Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Bad reviews

Interesting article by playwright/blogger, Donna Hoke about bad reviews (and how to survive them). Basically she says as difficult as it may be, the writer needs to be open to the criticism. (I half expected her piece of weathering bad reviews to be a survey on which drugs and alcoholic beverages were the most effective.) Anyway, it’s well worth reading.

Let me chime in my two cents.

First of all, if you’re a writer for any length of time you’re going to get some bad reviews. They’re inevitable. It’s one of the prices you pay to stick your neck out there and go public with your work.

I’ve had my share of bad reviews. One critic said MANNEQUIN 2 was like “stepping in something.” The review went downhill from there. Tom Shayles, the longtime TV reviewer of the Washington Post hated BIG WAVE DAVE’S so much he blamed my partner and me for the downfall of the television industry. (Okay, he was right.) 

Obviously, bad reviews are no fun. And they sting. But they can also be helpful. Sometimes I’ll read a bad review and be mad at myself. Why didn’t I see that story flaw or whatever the criticism was? If the reviewer was confused about something I have to decide whether I wasn’t clear enough or the reviewer was just dense. Like Donna points out, critics often get details wrong on shows they liked. You get a rave even though they missed the whole point.

There are times when you know going in that your show is bad. And it might not be your fault. Your play was horribly cast and directed. Your screenplay was re-written by six hacks and the result is a piece of shit. And in those cases you just have to hold onto something and take your beating.

It’s important to take into consideration who is critiquing you and whether they have their own agenda. For my play A OR B? (pictured above: me with stars Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox) when it was produced at the Falcon Theatre a few years ago I enjoyed fabulous reviews – except for one. This guy so hated every single thing about it that he even panned the props. Far from being hurt I found the review hilarious.

Another time I received a rave review for ALMOST PERFECT (the Nancy Travis CBS show I co-created) from the Baltimore Sun and in the middle of it the critic said I was a shitty baseball announcer. Huh? Where did that come from?  I had been gone from Baltimore for four years. He needed to get in that gratuitous slam in a review about a TV show?

When you come to playwrighting from a TV comedy background you can almost bet some theatre critics are going to call your play a “sitcom.” Christopher Durang writes the same play and he’s a comic genius. That’s just the nature of the beast. I always take comfort in a 1991 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. interview when he said: “I would rather have written CHEERS than anything I've written.”

Some critics are nasty and you have to take that into account. Some may just not like your work. You’re just not their cup of tea. Some have a certain point-of-view and if your piece goes against it you’re going to get slammed. On the other hand, there may be critics who just adore everything you do and will give you glowing reviews you don’t really deserve.

And that’s another key – you have to weigh the good and bad reviews equally. Just as you might not agree with a certain criticism, you have to discard effusive praise. Your project is probably not as good or bad as they say.

At the end of the day you have to take what you can from them and move on. Al Michaels, a great sportscaster, used to keep in his pocket a review that slammed Vin Scully. Even Vin Scully got blasted. Michaels kept it merely as a reminder that no matter who you are there are going to be people who don’t like you. So do the best you can and don’t worry about it. Al, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome to carry around my Baltimore Sun ALMOST PERFECT review as well.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

To those who find bad reviews difficult, I always recommend the great Diana Rigg's book, NO TURN UNSTONED, a collection of everyone's worst reviews. She includes her own, published in I think the Evening Standard on the occasion of the premiere in London of ABELARD AND ELOISE, in which she was the first "respectable" actress to appear fully nude in London's West End. The review: "Miss Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses."

Having solicited all she could from British actors, she began sending requests to American actors. Where her British peers were eager to send in theirs, the Americans were silent. Except for one: Katharine Hepburn. Who of course sent in the famous Dorothy Parker review: "Come to the Booth Theater and see Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B".


Michael said...

The first person I heard this story told about was Connie Mack, the legendary Philadelphia A's owner-manager. A local sportswriter wrote an incredibly nasty column about him. The next time he saw the guy, he literally hugged him, then asked about his family and his health, wished him well, etc. As he walked away the friend he was with said, "How could you be so nice after the terrible things he said about you?" Mack replied, "Do you know what he's saying to himself right now? He's saying, 'He doesn't read me.'"

Still the best response I can think of.

Donna Hoke said...

Thanks for the link! I agree with so much of this, and some--*I think*--very much applied to the review that ultimately prompted my post. But over time, I continued to edit it to remove any anger or defense. I have my reasons why I think this review was posted as it was, but still believe everything I wrote as well, particularly #4: 4) Even when a review is bad, if the language and word choice are such that it seems more attack than critique, know that this was the reviewer’s choice. There are many ways to say the same thing; if things are said in a way intended to harm and hurt, rather than help, it is more a reflection of the reviewer as a person than it is of you as a playwright.

Anonymous said...

My avocation is constructing crossword puzzles. I've had some successes with various publishers, but far more "failures," in that they weren't purchased. Sometimes, I knew exactly why; other times, another publisher would pick it up; other times, I had no clue, but such is life. Fortunately, I don't look to this money to keep a roof over my head, so I can afford to not take it personally and move on to the next one. Thick skins may not be mandatory, but they are helpful (as is a good sense of self worth)


Donna Hoke said...

