Louis CK and The Creative Process

I’ve watched a lot of Louis CK over the last five years and most recently his 2013 comedy special Oh My God and the first four episodes of the fourth season of Louis, his brilliant TV series. As I’ve watched, I’ve caught onto one of his tricks, which is completely illustrated here in this 90 second clip from the first episode this season:

So let’s try to deconstruct what he did here. He started with an observation, which in this case is pretty banal: Garbagemen early in the morning are noisy. A lesser comedian might have stopped there. “Didja ever notice how garbagemen always come by when you’re sleeping? Doncha just hate that?” Observational comedy, ladies and gentlemen.

But here’s what I think he did next. He took a quality of that noise—it sounds like they’re right in the room with you—and imagined what would happen if that were really true, that they were in the room with you. How would they get into the room? What would happen once they were there? What would be the most funny reaction to that situation? In this case, it’s acting as though it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

Bill Buxton has a term for this kind of creative thinking: Order of Magnitude (OOM). He says to take a characteristic and stretch it as a conceptual thinking trick. “If something changes by an order of magnitude along any meaningful dimension, it is no longer the same thing.”

Louis CK uses this trick all the time, whether it’s garbagemen in his bedroom or in Oh My God in a bit about stepping over dead children in the mall in a world where murder is legal. The mastery, though, is in how he stretches the audience, most of whom certainly wouldn’t normally make such conceptual leaps on their own, with him. And how he does it is by building on small moments of detail. Look at how the garbage scene above grows, cut by cut. At first, you are empathizing with him asleep. But then, without your realizing it, you’re standing outside the scene laughing, because we’re first startled by the men crashing through the window, pushing the scene clearly into fantasy, but mostly because his reaction is not what ours would be. He remains asleep, then groggily wakes up.

Like the best comedians, he does this to show us an insight from that observation. What does this mean? In this case, it’s that the world isn’t outside our window; it’s right here in our bedrooms, in our dreams. His blasé reaction is the acceptance of the noise of the world. I’m certainly over-analyzing it because this bit is a trifle, but it’s an amusing one. And one that can teach us a lot about how to take an observation, no matter how minor, and using Order of Magnitude thinking, turn it into something new, something with meaning.

Mad Men is a Better Show than The Sopranos

I know there is no reason to trust my judgement in predicting TV shows after my last two blunders. But this time is different, and on the basis of a season and a half of episodes, I have to say: Mad Men is better than The Sopranos in all the ways that it counts. Mad Men isn’t as groundbreaking as Lost or as richly complex as The Wire, but neither was The Sopranos, and that show got oodles of accolades. Mad Men, however, is the superior show.

Everyone seems to forget that The Sopranos was a wildly uneven show in tone, character development, and plot. Lots of plot happened that seemed disconnected to reality–even the reality set up by the show itself. Whole plotlines and characters were started and dropped, never to be seen again. Some of the character development made little sense and seemed gimmicky, like AJ’s suicide attempt or Uncle Junior’s dementia. You’d have a wacky episode with Christopher and Paulie getting stuck in the woods, then another with the graphic rape of Dr. Melfi. The show’s apologists (and there are legions) will say, well, that’s how life is. But this is a scripted drama, not life. I want storytelling and narrative arcs that lead somewhere, not just to a final blackout.

Compare this to Mad Men. Mad Men, like another great show Deadwood, has a consistent tone and is pitch perfect. Characters are well-drawn and nuanced. Plots lead to revelations: both moving the story forward and by revealing character. And, let’s not forget, doing so partially in the space/difference between the era of the 1960s to our own. This is no easy feat. If you don’t think this can be done badly, you didn’t see Swingtown.

The Sopranos had to use violence for shock and punctuation. Mad Men uses words. Tension in Mad Men comes from character, not necessarily situation.

The Sopranos, at its heart, was a family soap opera. It didn’t really care overmuch about how Tony and Crew worked, except in the broadest way. Which is why a lot of the intrigue with the other Families felt muddled and/or flat. Mad Men though is a workplace drama, like Hill Street Blues or Homicide: Life on the Street. It reveals character by how people behave doing their work. Which, in a cruder way, The Sopranos did as well, but the extremeness of the situation (whacking people) warping the situation so that all subtly was rubbed out.

