed to be conducted offstage, which suggested that there might have been a better time to film them other than when an arena full of people was waiting. The promos consisted of new host Hulk Hogan and some woman who is supposedly known from women's boxing or something standing together, flanked by the contestants and gladiators, and saying things like, "Are these four challengers ready to face your American Gladiators? The battle begins NOW!" followed by a series of flamethrowers going off around them and the battle not beginning. Meanwhile, we were all instructed to cheer enthusiastically. I kept myself entertained by yelling cheers like, "Yay! Hulk Hogan! Gladiators! Muscles! Battle! Fire! Heat! Lights! Noise! Aaaahh!" Several takes later, I began simply yelling Hogan's lines, since by then I knew them better than he seemed to. Other kickballers cheered on Helga, the stocky female viking gladiator.

Warm-Up Guy continued to promise the crowd that despite all appearances, there would be a game -- which, as the hours wore on, seemed increasingly unlikely. He attempted to placate the crowd with candy, which, like his iPod, also took him five minutes to retrieve, but this led to a new injustice. Our section was denied candy, as the scantily-clad girls in charge of distribution ran out before getting to us. Henceforth we occupied ourselves solely with cries for candy. "Candy! Candy! Candy!" we yelled in lieu of cheers and applause as Hogan performed another round of promos. Finally we got Warm-Up Guy's attention, and he gave the girls more candy to distribute. Naturally, our girl went straight to the last section that had already received candy, and squandered the lion's share of the supply giving them candy again, even as, twenty feet away, we shouted in vain that she was in the wrong section. When she finally arrived, there was little candy left and we didn't get any.

Our fruitless quest for candy was the last entertaining thing to happen. They shot more promos, this time with different contestants, and it became clear there was no chronological sense to what was being shot. Warm-Up Guy was still promising a game, but Hangin' Tough was the only event he would mention, and I began to suspect that by "game" he meant "single event we hope will satisfy you people whose time we've wasted in order to have a cheering crowd in the background of our asinine promos."

Crew members started breaking apart the ball game that sat before us, and we realized no one was going to play it. Someone finally retrieved the red ball that was vexing Akela -- and dropped it casually into the blue ball side of the bin. The rings for Hangin' Tough were on the other side of the arena, where no one was sitting, and before Hangin' Tough could begin, most of the audience would have to move to new seats. I had other plans for the evening, and I was now painfully familiar with how long it took this operation to put people into seats. Akela and I left, along with several other kickballers whose patience was exhausted.

So, my take on the new American Gladiators? It's strike filler, so it should be avoided on principle, but most importantly, it was a big stupid waste of my time and for that alone deserves to fail.

But we learned a lesson. It was one we should have known already, but some lessons you need to learn more than once. In this case, the lesson was that attending a live TV taping is supremely unworth it. When you see or hear an audience on a TV show, do not envy them. Despite their enthusiastic vocalizations, rest assured that you are enjoying the show far more than they are. They are there, applauding under duress, for your benefit, so you can enjoy the show in the comfort of your own home. They had to stand around all day to get in there, and sit through laborious set-ups and re-takes. You get the finished product.

Think about it this way: If seeing things live was so great, we never would have needed TV in the first place.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Rich Man's Revenge

At long last, another sketch! You're welcome.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Central Characters In Comedies

Working on my spec pilot script during the strike, I've had occasion to think about the structure of various sitcoms, and I found myself pondering an issue similar to the one TV blogger Jamie Weinman discusses here. I had intended to blog about it, but never quite found the initiative. Ironically, it had even occurred to me that it was the sort of topic that Jamie, if he still reads this blog, would find interesting, so it was fitting, if still surprisingly coincidental, to see him post on practically the same topic.

Jamie's post is about how 30 Rock falls into the mold of shows with a weak central character. That is, a central character without a strong drive who doesn't seem to anchor the show. He draws a parallel to Arrested Development, and how Michael Bluth also failed to anchor that show, theorizing how this may be a factor in why both shows have had difficulty finding a large audience.

I wouldn't put it in quite those terms. As I see it, Michael Bluth and now Liz Lemon are characters who function exactly as they should. Both of them are characters who largely play the straight man and sarcastic commentator to the parade of eccentrics who surround them. However, I do start to wonder whether this cast dynamic is inherently one that creates cult favorites as opposed to breakout hits. Newsradio, whose lead, Dave Foley, struggled to keep a crazy staff under control, was another brilliant show that hovered near hit status for years without ever breaking out.

Since so many of my favorite shows have been built on this dynamic, I think it's safe to say that I enjoy it a great deal. But it seems like many hit shows are built around a central character who is the source of the show's zaniness. Take Homer Simpson of The Simpsons or Michael Scott of The Office. Or even Weinman's example, Charlie of Two and a Half Men. I argue that what sets these characters apart from the likes of Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon is not that they are stronger characters or have clearer agendas, but that they are each the main comic engines of their respective shows. Michael Scott and Homer Simpson are idiots whose stupid decisions actually create story and generate jokes. Charlie is a boozehound sexaholic who always follows his worst instincts. These characters are the joke, whereas Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon are reacting to the joke. (Interestingly, The Office has a character, Jim, who fulfills this very role, and perhaps succeeds by wisely not making Jim the central character.)

Are there any hit shows in which the central character plays sarcastic observer? Bob Newhart's shows were successful and from what I've seen, they seem to fit this mold. The one that comes to my mind is Seinfeld, which itself took years to win an audience. But that show's cast was small enough that the other, bigger characters regularly carried their own stories. Also, unlike the perpetually aggravated Liz Lemon, Michael Bluth or Newsradio's Dave Nelson, Jerry seldom seemed to be at the mercy of the other characters.

Is there something about the format of a show hinging on a central wacky character that makes it more broadly appealing than a show in which a central character plays straight man to a large cast of wacky characters?

First, obviously, a show built around one wacky character is easier to understand. It's easier to "get" that The Office is a show about a clueless boss, or Two and a Half Men is a show about a sleazy guy, and pick up the rest of the nuances of the show as you go along, than to have to learn the specific quirks of many different people who are all funny for different reasons (though The Office does include this element as well).

Second, I think some people find it unpleasant to watch the one sympathetic character on a show beset by others who make that character's life difficult through no real fault of their own -- that was a complaint I heard at least once by a first time viewer of Arrested Development.

But why does the 30 Rock/Arrested Development/Newsradio model seem to yield cult hits? Perhaps it's a certain type of person who can relate to it. Everybody can feel superior to Homer Simpson and laugh, but if you like Michael Bluth, does that mean that you consider yourself to be an island of sanity fending off the weirdoes who surround you? Is there something about these shows that appeals to people who are smart, or think they are smarter than others, or, intelligence aside, simply identify themselves as not fitting in with other people? Perhaps. But then again, surely most people consider themselves the straight man in their own lives.

Can anyone think of more examples of each type of show to either bolster my point or refute it? The straight man as the lead, surrounded by wacky types, versus the comic/idiot character as the lead? Obviously the examples that spring to my mind are culled from my own favorites.

And in case you're wondering which model I'm using in my pilot? It's the straight man as lead. But after giving this topic some thought, perhaps next time it won't be.