Robin Williams

The Funniest Joke Of The Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 22 Comments
Tim Vine

Tim Vine

I love jokes.

Especially the ones that make me laugh.

Seriously!

Every year, the public at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival votes for the funniest joke of the year. Comedian Tim Vine was declared the 2014 winner with the one-liner:

“I decided to sell my Hoover…. well, it was just collecting dust.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that joke, I had to chuckle a bit. That’s all. It wasn’t one of those tears in my eyes – I can’t stop laughing – rib-tickling moments. Why is that? If 2,000 people polled at the Festival thought this was the funniest joke, why am I barely laughing?

THE PROBLEM WITH SCRIPTS

The problem with that joke is the same a problem I encounter with many of the scripts I’m asked to voice. Well-written scripts aren’t meant to be read. They are meant to be spoken. Just like jokes.

I often compare the words in a script to musical notes. They’re dots on a piece of paper. Only when they’re played, you have the beginnings of music. And only when they’re played very well (and on a good instrument) do they have the potential to move you.

A great script can fall flat on its face due to a lackluster performance, but a great performer can still make magic out of a mediocre script. It has to do with that thing (voice) actors and comedians have in common with the Ob/Gyn’s and midwives of this world:

It’s all about the delivery.

Yeah, baby!

Now, those last two words might not make you smile, but when I hear them, I hear Mike Meyers say them as sixties-spy Austin Powers, and I have to laugh.

Delivery is the trademark of a pro. Done well, it sounds easy, but it’s not. And that’s what many hopefuls don’t yet get. 

Someone might have a resonant, pleasing voice, but as we all know, that’s not enough to have a career as a voice-over. Believing that having good pipes is all it takes, is the same thing as saying that you only need good looks to make it in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.

Having the goods is one thing, but you have to know how to deliver. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY

So, the next question is: What makes a good delivery? What’s involved; can it be learned or does it come naturally?

I had to think about that when I listened back to a Terry Gross interview with Robin Williams for her show Fresh Air. At first, Williams manages to stay himself, but it doesn’t take him long to start doing all kinds of voices. The amazing thing is, Williams never sounds like someone pretending to be someone else. When he does an impression, he sounds like a completely different person. One thing was immediately clear: he’s a master of his instrument; a master of his voice.

Trained vocalists would immediately notice his use of voice placement. It’s a way for singers and actors to focus their sound into a particular area (head, mouth, chest or nose) with a specific resonance, coloring the sound. During the interview, I actually got the feeling that some of the characters Williams pulled out of his hat were sitting at different places at the table. I’m sure this also had to do with the way he worked the microphone.

If you listen to the entire interview, you’ll understand why he must have driven the sound engineer crazy…

Moving away from voice placement, what factors influence the way we come across, vocally?

If I were a college professor, I’d say: Human speech can be broken down into several basic elements, and each of these elements makes the way we sound unique, very much like a vocal fingerprint. Here they are:

  • Pitch: the degree of highness or lowness of our tone, as well as our vocal range and inflection
  • Tempo: the relative speed or slowness of the way we speak, and the way our speech flows
  • Volume: the relative loudness or softness of our voice
  • Timbre: the color and quality of a voice, e.g.  clear, nasal, raspy, breathy


COLORING OUR SOUND

These four elements can be affected consciously, and unconsciously. For instance, our health -or lack thereof- influences the way we sound. We all know that we don’t sound the same when we have a cold or suffer from a bad allergy. Our lifestyle may color our voice too. If you’re a heavy smoker or drinker, if you’re on a junk food diet, and if you’re not physically active, it will slowly change the sound of your voice. 

The way you are built and your posture have an impact too, as well as your facial expressions. Try saying something serious with a huge grin on your face… Then there’s your emotional state. A sad person sounds very different from an angry or a happy person. Environmental factors may influence your voice too. If you live in a very dry or polluted climate, the way you sound will tell the tale.  

And finally, we should consider age. After a lifetime of talking, the vocal folds and surrounding tissue lose strength and elasticity, and our mucous membranes become thinner and drier. Over time, men’s voices become higher, and women’s voices will drop. We lose volume, endurance, and control. All of this and more will influence our delivery. 

