John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 279 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we will be looking at how characters tell us what they’re after, either with or without a song. We’ll also be answering listener questions about how much despair to feel when a movie similar to your spec is announced. How to get started off an improv group. And whether Craig and I are wrong about gurus.
Craig: Yeah, there’s a huge question there. [laughs]
John: There’s a giant question mark at the end of that, because it’s possible that we’re wrong about everything.
Craig: Absolutely. Absolutely.
John: One of our listeners wrote in with a question saying like, “These other guys, they think you’re wrong.”
John: And we’ll give you the answer at the end of the episode.
Craig: Oh my god, good. I was hungry.
John: Yeah. [laughs] First off, though, we have a correction. In last week’s episode I misspoke. I said stop trying to make ___ happen was from Clueless. I was completely wrong. That’s from Mean Girls.
Craig: Oh. Well, you know, but Mean Girls is from Clueless. They are on a line. They’re on a continuum. So, I think you are all right.
John: They are on a continuum. I think you would not have Mean Girls without Clueless, but it is its own movie, and it’s wonderful in its own right. So, people wrote in with that correction and I don’t want to put false things out into this world.
Craig: Yeah. Because, you know, everybody else is putting out real things. All other websites and podcasts promulgate accurate information.
John: Yeah. We’re trying to be an accurate podcast. So, I want to make that correction. We also had a follow up from a listener. Andy [Keir] in Brooklyn who wrote in, “Thank you, John, for recommending The Good Place as your One Cool Thing. It is beyond cool. Binged it in a couple of days and I love it. It was slightly awkward to notice that on that show, which is brilliantly written, it contained two of the clams which you prescribed earlier in the same episode, which are ‘Wait, what?’ and ‘Good talk.’ I’m not saying you are wrong in any way – I would never – it was just a fun bit of cognitive dissonance. Neither of the clams took me out of the show, it’s just too good, which goes to show you if you’re really good you can get away with it. The rest of us should listen to you guys.”
So. I got to say, The Good Place, got clams in there.
Craig: Everybody has a clam. Everybody has a clam somewhere. They’re not something that you have to completely prescribe. I mean, there are a few that I think signify a total lack of effort or care creativity. If you’re saying, “She’s like the blankety blank from hell,” you’re advertising that you suck. But some of them are, you know, in what we’ll call early clam stage. You know, I mean, there’s grown clams, the big gnarly ones with the barnacles on them. And then there’s these baby clams. So, ‘wait what?’ and ‘good talk’ are probably still in the baby clam area. And they’re not toxic to anything.
You know, this is what happens. Sometimes you and I, we do these things, and we forget that people take us very, very seriously. And then they start thinking, oh my god, I have to take this out of script. You know, take it as advice. It’s just advice.
John: Yes. So, right before we went to record, I got an email from a showrunner who copied in a long thread of exchanges that happened within his writing staff. Basically he had listened to the episode and passed along to his writing staff like, hey, let’s take a look at this. And there was a considerable discussion.
So, I have not cleared with him whether we are allowed to discuss his discussion. But I thought it was fascinating that a genuine bona fide show that is on the air right now had a discussion about this clam list based on our episode. So, it’s a thing that’s out there. And we weren’t the people who came up with this list. We were just passing it along. So, I would go back to this idea that it’s not – the two clams that he mentions here in The Good Place, those are relatively fresh clams. They haven’t been lying on the beach for a long time. They don’t smell. They’re not brand new, but they’re not horrible things in there.
What you were suggesting about sort of the ‘blankety blank from hell,’ that was such a horrible one that it was not even on the list that we read aloud.
Craig: Cause that’s not even a clam anymore. It’s decomposed into some sort of goo.
John: Yeah. They grind it up and they use the shells to repave Martha Stewart’s driveway.
Craig: That’s right. And then whatever protein was left goes into some sort of slurry for pet food.
John: Yeah. It’s really good. Or, the seagulls have just picked it apart, and you don’t want that. If the seagulls are all involved with your joke, it’s a bad joke.
Craig: So, the writers that were discussing the clam list, without going into their specifics, where there a few of them that they were defending as maybe not so clammy or–?
John: There were a few that I think were being defended, but it was more the idea of whether the list was a good idea or not a good idea. Whether it was calling out a list of things not to do was a helpful or an unhelpful practice.
Craig: That’s interesting. I mean, look, a lot of times when we talk about things, we are doing a little bit of what Penn & Teller used to do back in the day. So, Penn & Teller, like all magicians, subscribe to a magician’s code, which is to not give away the secrets to tricks. But then there are some tricks that are so clammy they’re like, screw it, we’re going to give it away.
I remember I went to go see Penn & Teller when I was a kid and they did a trick with cups and balls and moving them around. And it was impressive. And then they said, okay, but the thing is the magic part is – obviously it’s a gimmick, right? But the skill is actually in the manipulation. You are not as impressed as you should be, so we’re now going to redo this trick with clear cups, so you can see what we’re doing. And you will be more impressed. And I was. Because there’s a remarkable amount of dexterity. But they’re whole thing there was, you know what, this trick is a clam. We’re going to give it away.
And I’m okay with that. I don’t think we should ever feel like, just philosophically speaking, you and I, as we sometimes pull the curtain aside and reveal some of the tricks of the trade. You know, it’s okay. If they are clammy, you know, what are we really – I mean, I’m not sure what the argument is for not exposing these things as goofy.
John: Yeah. And the other thing which came up in this thread, which I think is a good thing worth pointing out, and sort of highlighting for our readers is there are some things that become kind of a meta clam, where they’re not funny anymore, but by repeating them they kind of become funny again. Or they inform a character who thinks that that is funny. So, a great example is on the American version of The Office, “That’s what she said.”
John: It’s not actually funny, but Michael Scott thinks it’s so funny is part of the joke behind it. And so, you know, there can be reasons why you’re deliberating using one of these things so you know it’s not in itself funny because in a broader context the characters who think it’s funny makes it hilarious.
Craig: That’s absolutely true. I would think the audience understands the difference. Even if they intellectually aren’t quite parsing it out so specifically the way a writer would, they clearly do get it. Everybody knows what’s going on when people on The Office say, “That’s what she said.” Everybody knows that.
I mean, look, think about – when Homer started going, “D’oh,” that was him making fun of goofy sitcoms, where people go, “D’oh.” They were making fun of it. And now it’s his own thing. It’s part of his character and nobody really connects it back to a kind of, well frankly, demeaning swipe at very clunky, poorly drawn characters that had come before him.
John: It’s interesting. D’oh I think is a great example because it’s great when Homer says it, but if you have any other character saying it in a Homer Simpson way, it doesn’t really work. But I’ve seen it used increasingly as like a parenthetical, or as a way to express the feeling of D’oh without actually having the character say, “D’oh.” It’s that sudden realization that you’ve made a fool of yourself is well expressed by D’oh,Scriptnotes, Ep 279: What Do They Want? — Transcript