Monday, September 26, 2016

"Thoughts About Teaching"

I know two – wait, three veteran (Read: underemployed) writers… and an acquaintance, and a writer I bumped into on the street – for a total of five writers – who are teaching TV writing at local universities.  And I don’t know anyone or go anywhere, so I am sure there are a lot more of them than that.  Triggering the question:  Why don’t I teach television writing?  (Like I’m some kind of sheep, or something.  But still.)

The last time I was asked to teach TV writing at a university I was in the early stages of my career and, beyond having no available time to do so, when the suggestion was proposed – and I am not being at all humble about this – I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing.

Having reached the other end of the career telescope, I have a sturdier understanding of what I am doing.  But now, I do not believe it is worth teaching.  (Ah, the joy of rationalized inertia.  But still.)

When the writer I ran into on the street asked if I was interested in speaking to her class, I explained, via a joke heard on the Ed Sullivan Show why I believed my experiential “Two Cents Worth” would be unhelpful to today’s aspiring TV writers.  

It was during the Cold War.  America was losing the “arms race”, and our government was concerned about Soviet spies stealing our secrets.  Here’s the joke about that:

“They’re afraid the Russians will steal our secrets?  I say, ‘Let ‘em.’  Then they’ll be two years behind.”

(It is noteworthy, I believe, that my rejection of her offer to speak to a class of current, hopeful comedy writers came in the form of a joke that was written in 1963.)

Yes, there are still a few sitcoms written in the style I was tutored to deliver – same format, just more below the belt allusions.  Not illusions.  They say the actual body parts. 

What would I tell those kids:  “Aim higher.  Write lower”?

The traditional sitcom format, originating in radio, has been worn out for some time.  The stacking-one-“setup-punchline”-on-top-of-another construction has been supplanted by a nuanced, more naturally conversational approach. 

Joke-o-centric sitcoms were often hilarious, but there was no room for deviation from the “template” and little room for subtlety, which might earn an appreciative laugh at home but garner a disheartening “nothing” from the studio audience, programmed over the years to expect “big funny”, the conditions for which – a writerly wisecrack or situational contrivance – would occur only in a situation comedy. 

“Isn’t that what they’re watching?” you might ask in commonsensical rebuttal.  The undeniable answer to which is “Yes.”  But, as we have seen, the traditional formula has inevitably worn thin.    

Why would I want to teach a style audiences have tired of to neophyte comedy writers?

A CURRENT SHOW RUNNER:  “I enjoyed your submitted writing sample.  Could you come back thirty years ago?”

… is the problem.

The other problem is “content”. 

No, forget “content”.  The issue is not “subject matter”, though that’s a part of it.  The primary distinction (between yesterday and today) is comedic appropriateness. 

In English:  What’s funny and what isn’t.

The target, comedically, has changed.  You might say it has “expanded” but that would suggest that “old-style comedy” is still acceptable and rewarded, and it isn’t.  The definition of “what’s funny” has been altered.  And I, for one, can no longer identify the bull’s eye.

Which creates difficulties for a teacher, evaluating classroom assignments, to tell whether they did it “right” or whether they did it “wrong” and then explaining that evaluational determination to the student.  (And by the way, who wants that kind of authority?)

ME:  “I appreciate the hard work you put into writing this, but I have to tell you, I did not laugh or crack a smile reading this one time.”

NEW YOUNG COMEDY WRITER:  “That’s because it wasn’t written for you.”

“For you”, Read: “For people who remember Milton Berle and went nuts when he got smacked in the face with a giant powder puff.”  (And by the way, that kid’s getting an “F”.)

What can I tell you?   “Funny is funny”?  Maybe it isn’t.  Not long ago, I read an article surveying modern TV comedies, mostly on Netflix and Amazon, headlined: 

“Comedy Without Laughs”

I have no idea what that means.

I can easily understand audiences generationally laughing at different things.  That’s like music.  One generation’s “platinum” recording is another’s “Turn off that noise!”  But comedies where you don’t laugh?  In our day, we had a name for shows like that.  We called them dramas. 

That was a joke.  Unwelcome on any series exemplifying “Comedy Without Laughs.”  As would the joke’s originator.  

What flashes to mind is a joke I wrote back in Canada.  Before the variety special I wrote it for faded into commercial, a professional “Voice Over” announcer intoned:

“This program was brought to you by Desoto… the car they don’t make anymore.”

I was prescient.  Nailing my current situation half a century in advance.

I’m “Desoto”.

What do you want me to teach?

Friday, September 23, 2016

"I Like It When It's Good"

This one, to me at least, is exquisite.

I have in the past shared with you “Top-Of-The-Line” offerings of music, writing, musical writing and peak performances that shivered my timbers and reminded me of the human capacity to excel.

Today, it’s a cartoon.

I saw this cartoon, amongst the dozen or so published weekly in every issue of The New Yorker.  Like Elaine on Seinfeld, I find some New Yorker cartoons unfunnily obtuse.  Others I intellectually appreciate.  Still others, I laugh uncontrollably out loud at and then show them to my wife.

