Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Teddy (Ted)

Genre: Comedy
Premise: 30 years after Mark’s stuffed teddy bear comes to life, the two now live in Boston, where they smoke as much dope and play as many video games as is humanly, and teddy-bearingly, possible. But will Mark’s girlfriend finally put her foot down and make Mark give up the bear?
About: Seth MacFarlane is the creator of Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. At 24 years of age, Fox gave him 50 grand to come up with a pilot, which is when he created Family Guy. MacFarlane said, "I spent about six months with no sleep and no life, just drawing like crazy in my kitchen and doing this pilot.” It would pay off as later Family Guy would become a 1 billion dollar franchise. Recently, he was given a 65 million dollar budget for this project. Teddy will star Mark Wahlberg in the lead and MacFarlane will be the Teddy Bear voice. MacFarlane will be taking care of directing duties as well.
Writer: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.
Details: 99 pages – undated; but I think it’s an older draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

All right, so I guess if I’m going to talk about Seth MacFarlane’s script, “Teddy,” I should let you know how I feel about his sense of humor first. Eight or so years ago, I was channel surfing and landed on some strange new cartoon I had never heard of called “Family Guy.” The scene was in a courtroom and our characters were about to be sentenced to jail when, out of nowhere, for no reason whatsoever, the Kool-Aid man barged through a wall and screamed, “Oh Yeahhhhhh!” Gauging the temperature in the room and realizing people weren’t into it, he tiptoed back out and left. It was so random, so weird, so out-of-left-field, that I laughed for two minutes straight.

Holy shit! I thought. I have a new favorite show!

So in the coming weeks, I made it a priority to watch Family Guy. But as I sat there during the first full episode, I didn’t laugh. That’s okay, every show has off days. So I went back the next week…and didn’t laugh. Following week, no laughing. I NEVER LAUGHED AGAIN at anything I saw in Family Guy. So I gave up on it.

Now that’s not to say it’s not funny. Never heard of a billion dollar comedy franchise that didn’t keep millions of people in stitches, but Family Guy has a very specific kind of humor that people either love or they hate (most of the humor is based on non sequiturs like The Kool-Aid man – but if it’s all non sequiturs, then they’re not really non sequiturs anymore – are they?). The big difference between Family Guy and a lot of other shows is that it doesn’t care about story, plot or character, or at least it didn’t when I watched it. And the formula that's left is pretty basic….

Make laugh = good.
Not make laugh = bad.
All other stuff = doesn’t matter.

Well, that approach is on full display here in Teddy, so I’m guessing there’s going to be a very “Family Guy” like divided reaction to it. How divided? Well, Fred Savage and Peter Falk appear in the first 10 minutes of Teddy then disappear for the last 90. Welcome to the insane freaking mind of Seth MacFarlane.

Mark Bennett is a Boston kid who had a hell of an interesting childhood. After getting a stuffed bear for Christmas, Mark turns to the bear and asks him to promise that he’ll never ever leave him and that they’ll be best friends forever. His bear (Ted) turns to him and says, “Okay.” Mark’s fucking teddy bear talks!

Now I have to give it to these guys. Whenever this happens in movies, the kid will bring the bear to his parents or friends and say, “Look, it talks,” and of course the stuffed animal just sits there not saying anything. But MacFarlane and crew go the other direction. They ask, “Well what if during that moment, the animal *did* talk?”

That’s right. This is no secret that the two are keeping from the world. Ted talks to mom and dad. Ted talks to neighbors and friends. In fact, news stations worldwide tell the story of the magical teddy bear who came to life. Scientists can’t explain it so eventually everyone just accepts it. There’s a kid in Boston with a magical teddy bear.

Cut to 30 years later and both Mark and Ted are grown up. Mark’s got a lame job as an assistant assistant manager at a car rental place. Ted, on the other hand, just cruises around town with his Southie accent, shooting the shit with the locals like it’s completely normal.

When Mark gets off of work, it’s back to the apartment to hang out with, smoke pot with, and play Xbox with Ted. Here they are, in their 30s, and just like that magical promise, are still the best of friends!

