“There is a notion, popular especially in Hollywood, that people who watch things on the Internet have no attention span. This is, of course, nonsense. People are people. They’ll watch something as long as it engages them.” Christopher “C.K.” Kubasik
There are few things more enjoyable than stumbling across a great film or television show for the first time. Watching something you know you’re going to like is always a pleasure. But there’s a special brand of excitement that accompanies finding (and loving) something you didn’t even know existed.
One of my most recent experiences of this excitement was my (entirely accidental) discovery of The Booth at the End, a show that was completely off my radar. I can’t even remember why I clicked on its first episode, but the moment I did, I knew that I’d been hooked. It was weird (wonderfully so), provocative (in the best sense of that word), turned significant budgetary limitations to fantastic artistic and creative advantage, and was very, very well written.
On a particularly gratifying personal note, my initial thoughts on the series received a visit from the creator and writer of Booth, Mr. Christopher “C.K.” Kubasik himself. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Except I was, because he eventually agreed to participate in a little Q&A for the “Summa This, Summa That” faithful. Here it is, offered in the fervent hope that it will encourage all Booth neophytes to give the show a look.
As someone who has worked in an astonishingly wide range of mediums — books, role-playing and adventure games, the Emmy-nominated Stranger Adventures, and the Serling-esque The Booth at the End – could you tell us a bit about your roots, both as a writer and a “mixed discipline” storyteller? And what works exerted the greatest influence on you from both a stylistic and thematic standpoint?
I suppose I should start with this…
I was raised a Catholic.
I no longer attend Mass. I consider myself beyond lapsed. But I suspect that the kind of stories I heard—the subject matter, the concerns—tilled the soil for the kinds of stories I like to both read and write.
How much of this is the cause of who I am, how I see the world, what interests me thematically, we’ll never know. But I do think going to Mass every Sunday left aesthetic memories that I think influenced me.
Stories. Singing. Statues. Stained glass windows. For me the act of making things—making art—in service to something larger was just part of how I grew up.
The other half of the Catholic upbringing was the awareness—or, at least the notion—that there is more to life than we can see. The idea that life is stranger than we’d like to admit. Or, at least, to consider it might be. I think this is one of the challenges of Christianity. It challenges a person to consider—with tales of Virgin Births and Resurrections and the contradictions within the Gospels—“Do you really know everything there is to know?” You might not even believe those things as real or true. But, certainly, as stories, they plant the notion of a larger world than the world of mundane matter we see and hear every day.
Today, I am not, nor have been for many years, a member of any congregation or denomination.
* * *
And now, outside of church…
As a boy, I read a lot and watched a lot of movies. As a boy, I wrote plays and stories. Why? I don’t know.
I made books, plotting out the pages so I could fold them in half, staple them down the middle, and have a book, like a grown-up book, in my hands. In 4th grade my father sat me down at his IBM Selectric and taught me how to use a three-act structure because I said I wanted to write a play about Joseph and his brothers.
In 8th grade, my English teacher assigned Stephen King’s‘Salem’s Lot. I fell for the book fast and hard. The first chunk of the book had nothing to do with vampires. It was about how the town fed on itself with gossip and ill-will. The disease of vampirism, when it arrived, was plainly a harsher manifestation of what was already happening in the community. The notion that a tale could tackle—with big, bright genre colors—the concerns and tensions of adult life was new to me. I saw in King’s book the kind of tale that I did not see on television in my youth—an honest reflection of world I saw when I watched the news or flipped through a newspaper or looked out the window.
My reading began to expand out of the Young Adult stories I had been reading into the works of Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, and others. They were genre writers—but genre writers with strong voices, moral concerns, and questions about what it means to be human. As far as I could tell, genre fiction was the only fiction big enough to hold the ambitions of their stories. It wasn’t that they wanted to writer genre works, per se. It was that they created strange, fantastical stories because they respected the strange fantastical nature of what it means to be human.
* * *
You asked about roleplaying games. They ran parallel to the stranger and more compelling fiction I began reading at this time. The father of a friend of mine came back from a gaming convention with an edition of Dungeons and Dragons. We cracked it open and I thought it was the most intriguing toy I’d ever encountered.
Roleplaying games were very important to me because these games are a social process for making stories with your friends. Unlike novels or movies or plays, which were complete by the time I encountered them, roleplaying games allowed me to play with the “building blocks” of storytelling (characters, setting, situation, plot) and turn them around in my hands and examine them.
