The Single Most Important Scene in Friends

 FRIENDS is getting a lot of pub lately because of the 20th anniversary.  The show continues to resonate, but there’s a sneaky bit of zeitgeist in the very 1st episode that shows how times have changed.  Remember the pilot’s plot: Rachel walks out of her wedding, meets the “Friends” at the café, and moves in with Monica. While there, she calls her father and ultimately declares, “Well, maybe I don’t need your money anymore, Daddy.”  Here, it gets interesting: the Friends call her bluff. Rachel’s still got Daddy’s credit cards.  Near the end of the episode comes the single most important scene of the series:

(CUT TO THE GANG AT MONICA + RACHEL’S, SITTING ROUND A TABLE. ON THE TABLE ARE RACHEL’S CREDIT CARDS AND A PAIR OF SCISSORS)  

MONICA: You ready?

RACHEL: I don’t think so.

ROSS: C’mon, cut. Cut, cut, cut,…

ALL: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut… (SHE CUTS THEM ALL UP. THEY CHEER)

MONICA: Welcome to the real world! It sucks. You’re gonna love it!

This scene is so essential, the show can’t even begin without it.  The adventure can’t begin as long as you’re tethered to the past, to home, to childhood.  In this and many other ways, Friends is really a show with 1950’s sensibilities (except for sex).

Fast-forward to today: kids moving back in with parents, school debt, uncertainty about the future.  The Z is in a completely different place.

Hooking Up 0, Romantic Love 1

image

The Zeitgeist has changed.  Followers of this blog know I track the zeitgeist, or Z, pretty closely.  The Z is the ghost in our time; the “feeling” of this moment.  Think of it as an amalgam of the prevailing hopes, aspiration, anxieties and fears of now.  And we’ve reached a tipping point.

A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with my friend John Bettis, one of the most successful songwriters in history. John has 800 songs in the ASCAP database, including minor legends like Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and Madonna’s Crazy For You.  John’s songs were just as in demand as ever, but that day he said, “Reed, there are 2 words I can’t use together in a song right now.  Those words are “love” and “forever”.

The Z was in a different place.  Kesha and the YOLO ethos was riding high. A lyric like Kesha’s Dirty Love came across as empowering to a generation of girls making the duck-face on Facebook:
                      I just want your dirty love
                      I just want your dirty love
                      All I need is to get in-between your sheets

But the Z never stops moving.  Hooking up has hit a wall and it’s taken some of the YOLO energy with it.  There were hints at the Grammy’s 2 years ago, when leading artists embraced the turn towards the comfort of nostalgia.  Bruno Mars looked like he just stepped off the Temptations’ tour bus. Adele, the big winner, was singing about broken hearts - and looked like a 1950’s English housewife. This year, Lady Gaga looked quaint and out-of-date with her “shock” gear. 

Meanwhile, MIchael “Sinatra” Buble has the #1 record in America.  He’s singing nothing but romance, baby, complete with big band.  Just like Justin Timberlake, who added the tuxedo.  It’s official: romance is back.

Note to John: time to start pitching those love songs again, pal.

A Masterclass in Writing for the Zeitgeist

Judd Apatow has a rep: King of the Bromance.  But now, he’s got a new show coming: GIRLS, on HBO.  Although he’s not writing the show, he’s Exec Producing - which means he’s the keeper of the creative flame.  My bet is that he’ll get the zeitgeist right. To illustrate, let’s look at a previous work, Knocked Up - and see how he got women into theaters to see (and love) a farting, pot-smoking, porn-site-developing slacker named Ben Stone.

Ask 20-35 year-old women today about the opposite sex, and you’ll hear again and again: “For the love of God, we want men to be men - not boys in men’s bodies.”  A lot of women want men to be more assertive - to be more traditionally masculine.  They understand it’s a little complicated these days, but come on - would it kill you to pick up the check?  To put down the beer bong and get a job? To make a freaking commitment?

