Thursday, February 28, 2008

"A Message From Uncle Grumpy"

I recently got an e-mail from my cantankerous and opinionated Uncle Grumpy. He wants to borrow my blog, needing, he says, “to blow off some steam before I deck somebody.” What can I do, he’s my uncle. But before handing things over, I want to issue this disclaimer:

The following are the exclusive opinions of my Uncle Grumpy, and in no way reflect the views of this blogger or anyone else in his family. All arguments, criticisms or threats of personal bodily harm should be addressed directly to him. Not me. That’s him. And not me.


Okay, Uncle Grumpy, take it away.

Nice boy, my nephew. Good writer. But he wants to be liked. That’s your kiss o’ death right there. That’s Game Over. Look, you can “entertain” till the cows come home, if that’s how you want to waste you time, but geez on a turnip, if you don’t have something you’re burstin’ to say, what the heck are you writing for?

Here we go. Where do I start? Okay, an easy one. Religion.

Why couldn’t God have created evolution?

Chew on that one for a while. I’m movin’ on.

Baseball. Not the steroids thing. Who cares? If the batters used them and the pitchers used them, what’s the problem? It’s Big Head versus Big Head.


Still baseball.

Can we please get Pete Rose inducted into the Hall of Fame? Pete Rose got more career hits than anyone who ever played. But he stupidly gambled on the game. So, they banned him from baseball, and, despite his statistics, they refused to induct him into the Hall of Fame.


Look, every Hall of Famer gets a plaque on the wall, chronicling their accomplishments. I say, induct Pete Rose, and inscribe on his plaque: “Most hits ever. Was banned for betting.” Is that so complicated? Induct him ‘cause he earned it, but tell the whole story. People – kids – they come to the Hall of Fame, the plaque’s there for posterity. “Pete Rose: Great hitter, punkass gambler.”


A little deeper water.

Our institutions in this country? None of them work.

Not government. Not the schools. Not Health Care. Not the courts. I don’t know about the military – we don’t fight anyone big anymore. Jumpin’ catfish! The U.S. against Panama? That’s, as Chick Hearn used to say, the Lakers versus the “Sisters of Mercy!”

The other institutions stink for sure. And stink bad!

But they make this agreement, see? Who’s “they”? The people involved. All of them. Even the institutions’ critics. They just say adjustments need to be made, not it’s totally broken. They can’t be that negative, even if it’s true. America hates a Gloomy Gus.

So they make an agreement, and the agreement is this: “We’ll pretend that things work.” Why, besides the “Gloomy Gus” thing? Because it’s easier to pretend things work than to actually fix them. The public in general – they may sense something’s wrong – but they still go along with the act. Why? Because it feels better.

“Everything works. Maybe a little tinkering.”


You see how that feels?

“Every single institution in the country is fundamentally messed up.”


“Everything’s broken” means chaos. We can’t live with chaos. So we all play along.

There’s also this:

However corrupt and inefficient our institutions, somebody’s working tirelessly to keep things exactly the way they are. Why? ‘Cause they’re making a ton of money out of it.

Take Health Care. Every day nothing’s done about Health Care, the H.M.O’s, the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies have a party! Health Care’s not football. In Health Care, only one team has to move the ball. The other team simply has to freeze the ball and run out the clock. And they’ve been doin’ it since the Truman Administration, the first time Health Care was brought up!

Wake up, People! They’re winning!

I’m runnin’ out of steam. Earl’s old and I’m his uncle. One last thing and I’ll go.

The Supreme Court.

Lotta humility there!

“I’m on the Supreme Court.”

“That’s a big court.”

“The biggest!”

Here’s the problem. I don’t know how things used to be, but in the last thirty years, Republican presidents only nominated conservatives for the Supreme Court, and Democrats only nominated liberals. They have to do that. If they didn’t, their constituents would boil ‘em in oil!

How can you tell where the nominees stand? They’re all judges. Their decisions are on the record. Jiminy Christmas, they’re selected because of that record! That’s why they were nominated in the first place!

Then you have your Confirmation Hearings. What a hoot they are. Senators sitting there, pretending they’re deliberating. How do I know they’re pretending? Their questions don’t make sense!

“Mr. or Ms. Supreme Court Nominee: We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand where you stand on this and that issue, but what we really want to know is this:

“Can you be impartial?”

They’re asking that to the nominees. With their one-sided track records! Jehosaphat! Isn’t the only honest response a Supreme Court nominee can make to the question, “Can you be impartial?”:

“Well, I haven’t been so far.”

Okay, that’s enough. I gotta take a nap. I hope my nephew has me back sometime.

I’m just gettin’ started.

You can catch some of my posts on I'm branching out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Interview With A Giraffe"

Imagine a radio station where they interview human beings but sometimes they don’t. The following is an interview conducted at that station.

INTERVIEWER: Today, as a change of pace from interviewing human beings, I have as my guest, direct from wildest Africa, a giraffe. Mr. Giraffe, welcome.

GIRAFFE: Hello, hi. It’s good to be here. And you can forget the ‘Mister.’ We animals don’t stand on ceremony. Except for lions. You know lions. They got a mane, they think it’s a crown. On the other hand, horses have manes and they’re fine, so go figure.


GIRAFFE: Am I jabbering? I’m jabbering, aren’t I?

INTERVIEWER: That’s all right.

GIRAFFE: It’s just so good to open up. In the wild, we’re not allowed to talk.

INTERVIEWER: For safety reasons, I suppose.

GIRAFFE: A lot of good that does us. Okay, so we’re quiet giraffes. The predators can’t hear us. But, please, we’re twenty feet tall. They can SEE US! Being quiet only protects us from blind predators. Like they’re a big problem.

INTERVIEWER: Well, you can relax. You’re quite safe here.

GIRAFFE: Yes, I can sense that. Speaking of ‘safe’, can you get me into a zoo?

INTERVIEWER: You want to live in a zoo?

GIRAFFE: I’d prefer it greatly, yes.

INTERVIEWER: That’s kind of surprising. A lot of people think animals shouldn’t be in zoos.

GIRAFFE: Has anyone asked the animals? Let’s see. Zoos. They feed you, they clean up your ‘habitat’, you get first class medical care, including dental, and you’re completely protected from predators who want to rip you to pieces and eat you. Oh, yeah. Zoos are the worst. The Circle of Life, that’s good. It’s good in Disney movies!

INTERVIEWER: You wouldn’t miss your freedom?

GIRAFFE: Where I'm from, we have this saying: “Freedom’s just another word for running for your life.” Which reminds me, do we have time for a quick story?


GIRAFFE: This goes way back. I’m a baby, six, maybe, seven feet tall. I’m standing in the river with a bunch of other giraffes. We’re slaking our thirst, which is a fancy way of saying we’re drinking some water. Suddenly, giraffe ears prick up, noses start to twitch – something’s up.

INTERVIEWER: Something dangerous.

GIRAFFE: No, the ice cream truck is coming. Of course, dangerous.

INTERVIEWER: What’s the strategy in these situations?

GIRAFFE: Our strategy is you run like crazy and - I know this isn’t nice - but you hope that they catch a different giraffe.

INTERVIEWER: So you ran.

GIRAFFE: They ran. The other giraffes. I was young and thirsty and I missed all the signals. I look up, everyone’s gone.


GIRAFFE: ‘Oh dear’ is right. ‘What’s going on?’, I’m thinking. I look around, and there he is. A lion. It was the first one I’d ever seen, but you know, just looking at him, you know it’s not good.

INTERVIEWER: You must have been terrified.

GIRAFFE: To put it delicately, a lot of water went back into the river.

INTERVIEWER: What did you do?

GIRAFFE: Okay. At this point, I have to reveal a confidence. A secret no animal has ever revealed, on the radio or anywhere else. Are you interested in a ‘scoop’?


GIRAFFE: You got it. And I’m hoping – no quid pro quo, or anything – but, you know, if you want to be nice, in exchange for the ‘scoop’, that maybe you can help me…

INTERVIEWER: …get into a zoo?

GIRAFFE: 'Nuff said – wink-wink. Okay, here’s the ‘scoop.’ A piece of information animals have kept to themselves since the beginning of time. Are you ready?

INTERVIEWER: I’m all ears.

GIRAFFE: Okay. In the jungle, every animal has secreted, somewhere on his or her person, a book.


GIRAFFE: It’s very small. We have excellent eyesight.

INTERVIEWER: I’ve never heard this before.

GIRAFFE: Of course not, it’s a secret! Were you not listening?

INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry. I'm just wondering how animals were able to keep it a secret for so long?

GIRAFFE: Animals are extremely disciplined. Just before we die, we are instructed to swallow the book. Look in our mouths. Tiny pages.

INTERVIEWER: Does the book have a name?

GIRAFFE: The book is called Who Eats Who? It’s a picture book, because, you know…

INTERVIEWER: Animals can’t read.

GIRAFFE: And don’t think it hasn’t held us back. Here’s how the book works. You’re in the wild, and you spot an animal skulking in your proximity. Strange animal, you’ve never seen it before. Right away, you pull out your Who Eats Who? and you locate the picture in the book that corresponds to the animal you’re looking at. Now, underneath that picture, you will find one of two arrows. An arrow pointing toward the animal means you run after him and eat him. An arrow pointing away from the animal means, ‘Get the heck out of there before he eats you!’ It's very simple. A binary concept. "Arrow toward - eat." "Arrow away - run!"

INTERVIEWER: Sounds like a very important book.

GIRAFFE: It’s essential! You lose that book, blink your eyes, and you’re a sandwich without the bread. Now, back to the story. The lion starts heading my way. I don’t know what he is, so I whip out my trusty Who Eats Who?, and I match him with the picture.

INTERVIEWER: And you run away.

GIRAFFE: That’s what I should have done. But at that moment, I was so nervous, I misread the arrow. I thought that we ate them.


GIRAFFE: Oh, yes.


