May 6, 2011


When I was writing 30-second radio spots, as much as I wanted to make sparkling little masterpieces, the overriding priority was to crank 'em out and get 'er done. It makes sense, since as often as not I would rip the last page out of the manual typewriter (this was a few years back) and carry my stack of work to the production room where I proceeded to voice, add music, and dub to cartridge as many as a dozen or so, all in the space of an hour. An hour from starting at the typewriter, not from walking into the studio.

Nobody wants to run the same commercial year and in year out, and even if they did, we desperately craved some variety as much as our poor listeners. The alternatives? Rest the advertiser a while, then bring 'em back on. Or - write new spots and keep 'em running. Uh, guess which one always won out?

So if I had to write a fresh new angle every time, well, you can imagine how unrealistic that would be with the kind of crank-'em-out pressure we were under. The goal became to find a concept with "legs," meaning spots that could hammer home the same selling pitch but with enough slight variations to make them easy to churn out, masquerading as fresh, or as the TV networks will trumpet, "All new!" Yeah, right.

The big boys look for the same thing. That's how you get the AFLAC duck. Bookend him with any scene you like, as long as he shouts "AFLAC" at some point, you've got another winner. Easy to write, easy to sell, and not even too irritating for us viewers. The hardest part is coming up with the concept in the first place, but boy is it worth the effort when you find one with "legs."

And now, back to the continuing adventures...In our last blog post, bookworm Ted was wondering why he's lost interest in episodic TV. As we rejoin his confused mental maunderings, let's see if he's made any progress mit zis puzzlement...

Maybe Shakespeare wasn't trying for home run masterpieces when he did all those Henrys and Richards. Maybe he was just trying to earn a living. Maybe Coppola wasn't even trying to make a sequel even more highly regarded than the original (Godfathers I and II), it just happened that way when he was trying to make the best movies he could to put butts in the seats and a (nice) roof over his family's head. Maybe Sue Grafton isn't trying to write D Is for Dostoevsky after all, and the guys who dreamed up The Honeymooners for Gleason and Carney weren't thinking, "How can we put them in a situation in sync with the dramatic arc?" Maybe they were all just looking for concepts with legs.

And my point? As much as I loved MASH and House and Upstairs, Downstairs and Happy Days and Eight Is Enough and all the other silly and wonderful and heartbreaking TV shows I have loved over the years, maybe I have come to prefer the stand-alone work to the concept with legs.

I don't think the Coen brothers have written any recurring characters, nor has Woody Allen. "A" for effort, for doing everything from scratch instead of starting from a mix. Although I must confess a real fondness for Sherlock Holmes, and Sayres' Lord Peter Wimsey, and any number of other recurring characters. Of course, this betrays my preference for reading. Most days I'd rather re-read a favorite novel than try to get interested in any newer TV series.

Yes, I loved seeing Newhart walk off the elevator, and chanting "Hi, Bob" with my dorm buddies and the cast on screen. I loved hearing the Skipper call Gilligan "Little Buddy," and all the other catch phrases built in to these things over the years. I may even come to love them again.

But for now, stand-alone movies and books and TV shows and podcasts are holding my attention even when outstanding work like episode 2 of Game of Thrones leaves me indifferent.

To be fair, some artists produce work along similar lines almost like a series, even when they don't mean to. Novelist Joanne Harris doesn't write a recurring character like Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, but she keeps writing about unusual single women of mystery with daughters, living in small villages. And Richard Russo seems to have a thing with diners. Both great novelists, though, and probably not intentionally setting out to repeat themselves.

Just one more thing. I really am enjoying my newfound appreciation for podcasts. The latest This American Life with Ira Glass is called "Prom." One part of the podcast is an interview with Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley High series of novels for teenagers, some 35 of which involve a high school prom in some way. You think that's a lot of books? Not even close. Wikipedia says there are 183 novels in the first series alone, and several spinoffs have followed.

On the podcast, the author says there are 500 Sweet Valley books out now. Ghostwriters are involved, of course. Do you think any of them rise to the level of Harris's Chocolat or Russo's Empire Falls? Seems doubtful.

The punchline - HBO made a tremendous four-part mini-series from Empire Falls. You could make the case that the novel was too long and complex to fit in just two or three hours. Or you could say that HBO figured they'd found something with legs.

You know that feeling of dread that comes when you hear a great movie has been turned into a series? Sometimes it works out well, like American Graffiti and Happy Days. But even in the best-case scenario, would anyone really argue that catchphrases from the Fonz ("Heyyyy...") measure up to the movie's more considerable weight?

What do you think?

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