Friday, June 25, 2010

What to avoid in an agent

It’s Friday Question Day. I’m thinking of starting a restaurant -- TGIFridayQD. What do you think?

Dana Gabbard gets us started:

What should a newcomer look for in an agent? And what should raise alarm bells to avoid one?

I’ll answer the second part first. It’s hard for new writers to be choosy. Getting any agent is not easy. But if the agent wants money from you up front, if the agent wants you to take off your clothes, if the agent says he has an in on THE MUNSTERS, if his mailing address is Chino prison, or he’s not a WGA signatory I would avoid him.

Assuming you’re in the lucky position that more than one agent wants to represent you, see which one seems more eager, more willing to work for you. See which agent is more connected in the business, has the most contacts. See how many other clients he has. How much time will he have for you?

Get out your bullshit detector. Try to determine which agent is being more honest. Are his promises realistic? “I can get you in a room with the story editor of MODERN FAMILY” is realistic. “I can get you in a room with Spielberg” is not.

From David (not Isaacs):

Do you have a favorite Cheers season as a whole? One you think is the strongest from the first to last episode?

The first season. I would put the first season of CHEERS up against the best season of any sitcom. It’s rare that a first season would be the best. Usually a sitcom needs a season or two to really find its groove. But CHEERS had such great texture, sexual chemistry, and inspired writing by the Charles Brothers that it came out of the gate blazing.

Also, Shelley was amazing that season.

I remember being on the stage the night we shot the season finale – the episode where Sam & Diane finally kiss. The audience went absolutely insane. I turned to my partner David and said, “We’ve peaked. There’s nothing we can ever do with these characters that will elicit that kind of reaction again.”

I was right.

Some of the funniest and best individual episodes of the series took place in subsequent seasons but on the whole, nothing compared with year one. And of course, our ratings were never worse than they were year one.

Ironically, another show that I thought had its best season right at the very beginning of its long run was FRASIER.

Dawn Marie wants to know:

Have you ever done any DVD commentary tracks for any of your shows? And of course, if so which ones so I can rent them? Also, do you ever listen to DVD commentaries? What do you think of them, in general (given that the quality does vary)?

Yes, David and I did commentary tracks on our two SIMPSONS episodes – “Dancin’ Homer” and “Saturdays of Thunder”. Both are rent or buyable.

I listen to DVD commentaries sometimes but rarely find them insightful. Usually they’re just directors pointing out exactly what you’re seeing. “There I thought he should duck behind that car.” Wow! Who needs film school? Actor tracks tend to be the worst. They just joke around with each other, offering nothing, and you making you feel excluded.

You guys tell me, what are some great director commentary tracks?

And finally, two questions from Timothy:

First, whats the deal with the unseen announcer on MASH? Why wasn't it a regular character (like Radar or Klinger)? They even had those characters doing announcements from time to time.

The concept was taken from the movie. I think it just added to the strangeness of the place. I liked it actually.

My second question goes along with your failures theater. I recently stumbled across "The Fighting Nightingales", but could only find some archived reviews from obscure websites that told very little. Do you know anything more about it?

It was CBS and 20th’s attempt to do a female MASH. Sort of the like THE GIRL FROM UNCLE but with the Korean War. The Fighting Nightingales were MASH nurses. It starred large-breasted Adrienne Barbeau. Don’t remember her name on the show but if Alan Alda was “Hawkeye” she could have been “Twin Peaks”.

The pilot aired once and was a casualty of television war.

What’s your question?


Screwtape said...

You guys tell me, what are some great director commentary tracks?

Anything by Werner Herzog.

emily said...

Adrienne Barbeau played Major Kate Steele.

Anonymous said...

You guys tell me, what are some great director commentary tracks?

I agree, I find director commentary tracks not terribly interesting or insightful most of the time, unless they're hyphenates.

On the DVD of the horror film Ginger Snaps, screenwriter Karen Walton has a separate commentary track from the director, and there are separate writer and director commentary tracks for the deleted scenes too, which gave me great insight to the characters, their origins, motivations, and so on, useful insight into the process.

