Archive for: Allan Golombek


Tonys producers to TV audience: Let me entertain you

Last night’s Tony Awards reminds me of an interesting question: What makes the Tonys consistently the best of the showbiz awards shows? (An opinion backed up by the fact that the annual Broadway Awards show wins so many Emmys.)


1. They focus on what people care about. They only present the ‘big’ awards during the actual televised program — awards like Best Musical, Best Play, Best Actor and Actress in each of those categories, Best Revival. The rest of the awards — such as costume design — are presented earlier, with the winners announced during the actual show. If they went through the whole process (presenters , presenters open the envelope, announcing the winner, hearing the winner’s speech) for every single award, they would be on all night — to a continually shrinking home audience.


2. They are unique — they offer something people don’t normally get. One of live theatre’s few advantages compared to movies and television is that the theatrical product is something people don’t get to see every day. When most people see a musical number from, say, Book of Morman, they are seeing something new to them. That’s not like the Oscars or the Emmys, where we have seen the movies or TV shows already, or where the clips are slightly longer versions of scenes we have already seen in ads.


3. The Tonys are entertaining. This is partly a natural follow-on from points 1 and 2 above. Spending less time on the secondary categories leaves more time to entertain the home audience. And because they are offering something different, it has more entertainment value.


But more than this, the Tonys make a big effort to entertain. They realize what some awards show producers don’t seem to — bore your audience for one minute and you lose them for the rest of the night.


When you add it up, the Tonys’ follow the same formula that makes sense for any speech, or any effective communciations product: Focus on what people care about, offer a unique product or message, and entertain the audience.


Remembering Baseball Royalty: The Duke of Flatbush

One of the last of The Boys of Summer is gone. Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider (1926-2011) passed away yesterday. The Duke was known for many things: he was a great center fielder with a bullet arm, and he was a power hitter. Along with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, he was one of the trio of center fielders for New York’s three teams (the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees) who captivated New York sports fans — and inspired the song Willie, Mickey and the Duke.  

Snider was called up to the majors by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, and became a star the next year, his first full season at the Dodgers old stadium in Flatbush, Brooklyn. But he slumped badly in 1951, the same season the Dodgers blew a 13-game lead to the Giants. Under a barrage of booing and media criticism, Snider demanded to be traded. But owner Walter O’Malley turned him down, and that turned out to be a smart move. The Duke proved his claims to baseball royalty, hitting 40 or more homers a year from 1953-1957.

But perhaps his biggest contribution to his team, to baseball and to society was his role as one of the leaders of the team that broke the color barrier. The Duke wasn’t on the team when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American players in the majors. But thoughout the 1950s, as more and more teams integrated, the Dodgers were known as the center of the movement, as described in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Part of the reason baseball’s integration helped lead to America’s is because of the success of the Dodgers on the field, and their team spirit both on and off it.

Duke Snider was part of that history, which makes him a part — even if a small part — of American history.

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Interpreting data: Unemployment rates demonstrate the challenge

Today’s unemployment rate announcement offers another demonstration that every statistic demands a second (and third and fourth) look. News coverage of the Bureau of Labor Statistics announcement of December employment stats understandably focused on the overall unemployment rate , down from 9.8% to 9.4% — a good news story. But when you look just below the surface you find good news — and bad. While unemployment declined by .4 percent, the labor participation rate declined by .2 percent — half of the overall decline in unemployment. In other words, half of the decline is attributable to more people finding work — and half is attributable to fewer people looking for it.

Digital Services Writing

Person of the Year changed the face of communications

Remember when ‘friend’ was strictly a noun? The fact that it is now also a verb provides just a small sense of the impact that Mark Zuckerberg has had on society, and why he was designated Time‘s Person of the Year.

Just a few years ago, sociologists were warning that the Internet was diminishing social interaction (and social capital). Now, 500 million friends later, Facebook (and myriad other social networking sites) has turned that around. In the process, it has changed the way we communicate. When is the last time you spent an evening watching television without catching a few commercials that mention the companies’ Facebook page? If you’re in the communications business, how often are the communications products you produce  used on a Facebook page? Read

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The Social Network: You might want to click the accept button for this one

Who would think that Hollywood could produce a blockbuster out of the story about the founding of Facebook — a movie that is centered on a pair of court cases, with the action being driven by legal discovery sessions in a pair of board rooms? Actually, the trailers made it clear The Social Network would be entertaining enough. What surprised me was just how good it was — and how relatively balanced and nuanced it turned out to be.

