Monday, July 24, 2017

The value of talk-backs

David Mamet now has added a new wrinkle to theaters and producers staging his plays. They are no longer allowed to have talk-backs with the audience directly afterwards.

Talk-backs have become very popular. Audiences get the chance to meet members of the creative team and discuss the play. Talk-backs can be very informative. The type of thing I did on my podcast recently (Episode 27 – Comedy 101), sharing my thought process on the writing of a one-act play, is a great way for the audience to appreciate just what goes into the making of a project (I’m not going to say the making of “art” because I always find that so pretentious).

For theaters it’s a nice perk, increases attendance, and boosts subscriptions.

Mamet argues that it reduces his work, that often the people on the stage (directors, producers, actors) misinterpret the meaning of his “art,” can smooth over ambiguities, and the audience’s perception of what they have just seen can be altered by idiotic observations by some theatergoers.

And to that I say, SO WHAT?

If someone is interested enough in your play after having just seen it to stay and discuss it further, you’ve won. I’ve done a few talk-backs and I’m always thrilled when most people stick around for them.

As the playwright I’m interested in what people have to say. Yes, some of the comments and questions are insane and I have to resist the urge to say to them, “What fucking play were YOU watching, because it wasn’t this one here on earth?” I’m nice that way. But more often I’ll get good questions and I will learn from the experience. I’ve done rewrites based on talk-backs. At the end of the day the play is for the audience. If they’re confused when I don’t want them to be, or they’re angry at something when it’s not my intention then it’s my job to fix it.

Let’s say there's something I thought should have gotten a big laugh and it didn’t. It’s nice that I can say, “Why didn’t that work for you?” and someone will say, “Because I didn’t know that reference.” (Of course someone else will say “You’re just not funny.”)

Also, as a playwright I have to feel that my play can stand on its own and the audience’s appreciation of it won’t be swayed by a talk-back. If I’m worried that someone is going to say, “I thought I liked the play but then the talk-back convinced me I didn’t” then I shouldn’t be sending it out in the world.

Look, I do understand that when community theaters or college productions or even regional productions do your work they can sometimes screw it up. I’ve seen work of mine miscast and moments missed by directors. It’s to be expected. I’m sure GLENGARY GLENROSS has been done by the WAITING FOR GUFFMAN company players and it’s jaw-dropping. But so what? Theater pieces are exciting because they’re done live. And they are open to interpretation.

But the good news is sometimes those interpretations, from the actors or directors, are better than your original conception. Or at least add a shading that wasn’t already there. Boy, is that exciting.

So uncertainty comes with the territory. Not being able to control all the elements also come with the territory. Yes, they can be frustrating. I was in the audience of a talk-back of a Neil LaBute play. He was on the panel. It was a terrible fucking play. He’s written some fabulous ones but this wasn’t one of them. When I pointed out a character inconsistency that he couldn’t defend he became very hostile. Meanwhile, all the actors on the stage were smiling and nodding. I talked to one of the actors afterwards and she thanked me. She said the cast all had the same issue and LaBute just refused to change anything. They loved that someone else called him on it. My intent was not to challenge him but to get him to clarify for me something that was confusing and preventing me from enjoying the play.

At the end of the day, David Mamet can decide to impose any restrictions he wants on his plays. He is also free to deny any production of his plays if he so desires. There are some claiming this is a “violation of free speech” issue; I think that’s stretching it. But for my money, hearing from the public is always a good thing. And once you stop caring what they think, they have every right to stop caring about what you think.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why you can't let rejection dash your hopes

Our first agent wasn’t very good. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, living on Kraft macaroni, and trying to break in we managed to get an agent. She was a legitimate WGA signatory but she wasn’t top tier. She wasn’t third tier. But shows would accept her submissions, which was all we really needed.


She sent our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the late great David Lloyd, who was one of their producers. When she didn’t hear back in a few weeks she sent him a blistering following up.

Several days later he responded. It was a rejection letter. The opening sentence was:

HOW DARE YOU!

He then went on for three paragraphs to rip her a new asshole for questioning his integrity and accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.

Almost as an afterthought, he finally got to our script in the fourth paragraph and basically said it was a complete amateurish piece of shit (although I don’t think he put it that nicely).

Years later we worked together on CHEERS and I mentioned the letter. David being David, he said, “Well, I’m sure it was a piece of shit.”