Many of the Stargate TV shows on DVD include commentary tracks by the writers.

Emily Blake said...

Joss Whedon does great commentary. He talks about why he made every decision. His best commentary is for "The Body" episode.

I also love the commentary on the Farscape episode for "Jeremiah Chrighton" because the actors and the director talk about why the episode was so freaking terrible. A lot of the commentaries for Farscape are good because Ben Browder has a memory like a steel trap.

rob! said...

Richard Donner is so good at commentary tracks I would buy movies of his I don't even like just to hear him talk.

If you pair him up with his frequent screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, even better.

Alex S. said...

I prefer when they get third parties to provide comment. I don't watch DVD extras much any more (almost all my viewing is through Netflix streaming these days) but back in the day I really liked two of Roger Ebert's: Citizen Kane and Dark City.

Dudleys Mom said...

Second the Joss Whedon suggestion, for his "Firefly" series. Also: the movie "Frida" (a lot about reflecting the period and the art, especially on a super-tight budget), and the series "The Shield" has lots of great commentary, including commentary from people in charge of casting and other folks you usually don't hear from. Also, Ron Moore's podcasts about "Battlestar Galactica" (complete with sound effects of Scotch drinking, cigars, and his wife wandering in), which sometimes are amazingly honest about things he thinks DIDN'T work.

I do NOT recommend the podcasts/commentary on Veronica Mars Season 3, which made me want to hurt someone, bad.

Mr. Snrub said...

A couple of director commentary tracks I liked were Christopher Guest/Eugene Levy for Waiting for Guffman. Mainly because they really talked about how the movie was formed, what great discoveries they made during the process and, honestly, they're just funnier than shit.

All of the Terry Jones commentaries on the Python films are insightful as well.

Unknown said...

Leonard Nimoy's commentary on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was great because he had so much insight into what he had to do with such a limited budget for such a blockbuster movie and franchise.

Hats Bagelman said...

You guys tell me, what are some great director commentary tracks?

Anything by Soderberg is usually really insightful, but the commentary he did on the Limey was phenomenal. He and the screenwriter (Lem Dobbs) spend a good amount of time arguing over Soderberg's unusual handling of the material. It's the rare commentary that's really insightful, entertaining, and kind of thrilling when you're worried that Lem might punch Soderberg.

Jen said...

I actually prefer the commentaries where the director and cast are together. I find they end up talking about more things that I'm interested in. A lot of director's commentaries are fairly boring (Francis Ford Coppola, I'm looking at you).

I actually really enjoyed the commentaries on The Karate Kid - director, writer, two main cast members together doing the commentary. I feel like that's a good recipe to get some different perspectives.

Bob Claster said...

All of the commentary tracks on the DVDs of the LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN TV Series are terrific. It's a brilliant show anyway, and so filled with inside jokes and references it's helpful to have them explained. Since the cast members are also the writers of the show, there's a lot to say, not just about the production of the series, but also about the creation and inspiration involved.

Commentary tracks can often be disappointing. I'm always surprised at how unfunny the tracks for the funniest comedies can be. Cases in point: AIRPLANE! and BLAZING SADDLES. Can't imagine Mel Brooks going for 90 minutes without being funny? Check it out.

erika said...

When I was a kid I watched The Rock's commentary on The Scorpion King and thought he was really funny.

Tom said...

Francis Ford Coppola's commentary for "The Conversation." I believe he recorded it for a 20th anniversary release. Not a wasted word, incredible insights... what I imagine a great film school class might be like.

Also recommended: Roger Ebert's commentary on Citizen Kane, and the best use of a commentary track I've ever heard: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean (sp?) and Harry Shearer in character on This Is Spinal Tap.

Janice said...

The commentary track of Sideways gave me more laughs than I've had in years. The director is not involved, but listening in on lead actors Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti with their self-deprecating humor makes for a great evening.

Blaze said...

Well, perhaps I'd best have a second look at my DVD collection. I gave up on DVD Extras (commentaries, scenes, whatever) years ago as useless fluff.

