Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"London Times - Part Ten"

First, you need to understand that in England – in the sixties, and I imagine still to a greater degree than here – actors became actors because they loved acting, not because they were hungry for the spotlight. It wasn’t an ego thing. At least not entirely. They enjoyed doing the job.

As a result of this unqualified enthusiasm, at any time, you would find the finest English actors performing onstage – both in the West End (comparable to Broadway) and in more remote theatrical venues – in feature films, on TV – in pedestrian series, as well as in vaunted miniseries – and most surprisingly, at least to an observer from this side of the ocean, on the radio.

The BBC had a longstanding tradition – though I imagine all traditions are longstanding – of broadcasting full-length radio plays, both the classics and some new stuff. As of the sixties, radio remained dear to the English people’s hearts, owing to an umbilical attachment they’d developed for it during the war. (World War II.) Radio mattered there, and the plays produced on it bore the esteem and affection the medium continued to retain.

I enjoyed listening to those radio plays. They were well chosen, skillfully written and produced, and the performances by, as I mentioned, Britain’s finest actors, was consistent and enlivening. Sometimes, however, they chose American plays, or English plays that included American characters.

The “Yanks” in those plays were inevitably played by English actors. These actors, or at least these actors when portraying American characters, were all – and I mean every one of them – awful.

It hurt my teeth to listen to them.

English actors playing Americans generated “Yikes!” moments that pulled you right out of the reality they were endeavoring to create. The writing didn’t help either. (Here, I’m referring to the new plays.) Efforts at natural, American dialogue exposed a transparent English accent. “American” characters, whom you expected to say in a situation, “Go lie down” instead said, “Go have a lie-down.”

That’s not the way Americans say that.

English actors do much better now – that House guy could “pass” anywhere – but in those radio plays in the sixties, English actors playing Americans were tin eared, off-key, tone-deaf stinkeroo.

I’d been attending the Actors’ Workshop three times a week for almost a year. I was getting better. I’m an actor, or at least I was called an actor in class. And I’m listening to these fine British actors mangling the American dialect. So one day, in a moment of hubris, or what's as close as my personality will allow me to get to confidence, I decided to write the BBC a letter.

Dear (whoever was high up at BBC Radio Drama Department, I don’t know how I got their name):

I am an actor, currently studying at the Actors’ Workshop in London. I am a regular listener to your radio plays, and I enjoy them very much. However, I have noticed that when English actors play American characters, their performances are not as satisfying as when English actors play English characters.

I was born in Canada. I know how to talk like an American. It’s my natural way of speaking. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest actor, but I believe that I can be more convincing playing American characters than the actors that I’m hearing on the radio. All I ask is that you give me a chance to come in and show you what I can do.

Thank you for your time and attention.


Earl Pomerantz
(and my address).

A couple of weeks later, I receive this letter from the BBC.

Dear Mr. Pomerantz,

We have received your letter concerning your desire to audition for our productions. We appreciate your interest.

As to your request, we are unable to accommodate you at this time. However, here is what we suggest you do:

First, enroll in a reputable four-year dramatic academy. After that, find employment in repertory theatre outside London, and work there continually for at least two years. Then, find employment in the West End for another two years. After which, you may resubmit your request.

Thank you again, and good luck.

(A Guy From the BBC.)

That’s what they wrote back. Try back in eight years. Maybe I could do the job now, maybe I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. As far as the BBC was concerned, I wasn’t qualified to do the job. Which disqualified me from being considered for it.

What kind of a country is that?!

The hostel I was living in was closing down; there was the prospect of finding a new place to live. I was languishing in a dead-end teaching job. I was shivering through a second English winter. During my stay, my closest thing to a meaningful relationship had been a thirty-second mime experience in a London Underground station. (“A Surreal Moment I Liked” – February 13, 2009.)

And now, having been informed that my natural ability was irrelevant, and I was instead required to follow the an arduous and uncertain protocol

I decided it was time to go home.

