Saturday, February 13, 2010

"To save time, just press 'Popcorn.'" (You'll see.)

While hunting for something else on Hulu, I noticed a clip of a recent SNL skit it built around a TV game show called "What Is Burn Notice?"

I find Kristen Wiig to be weirdly attractive, even when consigned to bit parts like this. Plus there's a kind of goofy affability about the host's performance that had me laughing. And I have to give them credit for sticking to their premise for almost 4 1/2 minutes.

The problem is that, having watched this clip a couple of times, I'm still not sure what their premise is.

Is it that they don't get why "Burn Notice" has a loyal following? Is it that cable TV is such a Super Bowl of obscurity that you can be the eighth-highest show on cable and still no one knows who the hell you are? (And that the blurb-o-matic TV critics at middle-market papers can be counted on to say something blandly encouraging about almost anything?) Or is it that they think "Burn Notice" really is a pretty good show, and they're amazed that no one seems to know about it?

Your guess is as good as mine.

But when I saw the thumbnail for that clip, titled "Burn Notice Game Show," I was certain what it had to be. It's true, I was wrong, but I was certainly wrong. That's important. Let me explain:

Anyone who's made it even halfway through one episode of "Burn Notice" knows the show element that most begs for parody: The voice-overs by the main character (Michael Westen, a blacklisted CIA agent stuck in Miami, doing soldier-of-fortune and help-the-underdog work until he can figure out who sold him out) explaining the everyday business of espionage. He does it with the bored-but-patient tone you'd expect if he'd been sentenced to 100 hours of community service teaching covert-ops techniques at the local Learning Annex. In fact, part of the fun is that his low-key pedantic delivery is so completely out of sync with the step-by-step mayhem he's explaining.

For example:

(For some reason, Hulu occasionally resets the start/stop times of clips. Just in case, that clip goes from the 13:50 mark to the 15:00 mark.)

Like it or loathe it, that shtick is as much a part of the show's DNA as palm trees, sun glasses, and thong bikinis. If you want to lampoon "Burn Notice," that's where you start. And you'll need the sing-song tone. (See? It's contagious.) In fact, the show's already ahead of the curve--it's been poking fun at itself for this gimmick almost since the beginning:

(Like "Ask a Spy," those baffling promotional spots signaling the show's return from hiatus, such as the one that SNL found so . . . baffling, were also the show taking a knowing poke at its own well-established style.)

A friend who's caught the "Burn Notice" bug reports that, just to irritate his family, he sometimes speaks only in Westen-ese:

If you want to get rid of a lot of snow, you're going to need a heat source. A water softener can be made to work for this.

So what I was expecting from that SNL clip was a "Jeopardy!"-style quiz show--except that it's not in the form of a question that the contestants are required to phrase their answers. To wit:

Host: All right, contestants: Question number one: I have $1400 in traffic tickets, and my car was just impounded. What do I do?

Contestant #1: Uhm . . . pay the tickets? [Penalty buzzer sounds.]

Host: No, sorry. That answer is incorrect. Contestants?

Contestant #2: Sneak into the impound lot and use a spare key to start the car and drive it out? [Penalty buzzer sounds.]

Host: Oh, I'm sorry, but remember, contestants--the answer must be in the form of a Michael Westen voice-over.

Contestant #3: Retrieving a car from an impound lot is a matter of remembering that these guys aren't paid much money. They're expecting things like guard dogs and razor wire to do their work for them. That's your advantage. You'll need two lengths of PVC pipe and some low-fat mayo or salad dressing. Using a heavy blanket to cover the razor wire, scale the fence at the farthest point from the office, and . . . [Chimes ring, audience applauds]

Host: Yes! Congratulations Contestant Number Three! Now let's move over to the isolation booth for the lightning round!

(Hey, SNL--you're welcome. )

If you want to parody something, the easiest way is to exaggerate one of its most obvious characteristics, while still keeping it recognizable. In television, that often means placing it in some setting where it doesn't belong: Sharks delivering candygrams to apartment buildings. Interplanetary invaders living undercover as a suburban family. A gentle children's show host in a dangerous tenement apartment. Opera singers delivering the news. Or you can make one of your target's most familiar gimmicks the object of a game show. . . .

And so on.

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