I’m also sure he was right.

You won’t be surprised to learn that once we got our first assignment (that this agent had nothing to do with), we moved on to more reputable representation.

In my career, I’ve been on the other side numerous times. I’ve been the one reading and judging. I always write nice rejection letters, even if the script sucks eggs. I feel that good, bad, or indifferent, the person (or team) went to the effort of writing a script and the least I could do is let them down easy.

Plus, who’s to say I’m always right? I’m not. Along the way, I’ve rejected a few great people who went on to long and successful careers.  When a writer friend of mine was story editor on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE he rejected a script by the Coen Brothers. It happens to all of us.

So when you get rejected – and we all do – take heart. You never know who’s going to turn out to be an A-lister.

My favorite story of that was from Larry Gelbart. Larry was one of the most gifted and successful writers of the last half-century. Among his credits: creating the TV version of MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD!, FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SLY FOX, CITY OF ANGELS, CAESAR’S HOUR – it goes on and on. But when he was 18 he had a screen test for an acting part in a George Cukor movie at MGM. He did his test, he wasn’t chosen, and that was that. Many years later when he was an accomplished writer he happened to bump into Cukor at a party. He told him the story and Cukor said to him, “Well why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

Good luck and may you become who you hope to be.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A comedy scene without a laugh track

I found this to be very interesting.  Thanks to a reader for alerting me to it.  This is a scene from THE BIG BANG THEORY but with the laugh track surgically removed.   Are the jokes really funny on their own?   You can imagine that on the air with the laugh track this stuff was getting screams.  Here of course, the scene feels very flat.

But I must say, in all fairness, that by removing the laugh track they also removed the actual audience reaction.   So some of these jokes that appear to evoke silence might have gotten legitimate laughs on the stage.   You have to keep that in mind.   Some of this stuff did work although you can't tell from this version. 

That said, this clip does give you a sense of the amount of jokes and rhythm of jokes in a BIG BANG THEORY scene.   And like I said, you decide yourself without any help from the machine whether these jokes or some of these jokes work.    It's kind of a fun exercise and takes less than two minutes.

Enjoy and let me know what you thought. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day.

Jim starts us off.

So here's a sort of Friday question if you want an excuse to talk about old comedy. Are there any actors around today who still have those physical skills? The only one I can think of is Jackie Chan, who's getting on a bit I suppose.

Steve Martin is a great physical comedian. So is Michael Richards. I would add Kevin James. A lot of people like Jim Carrey. Just not a fan. Melissa McCarthy has game. For my money, Kate McKinnon can do anything. Nathan Lane is pretty physical too.

But David Hyde Pierce is a master.

And then of course there are the British comedic actors – from the Monty Python guys, to Rowen Atkinson. And you can throw in Hugh Laurie.

I’m sure I’m leaving a few out. Physical comedy is a true art form requiring grace, coordination, and expert comic timing.

Brad Apling asks:

I call this question "Where Everybody Knows Your Tune (almost)". Some shows have memorable tunes that people recognize instantly; others have to be Googled. Who decides the theme song for a series, any side input from the writers or showrunners?

Well, it used to be the showrunner… back when there WERE theme songs. Most network shows today are deathly afraid you’ll tune out so opening themes are five seconds. Not many people are going to hum five second jingles.

Some cable networks and premium services allow for opening credits and themes. Personally, I think they add a lot. The GAME OF THRONES opening is extraordinary.

But when theme songs are allowed, it’s usually the showrunner’s call although he very well may enlist input from the staff.

I remember the Charles Brothers playing the demo of the CHEERS theme for us and asking what we thought. I rather liked it actually.

From MikeN:

There is a clip from Cheers that gets used at professional sports events. I'll let readers try and guess which one.

My question is, does the studio get paid for use of these clips, and if so do you get a share?

The studio might but we don’t.  And I'm sure in a lot of cases the studio doesn't know about it.  Unless they're alerted, they probably don't know if AA minor league stadiums feature the clip in question.   I’m guessing this is the clip you mean.


And finally, Peter has another CHEERS question.

With so many sitcoms returning for "limited event series" like Roseanne, Will & Grace,etc, perhaps it's only a matter of time that TV executives ask for a limited run of new Cheers. Obviously this can only happen if the Charles brothers and Ted Danson say yes. Do you think they would and if they did, would you and David also get on board?

