Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Deja Vu

Okay. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon. I finished my work, and I turn on the Dodger game. They’re playing in Cincinnati, an Eastern Time Zone game; it’s seven there, four here in L.A.

“Play Ball.”

I start watching – Dodgers versus Reds.

I’m happy I have a game to watch. Anything to get me away from Chris Matthews, which is broadcast at the same time. I’m burnt on the primaries. They’re just too long.

My candidate’s losing steam. “Rosie, The Riveter’s” nailing him to the wall.

Rat-a-tat – “Bitter.”

Rat-a-tat – “God damn America.”

Rat-a-tat – “Not a Muslim, as far as I know.”

A woman, proving a woman can be president, by behaving like a man.


It’s hard being on your best behavior for a year and a half. It’s like the longest first date in history.

The primary’s seeming endlessness is particularly wearing on my guy. A message, even an inspirational one, through constant repetition, is eventually going to sound tired. How long can you stay inspirational? “Hope” and “change” and “believe.” It’s like,

“We heard that already.”

If Abraham Lincoln had to go around saying, “Of the people, by the people, for the people” for a year and a half, “the people” would be throwing fruit at him.

“A house divided cannot stand…”

“We know.”

It’s frustrating talking about lofty principles when you can’t back it up with action until you’re elected, and your chances of being elected diminish when all you get to do is talk about lofty principles.

You could do the traditional thing and slam your opponent. No, wait, you can’t. You have lofty principles.

That’s why my candidate’s starting to fade.

“Hey, Earl. That’s for another day. You’ve got a ballgame to watch.”

My Inner Voice is right. I concentrate on the game. The Dodgers are getting killed. It’s 7-1, Reds, in the third inning. I’m thinking, what’s going on? The Reds kicked the Dodgers’ asses the same way yesterday when I was watching. And now, they’re getting knocked out early again? Is this what we’ve got to look forward to all season? A terrible ass-kicking every day?

I turn off the game, and go practice the piano. I’m learning the Toby Keith – Willie Nelson duet

“Whiskey for my me-en, beer for my horses…”

I’m terrible, but I love it.

I make dinner and read The New Yorker. The New Yorker movie critic says something that troubles me. I make a note to do a post about it down the line.

It’s seven o’clock. I turn the Dodgers’ channel back on, hoping I’ll hear “miracle comeback” on the recap.

Instead, there’s a game just getting under way. Dodgers versus the Diamondbacks, at Dodger Stadium. I’m confused. Aren’t the Dodgers in Cincinnati? How could this be?

Then it hits me. (It may have hit you sooner, but I’m clearly not as smart as you.)

The game I was watching before had been a rerun. Without labeling it as such, the station had broadcast a replay yesterday’s Dodgers–Reds game, before broadcasting today’s Dodgers–Diamondbacks game. That’s why “the Reds kicked the Dodgers’ asses the same way yesterday.”

It was the same game.

I feel like an idiot. I’d spent half an hour watching a game I had already seen. And I didn’t realize it. I’m just sitting there, complaining how the Dodgers are losing the same way every day!

Didn’t I notice the Dodgers were using the same starting pitcher two days in a row? Starting pitchers don’t pitch two days in a row! The exact same score, in the exact same inning on two successive days? I mean, it’s possible, but for regular people, these things are clues!

Oh, well. It wasn’t a total loss, I suppose. At least hardball had kept me from Hardball.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Mr. Troublemaker"

As I was leafing through my Humanitas Prize-winning, Emmy-losing Mary Tyler Moore script that I retrieved from the garage, where is sat in a box next to my tax records from 1991, I am reminded of how I sometimes liked to make fun of the shows I was working on.

I don’t know why I did that. I wasn’t trying to get fired; I liked my job. It’s just how my mind works. I need something to push against. It’s also a rather juvenile form of rebellion. I can’t fire my bosses, but they can fire me, and I hate the power mismatch, so I “act out” by making fun of their show.

On their show.


Here’s what I’m talking about.

The episode I wrote, entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart”, concerns how the perennially selfish Ted Baxter is transformed into a life-affirming zealot after his world is shaken by a heart attack. When he returns to work as an on-air news anchor, instead of turf-protectingly berating his fill-in – as he unquestioningly would have before – Ted praises his replacement profusely, going so far as to suggest that they start doing the news together, as co-anchors. Acknowledging this transformation, Ted’s wife, Georgette, understatingly reports:

“Ted’s changed.”

Now here’s where I made fun of the show. The series was in the habit of having one of the show’s characters, at some point in the episode, relate an extended story, invariably employing a humorous analogy, to encapsulate the problem being played out in the episode. So that’s what I did. I told an analogizing story. But – insidious firebrand that I am – I gave it an unexpected, show-tweaking twist.

It went like this.

After Georgette’s reporting that Ted had changed, Lou Grant, incredulously asks,

“Ted, what happened to you?”

Ted replies,

“I’ve been reborn, Lou. And all because of a little spider.”

(And here comes the story.)

TED: A few days ago, I was sitting on the terrace outside our bedroom when I noticed this spider spinning its web near the screen door – patiently, skillfully, lovingly. And then Georgette opened the door and tore the web. And the spider had to build it back up…Then a little later someone else opened the door and the spider had to build it back up again…and then somebody else….

LOU: Ted…could you move it along?

TED: Sure, Lou. You see, I learned something from that little spider, who never gave up, who kept re-building his web over and over and over…I learned that life is short and you have to live for today.

(Here comes the “making fun of the show” part.)

MARY: Ted, that’s not a “live-for-today” story; it’s a “perseverance” story.

TED: It was a “perseverance” story, Mair. But it became a “live-for-today” story when I smacked that spider with my newspaper.

You see what I did there? I took a story that looked like it was making a point about perseverance and I turned it into a “live-for-today” story by having Ted smack the persevering spider with his newspaper. By changing the point of the story, I was skewering the whole analogy-using story-telling process, and by doing so

I was making fun of the series I was working on.

Was I a rebellious, little crazyman, or what? Undermining the show’s patented formula on the show. I was wild. I was incendiary. I was out. Of.


I couldn’t wait for one of my bosses to notice my devilicious sneakiness and give me a tongue-lashing for mocking The Rules and smart-assedly biting the hand that feeds me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I got what I had coming.

Nobody noticed.

They just thought it was funny.

I was crushed. “Hey, I’m a dangerous hothead! Someone should reprimand me. Somebody should take me to task!”


That’s why I’m not a satirist. Despite my intentions, my comedy arrives, totally lacking in danger. My style is utterly bereft of edge. I won’t give up. I’ll continue my efforts as a subversive provocateur. But I don’t seem to have it in me.

No matter how hard I try.

Monday, April 28, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eleven"

For some reason, which I’m not sure I can explain, when you’re writing a lot of scripts a year, invariably, one of them will stand out. It’s better in some way – sharper, funnier, more focused, more fully realized. It may have something to do with the connection you have to that particular story. Or it may just be a better story. Or maybe you’re just having a funnier week. I told you I couldn’t explain it.

As I mentioned, for three years, I wrote eight scripts a season for the Mary Tyler Moore company. Every year, it seemed, one of those scripts would “pop”, just somehow be superior. I wrote a Rhoda script entitled “Brenda, The Bank Girl”, on the subject of competition. How you’re drawn into a competition, which you claim not to care about, but which, by the end – to your surprise and dismay – you desperately want to win. That one has strong personal reverberations; I think that’s what invigorated the script.

I’ll talk about competition another time, when I can figure out how to do it better than anyone’s ever done it before. There I go again.

One year, I wrote a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart.” Over its seven-year run, the Mary show had stories about a lot of things. There was a memorable two-parter about Mary’s having to go to jail for refusing to reveal a news source. But sometimes, the show was about things I didn’t care about, like Mary’s myriad difficulties with her dates.

The subject seemed endless: Mary’s date is too old, Mary’s date is too young, Mary’s date is too loud, Mary’s date is too short, Mary’s date has one arm – that one might have grabbed my interest; unfortunately, they didn’t do it.

I wanted to bust the mold. So I thought, “Instead of another trivial problem, let’s give somebody a heart attack.” I just wanted to shake things up. Something joltingly different from “The Department Store delivers the wrong couch.”

We decided to strike down the show’s on-air news reporter, Ted Baxter. Ted’s character was a pain in the ass: vain, self-interested, the whole world revolving around him. This made Ted irritating. Hilariously irritating, thankfully, but irritating nonetheless.

So we gave him a heart attack. Writers have that power.

When he returns to work, Ted is a completely changed person. As a result of his brush with death, he’s now deeply appreciative of absolutely everything.

TED: Did you ever really stop and take a good look at salt? Tiny little grains, so white so pure…and every single one of them is salty.

Ted’s now also deeply attached to people, insisting on hugging his co-workers every time he leaves the room, and demanding that they breathe and relax during stressful moments in their day, a requirement which seriously prevents them from doing there jobs. It turns out the “new” Ted Baxter is as irritating as he was before, maybe more so. But he’s irritating in an entirely different way.

The difference, his co-workers come to realize, is that this time, Ted Baxter is right. Life needs to be appreciated more. So, as irritating as he is, they can’t in good conscience tell Ted to knock it off. In the end, Ted’s feeling inevitably wears off, and he returns to being irritating in the same old way.

The experience, however, has affected everyone else. Deciding to take advantage of their current feelings of appreciation for life, they all go to the window, and appreciate the sunset together.

The End.

“Ted’s Change of Heart” was nominated for the Humanitas Prize, given to the writer whose script best reflects…I don’t know, something about human content. I really didn’t get it. Don’t all scripts reflect human content? Humans are in all of them, so what are they talking about?

What I did get was that the prize included a check for ten thousand dollars. Back then, ten thousand dollars equaled the price of two completed half-hour scripts. Good money for writing about humans.

