From a comedy standpoint, my favorite thing to do is take a small action within in a larger scene and build it out to ridiculous proportions. I was an editor on the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and I was cutting the last episode of the season that had Vanilla Ice, Traci Bingham, Dr. Ruth, Ron Jeremy, and Erik Estrada. As part of the episode I had to cut a scene where Traci Bingham makes a phone call.
The premise of the “The Surreal Life” was that a handful of B-List celebrities would live in a mansion for a couple weeks, get drunk, and argue. It was a big hit. The producers had taken away all cell phones from the cast members, so if they wanted to contact the outside world, they would have to use the phone on set. The phone was being surveilled in countless ways. There were at least 3 static cameras trained on the telephone at all times, as well as an in-line recording of the phone call and of course any phone number being dialed.
So Traci Bingham had to make a phone call one day. Traci Bingham is a super hot actress from Baywatch, and her character on The Surreal Life was kind of a ditz. I differentiate her character from the actual Traci Bingham because every cast member was treated like a character on a sitcom, and if they demonstrated any trait that could be mined for comedy, then that trait was maximized at every turn through an elaborate system of manipulation, behind the scenes trickery, editing, and special effects. Yes, special effects have been used on a reality show. One story I was told involves a scene from Big Brother where a woman being kicked off the show did not cry. Instead she said “yay” and ran out of the room. When the episode was assembled, one of the producers watched the “yay” scene and asked “Why did she do that?” The story editor who was telling me this said that he had no answer. The producer went on to say “She would never do that.”
You may be thinking, “but she did do that.” But the “she” that this reality producer was referring to was not the woman herself, but rather the character they had created for her after the fact. As a solution to “yay,” footage of this woman crying was found from an earlier episode. The shot of her crying face was then composited into the scene where she gets kicked off of Big Brother.
So if you can make a happy person cry, then it stands to reason that making a super hot actress from Baywatch look ditzy is several orders of magnitude easier. Which brings me to Traci Bingham’s phone call. What I noticed in the raw footage is that she was holding a piece of paper when she dialed her boyfriend, and she dialed about 10 numbers from the piece of paper before she dialed the boyfriend’s phone number, which was another 10 numbers. I assume that the numbers on the piece of paper were a calling card number. I have never been able to confirm this. All in all the raw footage showed a 20 second interval where Tracy Bingham was patiently keying numbers into a touch tone phone. Nothing remarkable.
Here’s what I spent the better part of a morning doing.
I built out this sequence so that she dialed a little over 70 digits to make her call. And something about the patient intense way she concentrated on every single number made this sequence very funny to me. It also made her look really stupid. I don’t know why dialing many numbers makes a person look so dumb, but it does. Maybe it’s the fact that she was so unperturbed, because I think a normal, sane, smart person would start to get very frustrated. I used every camera angle many times, and even cut to an exterior of the house with the sound of a touch tone phone still being dialed inside. At about the 40 second mark I started playing with the rhythm of her dialing. I would cut to a closeup of her face and insert a 5 second pause where no numbers were being dialed, then I would cut together a sequence of 7 or 8 numbers being hit all at once, as if she was just mashing her hand down onto the keypad.
I was fired a few days later.
Here’s why I wasn’t angry at them for firing me. The delivery deadline for The Surreal Life was ambitious, and the episode I was cutting was due in 3 days. There really was not time for editors to waste half a day on phone dialing sequences which took time away from the story that had been mapped out by the story editors already.
But I never forgot that scene, because it was there that I discovered the joy of taking small, insignificant moments and stretching them to the point of absurdity. Case in point is the clip below. As scripted by the hilarious Amy Ozols, the scene where Questlove uses a bunch of nickels to buy a soda was already an absurd scene. And since Jimmy Fallon, Questlove, and Ozols are all virtuostic in the art stretching stupid things out for comedy value, the bunch of us spent an enormous amount of time on set making it much longer.
There was one take that lasted 15 minutes.