Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Table Readings

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Marka.

I've wondered about table reads and how much you can trust them. Especially when you're directing and aren't familiar with the cast.

I assume there are folks who laugh at things that aren't funny because they want it to be funny, or want to be supportive. Others might be grumpy, hung over, or whatever and don't laugh at funny things because of that. Other casts must have honest and accurate reactions.

How accurate are table reads as a means of judging a script? Are these pitfalls things that happen? What other things are you looking out for with them, other than listening to them read the script

Believe me, it’s not an exact science.  All of the factors you mentioned do come into play.  

But generally you can get a sense of whether the script works or not.   If it doesn’t it becomes glaringly apparent at a table read.  

If the table read goes well that still doesn’t guarantee the show won’t go south during the week.  But it’s a decent indication.  

If you have physical comedy or humor that depends on sight gags or costumes, none of that will be realized in the table read.  So you have to factor that in.  

Also, some actors are just bad at table reads.  If you know that going in you at least don’t get scared, but it’s hard to judge when the actor stumbles through the script or reads it flat.   Or, in the case of some stars, eat through the table reading.  

Laughs can be deceiving.  Sometimes a line will get a big laugh at the table reading then nothing during the week.  Your inclination is to keep the line since you heard it work.  But when lines are delivered on their feet the dynamics sometimes change.  I’ve learned not to completely trust stage reading laughs.  If a line dies on the stage, despite its reaction at the table read, I replace it.

What I look for mostly during the table read is whether the story works.  Does it track?  Are the attitudes right?  Are steps missing or rushed or repetitive?  I’m also keeping track of the actors.  Does a character drop out of the story?  Is he in a big scene with only three lines?  If there’s an argument, do both sides get to make decent points?   Are there too many zingers?  Do dialogue scenes seem forced?    Does someone come off unintentionally hateful or stupid?  

But like I said, it’s a very inaccurate yardstick.  There have been times when a show had a compressed production schedule.  So we had the table reading in the morning, the cast then got the script on its feet and we went back for a run-through that afternoon.  During their rehearsal time we would get a jump on the rewrite for tomorrow’s script, but when we saw the run-through, occasionally there were lines we were prepared to cut that worked.   So the takeaway there was fix the story but give jokes a chance to work on stage.  

I will say this:  table readings for pilots have gotten out of hand.  There are so many executives and industry people that arrive for the table read that instead of the cast sitting around a conference table, they’re all on a dais facing out to the audience.   How the hell are they supposed to relate to one another?   Zoom calls are more intimate.  

Stage play rehearsals often have “table work” days planned in.  More than just reading the script the actors and director will spend a few days really analyzing the text.  But in TV there’s no time.  So it’s a tool — often useful — but sometimes misleading.  

Hey, why should any part of the process be easy? 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

WANDAVISION -- My review

DISCLAIMER: I know I’m not the target audience.

DISCLAIMER 2: I am not fully briefed on the Marvel Comics Universe.

DISCLAIMER 3:  I will probably get more hate comments than a anti-Trump post.

And that brings me to WANDAVISION. 

I watched the first two episodes of WANDAVISION on Disney +.  I can honestly say, “What the fuck is it supposed to be?”  

The first episode is Wanda & Vision (two aliens? creatures from an alternate universe? A fever dream?  What????) move into a 1950’s black and white sitcom.  


They’re clearly poking fun at the genre, but here’s the thing:  for an audience to get the joke they have to understand the reference.  I assume this show is designed for Millennials.  How many Millennials know the tropes of bad 1950’s sitcoms to appreciate what’s going on?   And it’s done in a very smug manner.  Non-comedy writers trying to write comedy.  So they load the show with lame jokes and assume the fun is the hip audience laughing at just how lame the jokes are.   Granted the actual 1950’s sitcoms were lame, but they were earnest.  This is just cynical and condescending.   They say it's a loving homage to THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  As someone who reveres THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I thought the tone was very snarky. 

Would it have been so terrible to try to write a show in that genre that was genuinely funny?  Instead, it’s just a big long sketch that’s a one-joke premise.  

