Monday, July 6, 2015

"Free Speech Versus Taking Personal Offense"


(Note:  I know the dichotomy is not as simple as that, but for the moment let’s say it is, or I shall be unable to proceed. *)

(* I would really like to proceed.)

Point of Departure:  A successful joke requires extreme specificity.  That specificity, however, has been known to create certain tangible difficulties.  And subsequent consequences.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, for example, recently decided to curtail further performances at colleges because a joke he made at a recent college concert about how the hand gestures required to manipulate a smartphone make iPhone users look like “gay French kings” generated negative reaction for its perceived insensitivity towards gays – an objection that could be made equally by the citizens of France, or more particularly, heterosexual French monarchs, while rekindling retroactive feminist remonstration that there were no ruling French queens.

The preceding is the encapsulated version of this post.

Now, for your blog-reading entertainment, the more extended version.

EXAMPLE JOKE:  (One of virtually thousands of jokes that might just as easily have been selected.  Or, thinking it over, any joke that was ever concocted, as it is arguable that all jokes offend somebody.  Feel free to submit one that doesn’t.  But it better be funny.)

Now where was I?

Oh, yeah…

EXAMPLE JOKE:

“An Irishman walks into a bar carrying a pig under his arm.  The bartender says, ‘We do not allow “his kind” in here.’  The Irishman explains, ‘It’s only a pig.’  To which the bartender shoots back, ‘I was talking to the pig.’”

DECONSTRUCTING THE EXAMPLE JOKE ONE SEGMENT AT A TIME:

“An Irishman walks into a bar…”

IRISH LISTENER:  “There you go again.  Insultin’ the Irish.”

ALCOHOLIC LISTENER:  “Why did you have to remind me that I can’t drink?”

WHEELCHAIR-BOUND LISTENER:  “Or remind me that I can’t walk.”

AGORAPHOBIC LISTENER:  "Oh, like there's nothing to it, walking into a bar."

FEMINIST LISTENER:  “Why does it always have to be a man?”

THE JOKE TELLER BEGINS AGAIN.

“A member of an historically maligned minority makes his or her…

TRANSGENDER LISTERER:  “Excuse me…”

“… or perhaps one and later the other…”

TRANSGENDER LISTENER:  “Thank you.”

“…. way into a place of business that may or may not involve alcohol.” 

JOKE TELLER:  “Am I okay so far?”

ALL LISTENERS  (TOGETHER):  “Go on…”

JOKE TELLER:  “Thank you.”

“…carrying a pig under his arm.”

PIG LISTENER:  “What are you implying by that?  That we’re dirty?  Or slovenly?  Or we’re fat?

OVERWEIGHT LISTENER (TO PIG LISTENER):  “We don’t care for the word ‘fat.’”

PIG LISTENER:  “Keep your eye on the ball, okay, ‘Slim’?”

OVERWEIGHT LISTENER:  “‘Slim!’”

SIGHTLESS LISTENER:  “You know there are some of us who can’t keep our eye on the ball.”

PIG LISTENER:  “Ganging up on a pig.  What is this, a Jewish conspiracy?”

JEWISH LISTENER:  “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

PIG LISTENER:  “Hey, if the yarmulke fits…”

JOKE TELLER:  “Excuse me.  Can we go back to the joke, please?”

ALL LISTENERS (FINALLY, BUT ANNOYEDLY):  “Fine.”

A member of an historically maligned minority makes his or her – or perhaps one and later the other – way into a place of business that may or may not involve alcohol carrying some animal that is not normally found in such places of business…”

PIG LISTENER:  “Better.”   

“… under his arm.”

LISTENER WHO IS MISSING AN ARM:  “I am a little sensitive about the…  Nah.  Go ahead.”

JOKE TELLER:  “I appreciate the leeway.”
 
“The bartender… I mean, the proprietor of that particular place of business says, ‘We do not allow “his kind” in here.’” 

JOKE TELLER:  “Am I in trouble saying ‘his kind’?”

