When "ER" premiered eight years ago on NBC, its dialogue was so rapid-fire that scripts ran 60 pages, about 10 pages longer than the typical one-hour drama. Viewers loved it, and the show was a huge hit.
Today, the show isn't a minute longer. But its scripts now run more than 80 pages.
Across the TV dial, actors are saying more lines per episode, and they're often uttering them more quickly. Humorous repartee and regular conversation happen "turbo fast," says Aaron Sorkin, the creator and executive producer of "The West Wing." Says Sorkin: "My parents will call me every Wednesday night and say 'Great show. Tell them to talk slower.' "
The chatter serves a deliberate purpose. Hollywood producers think people seem smarter if they talk faster, a strategy in use on "The West Wing." In "Gilmore Girls," a show about a mother and her teenage daughter, fast talk lends a hip feel to a small-town setting. In "American Dreams," a family drama set in the 1960s, characters talk quickly — and over each other — at the dinner table to appeal to teenagers whose own family lives are like that. Fast talk is also a way for broadcast networks to make shows seem edgy when they can't feature the sex, violence and bad language of HBO.
The fast pace is a humor-insurance policy, TV writers say. "If someone doesn't think one scene is funny, another one is coming right by," says Bill Lawrence, executive producer and creator of "Scrubs," a sitcom about medical residents that recently had an episode of 24 scenes of less than a minute each.
The additional lines and scenes complicate the jobs of everyone from network executives to cameramen. "The West Wing" and "Gilmore Girls" had to hire dialogue coaches to help the actors with their lines and to watch tapings for dropped words. "Friends" moved its tapings, which are done with a live audience, to 3 p.m. from 7 p.m. several years ago because the work had been going on till midnight.
Amy Sherman-Palladino, the executive producer and creator of "Gilmore Girls," avoids close-ups because they slow things down by lingering on just one actor. To keep the dialogue from ever letting up, she often employs a technique called "walk-and-talks" — particularly difficult scenes to film because the actors are moving while speaking, and directors can't splice together different takes when somebody muffs a line. If an actor says "but" instead of "and," that may well be considered enough of a mistake to scrap the take.
One morning recently, a walk-and-talk scene called for actress Lauren Graham to walk along a path at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., with Kelly Bishop, who plays Mrs. Gilmore. The two women discuss Mrs. Gilmore's courtship: "And then he would talk of the paintings he had seen in Paris and the colors of Titian, and by the end of the date, you thought he was the most brilliant man in the entire world," Bishop says in the scene.
"Using Titian to score? Even Titian didn't do that," Graham says.
After each take of the three-page scene, the script supervisor called off the elapsed time to Sherman-Palladino. One take was one minute, 23 seconds — too slow for Sherman-Palladino. Finally, she was pleased with take 13. It lasted one minute, 20 seconds. She writes "Gilmore Girls" for 20-to-25 seconds a page of dialogue, more than twice as fast as the standard screenwriters' page-a-minute formula.
Graham describes her life as "a feeling you're cramming for exams 17 hours a day." When Graham's co-star, Alexis Bledel, watches TV in the morning, she says she remembers the newscasts pretty much verbatim because she is so conditioned to memorizing long scripts.
Whenever "The West Wing" script calls for a walk-and-talk, the crew typically has a betting pool on how many takes the cast will need. The record high is about 35, says Allison Janney, who plays the press secretary C.J. Cregg on the show.
As recently as 10 years ago, a typical situation comedy had five to 10 scenes, labeled A, B, C and so on. "Seinfeld," a fast-talk pioneer, would routinely exhaust the alphabet and label scenes AA, BB, etc. To make space for that, scenes were shorter and conversation faster.
TV writers can get away with it, particularly with younger viewers raised on cartoons and MTV, who are accustomed to lots of information coming at them quickly in small bits. "People are more and more media literate," says Linwood Boomer, executive producer of the current Fox hit "Malcolm in the Middle." As a result, he can also employ speeding-up tricks to make more time for dialogue, such as showing a character at a doorway one second and all the way across the room the next; viewers understand that he has just walked across the room without having to witness it. In the editing room, "Malcolm in the Middle," as other shows do too, cuts out "air," basically slivers of a second between an actor speaking and another responding. "The pilot was very, very fast-paced and hectic, and we do everything almost twice as fast now," says Boomer, the show's creator. "I don't think it's reached the limit yet."
TV, unlike movies with their sweeping vista shots and high-tech special effects, is still about the writing. Over the years, hit shows, such as "I Love Lucy," "Happy Days" and "Diff'rent Strokes," all followed the pattern of a setup and then a big joke to end a scene. Then came "Moonlighting," which ran from 1985 to 1989 and was considered a breakthrough for its fast-paced dialogue. Its stars, Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, fought, talking rapidly and at the same time.
These days, though, the fast talk isn't so self-conscious; it seems quite normal. Much is said, and shows have more plot twists and quick-cut scenes in every episode. Viewers can expect to see still more shows with ensemble casts, which make multiple story lines easier to write. More shows also are ending with photo montages, set to music, to wind down viewers and send them on their way without their heads spinning.