Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I try not to belabor the points of my stories. I prefer the stories to speak for themselves. Sometimes, however, in allowing my stories to speak for themselves, they end up saying different things than I had in mind when I wrote them.

There are a number of possible explanations for this confusion. The reader may read things into the story that I never intended to be there. Or, I wrote the story insufficiently skillfully, and the message I had in mind didn’t come through. Or – and I truly believe this is often the case – those insidious stories, acting on their own, make the point they want to make, haughtily oblivious of the writer’s wishes.

(This usually involves a snooty French accent:

“Zis wra-ter has zumzing on ‘ees mahnd, but – hoh-hoh-hoh – we, zee ztor-ee, weel, how you say, sabo-tage ‘ees in-ten-cion.”

Call it the unconscious, with snails.)

I recently wrote about how I once had serious thoughts of becoming a comedian, and went on to enumerate – rather easily – fourteen reasons why that was, in retrospect, an illogical aspiration. You might wonder why I wrote that post. It may not have been such a great idea. Not all of them are.

I write a post because I’m excited when it materializes in my mind, and, having not written it yet, I’m intrigued to see how it’ll turn out. “I tried to become a comedian. It didn’t work out. Should I have known it wouldn’t work out? I believe I should have. Why? Well, here are fourteen reasons. Unfortunately, in making my decision, I neglected to consider any of them.”

This brings me to the “Public Service” reason for writing a post. It goes something like this:

“Perhaps my experience will resonate with decisions you are currently wrestling with, and, having learned from my mistake, you will put that decision to a more rigorous test.”

When I was in my twenties, giving the matter almost no thought whatsoever, I decided to move to New York and become a stand-up comedian, performing at comedy clubs like The Improv and The Village Gate. The experiment lasted five weeks.

I guess it was okay that I tried. It didn’t kill me. And there were some isolated high points. Once, I did really well. The audience responded enthusiastically, which surprised me, since, a) I was terrified, b) I didn’t know what I was doing, c) my material was of an inconsistent quality, and d) a roof-raising Harlem gospel choir, dressed in zebra-striped dashikis, drove the audience into a frenzy, making it quite a challenge for the next performer, a low-key comedian from Canada, to get their attention. But somehow I did.

There was a reason I succeeded that night. I had decided to abandon on my quest to become a comedian, and return home to Canada. This would be my final performance, and with nothing to lose, I relaxed and I “killed.” (It’s easier to deliver when it no longer matters.)

Being a comedian was the wrong fit for me. I’d have known that had I been alert to the signals. Being in show business, however, was the right fit. Once again, the signals were apparent. But this time, I noticed them.

A Canadian ad agency once hired me to write and perform some radio commercials for Shopsy’s, a Toronto deli, looking to expand its product line into supermarkets. In one commercial, I took on the voice of one of their featured entrees:

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

The agency liked what I’d done on the Shopsy’s account, and after I completed the commercials, they offered me a full-time writing job at their agency. This was my reply to them:

“I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather stay in show business.”

An honest response. Only one problem. At the time I said that,

I wasn’t in show business.

I don’t know where that came from. Somebody offered me a secure career opportunity, and I turned it down, using as my rationale a competing opportunity

That didn’t exist!

This was a signal.

I clearly wanted to be in show business.

Here’s another signal. Best of the West is in production. There’s a run-through on the stage. There are golf carts available to carry us there. As the other executive producers climb into the golf carts, I do something that is characteristically light years from my recognizable M.O.

I run to the stage.

That’s a signal. “I’m in the right place.” How do I know? No one, including myself, had ever seen me run anywhere before.

What’s the difference between the writing and the comedian situations? Is writing for television easier than being a stand-up? No, they’re both hard. The difference is that in one place, I belonged – as reflected by my spontaneous exuberance – and the in other place – as reflected by an alternating mixture of depression and “the shakes” – I didn’t.

If I’d spoken to one comedian, and asked him what it was like being him, I would quickly have realized that that line of endeavor was not for me. This blog concerns, among other matters, an all-encompassing recounting of what it’s like writing for television.

Maybe it’s for you. And maybe, once you’re more aware of what’s involved, you’ll decide that it isn’t. Or that it wasn’t, and you were (maybe instinctively) thoughtful enough to have realized it.


A. Buck Short said...

First, I hope you never stop letting your stories usurp your soapbox. Do not stop until we are able to bill you as “The Joe Biden of comedy.” Second, that you accept the possibility that responses are sometimes just as likely to end up saying things in a different way than the commenter may have had in mind. Third, that things just look different in print, more often than not because they are in print. Like they are being said more forcefully or with a different attitude, depending upon what tone of voice we read it in and how “fensive” we may feel at any given moment (de- or of-). Fourth, be grateful you may not get your point across fully on the first attempt. It’s a wonderful excuse for another post – and might even draw a comment from somebody who commented less frequently in the past. And, finally, fifth, never, ever talk about fight club. But that’s just my comment talking – or maybe the beer.

I learn much from your blogs, or I wouldn’t be here every day.

And now for my closing number – because I may be away for a day or two. I didn’t know you spoke French so well. Maybe 25 years ago, we had a French exchange student staying with us in Boston. Jill Marie was from Caen in Normandy, where his Dad was a tax collector. (Hey we all have our hobbies. I was a philatelist and my brother a numismatist. But that’s the other side of the coin. Jill’s dad apparently had an extensive collection of taxes.)

Jill’s English was still rough around the edges; so whenever we had guests who wanted to converse with him or ask anything, I would strongly encourage them to ask in English and I would translate their question into French for Jill.

For example, a friend might ask, “Jill, how long have you been in this country?” I would turn to our exchange student and earnestly translate, “Jeeel. ‘Ow long ‘av you beeeeen in zis coun-treeee?” If I did that bit once, I did it a hundred times (in French, “a ‘unnn-dred timezzz.”) And he just hated it every single time – but still had to stay the rest of the summer with us.

growingupartists said...

Yeah, I agree with Buck Short.