Sunday, January 25, 2009

Curb Your Stress

I’ve been watching a lot of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” lately. The show, depicting a fictionalized version of the life of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, has been a success on HBO for years, but—chiefly as a result of my family’s Spartan cable subscription—I have discovered it only recently. It is typically described as a sitcom. I suppose this is an accurate characterization of the typical episode structure—Larry routinely gets himself into situations ripe for comedy—but it is misleading as to the overall tone of the show. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has no laugh track, is filmed by handheld camera, and, most unusually, is produced without the aid of a script.

That’s right—it’s all improv. I’ve gathered through extensive research (read: Wikipedia) that while the actors are given detailed scene outlines that specify topics which need to be discussed and later jokes which need to be set up, they create and deliver their lines on the spot. Their conversations are peppered with “ums” and “ahs,” and the characters often talk over one another, especially when arguing. This can be incredibly frustrating—Larry in particular tends to circumnavigate touchy subjects ad nauseum—but it can also be incredibly funny, full of poorly-chosen metaphors and awkward silences. In short, it is funny in the same way that our own lives are funny. It is naturalistic. It is “real.”

I can’t help but see a connection between this sort of unscripted sitcom and reality television. If reality show contestants are not given scene outlines—and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some cases, they are—then they are at least guided by the highly artificial scenarios in which they find themselves to behave a certain way. To steal an example from the excellent post on “Momma’s Boys” below, the producers of that show chose to put a bigoted, loud spoken woman in a house with many women whose ethnicities she found objectionable. Though it was not scripted, or even outlined, a fight was inevitable.

Larry David often emphasizes in interviews that the “character” of Larry David whom he plays on the show is quite different from his real personality. He shouldn’t need to clarify this: how could the character ever truly reflect upon his personality? The character is placed in situations engineered for conflict, and the comedy that results from conflict. Contestants on a reality TV show are also placed in situations engineered for conflict. Personalities are deliberately chosen to clash. Competitions are inherently stressful. And the living arrangements on many of the shows—the dormitory-style bedrooms in the sterile, camera-filled house—are enough to drive anyone up the wall. I don’t mean to defend contestants who act out on a show; many people do just fine under stress (though these people are usually eliminated early from reality TV due to their lack of entertainment value). However, I do think that the producers shape characters out of their contestants even before the footage hits the editing room. Aside from standardized tests, few experiences in life are constructed for the sole purpose of creating stress and conflict. For the sake of others’ perceptions of our “characters,” we should be thankful of it.

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