Posts Tagged ‘situation comedy’

“Now Saving Bulgaria”

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

For fairly obvious reasons, these weeks when I download my pictures I download them to a file labeled “Bulgaria.” Just now I went to save all my changes and I was informed that I was “now saving Bulgaria.” That made me feel rather good.

But seriously, it’s only a television show.

I had a chance to take a long walk around today, camera in hand. As always, I set out to take pictures of important cultural artifacts.

This has to be important. It is on a very high pillar.

I like to show folks the typical sights of the city, including its streets and sculptures.

Streets.

Sculptures.

But my plan always goes to hell and I end up taking pictures of dogs instead.

(True fact or bar fact: there are more stray dogs in Sofia than people.)

And then things just degenerate into silly sign captures, like this one that, at least, tells it like it is.

And this one that, based on investigation, tells it like it isn’t.

Because that was not one New York tasting hot dog.

And then this one…

…which, to my non-Cyrillic-reading eye, initially struck me as “bimbo outlet,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Anyway, all in all a pretty picturesque and picture-driven stroll around town. My mental map is now good and dialed in. I know where two Subways are (and two metro stations), plus two Irish bars, many Non-Stop stores in case I need a can of peaches at 3 a.m., what looks like the world’s sketchiest Chinese restaurant, plus the National Theater and the National Gallery and this palace and that church and blah, blah, blah.

Sorry, folks. I’d rather take pictures of signs.

More later, -jv

PS: Bar fact, which you knew.

Did I Go to Starbucks?

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Of course I went to Starbucks. I went at the first opportunity — which opportunity didn’t present itself until late Saturday afternoon, when I finally got a chance to walk around Sofia in the daylight. Map in hand, I boldly set a course for… well… home. I had my heart set on adding to my collection of Starbucks storefronts in languages other than English. I fondly remembered (well, remembered) this one from Moscow.

And since the Bulgarian language uses the same Cyrillic alphabet, I imagined I would find something similar. So here’s a picture of that.

[THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]

It seems that since I last traveled to this part of the world, the Starbucks corporate overlords have decided that the countries of the world have gone on long enough using quaint little “languages” of their own, and from now on everything — all signage at least — will be in English. This is how we conquer the world, my American friends: one coffee shop at a time.

Still, it was pleasant to step in out of the cold and into the friendly confines of a place I know so well. Charming barristas, free wifi, comfy seats, strong joe… what more can the idle expatriot ask? This would have been a perfect opportunity to strike up a local conversation and soak up some local culture. Meet some new friends. Take their pictures. Here’s a picture of one of my new friends.

[THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]

Hey, it’s not that Bulgarians are not friendly (they are; very much so). And it’ s not that they don’t speak English (enough do that you expect it.) And it’s not that I’m particularly anti-social (I like to say sdrawei — hello — as much as the next man.) It’s just that I had my stupid iPhone with me — and did I mention the free wifi? — so instead of being present in my world, I was absent in my device.

That thing is really starting to get on my nerves.

Because it’s so damn entertaining, with it’s web browser and kindle and stupid, pointless, mind-numbing games, and apps, apps, apps, apps, apps. It’s like having your head buried in a good book, except the book is fully multi-media and goes off in a thousand directions at once. At one point I looked up at all the people and thought, they’re just like the images on my iPhone, except in 3-d. I found this strange.

Finally, in self-disgust, I shut off my phone (after checking my email one last time) and headed back out into the cold.

Into the not-too-cold, I’m happy to say. Those of you who followed my Moscow winter adventures will perhaps remember my sliding (as in sliding on a sheet of ice) scale of cold: cold; really cold; stupid cold; ridiculously cold; and “are you freakin’ kidding me?” So far, Sofia has presented only cold and really cold, with just a hint of stupid cold, and for this I am grateful.

I walked in a big, awkward circle through the streets around my hotel, filling in my mental map, acquiring not just the Starbucks, but the local Greek restaurant, one or two casinos where one might play poker (though why that interested me, I cannot imagine) plus various shops and stores, malls, underground passages and random Russian churches. Truth is, I’m less interested in seeing the sights than I am in just filling in that map. I want to feel like I know where things are, so when I walk, it’s a mapping mission. After this afternoon, I think I know my way around.

I am, of course, almost totally wrong. But in a world where Starbucks insists on English-as-the-only-language, I guess one more arrogant American does not rock the balance.

I will say this about Sofia, and from my heart: The city really works for me. After Bucharest, which was a challenge, and Moscow, which made Bucharest look like Moscow, Idaho, it is great to be in a place of civil size. Sofia contains 1.1 million people, I’m told; the country tops out at under 9 million — about the same as Los Angeles County. Downtown is walkable. The streets and roads handle a decent amount of cars. Rush hour — trust me — is nothing. Seriously, Sofia rush hour compares favorably to Moscow (where rush-hour never really ends), Bucharest, even Managua. You can get around. It’s lovely.

Tomorrow is an off-day, then Monday brings me right back to the exciting grind of making television in a place I’ve never made it before. Fact is, I suffer Sunday. It’s nice to have time off (time for more mapquesting) but the truth is I can’t wait for Monday. And who can ask more from a job than that?