RANDOM LISTENER:  “It’s borderline, but we’ll let it pass.”

JOKE TELLER:  “Thank y…”

RANDOM LISTENER:  “But we’re watching you.”

A WEARY SIGH FROM THE JOKE TELLER.

JOKE TELLER:  “Where were we again?  Oh yeah.”

“A member of an historically maligned minority makes his or her – or perhaps one and later the other – way into a place of business that may or may not involve alcohol carrying an animal that is not normally seen in such places of business under his arm. The proprietor of that particular place of business says, ‘We do not allow “his kind” in here.’  To which the member of the historically maligned minority explains, ‘It is only some animal that is not normally seen in such places of business.’  To which the proprietor of that particular place of business shoots back, ‘I was talking to the animal that is not normally seen in such places of business.’”

DEAD SILENCE.  (Meaning no disrespect to the departed.)  FINALLY…

RANDOM LISTENER:  “I don’t get it.”

ANOTHER RANDOM LISTENER:  “Is that supposed to be funny?”

THE JOKE TELLER HEAVES AN EVEN HEAVIER SIGH THAN BEFORE.

JOKE TELLER:  “I should have listened to my mother and become a chartered accountant.”

CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT LISTENER:  “What’s wrong with being a chartered accountant?”

JOKE TELLER:  (BUCKLING NOTICEABLY UNDER THE BOMBARDMENT)  “Okay, Mom.  Take your best shot.”

JOKE TELLER’S MOTHER:  “What are you talking about?  When you’re right, you’re right.”

THE JOKE TELLER FINALLY GIVES UP.

JOKE TELLER’S FATHER:  “Excuse me.  Why is it always ‘the mother’?”

Friday, July 3, 2015

"A Revisited Lesson In Bubbularity"


Not long ago, I wrote a post entitled “Bubble Boy” (5/21)  (I know I’m supposed to do something so you can click on the title and go to it, but I’m just grateful I can do this.) 

In “Bubble Boy”, I reported how, during a recent visit to Canada, I became acutely aware that I had become more Americanized than I had imagined, championing, as I did, the American totem of individualism over the more communitarian proclivities of my home and native land.  It appears that, unbeknownst to yours truly, I had surreptitiously relocated to the “American Bubble.”

(Not that there isn’t also a “Canadian Bubble” – perhaps, in part, involving the dis-encouragement of individualism, which may help to explain the substantial number of necessary defections to the United States.  Reconsidering, my experience awakened me to the fact that I had imperceptibly transferred my allegiances from one bubble to another.)

My Canadian eye-opener led me to wonder about “bubbles” in general, pondering the ubiquitousness of the bubbular experience.  In that context I came up with one of my favorite lines of recent writing.  (He said, patting himself on the back in a more American than Canadian fashion, wrenching his shoulder blade agonizingly in the process.)

I was talking about rich people’s offspring, reflecting their bubbular situation with an exemplifying quote, that went,

RICH PERSON’S OFFSPRING:  “You mean poor children don’t have everything?”

It’s good, isn’t it?  (Ow!  My shoulder blade!)

Feeling immediately guilty and ashamed, I started to think about whether such erroneous perceptions were really the rich’s offsprings’ – or their parents’ – fault.  Or, realistically, “That is simply the way it is.” 
Perhaps cultural – or subcultural – insularity is inevitable.  Although, as I was recently reminded, social media is fundamentally changing all of that.  Once seriously deprived people could say, “Everyone we knew was in the same predicament, so we had no idea we were how badly off we really were.”  With internet interconnectivity, deprived people now know exactly what they’re missing.  And they are beginning to do something about it.

They have freedom?  We want freedom too!”

Repercussions to follow.

You can decide whether things are better or worse because of that, though it doesn’t matter, because it’s unstoppable.