Now, here’s the good news: even though we cannot stop the aging process, you can protect and strengthen your voice. That means investing in your health. A few tips:

  • Be critical of what you put into your body.
  • Avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Avoid screaming and whispering.
  • Breathe deeply, and from the diaphragm.
  • Use good posture.
  • Manage your stress level.
  • Take singing lessons.


When you do all that, you will start to notice a huge difference in your delivery because you gain more control over your instrument. That’s essential if you want to get to the next level: making music.

And that’s precisely what I’ll be talking about next week, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, comedian Tim Vine told The Independent that his award-winning Hoover-joke wasn’t even his favorite joke of the show. Tim tells about two hundred one-liners in sixty minutes. 

Vine also won funniest joke in 2010. Here it is:

“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

I’ll tell you what…

Never again.”

Rimshot!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be sweet Please retweet!

PPS This is part 1 in a series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 2 “The worst acting advice ever,” and part 3 “How to be believable,” in the weeks to come. 


Paying For Your Prize

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 44 Comments

Smoking a cigarNot not so long ago, I read a story about a young Dutch guy who was about to be married. His friends invited him to a fancy restaurant for an unforgettable bachelor party.

It was a classy, dignified event. No lap dances or excessive drinking. Yet, the groom-to-be, ended up with a serious hangover.

At the end of the night he hugged each of his friends, and thanked them for a memorable evening. When he was about to put on his coat, the waiter tapped him on the shoulder.

“Sir, aren’t you forgetting something?”

“I don’t think so,” said the bachelor. “Is something wrong?”

“Not really,” said the waiter, “as long as you pay your bill.”

“But I assumed that everything was being taken care of,” said the soon-to-be-groom.

“I’m afraid not,” answered the waiter. “You owe us a little over two thousand five hundred Euro. We take all major credit cards.”

That night, the young bachelor made a few changes to his list of wedding guests.

The Dutch have a unique saying for these painful situations:

“Een sigaar uit eigen doos krijgen.”

Literally translated this means: being offered a cigar from one’s own box. In other words: receiving a gift you had to pay for yourself. That’s not really a gift, is it?

It’s an old marketing trick. Making people believe they get something for free, even though they’re paying for it.

“If you buy product X right now, we’ll send you a second one, absolutely free!”

“When you buy this car, we’ll throw in a premium accessory package at no charge!”

“Sign up for a 12-month subscription to our website, and we will give you two extra months as a welcome gift.”

Yeah. Right!

Have you ever received a cigar like that?

VOICE ARTS™ AWARDS GALA

Last Sunday, the very first Voice Arts™ Awards were presented in New York. These awards were established by the relatively new Society Of Voice Arts And Sciences™ (SOVAS™). It’s an ambitious non-profit organization. As I reported in an earlier story, on their website you will find seventy pages of awards category descriptions. Each page lists about three to four different awards.

In theory, between 210 and 280 awards could have been given away during Sunday’s gala. In reality, 33 out of 100 nominees received an award (click here for a list of the winners). Depending on how you do the math, 177 or 247 categories were left out, either because there were no or very few entries, or because the quality of these entries did not meet the standards. SOVAS™ rules state:

“In the event that any individual category attracts fewer than 4 entries the organizer reserves the right to withdraw that category from the competition.”

In some categories there was barely any competition. In the Outstanding Audio Book Narration – Biography, the only nominees were Joe Cipriano for Living On Air, and Janis Ian for The Singer and the Song.

Only two audio books were nominated for Outstanding Audio Book Narration in the Classics category. There were two nominees for the local radio and television commercials, and two for the best national radio commercial. This reflected a trend. Check the list of nominees yourself, by clicking on this link.

Mind you, I’m not saying anything about the talent of the individual nominees. I’m just pointing out a few facts about the process. Facts some of you may have missed.

I’d like to make a few other observations.

CONFLICTING INTERESTS

Scott Brick, one of the jurors of the Voice Arts™ Awards, won for Best Male Voice in the category Outstanding Audio Book Narration – Non-Fiction.

Juror Nancy Wolfson produced the demo reel of Jay Britton, who won Best Male Voice in the category Outstanding Commercial Demo Reel. Nancy has also been one of Jay’s coaches. Jay went on to win a second award for his Animation Demo Reel.

Greg Russell received a nomination for Best Male Voice in the category Outstanding Commercial Demo Reel. His coaches were Joan Baker, Rudy Gaskins and Denise Woods.