GIRAFFE: I attacked the lion. And, Boy, was he surprised! I mean, I run up to him, I start gnawing on his leg with my leaf-eating teeth. And he’s standing there, staring at me! The guy can't believe it. A giraffe is eating a lion!


GIRAFFE: ‘Whoa’ is right! The lion's standing there. In shock. And before you know it, I ate him all up!

INTERVIEWER: Incredible.

GIRAFFE: But true. I’ll never forget the last thing he said, just before I ate his mouth.

INTERVIEWER: What did he say?

GIRAFFE: ‘We eat you!

INTERVIEWER: Well. That is truly a remarkable story.

GIRAFFE: I thought you'd like it.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you for telling it.

GIRAFFE: It was my pleasure. So, you know...with the zoo?

INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry, I can’t.

GIRAFFE: But we had an agreement.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t believe we did.

GIRAFFE: There was an unspoken assumption. It was definitely inferred.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you for being with us.

GIRAFFE: This is so unfair!

INTERVIEWER: Our guest today has been a giraffe, who will now go back where he came from.

GIRAFFE: I have knee problems. I’m not going to last.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Four Keys To Writing Success

In another posting, or post, whatever, I mentioned that my success as a writer seems to be the product of four key elements: talent, timing, determination and luck. I want to elaborate on that. Hopefully, it will be helpful.

Determination is simple.

Don’t quit.

My wife adds the element of having a thick skin. I think she’s right, but I’d categorize that under “determination.” If I didn’t, I’d have to make it The Five Keys to Writing Success, and four sounds better.

“The Four Keys To Writing Success.”


“The Five Keys To Writing Success.”


Okay, I just prefer “four.” Although, if I remember, someday I’ll talk about funny numbers. They actually exist.

All right, so that’s determination.

Now, luck.

Luck is the most important of the four keys to writing success. Try to have it, if you possibly can. Unfortunately, luck is not under our control. It comes and it goes. When you have it, it’s really, really helpful.

Consider my luck of having my brother, Hart, being Lorne Michaels’ writing partner, and how that fundamentally affected my career. Imagine if my brother, instead, had partnered up with Roy Shoichet, a Canadian comedy writer and full-time psychiatrist, who once raced breathlessly into a writers’ meeting, saying,

“I’m sorry I’m late. I had to talk a man in off of a ledge.”

Not as good, right? If I’d coveted a career in suicide prevention, Doctor Roy would have been the perfect contact. I happen to have wanted something else.

Consider the essential role luck played in getting my first job in Hollywood. Lorne had asked me to come down to write on a Lily Tomlin “special” and I’d turned him down, because I had a better paying job in Canada. Months later, in the week my Canadian job abruptly disappeared, Lorne called back; due to a postponement, the job was available again.


One last example, though I’m sure there are dozens. Early in my career, I had a female agent, who, being a woman, was able to connect with the male Executive Producer who gave me my first solo-writing sitcom assignment in a way that was unlikely to have been available to a male agent. There were almost no female agents back then.


You got it? Luck is really, really good.

Talent and Timing

What is talent? Are you born with talent or can talent be learned? What if you’re talented, but they haven’t invented the thing you’re talented at yet?

“The guy has a natural talent for skateboarding.”

What did he do before they invented skateboarding? Wait?

First of all, as far as talent is concerned, put me down for “You’re born with it.” Training can improve a less talented person and not training can make a naturally talented person fall short of their potential, but the raw material’s encoded in your DNA, along with height, which, as it turns out, I’m not talented at.

Beyond natural ability, however, there is always – I love this word – inextricably – the question of timing.

You know about those painters who went nuts, because they weren’t recognized as talented till after they were dead. How do you explain that, other than by the “too-late-to-matter-‘cause-you’re-dead” coming together of talent and timing?

“Talent” assessments can be a function not just of time but also of place. In Toronto, there were a people who thought I was no good. I know that, because once, after years of doing well in Hollywood, I ran into a major Canadian television executive who said to me, “I can’t tell you how surprised we all are by your success.” I never cared for that remark, but maybe he was right. Maybe you can be “talented” in one place and stink in another. Of course, it’s also the possible that the people making those assessments are idiots.

I guess I’m kind of sensitive about that “talented” label. So many elements play into that judgment, and the consequences, for the person being judged, are enormous.

Imagine, for example, the time before cable TV, a time when the three major networks were the only places you could go to pitch your series ideas. Now, imagine the two guys who created South Park, pitching their show to an executive of one of those networks.

The executive listens attentively, laughs in the right places. And then, he responds.

“Boys. Can I be honest with you? I’m crazy about the way your minds work. And I swear to God, if it were up to me, I’d “Green Light” South Park in a New York minute. Unfortunately, this isn’t about my taste, which – I’m leveling with you – is very much in synch with yours. You gotta understand something. You’re going to hate this, but you know it’s true.

“CBS/NBC/ABC (pick one) is a broad-based television network. We’re in the volume business. We need to reach everyone. That’s “The Law”, okay? “The Law.”

“Now, look at our Schedule Board. You see where I’m pointing? The Andy Williams Christmas Special. He’s singing with orphans. You see my problem, right? You guys just pitched a Christmas episode of South Park who’s featured character is Christmas “poo.” Don’t get me wrong. I love the “Christmas Poo” idea, it’s edgy, it’s never been done before, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. But, fellas, let’s get real here, okay? How do I schedule Andy and the Orphans back-to-back with a show that ties in the holiest day of the year with, you know, excrement? You see what I’m saying?”

The same story in seven words?

“You’re brilliant. You’re crazy. You’re outta here.”

In a strange but definitive way, “talent” minus timing equals “No talent.” Even if you’re talented! In the pre-cable environment, South Park’s creators would have been perceived, by all three networks, as having no talent, “no talent” being defined as, “They’re bringing us something we can’t possibly do.”

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. You’re seen as talented in one era, but when you stop being successful – meaning, you’re not selling anymore – you’re considered to have “lost” your talent. Can that be possible?

“He lost his talent.”

“Where did it go?”

Nowhere. Once again, it’s a question of timing. When you’re “hot”, you’re “talented”; when you’re not, as the Jerry Reed song says, you’re not. Being “objectively” talented? Maybe there’s no such thing.

On the other hand, we all know people who, by the most honest and compassionate of standards, are not talented in any era. So the concept must mean something. I need to think about it some more.

Here’s what I know. People who “make it” have every reason to be humble. “Determination” – that’s in your hands. But that’s it. The other three keys to writing success – talent, luck and timing – have nothing at all to do with you.

It's worth remembering.

Monday, February 25, 2008

"Saddle Up! - Part Two"

Back by popular demand – okay, two people – okay, one “Commenter” and myself.

Saddle Up!

What’s it about? Well, sir, and ma’am, as a huge fan, I noticed the same actors playing the same classic characters in every western again and again. I imagined the reminiscences of those actors – human, animal and vegetable actors – and here, in their own words, is what those beloved performers have to say.

The following are excerpts from different sections of my cowboy book, Sagebrush Memories.

Saddle Up!



“It isn’t as easy as it looks. People think, ‘They’re in there robbing the bank, but he’s so dumb, they left him out with the horses.’ Bull Roar! Holdin’ the horses is a very important job. I mean, think about it. What if they break loose and run away? Robbers come barrelin’ out of the bank – no horses.”

“‘Cause of me, those horses were there. Otherwise, them bank robbers’d be walkin’ out of town.”

“Horse holders had to do some pretty good acting. You had to play it casual like, you know? ‘Nothin’ unusual.’ Just a guy holdin’ six horses.”

“How’d I keep ‘em in line? I had my little secrets. I’d hum to ‘em. Sometimes, I slip ‘em some gum. They liked Juicy Fruit. It seemed to settle ‘em down.”

“Just once, I’da loved to have gone into the bank. I never made it.”



“At the time they were making those westerns, there were maybe fifteen, sixteen buffalo left. In stampedes, to make the herd look bigger, we’d run until we were out of ‘camera shot’, then they’d move us to another position, and we’d run again. I’d run maybe a dozen times in the same stampede.”

“I’m sure nobody noticed, but every time they moved me, I imagined I was a different buffalo – a buffalo with a limp, a buffalo with a twitch, a drooler. I told my agent I should get paid for each characterization. He told me to keep running.”

“You probably know Hollywood’s not the natural habitat for buffalo. We were trucked in from North Dakota. You know what that means. We not only had to act like people were shooting at us, we had to pretend we were doing it in a colder place. At least, that’s what they wanted. This one director, he said, ‘Can you guys make steam come out of your noses?’ We just looked at him. Where did he think it came from?”

“To a buffalo, those “massacres” felt frighteningly real. We all lost relatives, you know? A buddy of mine had nightmares after those scenes. The poor guy started drinking. He talked about joining a support group, but he didn’t feel comfortable about that. He thought he’d stand out in the crowd. Finally, he connected with some chat room on the Internet. They don’t even know he’s a buffalo.”

“It’s kind of ironic. They stopped making westerns just when the buffalo herds started to grow. Imagine, only having to run once.”




“The good thing about bein’ the first Indian over the wall is you stood out. I mean, you were the first Indian over the wall! The bad thing was you always got killed. They had to kill ya; they had no choice. Other Indians see the first Indian gets over the wall and doesn’t get killed, it emboldened them. They’re thinkin’ ‘If he can do it, so can we.’ The people in the fort don’t want emboldened Indians, so they kill me. It’s like they’re sayin’ to the rest of them, ‘It’s not that easy.’”

“You never had a lot of Indians comin’ over the wall together; it was always one Indian at a time. As an actor, I tried imaginin’ why I’d do such a foolhardy thing. What was my thought process? ‘I think I’ll climb over the wall alone and kill everyone in the fort?’ What were the chances of that happening? I decided it was a ‘strikin’ fear’ kind of thing. You know, ‘An Indian’s over the wall! That can’t be good.’ It plants the seed, you know? ‘When they learn to climb in a group, we’re done for.’”

