Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"The Job I Am Somewhat Sorry I Turned Down"

If something remains in your consciousness for forty-plus years it is reasonable to believe that it somehow matters to you.

Don’t you think?

Okay.  So there’s this.

I imagine every writer who rose to the level of “We want him (or her)” has a story of a job they were offered that they for some reason turned down.  Which, if not entirely regretted, survived insinuatingly in their “The Road Not Taken” file. 

I had a fantasy conversation with Neil Simon whose Memoirs I am currently enjoying and whom I once met at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara but never mentioned this issue.  On that occasion, I imaginatorially said to him,

“There is one joke you wrote that I have been laughing at for thirty years.  Not all the time… but intermittently, and still.”

That’s how I feel about this incident.  I do not incessantly dwell on it.  Nor, on the other hand, has it flown my memoratorial coop.  (Okay, that’s the last one of those made-up words with “ial” at the end of them.  I have exceeded my quota.  By possibly two.) 

It is not like I am habitually pummeling myself for letting this particular employment opportunity get away.  I had persuasive reasons for doing so, lightening my load of self-recrimination and guilt.   One of them was a doozy.  But more on that later.

Knowing my background, you might possibly think the job I passed on and then wondered if I should have was Saturday Night Live, which I had been invited to participate in at its inception, incentivized by the “carrot” of being potentially its Head Writer.

When I inform strangers of this abandoned opportunity, I invariably get an unspoken “Awww” response, similar, I imagine, to the one that is accorded the “Fifth Beatle”, replaced at the moment of celebratory “lift-off” by Ringo Starr. 

Truth be told, that is not the job I am referring to.

Briefly, (because I have discussed this before) why did I say “No, thank you” to SNL?

Nine months before the SNL job offer, I had moved lock, stock and Mazda from Toronto to Los Angeles.  I was not at all ready to move again (To New York, where Saturday Night Live would be produced.) 

Ensconced comfortably in Hollywood, I had found a reliable doctor and a dentist and an accountant and a hair cutter, and I did not look forward to initiating the search process all over again in Manhattan.  And then if the show failed, going back to Los Angeles and asking all those people to take me back.  How would they respond to that?

(LIKE AGGRIEVED SPOUSES)  “Do you think you can just come and go as you please?”

L.A. had the weather that suited my clothes.  L.A. was “laid back”, a descriptive never applicable to Manhattan, at least since the Indians sold it.  New York was also too close to Toronto, where I had baggage.  Not luggage.  Baggage.

In an uncharacteristic flash of determination and grit, I maneuvered my way into the Mary Tyler Moore Company, simultaneously liberating myself from “broad-stroke” sketch writing – as opposed to meticulous, character-driven storytelling – and a history of exclusive employment in Lorne Michaels operations. 

When, during SNL’s pre-production shakedown, Lorne called to urge me repeatedly to join him, my unemotional though arguably disloyal answer was, “I’m working.”

In the end, weighing the reputation and solidity of MTM employment against an uncertain late-night variety show experiment in New York, I elected to remain steadfastly where I was.  (Subsequent stories of creativity-coaxing drug-taking and scriptorial “all-nighters” – Okay, three, but that’s it! – reinforced my decision as being an unquestionable “Good call”)

So it was not rejecting SNL that I have residual qualms about.

It was this.

During my second season servicing the half-dozen or so sitcoms MTM had on the air, I was approached by veteran comedy writer Jack Burns – of comedy-team icon Burns and Schreiber fame – with a tempting and tantalizing proposition.

“Would you like to go to London for six months and write The Muppets Show?”

Yeah, I know.

“It’s time to play the music
It’s time to light the lights…”

Man, was that enticing.  Living in London a second time and this time with money?  Imagine the difference.  “The London Experience”… with heat!  (Rather than the agonizing forty-five minutes of warmth rationed over a three-and-a-half day period until the new cylinder of Calor Gas was delivered.  And now… If I were a rich man, yeidel deedle-deidel deedle-deidel deedle-deidel dum!)   

And it was the Muppets!

That’s the one.  That’s the “job-not-taken” I still think about.  But, for better or worse…

I said “No.”