Playing the games was all very experimental and playful. It didn’t teach me how to write a novel or screenplay. But it did teach me that stories are made. Sometimes a session with my friends was satisfying, and sometimes it fell flat. I came to understand that novels and movies and plays didn’t just appear magically but are created with craft, technique and commitment.
What I learned from roleplaying games is that every medium is a form—with its own strengths and weaknesses that need to be respected and exploited.
And there were comic books: I collected comic books heavily for years in my youth (starting around 7th grade, mostly Marvel and a lot of the Warner horror comics). I learned something very important from looking at the art in those comic books, stretching back decades before I was born: some things are better made than others. You could look at the drawings of two artists and say, “This guy’s art is better than that guy’s art.” I came to understand that all of this making stuff wasn’t just magic. There were standards. And if I were to do it, I would have to set my standards and meet them.
* * *
The list of influences goes on. And in high school I found the bedrock of authors that would influence me for the rest of my life:
I took a class that introduced me to William Shakespeare, Edward Albee, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Greek Tragedies, and other authors that completely pulled me in. Despite my love for what I’d read off the genre shelves, I now felt like I’d found the stories that I’d been looking for. They put the human soul up on a table, picked up a scalpel, and sliced it open to examine it. They were like the genre authors I’d read.
Strangely, television wasn’t much of an influence on me. Most television, designed to be safe and reassure, held little interest for me. I’d say that The X-Files was an exception. And, of course, Twin Peaks. And I’d seen some amazing British television over the years: The Singing Detective, House of Cards and others. These shows made me think, “Wait! You can do this with television?”
But in this past decade, a wonderful string of shows that are in my sweet spot have arrived: The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and others. This is television that makes sense to me in the same way those stories and plays I read back in high school make sense to me.
From Michael Eisner (who has produced both Booth seasons through his production companies, Tornante and Vuguru), to Xander Berkeley (perhaps the paradigm example of the “criminally underappreciated actor”) to directors Adam Arkin and Jessica Landaw, the cast and crew of Booth are folks with long, lauded careers in traditional cinema and television. What draws you all to such an unconventional opportunity as this one? And what is most exciting and most frustrating about “Broadband Content?”
I won’t speak for anyone else except to say that change is coming to Hollywood, most people recognize this, and some of those people are interested in exploring those changes purposefully.
As for me, I’m drawn to new forms of production and distribution for several reasons.
First, I want to get things made.
Many people outside of Hollywood assume you just show up, write something, and then the script is on its way into production. The truth is there are simply too many people all going for the same jobs. I’ve had several projects almost move forward in film and television, but nothing had gotten into production.
So, what do you do when the landscape is overstuffed with too few opportunities and too many people? You go to the frontier. A decade ago, cable television was the frontier.
Today, if you want to stand out, you go to the Internet.
* * *
The second significant appeal of Broadband, for me, is the absolute need to experiment and take creative risks.
Years ago FOX built its network on the backs of two strange shows—The Simpsons and The X-Files—that would have died in development at CBS, NBC or ABC. (Or, if they’d somehow gotten to air, would have been cancelled within weeks.)
When HBO wanted to make original content they made documentaries about subjects the networks (including FOX) would never touch. When it came to scripted content they aired OZ, a show about life inside a prison. And then they hit paydirt with The Sopranos and Sex in the City. HBO became a destination site for new entertainment because they were making shows other people would not have aired.
After that F/X put The Shield on television—a cop show that completely inverted what a cop show was “supposed” to be. They followed it with Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. Whatever you think about these shows, they changed the game for F/X by creating shows that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
I loved these shows. I like strange things with strong, unique voices. Look at the books and movies and stories I’ve listed above. I’ll add more now:
Spielberg (Sugarland Express, Duel, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind—all of them unique and strange, and certainly not the “no-brainers” they appear to be today). The novels of John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, and Michael Moorcock. The Homeric Epics. Beowulf. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Le Morte D’Arthur… all speak to me as utterly normal, but are out of step with the bulk of modern day storytelling.
* * *
The third thing is that it is a new medium. As new as the printing press once was—or motion picture camera or television. People in Hollywood tend to see the Internet as a new means of distribution and only that. I don’t see it that way. I see it as its own new and unique medium.
An example: Once upon at time there was no printing press. And then the printing press was invented. Now we can print things. Like what? Big books. The Bible is an obvious choice… but what else could one do with the contraption? People experiment. Storytelling moves from verse to prose since it is no longer a spoken form of storytelling. (Verse helped storytellers remember the tales. With the printing press, that is no longer a need). Pamphlet-sized chunks of longer stories are printed and sold in serialized form, which is how Charles Dickens’ novels are first printed and sold.