“Comin’ over the wall, you were way off the ground, meaning when they killed you, you weren’t just dyin’, you were dyin’ and fallin’. ‘Course, they’d have this mattress out of ‘camera shot’ for you to land on. I missed the mattress once and was laid up for a month. I’d have been back sooner, but I landed on my tomahawk.”

“I liked to slaughter a sentry before they got me. It made me feel better. Funny thing. Even playactin’, you want to take somebody with you.”

Coming Soon: Saddle Up! – Part Three. Who’s with me?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Five

After The Bobbie Gentry Show, the Executive Producer who'd hired me for it told me he'd made a deal to write a half-hour comedy pilot. He wanted me to write it with him, offering to split the money fifty-fifty. It sounded great.

The one red flag was the Executive Producer's manager, Bernie, who told me not to trust the Executive Producer. Now, common sense suggests you should listen when a manager warns you not to trust his own client, but I didn't. My experience with the Executive Producer had been otherwise. He'd told me in Toronto he wanted me to play Bobbie Gentry's boyfriend on a summer series, and that's exactly what happened. The Executive Producer may have lied to other people, but he hadn't lied to me.

With the pilot-writing opportunity in my pocket - plus three network credits - The Lily Tomlin "special", The Bobbie Gentry Show and the Sanford and Son collaboration - I decided to give up my apartment in Toronto and have my Mazda driven to Los Angeles.

I was moving to the States for good.

Up to that time, I'd been living at the Chateau Marmont, now trendy, then, a dump. I had a small room, with a mini-fridge in the clothes closet. The rent was an incredibly cheap hundred and fifty dollars a month. Cheap or not, however, after four months, I was tired of eating all my meals in restaurants, even though the place I ate them in was pretty special.

Every day, I ate two meals a day, breakfast and dinner at the nearby Schwab's, now gone, but once, a show business hangout, verging on a clubhouse. The waitresses at Schwab's were kindly and maternal; they made sure you drank your milk and finished your vegetables. I explained to them that even my mother didn't make me do that. Their answer to that was, "We're better."

Schwab's's customers were comprised mostly of writers and performers, many successful, others, down on their luck. When I'd leave to go to work, I'd notice a lot of the customers lingering over their coffees. They clearly had nowhere to go.

One Schwab's "regular", I remember, was a comic actors named Joe E. Ross. He had been a semi-regular on The Phil Silvers Show and later co-starred in Car 54, Where Are You? Ross was primarily known for his famous catchphrase, "Oooh! Oooh!" In Showbiz Past, you could coast
on "Oooh! Oooh!" for twenty years. But not forever. I'd come back to Schwab's for dinner, Joe E. Ross was still sitting there.

Another man I remember from Schwab's was a writer who, with a female partner, wrote for years on The Carol Burnett Show. From my first days in Hollywood, this man would always tell me, "You're going to be okay." For some reason, that irritated me. "How do you know?" was my graceless response. But he kept saying it, every time he saw me. "You're gonna do fine." I know he meant it as an encouragment, but to me, it felt like a curse. The writer later died of AIDS. I should have said, "Thank you."

Lorne Michaels lived at The Chateau for two years. I think he had a bigger room. After four months, I needed to get out. Not only was my room depressing me, but there was a "blind" left turn coming out of the hotel driveway that gave me nightmares.

I climbed into my rented Pinto, and I drove to nearby West Hollywood, looking for an apartment.

I drove down King's Road, heading towards Melrose. I spotted a "For Rent" sign, I parked my car, and I went in. Lounging at the pool was a bikini-clad woman of mouthdropping attractiveness. I immediately signed the lease. I never saw that woman again.

Looking back, the apartment was probably pretty junky, but to a recent immigrant from Canada, it was like the coolest set from a Hollywood movie. First of all, it had a swimming pool. In Toronto, only millionaires had swimming pools, and they could only swim in them three days a year.
This pool didn't look like the pool at the "Y." It wasn't rectangular; it was, I don't know, like a shape from a Rorschach Test. It was all squiggly. Looking around, I noticed the hallways leading to the apartments were open to the sky. There was nothing like that in Canada. The piled-up snow would have kept you from opening your door till June.

I'm sorry for going on, just one more thing. The whole apartment was made of stucco. Canadian winters would laugh at stucco. Understandably. I was living in a papier-mache building.

I lived on King's Road for eight months. Not much happened there, except for this:

One day, I heard the unmistakable "pht-pht-pht" of approaching helicopters. I ran outside. Four helicopters were hovering directly over my building. I raced to the front to find out what was going on. I saw half a dozen police cars parked diagonally, blocking the street.

"What's going on?"

"The apartment's being raided."

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, my building was inhabited by a squadron - probably not the right word - of high-priced Call Girls. I'd always wondered why there were always fancy cars with diplomatic license plates parked out front. I thought they were visiting relatives.

I knew there were a lot of beautiful women living there. I'd spotted them, getting their mail from the apartment mailboxes, dressed in negligees. I thought they were back-up singers. You seeing a pattern here? I am entirely clueless. I figured the ladies slept in the daytime and they worked at night. Turns out, they were working around the clock.

That was the excitement of the apartment on King's Road. Oh, and the fact that, for a short time, Good Times' Jimmie "J.J." Walker lived there.
For me, it was all very thrilling - the apartment, the celebrity neighbor, the raid - the perfect introduction to life in the bigtime.

I was movin' ahead. I had my own place, and the Mazda had finally arrived. Settled in, I called the Executive Producer to discuss when we were going to start writing the pilot.

He never returned my call.


Next in: "Story of a Writer - Part Six": Writing for Richard Pryor, Peter Sellers and a guy named Marty.

Thanks for coming back. And if you feel like it, spread the word. Hopefully, one of my fans is a bigmouth.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Ignorant" and "Stupid"

Okay, let's get this one out of the way. I'm not a big fan of putting other people down. But I'm even less of a fan of other people putting other people down. This is not a question of me showing sympathy and compassion. The "other people" those other people are putting down invariably includes me.

All right, so here we go.

I'm working with this person, who, besides being immensely talented, is also extremely knowledgeable about the workings of the American government. He knows the big stuff and the small stuff. The minutiae. The stuff most people don’t care about. He knows it all.

But knowing, apparently, wasn't enough. For some reason – my wife is the psychologist in the family, not me – not only did this person know a lot of stuff about the workings of the American government, he needed everyone to know he knew. That was him. That was his way.

I'm familiar with the type. Please, I am the type. I know a lot about Toronto Maple Leaf hockey in the 1960's and I'm not shy about throwing it around. He goes on about the Department of Health and Human Services, I tell anyone who asks or doesn't ask that the centre who played between Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Nevin was Leonard "Red" Kelly, who later went on to become a Member of of the Canadian Parliament. I get it, it's fine.

But this isn't.

One day, we’re working on something, I guess, related to this subject, because it came up naturally in the conversation. By the way, if I’m wrong about this, "this" meaning the way I responded to what I’m about to tell you, feel free to let me know. I realize my social skills aren't the most perfectly honed. A well-reasoned correction on the matter would not be out of place.

Okay, so.

In the natural flow of the conversation, the person who knows a lot about the workings of the American government but also needs you to know he knows says,

HIM: “You know, a lot of people think it’s ‘The National Institute of Health.’ It’s not.”

ME: “It’s not?”

HIM: “No. It's ‘The National Institutes of Health.’”

ME: "I didn’t know that.”

HIM: “A lot of people don’t. They think it’s the ‘National Institute of Health.’”

ME: “I did.”

HIM “And it’s not. It’s ‘National Institutes of Health.’”

ME: “Thank you for clearing that up.”

HIM: "It's “Institutes.”

ME: “Yes.”

HIM: “Not Institute.”

ME: “I got it.”

HIM: “It’s the plural – “Institutes.”

ME: “Uh-huh.”

HIM: “People think it's the singular.”

ME: "Yes."

HIM: "Institute."

ME: "That would be the singular."

HIM: “They think it’s ‘The National Institute of Health, and they’re wrong.”

ME: “Yes, they are.”

HIM: “You know why?”

ME: “Because it’s ‘The National Institutes of Health.”

HIM: “No!”

ME: “It isn’t?”

HIM: “They’re wrong because they’re ignorant.”

Okay. Right there. That bothered me. And I said,

ME: “You know, ignorance is just something you don’t know yet. When you find out, you're not ignorant anymore.’”

HIM: “People don't know it's the National Institutes of Health."

ME: “That's right.”

HIM: “Because they’re ignorant.”

A pause, and possibly a sigh. As I've mentioned, I’m a huge fan of westerns. So I said,

ME: “Do you know the name of Hopalong Cassidy’s horse?”

HIM: “No.”

ME: “I do. It’s Topper. Now you know. And you’re not ignorant anymore.”

Years ago, my four year-old daughter and I waited in line at the Dumbo ride at Disneyland. When we finally reached the front, my daughter abruptly said, "No good this one, Daddy", and we left. When people puff themselves up at the expense of others, I have exactly the same reaction.

"No good this one."


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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Four

When I first went to Hollywood, I had three jobs waiting for me. I’m not sure I would have gone if I didn’t have any. Wait, there's no "I'm not sure" about it. I wouldn't have. That’s not me. ‘Me’ needs at least a measure of security. Like three jobs waiting for me.

These were the three jobs:

Job #1

The aforementioned Lily Tomlin “special.” That’s who was flying me to Los Angeles. The "Lily" job was a four-week assignment, the result of an invitation by the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, whom I had worked for in Canada.

Job #2

While working as a writer-performer on a Canadian-American co-production, the Executive Producer came up to me one day and said, “I’m doing a summer replacement series starring "Mama" Cass. I want you to play her boyfriend on the show.” I said,


Then, "Momma" Cass choked on a ham sandwich and died. A few days later, the Executive Producer came up and said, “I’m doing a summer replacement series starring Bobbie Gentry. I want you to play her boyfriend on the show.” I said,


Too bad about "Momma" Cass. But the show must go on.

The four-week summer series was scheduled to start production shortly after the Lily Tomlin job ended. As long as Bobbie Gentry didn’t choke on anything. Or get thrown off the Tallahachie bridge.

