Sunday, January 15, 2017

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 good 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.

This is a re-post from four years ago.


Mike said...

Nancy Travis wasn't it?

By Ken Levine said...

No, Nancy was not the topless table reader.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Even after rehearsal, some actors' pronunciations are really distracting. The frequent one that drives me nuts is Silicone Valley for Silicon Valley (no, the tech industry does not make chips out of breast implants).


Paul Dushkind said...

You may regard this as a Friday question. On some shows, people mispronounce words or different actors pronounce names differently. Two examples: on Supergirl, saying "the Danvers" as if it were the plural of Danvers. It should be Danverses. On Arrow, the name of the villain Ras al Ghul has at least two different pronunciations. Doesn't anybody try to correct these things at the table read or in rehearsal? Or is everybody clueless? (Ironically, I don't know offhand how to punctuate Ras al Ghul.)

Edward said...

I've heard Jerry Seinfeld on radio/podcast interviews state that one reason for "Seinfeld's" success is the lack of continuous network interference, though early on it was recommended that the show add a female character, which he and Larry David accepted.

Are there any other successful network TV shows that you know of where the suits kept their distance?

YEKIMI said...

I was watching/listening to a DVD commentary on a popular show that ended a couple of years ago and the showrunner was saying that table reads are going the way of dinosaurs on a lot of shows due to the demands of getting everything that a weekly show entails on the air. Basically saying that a lot of things ended it such as a guest actor not being able to attend [it filmed in another country....Hello Canadians!] and having a crew member doing their read through just didn't make sense. Another was even when they're shooting they're re-writing parts of the script during a scene or an actor comes up with a better line that they decide to use. So a Friday question: Do you think what he says is true; are table reads becoming a thing of the past or maybe it just didn't make sense for HIS particular show?

Anonymous said...

"Episodes" had a great "Table Read"segment in one of the early shows. If it's still on demand, it's worth seeing...

Bill O said...

Btw, comic book art god, Neal Adams, Ras' co-creator, pronounces it Raz al Gool.

dan o said...

my table reading story: we were doing a table read for an episode of frasier, and kelsey brought in his newborn baby. after much oohing and ahhing, we started the read. the baby, meanwhile, had fallen asleep, and nobody wanted to wake her up with any loud laughter. so the performances were quiet, and nobody laughed. it was impossible to get a sense of how the story worked.

VP81955 said...

Given many of the formulaic sitcoms (e.g. "Suddenly Susan") NBC put through its sausage machine in the 1990s (as proof, it took all the charm out of Tea Leoni's "The Naked Truth" after the series moved there after one season on ABC), I think we can safely say Larry and Jerry made the right decision to have nothing to do with the suits.

John said...

Ken -- curious if you've had a chance to check out the new "One Day at a Time" on Netflix. I know you're a big defender of the classic multi-camera format and this show really seems execute that format well. Also, Rita Moreno is amazing in every scene she's in.

Marty Fufkin said...

In defense of the guy who freaked out at the 9-11-era bomb scare, everyone in the Twin Towers was told to stay put. So, I probably would have left the studio, too. But maybe not in such hysterics.

Covarr said...

One of my favorite parts of community theatre is table reads. Unlike a more professional environment like you might see at a television studio, we often don't even receive our scripts until the night of the table read, so it's a cold read for everyone. (Maybe this varies by theatre/troupe?)

This wouldn't be so interesting on its own, but for the fact that as often as not I seem to get cast for roles I didn't even read for at auditions. Combined with relative unfamiliarity with the material, this means I often don't even start working on my characterization for a role until that table read. At the first read for the show I'm working on now, my interpretation of the role was very different by the end of the night from how it started.

Bryan Thomas said...

Was Kirstie playing a gag with the wig or mistakenly thinking that’s what they wanted?