Thursday, July 10, 2008

Laugh Tracks, Lazy Writing, and Respecting the Audience

My 17 day excursion to Europe was marked by the usual lacks. Clean clothing. Internet. Kosher food. To that list I wish to add: quality reading. I was limited to one issue of New York Magazine purchased in Newark Airport (I was curious what it's got that so tempted Leitch), a copy of The Elements of Style, and, as part of a homework assignment for publishing school, a manuscript of a book by some dude named Jonathan Green, titled K Blows Top, detailing Khrushchev's various visits to the US. These pickings seemed especially slim because Ryanair's luggage-weight restrictions convinced me to leave DFW's Infinite Jest at home, even though I was 276 pages in (only 705 to go! Not including endnotes.) upon departure.

Back in the States, I've been carrying IJ with me pretty much everywhere. A friend asked me--probably upon some unsolicited singing of the book's praise on my part--why I liked this book so much, and I repeated something that Dave Eggers mentioned in the foreword to the tenth anniversary edition, that the book is over 1,000 pages long, and there is not one lazy sentence. Then some nine-year old came over and started crying about something, so I didn't get a chance to elaborate on why I would like a book just because there are no lazy sentences. And, thinking about it now, it's not so much that each sentence says what it wants to say in an interesting/non-cliche/unlazy way, but that the book is tight. In the 276 pages that I've read so far, there aren't wasted sentences. Each chapter and paragraph and sentence adds something. IJ is--if such a thing is possible in a phonebook sized novel--concise. It's free of redundancies. This is accomplished, I believe, because DFW respects the reader. Not everything is immediately obvious, but the reader who pays attention will make connections, notice trends, and, eventually, figure out what the hell is meant by all those obscure and invented acronyms. The experimentation that is pulled off here just wouldn't be possible if the author felt compelled to perform the literary equivalent of ruining a joke by explaining how and why it's funny.

It's for this reason that I stopped watching TV which doesn't respect me enough to allow me to decide if something is funny. It's not just that the laugh track on shows is insulting/distracting; it's also that these shows are written for the laugh track, instead of for the audience. I'll let this guy explain, in a post helpfully titled "Laugh Tracks Suck":
Writers avoid surprising or challenging the live audience, because if they're not following along, then the laugh track suffers. So they stick to tired, conventional setups and interchangeable jokes along the same lines (setup/punch line, pratfall, sight gag) we've seen a million times.
I think this problem extends beyond TV, though. There's writing which feels like it's written with a laugh track. The joke is made so obvious that it seems like the author thinks that letting the reader know that that last line was supposed to be funny becomes more important that actually just writing something creatively funny: Oh, that was a joke: I better laugh now. Rick Reilly here comes to mind.

On the other hand, I never get the sense that David Foster Wallace writes with a laugh track.

This is the part of the post where I start wondering about the effect of the author's audience. I don't think it's a coincidence that Leitch, one of the writers who most consistently respects his readers, has repeatedly made clear how he writes for himself and those people who choose to read his work. He's not trying to please everyone, because he knows that's not possible, and--even if it was--it wouldn't be any fun. But maybe even more importantly, the format he uses allows for immediate feedback and criticism. If he writes a post that's meandering and repetitive and boring, he's going to hear about it from a demanding set of readers and commenters. The writing isn't lazy because it can't afford to be. Leitch needs to respect his readers because they'll give him hell if he doesn't.

These last few paragraphs may have been a little bit vague, so let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. (If I realize that the last few paragraphs aren't the clearest they could possibly be, is it laziness that causes me to acknowledge vagueness without, you know, revising and rewriting? Perhaps. But this is just a blog that no one reads. It's probably supposed to be a little lazy.) Last week I saw Will Smith's new movie, Hancock. There are two aspects of this movie which immediately struck me as lazy. The first half of the movie is this repetitive stream of one joke: Hancock is a superhero, but he's mean to people. The director thought it necessary to devote about eight different scenes to hammering home this one point. Hey look, Hancock is being mean to that kid. Ooh, now he's damaging public property. And now he's mean to this other kid. Once this basic premise is established (which happens within like the first eight minutes of the film) the rest of the first half of the movie doesn't add anything. It detracts. These scenes are nothing more than filler in a movie which, even with these scenes included, clocks in at only 92 minutes. This, to me, represents a lack of respect for the audience. Director Peter Berg apparently never considered the possibility that the audience would either notice or care that the first half of the movie is just one gag, played over again without innovation or development.

