Friday, January 30, 2009

"It's All In The Stars"

The late Peter Sellers (The Mouse That Roared, Being There, the Pink Panther movies) was a monumentally gifted comic actor. He was also a passionate follower of astrology. Sellers had his own personal astrologer, and would never take on a project without first consulting his guru.

This story was told to me by Peter Sellers’ agent, whose name was Dennis.

Dennis informs Sellers of a new movie offer, laying out all the details – the nature of the role, the fee, the dates they’d be filming, everything. Sellers remains impassive, telling Dennis he’ll give him his decision after running the proposition by his astrologer.

Sellers calls his astrologer, and tells him about the movie offer. The astrologer instructs Sellers to sit tight. He’ll study Sellers’ chart, and get back to him with his advice.

The astrologer immediately calls Dennis.

“Is it a good offer?”

“It’s a great offer.”

“Fine.”

The astrologer calls Sellers back and tells him to take the job.

Apparently, Sellers never caught on. As far as he knew, he was responding to the direction of his astrological guru, when, in truth, he was simply listening to his agent.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"London Times - Part Six"

Steve was the nephew of my former orthodontist.

That’s how he introduced himself when I received his unexpected call. “I’m your former orthodontist’s nephew,” he announced. Both he and my former orthodontist had the same last name, and when he arrived at my front door, I spotted a familiar arrangement of baldness, so I had no reason to dispute his claim. I just didn’t know what he was doing at my house.

I had never met Steve, and having endured both nerve-tingling pain when my braces were tightened and gagging bouts of nausea during the taking of “impressions”, I was no great fan of his uncle. But here he was.

“Welcome,” I said.

What else could I say, “Go away!”?

Steve explained that a mutual friend from Toronto had suggested that, when he was in London, he should look me up. This happened with no small frequency. But normally, the unexpected callers were people I knew, like my mother’s friends, Alfie Freeman and his wife Mary, who were instructed to take me to a decent place for dinner, so my mother would know that, for one meal at least, I wasn’t eating crap.

Steve was a stranger. For me, the chilling word “stranger” brings to mind the line delivered by Walter Brennan in the classic western, Red River:

I never liked strangers. That’s because no stranger ever “good-newsed” me.

This is hardly an alien sentiment to me.

It turned out that Steve was a nice stranger. (Challenging my general view of humanity.) His new bride, however, was not. (Re-enforcing my general view of humanity. I was one-for-two. Wariness remained a reasonable response.)

Steve and his American bride – she was from Detroit – had married just a few days before. Their plan was to enjoy a couple of weeks touring the famous landmarks of England, then settle for the year in London, working as substitute teachers, in a beleaguered British school system, where the only qualification for the job of substitute teacher (for British citizens and members of the Commonwealth) was a college degree in anything.

Canada was a member of the Commonwealth. The Detroit woman was married to a Canadian. Both had college degrees. Ergo, two qualified substitute teachers.

Yeah, about that woman. I mean, she was admittedly darkly beautiful and impeccably groomed, but she had this pinched face and wrinkled-up nose that said, “Something smells here.” It turns out what she meant by “here” was England. The whole place.

Steve’s new bride was clearly used to better things. Better heat. Better plumbing. Better phone service. Better food. Better everything. Plus, it appeared, though it was never articulated, servants. I immediately sensed that the “year in London” adventure had not been her idea.

I quickly received confirmation of this impression when, after two days in England, Steve’s new bride abruptly packed her bags and returned to Detroit. Steve was devastated by her departure. As the only person he knew in London, it fell to me to comfort and console my former orthodontist’s nephew.

Besides being devastated, Steve was also angry. A lot of planning (now, clearly, all his) had gone into the “year in London” strategy, and he was not ready to throw it all away. That’s why, when she left, he stayed. (I actually don’t know why he stayed. I don’t know for sure why she left. It could have been Steve. But going by her disparaging commentary on England, it definitely wasn’t all Steve.)

A couple of days after his wife’s exit to Michigan, the mourning period apparently over, I get a call from Steve. He was thinking about the honeymoon plans – touring the famous landmarks of England. Steve was determined not to abandon those plans merely because his wife had left the country. He asked me if I’d like to accompany him instead.

Well, sir…

I had never visited the famous landmarks of England. I had no car (nor a license, nor any interest in driving on the left). And at the time of his invitation, I had nothing to do.

So I said okay.

And that’s how I got to go on Steve’s honeymoon instead of his wife.

It was a memorable experience. We explored historic Windsor Castle. We stopped at Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of William Shakespeare, taking in a superlative Henry the Fourth - Part One.

Then it was off to Oxford.

We toured the venerable university, lolling happily on the grounds, as we downed pints of “bitter” from pewter tankards whose bottoms were made of glass, the glass being the source, it was explained to us, of the toast, “Here’s looking at you.”

The image that remains most vividly was of me, seated at one end of a rickety old boat, my hair blowing in the wind, as Steve, stationed at the other end wielding a long wooden pole, “punted” us capably down the river that wound lazily through the campus. How we laughed when he had to duck suddenly to avoid the bridge. Steve was agile but tall.

And then, suddenly, it was over. Despite her wretched behavior, Steve pined desperately for his absent bride. And so, abandoning his dream of “a year in London”, he boarded a plane for Detroit, hoping for reconciliation.

I had to let him go. It was the right thing to do.

I never heard from Steve again. (Maybe he wasn’t that nice.) I have no idea if they got back together. A part of me hopes that they didn’t. That’s not me, being awful. I just knew he could do better.

I went on with my life. One must, you know. I felt damaged, but resilient. Steve was gone, it was true, but after all,

We’d always have Oxford.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Yoga in a Nutshell"

THE SCENE: A TYPICAL YOGA STUDIO – MELLOW, SPIRITUAL AND AUSTERE.

A YOGA CLASS IS COMING TO ITS TRADITIONAL ENDPOINT. A DOZEN PRACTITIONERS LIE COMFORTABLY ON THEIR MATS, LISTENING, AS THEIR INSTRUCTOR LEADS THEM THROUGH THEIR FINAL, TOTAL-BODY RELAXATION EXERCISE.

YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Relax…your toes.

RESPONDING TO THE DIRECTION, THE PRACTITIONERS SEND THEIR BREATH ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THEIR TOES. THEIR TOES IMMEDIATELY UNCLENCH AND RELAX. THE EXERCISE CONTINUES, THE PRACTITIONERS RELAXING AREAS OF THEIR BODY, AS THE INSTRUCTOR PATIENTLY WORKS HIS WAY UPWARD.

YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Relax…your feet. Relax…your ankles. Relax…your calves. Relax…your knees…

AT THIS POINT, A DISTANT VOICE CRIES OUT --

DISTANT VOICE: Fire! Run!

IN THE YOGA CLASS, THE RELAXATION EXERCISE CONTINUES.

YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Relax…your thighs. Relax…your hips. Relax…your abdominals…

WE HEAR THE SOUND OF FIRE ENGINES, THEIR SIRENS SCREAMING LOUDER AS THEY APPROACH. THERE’S A CLAMOR OF EXCITEMENT AS THE FIRE RAGES OUT OF CONTROL.

BUT IN THE YOGA CLASS…

YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Relax…your diaphragm. Relax…your heart. Relax…your lungs…

THE CRACKLING FLAMES MOVE PERILOUSLY CLOSER. THE INSTRUCTOR’S VOICE FINALLY DISAPPEARS, OVERPOWERED BY THE CACOPHONY OF CHAOS AND FIRE.

DISSOLVE TO: TWENTY MINUTES LATER.

WE HEAR THE SOUND OF FIRE HOSES, DOUSING THE LAST FLICKERING EMBERS INTO SUBMISSION. STANDING IN THE YOGA STUDIO, TWO FIREFIGHTERS SURVEY THE TRAGIC DEVASTATION.

FIREFIGHTER NUMBER ONE: Burnt to a crisp.

FIREFIGHTER NUMBER TWO: Yeah. But boy, are they relaxed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Two

Throughout my career writing for television, I have invariably received one of two credits: a “Consulting” credit or “Executive Producer” credit.

Once, I received a “Consulting Executive Producer” credit. I may be the only one who ever got that. It was exciting breaking in a new title.

Receiving only these credits is extremely rare. Ask around. You have to be lucky. And be willing to turn down lucrative offers for jobs that aren’t those. (You also have to be short-sighted enough to reject valuable learning experiences. There is also, sadly, that.)

I liked being the consultant or the E.P. (Which are, coincidentally, my initials.) As Executive Producer, there was nobody above me in the show’s hierarchy, which meant I could be “right” just by saying I was. As a consultant, I was outside the hierarchy. I was in a different category. I was the funny uncle, a friendly face from the “outside” who popped in and improved the show.

From my earliest days as a scriptwriter, I was also a consultant. It was during my MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) years, after I quit my only staff job ever – on Phyllis – because I hated it – that I began supplementing my income, consulting, during “Production Week”, on the episodes that I had written. There’d be “Rewrite Nights” and I would pitch in.

Sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it wasn’t. It was fun when the script I’d delivered was in such great shape that there was little to do but accept compliments for having written it so skillfully. That was delightful.

It was less delightful when the show’s Executive Producer had ideas of their own – ideas that, in my view, were making the script worse. At those times, I felt obligated to fight for what I, and, in many cases, the members of the Executive Producer’s writing staff, believed was the better approach.

Unfortunately, being members of that Executive Producer’s writing staff, and understandably reluctant to make waves, the writers who agreed with me were not always that helpful.

Once, I was having a disagreement with the Executive Producer concerning some issue in the script, and I suspected that the writer ranked immediately below her agreed with me, a suspicion that was confirmed during a break. Having discovered an ally, I excitedly inquired,

“How much support can I get from you on this matter?”

To which the writer who ranked immediately below the Executive Producer replied,

“None.”

That’s when it wasn’t so fun.

Not long afterwards, I was invited to consult on scripts that I hadn’t written. That was easier. No vested interested. No pressure. No stress. (No having to talk to the actors or the executives – which is another way of saying, “No pressure. No stress.”)

When an astute and talented writer named Barry Kemp created Newhart – the one where the Bob Newhart character owned an inn in Vermont – he invited me to serve as what he called, “a legitimate story editor.” Presumably, an illegitimate “Story Editor” was a writer who received the credit, “Story Editor” but they didn’t edit any stories.