Scenes that were cut, and surprise-surprise, should have been cut. Rambling commentaries about how bitchin' the sandwiches on the craft service table were during that production. Mumblings from someone who is apparently talking in to the mike for a cheque and has no particularly sharp memories of the show.

I did experience one good commentary for "Bubba Ho-tep". Bruce Campbell and Don Coscarelli offered both wit and insight on the struggles of making this low-budget classic.

Dzof said...

I particularly enjoyed Cameron Crowe's commentary on his semi-autobiographical Almost Famous that he did with his mum.

Anonymous said...

I liked Carrie Fisher's commentary on "Postcards from the Edge" a lot. Not a director, I know.

Garry Marshall's also pretty fun. He just goes nonstop.

Avoid Rob Reiner. I was so disappointed in his commentary on "When Harry Met Sally."


C. A. Bridges said...

Thirding (forthing?) Joss Whedon. And the Kevin Smith/Scott Mosier commentary on "Roadhouse," a movie they had absolutely nothing to do with.

In a class by itself: commentary for Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" which included the entire cast and writers performing a whole other show: an additional musical which parodied DVD commentaries while still referring to the original show at the appropriate times. Amazing and hilarious.

Rinaldo said...

Anthony Mingella's commentary on The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's so well prepared and so insightful, it really is like going to film school.

In the archival area, I'll also put in a good word for the Call Me Madam commentary by musical-theater historian Miles Krueger. His first DVD commentary (and I can't remember which film that was) was haphazard and unhelpful, but he must have listened to his own work and resolved to do better next time: For CMM he's impeccably researched and timed, has all the background on everybody, knows the source and story behind everything, and has stories ready for times (during musical numbers) when there's nothing new to say about what we're seeing.

gottacook said...

Just last night I heard Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time commentary track, done together with Malcolm McDowell. Very laid back, with many insights into the decisions confronting a then-novice director; a mixture of pride and regret concerning the finished film. Leavening the director's commentary (or, in this case, the writer/director) with that of one of the actors is much more palatable than listening to the director alone, in my opinion.

I know the movie pretty well and actually listened to this commentary track online (while doing something else) at

Chris Riesbeck said...

The commentaries for the original Futurama episodes are worth listening to, but that's because (1) the series had a lot of hidden jokes to annotate, and (2) the commentaries were done by the creators and voice talent hanging out together, and they clearly loved talking about the show.

Matt said...

Rowdy Herrington's commentary on the Road House DVD is definitely worth a listen.

Bob Gassel said...

The most entertaining commentary track I've ever heard is from "This Is Spinal Tap" with Guest, Shearer and McKean in's almost like getting another Spinal Tap movie.

The three also did another commentary track for the film as themselves a few years earlier, on the long out-of-print Critereon disc..this is wildly entertaining too, as well as hugely informative.

palmtree said...

It's maybe mostly for people with an interest already in the subject matter, but Perry Henzells commentary on The Harder The Come is a rambling ,fascinating discourse on Jamaican culture, going beyond just talking about the film itself.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

The commentary that Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church did for "Sideways" is as fun as watching the movie. Priceless banter.

Unknown said...

This might sound pretty strange but the best commentary tracks I've ever listened to were those of the "Survivor" DVDs. It might be because Seasons 2 (with Colby Donaldson) and 8 (Pearl Islands, the Rupert Season where Sandra Diaz Twine won her first time) had the best contenders, which was underlined when they had their 20th season with all the best players from those seasons and others. The way Jeff Probst and Colby Donaldson talk about the couple of episodes as well as Rupert and Sandra talking about what they did on the show is a really long version of the Reunion show they do for each season without the crappy parts.

I usually only buy DVDs for the bonus features, it's a shame that "Frasier" has none at all (sold the first edition box sets because of that and waited for the discounted "all seasons in one" set because it was cheap enough to make that acceptable).

I know it sounds idiotic but the "Dawson's Creek" commentary was also nice, especially for the first season. Of course I could add Buffy and Firefly to the list but those were already mentioned.

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Great commentary tracks - James Cameron and Bill Wisher on Terminator 2

Writers Ron Moore and Brannon Braga on Star Trek: Generations.

