Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: Cheers

After squandering his money, ex-major league pitcher Sam Malone run the bar he bought, even though he’s a recovering alcoholic. His bartender is his old sweet-natured ex-coach, his waitress is wicked-tongued Carla, and his two best patrons are nerdy Cliff and sarcastic Norm. In the pilot, high-class Literature Ph.D. Diane stops in with her professor/fiancé Sumner, who leaves her there while he goes to get a ring back from his ex-wife. Sam figures out that she’s been abandoned and reluctantly offers her a job.
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Yes, it’s hilarious and has the effervescence of a great screwball romcom.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 Not really.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
 Yes, an earthy bar owner and his snooty waitress.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
 Yes, it’s about a recovering alcoholic who runs a bar (and hires a posh waitress who despises bar talk.)
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
 No, this breaks the rule that “Nobody every really rebrands”.  NBC wanted to make a smarter, gentler show, like ABC’s “Taxi or CBS’s “MASH”, and succeeded.
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
 Very much so.  This is a warm, comfortable blanket of a show.
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
 Interestingly, not really.  The show deliberately makes it hard to choose between Sam and Diane, even giving them weirdly co-equal name placement in the credits.  This is a not a case where they’re co-heroes, because co-heroes must star in separate storylines.  Instead, they were allowed to fight for supremacy in the audience’s affection as much as they fought for each other’s.  It was an interesting choice, and they pulled it off.
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
 Yes, both Danson and Long had budding movie careers and gave them up to do this show.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
 It’s a very safe space…until Diane walks in and ruins it.  She judges them and they judge her, making it unsafe for the first time.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
 Yes, very much so.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
 It certainly can, but doesn’t have to, because trouble enters the heart of the bar once Diane is hired.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
 Yes, bartending involves a lot of physical labor, a constant barrage of quizzes, and a lot of empathy.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
 Not huge, but to a certain extent, both Sam and Diane are drowning here and throw each other a lifeline, and we sense that they genuinely need each other to be saved.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
 Yes, Sam is dedicated to helping customers with their problems, and tries to do so before each day’s end.
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
 The premise is not established until the final moments, but Diane is already a member of the ensemble by the halfway point, though she doesn’t know it yet, so it works.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
 Yes, the old-timey photographs that make up the opening credits, the in-show Cheers logo.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
 Not really.  That wasn’t a selling point back then.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
 No.  Again, not as much of a big deal back then.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
 Yes, Sam and Diane clearly have a potential romance.
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
 Yes, against his better judgment, Sam hires Diane to work at the bar.
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Yes. Same: his gentle put-down of the kid trying to get a drink proves he’s funny, ethical, and empathetic.  Diane: Her witty banter in the phone scene.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes: Sam: the beloved ex-relief pitcher for the Red Sox and avuncular bar owner.  Diane: the intellectual snot-nose.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes: Sam: the melancholy recovering alcoholic, Diane: the hopeless screw-up.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes: Sam: Take it easy, help everybody, any girl can be seduced, Diane: be smarter, judge everybody, maintain high standards.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes: Sam: old-timey “Quite a fella, that fiancé of yours.” Diane: romantic literature, psychology: “What a shame such an astute observer of human nature is stuck behind a bar.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, Sam: avuncular, Diane: snooty
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, Sam: announcing how the argument is going to end before it ends, Diane: making outside references others won’t get.
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his or her great strength?
 Sam: recovering alcoholism, sleaziness, Diane: Snottiness, naivete
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
 He actually feels that owning the bar is a bad place for him, but he chooses to stay for economic and sentimental reasons.  She definitely feels that she must hang onto those flaws to avoid becoming like the bar patrons.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
 Yes, bars are sleazy places.
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great strength that is the flip side of his or her great flaw?
 Sam: empathy, charm, Diane: intelligence, innocence
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
 Yes, he’s a great bartender, and she turns out to be a waitress savant, who can instantly memorize an order better than Carla.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes: Sam is more of a winner than the patrons, Diane is smarter than everyone else.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, Sam divines the truth about her. She is fascinated by the patrons, though she won’t admit it.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Yes, they’re doing improv together before they’re even introduced, working together to bamboozle his floozie on the phone.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
