Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jewish New Year's For The Not That Religious"

(I wrote this yesterday.)

I’m sitting in this synagogue. I’m not a member; I just come for the High Holidays – New Years and Yom Kippur. I’m not exactly sure why I do this. I mean, I know the reason I do it. But I’m far from convinced that my reason’s that strong.

Clinging to the rituals of a religion whose fundamental principle, the existence of a Supreme Being, I feel “iffy” about – I could be hugging a bubble. Comforting in its configuration, but empty on the inside.

I remember we were sitting in the synagogue one New Year’s when I was twelve, and I turned to my brother and said, pretty much spontaneously, “Religion in like spinach. You may know it’s good for you, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.”

(In later, years, I came to like spinach, so I needed a replacement “hated food” for my analogy. I thought of cooked carrots. But a lot of people like cooked carrots. Succotash? That’s corn. I like corn. I guess there’s anchovies. But are anchovies good for you? – I have no idea. Anyway, if you can suggest a “good for you” food that nobody likes, I can swing my analogy back into action. Otherwise, it’ll have to remain retired.)

The “spinach” story provides a clue here to my continuing participation in the High Holiday routine. Merely going through the motions sets free a wave of memories, memories of a considerably younger me, sitting – make that squirming impatiently – in my seat, beside my mother, my brother and my grandfather, the only one of us who’s actually praying – either that, or he was fooling us with some kickass Hebraic mumbling. Nah. He was doin’ it.

I remember an overflow turnout in a cavernous sanctuary. A lot of marble, or what passes for marble to the untutored eye. I remember a rabbi, whose sermons were interminable but whose dramatic flair could capture your attention, if not your heart. An opera-caliber choir, offering heavenly harmonies from some hidden locale – you heard them, but you had no idea where they were – made the services entertaining, but also longer.

I remember a synagogue usher, standing at the end of our row as we chattered away, fixing us miscreants with “The Look.” And though I’d dearly like not to, I retain the memory of this oversized woman sitting in front of us, wearing a fox stole that included two actual fox heads, whose sewn-on, beady eyes seemed to be staring, through the duration of the service, directly at me.

Many of the melodies that are chanted at the synagogue that I go t0 are the same melodies that were chanted in our synagogue when I was a kid. Singing full-throatedly along with the congregation fills me with nostalgia and deeply warms my heart. This is the closest I can come to for the reason I continue to attend these services.

But when you throw out the blah-blah and rationales, what it comes down to is this:

Why do I spend New Year’s in synagogue?

It’s where the Jews are.

Why does that matter?

It’s my team.

I wish a healthy and revitalizing New Year to those who participate in such activities. To those who don’t, a Happy Tuesday to ya.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"Leadership Quality"

When it comes to character, you can tell early on the qualities you got and the qualities you don’t got. If the people who had hired me to run shows had been aware of the story I’m about to tell you, they would never have hired me to run shows.

When I was around ten, they discovered the cure for polio, and they started giving out shots at school to prevent you from getting it. The shots, though painful, were better than polio.

The polio shot protocol involved a series of three inoculations, spaced about six weeks apart. You got a shot, there was a six-week gap, you got second shot, there was another six-week gap, then they gave you the third shot. I lasted two shots and that was it.

I hated getting polio shots. They used these enormous needles. And they weren’t that sharp. I think they were made out of wood. I dreaded the injections. I hated the post-shot soreness in my “needle arm.” And the spontaneous screaming in front of my classmates did very little to enhance my popularity.

Our teacher announced that the medical folks would be visiting with our third round of polio shots on Thursday. I immediately decided to be sick on Thursday. My thinking on the matter was spectacularly simple. If you’re not there, they can’t give you the shot.

My mother was no stickler in the “I don’t feel well” department. You told her you were sick, she let you stay home. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances. Wednesday evening, I put on a “show”, acting listless and picking at my food. I voluntarily went to bed early, sacrificing Wednesday Night Hockey on TV (though I caught it on the radio from my “sickbed.”)

Thursday morning, I felt even lousier, or so I reported. I may even have feigned throwing up, or more likely, “I felt like it but nothing came out”, which, in my limited medical wisdom, was worse. Throwing up cleared the books. A false alarm, and there was business yet to do.

Bottom line: I missed the third shot.

Friday morning, I’m miraculously recovered. Twenty-four hour flu. It must have been that. I skip into school, relieved to have dodged a needle-shaped bullet. I commiserate with my classmates, with their throbbing “needle arms” and their tales of woe. Apparently, there’d been a fainting. My empathy is Oscar-worthy.

My teacher tells me the principal wants to see me. Mrs. Snider. I had no idea what it was about, but just hearing her name gave me a chill. Snider wants to see me. It can’t be good.

(I’ll tell you how terror inducing the woman was. When I was in my twenties, Mrs. Snider happened to live in the same apartment building as my grandmother. One time, I’m waiting by the elevator, going up to see my grandmother, and I’m smoking a cigar. I hear the lobby door open, and I reflexively turn to see who it is. It’s Snider. I immediately stick the lit cigar in my pocket.)

“You weren’t in school yesterday,” Mrs. Snider begins, as I’m sitting in her office.

“No, I was sick.”

“You missed your polio shot.”

“I know.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Yes, it is.”

That’s when Mrs. Snider breaks the news. There’s a taxi waiting that will take me to another school – where the medical caravan has moved on. I would receive my missed polio shot there. This was a good thing, Mrs. Snider explained, because you needed all three shots or the protocol doesn’t work and you can get polio. I agreed that that would be bad.

My foolproof plan had failed. I missed school for nothing, and now, I’m getting my shot. I guess I wasn’t that smart.

The taxi delivered me to a pre-school – kids, aged four to six. The building was immaculate. That may have been the name of the place – “The Immaculate School For Little Children.”

The principal is warm and welcoming.

“It’s good to have you here.”

“Thank you.” My voice was calm, but my face said I wasn’t happy. I was about to get less happy.

“I’d like you to do me a little favor,” she began.

“A favor?”

“A lot of our children are concerned about getting their polio shots. I’d like you to get your shot first, to show them that there’s nothing to worry about.”

There was stunned silence. Words eluded me. I simply stared.

“Will you do that for me, please? Will you show the children how a “Big Boy” takes his polio shot?”

I considered my options. I didn’t have any.

“Okay,” I heard myself mumble.

“Wonderful,” enthused the principal, oblivious to my jump-started feelings of distress.

We’re in the gymnatorium – it’s a gym with a stage at one end. I’m standing on the stage, with the principal, the nurse, and the infamous “Dr. Needle.”

The children are marched in, one class at a time. The most impressive group of preschoolers you ever saw. Shiny scrubbed faces. Hair arranged neatly in place. I think, maybe uniforms. And not a peep out of them. Silently, they take their pre-assigned positions, six class-segregated cohorts, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

The principal begins to speak.

“Children, we have a special guest with us today. He has come to us from a big children’s school, and he’s going to show us that getting a polio shot is really a ‘snap.’”

I’m standing there, trying not to shake. I’m determined to play my part. I’m the leader. My job is to show that getting a polio shot is really a “snap.” I have to come through. The kiddies are counting on me.

The nurse rolls up the shirtsleeve of my left arm. She moistens a swab of cotton with alcohol. She takes my arm, and begins rubbing the cotton on the appropriate spot.

I immediately start to scream. I know it’s just cotton, but I have a powerful memory. I know what’s coming next.

My scream turns the obedient preschoolers into a terror-stricken mob. There’s chaos in the gymnatorium. Like rats fleeing a rapidly sinking ship, children are scattering in all directions, racing for the exits, scrambling up the walls, their teachers in desperate pursuit, struggling to restore order. The noise is deafening. The medical staff is confused. The principal is really upset.

I get my shot, and I’m back in the taxi, leaving behind the reverberating residue of a preschool in disarray.

Leadership quality? I don’t think so.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen D"

When I did Best of the West, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels oversaw the operation. With The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby, show owners Tom Werner, Marcy Carsey and the director, Jay Sandrich shared the load. On Family Man, it was just me. I had a business partner, Universal Studios, but from a creative standpoint, I was completely on my own.

I liked that better.

Not that there was no pressure. There’s always pressure. (Just writing the word “pressure” makes me feel pressure.) And it wasn’t that I’d grown from my previous experiences, though maybe I had, at least a little. The “growing” thing is hard to evaluate. You look in the mirror and it looks like the same person. The person who’d left The Cosby Show after seven episodes, the person who during an excruciating moment running Best of the West lamented, “There must be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

The conditions on Family Man were decidedly different. I had written all of the seven ordered scripts myself, our schedule permitting me to complete them before we went into production. The show was not yet on the air, and would not be, until after all the episodes were done, freeing me from the added anxiety of ratings and reviews.

Family Man was an ideal situation from a writer. Especially one who handles the second-guessing of others – others generally low in comic instincts and expertise – not generously. To me, creative interference is like a surgeon trying to make a cut, and somebody’s jostling his arm.

Too lofty?

Okay, then it’s an artist painting a landscape, and the guy buying the painting’s peering over his shoulder as he works.

“I love the sky. Could you make it bluer?”

TV’s not art?

Okay, see, that’s just what I’m talking about. They never let you do your job.

I used to say to Pete, our “line producer”, who puts it all together from a technical standpoint, that while the show’s in pre-production, it’s like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. When we start making the show, that weight gets transferred to me. As we’re about to enter the Family Man soundstage, the first morning of the first day of production, Pete mimes lifting a big, heavy globe off of his shoulders, and transferring it onto mine.

I accepted it with a dancing heart.

“Let’s go make shows.”

And so we did. Seven episodes of Family Man, shot on videotape, without a studio audience. The set, modeled after the interior of my house looked sensational. (I also used the exterior of my house as the “exterior” of the house on the show. When the crew came to shoot the “exterior footage”, our family was at home, eating dinner. Every time we left the table, we had to crouch down, so we wouldn’t get “caught” through the window. It was weird. We were crawling around in our own house.)

The actors brought the characters I’d written excitingly alive. The director, drawing on his improvisational background, established a natural rhythm in the interplay, thus grounding and enhancing the “funny.” (Some sitcom directors are more adept at working with actors than they are at working with the cameras. With others, it’s the other way around. I, by far, prefer the former variety.

