Monday, June 18, 2018

"Second Class Citizens?"

Baby Golda was crying inconsolably.

Anna said, “Dad.  Tell her a joke.”

I turned to the squalling infant and said,

“The doctor gave me six months to live.  I told him I couldn’t pay the bill.  He gave me another six months.”

And would you believe it? 

She just kept on crying.

Okay, so it didn’t work. 

But it does work as an opening to this post.

How?

As a quintessential “old-time” joke-for-the-sake-of-a-joke.  (As well as an overlaying “joke-on-a-joke”, distracting an anxious new Mom with its absurd inappropriateness.  Thatpart worked pretty well, taking her mind of “Why is she crying?”)  (For a second-and-a-half.)

Here’s the thing.  

For reasons I do not understand, as they advance further in their successful careers, writers of comedy seem to believe they will achieve immortalizing validation only if they eschew the perceived disreputability of comedy for, if not full-out drama, works that are generically dramatic, laced with a more naturalistic brand of comedy, a long way from the outright silliness they once doled out to delighted audiences, hungry for a laugh.

It’s like they think that only by writing “seriously” will they escape the derided “Kids’ Table” and earn respect as legitimate Hall of Fame artistes.

(Note:  This phenomenon is not dissimilar to comic actors who aspire to non-comedic Leading Man (or Leading Woman, Amy Schumer) portrayals. It’s like they believe comedians never get dates.)

Some writers are content driving successfully in their own lane.  Using myself as an example, I may write more about ideas that interest me than in my sitcomical heyday, but that’s notbecause I think dealing in interesting ideas is more mature and respectable.  It’s because there was no place for those proclivities in network TV.  

No way would you ever discover a sitcom logline announcing:  “(THE SHOW’S LEADING CHARACTER) ponders whether he believes things because they’re true or because they insulate him from the intolerable randomness of life.  Madcap hilarity ensues.”  I’m scared to offer that type of material up even now,so you will not be seeing that post.  Until I cannot think of anything else to write.

WhateverI write, I inevitably honor the comedy.

“Best-of-us-all” Neil Simon’s career took a dissimilar trajectory.  

Simon’s consummate joke-writing ability put him on top, both in television and on Broadway.  Although his early plays were always about something– Come Blow Your Horn (1961) was about “coming of age”, Barefoot in the Park (1961) was about newlyweds, The Odd Couple (1965), about the newly divorced – but in all of them, “fast-and-funny” always came first.  

Only Little Me (1962) – a musical “vehicle” for his former boss, genius comedian Sid Caesar for which he was less than a creative instigator than a reliable “hired gun” –  was total unabashed foolishness.  Which is why it remains memorable to
me to this very day.

Caesar, as World War I prisoner-of-war Noble Eggleston, opens a gift parcel from his girlfriend-back-home and says,

“Oh!  She made me some socks.  (AFTER A BEAT)  No, they’re cookies.” 

That one still makes me laugh.  As does – from the musical Sweet Charity (1966) for which Neil Simon wrote the book – attempted suicide victim Charity Hope Valentine is fished out of the river, a concerned crowd gathers around her unconscious body and one of them says,

“She looks dead to me. Does she look dead to you?”

To which another of them replies,

“I don’t know.  I’ve never seen her before.”

I have seen almost all of his stage plays.  I defy you to find anything equally “agenda-free” funny in any of his later productions.  (Including the ones that won major awards.  Especially those ones.  To which I proclaim, “Why did you encourage him?”)  

Simon’s subsequent efforts became progressively anchoringly “true to life.”  But at the price of cathartic explosions of unrestrained laughter.

Do people need my permission to change?

Honestly?  Yes.  

“What if they don’t know where you are?”

Okay, then they can change.  

But don’t ask me to be happy about it.

Some may attribute my prejudiced views to creative “arrested development.”

Maybe they’re right.

Though my interpretive leaning is otherwise.

Comedy is a magically bestowed “gift.”  

Why throw it away so you can put on long pants?

Friday, June 15, 2018

"Utterly Flummoxed"

It’s nice to know where you stand, isn’t it?  Says the man who avoids checking how many people are reading this blog.  Sometimes, I’d rather not know where I stand.  But for the sake of this opening paragraph, I would.

