Friday, October 31, 2008


Yesterday, I talked about confidence, a writer’s fundamental need to believe in what they’re communicating, and in the method (the words, the tone, the style) they’ve chosen to communicate it. My advice in this area is unwavering. For your greatest chance at success…

Write like yourself.

I wrote like myself for over thirty years (I still do in this blog), and it worked out pretty well. When my agent warned me that the business was changing – comedies were getting dumber and sexier – he urged me to alter my approach. For my agent, and I didn’t disagree, this was a “Red Alert” situation. A new wind was a-blowin’. It was “Change or die.”

I can’t do “dumber and sexier.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I also knew there were natural “dumber and sexier” writers out there, whose minds work exactly that way. Even if I altered my approach, my efforts would be poor and painful imitations of those naturals. (As theirs would be if they ventured to write like me.)

I remember once seeing a comedy pilot, written by a TV writer I greatly admired. He was sliding in the business and saw this as his last chance at staying in the game. I watched the pilot with growing distaste. Here was an intelligent, insightful funny writer trying to be sexy, superficial and dumb. It was difficult to look at. A Bubby (Granny) in a miniskirt.

Write like yourself. It’s the only rule I’ve got.


This is subtle. Not the concept, my transition. You know the experiment where they drop a frog in a pot of water, and they raise the temperature so gradually that the frog can’t sense that the water’s heating up until, unaware of the danger, it finally boils to death? I’m talking about that kind of subtle.

You develop your style, a synthesization of instinct, training and experience. Your success gives you confidence in your style. You can rely it. It works. And other people agree.

Confidence is essential. Without it, you’d sit mute at the computer. “What do I do and how do I do it?”

You know what to do. You write like yourself. The awareness that “It worked before, it’ll work again” is soothing and reassuring. Your confidence gets you in the game.

It’s sort of like religion. You have a certainty in your beliefs. But sometimes, as with religion, you forget that other people have different beliefs.

If you recall yesterday’s posting, you’ll remember my telling a friend of mine, a writer of successful but superficial comedies:

“I don’t why anyone would write if they don’t have anything to say.”

That crashing sound is me, shattering the only rule I’ve got. I had told this writer, who was sailing along in his career, that there was something deficient in his writing like himself, and what he really needed to do was to

…write like me.*

* It is highly questionable that everything I wrote, especially for television, was a trumpeting expression of something I had to say. On too many occasions, I didn’t even write like me.

This holier than Thou pronouncement is my first memory of messing up in this manner. (I mess up in various manners.) Imperceptibly, though it was probably screamingly perceptible to my writer friend, my confidence had evolved ever so gradually into arrogance.

“Don’t write like yourself. Write like me.”

Sadly, I have repeated this transgression in various venues, most often in “Rewrite Rooms”, where I regularly ignored the only rule I’ve got and I berated other writers for writing like themselves. Their joke pitches may have rocked the room with laughter, but if they seemed to me to be inconsistent with the character delivering them or they muddied an important story point…

I don’t know. Maybe I was just jealous.

Eh. No, not “eh” yet. There’s one more.

John Lahr. (“Just Trying to Help” – April 2, 2008.)

Lahr is the first class New Yorker theater critic whose writing shimmers with insight and panache. What (unsolicited) advice did I give him? In his always readable reviews, he’d sprinkle in words whose meanings I didn’t understand, like louche and Manichean, and I suggested he use more regular words instead. The message I was sending this universally acclaimed theater critic?

“Don’t write like yourself. Write like me.”

Oh, man.

Confidence is mandatory. Arrogance? The froggie is cooked.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Writers need confidence. They need confidence to believe their ideas are worth writing, or they’d never put anything down. They also need confidence to believe that the words they choose to express those ideas are the best words they can think of; otherwise, they’d be drive themselves nuts rewriting the thing over and over again, struggling to get it “just right.”

(The third area of confidence, if their writing is not of the blogatory variety, is the confidence to believe that their ideas, in whatever form they enstructure them, have a reasonable chance of selling.)

Most people don’t write, believing, “What do I have to say that’s so special?” Maybe they’re right, or maybe the world missed out on a wonderful writer with valuable insights. You can’t force people to write. Any more than you can force some writers to stop.

I once mentioned to a successful television writer I know that “I don’t know why anyone would write when they don’t have anything to say.” The writer stared at me blankly and proceeded to enrich himself penning mindless comedies. (It’s quite possible my concept of “the writer’s purpose” is narrower than it needs to be. See posting on “Arrogance”, coming shortly.)


The finest example, for me, of a writer’s “confidence cycle” in its exquisite completeness appears in the cult comedy classic Bye Bye Braverman (1968), written by Herb Sargent, (based on the 1964 novel To An Early Grave by Wallace Markfield.) My friend Paul and I have been unsuccessfully searching for a copy of this movie for years. You guys are good at that stuff. Maybe you can help.

Bye Bye Braverman revolves around four old pals, reuniting to attend a friend’s funeral, and they can’t find it. That’s the entire plot. But inside the movie are various rapturous moments, including a scene near the end, where George Segal, standing in a cemetery, discourses on the myriad changes in the world that the people lying dead in the cemetery have missed.

The “confidence cycle” scene features one of the four buddies, a blocked book reviewer named “Holly Levine”, played by Sorrell Booke (who went on to play “Boss” Hogg on the Dukes of Hazzard TV series.)

The character, “Levine”, sits abjectly in front of his typewriter (it was 1968), agonizing over a review that he hasn’t started writing. There were a few false starts, which sit crumpled in his wastebasket. Close-up on “Levine”, staring, almost paralyzed, at a blank white page.


I may not get the details exactly right – I saw the movie once, forty years ago – but after a torturous struggle, “Levine” overcomes his writer’s block, and in a mad flurry of creative inspiration, types the first paragraph of his review.

“Certainly….” That’s how it started. “Certainly…” It was followed by a paragraph, dashed off with flying fingers, of one piece, without a moment’s hesitation. His writer’s block is over. As the ballplayer’s say, he is “in the zone.”

“Levine” snatches the paper from the typewriter, reading it with satisfaction and delight – “Certainly…” and what follows composed more brilliantly that he could possibly have imagined. The imaginative choice of words. The effortless-feeling flow. The clear, concise, cogent – and indisputably correct – point of view. “Levine” is thrilled with his effort. He is certain to be declared a genius.

“Levine” moves to return the page to his typewriter. Suddenly, there’s a flicker of hesitation. Something appears to be amiss.

Harboring last-minute second thoughts, he re-reads the paragraph. His confidence recedes with every word. It’s an alarming transformation. What was perceived moments earlier to be perfect now seems considerably less so. It may be worse than that. The paragraph may actually stink.

The symbol of his displeasure is reflected in the single word he recites from his previously “flawless” review.


“Levine” crumples the paper and tosses it in the wastebasket.

Who can say what turned things around? An inner critical voice, the writer’s own or some powerful “other.” On the other hand, maybe it’s not the “Voice of Doubt” that’s speaking. Maybe it’s the “Voice of Truth.”

Maybe what “Levine” wrote, and was temporarily enamored of, was actually not very good. Maybe “Levine” is an inadequate evaluator of his own writing. Or maybe, going to the heart of the matter, “Levine” is simply unsuited for his chosen line of work, totally lacking in talent, and having no business whatsoever considering himself a writer.

With thoughts like those flying around, it’s amazing anyone ever writes anything at all.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Worth Knowing"

I heard a comedian tell this joke early in the Cold War. At the time, America was concerned because Russians was ahead of us in military technology. The joke went like this:

“People are worried about the Russians stealing our secrets. I say, let them. Then they’ll be two years behind.”

This joke comes to mind when I think about people trying to learn about sitcom writing from veteran writers like myself, except, instead of two years, I’m afraid they’d be twenty years behind.

That’s why I don’t teach sitcom writing. I want to give the current aspirants a fighting chance. Situation comedies, especially the multi-camera variety, seem to me like some art form practiced in an ancient civilization. Teaching sitcom writing is akin to leading students through the anachronistic intricacies Egyptian wall painting.

“The legs and head go sideways, but the eyes face straight out.”

Why would you want to learn that? And hope it will make you a living?

There was a time when aspiring writers, watching classic situation comedies, were thinking, “That’s what I want to do!” One of them was me. But that was in 1974. And back then, those shows were popular.

There are some excellent sitcom writing teachers today. I imagine, among other advice, they warn their students against formula joke rhythms, stock characters and predictable storylines. That’s undeniably good advice (though, it’s worth remembering that many writers who avoided none of those elements wound up with extremely large houses).

The problem is, in my view, that the obstacles inhibiting a sitcom revival lie, not in the execution, but in the DNA of the situation comedy form itself. The liabilities come with the territory. I remember the first time I ate ice cream as a five year-old, and I immediately got an excruciating headache. To this day, I can hear myself screaming, “I like ice cream. But take away the cold!”

You can’t have ice cream without the cold. And you can’t have sitcoms without those inherent sitcomical elements that have clearly worn out their welcomes.

The generic living room sets with the couches facing forward. (It’s the only way the four cameras can adequately cover the action.) People eating around one half (the back half) of a table. (Same reason.) The unnatural intrusion of the live studio audience, laughing longer and harder than the people watching at home could possibly see any reason for. (People laugh harder when they’re actually present, but the laughs sound artificial at home, which is why they’re perceived to be “canned” even when they’re not.)

Why didn’t these, and other artificialities – the Huxtables’ living room was large enough to land an airplane in – disturb the viewers of that period? Because owing to the volume of comedies on the air at the time, “sitcom reality” was unconsciously accepted as normal.

As the number of sitcoms drops below a critical mass, the inherent weirdnesses of those that remain seem jarringly disconcerting. Which is a significant reason for the switch to single-camera and animated comedies. These more flexible formats significantly alleviate the traditional sitcom oddities.

The only difference between the classic sitcoms and the inferior versions was that the writing was better. The stories were more identifiable, the characters more believable and less inconsistent in their behavior, and the actors, given honest dialogue, played their parts more truthfully. But beneath the quality, the structural underpinning to both the good shows and the less good ones was exactly the same.