This one knocked me ‘round the bend and back where I started.  (A turn of phrase I contrived specifically for this occasion.)

My initial reaction was followed immediately by

“Who thought of this?” I wondered, in dumbstruck awe and boundless admiration.

“What kind of brain did this emerge from?” 

Everything I make up comes from somewhere.

“Where, exactly, did this come from?”

And can we hope for more from that sublime place in the future?

Ladies and gentlemen,

Presenting, for your enjoyment and, unless I’m alone about this, delight…

A New Yorker cartoon that simply knocked me on my ass.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Moving Day"

Anyone accepting this blog as their exclusive source of wisdom – modesty impedes me from revealing the exact number – knows, without question, that personal clothing have feelings.

I have written about the apparel who (they deplore being identified as “that”) took understandable umbrage at being left behind when I went on vacation.  In the “Clothing Fraternity” that’s a palpable insult.

This one is worse.

“Moving Day” is the “Day of Atonement” for t-shirts.   Wait.  Before I explain that (as if explanation were necessary)…

We have a rule in our house:  You buy a new t-shirt, you get rid of an old one.  (This rule is not exclusive to t-shirts.  Shoes, underwear, sweat sox… so no knee-jerk attacks about “t-shirt discrimination.”)  The reason for this directive is obvious. 

Haberdasherial glut reduction.

Okay, where was I?  Oh yeah.

“Moving Day” is the “Day of Atonement” for t-shirts.”  On that day, it is determined which t-shirts shall live (as essential elements of my wardrobe) and which t-shirts shall be ignominiously tossed onto the “Giveaway Pile”, winding up who the heck knows where.  (“My cousin wipes windshields.”)

This is bigger than “You are not going to Hawaii.” 

This time, it’s serious.

I bought four new t-shirts on our recent visit to Indiana, a necessity not a pampered indulgence, as I wear t-shirts every day, and some of my “regulars” are fading and shrinking.  (Unless I’m getting bigger.  No.  They are definitely shrinking.)

Over the years – fifteen-plus, or so – I have accumulated thirty-seven t-shirts.  With the recent arrivals, it is functionally necessary to “cull the herd”, the determining criteria of “Who shall perish and who shall be saved” less practical than idiosyncratically emotional.

Determining the fate of others:  It is an onerous responsibility.  (So I know exactly how God feels.)  But it has to be done.  Otherwise, we face crippling overcrowding in the Pomerantz clothes closet.

(Point of Personal Privilege.  I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to the person who – I don’t know when, maybe back in the sixties – first saw t-shirts as promotional billboards.  To me, that person deserves the Nobel Prize for “Seeing White T-shirts And Having The Ingenuity and Insight To Dye Them Various Colors And Put Writing On Them.”  And if they don’t have a Nobel Prize for that, they ought to.  Who cares about Physics anyway?  I mean, it’s something.  But does it really compare to the iconic “I’m With Stupid”?)

And so we begin.

There they are, laid nervously out on the bed.  Thirty-three of them will remain.  Four of them will be history. 

The question is…

“Which four?”

Two t-shirts are immediately off the eliminational table:  The t-shirt presented to me by the Guild for my participation in the last Writers’ Strike, and my commemorative t-shirt from the Camp Ogama reunion, both still in mint condition, from having never been worn.

The rest, however, are under equal consideration:

There is the highly imaginative “Hand” t-shirt, now old and fading.  (Not dissimilar to its owner.)  The thing is, it’s a classic.  Citizens of Michigan – and a few others, perhaps, but not many – know that the state is geographically shaped like a hand.  This t-shirt includes the drawing of an open right hand facing straight forward, while the left hand’s “Peter Pointer” finger indicates the corresponding spot where the t-shirt was originally purchased, in this case, the fleshy part down from the baby finger representing Harbor County Michigan, situated in the southwest corner of the state.  I can’t throw that away.  It is an unerring “Conversation Starter.”  I mean, look how long it took me to describe it.  And it was worth every word.  Wasn’t it?

There’s “The Great Ones” t-shirt – four renown Indian chiefs – Red Cloud, Geronimo, Sitting Bull and one I don’t know, posed like the American presidents on Mount Rushmore.  The shirt has an identifiable pinhole in it.  But… I don’t know… haven’t we done enough to the Indians already?

The “El Salvador” t-shirt was too small for me from the get-go.  But it was a gift from our magnificent housekeeper Connie.  How would she feel, I wonder, if, in the course of her labors, she goes into the sunroom and spots her generous present, languishing hopelessly on the “Giveaway Pile”?  As a “sensitivity tipoff”, during my selection process, she happened to enter the bedroom and asked, with detectable interest, “What are you doing?”  She seemed to intuit the diminutive “El Salvador” t-shirt being precariously on the chopping block.  Could I have the audacity to prove this magnanimous woman correct?  (What do you think?)

