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TV Trends: Effort Gags

Simon Pitt | Television | Sunday 13th May 2012

I've been watching HBO's Girls. It's painfully real at times, like the film Tiny Furniture that inspired it. This may sound strange, but I'm finding it difficult to decide whether I love it or hate it. Generally, you know how you feel about things (the wheel, war, people who say "like", etc). But sometimes, like with Girls, it does some things that make me love it, and some things that make me sigh with disappointment.

Towards the end of episode three, there's a shot of the main character, Hannah, posting on Twitter. The camera shows a screenshot of Twitter while she's typing. And if you pause it you can read a couple of her posts. They're actually quite funny - very clever spoofs of someone like her writing on Twitter. I like the little details like the fact she has hardly any followers put has posted four thousand times.

Tweet this... actually, don't, I've got nothing

Now, I'll admit, I have a soft spot for jokes so detailed you have to pause the screen to read them. I regard these as "Effort Gags", since you need to put in a little bit of work to watch them.

The most recent episode of 30 Rock had an effort gag with a list of what Liz's boyfriend could do to earn "Crisspoints" and how he could spend them.

I'd save mine up and buy a better whiteboard

With so many people using their computers to watch television programmes these days, it becomes easier for the audience to pause the programme to get all of the jokes out that you put in. I really appreciate rewarding fans in this way.

I actually appreciate it so much that we put one into both of the Image Dissectors visual articles.

Meanwhile, I gurn away

You may receive a 0.001% discount for paying by direct debit

I particularly like it when it's unexpected, like the momentary shot of Bond's emails in Casino Royale where it shows that he has been ordering stationery. It's rewarding your most loyal and enthusiastic viewers.

Bond's out of Staples

Back to Girls, though. Since we've seen her Twitter page with her username, the first thing I did was look up Hannah Horvarth on Twitter. It says she has four thousand tweets on the TV Programme. Surely someone hasn't produced four thousand spoof tweets for her? Even if they've just posted up the ones from the show and a few others, I love that idea of real twitter feed tweeting along to a character in a programme. That's a really interesting idea.

However, to my disappointment, her actual Twitter page is empty.

It seems I'm not the only person disappointed though, as there are 590 other people following her. It's a blank twitter page, and nearly 600 people have thought to themselves "well, I might as well follow this, just in case the production team ever post anything on there."

You may think this a recent phenomenon, but stuff like this has been going on for years. In the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series (and the subsequent novel of the towel of the radio series) there's a gag about a phone number:
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy says that if you hold a lungful of air you can survive in the total vacuum of space for about thirty seconds. However it goes on to say that what with space being the mind boggling size it is the chances of getting picked up by another ship within those thirty seconds are two to the power of two hundred and sixty-seven thousand seven hundred and nine to one against.

By a totally staggering coincidence that is also the telephone number of an Islington flat where Arthur once went to a very good party and met a very nice girl whom he totally failed to get off with - she went off with a gatecrasher.
This wasn't a random number. It belonged to a friend of Douglas Adams. What surprised them both was the number of phone calls the number had from members of the public who jotted down the phone number and called it.

(Incidentally, they've now moved and the number belongs to someone entirely unrelated to Douglas Adams. They also get very angry when you phone them, so don't. I don't know why they don't just get their number changed to be honest).

This issue of including phone numbers in TV programmes is such a big problem that Ofcom have put aside a series of numbers for use in TV and Radio dramas.
Telephone Numbers recommended for drama purposes cannot be allocated to Communications Providers for their customers because of the potential influx of calls that customers may receive should their Telephone Numbers be shown in a drama.
If you phone any of these numbers, you'll just get the magical phone woman saying "the number you have phoned has not been recognised". Part of me was hoping there would be a different announcement there, saying you had too much time on your hands or something.

Some people call these "Easter Eggs", after the idea of an "Easter Egg hunt". But they're different. You don't have to hunt for things like this you just need to put in the effort to read them properly.

An Easter egg is like typing about:Mozilla into the address bar in Firefox (if you're using Firefox, go on, try it now). You wouldn't know that without someone telling you, or unless you were playing around with the source code.

Things like the Girls twitter page or the list of things behind Tina Fey in 30 Rock aren't Easter Eggs, they're jokes that take a little bit of effort to read. Of course, they also that take a bit of extra effort to create.

They didn't need to create a whole whiteboard with "Crisspoints", they could have had it blurred so you couldn't read it. Similarly, in Girls the twitter page could have been such that you couldn't read her username.

I said earlier on that I was disappointed when I went to Hannah Horvath's twitter page and found it bare, but it's actually a bit more than that. I feel cheated by the production team. If they weren't going to put an actual spoof twitter account there, then why display it so clearly on screen? And why display it in such a way that we could read her username? It's a missed opportunity to engage with the audience and add an extra dimension to the show. Even if they didn't want to regular post on the feed, how much effort would it have been to add a few tweets to the page? Even just the ones featured in the programme?

After all, they must have typed them out at some point. If only when they created a fake twitter page. Now, admittedly, it's not difficult to create a spoof twitter page. (Here's one I made earlier), but it's not difficult to post three sentences to the real Twitter either.

It's a small detail, perhaps, but these details completely change the tone and feel of a programme. The extent to which production companies add in these extra jokes says quite a bit about their mindset. Sure, not everyone who watches your programme will go to the effort of pausing the programme to read the joke you've added onto the screen. And sure, you too need to put in some extra effort to add this extra content. But it's the difference between churning out a TV programme, and making something that you care about. You can tell a lot about a programme, I think, by whether the production team take advantages of these opportunities or not.



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