For me, performance is everything. From a visual standpoint, a situation comedy is not that complicated. How bad can you do it? I mean, you’re not filming the Normandy landing. The “coverage” involves a small number of people. They get up, they sit down. They come into a room, they go out of a room. That’s pretty much all there is.)

(In a Best of the West script, I once headed a scene: Interior Cabin – Dusk. The Director of Photography, who, in his heyday had worked with Alfred Hitchcock, came up to me and said, “Earl, in the script, you wrote “Dusk.” When you’re doing this, you’ve got ‘Day’ and you’ve got ‘Night.’ That’s it.”)

Everything was going well. I oversaw the taping (which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t already written the scripts), made suggestions, fine tuned things in editing, even got to re-shoot stuff, if it wasn’t right. Once, when the director was unavailable due to a work conflict, I got to direct a scene myself. Doing that brought me an immediate understanding of, “But what I’d really like to do is direct.”

Directors say, “Action!” and the actors, the crew – everyone – immediately starts doing stuff. You say, “Cut!” – even if it’s in the middle of a scene – and they stop. They have no choice. It’s not like, “We’d actually like to keep going.” No. The director says, “Cut!” – and that’s it! It’s very Divine-like. Thus spaketh the director: “Cut!”

This doesn’t work at home. Dr. M’s saying something I don’t care for, I yell, “Cut!” – and she just keeps going. And she looks at me funny. “Ultimate control” is not available in any other aspect of life. It only happens when you’re directing.

We were doing good work. There were times when what we were doing in reality was better than what I’d imagined in my head. And my head has pretty high standards.

Okay, that’s the positive stuff. There was quite a bit of it. Being of a negative nature, it wasn’t easy being positive for that long. I’m a little tired. Now, we’re heading into "my area.”

A lot of the bad stuff relates to my decision to shoot the show without an audience. First, because there was no audience response, we were obliged to “sweeten” the show with a “laugh track.” I wasn’t against the idea. There are shows where injecting, what was then, an obligatory “laugh track” was ridiculous, like, for example on M*A*S*H, which was set in Korea, and it made you wonder, “Who exactly is laughing? The Koreans?”

For Family Man, a “laugh track” seemed necessary. Doing a sitcom on videotape, minus a live audience, if you played it without a “laugh track”, the show felt like a soap opera. A weird soap opera, since no one was in a coma.

The problem is the “laugh track” laughs don’t sound real. (Studio audience laughs don’t sound real either, due, I believe, to the way they’re recorded, but they sound better.) Though the “laugh track” can be modulated, in terms of volume and type of laugh – “The Titter”, “The Rolling Ha-ha”, “The Guffaw” – no matter how skillfully it’s administered, it still feels “canned”, distancing and glued on.

So that’s one problem – a real show with fake laughs.

The bigger problem concerns how the lack of a live audience affects the actors’ performances. I should have known this, but I forgot. Performing in front of a live audience is energizing in a way that cannot be fabricated. It’s “the rush of the now.” You’re on the line. The audience is there, and you have to come through.

You get a laugh, and it juices your confidence. You get another laugh, and you’re on “a roll.” Your adrenaline’s pumping. The response is building, one laugh, on another, on another. Suddenly, you’re flying. You’re doing things you never did in rehearsal, and the audience is eating up. Though you’re in “in the moment”, for the tiniest flash, you’re thinking, “Where did that come from?”

You’re on fire.

Working without an audience, though the director reminds the actors to “keep up the energy”, it’s nowhere close to the same. As professional as you are, you’re aware, on some level that, when there’s no audience watching, there is nothing really at stake. You can always shoot it again.

I remember running into meeting Family Man’s Leading Man, Richard Libertini, after the production was over, and asking him if he had any residual thoughts about the way things had gone. His only comment was, “I wish the show had been funnier.”

That was the problem. Libertini had been funny, and, frequently, hilarious. But without the audience reaction, he never got the word.

Not long after that, we set up a screening of Family Man, offered to volunteers from the Universal Studios tour. We wanted to demonstrate to the invited Fox executives how a “typical audience” would respond to our show. A crowd of about a hundred assembled in the bleachers, a large screen was lowered, and they watched two episodes.

They laughed their heads off.

I don’t know what was more gratifying: hearing the audience’s enthusiasm for the show, or watching Libertini’s face, realizing how funny he had actually been.

Despite the successful screening, Fox was unwilling to put the show on the air. When I had originally pitched Family Man to them, I had promised “the best show I know how to do.” Fox didn’t want that. They wanted Married With Children. (Which I didn’t know how to do.)

Eventually, ABC picked the show up, airing it in March and April. The audience was surprisingly large, more than seventeen million viewers a week. But it wasn’t enough to keep the show alive. Family Man ended its run after seven episodes.

Maybe if I’d used an audience. Maybe if Paul Reiser had starred in it instead. Maybe if I’d mixed my “actually happened” stories with “Andrea thinks Shelly is having an affair.” It doesn’t matter. Though it was done the way I wanted it to be – and there’s nothing more gratifying than that – the bottom line was, it was done.

And when it’s done, there’s only one thing left to say. In the words of that famous manager, concerning the most important word in show business:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen C"


If I had my choice, I’d do all my casting from behind a one-way mirror. I’m not comfortable meeting a lot of people. It’s like a bunch of first dates. The actors are trying to impress me, I have to be on my best behavior – I’m not even sure I have a best behavior. The mood in the room is tense, and everyone’s pretending it’s a party. “Have fun with it”? (sometimes said to actors to put them at their ease.) Fat chance.

I have no ability to pretend that the actors were good when, at least as far as what I was looking for was concerned, they weren’t. Anybody can read my face. It’s excruciating knowing what they’re reading is that they stunk the place up.

The casting process can be seriously demoralizing. You think what you wrote is good, but the parade of disappointing performances suggests that you may have been mistaken. The laughs aren’t there, and the moments don’t “pop.” The material is not coming alive the way you imagined it would in your head. If you’re me, instead of doubting the actors, you inevitably begin doubting yourself. And despising the actors for raising those doubts.

Some actors are terrible at auditions, but they’re terrific when they get the part. Unfortunately, they rarely get the part, because they’re terrible at auditions. Some actors are charming from the moment they enter the room. They’re funny, they’re smart, they tell hilarious stories about getting lost on the way to the audition. You’re dancing on air. You’re certain this is the guy.

They start reading, and there’s nothing there. Their winning personality has totally disappeared. It’s heartbreaking when this happens. You want to shake them hard and scream, “Where did you go?”

Am I good at casting? Yes. And no.

I cast like it’s a book. That may not be self-explanatory, so I’ll elaborate. I’ve been told, especially in the case of Family Man, that, with the actors I chose, I was eerily accurate at capturing the essence of the real life prototypes.

People who know my family would say it was almost freakish how they sensed the spirits of my family members in the performers. It was like the actual people were up there on the screen. If finding actors who embody the hearts and souls of the characters means that I’m good at casting, then I’m good at casting.

Unfortunately, casting is more than that. Casting also has to do with, I don’t know, something involving the element of visual excitement. Because the rhythm of the words is what matters most to me, when actors audition, I listen more than I watch. This is not helpful. The actors are auditioning for a television show. Television is a medium people watch.

Radio, they just listen. I’d have been wonderful casting for radio. But this was television. And I wasn’t that great.

Family Man provided the added agony of casting children. If it were up to me, no child would perform professionally in anything. With the exception of show business, nobody that young is allowed to have a job.

“I’d like to be shelf stocker at Albertson’s.”

“How old are you?”



Acting in a show, okay, it’s not working in a coal mine, but it is child labor, whether the kids “just love doing it” or not. The pressure, both the career pressure, as well as the requirements of the job itself, can drive adult actors to bottles, needles, and shoving stuff up their nose. They’re children, for heaven’s sake. They should to be playing outside.

Having children of my own, and knowing how nervous they get sometimes, just going to school, the process of casting children simply ate me up. It was especially excruciating looking for the youngest actor on the show, who, yes, was – because she was in real life – three.

To demonstrate they could handle the professional requirements of the job, the three year-old candidates had to walk into a room full of strangers, alone – without their mothers, or whoever brought them. (I assume they didn’t drive there themselves.) Some of them cried. Some of them froze. And some of them were disturbingly goal-oriented.

“If I get this job, I’m buying my mother a house,” announced one clear-eyed three year-old.

Scary. Scary. Scary. And sad.

Slowly but surely, we began filling the roles. We found wonderful actors. The Dr. M character was played by Mimi Kennedy, who, later, portrayed the “Hippie Mom” on Dharma and Greg. The stepdaughter character was played Alison Sweeney, who went on to “soap” stardom on Days of Our Lives.

The problem was the lead character – the guy playing me. We couldn’t find him. It’s not an easy role to cast. I mean, I’m sitting in the room, waiting for someone to come in and “be” who I already am. Or better. Why not? They’re actors. I’m just the generic me.

Nobody comes in. Nobody who’s me. I wonder where they are. Probably out there, being somebody else. Either that, or I’m asking the impossible.

(Here’s the thing about TV series. You only get one shot at them. You make a pilot, it doesn’t work – that’s it. A project fails, for whatever reason, and it’s done. You move on to other things. A famous manager said the most important word in show business is, “Next!”

Sometimes, the process founders before the pilot’s even made, like, for example, when an essential piece of casting can’t be found. This is not uncommon during pilot season, where multiple producers are pursuing the same actor. Only one place gets them. Everyone else is out of luck.

“We’re having casting problems, but we really love this show. So let’s “table” it for now, and we’ll try it again next season.” Sound familiar? No. Because it never happens. They simply abandon the project. Next season, they’re making completely different pilots. Hardly an efficient process, if you ask me. Note: Nobody ever has.)

We cast all the parts but the Leading Man. If we don’t find him, there’s no show.

At the Eleventh Hour, two promising candidates materialize. The guy who didn’t get it was John Sebastian, yeah, the iconic lead singer from the Lovin’ Spoonful. Terrific guy. Attractive, charming and fun.

That’s not me. Though, as my TV surrogate, he might have been an improvement.