The Awards Presentation was held at a restaurant luncheon. We’d eat, and then the winners of the Humanitas Prize – in a number of categories – would be announced. I was nominated in the half-hour script category, along with Alan Alda, for a M*A*S*H script, and a script by writers from All In the Family. Judging by the heavyweight competition, I knew I didn’t have a prayer.

So I kicked off my shoes and started drinking.

Let me explain both things. I don’t wear shoes a lot. This comes from growing up in Canada, where, for the bulk of the year, when you come in the house, your shoes or galoshes or whatever are always wet, so you slip them off at the door, and walk around in your socks. I still do that today. It’s a habit.

On the other issue, I can’t drink a lot. One beer. One glass of wine. After that, I either get grumpy or fall asleep. The thing about the luncheon was I was certain I wasn’t going to win. And the wine was free. (I have never been able to turn down anything free.)

There was no reason not to drink as much as I wanted. If I got grumpy, it would fit, because I lost. And if I fell asleep, so what? I’d just miss the winner’s acceptance speech.

So there I am, sitting with my MTM bosses, barefoot and drinking.

They announce the prize, and I win.

Oh, boy.

I pad up to the Head Table microphone with no shoes on. And I make a totally incoherent speech. There’s applause as I walk away. Then, I remember I forgot to say something, so I turn around and I go back to the microphone. I stop the applause, and add this:

“I forgot to say something. I’d like to thank the people who put up the money for this prize. They must really make a lot to be able to give this much away.”

How’s that for grateful?

Wait. My humiliation is not yet complete.

Traditionally, after the Humanitas Prize ceremony, the winners are driven to the NBC studios in Burbank, for a taped interview that will be broadcast the following morning on The Today Show. I remember, during the drive, sticking my head out the window, praying that the passing breeze would return me to sobriety.

It didn’t. I was terrible once again. Rambling and incoherent on national TV.

Fortunately, there’d be an opportunity to redeem myself. “Ted’s Change of Heart” was later nominated for an Emmy Award. If I won, I would have a chance to address America sober.

I was seated directly behind my bosses, who were nominated for co-writing the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They won. I lost. My one consolation was that, when my bosses vacated their row to collect their awards, you could see me on television. I didn’t look at all happy.

The cumulative image the American viewing public had of Earl Pomerantz?

Drunk and bitter.

Next on Story of a Wrter: We Move to “Taxi.”

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Passover Week - Conclusion"

I finish my Passover Week posts with a reminder of some people who wanted to observe the matzah-eating ritual but whose circumstances prevented them from doing so. When I eat matzah for eight days on Passover, I do it, at least partly, for them. In their memory. And in their honor.

If this touches you, maybe you can copy it, and include it in future seders. If you’re members of a different group, or no group, this may mean nothing to you. Then again…you never know.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to pass this along.


“The Jewish prisoners in the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen did not have matzah for the observance of Passover in 1944. Under the circumstances the sages at the camp permitted the eating of leavened bread for which occasion this benediction was composed.

‘Our Father in Heaven. Behold it is evident and known to Thee that it is our desire to do Thy will and to celebrate the festival of Passover by eating matzah and by observing the prohibition of unleavened food.

But our heart is pained that the enslavement prevents us and we are in danger of our lives. Behold, we are prepared and ready to fulfill Thy commandment:

“And ye shall live by them and not die by them.”

We pray to Thee that Thou mayest keep us alive and preserve us and redeem us speedily so that we can observe Thy statutes and do Thy will and serve Thee with a perfect heart.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

"How The Jews Lost The Lead - Part Two"

Christianity’s just getting started. Their religion has twelve followers; they need more or they’re in trouble. A “Recruitment Committee” is formed, their assignment: to come up with appealing reasons to entice Jews to switch over. The committee consists of two members, both once Jews, but now, Christians. There’s Matthew (formerly Murray) and Simon (formerly Sol).

The following is an accurate, made-up chronicle of exactly what happened at the “‘We Need More Christians’ Recruiting Committee” meeting:


We open on an early A.D.­-looking gavel pounding on a table, (or maybe just a hand hitting an indoor rock.)

“I call this meeting to order.”

“Murray, it’s just you and me.”

“Excuse me. It’s Matthew.”


“When I was Jewish, I was Murray. Now, I’m Matthew. With two ‘t’s’”.

“Sorry. Matthew. What I was saying is it’s just you and me. There’s no need for protocol.”

“You’re right, Sol.”

“That’s Simon.”


“Were you getting me back?”

“I simply misspoke. Now, we are called here to come up with appealing reasons to get Jews to convert, so as to swell our ranks…”

“…'cause if we don’t swell our ranks, we’re doomed.”

“That’s a depressing thought.”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps. But I’d prefer a sunnier approach.”

“May I be candid? I never wanted to be on this committee. My strength is picnics and outings. I don’t even know where to start.”

”It’s a difficult assignment, I’ll grant you that. I propose a methodical approach. We begin by looking at the things that make our religion different.”

“We’re certainly qualified to do that. We used to be Jews, and now, we’re this. By the way, may I ask you a question?”

“Go on.”

“What is this?”

“What is what?”

“What we are. Our name. You know, Jews are Jews. Who are we?”

“There’s another committee working on that.”

“Good. ‘Cause it’s embarrassing when someone asks, ‘What do you call yourselves?’ and I say ‘I don’t know.’ It shows a lack of imagination. Maybe we should have an interim name till we figure out the real one. Like, we wear these fish emblems. Maybe we could call ourselves Fishtians.”

“I think we’re wandering here.”

“Sorry. What’s our job again?”

“To convert the Jews.”


“And to decide how to do that, we need to consider what it is that makes us different?”

“I know a difference.”

“What’s that?”

“Their Sabbath is on a Saturday, and ours is on Sunday.”

“I don’t think you’re getting the concept.”

“You wanted ‘different’. I gave you ‘different’.”

“Simon, do you really think praying on Sunday instead of Saturday will send Jews flocking to our midst?”

“Oh, I see. It’s not just different. It’s different and better.”


“You weren’t clear on that.”

“Sorry. Perhaps we can draw from our experience. Think back. What was it about us that made you want to switch?”

“That’s easy. Pork.”

“You switched for pork?”

“Never underestimate the attraction of forbidden foods. A lot of Jews eat it already, maybe not at home, but out. They chew peppermint leaves, so you won’t smell it on their breath.”

“I may be wrong, but I don’t see a huge ‘cross-over’ from pork.”

“How about praying on Sunday and pork?”

“Will you stop with ‘Sunday’? ‘Sunday’s’ nothing. I mean, when it comes to Days of Rest, Saturday’s actually the better choice. It’s a day sooner.”

“I thought it was too soon. I wasn’t tired yet.”

“You’re talking about frills.”

“Frills are important.”

“We’re bigger than frills. We’ve got a great religion. Something so meaningful, people risk death to be part of it.”

“I wouldn’t bring that up at the recruitment meetings.”

“But that says something. It says being us is worth dying for.”

“I wouldn’t dwell on it.”

“You’re being negative again.”

“You’re saying, ‘Be Christian and die!’ and I’m negative?”

“Let’s move on.”


“Down to basics. What is it about us that you really like?”

“I like Jesus.”

“Good start. Why do you like Jesus?”

“He’s nice.”

“A lot of people are nice.”

“Not as nice as Jesus.”

“But isn’t there something more than his niceness?”

“Well, he says if you believe in him you won’t die. Which, to be honest, I find confusing.”

“Why’s that?”

“You just said if you believe in him, you stand a really good chance of dying.”

We’ve made it.”

“So far.”

“And even if we die…wait a minute. I think you’ve hit on something.”

“Forget the whole thing?”

“Dying isn’t bad for us.”

“It isn’t?”

“No. Because…”


“You know this. We’ve got…”

“We’ve got what?”


“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Something we’ve got that they don’t. And that is…?”

“Look, just tell me, okay?”

Heaven! We’ve got Heaven!”

“Jews have Heaven.”

“Very hazy. I asked my Dad about it once. He was barely coherent.”

“Any he’s a rabbi. Ohhh, I get it. We’ve got Heaven, and they don’t…”

“…so we don’t really die…”

“…and they do! I love it! ‘We’ve got Heaven!”

“It’s better than lying in the ground.”

”Way better.”

“You know, when you think about it, our whole religion’s more people-friendly. With them, it’s ‘The wrath of the Lord…’, and smiting, and ‘…Cast a pestilence upon the land.’ We’re not like that.”

“I was sensing we weren’t. But I was wondering if it wasn’t just, you know, like a come-on, and the wrath came later.”

“No. Our religion is completely wrath-free.”

“Wait. Didn’t Jesus yell at some moneychangers…?”

“Okay, so we’re not wrath-free. But we’re definitely reduced-wrath.”

“I’ll give you that.”

“Then that’s what we sell. A reduced-wrath religion, with Heaven at the end.”

“Don’t forget pork.”

“And pork.”

“And praying on Sunday.


“You never know.”


“Okay, so we’re done?”

“I’m not sure.”

“It sounds like a winning package to me. I’d switch to us. I did.”

“We may just need one more thing. A deal clincher.”

“No circumcisions?”

“Simon, I think we’re there.”

I don’t have a large enough readership yet to sell commercials, so I’ll do what television channels do when they don’t have a large enough audience. I’ll do a commercial for myself.

If you like what I’m doing here, tell somebody.

That’s my commercial.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"How The Jews Lost The Lead - Part One"

I once heard about a conversation that took place between comedian, Richard Pryor, and the great entertainer, Louis Armstrong, who had the nickname “Pops”. Dropping by his dressing room, Pryor inquired of Armstrong,

“What’s happenin’’, Pops?”

to which Armstrong replied,

“White folks still in the lead.”

This illuminating response led me to ponder the relationship between my team – the Jews – and the Christians, once, a smaller organization than the Jews, but now considerably in the lead. The result of my pondering is the following:


Once upon a time, there were twelve Christians. Well, not “Once upon a time”– this isn’t The Three Bears with Christians – it’s real. There was a time when there were twelve Christians. Thirteen, if you count Jesus, who came and went, and then came back. Twelve, thirteen, maybe some girls who hung around, hardly a substantial crowd, especially for a religion. Tell your boss you’re in a religion with twelve people in it, and you’re unlikely to get the day off for one of their holidays.

