Monday, July 23, 2018

It might not be your fault

I know this sounds like a convenient excuse, and you’re welcome to use it, but it’s also true.

Comedy writers should realize there are a lot of people who don’t know how to read comedy scripts. They just don’t have the ability to visualize how something will play based on reading the text. Likewise there are people who can’t read blueprints and people who can’t read music. Personally, I have trouble with mimes. Someone is on stage pantomiming an activity and I have no clue what he’s doing.

Even some other writers have trouble deciphering comedy scripts. I have a friend who’s a wonderful dramatic playwright. When she saw a reading of one of my plays she said, “I had no idea it was so funny. On the page I couldn't tell.”

(NOTE: This is yet another reason why I suggest you gather some actors or friends and have a reading. At least YOU’LL know if it works.)

But take heart. This is not a skill most folks require. It’s not like you’re trying to drive and you have no depth perception.

The problem is this: Many of these people who can’t read comedy scripts are in positions to judge your work. They judge festivals and contests, they do coverage on your screenplay, they are network, agency, and studio gatekeepers. I once had an agent who admitted to me he had no idea reading a script whether it was funny. No problem for me since I was established; big problem for a young writer hoping to get representation by sending this man a writing sample.

Especially if your comedy comes out of character and attitude is this problematic. You may write a hilarious scene but there are no “jokes” per se. A big audience laugh might be “Ohhh-kay” but on paper it just looks like a word. Some readers look specifically for “jokes.” “The last time I was this pissed was when…”  And those scripts tend to feel jokey and artificial when they get on their feet. 

So if your script or play is rejected, know that among the possible reasons is that the reader just wasn’t capable of “getting it.” And hey, that IS a great excuse, isn’t it?

Note for new readers:  Whenever I can't think of an appropriate visual I post a photo of Natalie Wood.  Enjoy.  


Dixon Steele said...

Love your blog, but I'm curious.

How does Mrs. Levine feel about your Natalie Wood obsession?

E. Yarber said...

There are so many worthless books out there about how to write a screenplay that I've been tempted at times to write a worthless book about how to READ a screenplay. It's one of the few skills that anyone in any capacity within the entertainment business needs, but it's depressing how many people in positions of authority can have such a tin ear for the job.

I tried to keep track of how many I covered, but lost track somewhere north of 8,000. All I had to go on initially was my experience in academia (I was a teenage wow at analyzing the 18th Century English Novel and was encouraged to go on to a soul-destroying career in such), but I didn't really know what I was getting into until I got my internship at a small production company. This place got all the scripts that had already been rejected by the majors, so I read nothing but tripe for months. When I began working for the majors, though, I discovered that I had merely moved to the head of the line, and was now the guy rejecting the same junk that filtered down to the smaller dogs. My biggest problem was keeping a fresh eye on each submission after burning out on perhaps a dozen dogs in a row. I didn't want to penalize some poor schmuck who'd written something viable just because I'd had to suffer through a pile of bad caper comedies first.

Not everyone is so careful, however. I found a lot of knee-jerk reactions within the business. Some readers liked to trash everything, specifically looking for weaknesses while ignoring possibilities. I suspect they were frustrated screenwriters who saw everyone as competition. Just as bad, however, was an agent or executive who desperately pushed bad scripts because it touched some nerve in them. One guy was a sucker for any story involving underage girls seducing middle-aged men. You may wish you could latch in to a champion of your work like that, but they were just as destructive as the nay-sayers, because people interested in subject matter over quality aren't able to help you improve your writing, tossing you into an arena where you won't find the sympathy you get from them.

The whole process of script evaluation is necessary but unfortunately quite subjective. Most of the time variations between readers doesn't matter because the vast majority of submissions fail to meet minimum standards. If you're trying something unusual or nuanced, however, you may be in trouble if your stuff is handed over to a sloppy analyst. That's why it's important to get as much feedback as possible before you submit so you know exactly where you stand, which is what workshops and readings are for. Just remember that the writer has to be as open to feedback as a reader to writing. The only time I read scripts these days are for clients wanting a professional analysis of their work, but I don't seem to do much good because most of the time the writer would rather argue that their work is fine as it is than use my comments to improve.

Brian Phillips said...

With regards to the "okay" in a script, I found in the "Room Service" Frasier episode that not only are the waiter's entrances timed for maximum embarrassment to the occupants, John Ducey's deliveries of his "okays" are perfect. That may or may not leap out to someone reading it, but it is funny when you see it onscreen.

Covarr said...

I've been on that end of my own work before. Maybe it's because I'd gotten to know the script that my then-fiancee (now wife) and I had written too well to still be tickled by it, but by the time I gave it to my local community theatre's artistic director for consideration for the then upcoming season, I was starting to worry that it wasn't funny enough, despite having thought it was funny while writing it, and despite good feedback from other people I'd showed it to.

But then they accepted it and asked me to direct. Once I had a cast performing it every night through rehearsals, it was funny again. Once we opened, they were great at it, and it was the funniest it had ever been. The script hadn't been significantly changed, but it was far better performed than read.

It's really hard to hold it against people who can't read comedy scripts. A half-decent cast can, in many cases, do it way more justice than a reader's imagination. A great cast can elevate it. How could a reader possibly compete with that?