Opting for the continued job security at MTM.  And because I preferred sunshine to soot.  And because I knew I could adequately write MTM sitcoms but who knew for sure if I could write The Muppets?

Plus… wait for it…

I had met a woman. 

And it looked a lot like it was going someplace.

Game, set and match.  (And, as it turned out, a marriage.)

Despite his persistent entreaties, I informed Jack Burns that, though his offer was appealing – and extremely flattering – I was going to stay put.  And he flew off to London without me.  And, instead, with somebody else.  Enjoying my heat.  And my advantageously exchanged-rated per diems.

And that’s it.  You know how lucky I was in my career?  I have not even talked about jobs I wanted but didn’t get, because there weren’t any.  The closest to that was this single opportunity that I, appreciatively, turned down.

Labeling my reaction to it “regret” would be an exaggerating overstatement.


I just wonder about it sometimes, that’s all.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"Television, As A Foreshadowing Crystal Ball"


Beware of pretentious pontification.  Not you.  That was an advisory to myself.  I am sharing that sentiment to acknowledge concern for possible blowharding opinionations – thank you “Blossom” – vowing I will be warily vigilant about crossing the line.  I will probably cross it anyway.  Just saying I’ll be unhappy about it when I do. 

A TV sitcom accurately foretold where we would wind up today.  And we just thought it was a show.

Offered for your consideration…

All in the Family debuted in 1971.  That’s now forty-six years ago.  The show was extremely successful, topping the ratings five seasons in a row, ranking in the “Top Ten” seven years out of its series complement of nine. 

They called it “Water Cooler” television, meaning people discussed it around the water cooler at work.  There you go.  Already a delineating cultural distinction. 

Although certainly not unilaterally, water coolers are stereotypically associated with offices, thus identifying “water cooler” conversation with predominantly “white collar” occupations.  To my knowledge, it was never called “Stick Your Head Under The Tap” television, or “Shlurp Directly Out Of The Hose” television.  Water coolers attracted few people in work boots and overalls.

(By the way, although shows like All in the Family attracted humungous audiences, those numbers, at their highest, reflected approximately a tenth - thirty million out of three hundred million - of the available viewership.  I have considered – and rejected – writing a post about whether it makes a difference that we no longer all watch the same programming at the same time, deciding, realistically, that we never did.  Moreover, although many of us may have tuned in to the same program, we did not inevitably internalize an identical understanding.  TV’s biggest hits offered something for everyone.  But it was not necessarily the same “something.”  Now let’s return to our story.)

My point in a nutshell:  You want a determining indicator of how we got here? 

Watch All in the Family.

“Exhibit A” – the “A” standing for “all you really need as evidence” – Archie Bunker, pioneering progenitor – a presumed, or at least imaginable, blue-collar “Roosevelt Democrat”, converted by a rapidly changing Home of the Brave and Land of the Free into a Right Wing resenter of a relaxing morality and minority encroachment. 

Immediately tip-offingly, the show’s retro opening theme song, “Those Were The Days” echoed a wistful nostalgia for “the best days of our country, slipping away.” 

You think Archie Bunker would “get” Make America Great Again?

America was losing a war for the first time in its history.  (Bill Murray in Stripes crowed that we were “Ten-and-One.”)  Can you imagine Archie Bunker identifying with “Our generals don’t know much because we’re not winning anymore”?  Donald Trump could have easily borrowed that from him.

And then there’s his nemesistical adversary.

Son-in-law Michael Stivik, with his “outsider”-sounding surname, his “superior” college education, his anti-American diatribes and his subsidized living arrangement.  Not governmentally­-subsidized, but Mike and wife Gloria (Archie’s daughter) enjoyed cost-saving shelter under Archie’s roof, a condition Archie was never reluctant to toss superciliously in Mike’s face.

Stivik’s rational arguments, backed by corroborating evidence, clashed explosively with Archie’s visceral opinions.  Rather than validating his point, “Meathead’s” evidentiary proof was perceived by his opponents – characterized by Archie – as a personal insult – the unstoppable “Fact Dispenser” trumpeting his “loftier understanding.” 