Of course, if you follow religion at all, you know that Christianity grew bigger. And now, they’re huge. Not that I’m saying that’s surprising, or undeserved. Christianity’s a fine religion, with lots of inspiring things in it. People seem to like it. I say more power to them. They’re a big success and that’s great. And I mean that.

It’s just…

Okay, I’ll admit it. There is this tiny tinge of envy. But be fair, can you blame me? Christianity grew out of Judaism. We came first. Though it’s hard to believe today, there was actually a time when there were a lot of Jews and no Christians whatsoever. Not one. There were restricted golf courses and nobody was playing on them. Now they’re this enormous, superstar religion and, well, we’re still around, which is nice, but we’re not that big.

To be honest, it’s tough to take. The sturdy, older brother watching his quietly charismatic sibling rocket past him? You can’t help wondering, “What happened?”

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a minority religion. We’re on the map, people have heard of us. When they say “Judeo-Christian”, we’re Judeo. It’s just that once in a while, you flash on what it would be like to be the majority, and have the President – a Jewish president, because we’re the majority – come out the first night of Chanukah and light a huge menorah on the White House lawn.

There’s also a Christmas tree, but it’s small.

Maybe I’m being ungrateful. When you think about it, it’s a miracle that Jews are around at all, considering the more than occasional efforts made to wipe us out. Judaism logs in at an acceptable thirteen million worldwide, which, though not hundreds of millions, like you know who, is better than nothing. Ask the Hittites or the Ishmaelites if they’d like to have thirteen million descendants walking around, instead of nobody.

When’s the last time you took in a Canaanite movie, or picked up some Amalekite take-out? Everyone’s gone, except for us, and I’m certain, way back, the betting was very heavy in the other direction.

Still, one can’t help harkening back to the era – a short era, I’ll admit, but an era nonetheless – when there were more Jews than there were Christians. In that brief period during the B.C.’s, if your theologically proclivity leaned toward “one God that nobody can see”, Jew was the only game in town. Everyone else was sacrificing virgins and praying to cats.

Then, came the A.D.’s. Of course, back then, nobody knew they were the A.D.’s, they just thought it was more time. But they were wrong. It was more than “more time”; it was a brand new era. The A.D.’s – the first day of the A.D.’s – delivered an unusual baby brother, a brother whose inspiration would one day leave Judaism, at least popularity-wise, in the dust.

Change was in the air. There was trouble in the Holy Land, the Romans were pushing everybody around. At times like these, Jewish tradition calls for a messiah to show up and straighten things out.

There were no lack of applicants for the job. Wannabe Messiahs, invariably badly dressed, with wild eyes and crazy hair, would stand on some high place where everybody could see them, and proclaim, “I’m him!” or more loftily, “I’m Him!” (Of course, the grammatically correct version is “I’m He”, but people rarely warm to a leader who is smarter than they are. Check out the recent presidential results.)

They were fakes, every one of them. They’d draw some early heat, earning a free meal or a place to stay, possibly a complimentary pair of sandals, but sooner or later, reality did them in. They’d prophesy things, and they wouldn’t come to pass. Or some sick person would cry, “Heal me!” and they’d just look at them.

The phony messiahs choked in the clutch and it was Game Over. After that, they were just pests, forced to peddle their prophesies in the hinterlands. Or find a real job.

But then – cue the choir….


someone came along who, to this day, is seen as the genuine article. We’re told of an ability to heal with a touch, to walk on water, and make a small amount of food go a really long way. Jews, desperate for a messiah, couldn’t help but take notice. You could just sense that this fellow was different.

He got twelve followers. Not overly impressive considering the stuff he was pulling off, but Jews, even desperate ones, are a highly skeptical bunch. When you tell Jews there’s this guy out there doing miracles, the standard response is, “Go away, I’m busy.” Or, if they’re funny, “Let him try selling flannel in the desert. Now that would be a miracle.”

Of course, you can’t blame the early Jews for not taking a religion with twelve people in it seriously. For a religion, twelve is a precariously puny number. The Romans sweep through in a grumpy mood – that’s all she wrote. A bad flu season – they’re gone.

And then, there’s the natural attrition. Followers get jobs out of town, they start families and they can’t make the meetings, another messiah shows up giving away camels…this new group was hanging by a thread. Adopting a desert metaphor, when you’re in a twelve-person religion, your membership card’s written in sand. Another thing that could have wiped them out. Twelve followers on a retreat in the desert – a big sandstorm kicks up – Goodbye, Christians.

The situation was dire for the fledgling religion; it was grow or go. And “growing” wouldn’t be easy. The new guys had to convince the Jews – who’d been around the “messiah” block a time or two – to abandon their longstanding beliefs and throw in with twelve zealots, proclaiming that theirs is the one true way.

One other little drawback: If the Romans caught you being a follower, they nailed you to a cross and they didn’t let you down until you were dead, a situation likely to cause Jews asked, “Would you like to join us?” to respond, “I think we’ll pass.”

I imagine – and since I wasn’t there, imagination’s all I can go on – that there had to have been a meeting about the “increasing the membership” problem, where they decided to create a committee to deal with recruitment. A marketing committee, formed to devise appealing strategies for attracting Jews to their newfound faith.

Later, they’d present their proposals to the full assemblage, but to hammer out the basics, and not get bogged down, I see a smaller group tackling the task. Maybe two people, both once Jews, but now, Christians.

The assignment went to Matthew (formerly Murray) and Simon (formerly Sol).

If this meeting had been recorded, we’d have an enduring chronicle of the conversation that saved Christianity from extinction and paved the way for the great success it enjoys today. Since it wasn’t recorded, I have had to make it up.

The minutes of that imagined game-changing meeting: Tomorrow.


There's an online magazine I write for called Television Quarterly. In this issue, I've written a review of Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up. If you haven't had quite enough of me, you can find the magazine at

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Passover and Easter In Atlantic City"

In my various travels – to Tahiti, Hawaii, a photographic safari in Kenya – I always run into the same person. Not the same person literally, but the same type – older than me, and with a greater experience of the place I’m visiting. And they always say the same thing. We’re standing near each other, gazing at a gorgeous sunset or a breathtaking view and I say,

“This place is beautiful.”

to which the stranger inevitably replies,

“It’s not like it was.”

For five years in a row, starting when I was eight, my maternal grandfather and grandmother, my mother, my brother and I would travel to Atlantic City for the Passover holiday. We drove there in my grandfather’s “Gunmetal Gray” Plymouth, a car with which, on an earlier driving trip to Florida, my Orthodox Jewish grandfather had run over a pig. Religious doctrine requires that the offending vehicle be buried in the ground for purification. My grandfather settled for a car wash.

My family was unable to eat at the restaurants along the way, because they weren’t kosher. That meant eating food we brought from home. My grandfather, not partial to stopping for picnics, munched hardboiled eggs as he drove, the odor from which was a major challenge to a queasy a car traveler like myself. My grandmother, riding shotgun, sipped tomato soup from a thermos. She’d then throw the remnants out the front window. The soup would immediately come spraying in the back window.

The distance from Toronto to Atlantic City was about seven hundred miles. We couldn’t make it in one day. Before they built the New York Thruway, which would take you directly from Buffalo to New York City, we were required to take smaller highways, passing through towns like Corning and Poukeepsie. We’d spend the night at a “tourist home”, which basically meant you were staying in the spare room of somebody’s house.

I found the whole “tourist home” experience not to my liking. I’d walk into my assigned room and find pajamas folded on the pillow. What the heck was that! Whoever’d stayed in that tourist home before me, had slept in those pajamas. And now it was my turn? Why did they think that was a selling point?

“Bed. Breakfast. And previously worn pajamas.”

One morning, I woke up, and found a cat on my chest. Was that somebody’s idea of a “homey touch”? Did my family have to pay extra that cat? If it scared their kid to death, did they get your money back?

After the Thruway was built, our family could bypass the small towns and spend the night in a hotel in New York City. We didn’t have a lot of money; we’re not talking The Plaza here. If the hotel said, “Clean” outside, we’d stay there.

I had one memorable New York hotel experience. My mother, my brother and I were being escorted to our room by a well past his prime black Bell Man. (Some of this is bound to sound racist. Just remember, this was the Fifties, and as a Canadian, my experience with black people was negligible.)

The Bell Man reminded me of black men I’d seen in movies. He had a relaxed way of talking and a shuffling kind of gait. Maybe he was originally from the South. He seemed to be channeling a slower place.

We reached out room, and the Bell Man opened the door. Inside, aside from assorted furniture, was one large bed. We’re standing in the hall, and we don’t go in. One bed for my mother, my brother and me to sleep in together was not an arrangement our family was comfortable with.

“We’re going to need a couple of cots,” my mother announced.

The Bell Man reacted to this instruction with a look that seemed genuinely perplexed.

“There’s only one bed in there. We’re going to need three.”

The Bell Man maintained his bewildered expression. Finally, he spoke. (Please forgive the dialect. I’m just telling it like it happened.)

“Is dese your chillun’?” the Bell Man asked.

Yes, replied my mother. There was a long silence. Then, the Bell Man asked again,

“Is dese your chillun’?”

Yes, they were her children. But we were not going to sleep in the same bed.

“Dese is your chillun’”, responded the Bell Man, his brow deeply furrowed. He clearly didn’t see our problem.

My mother was losing patience. The room, as it was, was unacceptable; she needed two cots brought in for her sons. Finally, the Bell Man heaved a deep, weary sigh, or a sigh of resignation, I’m not sure which, I am no expert on sighs. Whatever, he made his peace with the situation. Referring to our unwillingness to sleep in one bed despite being members of the same family, he concluded,

“Well…some does. And some doesn’t.”

