Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lessons from Larry

My husband and I have been watching The Larry Sanders Show on DVD--not only the episodes, but all the "extras:" the interviews and commentary and so forth. There is quite a lot of this extra material, and I'm impressed by how much work Garry Shandling put into that bonus material.

Shandling co-created and starred in this series than ran on HBO during the 1990s, chronicling the ups and downs of a fictional talk show. The bonus/backstage material on the DVD is interesting to me, because I'm always curious about the processes of other artists and what I might be able to apply to writing. So far, these are the lessons:

Say less. The actors and writers respected the fact that they didn't always need a line of dialogue to make an impact. Sometimes they could accomplish more with a look, a gesture, a beat of silence. This can be true of stories as well: a gesture, pause, or action may be better than a line of speech.

Leave in the mistakes. If someone tripped during a take, it might just make it into the episode. Sometimes the mistakes opened up a new vein of reality for the actors, and actually enhanced a scene. Writers can also look for these "happy accidents"--lines that come up unexpectedly, but take the scene in a great direction.

Focus on movement. Shandling admired the director's technique in one episode where the characters had to move rapidly from one location to another, the tension ratcheting up. (For many scenes, they actually used a cameraman on roller-blades.) Writer Peter Tolan commented on how the scenes set in the main character's house, where he was just sitting on the couch with his wife, were less interesting than the office scenes with everyone rushing around. This doesn't mean that characters must be constantly on the go, of course, and stillness can raise tension in its own right. But a writer may want to avoid a story where everyone is sitting in a room all the time.

Let things get awkward. Several of the actors commented on how Shandling liked their characters to get vulnerable and uncomfortable. And in the interviews, Shandling put himself in several awkward positions: interviewing women with whom he'd had close relationships, for example. During interviews, the subjects often broke the fourth wall to comment on the camera or the microphones, apparently expecting these moments would get edited out. One interviewee stopped the interview to put his barking dog outside. Another interviewee conducted his entire interview while sitting in a bathtub (though discreetly covered with bubbles). Moments that usually get cut were left in (see also, "Leave in the mistakes"), enhancing the "behind-the-scenes" feel. These unpolished moments are sometimes the most interesting. Writers can let their characters be seen in these awkward moments: the ill-timed sneeze, the guffaw in a quiet room, the toilet paper clinging to the shoe, the insecure fussing in the mirror.

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