The winner? A magnificent comic clown named Richard Libertini. Here are three things you should look at that will back up this assessment: Richard’s performance in All Of Me (the “Back in the bowl!” scene), The In-Laws (the earlier good version, where he converses with a puppet that he makes out of his hand) and Best Friends (“I dee en doe.” Don’t ask. Just watch it.)

Larger than life characters, executed by a master. Richard’s performances are simply breathtaking. In two ways. “This guy is breathtakingly brilliant!” And “I’m laughing so hard I can’t breathe!”

Libertini understood my comic intentions. His audition said, “I get this.” He wasn’t me. He was bigger than me, both physically and in his range as an imaginer of comedy. Libertini’s true genius lies in his larger than life characterizations. I’m not larger than life. On my best days, I’m “life.” He would play the part with professionalism and skill. But in some ways, we were clipping his wings.

The Family Man cast was now complete. There was only one thing left to do.

Make the show.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen B"


Every script I wrote for Family Man was based on a story that had happened to me, either to me, as a kid – when I was seven, I stole a ton of chalk from my classroom, and when my mother found it, I pounded it to dust so I wouldn’t have to give it back – or to me, as an adult – as a Stepdad, I tackled the challenge of preparing my stepdaughter to sing a single line at a school assembly, a girl who was more than somewhat melodically challenged.

Little stories. Personal but identifiable. No forced comedy. The “funny” arose naturally from the situation. Dr. M, a passionate mosquitophobe, once smacked a mosquito with such force into our bedroom ceiling that, if you ran your hand across the ceiling, you couldn’t feel the mosquito. It was embedded that far into the plaster.

(A footnote in the middle: Although Family Man was only on the air for a short time, there were a number of people who saw it. We knew this because people would come up to Dr M at parties and such and say to her, based on having watched the show, “I feel like I already know you.”

Dr M never cared for this arrangement, preferring people to know her as she actually is, rather than, as in the case of that episode, the mosquito-murdering crazy person I portrayed her as. Her reaction is understandable, but not altogether helpful to the writer. Especially one writing a series about the events of his life. At least as he saw them.)

Dr, M told me about this story that occurred before we were together. She wasn’t Dr. M then, just M. M was attending a party in the seventies, when feminism was in its “I am woman, hear me roar” incarnation, and she heard an apparently “out of the house” woman announce to a group of equally liberated females that, “Any woman who doesn’t work isn’t worth talking to.”

At that point in time, Dr. M was “in the house”, a single mother, raising a two year-old daughter. The woman’s comment made her cry.

I found this a powerful story. And I used it as the basis for the first episode of Family Man. Was the episode funny? In other places, yes. But that moment stayed what it was.

While I was writing, a “set” was being built on the soundstage, which, adjusting for the requirements of the cameras, duplicated the actual layout of my house. I was simply being consistent. To complement the original stories, I wanted the series to have an original “look.” How better to accomplish that than to design the “set” not based on a set designer’s concept, but on the place where the prototype of the series’ protagonist actually lived.

We live in what’s called a craftsman bungalow, so that’s what was built, in all its specific detail. The “set” looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, except for my house. It was really beautiful. And it felt like a place someone would actually live in.

All “sets” have backings. Backings, which are hung at the back of the stage, are the view you see out the windows of the “set.” Most shows rent backings. Generic backings. A neighborhood. With a tree, and a car and a dog.

The set designer for Family Man sent a photographer to our house. The photographer went out onto our back porch and with a very wide-angle lens, took a picture of the view you would see out the back windows of our house. The picture was then blown up and was turned into the backing for the “set.”

The “view” for the Family Man “set” was the exact view that you saw from the back of my actual house. Was that cool, or what?

Then the set decorator took over. He did his best, based on his research and experience, but as talented as he was, he wasn’t, owing to his natural proclivities, a family person. Even if he had been, I would have still done what I did next.

Which was to invite in Dr. M and my stepdaughter, Rachel, to suggest ideas that would give the set decorations a legitimizing reality. Dr M contributed humanizing touches in the many areas, and Rachel suggested helpful improvements for her counterpart on the show’s bedroom. We even brought some “props” from home, trying to bring the “set” more truthfully to life.

The set decorator was not pleased. I understood. We were intruding on his turf. He could, however, have been nicer about it. I remember him asking, rhetorically, I’m pretty sure, “Will you be bringing in the three year-old to consult on her bedroom?”

(Note: I had deviated from reality in one significant regard. In life, I have a wife and a stepdaughter and a biological daughter, separated in age by nine years and eight months. In Family Man, I expanded the family to include a “me when I was a boy” element, represented by an in-between-aged stepson. When the president of NBC rewarded me with three large beach towels with the NBC peacock logo on them, (see: “The World’s Greatest Agent” – February 10, 2008), it was in the mistaken belief that I had three children in real life as well. He couldn’t believe that I made anything up.)

The next part is kind of technical. You can jump over it if you want. Although I think of important. You know what? Just read it.

A decision had to made as to what method should be employed to shoot the show. The Cosby Show was shot on videotape. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi had been filmed. All had used the multi-camera process and were performed in front of a live studio audience (as opposed to a dead studio audience, a process which was tried but quickly abandoned, due to a depressing lack of audience response. And the smell. That’s not true. I made that up.)

There was also the option of shooting the show “single camera”, the way 30 Rock and The Office, among other shows, are recorded today. Since we had several young actors in the cast – one of them barely three years old – who might be spooked be a live audience and whose performances would be difficult to control, the “single camera” option, though more expensive, offered meaningful advantages.

I decided we would shoot the show on videotape (for budgetary reasons) but without a studio audience. Why? For a lot of reasons, one of them being that, when you take out the bleachers, where the audience sits, you have room on the stage for more “sets”, and you’re not stuck with the standard living room, a bedroom and a restaurant where they sometimes eat out. You’re free to go to more places in the story when you have room for more “sets.”

Mostly, though, I wanted to shoot the show without an audience, because I wanted to expand my comedy-writing options.

Here’s the deal. The most reliable method for making a live audience laugh is by delivering a ceaseless fusillade of hard, punchy jokes, especially if they’re about sex. That’s not what I do. I wanted to try other ways to get laughs. And shooting without a live audience would provide me that freedom.

(Over the years, I have written episodes that did not play particularly well in front of a live audience but played beautifully on the air. I have also written episodes where the audience was coughing up phlegm from laughing so hard, that seemed considerably less funny when you watched them in your house. What you’re really dealing with are two different forms of communication. In my view, it was the home audience that mattered most. Almost all of my bosses disagreed. If they had a successful “show night”, they were ecstatic. If we didn’t, it was "Hide the sharp implements.")

I got rid of the audience so I could do things like this:

The writer in Family Man, who I named Shelly, always wrote, as I do, with music playing. I wrote a scene where Shelly’s concentrating on his writing. Playing in the background is Randy Newman’s wonderful score for The Natural. Shelly is, almost unconsciously, humming along. As the score reaches its soaring crescendo, Shelly suddenly rises from his seat, and, using his pen as a baton, begins vigorously conducting the orchestra.

The timing for such a scene – coordinating the recorded music with the actor’s performance, had to be perfect. I needed the control that having an audience present would not allow.

I felt the same concern about the afore-mentioned episode, where Shelly’s wife Andrea’s efforts to fall asleep are impeded by the intermittent buzzing of a malevolent mosquito.

I also wrote a Shelly-Andrea dispute, where the scene is played entirely without words.

When you’re not servicing a live audience, you can try a lot of different things. That’s why I decided not to have one. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss why that might have been a mistake.

Classic British half hour comedies, like Fawlty Towers and The Office, had seasons that were six episodes in length, and they ran for two seasons, making for a grand series total of twelve episodes. Short seasons of this nature allow the writers to complete the scripts before the shooting starts. That rarely – bordering on never – happens in the States, at least not on network TV. Here, new episodes must be written at the same time that previously written episodes are being produced. You think that, maybe affects the quality of the shows a little?

(Why is the arrangement different in England than it is here? A British producer once explained, “In England, we need money to make shows. In the States, you need shows to make money.” That’s why Americans make more of them.)

Fox’s seven-show order for Family Man was the only time I had the opportunity to write the scripts before we went into production. This civilized arrangement not only allowed me to feel less time pressured, it also allowed me to write all the episodes myself, which was particularly helpful, seeing as how the series chronicled my experiences, as a child and as an adult, and outside writers would be unlikely to instinctively know what those experiences were.

Okay. I had built the set. I had written the scripts. Family Man was ready to go.

All I needed were the actors.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen"

So I’m doing the warm-up (entertaining the audience between scenes) for Cheers. Dr. M and I had recently had a daughter. Anna was a miracle. But she cried a lot, due to colic. Or something else. I’m not a doctor.

Most babies stop crying when you drive them around in a car. Anna cried more in cars. At bedtime, I’d push her in her stroller for hours. She’d finally fall asleep. I’d lift her out of the stroller, her leg would get caught, she’d wake up and start crying all over again.

I was aware babies couldn’t talk, but I couldn’t stop saying, “What do you want?!”

I begged the Charles brothers, who created Cheers, to find a way to get me out of the house. That’s how I got offered the warm-up job, an opportunity generated less out of a passion to perform than a need for a short break from the crying.

But while I’m doing the warm-up, which contained no prepared material – at least at first – all I find myself talking about is my daughter. Like how she’s almost ready to walk.

“I’m sitting at the kitchen table. She crawls underneath, grabs onto my leg, and pulls herself up to standing. Then she looks up at me with this goofy smile on her face, like, ‘Look what I did!’”

“It’s totally understandable why we’re crazy about these guys,” I observe. “Babies are puppies with your face.”

Years later, after my assignment on The Cosby Show, the president of NBC, who’d been in the audience for “Babies are puppies with your face”, says to me,

“Do The Cosby Show, with your family.”


At this point, I’ve got a deal at Universal. I now feel more comfortable about taking their money, because I have a series idea that I like and a network president who suggested it. If that hadn’t been the case, it would have been two years (the length of my deal) sitting behind my desk with a legal pad and a pen, going, “What do I want to do?” between free lunches at the commissary and extended naps on my couch.

This was definitely better.