I can’t tell you how many times, through the years, when confronted by others’ behavior that was different from my own, I’ve accepted it with the comment,

“Some does, and some doesn’t.”

It was the clearest expression of non-judgmentalism I have ever heard. And it stuck in my mind. I’ll bet you’ll be using it soon too.

On the second day of our travels, we finally arrived in Atlantic City, our home for the next eight days: The Breakers Hotel – right on the Boardwalk. To our family’s modest tastes, The Breakers was a palace. I remember the names of the owners: Malamed and Meltzer. Every so often, one of them would be paged to the Front Desk. I thought they were gods.

I don’t know what it was like the rest of the year, but at Passover, The Breakers was arranged to accommodate the Passover requirements of Jews. Formal seders were conducted in the Dining Room, the meals and table settings were “kosher for Passover”, and of course, there were no bread or bread-like equivalents anywhere on the menu. Some extremely dry cake, I remember, but no bread.

Outside, the Boardwalk was a kid’s paradise. Rows and rows of arcades. The old-fashioned kind, with pinball machines, shooting galleries and games of skill and chance, where, when you won, you accumulated tickets, which you could later redeem for prizes.

My favorite game was Pokerino. To play Pokerino, you sat up high in front of a polished alley. You rolled a rubber ball down the alley, trying to get it to drop into holes at the other end, each hole designating a different playing card, four suits, ranging from nine up to Ace. The objective was to produce the highest poker hand possible, your reward – in tickets – reflecting your success. At the end of one Atlantic City trip, I cashed in my tickets for a set of steak knives that my mother continued to use long after I’d grown up and moved out of the house. Pokerino steak knives. They lasted forever.

The Boardwalk also featured other wonders. Shoeshine guys calling,

“You can’t look neat if your shoes are beat.”

Pigeons, you could feed out of your hand with purchased bags of seeds.

Rickshaws, which you sat in, and people pulled you along. That felt creepy, even then.

And Mr. Peanut.

There was a Planters Peanut store on the Boardwalk, where, standing out front, shaking hands, was a person attired in a large peanut shell, top hat, white gloves and a monocle. We weren’t allowed to buy those hot, roasted peanuts – for some unexplained reason, peanuts were not “kosher for Passover” – but no one could stop us from smelling them.

Invariably, Passover week coincided with Easter. Easter, on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, was huge. As big as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is today. Networks came there to film Easter “specials” for TV.

On Easter Sunday, they had a big parade, not with floats, just people. Hundreds of thousands, we were informed. Woman dressed up in extravagant outfits, topping their ensembles with lavishly decorated straw hats. Paraders also dressed up their dogs. This, I never understood. I can’t imagine a dog ever thinking,

“My life would be perfect, if I only had a sweater with four sleeves.”

A Doberman, passing a mirror, thinking,

“That’s what I was missing. Booties and a bow tie.”

Easter Parade Day was the most exciting day of our trip. It was also the day I was picked up by the police.

Let me explain. Every morning of our stay, my mother gave me a dollar, and I went off, usually alone, to spend it on the Boardwalk. I was free to spend the money any way I wanted, and at the end of the day – and a dollar spent wisely could last a whole day – I would come back to the hotel.

That Easter Sunday, I received my dollar and I hit the Boardwalk. I played some games, I fed the pigeons, I looked at the ocean, and I didn’t buy peanuts. A typical day.

Then I noticed a crowd. Aside from the arcades, the Boardwalk also featured these stalls where – this being before cable – fast-talking Pitch Men would hawk products that would later be offered on infomercials. I went to see what the crowd was watching.

There, shaking hands, was Robby the Robot. Robby had starred in a recent movie, playing, not surprisingly, a robot. I was immediately enthralled, working myself to the front of the throng. As soon as I got there, I saw the Pitch Man who was standing beside Robby remove his wristwatch, place it on the table, point to his watch, and say,

“In exactly fifteen minutes, Robby the Robot will return and do a little dance for you.”

At that point, Robby the Robot left the stage. I decided to wait for his return. In the meantime, he motor-mouthed Pitch Man started demonstrating amazing products to the steadily growing crowd. The Chop-O-Matic. Glass knives. Pens that wrote under water.

And Athlete’s Foot powder. I remember the Pitch Man showing us a photograph of a poor fellow who had to be restrained in a hospital bed, because Athlete’s Foot had caused him to rub the bottoms of his feet raw. The powder would have prevented that.

The Pitch Man talked and talked, flakking one miraculous product after another. I stayed and watched, waiting for Robby the Robot to return, though the “fifteen minutes” promise had long since expired. But Robby wasn’t the only reason I didn’t leave.

I was totally mesmerized by the Pitch Man’s performance. It was magical how he could hold and retain the audience’s attention. Without my noticing, the minutes turned to hours, the hours, to the whole day. Then, suddenly, I was surrounded by two, huge policemen.

The policemen escorted me back to the hotel, and my frantic mother, who had apparently called them, reporting a missing Jewish boy with glasses. I was furious at the humiliation of being brought back to my mother by the police.

“You were lost,” my mother explained.

To which, I replied one of my favorite lines of all time.

“’Lost’ isn’t when you don’t know where I am. ‘Lost’ is when I don’t know where I am.”

Thirty years later, I returned to Atlantic City to meet with Bill Cosby, whose sitcom I was working on, and who was performing in one of the casinos. When my co-writer, John, and I arrived, at, like, two in the afternoon, Cosby was still asleep and nobody was willing to wake him up. We decided to kill time by taking a walk on the Boardwalk.

Atlantic City had radically changed. Almost every landmark I remembered was gone. Except one. A store selling Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffee. Fralinger’s, a Boardwalk tradition, was the last surviving remnant of a bygone time.

We went in. There, behind the counter, stood two sweet, little old salesladies, exactly like the ones I remembered from the Fifties. I couldn’t help myself. I needed a little piece of the past. I bought a number of boxes salt water taffee, for my family in Toronto, and my family in L.A., paying the sweet, little old ladies with my credit card.

A month later, I received my credit card bill, and I noticed a charge on it for eight hundred dollars from a place called Mr. M’s in Atlantic City. I had only visited Atlantic City that one day, and I’d never heard of that place.

It seems the sweet, little old ladies had ripped off my credit card number, and had enjoyed a night on the town – on me – at Mr. M’s.

Atlantic City.

It’s not like it was.

Tomorrow: "How the Jews Lost the Lead"

Monday, April 21, 2008

"The Seder Picture"

Sitting on a ledge beneath my living room window, among other photographs, is a picture of our family seder, which was held at my grandmother’s – my father’s mother’s – house in Toronto, when I was seven years old. The family members – about thirty of us – are posed at the end of a long seder table. Some people are sitting, the others are standing behind them.

Little Earl is seated, his bifocaled punim (that’s “face”) peeking out from behind his mother’s shoulder; my older brother, Hart, is more fully presented (“siblings, siblings”) in front of her. Over the years, my picture, a Xeroxed copy of an actual photograph, has developed a greenish tinge, as if the photographer had used a camera wearing sunglasses. Not the photographer wearing the sunglasses, the camera.

I received the seder picture about ten years ago. It was given to me by my cousin, Dori, who lives in Los Angeles, as I do, but whom I hadn’t seen for thirty years. We got re-acquainted as a result of my daughter’s school. Dori was president of the school's Parents’ Association, and I was listed to appear in its fundraising “cabaret.” Dori recognized my name and called me up.

We arranged to get together at a restaurant, on Father’s Day. I arrived with my family, Dori was there with her husband and daughter and her Dad, my cousin Lewis, whom I’d known as a child, but whom I’d also not seen for thirty years. It was a warm and happy reunion.

That lunch was when Dori presented me with the seder picture. I recognized it immediately. It was famous in our family. My brother has a copy. I was excited to have a copy of my own. At that point, it had yet to turn green.

Dori and her Dad are both visible in the seder picture, Lewis pictured as an adult, and Dori, as an infant, cradled in her grandfather’s arms.

I studied the picture, trying to identify all the relatives. I did pretty well, missing a few of the more distant cousins. Cousin Lewis, who’s older than I am and more familiar with the "Family Tree", volunteered to help me out.

“That’s your cousin, Ruby – he was a dentist – and that’s his son, Ralph, who’s a lawyer.”

Cousin Lewis went on to identify everyone I didn’t know. Finally, he pointed to a man posed at the back of the picture and said,

“The only one I don’t recognize is him.”

I looked at the picture, and blinked, then turned to cousin Lewis and said,
“That’s you.”

Cousin Lewis seemed genuinely surprised.

My grandmother’s seders were famous for two things – their excruciating length, and the food. Which was good and inedible. It wasn’t that some dishes were good and others were inedible. The same dishes were both good and inedible at the same time.

How could that be?

My grandmother prepared all the food ahead of time, then froze everything until the seder. Unfortunately, she didn’t remove these dishes from the freezer early enough, meaning that, when it was time to eat, they weren’t entirely thawed out.

The matzah balls, round dumplings floating in the soup, were fluffy and soft. Until you got to the middle. There, you were confronted by a gritty, frozen rock. It caught you off guard, like eating a Tootsie Pop, at the center of which is an ice ball. Cousins would be complimenting the matzah balls,


then they’d bite down and crack a molar.

Fortunately, cousin Ruby was a dentist.

That was my last seder at my grandmother's house. After that, we started spending Passovers at a kosher hotel in Atlantic City. The change caused me to lose contact with my father’s family.

But it may have saved me from dentures.

Tomorrow: Passover on the Boardwalk, the Easter Parade, and Atlantic City in the Fifties.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Introducing Passover Week"

Starting tomorrow night, Jews will begin celebrating eight days of Passover, a holiday commemorating our liberation from enslavement in Egypt several years ago. Like, three thousand. I’m not exactly sure of the date.

Throughout Passover, Jews who follow the tradition eat matzah instead of bread or other leavened wheat-bearing products as a symbolic reminder that the Children of Israel didn’t have time to prepare leavened bread on their way out of town.

