Monday, June 30, 2008

"Almost Acting - Part Two"

Previously on “Almost Acting”:

I’m twenty-one. I’ve just traveled alone for the first time in my life, to attend a summer theater workshop at UCLA. We are required to audition the first night, so the teacher/directors can decide how to cast us in the summer’s four production, all written by Bertolt Brecht. Who I’d never heard of.

Okay.

I had had a pretty rough day. (Read Friday’s thing, I’m not going back.) Now it was time to do what they paid me for. (Or, in this case, to do what I was paying them to let me do.)

I arrive at the theater to audition with my scene from Inherit the Wind. There are sixty students signed up for the workshop. We’d be called in alphabetical order. I’m “P.” I’m always “P.”

While we waited, we were each given four forms to fill out. These forms would be provided to the four teacher/directors who’d be judging our auditions. It was standard stuff. Name. Where you’re from. Acting background. Identifying features.

Under “Acting Background”, I write “Nothing, if you don’t count camp.” Under “Identifying features”, I write “Brown hair, brown eyes.” And then, for no reason other than I’m nervous, I include a different additional “Identifying feature” on each of the forms: “Brown hair, brown eyes, chapped lips.” “Brown hair, brown eyes, sore feet.” “Brown hair, brown eyes, brown pants” – silly stuff, just to fill out the form. And pass the time till they get to the “P’s”.

I sit backstage, studying my lines. I hear muffled auditioning noises emanating from the theater. I hear proclaiming noises. Indignant noises. Heartfelt noises. Lyrical noises. I can’t hear what they’re saying. But I know they’re acting.

Then they call Pomerantz.

Suddenly, it hits me. My scene involves a legal cross-examination; I’m going to need another person! I accost the guy who’ll be auditioning after me – who’s also a “P” so we have something in common – I point to my script and I say, “I need you to read this.” The guy’s caught totally off-guard. Probably thinking about himself. I have a certifiable look in my eyes. He agrees to help me.

The two of us come out on stage. I immediately jabber, “I’m Pomerantz. I don’t know who he is.” I explain that I need him to read with me. I add, “If he’s no good, don’t hold it against him. He’s doing me a favor.”

As I start to set up, I hear giggles emanating from the darkened theater. They’re perusing my form. Somebody’s chuckling at “chapped lips.”

The laughs calm me down a little. My knees had been literally shaking.

I start my audition: “Henry Drummond”, the Clarence Darrow surrogate, pleading for independent thought over religious dogma.

“In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘Amens’, ‘Holy holies’ and ‘Hosannas’.”

I’m pickin’ up steam.

“Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.”

And for those benefits of progress,

“We must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.”

I argue for the single uniqueness of the human species: the individual human mind.

“What other merit have we? The elephant is larger. The horse is swifter and stronger. The butterfly is far more beautiful. The mosquito, more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable.”

I plant the seed.

“Or does a sponge think?”

And when the response comes back,

“If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks”

I pounce.

“This man wishes to be accorded the same privilege as a sponge. He wishes to think!”

Curtain. End of scene.

There is dead silence. And then there’s applause.

The next morning, I check the bulletin board outside the theater. I’ve been cast in three plays. (Due to a scheduling conflict, I end up only appearing in two.) One play, The Private Life of the Master Race, is made up of over two dozen individual scenes. I’ve been given small parts in three of them. The other show, A Man’s A Man, I play a Buddhist monk, a lead role.

Our activities began. Every morning, we’d classes every morning where we’d study Expressionistic theater. Don’t ask me what that is. It has something to do with getting people to think when they go to the theater rather than feel. But it seemed to me, and it still does, that after they get you to think – you know, how terrible things are for the proletariat – you start to feel anyway –furious at the owners of the means of production – so what’s the difference? I didn’t do well in that class.

In the afternoon, we took acting classes, we rehearsed and we built the sets for the shows. After witnessing my dexterity with a hammer, my set-building responsibilities were immediately reduced. I’d get people water instead.

Our first show went on in ten days – the multi-scene play, where I had three small roles.

In one scene, set after Kristalnacht, the first organized anti-Semitic episode in Germany, a group of shell-shocked Jews gather for a gloomy post mortem.

I had one line in that scene:

“Some people are crazy.”

but I repeated it four times, at various junctures in the scene. Every night, I’d experiment, trying different approaches in the delivery of my line. During some performances, I’d say “Some people are crazy” exactly the same way each of the four times. By the third repetition, the audience would start to chuckle.

Other nights, I’d deliver each “Some people are crazy” differently, and by the fourth repetition, the audience was roaring the moment I opened my mouth.

It was very strange. The play wasn’t a comedy. I guess I was getting dark laughs.

The L.A.Times reviewed us. Despite my minimal participation, I was singled out for a positive “mention.” People seemed to like what I was doing. Except for the actors playing much larger roles, who’d been overlooked in the review.

I was having a ball and making friends. The school’s summer schedule did not provide us with dorm food on the weekends. But my classmates always made sure I got fed. One classmate, from Linchoping, Sweden, invited me for speeding Sunday evening motorcycle rides down the near-abandoned corridor of Wilshire Boulevard. We never wore helmets. I had no idea it was dangerous.

As the summer went on, and my successes continued, a number of my classmates encouraged me to consider sticking around and continuing my training.

I called my brother in Toronto.

“I’m thinking about staying here and applying to graduate school for acting.”

“What about the war?” He meant the Viet Nam war. It was the Sixties.

It wasn’t clear in my head, though it probably should have been, that the American government is not in the habit of drafting citizens from other countries into their military. I’m pretty sure those people would complain. Instead, my thoughts went directly to my eyes, which, from a vision perspective, are not very good.

“They’re not going to want me with my eyes.”

To this, my brother responded with a classic line:

“If you see bad, they put you in the front lines, so you can get a better aim.”

I took that to heart. But I decided to give the last word to my teacher, who was also the head of the Theater Department, and would be responsible for the scholarship I’d need if I wanted to stay.

“What do you think about the idea of my going for a Masters in theater?”

I remember his answer as if it were yesterday.

“You have a certain appeal on stage, there’s no question about that. But I wouldn’t call it acting.”

“Couldn’t I learn acting?”

“I’m not so sure.”

The door clanked shut. Goodbye graduate school in acting.

I informed my classmates I’d be going home. Some of them got angry. They believed in my talent, probably more than I did, and they thought I was making a mistake. But I didn’t have a choice. There’d be no scholarship, and who knows? My brother may have been right about the front lines.

I liked acting. But it wasn’t worth dying for.

So that was that.

Though not totally that. Three months after I returned to Toronto, I was out of law school and onto a plane, alone once again, headed for a year and a half adventure in London.

It was a big and scary step. And it would never have happened if I hadn’t gone off to the Bertolt Brecht summer theater workshop at UCLA.

------------------------------------

I hope you enjoyed my experiences in almost acting. If this were a DVD with “extras”, I could regale you with stories of the time I grabbed hold of a cactus with my hand, the verbal abuse I received from some purveyors of sex services in San Francisco, and a totally unnecessary transcontinental train ride. Maybe some other time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Almost Acting"

From when I was nine until I was twenty, I spent my summers at Camp Ogama, a co-ed sleepover camp for children six to sixteen, located a hundred and fifty miles north of my home town of Toronto. I’ll be starting a series of posts about camp starting next Tuesday. July the First. It’s Canada’s birthday. Send a card.

Today, I want to tell you about the first summer I didn’t go to camp. I was twenty-one when I attended an eight-week Bertolt Brecht summer theater workshop at UCLA. The experience was the first step in changing the entire direction of my life.

Here’s the chronology. I graduated from college in June, I attended the theater workshop that summer, and in September, I started law school. Which I quit after five weeks.

I quit law school for two reasons. One, I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer (“I’m sorry I lost your case. Good luck in prison. Here’s my bill.”) And two, my experience at the theater workshop gave me an illuminating glimpse of where I actually belonged.

I always wanted to be an actor. Some day, I’ll return to my highly praised series, “Why I Can’t Be A…”, glowingly cited for its relentless negativity, with a post entitled “Why I Can’t Be An Actor.” When I was twenty-one, I had this not totally formed thought that I could be.

I knew I couldn’t be a movie star – I have a mirror – but I never wanted to be. I wanted to be a character actor. Character actors rarely carry the picture, but there’s something about their ability to command your attention that often allows them to steal it. I wanted to be that guy.

My acting heroes were Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy. Muni, a product of the Yiddish Theater in New York, went on to great acclaim in the movies, first playing gangsters (Scarface), and later portraying imposing characters of varying nationalities. He played French guys (Pasteur, Zola), a Mexican (Juarez), and – hey, it was the Thirties – a Chinese fellow (The Good Earth). At the end of his career, he found time to play a Jew (The Last Angry Man).

Spencer Tracy was a star, but he wasn’t your classic leading man. If Clark Gable was in the picture, Tracy had no shot at getting the girl. Sometimes, they’d make him a priest, so he’d be out of the running from the get-go. It softened the blow. No girl, but he still had God.

I’d been in a lot of plays at camp. People seemed to like me. I thought I had, though maybe not to the same degree, the same attributes that drew audiences to Muni and Tracy – “regular people” looks, and the ability to, I don’t know…not act, exactly, but “be”– it’s embarrassing to say this – in an eye-catching manner.

When I graduated from the University of Toronto, I had this unrealistic notion of studying acting at an American university. It didn’t really make sense. My family had little money for tuition, I had never taken an acting lesson, and my entire experience was camp. (That, and a Purim play in Hebrew school, where I played a Babylonian palace guard and somebody stole my bathrobe.) There was nothing else I was dying to be. So why not try to become an actor?

I went to our university library and leafed through the tiny number of catalogues they offered for American colleges. There were no current catalogues whatsoever. The ones they had were yellowed and tattered. Some of them had a picture of President Roosevelt on the first page.

Somewhere, I discovered that UCLA was offering a theater workshop that summer. It sounded perfect. The course was eight weeks long, just like camp. I had a plan, I thought. I’d go to the workshop, I’d come back, and I’d start law school. I didn’t say it was a good plan. But people like me, you like to have a plan.

I applied to UCLA. I had no idea who Bertolt Brecht was; it didn’t matter. It was acting. In California. California had sun every day! Have you any idea what that means to a Canadian?