I would write an honest, observational comedy about my family. “Dr. Huxtable” as a married Jewish television writer. The thing would almost write itself. A married Jewish television writer – that’s exactly what I was.

I called the show Our House. But, somehow, after I handed in my script, that title flew onto the cover page of another NBC series, so I changed my title to Family Man. I liked Our House better, but you can’t have two shows on the same network with the same name. It confuses the audience.

“I like that show Our House.”

“Which one?”

“There’s more than one?”

It’s embarrassing. It’s like the Canadian Football League, where they had nine teams and two of them were called The Roughriders.

Here’s my only rule. Wait, I’ve got lots of rules. Here’s my only rule today.
When I attended the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA (“Almost Acting” – June 29, 30), I realized one thing. When you’re acting – and it goes beyond acting, this applies, in my view, to everything – “Nobody does ‘me’ better than me.”

Let me repeat that, not in italics. Nobody does “me” better than me. People can be more talented, they can be funnier, they can be taller, but they can’t be me. Why? Because I’m me. “Me” has already been taken. By me.

At UCLA, being me was working pretty well. Though I had miniscule parts in the productions, I was always mentioned favorably in the reviews. There was something about “me” that was working, something, I believed, and believe still, about my uniqueness. Not wanting to tamper with success, I decided to stick with the formula.

And I’ve been me ever since.

(And let's not forget the flip side. If I'm the best at being me, I can be no better than second best at being anyone else. So what's the point in trying to be them?)

Hopefully, this is not totally stupid, or, you know, narcissistic. I know I’m a good writer. And I know what I know most completely – I mean deep down, and from the inside – is me. But here’s the additional element, which I hope is right.

I’m a person. And the world is made up of people. Everybody is people, pretty much – I mean, I’m strange, but I’m not that unusual – people like me. Therefore, if I write about me, my belief is I’m not just writing about me. I’m writing about everybody. Does that make any sense?

It’s not “me” as me I’m writing about; it’s “me” as a metaphor for the all humankind. I choose me to write about, so I don’t have to do the research. I’m an expert at “me.” And “me”, I believe, is a bookmark for everyone.

If “me” meant just me, and nobody else could identify, I’d be wasting my time. (And be a leading candidate for the “Who does he think he is?” award.)

Anyway, this has been the theory behind the way I write, blog and otherwise. Family Man is the half-hour comedy version. Sitcoms, at the time I wrote it, felt totally generic. A workplace comedy set in…who cares? A family of…who knows…but we hired the best actors we could find, and none of them look like each other, so what kind of a family is that?

My sitcom would be real. That’s what would make it stand out, shimmering in the glow of comic specificity. I believed the audience would sense the difference between the real and the generic, and they’d love it.

NBC were the first people who didn’t. After reading my pilot script, they decided they didn’t find “me” compelling enough, and they were betting that the America viewing public wouldn’t either. It was also in their minds that, in the interest of specificity, I was angling to play the leading role myself, which is crazy, I wasn’t, although, if they’d asked me…oo-dee-do-dee-do…which means…I have a real goofy look on my face right now. I mean, if they’d asked me?

The network president who had originally suggested the idea wound up “passing” on the show. Though I hardly went home empty-handed. I was rewarded with three large beach towels with the NBC peacock logo on them, two of which I was required to surrender to my agent (“The World’s Greatest Agent” – February 10, 2008.)

At that time, the Fox television network was just getting off the ground. This was before they found their identity as the network of choice for people who liked watching animals attack. (I’m not talking about Hannity and O’Reilly. They had shows where actual animals attacked.)

After NBC dropped Family Man, the Fox network picked it up. To attract the top writing talent, instead of offering only a pilot, Fox agreed to produce seven episodes. Fox concluded the deal for Family Man with Universal, and I immediately began writing the scripts.

All of them were about me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"Remembrances of Emmys Past"

Here’s what this is about.

A entertainment writer in Canada asked me if I’d be interesting in writing about the Emmys for his paper. I said yes, and wrote something. The entertainment writer said he liked what I wrote, but he needed something more personal. So I wrote something more personal and posted the first thing I wrote on my blog. (“Emmy’s – The Oddest Award of All” – September 19)

Today, I’m posting the piece that was published in the newspaper. I’m doing this for your convenience. I wasn’t sure how many of you had easy access to The Toronto Daily Star. I’m also posting it because I like it.

Pretend the Emmys are tomorrow, and enjoy.

This is Earl, the grownup talking:

The Emmys are a fundraising effort on behalf of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, structured in the form of a competition.

The Academy members are not stupid. They know that “competition” is where the money is. The juice, the excitement, the heat. And also, the actual money.

Competition energizes both the audience and the competitors. The nominees are electrified by the possibility. You can literally see sparks flying off of them. Unless you’re a Buddhist, competitive craziness is deeply embedded in your DNA. We can’t help ourselves. You offer a prize for what I do – I want it!

Why all the intensity? It’s simple. There’s winning and there’s losing. Winning is better.

And so succumbs Earl, the grownup. (And pretty much everyone else who gets nominated.)

The first time I was nominated – as a writer for a Lily Tomlin “special” – we lost to some colored pieces of felt, otherwise known as The Muppets. Having been less than enthralled by losing to fabric, the next time I was nominated, for another Lily Tomlin special, I decided not to go to the ceremony. Who wants to rent a tuxedo to lose?

I went to a yoga class that night instead. When I got home, the phone was ringing. It was my mother.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Very relaxed,” I replied. I was talking about the yoga. My voice was uncharacteristically serene.

“Don’t you know what happened?”

“What happened?”

“You won!”


That’s all I said. “Oh.” Taking a yoga class is like gobbling a handful of tranquilizers. Even if you’re more excited than you’ve ever been in your life – like when you’ve just won your first Emmy Award – it still comes out “Oh.”

“Oh” or “Om.”

Let me be fully candid here. Not going to the Emmys when you’re nominated doesn’t mean, “I don’t care.” It actually means, “I care too much.” The following story exemplifies how much.

I nearly died going to the Emmys.

During my early years in Los Angeles, I never drove on the freeway. Too fast. Too scary. There are alternative side streets – Olympic, Sepulveda – cowardly drivers know the names. We avail ourselves of those streets, leaving the freeways to the Indianapolis 500 wannabes.

Okay, so it’s Emmy night. I’m nominated for writing an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“Ted’s Change of Heart.”) I actually have a date. It’s a first date, and I’m taking her to the Emmys. I win, and who knows what could happen.

We’re on our way. I’m hyper crazed, but I’m trying to stay cool, tootling along, making what I’m certain is devastating small talk. I’m turn down this “connector” road. It’s a wonderful little road. You stay to the right, you get to Olympic, you go left, it’s the on-ramp to the Santa Monica Freeway.

“This road is great,” I explain. “You can get to the freeway from it, or it can take you to Olympic. I’m going to Olympic.”

Thirty seconds later. The chitchat continues.

“It’s funny. I didn’t expect this much traffic on Olympic at this time of the day.”

To which, my date replies,

“You’re driving on the freeway.”

And so I was.

I didn’t know what to do. Brain-frozen by the possibility of winning an Emmy, I had unconsciously veered left on the “connector” road, and driven directly onto the I-10, which, if you stay on it, can take you all the way to New York. I started to panic. I had never driven on a freeway before. Cars were whizzing around me. I had no idea what to do.

I gripped the wheel tightly and, inexplicably, crouched down low, terrified by the unfamiliarity and the speed. I careened in and out of lanes, trying to reach an exit and safety, but unable to muster the requisite boldness to make the move. I never looked at my date. If I had, I’d have seen somebody fearing for her life.

I finally escaped the freeway, seven exits past where I supposed to get off. We arrived at to the Emmy ceremony just as they were closing the doors.

You know what happened then?

I lost.

How did the date go? Well, let’s see, now. I got shut out at the Emmys, and I nearly got the girl killed.

How do you think it went?

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Emmys - The Oddest Award of All"

Of all the awards – and there certainly are a lot of them – the Emmys are by far the strangest. No other award I’m aware of gives out multiple recognitions for the same performance.

Peter Falk won four Emmys (1972, 1975, 1976 and 1990) for portraying the supershlep-sleuth Columbo. John Larroquette also took home four (1985, 1986, 1987, 1988) playing the sleazebag attorney, Dan Fielding, on Night Court.

Don Knotts won five Emmys (1961, 1962, 1963, 1966 and 1967) as Andy Griffith’s jumpy deputy, Barney Fife. Candice Bergen garnered five (1989, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1995) playing “Murphy Brown.”

I can’t explain it, but there feels, to me, something disturbingly wrong about that. It’s like the actors are cashing the same check multiple times. Not to brag, or complain – and then proceeding to do both at the same time – I won two Emmys (Lily Tomlin, 1975, and The Cosby Show, 1984) and was nominated for four others.

Six nominations in all. But the thing to notice is, every time I was nominated, I had to write a different thing! These guys do the same job over again, and they give ‘em another prize!

Of course, there is the discomfiting “flip side.” The one that keeps actors up at night.

In 1992, an actor named Craig T. Nelson won an Emmy Award for playing the role of “Hayden Fox”, Head Coach of the “Minnesota State University Screaming Eagles” on the long-running ABC comedy, Coach.

The next season, 1993, Craig T. Nelson, continuing to in the role as “Hayden Fox” in the long-running ABC comedy, Coach, was not nominated at all.

What exactly can that mean?

Actors, by nature, are sensitive people. And when something jostles their delicate temperaments, like, for example, winning an Emmy Award one year and not even being nominated the next – for playing the exact same part – it can really eat them up.

“Let’s see, now. Last season, I won the Emmy last year for my portrayal of “Hayden Fox”. This season, I play “Hayden Fox” exactly the way, I sincerely believe, I played “Hayden Fox” last season, but this season, I don’t even get nominated?”

“What the hell is going on!?”

“I’m an actor! I won an Emmy, for heaven’s sake. And what did I win it for? For playing the role of “Hayden Fox”, a role, which, according to the Emmy nominating committee, I no longer know how to play.”

“What do I need to do? Watch films of my performance as the Emmy-winning “Hayden Fox”, so I can pick out the flaws in my not even nominated “Hayden Fox?” Baseball players do that. They find a hitch in their swing. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find a hitch in my acting.”