Mad Men cares about the context the drama lives in. The characters aren’t modern day types dropped into spiffy suits. We can see how their characters are shaped by the time and visa versa. We barely even knew what decade it was with The Sopranos, aside from some 9/11 references.

In any case, Mad Men now deserves your attention and your post-Sopranos praise.

An Open Letter to the Producers of the new Bionic Woman

Dear Producers,

I really want to like Bionic Woman. Really, I do. Michelle Ryan is a dish, Miguel Ferrer is a great actor, and I’m a fan of Battlestar Galactica. But like Katee Sackhoff says in your pilot episode, “You’re going to have to do better than that.” Because as it is now, your show kind of sucks.

You’re combining the worst of Alias with the worst of Heroes: clunky storylines, bad dialog and character development, and villains who are more interesting than the good guys. Not to mention logical inconsistencies that make even well-wishing viewers wince. I picked your show as my much-watch for this season. Please don’t be like my 2006-7 pick.

You didn’t ask for it, but here’s my advice:

  • Get the sister involved. Having her not know about Jamie’s secret life is amazingly implausible, since she is a high school student who lives with her. By themselves. She should be like Xander and Willow on Buffy: non-super friends who help out.
  • Get real supervillians. You shouldn’t be an undercover show foiling nameless terrorists. BW is a superhero show and you’ve already got an awesome supervillain in the Sackhoff character. You need more. May I suggest Sackhoff is putting together other messed-up bionic people? Building them herself, perhaps? Someone is doing her additional bionics.
  • Make the organization Jamie works for much more ambiguous. It will make the show much richer as their values clash with Jamie’s. I shouldn’t have to tell the people who wrote BSG this.
  • Speaking of which, Jamie needs some character. Any character. She is painfully bland right now, for a bartender who was supposed to go to Harvard (huh?). She should be more interesting than just the fact she has bionic parts in her.
  • Make the super powers, well, super. This early in the show, plots should be exploring the limits of Jamie’s bionic powers, what she can and cannot do. Can she be upgraded?
  • And speaking of that, there are a crazy amount of cyborg themes that are not being explored here. Incorporate more cyberpunk elements. What does it mean to be a woman who is half machine? Can she be hacked? Can she jack into a network? You’ve turned a woman into a device, a weapon. You can’t not explore this.
  • Make the bionic parts vulnerable. They are machine parts. They break, need repairs, etc. She’s not super woman.

And those are just off the top of my head. Please turn this bionic ship around. There’s some real promise in this premise, if you’ll only realize it.

Thanks for listening,


Next Fall’s TV Pick: Bionic Woman

Every year at about this time, the networks unveil their new fall series and I pick the one (or two) that will likely make it to my TiVo Season Pass. It’s an old habit I picked up when I was a writer for TV Guide after college. Last year, I made the disastrous choice of Studio 60 which I have since, heartbroken, stopped watching and NBC has mercifully pulled the plug on.

This year, my choice is Bionic Woman.

It looks like it is going to be a great mixture of Alias (RIP), Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica. Katee “Starbuck” Sackhoff plays the cyborg villain and the fetching Michelle Ryan (with a great American accent) is Jamie Summers. And the always great Miguel Ferrer seemingly plays the new Oscar. An article in the LA Times has some good details:

The NBC line is that the new “Bionic Woman” is a “re-imagining,” not a remake. Executive producer David Eick, a “Galactica” veteran, believes that the familiar title and premise may in fact give the writers more room to monkey with the concept, paradoxical as that sounds.
The series that spawned all those plastic dolls and rust-susceptible lunchboxes seems more innocent than ever alongside the new, noir-ish “Bionic Woman,” which tosses ’70s optimism (technology can make us stronger!) in favor of post-9/11 paranoia (technology can make us expire!). It even concludes with a rain-soaked, city rooftop fight that looks descended from “Blade Runner,” that ultimate classic of sci-fi noir. This is a “Bionic Woman” for anxiety-ridden grown-ups, not lunchbox-toting kids.

It can’t be any worse than Studio 60. I mean, after all, it does have sexy cyborg women fighting each other in the rain. Aaron Sorkin, take note.

Give Aaron Sorkin His Drugs Back

Few people, I’m sure, were as excited as I was about the announcement last April that Aaron Sorkin was going to have a new TV show in the 2006-7 season. I blogged about setting my Tivo to record it six months before the show aired. But after watching this last episode (“Monday”) of Studio 60, preceded as it was by a string of incredibly uneven episodes, I’m throwing in the towel. I simply can’t watch anymore. It’s like visiting a hospice where talent lays dying every week.

