Thursday, February 5, 2009

Peter's Commentary on the 'Cartoons' Edition

I'm finally writing commentary for the last month or so of Sketchwar. The January 10th war had the theme of "Cartoons".

I think "Cartoons" is the best war I've been in so far.

It wound up being one of the best topics, certainly. Mr. Porter (AKA "Coyote") suggested "Looney Tunes", I proposed generalizing it, and we were off and running. I loved that we all sat down and wrote cartoons. We could done something lame like having cartoonists talk about cartoons, or have a live-action scene that seems somehow cartoonish, but face it: if a reader comes to this war knowing the subject, they're going to want cartoons, dammit.

And even though we all performed the same basic task, we each had our own takes on the material. As Mr. Porter said, "We've got a Hanna-Barbera, a Loony Tunes, and what I'm picturing as a Tex Avery. Good stuff." So not only did we like cartoons enough to try writing them, we also knew enough about cartoons to aim for (and hit) very particular styles.

This time we had three entries: this one from Mr. Robertson, this one from Mr. Porter, and this one from me.

Mr. Robertson did something cool with his sketch that you might not have noticed. By line four of the sketch, you think you know how it ends: Daphne and Velma reveal that they are lovers. Lots of sketches do this: there's a setup, there's a clear endpoint, and you spend three minutes bridging to that preordained conclusion. There's no tension and there are no surprises -- the plot is basically a clothesline you can string the jokes onto.

But Mr. Robertson gets to that conclusion, and he still has about a third of the sketch to go. We don't expect it to expand out into "the entire mystery-solving thing is a scam", and we certainly don't expect "Shaggy has been spying on Daphne and Fred."

That said, the whole thing needs to be about half the length. Mr. Robertson posted earlier about employing a looser style reminiscent of improv, but I don't think it works here. The big problem with writing 'loose' sketch is that you run smack into audience expectations. The audience for an Apatow feature might expect loose improv-style comedy, but they expect a sketch to be a haiku. They want whatever happens is either funny or directly setting up something funny -- anything else, however well-intentioned or brilliantly-observed, is going to feel like it doesn't belong.

So: a good six-minute sketch with a better three-minute sketch somewhere in there.

Mr. Porter came through with a much more Tex-Avery-style cartoon.

And my god it's a good premise. Elmer Fudd accepting an award for his research into Hammerspace is a great idea for a setting -- it's meta, but it's meta like the original cartoons were, not meta in that godawful, too-cool-for-the-material style. And the mayhem that happens makes perfect sense for the cartooniverse.

That said, there are ways to improve the sketch.

I'd find a different (and faster) way into the material. I'd cut the opening news segment and just establish in the first shot that Fudd is at an award ceremony. Bugs can announce that Fudd has won for black holes. Fudd can extract his acceptance speech out of one such black hole.

Then you follow it up with anti-physics mayhem รก la "Presto"

Then there's my sketch, "Frank Defeats the Angel of Death".

By this point, I have a straightforward workflow for Sketchwar. I get the topic on Saturday, and then I spend a few days freewriting, writing down lots of sluglines for what my sketch might be about. And as I'm doing this, I'm trying to find the one interesting thing that will get me from an idea to a completed sketch.

Every time I've written something decent for Sketchwar, there's been that one aspect of the piece that's seen me through it. For the history piece, it was Joey's overenthusiastic voice. For the first-date piece, it was the image of a couple at a restaurant suddenly attacked by ninjas. There's always that one little thing that makes you giggle like mad, and you write a whole sketch just as an excuse to include it.

In this case, I started thinking about cartoons. Then I started thinking about the great silent cartoons. And I thought about how those usually have simple objectives and really clear protagonists and antagonists. I figured I might have a cat as a protagonist.

Somehow from that I wrote down the title "Frank Defeats the Angel of Death" and, well, that's the sketch I had to write. You can't think of a title that cool and then go write something else.

All in all, I'm happy with what I wrote. I got the buildup going the way I wanted it -- start with just the lobbed Christmas-tree ornaments, and then go from there. I got some good re-use out of the few elements in the room: tree, drink, fireplace.

The ending was a bit wobbly. I knew I had to have Frank accidentally topple the tree -- I think that's what everybody expects, no? -- and having that happened as the party guests arrived was a good way to make the situation even worse.

I had a devil of a time figuring out where to go from there. In early outlines, I had the angel merely injured in the climactic battle, and then come back from the trash later on. I had Frank's "explanation" fail utterly. I just never got a good ending out of it.

The first good step was incinerating the angel. ("Ah! I can re-use the fireplace!") The second good step was throwing in the reversal -- Frank is in desperate trouble, and then everybody feels sorry for him and gives him tuna. I don't know if re-using the popcorn rope really works as a last beat, but I needed some kind of reincorporation.

That said, I think the whole thing could be funnier. I got a certain amount of humor out of Olive's[1] yuppie yammering, but the scene itself is more "straightforward action" than I'd like.

All in all, though, I'm content with my cartoon. The next two I wrote? I'm less happy with those.

More later....

[1] Note: I didn't intentionally name-check Frank and Ollie with this, but I did notice it about halfway through writing.