And on it went.  Through the daughterly acknowledgements – Anna’s multiple bestowments of a Willie Nelson t-shirt, a Nashville CafĂ© Loveless t-shirt advertising “Hot Biscuits and Country Ham”, a t-shirt touting the 163rd Annual Muskingum County Fair in South-East Ohio.

What about the redundancies:  Four t-shirts from our visit to Turkey.  Would it be fair to the “one-off’s” to hold on to them all? 

There was a t-shirt purchased at the gift shop adjoining the Gettysburg battlefield.  Could I in good conscience casually toss it away after they gave their lives that that nation might live?  I most certainly could not.  And a passionate ditto for the Ford’s Theatre t-shirt.  

Let me tell you, this was no easy assignment.  But finally…

I make my choices.  (Which will remain private, sparing the inevitable humiliation.)  And the job is completed. 

Though not entirely.

I also bought some new underwear.

Hear the boxers cowering in the drawer.

In case the description was too confusing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"I Can't Believe What I Just Saw"

Maybe it didn’t happen.

But it appeared to me that it did.

I just… cannot imagine how it could have.

I know I live in a world technologically light years beyond my understanding.  I do not know how a lot of things work, although, if provided specific instructions, I can respond “monkey-like”, without any idea of what I am doing.  I punch a few buttons and it happens.  ‘Nuff said.  No questions asked. 

But this one is too much.


I “get” DVR.  You record shows playing on television to watch them later at your convenience.  I do, however, have an unanswered concern about this recording process.

If I recorded a show to watch later, when I finally sat down to watch it, I would be missing a show playing on television at the same time.  And if I recorded that show to watch later, I would again miss the show playing while watching the show I had previously recorded.  And if I recorded that show to watch later… you get the idea – I would never be able to catch up.

So I didn’t do it.

But I “get” the concept.  Not how they electronically pull it off – what am I, a genius? – but I understand that they can.  According to a recent commercial I saw, you can now record up to six shows at the same time.  Though when you’d have time to watch them, I have absolutely no idea.  Also, there is the matter of there being six simultaneously broadcast TV shows that are all worth recording.  When did television get that good?

Okay, so you can record shows broadcast earlier and then watch them at another time.  Fine.  You can also – and I have experienced this procedure, though I did not personally care for it – record a “Live” football game – because you were unavailable when it started – and watch that game still currently in progress, albeit substantially “down the line”, until – “fast forwarding” during the commercials and “Half Time” – you “catch up” and can watch the “Live” version that is happening right then.    

(I may not have explained that correctly, but it’s the best I can do, being a man who still listens to “Books-On-CD.”  Which by the way, there are stacks of them available at Barnes and Noble, so it can’t be just me.  Though, admittedly, Barnes and Noble appears to be rapidly heading for bankruptcy.)

Here’s the thing that stopped me dead in my tracks.

I am watching a Dodgers game that is happening at that time.  I have to go to the bathroom.  I press the “Pause” button, freezing the “Live” Dodgers game.  I subsequently return from the bathroom, I press the “Pause” button again, and the game resumes… exactly where I left it. 

I was stupeficationally dumbfounded.  It appeared that I had just personally stopped... not just time.  I personally had stopped...


That’s exactly how it felt.  I am watching a “Live” ballgame, not a “DVR-ed” version where I had missed the beginning.  The game is playing in front of me in “Actual Time.”  You went to Dodger Stadium, you watched it on television, you’d see exactly the same thing – the pitcher preparing to throw the ball. 

I press the “Pause” button to go to the bathroom.  And when I return to the ballgame…

… the pitcher is still preparing to throw the ball.

Though at Dodger Stadium he would have already thrown it!

I know – though it is fun to imagine – that the game on the field did not stop, waiting for me to come back.  The players sit on the ground.  The umpire trudges out to the mound.  “What’s going on?”  “Earl Pomerantz went to the bathroom.”  “Okay.”  And he trudges back behind the plate. 

I know that did not happen.

I also know – though it is also fun to imagine – viewers realizing somebody had “Paused” the game and taken advantage of this unscheduled stoppage in play to go to the bathroom themselves.  Or maybe converse with a loved one. 

SKEPTICAL LOVED ONE:  “Are you talking to me because you love me or because somebody watching went to the bathroom?”  

I know the game keeps going.  But the idea that a person next door to me is watching the same game as I am but they are a room Break’s” distance ahead of me, is something my brain seems unable to satisfactorily accommodate.

I just flashed on an “Educational Film” played at our high school called The Boy Who Stopped Niagara.  A young boy pulls a lever stopping Niagara Falls, and all the lights in Southern Ontario go out and the vacuums and washing machines stop working. 

As I recall that boy got into a lot of trouble.  I see myself, in my waking nightmare, as…

The Man Who Stopped the Dodgers Game!   

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a nice thing, going to the bathroom without missing any of the action. 

I’m just saying…

It kind of gave me the creeps.

Note:  The “Pausing” process may be technologically identical to DVR-ing.  All I can say is that it somehow felt different.  Please refrain from calling me an idiot.