Sunday, April 03, 2005

"What's that thing called when a guy is gay for a girl?"

A net.friend from rec.arts.comics.strips, JGM, wrote this to me recently:

"Your close-caption blooper reports remind me of something I've always wondered about and you are in a unique position to address: how does closed-captioning work for comedy?

At first blush, it would seem that things like split-second timing, tone of voice, etc. are what make a good comedy routine or sitcom scene, and that this would be lost in a CC'd version. On the other hand we've all had the experience of getting great laughs from something as simple as a comic strip, where such things are even less in evidence...

What's your finding? Do some shows or types of comedy come across better than others?"

It's a very perceptive post and JGM is right in just about all his speculations. It's really significant that JGM mentions comic strips because in a way, watching TV with CC is very much like reading a moving, ongoing comic strip. When most people read "the funnies" (as we have discussed many times in r.a.c.s), most "hear" the dialogue actually being spoken aloud in their minds. They assign voices to various characters and, in the case of a daily comic where the reader "hears" a character nearly every day, those voices become pretty solidly entrenched. (Just witness the arguments about casting when a comic book or strip is made into a movie if you don't believe me.)

I am in an interesting position, of course, having gone deaf fairly recently. That means that a lot of the "voices" that I hear in my head when I watch TV, the timing, the nuances, are actually based on memory rather than imagination. When Homer Simpson says irritably in a repeat episode, "I can't take HIS money... I can't print MY OWN money... I have to WORK for money, why don't I just lay down and die?" I hear Homer saying that in my head just as I did several times before I went deaf. More importantly, when I heard him say an episode I'd never seen before, a few weeks ago, "Well maybe marriage isn't just for gays. What's that thing called when a guy is gay for a girl?" ("Straight," Marge replies with a sigh), I still heard Homer say it, and I could imagine the inflection, the timing, that Dan Castellaneta has imbued Homer with all these years, and it was a very funny line.

So what do you do when you're watching something new? Just like reading a comic, you make up a voice that works for the character, and you hear every line being read in that voice. I'm happy to say that not too much of the nuance that comes from timing is lost if you're paying close attention to the screen; your eyes learn to take in the sentences in a flash and the rest of the time you focus on the faces. A good actor can take a deaf viewer right there with him or her. I knew this to be true when I watched "Best in Show" again recently. That comedy is nothing but timing - and the movie works as well for me as it did the first time I saw it.

As for some types of comedy working better than others, I don't find that to be the case; but what I do find is that the more effort I put into the interpretation, the more I get out of any comedy. If I focus and read the faces, body language and captions, I'll get the fullest results.

If anything has a direct impact on how funny comedy is, it's the quality of the Closed Captioning. Little things - like telling me that the music playing is [MUSIC: THEME FROM 'JAWS'] instead of just showing musical notes, or skipping mentioning music at all; or including ambient noises [EXPLOSIONS CONTINUE IN BACKGROUND]. Those touches are hugely important in appreciating any TV show or movie, and I am truly grateful for the captioners who take the time to include them.

The real question that JGM's comment posed for me, though, is this: How does it work for people born deaf? I can "hear" the character's voices in my head, and if I've never heard the news anchor or actor before, I can assign the characters pitch, timbre, tone, emotion... but how, I wonder, does it work for people who have never experienced any of those things first-hand?

Now that's a poser. The way to find the answer is to ask one of my handful of congenitally deaf acquaintances... if I can figure out exactly how to slip it into casual conversation...

Will report back, comrades.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for an unexpectedly complete and interesting response. After reading this, I actually turned on my TV's CC and watched parts of a couple of shows last night -- the level of skill put into the captioning is actually pretty impressive given the limits of the technology. Things like screen placement, use of italics and parenthesis to indicate off-screen dialog, and, yes, timing are used to good effect. This is true for shows where captioning is added in post-production, at least -- as I mentioned before my main experience with CC has been with TVs at the gym, mostly for ESPN and CNN or other news shows -- the captioning there is usually pretty bad (though one local station seems to feed the CC right off the Teleprompter which is interesting in itself as it includes some indication of which words the 'caster is supposed to inflect as well as stage directions such as [AD LIB TOSS TO WEATHER], which explains the awfulness of some of those Anchorwoman Bambi-to-Weatherman-Ken transitions).

It also struck me that TV closed-captioning with the sound off is quite a different thing from using subtitles on a foreign film where the presentation is kept as vanilla as possible and you subconsciously apply those words to the inflection and pace of the language being spoken.

Finally, if nothing else it seems to be a way to escape the laugh track.


11:33 a.m.  

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