That underpinning is no longer selling tickets.

There’s this multi-camera series currently on the air called The Big Bang Theory. On the surface, it feels unique, the four male lead characters representing young physics geniuses, or something. The dialogue sounds persuasively not phony-baloney. There’s a ring of to authenticity to, I don’t know, blah – the science stuff.

Under the surface, however, it’s the story of a socially inept outsider with a powerful crush on the girl across the hall. I think that one goes back to Buster Keaton. I believe I mentioned yesterday that a hit show is something that’s fundamentally traditional, but a little bit different. The Big Bang Theory is precisely that. Fresh-sounding characters. Stories with moss on them.

I watch The Big Bang Theory, and I root for it to succeed. But unless the stories evolve to the intelligence level of the characters…eh.

Is there anything you can teach to resuscitate the ailing sitcom genre and give it its best possible shot at a comeback?

Yes. You can teach storytelling technique. I believe that, as there are natural laws in the universe, there are natural laws of telling a story. The right way feels better. You can tell when you’re telling a story correctly. You’re holding your audience’s attention, from moment to story-escalating moment.

Successful story structure, though invisible, lifts the material like a supporting wind lifts a bird in flight. It elevates the impact of any story you care to mention, from The Three Bears to… anything more impressive than The Three Bears.

My agent disagrees. He says the audience’s shortened attention span has rendered traditional story techniques irrelevant. My response to that is this. I do not believe any TV series or movie was ever less successful because the story they were telling made sense.

Storytelling technique matters. And that can definitely be taught.

And then there’s this. Offered as a concluding ray of sunshine.

I recently read about a guy who lived a while back, who drove himself crazy with the thought that, since there are only seven notes in the musical scale, the time was imminent when no new songs could possibly be written.

They’re still writing songs.

And a lot of them of are pretty good.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nineteen C"

Thanks for the feedback on my series ideas. I really appreciate it, especially the fact that three different proposals were singled out. Although I am a little hurt about the other three.

A mother brings home two sweaters for her son, a red one and a blue one, instructing him to try them on. The son comes out wearing the red sweater. The mother complains,

“What’s the matter, you don’t like the blue one?”

Accompanying a synopsis of the series ideas, I threw in one-sentence explanations of where I believed these ideas came from, so you could get some sense of connection between the writer and the idea. None of these ideas are products of personal experience – I was never a baseball star, the king of a small European principality, or a woman – but they all in some way, emanated from a certain aspect of my being.

A man I knew once quoted another person who said,

“Everything is like something else. What is this like?”

That’s a useful question when you’re trying to create. You’re a Canadian, but nobody cares about Canadians. A dead end? Not necessarily. You can take that “being a Canadian” feeling, that essence of Canadianness, that distinctive Eu de Canuck, and transform it into a character people might care about, like, say, a fellow from another planet, a planet that’s decent and polite and provides everyone on the planet with affordable health care, and you’re on your way.

“The Visitor From The Planet Nice.”

A simple adjustment. The character’s still essentially you – so you can write it from the inside – but with a, hopefully, popularity-enhancing makeover. Here’s a point I’m continually relearning. You don’t have to worry that you’re writing isn’t personal. It’s always personal. Why? Because you’re the one who’s writing it.

After posting “Story of a Writer – Parts Eighteen A and B, it seemed like I had more to say about creating ideas for television series. I can only draw from my experience, which is limited because, well…I’m limited, but, hopefully, that experience can still be of assistance.

“I’m limited.” What does that mean, that I’m willing to talk about in public? For one thing, it means I have not been blessed with limitless confidence, limitless vision or limitless flexibility. The consequences? A shadowing sense of self-doubt, little aptitude for anticipating trends (there’s a woman named Faith Popcorn who does that for a living), and an inability to create shows and write them in the style that happens to be currently “the way it’s done.”

Most of us are not groundbreakers, trendsetters, or even trend spotters. Our contribution is our version of what’s already there. Sometimes, it’s pure imitation, but at its best, it’s an imitation, professionally executed, with a little bit of “Earl”, or whoever you are, thrown in. Put it all together, it spells…paycheck.

That’s the first step. Understanding what they’re doing, and trying to fit in. The rest of the process… Clueless. I am totally stumped on where ideas come from. I know they come from somewhere. Somewhere in me. I didn’t steal them. No elves sneaked in at night and typed them on my computer. It’s a little like magic. You don’t have an idea. And then you do.

An Insight that Helped Me Get Started

My experience led me to the conclusion that television comedies could be situated just about anywhere. The setting for the show may seem to matter a lot but, ultimately, it’s not life and death.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was set at a television station in Minneapolis. I’ve read the Mary pilot script several times, looking specifically for the answer to this question: “Did Mary Richards have an ambition to work in television news?”

She didn’t. There was an ad in the paper and she answered the ad. That was it. The newsroom arena, though clearly important, did not feature prominently in the pilot storyline. The episode’s highlights are a hilarious job interview scene between Lou and Mary – which could have taken place in any pretty much any job setting – and there was a farcical final scene, where a drunken Lou Grant barges in as Mary’s breaking up with her boyfriend, which, again, has nothing to do with the news.

The setting is secondary. You select a setting that you and, hopefully, the audience, will find interesting and enjoy returning to. A small hotel in Washington, D.C. A microbrewery. A struggling movie studio in the 1930’s.

Revisiting these series ideas, I discover a common thread, which is that they’re all examples of small, struggling enterprises on the brink of extinction. I never noticed that before.

What does that mean to me? It means what I already said. Even when you’re not writing about yourself, you’re still writing about yourself. I always feel small, struggling and on the brink of extinction. There you have it. I’m not creating in a vacuum.

Those enterprises are me!

If the setting isn’t key, what is?

Character and relationship.

That’s what really matters. That’s why people come back. Yes, comedies need to be funny, but comedies that are only funny don’t last. For a show to succeed, the audience needs to care about the people. (Even unlikable people like Larry David.)

Now that I think about it, every series involves a struggle, whether it’s The Office, where they’re struggling against the mundanity of the workplace, or Everybody Loves Raymond, where they’re struggling to survive their family, or on M*A*S*H, where they’re struggling to, literally, not die. It would appear that everyone feels small, struggling and on the brink of extinction. Who knew?

The struggle is the core of the series. You then populate it with a cast of identifiable characters, characters drawn from life rather than the traditional sitcom bag of tricks, you allow those characters represent themselves in a truthful and entertaining manner, and you hand in the script and you see what they think.

I guess that’s what I did.

In High School, I had a classmate named Tom Jefferson who always got a hundred in math. I said to him, “Tom, how do you get a hundred in math?” Tom thought about it for a moment, and then replied, “Well, I sort of look at the questions and I kind of figure out the answers.”

I hope I’ve been a little more helpful than that.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Gratuitous Morality"

We have a cable package, which includes maybe, sixty movie channels. You know the complaint. There’s nothing to watch. I mean, there’s Snake Eater 4, but having missed the previous three Snake Eaters, I’m reluctant to jump in, for fear that I’d be confused. Since confusion tends to diminish one’s enjoyment of the movie, I give Snake Eater 4 a pass.

I’m looking for something to watch. I’m paying for the “movie package”, and I want to get my money’s worth. Or at least something. If I’m lucky, every so often, I’ll find an “almost went” movie, a movie that was of some interest to me when it was playing in the theaters, and I “almost went.” The picture offered some intriguing element, but it didn’t rise to the “went” level. Close, but…I think I’ll stay home.

Flipping through the channels, I discover Rendition (2007). A movie ripped from the headlines: Suspected terrorist shipped off to another country for torture but it’s a mix-up; the guy’s innocent.

This situation happened in Canada. When it eventually came out, the Mounties went “Oops.” Not “We’re sorry, eh?”, but better than nothing. Here, you wouldn’t get close to “Oops.” It would never reach the public.

Except in a movie.

Okay. So. Should I watch Rendition or not?

Let’s see: An intriguing storyline that’s believably possible. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal – an interesting actress and an actor I always enjoy. It’s free, because I already paid for the “movie package.” And it’s either Rendition or Snake Eater 4.

I decide watch it. But not Dr. M. She, as usual, is ahead of me. No “torture movies” for her.

Big mistake. Not her. Me. Why? Because of that thing they do in movies. Call it “Gratuitous Morality.” (As I did, above.) I’m talking about “issue” movies. The moviemakers are passionately committed to making a point. In Rendition it’s “Torturing is bad.” And to demonstrate that point, the moviemakers feel obligated to show an alarming amount of torturing.

I can’t tell you how much torturing they depicted – every time they went near the guy, I grabbed the remote and switched to something else – but I know there was a lot of it. I could hear screaming from the other channel.

They didn’t need to do that. If they’d taken the prisoner into a room that had a sign above the door reading, “Torture Area” and left it at that, I would just as easily have gotten the message.

What message? “Torturing damages the victims, it destroys the perpetrators, and it confronts us with the question, “Who are we, if we allow these atrocities to be perpetrated in our names?’”

All legitimate issues. Definitely worthy of a movie.

But do they really need to show all that torturing? Where’s the subtlety? Where’s the art? Okay, forget “Torture Area.” That’s too 1942. Try this. You’re in the room, the torturer reaches for the electrodes, and you cut away, leaving the rest to our imaginations. Or you show some of the torturing, but indirectly, through shadows on the Torture Room wall.

No, huh?

Well I don’t agree.

There are classier and more powerful ways to make the point. Consider the 1982 Jack Lemmon movie, Missing. Costa Gavras directing. The storyline there was: A father goes to a South American country to find out what happened to his son, who’s disappeared. It turns out the son has been tortured and killed. The difference is in Missing, everything is hinted at. Nothing is on the screen.

“That’s a copout! If you don’t show the torturing, you’re leaving out the most gut-wrenching element of the story.”

Wrong, Italics Man. You’re just leaving out the torturing. Missing is emotionally devastating. You’re completely engrossed, watching a desperate father battling a stonewalling bureaucracy. The man wants to know what happened to his son. Not what they did to him. Is he alive?

