Here’s the thing. And it is a thing. I’m in a stealing mood. I don’t know why, I think it’s maybe because I just had my first experience of hanging with litigators and winning, baby, winning.
Do you notice how I can’t say “baby”?
But I was thinking of doing something bad. It was even bad in two parts. I might go so far as to call it Evil. Well, no, that’s too harsh. Call it Evil-.
Evil- part 1: Jason Arnopp said this thing the other week about looking at key drama moments in his blog, really exploring what makes us writers want to write. He hasn’t done a huge amount of this yet, though there is this about Apparitions. I would like to steal his idea. Don’t copy me. If you do this too, it becomes an internet meme and where’s the Evil- in that?
But, wait, Evil- part 2: I was actually thinking of popping something up onto YouTube so that I could point you at it and claim, all innocent-like, that it was a wonderful coincidence that some Evil+ person should rip it off and put it up there at that precise same moment.
Only, someone has. Not this very minute, but not an awfully long time ago. Somewhen back in August this year.
So. They’ve done the ripping off, I’ve acknowledged that I’m stealing from your man Jason Arnopp, let’s play our game.
If you know me at all, you know the joy of drama for me is in people talking. I might have them in helicopters, I’m not immune to some of yer action, but ultimately it’s where two people shouting at each other can take us. And you’ll not be surprised that my favourite writers are ones who are hot on dialogue and rhythms of speech, language, such as Carrie Fisher. Wait, I need to stop that sentence for a sec: I’ll resume the list of favourite linguistic writers after this public service announcement. I just checked Carrie Fisher’s website and it’s alright, but it hasn’t been updated since the dawn of time. However, she has a new book out any second now so it’ll probably get some welly into the site. And if it doesn’t, you can just buy her book. If I love writers who play with language, I adore good titles even more. Her book’s an autobiography called Wishful Drinking.
I was going to rattle off a lot of names but I can see you’re in a hurry. Let me cut to one: Aaron Sorkin. You know this fella for his dialogue. Maybe for a lot of other things, but dialogue and in fact dialogue at speed, right? While walking? If you’re thinking of The West Wing, ratch it up a notch and you’ve got Sports Night. The same lightspeed dialogue exchanges but even faster because the show was only half an hour.
If we met in a bar, and had run out of conversation so much and so fast that you were reduced to asking me what car/vegetable/animal I would be, I would steer you to this topic instead. My favourite Sports Night scene. Please remember that this is a fast, fast show, that its verve and wit and ferociously powerful way of grabbing you is famously down to the dialogue. Now have a look at the opening to season 2, episode 1, Special Powers by Aaron Sorkin. Whoever put this on YouTube put the first ten minutes up but I just want you to watch the top 90 seconds.
Have a look right here.
What did you think? Admit it, you know I meant up to “It’s been 90 days” but you carried right on watching.
There is something special about the opening moments of a new season. You need to be confident but not cocky, you need to know you’re good and be as good as you think you are. And you need to seduce people in. The very first episode of Sports Night did it with a smash-bang start, throwing you right into the action, but this second run took 45 seconds before there was any dialogue at all. Without commercials, the show runs 22 minutes and Aaron Sorkin chose to take 90 seconds before there was any meaningful dialogue. And this in a show where every script typically ran 20 pages longer than standard because of the volume of dialogue.
I think that’s quite brave, I think it’s quite wonderful. And I’d forgotten that while he subverted expectations of what Sports Night would be like, Sports Night itself was subverting what sitcoms were meant to be like. This is less obvious now because so many shows work the same way but in its day (1999/2000) this was a multi-camera sitcom yet done like no other had been. Sports Night looks like a film, not another variant on the I Love Lucy standard three-wall set and four-camera shoot.
For instance, watch that first shot again of Casey McCall (Peter Krause) throwing paper into a bin: you know, you just know it took a hell of a long time to get that looking so perfect. But now name any other sitcom of the period that would spend the effort.
I’d like to know if you hadn’t seen the show before and yet this drew you in: when I saw that clip I’d already seen 20+ episodes so the relationship it was describing was very familiar to me. I think it works regardless, but you can never unwatch something to find out.
The clip also has that music, She Will Have Her Way by Neill Finn. I watched the episode on the new DVD set and then rewound it, pointed my iPhone at the screen and tapped on Shazam to find out what the music was and buy it over iTunes. Normally I don’t rate Aaron Sorkin’s music choices; they’re often superb but equally often just a bit smaltzy for me. But here, I’d never heard the track before and I’ve heard it an awful lot since.
Aaron Sorkin has got dialogue, yes, but he’s got pace and rhythm too. I find it very hard to slow down, it’s as if I want to throw things at you until you like one. But I’m consciously taking a breath, looking for the visual way to showcase dialogue, the way to lead you in to a story in as fresh and new a way as I can, looking to steal an approach and an idea I admire greatly.
Listen, whoever did the YouTube thing, you know they put the whole episode up, doncha? Watch it if ye may, but then buy the DVD set, okay? Some 40-odd episodes and it’s a gem.
I think someone’s stolen my evening. How did they do that?