Archie’s ubiquitous malapropism?  Well, it was a comedy.  Moreover, to his identifying adoring fans, Archie’s regular “misspeakings” invalidated neither his beliefs nor his credibility.  Instead deliberately making him look bad confirmed that All in the Family’s scriptwriters were demonstrably prejudiced.

Grievance-sensitive supporters – including my Zaidy (grandfather) Peter who, not alone, hand-tippingly called All in the Family “Archie” – saw Archie’s word-mangling dialogue as big-city smartasses mocking their hero’s – and by association their own – limited academics and lack of worldly sophistication.  

You think Archie Bunker had a passport? 

Dueling Perceptions:

“An untraveled know-nothing.”

“What the hell has that got to do with anything?”

Okay, that’s it.  Attempted even-handedness quickly tires me out.  But you can see what I’m driving at – the beginnings of “Now” were perceivable then. 

In its day, Archie’s throwback intransigence was seen as a backlash against the rebellious upheaval of the turbulent 60’s.  Under the radar, however, there was the visible blueprint for balancing the books.

Conclusion (for many, not a moment too soon.)

Once, TV audiences sat around a big campfire and they listened to a story.  Now, there are two campfires and two stories.  I know it’s not as simple as that, a single story, as described, open to contrasting interpretations. 

Still, it felt like one place.  And now it doesn’t.     

Oh well.

The signals were all up there.


But we were too busy laughing to take heed.

Friday, February 17, 2017

"The Age Factor"

When I was young and I turned my nose up at the provided split pea soup – it tasted fuzzy on my tongue to me – my mother devised a compromising strategy to induce me to dip my spoon into that unpalatable concoction.  She’d say,

“Eat your age.” 

It worked well when I was six.  Less so when I was twenty-one.  I had to refill my bowl to accommodate the quota. 

You see, that’s the “funny part” – an original strategy outliving its appropriateness.  Which conveys my borderless mind – naturally – to George Burns and Gracie Allen.  That’s “naturally” if you are me.

Starting in vaudeville, the husband-and-wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen proceeded to radio and subsequently to television where their popular sitcom The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ran successfully for eight seasons (1950-1958.)

Performing a “double act” George played the reasonable “straight man” to Gracie’s irrepressible “dizzy dame”, her signature stock in trade, an idiosyncratic mindset of “illogical logic.”

Example:

GRACIE:  “You know, George, my teenaged nephew has three feet.”

GEORGE:  “You say your teenaged nephew has three feet?”

GRACIE:  “That’s right.  I got a letter from his mother the other day.  She says that her son’s grown another foot.”

(You can’t do that kind of humor anymore.  Well, you can, but now the “illogically logical” one is Matt LeBlanc.)

Anyway, during a troubling trough in their generally flourishing careers, George, the show biz mastermind of the operation, pinpointed the team’s debilitating malady, observing,

“Our material is too ‘young’ for us.” 

Which turned out to be correct.  The frothy “boy-girl” frivolity they had begun with ill suited the longtime married couple with maturing children they had eventually become.  A stylistic reimagining was undertaken and the bump in the road became clear sailing.  (Forgiving the “land to water” combination.)

Which reminds me of a Burns and Allen story unrelated to our theme but worth reprising nonetheless. 

The spotlighted personage herein is the beleaguered Burns and Allen show’s editor.

Consistent with the fashion of the day, the Burns and Allen “half-hour” was shot like a short movie, employing a single camera and no live studio audience.  (The “single camera” technique involves re-filming every scene from various angles, each episode taking two or three days to fully complete.  That’s why there was no studio audience.  They’d have to bring multiple rations and a change of underwear to take part.)

Adding an innovative wrinkle to the proceedings, George Burns had the “Final Cut” of the episode screened before a live studio audience, to insure actual laughs for the accompanying soundtrack rather than, as was traditional back then, besmirching their filmette with artificial “canned laughter” from a machine.  Burns instructed the editor to leave room in the assembled footage for those laughs.

The question for the editor became how much room was he expected to leave?

Oy.  (Meaning “What a predicament!”)