I’ll bet Missing made more money than Rendition. It also won a number of awards, including an Oscar for best screenplay adapted from another medium. The torturing in Rendition can’t be justified on either artistic or “commercial” grounds. Which leaves us the question:

“What is it in there for?”

The Moviemakers’ Response

“We, the moviemakers, deplore torture, and we want it to stop. In our opinion, the best way to gain public support for our position is to depict this immorality as graphically as possible, so the audience, appalled by what they’ve witnessed, will be motivated to oppose it.


Yeah, yeah.

Slightly More Intelligent Rebuttal

Moviegoers have been there before.


Cecil B. DeMille.

Big-time movie director in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Specialized in “bible pictures.” King of Kings. The Ten Commandments. Samson and Delilah.

Leaning heavily in a conservative direction, DeMille was fundamentally opposed to sin. Especially licentiousness, which my dictionary defines as acting “sexually unrestrained.”

DeMille’s message: “Licentiousness damages the victims, destroys the souls of the participants, and brings strongly into question who we are as a people. To make sure you understand what I mean by ‘licentiousness’, so if licentiousness crosses your path, you will refrain from joining in, I will show exactly what it looks like.”

He makes his “bible pictures.” Licentiousness everywhere. Dancing girls in diaphanous attire. Provocative glares and leering responses. Kissing. Fondling. Whatever the movie Code of Decency will allow, and before the Code, more.

Is it gratuitous? Not at all.

It’s educational.


Any difference, do you think, between “educational licentiousness” and “educational torturing”? For me, only one. With the licentiousness, you don’t find me reaching quite as urgently for the remote.

I must not be entirely certain of what it is.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nineteen B"

Preparing for this posting, I ventured into the storage room at the back of our garage. There’s dust back there, and possibly critters. But I went there anyway. For you. I went there, because in one of the storage boxes shelved there, there’s a file containing, among other memorabilia, a file containing the series ideas I came up with while I was working at Universal.

I distinctly remember once, in an explosion of creative exuberance, composing a list of ten ideas for situation comedies. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Seeing a list of ten series ideas I came up with on a single day?

I couldn’t find the list.

I did, however, unearth scripts and proposals for six of those ideas. I was surprised at how many there were. At the time, I believed they all had merit. They may not have been projects I was unilaterally passionate about – how can you be unilateral about six ideas – but they were areas I was interested in exploring. With the passage of time…I don’t know, you decide.

I had a deal. And these are the ideas I came up with:

The Home Team

An aging baseball superstar – think a forty year-old Mark Harmon – is rehabbing from a serious injury, though he’s confident he’ll be back in the game. In the meantime, since his wife’s career is starting to pop, he agrees to man the homefront, taking care of their two kids, one of them, an infant son. The guy never played baseball again, remaining, instead, a full-time, stay-at-home jock.

(This is a little like how I felt when I stayed at home after leaving The Cosby Show.)

At The Blackstone

(This one was partially based on a couple I met at a spa in Mexico that I’ve talked about.)

Using her inheritance money, a smart but insecure woman (think Julie Haggerty) and her domineering boyfriend buy a small (fourteen room) hotel in Washington D.C., which also houses a gourmet French restaurant. The boyfriend promises his girlfriend a fifty-fifty share in the responsibility. Then he does everything himself. He lets her pick the drapes. A confrontation ensues, the woman demanding that he live up to his promise of equal sharing. To teach her a lesson, the boyfriend abruptly walks out, leaving the woman, low in experience and self-esteem, to run the hotel alone.

(The woman's emotional journey mirror the feelings I experienced running a television show.)

The Beer Brothers

Inheriting a failing microbrewery, two brothers – one a straight arrow, the other a lovable goof-off – struggle to co-exist while trying to keep the family business afloat.

(I have a temperamentally different older brother. In this series, I’m exploring the practicalities of working together.)

The Studio

The sidesplitting saga of the floundering “Desperate Studios”, set in the low-rent district of 1930’s Hollywood.

(This is me, surrounded by the magnificent standing sets at Universal, inspired by a wonderful British television series called Flickers.)

The King

A quirky and career-challenged young fellow (think Steven Wright) is the offspring of a single Mom former Peace Corps volunteer, who, during her overseas service, had an affair with the monarch of a small European principality (who, unbeknownst to him, is the young fellow’s father.) When the king dies lacking a male heir, the young fellow is kidnapped, abducted to the small European principality and handed the responsibility of running the country.

(This is me, in Duck Soup, The Mouse That Roared mode, doing insightful and hilarious social commentary. Mixed with the feelings I experienced running a television show.)

Old Guys

Mismatched old guys are forced by financial necessity into sharing an apartment.

(Years ago, my brother and I improvised a routine concerning “Benny and Bernie”, who had reached a stage in their lives where neither of them could remember which one of them was Benny and which one of them was Bernie. The Old Guys old guys were nowhere near that impaired, but the quarreling relationship was the same.)

Those were six series ideas I came up with at Universal. What do you think? (I know it’s how you write them, but still.) Did I earn my money? I can still give it back. Let me know before I spend it all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nineteen"

A deal at a studio. In my case, Universal. Where every fifteen minutes, a tour tram drives by your window. With the accompanying tour conductor’s memorized narration:

“Okay, folks, if you’ll look out the window to your right, you’ll see the luxurious office of one of the newest writers in the Universal family, Earl Pomerantz. Earl is a multiple Emmy Award-winning writer, who’s worked on some of television’s finest situation comedies, most recently The Cosby Show, where he served as Executive Producer, and wrote the classic episode about the goldfish.

“The studio recently signed Earl to a lucrative two-year contract to develop new situation comedies for us. That’s a pretty common strategy in the television business. Studios make exclusive deals with members of the writing staffs of hit comedies, hoping those writers can duplicate the elusive magic of hit-making for them.

"It’s kind of like in horse racing, where investors, betting on the bloodlines, pay big money for the offspring of horses who had won the Kentucky Derby. I don’t know how well that works with horses, but you know how often this strategy pays off with writers? Almost never.

“That’s a little inside information, and I’ll probably be fired for telling you.”

(None of the above actually happened. The Universal tour came nowhere near my office. I just thought it was an interesting way of summarizing the development deal arrangement. I apologize for the lying, or, more generously, the artistic conceit.)

It was my first development deal ever. I had always shunned them, fearing the loss of my low-paying freelance status, or, putting it less frivolously, my independence. The other fear was that if I didn’t come up with any ideas, they’d yell at me.

I had already produced Family Man for Universal. Though it only ran for seven episodes, I could legitimately consider myself “on the board.” I now, officially, hadn’t done nothing.

It’s a funny job, coming up with new ideas. For anything. Because I’m me, I think about stuff like that, in other contexts. Every time I’m drying my hands in a public washroom, I take notice the various approaches employed to limit the amount of paper towels I use.

That’s a job. Somewhere, people are being paid to sit around, wracking their brains, trying to devise ways of limiting the amount of paper towel use in public washrooms.

Where do those new ideas come from? Who came up with the one-sheet-at-a-time machine? Who invented the you-pull-on-the-paper-but-hardly-anything-comes-out apparatus?

Whose idea was the hot air blower? Who invented linen towel loop? (That one’s disgusting.) Were these the best of hundreds of innovations for reducing paper towel use in public washrooms that never made the cut? What were the others like?

Is there a paper towel dispenser’s Hall of Fame? Who’s in it? What exactly did they do to earn paper towel dispensing immortality?

That’s enough, Earl.


Too silly? Perhaps. But, for me, hardly a theoretical consideration. Though I may be no great shakes in the area of hand-drying paraphernalia, I wrestled with the same problem as it concerns coming up with original ideas for situation comedies, which was what Universal was paying me handsomely to do, and I had no idea how to do it.

Coming up with Family Man had been easy. It was somebody else’s idea. The president of NBC asked me to “Write The Cosby Show, but with your family.” That, I could handle. I had worked on The Cosby Show and I had a family. The fundamentals were in place.

But Family Man was over. As I’ve mentioned, a famous talent manager said the most important word in show business is, “Next.” What was my next idea? How should I know? I hadn’t thought of it yet.

“But, Earl, they’re paying you to…”

“I know!

As a freelancer, ideas came to me when they came to me. No pressure, no rush. First decade of my career, I came up with one idea. A cowboy comedy. That was Best of the West. After that, I had no ideas. I wasn’t suppressing them. They weren’t showing up.

You wrote stuff when you thought of it; that was my natural way of doing things. I wrote songs that way. I never forced things. They either came to me or they didn’t. In my life, I have written a grand total of four songs. My guess was Universal was expecting me to be more prolific.

And I was far from certain I could be.

Tomorrow: Six series ideas I made up at Universal.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


First Impression:

I’m landing in Toronto, and I take the Customs Form that I filled out and I’m supposed to hand in, which instructs me very clearly not to fold it, and I slip it inside the book I’d been reading on the plane. The form’s in the book; it won’t accidentally fold.

I walk up to the Canadian Customs Officer, a pretty young woman in a flak jacket, and I place the book on the counter in front of her. The Customs Officer reaches for my Customs Form and then abruptly stops, a look of concern contracting the muscles of her face. The concerned Customs Officer, gesturing to my Customs Form, then says:

“Is this your book mark?”

Welcome to Canada.

Intermediate Impression:

In Canada, they televise the Supreme Court proceedings. Being me, I watch, fascinated. For religious reasons, the Hutterites in Alberta have refused to have their pictures taken for their Drivers’ License. Can the government force them to? That’s the case.

Here’s how fair minded and even-handed the proceedings were. I watched a lawyer argue his position for more than fifteen minutes before I discovered which side he was representing. The way I finally found out was they subtitled on the bottom of the screen:

“(Whatever the guys’ name was): Representing the plaintiffs.”

I really couldn’t tell. Although he was advocating for the plaintiffs, the lawyer’s argument was so respectfully balanced that from an outsider’s perspective – an outsider from a fiercely adversarial culture – it was impossible to determine whether he believed the Hutterites should be required to have their Drivers’ License pictures taken or they shouldn’t.

Final Impression:

I’m flying back to L.A. Air Canada. I get up to go to the washroom. It’s occupied. I wait. Finally, the occupant comes out, and as I take a step towards the washroom, he holds the door open for me.

