Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Mirkin

The magic xylophone

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The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show

Earlier this morning, I was browsing online when I noticed that Mark Kirkland, a longtime director for The Simpsons, was answering questions on Reddit. I was immediately excited, both because Kirkland directed such legendary installments as “Last Exit to Springfield”—often considered the best episode that the series ever did—and “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” and because he’s a reliably funny and smart presence on the show’s commentary tracks. When I clicked on the page, however, I found that the top-ranked question was something that I probably should have expected:

In episode 2F09 when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

For those who are lucky enough not to get the joke, this is a reference to the episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” in which Homer takes similar questions from a roomful of nerds. Homer responds: “I’ll field that one. Let me ask you a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says ‘Genius at Work’ spend all his time watching a children’s cartoon show?” To which the nerd replies: “I withdraw my question.”

Even within the vast universe of repurposed Simpsons quotes, which I’ve elsewhere compared to a complete metaphorical language, this is about as canonical as it gets: it’s a reference that must get rehashed online somewhere every few minutes, usually in discussions about some absurdly nitpicky aspect of a movie or television show. If Kirkland had simply responded with the expected quote from Homer, the commenters would have expressed their approval and moved on. But Kirkland didn’t seem to recognize the reference, and he replied with a straight face, leading to a minor explosion of indignation in the comments that followed. Redditors simply couldn’t believe that Kirkland didn’t know the joke, and many held it against him personally. As one wrote: “I honestly don’t think he got the reference. If I’m right, I think it explains a lot about the quality of The Simpsons these days.” Another replied: “Sadly true.” To their credit, a few other commenters responded with the obvious rejoinders. Kirkland has spent the last three decades working on new episodes of the series; it isn’t fair to expect him to immediately recognize a line that aired almost twenty years ago from a script that he didn’t even direct; and fans who have watched every episode from the show’s golden years a dozen times and quoted them repeatedly to one another are operating in a different frame of reference than the creative staff. (Anecdotal evidence certainly bears this out: the fans have consistently trounced the writers in trivia contests. As onetime show runner David Mirkin once said in their defense: “We’re too busy creating the new stuff.”)

The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show

And yet the whole exchange still rankled me, to the point where I feel obliged to write about it here. There’s one big point that ought to be italicized for emphasis: the commenters who quoted an episode word for word, and then became upset when one of the show’s most valuable contributors failed to give them the automatic reply they wanted, are unconsciously embodying the very thing that the original joke was mocking. “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” remains one of the show’s most fascinating episodes, and its relevance has only increased as the years have gone by. Its writer, David X. Cohen, conceived it as a commentary on a show that he honestly believed was nearing the end of its run, and even if he was off by a few decades, its jokes about fans and their relationship to a favorite series are still funny and accurate. What he couldn’t have anticipated was how the compounding effect of time would make the satire almost too mild. This is the episode, after all, that includes both the lines quoted above and this equally famous—and prescient—exchange:

Comic Book Guy: Last night’s Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.
Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart: What? They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.
Comic Book Guy (after a pause): Worst episode ever.

Cohen may have intended this as a humorous exaggeration, but it was really a glimpse of the show’s future, and Reddit’s exchange with Kirkland is just a particularly stark example. This isn’t the place to go yet again into the reasons for the show’s decline in quality over the last fifteen years, except to state that the problem almost certainly isn’t that the writers and directors have failed to memorize the old episodes and constantly quote them to one another. If anything, the show has suffered from being too much of an echo chamber, leading to a reliance on throwaway lines and easy gags over coherent stories—which argues that the series should be turned less inward on itself, not more. But it reminds us of one of the show’s underlying problems: as vocal as its fans are, they don’t seem to know what they want from it. (As the leader of an audience focus group says in the very same episode: “So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”) At this late date, it seems safe to say that The Simpsons is what it is, and that any given fan’s relationship with the show is something that he’ll have to work out for himself. But a decent first step to any kind of understanding would be to watch “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” once more, and, instead of mindlessly parroting its lines, to take a good look at it and ask which character reminds us the most of ourselves. Because the magic xylophone tolls for thee.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2016 at 9:00 am