 Yes, he uses his astute perspective (partially derived from his personal pain) and she uses her vast knowledge.
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
 Yes, Coach and Carla were both veteran character actors.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
 Yes, Cliff and Norm were great finds.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
 Very much so.  In a way, each of them is proven right: Carla’s cynicism and Coach’s open-heartedness are both validated.
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
 Very much so.
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
 Yes, although they care about each other (and even strangers entering the bar) very much.
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
 Yes, Sam owns the bar, and the others can all stand up to him.
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
 Yes, Diane does have to extract their backstories with some effort.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
 Yes, it’s the rare 5 way: Diane is head (so is Cliff, but he’s just a day player at this point), Coach is heart, Norm is stomach, Carla is spleen, Sam is crotch.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Yes: Coach: sports, Norm: “grumbling husband”, Carla: Southie
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Yes: Coach: sweetly dopey, Norm: proletarian, Carla: hostile
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Yes: Coach: agreeing with everybody, Cliff: making up phony trivia, Carla: reversing your turn-of-phrase in a crude manner.
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (21/22)                                                                
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
 Yes, one after the teaser, one in the middle, one before the tag.
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
 The show was somewhat unique at the time for having a teaser unconnected from the rest of the show, but the only “true” act break, in the middle is a nice escalation of the tension.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
 Yes, we will often follow events from opening time to closing time, beginning with a stand-alone gently-humorous bar interaction.
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
 There is just one storyline and a bunch of running gags.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
 No, but it’s fine.
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
 Yes, very much so.  Diane is totally transformed.
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Yes, Sam gradually comes to the realization that the only way to help this customer is to offer a job, despite the fact that doing so will make this no longer a safe space, and her decision is even harder, since it means totally going against her values.
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
 Yes, Sam: serve drinks, Diane: stop in for a quick drink.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
 Yes, Sam has a customer in more trouble than she realizes, Diane is suddenly abandoned there.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
 Yes, Sam becomes proactively protective of Diane, Diane decides to confront Sumner if he comes back.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Yes, Diane rejects Sam’s protectiveness.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, Sam leaves Diane alone, Diane insists Sumner is coming back.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
 Yes, they both realize that Sumner probably isn’t coming back, or at leas not to stay, and they both know the other knows it too.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, he determines to make her see the truth.  Sumner comes back briefly and Diane confronts him, unsuccessfully.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
 Yes, the day is ending, and with it the chances that he will return.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
 Yes, they both hear that Sumner has gone to Barbados with his ex-wife and they both come to realize that she needs to be there.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
 Yes, he offers her a job, but she seems as if she’ll never accept.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes for him, he’s actively courting her.  She becomes proactive at the very end when she enthusiastically commits to waitressing.
After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
 Yes, Diane has a total life change and Sam quietly has a personal revelation when he comes to suspect he needs a woman like Diane.
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 NA, this is the first scene of the whole show.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, a bar is an intimidating place for an underage teen.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 No, they both want to be there.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, it’s all non-plot.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Yes, can he get the drink before Sam examines the ID?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 It’s all character, no plot.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Yes, Sam is oddly upset by it.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we’re rooting for Sam to give this kid his comeuppance.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, the kid wants a drink, Sam wants to let him down gently.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes: The surface conflict: is this a valid ID?  Suppressed conflict: should you be drinking? Can I run a bar ethically?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes, by echoing back the kid’s claim that “war is gross”, he implies that the kid is woefully naïve about the dangers of adult life.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes, Sam’s gentle good humor masks the feelings of melancholy this scene clearly brings up for him.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes, the kid attempts to trick Sam into not checking the ID “I’ll have to tell the mrs!” and Sam tricks the kid into lying more, “What was Vietnam like?”
