Morality and Sitcoms

Michel Houellebecq on Morality and the Novel:

In the framework of a novel, it’s harder because you start finding excuses. Describing a character as a complete bastard is not feasible for more than a few pages. The novel is really not a moral genre. Everyone ends up more or less becoming moderately nice and moderately nasty.

Julian Evans interviews Ismail Kadare

In Albania there was no formal dissent. There was, for example, no samizdat publishing. “That was not possible. You risked being shot. Not condemned, but shot for a word against the regime. A single word.” (During Hoxha’s time it is believed at least 100,000 were imprisoned in this small country for political reasons or for a word uttered; 5,000 were executed.) Instead he revived old forms – parable, myth, fable, folk-tale, legend – packed them with allusion and metaphor, plundered the past. He is not a “contemporary” novelist. To read him is not to follow, as in English fiction, lives spotlit by lifestyle and current affairs, but lives snagged on the greater pendulum of history, of Balkan past and future.What he retained from his 11-year-old’s obsession with Macbeth was not just a love of mystery but a sense of the Shakespearean enigma, of the text’s own mystery and the impossibility of ever fully penetrating it.

In 1981, as Hoxha declined into paranoia – he ordered the execution of several party and government officials in a purge – Kadare published The Palace of Dreams, his vision of an authoritarian dystopia devoted to the collection of every dream in the empire. It sold 20,000 copies before the Writers’ Union met members of the Politburo in emergency session and declared it “against the regime”.

Personal note: I visited Gjirokaster, Kadare’s (and Hoxha’s) hometown. It is crazy, eerie, somber place. The rruga kryesor (main road) is a one long straight narrow road that goes uphill for miles.I took a turn on it, and felt absolutely isolated from everybody, everything, everyplace. (I also ran into a pig or two). It is hauntingly beautiful. (Photos are here).

Sam and Jim Go to Hollywood, a great podcast about TV writers who are trying to produce a sitcom. This duo are fun to listen to, have lots of experience and advice to share and have good personal stories. Apparently in their most recent episode, they reveal they have sold a TV show concept, but I’m only on episode 7.

I have to admit not liking the cable TV/major network method of producing shows, although to be honest, I don’t have a better idea (not yet at least). A few of their insights:

  • in Hollywood, your idea pitch is your big secret. Once it’s out of the bag, you’ve lost control over it. (My response: Is viral marketing that bad?)
  • Characters matter more than plot. Even if the plot is good and if the characters are not especially attractive, they need to be memorable and create some emotional investment (if only to see the nasty way Louie De Palma will treat the taxi drivers).
  • For HBO/Showtime, the main question they ask themselves is: can we make 100 episodes with these characters? The greater potential to extend the show, the greater its chances of making money. Everybody has great ideas, but for many the timing is all wrong (say it’s similar to another show), or you can’t extend the show very much. (MY question: even with a mediocre show concept, can’t decent writing make the characters rounder and more involving?).
  • Cable-produced sitcoms are under substantially different pressures (financially speaking) from network shows.
  • Getting a big lead actor can make up for script deficiencies in terms of selling the show. Sitcoms today are driven by brand and personality.
  • Many irons in the fire. With these writers, everything is about throwing out a lot of pitches, and then hoping that one of them will sell. One brilliant idea of theirs had a Christmas theme to it; even though it was a tough sell, they actually made headway showing people a children’s book they wrote for the series/feature. A few lessons: reuse your portfolio and look for tie-ins, with other mediums/contexts. Narrowcasting (the holiday angle) can doom a project, no matter how great it is.
  • These are great guys with outstanding insights into the creative process. But they don’t seem to be writing scripts. They seem to be writing pitches or treatments and rarely scripts. This may be an efficient method of working. But I wonder if the value/brilliance of some concepts can’t be apparent until you have a full script or two already written. These guys are focused more on the selling and becoming part of the script factory. I have no doubt they are good–even great–at this. But that creates a dependency on outside forces and ultimately market forces. If you have a good script, write it and produce it yourself. Maybe my problem is simply that I’m an incompetent salesman. On the other hand, TVland is an exclusive club and limited geography; if I can produce fascinating video dramas/comedies in Houston, that could be enough. The key thing is finding a way to make things without encumbrances. Obviously, dayjobs and the practicalities of living might offer more encumbrances than the dreary necessities of having to sell your stuff all the time.

Here’s an essay by Jim Dunn (one of the two screenwriters) on getting noticed in a city where everyone works hard to get noticed:

The reality is that Los Angeles is a city that feeds on an endless influx of dreams. Blame it on Horace Greeley and all that –Go west, young man!– nonsense. A century-and-a-half later, every idiot with a heartfelt delusion still hustles off to clog the L.A. streets with his never-quite-impressive-enough car. If your personal delusion revolves around writing, you can even cherish the irony that Horace Greeley’s famous phrase was actually written by John Soule, another poor bastard who did the real work but didn’t get the screen credit. Why? Because he wasn’t noticed–and Greeley was.