Denise Woods was one of the jurors for this year’s awards. Rudy Gaskins and his wife Joan Baker are founders and board members of the Society Of Voice Arts And Sciences™. Gaskins is President and CEO of SOVAS™.

Linda Fouche was nominated for Best Female Voice in the Outstanding Commercial Demo Reel category. Her voice-over coach was Joan Baker, and her producer/director was Rudy Gaskins.

PUSH THAT’S VOICEOVER

Gaskins and Baker are also the creators of That’s Voiceover, a series of entertaining, educational events bringing voice-over pros, voice seekers, and those interested in VO together. The last installment took place in New York on November 10th, the day after the Voice Arts™ Award gala.

Gaskins’ branding agency Push Creative is very much involved in That’s Voiceover. Joan Baker is co-founder and Senior Vice President of Push Creative, and she handles public relations for the company. 

Among the speakers at That’s Voiceover were Voice Arts Awards winners Joe Cipriano, Scott Brick, Chuck Duran and Stacey Aswad, and jurors Cedering Fox, Sondra James, Trosh Scanlon, Frank Rodriguez and Dave Fennoy. Steve Ulrich, the executive director of SOVAS™ was also one of the presenters. That’s no coincidence, because if you go to the SOVAS™ website, a redirect to the That’s Voiceover site is only one click away. 

It’s a small world, isn’t it?

THE FUTURE OF VO

I’m not against new initiatives that strive to promote and enrich the voice-over industry. As I said in my earlier story: I am willing to give these new Voice Arts™ Awards the benefit of the doubt. I congratulate the winners, and I hope the money they spent on entering this competition and attending the gala, will prove to be worth the investment. As Bob Bergen said in response to my previous article:

“Everything you’ve pointed out, as well as your question about ROI, was questioned when The SAG Awards began 20 years ago. Heck, the same issues were brought up when The Emmys began in the late 40s. Many in Hollywood thought that awarding people from that little window display of the furniture box in the living room was a joke compared to The Academy Awards, where you have that big screen and REAL actors! It’s all relative and nothing new.

Let’s allow this award show to organically grow and evolve. Just like The Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, and every other award show has over the past 75 plus years. Each award show is always changing and trying to improve on itself from previous years. I really think honoring the world of VO is long overdue. I commend the producers of this for diving in. Let’s see how it goes!”

What does worry me, is that the Voice Arts™ Awards show seems to style itself after the Oscars and Emmys. To me, these shows have become highly staged marketing events where artistic integrity is sacrificed in favor of purchased publicity. Stars show up pretending to have a good time, knowing that they’re contractually obligated to plug their latest project. 

Television audiences are only watching to see their favorite stars on the red carpet, to see the big production numbers, and to hear the obligatory teary-eyed acceptance speeches. I don’t think the voice-over world should emulate that, and I don’t think we need to do that.

It is true: an Oscar-winning movie will do much better at the box office. I doubt that the masses will run to their favorite audio book store, to purchase the winner of a Voice Arts™ Award.

Why do I have doubts? Because for an award to have an impact, people need to know about it, care about it, and attach value to it. It needs to reach the folks outside of our cozy babble bubble. That has yet to happen. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a young organization, but I think it’s fair to judge them by their own mission statement.

GOAL ACCOMPLISHED?

The Voice Arts Awards™ were announced months and months ago. I’m sure the major networks were notified, and all the papers got the press releases. In order to raise the stature of the gala, a Hollywood celebrity (James Earl Jones) was brought in to receive a special award, and even the late Robin Williams was mentioned on the podium. Yet, did this…

“provide international acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill and artistry that goes into the voiceover acting and the associated roles”?

After all, that’s one of SOVAS™ goals.

I’m not so sure.

I haven’t seen Joan Baker and company make the rounds on the morning chat shows. I didn’t read any headlines or interviews in leading newspapers. Yes, I’ve seen a few reprints of press releases here and there, but that’s not enough. Just Google Voice Arts™ Awards, and see for yourself how little comes up. 

What I did see on social media was a number of award-winning colleagues, proudly holding a shiny statuette, as well as photos of members of the VO-establishment sporting bow-ties, pony tails, and evening dresses.

And speaking of that statuette… After paying a hefty non-refundable entry fee plus the cost of travel, meals, accommodations (and of work lost because they’re attending the event), winners have to pay three hundred and fifty-some dollars to take it home. Or in Jay Britton’s case: $700. That’s an expensive dust receptacle!