I don’t think it would ever happen. I can’t imagine Ted or the Charles Brothers ever going ahead with something like that. CHEERS is locked in time. Remember the characters as they were.

As for me and David, obviously I can’t speak for my partner, but the only reason I would participate is to work again with Glen & Les. But again, it ain’t gonna happen. Trust me on this one.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Why become a stand-up

So revealed to the world on this week’s podcast is my attempt at stand-up comedy. (You can listen by just clicking the big gold arrow under the masthead or by clicking here) It was quite an experience, and I talk about that as well in this episode.

But what the exercise didn’t explain is a question I’ve wrestled with for years – of all the forms of comedy, who do some people gravitate towards stand-up?

Yes, it’s intoxicating to get laughs, but you don’t have to be standing all alone on a tiny stage surrounded by potential hostile drunk people to get the joy of producing laughs. As a writer, I get that feeling every time a play or show of mine gets laughs from an appreciative audience. Actors get the same rush when comedies they’re acting in work. Maybe they didn’t write them, but their talent and ability to deliver is what sold the material.

When I’m doing improv I have the safety net that I’m working with other performers (the comedy burden is not entirely on me thank God) and the audience understands that this is stuff being made up on the spot. So they give you a little more leeway (not much but a little).

And doing comedy on the radio is unique because you know going in you’re never going to hear laughter. You just have to assume you’re making the audience laugh. But you don’t hear that deafening silence if you’re not. Radio also affords you a certain level of anonymity. No one sees you. No one is judging you on your appearance.  They can't see you sweat. 

So why choose stand-up? Why subject yourself to hecklers, angry patrons, people who look at you with pity? Why risk embarrassing yourself in front of strangers?

Sure, there are funny people who grow up admiring certain stand-up comedians and want to follow in their footsteps. Their love of comedy stems from these comedians.

But what about the more general person who thinks he’s funny and just wants to express himself? Why take this particular path?

Here’s the reason I came up with – and this is based on nothing substantial at all – this is just my hare-brained theory.

Stand-up comedy is the most accessible.

Anyone can sign up for an open-mic night. If they bomb they can sign up again or sign up elsewhere. No one has to hire you. If you’re an actor someone has to hire you to be in a play or on a show. Same with radio. There are only so many openings and you have to beat out lots of people to get one. At five minutes a set, over fifty comics can sign up for an open mic night. And that’s one club, one night. Here in Los Angeles there are dozens of clubs. You can sign up for four open mics on one night.

You could always write and produce your own material and put it up on YouTube but that costs money and enlisting others' help.  No one pays you for open-mics but they don't cost you either.  

Obviously the goal is to get hired as a comedian, but at least you have a way in. You can showcase yourself. You can gain experience. You can fail.

And you can do it yourself. You don’t need to be part of a group. You can generate your own material. And get immediate feedback. One major frustration with writing spec scripts is you send them out and often times hear nothing back. Or just a rejection. You don’t know why. You don’t know what didn’t work. When you’re on stage you get your answers (whether you like them or not).

So there’s that immediate rush and opportunity to continue improving your craft. And as a bonus, there’s camaraderie. You’re alone on stage, but you’re not alone with your dream. Understanding that they’re also your competitors, these other stand-up wannabes are your support system. They get it. They probably have the same neuroses.

Okay, that’s my theory. What do you think? Now spoken from a fellow stand-up who has five whole minutes of experience.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Episode 29: My Stand-Up Comedy Debut


Ken throws caution to the wind and does his very first stand-up routine at an open mic night. You’ll hear the whole set. How did he do? You decide. He’ll also take you behind-the-scenes, before and after. It’s an exercise in either courage or stupidity depending upon how you look at it.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The GAME OF THRONES season premiere

Wow! The GAME OF THRONES season premiere Sunday night shattered records for HBO, drawing a staggering 10.1 million viewers and another 6 million via same day DVR playback and streaming. That obliterated broadcast network fare. Even I couldn’t help them on CNN. I was not included in THE NINETIES episode profiling Clinton (although I’m sure some of my commentary relating to THE SIMPSONS could have just been used out of context).

But what this record-breaking performance tells me is this:

For all the options viewers now have, if you offer a show people really want to watch you can still draw big numbers.

GAME OF THRONES did a lot better than TWIN PEAKS. Is TWIN PEAKS even still on?