This, incidentally, is not cool to discuss in some circles.  It’s considered anti-feminist.  But, of course, the living, breathing ticket-buying culture doesn’t care about what’s politically-correct - it just rocks on being its authentic self.  And the deeply-felt longing among many women for men to take charge once in a while - old school - is quite real.  Not all women, of course …

Possibly doesn’t attend many romantic comedies

At the beginning of Knocked Up, Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen) epitomizes the slacker stereotype. He’s also recently impregnated the much-hotter, much-more-successful Alison, played by Kathryn Heigl.


"I’m seriously freaked out and unprepared for this."

So much, women are likely to hate.  But by the end of the film, Ben is transformed, Beauty and the Beast style: he’s got a steady job (cubicle!), read his baby books, and got his own apartment (with baby room!).  Still, for the Z to be fully acknowledged, Ben needs to assert himself - to be a man. In Knocked Up, this means that Ben must overthrow Alison’s sister, the shrewish Debbie.  She’s got to be moved.

You might think, this being the 21st century and all, that Apatow would ease into it.  Be respectful.  Ummm, No. Remember, Apatow isn’t playing to the womyn’s studies department at Sarah Lawrence - he’s playing to the mass zeitgeist. In that world, women aren’t waiting for one more sensitive guy.  They’re genuinely longing to feel the security of a strong, assertive man. Let’s see how it’s done.

Alison’s in the maternity room, and the baby is on its way. Debbie, acting again as surrogate husband, has told Ben to shove off.  We have our moment of truth: Will Ben finally be a Marlboro Man?

INT. HOSPITAL - HALLWAY
Ben and Debbie talk in the hallway alone.
                                BEN
                   I’d like to be in there with
                   Alison…without you.
                                DEBBIE
                   Okay. I understand how you feel, but
                   this isn’t up to you.
                                BEN
                   Look, Debbie, you are high off your
                   ass if you think you’re coming into
                   that room. If you take one step
                   towards that door, I will tell
                   security there’s a crazy chick in a
                   pink dress snatching up babies. Okay?
                   So don’t even try to come into that
                   room. That’s my room now. That little
                   area with the Pepsi machine…that’s
                   your area.

(points to hospital room)

                   My room.

(Points to waiting area)            

                     Your area. Stay in your area. Stay out of my room. Back
                     the fuck off.

Ben Stone is now officially, satisfyingly (to the women who flock to Apatow comedies) a man.  But we need to see the reaction for the women in the audience to reach … let’s call it sateity.  Apatow doesn’t disappoint - the very next scene:

INT. HOSPITAL - WAITING ROOM
Debbie sits down in a seat next to Pete.
                                              PETE
                               What are you doing here?
                                              DEBBIE
                               He just kicked me out. He told me to
                               leave. But I guess it’s good, right?
                               He said he’s going to take care of
                               her. He really seems on his game. I
                               think he’s going to be a good dad. I
                               think I like him. Thank God.                                            

Not included in the screenplay is the huge sigh Debbie gives before the last line. It’s almost post-coital in its satisfaction.

This is how it’s done: you find the Z - the attitudes, anxieties and aspirations of the target audience, then articulate those values back to the audience with maximum empathy.  There’s a reason women come to Apatow movies.  It’s all about the Z.

Apatow gets women and doesn’t pull punches.  He’s proved it before - and my money’s on him getting it right again with his new show. Can’t wait to see how he plays it to a younger demographic.


George Bush, Obama, Community and the Big Bang Theory

I’m gratified so many of you have re-blogged my take on role the zeitgeist plays in the popularity of The Big Bang Theory, while Community is pushing against the same tide.  Most people (those with a dictionary?) get it: saying TBBT is in more tune with the popular Z doesn’t mean it’s better than Community, which is an entirely different discussion.  Most who disagree actually make my point by writing things like, “It’s easier to understand,” etc.