I’ve been on many planes on lots of different airlines. No one has ever held an airplane washroom door open for me before.

Air Canada. The courteous skies.

That’s the place I was borned in. That’s O Canada. That’s my home and native land.

Or is it?

I read some newspapers while I was there. There was some bad stuff being reported, murders, and other nefariosities. I don’t remember the details. And there’s a reason for that. The reason I don’t remember the details is because the information about the bad stuff didn’t stay with me. There’s a reason for that too. The information about the bad stuff didn’t stay with me because, due to a prejudice favoring my country of origin, I simply didn’t want to know.

That’s not good reporting on my part. It’s not even good remembering.

I wanted to be proud of my country of origin, and I wanted to show you that Canada’s okay. So I deliberately forgot stuff – no, not forgot – I never took it in in the first place. I only retained what supported my position.

It’s natural, I suppose. You remember what you remember. But for a purported seeker of wisdom truth such as myself, this is hardly my finest hour.

I’m going to mix metaphors here, can you handle it? It’s like we’re these receivers, and each of us receives information on our own personal frequency. And that frequency is like flypaper. (That’s the mixed metaphor – a flypaper frequency.) Somewhere in our remembering mechanism, we decide what we want to notice and what we don’t. And what we remember becomes the truth.

Some stuff – in this case, the positive stuff about Canada – sticks to our flypaper or is picked up on our frequency, and the other stuff isn’t picked up – or doesn’t stick to our flypaper – choose your metaphor. When you remember later, it’s like that other stuff never happened.

You want to know what’s really going on, don’t you? Maybe you don’t, I don’t know you. But I do. Or at least I say I do. The problem is, how can I know what’s really going on when I’m wired with a blatantly prejudizing predisposition?

The anecdotes I related about Canada actually happened. If you’re a regular reader, you know I don’t make stuff up. But a lot of bad stuff was going on at the same time. But that stuff was absent from my story.

There was no deliberate choosing. It doesn’t work that way. I can’t tell you about the bad stuff for a very simple reason.

I was programmed not to remember.


I want to thank my family and friends for making me feel so comfortable and welcome. I really wish we lived closer.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Remembering 'Teeder'"

On a trip to Toronto during hockey season, I remember with excitement and affection the Maple Leaf hockey great, Ted “Teeder ” Kennedy. Who wouldn’t?

Okay, you hate hockey. You have no interest in a guy who played half a century ago. Anything Canadian makes you yawn. Get over it! This is a wonderful story!

Come on! You read “Why Canadian Football Is Better Than American Football” (August 15, 2008.) This is better! I promise!

It doesn’t matter about his ability – though the Hockey News ranked him number 57 in the list of the Hundred Greatest Hockey Players – or how many Stanley Cups his teams won – five. “Teeder” Kennedy was far greater than his record.

“Teeder” Kennedy was a national treasure. (If you leave out Quebec.)

I know what I’m about to tell you, and I’m starting to get goose bumps. Hold on, I’m getting a sweater.


Unlike players today, “Teeder” Kennedy played for the same team his entire career – fourteen seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’m not familiar with his earlier career, it was before my time. But as soon as I started following hockey, I knew “Teeder” Kennedy as the captain of the Leafs. And I knew he was special.

He wasn’t the fastest skater. He wasn’t a bruiser. He was a reliable goal scorer, but far from the greatest of his day. (That would be Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.) But Kennedy competed every second he was on the ice. He never loafed. He never let up. The most respected captains lead by example. “Teeder” Kennedy did that better than any player I had ever seen.

Kennedy not only inspired his teammates, he inspired the crowd as well. And one crowd member in particular.

A little background. The cheapest seats in Maple Leaf Gardens were the “Grays.” (The seats were painted gray.) The “Grays” were the worst seats in the house, the highest up, the furthest from the ice. In football, it’s the end-zone. In baseball, the bleachers. In theater, it’s “the gods.” Same idea. “The Grays.”

Now, Maple Leaf fans, being Canadians, are not generally a raucous bunch. They have their moments – when there’s some real action on the ice – but there are times during a game when it’s so quiet in the Gardens, you can carry on a conversation – without shouting – with a person sitting on the opposite side of the rink.

Because of the demands on the players’ stamina, a hockey game is made up of a series of “shifts.” A “line” of players comes off the bench, plays full out for maybe a minute, even less, then they “switch off”, fresh legs replacing exhausted ones.

Okay. This is where this has been going.

Throughout his career, the moment “Teeder” Kennedy, the Leafs’ intensely competitive captain, came out for his shift – and I mean every single time – a lone, sandpapery voice would come rumbling down from the “Grays”, rise above the murmur of the crowd, and call:

“Come onnnnnnnnnnn, Teeder!”

I just shed a tear. Sorry.

The Leafs could be miles ahead, clinging to a lead, need one goal to tie it up, or be down by five – the situation made no difference whatsoever. It was always the same. “Teeder” Kennedy’s skates hit the ice --

“Come onnnnnnnnnnn, Teeder!”

This was before television. We’re talking the imagination-firing intimacy of radio. And I’m telling you, not only did that powerful, anonymous voice crack the silence of the Gardens, and my bedroom, where I secretly listened long after my scheduled bedtime, not only did it rip through Toronto, and Ontario (the province Toronto’s located in). That energizing call to arms shot clear across Canada, neutralizing the whistling, winter winds, and bringing a lonely and disparate nation together with a single call:

“Come onnnnnnnnnnn, Teeder!”

And how often “Teeder” came through.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Going Home"

Everybody only has one hometown and today, I’m winging back to mine. I may actually be in the air as you read this. I’m not posting this in the air. Can you do that? I have no idea. I know you can work on computers in the air. I’ve seen young, invariably, Asian guys tapping away from takeoff till touchdown, while I’m working my way through a series of naps.

There’s something about going home. I go through Immigration in Toronto, I announce I was born there, and I’ve actually heard, “Welcome home, Mr. Pomerantz.” That doesn’t happen to me anywhere else. I go to Belgium, it’s, “Who are you?” In Toronto, it’s, “Welcome home.” (Maybe that’s why I never go to Belgium.)

They do go into other stuff at Toronto Immigration, some of which, I don’t much care for.

“What is the purpose of your stay in Canada?”

“I’m here to visit my family.”

That one’s okay. But they follow it with,

“Will you be staying with your family?”


That question always seems strange to me. Why does the Canadian Immigration Department care where I’m staying? And they don’t stop there.

“Will you be staying with your family?”


“Why not?”

“Why not?” What are they talking about?

I mean, these people are wearing uniforms. They may have guns in the drawer. You don’t want to piss them off. But what you’re dying to say to them is, “What’s it to you?” Instead, I throw them a lame joke.

“Will you be staying with your family?”


“Why not?”

“Have you met them?”

Dr. M would call it displaced anger. I take a cheap shot at my family’s expense when what I really want to say is, “You know what, Mr. or Ms. Immigration Person, you’re right. I’m canceling my hotel reservation. I’m staying with you. That’s okay, isn’t it? You wouldn’t mind putting me up for a couple of days? It’s the perfect arrangement, actually. You can spy on me the whole time I’m here!”

Sorry. I just watched a Larry David interview on YouTube. I think it rubbed off.

I don’t like Immigration sticking there noses in my travel arrangements. But you know what? That’s the last time I’m upset the whole time I’m home. Why? Because in Toronto, everybody’s nice.

(Except for this thief who once stole Dr. M’s purse from our locked rental car, but that’s another story.)

My always perceptive daughter, Anna, hit it right on the head on a visit to Toronto when she was eight. We were jaywalking across a street near our hotel. No lights. No crosswalk. We just went.

The oncoming traffic immediately stopped, and they let us cross.

Resulting in Anna’s on-the-money observation:

“They’ll never run you over in Canada.”

She’s right. They won’t. They can have the law on their side. You’re jaywalking. They have the right of way. They still won’t do it. They’ll stop and let you cross. Try it sometime. If you get run over, it was probably a tourist.

Another story, making the same point. Why two stories? To show that the first one wasn’t a fluke.

We’re visiting the wonderful Ontario Science Center. Anna and myself. Again, she’s eight.

Interactive science experiments. I don’t understand one of them. Anna wants the try the “Vortex Experience.” You drop a penny into it, it vortexes around, and then it’s gone. I don’t know the point. It’s just what it is.

Anna wants to try it. We get in line. I look in my wallet for a penny. I don’t have one. Sorry, Anna. No “Vortex Experience” today.

Not so fast.

A person behind us has overheard our dilemma. They hand Anna a penny.

That’s Canada. That’s my hometown. They won’t run you over. And they’ll give you a penny.

There’s a definite difference in Canada. A uniquely Canadian vibe. Maybe I just feel this way, because it’s my hometown. Or because it’s a different country. Maybe I’m wallowing in Nostalgialand, I don’t know. But I do know this.

The moment the plane lands in Toronto, I can feel myself relax.

It should be the other way around. There’s more firepower here. I should feel more protected. Instead, it’s the opposite.

Canadian police officers carry guns; it’s not England. But they keep it in a holster with a “snap flap” covering it up. It’s not like here, where they flash the handle, like, “You see how big this gun handle is? ‘Nuff said.”

It’s more subtle in Canada. It’s hidden away. You’re not even sure there’s a gun in that holster. It could be their lunch.

There’s no flashy “check out the hardware” about Canada. No “flyovers” before football games. Four jets fly over a Canadian football game, they’re probably lost.

It’s not natural for Canadians to brag. “It’s showin’ off, eh?” I’ll say one more thing. For those with financial concerns, Canada’s the place to be if you need a new hip. We’ll leave it at that.

Not that my birth country doesn’t have its problems. For one thing, Canadians have no idea who they are. Canadian identity is a continuing concern. They can’t figure it out.

Are Canadians English people with better teeth?

Are Canadians Americans who aren’t good at it?

Or are Canadians Americans who are good at it, and it’s the Americans who aren’t good at it anymore?

A hundred and forty-one years as a country, and its still, like, “Can we come back to that question later?” Well, they may be confused, but I’ll tell you this. Whoever Canadians are, I feel safer in their company.

