Backstory: On "Prayer"
High Language for a Low Subject
You’ve never seen people as fit and tailored as the people at NBC/Universal. You go to pitch them a series idea in their top-floor conference room at the pinnacle of their bronze-brown tower, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ve sat there. On the wrong side of the big table. Under their placid gaze I twitched and sputtered. Like a carnival barker I brayed about some sure-fire idea for an anthology series, and how among the first episodes the series would feature one particular story about love.
If you haven’t read today’s story, Prayer, read it before you read any further here. Go there and read it right now.
Poz your friends by exposing them to risky romantic fiction.
And sketchy mouth-watering love with a sugary center!
Well, I told them, there’s love and doughnuts and eventually there’s an incubus bent on killing a lover. And did I mention doughnuts? And the episode would be filled with reversals and reveals. And the more I pitched, the less they blinked, until their faces had frozen into polite photographs of attractive people smiling. At that point the rep from NBC Legal asked, “This isn’t really about doughnuts, is it?”
I asked, “What do you think it’s about?”
The NBC lawyer said, “Let’s be clear. When you say doughnuts, what exactly are you asking us to depict1??
Our back-and-forth went on like that. Pitching to EPIX was a repeat, as was Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, Fox, et al. No way would I show my cards. No, I leaned into the “undecidable” quality that Derrida advocated2. Topics that allow for debate and wiggle room will have a longer life3 as people are forced to endlessly debate them. In this case my doughnuts are doughnuts, and I want to force readers to decide otherwise. This also keeps small kids from reading the story and being traumatized. A metaphor saves everyone. So your takeaway here is: Strive for the Undecidable.
The other lesson buried in this story is “high language vs. low topic.” A reliable way to create humor is to use culturally high language — legalese, medical jargon4, biblical sounding sentences — to talk about a low-culture topic. For example, the biblical lamentations in Fight Club are based on the bible-inspired cadence John Steinbeck used in The Grapes of Wrath. The opposite is also true: If you use low language to depict a high-culture topic you get the same disconnect. The contrast acts like the socially inappropriate response5. It negates the drama and creates the burst of relief that causes a laugh.
It’s similar to performing old Star Trek scripts as if they were Shakespeare. Or playing Hamlet for laughs. Treating a profane topic as profound… Or treating a profound topic flippantly will create the disconnect that will make the story fresh and more appealing. Again, this goes back to the undecidable. The inappropriate high or low language gives the reader no hint about how to interpret the topic.
As for my doughnut story, it was only one of many stories meant to be episodes in a proposed anthology series. Many of the other stories were even more troubling. Sadly they did not find a network home6.
On the bright side, I’ll be posting many of those too-hot7-for-Hollywood stories here. And I’ll be unpacking the tricks I’ve used. First calamari, now doughnuts, soon I will spoil all your favorite foods. Bon appetit!
On Monday, look for another installment of Greener Pastures.
Any day now the dreaded paywall will slam down. Don’t lose access to up-coming keyboarded nightmares.
(“you perverted monster sent from hell to pitch us this disgusting idea that will be impossible to cast, or to get past the Standards and Practices people, not to mention it’s hardly an Emmy contender, sonny boy, so go pedal your smutty series to the porn industry!!”) he did not say. But that was the subtext in his eyes.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida claimed that western culture rests on binary opposites. Good vs. Evil. Day vs. Night. Right vs. Wrong. And whenever something falls between the two approved extremes it creates tension until it can be resolved one way or the other. Derrida’s favorite example was the zombie. It’s dead, but acts alive. Therefore it must either be returned to life or be made fully dead. To me that’s why attractive women are more attractive if there’s something a bit masculine about them. The opposite goes for men. The undecidable things will always hook people.
People are still arguing about the hidden meaning of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Me, I think it’s a metaphor for the military draft; i.e., certain people chosen by lottery will die violent deaths so everyone else can continue their lives as “normal.” And for as long as I corresponded with Ira Levin — the Master — he’d never fess up to the real meaning of “Rosemary’s Baby.” My theory is that no one had dealt with the tragedy of Thalidomide and the generation of babies born with the defects it caused. Throughout the Levin novel there are subtle references to the unborn baby having misshapen hands and feet. Laura Louise is knitting booties that appear to be for claws or flippers. And when the baby is born people praise it by shouting, “Look at his hands! Look at his feet!” All the while, Rosemary is given mysterious cakes and drinks she trustingly consumes. Levin was brilliant for plugging into the unexpressed horror and sadness of that issue, but he was even more brilliant because he did so without getting caught. That is being undecidable.
The story “Knock-Knock” uses medical jargon to frame racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic jokes. To some degree the story “Cannibal” uses cadence from the Bible to describe some gruesome sex-related horrors.
Think of the line in ‘Fight Club’ where the narrator describes a long, brutal face-pounding against a concrete floor and the resultant pool of blood that looks like a smile. After this gristly build-up, all Tyler Durden can say is, “Cool.” That fast negation of the accumulated horror gets a (big!) laugh. Likewise in ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” Sorvino’s character jokes that she’s given handjobs to a bunch of guys. Rather than react in shock, Kudrow’s character replies blithely, “Well, while you were doing that…” The failure to respond appropriately to shock creates humor. I call this “the socially inappropriate response” joke.
But I was hardly surprised. And I got to meet the head of content at HBO, who’d been a college student at the Union Square Barnes & Noble when her boyfriend had heard “Guts” and had fainted beside her. Small world!
Meaning too gross or too off-putting or too deeply stomach churning or too everything.