So here’s the thing.

In comedy, you almost always know where you stand.  You express something you believe to be funny and the subsequent laugh – or the strangling “dead spot” – immediately tells you how it went, graded in calibrated degrees, from “amused chuckle” to “They laughed till they peed.”

Under standard conditions, “audience response” is the laugh maker’s indisputable “Report Card.”  You may think you’re hilarious but if nobody else thinks so, you’re not. You may actually be crazy.  Or simply comedically ahead of your time.  Which amounts to pretty much the same thing, varying only in strength of medication.

I like comedy because, although the received news may sometimes be bad, at least there’s a (generally) reliable “measuring stick.”

Which, from this (aspiring) funny person’s perspective does not seem similarly available in drama.

You knowwhen you’re funny; the audience lets you know.  If you’re, like, trying out a play, or something, and there’s no laugh where one was expected, the signifying “No laugh” identifies a "Srinkeroo" problem, and you come up with a replacement.

What I am curious about is,

How is the writer’s qualitative success or failure determined in drama?  

They fall asleep?  An uncertain indicator.  I fell asleep in a London theater – make that “theatre” – during a performance of Hamlet. Substandard writing?  No.  Jet lag.

They cough?  Maybe they’re sick.  They fidget?  Maybe the seats are uncomfortable.  They walk out?  Maybe they walked into the wrong theater.

Normally, a drama plays out onstage and the audience sits quietly in the dark.  But “sits quietly” could mean anything.  Including simple politeness.  How can a dramatist tell if it’s the right kind of “sits quietly”?  

What is the indicating dramatic counterpart to the laugh?  

You had their attention. But was it “rapt” or was it “wavering?” Was it “casual” or was it “intense”? How do you know?  Do you canvas them after the show?

“Excuse me.  Was that ‘rapt’ attention or was it ‘wavering’?”

“I would say more ‘rapt’ than ‘wavering’, although not a hundred percent ‘rapt.’’

Does anyone actually dothat?

If I knew any drama writers I would ask them the not entirely polite question,

“How do you know what you’re doing?”

Because I honestly have no idea.

Say I decide to write a confrontational dramatic interlude.  A couple’s standing in the woman's apartment living room, after a serious dispute.  

Okay, here we go.  The argument’s climactic payoff.       

SHE:  “I want you to leave.”

HE:  “What?”

Wait!  “What”?  Why did he say “What”?  I have to knowthat.  You can’thave some gratuitous “What?” 

Maybe he’s surprised. (SURPRISED) “What?”  Maybe he’s upset and it’s affected his hearing.  “(I’m sorry.)  What?”  Maybe he’s confused, momentarily believing they’re standing in his apartment, the “What?” thenimplying, “What are you talking about?”

Maybe he forgot his next line, injecting an improvised “What?” to buy himself time.  

What if, instead of “What?”, he does that Method Acting“echoing” thing, where she says, “I want you to leave”, and he says, “You want me to leave.”

That’s kind of a cliché, though, isn’t it?  

“That ‘echoing’ thing. Really?”  

It also impedes the narrative’s progress.  We already heard she wanted him to leave. Repetitions, though purportedly realistic, can slow down the performance, kicking the babysitter’s charge into the next hour. 

What if she said, “I want you to leave” and he staresat her, daring her to say it again?  That feels kind of dramatic, creating a “tension of wills”, the audience, anxious to see who wins.

But how long of a stare, is the question?  You specifically write in “A long stare.”  But you know actors.  They take advantage.  How do you keep the “stare-length” in check, before it turns “a dramatic moment fraught with unimaginable tension” into an opportunity for the audience to check incoming e-mails?

So many ways to go. He could say, “Fine.”  He could say, “No.”  He could suddenly turn English and say, “Pardon?”  What’s the optimal alternative?  And how do you know when you’re doing it right?

“The audience laughs dramatically”?

There’s no such thing!

In the meantime, with literally hundreds of such choices to be made writing a play, I’m stuck forever on “I want you to leave.”

I don’t know, maybe it’s like everything.  Quoting the inimitable “Senor Wences”:
  
“For you easy; for me diffi-cult.”