Coming Soon: Transatlanticking on the Queen Elizabeth.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Ordering A Pizza - New York Style"

There’s this new pizza place in the neighborhood – Joe’s Pizza. Joe’s originated in New York. New York pizza’s better than L.A. pizza, because New York has better water, which they put in the dough. So they fly it in – not the water, the dough. You can’t take water on an airplane.

Maybe it’s not the dough that makes the difference. Maybe it’s the special ovens, the same ovens they use in New York. I’m pretty sure it’s one of those two things. Possibly both.

I was looking forward to an authentic, New York pizza experience. I had no idea it would start with the phone call.

Joe’s Pizza. This is Tony. How can I help you?”

“I’d like to order a pizza to be delivered, please?”

“What’s the name?”

“Pomerantz. P-O-M-E-R-A-N-T-Z.”

“Okay, P…”








“You’re goin’ too fast.”


“T…Z. Pomerantz.


“What kind of a name is that?”

“I believe it’s Russian.”

“Are you Russian?”

“No, but my grandparents were.”

“That’s interesting.”

I give Tony my address and we continue.

“So what can I get for you?”

“I’d like a pizza, with mushrooms, garlic and basil.”

“One pizza, with mushrooms…garlic…and what?




“You sure?”


“I gotta tell ya, we don’t get a lot of basil orders in here.”

“It’s on the take-out menu.”

“I know, but nobody asks for it.”

“I want basil.”

“Okay, no problem. Anything else? Salad or sumpthin’?”

“No, thanks.”

“Italian, Cesar, antipasto….”

“Just the pizza.”

“No salad at all?”

“No salad.”

“Okay. That comes to twenty-one dollars. I’m not gonna charge you for the basil.”


“‘Cause I’m that kinda guy.”

"Thank you."

And we hang up.

The pizza turned out to be delicious. The phone call...even better.

Friday, March 27, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Four"

On my last network writing job, now more than four years ago, I was consulting on a show whose staff was comprised of writers who were considerably younger than I was. Two in particular, John and Ron, took advantage of my “Elder Statesman” status to question me about my experiences during television’s “dinosaur days.” I felt like a caveman being grilled by members of a succeeding generation.

“What was is like before fire?”


That, in fact, was the precise formulation of one of Ron’s inquiries.

“What was it like doing shows before computers?”

It was a legitimate and interesting question, one for which I could supply a definitive, “I was there”-type of answer. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, computers in show offices were not yet in regular use. Actually, they were in the mid-eighties, but the owners of the show I worked on were too cheap to pay for them.

We were still using typewriters.

The typewriters themselves had greatly improved. No more messy ribbons. The letters on individual hammers had been replaced by an all-encompassing, silver “letter ball”. And, now electric, the keys were much easier to press down. (Let a kid press down on a typewriter key today, and they’ll wonder why nothing’s happening.)

The typewriter’s last hurrah was the IBM Selectric II, which offered an exciting new advancement called, “Correct-Type.”

“Correct-Type” was this “letter-width”-sized strip of white tape, attached to the typewriter between the “letter ball” and the paper you were typing on. The tape had this, I don’t know, white powder sprinkled on it. When you made a mistake, you would backspace to the mistake, “Correct-Type” the mistake – meaning you retyped the mistake while pressing the “Correct-Type” button – and poof! – the white powder covered that bad boy” boo-boo right up! You then typed in the corrected version, and off you went.

When the page was later printed, on a Xerox machine, only the corrected version was visible. The mistake had completely disappeared. At the time, we thought it was magic.

Before “Correct-Type”, there was “White-Out”, which you applied to the mistake with a tiny little brush, like you’re putting on nail polish. You had to blow the spot dry, before typing the correction. This took a considerably longer time than “Correct-Type.”

You also needed a delicate touch, or the liquid would run all over the page. Some of us were more adept at “White-Outing” than others. (Dammit! I’m a writer, not a manicurist.)

Before “White-Out”, there was the eraser. Erasing took longer than “White-Outing”, was rarely entirely effective, and was invariably messier, often leading to scrunching, or, with excessive “over-erasing”, the tearing of a hole through the paper.