We shouldn’t make fun. Therapists make a lot of money off such problems. And that’s not even the scariest example.

In 1990, Jerry Seinfeld was nominated for playing Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld, and he was not nominated the following year. How do you imagine Jerry felt?

“Could this possibly be true? Could I have actually gotten worse at playing myself?

“Lemme tell you something. I know how to play myself. I’ve got “myself” down. I practice the role constantly. I am myself all the time. 24/7. Day and night. I’m not myself for a few days, then I’m somebody else, then I’m myself again. I am always. Myself. And not partially myself. I am myself, head to toe.”

“And yet, for some mysterious and inexplicable reason, the people on the nominating committee are telling me, I’m wrong. They’re saying, ‘Jerry, sometimes – like the season when you were nominated – you were very much, and most hilariously, yourself. But this year, I’m sorry, it just wasn’t there.’”

“Something is terribly wrong with those people.”

On Emmy Night, the big story is, understandably, “Who will be the winner?” But I believe there’s another even more intriguing story going on. Somewhere in that audience Sunday night, earlier winners and nominees who didn’t get a nibble this year are sitting there, torturing themselves with the nagging, maybe unanswerable, question:

“How do I get it back?”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Driver's Test"

I’ve been driving for over thirty-five years. But, to this day, I have serious doubts as to whether or not I actually passed my Driver’s Test.

Here’s why.

I had failed my Driver’s Test twice, once when I was eighteen, and once when I was nineteen. Driving is not essential in my hometown of Toronto. The city has an elaborate public transportation system. You wait ten minutes and something comes. Mind you, in the winter, those ten minutes can feel extremely long. (I only have to write about waiting for a bus in Toronto in the winter and my toes reflexively start to curl up.)

Driving challenges many of my not strongest areas. I don’t see very well. My reflexes aren’t the best. And I have this irrational fear of running people over. Well, maybe not that irrational, considering my eyesight and my reflexes

And yet, I wanted to drive. Like everyone else. (Even people who are okay with not being like everyone else are not okay with not being like everyone else all the time.)

The Driver’s Test freaked me out. The main Department of Motor Vehicles (or whatever it’s called in Canada) was located on Keele Street. Keele Street is a major Toronto thoroughfare, possibly the majorest. At least, in terms of its breadth – Keele Street is four lanes in both directions. Most Toronto streets, even those spanning the entire length of the city, are two lanes.

My first Driver’s Test failure is an agonizing blur of humiliation and shame. I do, however, remember exactly why I failed the second time.

I’m driving along Keele Street. The Driving Instructor orders me, in a flat, emotionless voice, to make a left turn.

I immediately jump into action. I flick on my “Left Turn” signal, I check the side-view mirror, I turn my head to check the “Blind Spot.” Perfect.

I then proceed to the lane closest to the middle stripe, the lane you turn left from, and I wait for the oncoming traffic to clear.

And I wait. And I wait. And I wait.

Remember, Keele Street is four lanes in both directions. Having studied my Instruction Manual, I know that, before I can execute my left turn, I have to wait until the lanes I’m intending to cross are clear. I’m not permitted to cut cars off – in any of the lanes, in this case, in any of those four lanes – or I’ll fail.

Traffic during my Driver’s Test is brisk. Cars keep coming from the opposite direction, maybe not in all the four oncoming lanes at once, but in one, and often two. In my mind, I’m thinking, “I can’t make my ‘Left’ until all four lanes are clear.” And they never are.

We’re sitting there, maybe five minutes. Not a sound in the car, except for the rhythmic clicking of my “Left Turn” signal.


Finally, the Driving Instructor, his eyes rolling and his patience long gone, cries,


The guy fails me on the spot. He didn’t even wait to get back to the place. He flunks me right there, in the “Left Turn” lane on Keele Street.

Flash Forward: Eight years.

I’m now twenty-seven. Over the years, I’ve racked up many noteworthy accomplishments. I’d had a weekly column in the newspaper, I had written and performed on radio, I had written on television “specials” for my brother and his partner, Lorne Michaels, as well as for the iconic Canadian comedy team, Wayne and Shuster. I had my own apartment. I paid bills. I made my own dentist appointments.

But I didn’t have my Driver’s License.

I decided to try again, starting with driving lessons. A Romanian guy taught me. His name was Czeron Lazdins. I liked that name. It seemed sturdy, like a man who had weathered the hardships of the Old Country and plodded his way to a better life.

A sturdy driving teacher would get me through my Driver’s Test. I put my faith in Czeron Lazdins.

Czeron Lazdins taught me an important lesson, applicable not just to driving, but to life. He analogized the driving situation with boxing. He said, (read this with a Romanian accent): “Some boxers, they see they’re going to get hit, they turn their heads, and their hands fly up – crazy moves, out of control – to protect themselves. Other boxers, they’re going to get hit – the tiniest adjustment – and the punch passes by. That’s boxing. That’s driving.”

That’s life.

I make an appointment for my test. Not on Keele Street. Bad luck, that street. I’ll take my test at a smaller DMV, on College Street – two lanes, both ways. College Street has streetcar tracks, which can be slick in the rain, but I feel ready for anything. If I skid, I know what to do. The tiniest adjustment.

In the meantime, I mention to a producer I know at the CBC, Canada’s national television network, that I’m taking my Driver’s Test for the third time. The producer, a nice man named Ross, works in the Public Affairs area (rather than in what they called “Light Entertainment”). Ross is currently producing a documentary-type series called Of All People.

Of All People was a show focusing on, hopefully interesting, real life oddities. A man fuels his tractor with chicken droppings – they do a segment on him. A woman grows a potato shaped like the head of Conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. She gets a segment. You get the idea – a Public Interest show about Canadian weirdness.

Flash Forward: It’s the morning of my Driver’s Test. My apartment intercom buzzes. I say, “Who is it?” They tell me. I buzz them in.

Who it was, was a producer and a two-man camera crew from Of All People. They’ve come to film my final driving lesson and my actual test. I say okay. What can I do? They’re already there.

So there you have it. I took my Driver’s Test on national television. And I passed.


It’s possible, because I’m a performer of sorts, that I “rose to the occasion when the lights were on.” Maybe I drove like I’d never driven before. The thing is, I don’t remember it that way. I drove the same way I always did – overly cautious, and none too smooth. I also had the added challenge of trying not to run over the camera crew, as they swooped in and out around the car, capturing my every move.

I’m thinking about the Driving Instructor who had, somehow, agreed to let my Driver’s Test to be filmed. Consider his situation. This segment was scheduled to be broadcast across the country. We were hooked up with “neck microphones”, and everything. The pressure was on both of us. I mean, what kind of “downer” television would it have been if he had failed me yet again?

There was also the possibility that, if I failed, the show would eliminate my Driver’s Test story, and the Driving Instructor would never get to be on television.

The guy had no choice. He had to pass me.

So he did.

I don’t know, to me, it wasn’t a real “pass.” It was more like an honorarial television “pass.”

Flash Forward (for the last time): It’s one week later. I’m pulling out of the Mazda dealership. I have just bought my first car – a bright orange Mazda, with a black hardtop roof. It’s a Hallowe’en car. And I’m very proud of it.

There’s a deluging downpour. Puppies are floating down the street. The windshield wipers don’t help; you can’t see six inches in front of you. You know how, when you’re learning to drive, there always has to be a licensed driver sitting in the car with you? This is what I was thinking at this exciting, hard-fought-for transitional moment.

“I’m sitting behind the wheel of my new Mazda. I can’t see a damn thing. And I’ve never driven alone before in my entire life.”
And off I went.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"'Seinfeld' - The Best Sitcom Ever!"

There’s a signal. Something in a show that tells you, “This is for me. This is something.”

Sometimes, it happens in the first episode. I remember pre-writer Early-Boy watching the pilot of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In that pilot story, Laura was reluctant to go out to a party, because she had a “Mother’s Instinct” that Ritchie, the Petrie’s young son, was about to come down with something. Why did she believe Ritchie was getting sick?

“He wouldn’t eat his cupcake.”

That was the signal. Smart, observational comedy was headed my way. And funny people were in charge, demonstrated by the choice of the thing Ritchie was refusing to eat. It wasn’t, “He wouldn’t eat his hot dog.” It was, “He wouldn’t eat his cupcake.” – a word with two hard “k” sounds in it. The “hard K” is the comedy “dog whistle”, a welcoming summons to comedy mavens everywhere. Its message? “We’re here, and we’re funny.”

I was hooked. And in five seasons on the air, The Dick Van Dyke Show rarely let me down.

It happened with the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There was a scene involving Mary’s contentious job interview with Lou Grant, culminating with Lou’s explosive, “You’ve got spunk!” followed immediately by his even more explosive, “I hate spunk!”

There was the signal. “This is something. This is for me.”

Seinfeld was different. At the beginning, I wasn’t a fan. I’ll tell you why. At the time Seinfeld started, I was working as a two-day-a-week consultant on Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandlings’s Show.” Both series were about single comedians with relationship issues, and I thought Garry’s was the smarter version of two shows that were basically covering the same ground.

Then I got “the signal.” It came in the twenty-third episode.

Four people, wandering aimlessly around a shopping mall parking garage, searching for their car.


I’d been there. That exact situation. My daughter, Anna, age seven, and me – couldn’t find the car. I knew exactly how it felt. “We’re going to die here.” It was Lawrence of Arabia, with parked cars instead of sand.

In my mind, Seinfeld stands at the top of the list, because, more than any other half-hour comedy, Seinfeld came the closest to duplicating, in hilarious fashion, the identifiable experience of everyday life. By hewing insistently to that truthful path – and I find this no coincidence, the two are, I will argue, connected – Seinfeld was the most consistently funny sitcom in the history of television.

Tiny, human moments, made funnier by their startling identifiability. George’s girlfriend hands Elaine “the big salad” and Elaine thanks her for it. George is secretly upset, because he was the one who actually paid for “the big salad” and, therefore, that “Thanks” should, rightfully, have been directed to him. Unable to keep silent, George finally broaches the inappropriate “Thanks” misdirection issue with his girlfriend, who immediately dumps him for being unbelievably petty.