Joss Whedon on the Buffy episode: Once More with Feeling

Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz on Superman

Branch Rickey said...

The commentary that Gary Coleman did for "The Jackie Robinson Story" is beyond brilliant.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Acutally I think the last season of Frasier deserves a mention as well.

For me the About A Boy commentary was one of the most interesting I have ever seen. The worst ever is the director's commentary of the old version of the complete Fawlty Towers. It features no John Cleese and huge stretches of the director, who is now old and probably overweight wheazing and puffing for air while seeing the episodes he directed for the first time in years. I newer mre recent version has commentary by Cleese, but I am hesitant to buy it just for that.

Thomas M. said...

For me one of the most eye opening commentary tracks was Ben Stiller's on 'Zoolander'. It's not the greatest commentary track I've ever heard but it was the first time I realized how bloody hard making a comedy is.

(My first comment btw, love the blog. I'm backtracking through the archives. It's great fun)

Mary Stella said...

Joss Whedon does great commentary. He talks about why he made every decision. His best commentary is for "The Body" episode.

I'll have to Netflix Buffy just to hear Joss Whedon comment. (Although I'll certainly love watching the series again.) I'd love to hear what he has to say about Hush or Once More with Feeling.

I just realized that Buffy is the only series where I actually know names of some of the episodes instead of saying, "You know, the episode where there's no spoken dialogue for half the show" or "The one where they sing".

wv=disseusl -- When someone proclaims they do not like Green Eggs and Ham.

Mark said...

That first season of Cheers was indeed spectacular--and it was obvious from the jump. Those were the early days of VCRs, when tape cost something like $17 each, but I faithfully taped every episode of that first season (still have it--as well as the DVD!), in large part because I was scared to death that NBC would cancel the show. Every episode was a gem.

tb said...

So bad it's a must-see: DIrector John McNaughton on "Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer"
He is so jacked on coke I can't believe they used it, never seen anything like it

Dawn Marie said...

I liked most of the commentary on "Deadwood" though it is true that sometimes the actors just got silly. Timothy Olyphant, I'm talking to you. (Really, I wish I were.) David Simon on 'The Wire' is also good.

My favorite movie commentary is on Ang Lee's 'Sense and Sensibility'. There is one track with Ang Lee and James Shamus, and another with Emma Thompson. Both Thompson and Shamus started out with pretty good deadpan jokes about the Columbia logo. Shamus - 'I forgot Annette Bening was in this movie.' As it goes on though, they all give a lot of insights into the various production choices. I got a lot out of it, anyway.

I listen to a lot of these things. Basically, if I would give the movie or TV show more than 3 stars, I listen to at least a little of the commentary. I've listened to a lot of them mentioned here and agree with the posts, especially about 'Sideways'. The commentary was better than the movie.

Ben K. said...

Seeing as "The Simpsons" is still around and looks to continue indefinitely, do they ever call some of the great writers from the earlier seasons and ask them to write a new episode or two? (Yes, I'm one of those people who thought that seasons 3-8 were the best of the series, not to mention the best seasons of any TV comedy ever.)

dbblg said...

Zemeckis/Gale/Russell commentary on Used Cars. Entertaining, and also eye-opening on how they did stunts, etc., before CGI or even camera monitors.

D.M. LaBarge, Esq. said...

I would agree with the Soderbergh comment. I really liked his commentary with James Cameron on Solaris - very different kinds of directors, but also very independently minded and compatible. Lots of fascinating discussion about editing and science and Soderbergh's obsession with fonts.

Coppola gives good commentary as well. And Ebert was terrific.

M said...

You guys tell me, what are some great director commentary tracks?

Ridley Scott's commentary on Alien is absolutely worth renting or buying. Easily the most interesting and informative commentary I've come across.

Unknown said...

Besides seconding any commentary by Whedon and the Spinal Tap crew, I also recommend Cronenberg's History of Violence commentary.

Nino Mojo said...

+1 for Joss Whedon, especially on Serenity and Firefly episode "Out of Gas" (one of my favorire episode for any series ever). He really explains well why he does thing or why and how he edited or cut certain shots to make for better story telling. Which is helpful for beginners like me, it puts you in the shoes of the director and explains in a very concrete manner what characters and story are about.