And, of course, novels. New tales in book form. But what is a novel? What is unique about it? Why is a big printed book different than a long tale told in verse?
Well, in a novel we begin exploring the interior life of the character in a way that plays and oral forms of storytelling of years past could not comfortably do. We are inside the interior thoughts of the character and those thoughts go into our thoughts. We’re not watching something happen, as in a play. We’re not hearing something happen, as when we listen to a storyteller. We’re thinking the tale in our own head as we conjure the words from ink into our mind. This is new. This is something the medium of the printed word can do that other media cannot.
Later, the motion picture camera is invented. What to do with it? Remember that in 1900 there was no common language of cinema, no multiplexes to guarantee income. It was all up in the air. The notion of a feature length film did not exist. All that we assume that is “normal” about movies had to be invented, in the same way that the printing press led to the novel — but without any obvious path to a thing called a novel.
So, the question becomes “What are movies for?”
Well, they are social: The economics of distribution (the rarity of projectors) dictate that you try to gather lots of people per showing and not make it a private experience. So, you want stories that work well for a communal experience. In this way they are like theater (which, also, depends economically on rounding up as many people per telling as possible). But unlike theater, which is primarily revealed through language, the cinematic experience is visual. So, you want something that is visually engaging and that engages people socially. Laughter, of course, is a terrific social experience. With this in mind, the success of silent comedies as the most successful use of the medium is no surprise.
Television, as a technology, creates new creative and economic opportunities. How do we encourage people to watch? We create half-hour and hour length programs that run on the clock so that people can make them part of their daily home life. (This is different than going to the movies, which is about leaving the routine of home life.) Thus, we get a tight structure of time for the storytelling because of the technology.
More importantly, I think, people had to ask, “What kinds of stories do people want to invite into their homes?” Because in the first decades of television there was only one television set per home. It was located in a room that the family used together. Thus, family friendly stories were paramount.
Television is different now, of course. Why? Because it’s not really television anymore. Cable, as a new technology, changed storytelling again. HBO introduced unedited, R-rated movies into the home. We began seeing stories in our homes that in years past we would not have let onto our televisions. As the technology changed, the kinds of stories changed. And so we have Breaking Bad or Mad Men and shows that would not have existed on television except in television’s early years (the Golden Age of Television) when people were still trying to figure out what to do with television and economic models hadn’t been solidified yet.
* * *
And now, Broadband storytelling. What is it? What kinds of story does it produce? Well, we don’t know yet. It’s all still being worked out. But here are some of my thoughts:
In some ways it’s more like reading a book that watching television; we tend to do it by ourselves on a tablet or laptop or computer. If we do connect it to our televisions, we’re probably not doing it with the entire family but with friends, or one other person. It’s a much more intimate experience. Thus, in my view, we’re talking about a mix of cable programming and reading.
Moreover, the screens are smaller. In my view, competing with the cinematic experience—which involves the screen dominating us—doesn’t make much sense when we dominate the screens. Thus, we need explore what kinds of stories are strong on the smaller screen, rather than being smaller versions of the big screen.
Economically, the revenue stream isn’t there yet. So we need to keep cost down. Early television was dialogue-driven because taking pictures of actors’ faces and recording dialogue is cheaper than telling tale cinematically.
So, Broadband wants to steal lessons from 1950′s television, mix it with the private experience of reading a book, and combine it with storytelling that is more like going to the movies—or even better, storytelling that reaches before film and television.
What do we get with that? What new things will we be making as the medium expands? What new ways will be find to engage an audience? Like the novel or the half-hour sitcom or the feature length film (which all had to be created out of effort and experimentation), what have we not thought of yet? What new kinds of storytelling are coming down the road? I can’t wait to find out.
For many, the notion of intentionally limiting oneself to a central character and a single location feels impossibly (and unnecessarily) restrictive. But your show underscores the fact that such “obstructions” can be a tremendous boon for creativity rather than a drawback. Do you believe these “short-form” shows are the future of TV, or merely supplemental parts of a more traditional approach? And what was your thinking as you set about to create the show’s most memorable character: The Man, whose scenes are never allowed to last beyond two or three minutes — again defying the instinctive sense that “more is better?”
I’m a big fan of “obstructions.”