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Just the object exchange.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, the ID is offered and then taken back.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
 It’s a very small scene.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, the kid leaves empty-handed.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, the kid doesn’t get what he wants but he gets what he needs.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
 It’s the very first scene, but given that this is a show about a bar owner, the audience is automatically going to have the question, “Is this going to be a rotten guy?”  This scene immediately shuts that question down.
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Yes, why is this bartender so melancholy and compassionate?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Not really.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 It ends on a great punchline.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  If the show was about just Sam or Diane, we would go crazy.  Each can see what the other can’t.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes, they each attempt to hide their baggage, except Carla, but the others drag it out.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
 Yes.  Nobody directly confronts Coach on his senility, or Norm on his alcoholism, or Carla on her bad home situation, but they do it through sympathetic looks.  Diane doesn’t want to acknowledge an attraction to Sam, but the situation forces her to say, “You’re a magnificent pagan beast.”
Do the characters listen poorly?
 No, some do, but the others are great listeners, even Diane.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
 Yes: “What are you, nuts?  They’re up to their ears in linebackers!”
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Yes: sports: “You call that a football team?  Did they get a jackrabbit for the back field?  No.  Did they get a gunslinger for quarterback?  No,” and bartending (elaborate drink orders galore)
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Yes, Sam not only does the job, he astutely evaluates and helps everyone with their personal lives, and steers bar conversations in fun directions.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes, Diane, a would-be professor character, frequently begins parallel constructions only to be cut off by Sam halfway through.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, Sam finally yells, “That goof will probably be in Barbados tomorrow rubbing suntan oil on his ex-wife!”
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
 Semi-serious workplace comedy
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
 Yes, our pov character gets a useless degree and has to work in a bar, which happens to a lot of people, but it happens in a more extreme way, with her boss / thesis advisor / fiance dumping her (in more ways than one) in the bar on the eve of their wedding.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
 Yes, warm-hearted.
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
 Sort of: the runners are very light and the main storyline is actually fairly heavy.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
 Yes, Sam turns the kid down for a drink, doing the kid a favor, and the kid resents it, foreshadowing that Sam will help his customers with gentle fairness, but always be left behind after he helps them move on.
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
 Not really.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
 Yes, will Sumner and Diane make that plane?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, the phone becomes more and more ominous.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
 Yes, he has predicted that Sumner will fly to Barbados with his ex-wife, and that turns out to be true, which distracts us from the fact that it’s a bit of a plot contrivance for him to overhear the final phone call.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
 Yes, the plane takes off with Sumner, but without Diane.
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
 Yes, they’re the friendly bar.  We don’t find out about their competition yet, but we sense that this bar is different.
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
“What are you doing?” “Just trying to cheer you up a little bit.” “What a shame such an astute observer of human nature is stuck behind a bar.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Yes, goods: winning vs. community-building, evils: alcoholism vs. loneliness.
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, for Diane: faith vs. wariness, for Sam: bragging rights vs. compassion.
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
 There’s only one storyline.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
 Yes, it’s great that Sumner knows the sweatiest movie, tipping us off that he’s sleazier than the bar customers.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
 Yes, Sam is peddling the poison that ruined his life, and trying to gently protect his customers from his fate while profiting off their self-destructiveness.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
 Yes, lots.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
 Yes, as the episode begins a kid pretends to be a Vietnam veteran, and then when Sam rejects this, the kid says “This is the thanks we get.”  This ties the show into the heart of the ‘80s: which was all about America turning its back on the working class.  Our heroes will spend the next 11 years huddled down in this underground bunker as their proletarian world is dismantled above them.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
 Yes.  This is one of the few episodes where they worry about Norm driving drunk.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes, Sam doesn’t try, Diane tries and fails, in her speech to the tourists.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
 Yes, in getting her to stay did he win power (putting this posh woman under his thumb) or surrender power (inviting her to enrich him and his community with her higher ambitions)?
Total Score: 120/133


