Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Topless table readings

Table readings are a necessary part of the production process. The cast will sit around a table and read the script aloud before putting it on its feet and beginning rehearsal. For us writers, it’s the first chance to hear what we have and what might need work. Usually we’re listening to hear whether the story works. We’re less concerned with jokes (assuming that some of them worked) at this stage of the process. The actors are not expected to give full performances at table readings. Plus, we have a full week. If, by day three we’ve just got some jokes to fix we’re in great shape.

Some reflections on memorable table readings:

The network and studio also have representatives in attendance. And usually they’ll grace us with their notes. Page after page of them. Suits must assume that if they left writers to their own devices we would never change a thing. But the truth is most of us are tougher on the material than they are. Except we have a better idea of what’s wrong and how to fix it. Yet, that doesn’t stop them from thinking they’re saving the show with suggestions that are often obvious or useless.

On one show I was showrunning we had a network executive who was terrible at notes. He was a administer, but script doctoring was not his forte. We’d have a mediocre table read and could see him approaching us. He would practically be sweating. Obviously he didn’t know what the hell to tell us but was obligated to give notes anyway. Before he could speak we'd jump in, saying: “We know. We have some work to do.” That’s all he needed to hear. Like a shot he was out of there. Then on show night he would thank us for taking his suggestions.

Actors sometimes have embarrassing moments – especially when they mispronounce words they should know but don't. One actress pronounced epitome “ep-a-tome”. Another pronounced hyperbole as "hyper-bowl".  Worse was the thirtysomething actress who referred to a famous New York neighborhood as “Green-witch Village.”

One time I was directly across the table from an attractive actress. It was summer and she was wearing a little halter top. She was so engrossed in the reading she didn’t notice that one of her breasts had popped out. I sure noticed it. I tried to silently signal her. She waved me off, essentially saying “stop bothering me during a reading.” Ohh-kay. So for the next fifteen minutes I enjoyed a delightful view. Eventually she realized it, and to her credit, just popped it back in like it was no big deal. No embarrassment, nothing. She did thank me later for trying to warn her though. I said, “oh, you’ve thanked me enough.”

Right after 9-11 we had a bomb scare at the studio during a table reading. The inspectors alerted us of the situation and advised we just stay put. He told us not to worry. It appeared to be a false alarm. That didn’t stop one of the cast members from freaking, screaming at other cast members who tried to calm him down, and then running out of the room.

One table reading was delayed when the star was late. She finally swept in and said, “Sorry I'm late. I was fucking my husband.”

On another show I co-ran, we decided to have an early table reading so we’d be done by the O.J. verdict that was expected later that morning. That proved to be a good decision. Imagine trying to be funny after that?

On Kirstie Alley’s first table reading at CHEERS she came in wearing a blond wig a la her predecessor, Shelley Long.

My partner and I got our first staff job on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW at MTM. Our first day was the table reading of a script we had written. Just before the reading, Tony stood up, announced that he had just come back from London and was so impressed with British comedies. “Compared to them, everything we have here is shit!” he proclaimed.  With that lovely introduction he neatly segued into our script.

Where you hold table readings is important. We always tried to do them in large conference rooms. Some shows do them on the stage. But laughs get lost in such a cavernous space. Better to hold the readings in close quarters where laughter can fill the room.   The SOUL TRAIN stage was not conducive for comedy it turned out. 

Big laughs at table readings can be deceiving however. Sometimes a line that worked at the table falls flat on stage. When that happens you’ve got to take out the line even if it originally got a big response. Likewise, there are jokes that are dependent on physical performance. Writers need to resist the urge to change everything just because they don’t get laughs.

There is always a crafts-services table set up in the corner with fruit, lox & bagels, Danish, etc. One of my pet peeves is that some actors will eat during table readings. They’re trying to deliver lines with their mouths full of food. You can’t understand what they’re saying, much less whether their joke works. At best they sound like Sylvester the Cat.

And you can always tell which actor read the script beforehand and which actor is just winging it, reading it for the first time.