Job #3

A year or so earlier, when I was still in Toronto, a writer I knew asked me if I’d like to collaborate on a "spec" script - an audition script you write for free - for Sanford and Son, which was then a popular show on NBC. I said,


I was easy in those days. I had nothing.

We wrote together for about a week. Then, half way through the second act (of a two-act script), my partner announced that the collaboration wasn’t working for him and he wanted to end our writing activities. I said,

Flash Forward:

One Year.

This part is amazing from a timing standpoint. On the very day I’m getting ready to fly to California to start the Lily Tomlin job, I get a call my failed Sanford and Son collaborationist, who tells me this:

He finished the script himself, put both of our names on it, and got it submitted to the show. The Sanford and Son producers just called, they want to produce the script. But they need a rewrite of the second half of the second act; that part, they weren’t crazy about. The writer asked if I’d be willing to fly to Los Angeles and collaborate on the revisions. I said,


Why not? I was already going.

I flew down two days early and we finished the script.

That’s how I went to Los Angeles with three jobs.

The Lily Tomlin job was great, although I was sure I was going to be fired every day. Especially at the beginning, when Lily, in a welcoming gesture, gave each of the writers their own plant for their office, and mine died within twenty-four hours. I was certain my bad vibes had led to its demise, and that Lily wouldn’t want me around, fearing my negative aura could kill more than just plants. Somehow, she let me stay.

I rewrote the “Clown movie” that I’d written for Lorne Michaels in Canada, tailoring it to Lily. I got to collaborate on a song for the film with Christopher Guest. We also collaborated on the opening number for the show.

The situation was this:

As Lily's delivering her opening monologue, three serious-looking men come onstage and surprise Lily with an award, honoring her for her lifelong support of her hometown, Detroit. After receiving the award, Lily’s “Thank you” speech evolves into a full-out Motown number, the serious-looking businessmen transforming into an flamboyantly choreographed back-up group.

To prepare for the assignment, I bought a couple of Temptations albums, then wrote similar-feeling lyrics for the Detroit song. Chris wrote the music. I remember the song’s chorus. It went:

Detroit City, when I’m alone I cry.
Detroit City, I’ll love you till I die.

The “Boom-chaka-laka” section became

Ford, General Motors, Chrysler
Ford, General Motors, Chrylser
Ford, General Motors, Chrylser

then the guy with the really low voice went,


By the time the "special" was completed, I had as much material included in the show as anyone.

And every day, I was certain I was going to be fired. (That feeling never goes away, by the way.)

I enjoyed working with Lily Tomlin. When she’s immersed in a character, Lily’s one of the most perceptive comedians I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, when she was just being Lily, I couldn't always connect with her. It's like she wasn't quite present. She’s "in there", but she’s hiding under the bed. Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, same kind of thing.

It seems to come with the “brilliant comedians who play characters” territory. I remember Sid Caesar, magnficent in character, but, as himself, at the end of Your Show of Shows, he had the hardest time simply saying, "Good night." He'd either stammer...


or he'd contrive a cough and wave "Good night."

You can't have everything, I guess. (As Steven Wright says, "Where would you put it?)

The Bobbie Gentry experience was less interesting, beyond the fact that one guest on the show, Wayne Newton, had a bodyguard who looked exactly like Wayne Newton, and that, at one point, I was forced to punch Robert Goulet in the shoulder. The memory that really sticks with me is this:

We were rehearsing at a studio on Hollywood Boulevard, and we “broke” for lunch. I walked over to Hollywood and Vine, and had lunch at some diner. Later, when I was heading back to rehearsal, I spotted Jack Klugman and Tony Randall shooting some outdoor footage for The Odd Couple. I stood with a gathered crowd and watched the filming, totally enthralled.

I got back late to the rehearsal. I couldn’t help it, I explained. They were shooting a television show right down the street. Then someone reminded me, “You’re on a television show.”

I hadn’t gotten the concept. It wasn't quite real to me.

I was actually in show business.

As the years roll by - all too quickly - I've never lost that feeling.


Next in Story of a Writer: My move to Hollywood becomes permanant.


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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Precision in Comedy

Precision in comedy is and as essential and as unequivocal as a surgeon’s cut. Make a mistake, miss your mark by a laugh-inducing millimeter, and your joke, like your patient, is


By the way, I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of “making people laugh.” To me, making someone laugh suggests wrapping your hands around their throat and screaming, “Laugh!” It seems very unpleasant.

Inducing a laugh is an art. And a bit of a science. There is, of course, no certainty in this area, but there are techniques you can employ that will invariably make an audience want to laugh. You can learn about those elsewhere, I’m not a huge fan of comedy rules, and they're boring to talk about. However, if you’re desperate, do a joke about sex. It works every time. It doesn’t have to be clever. The reference is enough.

There will always mystery involved in getting people to laugh. Many times, you just don’t know what’s going to work. And that’s serious. Not only is a laugh on the line, but if you don’t get it in the place you’re expecting to get it, it can literally take your breath away. The breath is the one you were going to take while the audience was laughing. If the laugh doesn’t come...

Ackh! (A glottal sound, meaning no air is getting in.)

You have time for a quick, often audible, gulp, and you keep going.

Here’s a story about the agonizing mystery of getting a laugh. I’m working on this talk/variety show in Canada. Part of my job involves interviewing the guests who, after they perform, will be interviewed by the show’s host. Part of my job was to prepare some questions for the host – biographical material, where do you go from here?, a funny personal story. It’s called “the pre-interview.”

One time, one of our guests was Stanley Myron Handelman. Stanley was a quirky comedian, who wore a shirt with a vest, a tweedy, cloth cap and large, horn-rimmed glasses. His material matched his look, a little goofy. I was a fan.

One of Stanley's jokes was premised on the idea that if you put an infinite amount of monkeys in front of an infinite amount of typewriters (now computers), they would eventually write the works of Shakespeare. Stanley first delivers his personalized version of that setup, then goes on to say that he left them alone in the room, and an hour later, he peeked in to see how the monkeys were doing. To his surprise,

“They were just fooling around.”

That’s Stanley Myron Handelman.

Okay, so I knock on Stanley’s Dressing Room door, I need to do the pre-interview. I come in, and there’s Stanley, pacing like a caged panther. I introduce myself. Stanley ignores me. I press on.

“I just need to ask you a few….”

Suddenly, he turns on me and, and in a scarily intense tone, he starts telling me this:

“There was a story in the paper. It said that, in the supermarket, there was this new kind of bread that had a shelf life of forever. It never went bad. When my uncle read this, he ate nothing but that bread. Six months ago, he died. But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.”

Silence. Then he says,

“But to look at him, you’d think that he’d been dead three months.”

He stares at me.

And I stare back. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I return the conversation to why I was there.

“I need to ask you some questions, so we can…”

“Which one is it?”


“’But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.’ Or ‘But to look at him, you’d think he’d been dead three months’?"

Handelman's face bore the desperate look of a condemned prisoner whose survival depended on the right answer. He came at me again.

“’But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.’


‘But to look at him, you’d think he’d been dead three months.’”

I was starting to get nervous.

I was also starting to understand. Stanley Myron Handelman was telling me a joke he was about to deliver in front of a live studio audience and the people watching on T.V. At this point, he had two endings to his joke, and had no idea which one of them to use. The fear, of course, was that one ending would deliver a laugh, and the other…


Stanley needed an answer. “Which ending should I use?” He most likely had a preference, but he needed confirmation. And I was the only one around.

I wanted no part of this. First, of all, his ferocity was playing havoc with my “fight or flight” response. I wanted to run, but I needed to complete the pre-interview. If I’d had an opinion, I wouldn’t have offered it. Who needs that kind of responsibility? What if I was wrong, and the audience stared at him? When he came offstage, Stanley Myron Handelman would not be a happy comedian.

“I don’t know which ending your should use,” I replied, playing it sensibly safe.

Not good enough. Handelman needed an answer. He started towards me, talking as he advanced.

“’But to look at him…’”

I started backing away.

He kept coming.

“’…you’d think he died three months ago.’”

I continued to backpedal, blubbering...

“I just need to ask you some questions.”

He kept advancing.

“’But to look at him…”

“I don’t know!”

“…you’d think he’d been dead three months.’”

I was now backed against the wall. And Stanley Myron Handelman was hovering over me.

“But to look at him…”

His arms were braced high against the wall, with me standing in between. He was tall, and I was short. That was my opening. I slipped under his arm, raced to the door, and escaped, his last words ringing in my ears.

“’But to look at him…’”

I don’t recall which ending Stanley used during the show. Perhaps he did the smart thing, excluding the joke till he was certain.

Ten years later, my wife and I were walking along the Santa Monica beach. And there's Stanley, strolling in the other direction. I had to talk to him.

I went over and introduced myself. I reminded him about the show where we’d met. Then I brought up the joke, asking him which ending he’d finally decided on. And he told me.

“’But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.”

I thanked him for providing the long-awaited punch line. It was great, and a little freaky, seeing him again. Our encounter had been brief but perfect. He was friendly, he was patient, and, regarding the joke in question…

He was right.

I had known it all along. I just couldn’t take the chance.


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Monday, February 18, 2008


Sweet, sweet perfection. Nothing so satisfying, nothing harder to achieve.

Here comes a smart thing. I didn’t say it, but I remember it, which is almost as good. The concept comes from an expert in childrearing, discussing the issue of spanking children, which he was categorically against. But the guy understood the problem with perfect behavior – it’s impossible to pull off – so his pronouncement on spanking was this:

“If you make a decision never to spank your child, you’ll spank them just the right amount.”

Smart, right? He’s saying if you at least shoot for perfection, you’ll get closer to achieving it than if you don’t shoot for it.

I aim for perfection in my writing. I never make it. Oh, a sentence here, a capsulizing turn of phrase there – “capsulizing” wasn’t the exact word I was looking for, which just shows you how hard this is. Writing’s a tough racket. Perfection, though imaginable, is forever out of reach. That’s what keeps it interesting. If you could express something exactly the way you wanted to say it, you’d be done. In writing, you’re never done.