A week before the workshop was to begin, I still hadn’t heard if I’d been accepted. My friend, Alan, agreed to make the call to find out. (I was emotionally unready to hear “No” directly.) It turned out they had forgotten to contact me. They told Alan to tell me I was in.

Alan quickly helped me prepare the scene for my audition. (Everyone would audition the first night, so they could decide how to cast us.) I had selected a speech from Inherit the Wind, playing the Clarence Darrow prototype, “Henry Drummond” in the dramatic depiction of the “monkey trial”.

You know, it just came to me today. The role of “Henry Drummond” was played by both Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy, by Tracy in the movie, and by Muni in the original play. I wonder if that affected my choice of an audition piece at the time? I’m not sure. Maybe I just liked it.

Mirroring the celebrated 1925 “show trial”, Drummond defended a Tennessee schoolteacher’s right to teach evolution to his students. The speech I chose to audition with involves Drummond’s observation that progress is not a bargain. There’s always a trade off.

DRUMMOND: (SPEAKING TO THE JURY) “Sometimes, I think three’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have the telephone. But you lose privacy, and the charm of distance. Madame, you may vote. But at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff and your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air. But the birds will lose their wonder. And the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

I think I just liked it.

The week went fast, and before I know it, I’m on a plane headed for the other side of the continent. It was the first time I had ever traveled anywhere alone.

We land at Los Angeles airport. I was alone. And totally lost. Did I mention I was alone? I was alone. And lost. In America, a country ranked very high, possibly first, in random slayings.

I spot a bus. I was familiar with airport buses from my many visits to New York. (Though I never went there alone.) Airport buses are cheaper than taxis, and they stop at prominent hotels. I needed a hotel for the night. I wasn’t expected at UCLA till the following day.

The bus driver informs me he stops at the Hilton. I’ve heard of the Hilton. I stayed at a Hilton in New York. The New York Hilton was downtown, in the middle of everything. I figured it’s the same in Los Angeles, so I get on the bus.

“Take me to the Hilton,” I instructed, as if stepping into a taxi.

“Okay,” replied the bus driver, but his face said, “It’s a bus. We have scheduled stops.”

The bus dropped me off at the Hilton in downtown Los Angeles. I had no idea I was twenty miles from UCLA.

Los Angeles is different. It’s really, really big. The downtown Hilton and UCLA are in the same city, but they’re really far apart. There’s another Hilton, in Beverly Hills, which is closer to the college, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Who knew a city could have more than one Hilton?

The next morning, a Sunday, I’m sitting at a bus stop, the bus stop the Hilton doorman had directed me to when I told him I wanted to take the bus to UCLA. I had totally missed his look of incredulity.

Sunday morning. Waiting at a bus stop. In Los Angeles. I’m about to learn my second lesson about the city. My first lesson was Los Angeles is really, really big. My second lesson was that in Los Angeles, buses don’t come by too often on a Sunday morning.

In Los Angeles, buses don’t come by that often at the best of times. Sunday mornings, it’s a joke. So there I am. Sunday morning in Los Angeles. Me and my suitcase, stuffed with two months worth of clothing. Waiting at the bus stop. For two hours.

Between my increasingly desperate checking for approaching buses, I look up a sign indicating the current temperature. The sign says: ninety-eight degrees. I’m thinking this could be it. I could actually pass away at that bus stop.

Finally, the bus arrives. It kind of shimmered in the heat; I wasn’t certain it was real. I peel my sweat-drenched self off the bench, hoist up my overstuffed suitcase, and I drag it onto the bus.

The bus ride seemed endless. I’ve never seen a city this big. Maybe it wasn’t the same city. Maybe the driver, lulled by the leisurely Sunday morning schedule, had had a lapse in concentration and had driven us out of town.

After what seemed like hours, we arrive at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards, and the driver tells me we’re there. I drag my suitcase off the bus. I look around. I don’t see a college.

Time for my third lesson about Los Angeles. Lost and headed for sunstroke, I hail a taxi. You don’t hail taxis in Los Angeles. You call the cab company and they send one over. I didn’t know that. So I hailed one.

And he stopped. He must have noticed the desperation in my eyes. And my giant suitcase. And it’s ninety-eight degrees.

The cab driver takes me to UCLA. It’s about three minutes away. Although on foot, with that suitcase, in that heat? Yeah, I never get there.

I go to the Registration Building. They check the list for my dorm assignment. I’m not on the list.

There it is. The Final Touch. I’m in a strange country. Three thousand miles from home. It’s ninety-eight degrees. And they’ve never heard of me. Crying cannot be far away.

I insist I’m expected. They find me a room. I drag my suitcase from the Registration Office to the dormitory. It takes half an hour. It makes sense. Giant city. Giant school.

I go to my dorm room. It’s tiny. The beds, when pulled out, are six inches apart. My roommate, the stranger I’ll be sleeping six inches away from, is already there and set up. He says he’s an engineering student. His classes start at eight o’clock in the morning. I’d be doing shows till midnight, and my first class was at ten.

Throughout the following eight weeks, when I got back from the show, he was asleep, and when he left for class, I was asleep.

We would never speak to each other again.

Coming Monday: The audition and the aftermath.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Beware of...Stories"

We’re always getting warnings about something that can hurt us. Recently, it’s been tomatoes. I don’t care, I don’t eat tomatoes. I hate tomatoes. They’re gooshy inside with pulp and stringy stuff and seeds, just the thought of them makes me want to…ooch!

Sorry about that.

Most people like tomatoes. Until the reports started coming in. Now, when they pass the produce counter at the supermarket, there’s this nagging fear that, somewhere in that neatly stacked pile, there’s a tomato with their name on it.

I don’t know how serious the tomato scare is. (And I try not to gloat about it.) But I know this. Americans are generally more fearful about things than the evidence suggests we need to be.

Statistics tell us that crime, at least in major cities, is substantially down. We don’t believe it. How do I know? We don’t act like we believe it.

From the number of guns we buy, our elaborate security systems, the self-defence classes we take, and the big dogs with sharpened teeth we keep – not because we enjoy the company of big dogs with sharpened teeth – an objective observer would conclude that we’re living in some type of urban war zone. When we’re not.

Experts tell us there are a lot of dangers we worry about we have no reason to worry about, but we worry about them anyway. This leads some people to worry about the experts. Why are they telling us these things? Are they secretly in cahoots with the people we’re worried about, engaging in an insidious campaign to get us to drop our guards? Hey, it’s possible. As possible as many of the other things we worry about.

Why are we so fearful all the time, especially about things that, if we stopped and took a breath, we would realize aren’t anywhere near as threatening as our trying to protect ourselves against them suggests?

Some people blame the economy. When times are tough, people lose hope and blah. Others blame the growing disparity between rich and poor. Cultural diversity, that’s always a convenient place to point a finger.

Me, I blame what I believe is the most dangerous and overlooked panic inducer we’re confronted with today.

Stories.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, perhaps with some eye rolling, “What is this fool talking about? Stories can’t hurt us. They’re just stories.” My response to that comment?

That’s exactly what they want us to believe.

Somewhere, cleverly eluding our reality-checking radar, stories are causing us to worry and sweat and feel anxious on elevators, wondering what that sinister-looking passenger standing behind us has in mind for us between floors. While the sinister-looking passenger’s wondering the same thing about us.

Please trust me on this. My opinions may be questionable concerning pretty much everything else, but you’d be wise not to write me off when it comes to my understanding of stories. I know stories. I’ve been around stories my entire adult life, and I’m telling you they’re dangerous.

What am I jabbering about? This. I already wrote a post called “The Audience Writes The Script.” That was about audience expectations, and how a decision to deviate from the audience’s expectations can endanger a writer’s health benefits. The issue today is how did the audience come by those expectations in the first place? You know who put those expectations in the audience’s head?

Stories.

Stories are the enemy, and if we’re not careful, they’ll deliver us to Perdition. Every one of a story’s elements – the subject matter, the carefully crafted structure, the deliberate selection of every word and detail – is meticulously chosen – without any regard for the consequences – to grab the audience by the throat and hold them till “The End.”

It’s stories that have turned us into the lily-livered ‘fraidy cats we have unquestionably become. You can’t blame them, of course. They’re stories. It’s what they do?

Here’s an example of the damage stories cause.

Have you ever met anybody who was kidnapped? I haven’t. I mean, who knows? I may have met hundreds of them and they just didn’t like talking about it. Although, I mean, if they’re still around, that means, you know, they got ransomed or something, and everything ended up okay. Why wouldn’t they want to talk about it? No, the other thing is more likely. Nobody I ever met was ever kidnapped.

And yet, you know where I’m going here….

Without A Trace.

A successful weekly television series. Where every week. Somebody. Gets kidnapped.

They’re there. And then, they disappear.

Without a trace.

I haven’t watched Without A Trace that much, but it appears to be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, they find the people; sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they find them but they’re dead. Best case scenario, it doesn’t seem like a pleasant experience. “I was once kidnapped” is something you’re better off not having on your biographical resume.

The prospect of being kidnapped would scare anyone. If it happened with any regularity. But I don’t believe it does. So why do we act like it does? What makes up keep an anxious and ever wary eye on our children? Not facts. Not realistic concerns. Not evidence of some suddenly virulent kidnapping epidemic.

Stories.

Stories make us believe things that are not factually the case.

Cheating spouses. Can you feel the inherent heat in that story? It’s wrong, it’s risky, it’s fraught with tension and messy complications? Cheating spouses is the perfect subject for a gripping story. Compared to it, “The Happy Couple” story doesn’t have a prayer. What can you do with it? A loving couple meets at the end of the day:

“Hi, Honey. How was your day?”

“Fine, thanks. And yours?”

“Good, thank you. Any thoughts about dinner?”

“I think we should order in.”

“Great. Is Thai food okay?”

“Let’s do it.”

I can’t write any more. It’s way too boring. (Unless it’s one of those Pinteresque “read between the lines” kind of stories where “How was your day?” really means “I’d like to smash your face in with a hammer!”)

A boring story will never see the light of day. Stories instinctively know that. With their existence on the line, stories understandably put their money on “couples who cheat” rather than “couples who order in.”

Yielding serious implications.