Anonymous said...

For commentary tracks, I recommend Jon Avnet's producer commentary for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." The story behind the story on this movie was really unusual, and the fact that the film even got made is amazing. Avnet walks the viewer through the entire process, totally championing the director the entire way. Ironically, it's a hundred times more interesting than the director's commentary on the same disc.

D. McEwan said...

My first choices, Roger Ebert's Citizen Kane commentary and the hilarious one on This is Spinal Tap have already received multitple recomendations here.

On Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness they had Sir Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, and Francis Matthews, the surviving stars of the film, watch it together, all seeing it for the first time in decades, and while it's not particularly insightful, it is like having them over to watch it with you, only they're invisible, and never need to use your bathroom, so it's great fun, and Sir Christopher can lecture with erudition on almost anything!

(Similarly, the commentaries with Sir Christopher on thr Lord of the Rings movies are great company, while the director tracks are pretty good on why decisions were made. The ones with the techie guys depends on how interested you are in the nuts and bolts of the special effects.)

Similarly, on commentaries done by Charles Busch, both on his own films, Psycho Beach Party and Die! Mommie! Die!, and on other people's films, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and The Bad Seed, it's like having Charles over to watch the film with you, and he's always such charming, fun company that the commentaries are highly enjoyable.

There's a gay porn movie called The Joint (it's a prison movie, not about pot) with a commentary track that amused the hell out of me. No, it's not insightful, and is mostly just the usual self-congratulatory crap, but along with the director and the producer, they had the star, Zak Spears(mmmmm), seeing the final cut for the first time, and you get comments from him you seldom hear on commentary tracks, like "Wow! I've just popped a boner here in the recording room. This scene is hot!" I had to love that.

Well from Ebert on Orson welles, to Zak Spears getting erections watching his own work, I think I've run the gamut here.

Anonymous said...

I did like Terry Gilliam's commentary for Brazil. I have a feeling though, that it was the last movie of his he 100% loved.

Mark Evanier said...

Best commentary track I've ever heard: Mike Nichols on CATCH-22.

Eric Wheeler said...

Ken, I would like to thank you for your inspiration for my new blog. I am a faithful follower of you on google reader and like when you talk about Failure Theater (as you dub it). It got me thinking how many unaired pilots are floating around the internet. Today I launched my new blog which is unaired pilot episodes of television show. BTW do you have a digital copy of Snobs? I would like to feature Snobs on my blog.

Unknown said...

I second what Chris Riesbeck said. David X. Cohen takes over the leadership on the commentary, and on many episodes, it's like watching brand new show.

I don't think it would have worked as well without having a lot of the role players involved (as Chris mentions), but Cohen takes it over the top because he's just so good at pulling those extra cast members in at just the right moment.

Watching the Futurama commentary is a completely different experience from watching any other DVD commentary (or watching the same episode without commentary). In every single episode, you learn more about the overarching series.

Howard Hoffman said...

Seconding Janice: The commentary of Sideways is incredible fun.

Tim W. said...

I'm apparently a little late to this, but there are only two commentaries I've ever listened to more than once. Good Will Hunting, with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Gus Van Sant as well as The Usual Suspects with Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. Both were often hilarious, candid and incredibly insightful. Coincidentally, both involve the director AND writer(s).

I find the best commentaries involve 2 or 3 people, and more, and you can't figure out who's talking, and if it's only one person, it can end up being pretty boring. With 2 or 3, you feel like you're listening in on a conversation.

Vermonter17032 said...

The first season of Cheers was the best. I think in part because the focus was entirely on the bar and, even though the Sam and Diane romance was the center piece, outsiders added stories. Among my favorites is the episode with Buzz the WWI vet and Kevin the soon to be priest.

LouOCNY said...

The 'commentary' by ZAZ during Airplane! is pretty hilarious.....

Also Mel on Blazing Saddles is less commentary than an movie length Mel performance,,,,

A_Homer said...