Once the director (finally) tires of this prank, the film shifts gears and begins focusing on Hancock and his search for his own identity. This is all well and good, but the film never bothers to answer any of the questions it raises. The brief explanations of this superhero's background are beyond vague: he is a god or an angel. That's it. No elaboration is provided, because, for some reason, Berg couldn't imagine that his audience would be interested in learning about this character that maybe he, the director, would have good reason for the audience to care about . More important to him is the climatic fight scene. The film just flat out ignores any story which it could possibly tell. Which is misguided, because the best part about superhero movies is the creation of the hero's universe. I want to know origin stories, history, and secret weaknesses. I don't need a superhero movie that's only one long string of action sequences. We already have Rambo for that.

That's not to say that no information can be withheld. DFW does that all over the place in IJ (for example, with the nature of the book's eponymous film). But he always does it to arrange suspense and an eventual revelation. Hancock somehow ends without filling in any of the obvious lacunae. Are they waiting for a sequel to explain the first movie? I, for one, will pass on the inevitable sequel. You, Mr. Berg, already had a chance to explain yourself, your movie, and your title character, and you decided that I wouldn't be interested.


Josh said...

Glad the snowman is back in bidness.

joshua said...

It's sad but most books, TV shows and movies can't afford to be innovative, creative or interesting. It's become a business, so if the easiest way to make a quick buck is to attract a large audience of the masses with simplistic plots, mindless action, and bufoonery that's what they're going to do. Even if good writers are willing to sacrifice wealth and popularity (except from educated loyal cult followers) for quality, it's diffucult to find producers or publishers willing to shell out the cash to finance them. And that's why Arrested Development is gone.

Ariel said...

Nice post. And what you say about Hancock goes for the Hulk. There was no character development like there was in a great superhero movie, like Ironman. Just random blinking flashbacks to a scene that can't be made out.
And in response to Joshua- AD is gone because the public wasn't ready for such a show five years ago. Now they are; which is why shows like The Office, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Flight of the Concords are doing so well.

Avi said...

I think there is a tendency to play it safe in order to ensure financial success, but I think it goes beyond that. "Hancock," for example, had all the big-budget, mass-appeal aspects of a summer movie. It just failed to be, you know, good. No one would have objected to a quick dash of plot development or backstory. I wasn't looking for something innovative; I was just looking for unlazy competence.

joshua said...

Ariel, I think the public was ready for AD, the problem was Fox wasn't. How can they not realize after trying so hard to find a viable comedy besides the simpsons (I mean back when it was good, as far as I'm concerned the simpsons died six years ago), and try they did (there are so many terrible shows I could list here but I thik the worst may have been Stacked [pam Anderson as a librarian] and titus), only to discover it in AD but not realize it because people were downloading it and not watching it live. It's sad that they didn't have their hands on the pulse of their audiences, that's why there was a writers strike over "new media" and that's why a few networks got smart and started offering their shows on-line because they realized they couldn't stop people from downloading and they might as well and try and cash in.

Avi, sadly enough nowadays what most movies provide is lazy incompetence. Think aboout how "Big Mammas House 2" could be tops in the box office with little more than fart jokes and Martin Lawrence in a fat suit. It's not just about playing it safe, if studios think what people with their shortened attention spans nowadays want is just a stream of action or comedy scenes without a viable plot to connect them than why bother paying a good writer to come up with a decent story? Meaning, the main problem is a growing tendency of laziness and incompetence in the public who just want their fast food and 1000 channels so they can flip through them all and watch 30 seconds of each show, if there's no demand for quality than why should it be provided?