Friday, September 12, 2014

Romantic comedy and the perfect balance

Yesterday I mentioned that Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is the exemplar for romantic comedy, and it is, for its perfect synthesis of comedy and romance.

And bless Shakespeare for his genius - yet another example - the play was so far ahead of its time that it took almost 400 years to match that achievement. It took until 1940, and "His Girl Friday."

And then it took another 42 years to do it again, in 1982, with the television show "Cheers."

What the play, movie and television show all have in common is that the focus of the story is the couple (in the case of Cheers for the first five seasons before Shelly Long left the show), but even more essential: the romantic couple is perfectly balanced. Neither character is more important, and in the case of Much Ado and "His Girl", the couple is not only balanced but a very close match - they have quite a lot in common.

Cheers was more of an "opposites attract" scenario, but on the other hand it had five years, rather than five acts, to flesh out the relationship.

The relationship of Sam and Diane was so important to the first five seasons of Cheers there's even a Wikipedia article about the couple, which says that the show's creators...
...had intended Cheers to be a comedy about "family" of characters in a Boston bar, but quickly realized that the "Sam and Diane" romance was popular and decided that every episode would depict it. Burrows told the others several weeks after filming began, "Sam & Diane – that's your show."
Please note that Cheers was popular with a broad demographic, not just "chicks." I first saw it when I went to see what my father (then in his late 40s) was chuckling about in the TV room.

The Sam and Diane Wiki mentions the Tracy-Hepburn films as an inspiration, but I don't think they're quite up to the same standards - those films always seem to be more about the Hepburn character than evenly balanced.

Sam and Diane may be opposites - he's a working class regular-guy jock and she's a pretentious intellectual from the upper class, but they are equally matched in strength - Diane laughs at Sam's moves with (usually not very bright) women and Sam mocks Diane for her gullibility. Both have a past - Diane was ditched by her boyfriend in the first episode of Cheers and Sam destroyed his baseball career through alcoholism. Diane has mental health issues (which is how she meets Frasier Crane) and she leaves Sam at the end of season five to pursue a career as a writer (which doesn't work out very well, we later find.) But when they do occasionally find common ground, it's magic.

And bonus - the occasional feminist message, which was pretty progressive for the early 1980s.

The opposites-attract scenario can help sustain the sexual tension and prevent the couple from getting together right away, which is not so useful in a 3 hour play or 2 hour movie, but perfect for a serial TV show.

I've written about His Girl Friday before -  I believe that the Hildy character is such a good match for the Walter character because she was originally written as a man. Of course it helped that Rosalyn Russell (who was Howard Hawks' tenth choice for the role) hired her own writer:
In her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant's, so she hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her writer's work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying, "What have you got today?"
His Girl is often not put into the romantic comedy category, instead being called a "screwball comedy." NYTimes critic A.O. Scott does in this video clip - and Scott is focused on how the movie portrays the newspaper business.

We will be hearing from A. O. Scott again in this series on the romantic comedy.

Since Hildy was originally written as a man, she and Walter are both newspaper "men" and so completely understand each other when it comes to a good news story. And they both want to get back together again - Walter says that Hildy will be staying, rather than retiring from her career to be a housewife for an insurance salesman, but "she just doesn't know it yet." And she does end up staying, but not only because of Walter's desire - at the end of the movie Hildy breaks down in tears after one of Walter's tricks is finally revealed because, as she tells him, "I thought you were going to let me go." So they both got what they wanted, after much give and take and outsmarting each other in turn.

Give and take - that's what it's all about. I was conscious of this when I was writing Julia & Buddy and that's why I was pleased when one of the reviewers noticed:
Though Julia’s various phobias and stigmas and Buddy’s multiple problems and shortcomings pose a certain threat to their respective sanity, the two find solace in their understanding of one another.

That's what it's all about in a romantic comedy. Here we see Beatrice and Benedick go back and forth until they both have to give in mutually.

No matter how comedic a romantic comedy is, it is above all sincere about love. As Benedick says:
I'll tell thee what, prince; a college of
wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost
thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No:
if a man will be beaten with brains, a' shall wear
nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I do
purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any
purpose that the world can say against it; and
therefore never flout at me for what I have said
against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my
And sincerity about love is not in fashion these days - it's much more acceptable to be snarky, alternating with portentousness. Those are the scourges of our present dramatic age.

But before I get into that, what happened to this give-and-take and balance in contemporary rom-coms? We'll talk about that and the rise of the dude-bro "romantic comedy" next.