Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Table Readings

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Marka.

I've wondered about table reads and how much you can trust them. Especially when you're directing and aren't familiar with the cast.

I assume there are folks who laugh at things that aren't funny because they want it to be funny, or want to be supportive. Others might be grumpy, hung over, or whatever and don't laugh at funny things because of that. Other casts must have honest and accurate reactions.

How accurate are table reads as a means of judging a script? Are these pitfalls things that happen? What other things are you looking out for with them, other than listening to them read the script

Believe me, it’s not an exact science.  All of the factors you mentioned do come into play.  

But generally you can get a sense of whether the script works or not.   If it doesn’t it becomes glaringly apparent at a table read.  

If the table read goes well that still doesn’t guarantee the show won’t go south during the week.  But it’s a decent indication.  

If you have physical comedy or humor that depends on sight gags or costumes, none of that will be realized in the table read.  So you have to factor that in.  

Also, some actors are just bad at table reads.  If you know that going in you at least don’t get scared, but it’s hard to judge when the actor stumbles through the script or reads it flat.   Or, in the case of some stars, eat through the table reading.  

Laughs can be deceiving.  Sometimes a line will get a big laugh at the table reading then nothing during the week.  Your inclination is to keep the line since you heard it work.  But when lines are delivered on their feet the dynamics sometimes change.  I’ve learned not to completely trust stage reading laughs.  If a line dies on the stage, despite its reaction at the table read, I replace it.

What I look for mostly during the table read is whether the story works.  Does it track?  Are the attitudes right?  Are steps missing or rushed or repetitive?  I’m also keeping track of the actors.  Does a character drop out of the story?  Is he in a big scene with only three lines?  If there’s an argument, do both sides get to make decent points?   Are there too many zingers?  Do dialogue scenes seem forced?    Does someone come off unintentionally hateful or stupid?  

But like I said, it’s a very inaccurate yardstick.  There have been times when a show had a compressed production schedule.  So we had the table reading in the morning, the cast then got the script on its feet and we went back for a run-through that afternoon.  During their rehearsal time we would get a jump on the rewrite for tomorrow’s script, but when we saw the run-through, occasionally there were lines we were prepared to cut that worked.   So the takeaway there was fix the story but give jokes a chance to work on stage.  

I will say this:  table readings for pilots have gotten out of hand.  There are so many executives and industry people that arrive for the table read that instead of the cast sitting around a conference table, they’re all on a dais facing out to the audience.   How the hell are they supposed to relate to one another?   Zoom calls are more intimate.  

Stage play rehearsals often have “table work” days planned in.  More than just reading the script the actors and director will spend a few days really analyzing the text.  But in TV there’s no time.  So it’s a tool — often useful — but sometimes misleading.  

Hey, why should any part of the process be easy? 


Jeff Alexander said...

Dick Van Dyke said that only once in the history of TDVDS did a script not make it past a table-read. The name of it was "Art Vs. Baloney." He couldn't recall the name of the writer (a freelancer, he did remember that) or what the plot line was but said that as soon as the cast finished, everyone promptly threw it in the circular file!
I personally am a little surprised that, if it were that bad (and I have no reason to believe it wasn't) that Carl Reiner (who I assumed OK'd all freelance scripts before they got to table reads) allowed it to make it that far without, at least, some re-writes.

marka said...

Thanks so much for answering this. I've wondered about it since I saw a "behind the scenes at Friends" segment on Youtube where they all laughed uproariously at the table read, but then I read about how it took eight hours for them to film a 22 minute episode. Those two things seem contrary.

Also, thanks for your blog and podcast. Both have helped me get through the past few years.

Troy McClure said...

This made me look up your post about the table read where an actress had a wardrobe malfunction, among other funny incidents at reads.

I'd love to know which actress pronounced hyperbole as hyper bowl.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

Table reads seem broken and dysfunctional now, much as our political system. Network executives beaming down on you while you're trying to work out the creative process? The end of creativity. Much like corporate-owned politicians shutting down democratic proceedings.

