Wednesday, August 07, 2013

What I learned from Tony Bennett

When writers start out they generally emulate someone they admire. When my partner, David Isaacs and I started out our first spec script was a pilot. To inspire us at the start of each writing session we listened to the Woody Allen stand-up album. Big surprise that our pilot came out sounding like a bad Woody Allen script.

The trap of course is to not become a clone. How many Tarantino clones are out there? Or Judd Apatow clones?

Same is true in broadcasting. Listen to minor league announcers and you hear a lot of Vin Scully mimics. In basketball, Marv Albert is the one to imitate.

But eventually you have to grow out of that and find your own voice. Take away some lessons but chart your own course.

Tony Bennett was discussing this subject recently in an interview with the Los Angeles Times and said the most fascinating thing. When he was studying singing at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts a professor told him, don’t emulate another singer – emulate an instrument. I thought that was brilliant. You get the emotion and the interpretation without the comparison of another voice. He said jazz pianist Art Tatum was one of his big influences.

Here’s Tony from that interview:

I always loved the jazz pianist Art Tatum, who would build his performance — he would move in and out of the melody — and it would create a very interesting presentation. At the time all the singers — Sinatra, Dick Haymes — would sing what I call a "sweet, straight line," so I established a style where I would change my phrasing or end with a big finish to a song and I was able to create my own style.

God bless him and happy 87th birthday, Tony.  

Writers often speak of dialogue as music. There is a rhythm and flow. There are emotions expressed that aren’t in the specific words. The goal is to understand writers, not copy them.

To this day I'll get stuck and think "What would Larry Gelbart do?"  Or "What would Jim Brooks do?"  I'm not thinking "What would they say?"  But how would they attack this problem?   They might avoid sentimentality.  They might find an unexpected attitude that is still consistent with the character but surprising.  They might search for a clever device.   But the device itself, and the attitude, and the jokes and dialogue are all mine.  The sensibility is mine.  The characters are mine.  Just the musical score is theirs. 

So to sum up:  It’s not just pictures -- Maybe notes are also worth a thousand words.

BONUS: From our "Dancin' Homer" episode of THE SIMPSONS


Roger Owen Green said...

Great piece. I saw TB with Diana Krall opening, maybe a decade ago at Tanglewood.

VP81955 said...

Excellent point. As a baseball announcer, I might want to adapt some elements of Vin Scully or Ernie Harwell or Harry Kalas, but it wouldn't do me any good unless I could do it within my own context.

Incidentally, Bennett's not the first great vocalist to learn to emulate an instrument. Frank Sinatra learned note control while working for Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, and Bing Crosby always credited both Louis Armstrong's instrumental and vocal work as influences on his style.

Michael said...

Ken, in your book, you refer to The Vin influencing your storytelling. And I think of one of his lines. He said that when he started out, Red Barber told him that he brings into the booth one thing that no one else can. What is that, Vin asked? Red said, "Yourself." He told Vin not to listen to other announcers, not because he couldn't learn from them, but so that he didn't "water his wine." It seems to have worked out for Young Scully.

J. Allison said...

Sometimes I think about the ovation Vinny is going to get when he finally steps down and they honor him at Dodger Stadium. They may not be able to get the game in that night. I can't think of anyone who is as beloved as Vin Scully. Laker fans loved Chick Hearn, but frankly Chick was losing it late in his career. Vin is still bringing it. Since he typically doesn't travel to road games you get frequent chances to compare Vin-announced games with non-Vin-announced games. The dropoff is significant. And from everything I hear he's an even better person than he is an announcer.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

It works between instruments, too. I often say that I learned an enormous amount about banjo playing from emulating the way a particular guitarist tackled the same problems.

(MP3s on my web site. Don't ask...!)

DougJ said...

I just re-watched the Dancing Homer episode of the Simpsons and wondered if Tony Bennett ever performs Capitol City during his shows.

Hamid said...

Excellent post.

I greatly admire Daniel Waters' way with dialogue. There's a baroque and caustically witty edge to his dialogue which I don't copy but reflect on how he might attack an exchange between two characters. Case in point - as much as I enjoyed the Dark Knight trilogy, I never felt there was a single line of dialogue to rival any of the gems from Batman Returns (I'll concede Heath Ledger's Joker had some great lines).

Although screenplay credit is shared between Waters and Wesley Strick, the funniest and sharpest lines are reminiscent of Waters' writing in Heathers.

Returns is eminently quotable, much of it from the Penguin."Actually, this is all just a bad dream. You're at home, in bed, heavily sedated, resting comfortably, dying from the carcinogens you personally spewed in a lifetime of profiteering. Tragic irony or poetic justice, you tell me."

Christopher Walken's Max Shreck: "Who'd have thought Selina Kyle had a brain to damage. Bottom line, she tries to blackmail me, I'll drop her out a higher window."

But my personal favourite by the Penguin and one of the greatest insult lines ever: "Right now, my troops are fanning out across town for your children. Yes, for your first born sons. The one you left defenseless at home so you could dress up like jerks, get juiced, and dance... badly".

YEKIMI said...

No wonder my singing career went nowhere. Guess my chosen instrument shouldn't have been a kazoo.

Tod Hunter said...

All his life, Billy Wilder had a sign on his office wall that said


It never hurts to remember that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants.


Johnny Walker said...

I was just thinking how my writing are lacks strong characterization. That little sketch about Hollywood wanting a fresh new version of exactly the same tired thing was drawn into sharp contrast by how well Ken embodied those trolls in yesterday's post.

It then struck me how trying to embody a character requires a lot of self-confidence, or at least being prepared to expose your inner self. Every choice you make about a character reveals something about you, and how you see other people. It's actually quite scary.

This is pretty basic stuff compared to what you're talking about today, Ken, but I'd love to know if you have any tips.

canda said...

My only complaint with Vin Scully now is that the storytelling has completely taken over the broadcast, and he is not reacting enough to the exciting moments of the game, or building on them.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: That's how actors feel, certainly!

I came back to note this link:

...which is an account of and video clips from THE BIG BANG THEORY's panel at Comicon where the writers, under questioning by Melissa Rauch (Bernadette), talk about how they write the show every week. Much more interesting and instructive than the average such event.


Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Wendy. I'll definitely read that whole thing when I get a moment. I took a brief glimpse and saw them talking about how they often take stories from their lives.

Strangely, I'm not coy about sharing stories from my life. I actually quite enjoy laughing at the bizarre and embarrassing/painful situations I've endured/created over the years. I can laugh at myself and the dumb things I've done quite easily.

What was interesting is that doing improv for the first time last year REALLY tapped into the same fear/shyness that I feel when writing (it was actually about 1000x stronger -- like comparing a rollercoaster with being strapped to the outside of a rocket). It was very interesting watching myself wrestle with trying to be creative while being scrutinized by strangers (I failed). My brain locked up the second I stepped on stage, and unlocked the second I stepped off.

I remember feeling that if I could feel comfortable doing improv that it would not only improve my creative work, but also my shyness in life. I guess this is all tied together.

(Sorry for the TMI.)

Storm said...

Really? You'll tell me all that, but you won't tell me if you've ever had cockaleekie in Ballylickey? Is it because I once said I wanted to bite you?

Cheers, thanks a lot,