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Having Cheers on Netflix Streaming is a glorious thing, isn't it? For me, I've been shocked again and again how much of the show I remember and how much of it shaped my comedic sensibilities without my awareness. ("Oh my god, I got that angle from Cheers? I thought that was mine! DAMMIT!") The entire first season never left the bar and it still worked.

Is Diane's character type, the "stuffy and pretentious Ivy League intellectual," still used in comedies? Shelley Long killed it, but the character type felt antiquated. My hunch is that the "stuffy intellectual" plays off of an anxiety that's not so prevalent in the American public anymore, so we don't see it much. Frasier and Niles Crane kept it up, but they may have been the last of the breed. "Intellectual" on teevee now skews towards "Aspergerish science nerds" now, right?

Has "stuffy intellectual" gone the way of "lovable, hilarious drunk" as a disused comic type?

Matt Bird said...

As I'll talk about later in the week, I was surprised as I rewatched the early seasons at how often we're expected to get and laugh along with Diane's intellectual humor. The whole idea of having TV and movies (early Woody Allen movies, for instance) that makes sly Russian Literature jokes (in amongst broader humor) is just gone. You would hardly see supposedly "high-toned" shows like Downton Abbey making those sorts of references today.

Remember when Diane made an avant garde film to convince Woody's hayseed parents that they should let him stay in Boston, but Woody had to inform her "Sorry, Miss Chambers, they thought it was too derivative of Godard."

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Woody's joke about Godard doesn't require knowledge of Godard's style to function as a joke, it just requires that you understand that "Godard" is the name of a fancy-pants movie director. Which you could pretty much pull from context even if you didn't know it.

From what I understand, The Big Bang Theory treats science in a similar way. It drops in terms or names from the field in such a way that even a Math Doofus like me could understand the gag. From an episode [holy crap there's a blog that transcribes whole episodes of BBT the internet is so weird you guys]:

Sheldon: Are you suggesting the work of a neurobiologist like Babinski could ever rise to the significance of a physicist like Clarke-Maxwell or Dirac?

Amy: I’m stating it outright. Babinski eats Dirac for breakfast and defecates Clarke-Maxwell.

Sheldon: You take that back.

Amy: Absolutely not. My colleagues and I are mapping the neurological substrates that subserve global information processing, which is required for all cognitive reasoning, including scientific inquiry, making my research ipso facto prior in the ordo cognoscendi. That means it’s better than his research, and by extension, of course, yours.

Leonard: I’m sorry, I’m-I’m still trying to work on the defecating Clark Maxwell...

That's a whole lotta gibberish to me, but I still get the gag. How many of Diane Chambers's jokes do you have to actually understand the reference to appreciate?

James Kennedy said...

James Clerk Maxwell.

I think Harvey's point is valid, though. In both cases the highbrow reference is simply processed as "highbrow reference" but you don't need to actually know physics (or have a deep background in film) to get the joke(s).

Matt Bird said...

Both shows do a great job of doing what you're both pointing out: making smart jokes that anybody can get just from the context.

So yes, thankfully, everyone can laugh every time, but nevertheless that joke is even funnier if you *do* know who Godard is, and that was also frequently true of Diane's zingers.

(The big difference, of course, is that even though TBBT is smarter than most smart people give it credit for, it's of course much less funny than Cheers, both for those who do get the jokes and those who don't, which is why Cheers could get away with not having a laugh track (they had a live audience instead) while TBBT without a laugh track sounds like this:


(It's actually interesting to think of TBBT as the anti-Cheers: a down-on-her-luck working class girl has no choice but to join a group of over-educated academics and but she never stops snorting with condescending derision at their bumbling ways.)

Matt Bird said...

I'm reminded of watching "The Simpsons" in college when Marge was admiring a picture of her mom in a swimsuit as a young woman, and her mom says, "All the boys liked me, it used to drive my girlfriends crazy." "Who were your girlfriends?" "Frances Farmer, Zelda Fitzgerald and Little Sylvie Plath"

Two or three of us died laughing and the rest of the kids were looking at us like we were assholes.

Sometimes you have to be willing to lob one over the head of most of your audience in order to make a few of them howl like banshees.