I bet you Voice Icon Award winner James Earl Jones didn’t have to pay for his prize.

For every other winner, it’s a cigar from their own box.

How can a non-profit organization dedicated to adding value to our industry, be so cheap?

If you give me the right answer, please mail me $40, and I’ll send you a trophy!

Shipping, handling, and engraving will have to come out of your pocket, though.

How’s that for a Dutch treat?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS I’ve responded to some of the commentators, and you can read my response if you click on this link.

photo credit: Elvert Barnes via photopin cc


What the heck is Neutral English?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International Comments Off on What the heck is Neutral English?

It’s time to tackle one of the most frustrating issues in the voice-over business.

It’s particularly frustrating because in all the years that I have been a VO-pro, I have seen little or no change. Voice-seekers are just not getting it and voice talents are putting up with it like meek sheep.

Before I tell you what the issue is, imagine for a moment, being lead into a pitch dark room. In this room -so you are told- you will find a dart board, but it could be anywhere.

You are given no more than one dart and one instruction: You must hit the bull’s-eye. If you don’t, you won’t be given a second chance and all your time and energy is wasted. Questions are out of the question. You are on your own.

Let me ask you this:

How great do you feel your chances are of hitting the bull’s-eye?

Read the rest of this story in my new eBook. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

Making Money In Your PJs cover


Feed the need

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 1 Comment

Today, I went to “La Scala” in Milan, the most famous opera house in the world. It took me half an hour to get there. Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Reims” was shown at the same theater as where I had seen James Cameron’s two dimensional 3-D monsterpiece “Avatar”. In case you missed it: it’s that hyped-up, masterfully marketed mix of cinemagic, eco-babble and Blue Man Group against Giovanni Ribisi.

LIPSTICK AND PORK
Now, every “Iron Chef” aficionado knows that great plating does not make a perfect dish. Put differently: lipstick on a pig doesn’t make the pork taste better… even if that lipstick happens to be a groundbreaking multi-million dollar special effect. As for leading man Sam Worthington’s acting…. it was so flat; I found myself longing for Leonardo DiCaprio. Believe me, in my world, that’s not a good thing.

So, today I opened Pandora’s Box and ended up in Milan. The story of opera in cinema is the story of a great medium reinventing itself. If people don’t come to the opera, the opera will come to the people. Some skeptics said it would be easier for Montagues and Capulets to get along, than for opera and cinema. But I believe that this love story will have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, so do most episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” (how’s that for a smooth transition to my last installment about this show?).

VOICE-OVER MAKEOVER
If your voice-over career could use a makeover, Gordon Ramsay might just be the man to model. You may not like his style or his methods, but his ability to turn ailing eateries around has earned him a reputation. It’s based on a few key ingredients: expertise, experience, gut-feeling and market research.

Ultimately, it boils down to this. Whether you run a restaurant or a voice-over emporium, you have to feed a need. You have to see yourself as the solution to a problem. You are the pleasure that relieves the pain. But before you present your remedy, it is your job to identify your client’s needs, problems and pains to make sure that you are the aspirin that can take their headache away.

THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL
One of the reasons why many so businesses fail, is because they’re trying very hard to be something they’re not, or they’re offering something nobody wants. A brush is not a comb, and it’s useless to try to sell a comb to a bald man. Bald men might need Rogaine or a rug.

Gioachino Rossini -who, by the way, was an outstanding cook- knew what his customers wanted and he gave it to them. When Italian opera went out of vogue, he turned to French librettos. No more pasta. Boeff Bourgignon instead! How did he know that Italian was out? Because he knew his market and he was flexible enough to adjust his sails. It made him a very rich man. And famously fat, too.

STREETSMART
Back to another culinary giant and to “Kitchen Nightmares”. At some point in every episode, Chef Ramsay leaves the acrimony of the kitchen behind and hits the street. His mission is threefold:

  1. to find out what people really think of the restaurant he’s trying to rescue
  2. to scope out the competition
  3. to identify a hole in the market

Armed with that information, he starts devising a plan for the reinvention and re-launch of the business. Translated to our voice-over world that means:

  1. get an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses from an independent expert. Pick a person who will tell you what needs to be said; not what you’re hoping to hear
  2. go online and spend a few days listening to the good, the bad and the ugly in this industry. The ugly will teach you what not to do. The best will tell you what has shaped their career and how they are selling themselves
  3. find out where you come in; what’s your unique selling point; your niche?

