Beginning A Story Before It Starts: Four Cold-Opens For The Ages

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Regulars at tnocs.com might have noticed:

There are a few things I do that could be described as “offbeat.” “Mildly quirky,” perhaps.

“I’ve noticed.”
And the T-shirt business at my Etsy Store is booming.”

Laugh if you must, Gary. But the little eccentricities of life; they work for me. As a random example:

I read newspapers, catalogs and magazines… backwards.

I always start flipping from the very back of the folio to the front. And I still absorb everything that I’ve read. Well, I think I do, anyway.

My delight in inverted perception is not limited to reading and printed publications. Something that I’ve noticed over the years is that I really enjoy is whenever a creative work of art begins… before it even starts.

You’ve likely enjoyed a movie, TV program, or even a recording where the creator will start a story… before they start the show. It can serve as effective, interesting and engaging device.

And it has a name:

I’m talking about a “cold open.”

I first noticed the cold open phenomenon as a kid, although I had no idea that there was a name for it. Whenever a TV episode would just start without running the typical opening credits, it somehow felt sophisticated and artful.

It was as if the showrunners were saying, “You, out there watching? You’re one of us. You’re smart. You don’t need an explanatory “three-hour tour” theme song to get a clue.”

When well-executed, they are not just good “first page” storytelling devices, but finely-tuned introductions to the upcoming content. A great cold open grabs you, gets your undivided attention, and makes you want to see and learn more.

Here’s a short list of cold opens that get the job done efficiently. Inspired, funny, eclectic, even meta… and each in their own way: just plain brilliant.

First up, from the world of film:

TURN YOUR KEY, SIR!

While reading the latest People Magazine backwards one day in 1983, I noted a synopsis about an upcoming film:

A new comedy about a hacker whiz-kid, who finds a way to prevent accidental worldwide nuclear annihilation. And he has a very cute girlfriend.”

Well, that was enough for me. I went downtown on the very Wednesday night that War Games opened, and paid for a ticket that was sure to provide lighthearted fun, hijinks, and plutonium.

I bought the murder-your-pancreas special: Milk Duds, a 32 ounce Coke, and warm butter with a little popcorn on the side. And I sat down and awaited the opening credits… which weren’t there.

Contrary to how you might expect a movie about nerdy teenagers to start: the film cold-opens with a way-serious and cautionary tale. Kudos to screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes: They concocted a set-up that made for great and suspenseful storytelling. And I know that it was top-shelf, because after 5 minutes and 50 seconds, I looked down at my lap and realized that I had not eaten a thing.

From the movies… to another example… in another art form:

“I… I love the colorful clothes she wears…”

Because music isn’t a visual medium, some might think that you couldn’t effectively execute a cold open in a song. But it’s been done many thousands of times. Right this minute, you’re likely thinking of your own favorite examples. A notable effort:

You’ve likely heard folks sing along with the 1999 Smash Mouth release, “All Star.” The whole, “Some…BODY once told me…” thing is silly fun.

But “All Star,“ although having the same exact same M.O. of starting it’s business up immediately, is not nearly in the same league as this timeless example:

Having the courage in 1966 to start a record, sans introsmack-dab into the lead vocals – is Reason # 293 that the only Brian Wilson is Brian Wilson. This timeless pastiche of sound makes music fans feel like we’re embedded in his mind, and floating along amidst the synapses of a genius. Because we are. Never did cold feel so warm.

That was awesome. OK, let’s see what’s on TV:

“Get him OFF. Or you don’t have a job tomorrow.”

Aaron Sorkin is clearly a great writer. He has his detractors, and has a reputation for often being too preachy, too liberal, and too cute with his character’s snappy, ‘step-on-the-other-person’s-lines’ style of dialog. Maybe so.

But we owe him a debt of gratitude for our continuing fantasies of a real-life President Jeb Bartlet. (C’mon – you know you have thought about it…)

I’ve been a big fandork of improvisational comedy for my whole life. And in 1999, I was beside myself when I heard that NBC was going to air a new Aaron Sorkin 60-minute drama series about backstage life within a fictional TV sketch comedy show.