(NOTE:  I was about to include a section concerning super-rich families traveling to desperately poor countries, to show their children how horrible things can be, so they’ll stop asking for stuff.   (Although the families travel there First Class, stopping at the Desperately Poor Country Four Seasons.  Super-rich Visitor:  “Did you expect us to stay in the hut?”  But then I remembered a story closer to home, where I can make a similar point without being a jerk about it.  Although I admit to “Partial Jerkiness” by sneaking a little of it in.)

This recollection concerns my wonderful stepdaughter Rachel, on her way to her first year of college at Skidmore, which is in upstate New York.  For those who don’t know her, Rachel is the most sensible, down-to-earth, caring and compassionate person in our family – wait; that may be too low a bar –… you could ever run into.  Yeah, that’s raising it where it belongs.  (Credit here must fairly be accorded to Rachel’s Dad, whose, perhaps, hippie-derived values have helped inspire Rachel’s generosity and kindness.)

And yet…   

Okay, so the entire family has decamped to deliver Rachel to college, and in transit, before trekking to up Saratoga Springs where Skidmore is located, we spend a few days in New York, bivouacking at the Plaza Hotel.

The hotel management, inexplicably mistaking us for people who matter, had upgraded us to an enormous suite, with a magnificent perspective of Central Park.  We never found out why they had done that, partly, probably, because we had neglected to ask. 

Anyway, we are this room that could house a small regiment, and Rachel calls her assigned college roommate, a fellow freshman named Salima who lives in Brooklyn, inviting her over, so they can begin to get acquainted.  Rachel informs Salima that we are staying at the Plaza Hotel, asking her, “Do you know where that is?”

Salima assures Rachel that she does.  But she, very likely, files that question away.

When Salima arrives, she is greeted at our Versailles-like lodgings by Rachel and her nine year-old half-sister Anna, their parents having temporarily departed, for reasons no longer remembered.  (We like New York.  You can walk there without being threatened by skateboarders.)

In the meantime, Salima is meeting Rachel for the first time – a teenaged freshman, ensconced in palatial surroundings, no supervising parents, and, I’m sure, knowing her fashion demands, an impeccably outfitted little girl, Salima almost certainly wondering,

“Who are these people!”

After chatting for a while, Rachel proposes that they go down to Greenwich Village, to meet one of Rachel’s childhood buddies who is about to begin college at NYU, for lunch. 

Salima immediately agrees to the plan, explaining that there will be no problem getting there.  She then rattles off a number of alphabetically-labeled subway lines they would ride, along with transfers they would need to make, to arrive at their downtown destination.  After which Rachel innocently inquires,

“Can’t we just take a taxi?”

SALIMA:  (RE:  RACHEL)  “This is going to be quite a trip.”

It’s “The Bubble.”  And it happens to the best of us. 

And there is no need to go far afield for examples, sitting in gargantuan accommodations at the Plaza Hotel.
-------------------------------------------------
America won its independence on the battlefield. Canada won its independence via the British North America Act.  I honor American independence by remembering the Fourth of July.  I honor Canadain independence by remember the First of July...three days after it happened.

Happy 'Fourth." And, retroactively, a happy "First."

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"The Flip"


Writer/director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids) was recently profiled in the Writers Guild magazine “Written By”.  In the course of the interview, Feig talked about the pilot for a TV show that he co-created with Judd Apatow called Freaks and Geeks, now a cult classic for its honest depiction of the horrors of High School, and the passage of adolescence in general.

Feig explained how, after a “Don’t change a word of this” notes-session meeting with NBC, they returned to their office, where Apatow immediately announced that they would rewrite the script.  Feig went ballistic.  Retrospectively, however, he came to approve of Apatow’s decision, explaining,

“It was a method Apatow learned from Garry Shandling.  Be harder on the material than anyone else.”

Okay.

And I just sighed. 

I will tell you why later.

If I remember. 

Or maybe by then you will already know why.