(In actuality, the “Story Editor” credit simply means, “You’re getting less money than the guy with the ‘Producer’ credit.” Credits are primarily salary designations.)

During the first season of Newhart, scripts would be delivered to my home (already a plus, because I didn’t have to drive anywhere). I’d study them, and then type up my suggestions. (This being before e-mail and fax machines, someone then had to pick up my suggestions and drive them back to the studio. I apologize herewith for the traffic and pollution problems I may have added to. Though I don’t know how many accidents I prevented by staying out of my car.)

During my career, I provided similar consulting services (though sometimes I had to go in) on a number of television series. The job felt like a natural fit. As was not unusual in my career, somebody else had found me my niche.

Whether I consulting on the iconic Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling, or the barely noticed Goode Behavior, starring Sherman Hemsley – I consulted on both shows during the same season – I took my assignment equally seriously.

(The seemingly incongruous double-duty won me respect from the Goode Behavior writers, who were impressed that I consulted on Larry Sanders, and heaping derision from some Larry Sanders writers, who couldn’t believe I was working on Goode Behavior. “How’s Shoiman”, I’d be hootingly asked.)

What, specifically, did the consulting job involve? Well, generically there was inevitably the issue of length. Shows – though less so on HBO – had to conform to a “time format.” We were always looking for “cuts.”

“You don’t need Page 8,” I’d suggest.

“Why not?” I’d be asked.

“You never need Page 8.”

This wasn’t always helpful, but it never failed to lighten the mood.

As for the content, to me, no matter the show, the job remained the same: Understand what they were trying to accomplish in the story, and suggest things that would help them reach that goal more successfully. It is my belief that all stories – I’m talking about half-hour comedies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it really was all stories – have an inherent trajectory:

To me, the internal structure of a story is like the natural progression that you find in music. You may not be able to articulate it, but when the chord structure deviates from its inevitable path, the final arrangement sounds “off.” It’s the same with a script. The consultant’s job is to listen for the “off” parts, and “fine tune” them, so they’re harmoniously back on track. (My music analogy’s admittedly shaky, but hopefully you get what I’m drivin’ at.)

The objective is clarity. (The ultimate objective, of course, is comedy, but fuzzy storytelling can inhibit the “ha-ha.”) “Clarifying” can mean noticing the inconsistency between two jokes, which, although both funny, undermine the credibility of character who’s delivering both. “Clarifying” also means eliminating the “wrong turns”, streamlining the storyline so it more smoothly travels to where its theme indicates it wants to go.

Sometimes, I’d suggest adding a speech or some different lines of dialogue. Not to say, “This is funnier”, but to say that, “This joke is more helpfully ‘on story’.” Or “This speech gives the joke you’re pointing towards a nourishing context.” Or “This line capsulizes the moment (and since it’s been ‘built to’ so cleverly, I’m predicting – making sure of coming short of guaranteeing – a hilarious response).”

Nobody’s right all the time. Your success level resides, like baseball, in your batting average.

What I’ve offered is the idealized version of the consulting job. There are times when “consulting” is butting heads with stubborn people. Sometimes, it’s the show’s star, who’s “not a writer” coming in when the work’s nearly done, and changing everything around. And sometimes, it’s people of good will seeing things in diametrically different ways. In these situations, your fondest wish is to get fired. And almost invariably, that wish is granted.

But when the “consulting thing” is really working, you’ll find creative exhilaration, a giddying collaborative chemistry, there’s “break time” hilarity, there’s free dinner, and a check for your services when you’re done. All really good things.

By the way, I still know how to do this stuff.

And I’m available.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"'Feel-Good' Movies"

Recently, on a TV news report, the reporter observed that when economic times get tough, movies inevitably take a turn to the “feel-good” variety. During periods of gloom, audiences gravitate towards movies offering uplift and hope. You go in feeling bad; you come out feeling better. That’s the theory.

The reporter used Slumdog Millionaire as an example of the prototypical “feel-good” movie for our current hard times. I saw Slumdog Millionaire. But let me go somewhere else first. A small digression. I will return shortly.

I wasn’t around for The Great Depression, but I’ve seen many of the movies made during those, arguably even worse, at least so far, hard times. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of Depression-era movies. I know Warner Brothers in particular made a number of gritty gangster pictures, but even those had a positive, albeit an inverted positive, message.

Gangster movies were, “Don’t do that” movies. You could tell they were “Don’t do that” movies, because in the end, the head gangster was always gunned down in a hail of bullets. The unmistakable message: If you don’t want to be gunned down in a hail of bullets…don’t do that.

The Depression did have its darker offerings. The Good Earth. The Grapes of Wrath. But the era’s entertainment mainstay was fluff. Lavish musicals, goofball comedies where rich people cavorted in ball gowns and tuxedos drinking “high balls”, whatever they are.

A digression within a digression. This will be quick, I promise.

If I were desperately poor, but had somehow scraped up the dime, or whatever, to see a movie, I would have hated watching rich people partying on the screen, no matter how foolishly they were made to behave.

The subtext of these movies was for the audience to feel superior, their unspoken message: “They’re wealthy but they’re idiots.” That wouldn’t have been enough for me. “Enough” would have been, “They’re wealthy, but there’s poison in the caviar.”

For me, there’d have been no satisfaction watching movies about wealth and privilege, then going home and eating my shoe.

But apparently, I’d have been in the minority.

There is one performer from that turmoiled period who really gets to me. Shirley Temple – the cinematic icon of Depression-era cheerfulness. A curly-headed, chubby-cheeked, multi-talented dynamo, Shirley Temple embodied the “never-say-die” spirit of a nation on its knees. (My favorite Shirley Temple movie: The Little Princess.)

She’d lose her position. She’d lose her father. She’d lose her dog. Nothing could stop her. Shirley Temple would always bounce back. With a smile and a giggle and a “Keep you chin up, the good times are just around the corner.”

Back to today.

I am known (by those who know me) for refusing to patronize dark and/or violent movies. Faced with diminishing movie-going options, at least by my entertainment standards, I was looking forward to the “feel- good” movies of today. (I’m sorry millions of people had to lose their jobs so I could get to see one, but what are you gonna do?)

Which brings me to what I’ve heard called the “feel-good” movie for our time –

Slumdog Millionaire.

Synopsis:

A young boy sees his mother murdered before his eyes, toughs it out on the murderous “mean streets” of Mumbai, is recruited into a gang of urchin criminals whose leader deliberately blinds one of its young members (blind street singers make more money) by pouring acid into his eyes, loses the girl of his dreams to prostitution, his brother and later, a sadistic mob boss, he finally gets a break appearing on a television game show, where his life’s experiences fatefully provide him with all the answers, but he’s suspected of cheating so he’s brutally tortured by the police.

Oh me, oh my. Something has happened to the “feel-good” movie.

The “feel-good” movie of today has stuff in it that makes me, at least, feel disgusted.

The question then is:

Where do I go to feel good?
--------------------------------
Ever since his last posting (Friday, January 23), my Uncle Grumpy has been bugging me:

“I went too fast and left a mistaken impression. I used an example about terrorism on our soil – my point being that mostly likely, the timetable for terrorist attacks is primarily in the hands of the terrorists – but I don’t want your readers to think I only yell at the television about one thing.

I keep hearing on cable news that during the Eisenhower administration, the top tax level was 90 percent. It was, but nobody paid it! There were millions of loopholes! They keep saying the ninety percent, but they never mention the loopholes!

They also report that the approval level for Congress is, like, eleven percent. Maybe so, but how does that fit with the voters’ continually sending over ninety percent of them back? People hate the idea of Congress. But they keep re-electing the vast majority of the people. Those news guys keep focusing on the wrong thing!

Those are just two things I yell about. There’s hundreds of them! I didn’t want people thinking there was just one.”

Uncle Grumpy has re-spoken. Hopefully, now, he’ll leave me alone.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Uncle Grumpy - On Cable News - Again"

Look out! He’s on the rampage! What can I do? He’s my uncle.

As usual, criticisms and complaints – directly to him.
-------------------------------------
Cable news.

I hate it. I watch it. I hate that I watch it. Then I watch it some more.

And I hate it.

I thought, after the election…you know, the big show is over, I’ll take a break. But the stuff keeps coming. Is it important? It is that day!

The crazy governor from Illinois. The proposed Treasury Secretary who cheated on his taxes. The Chief Justice screws up the swearing in. Biden turned down Secretary of State.

Caroline Kennedy. They interrupted to report she was withdrawing from consideration and then, later, that she staying in during the same program. These yahoos don’t care what they say. As long as it’s “Breaking News.”

I remember during the Democratic primaries. Cable news reports: “The polls project Obama a shoo-in in New Hampshire.”

Obama loses New Hampshire.

The next day, oh boy. The cable news guys are embarrassed. They’re contrite. They made a mistake. They’ll never do it again.

A week later, “The polls project Obama a shoo-in in South Carolina!”

They’re junkies! They can’t stop themselves! They swear off the stuff…and a week later, they’re doing it again!

I know it’s about ratings. Cable news is a business. It’s not the news people’s fault for inflaming sensibilities, pandering to extremists and monstrously over-hyping the stories. They’re trying to sell tickets. You can’t sell tickets to blah.

There’s a fierce competition for the news-watching audience. You do what you have to do. Even if it means undermining the credibility of your entire operation.

To accurately report on the events of the day.

I know cable news is a clown show. And I still watch. Hoping, against the accumulated evidence of my eyes and ears, that there’s a possibility I might learn something.

What the heck is the matter with me!!!

My nephew told me about this course he recently took in Political Science. Twelve three-hour classes. In the last minute of their last meeting, the teacher sums up the message of his class:

“If you want to learn, listen to all sides.”

Sure.

Answer me this, will ya? When partisan advocates come on cable news shows, exaggerate the virtues of their own position, and demonize the views of the opposition, what exactly are you supposed to learn?

How to exaggerate and demonize?

You don’t learn anything!

They don’t want answers on cable news. They want mud wrestling. That’s why you rarely hear “the next question” on those shows, the question that might result in some actual understanding.

Instead, you hear this:

“Under President Bush, we haven’t had an attack on our soil for seven and a half years.”