If the editor left insufficient “air” after a punchline later enthusiastically received by the studio audience, the big laugh could spill over, covering the dialogue of the following setup, thereby imperiling the un-teed-up punchline to come. 

On the other hand, a joke that fell flat with the studio audience where the editor had predicted a longer laugh resulted in an incongruously gaping “hole”, which the editor, at additional time and company expense, would have to return to the Editing Room to correct.

Unless the editor timed those “laugh spaces” perfectly, Boss Man George Burns was definitely not going to be happy.

Imagine being that editor, trying to gauge the inherent funniness of each joke in order to leave the precisely-calibrated “room” for a laugh that had not yet materialized. 

“Henry, hand me the bottle!”

Anyway, back to our story.

As an experienced showman, George Burns understood that to maximally succeed – or least not maximally fall on your face – the “act” you present to the public must be evolvingly “age appropriate.”  Triggering the question…

Is mine?

I agree with George Burns’s assessment.  With the passage of time, the once “precocious” will inevitably become “puerile”, the avant garde, miscalculatingly icky.  (Think:  Amy Schumer at 85.  “I’ve had sex every guy in the ‘Home.’  Or was it the same guy and I couldn’t remember?”  Ew.)  (Immediately regretting the example.)

So what about me?

Well…

I have retained a binder containing copies of two years’ worth of weekly columns I  composed for a now defunct daily newspaper, The Toronto Telegram.  I have read many of them over.  I believe I even published one or more of them in this venue.  I was twenty-three to twenty-five then.  And you know what?

Those columns are not all that different from I am doing today. 

My second outing in the series was entitled, “Can A Dwarf Become President of the United States?”, exploring the parameters of electoral acceptability?  Change “dwarf” to “megalomaniacal vulgarian” and I am plowing similar terrain… except the answer was “No” then and “Yes” today.  (Meaning what, that times changed and I haven’t?)

I am arguably technically superior now, but we’re not talking about “technically.”  Stylistically, there is a recognizable fingerprint.  I write the same way, mixing small words and big words and words I made up.  My “way of looking at things” is identical.  My sense of humor rings a familiar bell.  I tell ya, I could have pretended that old column was from today and easily executed the subterfuge.  Rereading it for blogal consideration, I recall thinking, “I wrote this when? 

I have not changed that much.  (You should see what I am wearing right now.  I look like I’m ready to go to camp.)  Does that mean I am out of sync with my elderliness and I need to belatedly catch up?  What I am doing feels contemporarily compatible to me.  Is it possible I am embarrassingly in the dark?   

Maybe it’s time to make an adjustment.  Maybe I should start “writing my age.”

The thing is,


What exactly is “seventy-two” supposed to sound like?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Acting"

Rummaging through my biographical dossier reader cjdahl60 discovered that along with my voluminous “writing credits” there were also seven “acting credits”, leading to queries about those experiences. 

(Further IMDB investigation reveals that I also have one “music credit” (I wrote the theme song for Best of the West.  Call me “Mr. Versatility.”   Substantially unbalanced in the direction of the writing, but still.  How many songs is Aaron Sorkin credited with?)  (I did not look.  It could be a lot.)

The first thing to notice is that of my seven “acting credits”, none of them were solicited by me.  Friends and colleagues said, “Do you want to do this?” and I said, “Yes.”  I never auditioned for any of them. 

How much better would I have fared as an actor had made legitimate efforts in that direction?  An unanswerable question.  Like asking how well Bo Jackson might have done if he had exclusively played baseball rather than the combined baseball and football.  The only difference is that in Bo Jackson’s case, people actually discuss that.

Anyway… acting.  What comes immediately to my mind?

Makeup.  A costume.  The “butterflies of excitement” rarely experienced by a writer.  (As distinguished from the “butterflies of anxiety”, which I am experiencing right now. )  You show up and you’re “in it.”  Not behind the cameras.  In front of them. 

Believe me, it’s different.     

Not that I ever starred in anything, but that has little to do with it.  I felt the same jangly exultation playing the “Guard” in the Toronto Hebrew Day School Purim pageant.  Though I’d have admittedly been more excited had I played “Mordecai.”  (A substantially larger role, in the production and in the history of Purim.)