It could be as simple as that.  Writers of comedy can write comedy; writers of drama can write drama.  Though I still think there’s a difference, one, which, it now occurs to me, can be, though educational, also potentially shattering. 

Along with signaling “laugh” comes the hecklering,   

“You’re not funny!”

You neverhear anyone shout,

“You’re not sufficiently dramatic!”

In that regard – though in that regard only– 

I would definitely trade. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"Hard To Please?"

Maybe you’ve experienced this yourselves.

Our cable package offers well over 50 feature film channels and flipping through them, way more often than I not, I can’t find anything to watch.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Not all of the offered films are recognizable as recent movie theater releases, but even those that are – I know we’re talking “individual differences” here – but I don’t want to go near them.  (Note: If you happened to like a film I dismissively breezed past, feel free to keep it to yourself.  We’re talking “collective experience” here, not “How could you hate that?”)

It is true I do not sample the movies I am rejecting as I remote my way up the spectrum.  I do not feel I need to.  Pressing my device’s “Info” button provides an adequate thumbnail description of the film, from which I can easily make my decision. 

To watch, or to see what else is on?

That is the less poetic and “life-in-the-balance” version of the question.

Join me, won’t you? As we meander our way up the dial. (“Sneak Preview”:  Anything with the word “cartel” in it and I am happily on the move.)  

Okay.

Promotional Summaries That Make Me Immediately Go “Click”:

“… a groundbreaking sci-fi epic…” 

I know it’s subjective – this whole thing’ssubjective – but I like my epics, groundbreaking or otherwise, anchored comfortably in the present.  Or, even better, the past.  (An old-time studio boss famously proclaimed, “Don’t bring me anything where they write with a feather.”  Show me a feather and I am happily onboard.  Ditto for crossbows, carrier pigeons and six-shooters.)

Moving on (chronicling movies I do not want to see)…

“… a low-key drama…”

Two hours of “low-key”? Might as well call it “… a hypo-glycemic celebration…”  I am hoping to do better.

“…an outrageously funny comedy…”

That bar’s set way too high – a prescription for certain disappointment.  Or if it lives up to its hype – envy.  

“… a delightful romantic comedy…”

“Delightful” sounds promising.  But how come it only got “two stars”?  Sounds only moderately “delightful” to me.
  
Collective Categorization:  Any movie title including the word Halloween, Scream or Nightmare On Any Street That Sounds Safe But Actually Isn’t­– “Click.”

Rocky IV – Sorry.  That’s three Rocky’stoo late.

“… a taut political thriller…”

Okay.  Oh wait.  It’s in Spanish.

And “Thumbs down” on any movie where the protagonist “goes undercover.”  If they’re not ultimately exposed, there’s no picture.  And if theyare, I don’t want to be there when they “teach them a lesson.” 

“… a provocative cerebral horror film…”

Who are they kidding? – “Click.”

Rocky V– If I was not “biting” on Rocky Four

“Pirates of the Caribbean”

“Fool me once…”  (me, being a longtime lover of “pirate pictures.” They do not trust the “pirate genre” to hold the current audience’s attention so they augment the scenario with a pirate on drugs.)

“… stunning special effects highlight…”

means there’s no story – “Click.”

Wristcutters – A Love Story

Ha.  “Click.”

And no movies where Eddie Murphy plays a bad Cary Grant rather than a great Eddie Murphy.

“… college road trip…”

I lived at home for college. Do I really want to see what I missed?

“… a zombie extermination service…”

And I’m paying for that channel?

A Few Good Men

Awright!  I love “courtroom dramas.”  Ohhhh.  It’s almost over.

Man!  That was so close!  Okay, what else have we got?

“… a psychotic killer…”

Wow.  A three-word “move-on.”

Fast & Furious titles have me changing the channel quickly and furiously.

Seriously, have they ever made a truly first-rate “anaconda” picture?  (Or anysnake, for that matter?)

“Deborah Foreman…”– a name unfamiliar to this moviegoer – “as a teenager whose popular (totally), spoiled (to the max) and on the prowl (fer sure.)”

A literal transcription. And they really believed that would “land” me?