The claim stands unchallenged. Because the calendar says it’s true. I’ve seen this a number of times, the last time, three days ago. There’s never any exploration. No “next question.”

Later, maybe in a “personal comment”, we’ll be reminded that Bush was actually president when we had a very big attack.

This second thing, I’ve never heard anyone say. “Under President Clinton, who was not known for his anti-terrorism initiatives, there were no attacks on our soil for eight years – 1993 to 2001. How do you account for that?”

Those cable news hosts aren’t stupid. They’re aware of the eight-year Clinton thing. So why don’t they follow up with “the next question”?

Because they want me to get angry. Me and the other suckers watching their stupid, infuriating show. They win when I’m engaged, yelling at my television, “Why don’t you ask that, you big Bozos!” and thinking I’m smarter than the host.

It’s like Wheel of Fortune, when you know the answer, and the contestants don’t.

“‘A PENNY SAVED IS A PENNY EARNED.’ What’s the matter with you?”

My personal opinion? The news should never be a profit center. It’s too damn important.

I know news has been partly entertainment from the get-go. A newsreader wears a bowtie, he’s in show business. But there’s a line. If Edward R. Murrow came back, he’d be shocked.

“I know I had shiny hair and a cigarette. But this is ridiculous!”

Then he’d blow the lid of news-o-tainment.

“The focus of the news must always remain the news itself. Not the people who bring it to us. Not those who purport to parse its meaning, as if we had no reasoning powers of our own. We must take back the news from those who ruthlessly exploit it for commercial purposes, and return it to the serious function it was intended to perform – as a reliable reporter of what actually took place. Good night. And good luck.”

The “Murrows” of today, biting the hand that so lavishly feeds them? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

So we’ve got what we’ve got.

Somebody, please. Take away my remote.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Drinking The Poison"

Thinking back on my English pub experiences (See: Yesterday) reminded me of a drinking story dating from the same era that involved my mother.

I had not known my mother to be much of a drinker. In fact, I had never witnessed her drinking anything.

Then, one day, everything changed.

While living in London, I came home once for a visit, landing in New York City on my way back to Toronto. My mother met me in New York, and immediately took me to buy clothes she could stomach seeing me wear. When the wardrobe shopping was over, we went out to a restaurant for lunch.

I’m twenty-two years old. I have reached the legal drinking age, plus I had partaken of “bitter” (room temperature English beer) every night at The Horse And Groom for months. My mother, however, has never seen me drink.

We order lunch. Along with my lunch, I bon vivantishly request a frosty glass of American beer. The waiter returns with an ice-cold lager in a tall, tapering glass, setting it down directly in front of me. Excited by the prospect of a beer that is actually cold, I pick up the glass, and I draw it to my lips.

I am hardly oblivious to the moment, or, more appropriately, the “moment.” For the very first time, ever, Earl Raymond Pomerantz will be imbibing an alcoholic beverage in front of his mother.

As I’m about to enjoy my first sip, my mother, who since I’d ordered the drink had said nothing, breaks her silence.

“You know,” she says, with a studied nonchalance, “I haven’t tasted beer in maybe twenty-five years. Let me have a little sip.”

I hesitate, confused. My mother, whom I have never once seen drinking beer, suddenly wants a taste of my beer. Then I think, maybe this is her idea of how this “moment” is supposed to play out.

Rite of passage. Mother and sonny-boy. Sharing a beer.

Okay, then. “Milestone moment.” Here we go.

I pass the beer over to my mother. She takes the glass, raises it to her lips, and she starts to drink.

And drink.

And drink.

And drink.

And drink.

I’m looking at her. Watching this thing happen. My eyes are getting bigger. As I sit there, witnessing my Jewish mother, downing the beer in one long uninterrupted chug.

Until, finally…

She drains my glass of its very last drop.

She then places the now totally empty glass back in front of me, punctuating her actions with a nod, and a single reverberating word:

“Good.”

Only later did I realize the meaning of the event that had just occurred.

Gertrude Pomerantz had fulfilled her maternal obligation.

She has swallowed the poison for her son.
--------------------------
I want to thank those who took the time to congratulate me on my first anniversary. I also want to thank the people who meant to, but didn't. You're my kind of people.

Another "Thank you" goes to those who shared their "conversation stoppers" with me. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one whose smooth progress is occasionally derailed by strangers. Special kudos to the commenter who told the "dead horse" story. Material like that - with me - you can't lose.

Questions and comments always welcome. And if you want to hear back, try talktoearl@gmail.com.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"London Times - Part Five"

During my first months living in London, I had no job, no local family, no contacts, and no friends. My roommate, Alan, had met a girl at a party, and they’d moved into her place (though he continued paying half of our rent).

I was officially alone.

I needed a lift. A comforting sanctuary from the cold, dark, lonely and lingering London winter. Fortunately, the city offers just the place.

The local pub.

London has thousands of pubs. Hampstead itself has a bunch. But everyone has their special favorite. Their own personal “local.” And I found mine. I can’t recall how it became mine. I guess somebody took me there once.
Standing on the south side of Heath Street, up from the Hampstead Underground station, its name spelled in raised bronze letters affixed to its red and white fa├žade was

The Horse And Groom

I went there almost every night. It was welcoming and warm. Both emotionally, and they had heat.

It was our neighborhood meeting place. A clubhouse with drinks. How many bars or taverns had I frequented in Toronto? Pretty close to none. But I wasn’t in Toronto. I was in London. And Londoners went to pubs.

To me, the pub seemed very democratic. People gathered there after work. And by their dress and demeanor, at least I as an outsider, had no idea who was what. And vice versa. Nobody knew what I was. Which immediately erased the stigma of my being nothing.

Pub people order drinks in “rounds.” Two problems there. I was financially not equipped to pay for “rounds.” And on my best drinking day, I could drink maybe three quarters of a “round.” After that, I either got very grumpy or fell asleep.

It didn’t matter. The “regulars”, surprisingly quickly, took me in. I developed an identity. I was the Canadian funny guy. (Or, alternatively, the financially strapped easy drunk.)

My new friends taught me things. Like how to roll your own cigarette. Cowboys roll their own cigarettes. Gary Cooper did it with one hand. I was eager to learn. Whatever cowboys did, that was for me.

I studied the technique. Then it was my turn. I laid out the cigarette paper. I tapped in a thin line of tobacco. I rolled up the paper, licked and sealed the edge, and stuck it in my mouth.

My first rolled cigarette. (And maybe my tenth cigarette ever.) I felt really cool.

I swiped a wooden match along the side of its cardboard box. The flame jumped to life. I brought the match to my cigarette, lit the end, and drew in a deep and confident drag.

The flame shot straight through the cigarette and burned up my tongue.

If tongues can have scars on them, I believe mine bears the imprint of that (one-time only) smoking experience.

I felt safe at The Horse and Groom. I could be silly. I could be drunk. I could even be sad. Somehow, being part of this lively crowd could pick up my spirits and make me forget. Once, having exceeded my drinking limit, I forgot where I lived.

Deep down, and for no reason other than I’m me, I never felt entirely accepted. I was an outsider, with no accomplishments, an uneven temperament, and minimal money. Sure, I’d feel included. Nobody ever told me, “Get out!” But there were always those private doubts.

Do they really like me.

It was the day of the FA Cup Final, an English soccer tradition spanning over 130 years. The Cup Final is up there with the Superbowl. It’s the biggest game of the year. The whole country’s into it.

As the pub is about to close for the afternoon (to re-open later for the evening), I notice the pub manager, a glowy-cheeked fellow whose name eludes me, passing through the crowd, stopping here and there to whisper something into some of the customers’ ears. It was all very mysterious.

He comes over and whispers into my ear. And what he whispers is this:

“Don’t leave after closing.”

“Last Call” is announced (the call for the last order of drinks). Little by little, the customers straggle out of the pub. Except for the ones who’ve been invited to stay.

One of whom is me.

After “closing”, the pub transforms into a private party. A television is wheeled in, so we can watch the game. The bar remains open, and free drinks are served to the pub manager’s friends.

One of whom is me.

When a thing like that happens – an expression of unqualified inclusion – even an insecure fellow like myself can’t help but feel, at least temporarily, accepted.

Years later, treating myself to a solo visit to London, where my daughter, Anna, who was taking the traditional college year abroad, I insistently subwayed her up to Hampstead for the obligatory “Pomerantz Tour.” (Dr. M had endured “the tour” numerous times before. It’s close to Anna Freud’s house, so it wasn’t a total loss.)

I showed Anna where I’d lived on Ten Church Row. I showed her the nearby cemetery, which European movie companies frequently used as a filming location, altering the headstones to match their respective nationalities.

We then dutifully trudged up Heath Street to The Horse and Groom.

I pointed it out from a distance as we approached. My heart began to pump. Only party because we were walking uphill.

We’re standing at the front door. I’m exploding with excitement. Where did it come from? I don’t know, I’m introducing my daughter to a place I had frequented when I was barely older than she is now. The place mattered to me. The moment, even more so.

I pull open the door, ready to usher my daughter through a guided tour of her Daddy’s history.

It isn’t a pub anymore. It’s a Chinese restaurant.

There was absolutely no tip-off. The outside of the building – including the trademark Horse And Groom lettering – looked exactly the same. Inside, it was barbecued spare ribs and hot and sour soup.

“You want to eat here?” the Chinese lady proprietor inquired.

I sighed. And then politely said no.

Anna and I ate at a Vietnamese restaurant across the street. It hadn’t been there in the Sixties.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Inauguration Day"

This is going to be short, and I’m doing a lot of quoting. The new president’s a better writer than I am, and I don’t want to compete. (You see how I can turn one of the most historic events of our time into an issue about me? It’s a kind of a gift.)

I’m thinking about this event they hold every year late in the campaign (this year, it was October the 16th) called the “Al Smith Dinner.” At the dinner, the presidential candidates set aside rhetoric, attacks, and policy statements, and get up and tell jokes.

John McCain, who went first, seemed extremely loose, more at ease than the clenched guy I saw in the debates. It could have been alcohol. It could have been relief that the endless campaign was coming to an end. It could have been, “I’m the underdog; I’ve got nothing to lose.” Any of these, all three, or something in the middle. Who knows?

McCain was also in the Lion’s Den. Al Smith was a Democrat (and the losing candidate for president in 1928). The dinner audience generally leans in that direction.

