“Maybe it was the heavy syrup?”
When shopping late-ish last night for ingredients for packing lunches this week, I grabbed a can of the wrong fruit salad. Instead of the version packed in fruit juice, I got the one packed in heavy syrup. Which means the extra sugar absorbed from the high fructose corn syrup negates the healthy value of the fruit fibre.
When I realized my mistake, after getting home, I wasn’t thinking of my blood sugar or related topics. No, the moment I saw the words on the label, from some dark recess of my memory came the sound of an actress in a situation comedy saying, “Maybe it was the heavy syrup!” images from the sitcom flooded my head: the wife saying she had left a note on a car because she lost control of her shopping cart and banged into a stranger’s car; the husband saying she shouldn’t have left the note; an insurance adjustor contacting them with an exorbitant bill; denials, recriminations, meeting with the married couple who owned the car, seeing the car which looks like it was run over by a herd of buffalo; finally, the hilarious scene where two of the characters observe one of the owners of the car doing incredible damage to their own car trying to back out of the driveway.
The problem is, half of those scenes in my memory are in black and white. And in one set of scenes, the protagonists who are being stuck with a bill for damages they didn’t cause are Marine Pfc Gomer Pyle and his Sergeant, and in the other it’s Edith Bunker and her husband, Archie.
Now, the heavy syrup line is only in the All In the Family version of the tale, though it is the most hilarious line in the episode, thanks to the acting talents of Jean Stapleton. But otherwise, the two episodes from two shows made by different companies a decade apart, are incredibly similar.
Many people (some of them dear friends) would take this example as proof that all TV is bad, recycling old plots.
But if recycling plots makes something irredeemably bad, than no story created by humans in the last 10,000 years or more is good.
There are no truly original plots. Humans have been telling each other stories for as long as we’ve been human. Certain neuroscientists and anthropologists have made a very good case that telling stories is the most critical defining trait differentiating humans from other creatures. In all those generations of tales told round the fire, someone has already thought of the cool idea for a tale that just occured to you.
There is no such thing as a unique character. There is no situation which, at least in the abstract, hasn’t been used for a tale. There is no incongruity that hasn’t been exploited as a punchline.
The magic isn’t in the setting, or the situation, or the character, or the nifty plot twist you think no one will see coming. There is a certain alchemy in the combination of ingredients, but even that isn’t it.
It’s the execution.
Can you, the storyteller, evoke the situation in the mind of your audience? Can you make it so compelling that they willingly follow you into the dream, and make it real?
Just as the joke about the heavy syrup wasn’t that original, but the actress made us believe, for just a moment, that her character was so innocent and naive, she believed that the heavy syrup in a single can of fruit could be responsible for all that destruction.
Update, June 2013: Since Jean Stapleton’s death, I’ve been getting a lot of hits on this page with people searching on Ms Stapleton’s name and the about syrup. I suspect you’re looking for a video clip, such as: