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Put Me on a Ladder

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

The story goes that halfway through the first script reading for an episode of Life with Lucy, Lucille Ball's final, doomed ABC sit-com in the late 1980's, she stopped mid-sentence, waved her hand dismissively at the chunk of dialogue on the page, turned to the writers and rasped, in her unforgettable whiskey and Pall Mall voice, "Talk, talk, talk! Put me on a ladder!"

"Talk talk talk, put me on a ladder," for those of you who don't speak fluent Chivas.

Which they did, apparently, in an attempt to jump-start the series and recapture some of the zany magic of the previous Lucy shows. The resulting episode, in which a superannuated orange-haired lady, over-lipsticked and pancaked to circus clown thickness, clings for dear life to a ladder rung, remains one of the creepiest moments of recent television history.

That's the story, anyway. It may not have unfolded quite that way. Hollywood is like that: sometimes the truest stories are the ones that never really happened.

But "Put Me On A Ladder" entered the lexicon, meaning, usually, just go back to the old stuff. For instance, if you had Don Knotts on a show of yours -- I know, I know, it's just the clearest example I can think of -- anyway, if you had Don Knotts on a show of yours, you'd want to put him in a situation in which he was nervous. Don Knotts can do nervous. Don't make Don Knotts do, oh, brittle one-liners, right? Put him on a ladder.

And "hang a lantern on it" when you do.

You "hang a lantern" on something when you want to call attention to it, and when you want to admit that you're using a pretty bald plot device, want to acknowledge the laziness of it, but also want to use it. So, if, say, you're doing a sit-com with Robert de Niro -- I know, I know, but it's the clearest example I can think of -- and you want him to bump into his wife, played by, say, Meryl Streep, at the same restaurant where he's having dinner with his girlfriend, played by, say, Joyce Dewitt. I'm just, you know, pitching here.

It's a stupid coincidence, really, and one that never happens in real life. De Niro would take Dewitt someplace out of the way, probably to somewhere Meryl would never go. So you need to hang a lantern on it. You need Dewitt or maybe Meryl -- or maybe Meryl has a secret date, too, say, Don Knotts again, I don't know -- mention the fact, really hang a lantern on the fact that this is an incredibly unlikely event. Because if you hang a lantern on a hackneyed plot device, and call attention to it's contrived unlikelihood, people just... accept it. So when Meryl and DeNiro and DeWitt and Knotts run into each other, hang a lantern on it. And put Knotts on a ladder.

Get it?

Or you can make the whole thing a jack story. A jack story is a story that's all about a wind-up -- like a car jack. So just say DeNiro's best friend in the sit com is, I'm just throwing out a name, Conrad Bain. (I know, I know, but it's the clearest example I can think of). Conrad tells Bobby that Bobby's wife, Meryl Streep, is two-timing him with Don Knotts. So De Niro decides to ask out his secretary, Joyce Dewitt. The whole thing is a jack story, of course, because Knotts isn't Meryl Streep's lover at all, he's, I don't know, her plastic surgeon. She's having a tattoo removed. For De Niro's birthday. Or maybe a tattoo done. For De Niro's birthday. We set that up in the cold open.

Which happens before the title sequence (which nobody does anymore) and the first commercial.

Only Knotts isn't really a very good tattoo artist or plastic surgeon or whatever, which allows us to put him on a ladder. Give Streep and accent an make De Niro a mobster, and suddenly the stage is filled with lanterns and ladders and car jacks. Bain and DeWitt deliver some classic reactions. That's your block comedy scene -- the big scene in the show when it all comes crashing together.

That's about all of the hack, clich--d, tired television comedy writer's tricks I know.

Actually, there's one more.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll do a clip show.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

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