Also, since they didn’t know whether there were restrooms on the road to freedom, matzah was helpful, because eating it on a regular basis is incredibly binding. (I may have made that last part up.)

On the first night of Passover (and for non-Reform Jews, on the second night as well), an extended dinner ceremony is conducted, called a seder. At the seder, Jews are instructed to retell the story of Passover, supplementing the retelling with certain rituals, representing significant elements in the story. For example, we dip parsley in salt water to commemorate the tears shed by the slaves, and we eat bitter herbs – horseradish – to remind us of their many bitter years building pyramids for nothing.

One ritual condiment, which I’ve have learned to prepare is the charoset. (The “ch” sound in charoset is made by emitting a phlegmy, gurgly noise from half-way down your throat. If you master it, this sound will come in handy again on Chanukah.)

The charoset recipe I use has five ingredients: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey and wine. We eat charoset at the seder to commemorate the mortar, slathered between the bricks of the pyramids and other slave-built structures. Since charoset’s meant to be consumed, it was wise of our ancestors not to have included the ingredients of the actual mortar in the recipe. Otherwise, you’d be going “ch” for the rest of your life, or till the paramedics arrive, whichever comes first.

I know all this stuff about Passover. I went to Hebrew Day School, from Nursery School till the end of Seventh Grade, when I was enrolled in a public Junior High, where, for the first time, I experienced Christians. I had a stomach ache my entire first year. Although that could be attributed to tight jeans. My guess is it was both.

The thing is, though I’m familiar with Jewish stories, rituals and celebrations, I have not been blessed with the gene for faith. I just don’t have it; I need proof of stuff. I respect, admire and borderline envy people who have a deep and sincere faith. No matter what faith it is. The comfort they receive. The inspiration. The strength they gain from it. And the charity things they do. “Hat’s off” for that.

I don’t like it when they forcibly try to convert people or kill members of other religions – that seems wrong – but since no organization, like no person, is perfect, it seems unfair to judge an institution exclusively by its deficiencies, when their positive contributions may be even greater, though I can’t say I’m an expert on the exact “helped-hurt” proportions.

So here I am, an admitted faith-lacker, on the eve of Passover, and I have to admit I’m eagerly looking forward to the holiday. I’m not conducting a seder myself this year, but I received an invitation to one, and I’m excited about going. I can’t wait to get started on the charoset I’ll be bringing.

Hey, but Earl, you might say, lacking faith, isn’t all that ritual rigamarole kind of meaningless and empty, like a hot air balloon with a giant hole in it? Eloquently put, I might respond. And what you’re saying ought to be true. But for me, it isn’t.

I don’t know the precise date of the Exodus from Egypt, or even if it, historically, actually occurred. All I know is, for thousands of years, when Passover came around, Jews everywhere would sit down to a seder, reciting the same prayers, performing the same rituals, singing the same songs and telling the same Passover story to their children, so they’d tell it to their children, and, hopefully, onward down the line.

I like that idea. The connection between a group of people, around the world, and throughout history. There’s something nourishing about that. And exhilarating. Being a tiny part of a universal chain.

When I was twenty-one, I wrote a musical at my summer camp. A boy was about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, and he was confused about what the whole thing really meant. The story took him on a journey through Jewish history, and ended with this song.

I wrote the lyrics; the melody comes from a musical called It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman. If you know it, you can sing along. If you don’t, this might not work at all. Maybe if you imagined a tune of your own. I don’t know. This may be stupid.

The song reflects my view of the importance of religious, or maybe it’s cultural, or maybe it’s ethnic – I don’t know which, but at the end of whatever it is, is the word “tradition.”

After all these years, my beliefs, represented in this song, haven’t changed. This could mean that I’m stubborn and inflexible, or it could mean an idea that seemed right to me hit early, and I’ve seen no reason to replace it. Whatever, here’s the song. It’s called…































That’s all I got.

Happy Passover.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Is This A Strange Way To Think?"

Last weekend, I accompanied by wife, Dr. M, to a place where she’d serve on a panel questioning someone defending their PhD. dissertation. That’s the exciting kind of life we lead, my life being even less exciting than hers. She was at least doing something boring; I was just accompanying her.

The college campus we went to was just south of Santa Barbara. It felt like an estate that had been turned into a college. We later learned that’s exactly what it was. The property had once belonged to the Fleischmann family. They had apparently made enough money selling fake butter to purchase an estate.

After lunch, my wife went off to do her thing, and I looked for a place to hang out. It was a magnificent, spring day. The sky was blue, a light breeze was blowing, horses were neighing in the distance. In short, it was very nice place to wait for your wife.

I found a wooden bench under a tree. I sat down and read an entertainment column in the L.A. Weekly, something about the Lifetime channel stealing Project Runway from Bravo, or at least that’s how Bravo saw it. Then, I checked out a series of mini reviews of movies I didn’t want to see. I was having a pretty good time. I was reading meaningless drivel, but at least none of it was making me angry.

I put down the paper and looked around. I’m not a good describer, but the surroundings were breathtaking. Immaculate, Spanish-style buildings, flanked by sturdy trees, their branches rustling in the breeze. Rich, manicured lawns, and beautifully tended gardens planted with a rainbow of multi-colored flowers. (I don’t mean that each flower was multi-colored. Different flowers, different colors. I told you I wasn’t good at this.)

Birds were chirping, insects were buzzing around. I saw a rabbit. Everywhere I looked, there were spectacular, green vistas.

Put it all together, it spelled, “Perfect.”

What would you say is the appropriate response to a situation like this? You’re feeling the feeling the setting is inspiring. Exactly what feeling would that be?

You might think, “What a spectacular day.” “What I lucky person I am to be here.” You could simply sit back and sigh a deep, relaxing sigh. “Life is wonderful,” you might think. “Not a care in the world.”


You might think like me.

There I was, basking in the sunshine in an idyllic locale. And what was the thought that popped happily into my mind?

“I could die here.”

I need your objective opinion: Is there something wrong with that? An exquisitely satisfying moment, and what comes spontaneously to my mind is, “What a wonderful place to wrap it all up.” What do you think about that?

I can’t judge. I have strange thoughts all the time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder about them sometimes.

I wonder what thoughts other people might have in the same situation. Thoughts of love? Thoughts of hope and optimism? Inspiring thoughts, opening your mind in new and exhilarating directions? I can imagine other thoughts. I just did. But those thoughts belong to people who aren’t me.

My only thought was that it was the perfect spot to call it a day.

A tiny revelation: I practiced. A little rehearsal. I took one last look around, smiled peacefully, I heard a soft “Goodbye” escape my lips. Then, my head dropped gently to my chest, and off I went.

That’s not so crazy, is it? Dying is an important moment in your life. You ought to practice it, don’t you think?

Of course, it’s possible I was simply employing my patented “reverse” strategy, the one where you say the opposite of what you actually want to happen. You’re saying out loud, “I could die here”, but what you’re fearing inside is, “I could die now.” You don’t want to die now, so you say it’s okay if you do. It’s a little twisted, but there it is.

I’ve been told I’ve been pulling that kind of stunt since I was a kid. My brother relates that, once, as kids, we were in some neighborhood club, and every week, they raffled off a box of cookies. Apparently, the whole week before they drew the ticket, I kept saying, “We’re never going to win.” “We’re never going to win.” “We’re never going to win.”

And then we won.

That strategy seems to have stayed with me. On some level, I believe that’s how things work. You say, “We’re never going to win” and you win. You say, “I could die here” and you won’t.

It seems to have worked again. I’m still here.

What I’m thinking now is that maybe I did want to die there, just not that day. Or soon. The question is, why was I thinking about dying at all? Why wasn’t I just enjoying myself? Or is that just the way I enjoy myself.

Let me know about this. Imagine yourself in an idyllic setting, and tell me, how far down would you’d put “I could die here” on your personal list of possible responses. Sometimes, it’s helpful to know how crazy I really am.

It’s one of the things I think about:

“How do we know things?”

“Is there a God?”


“Where do I fit on the continuum of craziness?”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"My So-Called Cat"

I’ve never felt comfortable around cats. Cats are members of the “cat” family. You know what that means. It means, at least to me, that if you mistreat a cat in any way – or if the cat just feels mistreated – it can go to the phone and call lions.

I’ve never had much success with pets. As a kid, we had a budgie named Jimmy. Somebody left the cage door open, and we found Jimmy behind the radiator, warm, but stiff as a board. My goldfish would be floating on their backs just days after I bought them. Once a turtle died on me on the way home from the pet store. Turtles. Don’t they live, like, two hundred years?

With that track record, I tend to view pets as bookmarks for death.

When she was young, my daughter wanted a cat, but we couldn’t have one, because of my wife’s allergies. For me, it was the perfect solution. No cat, somebody else’s fault.

Then, one night, as we’re eating dinner, a cat appears outside our kitchen door. Gray and black, sleekly trim, with a raccoon-looking question mark of a tail. The cat stands there, staring at us through the screen door, watching us eat. I have one thought, which I make clear to the family:

“Don’t feed the cat.”

My wife immediately gets up, fills a saucer with water, and takes it outside. Bringing it water is not technically “feeding” it, so I only feel partially overruled.

The cat sniffs at the water. And then, it’s gone.

The next night, it’s back. Staring.

“Don’t feed the cat, and it won’t come back.”

My wife fills a small dish with leftovers, and takes it outside.

“We’d only throw it out anyway,” she explains. The logic here is that food you are going to throw out is not really food anymore, so, once again, technically, people are still listening to me.

The cat blows off the leftovers, offended by the concept of second-hand food. It’s tricky to impute emotions to a cat, since there’s a good chance cats don’t have emotions. I imagine cat lovers will disagree with that, but they probably don’t care for me already for saying, “Don’t feel the cat.” On the other hand, I have to admit, when rejecting the leftovers, the cat had a noticeably snooty look on its face.

