Generic TV Speech Patterns -

Generic TV Speech Patterns


I read the pilot script of Accidentally On Purpose, the Satan Jenna Elfman vehicle that the network is going to try and make us watch after How I Met Your Mother. It does not look promising. (Though I will note that it seems less like a Knocked Up knockoff and more like a series-length version of that Frasier episode where Roz got knocked up by a guy much younger than she was.)  Apart from the generic characters and unsustainable premise, the thing that depressed me was that it’s seemingly yet another show where everybody talks the same.

Update: The original version of this post quoted a few lines from the script as an example of how all the characters talk alike, but on relfection that’s not good form (if only because bad lines might not turn up in the final version). But most of the lines in the official promo below are in the script, and they’re pretty generic. Anyway, the point is that none of the lines are that funny, but — and this may actually mean more to me than the funniness or unfunniness of a particular line — they don’t convey any sense that different people talk in different ways. (The 23 year-old character is occasionally distinguished by the fact that he says the word “buds,” but otherwise the script keeps trying to prove he’s “charming,” meaning that he can wisecrack in a generically witty manner that sitcom writers always mistake for charm. Think Ted’s exchanges with Stella on How I Met Your Mother, but worse.)

And not to pick on this show, a lot of television has this problem. The characters are often carefully, methodically distinguished by what they do, what they like, what they want in life, but they all talk more or less the same way, in the same rhythm. This is sheer hell in sitcoms, where everybody’s already in danger of falling into an identical rhythm (the danger of comedy), but it’s a problem in any kind of show. Again, not to pick on this one script; there are already plenty of comedies on the air where no character has his or her own way of talking. Gary Unmarried?

I think some of this comes, oddly enough, from a tendency toward over-naturalism. Writers understandably want to make dialogue sound at least a little bit like the way people really talk. But to give a character a distinctive speech pattern in relatively few lines (which is all most characters have in an episodic TV script) requires their dialogue to be a little stylized and heightened and even stereotypical. I mean, think of a Marx Brothers movie: Groucho talks in insults, Chico talks with a ridiculous fake accent, and all their antagonists talk in an absurdly heightened parody of “proper” speech (“As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms!”).  This is one reason why I have affection for The Nanny and other broad, crude comedies of the ’90s.  When a show does broad, stereotypical, ethnic humour, at least they have different people talking in different ways, and they abandon any attempt at naturalism for simple and effective speech cliches. 

And over on 30 Rock, it is understood that several important characters talk like no human has ever talked.  Once you have characters who talk differently, you have characters who each offer a different type of humour. That’s true character comedy. But if  most of the characters have similar speech patterns, it makes it less likely that any of them will develop into distinctive characters. Not impossible; Friends sort of pulled it off, but Friends, as we have learned, should never be imitated by any network or production company. That way lies the current state of NBC.