This seems to be the deal. Since I know I’ll never be perfect at writing, I look for places where I can be perfect.

And I found two. That’s right. I’m perfect in two areas.

One: I never litter.

And Two: When I change a light bulb, the light always goes on.

I know. Not quite curing cancer or solving world hunger, but as a man I met named Pedro, who had fourteen children and when he asked how many I had and I told him two, said to me:

“Better than nothing.”

We'll go with that.


A minor vice, to be sure, and relatively easy to be perfect at. You don’t drop anything on the ground. I figure not littering’s the least I can do to improve the planet. Almost literally the least.

I’ve been known to carry a candy wrapper around in my hand for hours, looking for a receptacle to drop it in. Should the potential object of litter blow out of my hand, I always chase it down. When it blows onto the road and retrieving it means getting run over, I let it go.

In such cases, both I and the Talmud, when it speaks to the issue of littering, declare an exception. If you don’t agree with me and the Talmud, insisting on the standard: “Death before Littering”, then yes, I’m not perfect. I figure I’m perfect enough. And if you persist in your belief, you probably won’t be around to tell me I’m wrong.

Light bulb changer

This one goes back a while. Years ago, I was living in a condo, and they were holding elections for condo president, and such. I turned down the nomination for president. But not wanting to appear a slacker, I did volunteer for an equally responsible position: Light bulb changer.

I handled the job for four years. A condo resident would say, “The light’s out over the mailboxes”, and I’d change it immediately. Or when I got around to it, whichever came first.

Early in our marriage, my wife and I made an agreement. Whenever a light burned out, I would change the bulb. And she’d do everything else. Throughout our marriage, I have happily lived up to that agreement.

I love changing light bulbs. As a satisfaction, it’s up there with not littering. Not only does light bulb changing make me feel useful – you don’t do it, it’s dark – there’s also – I don’t want to blaspheme here – but there’s an almost-Divine pleasure in performing the task. You unscrewed the broken light bulb, you screwed in a new one…

Let there be Light. And there was Light.

Every time.

That's right. I was perfect at changing light bulbs.

Until today.

Here’s the story. Hold onto your hats.

A bulb burns out in our basement.

I spring into action. A couple of days later.

It’s recessed lighting, on the ceiling. A ladder will be required. And, of course, a new bulb. These are kept in two different places so, you know, we’re talking about a considerable amount of work.

I go to the cupboard where I store the light bulbs. (I buy the light bulbs too; I don’t just put them in.) I take the new light bulb downstairs. I go to the garage, I retrieve the ladder and I carry it into the house. I set the ladder up under the bulb, I climb the ladder, I reach high over my head – it’s a tall ceiling – and I unscrew the burnt-out bulb. I set the burnt-out bulb on the ladder shelf, I pick up the new bulb, and I screw it in. I climb down from the ladder.

Time for my favorite part of the job.

Let there be Light. And there was Light.

I walk to the wall. I flip the switch.

The light bulb doesn’t go on.

I flip the switch again. First, off, and then back on.

The light bulb remains lightless.

I stand there, confused. What’s going on? I’m perfect at light bulbs. Why didn’t it go on?

I walk back, climb back up the ladder, and I screw in the light bulb even tighter. I thought I’d tightened it enough, but apparently I hadn’t. Fine. I tighten it some more.

I climb down the ladder, I walk back, and I flip the switch.

Let there be…

No light again.

I’m gettin’ a little angry.

It must be the bulb, I thought. What else could it be? Lightbulbs Unlimited has stuck me with a dud.

I trudge upstairs for another light bulb. I return to the basement and repeat the procedure. Old bulb out, new bulb in. I flip the switch.

Let there b…


The light still doesn’t go on. Now I’m really confused. Two light bulb failures? After a record of perfection? How could that be? I wracked my brain for an explanation. I know. It’s the thing you screw the bulb into. Something’s wrong with the wiring. It had to be that. They couldn’t have sold me two dud bulbs. Could they?

I didn’t know what to do. Wiring’s not my area, I’m strictly a bulbs man. I’d have to wait till my wife got home. She understands household things. She can fix toilets.

The phone rings. It’s my friend Cliff. Great photographer. Weddings, graduations, Christmas cards. Everyone knows Cliff. And loves him. He tells me about having recently taken pictures of Nancy Reagan and the current president. We promise to get together real soon. I hang up.

Then I look at the ladder. Cliff’s phone call had provided me with a break from the light bulb crisis. I now realize what’s wrong.

Which was this.

The ladder was not standing under the light bulb that was burnt out. It was standing under different, nearby light bulb, a light bulb that wasn’t burnt out. It was now clear that I had climbed up the ladder and had replaced a light bulb that wasn’t burnt out. When I flipped the switch, the light didn’t go on, because I had yet to change the light bulb that was burnt out.

Amazing as this sounds to sensible people, I had changed a bulb that wasn’t broken. Twice.


I went over and moved the ladder, climbed up, and I changed the light bulb that was broken. I climbed down and I flipped the switch.

Let there be Light. And there was Light.

And this time, there was.

I had wasted twenty minutes of my life. I felt foolish. But happy. Had I been stupid? Yes, I had. But as a light bulb changer…

I was still perfect.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Three B

Before I continue my saga, I have to pause for this story. It’s a story where I’m bold, and I don’t have many of those. This may, in fact, be my only one. Forgive me. But you can’t leave out your only “bold” story.


That felt good.

When I ended “Story of a Writer – Part Three”, I said I was on my way to Hollywood. That wasn’t exactly true. It’s also not true that I was totally enthusiastic about my departure. I was actually terrified. With my time in Toronto running down, I desperately searched for an excuse to stay safely at home. I met with the president of Canadian network radio, and begged him to give me a reason not to go. His answer? “You’ve done everything you can here. Take off, eh?” That wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Telling me it was time for me to go was meant to be an encouragement. To me, it felt like an eviction notice.

With no hope of a last-minute reprieve, I said goodbye to friends and family, and headed for the airport.

Where I was bold.

Okay, here we go.

A friend drove me to the airport. When I got there, I checked my bag and headed for the Immigration Area. The Lily Tomlin Show – the show I was going to Los Angeles to work on – had told me they had gotten me an H-1 temporary work permit, so I could enter the States legally as a worker. This wasn’t totally necessary. The job was only scheduled to last four weeks, and you can enter the States as a tourist for six months. I could easily have told the Immigration Official that I was going to the States for a vacation, finished the job, and returned home. Except I couldn’t. Why?

Because I’m a Good Boy.

Good Boys don’t lie. Being a Good Boy required me to tell the Immigration Official I was traveling to the States not for a holiday but for work. It’s not that enjoyable being a Good Boy. We live in a Bad Boy-worshipping culture. The Outlaw. The Rascal. The scalawag. We love Bad Boys so much we have a multiple names for them.

You never see the woman of men’s fantasies fix a guy with a smoldering look and in a soft and sexy voice purr, “C’mere, Good Boy.” It just doesn’t happen.

There are no obvious rewards for being a Good Boy. Heaven? Not worth the wait.

But what are you going to do, it’s how I am. I tell the Immigration Official I’m going to California for a job, and that the show had taken care of the paperwork, and my name should be on his list. The Immigration Official scans his list, looking for my name.

It isn’t there.

This was serious. If my name wasn’t on the Immigration Official’s list, I wouldn’t be able to enter the country to do the job. I’d have to go home. I don’t mean back to Canada, I was still there. I’d have to go back to my apartment.

I started to sweat. I don’t do well around authority figures. Especially authority figures wearing guns. Good Boys feel generically guilty. The first time I had Jury Duty, I was certain they’d say, “As long as you’re here, Mr. Pomerantz, we’d like to try you for something.”

But this time, it was different. That Immigration Official was standing between me and my future. I had to do something. I had to be


I asked the Immigration Official for the phone number of the Department of Immigration in Los Angeles. He gave me the number. I think I scared him a little.

I raced to a nearby bank of pay phones (this was before cell phones), and I called Los Angeles. When they answered, I told them my story. A work authorization was supposed to be waiting for me at the Toronto airport and it wasn’t there. I heard my voice; it was steelily firm. I wanted that permit!

The L.A. Immigration Official told me to call the airport Immigration Official to the phone. At that moment, I didn’t even consider how burly the Immigration Official was. I just had my friend hold the receiver, and raced back to “Immigration.”

“You have to come with me,” I insisted. If I weren’t in Panic Mode, I would have loved how I sounded.

The Immigration Official followed me to the phone, took the receiver and talked to the Immigration Officials in L.A. After what felt like forever, the Immigration Official took out a pack of “Export A” cigarettes from his shirt pocket, and jotted some numbers down on the cardboard box. He hung up the phone.

And then he said, “Okay.”

The Immigration Official passed me through to America. I was now on my way to Hollywood.

Not so fast.

The airline had overbooked the flight. There was no room for me on the plane.

What’s going on, I started to think, my boldness entirely spent. Is there somebody who doesn’t want me to go?

Finally, they found me a seat. The First Class section had a crescent-shaped bar area in front of it. They said I could sit there.

During the flight, passengers came to the bar for a drink, and they ran into me. One passenger was an actor I recognized from TV. His name was John Saxon. We struck up a conversation. I told him about my job, mentioning - I was now back to my usual amount of boldness - that when my four weeks of employment were over, I’d probably be flying back to Canada. John Saxon didn’t agree.

“You’re going to be all right, “ he assured me.

Okay, then. I had a temporary work permit, I had a job waiting, and I had an enthusiastic vote of confidence from John Saxon.

Now I was on my way to Hollywood.


Story of a Writer – Part Four? My First Hollywood Job


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Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Baseball Means Spring"

The sweetest words a baseball fan can hear in the dead of a seemingly endless winter are the words…

“Pitchers and Catchers.”