For whatever reason, McCain, the old fighter pilot, was remarkably on target. His jokes were sharp, funny and consistent - all cut the testosterone-laced fabric of the snapping towel. McCain's tone was edgy and aggressive - the Officers’ Club after a bombing run.

McCain feigned amazement at Bill Clinton’s conspicuous absence from the event:

Can’t he take one night off from his tireless quest to make the man who defeated his wife the next president?

He kept landing punches. Continuing his assault on Bill Clinton’s restrained enthusiasm for Obama as the next president, McCain remarked:

When a reporter asked him if Senator Obama was qualified to be president, Bill Clinton pointed out, sure, he’s over 35 yeas of age and a U.S. citizen. He was pandering to the strict constructionist crowd.

After scoring consistently, McCain went out in a starburst of hilarity. Pretending to have taken a peek at Obama’s upcoming comedy routine, McCain announced:

Now, of course, it would be unfair – and even a little unkind – to put my opponent on the spot before he gets up here, or to throw him off his game with unreasonably high expectations. But I do need to warn you, ladies and gentlemen, you all are about to witness the funniest performance in history.

Let’s not add to the mounting pressure he must be feeling. Just prepare yourself for non-stop hilarity…

The funniest 15 minutes of your life or any other. I think he knows that anything short of that would mar the evening, insult our hosts, and perhaps even cost him a few swing states. Senator Obama, the microphone is all yours.

I liked John McCain. I am sorry he was handcuffed by the requirements of running as a Republican.

Obama’s material was all over the place. “Frontrunner” comedy is harder to pull off. The jokes are meant to say, “I know I’m not as great as they say I am.” But when they’re not sufficiently nuanced, they can come out sounding like they actually believe they are.

Some examples from Obama’s monologue:

Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger.

If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it’s possible I’m a little too awesome.

Not my favorite style of comedy. The guy was doing “Prom King” material. More suitable to the Adonises from 90210.

There was, however, one shining exception.

Buried in the not quite “coming off” self-deprecation was a joke I really loved. Obama was talking about his name:

I got my name, Barack, from my father…And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president.

His middle name is Hussein.

And that’s a really good joke.

I know that candidates rarely write their own jokes. But I liked how Obama delivered it. The joke was weightily true. And his mock-rueful expression carried it home.

No forced self-deprecation this time. This was real self-deprecation. The first black nominee for president was burdened with the middle name, “Hussein.”

“Like I don’t have enough trouble.”

I’m hoping that’s the real guy.

And I’m hoping he governs from that joke.

That’s all I got.

Here’s wishing the president, the country – and the world, while we’re at it – the very best for the coming years. I’m not that guy, but for those so inclined, you might consider a little prayer.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Conversation Stoppers"

I’m going to tell you about three conversations. All of them ended abruptly, because on each occasion, I had no idea how to respond. I’m rapidly getting older, and it would be nice to know how to handle such situations before I die. Maybe you can help.
--------------------------------
I buy a new car. The man who sold it to me says, “I want you to promise me something.”

I say, “What is it?”

The salesman replies thusly:

“We take pride in our product. We think it’s the best machine on the road. But we’re not perfect. So I want you to make a list. Any problem you’re having with the car – anything, large or small – I want you to immediately write it down. When you come in for you six hundred-mile check-up, I want you to show that list to our mechanic, and he’ll fix you up, right on the spot. Will you promise me you’ll do that? Will you promise me you’ll make that list?”

“I promise.”

“Any problem. Large or small.”

“Got it.”

I drive the car. Everything’s fine. Except for one tiny glitch. The clock on the dashboard. I can’t get it to work. I show up for my six hundred mile check-up, I hand the mechanic my list. There is one item on it.

“The clock doesn’t work.”

The mechanic reads it, then hands me back my list, accompanied by a three-word response.

“They never do.”

I have no idea what to say.
-----------------------------------
There’s stable in Burbank where you can rent horses and go riding. It’s not a formal trail ride, there’s no riding group, no leader. They put you on a horse, and you ride through a tunnel under the freeway into nearby Griffith Park. When your hour is up, you ride back to the stable, and return your horse.

I’m having an enjoyable ride. I always do. To my horse’s steady hoof beat, I sing cowboy songs in my head, and sometimes, out of my mouth. “Wyatt Earp.” “High Noon.” “Rawhide.” “Yancey Derringer.” In reality, I’m in Griffith Park. But in my fantasy, I’m

Riding the trail to who knows where

Luck is my companion, gambling is my game.

At the appropriate time, I turn my horse around, and head back to the stable. A memorable ride.

About a hundred yards from the barn, my horse decides to lower its front knees to the ground and roll over on its side. Since one of my legs is on that side, and I don’t want the horse to squash it when it rolls over, I take my feet out of the stirrups, and I wisely jump off.

Sensing my departure, the horse immediately reverts to a standing position and trots, riderless, back to the stable.

I walk back. Horseless.

I search out the guy who runs the place, and I say,

“My horse dropped to the ground and rolled over, and he came back by himself.”

To which, the guy who runs the place, replies,

“He always does.”

Once again, I am speechless.
-----------------------------------
This last one has touch of a Twilight Zone vibe to it.

I’m sitting in this diner. A little fancier. A diner with wood paneling.

I like what they serve there. Hearty food but healthy, like turkey meat loaf with mashed potatoes. It suits me just fine.

The main draw, however – the reason I go there and have been for years – is their tapioca pie. It’s just how I like it. Not too sweet, smooth texture, a delicate, light crust. For me, that place’s tapioca pie really hits the spot.

So there I am, perusing the menu, and to my surprise and chagrin, there’s no tapioca pie. It’s been taken off the menu.

I’m totally devastated. Tapioca pie is my favorite thing there. And now it’s gone.

The waitress comes up to take my order. I tell you what I want to eat, and then add, wistfully, but with a hint of complaining,

“You don’t have tapioca pie anymore.”

To which the waitress replies,

“We never did.”

That one really stopped me cold. But this time, I’m determined to say something.

“Yes you did,” I shoot back.

To which the waitress replies,

“No we didn’t.”

We go back and forth for a few rounds, “Yes, you did”, “No, we didn’t”, until I’m reminded of my favorite Monty Python sketch, “Argument”, chuckle ruefully, and give up.

Maybe there are no answers in these situations. “They never do”, “He always does”, “We never did” seem designed as conversation stoppers, and they successfully fill the bill. Maybe the correct response is to throw your hands in the air, cut your losses, and walk away.

But just once, just once…

As I said, maybe you can help.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"Milestone"

I looked it up. It seemed close, so I checked to find out

Sure enough, today marks the one-year anniversary of my having started this blog. Isn’t that something? Echoing the great Jackie Mason (to be read in a thick and belligerent Jewish accent):

I’d like to thank myself, for writing all these wonderful stories.

Speaking as my more humble self, I’d like to thank you for showing up and giving me somebody to talk to. Without you, motivating me to do this, I’m a guy tanning on my porch going, “This is nice. But is it really a life?”

Two hundred and forty-seven posts. On lots of different subjects. All of them meaningful. If only to the writer.

I’d like to tell you I have great things planned for Year Two. I have nothing planned for Year Two. I can’t promise you Year Two will be better than Year One. Who knows? It may be worse. I may already have told you my best stories.

On the other hand, a year’s worth of blogging has sharpened my abilities. So even if the new stories aren’t as scintillating as last year’s, there’s good chance they’ll be better written.

Forgive my, what other people call pessimism and I call being realistic. It’s just my nature. I have no certainty about the things I have yet to do. A similar attitude colored my network “pitch” meetings?

NETWORK EXECUTIVE: Is this show going to be a hit?

EARL: (more likely Earl’s demeanor and body language) How the hell should I know?

It’s not that I have no ideas for future postings. I do. At least, a few. When something comes to me, I write it down on the nearest scrap of paper, often the back of a receipt in a restaurant, where I’m supposed to be listening to my dining companions, but instead, I’m distracted by an idea for my blog.

I later toss these scribbled-on scraps onto an unsorted pile on my desk. When the pile grows unwieldy, I transcribe my nuggets of possibility into a three-ringed notebook. It all sounds very efficient. Unfortunately, over the years, my handwriting has gotten so illegible, when I leaf through my notebook, I am often incapable of reading what I have written.

This problem increases exponentially when the ideas that come to me as I’m about to fall asleep, and I record them in a notepad, positioned for that purpose beside my bed. These words are invariably indecipherable. That World War II code breaker? Turing? The guy wouldn’t stand a chance cracking this stuff. It’s stenographized chicken scratchings.

I’ve written my “reminders” down blind. My contact lenses have been removed for the night and, although there are glasses resting in a case on my night table, I’m too concerned that, during the time required to take them out of the case and put them on, the idea will have flown from my consciousness and left the building.

This is hardly an unreasonable concern. There’s an age, which I, apparently, have reached, where an idea can vanish in the eye-blink between “I’ve gotta write that down!” and “What was it again?” You reach for your pen, inadvertently jogging your brain and poof – your brilliant idea is lost in space.

I jot down my thoughts without benefit of eye help. In the dark. It has to be in the dark, because if I wake up Dr. M, we would quickly be embroiled in other matters, matters related to selfishness and lack of consideration for the loved ones sleeping beside them, matters which would rapidly erase the idea I had turned the light on to jot down.

A sightless person scribbling illegibly in the dark. The resulting work product is unlikely to be useful.

And as if these difficulties didn’t suffice, when I can read my notes, on more occasions than my blood pressure can tolerate, I cannot understand what it is I have written down.

When I made those notes originally, I knew exactly what I had in mind, and I thought I always would. That’s why they were written in a condensed shorthand, rather than in fully elaborated detail. Who needs details, I’m sure I thought. It’s a sensational idea. Who wouldn’t remember how it goes?

Me.

When I later return to my condensed notes, and I have no idea what I was talking about.

It’s heartbreaking. The idea’s right there. You can see it in front of you. But, like a treasured item viewed through a department store window, the Object of Enthusiasm is infuriatingly out of reach.

Ideas are precious. And elusive. They’re not there, then they are. And if you don’t nail them down, they will vanish without a trace.

Ideas are like twinkling slivers of understanding. They flash in your mind, and you go, “Yeah!” It’s not usually the whole thing that comes to you. Just a fragment.