Do the math. Take all stories about couples, subtract the non-cheating stories – of which there aren’t any because they’re boring – and what do you have left? Cheating stories. One hundred per cent. And what conclusions would this suggest about the holy state of matrimony?

Everybody cheats!

And who’s to blame for this mathematically inaccurate conclusion?

Stories.

To capture our attention, stories focus on the lurid and the extreme to the exclusion of the boring and the mundane. A steady diet of these stories inevitably alters our sense of proportion, distorting – in the direction of paranoia, suspicion and fear – our ordinary sense of everyday reality.

It’s only a great babysitter story if the babysitter threatens the baby. Without that, it’s surveillance tapes that can put you to sleep.

“We’re home. How’s the baby?”

“Great!”

Not a story.

“We’re home. How’s the baby?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Now we’re hooked.

How often do babysitters actually threaten the babies? Very close to never. How often do they threaten babies in stories? Every time. The result? The seed is planted, and a night out can never be the same. Whose fault is that? All together now…?

Stories.
Sure, there are upbeat stories, but I’m not too concerned about an overabundance of hope. I think we can live with that. It’s the other stories – the ones we forget are made up, and suddenly, we’re acting like the world’s a scarier place than it actually is.

There is an antidote to this dangerous but under-appreciated threat to our national wellbeing. To survive their insidious effects, you must behave like you know the difference between saying “It’s only a story” and believing it’s “only a story.”

And here’s the first step. The next time your big dog’s teeth start to get a little dull, put down the file and leave the guy alone.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Why Does This Bother Me? - Part One (possibly)"

Sometimes, a certain issue will bother me, and I’m not exactly sure why. It’s not an issue that affects me personally, and it’s generally of no serious concern to anyone, as in, nobody seems to care. Even cable news has given it a pass, and they’ll obsess about anything, if there’s money in it, so I guess, in this case, there isn’t.

For me, however, such issues – and there aren’t many of them – seem to churn in my turmoil mechanism and they won’t let me go. There are times when they actually keep me from falling asleep. The situation is, as they say in The King and I, a puzzlement. Maybe it’ll help if I write about it. Maybe you can explain to me what’s going on.

So what am I talking about? What turbulizing problem has me ready to risk the slings and arrows of criticism and abuse? What is this issue for which I’m, for no reason I can understand, willing to sacrifice precious readership and acceptance?

Flourishy Fanfare

Women in the military.

There it is. Four words, with, to my mind, no comprehensible explanation for why I care. Now let’s be clear here right from the top. I’m not talking about competence, concerns about unit cohesion, or the requisite courage. I have no questions about that. My issue is more fundamental.

What are women doing in the military?

The military is different from any other career choice. Here’s how. (You already know how, but indulge me here. I’m building up a head of steam.)

When I wrote the pilot for Major Dad, there was a moment in the script where one major’s complaining to the Major Dad major about an article a reporter has written concerning the Marine Corps. He quotes a line from the article:

“The Marine Corps’ primary objective is to take young men and women and teach them how to kill.”

To which the Major Dad major replies:

“Isn’t that what we do?”

Yes, it is.

You can not get away from the fact that that’s what the military is fundamentally about. This is nothing new. It’s always been that way.

“What do you do, Soldier?”

“We hand out candy bars to children.”

“You do?”

“No, are you crazy? We kill people. Why do you think they gave us these guns?”

That’s the military. That’s what they do. And that’s what, by not objecting, we’re saying it’s okay for American women to do.

I admit I’m not totally clear on this point, but I believe there are certain combat assignments that are unavailable to military women. Are the military women grateful for being exempted from these duties? No, they hate it.

Restrictions of this nature inhibit the military women’s career-advancement, making their objections totally understandable, if you ignore the killing, the maiming, the dying and the lifetime of post traumatic stress they’ve been spared.

These limitations on their duties are not the military women’s fault. They don’t make the rules. (The rules prevent them from being appointed to that job.)

Let us focus on the company they work for. What other business, besides the Mafia, requires the taking of other people’s lives as a mandatory condition for personal advancement? Can you imagine that requirement anywhere else?

“I can’t advance at Apple unless I kill a person from Microsoft.

That sounds a little extreme, doesn’t it? Not in the military. Why? Because killing people is what they train to do.

Well, but Earl, this seems to argue for allowing women into combat.

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. (I’m being sarcastic. Have you not been reading? I don’t want them there at all!)

But what if it's the women's choice? I’ve heard it said by those who’ve experienced it, that there’s nothing as exhilarating as a bullet whizzing past your head. Isn’t it discriminatory to deny women this exhilarating opportunity?

Well, first, let’s remember: No one’s ever reported it’s exhilarating having bullets whizzing into your head. That just, you know, kills you. Or makes you forget who you are for a really long time. It should also be remembered that we are not putting men – or women – into combat to satisfy their exhilaration requirements.

As far as I know, the United States is not constitutionally bound to provide its citizens with the “rush” which can only be experienced in the nightmarish heat of battle. We don’t go to war to make daredevils happy.

You want exhilaration? Buy a motorcycle. Leave your country out of it.

Theoretically, I understand the idea of women in the military. We live in an egalitarian society. As long as there’s an institution available to men – an institution that trains them to kill people – that institution has to be available to women as well. I mean, restricting women from joining the military in an egalitarian society, what exactly would you call that?

I’d call it an exception.

Equality’s a wonderful principle. I’m for it, all the way. Minus one thing. Which is not that bad. “All the way, minus one thing” is really close to “all the way”. Perfect, minus one, is an A+ on any exam. A person who had all the qualities you love in a person except for one thing, you’d marry that person. “Everything but this” is a really high, perfect but not quite, level of equality.

Don’t worry about the “slippery slope”. No slope exists here, because there’s nothing like the military. Not even the police. The policeperson’s job is multi-faceted; there are police people who have never drawn their guns. If they have to, they have to. But that could be said of anyone in this country who owns a gun. And I’ve heard that’s quite a lot of people.

The military is soldiers. And a soldier’s job is killing people. My question is: Do we really want our American women doing that?

Think about it. We study other cultures – every one of them has its traditional cultural values. We observe them, we write papers, we don’t judge. We don’t say, “Hey, Borneo tribe, stop being patriarchal.” That’s who they are, that’s what they do. They’re not better, they’re not worse. They’re different. That’s “them”.

Okay, so who’s “us”? What are our traditional cultural values? Do we only have one – equality – and that’s it? Can we not say, “In our culture, women are equal, but, one thing – the military, whose job is to kill people – is not for them”?

Why can’t our culture make this single exception to the rule of equality? And why isn’t anyone committed to trying?

Passionate supporters of equality, invariably on the Left, seem to have no problem with women being in the military. Though generally anti-war, equality is their primary concern. Plus, there is little fear that their liberal daughters will be interested in joining up.

Conservatives are identified with a traditional sense of patriotism, and though they may prefer their daughters to engage in more "womanly" pursuits, if their daughters choose to serve their country by enlisting in the military, what are you gonna do? You chuck ‘em on the shoulder and you drive ‘em to the bus.

Liberals and conservatives. That’s all we’ve got. Meaning there’s no one left to oppose, or just seriously question, what women are doing in the military.

Except me. A man with a wife and two daughters, none of whom have expressed the remotest interest in learning the most efficient methods of gutting their enemy like a fish.

So if I have no personal stake in the matter, wherefrom comes the energy fueling my passionate disapproval?

Here’s the closest I can come to as an explanation. I’m not crazy about chaos. I didn’t look it up, but I’ll define it myself. Chaos refers to a social condition characterized by behavior that’s uncontrolled, destructive and doesn’t make sense. Insane people can behave chaotically, and sometimes, entire nations. Something happens to them, and they fly dangerously off the charts.

It is not unknown in situations of chaos, for people to get hurt. We’re getting close to an explanation here, because I’m part of “people”, which means, I could get hurt. This is no trivial concern.

There’s at least one other path I can think of that can lead to chaos. The reasonable path. How does it work? You believe in a certain principle – a good one, like, say, equality – and you follow that principle to its conclusion. Beyond where it makes any kind of reasonable sense. And you defend that principle. Religiously. No exceptions allowed.

Blind people can’t be prohibited from becoming bus drivers. No Jewish popes? Unacceptable. Nitro workers with the shakes? Let ‘em in!

And young females who – check any schoolyard – have markedly different natures when it comes to physical aggression – must be allowed to train to take lives.

A respectable road. Destination: chaos. And with chaos, as I’ve mentioned, people can get hurt, meaning, again, possibly me.

Final thought:

There’s this ancient Greek play called Lysistrata. In Lysistrata, the women go on strike, refusing to have sex with their husbands, until they agree to stop going to war. Current reasoning suggests that women would act the same way today if they were prevented from going to war.

I hate it when something doesn’t make sense and we do it anyway. Ignoring reason sets a troubling precedent.

And that, as far as I can tell, is why this bothers me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Saddle Up - Part Nine"

Actors who appeared in classic westerns recall their experiences. As imagined by me.

FROM THE CHAPTER ENTITLED: “BITS” AND EXTRAS


THE BARTENDER

“My handlebar mustache helped me get bartending roles. It wasn’t real; it clipped on under my nose. In twenty-five years, it only fell off once. There was supposed to be a ‘twister’ outside, and when somebody opened the barroom door, my mustache flew across the room.”

“Bartenders overhear everything, but we weren’t supposed to. I mastered the talent of listening but pretending I wasn’t. Watch me in a scene where I’m wiping off the bar. I’m wiping, but I’m listening. If you miss the subtlety, you think I’m just wiping.”

“Other skills western bartenders needed were ducking – you know, when the ruckuses started – taking down the big mirror so it wouldn’t break – without breaking it ourselves. Sometimes, I’d participate in the ruckuses, usually by whacking some cowboy on the head with a whisky bottle. The bottles weren’t real, of course, but I had to pretend they were. I was good at pretending. I guess that’s why I became an actor.”

“One thing I couldn’t pretend was sliding the beer glasses along the bar. That always gave me the butterflies. I’d practice for hours. The ‘short’ slide, the ‘Intermediate’, the ‘All the way down.’