“Pitchers and Catchers” means the opening of baseball training camp – pitchers and catchers being the first to arrive. That’s the literal interpretation. To me, the phrase has a deeper and greater significance.

“Pitchers and Catchers” means the beginning of baseball.

The beginning of baseball means spring.

I grew up in a very cold place with punishingly long winters. If you didn’t like skating or sledding, or just going outside, your only option had to sit in your house…and wait. Of course, sometimes you had to go outside, like to go to school. For me, that was agony, the stinging snow whipping against my face, my glasses caked with ice. During blizzards, my friends and I would walk to school in pairs; we’d take thirty-second shifts, one of us walking forward to guide the way, while the other walked backwards, protected from the lacerating barrage.

Just thinking about winter, with its blistering winds and blinding sleet makes my toes curl up. Like right now. They’re curled right under. And they’re numb. Can you believe it? And I’m only thinking about it.

“Pitchers and Catchers” is the baseball equivalent of Groundhog’s Day, only unlike Groundhog’s Day, this one is definitely real. I don’t know scientifically that the groundhog’s appearance means there are six weeks left of winter. But I’m certain that five weeks to the day after “Pitchers and Catchers”, the baseball season will return.

And so will spring.

Baseball means the arrival of weather that’s your friend. And though I can’t prove this, I honestly believe baseball doesn’t just mean spring, baseball actually brings spring.

This really happened, I’m almost certain of it. Don’t bother looking it up, just trust me. In Toronto, where I grew up, we had a minor league baseball team until 1967, when it went out of business. Ten years later, in 1977, Toronto was awarded a Major League franchise. What I’m here to tell you, that, during those intervening ten years, the years when Toronto didn’t have a baseball team, spring actually came later. Like in June. I couldn’t believe it! The season came late! It was almost like spring itself was saying, “The place doesn’t have baseball. What’s the rush?”

The year baseball returned to Toronto? Right on time.

I don’t live in that cold place anymore, but I still have the memory. The minute I hear that the pitchers and catchers are reporting for spring training, a smile of contentment flashes across my face.

Suddenly, I’m ten years old again. And I’m putting away my long underwear.


You want to know how important spring is to people from cold places? My wife, who’s from Chicago, and I scheduled our wedding for March the twenty-first.


I delivered a different version of “Baseball Means Spring” as a commentary on NPR’s All Things Considered. I did half a dozen commentaries on that show. If you’d like to hear them, go to, click on All Things Considered, click on “Archives”, and type in my name. I’d sure like to do more commentaries somewhere. They were a lot of fun, and people seemed to like them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My First Valentine's Day

I had just turned seven when our First Grade teacher, Miss Platt told us about Valentine’s Day. In a few days, she announced, there would be a time set aside in class when anyone who wanted to could exchange valentines cards with their classmates. (And maybe slip one to Miss Platt, who was beautiful, at least to a First Grader’s eyes, which were the only eyes I had at the time.)

The Valentine’s Day announcement created a buzz of excitement to our classroom. So much, in fact, that Miss Platt was forced to slam her yardstick down on her desk, returning us to our First Grade study of the study of the alphabet. Every day, we’d learn a different letter, which meant if you missed a day, as I once did, you’d have trouble printing your entire name until the Review Period, which would take place after we’d finished learning “z.” Because of my absence, on the day they taught the letter “r”, there was a time there when I was writing my name, Eal Pomeantz.

I need to backtrack for a minute. The entire Saint Valentine’s Day experience was completely alien to our educational environment. From Nursery School till Elementary School graduation, I attended a Hebrew Day school, a religion-focused institution where we studied Hebrew subjects half a day, and an English curriculum the other half.

This was a hardcore Orthodox institution. I once got a month’s detention for slipping off-campus and partaking of a non-kosher hamburger. A number of my classmates went on to become ritual slaughterers, while others served as rabbis who oversaw the ritual slaughterers. It was not a place where you heard a lot about saints.

Regardless of the incongruity, Miss Platt said we’d have Valentine’s Day. Maybe she was a rebel, or maybe she was a romantic. All I knew was Miss Platt stirred up parts of a seven year-old boy that were not scheduled to arrive until later.

The recess talk was all about valentines. Who was giving, who was getting, and who’d be left out. As far as I could tell, the distribution would be limited; friends would exchange cards with friends, two or three valentines at the most. The boy-girl issue would not be a factor, the exception being the irresistible Miss Platt.

To say that I saw an opportunity suggests there was calculation involved. There wasn’t. I just spoke before I thought. And the words I spoke were these:

“I’m giving everyone a valentine.”

Mouths dropped. Everyone? Even the boy who had “accidents” in class and had to be hurried to the principal’s office to exchange his sodden pants for the telltale corduroy replacements?


The word spread like wildfire. I couldn’t back down if I wanted to. I was on record:

“Everyone’s getting a valentine.”

When I decided to write this, I searched my memory for the rationale behind this magnanimous gesture. And I came up with this.

Six weeks earlier, my father had died. Kidney failure, resulting from childhood rheumatic fever. After the required seven-day absence for the shiva period, I returned to school, where I got sympathetic looks from some classmates, while others avoided me, fearful of catching “Dead Dad” disease.

The bold or more curious ones approached, asking, “Did your father die?” I had to look them the in the eye and say, “Yes.” Except I didn’t look them in the eye. My eyes focused directly at the floor. The shame place.

As political consultants would say, I needed to retool my image. I needed a different kind of attention, and fate, via Miss Platt, had led me to the answer.

“Everyone’s getting a valentine.”

I bought an inexpensive book filled with valentines. Two or three to a page, each bordered by perforated edges; you pressed the edges and the valentine popped out. On the back of each valentine were two dotted lines, one above the other. The top line was the “To”…line, the second line was the “From.”

I started writing out the cards, twenty-one in all, one for every student in my class.

“To Aryah from Earl.”

“To Zvi from Earl.”

The book contained a variety of valentines – a boy with a puppy, a girl with a basket of flowers, though all included bright, red hearts. I made little effort to match the cards to their recipients. This wasn’t a personal thing. It was about attention.

The next day, I walked into class, a large paper bag held proudly in my grasp. I could sense the excitement. Feeling all eyes on me, but acting like they weren’t, I “casually” took my seat, sliding the bag under my desk and folding my hands.

Awaiting My Moment.

Miss Platt tried to teach as if nothing was different. But it was Valentine’s Day and everything was different. My classmates struggled to attract my attention, seeking confirmation that they wouldn’t be left out.

“Am I getting one?” mouthed the kid with glasses who couldn’t catch.

I threw him a conformational wink.

“Am I getting one?” gestured the girl with the sizable birthmark on her cheek.

I smiled in the affirmative.

“Am I getting one?” mimed the kid with no friends.

I nodded a reassuring “Yes.”

Somehow, these surreptitious exchanges caught Miss Platt’s attention. She knew where to direct her rebuke.

“Earl. We have work to do. Valentines come later.”

Normally, I don’t take rebuke graciously. There’s usually blushing involved. But today was a playful day. Rather than apologize to Miss Platt for my transgression, I quipped,

“I’ve got one for you too.”

The class laughed. It’s easy to get laughs when you’ve got a bagful of valentines.

Finally, it was time. Miss Platt told us to put our books away. We could now exchange valentines. Kids got up and moved around the room, exchanging valentines with their friends. It took about a minute.

Then it was my turn.

Reaching under my desk, I picked up my paper bag, got up, and climbed up on my chair. Everyone gathered around. Including Miss Platt.

My Moment had arrived. Smiling beneficently, as I imagined Saint Valentine might have, I reached deep into my bag and brought out

…a chicken bone.

That was strange, I thought, and maybe said. I quickly returned to the bag, this time, bringing out

…a banana peel.

I heard grumbling. What’s going on? I was wondering the same thing. My third dip into the bag crystallized the situation precisely, as my hand emerged cradling…

…egg shells. Still sticky.

Oh, my.

Oh, my.

Mistakenly, I had left my valentines at home and I’d come to school with trash.

I don’t remember crying or running out of the room, though I recall wanting to do both. Then, suddenly, this amazing thing happened.

Sure, some kids turned away, disappointed. Mine was the only valentine they were certain of, and I’d thuddingly let them down. But the majority, reading the agony in my face, rose gallantly to my support.

“Don’t feel bad,” comforted one.

“I’ll still be your friend,” reassured another.

“We like you.” That was kind of a group response.

Smiles of support pervaded the classroom. Though I’d pay the price in humiliation and shame, I was, surprisingly, receiving exactly what I’d been looking for – the good kind of attention. On some level, I knew their acceptance wasn’t just about the valentines that never arrived. It was also about my Dad. They wanted me to know it was okay.

The healing began, due to Jews and Valentine’s Day.

A powerful combination.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Interview With A Legend"

How do you talk to a legend?

A nervous call, a surprising “Yes” from his agent, and before I knew it, I was heading to an appointment with a childhood idol. The dry in my mouth was made up for by the wet in my palms.

I wondered how he’d look. Out of movies for decades, would the sparkle still show? Or just the wrinkles? No need for false flattery, I thought. Hadn’t he always been my all-time favorite? Sure, he bombed in his last twelve pictures, but that wasn’t his fault. Sophisticated comedy was never his style.

He was a cowboy horse!

And not just any cowboy horse, the preeminent cowboy horse of his day. The best of the best, in the wild and woolly West.

He did everything first. All the classic stunts: jumping off a cliff, counting with his foot, eating fruit off a lady’s hat – these memorable bits and more perfected by the greatest Wonder Horse of all time:

“Blaze, the Black Blur!”

I wanted to bring him a gift. But what do you bring an aging Wonder Horse? Health problems precluded the traditional lump of sugar. And lumps of “Sweet ‘n Low”, they don’t make.

Rolling through the wrought-iron gates, I headed toward the stately stables of "The Last Corral", a retirement residence for aging wonder horses. Looking around, I caught sight of some of the most famous horses ever to have graced the silver screen: Gene Autry’s “Champion”, Tom Mix’s “Tony”, Hoppy’s “Topper” – supermounts all, once chasing thrill-packed adventures, but now content to chew grass and swap pictures of their grandchildren.

