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Richard Zoglin is a senior writer-editor at TIME who has covered show business for the magazine for over twenty years. His wealth of experience as a critic and his unique position to observe the world of entertainment and its trends provided more than ample motivation for Thirsty to sit down with him for a brief discussion.

Photo: Joseph Moran


Thirsty: How relevant is theater in the digital age?

Richard Zoglin: I think that theater is even more relevant than it's ever been. I really feel that with all the digital inundation that we get, sitting in front of that computer screen, I think people still crave a personal experience, a personal artistic experience, and that sitting there in that theater watching people on stage is even more valuable and more riveting an experience than ever and that people appreciate it even more the more they're sitting by themselves in front of a computer screen. So I think it is the one thing that the digital age will never make irrelevant because people will always want that personal experience - artistic experience. The digital age is changing the television world certainly, it's changing the movie world, but it is not really changing the stage where people are still doing things on stage and theater is actually more popular than ever around the country, regional theater...high school theater is more popular than ever.

Is there an off-Broadway trend to keep an eye on?

I think the amazing thing to me is how much life and enterprise there is in the musical form. Musicals we think of as the big Broadway musicals, the Disney musicals, the Producers, those kind of things, are still around and certainly drawing big crowds on Broadway.

But there are so many interesting little musicals being done. I just saw a musical on Friday of "The Adding Machine". The 1923 Elmer Rice expressionist play which actually is one of my favorite plays. They turned into a musical. It was actually done in Chicago by a company in Chicago. It was very unusual, boundied, edgy and I don't think it is going to be a hit, but boy the idea that somebody actually thought to do a musical of "The Adding Machine" is pretty amazing. So I'm constantly seeing really interesting efforts to kind of expand the idea of what a musical can be. And most of these are not shows that would be big popular successes on Broadway, but definitely off-Broadway's taking chances on shows like these.

So in essence you think there is a musical genre, sort of a sub-genre, that has some life in it?

Definitely. Years ago people were thinking, were talking the musical, the death of the musical and it's not a relevant form anymore. I'm amazed at how many people are using the musical form to tell all sorts of different stories, mass audience kind of stories and very small scale esoteric kind of stories. I think it's just an amazingly flexible form. I think that's kind of exciting.

As content moves from television to the internet will television's influence on society change?

The content will remain the same. I mean there will be some changes, but I think whether people watch it on television or watch it on the internet, it's the content that matters and so it is the delivery system that changes. So I don't really see it making a big change, although, of course, one thing that is happening is the breakdown of the sort of mass audience networks so it's becoming more niche and niche. In terms of the internet, and so more and more people are able to watch just the channels or digital channels just catering to their own tastes. I find a downside to that in that people aren't able to share in very many things anymore. There's the Academy Awards
and that's about it.

Isn't it the fragmentation caused by the internet, where people say, "I want to read this article or see this TV show," that is changing how we use content? It's a short attention span world and people just want to see a small piece of something instead of sitting in front of a television for hours?

Right. And also you're just much more demanding. I want to see what I want to see. I'm not willing to sit still for what's served up to me and that's good in a lot of ways.

The downside is that you don't get that kind of serendipity just sitting there and maybe catching something you didn't know you were going to like and suddenly coming upon it. You're kind of programming things for yourself in advance and that kind of diminishes the chance of experimenting and coming upon things accidentally.

So really the individual becomes the programmer as opposed to the big networks as the programmers?

Definitely, but that's been happening not just with internet that started happening with cable TV, the fragmentation of the audience with that. To me, it's just a continuation of a trend that predated the internet.

During your twenty years covering show business as a writer-editor at TIME, how has the role of the critic evolved?

I don't know that its had any major changes. What I notice as a critic and as a journalist and consumer of the arts is how much more they seem to pay attention to the critics. I mean the ads, every ad has now got to be filled with quotes from critics. Twenty years ago I don't think you would see that quite so much. The problem is that any quote is worth the same amount. It sort of doesn't matter who it comes from. Of course, they'd rather have the New York Times or TIME Magazine, but now that you've got hundreds of critics for every internet site and a little TV station in Salt Lake City or whatever, and the greatest film, the best film of the year has the same weight coming from Joe Schmo in Tucson, Arizona as it does coming from the most respected critic in the country. So it kind of flattens it out and, I think, it devalues what critics do. It just becomes a quote and it isn't backed by any particular expertise or taste, necessarily, I mean it might be, but you don't know who it comes from. It's sort of any quote is worth as much as any other quote irrespective of who actually said it. So that's what I see as kind of happening.

Again that goes to the concept of the headline news world, someone says it's great, therefore it must be?