You take that idea, and you write a post about it. The readers respond, and off you go, winding up…who knows where? An illuminating thought, maybe. A dazzling insight, triggering unimagined possibilities for world peace and the betterment of humankind.

Over the top? Sorry, it’s my anniversary.

Of course, there is the possibility that I’m fooling myself. Last week, on 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin, in response to some obvious advice he’d been given replied, “Thank you for telling me what I already know. You should work for the Huffington Post.”

I contribute to the Huffington Post, though I may not be immune to telling you what you already know right here in this blog.

Oh, well.

I think I’ll keep doing it for a while.

Why? Because it’s my mission? Because it’s my pleasure? Because it nourishes my insatiable ego? Because what else have I got to do?

It’s probably a little of each.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"London Times - Part Four"

I had this joke:

“In London, I lived in Church Row. Not on Church Row, in Church Row. That’s how they said it. Which was actually appropriate, because my building was sinking.”

That was wrong in so many ways, not the least of them being that it wasn’t my best joke. More importantly, it wasn’t accurate. Church Row was a quiet thoroughfare off of Heath Street in Hampstead, an elegant London suburb, populated, among others, by successful people in the arts. Peter Cook, of the iconic comedy group, Beyond The Fringe, lived directly across the street. (This did not work out well for me. See: “I Knew If I Had My Chance…” – July 28.)

Church Row was a quiet street with a low divider running up the middle, against which cars would be parked overnight. I’m not aware of the street’s history, but it’s unlikely it included garages. At the farthermost end of Church Row was a tiny cemetery. Tiny but creepy.

This wasn’t just my evaluation. Movie companies from around the world regularly filmed in that cemetery, altering the headstones to match the nationalities of the filmmakers. I walked through one day, and everyone dead was Polish. Which was surprising, because not long before, the departed had all been Swedish.

Ten Church Row, my actual address, was a townhouse, meaning it was part of a block-long construction, with each townhouse having its own private entrance. These were distinctly separate living places, but there were no spaces between them. They were, like, all glued together. I’m sorry. That’s the best I can do.

Ten Church Row was the place my roommate-to-be Alan took me after finally finding me at Victoria Station. He had expected me to wait for him on the train platform, and I had waited on the subway platform, unaware that Victoria Station housed two kinds of platforms.

Alan led me up to the fourth floor. Lots of stairs. (The ground floor included the entry hallway and the kitchen. Our landlords, the Tompkins family, lived on the second floor. There were three large bed-sitting rooms occupied by renters on the third floor. And then, there was us. Two cozy bedrooms and a kitchen. Just under the roof.)

I arrived in England in the winter. I’m used to cold winters. I’m from Canada. But nothing I’d experienced prepared me for this.

You know the pirate phrase, “Shiver me timbers”? Now I know where it comes from. If you imagine your skeletal structure as your “timbers”, an English winter will shiver them to the core.

This “timbers-shivering” is a product of the damp coldness England is famous for. It penetrates your entire being, no matter how many sweaters you’ve got on, chilling parts of you you never knew you possessed. And here’s the scariest part. Wherever you go…it’s there.

As of that period in time, a lot of homes lacked central heating. People’d invite you over for dinner, they’d let you in, you’d race right past them, and plant yourself directly in front of their fireplace. And be extremely reluctant to leave.

“Bring the food here. It’s okay. I’ll eat it standing up.”

Ten Church Row had no central heating. I’d climbed dozens of stairs up to our flat, and when I got there, there was ssteam billowing out of my mouth, and my teeth were chattering. I was freezing. In a place I had never been freezing before.

Indoors!

Our heat was supplied by means of canisters of something called Calor Gas. These canisters were about the size of a water cooler bottle. You plugged them in, and they heated the room. The thing is, a full canister of Calor Gas would be empty in forty-five minutes. And they only delivered them twice a week. That meant – let’s do the math together – you had an hour a half of heat to last you an entire week.

You woke up, your room was meat locker. You mustered up your courage, jumped out of bed, turned on the heat, and jumped immediately back in. The room warmed up, you got up, and you got dressed. Then, you turned off the heat. At bedtime, you repeated the process, only backwards. This is how you made the heat last till the next delivery of Calor Gas.

Tenants elsewhere got heat by feeding coins into a gas meter. When the heat ran out, you’d drop in a coin, and the heat immediately came back. But gas meters left landlords open to government monitoring, leading to tax assessments on the rents they collected. Our landlords wanted to hide the fact that they had tenants. Ergo, the untraceable Calor Gas.

Speaking of gas, our kitchen had a very old gas stove (in contrast to the electric stove I grew up with at home.) You lit the stove with a match. This meant either using really long matches – so your arm wouldn’t get incinerated by a sudden “flame-up” – or you rolled a piece of newspaper into a point, ignited the point with a match (any size), and lit the stove with the newspaper.

My grandmother had a stove like that. Amazing. I had moved to England, and stepped back fifty years.

Or more. If you judged by the “facilities.”

The bathtub and toilet were located one floor down. In separate rooms. Neither of which had heat.

You never wanted to get out of the bathtub. You knew what was waiting for you. Antarctica. If it were possible, I’d have put my clothes on while remaining in the bath. It wasn’t. I’d get out of the tub, and immediately turn blue.

The toilet…you know…I’m used to a handle. This one had a chain. Suspended from, I don’t know, a tank? What I remember, vividly, was that this chain required a particular “yanking” technique. Which I, to that point, had not been taught.

It’s my first time in there. I yank the chain. There is no flush. I yank the chain again. And again. And again. And again. And with every yank, to my mounting concern, it’s not working out. The water flutters around a little, but it’s not close the desired effect. Then, this weird thing happens.

Alvaro, a third floor tenant from Spain, appears out of nowhere, steps, uninvited, into the “water closet”, and demonstrates the technique that will get the job done - a sharp tug followed by a quick release. Then, wordlessly, he leaves.

I internalized two lessons from that experience.

Learn the tug. Check the lock.

Down the line, I’d discover that you could look in the paper, find a play you were interested in, hop on the Underground, and for less than two dollars, be enthralled by productions brought magically to life by the greatest actors in the world.

But that would come later.

Right now, I was learning the equipment.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"'Punching Up' The Truth"

Responding to Monday’s posting, A Different Hawaii Story, a commenter writes:

The story needs punching up. My verification word, “falardi”, would have helped you. It’s the ancient Italian crime in which the victim is set upon by a pack of mad real estate salesmen who refuse to help find his missing contact lens until he agrees to buy a timeshare.

First of all, when I hear that something I have written needs “punching up”, there’s a trigger mechanism in me that immediately hits, Code Red! I don’t blame the commenter – the person doesn’t know me – but I’m telling you, explosions go off.

Bolts of fire dart menacingly from my eyes, and possibly my ears as well. Imagine a Hulk moment, double it, and get out of the way.

I’m sorry, but I’ve been told my scripts need “punching up” too many times to take even a casual mention in stride. It’s my own personal, “Niagara Falls.”

“Slowly I turned…”

Trigger mechanisms have no sense of humor. By the time my cooler head prevails and the “all clear” siren sounds, my unharnassed wrath has turned entire cities to rubble.

My second response was that what the commenter had written was skillfully worded and appealingly funny. But by then, it was way too late. My head had already gone into orbit.

Now comes the third response. I harbor the hope that when you read my stories – the contact lens story (January 12), my toy wrapping at Harrods story (“London Stories – Part Three and Three B”, December 18 and 19), my polio shot story (“Leadership Quality”, September 29), and the others I’ve told here – you sense something inherent in them that impels you believe, with the greatest degree of confidence you can feel for a story told to you by a stranger that…

“This thing actually happened.”

If I thought you thought I made this stuff up, I’d be disappointed and sad, hurtling rapidly towards devastated. My assuring you that these stories happened isn’t enough. To feel successful as a storyteller, I need you to know that instinctively.

I take no credit for the stories themselves. My input lies in their selection – deciding if the story is worth telling – and in the writing choices I make when I’m telling it. Choice of words. Dramatic emphasis. Length. Stuff like that.

If it’s inherently interesting, the only way I can fail is if I told that story, which actually happened in such a way that left readers feeling that it didn’t. I can’t imagine this happening. But if it did, something in the writing would have to have gone terribly wrong.

“I’m telling you, it happened!

“Yeah, but it feels like it didn’t.”

That would be bad. You’d have to turn in your pen after that.

More complicated, at least for me, is the “hybrid” situation. By which I mean this. A television writer friend wrote a novel about writing for television. The effort was generally First Class, but you could clearly identify the parts of the novel based on events that actually happened from the parts the author himself made up.

The “parts that happened” sections felt richer in their revealing detail, ringing truer in that monitor inside us that makes such calls. These were by far the most satisfying parts of the novel, the chocolate chips in the oatmeal cookie of the book.

Masking criticism as curiosity, I queried him about his process. “How do you make the parts of the book that didn’t happen feel as real as the parts of the book that did?” Which is a passive aggressive way of saying, “Except for the parts that actually happened, I didn’t really care for your book.”

My friend’s answer was highly revealing. He didn’t say anything. Which was his way of telling me, “Shut up!”

To me, a good story that actually happened is gold; a manufactured one, a readily distinguishable iron pyrites. This statement may merely reflect my limitations as a writer. Like my friend who wrote the book, I may simply be not gifted enough to mesmerize my readers with imagined storytelling.

There seems to be a missing element in me that will not allow me to surrender to something I know is made up. (How couldn’t I know? As the writer, I’m the guy who made it up.) When it comes to fictional fabrication, I am noticeably lacking in the courage of my confections.

I stick to the stories that actually happened. And I never, ever “punch them up.”

(SPOKEN LIKE GARY COOPER IN SERGEANT YORK) I’m a-hopin’ that’s good enough.

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Having gratuitously attacked the commenter for the phrase “punching up”, it seems perfect timing to remind you to keep those comments coming. My life isn’t that fascinating. If I stick exclusively to stories that happened, sooner or later, I am going to run out. Help prolong the inevitable by interrupting my anecdotal barrage with questions, suggestions and ideas you’d like me to talk about. I’ll be grateful for your assistance. Though there’s the distinct possibility that I won’t act like it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Position"

“Do you know who I am!”