Before the eraser – we are now before my time – there was the “x-ing out” method, which doesn’t work with scripts, because it interferes with the flow when you’re reading them. For us, the only legitimate “pre-eraser” option was ripping the paper out of the machine and typing the whole page over again.

That took forever.

As a freelancer, I remember finding “typos” in scripts I was about to hand in, and actually saying to myself, because there was nobody else in the room,

“I don’t care.”

At some point, you just have to stop. Otherwise, you start retyping the page, and in the process, ideas for improvements come to mind, so retype the page again, and then there’s typos in the improvements, so you retype the page again, and ideas for other improvements come to mind, and before you know it:

“Writer Dies Retyping Page Eight For the Fifteenth Time.”

Sometimes, when I was feeling sorry for myself, I thought about writers from the past whose work situations were even more burdensome than my own. Imagine scribes, recording things on tablets with a hammer and a chisel. One mistake, and they had to find another stone.

When you got into production, the pre-computer rewrite process was exponentially more tedious and time-consuming than it is today. To my writer colleague Ron, it was unfathomable how we actually did it. My answer to, “What was it like doing shows before computers?”, accurate though of questionable political correctness, was this:

“We had women.”

And so we did. Two secretaries, as we called them – as there was no other name for them at the time – always female, participated in a rewrite process involving a constant and, when successfully executed, fluid rotation.

It worked like this.

We’re rewriting Scene A. “Secretary One” sits in the room, pen and spiral notepad in hand, recording – either by writing really fast, or in a method that ultimately disappeared called “shorthand” – all the writers’ joke pitches, delivered in a cacophony of chaos and confusion. The “show runner” selects which “pitch” they want inserted in the script, and the process proceeds in such fashion until Scene A is successfully revised.

“Secretary One” then returns to her desk and retypes Scene A in its entirety. In the meantime, “Secretary Two” comes in and repeats the process with Scene B.

When she’s finished, “Secretary One” returns with the Scene A “rewrite”, which the “show runner” proofreads, double-checking the secretary, and deciding if they’re satisfied with the revisions. If additional changes are required, “Secretary One” records them, the returns to her desk and retypes Scene A, which could run six or more pages, yet again.

While “Secretary Two” is out retyping Scene B, “Secretary One” returns for Scene C. “Secretary Two” then returns for Scene D, and off you go until “Fade Out.”

There’s a final “proof-read” at the end, with some inevitable further retyping, and then you’re done. Until tomorrow’s rewrite, when you do it all again.

That’s what it was like doing shows before computers. Any changes, large or small – there was no “backspacing” out a word or “deleting” chunks of material, no “Spell-check” no “Cutting and Inserting” – every revision required an exhausting, labor-intensive effort.

By the secretaries.

You know, I just thought of something. In the post-typewriter era, despite the technological advancements where every process became faster and more efficient, somehow, we never got out of there any earlier.

I wonder why that was.

Followup on a comment:

Dr. M is a psychologist. It is apparently not good for her or for her patients' progress to have too much known about her life. If this weren't the case, she'd be mentioned far more often in this blog. As for the proposal, I proposed in a spontaneous gesture of euphoria, and she, I am life-longedly grateful to say, accepted.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"London Times - Part Nine B"

I don’t want to leave the Actors’ Workshop without remembering some of the students in my class. As far as I know, none of them flourished on the acting firmament, unless one of them later changed their name to Dame Judy Dench. But they were a fine group, and I pay verbal tribute to a few of them today.

A tall, rather thin, lively and delightful girl named Chrissie Shrimpton, sister to Jean Shrimpton, who, along with Twiggy, were the two most famous models in the “hey-day” era of “Swinging London”. I recall Chrissie’s boyfriend, waiting to pick her up after class. A musician. You may recognize the name. A Mister Mick Jagger?

That’s right. Me and The Mickster. Two degrees of separation.

As she hopped into his roadster, he may well have remarked, “Who’s that Jewish guy, came out with yuh? Looks like he can’t get no satisfaction. Hold on a minute. There might be a tune in that.”

I remember an expatriate Texan, whose name, I believe, was Johnny Mountain, though I could be confusing him with a local L.A. weatherman. I know he had a really big name, which was appropriate, because the guy was huge. Not heavy, or with a big gut – perfectly proportioned, but enormous. I described him as the type of guy who goes into a restaurant and orders cattle. Fortunately, he laughed, because he could have punched me to Germany.

Colin Peterson. Australian. Colin was once a child movie star, and after an extended hiatus, he hoped to revive his career. For some reason, Colin had chosen to “sharpen his chops” at a acting school nobody’d heard of, whose standards permitted them to include such unlikely candidates as myself.

Colin was also a drummer in a band. Once, he excitedly raced up to me in a record store and screamed, “We’re ‘Number Three’ in Belgium!”

For some reason, Colin felt comfortable confiding in me. (Maybe because, though not English, we both shared membership in the British Commonwealth.) Colin said his band was thinking of changing its name. He asked me what I thought of the name he favored for the band, “Rupert’s World.” Weaseling out on a direct response, I replied that I thought it didn’t matter what the band’s name was; it was all a question of the music.

Colin agreed with me. But he was distraught because the other members of the band, who were all related, favored a name Colin really hated:

The Bee Gees.

Colin did not remain with that band much longer.

I have mentioned in other posts the name of Belinda Rokeby-Johnson. I think I just like mentioning the name. This was long before feminist hyphenation. This was traditional Upper Class snootiness. The thing is, Belinda wasn’t the least bit snooty.

Belinda was beautiful. Dark-haired, slim and impeccably complected. (Describing women is not one of my literary strengths.) Everything about her announced – though very discretely – “I’m from really old money.” Her elegance, the way she held herself, and especially, the way she treated “the little people.” Like me.

After losing my teaching job, Belinda was the one who suggested I apply for pre-Christmas employment at Harrods. And once – this still touches me – when an inexplicable rash broke out over half my body, rather than shunning me, Belinda drove me to the Emergency Room, stayed with me the whole time, accompanied me to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and then took me home. It’s unlikely to be true of all of them, but some Upper Class people really have class.

When Belinda and I were assigned to do an acting scene together, she invited me to rehearse at her townhouse, which was in Eton Square – a really fancy part of town – and then stay for dinner. I recall two things about that dinner. The overhanging chandelier had real burning candles in it rather than light bulbs, and my table setting was arrayed with more forks than we had in our entire cutlery drawer. I had no idea what to do with them. I believe I dropped a couple on the floor, just to cut down on the volume.

After dinner, Belinda’s husband, Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Rokeby-Johnson drove me back to this hostel-place I was living in – I had moved on from the place that had no bathing facilities – in a red, Aston Martin convertible. When he let me out, Rafe handed me a crisp ten-pound note.

At first I refused the money, but Rafe insisted, confident, he predicted, that I’d pay him back someday. I’d still like to do that. So, Rafe, if you’re reading this, buddy, just say where, and the money’s on its way. Adjusted for inflation.

My final memory is of a girl whose name I don’t recall. She looked a lot like…remember Geena Davis? She was like her, but with a cockney accent. The reason I include a woman whose name I can’t recall here is because, when I decided to quit the Actors' Workshop (and, in fact, leave England entirely), the girl took me out to lunch and berated me for quitting.

I had a similar experience once before. Classmates at the UCLA Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop berated me when I announced that I was returning to Toronto and enrolling in law school. On both occasions, though couched in professions of admiration for my ability, my classmates seemed to treat my personal decision as a betrayal of them. I never totally got that, but I appreciated their caring.

A lot of people want to be actors. Most of us don’t make it. What you’re left with are the people you met along the way. I remember a few of them today.

I wonder if they remember me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

'London Times - Part Nine"

When I lived there in the sixties, London was (and perhaps still is) the home of the most famous and respected drama schools in the world. There was RADA­ – The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, LAMDA – London Academy of Music and Drama, the Central School of Speech and Drama, and many others.