I've fought against this my whole life doing criticism. Anybody can give a quote or say this is good or give a thumbs up, thumbs down or do a four star rating, anybody, anybody off the street can do it. The question is does it mean anything. Is it backed by someone who's really thought about this, who's got some background or sense of the art form, so that makes the critics word worth something or not. Now I also don't think, and I kind of learned this in college taking courses in critical writing, I really I'm not one of those people though who thinks that in order to review movies or theater you've got to be really be really well-versed, you've got to know all the history of the medium or something. I really do think a layman critic, just a smart person who can articulate why he likes something or doesn't, if you can make a good argument, I don't care if you've never seen another movie in your life, if you can go to a movie and react to it in an intelligent and thoughtful way, that's as good a review as a review from a movie professor whose seen every single film ever made. I was taught that when you...the most important thing when you are reviewing is to convey the sense of the experience...what it's like to sit there in the theater and watch this...what's the experience is like...just describing it. Anyone can really do that. I think that's a valuable thing. You don't have to be able to compare it to every other production of Hamlet that you've seen or the remake of this movie well it's not as good as the one of 1953. All that really matter to most people is what they are experiencing right at that moment in the theater, on the stage, in the movie. That's what I think a critic needs to do.

Really your focus is the authenticity of the experience and the medium through which it passes can be a critic for TIME Magazine, New York Times, a college blog. If the authenticity of that experience is transmitted, you're saying that is as valuable?

Yeah, and I didn't mean when I said that any quote is worth the same...I didn't mean to disparage somebody who writes for a little website that nobody's heard of...might write the best review of a movie of anybody. I judge everything that I read by the just the quality of that review. If it evokes the experience and has something thoughtful to say about it, then that's a great review. And, I don't judge critics by how much of their knowledge of the film, the history of the medium or something, you can bring to it. If you can just sort of look at an experience and then convey to somebody else what that experience is like and why you think it is good or bad, then that's a great review.

So there's a distinction between how the television shows or films take that critical review or maybe headline nugget and use it for their commerce versus the substance of the review?

Right. And now what I see is all that goes on these days is using it for commerce. And it's something that's hard to fight against when you're a critic for TIME Magazine. As you're writing something and I write Theater reviews, but we don't run that many so that I don't have to worry about this too often, but when you're writing you know that if you put a word in there you'll see it on a billboard two weeks later. You know you kind of have to watch it. You sometimes have to be careful. You know you're going to be quoted if you say something nice and so you can't help but be conscious of that.

In your new book, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970's Changed America, you trace the history of the early rebels of counter-culture humor - Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Is there an underground movement or style of comedy percolating today that will shape our sense of humor in the decades to come?

Well, that's a good question and I don't know that I'm as well-versed to answer it because I've spent a lot of time paying attention to the old guys, but I do go out to comedy clubs and I do look at comedy.

I don't think that stand-up comedy is where it's happening today. I think there's a lot of people out there, but not any that are doing breakthrough stuff. I think, you know, you look on the web. I think YouTube videos and some of the stuff that's being done on the web is far more interesting and may be shaping our sense of humor, but I can't tell you exactly how. I guess I'd say the whole blog thing and the whole taking anything that happens on TV or the campaign trails or something and turning it into viral videos that people then make fun of or do numbers on, that seems to be shaping the way we look at things today. And I think it is an outgrowth of what happened in the 70's...stand-up comedians getting up on stage and just basically talking about anything they wanted to...they saw what was going on in the culture, in politics or in their own lives. And just sort of commenting on it and in this kind of ironic way or just sort of saying look how silly this is...this commercial I saw. Well, that now is being done but we've got the technology to show it, to make fun of it in video ways, to do parities of it. The whole parity thing that's happening on the web. I mean guys doing parities of movies, instant sort of parities things, that's gotten much more sophisticated today. How that's going to change our sense of humor, I don't know. I'm afraid to make predictions.

So in the age of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, have audience perceptions changed the idea of what is really funny?

I think the old stand-up comics, these stand-up comics that I talked about, kind of set the template for certainly taking what was going on the in the world, looking askance at it, making fun of it, exaggerating what was silly and showing how absurd it was. And now we are just able to do that in so many more sophisticated ways, visually, in video ways, to turn it on its head, to do parities, I just think that it's just made that kind of humorous approach much more flexible in ways you can do that.

I guess that leads to the question of there will still be stand-up comedy in ten years?

I definitely think there will be stand-up comedy in ten years. In fact, what's happened in the last few years, there's been sort of a comeback in stand-up comedy. In the 90's, the comedy clubs that I talk about sort of booming in the 70's and 80's, they started to die out because there were too many of them. And now in the last few years they've had sort of a comeback, at least in New York and I gather around the country, and there a lot of people out there doing stand-up comedy and I think it's really an art form that will never die because it's such a totally personal form of's the most naked form of're getting up there and not saying someone else's words, saying your own words, you're talking about whatever you want to talk about, you're basically conveying your whole attitude toward life and what's happening in a public arena in your own private world and kind of enlisting everybody and bringing them into your world and seeing things from your point of view. That's the most, it seems to me, the most liberating and exciting kind of art form and that's why so many people still do it, and it will always be relevant even though there's all sorts of different ways of doing comedy now. That sort of one-on-one, one guy standing up at a microphone talking, one-on-one to the audience, I think that will always be relevant.



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