Thursday, September 24, 2009

Commentary Tracks Worth a Listen

Commentary tracks are an invention of the DVD age, a second audio track in which the creators of the movie or TV show get a chance to talk about the experience and give the viewer some extra bit of insight into what they’re watching. When it’s done right, then viewer can walk away from the experience knowing more about the material, enhancing his love for it. When it’s done poorly, it’s pretentious and boring. Here are some guidelines to help you separate the good from the bad, and hopefully save you from wasting two hours of your life that you’ll never get back. Then again, if you’re listening to a DVD commentary track, you probably weren’t going to do anything terribly important with those two hours anyway.

Who’s Talking?

These tracks used to be called Director’s Commentary, because that was typically the only person who did them. But soon more and more people started getting in on the fun, and now we have cast commentary, producers, writers, special effects guys, stage hands, and the guy that runs the craft services table. A good indication that a commentary isn’t worth listening to is if you’ve seen the movie and you still don’t recognize any of the names of the people doing the track. Do you really need to hear from the guy who made Mark Wahlberg’s plastic dong for Boogie Nights about the injection molding process? Is that really going to enhance your enjoyment of the movie at all? Stick to the director and the cast and you should be fine.

What Are They Talking About?

Why does the average person listen to these things anyway? Because we don’t make movies (most of us don’t anyway), and we’re interested in knowing how it’s done. Especially if it’s something that we like, we want to know what went into it. Where did the idea come from? How was it crafted? If it’s a cast commentary, what went into making the performance? Are there little moments in the film that the average viewer may have missed, something that relates to the story, or some kind of symbolism? Inside jokes, Easter eggs, things like that. Some commentaries are little more than recorded wrap parties, with the cast reminiscing about how much fun they had. And while that can be upbeat and fun, no real information is being given. Hearing about the hijinks that Larry the Cable Guy got up to on the set of Delta Farce, the viewer (or listener) doesn’t feel like they’re being given special access, they just feel like an outsider. And in the case of Larry the Cable Guy, hearing about him cavorting and showing off for the crew may even make us throw up in our mouths a little.

The Tone

Happy and upbeat is good, like I said, as long as the people on the track are talking about things that the viewer cares about. A lovefest, where the cast and crew fawn all over each other, telling each other how great they are, is of very little interest to anyone. But at the same time, being overly technical and obsessed with minutia can be dull and boring. Tracks with one or two people speaking in monotones and long moments of silence where they can’t think of anything to say. If it’s obvious that the person recording the track doesn’t want to be there, the viewer is certainly not going to want to be there either. So striking the right balance is important. Another thing to avoid in this regard is the defensive director. Two hours of listening to a guy make excuses for bad effects shots and bitch about the studio is not fun for anyone, especially his fellow commentators.


It’s hard to sit in a room and talk for two hours about yourself and not sound pretentious. The trick, in my opinion, is to not overcorrect and become self-effacing because it inevitably comes off as fake. And nothing comes off as more pretentious than fake modesty. So if the commentators can succeed in being honest and real, it can buy them a lot of credibility with the viewers and save them from sounding pretentious. Or at least make us forgive you for sounding pretentious.

So here are a few commentary tracks that I think did it right.


Who: Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, Billy West, John DiMaggio, and whoever wrote and/or directed the episode in question
What: Any show that has a commentary track for every single episode is ok in my book. Futurama was the little show that could, and then couldn’t, and then could again. The topics in the commentaries range from the story process, the animation process, the voice acting, and behind the scenes anecdotes.
Tone: Fun, but informative. Not too serious, but not a straight out love fest either.
Pretension: None

Red Dwarf

Who: The entire case (varies from season to season)
What: Another show that has commentary tracks on every episode. It’s a cast commentary (though some of the DVDs have other tracks with the creators of the show and some episodes have fan commentaries) so it isn’t overly technical. There is a lot of reminiscing, but I wouldn’t call it a lovefest. The actors are pretty truthful about the infighting that went on during the filming of the show, but they stay pretty lighthearted about it.
Tone: Fun, snarky
Pretension: Low

Fight Club

Who: David Fincher, Brad Pitt, Ed Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
What: They talk about all the typical movie making stuff of course. They talk about the book, they talk about the hype that surrounded the movie when it came out, and they talk a lot about the character of Tyler Durden. There are subliminal Tyler’s in the movie, along with some other Easter eggs and inside jokes that they point out. If you love this movie as much as I do, it’s a good inside look into what went into it, so it’s definitely worth a listen.
Tone: Playful, friendly. When the ‘subliminal’ penis appears near the end of the movie, Brad Pitt says “Fincher likes to make an appearance in all of his movies”.
Pretension: Forgivable

Mr. Show

Who: Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, assorted cast members
What: The commentary tracks for Mr. Show do something that I’ve never seen before, they put on a little show themselves. Along with all the typical commentary of talking about sketches, they have fictional characters commenting on the show as well. Bob and David’s acting coach, their agent, a radio DJ, a super fan, etc. It makes the tracks not only informative but entertaining on their own. More often than not when I pull out the DVD now, I watch with the commentary on rather than off.
Tone: Funny
Pretension: Medium well. As much as I love Mr. Show, something about Bob and David has always bothered me. They have an attitude that their kind of humor is the only kind of humor that’s worth anything, that anyone who likes anything that’s mainstream is a moron and a sheep, and anyone who doesn’t think that they’re funny ‘just doesn’t get it, man’. This comes across on the commentary tracks frequently, but they’re funny so it’s tolerable.

What do you think, Sirs? What DVD commentary tracks do you enjoy?


  1. I think Rifftrax has ruined commentary tracks for me. I keep wanting the director/writer/whoever to be more funny.

    The only Simpsons DVD I own is the first season. One of the commentary tracks is from an alternate take of an episode. They showed some of the original animation they got back from Korea. The first season was no great shakes animation-wise, but this was horrible. One of the commentators on the track said "This is horrible, I can't watch this" and walked out. This amused the other commentators to no end, to have the first walk-out on a commentators.


  2. Some of my faves:

    Army of Darkness. Honestly, ANY Bruce Campbell commentary is hilarious. A special note is Bubba Ho-Tep, where he also does a commentary track as Elvis!

    Some of the new series Doctor Who commentaries. Special note: the original commentary for 'Last of the Time Lords' with David Tennant, John Barrowman and Freema Agyeman (it was omitted from the US edition of the DVD set because of a song Barrowman sung they couldn't get the rights to, but you can find this commentary online to download if you look). They spend the whole story joking around and riffing on the episode. Another good one is the downloadable commentary from the BBC site for 'Forest of the Dead' with Tennant, current showrunner Russell Davies and showrunner to come Steven Moffat, where they spend the whole story joking around about Moffat taking over.

    American Dad. All of the seasons of this are hilarious except for the most recent one. Due to the strike, none of the actors contributed for the commentaries, making them pretty dull.

    Dr. Horrible's Sing A Long Blog. A *musical* commentary no less!