On the "Popeye" cartoon DVD anthology that came out (yes, it is great) a while ago, and took quite some time to remaster and so on, there were the recognizable names of cartoon historians and the like doing commentary tracks, and then on one or two of the more interesting cartoons, there was John K. (of Ren and Stimpy fame) and some woman, whose credit was next to nothing in the field, and who managed to basically giggle uncontrollably throughout.

If you can imagine the people / historians / animators etc.. who could have instead commented on this wonderful release, and then instead you get giggling throughout the length of one of the longer duration Popeye classics, it's really possible to feel not only cheated and angry, but that there is a far too head-up-their-ass mentality among the animation crowd today.

James Blight said...

Great commentaries:

I know it's redundant, but yes again, Joss Whedon. (One think you might appreciate about Buffy, Ken, is that it was the first show I watched that took the initiative to make its writers the forefront of its fan culture.)

Dudleys Mom also brought up "The Shield," my pick for the greatest character-based TV show ever, not to mention the most successful at tying the entire series into a united single story. ("The Shield" must be distinguished from "The Wire," as its macrocosm puts it into a different class altogether. Which makes me think I really need to check out a David Simon commentary. But I digress.) The showrunner, Shawn Ryan, comes into the sessions planned, knows how to keep the conversations rolling, and can play with the dynamics of actors and directors. The commentary for the fifth season finale, "Post Partum," is my favorite.

Kenneth Johnson, the showrunner for "The Incredible Hulk" (NOT the actor ON "The Shield"), did a great duet of commentaries for the Pilot and the second season premiere, "Married," which were impressive considering they were recorded about 25 years after the episodes aired. They interchanged little vignettes, technical issues, origins of starting up a series, all intertwined under the main thrust as a biography and tribute to the late Bill Bixby.

Hmmm. This may proof Gmajor's point about hyphenates.

(By the way, folks, thanks for some great suggestions -- I never got around to listening to the Spinal Tap commentary. Considering my reverence for Christopher Guest, I'm actually surprised by this.)

Jose Ponce said...

Here's my question, Ken:

I was watching a first season episode of "30 Rock" and saw Tracey Morgan portray "Frasier" as "Black Frasier". The interesting thing was that the Frasier set was being used (right to the artpieces, the Chihuly, and Martin's chair) -- or was it? Does the original Frasier apartment exist today or was the one used a near perfect duplicate (the Chanel couch and the coffee table was replaced with cheap, IKEA like decor)?

Joe Pontillo said...

Check out the commentary track on Ghostbusters. It's one of the most informative and entertaining I can recall... and they added MST3K-like silhouettes while you watch the commentary.

I think commentaries are better in general when they're recorded years after the movie was released. Unfortunately, that stopped happening as soon as DVD became the dominant home video format

Edward Copeland said...

The one director who always gave great commentary tracks was Robert Altman and though I loved his work, I still never understand why he thought M*A*S*H the TV show was racist.

-bee said...

The most memorable commentary for me was from the actor who played Mark Antony in "Rome", James Purefoy. He clearly came to his recording session PREPARED with interesting info on his character and the time period and was able to integrate it into the episode in an entertaining way.

I found this really surprising, usually actors aren't the best commentators, but this guy is one smart cookie.

D. McEwan said...

Speaking of lousy commentaries, last night I listened to the commentary track on the pilot episode of Knot's Landing. It was just Joan Van Ark and Ted Shakleford laughing at their own hair and clothes from 1979. We learned that they shot it in March and it was cold. What a revelation. They broke up over Joan's line, in re: getting Bobby Ewing to the airport: "Did Bobby get off all right?" and then said how no one ever got the joke but them, although it had made me laugh when I'd watched it without commentary. Over an establishing shot, Joan asked: "Is that Palos Verdes?"

"I have no idea," Ted informatively replied.

Meanwhile, I'm shouting at the TV: "YES, IT'S PALOS VERDES!" I should know. I grew up there, and the street in the shot is the one my school bus took me down in the morning and up at night every day the year I was in 6th grade. Later, during a scene shot at Torrance Beach, Ted asked: "Is that Manhattan Beach?" Joan, who was in the scene, didn't know. It's not. Manhattan Beach is ten miles north of it. I know. My grandmother's house was in the background of the shot.