I don’t know about you, but I totally identified. And not with the girlfriend.

Here’s another one. Jerry’s father’s nemesis, Jack Klompus, writes Jerry’s father a check, using a pen, designed for the astronauts, which can write upside down. Jerry expresses an interest in the pen, and Klompus offers to give it to him. What follows is a heated “Take the pen” and “I can’t take the pen” exchange between Jerry and Jack Klompus. Worn down, and. let’s face it, coveting it, Jerry finally accepts the pen. The moment Klompus exits, Jerry’s mother berates him mercilessly for taking the pen.

This is Dr. M’s favorite scene in the series. It’s as real as it gets. And – here’s me, artlessly hammering my point – the reason it’s hilarious is because it’s real. (Other shows can be funny – the Friends pilot featured a monkey clambering around a Manhattan apartment, but, you know, how often does that really happen? Then again, a younger version of my stepdaughter, Rachel, enjoying, I don’t know, maybe, Who’s the Boss?, once replied to my criticism, “It doesn’t have to be real; it’s funny!” She could be right. It just may not be my kind of funny.)

I talked yesterday about the demise of the traditional sitcom. Done in by “The Sitcom Rules”, was my assessment. Seinfeld ignored the sitcom rules. Well, maybe not “ignored.” It’s my suspicion that Seinfeld’s co-creator, Larry David, having had no experience writing sitcoms whatsoever, had no idea what “The Sitcom Rules” were, so he went out and did exactly what he wanted. And somehow, the network went along.

It is my opinion that, every time a show follows the rhythms and expectations of the situation comedy, it’s signaling to the audience, “This is a television show.” The jokes – presented in standard joke constructions – obliterate the illusion that these people, and the problems they’re confronting, could actually be real.

Even classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, dedicated to identifiable characters and believable behaviors, switch at some point – unusually during the Wednesday night rewrite nights – and replace their more naturalistic dialogue with “Boom-Boom” – the biggest, funniest jokes the writers can think of. I watch, I laugh – sometimes a lot – but it doesn’t draw me in.

Seinfeld draws me in. How? By causing me to identify with the characters. How do they do that? Primarily, I would suggest, by insistently deviating from the sitcomical norm.

Seinfeld’s Deviations from the Sitcomical Norm (in no particular order):

Seinfeld’s dialogue departed from the endlessly repeated “Set-up – punchline” joke rhythm, opting, instead, for observations rather than jokes, delivered in the natural rhythm of everyday conversation. Right from the beginning (a signal I missed), when Jerry and George conversed about the problematic placement of the second button on men’s shirts – some are too high, some are too low – there’s the alerting indication that something different is happening in Sitcomland.

The four lead characters were deemed, by the normally deal-breaking “testing” process, to be losers, too unlikable, and too “New York” (read: Jewish. Even the Costanzas, despite their Italian last name acted Jewish. George’s father ate kasha in bed.) It turned out, however, that the characters’ neurotic selfishness (not that different from people we know, and maybe even us) proved to be highly relatable and ultimately endearing.

Then, there’s the choice of stories. Contrary to whatever, Seinfeld was never a show about nothing. It was about four single, deeply self-interested buddies making their way through their everyday lives.

They pitch their series. “You get up, and you go to work. That’s a story. That’s a show.” Not to the network. It’s only when Jerry pitches a story (he hates), about a judge ordering a man who hit Jerry’s car but can’t pay for the damages to work off his debt by becoming Jerry’s butler that the executives become truly excited. To them, that’s a story. And it is a story. It’s a(n exaggerated version of a) sitcom story. Is it a believable story? “A judge orders a man to become Jerry’s butler?”

This next Seinfeld deviation from the sitcom norm, was, to me, as a longtime practitioner in the field, the most shocking of them all. My jaw literally dropped.

(My best recollection, because I couldn’t find it:) “I could never date someone who thinks the Cotton Dockers commercials are funny.”

It was simply astonishing. Someone on a sitcom on a commercial network had mentioned the name of an actual product. Not only that, but they had unequivocally put that product – or at least the commercial for that product – down!

I couldn't believe it. What if they broke for commercial and the next thing that came on was the ad they were talking about for Cotton Dockers? Wouldn’t the Cotton Dockers people be mad? Wouldn’t they be mad no matter what? Wouldn’t the network be furious about Seinfeld’s losing them the Cotton Dockers account? There’s no way I could have gotten away with that. How could they get away with that?

“’The English Patient’ was terrible!”

They trashed a movie! Not a movie with a funny, made-up name, an actual movie! Nobody had ever done that before. Not because we’d never thought of it. The network would never let us. How come they let them?

My first tip-off that something was different was the cereal boxes. (I know this is going to sound trivial but it isn’t.) Jerry had boxes of cereal lined up on a shelf in his kitchen, and, for the first time in sitcom history, the cereal boxes had the actual names of the cereals on them. They were using the real cereal boxes!

We could never do that on shows I worked on. The Prop Men replicated the exterior look of the cereal boxes, but, so there wouldn’t be a conflict with potential sponsors, we were required to decorate the boxes with fictitious names. Corn Frakes. Rice Flisbies.

The Seinfeld people were committed to making their shows feel as much as possible like our lives, not because of some maniacal obsession with verisimilitude, but because they knew that this cradle of credibility (is that too poetic?) bolstered and realistified the comedy. The question is, how did they get away with it?

I met Larry David once and I asked him that very question. His answer was, if he didn’t get what he wanted, he was fully prepared to get in his car and go home. That was it, the whole genius strategy. Larry David was willing to go home. And I’m not talking about after Seinfeld was a hit. It was his attitude from Day One.

Sex? We had one euphemism. “You wanna…you know…?” That’s all we had. Seinfeld used euphemisms too. Not “You wanna…you know…?” They minted brand new ones. Euphemisms and subtle allusions. Using them liberally (again, apparently without network resistance), they rode deeper into Indian Territory than anyone had ever ridden before.

“Sponge worthy.”


“Master of My Domain.”

“They’re real, and they’re spectacular.”

…and a number of others I’m not comfortable enough in that area to pass along.

Seinfeld spoke with the original voice of its two comically gifted creators. Week after week during its middle seasons, the show produced more memorable episodes than any comedy series I ever watched, episodes which I, and the exceedingly tough-grading Dr. M, are delighted to revisit repeatedly in reruns.

So ends my argument for Seinfeld as the best situation comedy ever.

The only hope for the future of television comedy?

I’m no optimist, as you know. But if it happened once, it can happen again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"The Fall of the Four-Camera Comedy"

Get this.

When situation comedies began to decrease in popularity, a television executive was asked for an explanation. His response was this:

“The writers aren’t funny anymore.”

Yeah. That must be the reason. (To be read with the appropriate slathering of sarcasm, combined with a perplexed shaking of the head as to how that executive ever got a job.)

“The writers aren’t funny anymore.” Not “The networks played it safe way past the time when ‘playing it safe’ was any longer in any way safe.” Not “They glutted the airwaves with too many – I don’t want to single out any specific show, it may be your favorite – but, generically, imagine a piece of talent who’s familiar to the viewing audience but who, throughout their careers, has never demonstrated the tiniest glimmer of comedic instinct.” That strategy hardly strengthens the sitcom brand.

Then, we have the competition from cable, whose riskier comedies like Beavis and Butthead, Dr. Katz, Ren and Stimpy and, later, South Park went head-to-head with the networks’ somewhat funny leading ladies with really great-looking hair. What kind of competition is that? “Ha-ha” versus a luxurious head of hair. If you were talking football, that would be USC versus Toronto Hebrew Day School.

You can’t blame the writers, plagued by the dual devils of the risk-averse network executives and the virulent PC interest groups who monitor the “public airwaves”, ready to pounce whenever their issue of choice is portrayed in any other manner than glowingly. And as you can tell from my as-yet-unpublished-but-if-you-come-to-my-house-you-can-read-it book, Both Sides Make Me Angry, I’m not just talking about conservatives.

Were the writers at all responsible for the serious decline of television comedy? We did our part. It works like this.

You write what you can sell. That’s natural. TV writers are well paid and have a really great health plan. So there’s this powerful incentive to continue working. Your agent also wants you to work – they’re parasitically dependent on their clients’ success – so you’re encouraged not to rock the boat, and continue doing the type of writing got you where you are.

Before you know it, you’re censoring yourself, strangling any exciting but less than mainstream impulse in its bed. And before you know it Part Two, you don’t have to censor yourself anymore. You’re doing what they want automatically, “what they don’t want” ideas no longer troubling your consciousness. Except during those euphoric “that would be hilarious, but we can’t do it” fooling around moments, after which you immediately “get back to work.”

The result is what you see on prime time network TV. Like what?

Stories television viewers have experienced many times before. A friend/relative/co-worker temporarily moves in with the lead character, because their house is being fumigated/their spouse threw them out/they’re suddenly allergic to their bed.

The writer fools themselves into thinking the storylines are fresh because they’re being funneled through the “unique” perspective of their show’s “original” characters. Writers are adept at fooling themselves, especially when they’re tired and under the gun, and when any idea taking a “never seen before” direction is overcome by the weight of serious network “concern.” Inevitably, like the houseguest in the above example, the “traditional” storylines begin to wear out their welcomes.

Issue Two:

Precise and unvarying scriptwriting rhythms, established before the current writers were born, constrict and constrain (those may be the same thing) the storytelling process. Under the surface of a smoothly executed narrative are moments, scenes, and ultimately entire scripts, made up entirely of one-joke-after-another, three-laughs-per-page, modular hunks.

Sitcom scripts proceed with the meticulously timed regularity of a Sousa march – Bum. Bum. Bum. Bum. Set-up. Joke. Set-up. Joke. Somebody leaves a room. Joke. End of scene. Big joke. End of act. Really big joke, (or a tension-filled dramatic moment).

Once again, you fool yourself, this time thinking, “I may be doing the same rhythms, but my jokes are funnier.”

For a more instructive insight, try putting that the other way around: “My jokes may be funnier, but I’m doing the same rhythms.” These are not “life” rhythms, they’re unique- to-sitcom rhythms. (I’ve rarely made a joke when exiting a room. Sometimes, I leave without saying anything.) Like the stories themselves, these “unique-to-the-sitcom” rhythms eventually get tired.

