A reminder about writing from the FIRST reality show.

If you think the first reality TV show was Survivor or American Idol, you’re wrong.

And if you think it was The Real World, you’re also incorrecto-mundo.  (Although TRW may be the first of the modern era.)

The first reality show that I can find a record of debuted on television in 1952 and was called . . . cue lights and timpani and studio audience applause . . . This Is Your Life!

Remember that show?

The host would introduce the guest . . . and then, while telling the story of that guest’s life, would bring out important people from the person’s past that he or she may not have had any contact with for decades!

What does this clever concept have to do with writing a play or a musical?

Obviously, the show didn’t have the time to bring out every single person that had an impact on the guest-of-honor’s life.  So they focused on the big moments in that individual’s life . . . .the tentpole moments . . . the moments that helped shape who that person is.

Plays and musicals are all about efficiency (unlike novels which can afford more meandering).  You may not have to worry about a 22-minute length and appropriate time for commercials, but you should look at your show through the same lens as This Is Your Life.  The scenes that the audiences sees?  They can only be those same tentpole moments.  Only the moments that matter.

That’s why on my shows I always play a game I call, “This Is Your Show!”  As I read or watch, I ask myself with each and every scene . . . if this scene or song was cut, would the outcome of the show be different?

If the answer is no, then the scene or song has to go.


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  • George Matusek says:

    When I was a teen in the 1950s my favorite “must-see” TV show was the live Saturday night “Your Show of Shows” starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris — one of their most hilarious skits was a parody of “This is Your Life.” When kinescopes of ten memorable skits from this show were assembled in 1973 to show in movie theaters under the title “Ten From Your Show of Shows” this particular skit was one included. My girlfriend at the time was reluctant to accompany me to see the movie, but she soon was laughing as hard as I was — she was a college English teacher and she said that parody of “This Is Your Life” was the funniest satiric parody she had ever seen.

  • Eva says:

    I belonged to :Latin Club and I did a This is Your Life for my Latin Teacher Doris Dimpfle. Needless to say I got an A.

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    I would agree about “scene” but not “song.” Songs serve many functions in musicals besides advancing the plot: set tone, create atmosphere, elucidate theme, explore character, etc.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    That’s a cool perspective on how to approach shows in progress. I also find that when unexpected circumstances change a show, usually the replacement scenes/songs elevate the show even more and often underlying tones of what was experienced become part of the show. For me, it usually ends up somewhere in the lyrics. 🙂

  • David Mauk says:

    This concept especially applies to bio-musicals, and gives me a better idea of where to start and how to frame it, if I ever can find someone I want to write about. Thanks, Ken.

  • Sam says:

    Thank you for sharing this handy tool to improve the impact and efficiency of a musical! I love it !

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