The report from the front, then, is that I’m happy in my work, happy with the geography, even happy with the weather (for now, though I know this will change).

So far, Sofia.

More later, -jv

An Excerpt From My New Sitcom Book

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

world premiering here and now…

What is Comedy?

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it, but comedy is cruelty. A thing isn’t funny to the person it’s happening to. It’s funny to the rest of us watching. Tell me you haven’t been funny a thousand times by making yourself the butt of your own joke. “I’m so stupid I couldn’t pass a blood test.” That’s you being cruel to you for the benefit of others. Seriously, that’s really all you need to know about writing comedy. Find a character. Put him in a bad situation. And then make the bad situation worse. So then –

Wait, wait, hang on. I’m just sitting here wondering why comedy is cruelty and you know, I can’t think of a good reason. I did, though, think of a joke.

In the years before World War II, in a little Polish village, a learned rabbi used to teach his students, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One young student was particularly taken with this philosophy, and he carried it with him through the long years of the war, which he barely survived. Later becoming a rabbi in his own right, he moved to Philadelphia, and taught all his eager young students, “Life is like the ocean.” Year after year, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One year, though, a student asked, “But Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” And the rabbi had no answer. Why is life like the ocean? The question haunted him. It plagued him so much that eventually he returned to his home village, hoping against hope to find his teacher still alive. Incredibly, the rabbi had survived the war, though now was quite old and in fact lay on his death bed when the young man arrived. He knelt by the old rabbi’s side and entreated, “Rabbi, Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” The old man looked at him through watery eyes and replied, “Okay, so life isn’t like the ocean.”

Now, who’s getting the cruelty here? Is it the hapless young rabbi who invests his life’s work in an empty premise? Or is it the reader, who expects some sort of significant payoff and gets a smirky slap in the face instead? Actually, it’s both. They’re two sides of a certain coin. The young rabbi gets an unpleasant surprise, while the audience gets a startling defeat of expectation.

I’ll tell you one more joke to illustrate the point.

These three ducks walk into a bar. They go up to the bartender and order drinks. The bartender says to the first duck, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Huey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Huey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Huey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes to the second duck and says, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Dewey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Dewey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Dewey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes down to the third duck and says, “I suppose you’re Louie.”

“No,” says the duck, “I’m Puddles.”

I’ll bet you did not see that coming. So the punchline defeated your expectation, but that’s not why the joke works. The joke works because of poor Puddles. We feel his pain. And since it’s his pain, not our pain, we can go ahead and laugh. Poor Puddles.

Now here’s how this plays out in sitcom. (Notice I still haven’t said why comedy is cruelty. Maybe I’m hoping you’ll just let that slide.) To delight our audience, we consistently make our characters miserable, and to make our characters miserable, we just invent other characters designed to give them the worst possible time. Let’s have a peek at Big Bang Theory’s Leonard. Who makes his life hell? For sure you’re going to say Sheldon, whose idiosyncrasies, phobias and Roommate Agreement daily drive Leonard up the wall. You should also say Penny, for while she’s never intentionally cruel to Leonard, she is the object of his unrequited love, and her very presence in his world gives him grief of the deepest kind, because it destabilizes his worldview that “the nerds are alright.” I don’t think Howard really makes Leonard miserable – but look who makes Howard miserable: that’s right, his unseen mom. You could profitably go around from character to character in that sitcom, or any successful sitcom, and make a list of who makes them miserable and how.

Notice that these lines of cruelty run in much the same directions as the lines of conflict we discussed earlier. That’s not by accident. The same things that drive the narrative drive the comedy. If you have a story with lots and lots of problems for your main character, you also have a story with lots and lots of jokes, because each one of those problems will make that character suffer and comedy is cruelty, so there you go.

I don’t want to go too deep into this (I’m well over my head already) but not only do comedy and story line up together here, so does theme. This is because the truth is revealed under pressure, and no character will move from denial to acceptance of the theme – admit the truth, that is – without sufficient pressure forcing him to do so. That pressure moves the story along. And it generates the jokes. And it drives the character to new understanding. That’s some triple-duty pressure there. It’s pretty marvelous stuff.

Are you worried about being cruel to your characters? Don’t be. They’re characters in a story. They don’t really exist and you can’t really hurt them. If you ever find yourself holding back, it could be a case of conflict avoidance. Many writers are conflict avoiders in their real lives. I am. You might be, too. I can’t say from here, and sure don’t want to get in a fight over it, but I do know that to make real people laugh, you have to make fake people ache. So if you’re averse to cruelty, you’d better get over that, or you’ll never be sufficiently funny on the page. Comedy is cruelty. If you want to be funny, you’d better be cruel.

So, are you still waiting for me to tell you why comedy is cruelty? Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy, I should be able to pull that off. Maybe I’ve studied the world’s great humorists: Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Twain. Maybe I’ve peered into the depths of my own soul and sought the answer there. Maybe I have found out why life is like the ocean. But you know what?

The exercise is left to the reader, ha!

More later,  -jv