“One day, I show up for work and, wouldn’t you know it, they’d shined up the top of the bar. My ‘touch’ was completely thrown off. A beer glass that normally slid ten feet flew right off the other end. ‘Take down the sheen’, I say. They finally did, after half the cowboys were dripping with beer, but the whole thing was very upsetting to me. I couldn’t ‘slide’ for months.”

“My proudest moment as an actor came in “Cimarron Junction.” The Bad Guy was about to go face the Good Guy in the final shootout. As I poured the Bad Guy one last shot of ‘Red Eye’, you could tell by my face whose side I was on.

“Nobody told me to do that. That was all me.”


SCRAMBLERS

“There were a bunch of us back then – men, women, a couple of kids, a few horses, some scramblin’ chickens – we had one thing in common: When all hell was about to break loose, we’d scramble out of the way.”

“My specialty was barroom scramblin’. The timing had to be perfect. You scrambled too soon, and you’d tip the action. Scramble too late and you were likely to get shot.”

“Sometimes, in our rush out the door, we’d fall over each other. That was just embarrassing. But the directors loved it. They’d say, ‘Do it again!’ It offended our professionalism, you know? Like askin’ a great orchestra to play bad.”

“Outdoor scramblin’ was carefully choreographed. Everybody where they were goin’. Except for the chickens. They just scrambled where they scrambled. I stepped on one once. Made a helluva screech.”

“I’ll tell ya something – and this ain’t just a Scrambler talkin’ – the better the scramblin’, the better the picture. You take a look at a western sometimes, and just concentrate on the scramblin’. It’s very interesting. You watch closely, and you can actually tell who looks like they’re runnin’ for their lives, and who’s just going through the motions. We had a name for those fellahs. We’d call them ‘Sleepwalkers’.”

“There were special privileges for the older Scramblers. No more runnin’. When trouble came, we’d just scramble under the table.”

“What am I proudest of? In all my years as a Scrambler, I was never around when the guns went off.”


THE INDIAN IN THE ROCKING CHAIR

“I always had an old face. I wasn’t that old, but I looked old. Lotta wrinkles. The director says, ‘Here’s your job. You just sit there, smokin’ your pipe, and no matter what happens, you don’t react. You got it? You don’t react.’ I say, ‘Okay.’ So, they start the filmin’, and I’m rockin’ and smokin’, and, all of a sudden, this big galoot comes flyin’ out the window about two feet from my head. I go, ‘What the hell was that!’

The director yells, ‘Cut!’ He comes up to me and he says, ‘I told you not to react.’ I say, ‘This guy just came flyin’ out the window.’ He says, ‘That’s the funny part. No matter what happens around you, you just sit there.’

“Well, I didn’t want to lose my job, you know? So next time the guy came flyin’out the window, I didn’t do nuthin’. Just sat there and smoked my pipe. Ater the scene, everyone’s tellin’ me how great I was. I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Monday, June 23, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen D"

I had told Bill Cosby to learn his lines. He promised he would, but he never did.

Cosby and I may have had similar comic sensibilities, but we had diametrically different systems of delivering the mail. Mine was the painstaking crafting of the script, his was saying whatever flew into his mind.

It would have been wiser if I’d been more sensitive to Doctor Cosby’s approach and a little more humble about my own. To quote another longstanding sitcom, sometimes it’s important to remember, “Who’s The Boss?”

(My daughter’s still wondering about that question. To this day, she’ll turn to me, tongue-in-cheekily seriously, and say, “Dad…who really was the boss?” Her dream is to someday run into Tony Danza and ask him directly.)

There were moments on The Cosby Show when my attention to specificity was demonstrably helpful. We were taping a scene where Dr. Huxtable was berating a patient for over-eating during her pregnancy. The woman explained that it wasn’t she who was over-eating, it was the developing child, growing inside her. Cosby’s response began with the words

“The baby’s only two months old…”

We taped the scene twice, and both times, something sounded wrong to my literal-minded ear. During a break, I walked up to Cosby and said,

“You’re saying ‘The baby’s only two months old.’ What you mean to say is ‘You’re only two months pregnant.’” Then, offering some comedy candy to accompany my suggestion, I gave him a line to say after “You’re only two months pregnant”, which was this:

“The baby doesn’t even have a face yet.”

Cosby nodded. On the next “Take”, he delivered the lines exactly as I’d suggested. And he got a huge laugh. I had never done this before - or since - but because I was reaping few satisfactions working on the show, while the audience was still roaring, I raced into the Control Booth, where the director and the producers were sitting, and shouted, “That was me!”

Was Cosby grateful for my contribution? You decide. When I returned to the stage, he immediately went into a discourse about “Wildies”, writers who’d hover on the periphery of silent movie sets and suggest comic “bits” which would then be inserted into the movie, and for each suggestion that was accepted, the writers were rewarded with a dollar. I imagine the story was meant as a “Thank you.” But I prefer the regular kind.

At the beginning of The Cosby Show, the Carsey-Werner company was limited by a very tight budget. As a result, with the exception of my luxurious apartment, the production was suffused with a pervasive sense of cheapness.

Other shows had computers, we had typewriters. We taped the show at an ancient NBC studio in Brooklyn. The writers’ office was located in a nearby apartment building that, every Friday afternoon, smelled of chicken soup and gefilte fish. Whenever I’d get on the elevator, a middle-aged woman in a printed housecoat would ask, “So, are you married?”

Our secretaries had no sitcom experience. (Before computers, a rotating squadron of secretaries would take down our revisions in shorthand, then go back to their desks and re-typed the pages.) The Cosby Show secretaries were recruited from law offices, soap operas, and Captain Kangaroo.

The law office secretary took down our dialogue with lightning speed. But when we later proofread what she’d typed up, we discovered that she’d taken out all the contractions, replacing “I’m” with “I am” and “Didn’t” with “Did not.” You’d be surprised how the deletion of contractions can cause comedy to disappear. Our script read like a petition for Habeas Corpus.

More complaining…

Our fourteen-hour workdays were supplemented by an extended Manhattan-Brooklyn-Manhattan commute, about an hour each way. One night, when I was dropped off at my apartment at one in the morning, knowing I’d be picked up at nine-thirty the following morning, I turned to my co-worker, John, and said, “I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

Even more complaining…

On weekends, and during non-production hiatus weeks, we were provided with office space in Manhattan. It was never at the same building, we were gypsies. At one place, we were taken up to our weekend workplace by freight elevator. The elevator operator said, “When you want to leave, just ring the bell, and I’ll come and get you.”

When we finished our work that day, we rang the bell, and nobody came. We couldn’t use the stairs. It was an “Emergency Exit”, and an alarm would go off and firemen would come. We were stuck there for two hours.

Another weekend – it was always the weekend, when there were no maintenance people around to help – I was writing alone in an office where the faulty air conditioning made the room the room I was working in freezing. I had to work in my overcoat. In the summer.

Finally, to get some relief, I opened the window. Outside, it was ninety-eight degrees. This sounds like a joke, but I assure you, it’s not. Between the sweltering heat outside and the frigid air inside, rain started falling on my head. The words on the page were smearing in my typewriter.

Creatively, things were no less rocky. After exhausting the scripts we’d completed in pre-production, Cosby, basically, dictated all the storylines. That was fine. Cosby knew what he wanted, and he was a natural storyteller.

I saw him pitch out an idea in twenty minutes.

“Is that a story?” he would ask.

“It’s half a story.”

I then sat there in awe, taking notes, as he easily constructed the other half.

However, Cosby had this excruciating habit, guaranteed to increase our already knee-buckling workload. Whenever we heard the words, “Camille and I were talking last night…” we knew we’d be tossing out everything we had written and starting all over again.

It was extremely frustrating, though, invariably, Cosby’s new approach would be an improvement over what we’d been doing. What was I supposed to say?

“I’m sorry, Bill, we have to stay with the not-as-good version, we don’t have time to write the better one”?

A better idea is a better idea. No matter how much aggravation it creates.

As we continued to fall behind, I was forced to isolate myself in my apartment and just write. I was working at a pace I had never worked at before, turning out completed scripts in three days, rather than my habitual seven or eight. The pressure was unrelenting. I divided my time almost equally between writing as fast as I could and freaking out.

My whole time there, I felt resentful at having to deliver hurried first drafts for immediate production. I knew I could do better work if I only had more time.

Once John and I traveled to Atlantic City for a story meeting. Cosby was playing in one of the big casino’s showrooms. Relaxing in his dressing room after a masterful performance, Cosby was particularly thrilled about a new comedy bit he’d inserted, which had been delivered to uproarious laughter and thunderous applause. “That bit took me six months to perfect”, he explained.

I wanted to smack the guy. Six months to perfect a seven-minute bit? I had three frickin’ days!

My contract covered producing the expansion of the original presentation, plus six additional episodes. Feeling totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, I decided to honor that contract and then leave. The biggest problem? We were horribly understaffed. As Cosby – like me, a westerns fan – explained, describing my situation:

“There were too many Indians and not enough cavalry.”

I still have mixed feelings writing about this more than twenty years later. As beaten up as I felt, I desperately hated to go. You want to succeed at what you take on. You want to stick around, be a part of things, contribute to something you knew was worthwhile and you knew you could do, maybe better than anyone. Instead, I was going home.

With a larger budget, not to mention a calmer temperaments and greater administrative skills, future Executive Producers found ways to make what would always be a difficult situation workable. For me, the conditions, both external and internal, were more than I could handle.

Since the Cosby Show was not yet the moneymaking bonanza it would eventually become, only later were there thoughts of the financial implications of my decision to leave. It was, hands down, the stupidest career decision I ever made.

Parting Moments…

I was on the stage, taking care of some last-minute details for my final taping, when John walked up to me. John, a formidable talent and Midwestern workhorse, would remain on the show and eventually run it. That day, however, he was a messenger. The message was accompanied by three cigars.

“These are from Cosby,” he said, handing me the cigars. “He said, ‘Tell Earl he’s an honest man.’”

And that was that.

A surreal postscript…

Five years later, I was walking down a street on the Universal Studios lot on my way to the filming of the pilot of Major Dad. As I passed a large trailer sitting beside a movie soundstage, there was Bill Cosby, sitting on the steps, reading the biography of Sammy Davis.

“How’re ya doin’, Doctor?” I inquired, as if our last conversation had been a week earlier rather than half a decade.