So: for those who don’t understand what the zeitgeist is, I refer you to 2 posts earlier, on Adele and The Hunger Games.

One of the key attributes of creative professionals is the empathy to understand how others view the world - and a staunch resistance to the narcissism that says, “People who disagree with me are morons.”  We all tend to live in enclaves of fairly-similar opinions, and eventually, we can become dismissive of ideas that differ from our own.

This is treacherous business for people who get paid for making things.

When George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, some of my liberal friends in the industry (New York, LA), were honestly shocked. 

"How could this have happened? I don’t know a single person who voted for that man." 

But, of course, millions voted for “that man.”  It’s just that most of my coast-based pals didn’t know any of them - or any who admitted it, at least.  But here’s the fun part:

Fast forward 4 years, and Obama’s standing in a Chicago stadium packed with … fans?  Yes - that’s the word.  And this time, my conservative friends (Nashville) were just as surprised.

It turns out neither politics nor intelligence insulates us from thinking our view is the only view.  We acknowledge some diversity of opinion in theory, and then roll right on through life acting as though it doesn’t exist.

This is tricky stuff, and pros can get it wrong.  Getting the Z right doesn’t mean better.  It also doesn’t mean worse, by the way.  It just means “in tune” - no more, no less.  And that sense of “in tune” helps creative work thrive in the marketplace.  Right now, TBBT is thriving, and Community isn’t.  There are a few reasons why, and the precise way TBBT portrays Geek “otherness” is a significant one.

Lots of people try to outsmart this and watch their work vanish.  Remember: The Z will not be mocked.  Incidentally: of the 2 shows, I prefer Community.

Next post: A Judd Apatow masterclass on getting it right.

Chuck Lorre is arguably the most successful TV producer of the past decade. His ability to connect to the zeitgeist is legend. At present, he’s winning a throwdown between his program, The Bang Theory, and network TV’s other college-based show, Community (they air directly against each other Thursday evenings).  Both are well-written, ably-acted, and sport a loyal fan base.  Yet Community struggles to survive, while Mr. Lorre’s show is already generating millions in syndication profits. What gives?
The surface answer is that Community is more innovative, and therefore, less mainstream. To be sure, Community has taken some surrealistic turns - but that’s what its fans love about it.  The real secret to TBBT’s success and Community’s struggles are deeper, at the zeitgeist level.
Take a look at the pictures above.  Community, for all its innovation, is actually the more old-fashioned of the 2 programs.  Its stars are rooted in a 1990s version of 20-something glamour.  Yes, Abed’s quirky, but its stars are mostly beautiful - Jeff Winger’s attractiveness is a consistent plot device, and a part of Annie’s anatomy is so celebrated it’s (they’ve?) spawned its own fan sites.
The Big Bang Theory understands that geek culture celebrates its otherness.  The stars of BBT aren’t working towards fitting into the larger culture.  None of them, for example, wants to get back a high-paying law job, as Jeff Winger on Community does.  TBBT crew wouldn’t even be tempted by the notion.
Anthropologist and marketing consultant Grant McCracken, writing in The Harvard Business Review mused, “Our heroes used to be the people who stole lunch money.  Increasingly, they are the people from whom it was stolen. This has got to have something to do with the rise of Silicon Valley and people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.“
     Put simply: Jeff Winger is the guy who stole your lunch money. Look at that grin on his face - he looks like he swiped your chocolate milk, too. Now, look at the picture on the right.  Yeah.  They’re the guys he swiped it from.
     Advantage, Mr. Lorre.

Chuck Lorre is arguably the most successful TV producer of the past decade. His ability to connect to the zeitgeist is legend. At present, he’s winning a throwdown between his program, The Bang Theory, and network TV’s other college-based show, Community (they air directly against each other Thursday evenings).  Both are well-written, ably-acted, and sport a loyal fan base.  Yet Community struggles to survive, while Mr. Lorre’s show is already generating millions in syndication profits. What gives?