I couldn’t wait for S1-E1. And then over the next few months, I would never see anything go from brilliance and promise, to crashing and burning so fast – in just 20 episodes.

The tailspin death-spiral of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is a fascinating tale, and would take up an entire separate article to explain. But I meant what I said earlier when I used the word “brilliant.”

This is how the series opens. It is a delicious bit of stunt casting, with Judd Hirsch in the central role and focus of the cold open… and here’s the fun part: he is never seen again for the entire run of the series. “So,” you ask, “how can an opening scene in a cancelled show about a show about late night TV comedy possibly be “riveting?””

Well, clear nine minutes from your schedule and have a look. I bet that you’ll be sweating it out while wondering what is going happen to Cal, Wes… and even Felicity.

And lastly, perhaps the GOATCO:

Not Gonna Phone It In Tonight

Wait. What’s so special about this?

“This show has aired 939 original episodes to date. And ever since 1975, every single one opens cold.”

True.

And nowadays, you would be forgiven for rolling your eyes and sighing whenever you hear the phrase, “SNL cold open sketch.” For a long while, the first image on your screen at 11:30PM EST on NBC has been tepid, with a lot of weak, low-effort political humor.

But, to paraphrase the host of the December 14, 1991 episode: “There was a time when the cold open meant something.”

I always thought that cold opens can be inventive. I always thought that meta humor can be, as well.

Legendary comedy writer Robert Smigel must have thought so, too.

Because he wrote a sketch – make that a full-cast musical number – that most SNL fans think is the funniest, most memorable, and in some ways, the most wholesome cold open in the 48 year history of Saturday Night Live.

Whether or not he’s your cup of banjo, you have to admit that Steve Martin is a Renaissance Man. Acting, writing, producing, playing an instrument… and we haven’t even talked about his world-class art collection.

Of the many of the different personas he’s created, a recurring character in his earlier career was the transparent, somewhat jerk kind of a showbiz guy.

The concept works – because the real joke is watching how Steve’s character is completely oblivious to the fact that the audience sees right through the whole thing.

When he returned to host SNL for a triumphant 12th time, the episode cold opens with a matured and successful version of the “show biz jerk guy.” He’s become bored, jaded, and disinterested.

Chris Farley is a little saddened by it all, and asks for a special customized autograph. And that’s the catalyst: Steve has a change of heart, and professes that he is going to try – and not phone it in tonight. The gang’s all here in this classic bit of SNL history. And it makes me smile every time.

From TV, movies, music, literature… do you have any favorite cold opens?

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mt58

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rollerboogie
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January 12, 2024 5:46 am

This is a cool topic. Believe it or not, I’ve never seen that Steve Martin SNL cold open. It’s really funny and also amazing just how meta they were willing to get. In the case of Chris Farley, very sad in retrospect. I always did feel like after he got mega famous, Steve Martin was phoning it in with his comedy, and ceased to be funny at one point which in all fairness, seems to happen with so many of them. They move on to make mediocre films where the writing just doesn’t measure up to what made them funny to begin with, but I digress.

Yes, you did get me thinking about songs with cold opens. I’m sure you are right and that it has been done thousands of times, but the only ones I could think of off the top of my head were-
Lies- The Knickerbockers
Killer Queen- Queen
I’m sure I’ll think of more later because of course, I am now obsessed with this topic.

Out of curiosity, I looked at my playlist of songs I have sung at karaoke, and out of 141 tracks, the only one that just started right in with no intro was “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” by Pearl Jam. “What is Love” by Haddaway does start with the chorus but it’s only a partial one and there is a long instrumental after that before the full chorus comes in. It feels like a bit of gray (that’s grey to you, J.J.) area and I need a ruling on that one before it can officially make the list.

rollerboogie
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January 12, 2024 5:56 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

I just realized that the “What is Love” reference unintentionally took things full circle back to SNL.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 12, 2024 8:42 am

On a work commute; gotta be quick.

