Creative processes we wish we’d witnessed
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
I’ve been following along as Noel Murray revisits Arrested Development, and I am consistently amazed to find that there are still new jokes to pick up on after six years of DVD ownership. I imagine that a fly on the wall of that writers’ room would have witnessed one of the greatest collaborative efforts in the history of comedy. In the entirety of pop culture, what creative processes (storyboards, in-studio recording sessions, on-set direction, etc.) do you wish you could have observed in person? —John B.
This is going to be a really weird pairing, hitting opposite poles of all-time-classic and guaranteed-ephemeral, but… one of the things that’s always fascinated me about The Beatles is the sense of four people with strikingly different personalities and sensibilities going through an extremely rapid creative and personal evolution over the course of relatively few years. I would have loved to sit in on their process from the beginning, more than anything to see what their private personal interactions were like, and how their working relationship—with their output, and with each other—evolved over the years. They’ve addressed all this approximately a billion times, but there’s no replacement for being there. On the other end of the spectrum, my interest in Glee has seriously waned since the first season. I don’t really care about any of the characters any more, yet I’m still fascinated by the actors, wondering what it’s like to be that young, that talented, that ambitious, and that quickly thrust into the national spotlight. If I could turn back time and sit in on that first year of auditions, casting, and rehearsals, I guarantee I’d find it a lot more interesting than I find the show itself. But hell, while we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind sitting in and watching Michaelangelo work on, say, the Sistine Chapel and the David statue. The process that turns marble into something closely approximating human skin has always fascinated me.
One of the biggest regrets I have as an entertainment journalist is that I never got a chance to interview George Carlin. In the days leading up to his sudden death in 2008, he was doing rounds of interviews to promote what turned out to be his final HBO special, and for one reason or another, I didn’t get on line for them, even though I had the opportunity. But in what turned out to be his last interview, with Psychology Today, of all places, he gave a little bit of insight as to how his creative process works. I was grateful for it, because anyone who’s a Carlin fan knows he observes human behavior, and the words we use, in ways most people don’t even think of, even if his observations make complete sense once he says them out loud. It makes me wish I was able to sit with him in person and see his notebooks of observation fragments to see how they evolved from fragments into those complete, near-genius thoughts that made him one of the greatest stand-ups ever.
I find the whole concept of artistic collaboration fascinating, which may have something to do with the fact that, on a good day, I can barely come together with other human beings to agree over where to go for coffee after a movie. And there’s no collaborative process I’d like to see diagrammed more than how the members of The Firesign Theatre came up with the stuff on their greatest early albums, especially How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All? and Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. I first listened to those things while spending a lot of time watching classic comedy movies, listening to stand-up routines, and trying to take them apart to see how they’d been assembled. Trying that with the Firesigns was like trying to crack open Granite Mountain by stabbing it with a spork. Even listening to the guys riffing together on recordings of their old radio shows and in their lesser works is no help; when they were cooking at maximum strength, the fantasies and random jokes and bits of word salad came together to create a vision, a sort of collective auditory hallucination, that makes the average episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus look like the work of your wacky uncle who’s renowned for his special comic inspiration when the Mad Libs come out. A routine like “Who’s On First” is like the discovery of America—somebody would have gotten there eventually—but these records could only have been the result of just the right four people meeting at just the right time, possibly while under the influence of just the right chemicals. I’d just like to be able to see for myself what the starting points were.
I will, to my dying day, wish I had gotten to attend a taping of NewsRadio in its second or third season. The cast was just that good, the writers were even better, and the show had such a great sense of comedic rhythm and momentum that nearly every episode built and built and built to some of the best punchlines ever seen on TV. The fact that it was all filmed in front of people made it even better, somehow. Getting to see the jokes the writers threw away or getting to see how the actors honed certain scenes until they were just right would have been fascinating, and feeling the vibe from the studio audience would have been just as fun. The best multi-camera sitcoms capture the feel of a night out at a one-act play, and NewsRadio captured that feeling so perfectly that I would have wanted to be in the presence of said play. I feel that way about a lot of my favorite multi-camera sitcoms from days gone by: Cheers, Barney Miller (at least before they got rid of the audience), Mary Tyler Moore… Seeing any one of those (or any number of others) live would have been a dream come true for a young TV nut who was watching way too much Nick at Nite.
The Breaking Bad writer’s room, no question. Not because I’d want spoilers—if there was some way for me to watch them at work without actually knowing what they were talking about, I’d prefer it. The only way I want to know what happens on the show is by watching the show. But the actual process of figuring out what Walter White is going to do next, the trick of getting him into a seemingly impossible situation and then finding a solution which allows him to live a little longer while at the same time making his life just that much worse, just seems like it would be so much fun to get in on. And that’s the other problem with my wish; pretty soon, watching wouldn’t be enough. I’d want to contribute. This isn’t driven by artistic arrogance (well, apart from the fact that I assume I’d be able to keep up for more than a few minutes), so much as appreciation and envy of the pure storytelling glee that drives so much of this show. While I’d never want to live in the Wild World Of Heisenberg And [People He’s Forced Into Being His] Friends, it’s obvious from every episode of the show that the people working behind the scenes love what they do, and have the good fortune and talent to be working on one of the best examples of how to do it.