Judd Apatow’s “Garry Shandling Learning Experience” derived from Apatow’s participation on The Larry Sanders Show.  I know a little about The Larry Sanders Show, having served for two seasons as a two-day-a-week consultant, a title that later, at my insistence, was elevated to “Consulting Producer” (because if The Larry Sanders Show won an Emmy, I would receive one myself.  It didn’t, so no Emmy for Earlo.  The show did, however, receive a nomination.  Meaning the strategy could have worked, it just didn’t.  Note:  I like to segregate my less admirable behavior in brackets.)

Garry was incessantly fiddling with the script, trying to deepen and enrich the characters and the situations, pushing in the direction of “more emotionally true to life”, leading the way for comedies like Louie, in which the line where comedy crosses over into the existential pain of human existence is provocatively unclear. 

Although I am no expert on Freaks and Geeks, I did once binge-watch a handful of episodes.  In that far from comprehensive sampling, I could readily detect Shandling’s “go-for-the-heart-of-the-matter” example. 

I was tremendously impressed by Freaks and Geeks.  I had once believed that Dobie Gillis was deep.  And it was, for its era.  But Freaks and Geeks set new standards in portraying the unflinching vicissitudes of teenage existence.

(So far, no sighing.  But it’s coming right up.)

But then…

In terms of the Apatow-Feig cinematic oeuvre,

I witnessed a “flip.” 

HEAVY SIGH.

(There you go.)

Why the sigh?

Because it appears to me at least, that the “Sons of Shandling” have taken things in the opposite direction.

Exhibit A?

Bridesmaids (2011).

A late-thirties woman, life’s on the downswing, finds her last bastion of security threatened because her best friend in the world is about to get married.

This is a truthful, identifiably human and touching premise for a movie. 

How then did it end up with a woman taking a diuretic dump in a sink?

They rewrote the script.  (I am guessing, having never read it, that the “sink dump” scene was not present in the original version.)  This time, however, the rewrite was not in the direction of “deeper and richer.”  It was instead in the direction of “Let’s take a believable situation, and give all the bridesmaids food poisoning!” 

(And the fecal hilarity ensues.)

This is hardly the legacy of Garry Shandling.  Although Shandling whines everything – including “It’s great to seeeeeee you!” – I never once heard him whine, “Let’s make the script fuhhh-nnnnier!

Exhibit B?

SPY (2015).

An overlooked but gifted CIA operative finds vindication and acceptance after being thrust into the life-threatening situation of “going into the field.”

Once again, a perfectly workable concept – A sympathetic fish out of water proves herself, though perhaps unconventionally, to be capable in every regard.  

At the very worst, it’s a Bob Hope movie starring a woman.  (I shall leave it to others to determine if that’s a step forward or something less feministically flag-waving.)

When did that perfectly workable concept become a cavalcade of curse words, punctuated by a woman kicking another woman hard in the crotchal area?  I have no direct evidence in this regard, but I suspect it had something to do with a rewrite.

“Deeper and richer”?

Only if “deeper and richer” involves groping the lead character’s breasts at every available opportunity.  (Which, if it were a conventional movie star’s breasts would be “sexual assault.”)

It appears to me that, whereas in their earlier days, the “Apatow Factory’s” objective concerning the rewrite was to dig doggedly in the direction of finding “The Truth of the Situation”…

Dey don’t do dat anymore.

Which disappoints me as an audience member who happens to enjoy “deeper and richer” in his comedy entertainment. But also because, for some reason, the Apatow/Feig juggernaut’s complete lack of self-awareness – or is it honesty – personally offends me.

If you are determined to make your movie as hilarious as you can, and doing so, you believe, involves a woman hiking up her bridesmaid’s gown and pooping in a sink – followed by a reprise of that behavior in the middle of a busy street – then by all means, be responsive to your comedic Muse.  But do not simultaneously claim that you are following in the trailblazing footsteps of Garry Shandling.

Because, whining on Garry’s behalf,

“That’s wrooooooong!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"A Belated Acknowledgement"


When I was growing up in Toronto, we had a minor league baseball team.  I did not see my first Major League game till I was nineteen – Phillies versus the Mets at Shea Stadium in New York.  It turned out it was a 6-0 “Perfect Game” (no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors), pitched by Phillies’ future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

When it was over, I found myself standing in front of my seat, hearing my voice bellowing an appreciative,

“Thank you!