It’s a boring truism, but if you don’t have limitations of some kind in your creative work, you won’t end up with anything. When you’re making a movie you’re not making a novel… so that’s an obstruction right there. A lot of tools and techniques a novelist might use to tell a tale are not available to you. So, now what? Given the fact you’ll be using camera, mics, lighting instruments, props, sets, and actors, how do you tell a compelling story? The inverse is also true: a novel is black markings on a white page—no color, no motion. Completely different than a movie. Given that, how do you tell a story? What sort of story is best in that format?
As for The Booth, the first “obstruction” was coming up with a show so cheap no one could refuse to greenlight it on financial grounds. Honestly, that’s where the show came from. I decided to trust my indiscriminate love of all modes of storytelling — novels, plays, movies, half-hour television, hour television, epic poems, fairy tales, comic books, and so on — and pull from these many different storytelling modes in an effort to build something new.
I knew that words were the cheapest part of any production. If you tell the story cinematically, that starts getting expensive; it’s one set-up after another, telling the story with one picture after another. But if I could point the camera at actors and have them talk with strong situation and circumstance, I could get a lot more story-per-second-per-dollar than in a normal cinematic setup.
* * *
To build the show structurally, I thought in part of Garry Trudeau’s Doonsebury comic strip. If you look at the strips carefully, you’ll see that he “holds” the same image from panel to panel, with only slight adjustments, letting the words carry the weight of the story and comedy. This is in strong contrast, for example, to the work in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comic strips from the early 1900s, which are all about fantastical imagery and exploiting everything that can be done with imaginative line and color. And yet the Doonesbury strip had run for decades. Moreover, sometimes a day’s four-panel Doonesbury strip was only a small part of a longer story structure that spanned weeks. So, each day Trudeau’s comic strip delivered a self-contained piece of narrative and joke. But it was one beat in a longer narrative.
I thought — keeping the two points above in mind — that I could have a simple set (as Trudeau’s panels consist of one simple set, panel after panel on a given day) and have tight scenes that delivered a solid narrative beat (something more complete than the standard screenplay scene), yet still formed a stronger whole once you ran them all together.
* * *
But, of course, I wasn’t building a comic strip. So I fished around in my memory fir shows and plays and movies that I’ve liked that have successfully depended on dialogue and actors and worked within a confined set.
I remembered all the fantastic work from Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order in the interrogation room scenes, with the cops try to elicit confessions and the suspects trying to get away with murder.
The interrogation scene is, of course, dramatic narrative boiled to its essence. Anyone who doesn’t understand this doesn’t understand dramatic narrative. As David Mamet noted in his infamous memo:
QUESTION: WHAT IS DRAMA?
DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
(The whole memo is written in caps. You can read it here.)
I knew if I could fulfill these craft elements in an economically viable show then I’d have something that worked, even if the show was very simple in its production.
* * *
Two other design elements were very important to me, and I wrote them at the top of the yellow legal pad I was using:
First, when I began fishing around for a show idea that was so cheap no one could say “No” for financial reasons, I wrote at the top of my pad, “No Slumming.” It could be inexpensive, but it had to be, in its own way, something ambitious and something I’d want to see. A lot of folks in Hollywood, when they think New Media or Internet think “It’s less than TV or Film; our bar is lower; let’s not worry too much about this.” My bar was “What is the most compelling thing I can think of? No cheating, no qualification.”
Second, I wrote on the pad, “What is the biggest story I can think of?”
I was thinking here of works by M. Night Shyamalan (specifically The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable) which are very intimate in what they show on camera, but have stories, themes, and a world that clearly exist beyond the edges of the frame. I knew I’d be working in a very small geographical space, but that didn’t mean the story (or the implications of the story) had to be small. So, how would I make something very large with only two actors talking?
In time, I thought of Richard Matheson’s fantastic short story, “Button, Button.” In the story, a couple receives a box containing a button. A note says that if they press the button, someone they do not know will die. But they will also receive a large sum of money.
I decided that instead of having the characters deal with an inanimate button I would make the Button a living, breathing person. In this way, I’d have dramatic conflict and have enough craft in play to ensure the scenes would work and not be just talking or exposition.
I began working out the rules for the show. There were many little gears that I came up with and either kept or tossed aside. Here are three examples:
I realized that The Man, like the other characters, needed to be caught up in mystery, uncertainty, and vulnerability. If he knew everything or was all-knowing, he would be inherently undramatic. So, I created The Book—a device that had information that could surprise The Man and give the actor playing the character more tension and a greater range of choices as e reacted to what The Book “said.”
I made the show an anthology series. I wanted to make sure that the show “paid off” each story in some way. The show could sustain all sorts of characters, each with different wants and tasks, and could form a “short story” built around each character.