Cosby looked up, and smiled broadly. Then came the familiar friendly growl.

“Errrl.”

There are some people for whom, despite the difficulty they may have caused you, you retain, against all reason, affectionate feelings. I was “this close” to asking Bill if he wanted to do the Major Dad Warm-up.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen C"

The Cosby Show – Day One:

We had our first “table reading.” The president of the network gave me notes. The NBC liaison executive gave me notes. The star gave me notes. The producers gave me notes. And the director game me notes. Then I remembered. This is what I hate about running a television show.

I’m going to try and write this without getting too upset. Or blamey. Or “poor me-ish.” It’s a tricky line you walk, between reporter and “crybaby”, especially when you’re reporting about yourself. But I’ll do what I can.

The first script after the presentation script was written by me. Since it seemed well suited to the family setting, I reworked a story I had written on Taxi – the dead goldfish. This story was based on a personal experience. Those ones always turn out the best. Unless your personal experiences are boring.

I had once taken an extended vacation and had left my goldfish with my friends, Les and Zora Charles. When I got home, my fish was dead. Les and Zora felt terrible, I felt worse, and the fish felt, you know, “Dead Parrot” territory.

Some people never got it. A dead goldfish. So what?

“It’s a quarter!” whined Ed. Weinberger, one of Taxi’s creators, when I pitched him the idea. “You get another one.”

Weinberger suggested a dead bigger animal. What he meant was a more valuable one. I stuck to my guns. It wasn’t the expense that was the issue, it was the attachment. I had lost a companion, a tiny, orange friend.

Writers know this. There’s only one good thing about misfortune: You get material out of it. Unless you die. Then, someone else gets good material out of it.

Back to The Cosby Show. We’ve gotten our notes. We try to accommodate them, and also tackle the areas we think need improving. We made efforts to honor the parameters of the presentation. Character comedy. Play the moments honestly. No hard jokes. It wasn’t easy. Our training had been otherwise.

During that first production week, we were also required to add eight minutes to the original presentation to bring it up to the required length for an episode. Why didn’t we just shoot the whole episode over again, so the living rooms would match? The original was too special to discard. You can never count on lightning striking twice.

Early on the second day, we read one of the scenes we’d be adding to the presentation. The idea was inspired by a Cosby routine about an expectant father who’d suddenly developed “cold feet” about his participation in the “Birthing Room.” Cosby asked me if I’d like to read the part of the terrified father-to-be.

“What if I mess up?” I asked. Cosby’s was response to my concern was immediate and direct:

“Bases loaded. Two outs. Bottom of the First.”

I read the part at the “table reading.” A real actor was hired for the show.

Despite first show “butterflies”, our rewrite process went smoothly. The Cosby Show had a four-day production schedule, rather than the traditional five, so that Cosby could make it to weekend concert appearances.

This meant, instead of having three rehearsal and rewrite days, we only had two. (The third day was for camera rehearsal; the fourth, Thursday, was “show day.”) The shortened schedule had pluses and minuses. You had to work faster, but there was less time for outside interference. I’ll take that deal any time.

Thursday came very fast. Tom Werner had taken me to his favorite menswear store and helped my purchase a black blazer with gold buttons to wear on show nights. I was very excited. My goldfish episode was being produced. And I’d never owned a blazer.

Every episode would have two tapings, one at four in the afternoon, and another, around seven. The intention was to edit the best parts of each taping together to produce the show that would be aired. With two tapings, you had time to rewrite or adjust performances between shows. The afternoon show moved quickly, because everyone was aware they’d have a chance to do better that night.

I wasn’t the Warm-up Man on The Cosby Show – I had to oversee the taping – but I did get to say hello to the audience. I remember saying, “I haven’t gotten used to living in New York yet; I’m still acting like I’m from another place. The other day, I was walking down Forty-seventh Street and somebody honked their horn, and I turned around, because I thought they knew me.”

That was fun. Then, the show started.

The first taping was a truly surreal experience. It was as if a stenographer had taken down the dialogue, but when they hadn’t quite understood what they’d been told, they had made something up, producing a version that was similar to the original, and yet, different.

When Cosby delivered his lines, sometimes I’d hear the words we’d written, and sometimes, I wouldn’t. Sometimes, I’d hear a variation on the line. Sometimes, I’d hear an expansion on the line. And sometimes, I’d hear an entirely different line. An sometimes, I’d hear a new line, a line that had no counterpart in the script whatsoever.

This was a new experience for me. I had written maybe forty sitcom episodes. The actors always performed the lines that were in the script. Cosby, on the other hand, employed the script as a jumping off point, written suggestions you could use or ignore.

This hadn’t happened during the run-throughs. Then, Cosby had stuck to the script. But now, inspired by standing before a live studio audience, Doctor Cosby had taken it upon himself to riff on the material.

The problem was two-fold. One – ouch. The guy was disrespecting our painstaking efforts to get things right. Two, and more importantly, though some of his flights of comedic imagination were inspired, a number of others fell flat. Cosby would also jump over essential lines of continuity, without which the story we were telling did not make any sense. Did his contributions, on balance, improve the shows? Yes. Though in the goldfish episode, it was fifty-fifty.

The afternoon taping ended. Things had gone reasonably well. During the dinner break, the director and I gave the actors our notes. Then we went to talk to Cosby. “We”, meaning Tom and Marcy, the director, Jay Sandrich, and myself.

We came into the room. Cosby wasn’t wearing a shirt. The man appeared to have considerable upper body strength.

The mood was upbeat. Everybody was happy. The notes from director and producers were minimal. “Take a beat before you say this”, “Don’t move until after you say that” – standard stuff.

Relax and enjoy. Have a great show.

The notes session appeared to be over. We discovered it wasn’t, when Cosby directed his attention towards me and said,

“I want to know what this guy has to say.”

Okay. I had been in New York less than two weeks, I did not know my co-workers that well, and there was at least one person, who was currently shirtless, that I was seriously afraid of. But, hey. The guy wanted to know what I had to say. So I told him.

“I really wish you’d learn your lines.”

You know that sound you hear when you put your ear to a seashell – a loud, whooshing sound – that’s the sound that enveloped that room after I said, “I really wish you’d learn your lines.” Everyone was just standing there. There was no, “You know, Bill, Earl does have a point” or “He’s dead wrong about that” – nothing. Just that eerily howling seashell sound.

It was a very unbalancing feeling, though my mind was clear enough to be certain that I’d would very shortly be going home – and I don’t mean to my apartment in New York.

Finally, Cosby mercifully broke the silence. The doctor was not pleased with my observation. For the first time, he attacked the material, applying the questionable standard, “A doctor would never say that.” I don’t remember what else happened at that meeting – there was an element of shock involved – though I do recall being hastily hustled out of the room.

Before the second taping, I was told that Cosby wanted to see me down on the stage. When I got there, he made fun of my blazer (“You look like a Door Man”), then he apologized for before. He promised from now on, he’d learn his lines.

He never did.

Looking back afterwards, I’m not convinced he was wrong. One of the unique elements contributing to The Cosby Show’s appeal was its spontaneous sensibility, sparking a refreshingly unsitcomly “anything can happen” possibility. Cosby is a jazz enthusiast. He recognizes the soaring surprises that can result from departing from the melody. I needed to be accommodating of his instincts. And perhaps a little more humble about my own.

Nuts, there’s too much to talk about. I’m sorry. I’ll have to wrap this up on Monday.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen B"

Oh, the amnesiizing excitement a new project. I imagine it’s like childbirth, without the excruciating pain. You endure it once, you swear, “Never again!” and a couple of years later, you’re doing it again!

I couldn’t help myself. The Cosby Show was too good to pass up. Now let me be clear here. I hadn’t the slightest idea the show would become a phenomenon. The euphoria at that point was not, “I’m working on a hit show!”, it was “I’m working on an amazing show!” Amazing shows aren’t always hits, though this one…well, you know what happened.

Ed. Weinberger and Michael Leeson, along with Cosby himself, had crafted the electrifying Cosby Show presentation. A number of lines had been lifted, I’m sure with permission, from the recent HBO special, a filming of Cosby’s stand-up concert. The presentation and the special, both chronicling the excruciating delights of modern day parenting, (defined, basically, as, “You try and survive till they go off to college”) were the seeds for the groundbreaking television series that was about to emerge.

Ed. and Michael decided not to accompany the show to New York, where the series would be produced. (The presentation had been filmed in Los Angeles.) That’s why there was an opening for a show runner. And that’s how I got the job. If Ed. and Michael had decided to run the show, I’d have missed this rollicking adventure in its entirety.

My introduction to Bill Cosby was on the telephone. I’m not good on the telephone. I like to see faces. I’m also not real comfortable with successful, famous people. It feels like a mismatch of power. And, of course, there was the obvious difference between us. Bill Cosby had been a football player. The man could beat me up.

So I was nervous.

At some point, Tom Werner, or maybe it was Marcy Carsey, filled me in on the backstory of this historic undertaking. Every year, the fledgling Carsey-Werner production company would call Cosby’s representatives and inquire if Bill was interested in doing a television series that season. The answer had always been, “No.” For some reason, this time, the “No” became a “Yes.”

In the early stages of the series’ creation, Cosby was to play a limo driver. Bill Cosby. Street corner philosopher, puttin’ the rich folks in their place – heh, heh, heh.

No, it was decided. Bill Cosby was beyond that.

It was suggested that since Bill Cosby’s real life involved wealth, education and social position, it would be more believable to the audience if he played a more sophisticated character. Enter Dr. Huxtable. And to sweeten the upwardly mobile pot, his wife, Claire, the corporate attorney.

I was happy Cosby had abandoned the limo driver idea. A doctor would be fine, a doctor who delivers babies, even better. But why did his wife have to be a lawyer? To me, this smacked over status overkill. Couldn’t she be, say, a highly respected college professor instead? Cosby’s response was simple and clear:

“I’m a doctor and my wife is a lawyer.”

I tried, diplomatically, to dissuade him of this arrangement, alluding to the mid-century Jewish miscalculation known as “conspicuous consumption” – oversized houses, gaudy accessorizing, block-long Cadillacs, with fins. I was lobbying for the same concept but with some tasteful restraint. There was a silence on the phone, where I imagined Cosby drawing deeply on an oversized cigar, and then he replied:

“I’m a doctor and my wife is a lawyer.”

