Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Chekhov Meets Poochie

The Simpsons comes up on this blog sometimes, and it comes up among friends sometimes, but it comes up in my brain, like, all the time. Most of the minutes I live in any given week contain a thought related to The Simpsons. I'm certainly not the only person whose mind is more or less a Simpsons encyclopedia, but I know people who've never watched it. So I never really know, when I'm trying to use The Simpsons to make a point or a joke, whether it's going to make the right amount of sense to everybody.

Okay, then. Disclaimer made. 

The Simpsons once introduced a character named Poochie, a "soulless product of committee thinking" to its violent, animated show-within-a-show, Itchy & Scratchy. In the episode, the title characters are driving, approaching a fireworks factory, when Poochie appears at the side of the road. He proceeds to mug, shout catchphrases, and generally make like soulless characters did in the 1990s. Cut to Milhouse, one of the watching Simpsons characters, who moans "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?" Poochie hops in the car and drives off, and the fireworks factory sits there, unused. No violence; no joy.

You probably don't need to watch this if you were nodding along to the paragraph above, but if you weren't, please watch it, if only up to 1.30. The rest of the post'll make more sense. 

The longer this scene has cooked in my brain, the more writing lessons I find in Milhouse's question. (Really.) Poochie was introduced because Itchy & Scratchy's ratings were falling, and the producers wanted to keep getting raises every year. So they added Poochie to the "dramaturgical dyad" represented by Itchy and Scratchy (or by Tom and Jerry, or by Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote). And Poochie fucked things up not necessarily because he was a dramaturgical third wheel, but because he was a gimmick. What he did was not what the show did. 

Hence Milhouse's question. What he's asking is, when is this show going to do what I expect it to do? When am I going to get the explosion that is the whole point of this experience? 

It is a completely correct question to ask of any art. I'm not saying that every piece of art has to do what the audience wants it to, or what makes the audience feel comfy. That would mean we'd only ever have committee art: blockbuster summer movies instead of art-house films, James Patterson books instead of (not in addition to) Virginia Woolf. But every narrative has to be consistent to its purpose, and satisfactory, whether we're talking about a Roadrunner cartoon or a Faulkner novel.

One of my professors has said that a good book or a good story teaches the audience how to read it. Good art in any stratum accomplishes this. I sit down to watch The Avengers, and I know what kind of movie it is, what kind of enjoyment I'm going to get out of it, before five minutes have passed. I sit down to read a David Markson book, and I know what its pleasures (or lack thereof) will be in a few pages. It tells me what it's up to, and I adjust my expectations.* That's how audiences get satisfaction out of art. Stopping a Roadrunner cartoon in the middle to put Wile E. Coyote on a soapbox about the disappearing desert ecosystem, and never tossing him off a cliff at all, would not satisfy, even if the audience cares about the environment. The audience would just sit there, scratching its abstract audience-head, going "Why didn't he fall off the cliff?" Because that's what a Roadrunner cartoon is for

Audiences with any small measure of sophistication adjust their expectations based on the art they're consuming. I may not feel that every one of my questions has been answered when I watch a Lynch film, but that is not my expectation. 

And so back to Milhouse. His question betrays his expectation for Itchy & Scratchy: it's going to be violent. If a fireworks factory appears in the frame, there damn well better be explosions before the end of the show. Failing to make that happen betrays the audience's expectation and, more significantly, the purpose of the art. By showing the fireworks factory, the show is teaching Milhouse how to watch it, and by bringing in Poochie (who is essentially a commercial for the 1990s, not a character), it discards that lesson. 

The fireworks factory is something else, too: it's Chekhov's gun
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. 

Chekhov's gun mostly means "don't put shit in your stories that doesn't matter," but I also think of it as a lesson about narrative coherence, and about what draws the audience's attention. A gun on the wall in a story about the descendants of Samuel Colt might not need to go off, but that gun in the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead sure as hell had to. It was contextually unusual, and it was brought to the audience's attention. The fireworks factory might not be unusual in the context of Itchy & Scratchy, but it was brought to the audience's attention, and Milhouse is totally right to ask when that particular gun is going to go off.

There's yet another lesson that comes out of this question, which was (IMHO) most succinctly stated by Tom Servo in the MST3K of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank: Never show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie. The fireworks factory is the most interesting thing in the cartoon, but it's Poochie's bullshit that's front and center. And Poochie is rendered even more horrid by the possibility of the fireworks factory. 

So, in sum, what can writers take from Milhouse's question? I'll put it in bullet form: 
  • Teach your audience how to read your art. 
  • Don't fuck with that lesson. 
  • Understand that your audience is going to have expectations of your art, based on when and where s/he is consuming it and whatever other paratextual cues you offer about it. 
  • Meet those expectations, unless you want your art to annoy. 
  • Put only the stuff that matters into your work. 
  • Make that stuff matter as it narratively ought to. 
  • And don't shortchange the best parts of your work in favor of something that works less well, even if that something matters more to you. 
That's a lot to glean from one nine-word question in a TV episode from 1997. Not bad, Van Houten, not bad. Oh, and there's a thing to learn from Poochie himself: don't put a commercial masquerading as a character into your art. But I don't think we really needed Poochie to learn that. 

*This is why postmodernism is so cool to me: it constantly tosses those expectations up in the air and lets them fall as they may. But it's also why not everyone can deal with postmodernism - because they want their experiences to be consistent, because they want to feel secure about the kind of art they're consuming. You should've read the reactions on an opera fan page I frequent about a postmodern production of Prince Igor I attended last season. Whoo, they were not happy. 

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