I find myself working on some half hour comedies and hence watching them. In order to understand the half hour, I’ve tried to check in with a variety of series mid-run, rather than watching the pilots. So the next few posts will review what I’ve been watching.What I’m up to is a quick and dirty survey. If you want true insight into TV comedy writing check out Ken Levine’s blog.
I’ll start with Seinfeld. What better place to start than episode 11 of season 4: The Contest, that famous episode written by Larry David?
The episode is structured on the contest itself. It begins with the making of the bet and ends with everyone having caved. Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine each have a temptation of their own that tracks through the episode giving us four subplots. Let’s call them J (Jerry and the virgin), G (George and his mom), K (Kramer and the naked neighbour) and E (Elaine and the gym).
Back in season 4, Seinfeld was still book ended by Jerry’s comedy club routine, so the episode starts with 45 seconds of standup on parents having sex.
Then we go to the coffee shop where George announces to Jerry, Elaine and Kramer that his mother caught him. She is now at the hospital in traction. George is never doing it again and thus the bet is made. (G)
Back at Jerry’s, we start or continue everyone’s thread. George has to go visit his mother in hospital, Elaine is going to an aerobics class. Kramer points out the naked woman in an apartment across the way. By the end of the scene, he is out of the contest. It emerges that Jerry is still dating Marla the virgin. Kramer caves before the scene ends. (J, G, K, E)
Then we go around the horn, to see how each of the contestants makes out with their temptations.
At the hospital visiting his mom, George is treated to the sounds and shadows of the hot nurse giving a sponge bath to the patient in the next bed. (G)
At the gym, Elaine discovers that JFK Jr is going to be in her aerobics class — right in front of her and his butt is legendary. (E)
Jerry makes out with the virgin at the end of their date, but that’s as far as it goes. (J)
In bed, Jerry tosses and turns. (J)
George can’t sleep. (G)
Elaine tosses and turns. (E)
Kramer, sleeping like a baby, is the act one curtain. (K)
We start the second act in Jerry’s apartment. Kramer is happy, but Jerry is not, although he is still “master of his domain.” But the naked lady across the way is driving him crazy. (J, K)
At the coffee shop, George recaps the sponge bath for Jerry but announces that he’s still master of his domain. Then Elaine arrives to let us know what happened with JFK jr. Which involves her letting him think she lives in Jerry’s building. She too is still in the bet. (G, E)
Once more around the horn for another round of temptations: another sponge bath at the hospital (as George ignores his mother’s pleas that he go get her something to eat.) (G)
At the gym, Elaine learns John-John is interested in her. He’s going to drive by Jerry’s building tomorrow at 9, looking for her. (E)
Jerry tries to ignore the naked lady as Kramer watches her. (J/K)
George can’t sleep. (G)
Jerry can’t sleep. (J)
Kramer sleeps like a baby. (K)
And so does Elaine. (E)
In the morning, George and Jerry are crabby and Elaine pays up on the bet. And then there were two. (E)
In his apartment, Marla the virgin tells Jerry she’s ready, but he makes the mistake of introducing the subject of the bet. (J)
Elaine meanwhile is waiting for John John. (E)
Marla tells Jerry he’s sick and leaves in a fury. (J)
Elaine bumps into Marla outside the apartment and she tells Elaine she’s sick too. (J)
In Jerry’s apartment, Elaine reports that JFK Jr didn’t show. George arrives to announce that he did and Marla went off with him. Looking out the window, they see Kramer in the apartment with the naked woman. (E/J/K)
Elaine sleeps peacefully. (E)
George sleeps peacefully. (G)
Jerry sleeps peacefully. (J)
Kramer and the naked lady sleep peacefully. (K)
Marla, no longer the virgin, lies in a man’s arms and says “oh John, that was wonderful.” (J)
The contest gives a great shape to the show. It isn’t necessary to crank up the heat under the characters — time does that job. The beats are actually virtually the same each time we go back to each storyline. Jerry makes out with Marla twice. The naked lady across the street continues to be naked. The hot nurse gives another sponge baths at 6:30. Only the JFK Jr story seems to advance — Elaine learns that he’s interested in her. Time and pressure take their toll on the characters, breaking down their resistance.
The quick cuts of each of them lying in bed at night are incredibly effective. The sequence is used three times with a new surprise each time through.
The ending comes when the bet is over: no domain masters remain. The little surprise twists of Kramer getting lucky with the naked lady and Marla losing her virginity to John-John button it all up.
Another fourth season episode, The Airport written by Larry Charles, is structurally similar. This time an airplane flight gives the episode its shape. Elaine and Jerry are on their way home and Kramer and George are going to pick them up.
Again, each character gets his or her own thread. Elaine ends up suffering in coach while Jerry sits with a model in first class. Kramer sees a guy who owes him money and wants to get it back, while George battles a convict for the last copy of Time. All the threads wrap up when Jerry and Elaine are finally back on the ground in New York.