Case closed. Moving on.

We started looking for writers to staff the show, a challenging task at the best of times, made even more difficult by the specialized requirements of the series. The submitted scripts I read had jokes aplenty and twisty storylines guaranteed to score. I understood why the writers wrote that way. That’s what other shows were looking for. But not this one.

I needed writers who could elicit laughs the way Cosby got them in his stand-up act. Cosby identified the insane happenings of everyday life and described them simply, accurately and hilariously. Unfortunately, that was not what I was reading. Script after script disappointed me with their formula constructions and their repetitive joke rhythms. I was feeling frustrated. Couldn’t anyone out there write like Bill Cosby? (No, Earl. Bill Cosby is a genius.)

I finally hired two women who were a team (one of whom would distinguish herself on Murphy Brown) and a guy named John, whom I had met before and whose audition script stood out from the formidable stack I had dutifully plowed through. I had made inquiries about other people, but for them, relocating to New York was a deal breaker. It was understandable. If I’d called myself, I’d have probably said no.

The writing staff was too small, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. I was used to small staffs from my MTM, Taxi and Cheers days, but I forgot that those staffs’ efforts were supplemented by scripts from outside writers like Earl Pomerantz. Damn. Where was I when I needed me?

I remember my first “face-to-face” with Cosby. Tom Werner and I were invited to dinner at his house in Los Angeles. The other guests were a group of advertising people from Jell-o. Tom and I were the only people of our color.

I mention that fact for two reasons. It was only the second time in my life I had ever been racially outnumbered (the first was at a New York nightclub performance by Richard Pryor, where my female companion and I were also the only white people in the room. Remember, I grew up in a totally white country.)

The other issue was that Cosby was committed to trumpeting his other guests’ superiority. Throughout the evening, recorded jazz played on the sound system, and Cosby repeatedly challenged Tom and me to identify the performers. We couldn’t. The other guests could. By the time “Doctor John” came on, whom I did recognize, I felt too defeated to speak up.

Then Cosby handed out cigars. To the other guests. That was too much.

“I want a cigar,” I heard myself say.

Cosby took me downstairs to a huge wine cellar type of room whose shelves were stocked with quality cigars.

“Which one do you want?” he asked.

“Just give me one that isn’t too big for my face.”

As we left, I requested that Cosby and I meet, so he could give me notes on my script. Cosby said it could wait till we got to New York. There’d be too many other things to do when we got to New York, I insisted, the time pressure would be overwhelming. To accentuate my time-pressure concerns, I admitted something you don’t usually reveal to a person you’re meeting for the first time.

“I don’t want to die.”

A few days later, Cosby and I sat down and worked on the script together. The experience was exhilarating, the maestro and the kid. And I was pretty much keeping up. This may be bragging or just stupid, but early on, I named the Huxtables’ fifth child, Sondra, and the black college, Hillman.

Just a white guy, dipping his toe into unfamiliar waters. And happily, no “What do you know about that?” I admittedly knew nothing, but to my relief, my suggestions seemed acceptable.

I also asked to read Cosby’s doctoral dissertation (the subject: Fat Albert, and its effect on racial stereotypes.) I don’t believe anyone had previously made such a request. Doctor Cosby was hardly enthusiastic. Finally, he went upstairs and returned with a leather-bound volume, handing it to me, with the words,

“You don’t have to sit down to be a writer.”

I leave it to you to make the interpretation.

It’s remarkable now to remember that there was not much excitement concerning The Cosby Show before it went on. At a press junket interview, Cosby was asked what prompted him to get into the dying field of half-hour comedy. “We have thirteen televisions in our house,” replied Cosby. “It was either do a show I was willing to watch, or throw them all out.”

When I was asked to comment on the concept of the show, I was unprepared, and I offered a long and rambling response. After the interview session, I introduced Cosby to Dr. M. Cosby cordially greeted her and said, “I hope your husband can write, ‘cause he certainly can’t talk.”

Before I knew it, and much faster than I wanted it to be, the pre-production period was over and I find myself sitting in (Writers’ Guild contractually mandated) First Class, flying to New York. Tom and John are flying “Coach” on the same plane, Tom, to save money (this was the last time Tom Werner would have less money than I had) and John, to (as many writers did) pocket the difference between the First Class ticket he’d received and the “Coach” ticket he’d traded it in for.

Throughout the trip, the flight attendant came up from the back of the plane to deliver a series of notes, obviously from the abominably fed, legroom deprived Tom and John. “Any steak left over?” “How’s the sundae?” “Did you get your hot cookie yet?” They were determined to embarrass me in my luxury. They didn’t come close.

My family would be arriving later, and be staying with me through the summer. A woman who would later become a Carsey-Werner partner, had been assigned to locate appropriate accommodations. She’d rented us an apartment in the Dag Hammarskj√∂ld Plaza, a block from the United Nations – three bedrooms, three baths. The building included a concierge and a swimming pool. It was exactly what we’d requested.

My apartment looked very luxurious. I immediately started exploring. “Look! Art! And real sculptures!” They were all hideous, but they were art and real sculptures. I had a magnificent panoramic view, there was thick wall-to-wall carpeting in every room. And look at that! They filled up the refrigerator!

I had to hand it to them. My employers had done everything they could to make me feel comfortable.

It was almost midnight. Exhausted from the trip and the excitement, I decided to hit the sack, stopping only to avail myself of one of my three bathrooms. That’s when I discovered that none of them had toilet paper.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen"

I was writing for two different shows – Cheers and Newhart, the one where he owned an inn. (I also wrote for The Bob Newhart Show, where he was a psychologist. There was another series, Bob, where he did something else; I didn’t write for that one.)

Barry Kemp, the creator of Newhart – the show where he owned the inn – also employed me in another capacity. The opportunity resulted from my having helped Barry re-structure the final scene of his Newhart pilot script. Suggesting ways of enriching a story was something I was developing a facility for. I had learned story construction from a lot of talented people along the way.

More often than not, I can read a script and find ways of upgrading the story the writer is trying to tell. Infrastructure work, it goes totally unnoticed. But as a result of this non-glamorous story framing, the story is streamlined, and the jokes “miraculously” begin to “pop.”

If you clarify the moments, simplify the “build” to the climax, cut the jokes which, though funny, contradict other jokes or sell the storyline down the river, what’s left in the script, both the story and the comedy, come strikingly to life.

It’s like that story about the guy who asked the sculptor how he went about sculpting a pony. The sculptor explains:

“It’s very simple. I start with a big block of granite, I pick up my hammer and my chisel, and I chip away everything that isn’t a pony.”

If you take a step back, and you’re objective – it’s easier to do this with other people’s scripts than with your own – you can accomplish exactly the same task. What’s left is an unequivocal pony of a story.

Barry Kemp, not only a good writer but an astute show administrator in ways that many writers, including yours truly, are not, hired me to serve as, what he called, “a legitimate story editor”, as opposed to the writing staff rank of “story editor”. Every week, a script would be delivered, and I’d “study on it”, as they say – I don’t know who says, maybe Abraham Lincoln – and I’d do my thing.

The arrangement with Barry contained two of my favorite elements in a job: One, I was being paid to do something I was good at and liked to do; and two, I didn’t have to leave the house.

Throughout the rest of my career, I would serve as a script consultant on various shows, perhaps my most challenging and enjoyable being The Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling. I’ll tell you about that and Garry’s other show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which I also consulted on, another time. I’m trying to stay chronological. Come back in thirteen years.

Okay, so that’s where I was at – I was writing scripts for two shows and consulting on one, along with working as a Warm-Up man during the second season of Cheers. (See the post entitled “Warm-up Man” from a week or so back. If I knew how to do it, “Warm-up Man” would be tinted in blue. I don’t know how to do it.)

As a Warm-Up man, one crewmember I’d focus on regularly was “Ed, the Stick Man.” You know how someone hits two sticks together before they film a scene in order to sync up the picture and the sound – that was Ed’s job. His only job. Hitting two sticks together.

It seemed to me like Ed was aiming kind of low in his aspirations, and I wasn’t shy about mentioning it. It turned out, however, that that was just me, being ignorant. “Ed, the Stick Man” was, in reality, the Second Assistant Cameraman, a position of no small importance. If the cameraman and the Assistant cameraman suddenly keeled over, “Ed the Stick Man” would be filming the show.

Until that unlikely eventuality, Ed would continue to hit two sticks together and bide his time. Quite a bit of time, it seemed. Ed appeared to be in his fifties.

(Digression: The best show business job I know of? “Standby Painter.” That’s an actual union job, with benefits and everything. Imagine, being a standby painter. If nothing happens, you may never have to paint at all. You may not even know how to paint. If you were lucky, they would never find out.)

As I mentioned in Story of a Writer – Part Fourteen, I was feeling kind of stale. I felt like a veteran sports reporter reading over his latest copy and thinking, “Didn’t I write this exact same story last year?” I needed an infusion of creative excitement. And one day, “Opportunity” showed up at my door. (It would most likely have had to. I almost never went out.)

My agent messengered me a tape of a pilot presentation. “Pilot presentation” means cheap pilot. Instead of filming the entire episode, budget-conscious networks order the production of selective scenes, which, hopefully, represent the essence of the series.

The presentation I received was produced by former ABC executives Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, for whom I had previously written an unsold hour pilot about summer camp. This was the producer team’s second series effort. The first was a one-year-and-cancelled series called Oh, Madeline!, starring the late and truly great Madeline Kahn.

To save money, the producers taped the presentation (the show was videotaped rather than filmed) using the Oh, Madeline! house set, which, though the show’s run had ended, remained standing on the soundstage.

The presentation was fourteen minutes long. When the show was picked up, eight minutes of additional material had to be added to complete the episode. You may not have noticed, but the second episode of the series is shot in an entirely different living room.

The series I’m referring to, of course, was The Cosby Show, and the presentation took my breath away. The jokes were funny, a minimally structured storytelling approach was employed, and the show had a masterful comic-actor genius in the lead role. On many levels, The Cosby Show, at least at its inception, offered a revolutionary way of doing a sitcom.

