Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Masterclass: Figuring out what people need

I got an early birthday present: a subscription to Masterclass. So far I've watched the first three episodes of Shonda Rhimes's Writing for TV and the first two episodes of Steve Martin's Comedy classes. It's cool: you get four of Rhimes's scripts to download and you get a workbook with each class. I haven't explored what else you get with Martin's class yet. There are at least seven classes I want to take and Rhime's class has something like 30 episodes, I think, so I expect it to be the same for the others. So far, worth the subscription fee, which is $180 for the year, with access to everything.

The thing that struck me after watching the episodes tonight is that when Martin and Rhimes each talked about choosing ideas to pursue--in Martin's case for stand up routines, and in Rhimes's case when choosing what to write a show about--they both said the same thing. You have to get a sense for where people are at--in the world, in the nation, in your own community--and give them the opposite.

When choosing an idea, consider the current tone of tv, film, and reality. If the world is more optimistic, a pessimistic show will work. If the world is more pessimistic, an optimistic show will work.

Rhimes explained that under Bush, The West Wing, a very optimistic spin on the presidency, was popular because people wanted to escape the reality of how upsetting and frustrating the Bush Administration was. Under Obama, Scandal, a cynical show about “monsters” in DC, worked, because people were feeling a lot of hope.

Martin said something really similar. He said that when he was doing stand up in the late 60s and early 70s, he was dressing as a hippy and that everything was very political. You said the name "Richard Nixon" and it would immediately get a response in the audience. But he realized people were getting tired of it. The nation was. So he shaved his beard and cut his hair and put on a suit and became part of a new movement. Apolitical comedy. Because that was the void that needed to be filled.

It’s probably what separates people who are wildly successful from people who are just getting along. Are you addressing something that’s missing? Have you found a hole to fill? Are you giving people the opposite of what’s dominating the world right now?

On a political level, it seems to me that what’s dominating the world right now is this evil cruelty--anarcho-capitalism, profit at all costs, fuck everyone who isn’t going to make money for the 1%. But there’s also a strong presence of the opposite: people demanding recognition of wrongs: the #MeToo movement, outrage over displays of cruelty and racism, etc.

We have plenty of escapism, too. So many superhero movies.

So what isn’t being addressed?

What is: heroes, good and evil, the end of the world, fear, hatred, xenophobia, survival of the fittest, wealth as virtue. Sensitivity, triggers, introversion. Everyone loves dogs. Many people vocally love cats. Coffee is essential. I love all those things, too. I am happiest on Twitter retweeting a cute cat video, while making a joke about coffee and implying that my introversion has once again gotten in the way of the success of some social interaction I attempted. This is where a lot of us are at. Should creatives be trying to find the opposite of that? What is the opposite of that?

Are shows and films giving us dogs and coffee, though? Maybe dogs and coffee already is the opposite of what shows and films are all about these days.

I mean, people would probably enjoy being free of extreme politics.

I know I’d like to not have to worry about the end of the world (no offense to The Umbrella Academy, which I very much enjoyed--but yeah, the part with the moon was like the most terrifying thing I've ever seen and it's all related to the real terror of what is going to happen to our world if we don't get it together as a fucking species). I think if I'm really looking for escapism, I'm going to look for a show that's not terrifying me with an apocalyptic scenario.

A show that's trying to give us the opposite of our reality right now would have:
People behaving with logic. Facts being facts. Fake news having no power, because it is once again possible to have irrefutable proof.
A story where people really are who they say they are. Cheers would be appealing. Regular people, no one is fake, everyone is who they say they are. No one is cruel or has more power than anyone else. And also no one has any significant trauma or issues, for those on the other side of things who are fed up with that.

Which, I mean, is great if you want to write Cheers, but I don’t.

What would a show look like that was trying to be fundamentally optimistic, in opposition to the absolute shitstorm that our collective reality has become? Look at the stats on the increase in depression and anxiety disorders since 2016. Speaking for myself, every time I hear about kids in cages I feel like real life has become every dystopia, every nightmare I've ever thought was terrible but could never be real. Oh sure, it happened in the past, but that's history. I studied history because I found it fascinating, and without realizing it, I thought the things I was studying were safely in the past. But they most certainly aren't and it's horrifying.

And people justifying these atrocities are the worst part.

Didn't we all grow up on the same stories? Didn't we all learn that the empire is evil? That no matter who is doing it and why they say they are doing it, putting babies in cages is fucking evil?

Nothing makes sense anymore.

So, yeah. A show or a novel or whatever medium, would have to present a world where things make sense. Evil is recognized by everyone as evil. Good triumphs. None of those we count on in power turn out to be compromised and/or spineless and incapable of stopping the evil and bringing it to justice.

No wonder superhero movies keep coming out.

But I think the intriguing thing is, because there are so many superhero movies, that implies that the void to be filled is something else. Just as Steve Martin recognized that even though people reacted to his mentioning Richard Nixon, they were tired of politics in comedy, I see people coming back, over and over, to superheroes--but people are tired of superheroes. It's like, yes, we want this, we need this, this story where things make sense and counter everything that sucks about our world, but we've been coming back to it for years and years now. What's the thing we don't even know we want?

What do you think it might be?