What can I tell you? It’s my place. Though I’ve now lived here longer than I lived in Canada, when I land at L.A. airport Sunday night, there’ll be one there saying, “Welcome home, Mr. Pomerantz.”

Except maybe the guy I hired to pick me up.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Feedback from the Feedback"

I received some fiery feedback from my posts about “The Three Larry Davids” (posted on Monday) and “What I Like” (Tuesday.) It appears that after nine months of doing this, I finally wrote something worthy of disputing.

My first impulse was to craft a point-by-point response of the disputations. But this came out instead.

One day, when I was in my twenties, I was boppin’ down the street, singing at the top of my lungs. (It was the sixties.) A person passing by me said,

You must be happy.”

To which I immediately replied,

“If I were happy, I wouldn’t have to sing.”

Sometimes, you need a release from that not always sunny place you call Home.

The Comedy of Pain doesn’t do it for me.

The Comedy of Hope does.

I thank you for your comments and your questions, and would be honored to be the recipient of more of both in the future.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"The Landmark"

Dr. M knew someone who lived there. This was back when she was just M, and, after getting her Masters in Film, she worked as a personal assistant to a movie producer. The woman who lived there worked at the same studio, and they sometimes carpooled together.

They call it a Craftsman Bungalow. You can look it up. They’re beautiful. Especially the top-of-the-line versions, like the “Gamble House” in Pasadena. I can’t describe it. Look at the pictures. Gamble is the Gamble from Procter and Gamble. I think they make Tide.

If you like old houses that are built with the skill and precision of nineteenth century sailing ships, you’ll like craftsman bungalows. If you don’t, what’s wrong with you?

The bungalow in which the woman Dr. M knew lived was kind of a knockoff of the great bungalows. The “Gamble House” was designed by Greene and Greene. This one was more Greene and Brown. A cousin and a new guy. But they’d studied the plans.

Dr. M and I lived in a condo two blocks north of the bungalow. The bungalow at the time was inhabited by several separate groupings (pairs and otherwise) of humanity, a karate teacher (who lived in the garage) and a prodigious number of cats.

The bungalow’s owner, an elderly lady around ninety, resided in a home with other elderly people. The bungalow, her former home, now served as a rental property. The place had not been scrupulously maintained. (Read: raw sewage and – shiver – rodents.)
But it had its fundamental charms.

Dr. M has an eye for quality architecture, as well as for underlying potential not apparent to the general populace. She married me. Say no more. One day, she took me to meet her friend, but her real purpose was to show me the bungalow.

She wanted it.

The house had a number of original touches. Two magnificent stained-glass windows. A brick fireplace. One room featured a built-in desk, and built into the built-in desk was a built-in bed. There was a closet with a sink in it.

The place also had a magnificent ocean view. (It’s four blocks from the Pacific, on a hill, providing the view, but, hopefully, not the tidal waves.) I love the ocean. It’s calming. Pacific actually means “calm and tranquil.” Those ocean namers knew what they were talking about.

Of course, the bungalow included some less wonderful stuff. Seventeen people, and a cat for each of them. There was also an unpleasant…let’s be generous and call it…mustiness.

So okay. Dr. M. is excited about the bungalow, and I get what she’s talking about. But it’s not for sale, so that’s that.

Then one day, Dr. M comes racing into the condo. “The old lady died! There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of the house!” Her enthusiasm caught me off-guard. We didn’t know the woman, but it didn’t seem quite right getting so excited about her kicking off.

The good news was followed shortly thereafter by discouraging news. No, the old woman had not made a comeback. Some developers had quickly put a bid in on the property. (The bungalow sits on a double-sized lot, and their plan was to build as many condos as would fit on it, probably eight.)

When developers have hopes of making big profits down the line, they can afford to bid considerably more than people hoping to just live in the place. The developers’ offer was too high for us to reasonably compete. That was my view in any case, although, I admit, I’m traditionally the “No” person in the couple. Every couple needs a “No” person. Otherwise, you wind up eating in Ethiopian restaurants.

Though she dearly wanted the place, Dr. M reluctantly agreed that we couldn’t compete. So once again, that was that.

Or was it?


Not with tenacious Dr. M on the case. Rather than giving up, which I like to do, so things’ll get back to normal, which may not be perfect, but at least you know what it is (am I giving away too much here?), Dr. M, along with her friend, Ruth, a neighbor and a highly-respected artist (and later, the Dean of Art at a major university), concocted a plan. It was a long shot, but if it worked, the house would be spared from demolition. (In the case of this bungalow, demolition would have required no more than a fairy tale wolf with powerful lungs.)

The plan was this: Dr. M and Ruth would mount a campaign to have the bungalow declared a historic landmark, the argument being that it represented one of the last remaining examples of the craftsman bungalow in Santa Monica. If they were successful in getting the bungalow declared a landmark, it could then – by law – not be torn down.

Our neighbors flocked to sign the petition, delighted to back the preservation of a house over the construction of still more spirit-squelching condominiums. Letters were written by architectural historians who specialized in craftsman bungalows, as well as by the architecture critic of our local newspaper, attesting to the fact that, in their expert opinions, the bungalow was worthy of landmark designation. A background study of the bungalow was also included, reinforcing its historic significance to the community.

The entire package was submitted to the Santa Monica City Council (actually, some committee who reported to them).

And then we waited.

A hearing was held before the City Council. The committee had approved the proposal. Though the estate’s heirs’ attorney argued against landmark certification because it would damage the value of his clients’ inheritance, the city council voted five to four in favor of protecting the bungalow.

The long shot had come through. The bungalow had been saved.

(Although I was pleased with the outcome, I don’t know, is it really okay for the government to require people to lose money on their own property? I hope that never happens to me.)

The bungalow would survive. Someone would get to live in it. But it was far from certain that “someone” would be us.

With the developers – now prohibited from knocking down the house and building condos – no longer interested, bidding was re-opened on the property. Because this was a probate sale, a particular procedure had to be followed. Sealed bids would be submitted to a judge. The bidders would show up in court. There, the judge would unseal the bids and announce the highest bidder. If anyone wanted to bid higher than the announced bid, they had to increase the offer by seven per cent. The bidding would then proceed from there.

Dr. M and I decided on our bid. We also decided we would not bid any higher. If there was a bidding war, it would proceed without us. (This may, again, have been more my decision than hers, but Dr. M agreed.)

The appointed day arrives, and I’m sitting in a courtroom, dreading the possibility of having to go home and tell Dr. M that we didn’t get the house. Sitting beside me is the real estate agent representing the sellers. The woman is not in a cheerful mood. Her developer buyers have long since flown the coop, and she’s stuck with a house whose sales price is considerably lower than the price its pre landmark-designation would have brought in. The target of her vituperation is my honey, Dr. M herself.

“That (Dr. M’s first name and last name)”, which, at the time, was different from mine. “She’s the cause of all this trouble. What a terrible, terrible woman!”

You can understand why I went to the court that day instead of Dr. M. Her presence might have incited the first real estate lynching in history. In the meantime, I had to sit there helplessly while my favorite person on the planet got talked about in a far from flattering manner.

The judge arrives, the proceedings proceed. The judge opens the sealed envelopes and announces the highest bid. It’s ours. The judge then calculates that seven per cent above our bid would be such-and-such. Is anybody willing to bid that amount?

My heart is pounding. My throat closes up. It’s like Emmy night all over again. Except instead of a statue, you get a house.

Nobody bids higher. The bungalow is ours.

Today marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of our having moved into that craftsman bungalow. It was a long, hard battle to get here (and an even longer one to get the place in shape, which I’ll tell you about another time), but there’s at least one sign that this house was always meant to be ours, though it took quite a while for us to notice it.

The numbers of our address are the same numbers as my birthday.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"What I Like"

Yesterday, in an exploration of what it means to be old-fashioned, I offered my view of comedy’s current direction, ipso facto, situations wherein the audience laughs at the pain induced upon the central character (The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm) or the pain the central character induces upon others (Borat, the “remote” interviews on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.)

The recipe is simple. You torture somebody – emotionally – and the audience laughs.

I’m not in that. I’m not saying I’m a better person for not engaging in such laugh-getting techniques, I just don’t find them funny. I find them “ow-ey.”

It may be that, in the past, I’ve found myself being the target of the pain inducement – pledging a High School fraternity comes to mind – and I never cared for it. (I actually resigned from the pledging. The enticement of “When you’re a member, you can torture pledges” didn’t quite win me back.)

As a result of personal experience, when I’m trying to come up with funny situations, the pain-inducing option never comes to mind, relegated instead to a file labeled, “I Can’t Imagine That Ever Being Funny.” Such delineations, in the current comedy environment, classify me as being old-fashioned.

Well, okay, “Saint Earlo.” What is it then that you find funny?

Fair question, Mr. Italics. And I’ve been thinking about that. You have to offer an alternative. I don’t want to be grump, grump, grumplestiltskin, grouchity, grump, grump, grouchity, grump, grump, grump. I don’t want to be the Mr. Wilson of comedy. “Hey, you kids, come back here with my career!”

What’s my alternative approach? What other comedy option can I provide to today’s audience with the proposal, “I know there’s that, but what about this?”

I don’t want to give examples of movies and TV shows I found funny. I’ve done that already. I want to go beyond examples, to the heart of the matter. The fundamental core of the comedy. The wellspring of the hilarity. The underlying source. I’m talking “Down There.” Below the surface.

So here we go. My Kind of Funny. As best as I can communicate it. Today. (Not that the “kind of funny” will change, but I may find a better way of communicating it.)

Maybe it’s because hockey season just started, or because I’m going to Toronto at the end of the week, or maybe it’s just what floated up from my unconscious, but when I imagined how best to describe my comedic impulse, what fluttered into my awareness was ice-skating.

Stay with me. (And dress in layers.)

Here we go.

You step out on the ice. Not some big, fancy, schadenfreude guy with his custom built equipment. You. “Mr. Ordinary Person.” Going for a skate. You take your first stride.

You fall on your ass.

