5 Things The Tiger King Can Teach You About Writing A Show.
Over the last 6 weeks, there have been two main subjects people have been talking about.
- The Coronavirus
- “The Tiger King”
I thought my wife was having a Davenport-induced hallucination (which is a serious condition by the way – it comes from being around me for too many hours a day and forced to endure my bad jokes and random show tunes) when she told me that her new favorite TV show was about a gay, red-neck, gun-toutin’, mullet-sportin’, tiger owner.
And then “The Tiger King” popped up on my CNN feed, sandwiched between articles about that other popular topic of the day.
And then Andrew Lippa told me he was writing a parody musical about it.
That’s when I knew “The Tiger King” wasn’t a result of me doing my bad Lady Gaga impersonation for my wife or my random bursts of “Save The People” (which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since this). No, no, TK was a real, comes about once-every-five-years, cultural phenomenon (Making of a Murderer, another Netflix production, was the last one I can remember).
So I watched. The whole thing. Over the course of one 24-hour period. (Because how could you not?!?)
That’s when I realized that the Tiger King had a lot to teach us. No, not about how to treat animals or settle a business dispute. But if you can look past the mullet (which is hard), you can find five reasons why people are obsessed with this story.
And when you understand why people become obsessed, you have a better shot at making people obsessed.
So here are 5 Things from “The Tiger King” that helped make it a success and could help you do the same with your show.
1. What do you know about Private Zoos?
I’d bet that 90% of people who watched “The Tiger King” didn’t know that private zoos were even a thing in this country. Netflix-flash . . . they are. I believe some of the best dramas we have open up the doors on a world we’ve never seen before, but are curious about. That’s one of the reasons why mob-movies are so popular. Or why “The West Wing” was so popular. We had never seen inside The White House before (and now we don’t want to).
“The Tiger King” filmmakers found a niche . . . and that niche included tigers (which just about everyone is curious about). Then they opened the doors to those Private Zoos and invited us into the carnival.
What’s your niche/world . . . and how badly do we want to peek inside?
2. These are not your neighbors.
Have you ever . . . ever . . . seen characters like this before? I mean, ever? All of the characters, from Joe to Carol to that culty “Doc Antle, are so unique, and so specific, you spend most of the show watching with your mouth agape. You couldn’t make up people like this.
But to have a success, you should.
If your characters could pass for your neighbors, they aren’t interesting enough for us to pay $150 for.
How many of you googled these people after you saw the show because you were curious about what they were up to now? That’s when you know the characters made an impression . . . when you want to know what happens next.
How can your characters do the same?
3. What we learned from Annie.
It’s an old show biz axiom: “There are two things that always work . . . kids and dogs. (There’s another one that says, “There are two things you should never work with . . . kids and dogs.”) And while cats don’t fall into the same category as dogs, BIG Cats certainly do (Lion King anyone?). We love an animal . . . especially cute and cuddly ones (it’s why the Private Zoo market with its unethical cub-petting practices are so popular in the first place). And whenever there’s an animal on stage, there’s always a reaction. (Partly because they just are so unexpected – they just aren’t supposed to be there.)
While I’m certainly not telling you to insert animals (or kids) into your shows where they don’t belong, don’t be afraid to use them if they are essential and organic to the story (and provided they are being humanely treated).
We almost cut The Goat from Once on this Island early because of how expensive it was. We didn’t, and The Goat ended up being one of the biggest word-of-mouth drivers of the entire show. It’s why this got so much attention.
4. My favorite meal is “stake.”
“The Tiger King” isn’t about private zoos. It’s not about mullets. Or how just-about-anyone can run for President.
It’s about life or death.
And I’m not just talking about the primary plotline . . . a murder-for-hire story where lives are on the line. I’m talking about the life and death stakes of those beautiful Tigers! And animal’s lives are often considered more valuable than some people’s in stories like this . . . because they are the ultimate innocents.
Not every show can have actual life or death stakes . . . but whatever your hero is up against has to feel like life or death.
Some examples from my upcoming shows that aren’t about literal life/death, but tell that to the Protagonist:
In Joy, Joy Mangano knows that if she doesn’t sell her miracle mop, she will lose her house, her family, her everything.
In Broadway Vacation (and all the Vacation movies), Clark believes without-a-doubt that if his family doesn’t have the BEST vacation, he will lose that family, which is his whole reason for existence. A bit dramatic? Maybe. But isn’t that the point?
5. So whodunit?
Did the Tiger King actually hire someone to kill Carol Baskin? Did Carol Baskin kill her first husband? And what was with those clips of that dude on a wave-runner like he was the David Hasselhof in a white-trash Baywatch?
All throughout the show, you just didn’t know who did what to whom. It was an old-fashioned whodunit thriller, as yours should be too, murder-for-hire or not.
In fact, I believe every single play, musical, movie, whatever . . . no matter the story . . . should be considered a suspense.
Keep your audience guessing as to what will happen next. Stay ahead of them. Have more twists and turns than a rollercoaster. Because at the end you want your audience saying, “What a ride that was!”
And if that wasn’t enough, here’s a bonus 6th reason why The Tiger King is a lion-sized hit:
6. It’s a true story.
Audiences lean forward into a story just a bit more when they believe that it’s true. So think of ways you can blur the lines of reality with your fictional shows . . . or . . . for your next show, pick a true story. In fact, you know what I believe will be the next popular genre of source material used for musical adaptations?
Did you watch “The Tiger King?” Enjoy it? Learn anything? Why did you watch???
P.S. I’ll be going LIVE tonight on my Facebook page with Tony-nominee Jenn Colella (Come From Away, High Fidelity, If/Then). Join us here at 8pm EDT.