Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why Listening to Denny Crane Makes Us Smarter

People are inherently biased and there’s nothing you can do about that. But if your name is David E. Kelley, writer/producer of L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and Boston Legal (not to mention a few TV movies and shows that didn’t last as long as the rest), you know how biased people are and you use it to get your point across.

We have to look no further than Denny Crane’s character in Boston Legal. At first sight, he seems ridiculous, out of touch, and senile. The trick is to create a stereotype almost on sight, so that the audience immediately has an opinion on the character. Kelley then reinforces the stereotype, getting a few jokes in, only to reach a certain point in which the audience realizes it's looking at a human being with feelings, emotions, pain, and depths you hadn’t seen yet. Denny Crane, during the first season of Boston Legal, was not only a ridiculous parody of a person. He was a tragic has-been that knew his once-grand stature and abilities were collapsing and that there was nothing he could do to stop it. He was being ridiculous to hide his fears. In the first season, Kelley turned Crane into a three-dimensional human being.

Almost every person in a Kelley series begins as a stereotype, and ends up, if he or she is given enough screen time, as a surprisingly three-dimensional person.

Douglas Wambaugh’s first image on the screen, in Picket Fences, was of a very Jewish-looking shyster (played by Fyvush Finkel). He cracked jokes and was the epitome stereotype of the Jewish lawyer. And he fit that bill perfectly. “Reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee” was his motto, and he would represent anyone for a fee. But the truth was that he would also represent people for no fee. When Frank the Potato Man (yet another stereotype of Frank, Rome, Winsconsin’s homeless man) was about to be lynched by the people of Rome, Wambaugh was the only one who fought for him. He did it for free, he stood up against the entire town, and he never gave up. Because Wambaugh, it turned out, had a big heart and a deep-seated sense of justice.

We saw that heart best when Wambaugh was banned from his synagogue. Wambaugh ‘sued’ the synagogue and got a hearing at a ‘Beit Din’, which is a sort of Jewish court that settles religious issues. He made his case, and the other side made its case. But when Wambaugh saw how many people from the synagogue signed a petition to have him banned, we saw Wambaugh’s world collapse. And he was never more human.

The town of Rome, Wisconsin was full of stereotypes and erroneous first impressions. From the ridiculous Frog Man (who dressed like a frog and sang songs), to Carter Pike (the nervous coroner who sounded like a chipmunk in court and about whom there were always rumors he touched the bodies inappropriately), to Ginny Weedon (who was very short and thought she got intuitions from the other side), and a bagful of others. Ally McBeal’s world was chock-full with just as many stereotypes, which were actually more stereotypical, because Ally McBeal was more of a comedy than Picket Fences. Remember the Biscuit with all his quirks? Richard Fish? Lane? Practically every second client and every second character filled some sort of stereotype. But they all had a justification for the way they were, and when they were outcast, they took it badly.

Kelley uses the fact that we are inherently biased to prove to us again and again not that the bias is wrong and not that everyone is the same, but that there is a person in everyone.

But the truth is that Kelley’s humor does even more than that. Kelley’s humor forces the audience to think. I’ll repeat that: Kelley’s humor forces people to think.

It does that in two ways.

First of all, most jokes are put in such a way that forces the audience to immediately develop a contrary opinion. Think back to most of Richard Fish’s speeches. There wasn’t one sentence there that was right, but with every sentence Kelly put in his mouth, he forced you to form an opinion of what is right. That process wasn’t even a conscious effort on your part, because you didn’t take time to think. Fish gave you a line, and you laughed because a contrary thought had immediately appeared in your brain without effort. In fact, think back to most of Denny Crane’s monologues, or even to most of Alan Shore’s personal statements in the office.

Kelley uses his humor to force you to think. It doesn’t matter what you think, so much as that you think for yourself and form an opinion that belongs solely to you.

Here’s the other way he does it. About half his jokes force you to have more than one point of view at a single time.

Here are a few examples:

When Mayor Pugen spontaneously combusts (and let’s not get started on that one), Wambaugh, who was also his political opponent, gets up to speak: “I’ve known Bill Pugen for 18 years. I’ve never liked him. When he burst into flame, part of me wanted to bring marshmallows.” You immediately put yourself in Wambaugh’s mind, thinking about why he said it. But you are also thinking about those gathered around, and what they must be thinking. Kelley forces you to be in more than one head at a time.

When Zach, the sheriff’s little kid, states innocently: “It’s politically correct to hate Christians,” you immediately think about what he must have heard and what kids are exposed to these days to make him understand the world and political correctness in this way. You see the kid’s perspective (it’s what he heard and what he knows), while retaining your own.

Once, in court, Wambaugh faces off with the FBI. As the proceedings begin, the FBI lawyer says, “Your honor, this is blatant interference, which is jeopardizing the investigation.”

Which is Wambaugh’s cue to rise, “Your honor! Thirty-two hands have been hacked off during their investigation. A little interference would be in order!” The audience in the court laughs.

“That is not funny, Mr. Wambaugh,” the judge chides him.

“Of course not, your honor,” says Wambaugh, and adds belligerently: “And I ask you to sanction everyone back there who laughed!”

In this way, Wambaugh took a situation that’s completely black-and-white and turned the tables on it, making us look at it with the opposite perspective.

And here is Kelley’s smartest joke, in my opinion. Not the best, simply the smartest. Jimmy Brock, sheriff of small-town Rome, Winsconsin, finds the body of a dead masseur. Jimmy discovers a little black book which contains a list of all the man’s clients. The book contains a few squiggles next to many names, representing a special ‘thing’ he used to perform to his favorite clients, the nature of which was unclear but receives many, many euphemisms during the episode. But, generally, it was called the Squiggly.

Now here’s the thing: Jill, Jimmy’s wife, was on the list, although there was no squiggle next to her name. Jimmy gets intensely jealous and demands to know what happened and why he didn’t know about it. Jill insists that there was nothing sexual about the massage, and that she was there simply for her sciatic nerve.

Over a tense family dinner, the Brocks discover that one of the Brocks written in the book was not Jill, but Kimberly, Jimmy’s teenage daughter, also seated at the table. They stare at her in shock. “What?” She says innocently. “It was just a massage.” “Yeah, right,” says Jill.

And there you go.

In one instant, with two words, Jill reverses everything she had claimed until then (although, of course, the ambiguity remains). The instant it happens, we immediately understand why she did it, why it’s bad, what the implications are if she’s lying, what the implications are if she’s not, Jimmy’s points of view as both father and husband, and Jill’s points of view as both mother and wife. All in one split-second.

The ability to see more than one point of view at the same time is part of what makes people intelligent. We’re usually stupid – or at least we act stupidly – when we can’t see beyond our own nose. Intelligence is the ability to react to changing circumstances. We are usually resistant and bull-headed when we’re zeroed in on our own point of view and the rest of the world can kiss our asses.

Of course, this has farther-reaching consequences than feuds with the neighbor, the spouse, the siblings, etc. Almost every war that is not based entirely on self-defense, especially long-lasting wars, depend on the people not seeing the others’ point of view as legitimate and/or that the other side is just as human and grieves just as badly.

I’m not saying listening to Richard Fish or Denny Crane makes us pacifists. I’m saying listening to them makes us marginally smarter for short periods of time.

No comments: