Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Reviews in Context

It’s always hard to determine how much importance to place on reviews.  The truth is you’re not as good as your glowing reviews and you’re not as awful as your pans.  

Sometimes reviews can be helpful, especially for plays out of town.  Neil Simon was having a bitch of a time with the third act of ODD COUPLE, writing new scenes every night during tryouts.  But it was a reviewer in Boston who had the solution.  How many millions of dollars changed hands because of that review?  

It stings of course to get a bad notice.  And it’s the old story -- You get rave reviews and one bad one and you obsess over the bad one. That’s human nature.  

There have been reviews of my plays where I wondered just what play were they watching because it bears no resemblance to what I wrote or what was performed on stage.  Or they’ll focus on one thing like the throw pillows on a couch and that ruined the whole play for them.  

You have to accept the fact that no matter what you do there will be someone who doesn’t dig your act.  For years, Al Michaels used to keep in his pocket a review where the great Vin Scully got slammed.  Al kept it as a reminder to not try to please everybody.  It’s physically impossible.  Just do your thing.  

But what I look for in a review of my work is the context.  Is this person offering constructive advice or just on a mission to slam me?  And if so, why?  

I was reminded of this the other day when I came across my podcast reviews from Apple listeners.  I received 422 reviews — most, I’m happy to say, were five stars.

One guy, however, gave me only one star and pretty much hated everything about me.  I’m a terrible interviewer, I’m rude, I should be put out to pasture, etc.  But then comes this:

He makes snarky comments about celebrated actors and passes along his out of touch political views , as if everyone listening has the same views .Who wants to hear a situation comedy writer pontificate about politics?

Okay, so now we get to the nitty gritty.  He doesn’t like my “politics.”   So of course he’s going to hate everything I do.  Ironically, the way he phrased his complaint makes me thinks he listened at least several time.  If you hate me, why would you listen more than once? 

Obviously, his objective was not to offer constructive advice but to try to scare away future listeners.  Whatever.  

To me the best podcasts are the ones where the host or hosts are passionate about things. They have opinions, they take stands.  Otherwise, they're boring.  So when I consider the context, this bad review is really a good review.   So thanks.  And find a podcast with politics you like. 


Markus said...

This "makes snarky comments about celebrated actors" side jab is psychologically interesting as well. Strong indicator for an adherent to "hero culture" and principles of "cult of personality" where people of the upper echelons by all means must not be criticized, for they can do no wrong and be no bad.

Mike Barer said...

I always wonder why movie reviewers who cater to the mainstream, come across rather snobby. We look to movies to entertain and enlighten us, yet we take read reviews from people who don't look, act, or think like us.

Anonymous said...

@ Mike Barer
If it just depended on the tastes of the public then there would be no point in having critics.
Perhaps it's to elevate discourse, although admittedly that doesn't happen much any more.
And to point you to movies you might not otherwise know about.

Bryan L said...

You can usually tell the political leanings of "critics" by how they choose to argue. A common tactic among a specific group is to focus on an isolated detail that may be in error, and claim that invalidates an entire argument. Your comment about the throw pillows makes me think of that particular tactic. I've heard it described as a variation of the 'red herring' fallacy but I've never found a specific definition for it.

You'll see it a lot in gun-based debates, where one party will claim that the other has no business discussing the issue because they incorrectly identified the make, model, caliber, or manufacturer of a particular weapon or the ammunition it uses. But it occurs in lots of other debates, too.

Any time anyone focuses on a fairly meaningless detail rather than considering the entire work (or argument), you can be pretty sure they're not bringing anything substantive to the discussion. Move on.

Magnum Trojan said...

Some years ago, I joked to someone that if Republicans had their way they'd ban people from having sex for pleasure and not procreation. It was meant as an exaggerated satirical observation.

Today, some Republican states, buoyed by the push to ban abortion, are planning to also ban contraception.

Ban contraception.

My joke is no longer implausible. The USA is in a very dark place right now because of the ultra fascist GOP and their plans to ban abortion, ban contraception, disenfranchise Black voters, rig elections, and most likely reintroduce segregation.

So I guess I'd say to that reviewer who doesn't like Ken's politics to go fuck himself while that's still legal.

Matt said...

I’m sorry but this post is just awful. You can’t mention the Boston reviewers solution without saying what it was. After 15 years I think this blog is done.

Unknown said...

Johnny Carson was funny and charming. Made his guests great. We didn't know his politics or care.

N. Zakharenko said...

Some people give up watching shows they like because there are too many advertisements.

Some Republicans give up reading blogs they like, because there's too much political
blame-game thrown at them (that's the risk you take)

Those who want lower taxes for the rich or guns will always vote Republican -
whether the candidate be Wonder Woman or Trump.

. said...

(I won’t appeal a Josh Donaldson Suspension for my Vin Scully Bad Review bad joke)

TBaughman said...

Do all of your reviews offer constructive criticism? Aren’t reviews to inform—and sometimes entertain—the public, not assist the author or performer, though that might occur incidentally?

Mike Chimeri said...

I'm not ashamed to admit there are some Hollywood & Levine episodes I have to skip or rage quit (to quit something in a fit of rage) over too many political tangents or over small stuff like excessive phrases by the guest. Regarding politics, I did not expect the Mallory Lewis episode to go down a political rabbit hole. But I'm not going to like every episode of everything I watch or listen to. Alec Watson, creator of the Technology Connections YouTube channel, occasionally riffs on dubious "but sometimes" thinking. Ken Levine's podcast and blog are entertaining and illuminating, BUT SOMETIMES, there'll be a post or episode befitting Daily Kos or MSNBC! So what? If you don't like a particular post or episode, don't read or listen. That's been my approach.

I try "not to let the bastards grind [me] down," yet I am let down by the fact that a smattering of people that know me or know of me don't like me. I am as picky as that iTunes reviewer, though recent experiences have led me to keep reserve venting over nitpicks or sweating of small stuff to close friends and family or my therapist, mostly the therapist.

Pat Reeder said...

Amazon reviews are the worst. I can't believe how many times I've seen classic albums given one-star reviews because some moron's copy arrived in the mail with a cracked jewel box or something like that.

I've had a personal run-in with these idiots. My wife has an album out that had all five-star ratings, but it got knocked down to 3-1/2 because of a single one-star review. This bonehead's entire comment was that he refuses to listen to albums that don't include a track list. So not only did he admit he hadn't even listened to it, but the CD DOES have a track list, both on the back cover and on the Amazon page. Yet this guy's opinion carries just as much weight as those who actually heard it. I'm still trying to get Amazon to remove it. Where are those Disinformation Police when you need them?

Magnum Trojan said...

I really don't understand people who "rage" over the politics of a blogger whom they've CHOSEN to listen to, and for free. It's as though there's an expectation to receive something fully to your liking even though you've made the decision to read or listen to someone who has created it and put it out there for free, take it or leave it.

If you go to a restaurant and your waiter stops to give you a political speech, that is a scenario where you're completely entitled to get angry, because you are there to pay for a meal and not get lectured to.

If you click on a blog and don't like what you read or hear, you have the choice not to visit that blog again. But you have no right or expectation of a right to complain about what the blogger chooses to put out. You didn't commission it, you're not paying for it, and it wasn't designed just for you, so move on and stop whining.

Tom said...

SWe have descended as a species from "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." to "Shut up and dribble."

estiv said...

@Bryan L said...

"Any time anyone focuses on a fairly meaningless detail rather than considering the entire work (or argument), you can be pretty sure they're not bringing anything substantive to the discussion. Move on."

Good advice. Unfortunately there are tens of millions of them. They're hard to avoid.

James McGrail said...

Fascism produces no humor.
Name one great Nazi comedian.
I'll wait.

David said...

“A bomb went off in a Boston bar last night.” The Globe TV critic’s review of CHEERS. Success truly is the best revenge

Mike Barer said...

The impression that I get from TV or movies reviews is that they concentrate on the technical and originality of a production and much too little on the entertainment value.
Critics in general seen to me like the last person you would want to go to the theatre with and yet, they can make or break a flick.

Ted. said...

When it comes to podcasts, I think a lot more people vote with their ears (and their phones) than leave actual reviews. I mostly listen to podcasts to make long drives tolerable -- at one point, I had a work commute that was more than 2 hours per day -- which means they have to be extremely interesting and engaging, whatever the topic happens to be. When I try a new podcast and it's even slightly boring, I'll probably never bother with it again. All of which means: If you're getting a lot of listens, downloads and subscriptions, each one of those is a more important signal than any particular negative criticism or positive review.

