Sunday, January 08, 2006

Understanding Genres

We encounter genre throughout the arts. It pops up in everything from Elvis' velvet paintings, to the cross-dressing conceits Shakespeare used in his comedies, to the action-scene-every seven-minutes formula currently dominating Hollywood movies.

One wonders why.

A guess: Fundamentally, humans like patterns. For us, some level of predictability is good, even though we readily tire of exact repetition. Maybe pattern-finding worked, somewhere in the archaic struggle for survival. Our evolving brains glommed on to marginally efficient sorting routines for any environmental clues leading to safe food, likely sex, or just another day away of escape from being eaten .

Art, another survival strategy, probably balanced novelty with the familiar from the get-go. Evolutionary theorists say that art (singing, dancing, making interesting smears on the cave wall) was a sexual strategy, a means of differentiating oneself from the others. You got the girls (or the guys) by getting a little bit more attention. But pure novelty was never enough. There had to be, in any artistic gesture, enough that was familiar for the others in the clan to know what you were up to. "Ok, what Grogg is doing over there is a song, not just some random warbling", or "I get it, he's
showing us what that mammoth looked like, not just making muddy streaks on the wall".

So it was that our brains evolved with a taste for art. And so it is that were are all on a sliding scale of just how much novelty we can tolerate. The lovers of Elvis paintings or re-runs of Gilligan's Island are only marginally different from the avant-garde. We have to know "it's a painting", or "it's a comedy" before we can appreciate the stuff that's different in it.

Genre boils down to rules.

Rule-finding, and rule-bending then, become the deliberate pastimes of the producer.

The rule/pattern finding below is related to the "media map", but is more contemporary and focuses on current mass media tropes (for instance, medieval mystery plays are not included, but "Lost" is).

(see article)

Multipart Documenary (This American Life)
Set-Chat (The Tonight Show) var.: Sofa Chat(Good Morning Am)
Sketch comedy (SNL)
Newsroom/Anchor Desk/standup field report
Music Video
Drama (sub-genres: limbo studio, 3-wall, cinematic, on location)
Ernie Kovacs (unique)
2-Camera Sitcom(Honeymooners)
3-Camera Sitcom (All In The Family)
"Diary" driven drama
Self-contained drama
(ascendant genres)
Multi-Threaded Drama
1 on 1 interview (Charlie Rose)
Spectator Sport(sub generes/tropes: the stadium booth, the locker room intrerview, the sideline standup, play-by-play and color announcers, etc.)
Set Game
Staged sport (Gong Show, Fear Factor)
Reality (Real Life, Survivor)


Standalone audio
Radio Documentary (see film documentary)
Studio Chat (Stern)
Interview w/POV (Open Source)
Essay (ThisAmLfe)

Challenge to corporate producers: why not make use of more than just a few of these to package our messages and gain audience attention? ....the "Jeopardy" set game to teach employees about benefit options?....the "Tonight" show set to interview the big boss? This does not mean making a self-conscious knock-off of an existing show, nor should it mean trying to meet the creative finish or production values of a broadcast original. The tropes work for some deeper reason. Understanding the working device and applying it, is where we as the producers come in. Our job is to engage latent audience curiosity to make use of the talent and messages available. As we rake among the leaves of successful and unsuccessful mass media vehicles, we can find prototypes to adapt to our purposes.

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