The whole point is to introduce material to the actors, right? And get the writing team together to review the script for things to clean up or get rid of. Putting a suit in there does nothing, except create nervous tension--which is perhaps what they want. It's actually more counterproductive than these people even understand.

KB said...

It's always interesting to watch the table read for episode one of a new season (or of a new series) and the cast is all excited and prepared and giving 100% and then watching as the season goes on... cast holding up the reads because they're late. Cast highlighting their lines for the first time twelve seconds before the read. Cast eating a bagel just before their line. And the worst, an actor blatantly tanking a read for one reason or another.

Mike Bloodworth said...

The same situation is often true when one is writing through improvisation. One time we were working on a scene. I said something that got a big laugh at that moment. But when we performed the piece it never got a laugh. Then in one show my scene partner improvised a response that got a huge laugh. My punchline became a straight-line.
That's one of the advantages of improv. You can always tweak a script here and there throughout the run. You really can't do that with a TV script or set stage play.


Anonymous said...

When ever I hear of table reads I think of the scene in "All That Jazz" where everyone at the table but the star and director were laughing but those two saw doom in the future.

forg/jecoup said...

I saw your daughter is a writer on Call Your Mother on ABC! Kudos! I liked it, it's not groundbreaking or anything but it's a comfort show to watch and Kyra Sedgwick is good in multicam comedy, who knew

D McEwan said...

A close friend of mine who was a writer on Fran Drescher's The Nanny, told me that at table reads on that show, if your line got a big laugh, Fran would tell the writers, "Give me that line." If they pointed out that it made no sense for her character to say it and would require massive juggling to make the line work for her to say, she'd give them her dead-shark-eyes stare and say, "And your point is...?"

As a result Daniel Davis started intentionally tanking his table reads, so he wouldn't get laughs. He only gave a line life when they were shooting and it was too late for Fran to take it. This consistently worked, so the other actors on the show also began tanking the table reads so they could keep their laughs.

Kendall Rivers said...

Just wanted you to know that for my James Garner tribute I did for my Medium article I included your wonderful post about him back in 2014 that for some reason I had just found today. I was quite moved by the post and wanted to do something like it for one of my all time fav actors ever! Thanks for the inspiration.

flurb said...

I participated as an actor in an L.A. screenplay reading several years ago - not a sitcom table read, of course. But coming from a theatre background I was shocked at the amount of y'knows and I means and ums, ahs, and heys that eighty percent of the ten-member cast were adding. This reading was specifically for the writer (an acquantance) and producers to hear her script. The delaying tactics threw what comedy rhythm there was out the window and into traffic. I guess the actors wanted to make it seem like they were, y'know, like, contributing, or (ellipsis, trailing to silence). It seemed insane to me, and I wanted to holler, but I was nobody, so I just did my own lines with the punctuation indicated.

I was reminded of this, not just by this post, but by the experience of watching all of RHODA during this pandemic - a sequel to the MTM marathon we'd had two months ago. (RIP Cloris Leachman, by the way.) Things sharpened up considerably in the second half of season 3 (perhaps when Tony Mordente became the main director), but before that, Valerie Harper and several others were killing their material with similar extra vocalizations. The big exception was the Nancy Walker, who always delivered the goods without a wasted moment, and her economical sharpness earned her laughs on straight lines, or just the way she moved her hand. Genius.

Dave-El said...

Bill Hader was on Seth Meyers' show once describing a sketch where he played CBS journalist Bob Simon doing a 60 minutes piece on jaguar poachers. The sketch (written by Hader and John Mulaney) killed in the writers room but went down like a lead balloon in the dress rehearsal, resulting in the sketch not making it to air. Seth described this as a "writer's sketch", the kind of thing writers find uproariously funny but no one else does.

Jeff Baker said...

I read that at the table reads for the old "Dark Shadows" soap the actors would crack up at the preposterous goings-on! Then they would have to get deadly serious for the soap about vampires and ghosts.

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