The purpose of a cliché is to make creative thought unnecessary. Television and Hollywood are cliché driven. How could scripts be cranked out without clichés? When I worked at Doubleday, we used to post (in those days, “posting” meant putting a printed paper on your bulletin board using a tack) lists of useful clichés for various writing problems.
I was the editor of the Romance Library, so I became the go-to writer if you needed an alternate way to say “fell in love” or “wanted to jump his/her bones” but being a G-rated enterprise, had to put it more delicately. If that failed, there was the “shout out” method. We had open cubbies, so if you needed another way of saying something, you yelled it out and voices from around the office would offer suggestions. It was a lot faster than looking it up, which back then, meant getting out the thesaurus and actually looking it up. To write, we used — are you ready? — typewriters and carbon paper! To handle corrections, we used liquid white out and correction tape. Whoa, you’ve never heard of correction tape? You are so young, grasshopper.
My husband, having spent his working life in the news biz, has his own favorite broadcast news clichés and he is kind enough to share them with me. He knows how fond I am of words. My personal favorite, when speaking of the murderer du jour is “He kept pretty much to himself.” To be spoken with a straight face and utmost sincerity. They do this in television shows and on the news, but remarkably, they also say stuff like this in real courtrooms. It turns out that lawyers and D.A.s are just as unoriginal as everyone else.
Then, there is the reporter, looking dolefully over the scene of destruction: “Can you give me a sense of how you feel?” he or she says. Surprisingly, very few people whack him or her upside the head with something hard and heavy. I think it’s largely because the presence of cameras pretty much guarantees getting bagged for assault.
Moving back to the courtroom, the mother of the thug who proudly flaunts an encyclopedic resume of violent crime says “He’s a good boy. He’s been turning his life around!” The same, using the past tense, can be said of victims of drug deals gone bad. It never gets old. Guffaws are muffled as judges look down on loud laughter during trials and arraignments.
Let’s not forget the classics: sports! Wow, there are too many great clichés to cover in a short post. Every announcer and player knows them and they say them with total conviction as if they are the first people to have ever spoken these words. Do they memorize them in advance? There’s a scene in “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner, the old pro, is teaching the rookie (Tim Robbins) how to talk to the press so he will know the right clichés when the moment comes. Maybe they really do memorize them.
What would we do without clichés? How about some original thinking? I mean it’s possible, right? I grant you sometimes originality is a waste of valuable time when a perfectly good cliché will do. But sometimes, situations arise that beg for something clever. New television shows might benefit from not being exactly like every other show the preceded it and against which it competes. Every now and again, a show comes along where characters, plot and dialogue are not 100% predictable, so it can be done if anyone is willing to make the effort. Mostly, they don’t. And they wonder why people lose interest. It would also be nice if the few shows that start out with a bang wouldn’t end with a whimper. Writers quickly become lazy, but despite rumors that viewers are morons, we do notice as the quality of a show deteriorates. We notice and we stop watching.
The other night, Garry commented that whatever it was — a new show I believe and no, I do not remember its name — we’d seen it before. Being as this was the premier episode, you would think that if they are going to bother to bring on a new show, they might consider writing an original script for it. You would be wrong.
“We’ve seen everything before,” I said.
“We’re old,” he said.
“We may be old, but that’s not the problem. New shows are exactly like old shows. I think they resue the old scripts too, change some names and use them again. We need to get our head right and stop hoping for originality and just try to appreciate when they do the same old stuff better than usual.”
“Maybe. It would save us from continuous disappointment.”
Currently on the tube there are perhaps half a dozen shows that surprise us sometimes. “White Collar” wins for being the only crime or cop show that doesn’t only solve murders. They deal with crimes in which no one got killed! What creative genius thought of that?
“Elementary” has been unpredictable and has, in return, won our loyalty.
Amongst the surprises, “Anger Management” is actually funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. Wow. A funny comedy! A unique concept indeed. It has been a long time since a television sitcom was anything other than dull, insipid and often insulting to what’s left of our intelligence.
There are a few other shows that occasionally aren’t completely predictable, but for the most part, we know what’s going to happen from the opening scene. Often, the credits are enough to give away the story. The guest star did it. Why else would he or she be on the show?
It’s not impossible to write original material, but it does require extra effort. C’mon guys. You can do it. Give it a whirl. We will all be grateful … and you can be proud of your work. It’s a win-win.