The surface answer is that Community is more innovative, and therefore, less mainstream. To be sure, Community has taken some surrealistic turns - but that’s what its fans love about it.  The real secret to TBBT’s success and Community’s struggles are deeper, at the zeitgeist level.

Take a look at the pictures above.  Community, for all its innovation, is actually the more old-fashioned of the 2 programs.  Its stars are rooted in a 1990s version of 20-something glamour.  Yes, Abed’s quirky, but its stars are mostly beautiful - Jeff Winger’s attractiveness is a consistent plot device, and a part of Annie’s anatomy is so celebrated it’s (they’ve?) spawned its own fan sites.

The Big Bang Theory understands that geek culture celebrates its otherness.  The stars of BBT aren’t working towards fitting into the larger culture.  None of them, for example, wants to get back a high-paying law job, as Jeff Winger on Community does.  TBBT crew wouldn’t even be tempted by the notion.

Anthropologist and marketing consultant Grant McCracken, writing in The Harvard Business Review mused, “Our heroes used to be the people who stole lunch money.  Increasingly, they are the people from whom it was stolen. This has got to have something to do with the rise of Silicon Valley and people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.“

     Put simply: Jeff Winger is the guy who stole your lunch money. Look at that grin on his face - he looks like he swiped your chocolate milk, too. Now, look at the picture on the right. Yeah. They’re the guys he swiped it from.

     Advantage, Mr. Lorre.





What do The Hunger Games and Adele’s Hair have in common?

When creative work breaks out into mega-hit status, you can usually work backwards and discover a ghost at work … the Zeitgeist.  The is the amalgam of prevailing attitudes, opinions, anxieties and aspirations of a generation at a given moment in time.  Pop entertainment that succeeds commercially articulates those attitudes back to the culture with great empathy.  Nobody in music right now is more on target than Adele, and the massive success of the Hunger Games in print and film shows the story is hitting the creamy center of the Z, too.

But what attitudes are these works articulating?  In Adele’s case, it’s not just the nostalgia craze - witness Bruno Mars looking like he’s singing for the Temptations, just like it was 1975 - but rather, something deeper.  The force driving that trend is a desire to look back for comfort while the future looks bleak. 

Fashion editor Christina Brinkley put it this way:

"Climate change, a global financial crisis, an occupying force on Wall Street—we no longer expect science or math to make the world safe. Far from it. But we want something cozy and familiar—and what could be sweeter than motherhood, all dolled up as properly as Donna Reed in 1958?“

Right: so that explains Adele looking like a ’50s housewife dressed for an evening out, and Katy Perry channeling ’40s pinup girl Bettie Paige.  But how about The Hunger Games?

At the root, both Adele’s romantic nostalgia and The Hunger Games apocalyptic view of the future have tapped this generation’s growing distrust that things are getting better - something a 1970’s teenager would have regarded skeptically, and a 1950’s kid would have regarded as absurd.  That’s the thing about the Z … it never sleeps.  It’s like wind in a sail, moving the ship of culture along.  In this case, it moved the culture right into the arms of Lions Gate Pictures and Adele.

More power to them.

the Girl Scouts turn Maker: everyone’s a designer

The zeitgeist that TechShop is surfing (see a few entries below) is spreading.  As of this week, the Girl Scouts have revamped their merit badges to include: PRODUCT DESIGN.  2 rivers are converging, here: powerful design technology that anyone can use, and the personalization of products.  “You have a pretty laptop cover?  Me, too - only I DESIGNED mine.”  At the confluence of these forces is MAKER CULTURE - which the Girl Scouts are tapping.  But it goes a level deeper.

For decades, the Girl Scouts have had a Fashion badge.  Girls got it by learning about makeup and accessories and how to look girl-scout-fabulous.  That’s out.  Now, they get it by learning the chemistry behind the products - and making their own.  A common project is to design your own perfume.

The merit badge up top?  The digital badge.  Girl Scouts just might be getting cool.