Sometimes TV shows, especially sitcoms, like to take little
plot devices from the movies and use them just for laughs. And use them again. And
again. I’m not sure whether to call them visual clichés, moronic jokes, or idiot plot
devices. I think Idiot Plot Devices has the best ring. |
Roger Ebert, in one of his movie review books talks of one of his favorites – the Fruit
Cart. You see the cart being slowly rolled down a city street or sidewalk, usually by an
ethnic type, in some action movie where a chase is taking place. Ebert maintains that
whenever the cart appears, it will soon be toppled with its contents spilling and rolling
all over the place, and the fruit vendor can be counted on to shake his fist at the
fleeing culprits. Audience members have been known to yell, “Fruit cart!” at such
There are quite a few of these devices, but three of them
drive me absolutely bonkers.
First on my list is the Red Carpet
Stumble. You’ve seen it; the glamorous young woman strides gracefully down a carpet at
some flashy premiere or award ceremony, smiling to the crowd and flashing cameras, when
oh, no, she stumbles over something and falls face first to the ground, completely out of
frame. Then, with the speed of light - whoosh! – she’s back on her feet and smiling as
if nothing ever happened. I’m expected to laugh heartily every time I see this. Every
(The previews for the film Charlie’s Angels - Full
Throttle featured a smiling Cameron Diaz doing the Red Carpet Stumble. I immediately
thought, “This movie is a turkey.” And guess what? I was right.)
And how about the Yell That Can Be Heard From Really Far Away?
Movie and TV characters do occasionally yell loud and long for various reasons, some so
loud they can even be heard outside the building they’re in. This device was effectively
used in the bloody horse head scene in The Godfather. But in the last five to ten years,
every TV show in creation has taken that concept and expanded it as far as outer space –
for humorous effect.
I just watched a show called “That’s So Raven”
with my daughter. One of the characters, a high-school kid, just learned that he passed
a test, allowing him to play on the football team. “I made the team!” he yells in the
school hallway. Now we are outside the school – and he’s just as loud! “I made the
team!” he yells. In the next moment we’re far from the school, outside the city limits,
as the yelling continues. (At this point an optional flock of pigeons may burst into
flight.) The last and final scene is Earth as seen from outer space. “I made the team!
I made the team!”
Ho-ho! Even from space we can hear this guy! He
must be very excited!
Finally, here’s one I think I’ll call the
Preposterous Repeated Phrase.
Years ago I was watching a soap opera
(my excuse is that I was very sick, but that’s another story) when a finely chiseled male
character said to a female character, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law, you know,”
in a joking tone. A few minutes later, a new scene with a completely different man and
woman takes place. She says to him, jokingly, “You know what they say, don’t you?
Possession IS nine-tenths of the law.”
Wow. It’s as if the same
person had written both scenes. What are the odds of that?
time I’ve seen the Preposterous Repeated Phrase used to good effect was in “Seinfeld”:
George: Worlds collide! They collide, Jerry!
Jerry: Yes, I
know. Kramer told me about the worlds.
Most TV shows, however, use
this clumsily, or even worse, unknowingly, like the soap opera. The same phrase,
repeated almost verbatim, by different characters in different scenes. I think, “tsk,
tsk, sloppy, sloppy," and begin to lose interest. The seams are beginning to show.
Of course, as a writer myself, I wouldn’t do that. That would be
worse then writing a story with a fruit cart toppling down a red carpet with the vendor
shaking his fist and yelling, “I made the team, I made the team!”
suppose I could, but then worlds might collide.