Finally, and strangely, one of the last things I added was the notion the characters’ stories would interweave and connect.
* * *
As for the show being “short form”—I’m not sure I agree with that. The first season is the length of a feature film divided into five standard television half-hours episodes.
A lot of material on the Internet is designed to be short form—and so succeeds in that length. But I don’t think there’s anything short form about the medium itself. The scenes in The Booth are scenes—each about one to three minutes. String them together and you get a feature film’s length of content. The pacing is abrupt—much more so than television or film. But I think that helps push the scenes forward and keeps the audience engaged, because there is so little fat in the telling.
If you were to play out all the events described in the show, you would end up with about 13 hours of cable television. Does this mean I made a “short form” show? Or did I make a really dense show, with a lot of storytelling compactly told? I know which one I think it is, but I’ll let others make up their own minds.
Finally: There is a notion, popular especially in Hollywood, that people who watch things on the Internet have “no attention span.” This is, of course, nonsense. People are people. They’ll watch something as long as it engages them. That’s all that matters. However, for a variety of reasons (usually studio and network notes) storytelling in television is usually flaccid and padded. I would argue that The Booth gets back to older pace of dramatic narrative that is about moving things along.
* * *
As for the future, who knows? I don’t mean that flippantly. I mean, really, I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone does. That’s what is exciting about all this.
I do think that storytelling is going to get more competitive.
Once upon a time, there were only three networks and a household had one television and that was it. The content was content designed to offend the fewest people — something any family would feel comfortable having on display, since anyone in the family might walk past someone watching any show. And television was a novelty at the time. Two generations grew up with the magic of having all this content delivered into their homes. Nothing else had ever been like it. You didn’t just watch for the stories. You watched because your home had this magical box called a television and you wanted to use this magic box.
Those days are gone. People expect content to arrive. They want the shows they want and they want them now. While there is still a desire for “least offensive content” on network television, we have a whole generation that knows more about watching dramatic narrative than any other generation that’s ever lived. They want the tales that will step up the game and engage in new ways. And with niche audiences becoming the norm, storytellers will have to step up the game and find a voice and grab that audience.
The series’ tagline — “How Far Would You Go?” — captures the central motivation behind everyone who comes to The Man for help. All of them are driven by a desire for some real good, but the question of how far they are willing to go — how much of their souls are they willing to mortgage to get what they want — is a suspenseful (and often terrifying) one. In Season Two, in “a new diner in a new city with new and unexpected clients,” we’re promised a bit more insights into The Man himself, and the motivations behind his mysterious behavior. What was the idea you were most excited about exploring in this second season, how much will it change the way we view its protagonist, and do you have even more ideas and topics you would like to flesh out in future seasons after this?
Well, first, I love all the characters. Always. The show is an anthology series featuring each of the clients wrapped up in the long arc of the mystery of The Man. So, simply getting a chance to get back in that booth and hang out with new characters is something I’m happy to do.
In terms of pushing things forward, what I care most about is following The Man on his journey. He has an agenda (which I know, even if it still remains a mystery to the audience). In Season Two, I wanted to watch The Man get more involved in the lives of his clients. In the First Season he made a point of not engaging with the people across the table from him. In this season, he does.
You have said of yourself that “I’m not religious by nature. I am religious in my curiosity.” But you also say that Booth is “a very moral show, drawing out of the supernatural New England tradition, going back to Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
The series is very much a spiritually searching one, particularly when it comes to The Man’s continual fascination with the impetuses of his “clients” and their struggles between what they want and what they know they should do. (Is he an angel? A demon? Puppet, or the Puppet Master?) Could you talk a bit about the ways in which your own particular thoughts on religiosity and spirituality seep into the show, and how it “puts immoral things in the spotlight to highlight morality and the choices and complexities?”
There are several things to talk about here: The first is that issues of religion, or spirituality, or morality—these are all very human concerns. Even the New Atheists, with their relentless yammering against religion, are engaged in concerns and debates about religion. People have had arguments about God and Faith since humans have been around to have arguments. It’s one of our species’ hobbies.
So, the first thing you need to know is my primary concern as a dramatist is humanity—and religion is part of humanity. If I’m going to be curious about people, issues of religion and faith will show up. There’s no way around it.
My primary concern about humans is because I’m madly in love with how strange it is to be a human being and how hard it is to be a human being. More than anything else, I consider The Booth at the End a love letter to us… the billions of strange creatures living on this planet, trying to figure out how to get through every day.
