Wednesday, September 28, 2016

"Vin Scully Once Threw Me Out Of His Announcer's Booth"

A belated companion to (the late, beloved baby doctor) “T. Berry Brazelton Once Punched Me In The Stomach.”

I was hired to adapt a book entitled A Pennant for the Kremlin for the movies.  A titan of industry dies and, during the disbursement of his numerous holdings it is discovered he has left the Chicago White Sox to Russia.

And hilarious, baseball-inflected “culture conflict” ensues.

I was ultimately relieved of my responsibilities on that project, but not before securing unlimited access – through connections at Universal Studios where I was working – to Dodger Stadium for the duration of that season.

I was understandably excited. 

There are multiple freeway approaches to Dodger Stadium.  I got there driving on Sunset Boulevard, which took inordinately longer but preserved the safety of countless freeway frequenters, and myself.  (Though they’d have had interesting stories to tell when they got home.)

A veteran Universal P.R. executive named Herb met me at the stadium.  Herb took me into the Dodgers clubhouse and later onto the field.  As we headed up the tunnel, I called to him, excitedly tapping the bridge of my nose.  The message:  I could smell the ball field’s grass before I saw it.

I have a lot of evocative memories of that experience but the “grass smelling” story will have to suffice.  I need to move this along. 

Herb showed me the Press Box, which led to my meeting Vin Scully.

As you may or may not necessarily know, after a record sixty-seven years broadcasting Dodger games – both in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles – Vin Scully is finally hanging up the microphone. 

In his season-ending game announcing at Dodger Stadium, which included a tenth inning home run, gaining the Dodgers victory and the Division Championship, Vin handled this “Crescendoing Moment” like he was friskily in his prime. 

In modulated rhythms – simply, accurately and succinctly:

“Swung on, a high fly ball deep into left field, the Dodger bench empties… can you believe it? – A home run.  And the Dodgers have clinch the Division and will celebrate on schedule.”

And then, as is his “M.O.”, Vin strategically went silent, the roaring crowd – better, he knew, than words possibly could – grandly accessorizing the accomplishment.

Meeting Vin Scully in person… I don’t know… 

Herb and I were sitting adjacent the Press Box and, after we were introduced, Vin casually sat down and joined us at our table.  The rest of it is a bit of a fog.

I recall a massive World Series Championship ring he was wearing.  I recall Herb reporting that there would be (apparently requested) complimentary tickets to the Tony Orlando and Dawn concert waiting for him at the Universal Amphitheater “Will Call” window.  (A possible “quid pro quo” for my Dodger Stadium opportunity.  It felt exciting being part of a deal allowing Vin Scully to see Tony Orlando and Dawn for nothing.)

I recall – because I’m an idiot – quoting one of Vin’s trademark “flights of poetry” I’d retained from a recent broadcast back to him.       

The camera panned to a toddler sitting in his father’s lap, wearing an oversized Dodger baseball cap, and Vin, talking about the child “waiting for his dreams to grow into his hat.” 

I think that one drove him away.  Though maybe he just needed to get to work.  In any case, during our ten-minute or so visit, Vin Scully could not have been more gracious, humble, personable or companionable.

FLASH FORWARD:  A week or two later.

I am up in the Press Box, drawn to the game by a momentous encounter:  The two phenomenal young pitchers of that era, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela and the New York Mets’ Dwight Gooden would be squaring off in what would be a classic confrontation.  (Gooden pitched nine innings and Fernando eleven, in a game ultimately captured by the Mets, 2-0, in the thirteenth.)

The Press Box was bulging with media.  There were not enough seats, so I stood quietly in the back.  Then I overheard someone say that the Press Box “overflow” would be shunted to unfilled seats in the uppermost bleachers.  (The worst seats in the house.  And, more importantly, not in the Press Box.)

Thinking fast, while acting invisible, I slipped down the hall till I spotted Vin Scully’s broadcast booth.  Weighing my options – which were zero – I opened the door to Scully’s announcing “Inner Sanctum” and stepped noiselessly inside.

This was my answer, I thought.  They would not be able to find me and I would be spared being exiled to the hinterlands.

I was tempted to ask, “Is this okay?”  But I instead remained mum, hugging the booth’s back wall and hoping I could stay.  I mean, I wasn’t some crazed interloper.  We had sat down and chatted.  And the guy was really nice.

I watched for half an inning, enjoying not just this incomparable pitcher’s duel but hearing Vin Scully describing it… from a seat just a few feet in front of me.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a voice said to me, “Would you step outside, please?” and I was escorted into the hallway.

