Verbal velocity leaves viewers in the dust

Pace helps writers fit in story but can flummox audience

October 18, 2006|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,Hartford Courant

Last week's Gilmore Girls began with the following setup: Lorelai doesn't want to attend a family dinner at her parents' home in Hartford, Conn.

But instead of frowning on their front porch and saying as much, Lorelai launches the following exchange with her college-age daughter, Rory:

"Hey! Punch me in the stomach."

"What?"

"Real quick. Jab-jab. Not too hard. Just enough to cause a little internal bleeding."

"That sounds pretty hard."

"Yeah, true. Plus internal bleeding is internal, which means it can't be proven. And unless my mother sees blood, there's no way she's going to let you take me to the hospital. You're right. You're going to have to punch me in the face real quick - jab-jab."

"I am not going to punch you in the face."

"Why? I'll heal, and I'd much rather spend the night in the germy emergency room getting eight to 10 stitches than go in there for dinner. Plus it will give me a really groovy scar. I've always wanted a really groovy scar."

"Mom."

"What? It'd be such a great conversation piece. `Where'd you get that groovy scar?' `Oh, my daughter drop-kicked me for no apparent reason. She's totally psycho.'"

"Oh, so now I'm drop-kicking you?"

"Give me options. You didn't like the whole jab-jab thing."

"We haven't had dinner with them in three weeks. Suck it up. We're going in."

"Hey, you didn't even make it through the last dinner, which means technically you've had four weeks, which means you owe me one."

It goes on from there.

But that part of the unusual banter takes place in the space of one minute.

So not only are they talking too much, they're saying it all in too confined a time period.

Under such pressure, there's only one way to get through it: talking very, very fast.

Characters on TV these days talk so fast many viewers can't keep up.

On shows such as Gilmore Girls; or the show that follows it Tuesdays on CW, Veronica Mars; and particularly the new entry from The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, characters talk so fast viewers sometimes have to let whole phrases go by, hoping they'll catch up with the story later in the episode.

Writers for such shows say they have a lot to impart in their shows - Sorkin once told a reporter, "I completely fell in love with the sound of my own voice" in explaining a 385-page first draft of his screenplay for The American President at a time when most movie screenplays ran about a third that.

And given today's fattened and more frequent commercial breaks, there's less and less time to tell hourlong stories - it's down to about 42 minutes tops.

On Gilmore Girls, that means shooting dozens of takes to get through a scene in order to shave another precious second or cover the inevitable flub.

Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was famous for creating twice as many pages for a one-hour drama than her colleagues. So speed was the only way to get that across.

This year, she and her husband, Daniel Palladino, are no longer with the series they created, but new producer David S. Rosenthal has stepped up, vowing to keep the same tone - and pace - of his predecessors.

"One of the reasons I wanted to come to Gilmore Girls and one of the reasons I spent last season working on Gilmore Girls was because I so loved the tone and style of the show," he says. "It's so specific and so funny and also yet so touching and moving, and it's something that I really responded to, not just personally as a viewer, but also professionally as a writer."

So not only do the mother and daughter keep the velocity in the voice, but so do all the townspeople of Stars Hollow, Conn.

It's almost as if coffee at Luke's diner packs triple the caffeine to make the citizenry seem transformed back to a screwball comedy of the 1930s, where zippy, fast-talking banter was part of the fun.

Back then, fast talking was partly a reflection of the exuberance of the relatively new advance of sound film. After a couple decades of nothing but silent films, there was a lot pent up to say.

But talking fast was also a distinctly American trait, especially of young women in the 20th century, meant to show upward movement and boundless optimism. It was Henry James at a famous graduation address at Bryn Mawr 101 years ago who suggested they refine and not slur or otherwise denigrate their speech in their haste to speak it so quickly.

"All life comes back to the question of our speech, the medium through which we communicate with each other; for all life comes back to the question of our relations with each other," James said.

"Its quality, its authenticity, its security," he said, are "supremely important for the general multifold opportunity, for the dignity and integrity, of our existence."

The tendency to judge people who talk slowly as stupid is a worldwide phenomenon, a pair of Finnish linguists found in their research. Therefore, it is the slow-talking World's Tallest Nebraskan who is played up as most foolish among the second-rate superheroes of the new Comedy Central cartoon, Freak Show.

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