I know this might seem strange, given some of the horribleness involved. But the horribleness is not what the show is about. The difficulty of being human is what the show is about.
It is hard to be human. It is hard to know what to do. It is hard to know how to take care of those we love. It is hard to give up on our fantasies of immortality, or power, or the thought that if we could shape the world to our will everything would be better.
The Man’s magic offers everyone a chance to avoid the limits of being fallible, fragile, and mortal. The Man’s offer says, “You don’t have to grow up and accept limitations.You can keep your adolescent fantasies forever.”
The characters that turn their back on The Man’s deals are the characters that learn to grow up.
* * *
The Man is as curious about people as I am.
As I imagined him, The Man doesn’t write off anyone. Even people you and I would dismiss out of hand, he’s curious about.
“Why does person hate that person?” “Why is this person willing to kill others because of love?” In this way The Man is, I think, better than the rest of us. He listens to anyone and everyone. He pays attention to anyone and everyone. How many of us could make a similar claim?
He doesn’t presume to have all the answers. He knows he doesn’t have all the answers. That’s why I put The Book into the show—to make it clear he does not have all the answers. To be clear: I do not consider him a “puppet master” at all. If he had all the answers, if he knew everything already, and was handing out tasks knowing how everything would turn out and manipulating people with foreknowledge, he would simply be a sadist of the soul, torturing people with choices that don’t matter. A character like that wouldn’t be very interesting to play or very interesting to watch.
He is in that diner booth because he’s trying to understand who we are and what makes us tick. I think that’s a worthy goal. Which also means, just like the characters sitting opposite him, he is putting people at risk. He is a Robert Oppenheimer of the Soul, splitting open moral choices because there is something he needs to understand. He has an agenda that could blow back at him. And because of that, to me at least, he’s an interesting character—because he is, in part, unable to control his own curiosity in the same way he is unable to control the forces he is unleashing from The Book.
* * *
Let’s assume for a moment that by the word “religion” we mean very many things.
If we look at the notion of religion outside the tradition of trying to control other people or treat people as “the other” (which is how religion is often used, by the way), one thing you are left with is a wrestling with the strangeness of being alive as a human being. Because here is the truth: We are frail, mortal creatures filled with tremendous dreams and ambitions. There is a gap there. And that gap is hard to fill. And I believe that gap is where a lot of our troubles come from.
We are mortal but have dreams of immortality. We are doomed to frailty but want to only grow in strength. We are trapped in finite containers of bone and blood but in our dreams and fantasies we think we can be infinite.
When I look at religious texts I see, yes, the power fantasies and desperate tribalism that religions often become. But I also see comfort and succor to those willing to realize we can’t have it all—and that we’d simply make a mess of things if we could.
Moreover, religious texts also say, in one-way or another, “Even if you are limited, even if you are mortal, you are enough. You are human, and alive, and capable of love. And that is amazing. You are part of something larger than you can fully conceive. Honor that, love that. Treat each other with well.”
* * *
A final point on this matter. David Foster Wallace wrote:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
Now, while this quote probably enrages atheists who will insist they worship nothing and will demand a debate about the word “worship”—the quote makes perfect sense to me. And it certainly makes sense in the context of The Booth at the End.
Every character that goes to The Man is making choices about what he or she will worship. The struggle of what to worship is, in part, what the show is about. My point is the choice of what to worship is difficult and worthy of examination.
“There are consequences” is a theme that comes up again and again throughout the show — the notion that we must confront the consequences of every action we humans undertake. But is there a side of the “moral divide” question you would hope (or expect) the show’s viewers to take? Are we meant to see their decisions as right or wrong, objectively? Or is the notion of “asking the question and recognizing the importance of asking” enough to serve as the driving force behind its troubled characters?
People have accused the show of promoting relativism. I can’t understand this at all. Moral relativism assumes there is no way to judge right or wrong. But the show depends on the notion that weighing the choices of how to live is difficult. If there’s no right or wrong then those choices simply evaporate and the show makes no sense.
Here is a portion of Gopnik’s essay:
“Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, ‘I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.’”
“It’s okay not to like Tolkien—it really is—but what I find annoying is that so many of the people who criticize him do so by saying things that are manifestly untrue. It obviously is conscience that troubles Gollum, his awareness that Frodo is a “Good Master” who deserves to be obeyed or at least treated honestly. (Moreover, Gollum and Frodo are bound by a shared suffering.) While it’s true that Aragorn has no “inner doubts” about whether Sauron might be a nice guy after all, he is afflicted by many doubts about his own role in the story, his own fitness to lead. Boromir doubts the wisdom of the Council, and can’t overcome those doubts. The doubts of his father Denethor consume him and send him over the edge and into despair. And of course Gopnik has forgotten completely about Saruman, who at a slightly earlier stage in the story than the one told in LOTR proper was a leader among the Wise—along with Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel—before undergoing corruption.