You’re embarrassed, maybe bruised, but, generally, okay. You pull yourself up, you dust the ice chips off your pants, you’re ready to go.

You take a stride. It’s tentative, but you’re fine. You take a second, slightly steadier stride. “Hey, not bad. I’ve got my bearings now. I’m okay.” Your confidence is beginning to build. You take your third stride.

You fall on your ass.


You look around. “How come everyone else here can skate and I can’t?” That can’t be, you just won’t allow it. You pull yourself up, you dust the ice chips off your pants, you take a breath, you take a stride.

It’s okay.

You take another stride. Then another. Then another.

Smooth sailing.

Your body’s remembering what this skating thing is all about. You’ve got your balance now. You’ve got your rhythm. You’re got your natural, repetitive motion. Look at that.

“Mr. Skater Man.”

It’s starting to feel easy. You’re picking up speed. The wind’s catching in your hair. You flash on Bobby Hull, “The Golden Jet”, whose locks flew skyward as he rocketed down the ice. A megawatt smile illuminates your face.

“Go, ‘Mr. Skater Man!’ Go!”

The end of the rink comes up quickly. It’s time for the turn.

You lose control, and crash into the boards.

You’re down again. The third time in as many minutes. It’s a definite low point; they’re skating around you. Then you remember. You’ve been down before. And when you tried it again, you got better and better. Only one thing to do.

You pull yourself up, you dust the ice chips off your pants, you steady yourself, and you take your first stride.

You lose your balance and take the biggest “flopperoo” of them all.

That’s skating.

That’s life.

And that, to me, is the essence of comedy.

Old-fashioned? I guess it could be, but I can’t see why? People are still skating, and they’re still falling on their asses.

And they’re still getting back up.

What am I missing?

Monday, October 13, 2008

"The Three Larry Davids"

Actually there are four. But I didn’t want to defy the “Rule of Threes.”

“What’s the “Rules of Threes”?

The “Rule of Three’s” is a traditional joke formulation involving a list, with the third example containing the “ha-ha” words.

“He’s dumb, annoying and…” – joke. That satisfies the “Rule of Threes.” It feels rhythmically correct. “He’s dumb…” – joke? Too soon. “He’s…” – joke? Way too soon. “He’s dumb, annoying, obnoxious…” – joke? Too late. “He’s dumb, annoying, obnoxious, irritating…” – what is this, a dissertation?

It’s three. Two and the joke. That’s the way it is. Why? Because that’s the way it is.

I’m skirting an issue here. It’s big. And I don’t exactly know how to tackle it. It could take a few posts to get at the heart of it. The heart of what?

The heart of what it means to be “old-fashioned.”

In every arena of entertainment, there’s a continous evolution going on, usually in the direction of “bigger” and “more.” It was always that way. Take juggling. You start out juggling Indian clubs (I don’t know where the name came from; they look like elongated bowling pins.) What’s the worst that can happen? The Indian clubs fall on the floor. Big yawn. To hold the audience’s attention, you have to continually “up the ante.” Before you know it, you’re juggling hatchets, Ginsu knives and fire. (“Rule of Threes.” Did you notice?”)

Comedy’s been evolving in a similar manner. It’s currently evolving right off the network schedule, there being very few comedies remaining on the air, and only one – Two and a Half Men – ranked among the first thirty most popular television shows. But that’s for another post. Or maybe one I’ve already written. I’ll have to check.

I won’t chronicle the entire evolution of comedy, though if I write this blog long enough, I’ll probably end up covering the bases. For a snapshot of its most recent advancement, it’s instructive to compare the comedy of Seinfeld, which Larry David co-created with the comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which he created by himself.

They’re not the same.

The differences would seem to be explained by the fact that Seinfeld was on NBC, where there are many things you’re not permitted to say, and Curb’s on HBO where you can say anything you want. And you can take your clothes off while you’re saying it. But that’s just an accident of technology, and a lucky break for Larry David. If cable didn’t exist, there’d be no place on television for Curb Your Enthusiasm to appear.

The real source of the difference is a matter of comic sensibility. Jerry Seinfeld has a certain comedic “comfort zone”, and Larry David, on his own, has a different one. A darker, riskier and, to me, when he takes his character in certain directions, a not as funny one.

When do I laugh and when do I laugh not as much? It depends on which “Larry David” I’m confronted with. Which brings me to…

The Three “Larry Davids”

This is interesting to me. Larry David not only created a fictional “Larry David” for Curb Your Enthusiasm, he created at least three “Larry Davids” that I can identify. (You may, like in those puzzles you find in pediatricians’ Waiting Rooms magazines have discovered more. Let me know what I missed.)

Depending on the particular story, “Larry David” behaves in, not totally, but significantly differing ways. My inclination to laugh varies directly with which “Larry David” shows up.

The first “Larry David” is, like, the champion of common sense. He notices the “ridiculous” in our world, and speaks for us all when he resists it.

Why is it necessary to tip the “Captain” at a restaurant? What exactly does the “Captain” do? And if he doesn’t do much, why does he deserve a tip?

This is not a matter of cheapness. “Larry’s” willing to tip the waitperson extra, and have them compensate the “Captain.” He just sees no reason to tip the “Captain” directly.

That “Larry David” I like. He has spoken for the voiceless, one voiceless person being me. So when he inadvertently gets in trouble as a result of his taking totally defensible position, I am unilaterally on his side.

The second “Larry David” is the one who gets in trouble by accident. “Larry” saves the life of a man he believes is drowning only to find that he’s interrupted a baptism. In this case, “Larry’s” actions are decent and, arguably, heroic. The “baptism” scene was ambiguously staged. Seeing a man “drowning”, “Larry” did exactly the right thing.

The funny part, of course, is the man wasn’t drowning and “Larry” did the wrong thing. But his heart was in the right place, and for that, when he was hassled later on, I was, once again, on “Larry’s” side.

Being “on his side” is significant in comedy. If I’m not on his side, there is little chance that I’m going to laugh.

Which brings me to “Larry” Number Three.

This “Larry”, I don’t care for. This “Larry” refuses to use other people’s bathrooms. This “Larry” takes a "principled stand" against singing the “Birthday Song.” This “Larry” is looking for trouble. This “Larry” is a pain in the ass.

Larry and Cheryl are eating in a restaurant with another couple. The husband picks up the check. Larry thanks the man for paying. The man’s wife says, “Why didn’t you thank me?” Larry answers, “Because you didn’t pay. He did.”


This “Larry” isn’t speaking for all of us. This “Larry” isn’t saving a drowning man. This “Larry” is simply “asking for it.” Provoking a confrontation. Instigating an awkward situation. Creating a “scene.”

This is where comedy has moved on to:

The Comedy of Extreme Discomfort.

The New Comedy. Way past embarrassment. Beyond Humiliation. To cringe-inducing excruciating pain.

Ha. (That “ha” wasn’t sincere.)

“You said there were four Larry Davids. What’s the fourth one like?”

The fourth Larry David is the actual Larry David, who, when I met him, was polite and friendly, and markedly unlike the “Larry Davids” on the show. Somehow, that surprised me. Somehow, I expected the Larry David that I met to be the same as the “Larry David” on Curb. There’s a word to describe that type of expectation.


It’s show business, Earl, come on! The “Larry David” persona – or, as I argue, personae – is (or are) the product of a premeditated creative decision. That is how Larry David chooses “Larry David” to be portrayed. This is what Larry – and the audience who loves Curb Your Enthusiasm – find funny. And what I, particularly in the case of “Larry” Number Three, don’t.

Which is part of what it is makes me old-fashioned.

(Another part is my inability to defy the "Rule of Threes.")

Friday, October 10, 2008

"A Rabbi's Joke"

(I didn’t write this today, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, for fear of being struck down. By whom, I have no idea. That’s the odd thing about being an agnostic. You find yourself fearful of being punished by an entity you’re pretty certain doesn’t exist.)

I heard this joke from our rabbi when I was a kid, probably on Yom Kippur, since that was pretty much the only time we attended synagogue. If you already know this joke, feel free to tell it along with me. If you don’t know it, I’m happy to introduce it to you.

Perhaps my generosity will gain me a last minute access into the Book of Life, instead of the other book where you have to get your affairs in order.

(I’m sharing a joke, God. That’s worth something, isn’t it?)

I really like this joke. It’s grounded in a truth about character, which means there’s more to it than your average “knock-knock” joke. Though, don’t get me wrong. At the proper moment, a good “knock-knock” joke can really hit the spot.

Okay, here’s the joke.

A grandmother takes her young grandson to the beach. She settles herself in a comfortable spot, shading herself with under an umbrella while, nearby, the happy toddler plays in the sand. Suddenly, a huge wave rolls in. The wave scoops up the little child, and, as it pulls back from shore, it carries the boy out to sea.

The grandmother is horrified. She races to the water’s edge, scanning its surface for her missing grandson. But the child is nowhere in sight. The woman is beside herself. Her beautiful little grandchild, entrusted to her care, has disappeared. Distraught beyond imagining, she turns her eyes skyward, and says,

“Dear God. In all my years on this earth, I have never asked you for anything. I’m asking you now. Please, I’m begging you, return my grandson to me exactly as he was.”

As the woman’s prayer ends, another huge wave rolls in, and deposits the missing child onto the beach, on the exact spot from which he’d been taken.

Delirious with joy, the grandmother rushes over, smothering her precious grandson with hugs and kisses. She then turns her gaze skyward, and in a voice brimming with emotion, exclaims,

“He had a hat.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"The Sound of Silence"

Yom Kippur morning. I’m nine years old, sitting in our sanctuary, surrounded by thousands of fashionably overdressed congregants. Conspicuous consumers were wearing fur coats in September, with God, in Playful Mode, delivering an Indian Summer heat wave.

The Yom Kippur requirement demands twenty-four hours of fasting. No eating. No drinking. Not just of alcohol, no drinking of any kind. On this most solemn of holy days, Jewish congregants’ minds are abuzz with two consuming questions: One, “Will our names be inscribed in the Book of Life?” And Two, “When do we eat?”