It seems to me that a sprinkling of humor and irony into the writing style of the stage directions could help overcome this problem. It's the closest a typical stageplay or screenplay has to prose, and great prose can set a tone like nothing else (see: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). This must be done conservatively, though; too much and you end up with a script that's actually funnier to read than to watch. Worse, going too far with parentheticals and stage directions is a sure way to annoy actors and directors, who then have to decipher it all to figure out what's actually pertinent and what is just fluff. But used carefully, just a bit of humor in these areas can go a long way to set the tone and sense of humor for readers who don't have the benefit of watching it performed.

John Hammes said...

1. "It might not be your fault".

2. Photo of Natalie.

3. Conclusion: Who is to argue with Natalie Wood?

Peter said...

Talking of Natalie Wood, it seems to have become some sort of weird tradition that every few years the investigation into her death is "reopened", Wagner is linked to it, it makes the news for a few days, and then it goes quiet again. By my estimate, it'll be in the news again circa 2021, by which time Wagner may no longer be with us.

RyderDA said...

Just how many Natalie Wood photos do you have?

Gwendolyn said...

Ohhh-kay was the first thing that struck my funny bone when I watched Room Service. Had to rewatch to pick up things like...
Food? In the bathroom?

Daniel said...

Have you ever read any Zucker Brothers/Jim Abrahams scripts (Airplane, Kentucky Fried Movie, Top Secret!, Naked Gun)? I have not but I've always assumed that their scripts (which are so reliant on absurdist visual humor as well as references to past films and TV series) would NOT read funny on the page. I'm guessing that their scripts would be over-weighted with visual descriptions (that you said in the past most people just skim over anyway).

Mike Bloodworth said...

Apparently the opposite is also true. That is, there are people in authority reading unfunny scripts that they think are funny. When you consider how many mediocre sitcoms there are one has to wonder what were they thinking when they chose to air them. Obviously some actors and/or producers have the clout to push through their own projects even if they aren't very good. I've also been going to a lot of these "ten-minute plays." A few are good. Many of them are not. Once again, I question the decision making process. What made the producer say, "Let's put up this one." Its hard to believe that they rejected a stack of WORSE plays. Then again, maybe they just don't know what's good.

tvfats said...

Most excellent visual filler...

Peter said...

Given that what passes for jokes in most comedies is pop culture references, I can't imagine it's difficult for studio readers to understand them.


Character in Paul Feig's Spy: "I've read all the Hunger Games novels".

That was it. That was the joke. That's it. Nothing else. That's it.

E. Yarber said...

MGM's Irving Thalberg was noted for being one of the most humorless men imaginable. When he had script trouble with A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, he hired a comedy specialist named Al Boasberg to provide some new routines. Boasberg brought twelve pages of material to Thalberg's office and could feel flop sweat collecting in the small of his back as he watched the boy genius glumly flip though the draft. As Al silently considered where he should apply for work the next day, Thalberg set the manuscript down and said, "That's the funniest thing I ever read."

The next time Thalberg asked for Boasberg's work, Al told him to come over to the Writer's Building with the Marx Brothers and pick it up. They found Boasberg's office completely deserted. Eventually, Groucho noticed that Boasberg had shredded some pages into thin strips and pasted them on the ceiling. As the Marxes meticulously put the scraps back together, Thalberg stood in one corner wondering if there were an easier way of being the most powerful man in Hollywood. Once reassembled, the pages turned out to be something about people getting crowded into a ship's stateroom.

E. Yarber said...

Sorry, when I wrote "Writer's" I meant "Writers'."

PolyWogg said...

It's interesting to see a "subset" of the classic problem of reading anything. My favorite is the "hit" book that was rejected by x, y, or z person yet it was seen brilliantly by someone who saw it's potential and the rest was history.

Yet often those rejections are more literally "I don't see it" or "I don't get it". It's couched in terms of "you sent it to me because you think I know what is good and bad, and I'm sending it back" to be interpreted as they thought it was bad. But sometimes they just think, "Nope, don't get it."

Often I think that's all any gatekeeper can do.


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Great story E.

scottmc said...

If you get the chance you should try to watch the new American Masters documentary on PBS about Ted Williams. They discovered color footage of his final game, final at-bat. Dick Enberg was among those interviewed for the program.They also showed part of the 1999 All-Star when Ted came onto the field in a golf cart and all the players came up to meet him.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I know of at least one nice lady, who "supervised" another nice lady who wrote the company newsletter. The supervisor was in love with 1990s corporate-speak - with "empowering" and the ever-so-dishonest "partnering" (to describe the alleged company-customer "relationship".)

My first shot at editing that newsletter was (unknowingly to me) half-written by the supervisor and half by the GM (who could write fairly well). I bled all over the supervisor's prose and left the GM's mostly intact.

Anyway, I once wrote a piece for the newsletter - took all of 20-minutes to write and revise. Nice-lady-supervisor got ahold of it and "paid me back" - hacked serviceable prose with flow and rhythm into her usual tortured, clunky, mess.

She later "apologized" for the edit job (nicely).

So I wonder, if some bad writers are handicapped by the inability to read rhythmic prose with actual rhythm (to "sing it")?

Essentially they are "tone deaf"??