GAME OF THRONES was not eligible for Emmys this year but next year look out.  No reason for HAWAII FIVE-O to even send out screeners. 

People, it seems, like watching a program with no commercials.  Who knew?

Those were just the first night numbers. Expect them to grow considerably over the week.

Broadcast networks will dismiss the numbers because it’s the summer. Sure. ABC’s TO TELL THE TRUTH would have made a huge dent if this were the fall.

ABC won the night among the Big Four but still had less than a third of GAME OF THRONE’S totals.

Broadcast networks used to claim that cable was no real competition. Remember that terrestrial radio when satellite, internet, and podcast programming swallows you whole.

Viewers still like opening titles.  Also, who knew? 

How’s NBC lookin' with that big Megyn Kelly deal? Her show drew a paltry 3.1 million. Forget GAME OF THRONES. CANDY CRUSH kicked her ass (and it was down from last week).

There will be two GAME OF THRONES-knock offs in development this year by the broadcast networks (or maybe four). Except they’ll say to the producers, “Can you keep the budget down to like a million an episode?” “What if they never left the castle?” “We need more little people on our shows!”

Imagine how much greater still GAME OF THRONES numbers would be if Steve Harvey was in it somehow.

And finally, I guess I should try again to watch GAME OF THRONES.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Let's talk laugh tracks

I get many Friday Questions about laugh tracks, so I thought I would devote an entire post to the subject. Here’s the latest question:

From Homesick Canadian in Taiwan:

Many of your posts are about the importance of getting authentic laughs from the studio audience. If a joke doesn't get laughs, it's cut or re-worked, etc.

However, I don't quite get how this works. It's well known from blooper reels that actors often flub lines and have to re-shoot. How does an audience give an uproarious response to a joke they're hearing for a second, third, or fourth time? My understanding is that this is what laugh-tracks are for. It's also been part of common knowledge in TV culture that producers just add a laugh-track when jokes don't get a response -- for situations like you've written about when an audience is comprised of a busload of Japanese tourists who don't understand English but want to see a taping of a hit American show. Or simply because a joke falls flat and the director thinks the home viewer will be amused if they hear the canned laughter.

The goal is to use as much of the actual audience laughter as possible. Yes, when we re-shoot a scene the response to a joke the second or fourth time is not as strong as the first and if we use that later take we’ll insert the laugh from the first take.

But sometimes it’s weird – the same joke will get a bigger reaction the second time. Maybe they just heard it better, or the actor delivered it better, or the air conditioning was working better,  In any event, we just thank the Gods of comedy and move on.

So yes, there is some jockeying with the laugh track, but the canned laughs are all from our audience not I LOVE LUCY.

Occasionally, you have a really bad audience or one comprised of tourists who can’t speak English, and you do have to fudge a little. But in those cases we try to be very judicious and sprinkle in just enough laughs so that the show doesn’t seem flat but not to where they’re intrusive.   In my mind, once the audience is aware of canned laughter you're in trouble. 

Part of the problem with many multi-cam shows is that the producers crank up the laugh track to where it’s ridiculous. I talked about this before, viewers now feel insulted. “Do these producers think I’m that stupid that I would laugh at this truly unfunny joke just because the familiar laugh track is going crazy?”  They have a right to feel insulted.  Sitcoms have been playing this shell game for sixty years now. 

Here’s an interesting thing – audiences respond way better to things they see live actors do rather than watching finished pre-records. In other words, let’s say I’m directing an episode with a car scene. I will pre-shoot it.

The editor will put it together that night and the following night when we shoot the show in front of 250 people we’ll have the ability to play it back for them and record their laughter.

However, when I direct, instead of showing that finished scene I bring out the actors involved, place them in two chairs, explain to the audience that they’re in a car driving, and have the actors do the scene live. I record the audio and even though the audience has to now imagine the scene, they laugh much louder having real actors performing the scene.

It all goes back to why some shows are filmed in front of an audience in the first place – there’s a real energy the cast derives from a live audience.  They feed off their laughter.  Their performances go up and if the writing is good the whole show rises. It’s intangible but the home viewer can sense it.

Getting back to that car scene, I wonder what would happen if we just aired the scene of the two actors on chairs instead of the real one with them in an actual car.  I don't think the home audience would be thinking about the laugh track at that moment.