Let’s break down those seven “acting credits”, shall we?

Two of them involved miniscule speaking parts in films written, directed, starred in and produced by a longtime friend of mine who makes movies on his iPad.  He includes me in his productions, partly because he knows I can competently do the job but mainly because he always has, perceiving my active involvement as a personal “Good Luck Charm.” Making me less a working actor in this scenario than a thespianical “Rabbit’s Foot.” 

I was paid nothing, and neither film enjoyed a theatrical release.  Which, jumping ahead, can be said about every film I ever appeared in. 

Another “acting credit” involves a Hart and Lorne (Michaels) Terrific Hour Canadian television special, where, in a sketch I co-wrote, I portrayed one of the renowned “Corsican Brothers”, wherein, in traditional “Corsican Brothers” fashion – in which when one brother is injured the other brother feels the pain – I was engaged in a furious battle, involving each imprisoned Corsican Brother attacking himself mercilessly to get the other Corsican Brother to talk.

(I have seen a tape of my performance as a Corsican Brother.  To my eternal embarrassment, you can see me laughing during the scene.  As Robert O’Neill my Actors Workshop teacher would have observed, I was at that moment “loving myself in the art” more than loving “the art in myself.”)

So that’s three.  No Oscars.  No (Canadian) Juno Awards.

Four.  (And I have to move this along.  I have a lunch date with my financial adviser.  Which I look forward to.  For his congenial company.  And for the tangible reassurance that he has not left town with all of my money.)

I was a “Regular Performer” in The Bobbie Gentry Show, a “summer replacement” series that ran four episodes and went pffffft.  Every week, I performed material that I had written, including a “telephone sketch” playing a character called “Charniecki” whose hard-to-spell moniker he was continually clarifying:

“That’s ‘Charn’, as in ‘charn bracelet”… and then you add a “niecki.’”

Hey, I didn’t force them.  Somebody said, “Do it.”

Then there were two movies…

Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s Cannibal Girls, where I played “Third Victim” in a film that was entirely improvised.  Needing someone who could invent usable dialogue, they came to me for my writing abilities rather than my acting chops, which proved so deficient that when they finally bumped me off they dubbed in another actor’s agonized screaming.  That was definitely not me dying.

On the heels of my breakthrough debut in Cannibal Girls, I was hired to act in The Merry Wives of Tobias Rouke, the producers of which ultimately ran out of money, stranding the tins of unedited footage of the movie in the trunk of the director’s car.  

From which, to my knowledge, it has never emerged.

There was nudity in that movie – I recall one scene where the actress’s wardrobe was… nothing.   Despite their pleading imprecations, however, in a scene they claimed called for it but that nobody had “heads-upped” me on that requirement, I adamantly refused to remove my “long-johns.”

My enduring recollection of that experience was me, standing underwear-clad in a swampy pool of water for what seemed like hours, while a school of minnows nibbled hungrily at my submerged lower parts.

Ah, memories…

Finally, a writer-friend and co-creator of the short-lived but noteworthy Buffalo Bill invited me to essay the role of “Crazy Eddy” Felsik, the “Human Salmon”, a man made “Buffalo-famous” by repeatedly traversing Niagara Falls in a barrel. 

I had one line.  An important one, being the scene’s climactic “button.”

The shooting of that scene involved numerous re-takes, which were undeniably because of me.  (I knew that because after every take, the director came up and asked, “Can you do it any better?”) 

As I stood in that barrel, sweating profusely in my wet suit under the punishingly dehydrating lights the foremost thought in my mind was, “If I could only rewrite this line.” 

There’s this statute called the “Taft-Hartley” Rule, stating that you can be “waivered” for just one acting job before being required to join the union, of which I was never a member.  After that single performance, I did not acted in television again.  I like to think that was due to the “Taft Hartley” restrictions rather than my underappreciated performance as “Crazy Eddy” Felsik.  (I am telling you, it was the material.)

Anyway, there you have it.  Seven “acting credits”, two owing to my employer’s superstition, three doing material I had written myself and four which never made it to the theaters, for which my cumulated stipend was zero.

Hardly a Streepian oeuvre.

But you know what?

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.