And that was it.  A whispered message had been sent to “Security” and, just like that, I had had been booted from Vin Scully’s broadcast booth.  (Although not from the Press Box where I was, thankfully, permitted to watch the rest of the game.)

Later, back at the studio, I wrote a contrite letter of apology to Vin Scully, whom I sadly – though not necessarily to Vin – never encountered again.

This story is inevitably about me, because I am the “Designated Writer.”  But I met a great man, and it seemed the appropriate occasion to pass it along.  
Just a Note: Today would have been my mother's one hundredth birthday.  Happy birthday, Gertie.  Wherever you are. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"The Mysterious Pursuit Of Knowing Stuff - A Continuing Inquiry"

Warning:  Expect no definitive answers.  The greatest philosophers in history have struggled with this question.  What do you want from me?

Someone told me about this.  You may be already aware of it. 

When two sports teams compete in a championship event, in order for the commemorative championship t-shirts (among other cherished paraphernalia destined for the “Giveaway Pile”) to be available for immediate purchase, the manufacturers have to print up championship t-shirts for both teams before the game.  (Meaning, before the game’s outcome has been determined.)

When the game is over, the t-shirts of the champions are offered immediately for sale.  The “Championship” t-shirts of the losing team, on the other hand, are apparently donated to charity, landing in Africa where they are distributed to impoverished citizenry lacking adequate clothing.

As a result, there are people – a lot of them, possibly – walking around Africa, believing that the New York Mets won the 2015 World Series (the Kansas City Royals actually won it) and that the Carolina Panthers won Super Bowl 50 (Nope, it was the Denver Broncos.)

Think about that.  I know there’s Google and blah and whatever.  But say they these folks don’t have access to Google and blah and whatever.  Africans are walking around wearing demonstrable proof that the Mets and Panthers won their respective championships, oblivious to the fact that the t-shirts that are telling them so are wrong.

Imagine an African youngster, identifying a baseball team with perhaps the first mint-condition t-shirt they has ever owned, bragging with typical fan-like enthusiasm that the Mets won the 2015 World Series

A companion contests that assertion.  The neophyte Mets fan barks, “Wait here!”  They race into their bedroom and they return with the t-shirt:

“2015 World Series Champions – The New York Mets.”

Case closed.

The argument is unequivocally over.  What’s possible rebuttal could be offered?

“They lied on your t-shirt”?

It sounds crazy.  Who tells a lie on casual sportswear?

The assertion is now disseminated truth.  The Mets won the 2015 World Series

Because t-shirts don’t lie.

Although in this case,

They do.

Consider now, instead of factual evidence emblazoned on donated active wear turning out to be wrong, that are debatable and uncertain, issues of conjecture or opinion, matters in factual dispute, examples of which are too numerous – Read: tedious – to mention.

And also beside the point.  Because the question today is not “Who’s right?”

The question today is “How do you know what you know?”  And can it unquestioningly be trusted?

Think of the lifetime accumulation of “certainties” filling up your head.  How did they originally come to you?  And how did you come to determine they were “certainties”?

“My Dad (Mom, Grandpa, Grandma) told me.”  “My teacher (professor, Spiritual Advisor, or, as an African-American personal assistant of mine once described when she was a kid, a white man) said so.” 

“I read it in a book (a newspaper or magazine, I saw it on the internet – Yikes!)”  “A guy I know laid it on me and said if I didn’t believe him, he would punch me in the face.”  (Communications of “certainty” not infrequently involve coercion.)  “Donald Trump said so and we know it’s true because he tells it like it is.”)

I am not here to dispute anyone’s beliefs.  I have paralleling concerns for where my own beliefs came from?  Considering all the information from all the various, possibly unchallenged, sources – somebody told us something but how exactly do they know? – those thoughts, beliefs, and strongly held and often loudly expressed opinions that came not from our own efforts and experiments but from outside and are now an indelible conglomeration of who we are… well…

When we say we are unique, original and freethinking individuals…

What precisely are we talking about?

I know for a certainty who won the last World Series and the Super Bowl.

But barring verifiable factual evidence…

I don’t know anything.

“Knowing you know nothing.”  Where did that come from?

Oh yeah, Socrates.

You see that?

Even my ignorance isn’t my own.

And while we’re at it,

What if the beliefs of the original “Know I know nothing” guy

Are as fallacious as an African t-shirt?

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?