Great post, mt!

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a lyrical cold open, but if so I nominate John Cale for his opening line: “The bugger in the short sleeves f—ed my wife.” Just slaps you right from the start.

Chorus be damned, it takes Guts to write a song like that.

Virgindog
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January 12, 2024 9:08 am

Fun! I haven’t seen any of the three clips before, and now I want to see the full shows. I guess cold opens works.

I’m a Monty Python fan so the one that immediately came to mind was the Flying Circus episode where the opening credits didn’t happen until 17 minutes into a 30 minute show. Of course, three other sketches happen first.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 12, 2024 12:12 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

See also The Meaning of Life which opens with The Crimson Permanent Assurance before commencing with disclosing the meaning of life. Or maybe the meaning of life is to cast off the shackles of ageing insurance led security and live like pirates.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 12, 2024 9:11 am

I’ve never seen a single episode of SNL. Even from here I’m aware of its cultural significance and its well known from the volume of comedians and actors that have come from it but as far as I’m aware it’s never been shown here – though i could be wrong. Topical comedy shows don’t really travel well outside their intended location.

The Steve Martin opening is great though.

It’s been a while since I watched any but I think the James Bond films fit the bill. Not sure if they’ve always done it but it became a signifier that they start with long pre-credits sequences.

Song wise The Beatles used it a lot, across their whole career.

Nowhere Man – Hey Jude – All My Loving – Can’t Buy Me Love – I Will – Long and Winding Road – If I Fell – Girl – Paperback Writer.

Then there’s Eleanor Rigby – From Me To You – Help! where the vocals and music pretty much come in together.

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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January 12, 2024 10:09 am

Wow, you totally nailed it with the Beatles references. I didn’t think of one of those.

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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January 12, 2024 10:14 am

Question for the class- if a song starts with an a capella chorus, and then goes into a typical instrumental intro, and then the vocal kicks in, is that still a cold open? Technically, it begins with singing, but it still feels like an intro.
Example- “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi. It came to mind immediately but I hesitated to include it for the above reasons. Maybe I’m overthinking it, or maybe I’ve finally just lost my mind in minutia.

rollerboogie
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January 12, 2024 10:51 am
Reply to  mt58

I am hearing you and I think it does count, but I like the idea of different categories of cold opens, like a diminished chord and a half diminished chord. Maybe we can call it a slightly chilly open.

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
Zeusaphone
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January 12, 2024 11:21 am

I was thinking about Full Metal Jacket, which has a brilliant opening scene with no dialogue and the only action being done by nameless, faceless extras that are never seen again. What’s being done and a perfectly chosen song tell you everything you need to know in under two minutes: who these characters are, what they’re doing here, and when and where the action is taking place. But it has a title card first, so technically it doesn’t count.

Most of the movies I see are musicals or music based, and it’s rare for them to have a cold open. They’re much more likely to do an overture. This Is Spinal Tap opens with a promo for the band’s new album. It doesn’t even have opening credits beyond the studio bumper.

James Bond films are famous for their pre-credit set pieces and many action films have followed that lead.

Virgindog
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January 12, 2024 11:39 am
Reply to  Zeusaphone

It’s been a long time since I saw Contact so I don’t remember if it’s before or after the opening credits, but that pull back from Earth to the universe is just staggering.

blu_cheez
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January 12, 2024 4:40 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Yes, yes – no credits during that amazing opening.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 12, 2024 11:41 am

I wish I could find a clip to capture it, but Coen brothers’ classic Raising Arizona starts and just keeps going for a full 20 minutes, then you have the title sequence. Like you completely forgot that you missed it.

cstolliver
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January 12, 2024 11:57 am

From the department of “Is this a cold open?” what about DNA/Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”? My sister hates that song and changes it as soon as “Duh Duh DUH duh” starts… (I of course love it and love to tease her with it, along with the hand-clap opening to “Car Wash,” which she also hates and I also love.)