Writing didn’t seem important but the production values were.  BEWITCHED-type animated opening titles, lots of special effects — dishes flying,  a character walking through walls, etc.  But all the characters are one-dimensional and you just don’t care about them.  Why should you?  The story is a standard trope, the characters are cardboard thin, it’s not funny, and there’s nothing emotional to hang onto.  

Episode two also starts in black-and-white, also is spoofing a genre only AARP members get, but from time to time flashes of color appear.   I’m guessing this takes the story in another direction, and for all I know that new direction is great.  But why did we have to see essentially an hour of the bad ‘50s sitcom?   As of this writing, only two episodes have dropped.  Maybe a third has come along.  I haven’t gotten to it yet. (So is that DISCLAIMER 4?) 

Again, aficionados of the Marvel Universe might find this completely understandable.  Maybe if you know the legend of WANDAVISION it all makes sense and is necessary for telling the whole story.  

But for Joe Lunchpail like me, it was confusing, not entertaining, and the cheesy plots, mugging, and one-liners made for an unpleasant hour of television.   

Prove to me you can write a good retro sitcom before you trash it.    And you better tell me why I’m watching this by the end of Episode 3 or it’ll be WANDA-WATCH-SOMETHING ELSE.

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Bernie Meme and how it applies to comedy writing

It's always a concern in a comedy writing room -- A joke or a bit or sight gag gets a huge laugh.  So to get the most out of it you bring it back, maybe in a slightly different form.  And that gets a big laugh too.  

So you repeat the process.  

Until you run the joke into the ground.  

Comedy writers have to be vigilant because it's a lot easier to go with the 57th variation of the same joke rather then come up with a brand new one.   My position:  stop it before it even becomes a question of whether the joke has been driven into the ground.  

I bring this up because of the recent Bernie Sanders Meme.  By now we've all seen the shot of him at the Inauguration. 

Later that day a few photoshop posts appeared on social media inserting him into various scenes.   And they were very funny.  I really laughed at the first seven or ten.  And I get that it represented a relief and joy after four years of sheer hell. 

But by the weekend half the posts on my Facebook news feed were Bernie and his mittens. -- inserted into family photos, movie one-sheets, famous paintings, historic scenes, rock concerts, the moon, etc.  

So tell me, do you still find them funny?  They stopped for me.  

Be careful in your writing.  Don't milk every joke for the last drop of comedy.  Don't use the same catchphrase five times in one script.   

When I see that in spec scripts I immediately say, "Lazy writer."  

"Callbacks" are a useful and handy tool.  Trying to get out of the scene?  Think back to one of the things that happened in the scene and make reference to it in the final joke.   

But beware!  Too many callbacks and you suck the life right out of them.  A good example is the Reverend Jim TAXI scene I posted over the weekend.  There is a repetition on "What does the yellow light mean?"  When they were filming, Chris Lloyd (who plays Reverend Jim) got so many laughs he just kept repeating it and repeating it.  But the producers wisely knew that there was a cut off point -- from when it was funny to when you wanted to kill everybody on the screen.

I'll be interested to see just how long this Bernie-mitten/"Where's Waldo?" phenomenon continues to dominate Facebook.  Hopefully, by the middle of June some people will be screaming, "OKAY! WE GET IT!"  

It's a comedy trap.  Don't fall in. 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Weekend Post

 A number of you commented yesterday that you thought the Reverend Jim Driving Test scene from TAXI was one of the all-time classics.  I totally agree.  However, eleven years ago I posted it and was surprised to find a lot of readers didn't find it funny.  Surprised isn't the right word.  SHOCKED is.   I realize comedy sensibility changes over time and different generations find different things funny, but I thought (wrongly so) that this scene would make anybody laugh.  

 See for yourself.  Here it is.  Written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows.  

UPDATE: Because a number of commenters have complained about the laugh track -- the laughs are REAL.  You're hearing the actual audience laughter.  Along the way you also hear scattered applause -- that's a dead giveaway.  There's no scattered applause in laugh tracks.  And you don't get scattered applause unless the audience is really delighted and laughing.  I will grant you that most multi-cams not only use a laugh track but use it way too much and too loud.  But please accept the fact that 200 strangers in the bleachers that night found this scene genuinely funny and laughed out loud.  