But Mark’s girlfriend, Lori, is starting to get dubious of this relationship and thinks it’s time for Mark to grow up. Yet you’re not gonna grow up if you keep hanging around your childhood teddy bear. Now for those of you who think this might be some deep introspective commentary on life via the porthole of a make-believe animal, i.e. something like The Beaver, think again.

There is no complexity in Teddy. There is no subtlety. There is no story or character development. It’s just (caveman voice): “Try make audience laugh now.”

Now there is a brief attempt at a story, I believe. Lori gives Mark an ultimatum to either give up the teddy bear or lose her, but in one of the quickest non-committals to a storyline I’ve ever seen, Mark’s back playing with Ted one scene after Lori’s ultimatum and she’s completely fine with it. Like I said, there’s no story here. And I don’t think MacFarlane cares that there’s no story here. His goal is to seek out the funniest situations possible and that’s it.

But if you’ve read Scriptshadow for even one day, you know I don’t go for this. I don’t just place story above comedy, I place it *way* above comedy. If we’re not engaged in a story, we’re missing half your laughs because we’re not invested in the characters enough to care about anything they say, much less anything they joke about.

This is the big difference between sitcoms and films, is that you can get away with a lot of that when your medium is only 22 minutes long. Around the time the audience realizes there’s nothing going on in the story, the story’s over.  But if you're writing for anything that goes past 22 minutes, you need a story to keep the audience involved.  Having said that, I still think the best sitcom episodes are ones that incorporate a story. One of the most famous sitcom episodes of all time, Seinfeld’s “The Contest,” succeeds because of its story. There’s a clear cut goal (see who can last the longest) and we’re invested in seeing which of the characters is going to achieve that goal.

But back to Teddy. I think this could’ve benefited from a whole lot more conflict. I was talking to a Scriptshadow reader who expressed frustration over the fact that nothing happens here. And indeed, it’s a very narrow plot that lacks any substantial conflict at all.

When people say there’s not a lot happening in your story, what they mean a lot of the time (but not all the time) is that there isn’t enoiugh conflict. There isn’t anything getting in our hero’s way. There isn’t any particular danger. The stakes are low. The relationships don’t have enough opposition in them. All of that is on display here in Teddy. Just like I mentioned above, Lori threatens Teddy, but then a scene later we realize her threat doesn’t mean anything because she doesn't follow through with it. As a result, all conflict and suspense disappear.

Even later on in the script, when the character’s world is most thrown into disarray (Mark loses Lori), it doesn’t feel honest. I see this in a lot of scripts that don’t put an emphasis on story. They drift through the first two acts and then at the end it’s: “Oh shit, it’s almost the end! We have to do something!” So then all this haphazard forced conflict is thrown at the characters at once and it never feels right because it hasn’t been properly set up.

One thing I’ll say in MacFarlane’s defense is that the concept here is really good. I can see the poster, I can see the trailer, I can see Mark Wahlberg in this role (especially after The Other Guys). You throw this one-liner out at a party and your buddies are gonna go, “Fuck yeah, I’d see that.” Especially if they’re drunk. So I see why this movie got a green light and I’m happy for MacFarlane. I’m just hoping they worked on the script in the meantime because it definitely needs a lot of work.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Even guys like MacFarlane, who have a couple hundred million in the bank, have trouble making the leap into features. So what they do is pitch an idea that’s similar enough to their work that the studio people understand it. MacFarlane has a hit show where babies and animals talk. So when he pitches a feature about a guy and a talking teddy bear, it’s not a stretch to imagine it working. Do you think MacFarlane could’ve had the same success pitching a Roland Emmerich-like “2012”? Of course not. We don’t associate him with that kind of material. I try to encourage writers to have this same mentality. Find the genre you want to have a career in and write a bunch of scripts in that genre. Cause one thing I’ve found is that when an agent/manager/producer likes your Renaissance Era Period Piece and they ask you what else you have and you tell them you have a sci-fi fantasy that takes place on Jorgon 4, there’s always a pause and then a reluctant, “Okay, send it in.” I’m not saying don’t write in other genres, but when you’re starting out, have two or more scripts in the genre you write best.  Trust me, you'll thank me later.