This is a weird one. Because I’m not exactly sure what it’s about, making me unclear on specifically how to write it. (Note: When writing in italics, I have to underline for emphasis because how do you italicize italics?) Hopefully, I will figure things out along the way. If not? Sorry. And, paraphrasing the ESPN sports guy who closes each broadcast waving a Canadian flag for reasons he never publicly reveals assures his audience, “I’ll try to do better the next time.”
Okay, here we go.
I have always been inordinately comfortable with boundaries. Right from the beginning…
BABY EARLO: “I am in the playpen. Good. I can crawl to the bars, and that’s it. No thinking, ‘I wonder what’s over yonder hill.’ I’m in a playpen; ‘yonder hill’ is of no consequence to me. Yes, there are obvious boundaries to being in a playpen, mostly geographical in nature, though I am also unable to use the phone. Being in this playpen, I know that I am comfortably protected, I have oodles of toys to play with, and there is no chance that the hot stove in the kitchen will ever melt off my fingerprints. I feel contentedly onboard with the entire “Playpen Mentality.” I am limited, but I’m safe.”
(What a precocious baby I was, not talking, but already thinking up a storm!)
Appreciating the insulating “up-side” of structural boundaries, was it any wonder I gravitated towards a career writing half-hour comedies? In my day, the genre was constricted everywhere you looked – length of time, appropriate matter, acceptable language, modular storyline construction, an obligatory joke every ten seconds.
Imagine a multi-dimensional “crayoning within the lines” – that’s half-hour comedy. Now of course, especially with the various streaming services, half-hour comedies are “Everything Goes.” A show can run thirty-two minutes and no one on the following series yells, “Hey!” It’s Hellzapoppin’ wherever you look.
Am I imaginative? I like to think I am. In that way, I am unboundedly liberated inside my head. Not that all my “inspirations” were enthusiastically embraced. In my submitted drafts, I delivered the product of my free-floating hilarity. The producers then took what fit their show’s sitcomical template and left the rest of my jokes out. Sometimes first laughing, then determining, “Not for us.”
Jerry Seinfeld may have picked his nose. (Unless it was actually a scratch.) Mary Tyler Moore never went anywhere near her nose. (Unless she had a bad cold, in which case, she had a distinctly “Mary-ish” way of evacuating it.)
In my creative and remunerative heyday, we were encouraged to provide broadly based content that would offend nobody, which temperamentally fit me, if not perfectly, then perfectly enough to keep me protectively out of trouble. Although, sometimes, you know, the minefield looks safe, and then “Boom!”
There was this one occasion when I wrote a joke that crossed NBC’s unclarified “Line of Acceptability.” (Because there was no actual “Book” on the matter. Or if there was one, copies were never distributed to the ”talent.” I guess you were automatically supposed to know. If you were raised properly. Which apparently in this case, I wasn’t.)
It was on Al Franken’s show Lateline. “Al Freundlich”, a Nightline-type correspondent, tells his coworkers his wife is chairing a fundraiser for a new “Pediatric Burn Unit” at the Jewish Hospital. “It’s for kids,” he explains. To which I immediately pitched, “And you don’t have to be Jewish. Just burnt.”
Judge for yourselves; I thought it was funny. The network didn’t, and they made a gigantic fuss about it. Reflecting a combativeness I have yet to see demonstrated in the Senate, Franken fought ferociously for that joke. I believe it stayed in. But the show was precipitously cancelled, so you can decide who ultimately won out.
Through the 1980’s, like the frog unaware it was boiling, my cocooning “Wall of Protection” progressively disappeared, taking my prospering career future along with it. As my agent explained to me – in a compassionate warning I inferred as a personal rebuke – inexorably – though he likely did not use that word; agents are rarely rewarded for their articulacy – TV comedy was getting “dumber and sexier.”
And since I wasn’t, “… Tick, tick, tick….” my time was inexorably running out. (What can I tell you? Big words are my business.)
Like the Berlin wall, only with belly laughs, the boundaries of content, at least comparatively, came down, and I inevitably went home. When I became a blogger, fitting my personal specifications, the limiting walls I enjoy went buttressingly back up.
There are no jarring surprises. You do not see me suddenly writing in Swedish. Or in humorous pictographs. Or in the form of a crossword puzzle, with open “Across” and “Down” spaces for you to fill in. Although that last one sounds intriguing – an individualized “Mad Libs”, challenging the reader to, “Write Like The Blogger.”
Although my options are unlimited, I write the same way every day, devising self-imposed strictures, and then sticking to them. Assembling my own blogatorial playpen.
One last point.
I do not know if it is the same for other writers but it might be, but when I say, “I do not write like that” – which in the sitcom case meant, “dumber and sexier” – I am not maintaining a judgmental “I take the high road” insistence. I just literally “do not write like that.” As a result, I feel uncomfortable receiving credit for assiduously “not going there.” It’s not a choice. “Going there” is an unavailable color on my imaginatorial palette. That – and not a sense of “moral superiority” – distinguishes “them” – the people still working – from “me” – who once was but now isn’t.
I don’t know what it feels like to work completely without boundaries.
Fortunately, I made enough money before having to find out.
Writer’s Note: Almost none of this is what I intended to write about. Maybe what I intended to write about was no good. Or maybe it was insufficiently ready. I don’t know. I hope this was okay. And I will bring you “the other thing” when I figure out what it is.)