This show is such a disaster that makes me have to re-think whether the previous Sorkin shows I loved so much–the early seasons of The West Wing and my dear, cherished Sports Night–were really as good as I thought they were. (For Sports Night, yes. Especially season 1. For West Wing…the jury’s still out.)

Studio 60 seems to have it all: a pretty cushy time slot with a buzz show (Heroes) leading in to it. Plenty of promos from the network. A rapid fan base generating buzz early. A cast that most producers would sacrifice their aged mothers for. Guest stars! Sting playing a lute! But all this is thrown out the window by the wildly varying tone, under- or over-written character development, and the utter improbability of pretty much every situation. I’ve watched episodes of 24 where I have to suspend my disbelief less. The comedy is flat, the drama shrill and preachy, the sexual tension weird and creepy when it’s not cold and lifeless. Is it a comedy? Then why do the sketches all suck? Is it a drama? Set at a comedy show? Why? Are we supposed to care about millionaires who have to put on a show once a week? What the hell went wrong?

Then I remembered: Sorkin’s now clean and sober. That’s what’s different from the earlier shows! I say, get this man a speedball, stat! As much as I can appreciate the nobleness of his sobriety, man do I miss the art he seemed to be able to create while seriously high. I’m afraid we have to score some blow, euthanize Studio 60, and start over. The guy who wrote this bit of Sports Night dialogue, “Sometimes it’s worth it, taking all those pies in the face. And some days you just stand there, waist deep in pie” deserves as much and should understand. Right now, he’s waist deep in pie.

Studio 60: Setting My TiVo Now

How much am I looking forward to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Let’s just say that not since the second episode of Twin Peaks have I anticipated a TV show more. And apparently, I’m not alone.

The influence of Studio 60 creator Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) is all over TV these days. From the rat-a-tat-tat dialog on Gilmore Girls to the political interplay on the better episodes of Battlestar Galactica to some of the wordless musical moments of Lost. As good as all these shows are, I’ve missed Sorkin’s particular voice. Sports Night is still one of the best shows ever to see the light of day, however briefly.

This cast looks to be just as crackerjack as some of the earlier shows: Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley, Judd Hirsch, as well as Sorkin alumni like Bradley Whitford.

I simply can’t wait. I’m making room on my Tivo now.

Time Shifts: Annoyingly-Overused Narrative Device

A trend I’ve observed in hour-long drama series lately is the desire to show, at the beginning of the episode, the most dramatic moment of that episode. Then, in brief bits, show the events leading up to that. Battlestar Galactica has used this in two mediocre episodes in a row now.

It’s a cheap, easy device to build tension but unlike, say, Lost’s flashbacks that reveal character and add layers of depth, these time shifts do nothing to increase our understanding of the situation or of the characters involved.

Time shifts can be used effectively. A great China Beach episode “Holly’s Choice” was told backwards, but did it to inventively reveal the small choices that led to a major decision. The movie Memento too was told backwards to great effect.

If you need to jump in time to increase tension and spark interest in the episode, my guess is that the story isn’t very strong.

TV is the New Movies

When’s the last time you really cared about a movie? I mean really cared, enough to have a long conversation about its nuances, characters, plot, theme? For me, it’s been a long time–so much so I have a hard time remembering. Maybe Fahrenheit 9/11 and before that…Lost in Translation? My mind struggles to find films that have personal meaning for me anymore. This isn’t to say that I don’t like movies; I do. I just don’t love them much anymore. Which brings me to TV.

I’ve always loved TV–I mean, hell, I did write for TV Guide for two years. But lately, TV has loved us back. It’s gotten better. Television is, dare I say it, the best narrative medium going right now. It’s hit its stride, at least in dramas: The Sopranos, Alias, Lost, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Desperate Housewives, 24, Gilmore Girls, CSI, Law and Order, Eyes…when in the history of the medium have there been at any given time period so many shows of such high quality on the air? And this isn’t to mention such comedy gems as The Daily Show and Arrested Development, as well as the addictive pleasures of Survivor and The Apprentice?

And now it turns out that not only is TV getting better, it might be making us better too. Steven Johnson’s excerpt from his new book explains:

…to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.

Ok, enough blogging. I need to go make myself smarter by watching TV.