“… a stirring video game adaptation…”

Guys!  I’m 73!

Okay.  So here’s the craziest part.  (And you thought that was the craziest part.)

You get to the end of the channels, with still nothing to watch.  And what do you do then?  

If you’re me?

You go back to the beginning and try again.

Who knows?  Maybe I missed something.

Which it turns out I did.

“… a tribe of flesh-eating…”

“Click.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

"Bias Or Persuasion"

“Conservatives hate everybody but themselves.  Liberals love everybody but conservatives.”

Earl Raymond Pomerantz

Flipping past the cable public service channel C-SPANlast weekend, I came across a debate recently held in Toronto concerning the issue of “political correctness.”  (Placed in quotes notto be snarky but because I’m am not sure how it’s defined.)  (And was no more sure when the debate was over.)

Loosely articulated, oneside saw “political correctness” as an egregious impediment to free speech while the othersaw its opposition as a petulant reaction by the majority to (various) newly empowered minorities’ adamant demands. 

Something like that.

What deliciously elevated the discussion for me was the participation of actor/writer/and a lot of other creative stuff Stephen Fry, who… well, it’s tipping my “message” to characterize his contribution, except to reveal that Fry quotes C.K. Chesterton, saying, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

In the context of desirably brokering the differences between the ideological extremes, Fry, arguing against the limiting constrictions of “political correctness” asking the utilitarian question, “How well has that worked?”  His jabbing implication being, “Not well.”

The debate was provocative, smart, and, on one occasion uncomfortably “low-blowy”, when, speaking for the pro “political correctness” contingent professor of Sociology (and writer, preacher and radio host) Michael Eric Dyson called one of his opposing adversaries “… a mean man.” 

Defending his debate partner, Fry, clearly alluding to Dyson, referred to the evening’s example of “… classic, if I can call it, huckstering, snake-oil ‘Pulpit Talk’”, instantly softening the blow by adding, “… a rhetorical style I find endlessly refreshing and vivifying…” (although afterthe skewering stiletto had been masterfully inserted.) 

Branding himself a “’‘contrarian’… and I can’t help myself…”, Fry’s final remarks included, in part, this eloquent summation (delivered so skillfully it was hard to believe he had not delivered it before):

“The liberals are illiberal in their demands for liberality. They are exclusive in their demands for inclusivity.  They are homogenous in their demands for heterogeneity. They are somehow undiverse in their demands for diversity.  You can be diverse.  But not in your opinions, and in your language and in your behavio(u)r. ”

My reaction to Fry’s well-argued position got me thinking.

Did I like it because it was right?

Did I like it because it was artfully articulated?

Or did I like it because I agreed with it?

I really appreciated how Fry called out the “free thinking” proponents of “political correctness.” But why wouldn’t I?

See: Italicized “opening” to this post.

In the end, Fry exhorts allideological combatants against being too earnest or pompous or serious, and especially against being too certain, it being a time for engaging instead, he suggests, in “… emotionally fulfilling, passionate and positive doubt.” 

Is it any surprise that I love this guy?

Of course, 

I could be wrong about everything.
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I don't seem to be getting comments anymore.  Did I accidentally turn off my "Comments" button?  Or are my post so complete there is nothing to ask?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"The Preacher And The Bad Boy"

We were recently generously invited to attend dinner and a movie – except the other way around – of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’s creator and TV host, Fred Rogers.

To be honest – and when am I not? – I was not overly enthusiastic about seeing this movie.  A droning guy in a cardigan, tying his shoelaces…?  Sure, I liked him just the way he was.  But I was far from bowled over. 

As an alternative, I proposed instead going to RBG, a documentary chronicling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which – to be honest again – I was also less than excited about, putting me two movies away from “Hooray!” 

Our hosts had already seen RBG, so “Mr. Rogers” it was.

And… 

It turns out I was wrong about it.  

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a full – about ten minutes toofull in some assessments – and affecting depiction of a singular character, whose announced mission was to validate the (scary) hidden feelings of children.  

An ordained minister who played music, Rogers pursued his agenda using, by show biz standards, a counter-intuitive approach – non-frenetic, non-violent, extremely low tech, and paced for slippers rather than sneakers.  In short, it was everything other children’s programing of the day was not.  