Okay, so he turned down the water, and he turned down the leftovers. Phew. We dodged a bullet. It’s over. That’s what I thought, until, next day, I discovered cat food in the grocery bag. Three tins of Captain’s Choice. It tickles me to imagine someone who names cat food for a living. Had they dreamed of becoming something else and wound up naming cat food, or could cat food naming have always been their goal?

“My mother tells the story of how, I was four years old, and I blurted out, Fisherman’s Feast! I was destined for this job!”

Sorry for the meandering. Back to the story.

My wife spooned some pinkish glop into a cereal bowl I had once eating Rice Krispies out of, and the cat, who had once again returned, dug right in.

We were henceforth in the cat feeding business, first, once a day, then, twice. We had no idea where this cat came from. But now he was ours. My daughter named him Franky. (We were later informed Franky was a girl.)

My wife was away working during cat feeding mealtimes, and my daughter claimed she had homework. Feeding Franky, naturally, fell to me. The guy who wasn’t crazy about cats.

We developed a relationship. Franky would appear, I’d prepare the food, and if it wasn’t out there fast enough, Franky would climb on our screen door, shredding the screen to pieces. Not all relationships are equal.

My experience taught me things I had never known before. For example, not all cat food tins are the same. Some, you pull on the tab and the lid comes flying off so fast, that if you’re not nimble, you can incur serious “cat tin” paper cuts. I’m not nimble. I did a considerable amount of bleeding.

I learned that Friskies turns out to have lids that peel off more slowly. Another job, I wondered about: People who design cat tins. I wondered if the person who designed the lid that peeled off slowly received any kind of award.

The “Tinny.”

They deserve it.

Sorry, again.

Our care of a stray cat soon went beyond feeding. The cat needed a flea collar, the cat needed its shots, the cat needed a little, red pup tent to shield it from the elements. It also turned out, the cat needed protecting.

Word travels fast when you’re feeding a cat. Other cats hear about it, and they want in on the action. Suddenly, our back yard is filling up. They’re taking numbers. But they quickly learn. I feed one cat, and that’s it. The rest, I discourage in ways that are effective but safe. I throw oranges at them. And I miss.

The cat infestation problem is solved. With one exception. A looming presence appears, hovering on the periphery. If no one’s around, The Thing bounds onto the porch and devours Franky’s dinner. What’s Franky doing while this is happening? Deferring.

“Eat up. It’s fine.”

I notice Franky’s getting thinner. I soon discover why. The Thing is eating all of Franky’s meals, and Franky, in full Ghandi mode, is not fighting back. I notice a flicker of embarrassment on Franky’s face – Franky seeing me seeing him wimping out.

So now what? Now I’m outside every mealtime, standing guard while Franky eats. We’ve come a long way from “Don’t feed the cat.”

Once in a while, I’m repaid for my kindness. Franky appears with a dead bird in his mouth, and drops it at my feet.

“Thank you.”

That’s Franky talking, not me.

I handle this horribly. Before I can stop it, my face goes, “Yuck!” I feel terrible about that. It’s like your First Grader shows you a clay sculpture they made in school, and before your paternal social skills kick in, you blurt, “What the hell is that!”

Over the years, my reaction to Franky’s “generosities” improved, moving from disgust to a hastily pasted on smile, though I’m not certain Franky was convinced.

My special memory was, when I worked late on TV shows, I’d return home past midnight, and Franky was always at the garage door, waiting for me. As I dragged myself up the back stairs, Franky would tag along, cutting directly in front of me, and making me stumble. It was a little ritual we had.

Then, one day, Franky got sick. The Vet called it FIP, a death sentence for outdoor cats. The family assembled, and each of us, in our own way, said goodbye. My farewell appreciation:

“Thanks for the birds.”

The Vet had told us to take our time. We had said our farewells, but it seemed none of us could walk away. That’s when Franky helped us out. He got up, and turned his back on us, as if to say,

“It’s okay. You can go.”

We did. And then, Franky did.

I thought I’d write about her.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Why I Can't Be A Movie Critic"

Once, back in Toronto, I was invited to be part of a movie reviewing team on a local television show. The show was ending its run in six weeks, and one of its participants had dropped out. I was asked if I was interested in filling in for the last six broadcasts.

Well, let’s see. They wanted to pay me to see movies for free and then spout my opinions on television. That one sentence has four of my favorite things in it: getting paid, seeing free movies, spouting my opinions, and being on television.

I said I’d do it.

Though originally excited, my enthusiasm quickly waned, as I learned the difference between being a movie critic and a moviegoer.

Moviegoers see movies they want to see; movie critics have to see everything. I quickly discovered that I didn’t want to see everything. A substantial amount of “everything”, when it comes to movies, is really terrible. Not just today. Always. And then there were movies which, for reasons of my own, I wanted no part of.

The format of the television show was this: The host and three reviewers (one, being me) would see three movies a week. During the broadcast, each reviewer would spearhead a discussion of one of the movies, and participate in discussions of the other two. My problems arose before the first episode, when I was selected to lead the discussion of a movie everyone was praising to the heavens:

The Godfather.

Here comes a confession. I’m extremely squeamish about violence. In the movies and in real life – especially in real life – though fabricated violence, manipulated by directors who enjoy using their gifts to scare you as close to death as possible without incurring lawsuits, is almost equally as disturbing.

A lot of people love scary movies. I don’t. I’m scared enough just being alive. In life, you have no idea what’s coming next; that’s all the scariness I require. I mean, I could be writing this post, and Boom! – I’m stricken with Bell’s Palsy. I’d be terrified if that happened. My heart would start pounding and I’d immediately panic. I’d race to a mirror, and cry in horror,

“My God! I’ve got Bell’s Palsy!”

only I’d be crying it out of the side of my mouth, because I have Bell’s Palsy.

I’m fine so far, but you never know.

Being alive provides as much terror as I can handle. I see no reason to pay money to experience more.

This aversion to cinematic fear inducement is not a recent one. I’ve always been that way. I remember, as a kid, as yet unaware of my scaredy-cat proclivities, I begged my older brother to let me join him and his friends on a trip to see The House of Wax.

The House of Wax was one of, if not the first, Three Dimension movies. You’d watch through special glasses, which they gave you on the way in. Because of the “Three-D” process, you had the terrifying experience of things flying off the screen straight at you – thrown punches, hurled spears, dead bodies dipped in wax falling out of closets onto your lap. “Three-D” made scary movies even scarier.

My begging and whining got me what I wanted. My brother would take me with him. The theater where The House of Wax was playing was downtown; we had to get there by streetcar. During the trip, my brother and his friends primed my fear-sensitive pump, teasing me with stories of the impending gorefest I was about to witness. And all in ‘Three-D.”

We bought our tickets and headed through the lobby. That’s when I informed my brother that I wasn’t going in. I was too scared. My brother was furious. He’d let me tag along and now I wouldn’t go in? What was he supposed to do?

I was too young to go home by myself, and my brother refused to take me. What happened then, was that he and his friends saw the movie, and I waited in the lobby. For two hours. Every so often, I’d venture to the door, and peek through the crack to see what was going on. But without my ‘Three-D” glasses on, all I experienced was a blur with screaming.

As I got older, my sensitivity to movie violence did not subside. Even my favorite kind of picture – cowboy pictures – were hardly free from fear-inducing terror. Here’s a secret. It’s not the acts of violence themselves that are upsetting – I can look away for those, as I still do today. The real upsetting part is the anticipatory buildup, inevitably accompanied by tension–enhancing music. There’s no question, some scary stuff is about to occur. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

I have vivid memories of this one cowboy picture. The citizens of a town are trapped inside this flimsy, old barn, surrounded by Indians. Anticipating an imminent attack, the menfolk debate strategy and lecture the womenfolk on the advantages of their shooting themselves rather than being taken prisoner.

Pounding in the background, nerve-rattling and relentless, is the rhythmic beating of Indian drums:

BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom, boom-boom…

Somebody in the barn, maybe an army scout with years of experience fighting Indians in movies, warns the townspeople – and the audience – what to expect:

“When the drums stop,” he announces, “they’ll attack.”

There, in the theater, sits Little Earl, squirming nervously in my seat. My friends look at me like I’m crazy.

EARL’S FRIENDS: ”What are you doing? Nothing’s happened yet!”

EARL: “Don’t worry. It will.”

Now, instead of praying desperately for the drums to stop, I’m begging the movie gods to keep them going. Of course, I know that’s not going to happen. This is a cowboy picture, not a documentary on drumming.

The drums finally stop. Shrieking Indians come jumping through the windows. And I’m under the seat.

That’s who they’re sending to review The Godfather.

A Mafia picture, reputedly violent. I already knew that. I’d read the book. I knew where all the scary parts were.

I wasn’t very happy.

I bought a ticket and took my seat, steeling myself for what I knew was coming. I gave myself a pep talk. “You’re not a kid anymore. You can handle this.” I took a breath and sat back, ready to enjoy a masterpiece.

A guy goes into a bar. I knew what was coming next. A garroting. Somebody sticks a knife into his hand, pinning it to the bar. The garrroting is on its way.

I’m out of my seat, and up the aisle.

The garroting is over, and I’m back, enjoying the picture. Then, a guy who’s unwilling to play ball with the Corleone Family is showing off his prized racehorse. I know what’s coming next. A horse head in the bed.

There’s a long shot of the house. The camera slowly moves in. I know where that camera’s going.

I’m back up the aisle, and into the lobby.

Waiting for the “head in the bed” scene to end, I find myself having this previously unexpressed interest in the hot dogs rotating on metal skewers at the Concession Counter.

“How many of those do you actually sell?”

The kid behind the counter tells me, but I don’t remember the answer. I didn’t really care about the hotdogs. I was simply killing time. You knew that already. And so did the kid.

