Thursday, February 25, 2016

'Last Week Tonight' is the best show on tv.

Even though I'm a person who doesn't think that much of the current state of television,  there are still shows that are worthy of your time. There are shows that manage to entertain and make you think at the same time.

At the moment my favorite show on television is probably HBO's 'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver'. This is a weekly 30 minute comedy / news series that tackles current issues, ranging from anything between politics, economy, sports, environment and religion.

There are numerous reasons why me and others like the show so much. Among other things, the show is well written and researched. It has a good sense of what's funny, what's important and what are the things that matter to us.

Yet, in my opinion, the single biggest reason that the series is so good is because it has a wonderful host in John Oliver. He is simply fantastic when it comes to delivering and presenting the show's material. He is who makes the series what it is.

Oliver is so good because he has a great ability to get the audience involved and care about what's going on. He seems very believable and gives you the impression that nothing's more important than what he's saying.

That the series is that good shouldn't really come as a surprise to most of us. After all, before Last Week Tonight, Oliver worked on the super popular The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and covered for him when it was needed.

His guest stint on Comedy Central's show was so impressive, that it soon became pretty obvious that Oliver deserved his own show. At least in my opinion, he was perhaps even better than Stewart was at his very best. 

Now I'm not in any way saying that he's the only thing that matters on 'Last Week Tonight'. Naturally it also takes a talented writing staff to make the show work as well as it does. They'll write the script, do most of the other things too and make things click.

Yet, as we have seen in the case of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, if you have to settle with a mediocre presenter, you'll get yourself in trouble. Your show won't be as good and as believable as it should or could be.

Fortunately, John Oliver knows what he's doing, which makes 'Last Week Tonight' a genuinely wonderful series. It's funny, informative, entertaining and involving - and at least in my case, leaves me wanting for more.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The problems with detailed outlines in sitcoms.

It was something like two weeks ago when I visited Ken Levine's blog, where he was telling his loyal readers about the importance of detailed outlines. They are the key to being successful and if you don't like them, you shouldn't be a writer.

Here are some of the biggest reasons why I disagree and will argue that these outlines aren't necessarily that beneficial. When it comes to writing and producing network television shows, here's why detailed outlines might cause you problems:

1) It's not easy to make sense out of them.

When you'll read a detailed outline, amazingly enough, you don't get a nice synopsis of what the storylines are going to be about. There's no structural scene by scene description that would give the reader an easy access to know what's going on.

Instead you'll get two things: 1) walls of text that are difficult to read and 2) occasional test dialogue that won't go anywhere. There's absolutely no sense of pacing, rhythm or time whatsoever in these detailed outlines.

In my opinion nothing's more important than getting a solid feel for the script and how it's going to flow. When the outline mostly consists of sentences that have bland descriptions and 'temporary' stuff, how can you know that it's going to work?

2) Nobody wants to read them, including the network executives.

It's true that network executives want to be aware of what's going on with their shows. They want to be able to control their products and give notes so that they can feel more important about themselves and their careers.

At the same time, it's not a secret that they don't like to read these 'detailed' outlines that much. Who can even blame them when they get confused and start asking questions, when it's obvious that the writers aren't leveling with them.

If you want to keep the executives happy, it shouldn't be that difficult to create a proper format that clearly explains a) what the essential things in the script are going to be and b) when and where they are going to happen. 

3) Outlines make you think your story works even if it doesn't.

No matter how bad and weak your storylines are, most outlines will make them look at least semi-plausible. Thanks to the muddled format, it's almost impossible to tell whether the premise of your episode has enough potential or not.

In fact, the story logic problems in your outline might be so big that you could drive a truck through them - and you still wouldn't notice them. There's a really good chance that you didn't pay attention to them and that later you are going to be in trouble.

I mean, I don't want to sound like a jerk, but do the showrunners prefer detailed outlines because these outlines make it look like they have achieved something? Perhaps they like to think that they've worked hard and that their storylines are better than they really are.

4) You'll get the most basic storylines and resolutions.

Creating detailed outlines unfortunately has a lot to do with coming up with stuff that we have already seen a million times before. Too many times you get the most basic problems and then the most basic resolutions to these problems.

The reason this happens so easily is that 'detailed' outlines don't let you think (feel) for yourself enough. The chances are that you'll think too much on a macro-level and won't get any emerging ideas from actually feeling your characters.

For example, on Modern Family they have done like a dozen times 'storylines' that climax when one of the characters accidentally overhears someone else talking. Clearly this is a result of going through the same macro-motions over and over again.