I attended none of those schools.

Rather than auditioning with some Shakespearean soliloquy wearing tights, I found a drama school advertisement on a telephone pole, under a “Lost Dog” poster, the type of thing where you tear off one of those fringy phone number strips, call them up and you’re in. No audition required. Just a check.

Why did I want to go to drama school? I don’t know. Maybe because I’d moved away from Hampstead and its consuming pub culture, and I needed something to do. Maybe it was because I’d enjoyed a successful stint at UCLA’s Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, and though the professor had told me, “You have a certain quality, but I wouldn’t call it acting,” I was unwilling to take his word for it. Or maybe I went to a lot of plays in London and I thought, “I could do that.”

I’ll talk about wanting to be an actor and why, deep down, I didn’t, another time. At this point I had “the bug.” So I enrolled for two nights a week, plus Saturday afternoons, at the Actors’ Workshop.

The Actors’ Workshop didn’t have a location of its own. They rented rehearsal space in a building on Baker Street (the street where Sherlock Holmes had fictionally lived). The school was run by a man whose crowning show biz achievement was that he’d had a line in Dr. Strangelove. A middle-aged Irish fellow with twinkly eyes and a gravelly voice. He was hard not to like.

The Actors’ Workshop taught The Method. That’s right. In a country that had invented a specific style of acting, I was studying something invented in Russia and refined in the United States. You don’t study Method acting in England. You don’t study Italian cooking in France. There’s a better place to do that. And there’s a better thing to do there.

What can I tell you? I studied Method acting in England.

I get the textbook, An Actor Prepares, written by Stanislavski, the guy who made The Method up. I’m reading the author’s Foreword and, already, Stan the Man makes an assertion that totally pisses me off. I will paraphrase:

“This book does not provide a theory of acting. It provides the Natural Laws of acting.”

Why do they have to do that? Why can’t they say, “it’s a good theory” and leave it at that? I don’t need the Isaac Newton of acting. “The Apple always falls down, and if you think of your dead father, you’ll cry every time.”

Natural Laws of acting - it’s so over the top. “We’ve experimented and we’ve thought about it, and these strategies seem to work.” Apparently, that’s not enough for Senor Stan. He has to be the Darwin of Dramaturgy. “We evolved from the primates, and if you think of your birthday, you’ll smile every time.”

Anyway, they taught The Method. And I’ll tell you something. It’s not about acting, because I didn’t end up doing that. But in all of my writing, I’ve been guided by Stanislavski’s, if not Natural Laws, his remarkably valuable ideas.


When I started writing half-hour comedies, even though every scene was ostensibly made up of set-ups and punch lines, it was extremely helpful to me, before starting to write, to stop and think about which character was driving that scene and what exactly they wanted.

Considering this beforehand, gave the scene a focus, direction and an intensity that I believe it, otherwise, would not have contained. The intention gave the scene a lift, producing a dramatic (and comedic) experience far greater than the sum of its joke-constructed parts. (You’d be surprised how many writers never think about this. They just jump into the writing and let the jokes fly.)

I learned how to formulate a scene at the Actors’ Workshop.

I also learned, or at least developed an awareness, of a rule our teacher kept drumming into our heads. The rule – I don’t know if it’s a Stanislavski rule or not – was this:

“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

Once, I was assigned to perform a scene from Two For The Seasaw. A two-person scene – there are only two people in the play. Jerry (my character) comes home from work, and while engaged in a conversation of some import, takes off his jacket and tie, and, I believe, changes his shirt.

It all starts well. I’ve got my character’s “intention.” And here we go.

Jerry enters. He takes off his jacket. He loosens his tie. So far, so good.

Then the trouble starts.

The knot on my tie loosens a little, and then, for some reason, I can’t get it to loosen any more. I remain in character, as I continue to work on the tie. But no matter what I do,

The knot refuses to loosen.