Friday, January 22, 2021

Friday Questions

Friday Questions, anyone?

Mark Harvey Levine (no relation but one of the funniest playwrights in the biz) starts us off:

Hey I just learned (I'm slow on the uptake) that Nick, the bartender in "It's A Wonderful Life" was played by Sheldon Leonard, the famous producer of sitcoms. I did know that the two main male characters in "The Big Bang Theory" are named after him. And I just found out that his last acting job was a role on "Cheers". What was it like working with him as an actor? Did he threaten to throw you pixies out, t'roo the door or out the window?

Sheldon was lovely.  One of the few guest actors who never threatened me.

The sad thing is that most people on the set had no idea of his amazing iconic background.  I talked to him a little bit, primarily thanking him for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  It was his company that produced it and his foresight to tell Carl Reiner the show would be much better if Dick Van Dyke starred instead of Reiner himself (as he did in the original pilot).   Credit also to Reiner for putting ego aside and going along with that suggestion.  

Darlene asks:

I saw a promo on TV that Tim Allen's Home Improvement character would be appearing on Last Man Standing this season as a crossover (both played by Tim Allen of course). Question: When that happens, does Matt Williams or anyone from the original series get credit or money? Related, if you write an episode of a sitcom and a character becomes a break out star, are you entitled to any of the credit or money or does that all go to the show? Do writers ever wonder if they're ever creating the next Mork from Ork?

Good question.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but my guess would be yes, Williams would be entitled to some compensation.  

There is a provision in the WGA contract that allows for writers to get a royalty if they create a character that goes on to reoccur or become regulars of a series.  No on-screen credit but $$$. David Isaacs and I got creator royalties on Eddie LeBec (which is why weren’t too thrilled when we had to kill him).   The money isn’t huge, but it’s sure better than nothing.  

Along those lines, Brian wants to know:  

From what I understand, Reverend Jim Ignatowski was supposed to make one appearance as the officiator of Latka Gravas' paper marriage, but Christopher Lloyd's portrayal was so good, he was brought back.

Is it easier to get "one-shot" sitcom characters to join the regular cast? Is there less red tape and network approval to go through?

Usually what happens is if a character really scores he’ll be brought back once or twice to see if indeed they have lightning in a bottle.   Usually there’s little network resistance because the actor has already proven he’s an asset to the series.  

Beyond that, it’s all negotiation.  Is the actor interested and available?  How much does he want?  

Adding cast members can be tricky because the other cast members might resent having to give up screen time to the new darling.    They have to be convinced that a high tide lifts all boats.  The new guy might bring in more viewers and raise the ratings.  Everyone benefits as a result.  But it can be a dance.  

And finally, from Bob Gassel:

During your time at M*A*S*H, did weather ever play havoc with shooting at the ranch? If so, did scenes ever get relocated from the ranch back to the studio?  

We shot mostly in the summer when it never rains so that was not a problem.  Heat was. In the early fall we might get some unexpected rain and I do recall a couple of scenes being rewritten to be filmed on the stage.  

More often than not though, we would rewrite to shoot on the stage because they ran out of time (and daylight).  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

EP208: All Things WINGS Part 2

Ken talks to Rob Leszczak, who wrote “The Complete Guide to the TV Sitcom WINGS.”  More reminiscing, including a prank I pulled on NBC, and a story about Lana Clarkson & the late Phil Spector. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

We made it! THANK GOD!!!

This is the revival I've been waiting four years for.  The return of THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  

It's so nice to hear a president who sounds like a president.  We all took it granted, didn't we?  

We can once again go to bed at night knowing a deranged madman doesn't have the nuclear codes.  

We can wake up in the morning secure that someone is finally in charge.  The pandemic, the economy, the military -- they're in good hands.  

Science and facts and justice and truth and fairness and the Constitution are again valued.  Stupidity is not celebrated.  Hate is not encouraged.  Violence is not condoned. 