That’s the template. The prototype. It’s the definitive statement. Stated or unstated.

Cards on the table. Status? Position? Entitlement?

I’m not a fan.

But, like an alarming number of opinions I have…

Nobody cares.

It’s not that I disrespect people. I don’t. Unless they’ve earned my disrespect.

It’s not that I’m unimpressed by legitimate accomplishment. My track record meeting people whose accomplishments I admire is embarrassing. (Case in point: The late, great film composer, Jerry Goldsmith – Hoosiers, Rudy, among other film scores, but those are my favorites. An encounter with me sent Mr. Goldsmith racing to the dry cleaners, asking urgently, “Can you get ‘gush’ out?”

I respect people. And I’m in awe of accomplishment. I just don’t believe that, on the “human” level, anybody’s better than anybody else. I’m unhappy in a world of “special treatment.”

Did I mention this already? Nobody cares. (I believe I did.)

Status exists. Ditto, the consequences accruing thereto.

A personal anecdote:

It’s the late seventies. Dr. M and I are vacationing in New York. Seeing plays, and visiting “The Road Not Taken.” Saturday Night Live is a sensation, and I, who was invited to take part and had turned the offer down, am working somewhere else.

We decide to have dinner at Sardis, a theater-district landmark, caricatures of stage luminaries past and present decorating the walls. We make a pre-theater reservation. We arrive. We check our coats. We are taken to our table.

It’s not a far walk. Our table is off to the side, under the “coat check” booth. I mean, right under the “coat check” booth. Sleeves are flapping on our heads.

We order dinner. We eat. We pay. And we leave.

A couple of days later, Lorne Michaels invites us to dinner. Sardis. We're too polite to tell him we just ate there.

We show up. We check our coats. Lorne hasn’t arrived yet. We are taken to his table.

Middle of the restaurant. Stretch a tape measure – the same distance to every wall. A spotlight is illuminating it from above. (Or so it seems.) There’s no question about it. It’s

The Best Table in the House.

Lorne arrives. We eat. He pays. A lovely dinner.

“Hmph”, I reflect. (“Hmph” meaning, that was different.)

Last night of the trip. We go back to Sardis. I don’t know why. An unconscious science experiment.

We have no theater tickets for that night. We can make reservations for later, when the other diners are leaving for their plays. Avoid the “pecking order.” Sit anywhere we want.

We arrive. We check our coats. We are taken to our table.

It’s the exact same table as the first time.

We look around. There’s nobody there. Every table is available. Where do they seat us?

Off to the side. Under the coats.

This, apparently, was “our table.”

Now, some people are motivated by treatment like this, energized by a feeling of “I’ll show them!” Flash Forward: They’re “Mister (or Ms.) Big”, “greasing” the Captain and swaggering over to

The Best Table in the House.

My reaction to the situation is different. What did I get from the experience?

A story for Tuesday.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"A Different Hawaii Story"

Long time ago. I’m on hiatus, the “down-time” period between television production seasons. I have scheduled a vacation to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Primary city, Lihue, pronounced Li-hoo-ee.

I am traveling alone. The plan was otherwise, but it didn’t work out. I land at the Lihue airport after dark, and I rent a car. The news that I had passed my driver’s test on television under questionable circumstances (See: “Driver’s Test” – September 18, 2008), had clearly not yet reached the authorities on Kauai. They were letting me drive on their island.

It’s spectacularly green on Kauai. The lushest vegetation imaginable. And for good reason. It rains there every day. Sprinkles, showers, blistering downpours where you can’t see a thing through your car window. This is the weather they’re trusting me to drive in.

At night.

Oh, and the speed limit is fifty miles an hour.

And I have absolutely no idea where I’m going.

Night driving in a strange locale through a monsoon at fifty miles an hour. Who’s betting on me?

I get there. I am taken to my room. I unpack. And I collapse.

The next day, I sit by the pool and, as they say, work on my tan. It’s my favorite kind of work.

The relaxation is sublime. I have books to read. I’m turning brown. I nod off. I wake up. I get a freshly caught fish sandwich from the “Snack Shack.” I lie down again.

My kind of adventure.

So what if I don’t take in the attractions on this real life Garden of Eden? So what if I go home and people say, “What did you see there?” and I say, “My room and the pool”? This is my vacation. And my plan is to luxuriate in uninterrupted comfort the entire week.

There is one cloud on my idyllic horizon. From the day I arrive, men in polyester suits, carrying laminated folders swarm over my “relaxation area” trying to sell “time shares” for condominiums on the “Garden Island of Kauai.”

They won’t leave us alone, “us” being vacationers, who didn’t come to Kauai to be harassed by yammering “infomercials” in patent leather, white shoes.

I try desperately to avoid them. Whenever some real estate vulture heads my way, I get up and go to the bathroom. People must think there’s something wrong with me. I’m “going” six, seven times an hour.

I know myself. I’m blood in the water. No sales resistance whatsoever. If these condo sharks get their hands on me…(WITH A "KRAMER-LIKE" WHIMPER)...I’ll buy something.

I have to escape. It appears that, despite my powerful preference to do otherwise, I will be forced to explore the island.

That means getting back in the car.

Okay, so I’m driving away from salesmen. That had to be done. But where am I going? And how will I get there without running people over?

An idea comes to mind. Instead of driving, and the risks that that entails, I can tour the island by helicopter. It’s the perfect solution. I’ll make my way to the “helipad”, I’ll hover over the points of interest, and I’ll return to the hotel later, when the hyenas have gone home.

It’s interesting. I wouldn’t call myself a brave person. Yet, brave people I know are afraid to ride in helicopters and I’m not. Hah!

I’m not sure why I’m not afraid of helicopters. There’s a shameful litany of things I am afraid of. Space, not even cyberspace, could accommodate the entire inventory. Trust me, it’s quite a catalogue.

I think part of my fearlessness involves the romantic outcome of the worst-case scenario. It’s kind of exciting. “TV Writer Dies In Fiery Helicopter Crash.” I can live with that headline. Well, not live. But be immortalized by it. It’s a glorious exit. Way better than “TV Writer Chokes To Death On Apricot Pit.”

I sign up for the helicopter tour over Kauai. And it’s breathtaking. Especially traveling over what they call, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” A vast, green gorge. Somewhere I’ve got pictures. Magnificent, even with a cheap camera. And for no extra charge, they threw in a rainbow.

The trouble is, how many helicopter rides can you go on? The “wolf pack” is still on the prowl, cruising for condo customers. Which puts me back in the car.

It’s think it’s King Kamehameha. Anyway, it’s some Hawaiian king. The Kauaiian Tourist Bureau has it set up, so that at every point of exceptional scenic interest, there’s a sign with the king’s likeness on it, indicating, “This is a Spectacular Scenic Site. Look at it.”

You park on the widening in the shoulder covered with black cinders, you get out of your car, and you take a picture.

So I’m driving around, and whenever there’s a King Kamehameha sign, I do what you do – I stop and get out. The king is not lying. The sites are jaw-droppingly beautiful. I get terrific pictures.

One time, I pull into at a “Scenic Site”, I get out of the car, and I take my camera. The rain’s coming down, but, you know, it’s not Noah levels. I check out the “Scenic Site.” On the money again. It’s spectacularly scenic. I raise the camera to my eye to take a picture. I pull the camera closer for a better focus…

and my contact lens flips out of my eye, and it falls into the cinders.

Trouble.

I have two eyes. But my left eye is pretty much an honorary position. It doesn’t do a lot of seeing. I wear a contact lens in that eye, but all that does is bring things into focus. I still can’t identify what they are.

My “working eye” is my right eye. But it only works with the “correction” of the contact lens. And right now, that lens is lying somewhere among the cinders on the shoulder of the “Scenic Site.”

You see the irony here? I need to see to find my contact lens. And without my contact lens, I can’t see.

Yow.

This was before cell phones. I can’t call for help. I can’t drive away and get help because, of course, I can’t see. And even if I could, what are my chances of finding that exact spot again? I’m standing over it, and I don’t know where it is.

I am very upset. Stranded, on a lonely stretch of highway in Kauai, with a car I can’t drive, and no way of calling for assistance. My contact lens lies buried in cinders.

And it’s really starting to rain.

My options were very few, one being to pass away, sightless, by the side of a road. Or, I could try not to.

I got down on my hands and knees over the spot where I’d calculated the lens had fallen. I opened my right hand, palm facing downward, and very slowly, I swept it along the uneven ground, hoping against all odds, that by touch alone, I would find my missing and desperately needed contact lens.

And I did.

Is that an greatest story, or what?

Friday, January 9, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-One C"

Do you remember the movie or the book, Being There? Being There is the story of an “innocent”, who, due to unusual circumstances, is able to observe the world around him with fresh and unspoiled eyes. At least, that’s one way seeing it.

That’s the way Kerry, the smart and decent president of Universal Studios saw it. It’s also the way he, at least one some level, saw me. It’s also, in my more charitable moments, how I like to see myself.

This is far from an accurate appraisal. Seeing the world with fresh and unspoiled eyes, that would be, “Oh, Happy Day”. But, you know, there was that negative conditioning. And the schooling that didn’t help. Plus, a stubbornly experience-shaping temperament. I’m a little too jumpy.

As a medium for the “fresh eyes” perspective, I am seriously flawed equipment. But it doesn’t stop me from trying.

Anyway, for my second effort at fulfilling my “Two for One” pilot deal with CBS – the “one” of the “Two for One” having already been shot down (See: Yesterday’s posting) – Kerry suggested that I create a series showcasing a Being There type character, an “innocent” who could comment on the “taken for granted” loony bin we call civilization.

From this emerged Island Guy.

Island Guy centers on an upbeat and energetic young fellow (already, that’s not me) from a remote Polynesian island who, seeking adventure, climbs into his outrigger canoe and paddles to the West Coast of the United States, where he is promptly run over by a giant yacht, taken home by the yacht’s rich and remorseful owner, and therefrom does the series unfold – a natural “innocent” in a wealthy person’s house.

As you can see, we’re talking serious “Allegory Country.” This was a departure for me. Before Island Guy, I worked hard to ground my creations in an identifiable reality. I did considerable research for Best of the West. For Major Dad, I visited Camp Pendleton. And for my North Dakota project, I spent time in North Dakota. And ate buffalo. Twice.

