Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"A Regrettable Incident"

We’re getting close to the time in the Jewish calendar when believers (and a number on the periphery, especially those heading into surgery) hearken back to memories of regrettable behavior, in hopes that asking for forgiveness will clean the slate, allowing their “contracts” to be renewed for another year, their names comfortably inscribed in the Book of Life.

If this strikes you as religious mumbo jumbo, think of it as personal rehabilitation. Flashbacks on regrettable behavior offer opportunities for upgrading such behavior in the future. Not because of some hoped-for reward, but because of the sobering realization that that wasn’t you at your best.

Here’s what happened.

I’m one of two Executive Producers on the sitcom, Kristin, starring Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth. I’m not popular with the writing staff, being a generation older, and not much in sync with their comic sensibilities. Our “out of sync-ness” resulted in their not giving me what I needed from them creatively, at least not often enough. The disappointment made me grumpy. Making me even less popular with the writing staff.

We assemble on the soundstage for “Show Night”, maybe Show Eleven of the thirteen-episode order. Everyone’s trying to make the best of things, but the “get along” bonds are seriously starting to fray. The staff is sensing the show’s not going to make it. (It ultimately ran for four episodes.) Interactions become formal and short. Eye contact is the exception.

I need a redeeming “Big Moment”, some way to win back the writers and make them like me again, or least recognize my abilities. Of course, none of this is conscious. On the surface, I’m simply going about my business.

Sometime during the filming, I go up into the bleachers to talk to the audience. Talking to the audience almost always bolsters my spirits. I feel free up there. And sometimes, spontaneously and unexpectedly, I can be really funny.

I ask the audience if they have any questions. (I have no prepared material. I’m a counter-puncher. I play off whatever they ask me.)

The audience asks questions. I surprise us both with some off-the-cuff, funny answers. It’s going pretty well.

Then this teenaged boy, a black kid (which probably shouldn’t matter, but it does), maybe, I don’t know, sixteen, raises his hand.

“Hey. What’s your question?”

“How do I get a job here?”

“What kind of a job do you want?”

“Any kind.”

To a probing comedy mind, this is an opening. To the question, “What kind of job do you want?”, the response, “Any kind” is incongruously vague, leaving dangerous room for ribbing and fun-poking.

“Okay,” I begin, “let’s try to narrow this down. You’d like to work at the studio.”


“Doing what?”


The audience chuckles. I forge ahead in my exploration.

“Let’s see now. Would you like to be, I don’t know, a director?”

“Okay,” responded the teenager.

The audience laughs at this response, a response stemming, perhaps, from a gameness to try anything, or an urgency to escape unemployment. Unfortunately, it made no sense. A young fellow with no credentials whatsoever has just offered to take on arguably the most challenging and technologically demanding job on the entire show.

The response is comedically unreasonable. A person walks into a hospital looking for work, and when asked, “Would you like to be a brain surgeon?” replies, “I’ll give it a shot.”

You can’t do that.

Having been offered a gaping hole of comic possibility, I reflexively drive right through.

“So you want to be a director, huh? You think you can handle it?”

“I think so.”

“Fine. Then here’s what we’ll do. You stay where you are, and – I know this is unlikely – but if our director happens to die, and the Assistant Director and the Second Assistant Director die too, in some kind of directorial epidemic – then we’ll call on you, and you can come down to the stage and step right in.”


“Okay,” I “aside” to the audience. “He’s ready.”

The audience is now howling. I wrap it up with one final shot (a little Cosbyesque, I thought):

“You know, we actually wanted you for our director all the time. We just didn’t know where you were.”

The kid sits down. The audience rewards me with prolonged and enthusiastic applause.

I had unquestionably “killed.” Returning to the stage, the formerly hostile writing staff surrounds me, congratulating me on my triumph.

I had gotten ‘em back. Shown them an old guy could be funny. I was in heaven. And then it hit me.

He only wanted a job.

He has simply asked a question. And I drowned him in derision in a desperate play for approval.

He only wanted a job.

This experience took place eight years ago. And I still play it over in my head. Looking back, the least I could have done, after reaping glowing accolades at his expense, would have been to get him the number for the studio’s employment office. How hard would that have been? Too hard at the time. I was too busy, basking in delirious self-satisfaction.

I hope the guy landed on his feet. And I pray there’s a statute of limitations on behaving like a jerk.


Anonymous said...

If this is the best (worst) you can do, I don't think you have to worry too much about serious retribution after the brisket (either the main course or your own).
You'll be fine!

Mr. said...

I wish this was the worst thing I had to regret. (By the way, that kid grew up to be Barack Obama).

Anonymous said...

True to form, you are way too hard on yourself. It might not be a stellar moment in your life, but you are still one of the guys in the white hats.

Joe said...

I'm still looking for the regrettable part of that.

Catholics call this sort of worrying "scruples" (as opposed to the regular kind) and that's a sin. So, if it helps you feel any better, you can regret the sin of having been too hard on yourself.

You're welcome.

Ignacio esains said...

Mr. Pomerantz, I'm a tv comedy writer from ecuador, and of course, I follow your blog like scripture. Your "union organizer" experiences in London made me very aware of the sly ways in which the political seeps into everything we write. I've always admired the candor and sincerity in your posts... And the first time I read this latest one, I couldn't get through it... I became so angry at you and your attitude towards that kid, that I didn't check your blog for a couple of days. Today, I realized why your post upset me so much... A couple of years ago, I had done the exact same thing, during a casting session, playing an eight year old for laughs, like, coincidentally, that horrible Cosby show. It too was a hit with my team. Of course, I didn't realize the boy's mother was there... And she let me have it, in front of the same team I was trying to impress. I read your post again (this time to the end) and it moved me deeply... I wish I could express myself more throughly but my English, as you can read, is quite limited.

I read many blogs by professionals, many books and essays and every once in a while i let myself enjoy an immodest feeling of kinship. Of course, the illusion is shattered by writing a comment. But this has been a sad weekend, and your post has stregthened my commitment to my work so the distance created by my commenting is worth it. Thank you for this post, this blog, and for "no tigers at the circus", which I saw at 12 and from which I stole more jokes that I'm proud to admit.