From 'ER' to 'Gilmore Girls,' Writers Pack in Dialogue; Humor-Insurance Policy.
When 'ER' premiered eight years ago on NBC, its dialogue was so rapid-fire
that scripts ran 60 pages, about 10 pages longer than the typical one-hour
drama. Viewers loved it, and the show was a huge hit.
Today, the show isn't a minute longer. But its scripts now run more than 80 pages.
Across the TV dial, actors are saying more lines per episode, and they're
often uttering them more quickly. Humorous repartee and regular
conversation happen "turbo fast, " says Aaron Sorkin, the creator and
executive producer of "The West Wing." Says Mr. Sorkin : "My parents will
call me every Wednesday night and say 'Great show. Tell them to talk slower.' "
The chatter serves a deliberate purpose. Hollywood producers think people
seem smarter if they talk faster, a strategy in use on "The West Wing." In
"Gilmore Girls, " a show about a mother and her teenage daughter, fast talk
lends a hip feel to a smaller town setting. In "American Dreams," a family
drama set in the 1960's, characters talk quickly-and over each other-at the
dinner table to appeal to teenagers whose own family lives are like that.
Fast talk is also a way for broadcast networks to make shows seem edge when
they can't feature the sex, violence and bad language of HBO.
The fast pace is a humor-insurance policy, TV writers say. "If someone
doesn't think one scene is funny, another one is coming right by," says
Bill Lawrence, executive producer and creator of "Scrubs," a sitcom about
medical residents that recently had an episode of 24 scenes of less than a
The additional lines and scenes complicate the job so everyone from network
executives to cameramen. "The West Wing" and "Gilmore Girls" had to hire
dialogue coaches to help the actors with their lines and to watch tapings
for dropped words. "Friends" moved its tapings, which are done with a live
audience, to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. several years ago because the work had been
going on till midnight.
Amy Sherman-Palladino, the executive producer and creator of "Gilmore
Girls," avoids close-ups because they slow down by lingering on just one
actor. To keep the dialogue from ever letting up, she often employs a
technique called "walk-and-talks"-particularly difficult scenes to film
because the actors are moving while speaking, and directors can't splice
together different take when somebody muffs a line. If an actor says "but"
instead of "and," that may well be considered enough of a mistake to scrap
One morning recently, a walk-and-talk scene called for actress Lauren
Graham to walk along a path at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., with
Kelly Bishop, who plays Mrs. Gilmore. The two women discuss Mrs. Gilmore's
courtship: "And then he would talk of the paintings he had seen in Paris
and the colors of Titian, and by the end of the date, you thought he was
the most brilliant man in the entire world, " Ms. Bishop says in the scene.
"Using Titian to score? Even Titian didn't do that," Ms. Graham says.
After each take of the three-page scene, the script supervisor called off
the elapsed time to Ms. Sherman-Pallandino. One take was one minute, 23
seconds-too slow for Ms. Sherman-Pallandino. Finally, she was pleased with
take 13. It lasted one minute, 20 seconds. She writes "Gilmore Girls" for
20-25 seconds a page of dialogue, more than twice as fast as the standard
screenwriters' page-a-minute formula.
Ms. Graham describes her life as "a feeling you're cramming for exams 17
hours a day." When Ms. Graham's co-star, Alexis Bledel, watches TV in the
morning, she says she remembers the newscasts pretty much verbatim because
she is so conditioned to memorizing long scripts.
Whenever "The West Wing" script calls for a walk-and-talk, the crew
typically has a betting pool on how many takes the cast will need. The
record high is about 35, says Allison Janney, who plays the press secretary
C.J. Cregg on the show.
As recently as ten years ago, a typical situation comedy had five to 10
scenes, labeled A, B, C, and so on. "Seinfeld," a fast-talk pioneer, would
routinely exhaust the alphabet and labels scenes AA, BB, etc. To make
space for that, scenes were shorter and conversation faster.
TV writers can get away with it, particularly with younger viewers raised
on cartoons and MTV, who are accustomed to lots of information coming at
them quickly in small bits. "People are more and more media literate,"
says Linwood Boomer, executive producer of the current Fox hit "Malcom in
the Middle." As a result, he can also employ speeding-up tricks to make
more time for dialogue, such as showing a character at a doorway one second
and all the way across the room the next; viewers understand that he has
just walked across the room without having to witness it. In the editing
room, "Malcom in the Middle," as other shows do, too, cuts out "air,"
basically slivers of second between an actor speaking and another
responding. "The pilot was very, very fast-paced and hectic, and we do
everything almost twice as fast now," says Mr. Boomer, the show's creator.
"I don't think it's reached the limit yet."
TV, unlike movies with their sweeping vista shots and high-tech special
effects, is still about the writing. Over the years, hit shows, such as "I
Love Lucy," "Happy Days," and "Diff'rent Strokes" all followed the pattern
of a setup and then a big joke to end a scene. Then came "Moonlighting,"
which ran from 1985 to 1989, and was considered a breakthrough for its
fast-paced dialogue. Its stars Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis fought
talking rapidly and at the same time.
These days, though, the fast talk isn't so self-conscious; it seems quite
normal. Much is said, and shows have more plot twists and quick-cut scenes
in every episode. Viewers can expect to see still more shows with ensemble
casts, which make multiple story lines easier to write. More shows also
are ending with photo montages, set to music, to wind down viewers and send
them on their way without their heads spinning.
Credit: The Wall Street Journal
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