(A Personal Quibble: There was a scolding critique of “pie-throwing”, which for me crossed the line, being a life-long supporter of Soupy Sales.  End of “Personal Quibble.”)   

Watching the movie, my companions were occasionally moved to tears, most specifically when Mr. Rogers sang a memorable duet with a gutsy young boy, confined to a wheel chair.  

In another noteworthy segment, in response to some states’ refusal to integrate swimming pools, Rogers invited his program’s African-American “mailman” to join him, relaxing his feet in a small tub of cooling water.

I myself was knocked out by Rogers’s courageous testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee (1969), attempting to prevent the cutting of 20 million dollars from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting’s annual budget. Rogers’s delivery was so persuasive the crusty committee chairman John Pastore immediately proclaimed,

“Looks like he just earned the 20 million dollars.” 

Some people were annoyed by Rogers’s “cloying sincerity.”  He was easily parodied, most famously by SNL’s Eddie Murphy.  (Who later met and hugged him, affectionately dubbing him, “The realMr. Rogers.)  

Some found Fred Rogers so “emotionally sympatico”, they believed he was gay.  (Which says whatabout the rest of us – “All people are the enemy, and if you don’t believe that you’re gay”?)

Since he never broke character, you have to conclude that that was his character, making Fred Rogers a genuine, one-of-a-kind “Authentic.”

Okay, so the movie’s over, and I’m standing in the Men’s Room, when it occurs to me – as things often occur to me when the pressure’s off in such “facilities” – 

“Who does Fred Rogers remind me of?”

And then it suddenly occurs to me:

The recently – sadly departed – Anthony Bourdain.

Holy Cow!  I just Googledto confirm the correct spelling of “Bourdain” and there’s this headline: “Anthony Bourdain Was A Modern Mr. Rogers.”  Hold on while I read it, okay?

............................................

Never mind.  It’s too long.

Not to belabor the comparison, here, to me, is the common denominator between Fred Rogers and Anthony Bourdain.

For his CNN show Parts UnknownAnthony Bourdain, an erstwhile big-time restaurant chef and former heroin addict, traveled the earth – and not just  “Michelin Star” places like Paris and Rome but numerous considerably less glitzy destinations, like Mongolia and Myanmar, sampling the traditional cuisine and asking questions about the culture. 

I recall a recent show where Bourdain visited West Virginia, and along with consuming the local delicacies, he quizzed the “Hill Country” inhabitants about “Gun Control”, analogizing, concerning sensible restrictions, “People drive cars in Florida.  But should they be allowed to?”

Though polar opposite to Fred Rogers in character and temperament – Rogers being gentle and earnest, Bourdain, sardonic and gruff – their espoused missions were detectably the same:

To demonstrate through their unwavering civility that allpeople – whether in Kindergarten or Borneo – are essentially worthwhile, and deserving of our compassionate consideration.  

Each of them, in their own style, was unquestionably “Authentic.”

Startling authenticity can take you a long way, its magnetic draw, in one case, carrying them all the way to the White House.   

Proving authenticity, although fusingly “connecting”, 

Does not always mean kind.

Monday, June 11, 2018

"Tracking Imminent Extinction"

It’s an unnerving, disorienting, precarious-feeling… feeling.

Imagine the giant (PREHISTORIC ANIMAL I AM UNABLE TO IDENTIFY BUT NOW IT’S GONE), scouring a decimated terrain, reconfigured as a newly constructed Apartment Complex.

CAVE-DWELLING READER:  “What ‘Apartment Complex’?  There were holes in the hills and we lived in them.”

I was being metaphorical.

“Inaccurately metaphorical.  I mean, we’d sweep out a little…”

You had brooms back then?

“… We’d kick the rocks out the door with our...”

You had doors?

Okay.  Point taken.

You see?  We all do it.

“To some extent.  But  'Apartment Complex’ crosses the line.”

How ‘bout “… scouring the decimated terrain, reconfigured as a tournament golf course”?

“Funny man.  You may continue.  But carefully.”

Thank you.  I am actually going somewhere with this.

“I hope so.”  ("We all hope so.”)

