Wednesday, February 24, 2010

You Traded My Soul for Pogs?!


I'm steering this blog into dangerously nerdy waters, but I've been thinking about one particular episode of The Simpsons a lot lately.

Bart Sells his Soul is one of my favorite episodes, and has been for years. I used to love it because I could relate to it. The Christianity jokes hit close to home and I didn't need much else beyond that. But now that I've spent some time at Second City, I look at comedy writing in a totally new way. I can see characters' points of views, conflicts and resolutions much clearer now. And the arc of Bart Sells his Soul really is one of the more brilliantly written episodes in the history of the show.

It feels almost like the Coen brothers directed this episode, with its metaphysical plot elements and darkly humorous action. Even Bart's dream sequences have that Coen-esque quality. But most importantly, this episode does what the Coen's always excel at: the conflict of assumption.

I've written before about how comedy is at its strongest when it is born of assumption. Either the audience, a character, or somebody has to make an assumption, and once they do--instant conflict. This is because an assumption produces action prior to any hard proof. Even if an assumption turns out to be correct, it's a hilarious comedic device because of its prejudicial nature. The Coen brothers play with assumption in all of their films (Burn After Reading possibly being the chief example), but so does other great comedy like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm ("I thought he was drowning him, I don't know what a baptism is!"), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Simpsons.

I popped my season 7 DVD in to see who wrote Bart Sells His Soul, and got the name Greg Daniels. I was unfamiliar with him, but a quick trip to the internet cleared away my ignorance. And boy, this guy might be the best comedy writer you don't know. He got his start at Harvard, with Conan O'Brien. From there he went on to write for SNL, some of their best seasons actually (87 - 90). Then came The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and King of the Hill. He wrote 254 episodes of King of the Hill. This accomplishment alone may be enough to accredit Mr. Daniels my new hero. He also wrote for the U.S. version of The Office. His current project is Parks and Recreation, which I haven't really given a chance yet, but definitely will now.

So let's recap: SNL, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, King of the Hill and The Office. That is an amazingly impressive record. Especially since the work he's done for all of these shows has been quality. None of the later Simpsons junk, none of the early 80s' SNL. All quality work, for over two decades straight. All this heaping praise comes down to the writing. In all of Daniels' best work, I can see all of the great comedic aspects which are taught at Second City.

Comedy isn't about a bunch of crazy taglines and zaniness. At its core, there has to be emotion. Bob Odenkirk (Tim and Eric, Mr. Show, SNL) told the Chicago Reader last year "if you can think of a unifying point of view for [a sketch]—something you are clearly commenting on while you're listing a bunch of funny taglines—that's even better." He expounds on this point in explaining one of his most famous creations from his days at SNL, Matt Foley:

"That character is telling a story with that catchphrase (I live in a van down by the river!). It paints a picture; the phrase has a lot more meaning to it than just a catchphrase that stands alone. That particular sketch contains a very strong idea: that this guy uses his own tragic career path as fodder for his motivational speaker bit. But there is a lot more to it when Chris [Farley] did it, and he made that character whole. It's not a gimmick. You felt like there was a real person in that character."

Character. This is so vital. If an audience doesn't care about a character first of all, they certainly won't empathize or laugh at him. In Bart Sells His Soul, our protagonist is Bart Simpson. We care about him because he expresses a clear and honest point of view. Bart doesn't believe in a soul. He believes this so confidently, that he pranks the entire church into singing a rock and roll song for the opening hymn ("fresh from God's brain to your mouth!"). He is also so confident in his belief that the soul doesn't exist that he is willing to gain something for his point of view. Milhouse (our antagonist), who believes in a soul, purchases a piece of paper from him that reads "Bart Simpson's Soul" for five bucks. Even this initial transaction is a matter of assumption. In total confidence, Bart declares in the echoing church sanctuary, "there's no such thing as a soul!" He's sure of it. But without hard proof.

Now, the story gets interesting because the protagonist's point of view is about to be challenged. And this is where Greg Daniels goes for more assumption. A string of coincidences take place, pointing to the possibility that Bart really did lose his soul when he sold it. An automatic door doesn't recognize him, his pets growl and snarl at him, and even his mother senses something "a little off" when she hugs him. The assumption that Bart (and we the audience) makes is that these things are happening because he no longer has a soul. Conflict.

Bart's point of view is no longer strong, but challenged. After a while, he even changes his mind completely. He goes on a dark journey seeking out his lost soul, finding nothing but bad luck along the way. And by the time we approach the resolution, Bart is on his knees confessing his sins to a god he didn't even believe in at the beginning of the episode. An amazing moment occurs at the end of his prayer, where the piece of paper falls from the sky and lands in front of him. This is another great moment in which the audience and Bart share a final assumptive emotion. "God answered the prayer! Wow!" we think to ourselves. But then we zoom out, and see Lisa's arm arched over Bart's head. She dropped the piece of paper, not God.

Now we have the hilarious shot of Bart ingesting the piece of paper while ignoring Lisa's expository moral. And the last scene, in which we see the essence of Bart captured in a dream. He is the character we loved and cared about in the beginning of the episode, only now he has gained something from his experience. He is still a prankster, but now a prankster with a soul. Character development.

Doesn't it sound like the Coens again? O Brother Where Art Thou is almost identical, on the narrative level. And A Serious Man progresses its entire story through religiously-fueled assumptions.

I listened to the commentary for the episode, and Greg Daniels talks about it with Matt Groening. They mention that the episode is engaging because viewers are involved in the story. But they believe it's rewatchable because of the funny stuff. I'm not sure if they're right about that though. Obviously it wouldn't be one of the greatest episodes if it didn't have great gags, but (as Odenkirk might argue) the more important aspect is actually the ability the story has to relate to its audience on an emotional level. Groening and Daniels even admit, "the unfortunate thing about a lot of comedy writing is that after you've seen a joke 8 or 10 times you can't tell if it's funny anymore." But this is not the case with great story structure. You can always count on that to be engaging (if it's done properly).

Greg Daniels' story in this episode is just about perfect. Nothing is cheap, all of the gags are intentionally placed within the structure of the story, nothing escapes the core of the arc.

This may just be the first of many Greg Daniels' projects that I analyze on Total Darkness vs. Blinding Light. A writer this talented is worth digging a little bit deeper into. It's his understanding of structure that allowed him to create some of the funniest and most memorable moments we've ever seen in the history of television, and I want to study that. I assume it will be a pretty good way to learn how to write some successful blog posts in the future.

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