It wasn't easy seeing them that way. Now past their prime, they couldn’t jump a fence if their lives depended on it.

As I headed toward the barn, trying not to step in anything, a spotted nag limped up to see who I was. It was “Buckshot”, Wild Bill’s T.V. horse. Now nearsighted, “Buckshot” had approached, thinking I was Guy Madison, come to cheer him up with news of a re-worked syndication deal. When “Buckshot” got close enough to realize his mistake – I wasn’t Wild Bill, or even his portly sidekick Jingles - he turned away mumbling, “They never visit. They never visit.”

My knock on the door was answered by Bernie Spielfogel, "The Blur’s" close friend and long-time agent, now thrown into parasitic retirement.

“Your call was a tonic!” he chirped. “‘The Blur’s" been a little down lately. But when he heard about the interview, he got so excited, they had to give him a shot!”

Spielvogel led me down a corridor, past small but neatly kept stalls to a slightly larger corner stall. Above it, hung a cardboard nameplate bearing a single, but unmistakable handwritten word:


There, rocking contentedly in a oversized chair, was the world’s most successful Wonder Horse, dressed in a burgundy bathrobe and four worn but stylish slippers.

“Ixnay on the ig-way,” warned the agent. “Look too hard, and he’ll rear up and gallop on your face!”

“What’s with the whispering?” inquired the rocking horse. “If you’ve got time to waste, call the studios and tell them I’ll do character parts. Call Thalberg – he always liked me.”

“Absolutely!” responded the agent, ignoring the fact that Thalberg hadn’t taken calls for over sixty years. “I’ll get right on it!”

Exit Spielvogel.

“Siddown, kid,” he said, in a raspy but familiar whinny. As I sat, I tried not to notice the lopsided wig, spilling fake horsehair onto a deeply furrowed brow.

“Did you bring me a cigar?” he asked conspiratorially.

“I didn’t know you smoked them,” I replied. He didn’t in his movies. Still, I was glad I hadn’t, imagining the headline:


Shrugging off disappointment, the great horse of yesteryear leaned down, and slurped up some trough water. He then sat back, and began to tell his story:

“I was born in the tenements. My father pulled ice, and my mother gave rides. We were a crazy crowd back then. One time, a dozen of us covered ourselves in wax, and posed as a merry-go-round. We cleaned up plenty, ‘til somebody said, ‘Where’s the poles?’

“When I wasn’t horsing around, I was reading. ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Seabiscuit’, ‘My Friend Flicka’ – the classics. Later, I’d act out all the parts for my family. My father thought it was silly. ‘You’re the son of a horse that pulls ice,’ he admonished. ‘If you’re lucky, someday you’ll pull ice too.’

“After supper, my father would light up a cigar butt he’d almost stepped on, and he’d talk about a wonderful place called California, a wonderland, where horses basked in the sun all day, grazing on warm grass. He'd fall asleep, mumbling a comforting mantra of soothing words:

“’San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo…’

“He never got there.

But I did.

“When I was fourteen – in people years – I ran away to California. Well, not ‘ran’ exactly. I stole a bicycle. Not the easiest vehicle for a horse to ride. I’d have been better off just running. But I was young, I was foolish.

“Mostly, I’d pedal with by back legs. When I got tired, I’d switch to the front ones, steering with my chin. I must have been some sight, pedaling down the interstate. my horse heinie sticking way up in the air.

“Finally, I reached the Coast. As luck would have it, Bernie, my no-good agent, saw me pedaling backwards up Wilshire Boulevard. He gives me the whole song and dance: 'The pictures are desperate for horses with your kind of moxie. Sign here and I’ll make you a star.'

Before you could say William Morris, I had a screen test at Paramount. When they asked me my name, I told them, ‘Blaze, the Black Blur.’ Was that my real name? Of course not. But did you ever hear of a Wonder Horse named Aaron Blazenberg?

“They started out me in posses. But I was so fast, I ran ahead of the other horses. Directors said it spoiled the composition. Even worse, I caught up with the Bad Guy before the story said I was supposed to. You do that at the end of the picture; I was catching them in the middle.

“After that, they made me the Bad Guy’s horse. That didn’t work either. I was so fast, the other horses couldn't catch me, and the Bad Guys kept getting away. The ‘Standards’ Department clamped down on that lickety-split. You couldn’t have crime paying in the Old West.

“There was only one thing left to do. They made me the Good Guy’s horse. Good Guys caught everyone, they needed a fast horse. The thing is, up ‘til then, Good Guys had never ridden a black horse. White or palomino – that was it.

They looked nice, those horses, and they pranced up a storm. But they were afraid to get hurt! Ask for something tricky, and they’d run and call the ASPCA.

“Me, I’d do anything – fall down, step in a chuck hole, drink poison. My specialty was running through fire. Did it hurt? Are you, crazy? It was fire!

“By my third picture, I was Horse One at the box office. It didn’t matter who rode me, the billing was always the same: Showdown at Sonora, starring ‘Blaze, the Black Blur’ and a person riding on top of him. Cooper, ‘Duke’ Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, all window dressing. They came to see the horse!

“My favorite role? The Oscar winner. The Bad Steed. Great script. Faulkner did the rewrite. It wasn’t just the same old neighing and making that p-p-ph-ph-ph-ph-ph noise with my upper lip. There was a story! The broken home, the fast crowd, the struggle to go straight. We're talking real stuff. I knew horses like that.

“Winning the Oscar was quite an honor. I was up against Olivier. Heckuvan actor, Sir Laurence, but ‘The Blur’ beat him out.

“I was riding high. Then, they decided to ‘broaden my appeal.’ They put me in sophisticated comedies: Top Hat, White Tie, and a Tail! The Blurs from Boston! The Cole Porter’s Horse Story! Every one, a ­stinkereroo. Why they thought I’d be good in comedy, I have no idea. I have no sense of humor.

“With my career on the skids, I started hitting the juice. It affected my work. Once, I forgot my moves, and instead of turning, I went over a cliff. I still can’t straighten out because of that.

“I started hanging out with dubious characters – racehorses, polo ponies with time on their hands. I was careless with money. The racehorses told me they’d win, I’d put a bundle on them, and they’d come in last. It’s funny. Even the horses don’t know.

“In six months, I was flat broke. I lost the house, the ranch – a horse raising horses, there’s one for the books. It got so bad, I tried selling my shoes as collectibles. A big star’s shoes! You'd think they'd be worth something, right? I learned quite a lesson from that debacle.

“Nobody wants a has-been’s horseshoes.

“If the right part came along, I’d be back in a flash. But nobody writes for the older type of horse. It’s all, ‘The Youth Market.’ They asked me to do a nudie once: Bob and Carol and Ted and Dobbin. I think Hoot Gibson’s horse did it. His kid needed braces.

“It’s not bad here. Three bales of hay a day, and oats on Friday. Once in a while, Annie Oakley’s horse and I... you know, horse around. They tell me I shouldn’t, but when you get the urge…

At that moment, Blaze’s nurse came in. It was time for his nap. The interview was over.

As she led him away, ‘The Blur’ suddenly reared up on his hind legs, beating the air and whinnying like a colt. Then he came down.

“Tell them I’ve got a few of those left!” he crowed, brimming with Yesterday.

At that moment, there was only one thing to say, and I said it.


‘The Blur’ turned back and winked.

And then he was gone.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Eating Habits

As I mentioned yesterday, I had lunch with my agent. The restaurant was lovely but I couldn’t eat much. Eating regular-sized portions after visiting a spa, as I recently did, presents a rather tricky adjustment. Here in the real world, you can eat as much as you want. At the spa, well, you can eat at much as you want there too, but how much tempeh do you really want?

I’ve been through this before. I eat small, till my spa conditioning wears off. In the meantime, however, my diminished appetite makes a problem I normally have eating in restaurants even worse.

I don’t know if this is just me, or what? That feels like some comic’s set-up line, doesn’t it?

“Is this just me?”

He then goes on to talk about something that isn’t just him, and you laugh because you identify, or it is just him, and you laugh because he’s crazy. The comedian wins either way.

Hopefully, this isn’t just me. It’ll be embarrassing if it is. Maybe I shouldn’t bother with this. Aw, what the heck. I already started.

Okay, here goes. Sorry for the inner dialogue. It’s something I can’t always control.

Okay. Now.

Sometimes, in a restaurant, I’ll eat more food than I really want, because I don’t want the chef to feel bad. Is that too weird? It isn’t to me; I do it all the time. I’ll eat my fill, look down at the plate, and it’s like I hardly made a dent. A substantial portion of the food is still sitting there, and it’s even more substantial if I’ve recently come back from a spa.

Waitpeople will invariably come by, notice the sizable amount of uneaten food and ask, in a sympathetic tone, “Didn’t you like it?” I sometimes question the sincerity of that tone, not only because the waitpeople are bucking for a tip, but because, at least in L.A., most waitpeople are actors.

I realize many restaurants serve enormous portions, but some people finish them. I can’t. That’s why, disturbed by the amount of food remaining on my plate, I find myself picking my up knife and fork and digging back in, eating food I don’t want, to spare the feelings of someone in the kitchen I don’t even know.

I’m eating for the chef.

Let me be clear here. My sympathy towards the feelings of chefs is not some self-deluding subterfuge to push past “I’m full”, because I am, in reality, a compulsive overeater. I’m not. I’m simply someone who’s uncomfortable bringing pain to others, and will willingly gorge myself with unwanted foodstuffs to keep that misfortune from taking place.

Hard as I try, however, I can never clean my plate, defeated once again by portion size. Restaurants could make the portions smaller – they should – but if they did, they’d have to lower their prices. Who’s going to pay the same price for a smaller portion? Nobody. They’d rather eat what they give you and die.

Of course, there are “Doggie Bags.” But to wrap up the leftovers, the waitperson must often carry the unfinished meal in the kitchen.