If I know more than the commenters, what's the point of listening?

Which brings me to Leonard Maltin's bone-headed commentary track for A Night at the Opera. Oh, he provides lots of info, if you can trust him. During the departing-ocean-liner scene (with the song Alone) Leonard says how he'd always heard that The Marx Brothers' father, Sam "Frenchy" Marx, was in that scene, but he'd never been able to spot him.

Well of course not, given that A Night at the Opera was shot in 1935, and Frenchy Marx died in 1933. He can be clearly seen in the ship-unloads scene in Monkey Business, and if Maltin didn't know that, as clearly he didn't, he wasn't qualified to do the commentary track. They're useless if I already know more about the films than the commenters do. (But then, I always find Maltin fatuous and annoying.)

D. McEwan said...

PS. An amusing sidelight to knowning Southern California's geography is that in watching that opening scene of the Knot's Landing pilot, and noting the car (supposedly being driven by Sid Fairgate) is driving through Palos Verdes, above Malaga Cove, and then cuts to it arriving at the cul-de-sac, which was and remains in Granada Hills, I can't help being aware that during that cut, Sid had driven about 40 miles.

Tom Wolper said...

The best commentary track I've heard is Jim and Marilyn Lovell doing commentary for Apollo 13. There's also a director's commentary by Ron Howard, which I didn't watch, but having Jim Lovell talk you through the whole Apollo 13 experience adds a new dimension to the film. It's a completely different experience than watching the film without commentary.

I also recommend Soderbergh's commentary. I've read his book, Getting Away With It, and he has a very conscious approach to directing - it's almost as if he's thinking about how to explain his decisions as he makes them. So it doesn't take much effort from him to recall his decision process and what he was trying to bring to the film.

Another commentary I highly recommend is the one to the Kino Video DVD of Metropolis. That movie got hacked to shreds before its US theatrical release and the Kino version is a much more complete movie. As it's a silent movie, playing the commentary track doesn't interfere with watching the movie.

A commentary I found interesting was the one from the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. The commentary track is done by director Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer. What I found interesting is that unlike commentaries where the participants flatter each other, Meyer openly questions some of Wise's directorial decisions.

jb said...

Seconding the notion upthread that "Deadwood" commentaries are pretty good, all but Timothy Olyphant's. When David Milch talks about his shows (such as "Deadwood" and "NYPD Blue"), I'll listen, because the way the guy's mind works is fascinating to me.

Steely Dan said...

Do you think that movies and television are two distinct mediums?

The great strength of television was always its serialization--the ability to tell long-form stories over the course of many, many hours.

The advantage that movies had was the better production values (because of more time and more money) which allowed for more (and better) visual storytelling.

But 1) as TV production values have gone up in recent years (since "Twin Peaks" I would argue), and 2) since movies tend to take sequels much more seriously these days (less of just a blatant cash grab and more an opportunity to legitimately develop the story and characters ("Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" for instance), and 3) since people's home theatre systems and the advent of TV on DVD allow audiences to watch movies and TV interchangeably, I'm wondering if that line is disappearing and in a decade or so there will be no distinction at all between the two.

Anonymous said...

I long ago gave up on commentary tracks; most of them are a worthless waste of time. However, I recollect that Robert Rodriguez did some interesting commentary on the El Mariachi and Desperado double DVD mostly involving how to film on the cheap.

I'd like to second the recommendation for the Farscape commentaries. Without exception everyone of them are keenly insightful, whether it's the actors talking about their characters, the writers talking about the story, the director talking about their filming decisions, or the producer talking about running the show. It's clear that everybody involved knew their business.

Roger Ebert's commentary on Dark City are instructive, but he's merely a film critic. On the other hand, the commentary demonstrates that he really knows a lot about what's on the screen.

These are the ones that for me seemed like mini-film schools, and most definitely worth the time I spent on them.

Adrienne Barbeau said...

Boy, I starred in it, Ken, and I couldn't even remember my character's name. Thanks, Emily...