Then, there’s the issue of the actual story structure. The better episodes mask it better, but underneath, virtually all sitcom stories follow the same repeated trajectory.

I believe, at least when you’re starting out, you can learn more from an inferior show than from a good one. The good shows hide their skeletal underpinnings more artfully, so they’re harder to break down and learn from. In inferior series, the story structure is easier to follow.

Phyllis – I’m sorry if you loved it, and, by the way, I wrote eleven episodes of Phyllis – was not a good show. It was too thin. A supporting character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show was, as they say, spun off, and given their own series. Phyllis did well for one season, but after the second season, it was gone. On some level, the audience realized there was nothing there.

Here’s how Phyllis generally constructed its stories. As a child, Phyllis had had a traumatic experience playing at a piano recital. She decides – I don’t know why, to feel better about herself, something – she has to return to the moment of that trauma and finally confront her demons. Yadda, yadda, yadda, finally, it’s the “block comedy” recital scene. And there’s Phyllis, marching onto the stage, the only adult in a group of much shorter, recital-playing children.

The recital scene was hilarious. But the rest of the episode, structured to set that final scene up, felt like five scenes (out of six) of empty filler. Would the last recital scene have been as funny is it hadn’t been skillfully built to in the earlier scenes? No. But it’s not enough. There has to be more to a half-hour episode than one, albeit very funny, payoff scene.

Another structural sore spot? The big, sitcom story “twist.” I’ll give you an example from Frasier, a very popular and deservedly much-honored series, but this episode, I don’t believe, was their finest hour.

The standard sitcom “story surprise” reminds me of a car with automatic transmission. Unlike driving “gearshift”, the “automatic” car offers no subtly calibrated adjustments – it has “go” (forwards or backwards), and it has “stop.” It’s the exactly same with the standard sitcom.

The standard sitcom “twist” involves, not a surprise that’s different from what you’d expect, but, like “go” and “stop”, a surprise that’s precisely one hundred and eighty degrees the opposite of what you expect.


Frasier has a mentor who’s written a book, and he wants Frasier to take a look at it. For reasons I can no longer remember, the manuscript winds up incinerated in Frasier’s fireplace. “Oh, my God, (with the accompanying wringing of hands). It’s the only copy. What I am going to tell him?”

The “twist”?

The mentor is grateful the manuscript was destroyed.

Huh? That was my first reaction. Who, based on everyday experience, would be grateful, hearing that the only copy of the manuscript they had worked tirelessly on for years had gotten burnt up in a fire? Not me. I’d be really pissed.

Okay, so maybe it’s not that believable, but it’s a funny surprise, isn’t it?

Is it?

You’re sitting at home, watching a sitcom. You’re expecting a twist, because that’s what sitcoms do. But the “twists” sitcoms do are invariably, not something different than what you expect, but exactly the opposite. Like when instead of being pissed because his manuscript got burnt up in a fire, the mentor responds the exact opposite – he’s happy.

Is that a twist? It’s a sitcom “twist.” It is a surprise? No. Why not? Because that’s what sitcoms do. It is funny? Surprises are funny, and this wasn’t a surprise. It also wasn’t believable.

Finally, when you came down to it, the issues played out in sitcom stories don’t fundamentally matter. I don’t mean the issues are trivial, I mean that, at the end of the episode, nothing has ultimately changed. You have normal life, a disturbing complication, and end with a return to the same normal life you had at the beginning. To borrow a line from Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath, the sitcom story trajectory went something, no, exactly, like this:

The old lady with the parakeet, flies out the window, flies back in.

So there you have it. Done in by a “dinosaur” formula, the multi-camera comedy passes, pretty much, entirely from existence. Its current replacement? A return to where it all began – the single-camera comedy. At least it’s different. The dialogue and story structure are more consistent with an identifiable reality, the “twists” aren’t “one-eighties”, and, at the end of the episode, you’re not always back at the beginning.

Are the new comedies popular? Only if “popular” isn’t measured by the size of the audience. And it’s not. “Popular” is now measured by the size of the audience coveted by the advertisers. Are the new comedies popular when measured by the size of the audience coveted by the advertisers? Apparently, they are. But boy, are those audiences tiny.

Maybe it’s not a funny time. The current comedy hits, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm seem more about humiliation and pain than anything I recognize as humorousness. But maybe, its traditional terrain played out, that’s just where comedy moved on to.

Are there any hopeful signs? There were, with Seinfeld, which, in mine ‘umble opinion, was the greatest half hour comedy ever made. And I’ll back up that claim tomorrow.

It’s possible, I suppose, that that television executive was right – the writers did the traditional sitcom in. But, more likely – as I hope I have demonstrated – it was the other way around.

The traditional sitcom, with its rigid, almost Kabuki-like requirements, finally did in the writers.

Note: If the conditions writing network comedy are different today, I’d like to hear about it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

"The Complete History of Half-Hour Comedy" - (the short version)

It started with radio.

Amos ‘n Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Our Miss Brooks, The Great Gildersleeve, The Jack Benny Program, The Burns and Allen Show, Life With Luigi. These and other radio comedies would be influential as templates for the television comedies that would follow.

When television started, most half-hour comedies were filmed like little movies. (They were produced in movie studios and that’s what they knew how to do.) The process they employed is known as the “single camera” filming system. When you shoot “single camera”, every scene is filmed multiple times – “close-up”, “medium shot”, “long shot”, and from various angles – with a single camera (hence the, you know, name of the process). The footage is then edited together, ultimately producing the final product.

Most early “single camera” comedies were family shows like Ozzie and Harriet, which generated gentle chuckles from the humorous escapades of the bumbling Dad (the Mom was perfect) and their harmlessly incorrigible offspring. The “single camera” format would continue through the Sixties with, among others, My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

There was one exception to the early “single camera” monopoly. Desi Arnaz pioneered the “multi-camera” approach to recording half-hours for I Love Lucy, so that his wife, Lucy, could stomp grapes and stuff chocolates into her blouse in front of a live studio audience.

The Lucy audience’s natural laughter accompanied the episodes when they were broadcast, energizing the audience at home with the excitement of the actual performance. By contrast, “single camera” comedies felt remote and, consistent with the word applied to the fabricated “laugh track” that accompanied them, “canned.”

(It amazes me that Lucy was brave enough to risk filming elaborate physical comedy set-pieces in front of an audience. With the audience present, you only have one shot at getting the stunt right; otherwise, you lose the surprise (and the peals of spontaneous laughter the surprise sets off). When I wrote for shows, I was encouraged to avoid such gambles, relying instead on clever dialogue and carefully built-to comedic “moments.”)

Is this stuff too academic? If I were lecturing, I could see people yawning, and start juggling or swallowing a sword. I wish this were more interactive, so you could tell me to keep going or please be more entertaining.

Oh, well. I’ve gone this far…

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, half-hour comedies, such as Sanford and Son and All in the Family, began to be videotaped. Taping programs accommodated the “multi-camera” arrangement, but the production process was considerably cheaper. (A guy I once met who, with a writing partner, created and owned the show What’s Happenin’? told me that his company never had to “go into deficit” – read: borrow money – to produce their series. The videotape process was so cheap, they could begin making a profit right away.)

Not all shows were taped, of course. The shows I worked on, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi and the others, continued to be shot on film, employing the Lucy-developed “multi-camera” approach. (They used to call what we did “Three Camera Comedy.” Then, one day, they started calling it “Four Camera Comedy.” I asked, “How come?” They said, “We added a camera.”)

Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley (the one show that took Lucy-sized gambles with its physical comedy), Family Ties, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld, Friends, Frazier, Everybody Loves Raymond – all programs people loved, ratings winners – it wasn’t unusual for half the week’s “Top Ten” to be populated by comedies.

Comedy was where the money was, especially when shows were successful enough to make it to syndication. Hoping to hit the syndication market motherlode, studios and production companies scooped up all the comedy talent they could find, shelling out substantial sums to sign writers with promising resumes to exclusive “overall” deals. (Hello, Universal. Thanks for the pool.)

It was a good time to be good at being funny. Comedy was riding high, and funny people were flourishing. It looked like it would never stop.

And then it stopped.

And so will I. For today. Tomorrow, I will reveal the truth – I call it the truth, but it could just be my opinion – about the precipitous slide of a genre of entertainment that ruled the airwaves for over seventy years, but doesn’t anymore.

That’s a big story, isn’t it? Worth coming back for?

So come back.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Why I'm Home, And Not Writing For Television"

There are probably a dozen ways to get into this without mentioning or at least dwelling on the fact that I was consistently hostile to television executives, and that, when I did get to run shows, I felt myself to be in way over my head. But I have the need to be truthful (before I start the blaming). Those two tendencies are enough you keep you permanently at home with no outside help whatsoever – being “difficult” and marginally capable.

So there’s that. The “me” factor.

(By the way, only the talent is ever labeled “difficult”, never the executives. Troublesome executives are called “colorful.” There are two reasons for this selective labeling. As the talents’ employers, the executives feel free to call their employees anything they want. Also, executives are serviced by P.R. departments, who spin their bosses as being colorful. And spin the talent as being difficult.)

Moving on…

At some point – and a true student of the medium could pinpoint exactly when – the mandate of network television changed, from trying to attract the largest possible audience – meaning everybody – to demographic targeting – meaning no old people.

Here’s a tasteless analogy you might enjoy: Think of the advertisers as the “Johns” and the television networks as the procurers. The “John” instructs the procurer, “Bring me young viewers!” (To be delivered with a crazy look in your eyes and a trace of spittle bubbling from the corner of your mouth.)

The procurer humbly bows and backs out of the room. The procurer then races off and hires people to make candy (targeted programming) to pull in the kids. Who gets the assignment, making candy for the kids?

Not old writers.

So, even I hadn’t behaved as described in Paragraph One above, being old – “old” being anyone over forty – I’d still very likely be home. Cooperative older writers are home too. (Ha!) Sorry about that. Sometimes, I’m not that nice.

