Thursday, February 16, 2006

Natural dialogue

It's very difficult for most writers to do natural-sounding dialogue. Whatever skill I have at it came from years of being a freelance magazine journalist, and transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews, and also from the countless hours I spent editing audio tape back in the 1980s, when I was doing some work for CBC Radio's Ideas series.

Every day, I spend half an hour on a treadmill, and I usually watch something on DVD while doing so. I recently finished watching the entire run of the BBC series The Office, and today finished Season Three of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both are brilliant, and very, very funny, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that they have incredibly natural dialogue.

Interestingly, the techniques by the scriptwriters -- Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais in the case of the The Office, and Larry David and his team for Curb Your Enthusiasm -- use very different techniques to get this effect. The Office has every word, every nuance, scripted (and the scripts are available in book form), while Curb Your Enthusiasm is at least partially improvised. But both are well worth studying.

Although ostensibly a comedy, I found The Office quite poignant in a lot of ways. As Thoreau said, most of us live lives of quiet desperation. The dead-end existences of most of the people in that show are heart-breaking to watch, while at the same time ringing as absolutely true. It's one of the best TV shows I ever seen.

I did watch one episode of the American version of The Office, just to see how they'd managed the translation; it's a very faithful adaptation. Ridiculously, though, the guy who adapted it for American television -- by doing little more than changing character names and moving the setting from Slough to Scranton -- gets higher billing than the people who actually created the show (Merchant and Gervais). Anyway, the US version is decent, but the UK version is the one to see, in my opinion.


At February 16, 2006 12:04 PM , Blogger Michael A. Burstein said...

I often find that the American adaptation of a British comedy show usually suffers because the adapters don't quite get the humor right. Case in point was Coupling. The British show is hysterical, the American one was lame -- even with some of the scripts translated almost verbatim. But the direction was different, and the cultural resonances were off. (A Republican is not the equivalent of a Tory.)

At February 16, 2006 12:16 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Absolutely! And I adored the British Coupling.

The one US version that's head-and-shoulders better than the UK, or they say, is All in the Family ...

At February 16, 2006 12:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that you would use comedy as an example of dialogue, that kind of writing for TV or movies has really come into its own in the last 15 years (Re: Seinfeld). The skill of finding evermore subtle ways of making fun of ourselves and others has gotten better, or more valued in the commercial sense. I was born in 1965, my parents will never understand the two shows you mentioned!

At February 16, 2006 12:56 PM , Blogger Michael A. Burstein said...

Three's Company was also based on a British comedy, called Man About the House. And the sequel, Three's a Crowd, was based on the sequel to Man About the House, Robin's Nest.

Don't ask me why I know this. :-)

Seriouly, though, that was one case where I found the American version better than the British, as long as it's understood that we judge Three's Company on a different axis than, say, Friends.

I didn't know All in the Family was based on a British show. Which one?

At February 16, 2006 1:02 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...


Till Death Us Do Part, created by Johnny Speight.

At February 16, 2006 2:34 PM , Blogger Ryan Oakley said...

The Office is great. I prefer the British version but that's the sense of humour I was rasied with. It's comedy but it's also horrifying.

At February 16, 2006 4:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Robert, I love watching the British Coupling too.

My sister has a few seasons on DVD that we watch when we get together!


Jessica Thomas

At February 17, 2006 6:31 PM , Blogger Shky said...

What's especially interesting is that Ricky Gervais said, when he was on Conan, that he prefers American comedies over British. He likes how American comedies, like MASH, have character development and gripping stories, whereas British comedies (like, say, Monty Python) really don't. And that's why he modeled The Office (and his latest show, Extras) after the American style.

And he also said that when MASH aired in the UK it didn't have a laugh track. That would have been great to see.


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