Zest is a noun meaning “great enthusiasm and energy”. It’s also a verb: “scrape off the outer colored part of the peel of (a piece of citrus fruit) for use as flavoring.”
I was thinking about that when I read this from Ken Levine’s blog, sitcoms could be better. Larry Gelbart, chief writer of the TV show MASH, explained to Carol Burnett that current writers “never played stickball,” that their references are usually other sitcoms and pop culture.
While I mostly agree, I think that in virtually all the arts have always
stealing borrowing from what came before. The renowned classical composers such as J.S. Bach were notorious for this.
The question is: how innovative is the borrowing?
When my wife and I went to the Albany Symphony Orchestra in November 2017, we heard The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. Naturally thought of the Mickey Mouse segment in the 1940 film Fantasia. The story line of the cartoon is a rather strict retelling of the 1797 Goethe poem. Yet it’s a classic.
Jazz musicians recreate standard tunes. The early rock and rollers purloined blues, country, jazz and more. Cover artists, when they do it right, can replace the original in the minds of the audience.
The Beatles were notorious thieves: a Bach bit in Penny Lane, Fats Domino in Lady Madonna, Little Richard in I’m Down. And on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they stole from everyday life: a child’s drawing (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds), an old circus poster (Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite), a meter maid (Lovely Rita). The question is whether they’ve taken the musical stew and found the zest to make it it innovative, or is it just derivative? Usually, it was the former.
One of the pop songs that most irritated me is Susan by the Buckinghams, a #11 song on the US charts in 1968. It is a rather ordinary, even bland tune. But Sgt. Pepper had come out, so it was decided by some producer to throw in, for no discernible musical reason, a weird A Day in the Life-inspired orchestration in the middle that just wasn’t earned.
How you make what’s old, new, whether in sitcom writing or music, is zest.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Dukas; Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic
For ABC Wednesday