The kitchen.

Where the chef is.

Oh, no.

Though harried and overworked, the chef would almost certainly catch sight of the uneaten clump of food, remnants of a dish he prepared.

How is he going to react?

Like this?

“How dare they”?

“Quel nerve”?

“I’m cooking for idiots”?

Maybe the chef’ll say nothing, smoldering inwardly. That one troubles me the most. – the chef presenting a gallant facade of “Like I care” to the kitchen staff, while inside, their confidence has been seismically shaken. Nagging doubts may arise, emerging in stages:

Stage One – “Did I forget the oregano?”

Stage Two – “Do I really know what I’m doing?”
and finally…

Stage Three – “I am not a chef. I am a fraud!”

The chef becomes unhinged. Somebody has to pay!

Cleavers within reach. The chef runs amok. Loppings and beheadings. Blood everywhere!

And then, it’s done.

A horrible tragedy. And so easily avoided.

If only I’d finished my food.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The World's Greatest Agent

I’m having lunch with my agent today. At this point in my career, meeting with my agent is akin to a bald man going to a barbershop.

Strictly to reminisce.

Here comes the “boo-hoo” paragraph. I’ll try and keep it short. Ever since the networks stopped hiring my contemporaries and me, because their pursuit of a younger audience decreed, “No older writers”, some of the finest purveyors of classic television have been relegated to the sidelines. Although the networks’ strategy has not succeeded – younger audiences are not rushing to network TV, oh and by the way, the only demographic “brand loyal” to the networks are viewers my age – still, I don’t see the networks inviting us back any time soon. Apparently, it’s better cleaving to a mistaken strategy than having no idea what to do. Hey, it gives me more time for my blogging.

Back to my agent.

Elliot’s been my agent for nearly thirty years. Before him, I had a woman agent named Helen, who went on to fame and docudrama as Jay Leno’s manager, when he was battling for the hosting job on The Tonight Show. After she left agenting for the lofty career of managing, I got a call from my agency:

“I’m Elliot. Helen’s gone. You’ve got me now.”

That’s how Elliot became my agent.

Over the years, Elliot has gotten me the jobs I wanted and made me some money. He’s always told me the truth, whether I wanted him to or not. There are times, however, when the things he says come out differently than I think he intended. Once, during a slow period in my career, Elliot took me to lunch to cheer me up. I can’t say for sure, but I think what he wanted to tell me was this:

“Earl, I respect you enormously and, no matter what, I am very proud to be your agent.”

What came out was this:

“Earl, you earn less money than any of my other clients.”

You see the difference there? The subtle shift in emphasis? Over the years, I’ve struggled with Elliot’s “bucking up” routine, battling thoughts of sticking my head into an oven. Maybe it would have been better if I’d told him his pep talks were driving me into a dark and downward spiral, but I didn’t. And he continued doing it.

Once, we were meeting with an NBC president about a show I was developing, a family show, similar to The Cosby Show but with less money. The show would be modeled after my family and its, hopefully humorous adventures. (Later, Family Man would appear briefly on ABC.)

As the meeting was coming to a close, the network president got up and disappeared into a giant closet. He returned, holding three beach towels with the network’s peacock logo on them, and handed them to me. “For your kids,” he said. He gave me three towels, because the show I was pitching featured three children, though, in life, I only have two. Sometimes, I embellish.

Coming out of the meeting, I had a powerful impression that we hadn’t sold the show. Certain the project was dead, I was understandably upset. So, I could tell, was my agent. I love empathy in an agent. But this wasn’t it. Elliot was upset about a totally different matter.

“I can’t believe what just happened. Three towels. Three. And he gave them all to you!”


What did you say?

Are you kidding me here?!

Elliot’s outburst was followed by an extended tirade. Shock and horror have erased his precise words from my memory, but it ended like this: “…and I didn’t get one friggin’ towel!!!” Only he didn’t say “friggin’.”

I was outraged and confused. Here I am, suffering a major setback, and my agent’s screaming about towels. I couldn’t leave him there; Elliot had driven us to the meeting. So I stayed. And I listened.

And I started to understand.

In the world of the agent, where gestures, large and small, send screaming signals of how you’re doing, getting no towels was an enormous slap in the face. The insult had awakened Elliot to the Truth. The network didn’t respect him. The man was practically in tears.

“No towels. After all these years. How can I do business with these people? How can I look them in the face?”

At that point, much to my surprise, I started feeling better. Which made me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just an elaborate act, an heroic effort to distract me from my disappointment by focusing on the utter degradation that had been heaped upon to him.


It was just Elliot. And he really felt terrible. It seemed like I should do something. Elliot had always been there for me over the years. I felt a powerful need to cheer him up. But what could I do?

I gave him two towels.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Three

A few weeks after I started my column in the paper, I took some sample stories to CBC radio, the national radio network in Canada, to inquire about doing commentaries on one of their shows. One show said okay. So now I had two jobs, one paying twenty-five dollars, the other paying fifty.

Then, through a contact, I was hired to write a column (salary: thirty-five dollars) for the Canadian version of The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Post. Their editor wanted me to read the PR material they received touting new products, and write short blurbs about the three or four I considered the most interesting. He also encouraged me, when appropriate, to make my writing humorous.

Every week, I’d sift through a stack of promotional bulletins, looking for interesting and unusual new products. There was one, I remember, for an automatic manure spreader; apparently, till then, people had been spreading the manure manually. I mentioned the product in my column adding that, “The automatic manure spreader is not only a boon to the manure spreader himself, but also to everyone who has to shake hands with him.”

Add ‘em up and suddenly, I had three jobs. I was making a living as a writer. Although, after six months, I lost the Financial Post job when the paper’s publisher read my column and told his editor to fire me because I was being funny with the new products, which was exactly what the editor had encouraged me to do. Apparently, a scathing five-page, single-spaced memo about my column, citing “egregious” examples, had altered the editor’s opinion of my usefulness.

My television break came when my brother, Hart, viewed by many as the funniest person they’ve ever met, and his partner, Lorne Michaels – remember the name – returned from a Hollywood writing stint to write, produce and star in four one-hour comedy “specials” a year on Canadian television. I was invited to join their writing staff.

This was a new kind of writing for me. I’d written my column in the paper, I’d done a similar version of that style – my style – on the radio, and I’d written about manure spreaders. Now, they wanted me to write ”blackouts”, a “joke-and-run” style of comedy popularized at the time on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a show my brother and Lorne had worked on in Hollywood. I sat there with a pad and a pen. Two hours later, the pad still had nothing on it.

I called Lorne and told him I didn’t think I could do the job. Lorne calmly reassured me, reminding me that there were a lot of writers on the staff, so the burden wasn’t entirely on me. Or even that much on me. In fact, it wasn’t on me at all. Somehow that worked. Relieved of the pressure that had never been there is the first place, the writing eventually started to flow.

The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour ran for three seasons. At some point, I was able to break out of “blackout mode” to create short films which were included in the “specials.” One was called The Puck Crisis.

The Puck Crisis was a mock-documentary recounting the harrowing saga, at least to Canadians, of hockey pucks, growing on trees in the Canadian “puck belt” being decimated by “Dutch Puck Disease.” Apparently, some lethal “pucktacockae”, having been accidentally carried into the country on the sticks of a touring Dutch hockey team, had infected the trees the pucks grow on, leaving the current puck crop in danger of being wiped out. Quite the mess, eh? Serious puck depletion could force cancellation of the upcoming hockey season.

The film was done completely straight-faced – the “expert scientists”, the concerned hockey players, the “Man in the Street” interviews, culminating with the immortal Foster Hewitt, the Dean of Hockey Broadcasting, making a fundraising plea to Canadians who care to “Send a buck to save a puck.”

The Puck Crisis was one of the most satisfying pieces I ever wrote. I’m extremely proud of it. I know it’s not Crime and Punishment, but I couldn’t write Crime and Punishment if I wanted to. It had already been written.

I also wrote a short film, which began in a hospital Maternity Ward. A woman has just had a baby. The nurse approaches the happy couple carrying their newborn, wrapped in a blanket. She hands the child to the mother. With beaming Poppa standing proudly at her bedside, the mother carefully unwraps the blanket, revealing a child bearing some shocking characteristics: frizzy red hair shooting out in all directions, a powdery white face, a bulbous red nose and gigantic feet. The woman had given birth to a natural born clown.

Eventually, my brother and Lorne split up and Lorne returned to California. I did my best to make a living in Canada, working in radio, television, I even wrote and performed in some radio commercials:

"Hi, I’m Salisbury Steak. I come with mushrooms, but they don’t talk.”

Then I was hired to write and perform on an American co-produced talk-variety show. The salary was five hundred dollars a week, seven hundred and fifty on the weeks when I also performed. It was, by far, my biggest payday to date.

One day, I get a call from California. It’s Lorne Michaels. He tells me he’s producing a TV “special” starring Lily Tomlin. He showed her my “Clown Movie”, and she asked him to invite me to Los Angeles to write on her show. The job would last four weeks; the salary was twenty-five hundred dollars for the job.

I quickly did the math. Four weeks for twenty-five hundred dollars, that’s about six and a quarter per week. I was making more than that in Toronto, and that job lasted longer.

I told Lorne, “No.”

A couple of months later, the talk-variety show I was working on was unexpectedly cancelled. I was about to be out of work. Now, get this. On the Wednesday before my last on the job, I get a call from Los Angeles. It’s Lorne Michaels again. Apparently, the Lily Tomlin “special” had been postponed and it was now about to be produced. Would I be interested in working on it?

I told Lorne, “Yes.”

When my clever daughter, Anna, heard this story, her reaction to it was,

“Opportunity knocked twice.”

She was right. And the second time, I answered.

I was on my way to Hollywood.

I want to use this blog to tell all kinds of stories, but I promise I’ll include reminiscences about the shows I worked on. You’ll see. You’ll like the other stories too. I promise.

Thanks for coming around. It’s fun having somebody to tell stuff to.