Similar to John’s curiosity about the creation of the Arrested Development universe, I would be curious to know how the Back To The Future trilogy came together. Last summer, my husband and I sat down and watched all three installments back-to-back-to-back. Previously, we had written off the second and third sequels of the movies as lesser editions, but in one viewing, we came to appreciate just how many callbacks, inside jokes, and consistent plotlines are evident through all three movies. (Some of them are easy to overlook if you don’t watch the movies consecutively.) As the difficulty of capturing the magic of science-fiction comedy was addressed in the AVC’s review of The Watch, I would have loved to have seen how far ahead of time the callbacks and references throughout all three movies were plotted out, and to see how a classic comedy franchise like that that came to be created, and why it seems to hard to recreate today.
I believe I’ve written about this in a previous AVQA, but if I could inhabit any period in pop-culture history it would be the Hollywood of the 1970s. I especially wish I could have been on set when Robert Altman was making classics like M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, California Split, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Those films represent collaborations in the truest form. Though he could be cold, callous, and even cruel to studio executives, girlfriends, and his own children, Altman was famous for his love of actors. He loved those crazy fuckers to the point where he trusted them to create their own characters and backstories and improvise dialogue and generally operate without a net. In return, those actors amply justified Altman’s faith in them with some of the gutsiest, most electric and alive performances in American film history. I would love to be on hand to watch the beautiful alchemy of Altman and his actors finding and exploring moments that somehow built to be some of the greatest American films of the past half century. That obviously can never happen, but oh, it is a beautiful dream.
I voraciously consume every behind-the-scenes extra I can find on DVD/Blu-Ray sets. Often, I purchase said sets specifically for those features, often eschewing the primary content for documentaries about it. But the one thing I can never find enough about is the conception and execution of U2’s epic ZooTV tour. I saw that tour when I was 16. In fact, heading to Foxboro, Massachusetts to see it was the first road trip I ever took. Everything about that show blew my teenage mind, especially its ahead-of-its-time use of video and the postmodern aesthetic that eventually gave way to the band’s signature, arena-filling empathy. It married my love of rock music and theatrical presentation in a way that made me wish I had been along for the conceptual ride. In other words, I wish I had been a fly on the wall while Bono conceived of the alter ego “The Fly.”
I’d liked to have kicked around the set of loads of films: Jaws comes immediately to mind; as does the original Total Recall, given the reported greaseball chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven. But more than any of these, I’d like to have been behind-the-scenes for Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. There are plenty of cinematic epics, but Fitzcarraldo strikes me as one of the few where the ratio of effort exerted to make the film and the resulting product approaches 1:1. For his film about a rubber baron moving a steamship over a hill, portaging it from one river to the next, Herzog did just that. He dragged a 320-ton ship over a hill. Without special effects. Add to this the tension between Herzog and volatile star Klaus Kinski (it’s reported that one of the film’s native Peruvian extras offered to murder Kinski as a favor to the director), and Fitzcarraldo’s production is one of the most legendarily troubled in cinema’s history.
Usually I’m a big fan of the fourth wall, both because the process is often underwhelming, and a lot of creators are dicks. But I would happily have tagged along through the entire seven years it took Craig Thompson to make Habibi. I want to spend time with the kind of person who decides that instead of cartoon animals or semi-autobiographical characters, he’s going to try and capture a different gender, in a different culture, with a different artistic tradition, and a different language. That is just an insane thing to do, but the way Thompson wrote and drew that book makes it seem perfectly natural. I want to know if it was hubris or compassion that made Thompson think this was a story he could tell. I want to know how he went about researching an entire culture, and I want to see him boil all of that information down into a very small, very human story in a fantastical world he mostly invented. Then I would like to watch him draw it. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, and I want to hang all its million-and-a-half pages on my walls. Habibi fails in a lot of little ways, and it doesn’t matter at all, because even its failures are tremendously fascinating. Seven years of background knowledge couldn’t come close to explaining its ambition.
This is an easy one: The Simpsons writers’ room circa 1991 through 1997. Let’s skip the niggling over what constitutes the show’s golden age and agree that it had an untouchable run during that decade. I don’t know that anything topped its laughs, satire, and heart. As Nathan has frequently mentioned during his march through those early seasons, The Simpsons at that time may be the best show there ever was. I can’t overstate its effect on me, from my sense of humor to the encyclopedia of references that constitutes the vernacular I share with my wife and A.V. Club compatriots. To observe the creation of some of those episodes—to sit in a writers’ room that included Conan O’Brien, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, and so many others—would be to witness a fundamental part of my personality being formed. The downside: Those guys basically lived in that writers’ room. But that’s okay with me. It’d be worth it.
I’d love to have been a silent observer during the sessions for the Talking Heads masterpiece Remain In Light. It was recorded in three different studios, in the Bahamas, California, and New York City, and it was the third and last time they worked with Brian Eno, who was in the process of cementing his reputation as a master producer. He also received co-writing credit on the album, which isn’t surprising, given that his signature sound is obvious throughout the record. The record was created with unorthodox methods, as Eno recorded the band jamming in the studio, then looped and sampled the results to create the actual songs, pioneering techniques that have become standard operating procedure. By most reports, the recording process was fraught with tension at times, and there were doubts that the record would ever be finished, but it went on to become one of the greatest albums of all time. The only thing that could possibly make it better would be being there while they thrashed it all out.