A cold open to a song I don’t like is After 7’s “Can’t Stop.” They never made it past the title phrase before I changed the channel.

stobgopper
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January 12, 2024 12:57 pm

4’33” – John Cage

stobgopper
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January 12, 2024 2:09 pm
Reply to  mt58

!

Virgindog
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January 12, 2024 1:48 pm
Reply to  stobgopper

The cold open is my favorite part.

stobgopper
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January 12, 2024 2:10 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Nothing colder.

Eric-J
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January 12, 2024 3:02 pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Cause and Effect

https://youtu.be/G7p5noc_PjM?si=PIswmI1C1qiOU_f3

Eric-J
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January 12, 2024 3:07 pm
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All of Neil Patrick Harris’ Tony Awards opening numbers. None more so than 2013:

https://youtu.be/R8SeysuMpA0?si=vrHntbB1Xs2DZI7m

Pauly Steyreen
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January 12, 2024 5:37 pm
Reply to  Eric-J

Hot damn, that’s f*cking heater of a cold open!

blu_cheez
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January 12, 2024 4:38 pm

Let’s see….

o Every James Bond movie since Goldfinger
o Goodfellas
o Raising Arizona (mentioned already, but: priceless)
o Up (get out the hankies for that one)
o Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Kind of counts – the credits roll over it)
o The Matrix
o Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith
o Vertigo
o Star Wars (counts, I think)
o Hard Boiled

Fun article – thank you!

cappiethedog
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January 12, 2024 5:08 pm

In my opinion, the opening scene in War Games is scarier than anything in Dr. Strangelove or Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe. In the screenplay’s first draft, I wonder if you only see the Michael Madsen character when the narrative returns to the launch site.

Turn your key, sir.”

Pauly Steyreen
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January 12, 2024 5:56 pm

Was that a young Merritt Wever in the Studio 60 clip?

Cool!

cappiethedog
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January 12, 2024 9:08 pm

I watched the clip. It plays like a coded reference to Elvis Costello switching from “Less Than Zero” to “Radio Radio”. It was an affront to RCA.

(sigh) I have no impulse control.

This clip is relevant.

Over the last few weeks, MSNBC cancelled The Mehdi Hasan Show, American Voices w/Alicia Menendez, and Yasmin Voussoughian Reports because….wait for it…being too liberal.

Last year, the cable news network took Tiffany Cross off the air.The Cross Connection w/Tiffany Cross was their highest rated weekend show.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired in 2006. It’s dated, in this sense. Everybody sees the Network comparison. Judd Hirsch’s tirade is slightly undercut due to the declining viewership of network television.

Paddy Chayefsky’s GOAT screenplay came out in 1976.

I’ll show myself out the door now.

LinkCrawford
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January 13, 2024 12:18 pm

JOSIE’S ON VACATION FAR AWAY!!!

I don’t even really like that song, but “Your Love” by the Outfield is a pretty effective cold open.

rollerboogie
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January 13, 2024 12:23 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Agreed and agreed

Aaron3000
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January 15, 2024 12:05 pm

My favorite TV series of all time is obvious, if you recognize my avatar. That show generally had no cold open though (at least in its original ten season run), so let’s move on to my second favorite: The Office. I love the fact that many of their cold opens were stand alone gags that had little to do with the main episode plot. So many to choose from (literally, just YouTube search “the office cold opens” and there’s hours of official compilations), but this is one classic I always come back to:

https://youtu.be/WaaANll8h18?si=Dqdd7YgSMkUyT6bw

cappiethedog
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January 15, 2024 11:19 pm
Reply to  Aaron3000

I aged a hundred years paying for a NFL game.

Was The Office the last great network television show? Lost ended its run in 2010. So I hand the trophy to The Office.

I like Abbott Elementary. Network, right? I binge-watched Season One. I don’t know how to sit down and watch a single episode.

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