Kelle Leonard said...

I have to back wolferiver up and expand upon it. Robert Rodriguez does what I believe are the best commentaries for anyone interested in film. It truly breaks down the making of the film, which is what commentary should be. On top of that he has his short film school bonus features that add to it. And he has his book, Rebel Without A Crew, the production diary he kept while preparing for, making, and shopping El Mariachi. Nothing tops that.

Brian said...

Hi Ken,
What show past or present would you have loved to have writen for and is there a show you would turn down?(if you were fortunately enough to be able to turn down work).

Cedric Hohnstadt said...

I'm not a writer but I found the the writer's commentary on the first "Pirate's of the Caribbean" movie to be fascinating and very educational.

I've also learned a lot from Ron Howard's commenataries.

And, as others have noted, Roger Ebert's "Citizen Kane" commentary is excellent.

D. McEwan said...

"wolferiver said...
Roger Ebert's commentary on Dark City are instructive, but he's merely a film critic.

Yeah. what does a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who's devoted a lifetime to the study of film know about movies anyway?

danrydell said...

Sometimes the goofier commentary tracks are the best. On "Anchorman," Lou Rawls stops by for about 10 minutes.

On "Tropic of Thunder," Rober Downey Jr. stays in character through the whole thing.

Dana Gabbard said...

"there is a far too head-up-their-ass mentality among the animation crowd today."

A Homer, that is the fault of clueless marketing people. We animation fans know better and are just as displeased.

At Comic Con a few years ago the folks doing the Popeye DVD wasted a panel on it by placing on it two folks who could only offer "Yeah, I liked Popeye" who obviously had been placed on it to generate buzz for some no-name "hot" new show that the marketibng people thought they could promote hitching to the Popeye release. Thankfully Tom Hatten was there for a touch of reality. Plus they didn't even show us two seconds from the product. Stupid!

Good Dog said...

Starting with The Duellists, all of Ridley Scott's DVD commentaries are basically film school on a disc.

Nathan said...

A second thumbs down for commentary by ROB REINER.

I tried to get through his commentaries for "A FEW GOOD MEN" and "THE PRINCESS BRIDE". What a disappointment. Non-commentary would be more accurate. For not only does he sometimes simply describe what you're seeing onscreen...

...he actually sits there and watches his own movie - in silence - for long, inexplicable stretches.

So much for the "auteur" theory.

selection7 said...

I was lucky enough that the first commentary I ever watched was "Sum of All Fears". The director specifically talked about tough decisions and tricks employed to achieve some goal, and best of all, Tom Clancy hilariously spent most of the movie criticizing the movie.

I was hooked. Too bad I've figured out since that a lot of commentaries are just what others have mentioned, stating exactly what's on the screen (or worse, ignoring the movie while carrying on mundane banter--though truly entertaining banter is ok) or praising everything like it's going to increase their chances of an award nomination.

The Count of Monte Cristo (Kevin Reynolds) is another good commentary not mentioned yet.

Brian Phillips said...

Three commentaries of note:

"The Incredibles"
"The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai"

All of these have, in some form or fashion, visual commentaries, so if you have seen the episode/movie x number of times, you can read what is being said (in the case of "The Incredibles", the others don't have a voice to match the captions), without having to kill the original soundtrack.

This is very helpful for the hearing-impaired.

In defense of Rob Reiner, a key to the poor quality of his aforementioned commentaries is given in his commentary for the Criterion version of "This is Spinal Tap", which is better for extras, save the in-character remarks of the band. One of the first things he says is, "I don't much care for this kind of thing, because it's like a magician revealing how each trick is done". To his credit, his commentary on TIST is very good as is the actors' commentary (out of character).

Brian Phillips said...

Completely on the other end of the scale, here is why Harlan Ellison adamantly is NOT on any extras of "Babylon 5".

D. McEwan said...

The answer to Harlan's absence on some DVDs is simple: "MONEY.

Watch Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a great documentary about Harlan. He rails in typical Harlan fashion at one point about a DVD outfit that wanted him to work free (nasty word to Harlan), and then didn't even send him the finished DVD.