Speeding it up, slowing it down

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Dolly Parton

By now, many of you have probably heard “Slow Ass Jolene,” the viral version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” slowed down by twenty-five percent, which transforms it from a polished crossover country track to a haunting, soulful gay love song. It’s a reminder, first of all, of how great the original is—it’s probably my second-favorite country song of all time, second only to “Wichita Lineman”—and, more subtly, of how powerful a change in tempo can be. Recording artists have been aware of this, of course, for almost as long as they’ve been in the studio. Offhand, I know that the piano coda to “Layla,” a song to which I’ve devoted a lot of thought, was sped up slightly during the mixing session, changing its key from C major to somewhere between C and C sharp. The Beatles made great use of this, too: “When I’m Sixty-Four” was sped up in the studio to give the vocals a more bouncy feel, and a similar trick was used on the piano in “In My Life,” which was recorded with the tape playing at half speed and restored to normal in the mix.

Occasionally, you’ll see a similar approach taken in other media. David Mirkin, the showrunner responsible for what are arguably the greatest seasons of The Simpsons, would often speed up an entire episode very slightly rather than cut material to fit the show into its time slot, which is why the dialogue in episodes like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” seems to zip along so quickly. Less successfully, during the editing of Terminator 2, James Cameron was having trouble getting the movie down to its contractual length when he was hit by a bright idea: why not just remove one frame of film from every second of the movie? The result, unfortunately, was unwatchable, but I at least give Cameron credit for ingenuity. (Cameron began his career as a screenwriter, and I’d like to think that this brainstorm was the result of the sort of fudging that most writers do to get their scripts down to an acceptable page count. Terry Rossio has a wonderful rundown of all these tricks—from changing the line spacing to physically shrinking the page on a photocopier—in a hilarious post on his blog.)

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather

Nearly all these examples involve compressing the underlying material to be faster and shorter, which is generally a good impulse to follow. I’ve gone on record as saying that every rough draft ought to be cut by ten percent, and sometimes it’s the pressure of an arbitrary constraint—a television time slot, a contractual length—that forces you to make these tough choices. Their absence can lead to results like the fourth season of Arrested Development, in which nearly every episode is allowed to run ten minutes too long, often with unfortunate consequences. Yet as “Slow Ass Jolene” reminds us, it can also be good to take things more slowly. Just as the tone of “Jolene” is radically altered by a slower tempo, a slow book or movie can draw us in when a faster approach would have left us untouched. The author Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X,” argues that the slow openings of a writer like Thomas Mann force the two halves of the brain to come into sync, allowing us to imagine the action more vividly, and I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in writers as dissimilar as Marcel Proust and John Crowley.

As for movies, I don’t know any examples of films that were physically slowed down in the editing room, but the same issues of tempo and pacing guide an editor’s selection of footage, and there are times when slower is better. There’s no better example than the first cut of The Godfather. After watching the cut, which was slightly over two hours long, producer Robert Evans reportedly said to Coppola:

The picture stinks. Got it? The Untouchables is better. You shot a great film. Where the fuck is it—in the kitchen with your spaghetti? It sure ain’t on the screen. Where’s the family, the heart, the feeling—left in the kitchen too?…What studio head tells a director to make a picture longer? Only a nut like me. You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer. Now give me a movie.

Now, this is Evans’s version of events, and he’s nothing if not self-serving. But it’s a matter of record that the initial cut of The Godfather lost much of the material, especially in the first hour, that drew us into that movie’s world, and if it hadn’t been restored, the history of cinema would be different. Knowing when to speed things up and when to slow things down is one of the trickiest questions in an artist’s life, and only time and experience can teach us the difference.

What do you do on your fiftieth revision?

