I’m a sucker for Carol Burnett comedy. Who among you isn’t, I ask? Her Q & A’s on “The Carol Burnett Show,” her role on “Mama’s Family,” Mrs. Hannigan from “Annie,” I could go on and on. But my all time favorite Carol Burnett role is “Noises Off…”
“Noises Off” is originally a stage play by Michael Frayn, and later a screenplay by Marty Kaplan.
“Noises Off,” the film, if you’ve never seen it, stars Michael Caine as a director, trying his best to prepare a makeshift cast for opening night of a play. It follows the closeknit, albeit deranged, cast of characters through the final rehearsals, opening night, and while on tour. The charades on stage aren’t nearly as wacky as the shenanigans happening backstage!
Often those who know me will hear me cry “Oh my Gooooooooooooooooooooood! The study door is open!” And you’d know that was hilarious after you watch Carol Burnett, who plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett.
The film’s other acting delights include Christopher Reeve as a very introverted actor who gets a nosebleed anytime someone loses their temper. John Ritter plays the jealous boyfriend who can’t keep it together. Nicollette Sheridan plays the scantily clad secretary of Ritter who often loses her contact in her own eye. Mark Linn-Baker, who many of you may know as “Larry” on the show “Perfect Strangers,” plays the human punching bag for director Michael Caine, spending his time fixing props, stepping in to play parts, and buying flowers to seduce women on the set. And Julie Hagerty plays the stage manager who is in love with Michael Caine, who doesn’t have time to deal with it all!
One of the reappearing comedic elements in the film revolves around a plate of sardines. At any given time there are several plates of sardines shifting their way on stage and backstage, moving from tabletop to stairway. Whenever the actors start getting dysfunctional, those sardines are misplaced, sat on, or dumped on someone’s head.
Why, dear readers, am I telling you about this 1992 film? Because it is a prime example of characterization. If you want laugh out loud, popcorn eating research on how to develop a cast of characters in a “show, don’t tell” manner, I suggest you rent this movie. And why not read the play? The movie begins with a slight set up from Caine about his disastrous play and cast that is falling apart and how he should’ve seen the signs, he should’ve called it quits 5 cities ago, and it cuts to the dress rehearsal. So many blogs I’ve been reading lately talk about the first 20 pages of a book and how the intro has to hook the reader. Well, I dare you to watch the first 20 minutes of “Noises Off” and tell me if you were hooked or not!
Granted, I’ll give you, the film is a bit of a slapstick, so the characters are extremes to an extent, but I think they’re also true depictions of what would happen when you place a group of people on set for several months, over and over. Romance, jealousy, alcoholism, and missing sardines are bound to occur. But, let’s put this in writing terms once more, what are the sardines of your story? What is it that keeps the story moving? If you’re not sure what got Character A from one scene to the next, “get a good old fashioned plate of sardines!” How will you hook your readers with characters and action?
What are the tools you use when developing characters? I’d really like to know. And is there such a thing as too much butter on your popcorn? I like mine with parmesan cheese on top. Happy movie night and happy writing!