So there’s this, y’know, “Giant Animal of Earlier Times”, who was once totally happy and content. (“Content”, defined as “happy without smiling”, thus covering the spectrum of emotional wellbeing.)

Why the good mood, you may curiously query?

Because there was always plenty to eat, that “plenty” being the Darwinian comestible designed specifically for them, keeping them vitally healthy, and, like the Wonder Bread of later times – and for people – “building strong dinosaur – or whatever – bodies Eight Ways.”  (Later expanded to “Twelve Ways”, due to “Dietary Inflation.”)

At one time, there was so much of that “natural nutrient” available, the biggest problem was over-consumption and subsequent bellyache.  (Or they were unable to fit into their dinosaur pants.)  It was not like they were going to run out of it; the “essential foodstuff” was growing like crabgrass.  (It might have actually been crabgrass.  There is no overestimating my ignorance in these matters.)

And then, imperceptibly at first, but in a chartable direction,

Things demonstrably began to change.

Where once there was a boundless abundance of this nurturing foodstuff, it became increasingly noticeable… there wasn’t.

Maybe it was the “Hunters and Gatherers” who’d become farmers, creating arable territory by hacking away the diet other species found indispensible but they didn’t.  Maybe it was some abrupt “Climate Change”, causing their required plant or vegetable to increasingly shrivel and die.  Maybe the big animals, thinking “Why not?  There’s a ton of it”, consumed too muchof it and they inevitably ran out.  (The “Vanishing Buffalo”, only with leaves.)  I cannot say for certain, because I wasn’t there and I refuse to do research.

All I know is, it seemed like one day, there was a surfeit and of “survival sustenance”, and the next day…

It was nowhere.

You can imagine how disturbing that was.  What was once everywhere now took increasingly longer to track down – first hours, then, nothing on alternate days, then, nothing on consecutivedays, and then, finally…

“Where isit?”

The worrying consequence being,

“When it goes, we go.”

Well… belatedly turning the narrative corner…

That’s how I feel about the disappearing Law & Order reruns.

A ubiquitous “Land of Plenty” now a withering wasteland.

Law & Order reruns used to be everywhere – numerous channels, numerous times a day.  A cornucopia of abundance, Law & Order reruns was “binge-watching” before you needed three remotes to be able to binge.

I was unfazed by the arriving Blue Bloods, alternating with Law & Order “Marathons.”  “There’s room for everyone,” I originally believed. Blue Bloods takes Thursdays; L & O fills Fridays.

Then came the encroaching Criminal Minds, a dour concoction, blanketing the off-network schedules, along with the “vanilla” NCIS  and  “supernatural” programming I won't even go near.  All of them squeezing Law & Order reruns inexorably to the periphery.

Then, noticed the last couple of days,

Law & Order reruns are suddenly nowhere to be found.

Desperately searching for “sustenance”, I click around hundreds of channels.  And, where once a L & O oasis could be accessed within seconds…

There is now – agonizingly – nothing.  

(I feel my throat constricting just typing that word.) 

Deliberately or otherwise – probably otherwise, the schedulers unlikely thinking about me, though the ultimate consequence is identical – I am brutally deprived of “natural nourishment.”

Where’s suing the gun companies for reckless disregard of citizen safety?  Where’s the money-mad cosmetic surgeon changing the “pre-op” forms, ruthlessly erasing when the patient last ate?  Where’s the rapacious condo-converting landlord, pushing a “rent-controlled” holdout out of the window?  Where’s the publicity-obsessed movie star losing her adopted foreign-born baby, blaming her negligent carelessness on the Nanny?

Now it’s all terrorists and serial killers.  

No courtroom clashes in sight.

Leaving a scavenging forager, remote tightly in hand, searching for sustenance, with ominously nothing on the terrain, its sudden departure catching him breathlessly off-guard.  

I may not literally go when it goes.

But I feel vulnerably alone.

Friday, June 8, 2018

"Influence"

Last night on our local Public Television station, there was a promotion in which viewers were asked to vote on the book that most powerfully influenced them.  