Island Guy was half reality – the rich people’s house – though even that was made up, since I have never lived in a rich person’s house. The other more dominant half of the show involved a totally fabricated character, a “Natural Man” – as imagined by me – unique, hopefully funny, with the last thing from an, “I know that guy” perspective:

What do you call your island?

Island.

You call your island Island? What do you call everything else?

Water.

It was a truly insular perspective. (Insula means island in Latin. I’m just throwing that in.)

I liked the opportunity Island Guy provided to examine our culture’s peculiarities by contrasting them with a diametrically different way of life. In a series-defining scene, Arthur, who’s amassed a fortune manufacturing mattress handles, lectures Dharmo, the Island Guy, on his highly effective method of operation:

ARTHUR: The secret to my success is imagination, hard work and organization. (PATTING HIS FAX MACHINE) I can run this entire operation and never leave this room.

DHARMO: Why?

ARTHUR: Why, what?

DHARMO: Why you want to stay in the room?

ARTHUR: What I’m saying is, because I’m organized, I can do things faster.

DHARMO: Oh. Then you leave the room.

ARTHUR: No.

DHARMO: What do you do?

ARTHUR: I do more things. And make more money.

DHARMO: Then you leave the room?

ARTHUR: (LOSING PATIENCE) Forget the room! (THEN) Look, I’ll make this easier. What do you do?

DHARMO: Fish.

ARTHUR: Okay. If you could catch your fish faster, what would you do then?

DHARMO: Go home.

ARTHUR: No. You catch more fish.

DHARMO GIGGLES

ARTHUR: What’s so funny?

DHARMO: I can’t eat more fish.

ARTHUR: Sell them.

DHARMO: To who? Everybody fish.

ARTHUR: So that’s your whole life? You fish and you go home?

DHARMO: Oh, no. Whole island bring fish to big cooking fire. Tell stories, laugh, dance. Later, maybe take girlfriend to quiet spot on the beach and…

DHARMO’S WORDS TRAIL OFF, REPLACED BY A DEEPLY CONTENTED SMILE. AFTER A BEAT.

ARTHUR: You call that living?

I liked the culture conflict that Island Guy was grounded in, but in retrospect, doing it was probably a mistake. Too conceptual. Too much “in my head” and not enough “getting under the skin of identifiable characters.” Not that there aren’t precedents for this kind of series. Mork and Mindy comes to mind. Guy from another planet, doesn’t “get” how we do things. It mines pretty much the same territory.

The difference is Mork and Mindy had Robin Williams starring in it, a one-of-kind comedy tornado. Anchored by this inspired whirlwind, Mork didn’t have to depend so heavily on its concept. Though after a couple of seasons, even that show ran out of allegorical steam.

We did what we could, assembling a solid team of actors, under an angelic, “got what I was after” director named Noam. As you can imagine, the “Island Guy” himself was the toughest part to cast. After an extended search, we found a capable and appealing Hawaiian actor. We were ready to go.

Hold the phone.

CBS called at the last minute, telling us they wanted us to see somebody they’d found for the “Island Guy” role. They sent over a tanned and beautiful man. Brad Pitt, but with Scandinavian proclivities. You could see why the network wanted him. He was a walking magazine cover.

There was only one problem with him. The guy couldn’t read.

Dyslexic.

Not a crime. Not a sin. But unfortunate. Especially when you’re the star of a television series and there are a lot of lines that you have to read and learn.

How did the guy audition? Very deliberately. The casting director would “feed” him each line individually, and then he’d say it. It was an excruciating process. I couldn’t imagine it working very well when we were filming in front of a live studio audience.

He didn’t get the part.

In order for a show to overcome network reservations about it, the “show night” has to be spectacular (as it had been for Best of the West and Major Dad.) Island Guy had some gratifyingly effective moments, but it was unable to reach that lofty plateau. I did the warm-up for the Island Guy pilot. That went extremely well.

(I’ve sometimes suspect that I put myself through the ordeal of the pilot process just so I can do the warm-up. Though shameful, this suspicion is very difficult to shake.)

They call it a “Two for One” deal.

My first pilot was cut off at the script level.

My second pilot was not picked up.

And that was that.

Moving on.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-One B"

Dr. M and I are winging to Fargo, North Dakota, to visit a nearby (seventy mile away) couple who run their own “Mom and Pop” television station, as research for a series I’m interested in creating as part of my “pilot commitment” deal with CBS. Did I put enough information into that sentence? Okay, you’re caught up.

Before we left Fargo, Chris, the “Mom” of the “Mom and Pop” operation, who had come to pick us up, invited us to a popular Fargo eatery for lunch. There, I enjoyed what I was told was a North Dakota specialty, beer and cheese…something, I think it was soup. Made exclusively with beer and cheese.

My arteries were screaming, “Why don’t you just inject us with cement!” I imagined a new cause of death: Suicide by soup. Turned out, I actually liked it. Which doesn’t mean that it couldn’t kill me. It just didn’t. That time.

After lunch, Chris drove us to her hometown, and our destination.

North Dakota is flat and very cold in the winter. That’s all you need to know. Wait, that’s insulting. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anymore, because that’s all I know.

Chris informed us that she drove the seventy miles between her hometown and Fargo all the time. She explained that there were two hairdressing salons in her town, and if she wanted them both to buy commercial time on her television station, she couldn’t favor one over the other by patronizing them. Instead, she drove seventy miles and got her hair done in Fargo. (Plus, she may secretly have preferred the Fargo hairstyles.)

Chris also explained how she and her husband, Roy, came to run the television station. They already owned a cable company serving the surrounding area, and, since the infrastructure was already in place, they decided to create a TV station offering programs of interest to the local citizenry. (Interspersed with a teletype crossing the screen delivering the latest prices on “choice porkers.”)

Say, a famous local personage passed away and the church was too small to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend the funeral. Roy and Chris would dispatch a camera crew to the church, thus allowing people to watch the funeral on TV from the comfort of your own homes. They could even sell ads for the program – mortuaries, flower shops, embalmers, the broadcast offering double duty – community service, plus commercial enterprise.

On a larger scale, since the inhabitants of North Dakota are widely spread out, making it difficult for candidates for political office to reach them, the biggest VIP’s – running for Congress, governor, maybe even president – would dutifully appear at this tiny, little television station to be interviewed. (By Chris.) The station was the best way for the candidates to reach the largest number of constituents at the same time.

If the interview, or any other news event, was deemed newsworthy enough (this was before the Internet), an employee of the station would run out and stand by the highway, flag down a passing truck, hand them a videotape of the story, and tell the driver there was fifty bucks in it for them if they’d deliver it to the larger TV station in Fargo. It was kind of like the Pony Express, but with trucks.

When we reached her town, Chris drove us to a place where we could rent a car. Before leaving, she warned us to always lock our car doors. We were surprised. Was there a crime spree rampant in this very mini metropolis?

“No,” she explained. “But we had a bumper crop of zucchini this year, and if you don’t lock your car, they’ll leave a bunch of it in your back seat.”

We conscientiously heeded her advice. Who wants a back seat full of zucchini?

The TV station was across the street from a grain elevator. That’s my favorite fact of the trip. This information did not come naturally to me. “Is that a grain elevator?” “Yes,” I was told. I actually wasn’t sure. I had never seen one before.

Chris introduced us to her husband, Roy. Quiet, smart, polite, with a mustache. And a really interesting desk. Think of a spool of thread. Multiply its size by a thousand. That’s a spool of bailing wire. Roy had taken the bailing wire spool and turned it on its side. That was his desk.
The Production Area was compact but high tech for its day. I knew it was high tech, because I didn’t know how anything worked. (To me, anything beyond radio is high tech.) I only knew one thing. You could make shows there. That was the exciting part.

The town we were in was small (duh) and its population seemed, generally, on the Senior side. (The kids mostly take off to seek their fortunes.) You could imagine the town itself getting one big Social Security check, and divvying it up amongst its citizenry. One pair of bifocals. They passed them around.

This was weird, I thought. I went into a number of stores, searching for some souvenir of the town. It turned out there weren’t any. Not even a commemorative t-shirt. I’ve never experienced that before. Everybody advertises, don’t they? Some civic self-promotion? I imagined a “fantasy t-shirt” for the place saying,

“Nobody Ever Comes Here.”

The one tourist attraction was an enormous concrete buffalo, plus thirteen actual buffalo. That place had t-shirts. But they had to find them.

We actually ate buffalo. Twice. (Was the herd once fourteen buffalo?) We were informed that the meat had been marinated for two days. You know overcooked brisket? Filet mignon, compared to buffalo. Forget chewing your food thirty-two times. You chewed till your jaw hurt.

During the trip, I asked lots of questions, looking for details that would provide my pilot with verisimilitude – a big word for “making it feel real.” I always do research on the shows I’m creating. I never want them to feel generic. “It’s about this, but it could be about anything.” I didn’t want that. I wanted it to feel uniquely “about this.” Also, for me, the biggest “funny” always derives from the specifics.

I thanked Chris and Roy profusely for their help and hospitality, returned to L.A. and I wrote the pilot script, combining my “I was there” experience with some, hopefully, creative fictionalizing.

To provide the show with an outsider’s perspective (my perspective), I made the leading character a woman who, desperate to escape the New York show business “rat race”, answers a “blind” ad for “Television Station Manager”, and winds up managing a “low-power” station in Nowhere, North Dakota.

CBS accepts my script, and we move on to the “casting” phase. We bring them three truly exciting candidates for the leading role. After their network auditions, the CBS president, Jeff, proclaims, “I will not have any of these women on my network.” And that was the end of that show.

(Postscript: Two of the women Jeff refused to have on his network ended up starring in the original cast of ER. Eh. Meaning – big sigh – sometimes they get it wrong.)

They call it a “Two For One” deal. Two shows – one gets made. “Show One” had now been shot down. It was time to move on to “Show Two.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-One"

They call it a “two for one” deal.

The deal was a reward from CBS, the network on which Major Dad was currently being aired, where it consistently ranked in the top ten or fifteen in the ratings. Maybe you can help figure out what the reward was. I still don’t get it.

The deal went like this: I would write two scripts as the prototypes for two television series. CBS would guarantee that one of those scripts would be produced as a pilot.