Usually actors will give so-so table readings but after rehearsal they lock in and deliver great performances on show night. But there are a few who just have great natural instincts and will give sensational table readings. Unfortunately, as the week unfolds they start to over-analyze the script and their performance gets progressively worse.

Table readings have changed over the last few years. The original idea was that actors sit around a table and relate to each other as they read the script. But now there are so many network and studio and standards & practice people at table readings – not to mention agents, managers, and oh yeah – people who work on the show, that these conference rooms can’t hold everybody. So someone got the bright idea to set it up like a celebrity roast. Actors now sit on one side of one long table (a la a dais) in front of an audience. It’s easier and more convenient for the suits but horrible for the actors. How do you relate to someone who is sitting at the other end of the table from you? Not that the executives care.

And pilots are worse. This is how crazy things have become. A lot of studios will want to have pre-table readings before the actual table readings with the network. This was suggested before one of our pilots. We said okay but only we would be present for the pre-table reading. No studio presence. The executive then said, “Well, I want to be there, so if that’s what you want, then maybe schedule a pre-pre table reading for just you guys.”

And remember, this is just the START of the process.


Dubious said...

Topless?? Pics, or it didn't happen.

Marc Flanagan said...

I was at a table read for a pilot at Fox years ago and the actress who was playing the lead was almost 2 hours late. I wont reveal who the actress was,but when she finally showed up she ekked out the most minimal apology and then urged everyone to begin. It never recovered its downhill status. The pilot was not picked up, my guess Les Moonves made that decision 15 minutes after the call time as every 15 minutes went by, it got more -not picked up.

Dan Tedson said...

"One table reading was delayed when the star was late. She finally swept in and said, “Sorry I'm late. I was fucking my husband.”

I got a fin says that's Kirstie Alley.

And you need to make with the names in your memoirs published after your death. Or after their death. Maybe the day of.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Christopher Hitchens who passed away today. He was a genuinely nice man who added to human knowledge and the drunk who gave me the lapdance in the September 27th post."

Tim Simmons said...

Friday question: Ken, I'm confused as I've read so many different ways to sell a pilot. Some say to pitch an agent, some say to an established producer and other to a network. which would you suggest?

Brian said...

Ken, this is interesting. I would love to hear more "table reading stories" about particular episodes. Is there any video floating around of any table readings?

olucy said...

Brian, I found this on YouTube. It's 3 minutes of a table read for Community and they intermittently show the actual footage in split screen, too, which is nice.

chuckcd said...

That just shows how funny Kirstie Alley is. Love that!

Mike said...

Tony Randall on British comedy: “Compared to them, everything we have here is shit!”
Fair play to Tone, he's not wrong.
And we don't have writers' rooms.
Imagine if we were all employed writing comedies.

And what is it with writers' rooms? Is there an ancient Union regulation that says: "Thou shalt employ at least half a dozen writers on a show to shorten the welfare lines."

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, just curious -- I remember seeing a long conference table down the hallway from Kelsey's office where the hall widened into an elongated room, and a side doorway opened into Stage 25. Is that where the CHEERS and FRASIER table readings took place, or were they also done down on the stage, like a lot of other shows?

Mike said...

Since you've been bragging about being a comic book artist, Mark Evanier's going to pester you to tell him all about it. And then post it on his blog.

Hedrick Nippoli said...

Too bad there were no camera-phones during the topless episode!

Johnny Walker said...

You and Earl Pomerantz are apparently in sync. His post today also featured table readings. Link: "My Last Job Ever In Network Television"

John said...

Worse was the thirtysomething actress who referred to a famous New York neighborhood as “Green-witch Village.”

This would have worked if she had been at a table reading for Woody Allen's "Sleeper".

Lyle said...
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Lyle said...
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Paul Dushkind said...

You worked onThe Tony Randall Show? You sure have improved.

Some English comedies are junk.

sinip said...

Most US comedies nowadays are definitely junk. :)

Roger Owen Green said...

Ken - What was the second sentence supposed to be:
On one show I was showrunning we had a network executive who was terrible at notes. He was a administer, but script doctoring was not his forte.

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