Books influence people, arguably in a way that movies and television don’t, other than influencing people to go into movies and television.  The Bible, for example, influences people in lotsof ways, not all of which, perhaps, its original Author had in mind.  (I just threw that in because I thought of it, and where else would I get a chance to use it?  Anyway…) 

Although, as previously mentioned, I am not a big novel reader – or a smallnovel reader, for that matter – my vote for the book that most powerfully influenced me, hands down – whatever that means – would be Joseph Heller’s magnificent Catch-22.

I read Catch-22 while living in London in 1967.  I had seen it on a bookstand at the Baker Street Underground kiosk, and I queued up to pay for it, standing in a long and infuriating (if you’re not English) slow-moving queue.  I saw the train coming and I got on, holding the book I had neglected to pay for in my hand.  

Would that be considered stealing? 

I believe it would.

So there you have it. 

I stole the book that most powerfully influenced me.

I recall traveling in that subway, shrieking hysterically at Catch-22’s first pages, in which a literally mummified wartime hospital patient had two tubes inserted into his body connected to two bottles, one tube delivering liquid supplements, the other extracting the patient’s liquid waste, and when one of them was empty and the other one was full, they switched the bottles and continued the treatment.

Though undeniably funny, my appreciation of Catch-22 was exponentially enhanced by the fact that the book’s theme involved an issue near and dear to my heart:   The world we live in, therein exemplified by the American military, is functionally insane.  And if you realize that, you are too sane to escape its life-threatening authority.  

That was the eponymous Catch-22, aptly described as,

“That’s some catch, that ‘Catch-22.’”  

Absurdities abound in Catch-22, one of my favorites being a character named “Major” who, despite has lack of qualifications, someone thought it would be funny to promote to “Major”, so he would thereafter have to be addressed, “Major Major.”

Feeling understandably insecure in his unearned position, Major Major instructed his assistant never to let anyone wanting to see him into his office unless he was gone.  If he was there, he ordered him to tell the visitor to wait.  Until when?  Until he was gone.  Then the assistant had permission to let them come in.

Wacka-wacka-wacka!

I recall the last chunk of Catch-22 losing satirical steam. But for its earlier hundreds of pages, the book’s skewering outrageousness had me consistently doubled over in laughter, a feat of hilarity inducement no book, film, TV show or standup comedian ever subsequently surpassed.  

Heller’s novel demonstrated you could be explosively funny and scathingly truthful at the same time, the secondelement, in fact, fueling the intensity of the first. Though there are flashes of comic genius in numerous short stories by Bruce Jay Friedman, no book consistently made me laugh harder than Catch-22.  

FLASH FORWARD - NUMEROUS YEARS.

I am struggling with starting an assigned sitcom script, early in my Hollywood television-writing career.  Not exactly “Writer’s Block”, but close.  Which was a problem because if you don’t deliver the script, they don’t pay you. And then you have to go back to Toronto and figure out who you are, amidst highly adverse meteorological conditions.

There I am, stewing in my self-flagellating juices, thinking – and, more importantly, believing – “I’m finished.”

I am in desperate need of inspiration.  Something to make me feel funny so I can write funny.  I did not know if it worked that way, but nothing, including wailing, “I’m a fraud as a writer” in an empty apartment, was helping.

Then I remember Catch-22.

Which I had brought along during the move.

I scoured my bookshelves, searching for the book I was sure would invigorate my blackening spirits.

And I found it.

I sat down, opened the book at the beginning, and I began to read.

And you know what happened?

It depressed the heck out of me.

A guy wrapped entirely in bandages, his discarded fluids used as nutritional supplements?

Suddenly, that was the saddest thing I had ever heard.

When I had scared passengers, cackling about it on the subway.

It appeared to me at that moment – though I was hardly in a condition to make balanced and reasonable observations – that, as readers could be powerfully influenced by the tone and temperament of a book, the converse possibility also appeared to be case – that a book could be powerfully influenced by the tone and temperament of the reader.

Reminding me of the song in Hans Christian Andersenabout reading, that goes,

You laugh – ‘Ha ha!” – but you blush a bit
For you realize while you’re reading it
That’s it’s also reading you.”

I used to think that was just silly.

But after I transformed Catch-22 from a comedy to a tragedy,

Maybe it isn’t.