The rest of The Godfather, I’m up and down. The Don Vito’s assassination, Michael shoots the policemen in the restaurant, Sonny’s murder at the tollbooth, I see them coming, and I’m into the lobby, I’m into the Men’s Room, I walk to the door to see if it’s raining outside. The ticket taker asks me what I do.

“I’m a movie critic.”

“What are you doing out here?”

“I’m hiding.”

If you ask me what the high points of The Godfather are, based on what I witnessed personally, I’d say the dancing and the cooking. When they’d taken to “the mattresses”, somebody made a delicious spaghetti sauce.

In the panoply of phobias, the fear of movie violence is hardly a serious concern. Unless, of course, you’re been hired to spearhead a televised discussion of a movie, most of which you missed, cowering elsewhere in the building.

What was I going to say?

“The lobby had some surprisingly elegant carpeting.”

I had a problem. And suddenly, it was “Showtime.”

You’re on the air, being asked your opinion of a movie, most of which you didn’t see. I’m not a good bluffer. Of course, there’s always the option of telling the truth.

“The ‘garroting’ scene? Well, actually, I was in the lobby for that.”

“The horse’s head scene? I was buying Jujifruits.”

“When Michael avenged his father? Yeah, uh…Men’s Room.”

All I remember about the broadcast is that I did just well enough not to be fired. But I knew I had only dodged a bullet, when, at the end, the show’s host announced:

“Next week: Terror House and The Asylum of Satan.”

Monday, April 14, 2008

"They're Not Talking To You"

Thinking about my Uncle Grumpy’s tirade against cable news last week reminded me of Ann Coulter, and the way she makes a living.

In this country, it’s virtually impossible to criticize how a person earns their money. Barring the illegal stuff – and even that’s kind of a gray area, considering the warm feelings some people – Sopranos fans among them – have for the Mafia, and the generally benign response to the Eliot Spitzer hooker – in America, you can do just about anything to make a buck. Or a killing.

It’s all just business.

So Ann Coulter gets to make a living any way she chooses. And she chooses to make it tearing the country apart with unsubstantiated and ugly inflammatory remarks.


I was trying to think of who Ann Coulter reminded me of. And then it hit me.

Back in the 50’s, there was a Bad Guy wrestler, named “Killer” Kowalski. “Killer” Kowalski was really bad. How bad? He’s reputed, during a wrestling match, to have bitten off “Yukon” Eric’s ear.

“Killer” Kowalski wrestled on TV and toured the circuit, playing his Bad Guy persona to the hilt. When he’d climb into the ring, the crowd would go crazy, booing and jeering and taunting and shaking their fists. What did “Killer” Kowalski do? He did the same thing back. Taunting. Shaking his fist. Threatening to come into the crowd. Some thought his “act” was funny, but the majority were legitimately incensed. They hated the guy.

And it made him a fortune.

Ann Coulter is the “Killer” Kowalski of political commentary.

You wonder about the appeal of Coulter’s “act” – or at least I do – Coulter’s and Limbaugh’s and O’Reilly’s and Hannity’s. Their ranting and their “crusades”, the extremism of their language and their point of view, it just sounds crazy. And it’s not just the commentators.

Some minister blames Hurricane Katrina on the gay lifestyle in New Orleans, or Pat Robertson proclaims that God is punishing our sinfulness by making people from another religion fly planes into the World Trade Center. You listen to this foolishness and you wonder, “Have these people completely lost their minds? Who’s going to believe any of this?”

The answer to that question is this:

People who aren’t like you.

These leaders and commentators are speaking directly to their followers, who not only believe in their leaders’ pronouncements, they totally agree with them. As a bonus, our outrage at their ridiculous comments reinforces their certainty, because the believers believe that we – the passionate critics of their leaders – are going to hell.

Of course, this blinkered perspective works equally well on the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve heard that in 2004, there were people who said, “I don’t know why Kerry lost the election. Everybody I know voted for him.” That was unquestionably true. Everybody they knew did vote for Kerry. And everybody who follows Pat Robertson thinks his pronouncements are on the money.

Even though there seemed to be, maybe there was never was a clear distinction between “right” and “wrong.” Maybe I just thought there was because, as a kid, I watched a lot of westerns, and in westerns, “right” and “wrong” were always crystal clear – the guy in the white hat was right, and the guy in the black hat was wrong. Maybe my belief about the world was simply a movie illusion (though, it seemed to me, the movies were just reflecting the times.)

Today, the idea that something can be unequivocally right and unequivocally wrong seems so…not anymore.

The times had changed. And so had the truth.

Once, when my TV writing career was sliding down the tubes, I self-pityingly wrote an essay, trying to describe what I was going through. My first line was, “I’m brown.” I chose a color, brown, and I used it to represent the essence of my talent. “Brown” was the my uniqueness, the thing that made me me.

This was not an arbitrary color choice. I felt “brown.” A lot of my clothes are brown. I have a brownish point of view. I’m just, overall, a “brown” kind of a guy.

At the height in my career, “brown” was greatly in demand. “Get me brown!” the studio heads would cry, and in I’d come, to plaudits and big contracts. I’d do my “brown” thing, and everybody’d love it. I was on top of the world.

Everyone wanted “brown”, and “brown” was what I was.

Then, as every color inevitably does, “brown” lost its popularity, and down I went. I didn’t understand it. “Brown” had always been my drawing card; now, it was driving people away.

I couldn’t switch colors. I was “brown.” And that was the end of the story.

I showed my crybaby piece to my wife. She liked it okay, but she told me to change the color. She didn’t like my choice of “brown.”


“Because it might be offensive to African Americans.”

I disagreed, but that was her view. Maybe it was a legitimate concern, maybe, an expression liberal guilt. Whatever. She believed it. Move on.

And I did. Until a series of ads came on TV for UPS. The catch phrase for the commercials?

“What can “Brown” do for you?”

The argument was back on the table. I pointed out the national ad campaign to my wife. Her response?

“Okay, I’m wrong.”

My counter-response?

“You’re not wrong. You’re right, for a small amount of people.”

That’s what “truth” seems to be today – (insert adverb of choice here, from “horribly” to “thrillingly”) fragmented. Somewhere along the line, the Truth Pie got carved into millions of slices, some substantial and some small, each slice representing, to somebody – maybe a large group, maybe a tiny one – the truth.

You can’t find much, if anything, that everyone agrees on. Even scientific truths aren’t universally accepted. And that stuff’s got evidence behind it.

There are probably dissenting groups opposing the most established scientific beliefs.


“Just because nothing’s fallen up so far, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”

That hurts my head, but I’m sure there’s some splinter group out there that believes that.

And if people can’t agree on longstanding scientific beliefs, you can forget about their coming together on ideological stuff, where there was never any agreement to begin with.

Your group believes one thing, another group believes something different, maybe even the opposite. There’s no final authority, and there’s no mediatable middle ground. Consensus is impossible. When you listen to them, they sound totally unreasonable. And when they listen to you, you sound like you’re going to hell.

Here’s what you need to remember. When leaders – religious, political, whatever – appear on national television, and you reflexively think, “They’re on national television, that must mean they’re talking to everyone” – don’t do that. Why? Because when they start saying outrageous things, you’re going to immediately think that they’re nuts. They’re not.

They’re just not talking to you. *

* They may be nuts too.

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Citizenship Day"

Paraphrasing the glorious movie, Avalon

I came to America in 1974.

Tomorrow, April the 12th, is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the day I flew to Los Angeles for a television job, and never lived in Canada again. I’m grateful to this country for allowing me to follow my dream, and fulfill it far beyond my expectations – my expectations being to fail and go home. I did better than that. I appreciate this country for providing me the opportunity.

Despite those appreciative feelings, it took me twenty-five years to become an American citizen. I never meant it to take twenty-five years. I meant it to take eighteen years.

Why did it take so long? Because. That’s why. This subject is a little unnerving for me. I’ve learned it’s hard to say anything negative – or even questionable – about this country without somebody reaching for a rope. Cut me some slack here, will ya?

Canadians have strong feelings about Americans. If I became an American, they’d have those feelings about me, and, more importantly, so would I.

What kind of feelings? Okay, try this. Imagine you’re a person, making a reasonable living, driving a perfectly fine car, owning a modest but comfortable home…

…and you live next door to Donald Trump.

That’s Canada, living next to the United States.

Americans, in general, appear to have little interest in other countries – including countries situated right next door – and it shows. I once saw an op-ed commentary in the L.A. Times entitled, Why Canadians Hate Americans. The commentary was datelined: Ottawa. And they spelled Ottawa wrong. They spelled it “Ottowa.”

You didn’t have to read past the dateline. Canadians hate Americans – “hate” is too strong a word for Canadians, it’s more like they’re “ticked off”, eh? – Canadians are ticked off at Americans, because they – “they” exemplified by one of their country’s most prominent newspapers – aren’t interested enough to learn how to spell the name of our nation’s capital.

“I mean, come on, eh? Give a care.” (That’s a Canadian talking.)

I’m giving you this general outline of Canadians’ opinion of Americans to help you understand eighteen years of foot-dragging when it came to my becoming an American citizen. Just because we speak the same language, and watch the same TV growing up, and even though I probably know more American history than I do Canadian history – The Alamo, 1836 – The Battle of New Orleans, “In 1814, we took a little trip…” – it’s still not easy to make the move.

Then, suddenly, in 1992, the impulse hit me like the impulse for Motherhood hits childless women in their thirties. Suddenly, I urgently wanted to become an American. Some of it had to do with my having an American wife and a daughter who was born and growing up here, and I wanted a voting say in the country she’d be living in.

Some of it was practical. I was working, raising a family and paying taxes down here. All I did in Canada was visit once a year, on the week when it wasn’t cold. In fact, though not officially, I was already an American.

Also playing a part in my decision was that, in 1992, a president had been elected who… well, he let me down later, but at the time, he looked like a Commander-in-Chief I could cheerfully salute.

Put it all together and I was finally ready.