On the Yom Kippur morning in question, our rabbi…well, this was a man who did everything big. He had a big, powerful physique. A big, bellowing voice. And that morning, when he welcomed us to prayer, and outlined the day’s schedule, the rabbi ended his remarks with a big, jaw-dropping promise:

“Our services will conclude this evening at precisely seven-fifteen.”

In the history of High Holiday predictions, this announcement was totally unheard of. True, rabbis traditionally predict when Yom Kippur services will conclude, but they never say “precisely.” How can anyone know “precisely”? He must have meant “approximately” and it came out “precisely.” Because “precisely” couldn’t possibly be predicted.

“Let me repeat myself. Our services will conclude this evening at precisely seven-fifteen.”

He said it again! “Precisely.” This was unprecedented. As the immortal Babe Ruth had done – in a non-liturgical setting – the rabbi of our synagogue was “calling his shot.”

A rumble rolls through the sanctuary. “This is craziness!” cry synagogue elders. “The man is mishugah!” cluck the traditionalists, offended by such chutzpah (“mishugah” means crazy; “chutzpah” means brazenness). A lone gambler in the crowd, risking Divine disapproval, whispers, “Two to one, he pulls it off.”

Guaranteeing a service of almost twelve-hour’s duration would conclude at “precisely” the minute he predicted it would? Such assurances exceed human possibility. It appeared our rabbi was confusing himself with the Fellow he was working for.

Our “Day of Worship” felt like forever. We chanted, we sang, we got up, we sat down, the choir sang, we got up again, we sat down again, we went out, we came back in, they were still doing it…

The rabbi delivered a ninety-minute sermon, filled with words nobody understood. For many, it was inspiring. For others, it was a welcome opportunity to nap.

Were we on schedule? Our rabbi assured us that we were.

As time wore on, inexplicably – miraculously? – the ritual of prayer and deprivation gradually wore us down, liberating impulses of renewal and hope. Who knows, our minds began thinking, maybe we could change. We felt like we could. Maybe we could turn the page.

The sanctuary came alive with a collective excitement. From now on, we would all be better people.

Our Day of Atonement inched towards its conclusion. The congregants checked their watches, then looked at each other with amazement.

It was seven-fourteen.

Against all reason and expectation, the rabbi was making good on his prediction. One last order of business, and then we’d be done.

The rabbi strides to the microphone.

“Our services conclude this evening – at precisely seven-fifteen – with the blowing of the shofar.

That would be that. One long, concluding blast on the shofar, and then…food.

The congregation came to its feet. And on the rabbi’s sonorous command,

“T’kiyah Gedola-ah-ah!”

the Shofar Blower lifted his spiraling Ram’s Horn to his lips, inhaled deeply, and blew.

And nothing came out.

Not a note. Not a squeak. Just air passing through a tube.


Maintaining his composure, the rabbi repeats his command.

“T’kiyah Gedola-ah-ah!”

Nothing again.

And nothing the third time. Nothing the fourth. And the numerous times after that. Just


Strangled air.

Nowhere near enough to satisfy the requirements.

What was going on? Having had no liquid touch his lips for twenty-four hours, the Shofar Blower was simply too parched to blow. This debacle was far more than a personal embarrassment. If the Shofar Blower didn’t blow the shofar, Yom Kippur was officially over. And until it was over,

We couldn’t eat!

The mood in the sanctuary began to sour. By the tenth “Pffffffffff”, our congregation, so recently a bastion of uplift and redemption, deteriorated into a hostile, hungry mob.

“Blow, already!“ shouted one congregant, speaking for many. “We have dinner reservations!”

The urgency grew with every failed attempt. And not just from hunger. Sai Woo, the popular “post-fast” destination, was waiting.

The rabbi’s commands sounded angrier and angrier. His end-of-service prediction, so close to fruition, was slipping helplessly down the drain.

When the service finally ended – with a short, pathetic bleat – a Sai Woo “break fast” was no longer in the cards. Our names may have been inscribed in the Book of Life, but they’d been unceremoniously erased from the Book of Reservations.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I never studied comedy formally, but I studied it informally all my life. I always noticed the funny things going on around me. When I was around eight, I noticed something unusual about a waiter at a restaurant our family frequented. As a result of always delivering his orders on a tray balanced on his left shoulder, the man’s head remained permanently tilted to the right.

Even without the tray, his head was angled at a forty-five degree trajectory. He’d be taking our order, and the head would be “over there.” Like he’s thinking, “The tray’s coming back; why should I bother straightening up?” Realistically, it was likely a work-related situation. A carpal tunnel of the neck.

Whatever the reason, the “tilted head” waiter was funny, and I caught it. These observational sensibilities seemed to set me apart. It’s like there’s this comedy dog whistle that not everybody could hear, but I could. (So, by the way, could my brother and my mother. They laughed at the “tilted head” too. Though I was the one who pointed it out.)

(Another by the way: In order to respond as we did to “tilted head”, you had to be aware that, one: the condition was not serious, and two: it was therefore okay to laugh. You have to be careful about that. A blind waiter, for example…well…hm. It’s tricky. It’s fine to be entertained by your surroundings, but you don’t want to cross over into, “Who cares? It’s funny.” At least, I don’t. Which could explain why I’m not working in comedy anymore.)

Real life offers a limitless opportunity for observed comedy. I recently spent an entire plane ride from Chicago to Los Angeles cackling over a nearby passenger’s “funny sneeze.” You have to do something to take your mind off the crippling lack of legroom in “coach”, especially when you’re in the middle seat. The “sneeze” handled that quite nicely.

Of course, there’s more to life than life, especially when you’re hungry for comedy. For me, growing up, there was radio, offering hilarious prototypes of beloved sitcoms to come. There were comic books, where I discovered the character I hoped I would one day become – “Uncle Scrooge.” There were movies – The Bowery Boys, Ma and Pa Kettle

“I think there’s a hole in the roof.”

“How do you know?”

“I finished my soup three times.”

Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Francis, the Talking Mule, and highlighted by my still favorite comedy of all time, The Court Jester.

In later years, there were influential plays (A Thousand Clowns) and books (The stories of Bruce J. Friedman and Catch-22.) But without question, the greatest influence on me, by far, was television.

Living in Toronto, we received our American “feeds” from TV stations in Buffalo. There was also Canadian TV, but it was pretty much restricted to hockey telecasts and National Film Board documentaries on the migratory habits of the Canada Goose. Not caring that much about geese, I gravitated the American stuff.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my greatest TV show influences growing up – The Jack Benny Program, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which I ended up working on). Though I sensed that these shows were somehow superior, it wasn’t like I was that discriminating in my viewing habits. How would I describe my viewing habits? I’d watched anything that was on the air. From Singalong Jubilee to John Nagy’s Learn to Draw.

I did, however, draw the line at French Canadian bowling. That was the “red flag” for me – finding myself in front of the television on a bright, sunshiny day, watching a bowling program emanating from Montreal, hosted by French-speaking-only announcers. That was the sign that I really needed help.

I didn’t, however, pick up the phone and call a Teleholics Anonymous support group, though perhaps I should have. Instead, I performed what, for me, was an equally courageous act.

I turned off the television and I went outside.

Hey, Earl, which TV show would you say influenced you the most?

Thanks for asking, Italics Man. If any program inspired me to consider a career in comedy – which I actually never considered, because to consider something means imagining you can do it, and I never imagined I could do anything.

Let me start that sentence again; it kind of ran away from me. If any program unconsciously planted the seed that people were doing something that I kinda knew how to do too, it was the weekly series that ran for twenty-three years on CBS. I refer, of course, to the incomparable Ed Sullivan Show.

For me, The Ed Sullivan Show was “school.” Ironically, The Ed Sullivan Show also meant school. The show was broadcast on Sunday nights, and no matter how much you were caught up in the entertainment, you could still feel Monday, coming at you like a runaway train. There was no getting around it. The sequence was inevitable.

Ed Sullivan.



For my family, Sundays at eight, there was nothing else on the air. I had heard whispers of The Steve Allen Show and MaverickNBC and ABC’s competing programming – but I never once saw them. In our house, you had two choices. You could watch Ed Sullivan or you could go to bed. If you dared touch the dial to change the channel, it was like in those bible movies where they touched the Ark of the Covenant.

You died.

In its day, The Ed Sullivan Show was by far the most influential show on the air. “Doing the Sullivan Show” meant you were “made.” You could coast on that credit for decades. Advertisements for local performances trumpeted, “Direct from The Ed Sullivan Show” years after the performer’s, possibly, single appearance on the show. There is no counterpart to the Sullivan Show on the airwaves today.

You getting the picture? This was a really important show.

The Ed Sullivan Show was a variety show in the truest sense of the word. It presented every type of performer imaginable. Singers – from The Beatles to the Metropolitan Opera – dancers – from tap to ballroom to ballet. There were jugglers, magicians, acrobats, bicyclists, plate spinners, animal acts, excerpts from current Broadway shows – the most fabulous performers from around the world. And, of course, there were my favorites, the people I’d wait patiently through the dancing elephants and opera singers to see –

The comedians.

Ed Sullivan, who introduced the acts, was not funny at all. In fact, he was kind of scary-looking. Sullivan was a syndicated entertainment columnist who had no performing ability whatsoever. What he had was a quirkily frozen body, whose parts, especially his stone-chiseled face, seemed incapable of making a natural, non-jerky movement. Ed Sullivan was a disturbing-looking robot in a suit.

Sullivan’s chief duty was to select the talent for the show. At that, he was incomparable.

As with all the acts, the comedians on The Ed Sullivan Show were top of the line. There were comedians from every imaginable genre. The array of talent was breathtaking. Especially to an unconscious student of comedy.

Where to start?

The older comedians. (And this is just a sampler.)

There was the incongruous “Mr. Pastry”, whose solemn “Passing-Out Ceremony” involved this dignified English gentleman, in elegant tie and tails, leaping manically around on chairs.

There was the homespun Sam Levenson who told stories about his “Mama” who once, when he dropped a cooked chicken on the floor in front of “the company”, instructed her son to return the dropped chicken to the kitchen and come back with the “other” chicken.