Anonymous Xworz: How crazy!! I ALSO construct crossword puzzles!! The one thing I've always liked about that business is that whether or not the puzzle gets accepted is almost always about the puzzle itself, and not who you know. I've been making them for 20+ years, both professionally, and I also do a bunch each year as commissioned gifts. Small world; there aren't many of us.

Dave Creek said...

I've mostly had good reviews for my science fiction novels and stories, but every once in a while someone blasts one of my tales. I was glad to see you mention my usual takeaway from such reviews -- that person's just not part of my audience.

You're also right, though, about looking at negative reviews to see if they have a valid point -- and dammit, you hate it when they do!

Anonymous said...

This really isn't a Friday Question but I wanted to ask. Tom Petty was once mentioned as "The Handsomest Man in the world" on "Wings"...Lowell said it...I'm sure it was meant as a joke but was that a kind shout out from the writers?

Adrian said...

Mannequin 2? Ken, Can you please post pics of yourself and Kristy Swanson :)

Max said...

Good review.... Bad review ..... NO REVIEW .....

I remember someone promised to post the review of Nolan's Dunkirk :(

Waiting, waiting, waiting, waitingggggg..........zzzzzzzzzzzz

Rob Greenberg said...

As a Friday question, I would love to hear your thoughts on laugh track sweetening for multi-camera shows. While I understand the need for this (multiple takes, etc), there remains a certain pleasure in watching an audience's REAL reactions. Especially upon moments in which bigger laughs are fully earned. Yet, I watched the premiere of '9JKL' the other night, and it was like nothing I've ever seen before: non-stop, hysterical laughs, all completely unwarranted. Not really sure why they bothered with an audience to begin with. How much input does the show runner have in this process?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Regarding BAD REVIEWS, This is also NOT a Friday question, but...I remember an episode of Frasier where there was some kind of a survey panel or focus group discussing Fraser's radio show. All the comments were positive except for one. That drove Frasier crazy and he had to find out why this one guy didn't like him. I haven't seen that one lately, but I remember Tony Shalhoub was the guest star. Was this story based on a real life event? Or did "life imitate art?"

By Ken Levine said...


I haven't seen it yet. But I'm still happy to review it. :)

Andrew said...

"Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic." - Jean Sibelius

Max said...

Please see Ken and review before Award Season begins. Because without you seeing, we will miss your snarky take, if it gets any nominations and wins.

Or...... maybe don't waste the money. Wait for the DVD screeners or Award season screening in select theaters for members. Why waste money for the crap ;)

Ok all those thinking why I am asking Ken so many times for the review. Here's why.... Ken has reviewed almost all of Nolan's movies or movies produced by Nolan:


Looks like Ken's a Fanboy too huh ? :)

Seen all his movies, so why leave out this one?

Andy Rose said...

@Andrew: Eat your heart out, Jean Sibelius.

Roger Ebert Statue Unveiled

Gary said...

Comedy shows and movies are especially vulnerable to bad reviews, because there's a large portion of the population who love to say something is not funny, no matter how many people are laughing. I think it gives those folks a sense of superiority to pretend that nothing makes them laugh.

(In response to the first comment in this thread, I'm not sure what year Diana Rigg appeared in that play, but if it was during her tenure on The Avengers, I'd have gladly swum from the USA to London to see her nude!)

Lee said...

I haven't seen it yet. But I'm still happy to review it. :)

I have an online acquaintance who reads this blog regularly who's been about to wet his pants for you to review that movie (DUNKIRK), mainly because he hated everything about it and is convinced you will, too, and that you'll write a review completely trashing it. I think he'll be devastated if you don't. So when you do get around to reviewing DUNKIRK and it turns out that you do end up with at least a few good things to say about it, be gentle. I don't know my acquaintance personally, and he may turn out to be a fragile soul.

VincentS said...

I'm on Donna Hoke's Facebook Page, THE PLAYWRIGHT'S ZONE. I recommend it. And I guess those critics who dismiss sitcom writers' plays don't know that Neil Simon started out in sitcoms! Some people just don't take the time to Google.

Tom Wolper said...

Former Steelers often quote their coach, Bill Cowher: "You're not as good as you think you are. You're not as bad as they say you are."

Andrew said...

@Andy Rose,


(And he certainly deserves one.)

Cap'n Bob said...

The best review I ever got was an editor saying he'll buy my book. Anything after that is just noise.

Jeff R said...

too much credit when it's good and too much blame when it's bad...find the middle...enough said!

Buttermilk Sky said...

A composer -- I think Max Reger -- once wrote to a critic: "Dear Sir, I am sitting in the smallest room of my house with your review in front of me. Soon it will be in back of me."

Not bad.

James said...

I grew up in LA and didn't like Vin Scully. I much preferred Jerry Doggett. It wasn't until I moved away for college (and got cabletv) and found out what you got in other markets that I learned to appreciate what I'd had.

Diane D. said...

The commenter who is obsessed with having you review DUNKIRK, and the other commenter who has a friend who hated everything about it has now gotten me extremely curious about your opinion. I actually loved it, even though it is very unlike any other movie I've ever said that about. I found it very strange but beautiful, but then who am I?

JW said...

There's no Y in Tom Shales. And, in Thursday's post, Edith has an H.

As always, hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

>He needed to get in that gratuitous slam in a review about a TV show?

Oh, that's comedy.