Going in, there were some reasons not to expect any semblance of balance. For starters, the film was based on what is generally regarded as a one-sided book. Strike one. And Hollywood is not exactly known for fair and balanced depictions of the business world. Strike two. And the screenwriter was Aaron Sorkin, who generally likes his characters to wear white hats or black hats — no shades of grey allowed. Strike three. Nope, that one turned out to be a foul tip.  In fact, Sorkin went on to hit this one clear over the fence. Read

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Frankly My Dear, I DO Give a Damn — What makes a Great Line

About five years ago the American Film Institute compiled a list of the greatest quotes in the history of film. I didn’t envy their task. There have been some great ones. How to get it down to a hundred? The AFI almost could have come up with that many from the film Casablanca alone: “Here’s looking at you kid.””This could be the start of a great friendship” “You wore blue, the Germans wore grey” “I’m shocked, shocked to discover there has been gambling going on in this establishment.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns all over the world, why did she have to come into mine?” (The line was originally supposed to be “bars.”  Humphrey Bogart changed it to “gin joints.” Writers beware.)

But the AFI did a good job narrowing it down to 100, and their top 3 picks tell us a lot about what it takes to reach people. The big lines they picked out all say something about what makes a great line great — not just in a film, but in a speech, an article or any communications vehicle.

The AFI’s top 3 choices were:

1. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The producers of Gone With the Wind had a hard time getting that one past the censors in 1939, but I think what makes it so memorable decades later is the way it expressed Rhett Butler’s core value. He was deeply in love, but nothing was more important to him than maintaining his self-respect. It wasn’t even a close call for him.

2. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This line, originally in The Godfather novel, summed up the character of Don Corleone as played by Marlon Brando. He was always willing to negotiate, always willing to cut a deal. But he had the power to make sure he got what he wanted, at a price he was willing to pay. Bargaining session over.

3. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Brando again, this time up against the mob in On The Waterfront.  The line (delivered by Brando to Rod Steiger as his brother in the film) expressed the frustration of a character struggling on the docks after glimpsing the prospect of fame. But the line’s real meaning didn’t become fully clear until later in the movie, when the Marlon Brando character “ratted” out the crooked union boss, after his brother was killed. It was when the Brando character testified against the mobsters who were running the docks (and who had killed his brother) that he showed he did have class, he was a contender — and no longer a bum doing the mob’s bidding.

All three of these lines were great, I believe, because they expressed the characters’ core values — what they really stood for, what mattered to them, what they did give a damn about. Just like a speech should.

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Sheldon strikes big bang for Geeks at Emmys

Last night was a big night for nerds. Jim Parsons (aka Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory) won an Emmy for best actor in a comedy series, beating out front-runners Matthew Morrison (Glee) and Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), neither of whom would ever be accused of being a nerd. Parsons, however, plays the nerdy theoretical physicist Sheldon well enough to be on his way to icon status. (A physics major I know tells me that people in her class refer to especially geeky fellow students as “sheldons.’) That’s what writing is all about — making it real. That’s true no matter what you are writing.

What is especially impressive about Parsons’ win is that his character was not originally planned as the series lead. Rather, he was the break-out character (a la Kramer on Seinfeld, or Dwight on The Office). But his characterization of Sheldon stole the show. Some even say he has made geekiness cool. If so, that’s the acting equivalent of splitting the atom.

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‘Shot heard round the world’ was the sound of baseball’s spirit

I was surprised that it didn’t get more attention when Bobby Thomson passed away the other day. In October 1951 he was probably the most celebrated person in America (and the most cursed in Brooklyn.) Thomson blasted what was known as the ‘shot heard round the world’ — a 3-run homer off Ralph Branca to lift the New York Giants to a 5-4 ‘miracle’ victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the special National League tie-breaking playoff series.

Thomson’s home run was one of the most famous in baseball history. More than anything else, I think, what gave it such appeal among baseball fans is that it demonstrated that, in baseball, it truly ain’t over till it’s over (as Yogi Berra would say). Read


Tony Awards need to get beyond the street where they live

I’m a big fan of Broadway shows. So I should enjoy the Tony Awards show. And I do — last night’s show had particularly good performances from La Cage, Memphis and Million-Dollar Quartet. But something always bothers me about the Tonys. More than any of the other award ceremonies — the Oscar, the Emmy, the Grammy, even the MTV Awards  — the Tony is an “insider” occasion. The speeches of presenters and award winners both are laced with inside references, and even more with insider “emotions” — a frequent assumption that everyone listening to them understands their cultural references, and maybe even that those who don’t understand don’t count.

It’s easy to understand the homogeneous nature of the Broadway community. They work hard to get to the top — usually a lot harder than in the other popular entertainment forms — and the financial rewards and recognition generally don’t match movies, TV etc. Read


‘Family values’ triumph at Cannes

A Thai man dying of kidney failure is visited by his late wife and lost son in ghostly form (Uncle Boonmee Who Can recall His Past Lives.) Two Italian men struggle with the challenges of single fatherhood in La Nostra Vita (Our Life.) A man and a woman are either complete strangers or husband and wife — or both — in Certified Copy. These were three of the big winners at this year’s Cannes Festival, where the jury seemed to be taken by films with some kind of family theme.

In a sense, family themes were also popular at last year’s festival.  The winner of the 2009 Regards Jeunes prize went to Quebecer Xavier Dolan for J’ai tue ma mere (I Killed My Mother.) It isn’t a spoiler to tell you the lead character didn’t literally kill his mother.