Maintaining my concentration, I decide, as the scene proceeds, to forget about the knot, and pull the not-that-loosened tie over my head. The loop turns out not to be big enough. The tie gets caught under my nose, and I can’t pull it any higher. The loop is now wrapped tightly against my face, the knot, like a “Hitler mustache” resting just over my upper lip. The tie is hanging over my mouth.

Which I'm still talking out of.

I slide the whole thing back down. Then, apparently not thinking clearly, I stick my arm through the loop, my plan being to, somehow, lift the tie over my ear and slide over my shoulder and down my arm. This does not go well. My arm gets caught in the loop.

I remain “in the scene.”

By now, my classmates, who will evaluate our performance when we’re finished, are howling with laughter. Their response catches the performers off guard. It’s not a funny scene. I’m acting serious. My partner’s acting serious. My fellow actors, however, are laughing their heads off.

Finally, I “break.” My voice starts to crack, and, despite my most determined efforts, suppressed laughter escapes to the surface. I never, however, give up on the acting. Or the tie.

By the time we say, “Curtain”, indicating the end of our performance, the mood we were shooting for has been irreparably disrupted.

Some students commended me for my determination, muddling through despite the tie debacle. Others say I made "too much" of the tie. Others think I wasn’t any good. My teacher summarized his reaction thusly:

“I think Earl was starting to love himself in the art more than he loved the art in himself.”

He was right. I could have stopped and started over. But I was enjoying the attention.

I attended the Actors' Workshop for a year, never missing a class. At the end, we staged a public performance, Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author. In this play, the entire cast remains onstage from the beginning of the play to the end, even actors with small parts, like me. I had one line.

We were reviewed in the paper. As with the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, where I also played small roles, I was singled out for commendation.

I appear to, in fact, have a “certain quality.”

I’m still not sure what it is.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"San Francisco - Then and Now"

There was an airline strike, and I couldn’t get home.

I was twenty-one. I had just spent a life-altering eight weeks at The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA. It was now time to return to Toronto. But I couldn’t.

Because there was an airline strike.

Some classmates asked if I wanted to join them on a trip to San Francisco. I said yes. It was an easy decision. When The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop ended, I was kicked out of my dorm room. I had no place to live. And I couldn’t go home

Because there was an airline strike.

I’m recalling this today because Dr M and I spent last weekend in San Francisco, and it reminded me of the first time I went there.

My last weekend’s trip involved a fancier hotel. You can tell a fancy hotel by the amenities offered in the bathroom. It’s not just “Soap” and “Shampoo.” It’s “Soy Soap” and “Pomegranate Shampoo.” They also threw in a bottle of “Sugar Lemon Bath and Shower Gel.” Things are better when they come with modifiers.

The San Francisco of today, tries. It actually seems like they try extremely hard. It’s like they’re vying for “Most Spectacular Pretty Big City” and they really want to win. I think they’ve got a great shot.

Everything in San Francisco seems thought out and done with care. The residential streets are immaculate. The historic-looking houses seem like they were painted the day before we got there, possibly in our honor.

“Let’s make things nice for the Pomerantzes.”

Beautifully kept townhouses boast a brightening array of pastel exteriors. It’s like every street had a meeting, so that nothing would be duplicated or clash.

“I’m sorry, yellow’s been taken. Would you like vermillion? Wait. That’s too close to the ‘peach.’ How about aquamarine?”

The coffee’s the yummiest I’ve ever tasted. Ditto for the bread. (“It’s the water, Earlo.”) Every meal was outstanding. Though committed to excellence, nothing in San Francisco feels like it’s forced. No straining to be “the best”, like you get in New York. They have lofty standards, and they consistently hit them. (Speaking of hitting, San Francisco has a sensational ballpark.)

The San Francisco I visited with my UCLA buddies felt a lot grittier. Of course, I had less money back then, so I may have just sampled the grittier areas. But I think it was more than that. 2009 is different from 1966.

We stayed at a downtown hotel where the room rates were in the single digits. Loitering outside its front entrance – maybe “loitering’s” not fair because they were actually working – were a group of a dozen or so people – how do I say this – selling sex.