“It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell—ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago—that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.”
I felt comfort when I read those words for I found an articulation of some of the things I’m scratching at with The Booth at the End. In particular in this sentence:
“[The] psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.”
If you look at a list of stories and plays that have last through the centuries there is a brutal honesty about how we can be good, and how we can be horrible, about how we choose to pay attention to our actions and their consequences—or not.
The key question of the show is this:
“Are you paying attention?”
The Man, by always digging at the characters, trying to get them to pay attention to their actions and decisions (instead of their justifications, equivocations, and excuses for their actions and decisions) is always trying to get the “client” focused on paying attention to what they are doing with their lives, their choices, the hours of their day.
That’s a question worth asking, I think. That’s why the show is set in a diner booth with two people talking. There aren’t a lot of distractions. We are listening to the characters words as they struggle to figure out what is right and wrong. And The Man is forcing the characters, because of his own curiosity, to listen to their own words and pay attention to what they are doing with their choices and with their days.
The answer to the question, “Are you paying attention?” matters because what we choose to do affects other people. And if we’re not paying attention, we’re affecting other people without being aware of it.
Thus, while the show doesn’t state which choice is the right choice, is does make it clear that we should be honest with ourselves and pay attention to the choices we make. That’s what The Man does to the characters time and time again—he forces the characters to peel away their self-serving, equivocating logic and actually look at what the choices we make are doing to other people. And that, I think, is something we don’t spend much time doing—but probably should.
* * *
In the second part of your question you asked, “Or is the notion of ‘asking the question and recognizing the importance of asking’ enough to serve as the driving force behind its troubled characters?”
I’m going to tackle this, but in doing so, I’m going to take a side-detour that you might not have intended.
I want to make it clear that while The Booth is dialogue driven, it is not just about asking questions and recognizing the importance of asking.
The Booth is not a little therapy session with The Man. The Man is harsh. The Man is demanding. The Man asks we pay attention not to our feelings but our actions.
The show is made out of talking, but if that’s all the show was, it would be just be philosophical babble—and inherently undramatic. I’m a storyteller first. That’s why an audience shows up and my first job is to deliver the goods on that promise. A story is about characters going through a bunch of experiences that test them and dump them out the other side changed in some way.
Asking questions and recognizing the importance of asking questions is not, in my view, enough for people to come to epiphanies. The changes that stick, in my observation of others and myself, come about through the painful mess of doing things. Without the unexpected lessons of events, it is possible to live in the solipsism of therapies that flatter but do no more than coddle and reassure us.
If The Booth at the End were about character sitting around and chatting until they had epiphanies—well, I would hate that show. It would be flaccid and precious. (And note: The show skates this edge all the time. Keeping it on track is no easy task.) The main problem would be that we would no longer be telling stories but doing—at best—philosophy in dialogue form. But, again, I’m not a philosopher. I’m a storyteller. And the audience showed up for stories. It also would put me, as writer, I the position of being High Priest dispensing wisdom to an audience, and I’m not in that business either.
The characters that interact with The Man are not just talking. They are out in the world doing things. We don’t see them doing these things, true. But the fact remains the conversations with The Man are utterly informed by the deeds done outside of the booth.
Thus, the show is not about intellectual abstractions. It’s about action and blood and conflict and violence and things going wrong. Why is this important? Again: because we’re here to make story. And that stuff is the stuff of story.
To explain this better, I’m going to bring in a quote from Walter Kerr’s fantastic book “How Not to Write a Play,”which has had an important influence on me as a writer. Kerr wrote the book in 1955 while he was a critic at the New York Herald Tribune. He went on to be the chief theater critic at the New York Times:
We know the audience yearns for extravagant event, but we are inclined to think of the yearning as one of the least attractive of the audience’s characteristics. It is a superficial desire for thrill; it is a primitive fondness for excessive color; it is a fairly shoddy form of escape, of sublimation, of vicarious romantic experience. It constitutes an unrealistic attitude toward life.
I’m not sure we understand this passion for excitement correctly. It may be a passion for reality, especially that reality which cannot be grasped in any other way.
