Jerry Zucker Steals My Joke

By Sean Carroll | June 9, 2009 1:39 pm

The Science and Entertainment Exchange has lurched into the early 21st century by starting its own blog, the X-Change Files. They’re going to have a weekly “column” rotating between Lawrence Krauss, Matt Parney, Jennifer Ouellette, Sid Perkowitz, and Jerry Zucker. So you know where to go for your regular dose of science and entertainment goodness.

Jerry Zucker and his wife Janet Zucker deserve a great deal of credit for turning the idea of the Exchange into a reality. More importantly, for a twelve-year-old such as I was at the time, The Kentucky Fried Movie was a major event in modern cinema. So I was pleased to see that the title of Jerry’s post (“I’d Like to Thank the National Academy”) was the same one that I had used when I gave a talk at the NAS annual meeting. Not that either one of us should be overly proud of that particular line.

Also, he gets away with saying stuff like this:

The really great thing about these scientists is that because their brains are exactly two-and-a-half times the size of the average person’s in the movie business (although in fairness, that also includes talent agents), they are actually more creative and therefore much better at coming up with science-related ideas for movies than our so-called “creative community.” I don’t mean to offend anyone but as much as I loved Slumdog Millionaire, it’s no Viagra. Often, science gets tacked on like wallpaper in a story, but when it’s really integrated into the narrative it can take things in surprising new directions. And thanks to the Exchange and the National Academy of Sciences, research just became much more fun.

That thing about the brain sizes is what they call “creative license.” But it’s deployed in the service of making a good point! Scientists are good at coming up with ideas, and it would be great if a closer relationship between science and Hollywood helped some of those fun ideas percolate into the wider culture. (My giant brain scoffs at giving specifics about how this will actually happen.)

  • Michael T.

    Some of the best sci-fi that made it to television or the big screen came neither from scientists or the Hollywood “creative community” but rather adaptations from great science fiction novels or short stories. Think of Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester to name a few. Asimov and Clarke certainly stand out but what distinguished them was not so much their work as “scientists” but as writers of great fiction. They just don’t make em the way they used to!

  • Jacob Russell

    When they start (making) writing them like they used to, Hollywood will have replaced writers…who, in contrast with Hollywood, don’t try to make them “like they used used to.”

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    Michael, much of the Asimov and Clarke did was so good precisely because they had such good backgrounds in actual science. They aren’t the only examples. Greg Egan today is one of the recent more successful scifi writers. Part of why he does so well is that he really knows his stuff quite well.

  • Allyson Beatrice

    Just a word about that “creative community” of writers…

    First, download a shooting script of an episode of television or a film. It’s pretty hefty. One page of dialogue is one minute on screen. In television, a writer sometimes has 48 hours to knock out sixty pages, incorporate notes from the network, studio, and/or showrunner. The script has to have some level of continuity within the series, service all of the actors, and get into the hands of the director before DGA fines start piling up. Few people can do it, and even fewer can do it exceptionally well. There are excellent television shows with consistently high quality like Dexter, Mad Men, Battlestar Gallactica, and such. Some amazingly written shows don’t make it far, like Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, and Firefly.

    Even films that are adapted (think L.A. Confidential, Brokeback Mountain, or Shawshank Redemption) from books take an especially talented hand to translate into a new medium.

    I just get so irritated when I see someone use eyeroll quotes to describe thousands of people, some of whom, a lot of whom, are actually quite brilliant.

  • andyo

    Really, I don’t see what people saw in Slumdog Millionaire. I always liked Danny Boyle (since Shallow Grave), and even liked Sunshine, but Slumdog was just well directed Hollywood tripe, even more so when it wasn’t supposed to be that.

  • Phillip Helbig

    The James Bond parody in the Kentucky Fried Movie is excellent. I like James Bond, and I
    like parody, but most James Bond parodies (the 1960s Casino Royale, Austin Powers) are
    lame. One reason, of course, is that James Bond is quite close to self-parody already.

  • Jo

    @Allyson: Of course there are brilliant people in film. And it was a joke, which is why he’s allowed to paint with a wide brush. But the amount of work that goes into producing something doesn’t make it worth watching. Spending millions on a film, with big names and fancy special effects, and then slapping it all on top of a rehashed idea or paper thin plot is nothing to brag about. It’s a product, much as anything else, and when poorly produced, it’s my right as a consumer to label it crap.

    I think we can all agree that great cinema does indeed exist. We can also agree that making great cinema is not the primary objective of most big production companies.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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