Unless they didn’t like either of them. (Oops. There goes the guarantee.)

If they were unhappy with both shows, as a consequence of, you know, obliterating the guarantee, CBS would be required to pay a financial penalty.

To the studio I was working for.

Not to me. The guy who had to come up with two original concepts for television series, and write many drafts, till I delivered two acceptable scripts. To Universal Studios. Which…is a studio.

UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: “Hey, Earl, bad news. CBS passed on both of your series ideas. But there is a bright side. They’re paying us a whole bunch of money.”

Ah, show business.

Of course, I agreed to the deal. I couldn’t be ungrateful. It was a reward.

In a way, it was. When writers who didn’t have hit shows on television pitched their pilot ideas and the networks turned them down, that was it. It was over. No “two for one” deal. No guarantee. No penalty payment. My situation was clearly better.

Just not for me.

It could be my congenitally negative nature, but when I looked at this arrangement, all I saw was twice as much work. For starters, I had to come up with two new series ideas. History reveals I wasn’t that prolific in that department.

I may have mentioned this before, I don’t remember. I don’t know where ideas come from. (I don’t know where anything comes from. Including me.) Wherever it was, I needed two series ideas from there pronto. Good ones. Ones that would trigger the guarantee. Not the penalty payment to somebody else.

Eventually – I’d say miraculously, but in a non-religious sense, if there’s such a thing as a non-religious miracle, which I don’t think there is, so forget “miraculously” – two ideas showed up.

I liked them both. Which is hardly a surprise. I like all my ideas. Ideas are like children. They’re surprising and satisfying, and somewhere – sometimes obviously, sometimes buried beneath the surface – there’s a substantial slice of you in them.

I was reading one of the “trade” papers the studio had delivered to my office. Daily Variety or the Hollywood Reporter. I’d peruse both periodicals every morning. Some might say I was carefully studying the business I worked in, looking for trends that might focus my creative exploration. Others might say I was killing time until lunch.

This time, I actually found something useful.

“Look! Bob Barker’s getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!”

It wasn’t that.

It was, instead, an article about a “Mom and Pop” television station in North Dakota. Two people – a married couple as it happens – producing, broadcasting and hosting scheduled television programming for local consumption.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

That. Is a show.

At least, to my way of thinking. The idea comfortably suited my imagining style. Creatively, and personally, I’m the opposite of flashy. “Flamboyant” is alien to my nature. I notice small things and write about them. That’s what I’m good at. I do “close-in” magic. Card tricks, rather than disappearing motorcycles.

The small town television station idea excited me. I could filter my “big time” experiences through this not-all-that-different microcosm. It’s still “making shows”, with the tension and turmoil that that involves. The location just happens to be (as it turned out) across the street from a grain elevator.

I made up my mind (with the studio’s agreement). This would be one of the two series ideas I would deliver to CBS.

We have a cabin in Indiana – not far from Chicago – where we vacation every summer. After contacting the “Mom and Pop” couple and receiving their permission, instead of flying back to L.A. after our vacation, we took a shorter commuter flight:

Chicago to Fargo.

The “Mom” * of the “Mom and Pop” station picked us up at the airport, and chauffeured us back to her town

Seventy miles away

Where she and her husband made television shows

In the heart of the Heartland.


* I’m not comfortable mentioning people’s names without their permission. Others may disagree, but to me, it’s exploitation simply talking about them. Unfortunately, I can’t help it. Other people are part of my story. This issue is an ongoing dilemma for me, and I haven’t successfully worked it out. Maybe I’ll try and contact the North Dakota people and see if it’s okay.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Why I Love Canada"

Sometimes, they make movies where, primarily for budgetary reasons, Toronto stands in for New York. In order to simulate the gritty New York ambience, the set decorators find it necessary to “dirty up” the “location.” The more pristine Toronto street is meticulously “re-dressed”, adding overflowing trashcans, discarded newspapers, random dog poop. Dirt and detritus everywhere, trying to make Toronto look authentically “New York.”

One day, the cast and crew “broke” for lunch.

When they returned an hour later, the entire “location” had been cleaned up.

--------------------------------
This story, I heard from a writer named Mike Short. We were both guest speakers at the Banff Television Festival, in Banff, Alberta, Canada.

Mike was a writer for the classic comedy series, SCTV, which was produced at studios in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

One day, they’re shooting this sketch, and in it, a boorish character takes a “shot” at another character saying, “Where are you from, Cleveland?”

This is a standard, old-fashioned form of comedy. It’s called a “name joke.” Because of its connotation as a generally acknowledged urban disgrace, merely mentioning the name “Cleveland” is considered to be funny. (Although on SCTV, we’re not laughing at the joke, we’re laughing at the boorish character’s indulging in a standard, old-fashioned form of comedy.)

In addition, the word “Cleveland” contains the “hard-K” sound, guaranteed to elicit a laugh.

Cookie. Cumquat. Coconut. “Hard K”? Always funny.

So they’re doing this sketch, and the character says, “Where you from, Cleveland?”

The scene is taped. They’re ready to move on. Suddenly, the Canadian Content executive (the show is being shot in Canada) comes up and says,

“Very funny sketch. But I wonder. Does it have to be Cleveland? I mean, this is a Canadian program. Why not use a Canadian reference?

The writers confer. They replace the offending American reference with the Canadian reference, and they re-tape the sketch.

Where the line once read, “Where you from, Cleveland?”, the boorish character now says,

“Where are you from, Moncton?”

(Moncton is a city in New Brunswick, Canada. I know nothing more about it, except that it too contains the reliable “hard K.”)

Mission accomplished. The taping of the new version has been completed. And which point, the Canadian Content executive comes up and says,

“What have you got against Moncton?”

Monday, January 5, 2009

"Hawaiian Holiday - The First Draft"

As you may have noticed, many of the stories presented here chronicle events that happened some time in the past. The reason for this is because I am by nature not a person who appreciates things while they’re happening.

I’m more an “in retrospect” kind of a guy. For me, while things are going on, and for a short time thereafter, there’s only chaos. And, invariably, complaining. (See: Maybe It’s True – December 2, 2008.)

I wouldn’t be much of a reporter. I need time to digest what I’ve been through, finding depth and clarity only when looking back. Sometimes the process takes decades.

Okay, so we went to Maui. Dr. M, myself, Rachel, Anna and her b.f. Colby, and Dr. M’s mom. Grandma is ninety-seven. And four months. (She’s doing the counting, not me.) A rarity in the Senior community, the woman is becoming increasingly more cheerful.

Our accommodations were located at the northerly end of the island. It rains there. Every day. Some days, they have rain with a little sun; some days, it’s sun with a little rain; and some days, it’s all rain, all the time. The rain is a constant. That’s why the area is so lush and green. (Call it the Ireland of the Pacific.) It’s also why I don’t have much of a tan.

We booked three heftily priced rooms. (My strategy during hard financial times is simple: I am spending my investment money before it disappears by itself.) Each room included a kitchenette, allowing us to prepare our own breakfasts. Saved us close to seven dollars a day.

The difference between this resort and the Kahala, (See: Too Big For My Bathing Suit – December 22, 23) is that here, you carried your own chairs to the beach. No bribery of beach chair attendants required. Whoo-hoo!

Capsulizing the contrast in accommodations, Anna remarked, “This place is less pretentious than the Kahala”, then adding, “Probably the most pretentious people here are us.”

The view from our patio was spectacular. There was this bay, where the water was clear and relatively calm, making it a good location for snorkeling. In the distance to the left was the island of Lanai, and to the right, the island of Molokai. Molokai was once famous for being a leper colony. I believe that was their advertising campaign: “Molokai – The Vacation Mecca for Lepers.” It was nice for them. No children staring at them, going, “What happened to your nose?”

Our trip included many highlights. Midway through our stay, some in our party spotted whales and dolphins from their balconies. I had the misfortune of missing both sightings. Once, I was asleep in my beach chair. The other time, I was returning a towel.

I’m no food critic, but the meals on our trip were consistently okay. Especially the local fish. I sampled many different varieties. Ono. Ahi. Mahi Mahi. Moi. Opakapaka. Fish caught that very day. Sitting on your plate going, “I was alive this morning.”

My most memorable highlight was the snorkeling. Even better than our beach was the nearby Kapalua Beach, offering even calmer water and substantially more fish. One time, in search of new and exciting sightings, I ventured too far for my swimming abilities, and Anna had to swim out and tow me back to shore. That was very nice of her.

The next day, I was apprehensive about trying again, my exact words being, “I’m scared about yesterday.” Anna’s reassuring response: “Dad, I’m here.” I got teary-eyed in my snorkeling mask.

Rachel and I went horseback riding at Ironwood Ranch, named after the trees that were imported for shipbuilding, but they sank, hence the name Ironwood.

After reading the ranch’s “release form”, I developed some serious second thoughts. The release form made reference to “Accidental dismount.” For people who aren’t trained as Personal Injury lawyers, “Accidental dismount” means, “Falling off your horse.”

“Accidental dismount” is a deliberately misleading euphemism. I mean, what could “Accidental dismount” actually mean?

“I’m sorry. I thought we were getting off.”

That’s not what they were talking about.

All the horses at Ironwood Ranch were named after actors. Russell Crowe. Sandra Bullock. A shorter horse was called Danny DeVito. I rode Vin Diesel. Rachel’s horse’s name led her to inquire, “Can I say, ‘I was on top of Brad Pitt in Hawaii?’”

I believe she can.

I believe our trip, enjoyable despite the weather, will be recalled most noteworthily as, “The time we took a really old person to Hawaii.” Grandma retains a remarkable number of her marbles, though one or two have inevitably rolled away. Unable to consistently recall (Anna’s boyfriend) Colby’s name, she mnemonically linked it with cheese. By the end of the trip, to get his attention, she was energetically calling, “Hey, Cheesy!”

Hawaii today is less a place than a vacation destination. Behind the insistent intrusion of surf and souvenir shops, golf courses, mega-hotels and condos, there’s a magnificent natural setting. The pursuit of the “tourist dollar” has relegated the island’s preeminent attraction to “background.” (Not to mention the local people.) It’s sad. I would like to have seen the place before.

Well, that’s it for the superficial, still-tired-from-the-traveling version. If you want the deeper report, come back in about twenty-five years.