Tumultuous times are indeed ahead as Joe Biden is left to repair the immeasurable damage his vile loathsome predecessor left, but at least he'll be trying.  

I wish him and Kamala Harris the very best.  Thank you for restoring order and hope and humanity.  And allowing me to sleep for the first time since November 2016.  

Trump apparently left the traditional letter to the incoming president.  "Please pardon me.  PLEASE PLEASE!"

Enjoy the world's greatest palindrome:   1 20 2021

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

RIP Don Sutton

So sorry to hear of the passing of Hall of Famer, Don Sutton.  He was 75.  As a Dodger fan growing up I was always a big fan.  Koufax and Drysdale got all the attention, but Don Sutton holds many Dodger pitching records and quietly finished his career with over 300 wins.  With the way the game is played today I don’t think you’ll see many 300 game winners from now on.  

I'm sure that's what most articles will focus on.  But that’s just part of his career.  Don got into broadcasting after he hung up his cleats and became one of the best, most accomplished play-by-play men in the game.  Lots of former players become announcers but most become analysts.  They sit back and offer observations and insights when they occur.  That’s not an easy job as is evidenced by how many are terrible at it.   But play-by-play is a much tougher assignment.  You control the broadcast and have the added responsibility of describing the action and keeping the patter going.  Especially on radio.  I can think of maybe a dozen who mastered that art, and along with Bob Uecker I think Don Sutton was the best.  

He had a distinctive style, very relaxed and sooooo easy to listen to.  For years he’s called Atlanta Braves games with partner, Jim Powell and for my money they were in the top five of team broadcasts.  They had a great chemistry, Powell is superb, and they were fun and informative to listen to no matter the score, no matter who was winning.  

I have the MLB app and listen to a lot of out-of-town broadcasts when I drive around LA (back when I was driving around).  If there’s a Braves game on I usually go right to it and more importantly, stay with it.  And trust me, I could care less about the Braves.  

Don’s greatest gift as a broadcaster was his ability to really communicate one-to-one with his listeners.  When you were driving in your car he was talking directly to you.  It’s a skill surprisingly few announcers of any sport have mastered.  Don had it in spades.  

Off the air he was just as easy going and approachable, only a little more candid.  He had a sly sense of humor, told great stories, and was always generous in sharing information with other broadcasters (like me).   I always thought he should have been the successor to Vin Scully of the Dodgers.  Or, for that matter, the voice of the Angels.  He played for them as well.  

He will be missed.  Thanks for the wins, friendship, and keeping me company all those hours on crowded freeways. 

This explodes like Gwyneth Paltrow's V-jay

WARNING:  Today's post is a tad raunchy and insensitive.  But I couldn't resist.  Sometimes a news story will come along that a comedy writer can not resist addressing.

Okay, this sounds like a joke but it’s a real thing.  Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP company sells a candle called “This Smells Like My Vagina.”  

And they say actors have huge egos and are too self-absorbed.  

I mean, the hubris of that — to put out such a product and think that enough people will want to buy it to make it profitable.  

"Thank you so much for starring in my play.  Here’s a little token of my appreciation.”

Oh, and by the way, they’re $75.  

Anyway, Gwy’s v-jay is in the news because a woman in North London bought one, lit it, and it exploded into a big fireball.  They were able to contain it, but Ms. Paltrow’s vagina almost burned down her house.   What a fun lawsuit that would’ve been.  

Here’s the story.  See?  I’m not making this up.

Despite the ridiculous price, I’m thinking of buying one just so I could call customer service and complain. 

I would say, “Excuse me, but this doesn’t smell like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina.  Certainly not the way I remembered it.  Maybe I just got a bad one.  Could you send me a replacement?  No?  Then I want my money back.  I’m sure Ms. Paltrow would not like to see a bad review in Yelp… or Rotten Tomatoes.”   I’m considering it.  Of course, you’re welcome to do it yourself.  

As absurd as a product called “This Smells Like My Vagina” is, at least it’s Gwyneth Paltrow putting it out and not Ivanka.