Regulars at tnocs.com might have noticed:
There are a few things I do that could be described as “offbeat.” “Mildly quirky,” perhaps.
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 intro – smack-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.”
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.