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A page from my rough draft

Recently, I’ve found myself in a peculiar position: I’ve been working on a novel without a deadline. As regular readers of this blog know, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire were both written under considerable time constraints—about nine months from signing to delivery—and I try to turn out each of my short stories in about two or three weeks, both because I have other projects in the pipeline and because the financial argument for this kind of work is already borderline as it is. For the last few months, however, I’ve been revising a manuscript without a contract in hand and no particular timeframe. Every few weeks, I’ll send a new version to my agent for comments, and so far, we’ve gone back and forth five or six times, with the story getting stronger with every pass. Even when I don’t have a new set of notes in hand, I’m generally polishing and reworking the novel on my own. And when you look back at the version numbers of the drafts I’ve saved—not to mention the countless iterations this book went through when I first began working on it more than seven years ago—it’s clear that I’ve read and revised some of these chapters close to fifty times.

So what does the fiftieth revision of a manuscript even look like? Rationally speaking, there should come a point at which further change is impossible: even if the draft could use some additional work, I’ve lived with these scenes for so long that it’s hard to see them with anything approaching an objective eye. I’ve been curious about this myself, so I’ve been scrutinizing my own process with more than usual attention. What I’ve found, not surprisingly, is that my changes these days tend to focus on technical matters, particularly length, clarity, and pacing, and I’m past the point where I can make major changes to the plot or characters on my own. This is as much the result of caution as anything else. When you’ve read these scenes as many times as I have, there’s a natural tendency to get a little tired of what you’ve written, and with it comes the temptation to make changes just so you can look at something new. And that’s dangerous. I’m often reminded of what the legendary showrunner David Mirkin said of his time on The Simpsons: when you’ve rewritten a joke thirty times, you stop laughing, and it’s important to remember how funny it was when you first heard it. Otherwise, you’ll end up changing it at the last minute, and the new version is rarely as good as it was on the twenty-ninth or thirtieth read.

A page from my rough draft

As a result, I’ve been treading carefully when it comes to major revisions. What I’ve been doing, instead, is rendering, in both senses of the word: I’m focusing on highly granular levels of detail, making sure that each sentence sustains the larger structure that I’m trying to preserve, while also boiling the story down to its essence. Even after several dozen passes, I’m always amazed at how much I can still cut: I’ve continued to add new material where necessary, but I’ll cut the rest of it down elsewhere, so the draft has hovered more or less consistently at around 95,000 words. (The fact that the longest version of this story once weighed in at 225,000 words, and intermediate incarnations at 120,000, may give you a sense of how intense this process has been.) The result is highly compressed while covering the same amount of ground as before, and one of the great challenges of this draft has been keeping the reader oriented in a very complicated plot while putting them through the same paces more quickly. Fortunately, this kind of endless recalibration is exactly where the rendering process shines, and I’ve spent hours tuning a few crucial paragraphs until the result hums right along, which is a luxury I haven’t always had for my most recent projects.

More than anything else, though, I’ve begun to appreciate the importance of good notes. As I’ve said before, I no longer entirely trust my own instincts to tell me whether or not a scene is working: it’s like trying to objectively evaluate your own face, which can lead to choices you’ll later regret if you indulge in impulsive cosmetic surgery. The notes I’ve been getting serve as a sort of map to guide me through territory that has become so familiar that I no longer really see it: I may not agree with every critique, but they invariably allow me to view the same pages from a new angle, and they free me to tackle substantive changes that I’d be wary of making on my own. They also serve as a necessary check on my own intuitions, which remain sound—or so I’d like to think—on the sentence level, but feel a little less reliable these days when it comes to the big picture. Whether or not the result will be worth the effort is something I can’t predict, although I’m hopeful it will see print in some form. If nothing else, though, it’s taught me things about process that I know I’ll put to use in the future. I may never revise a novel this many times again, but if all goes well, and I can distill what I’ve learned here into the books I write later, it won’t be necessary.

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2013 at 8:55 am

Posted in Writing

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The joy of commentary tracks

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While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.

It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.

At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.

What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.

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