The irony – and for older writers, the bitter irony – is that the “hiring younger writers” strategy hasn’t really worked. No matter what they program, youthful viewers are not flocking to network television. Kids today have too many other, more attractive, entertainment options. I could give you a list of those options, though, since I’m old, I’m really not familiar with what they are. I just know they have them. Texting, I think, is one.

“And the phones are so small!

(Like limping when I don’t have to, I sometimes enjoy wallowing in stereotypes.)

It is my view that, as long as they’re considered “the public airwaves” – which means, on some level, the public has a right to exert pressure on matters of content – networks will always be too constrained in their programming parameters to attract cutting edge viewership.

(My daughter, Anna’s, current favorite show is Locked Up Abroad – a guy’s caught smuggling, when it’s discovered he’s ingested dozens of cocaine-filled condoms. You won’t see that on CBS’s schedule any time soon.)

Summary Paragraph – (to be read if you’re too busy to read the whole thing): The networks send the old writers home, because they believe only young writers can reel in the young audience. The young writers create shows, and the young audience still doesn’t show up. But the networks persist in this approach, because the advertisers have instructed them to “Bring me young viewers!” and they don’t know what else to do. (It’s not just in government where failed strategies continue to be repeated. You can be stupidly inflexible anywhere.)

I don’t know about your newspaper, but in Los Angeles, every Wednesday, ours prints a list of the week’s television ratings, running from the Number One program of the week to, like, Number One Hundred and Five, generally something from the Spanish-speaking network, or a series on the CW.

A study of these ratings reveals that, on a consistent basis, of the thirty most watched programs on television, two or, at the most, three of them are half-hour comedies, and none of those are in the “Top Twenty.” (The second and, if there is one, third most watched comedies feed directly off the success of CBS’s Two and a Half Men, which they’re scheduled around on Monday nights, Two and a Half Men being the only unqualified hit comedy currently on the air.)

In all my years of paying attention to television, the half-hour comedy has never performed so poorly.

Since the blockbuster years of Seinfeld, Friends, Frazier and Raymond, the popularity of television comedy has taken an enormous nosedive. And we’re not talking one or two seasons. We’re talking…longer.

When I discussed this situation with Ken Levine, the wonderful blogmeister of bykenlevine.com, I set to him this question:

“What would it take to make the four-camera comedy (the format of all the above-mentioned mega-hits) popular again?” Ken immediately replied:

“A hit.”

I respectfully disagree. I think it’s over. (It’s flattering to think that, as soon as I went home, television comedy went down the toilet.) Before I explain why I think it’s over – which I’ll do on Monday – it’s important for you to remember that, by nature, and also by habit – though the habit could simply be the product of the nature, I’m still working on that – I am not what you’d call a positive person. Ken is. Ken sees the glass as half full. I don’t even see the glass.

Maybe Ken’s right. Maybe the next Seinfeld will take television by storm, trigger a turnaround, and comedy will be king once again. But as the Scots people, or maybe just pretend Scots people, say, “I hay’ me dewts.”
Stay tewned.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Language, Language"

All writers have are words. And when you lose them – and by “losing them”, I don’t mean that they magically disappear from the dictionary, or an entire culture suddenly suffers some kind of collective amnesia – “What’s that word for the thing, you know, it comes out of the tap and you drink it and it’s clear, and there’s rivers and lakes and oceans made out of it, what’s that word again, it’s on the tip of my tongue.” – Not that. I don’t mean that.

(You probably knew I didn’t mean that. Sometimes, I just need something to get me started.)

What I do mean about losing words is this. I’ll explain with an example. There was this movie, Bullitt. 1968. It’s famous for its car chase, Steve McQueen in his Mustang, careening at breakneck speed down the scarily steep streets of San Francisco.

(I structured that last sentence deliberately so I could use the word “careening.” At Universal, the guy in the next office had written for Hill Street Blues, and I always envied him, because in all my years of writing half-hour comedies, I never got to use the word “careen” or “careening” once. The Hill Street Blues writer got to use them all the time. Of course, he didn’t get to use the word “guffaw.”)

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of car chases. I get irritated when they careen into parked cars or moving cars that happen to get in the way. All I can think of is calling your insurance agent and getting estimates.

Who pays for the damages that are caused during car chases? The responsible parties are long gone. And how would you find them?

“Did you get their license number?”

“I couldn’t. They were careening all over the place!”

When I think about Bullitt, the car chase is not my most enduring memory. What stuck with me most was a, for me, truly shocking snippet of dialogue.

The moment occurs somewhere close to the last scene in the movie. The Robert Vaughn character, a corrupt…something…is wising up the idealistic Steve McQueen character to the political “facts of life”. I couldn’t pull up the exact dialogue – YouTube apparently being only interested the car chase – but Vaughn’s message in realpolitik boiled down to this: “You lie. You cheat. You do what you have to do. That’s the game. And everybody plays it.”

To this, McQueen spits out a single-word rebuttal:


As best as I can remember, this was the first time anyone had ever uttered the word, “Bullshit!” in a major studio motion picture. It hit me like a stinging slap in the face.

Try generating a “‘Bullshit!’ Moment” in a movie today.

It can’t be done. The “shock words” themselves are still around, but through careless usage and needless repetition, they’ve completely lost their punch. The gut-walloping words of the past are now weak dribblers to the shortstop. We’ve heard them too many times.

File it under “Unintended Consequences.” The Noble Crusade: The Liberation of Cinematic Language. Trading polished exchanges for the gritty colloquiality of the street.

Mission accomplished. “Fake” dialogue has been vanquished. The artificial is no more. They talk like we talk. Isn’t it grand.


Unless you’re a writer.

And you’re trying to knock people out of their seats.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Seventeen"

“That’s more than I usually get.”

This, as I recall, was my response, when my wonderful agent and his dark partner, Bob, informed me of the terms of a deal Universal had offered me to develop new comedies series for their studio.

During the almost fifteen years I had been writing for television, I had felt little enthusiasm for such a deal. I was a freelancer, offering my services to series that interested me, from Mary Tyler Moore to The Cosby Show. My resume was unusual. I had held only two positions on the programs I had worked on. I was either the show’s Executive Producer – Best of the West and The Cosby Show – or I took no title at all and just wrote scripts.

I liked the feeling of not having a boss. (That feeling bore no connection to any actual reality. I always had a boss. Whoever pays you, is your boss. I liked to imagine myself as a hired gun who did the job, and quietly rode out of town. I never worked for someone, I always worked with them. Of course, that’s all nonsense. Something your mind manufactures to puff you up. When it’s not going the other way.)

My (imagined) independent streak reminded me of my brother’s joke:

A Jew gets off a stagecoach in the Old West and heads down the street. The first cowboy he passes says, “Howdy, Partner.” To which the Jew immediately shoots back, “I don’t need no partners.”

Aside from the loss of imagined independence, working under an “overall” deal meant – unless it was stipulated otherwise in your contract – that if you weren’t developing or producing a show of your own, the studio could assign you to another of their shows, currently on the air. You could always say you didn’t want to do it, but here’s what that meant.

One, you were essentially telling people who were paying you very well on a weekly basis: “I’d rather not work on the show you’re assigning me to. I’d prefer, instead, to take extended naps in my office.”

Two, as a result of your behavior in One, these people are, understandably, not eager to bring you back when your current contract runs out.

The short version? They don’t pay big money for naps. (More than once.) (Usually.)

However (as the anarchic comedian Professor Irwin Corey used to say at the beginning of his act)…

By the time this offer came around, I was a married guy with a house, two children and lots of bills. A regular paycheck started sounding pretty good. Much better than, say, living in the street.

Plus, See: above. It was more than I usually got.

I’d also probably had it with freelancing. There wasn’t always enough work to keep me busy, though I had participated in some wonderful projects along the way, from Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories to an assignment starring Steven Wright for a (very rare) original comedy series on PBS.

I had also written some (unsold) pilots during that period, a memorable one for a production company bankrolled by Mormons, who had paid me double my usual salary and who, for a number of Christmases, continued to send me – I believe as a gift – a five-pound sack of walnuts.

When they start paying you in things that chipmunks eat, it’s time to take a deal.

So I did.

The Universal Studios president was a smart and decent man named Kerry. (Unlike more formal businesses, show business – from the highest level to the bottom – likes to promote the illusion of friendliness, by having people call each other by their first names, making it even more shocking when the Big Guys suddenly pull rank.)

Kerry had an original way of shaking hands. You’d stick out your hand, and Kerry’d respond by sweeping his arm way out to the right. His elbow was bent, but the arm was really out there. Then, after a momentary pause, he’d swoop his arm back in, his hand finding its target perfectly. Everyone needs a trademark. Kerry’s was the “Flying Handshake.”

I accepted the deal when Kerry agreed to two conditions. One: The studio could not assign to another of its comedies. (I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that, at that time, Universal Studios produced any comedies.) The second condition was that, when my deal was announced in the “trade” papers – Variety and The Hollywood Reporter – it would not be accompanied by a photograph of me holding up a Universal team jersey with “POMERANTZ” sewn on the back.

I was taking the money, but I still had my pride.

Besides a personal driver – Craig, who was a godsend – to shuttle me around, my deal also included a gigantic office. You know – or maybe you don’t – how when a studio president loses their job, but they still have some time on their contract, so they’re given a luxurious temporary office and nothing to do? When the guy’s deal ran out, that’s where they put me.

The office was enormous. Did I mention that already? Forgive me, but it was very impressive. Even Dr. M was, like, “Wow.” And she’s not easily “Wowed.” I could see it in her eyes. They said, “My husband must be somebody. Look where they put him.”

Aside from the adjoining flagstone patio, where we set up a small barbecue and incurred the immediate attention of the studio’s on-site Fire Department – the highlight of my office was that, right next door, were the offices of Peter (Columbo) Falk and Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan. You know who was next door to them?


I recently asked my agent how he was able to get me such a tremendous deal? His one-word answer:


It was as simple as that. My association, brief as it was, had sprinkled me with the pixie dust of Cosby Show mystique. The Cosby Show was a phenomenal hit and I had been its first Executive Producer (and the Emmy-nominated writer of the “Goldfish” episode). Universal wanted a piece of that. And the biggest piece available was me.

I had helped put together one of the most popular half-hour comedies in television history. My assignment at Universal? It was very simple.

Do it again.