Nevin ":-)" said...

My review:

I saw your "Upfronts and Personal" in Aurora, IL a few weeks ago. I'd like my money back: not because I didn't like it (it was, after all, hilarious, well acted and quite enjoyable), but because I'm cheap. :-)

And with that, I'll leave writing comedy to professionals like you. :-)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Mike Barer: One thing I liked about Roger Ebert's movie reviews was that he was conscious that his job was to help people decide whether a given movie was worth spending their hard-earned money to see.

As for the original post: hate-listening isn't much different from hate-watching, and a lot of people seem to do that.

As for off-putting details...I couldn't watch Peter Jackson's movies of THE LORD OF THE RINGS because the hobbits' feet were all wrong.


Mike Chimeri said...

I should have led my earlier comment by saying the amount of episodes I quit on over politics is small. My bigger point was in the last two sentences of the first paragraph: "So what [if sometimes there's a post or episode in the vein of a progressive website or cable news channel]? If you don't like a particular post or episode, don't read or listen [to that particular post or episode]. That's been my approach." As they say in sports, next play.

My decision to bury the lead misled those that commented after me. I am legitimately sorry.

John Schrank said...

To Matt, who wondered about The Odd Couple and the reviewer in Boston: Neil Simon has told this story a number of times, and sometimes the details vary. Once he said the reviewer told him "I have a suggestion for you". But earlier in his life when he told the story, it wasn't the reviewer (was it Elliot Nugent? I should look it up) suggesting how he should change his play; it was more of an offhand remark. He said he was disappointed the Pigeon sisters from Act 2 didn't come back. They were such entertaining characters and he missed them. That started Simon on the train of thought that formed how Act 3 ended up... with Felix leaving Oscar's apartment and moving in with the Pigeon sisters.

Another thing Simon says in his memoir is that people always used to ask him what the rejected scenes and acts were like, and he says he doesn't remember. Once it didn't work and needed to be fixed, it was out of the play and out of his memory

Glenn said...

To those who don't know, the reviewer who helped Neil Simon crack his Odd Couple problem was a guy who suggested the Pigeon sisters return in the third act. In all previous drafts, they appeared in Act 2 only. Check out Simon's autobiography of the hell he went through trying to finish it. At one point,someone suggested they just perform the first two acts and call it a show.

DBenson said...

Something that always impresses me: I'll see a moment on screen or stage that looks effortless and/or inevitable. Later I'll learn that the creators sweated blood and went through multiple failed experiments before finally hammering out an elegant solution that makes a viewer think "Gee, I could have written that."

Lemuel said...

wg: As one late-night comedian said about not seeing the Hobbit movies, "If I want to see hairy feet, I'll look down."

Rick Whelan said...

As a playwright who has received more than his share of pans, I often watch Vincent Price's Theatre of Blood to lift my spirits.

Rick Whelan said...

... and I once wrote an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or as my five-year-old daughter called it "Hunch-man.) To create the gypsy vibe, the director used lots of zither music to set each gypsy scene. Opening night I happened to be sitting behind a well-known and rather cruel critic. When the first strains of the zither music rang out, this critic's hands went to his ears and he cried out to his companion "Oh God! I loathe zither music!!!" I never could bring myself to read his review.

Magnum Trojan said...

Fourteen children and a teacher dead after a shooting at an elementary school in Texas.

But don't worry. Any minute now a few Republicans will tell the families that they're in their thoughts and prayers, and the rest will call it a false flag. After all, dead children is a small price to pay to keep assault rifles available for everyone.

Kaleberg said...

This brings to mind Mary Henderson's 1987 sort of review of Broadway Bound which is more of a screed against the use of tables in theater. She rails about tables of all kinds:

"Dining-room tables, kitchen tables, tea tables, restaurant tables or (more recently) bars have long remained the hoariest of dramatic devices in the theater since the advent of realism. The curtain goes up and there it is, in any of its infinite varieties, stage right, left or center, but always present at the creation. The table."

It's magnificent. She goes on about David Rabe, "he substituted a bar as the yuppie cultural equivalent of the table", in case you are wondering where that idea came from.