Then, ask yourself two things:

  • “If I would be the answer, what would the question be?”
  • “What do I need to do today to get to where I want to be tomorrow?”

PEOPLE PLEASERS
It’s easier said than done, but please avoid making the basic beginner’s mistake of trying to be everything to everyone. Even someone as talented as Robin Williams has his limitations.

CBS news didn’t hire Morgan Freeman because he sounded like James Earl Jones. We all know he doesn’t. Freeman followed in Cronkite’s footsteps because he sounds like Morgan Freeman.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t have a range. However, that range should come from a place of “being” instead of from a place of “pretending” (if that makes any sense to you).

NEW & IMPROVED
Once Ramsey presents the restaurant with a new identity, he takes a good look at all the resources he can muster. It’s a cliché, but change has to come from within, and in this case it starts with the kitchen.

If you’ve seen the show a few times, you know that this almost always involves training or re-training the staff. Most often, this means back to basics. Hand-made super sharp German blades aren’t going to make a difference if your knifing skills don’t cut it. In your hands, they’re probably dangerous.

I’m pretty sure the kind folks at Sweetwater will happily sell you this Manley Reference Cardioid microphone. But let me ask you this: if you were a budding singer, would a new mic make you sound significantly better, or would singing lessons be a wiser investment?

Instead of spending a small fortune on gear, why not spend your money on quality training before you do anything else? I have seen colleagues go under, not because they lacked talent, but because they had the wrong priorities.

BACKYARD
Next, Ramsay usually simplifies the menu, basing it on fresh ingredients grown in the area. He also makes a point of forging a relationship between the restaurant and the local (business) community. He often invites neighboring opinion-leaders to the table. Instead of waiting for customers to come in, he forces the staff to be pro-active and reach out to potential patrons on the street and offer them a sample of the new menu.

There are several obvious lessons to be learned:

1.   The success of your business is equivalent to the strength of your relationships.
2.    Your biggest market might be right under your nose.
3.    Make sure people know that you exist and know what you have to offer.
4.    Don’t sit around and wait for that phone to ring.

PRESENTATION
With a new identity comes a new look. Restaurant owners who tell you that people are only coming for the food and not for the decor, are like voice-overs who insist that it’s all about the way they sound. The thing is: if you are a professional, you have to come across as one.

If you don’t feel comfortable putting your headshot on your landing page, fine, but at least make sure your website is easy to find, easy to navigate and that it whets people’s appetite. There’s a reason why the interior and the exterior of each restaurant get a thorough makeover on “Kitchen Nightmares.” If you want to get the part, you need to look the part.

LAST COURSE
Like a scrumptious desert, there’s one observation I reserved for last. It’s perhaps the most revealing part of this whole series.

It occurred to me that Chef Ramsay never suggests the owner take on the competition by lowering the prices, unless the items on the original menu were ridiculously overpriced.

It’s always about carefully and passionately prepared quality food. It’s about setting and maintaining high standards. It’s about value for money.

You don’t turn a business around by giving in to the lowest common denominator.

Ramsay might tell an owner to be less pretentious and offer simpler fare reflecting the skill set, experience and imagination of the person preparing the food. But he knows that it is perfectly reasonable to sell a good product at a good price. In fact, most people are willing to pay more for an outstanding product. It’s yet another sign of professionalism that you know what you’re worth and that you’re not afraid to charge accordingly.

THE RIGHT RECIPES
As I was leaving the movie theater, a lot was going through my mind. Mostly music. In a way, Rossini’s lavish operatic productions were the equivalent of today’s cinematic blockbusters. His sopranos and tenors were the celebrities of their day and age. Everywhere, people were humming his arias. We still do.

Even if you don’t know anything about opera, I’m sure you can sing one of the melodies from Rossini’s “Wilhelm Tell”, better known as the theme from “the Lone Ranger”. And if you happen to be a foodie, you’ve probably heard of the famous “Tournedos Rossini”, a French steak dish named after the culinary composer. No special effects or 3-D glasses required. And meat lovers say it’s out of this world.

Take that, Mr. Titanic! And hats off to you, Mr. Ramsay!

Paul Strikwerda ©2010

www.nethervoice.com