There were ethnic comedians, like the shiny-bald Myron Cohen who tells the story of Mrs. Shapiro and Mrs. Schwartz, who were perambulating the thoroughfare in Miami Beach, Florida, (that’s the way he talked), each trying to one-up the other.

Mrs. Schwartz proclaims, (Cohen suddenly speaking to a thick Yiddish accent):

“You know, Mrs. Shapiro, I’ve been to Europe three times.”

To which Mrs. Shapiro coolly replies,

“That’s nothing. I was born there.”

There was the Danish comedian Victor Borge who admits, “When I came to this country, there was a point, after I’d been here for a while, where I’d forgotten all my Danish but hadn’t learned any English.”

And there was the yodel-voiced hayseed, Pat Buttram who reports about a couple: “He was so bowlegged and she was so knock-kneed, when they walked down the street together they spelled “Ox.”

You don’t have to like all those jokes – or any of them – but you have to admit they’re different styles. (An unembarrassed confession: I like them all.)

Later, a new crop of comedians arrived on the scene. Educated people. People who’d heard of Kierkegaard. People who’d undergone psychoanalysis. People who’d engaged in sex, or at least wanted to.

The new comedy focused on male-female relationships, social institutions, the slights and irritations of everyday life. I can’t reproduce their material as easily as I could with the earlier comedians, because their performances involved extended vignettes rather than isolated jokes.

A couple, played by Ben Stiller’s parents, Jerry Stiller, Jewish, and Ann Meara, Irish, meet and discover that they grew up on the exact same street. However, due to their differing ethnic affiliations, it turns out they have no common experiences whatsoever.

Shelly Berman, playing an increasingly desperate caller struggling to report that a man’s about to jump from a building across the street from his office, is repeatedly placed on “Hold.”

Bob Newhart, portrayed a recipient of a phone call from Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s explaining to Newhart how you use his exciting new discovery – tobacco.

NEWHART: (LISTENING ON AN IMAGINARY TELEPHONE) “…You shred it up…and put it in a piece of paper…roll it up…don’t tell me, Walt, don’t tell me, you stick it in your ear, right?”

I can’t possibly do justice to the dozens of wonderful comedians who taught and entertained me those Sunday nights, the Jackie Masons, the Jackie Vernons, the Jackie Kahanes. And those are just the Jackies. (At which point, you flip up your tie and go, “Whoo hoo.”)

My initial viewing of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” caused my mother to seriously consider calling the paramedics, fearful, because my uncontrollable laughter was making it scarily difficult for me to breathe. I sensed I was dying, but I didn’t care. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

As I watched all these magnificent entertainers, somewhere deep down where I wasn’t aware it was happening, there’s a chance I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could make people laugh like that?”

Or maybe just one person.

Sorry, I don’t mean to pull an emotional “one-eighty” on you. It’s just this thought that came to mind. Someone once said the reason they went into comedy was because they wanted to make their mother laugh. To me, that’s not such an alien concept.

There’s something to that. My mother had a tough life. Putting a smile on her face would have been pretty great.

I knew she loved comedy. I had seen her watching Ed Sullivan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


It’s not good to write when you’re fuming. Or maybe it is. I’m fuming too much to know for sure.

When you’re fuming, you write with passion and intensity. That can’t be bad. The problem is, fuming keeps me from thinking clearly, and not thinking clearly leads to exaggerations and mistakes, and that’s not good.

Look at this. I’m trying to be reasonable about fuming while I’m fuming. It can’t be done.

Okay, so let me “fume down” a little. Here we go.

Fuming down. Fuming down some more. An upsurge in fuming…no, it’s under control. Fuming down a little more…a little more…almost there.

No. I’m still fuming.

Okay, we’ll have to go with that. Reduced fuming, watching for upsurges, which I may or may not be able to control.

Okay. I’m starting.

The Source of the Fuming

When our daughter, Anna, returned from college in 2005, we got her a car as a graduation present. A 2002 “pre-owned” Saab. Dark blue, with a black convertible roof.

A “pre-owned” car sounds much better than the former label for it – a “used” car. A “used” car sounds used. People used that car. How did they use it? We have no idea.

The word “used” carries whispers of cigarette butts in ashtrays and shenanigans in the back seat. Maybe a body found in the trunk. We don’t know the former “users.” They could have been miscreants.

With a “pre-owned” car, it’s possible – not likely but possible – to imagine that the “pre-owners” didn’t even drive the car. They don’t call it a “pre-driven” car. It was simply “pre-owned.” The “pre-owners” could have bought the car and kept it in the garage. Under a protective canvas cover. Came out on a regular basis to run the engine. Nice people with an undriven car.

Sorry, I digressed there. It’s one of the techniques I use for managing the fuming.

Big tension-relieving sigh.

Back to the story.

The salient factor so far: A 2002 Saab was purchased in 2005.

We write a check for the car. Then the salesperson asks if we’d like to buy an extended warranty. We think, “Hm.” This is a “pre-owned” car. A new car hasn’t been driven, you still like the warranty, because…you never know. With a “pre-owned” car, the “You never know” factor is even greater.

“We want a warranty,” we announce with authority.

“A two-year warranty, or a five-year warranty?”

“A five,” we proclaim.

We want maximum protection. The family’s in full agreement on that – Dr. M, a practical person, Anna, a sensible person, and me, the other person who happens to be around. If Rachel had been there, I’m certain she’d have supported the “Five”, Rachel being the most practical and sensible person of us all.

You have to be levelheaded in such situations. The “pre-owned” car had twenty-three thousand miles on it. So much for my “garage, canvas cover” fantasy.

We now pay a short visit to the “math” arena. Don’t get scared, it’s easy math. You can do it.

You purchase a car in 2005, and on the day you purchase that car in 2005, you purchase a five-year warranty for that car you purchased in 2005. What year would you think the five-year warranty the warranty on that car you purchased in 2005 would be good until? Everybody?


I told you it was easy.

Since five plus five equals ten, ipso facto, a five-year warranty purchased in 2005 would be in force until 2010.

Okay, the fuming’s starting to return. If you get the sense that smoke is escaping from the top of my head, please, find out where I live, race over here, and pour water on me. There’s a chance I could overheat and explode.

Wait, it’s subsiding. I better move on while I can.

Last week – in late September of 2008 – Anna had some serious car trouble. She took the car to the Saab Service Center where they told her the cost of the repairs would be in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred dollars. They also told her another thing.

The car was no longer under warranty.


Because the Saab Certified Warranty Verification clearly states, and I quote verbatim:

“The Saab Certified Pre-Owned Limited Warranty period commences at the time of sale of a Certified Pre-Owned Saab or upon expiration of the applicable Saab New Vehicle Warranty, whichever occurs later, and expires 6 years or 100,00 miles from the original in-service date, whichever occurs first.”

I graduated from college. My daughter, Anna, graduated from college. Dr. M has a Masters in Film and a PhD. in Psychology – she attended college a lot. The paragraph italicized above? None of us is certain what it means.

What it means in practice, however, is that math doesn’t matter. A five-year warranty, purchased in 2005 does not, as you might imagine, remain in force until 2010. Instead, it appears to remain in force for six years from the point that the car originally went in service.

Therefore, according to Saab’s, non-mathematical but nonetheless enforceable calculations, the warranty we believed would protect us until 2010, terminated in 2008.

And my question – trying to remain calm – is:

“How exactly is that possible?”

We bought a five-year warranty, which remained in force for three years. What happened to the other two years? Where did they go? Was the meter running on the warranty running before we purchased the car? Was our warranty protecting the previous owner?

I don’t understand it. If a five-year warranty protects your car for three years, shouldn’t they by all that’s true and just and fair and decent in this world call it a three-year warranty?

Imagine if, instead of buying that “pre-owned” 2002 Saab in 2005, we had bought it in 2008. And at the time of the purchase – in 2008 – we had purchased a five-year warranty. Would that mean that, rather than having five years of warranty protection, which a reasonable person – tell me if I’m wrong – would believe would take us to 2013, we would actually have no warranty protection whatsoever?

According to the Saab Certified Warranty Verification, if you buy a five-year warranty for your newly purchased “pre-owned” Saab six years after its “original in-service date”…

…you’ve got nothing!!!

You buy something. You pay for it with money. But in reality, you’ve got nothing?

What are they talking about?!!!!!

All right. I need to calm down. My stack is beginning to blow.

Keep writing. Okay, I will.

I hate Saab, and I want them to die.

Well, that wasn’t good. I don’t want them to die. That was over the top. But I do want them to be very unhappy.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had clout? Wouldn’t be it wonderful if among my millions of readers, one of them was the President of Saab, who read this post in Sweden while munching on some herring and proclaimed,

“Py Yiminy, that little Yewish fella is right! We’re cheating de customers with de misleading wording in our Certified Warranty Verification. We shouldn’t be doing dat. We’re Swedes. We care about people. You break your hip, we give you a new one for nothing.

“Find me dat little Anna girl. Tell her her warranty’s guaranteed till 2010, yoost like she t’inks it is.”

Just to be fair, let’s read it again.

“The Saab Certified Pre-Owned Limited Warranty period commences at the time of sale of a Certified Pre-Owned Saab or upon expiration of the applicable Saab New Vehicle Warranty, whichever occurs later, and expires 6 years or 100,00 miles from the original in-service date, whichever occurs first.”


Tell me I’m wrong, but doesn’t the second part of that sentence – the part that begins with the words, “and expires 6 years, etc…” – cancel the guarantee in first part of the sentence? If you purchase a five-year warranty at the time you purchase the car, isn’t the company giving you something in the first part, and taking it back in the second?

How can they do that?

Excuse me, Earl. I hate to interrupt, but yesterday, your post went on and on about the disreputability of attorneys.

Well, I actually didn’t write that, Italics Man. My Uncle Grumpy did, though I can’t say I disagreed with it.

Okay. Well, today, having a problem with your little contract there, you might just benefit from the services of an attorney to defend your position.

I get the irony, Italics Man. It’s true. We could benefit from an attorney to protect us from the Certified Warranty Verification.

Feeling a little remorse then?

Not at all.

Why not?

Because some other attorney concocted the Certified Warranty Verification in the first place!!!