I filled out the paperwork, assembled and submitted the necessary documents, and applied for an appointment for my interview. At the interview, I’d be asked a number of questions about the workings of the American government. I was given a booklet to study to prepare for it, a Driver’s Manual for Citizenship.

I start to study.

How many members are there in the United States Congress?”

Five hundred and thirty-five.

“Who succeeds the President if he can no longer perform his duties?” (It was like Miss America.)

The Vice President.

“And if the Vice President can no longer perform his duties?”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives.

While I’m studying for my test, I’m also pondering. I’m a ponderer, I can’t help it. What I’m pondering is the idea of what exactly it means to become an American citizen.

Woody Allen once quipped that if you wanted to become a Jew, you had to go through two thousand years of retroactive persecution. What Woody was saying was that, by changing teams, you’re not just taking on the good stuff, you’re buying the entire package. It’s not a matter of pick-and-choose; it’s all or nothing.
What comprises the “entire package” when you choose to become an American? What, as an American citizen, would I now be personally accountable for? Well, let’s see:


“That’s me.”

Wiping out the Indians?


“Blowing up two Japanese cities with people in them.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Sure, America’s a ton of great stuff too – the polio vaccine and Snickers bars are only two examples – but it’s also the above list. If you choose to sign on, you’re accountable for the entirety of American history. The good, and the aforementioned.

Throughout my life to that point, I was always “Us” and Americans were always “Them.” How would it feel to become part of “Them”, only “Them” wouldn’t be “Them” anymore; “Them” would be “Us”, and “Us” would mean me?

What would it mean not be a Canadian anymore? Would I still be allowed to sing “O, Canada”? Could I continue to root for the Leafs and the Blue Jays? Had I lost my Canadianly-endowed right to say “Sohrry” and “abowt?”

There was a lot to think about.

And then, my Interview Day arrives. I show up at the Federal Building, dressed in my best sports jacket, shirt, tie and a pair of very serious shoes, the kind generally reserved for wearing to synagogue. I could be married in those clothes. In a way, I was. I was marrying a country.

I walk into the room, hand in my “Notice of Appointment” and I sit down and wait. I look around at my fellow citizenship applicants. People from various countries pack the Waiting Area, though the majority of applicants are Asians, quietly conversing with family members in their native tongues. No one is speaking English Arrogant idiot that I am, I wonder how they’ll do on the test.

“Earl Pomerantz?”

The official manning – or it this case womaning – the Appointments Desk is calling my name. I feel a nervous flutter as I walk across the room, ready for my cubicle assignment, where another official will administer my test.

“Mr. Pomerantz,” the Immigration Official intones coldly, “It appears that you’ve presented yourself here on the wrong day. Today is Wednesday. Your appointment was for Monday.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re here on the wrong day.”

She hands me the notification letter I had handed her when I arrived. I read it, my hands trembling. The Immigration Official is right. I have shown up for my Citizenship Interview on the wrong day.

In a flash, Asian-inflected whispers fly around the room, sounding to my Occidental ears like,

“Long day.” “Long day.”

I race out, a quivering wreck of humiliation and shame.

My wife’s the psychologist in the family, but it doesn’t take a Freudian psychoanalyst to explain what had happened. By missing my appointment, I had made a deliberate, though unconscious, mistake. Clearly, I was not yet ready to commit myself to becoming an American.

Seven years later – hoping that, by then, all the officials who had witnessed my humiliation had moved on – I re-applied for citizenship, submitted to my interview, and passed. For my second try, I had contracted the services of an immigration lawyer. Not to help me with the paperwork – I could handle that myself – but to drive me to my appointment on the right day.

A few months later, along with thousands of others, I convened at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and was sworn in as an American citizen. I was unexpectedly moved by the proceedings. Even the cheesy stuff, like the videotaped jet “fly-over” on a small TV screen, as Lee Greenwood sang, “…And I’m proud to be an American...” I have to admit, there were tears.

I had now jumped through all the hoops. But I wondered if I was really an American. I still wasn’t sure. How was “being an American” supposed to feel?

On September the 12th, 2001, I was talking to my Canadian friend, Alan, on the phone about the tragedy of the day before. Alan’s response to the situation was this:

“Boy, you guys must have really pissed somebody off.”

I felt a sudden flash of anger at my friend’s response. That’s when I knew I had crossed over. “Feeling like an American”? It felt like that.

It caught me by surprise. I had become a “Them” without even knowing it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Uncle Grumpy on: Cable News (Continued)"

Back again, at his own request, my prickly but lovable Uncle Grumpy.

Summarizin’ from yesterday, I watch cable news and I hate myself for doin’ it. I want it to be better, so I can hate myself less.

Other than for straight reporting – which we used to have to wait till dinnertime to watch – cable news is a great big waste of time. It’s all filler and fluff. A soap opera with actual people, passin’ as news.

No “scoops” on cable news. That’s not what it’s for. What is cable news for? My cousin, Harry, was a pharmacist, and his son once asked him, “What do vitamins do?” Cousin Harry replied,

“Make money for the company.”

That’s all those yakkety-yak shows on cable news do. They make money for the company.

And there’s no darned accountability. They get things wrong, and back they come the next day. If they really screw up their predictions, do they fold their tents and slink away? No-ho-ho-ho! They put on a show called, “How We Got It Wrong.” Those varmints can’t lose. They’re right, they’re wrong – they get a show out of it either way.

Credibility? Don’t make me laugh. One of those shows – it might have been Hardball – had the Reverend Al Sharpton on, talkin’ about the president. Why did they have him on for that? I have no idea. Could be he’s on retainer for semi-regular appearances, could be they just like his style. When it comes to pundits, they never say why someone’s on. They’re just there.

So Reverend Al’s yammerin’ on about the president holdin’ firm on some issue or other, probably Iraq, and he finishes with this:

“The problem with this president is that he’s a man who never admits when he’s wrong.”

I hear that, and I start countin’: One…two…three…

Nobody says a word. They just let it pass. I’m sittin’ in my chair, waitin’ for the host – Chris Matthews or whoever – to say, “Hold on, Reverend Al. Aren’t you the guy who’s never admitted he was wrong about Tawana Brawley?”

Nothin’. Not a peep. Everyone watchin’s screamin’ “Tawana Brawley!” in their houses. It’s the obvious next thing to say. Not to the host. He lets it go.

And the show’s credibility flies right out the window.

Why didn’t it happen? Because the Reverend Al is a guest, and you don’t “show up” a guest, especially if he’s on the payroll. It’s Good Manners 101. A good host never calls a guest on their hypocrisy. A good newsman, on the other hand…


Another regular guest. Pat Buchanan. He’s on TV three, maybe four times a day. Why? He wrote for Nixon. So what?

As far as I can tell, Pat Buchanan lives in the studio. He’s always there. I get the feelin’ he’s got an apartment upstairs, and whenever they need him, they hit the ceiling with a broom handle, and Pat puts on his suit jacket and comes down. If he’s busy, he sends Bay.

Lately, Buchanan’s been holdin’ forth on the “truth” about blue-collar, white men, and how they’re likely to vote. From the way Buchanan describes them, blue-collar, white men seem to be frozen in 1968. Haven’t changed at all – same prejudices, same opinions. Like their experience over the last four decades had no effect on them whatsoever.

Haven’t changed at all? It doesn’t seem possible to me. Leadin’ me wonder if it’s the blue-collar white men who are frozen, or Pat Buchanan.

Other regular cable news show guests? Retired colonels. I don’t get it. If a man’s a colonel who fought in Viet Nam, why does that make him an expert on the war in Iraq? Is he just invited on because once, he was a soldier? Is this a new job for former military personnel? Cable news guesting?

Is there a division of the William Morris Agency now that only handles retired colonels? Do they have to audition?

“Could you be a little more colonel-like?”

“I’ll try.”

Do the retired colonels go to their barbers and say, “I’m going on television. Give me my old haircut.” Or do they hold onto those “flat tops”, hopin’ they’ll be called in as experts in the next war?

I know my thinkin’ here is wrong-headed. I’m still thinkin’ they’re doin’ the news. As I said yesterday, cable news is not news; it’s a television show masqueradin’ as news, lookin’ for ways to maximize its entertainment value.

Ergo, Bill O’Reilly.

Remember the movie Little Shop of Horrors? The plant needed to continually be fed blood or it would die, and the shopkeeper would go out of business? Same deal here. O’Reilly’s the shopkeeper, the audience is the plant. O’Reilly’s job?

Keep feedin’ it blood.

That’s his entire format – skewerin’ the guests and feedin’ ‘em to the audience. It’s commentary as a blood sport.

I hope to stop watchin’ cable news, someday. In the meantime, Cable News, could you please make your programs just a little less shameful?

Here’s a suggestion. How about an “overview” once in a while? Instead of only coverin’ the passin’ frenzy, what about a thoughtful, heavily researched feature on, say, where blue-collar white men really are today, compared to 1968?

Is Pat Buchanan right? Have they not changed at all? And what’s up with that? Who knows, maybe a deeper exploration will discover they have changed, in which case, what’s up with Pat Buchanan?

Here’s another one. How about a “mix” on the panel? Not just “experts” and younger “experts.” Instead, sprinkle in some “civilians”, folks who don’t know one Big Shot in Washington but are thoughtful and observant and have a fresh “outsider” angle on the issues.

Hey, how ‘bout puttin’ me on the show? Give me a chance to do more than just yell at my television. It doesn’t have to be me – I’m not really keen on leavin’ the house – just someone who’s less like a slick professional and more like the people watchin’ the show.

Why not, say, once a month, toss out the “regular suspects”, and replace ‘em with regular people? Not those “agenda” people, we’ve heard enough from them. People with open minds.

Look, you don’t need my ideas. You’re the “pros” here. With this extended campaign goin’ on, you’ve been doin’ the same show for two years. You know it’s stale, and you know it needs a change.

Whattaya got?

Odds are, I’m gonna die in front of the television. Have a heart, Cable News. Don’t make me go out watchin’ crap.