TV sitcoms were failing. People were writing about it: “The Death of the Sitcom.” That’s not really something you want to hear when you’re writing sitcoms for a living. But the truth was, I agreed with them. Sitcoms, especially family sitcoms, were growing painfully predictable. There are only so many times you can discover marijuana in a kid’s locker and find out later it wasn’t his.

There’s one moment in The Cosby Show presentation that suggested that something meaningful was about to change. The presentation episode contained a surprise that literally caught the audience off-guard. You can detect it quite plainly on the sound track.

The presentation story concerns a traditional sitcom storyline: the bad report card. Thirteen year-old Theo brings home a report card containing four D’s. His parents are very disappointed, and the father’s dispatched to speak to him.

Rather than apologizing for his sub-par performance, Theo instead goes straight to his father’s heartstrings. Okay, his Dad is a doctor and his mother’s a lawyer. But why can’t they accept him for who he is – a regular person – and love him anyway, because he’s their son?

Accepting people for who they are. A bedrock liberal principle. The studio audience is clearly conditioned to respond sympathetically. If you listen to the soundtrack, you can hear them starting to applaud Theo’s unequivocal plea for acceptance.

But just as the audience members are about to put their hands together…the doctor proclaims,

“Theo, that’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard!”

The audience members stopped dead in their tracks. And then, they went nuts!

I mean, the roof came off!

It’s like someone had opened a window, and a liberating truth had come rushing in. Theo wasn’t mentally challenged; he was lazy. And the doctor was calling him on it, accusing his son of being afraid to try, for fear that his brain would explode and come oozing out of his ear.

The audience was enraptured by the message of personal responsibility, refreshing only because it had been abandoned. Theo would do better. And so, not incidentally, would the sitcom.

The moment I saw that presentation, I wanted to be a part of that show. I had been a Cosby fan since his eye-catching standup appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Cosby had a childlike, questioning perspective; so, in my finer moments, did I.

Once, when I was lecturing at a college writing program, I’d surprised myself by falling into a Cosby-esque delivery. Though we came from totally different backgrounds, something about us was the same.

Tom Werner came to my house to discuss my participation.

“What do you want to do on the show?” he asked.

“I want to run it.”

I have no idea who it was that said that. It couldn’t have been the man who lived in terror through almost every moment of running Best of the West. True, a couple of years had passed; maybe I was a different person. I sure sounded like one. Nothing would stop me from working on that show.

“We’ll be shooting in New York. You’ll have to move.”

“Okay.”

That couldn’t have been me. I rarely say “Okay” to anything. Living in New York? I’d turned down Saturday Night Live partly because I couldn’t imagine living in New York. And now I’m saying “Okay”? What the heck had gotten into me?

What had gotten into me was a galvanizing excitement. This was an opportunity even terror and dread couldn’t stop me from accepting. How could I turn it down? The show was funny and different. I was funny and different. It was perfect match. Wasn’t it?

They gave me the job. We were about to find out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Storm Warning"

It seems appropriate – at least for me – after a celebratory post such as my last one, that an ominous thought should emerge, like a hovering shadow. It's just how it is. All I have to acknowledge is “I’m having a ball!” for a poisonous inner voice to counter, “Not so fast.”

Yesterday, our family attended a wedding, arranged by a family in the arts. Not show business, real art – the mother’s a painter and the bride’s an art historian. The family’s talent, good judgment and unique taste were revealed in every detail of the proceedings, from the original content of the ceremony to the striking choice of the flower vases, the flowers selected from the downtown flower market by the bride-to-be herself.

That was the good part.

I found myself seated opposite a man whose wounded eyes disclosed that he’d never once received the birthday present he’d wanted. These people are dangerous. Especially to people displaying any sign that life is good.

The bride’s father, sitting nearby, asked me how my blogging was going. “I just wrote my hundredth post,” I proudly replied. That was a mistake. You should never show signs of happiness in public. Somebody’s certain to take it the wrong way.

My enthusiasm immediately triggered a barrage of probing questions from Mr. “His-Parents-Never-Understood-His-Deepest-Desires.”

“Do you know how many people read your blog?”

“No, and I don’t want to know.” (If you know, please keep it to yourself.)

“Do you make any money from your blog?”

“Not a dime.”

“Surely, this is a part-time activity.”

“I don’t do anything else.”

My interrogator seemed to take each of my answers as a personal affront. I pretended his hostility didn’t bother me. But it did, as reflected by the fact that I put off a post I had planned to write to write this one instead.

I want to say that, in America – but it may be everyplace – you do a thing that takes time and energy and effort and infinite care for one of two reasons: One – personal advantage, usually meaning money, or Two – “You’re out of your mind.”

At the core of the man’s curiosity about my blogging – besides an irrational resentment – is a reasonable wonderment: “Why on Earth are you doing that?” If he’d asked me that directly, I’d have replied, “I love it.” But a deeper response would be the Eastern-religionly tinged,

“I do it to do it.”

“I do it to do it.” A response of that nature carries with it one of two possibilities. One of them’s I’m a crazy person.

Spending hours a day crafting something that may be read by an infinitesimally tiny…

You know. That.

I’ve had enough therapy to understand that the hostile wedding guest who, objectively, meant nothing to me, wasn’t really the person who was talking to me. Who was talking to me was me. I’d simply placed my harbored reservations in his mouth.

It's a short and surprisingly swift journey from "Why am I doing this?" to "I've lost the ability to do this." What I'm chronicling here is the spiraling descent into “Writer’s Block”.

I once told a woman at this spa I go to that I’d written a book of political commentary called Both Sides Make Me Angry to which she immediately replied,

“Why should anybody care what you have to say?”

There it is. A writer’s scariest question, parroted on a stranger’s lips. I’m sure all writers have experienced these and even greater shots to their confidence. Maybe that’s why so many of them drink. (Not me. I remember a show runner who drank once asked me what I did to manage the anxiety of our chosen career. I responded without a moment’s thought: “I suffer.”)

If you know a writer, try and keep this in mind. Writers have plenty of doubts of their own. They really don’t need any assistance in that regard.

Early in my career, whatever time I was allotted to write a script, I’d spent the first half of that time writing nothing. Two weeks to deliver a draft of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I’d spend the first week just shaking.

“How do I do this? I can’t do this. Who said I could do this? I’ll never be able to do this. Don’t make me do this!”

Mountains of negativity. Literally, in a figurative sense. I’d make a mountain out of a molehill, and then worry myself to death that I couldn’t climb it. On some level, I was just trying to make the undertaking I was – in another section of myself – certain I could handle, seem more heroic. The opposite view lacked the requisite excitement.

“Piece o’ cake!”

Where’s the glorious achievement in that?

But unlike the magician who is clearly aware that his trick is a trick, my trick would fool me, and I would actually feel scared. I believed I had good reason. People were counting on me. I had established a level of quality I was required to live up to. If I didn’t, what I loved to do more than anything in the world – making a living in show business – would be taken away from me.

There are reasonable responses to all of those concerns, but when you’re brain is aflame with self-doubt, you’re hardly a candidate for the “Clear Thinking” award.

After a while, I got on to my own game. Instead of agonizing and writing nothing that first week, I’d just take a little trip (“…along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’”.) I’d simply take off. When I returned the second week, knowing I had no more time to waste, I’d just sit down and write the script.

In later years, the “I can’t do it” period contracted to a fleeting stab of doubt, or a troubled night’s sleep. It never totally disappeared.

I’m a writer. It comes with the territory.

And now it’s the blog. The pressure is self-imposed, but wasn’t it always?

Before it was scripts. Now, it’s five posts a week. And always trying to maintain the quality. And there it is, in the pit of my stomach. Hello Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to block you up again.

Here, I’ll save you thousands in therapy bills. Whatever your negative tendencies – the ones that really mess you up – you can never overcome them. What you can do is this: Acknowledge your liabilities and minimize the damage. Write it down.

“Acknowledge your liabilities and minimize the damage.”

There. You’re cured.

(Digression: In my sillier moments, I like to believe that Minimize was Mickeymize’s Italian girlfriend.)

If you want to encourage me in my struggle, what would help most would be a cold-water-in-the-face dousing of the truth, along the lines of

“Stop worrying, Earl. Your quality level isn’t that great.”

I’d appreciate the support.

I want to keep doing this. But the demons are definitely lurking.

It’s a real-life cliffhanger.

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"My Hundredth Post"

I wrote a movie, and it didn’t sell. Then I wrote a TV pilot, and it didn’t sell. Then I wrote a spec script for a show I liked, and I couldn’t get the show runner to read it. Rejection by rejection, the message was coming into focus:

My career is not doing well.

At first, it felt odd to me. My career had always done well before, sometimes, very well. Studios paid me, networks were happy having me pitch them ideas, I’d made money, I’d won prizes, I was, you know, if not “up there”, ranked prominently in the category just below “up there.” Objectively speaking, that’s pretty “up there.”

And then it stopped. I wasn’t close to “up there” anymore. Suddenly, I was down there.

Ouch.

That “ouch” isn’t from a couple of years ago. That’s from right now, thinking about what happened a couple of years ago. It’s been some time now, but it’s still “ouch.”

I’m not complaining, and if I am, I’m aware that I shouldn’t be. I’m one of the lucky ones. Paying work is no longer a financial necessity. I’ve done well along the way, and it looks like money issues will not be a major concern.

Old joke: “I have enough money to last the rest of my life. But I have to die Tuesday.”

(That joke always makes me laugh. And it totally depends on “Tuesday.” “I have enough money to last the rest of my life, but I have to die Monday?” – nothing. It has to be “Tuesday.” I have no idea why.)

Being unwanted was disorienting to me. It’s like my employers were saying, “You know that thing we thought you did wonderfully? Well, we don’t think that anymore, so go home.” I didn’t understand it. I had what I had. It was wonderful before. Why wasn’t it wonderful now?

I realize this part’s depressing, but I promise, there’s a turn, and everything’s going to be all right. Just stay with me. One last depressing section, and it’s “happy” all the way to the end.

I tried writing other things. A book of humorous essays, a book about cowboy movies, a book of cultural commentaries. I even tried writing a novel. Among my posts is a series called, “Why I Can’t Be A…” comedian, a movie critic, a screenwriter, a lawyer. I’m just a fountain of negativity. You won’t be seeing a post, called “Why I Can’t Write A Novel.” It would be too short, basically, “I tried and I can’t.”