Extravagant things, violent things, events of notable magnitude, do from time to time touch the outer edges of our lives. I suppose most of us have known suicides. A good many of us have married friends who do one another physical damage. People do cut one another up in bars. Each of us has heard the screech of brakes and some sort of thump, and then moved cautiously toward the crowds at the curbstone.
At this point, though, something happens to us. We are drawn toward the scene of violence by an immediate, unquestioning impulse. But the closer we approach it the more intense the counter-impulse becomes. Having shouldered our way to the edge of the spectacle, we are overcome by a powerful urge to turn away. We are simultaneously fascinated and repelled.
We are fascinated by something that is real. We are repelled because it is real. Whatever charity we may having in us, whatever sense of the ugly, whatever awareness that the victim is a person like ourselves, casts a veil over the event—over our clear sight of the event. Because we are humane, we deny ourselves a direct vision.
Our art forms are often concerned to show us with clarity those events that are much too tremendous to be seen clearly in life. Intense passions, at close range, involves us too much; in the theater we may watch it without direct involvement which obscures its meaning. The larger the event, the more likely we are to lose hold of it in life, and the more necessary it becomes for the theater to seize and shape it for us. If the greatest plays of the past are plays in which characters tear out their own eyes or one another’s eyes, in which characters kill or are killed, in which sons turn violently upon their mother or husbands upon their wives, it is not because the audience once asked for cheap stimuli but because audiences did ask to have their experience, their clear knowledge of life, enlarged.
Later in the book, Kerr points out he’s heard many people talk about love for the poetry in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories (which ask questions and answer questions), but wish that the poetry wasn’t surrounded by deeds of murder, betrayal and lies. They like the pretty words and people talking about ideas, but not the deeds that prompt them.
For example, here is a much beloved speech from“Macbeth:”
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
There’s so much to say about this monologue — about how it’s written, about what it’s about. I’ll truncate the discussion and say it’s terrific writing about the tension of how much we invest in every desire and action of our days, and how they matter so little. And for many people, that’s enough — that’s all they would want it to be about and all they need.
However, the monologue actually begins with Macbeth speaking these words:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been time for such a word.
And why does Macbeth begin is lovely and poetic and philosophical meditation with these words? Because a messenger just arrived with these words:
The Queen, my lord, is dead.
What prompts Macbeth’s meditation on life and its futility is the arrival of news of his wife’s death.
But Lady Macbeth did not just die. She committed suicide. And why did she commit suicide? Because guilt had overwhelmed her. And why had guilt overwhelmed her? Because she goaded Macbeth to kill their king and the two chamberlains who attended him.
Macbeth’s thoughtful speech is prompted by acts of regicide, murder and suicide.
In my view, if The Booth works – that is, holds an audience’s attention and works as a piece of both storytelling and dramatic narrative — it’s because it draws on the points Kerr outlined in the quote above and the tradition of storytelling illustrated by the passages from Macbeth. It is both horrific and reflective. I see no contradiction between these two things. In fact, I think one needs the other.
Shakespeare’s poetry arrives as the characters reach for words to explore their confusion and find answers. And all of that is prompted as the consequences of their desires and actions are made manifest in the world. Without the actions, without the danger, risk and consequence there would be truly nothing to motivate the talking.
The poetry would not begin.
* * *
Without deeds, the words of the characters in The Booth would carry no weight. The show would be a babbling of sounds—esoteric, unanchored and abstract.
The show hangs on the risk, danger, consequence, and conflict of action. This is not only a matter of craft, though that is vital. It is, for me, the moral imperative of the show.
You’ll notice that while The Booth is built out of talking, I don’t trust talking very much. We are slippery creatures when it comes to words. That’s why The Man has to keep poking and prodding the characters that come to speak to him. They dodge; they deny; they equivocate. They use words to deflect or slip around the truth.
This is where the dramatic tension comes from: The Man wants the truth, while the clients want to meet their end of the bargain with as little truth as possible. They don’t want to pay attention to what they are doing; they don’t want to claim responsibility for what they are doing. Words are their weapons for not paying attention. The Man keeps them focused on their actual deeds.
The show is built on strange curly-cues of verbiage; tangling of sentence structure and rhetoric that The Man forces the characters to disentangle. (Note, too, The Man has his own dodges!)
The Man stringently enforces this issue: “What are the details?” he asks again and again. The details of the deeds and the details of moral thought prompted by those deeds. And this is what the show is about, ultimately – and what the camera is pointing us to: The characters struggling to figure out how they will behave and how they will treat people once all their talking and babbling and justifications and excuses are stripped away.