… in the direction of the field. 

Not because I had witnessed the four-leaf clover rarity of a “Perfect Game”, but because I had sat in a Major League stadium, enjoying every magical second of a Major League ball game.

Since that first time, without exception – and I now have dozens of Major League attendances under my belt – in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Anaheim, Washington D.C., Toronto, and San Diego – I have never failed to bellow an appreciative “Thank you!” at the end of every game, before making my way up the aisle to the exit.

(A Small Variation:  During the late nineties, when I consulted on the New York-based series Lateline, I attended {yet another} Phillies-Mets game with the series’ two creators, {now two-term Senator) Al Franken and John Markus.  On that night, the Mets organization handed out complimentary baseball caps to every attendee. 

As the game ended, I stood up and did what I do.  Only this time – as I overheard later John reporting to {now two-term Senator} Al – “Earl just said, ‘Thanks for the hats.’”)

And the thing was…

I meant it.

Moving on…

As a warm-up man – I was, on occasion, the guy who kept the studio audience entertained during the filming of shows like Taxi and Cheers – my approach was demonstrably different from my warm-up man – there were no warm-up women at that time – contemporaries.

Some warm-up men revved up the audience with tried-and-true material from their stand-up acts.  Some offered impressions of recognized celebrities.  One warm-up man dazzled the crowd with his ability to balance a standing-up quarter on the tip of his nose.  Another contorted his face so that he looked exactly like a primate from Planet of the Apes.  Or one of its sequels.

I had no paralleling abilities.  How then did I keep the audience involved?

“You may think you have come here to watch a show,” I would begin, “but you’re wrong.  Because it’s better than that.  Instead of just watching a show, you will be watching us making a show.

“Nobody but this audience will have the advantage of that experience.  You will see the show taking shape before your very eyes.  And you will know all of our secrets.

“When you this episode is broadcast at home, only you will be able to say, ‘You hear that line he just said?  They had to shoot that four times, because the actor kept flubbing his lines.’  And after the third try, he said ‘Dammit! 

“Or you’ll say, ‘Did you hear that joke?  Well, that wasn’t the original joke.  The original joke didn’t get a laugh, so the writers got together on the stage, and they came up with another joke.  And you know what?  It was funnier! 

“Tonight, you will go behind the curtain, and see the show miraculously coming together.  Nobody else will have that opportunity.  Only you. 

“Pretty exciting, isn’t it.”

That’s all I had.  And it goes without saying – at least I hope it does – that, as with all the baseball game “Thank you’s!” and that one “Thanks for the hat”…

I meant it. 

And the audience generally picked up my enthusiasm.  I sincerely loved being there, and somehow, that made the audience love being there too.

I had one boss who thought I was faking.  More than once he’d say, “Knock off that ‘shit-kicker’ routine.” 

I couldn’t. 

Because it was real.

Recently, for the first time, I started wondering where that unusual reaction came from?  And then it finally hit me.

It came from my mother.

My mother was a spontaneous appreciator of little moments, moments others obliviously took for granted.    

An exquisitely-folded napkin.  (“Look how they did that!”)  The backyard garden smell of lilacs in the spring.  I can still see her face light up when she proclaimed, “This watermelon is out of this world!

(In addition, my paternal grandmother lit up with beatific contentment in the presence of a really good lamb chop.)

Not long ago, we had dinner at this not fancy but recognizably superior restaurant.  I don’t know what “squash blossoms” are, but my first taste had me doing a “Happy Dance” in my mouth. 

My immediate impulse was to rise up from my seat and shout “Thank you!” to the chef.  I did not do that, partly because my dining companion was unlikely to have approved.  But also because my mind turned to another worthy – and shamefully neglected – recipient of my gratitude.

Hey, Mom...

For teaching me to notice and to appreciate...

Thank you!"