I had decided to write a novel about summer camp. I wrote six pages the first day. The next day, I read them over, and I rewrote every word. The third day, I read what I’d written the second day, and rewrote every word again. On the fourth day, I gave up.

I don’t know how you write a novel when, every time you read it, it feels like every word you put down could easily be something else. In scriptwriting, I was pretty successful finding the right words. Novels are a trickier proposition. The right words remain frustratingly elusive, dancing behind the words you thought were the right words yesterday. It’s a mystery. I don’t know how people do it.

Movies, pilots, spec scripts, books – none of them were happening for me. I wrote an occasional newspaper commentary, but it had to be about television. An editor named Fritz at a magazine called Television Quarterly generously assigned me books to review. But as the name “Quarterly” suggests, the magazine doesn’t come out that often.

Bottom line: I didn’t have a lot to do.

To keep my mind from turning to baby food, I began taking piano lessons and extension classes at UCLA on subjects that interested me. However, for the first time in a number of decades,

I stopped writing.

Completely.

For over a year.

Then….

I promised a turn, I’m delivering a turn…

I started this blog.

It was a New Year’s resolution. (A more successful one than “I’m cutting down on bread.”) Writing for money is great, but nobody was calling. Not writing felt wasteful – I have a gift and I was wasting it by refusing to work. Dr. M had suggested a blog a year earlier, and I’d snapped at her.

I'm a professional writer. I don't give it away.

Why did I finally decide to do it? It was time to get back to work.

Ken Levine, an acerbic angel, set my blog up for me. I call it “Just Thinking”, because that’s what I was eager to share – my thinking. Not just about sitcom writing, but about all the ideas that were rattling around my brain, the ideas that make me yell at my television.

I published my first two posts, and then went to a spa for a week. When, I got back, a commenter had left me this message: “So, is this going to be, like, a semi-annual thing?”

Since then, I’ve been posting five days a week.

(I’m easily swayed. Keep it to yourself.)

Writing this blog has been a joy for me from the outset. I like writing funny stuff. It feels good when someone writes, “I needed a laugh and you gave it to me.” I mean, you gotta feel good about that. Using your gift for good?

I also like talking about the Old Days. I hope, among other enjoyments, those “story of a writer” remembrances send struggling writers out there the message that success – to the degree that I’ve had it – is hardly a matter of just talent, and that by taking that in, you’ll be kinder to yourselves. A lot of what happens is not your fault. (And if you’re successful, a lot of it’s not your doing.)

I also like to promulgate my opinions. And I’m delighted at the opportunity to use the word “promulgate.” I hope to go on promulgating for a long time to come. You don’t have to agree with my promulgations. If you persuade me I’m wrong, I’ll happily change my mind. Of course, if I persuade you – vice versa. It’s only fair.

Everyone has a medium that best fits their communicating style. One person’s a talker. Another person’s a painter. Another person’s a dancer. And another person’s a writer.

Writing itself takes many forms, writers favoring the form whose defining rhythm best complements their nature. There are book writers, scriptwriters, pamphlet writers, letter writers, e-mailers, “post-it"-note writers, witty texters. Somebody’s dream medium is skywriting.

“I want to use a gigantic canvas and write about sunscreen.”

My communicating medium of choice is talking. Talking triggers my spontaneity. There was this line I heard once, I think in a play, where a character says, “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?” That’s me, when I’m talking. Something pops out of my mouth and it’s like, “Wow! I think that? Really?” Talking surprises me with my thoughts and even more so with my way of communicating them. That’s why talking’s my favorite.

Blogging, however, comes really close. There’s this liberating spontaneity to blogging. Scriptwriting is akin to working a crossword puzzle. Your spontaneity’s hampered by the rigorous requirements of the structure. There’s no structure in a blog. You just say stuff. Not that I don’t edit and rewrite and shape and move things around. But compared to other forms of communication, the freedom here is exhilarating.

Talking allows more tools to come into play. There’s gesture, there’s facial expressions, there’s tone of voice, there’s timing. As liberating as they are, blogs are still sentences and paragraphs, and I’m still experimenting with way of immediacizing the moment. I also enjoy the opportunity for, hopefully illuminating, digressions. It’s a work in progress, but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Generally speaking – is what I’m saying – this form really suits me.

Okay.

This is my hundredth post. I hope there’ll be more. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your encouragement. And thank you for your wisdom.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but his invention was meaningless until someone invented the second telephone, so that Bell could have somebody to call. For me, you guys the second telephone.

I really appreciate your taking my call.

Friday, June 13, 2008

"Treats"

Sometimes, when you write something, you reveal more about yourself than you consciously intended. This may be one of those times.

Stop salivating, it’s not about that. And by the way, when I refer to “that”, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Though, apparently, if you were salivating, you do. Knock it off!

It’s not that, it’s this. Which, who knows, if you probe beneath the surface, may actually be “that.” This is considerably less embarrassing. Which is probably why I’m writing about this and not that.

Okay. Enough of that.

My cousin Herschel used to joke, “There are two kinds of bald people – those with hair and those without hair.” Inside cousin Herschel’s silliness lies an insightful observation. In any category you choose to mention – except for specifically defined categories, like baldness – there always appears to be two kinds of people.

For example:

There are two kinds of people: those who lavish themselves with treats and those who don’t. This choice of behavior is not necessarily connected to whether or not you have money. Not having money does not preclude you from lavishing yourself with treats. They just have to be cheap treats, like a lovely walk, or a deep, refreshing breath of air, or a stimulating peek at an attractive person of the opposite sex, or the same sex, if that’s where your eye goes.

My focus here is this: Are you the kind of person who overloads themselves with treats, or do you consciously modulate your treats?

I imagine I’ve given my hand away – as I inevitably do everywhere – by my choice of descriptives. When you choose the word “overload” to apply to people who lavish themselves with treats, you’re pretty much saying, “Those guys are pigs!” Conversely, “consciously modulating” your treats screams “discipline.”

I never promised I’d be objective.

I ration my treats. I just sighed after writing that. So it must have been a relief to get that off my chest. I’ll say it again. Maybe I’ll feel even better. I ration my treats.

I do feel better. I’d repeat it a third time, but there’s only so “good” I allow myself to feel. As I said, I ration my treats.

This division of people into those two categories is hardly unique to our times. I remember learning that in ancient Greece, there were the Stoics and the Epicureans. When it came to volume in treat allocation, the Epicureans said, “Everything, please. And then, more.” The Stoics said – not “No treats at all, ever!” – at the very least they enjoyed the, for some people – including me – the underrated pleasure of regulating their treats. Stoics simply believed in sensible limits.

I also have the vague remembrance of which camp you find yourself in having something to do with early toilet training, though it’s hard to see that could apply to the ancient Greeks – those guys didn’t have toilets. It’s possible, however, that you don’t actually need toilets for the principle to apply.

For me, limiting my treats has nothing to do with aligning myself with a bunch of tight-assed Greek philosophers. It just feels better. To me. To people like the Epicureans, “Everything, please, and then, more” feels better, and what I’m doing feels like those religious people who enjoyed whipping themselves.

It’s not at all like whipping myself.

I like great cigars. But I smoke them, maybe three times a year. That’s not because I’m cheap and it’s not because I have money problems. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about buying a private jet. Great cigars are expensive, but they’re not out of my league. Especially if I only buy one three times a year.

Maybe you’re thinking right now, “If it’s not a money issue, Earl, why not spring for a great cigar, say, four times a year? Good point. I could do that. And I am not at all troubled by the “slippery slope” problem. You know, you start buying a great cigar four times a year and before you know it, it’s once a month, then it’s once every two weeks, then once a week, and blah! – you’re smoking ten cigars a day. I’m not concerned about that.

Except in this sense.

The way I see it, if you turn your three-times-a-year treat into “whenever I want it”, the specialness that makes a treat a treat inevitably disappears, the joyfully-looked-forward-to excitement unavoidably downgrading to “everyday routine.”

The exceptional becomes ordinary. It’s brushing your teeth. An emotional deflation from “Yahoo!” to “eh.”

I don’t usually feel sorry for fabulously wealthy people. That’s just my prejudice. In this case, however, I have to admit to a trickle of sympathy. Imagine being so rich – Bill Gates rich, though as rich as he is, he still doesn’t seem to be able to get a decent haircut – imagine you’re so incredibly wealthy that you could have as much as you want of whatever you want whenever you want it.

You get where I’m going here?

Where’s “treats”?

If “treats” devalues to “everyday occurrence”, what happens to “magnificently special?” I know a couple of really rich people, but they don’t discuss these things, possibly to spare me the envy

“You have no idea how out of your reach our spectacular treats are.”

I’m grateful for their thoughtfulness, but, you know, how exceptional can these treats really be?

“We have a personal chef who prepares us dishes nobody’s ever tasted before. And then we kill him.”

“We have season’s tickets to the Dodgers on first base. Not on the first base line. On first base!”

“On my way to work, instead of listening to the radio, I have the actual Rolling Stones entertaining me from the back seat. They sit in the car all day, and then they sing for me on the way home.”

[PLACE YOUR IDEA OF AN OPULENT TREAT HERE]

All those things are great. But they can’t stay great if you get them every day.

"'Satisfaction'? Again?"

I never want “the special” to become ordinary. Maybe I’m too careful in this regard – I may actually be miles from the line – but it’s important for me to protect those treats’ power to delight me. It’s a conscious choice. I allow myself less treats, not because I don’t like treats, but because I value them so highly.

And there’s also that toilet training issue.
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On Monday, I’ll be publishing my 100th post. That happened fast, didn’t it? People have informed me they can’t keep up with my posts, suggesting – or maybe I simply inferred – that I’m wasting material by writing too many posts too closely together. I don’t know what to do about that. I’m just happy to have stories (and ideas and opinions) I’m excited to tell you about.

If you have any general comments about this blog, or just want to, I don’t know, express an acknowledging “Way to go” or “Stop doing this” or something, I’d be honored if you’d take the time to pass your responses along. A cake will not be necessary. I’m trying not to eat sugar. And I don’t think my Hewlett Packard has a feature for printing cake.

Anyway, thanks a lot for reading.

Earl.