Neil Simon wrote an apology:

"In 'Brighton Beach Memoirs,' I show the family sitting down at that (damnable) dining-room table. This, of course, was in 1937, when people were as cliche and trite as American drama is today. I pleaded with my director and producer to stage the scene as I had originally written it, whereby this family of seven all gather upstairs and eat their dinner over the bathroom hamper. You, Ms. Henderson, would see my point. After all, aren't we all wet, dirty clothes anyway?"

You really can't please everyone, but Neil Simon came pretty close.

Cap'n Bob said...

I don't like your politics but I read the blog every day. I enjoy the show biz and baseball talk and appreciate the effort it takes to show up six days a week. Now, if only you used commas correctly...

powers said...

A very successful gentleman was asked what was his formula for his many successes. He said that the formula for failure was an easier one to give: "Try to please everyone."

blinky said...

I just have one thing to say regarding podcasts: Fuck that POS Joe Rogan.
That is all.

Breadbaker said...

Having read your blog almost daily for over 11 years, my sense is your ratio of positive to negative things you have said about actors is in the neighborhood of 99:1. There are some whom you've criticized and explained why and some whom you've criticized and used discretion in not saying why. Given the ratio, you've earned the benefit of any doubt that your criticisms and dislikes are real and not imaginary. You've absolutely, positively said wonderful things about some people whose politics are diametrically the opposite of yours.

There's my review (you have an Apple five star from me somewhere but it was during the first Obama administration).

E. Yarber said...

Elliot Nugent was a lifelong friend and sometime collaborator with James Thurber.

There's a polar difference between legitimate criticism and a hatchet job. A real critic will try to probe within the work for better or worse, using their critique as a means of exploring general principles of art. A troll just hacks away at the surface, pulling bits out of context and sneering "This doesn't make sense to me," as though mangling the reading is a fair trial. In their argument, they're superior to the creator because they don't appreciate the work. But who are THEY?

David Deletion said...

Hi Ken,

I like your writing and your blog. I think I'd enjoy you in person. I think you put funny first. You write quickly, clearly, and concisely. That's an impressive combination. I enjoy it, thanks.

I've read your blog for years. Almost every day. It's a good read.

Occasionally you write about politics. It didn't bother me until you started writing about Trump. When you take on Trump on his terms—name-calling, divisiveness, swearing, polarization, and reaction—he and his supporters earn a point, they love it, you're playing their game. I just skip that stuff. It's our choice to walk away. If you want to get in a laugh, throw in an occasional earnest compliment for someone you're supposed to hate… just let it hang there & let your readers wonder ;)

Thanks again, keep it up.

scottmc said...

You have mentioned how when writing your plays there is the unwritten rule of limiting yourself to only three or four characters. Are there any other unwritten rules?
Does a potential theater’s size/capacity factor in.
For example, I saw THE GERMAN PLAY in a small space in a midtown office building and UPFRONTS & PERSONAL in a legitimate theater.
{ I loved THE GERMAN PLAY, is there a reason why it isn’t among the plays available for sale.)

David Simpson said...

Regarding bad reviews:

In the seventies the comedy duo Morecambe And Wise were massively popular on British TV, and are still well regarded today.

In the sixties they had a very popular TV series, and were regular guests on the Ed Sullivan Show in America.

In 1954, after many years in front of live audiences, and much radio success, they starred in their first TV series, Running Wild, which was not well received and led to a damning newspaper review: "Definition of the week: TV set — the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise." Eric Morecambe apparently carried a copy of this review around with him ever afterward.

Unknown said...

Professional reviewers might be trained in theater or cinema or something like that (are they?) but for two decades we've had the ability to put our own audience reviews on the internet and audiences have no idea how to critique movies or tv productively, myself included. We tend to focus on things like that one actress's shrill voice, or why was that guy's hairstyle so weird, or how no one says, "Back atcha" any more.

Also, and I know this contradicts what I just said above, but I'll say it anyway. We just went through a deadly pandemic. The news is bad every day. Can we have fewer terrifying dystopias and more fun and escapist tv now? Please? Also, I'm all superhero-ed out. No more superheroes. Let's give them a rest.

Summary: fun, escapist, but no superheroes.

Maybe some nice, gentle comedies? No nudity, no x-rated jokes. Something I can watch with my tweens.