5) You simply can't plan everything.

Finally, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with planning your episodes or in trying to make sure that all the right building blocks are there. It would obviously be stupid and irresponsible not to map ahead and not be prepared.
At the same time, in order to be able to come up with the best kind of stuff, you need to have the confidence to go out on a limb too. It's crucial that you have the ability to live in the moment, and that you'll let yourself feel and not just 'think'.

The truth is that if you want to write something that genuinely touches people, you need to be willing to take chances. If you're too willing to outline your scripts to death, the end result is almost certainly going to be that same old, same old stuff.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why are most stand-up comedians so bad?

It's not exactly a secret that for a very long time I haven't been happy about the state of stand-up comedy. In my opinion most of the stand-up comedians are genuinely bad when it comes to making you laugh or think.

It's not really even that close when it comes to judging the abilities of today's stand-up comics. Unless you're willing to set the bar pretty low, it's rather difficult to think much of these performers and their abilities.

For example, I have never understood what people see in a supposed 'funny man' like Louis C.K. What's so awesome about a guy who's act is mostly based on being a bitter, resentful, fat, divorced middle-aged man?

What's really funny about him more or less hating, not understanding women and not liking being a parent for your children? What's so unique about it, especially when he's supposed to be this some sort of an intellectual?

It's not easy to like a comedian like him, when you consider that he's not very good at setting up his jokes and that his storytelling abilities are weak. He mostly rambles aimlessly and doesn't know how to make good points in his act.

Who can honestly live with the fact that he doesn't have a decent stage presence either? How can anyone be excited about him, when it's obvious that he's not that good at expressing himself, doesn't look good or doesn't have a good enough voice either?

I mean, if you're a stand-up comic, I thought you were supposed to know what makes you good: basic qualities like having a good voice, being able to do physical comedy, ability to make faces, make solid impressions and perhaps even be able to sing.

If you can't do any of those things and don't know how to tell a story and use punchlines well, then what's the point in being a stand-up comedian? You're pretty much humiliating yourself and not setting the bar higher for others.

I mean, maybe it's just me, but if you're not even trying to be as good and as entertaining as Jerry Seinfeld, the late Bill Hicks or the late George Carlin, then perhaps stand-up comedy isn't something that you should be doing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Is Amy Schumer's 'career' going to be over?

Lately I've been wondering whether I should write about Amy Schumer and how much I dislike her. I haven't wanted to write about her that much, because in that case I'd be obliged to say a lot of very negative things about her.

Nevertheless, it was last week when videos about her 'allegedly' stealing stuff from other comedians went viral. I was pretty surprised, because even though I knew some bad things about her, I didn't know that she was a joke thief too.

I mean, I did know that she used to be an actual thief, who used to shoplift all the time. I knew that her shoplifting habits were so bad and so frequent that she faced serious jail time for her grand larcenies as a young adult.

So knowing that she had a pretty, ahem, shady past, you might be asking, how did she manage to make it big in Hollywood? How is it possible that she became this darling of the mainstream media that she is today?

Could it be that she became famous because she's so talented and because she worked so hard? Did she make it because she finally, after all those years of struggling had her 'lucky break' that she had so earned and so deserved? 

The answer to these questions of course - and not surprisingly - is an obvious no. She didn't make it in the business and she didn't avoid going to prison because she had earned it - but because she had very powerful family connections.

As one might have guessed based on her last name, she is indeed related to the democratic senator from the great state of New York, Chuck Schumer. He is her cousin, which gave her enormous opportunities to beat the system.

It was senator Schumer who reportedly bailed her out and managed to get her charges dropped. It was Chuck who got her out after she had stolen stuff worth almost one hundred thousand dollars and when she could have faced more than ten years in prison.

So knowing this, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that if your uncle can get your felony charges dropped, just about anything is possible. After that it couldn't have been that difficult to get into the show business either.

Let's be clear that she simply doesn't have the talent to succeed in the business on her own. She doesn't look "good enough", she doesn't have an attractive personality, she doesn't have a good delivery and she doesn't know how to write well enough.

Any other normal person who didn't have her connections would probably be in jail at the moment. Absolutely zero per cent of people without her privileged background would be in the business let alone be called 'the queen of comedy' as she is.

In any case, now that she's finally getting some bad publicity, we can only hope that she'll pay for her misdeeds and will be forgotten. As far as I'm concerned, the sooner Amy Schumer's fifteen minutes of fame are going to be over, the better.