There were sexy women, men, men dressed like sexy women, women clad in chains and leather, cross-dressing Little People, a complete assortment, each of them demonstrably hawking his or her or his/her wares.

I remember walking by them and sensing as I passed a collective indignance, a huffy bewilderment, that said,

“We’re offering every service imaginable, and he’s not interested in any of them? What’s that guy’s problem?”

I was always uncomfortable leaving that building.

Our group did the regular San Francisco tourist thing. We rode the cable cars. Ate seafood. Caught really bad colds. Mark Twain was correct when he said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I had just come from a July and August in Los Angeles, where it was sunny and eighty degrees. Apparently, San Francisco had no respect for the calendar.

My strongest memory of the trip was visiting two colleges – Berkeley and Stanford. What a startling contrast. The Berkeley campus felt brainy but tense. There was a palpable sense that the lid was about to blow off. The next moment could find you marching in an angry protest, or being attacked by peace lovers, if you didn't feel like protesting.

What stood out on the Stanford campus, besides the comparative calm, was that the buildings all matched, having been designed in a distinctive Southwestern motif. The place felt like something Gene Autry might have imagined, if he’d been interested in colleges.

The “uniforms” at the two colleges – the predominant outerwear – were also in noticeable contrast. At Berkeley, it was t-shirts and army jackets; at Stanford, it was “button downs” and khakis pants. Bringing things back to me – as I always do – I wondered where I’d best fit in. Being turmoil averse, I probably leaned towards Stanford. Though my haircut-averse, curly locks fit in better at Berkeley.

After a week in San Francisco, the air strike was still on, and I was almost out of money. Somebody had an idea. (It wasn’t me. I rarely have any practical ideas at all.) The idea was, that I cash in my plane ticket and buy a one-way train ticket back to Toronto.

That’s what I did.

I bought a ride on the San Francisco Chief, bound for Chicago. There, I would catch a CNR (Canadian National Railroad) train for home. If I remember, I’ll tell you about that train ride sometime. The following was my introduction.

My suitcase, with all my clothes in it, was stored in some Luggage Car, where I couldn’t get at it. I had not planned ahead. I’d be wearing the same clothes for the next four days. Owing to a shortage of funds, there’d be no sleeping cabin, or berth. I’d be sitting up, and sleeping sitting up, for four days. My food? Again, due to inadequate planning – plus a shortage of funds – minimal eating. For four days.

I climbed onto the train and I found my seat. The train car looked clean, the seat, comfortable. Nice gesture – there was a newspaper waiting for me on my seat. (There was actually a newspaper waiting for everyone on their seat.)

Having cased the perimeter, I sat down and got comfortable, ready for whatever it meant to spend four days on a train.

As the Chief slowly left of the station, I picked up the newspaper. The front-page headline, in extremely large type, read:


Monday, March 23, 2009

"Life Lesson, With Fruit"

We wanted a lime tree.

So Dr. M asked our gardener to plant one.

A few months later,

We had a tree full of tangerines.

This was quite a surprise.

We wanted limes

And we wound up with tangerines.

But you know what?

When we forgot about that

We found out


Those tangerines tasted pretty darn good.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Symbolic Gesture"

Though we’d been going together for two years, Dr. M (who was just M at the time) and I were comfortably content with our separate living arrangements. She and her daughter, Rachel, lived in a small house in Venice; I lived in a condominium in nearby Ocean Park.

We sanctified this set-up by having holes drilled in two twenty-five cent pieces, each wearing one on a chain around our necks, as tangible signifiers of the domestic situation we enjoyed:

Separate Quarters.

Corny and silly. The cornerstones of our relationship. Or at least two of the stronger pillars.

As we grew closer, however, there were these spontaneous, mutual stirrings towards “a next step.” The quarters were eventually put in a drawer (we still have them), and M and Rachel moved in. A little scary, but it felt like it was time.

Our “next step” was a resounding success. We were, literally – we actually said these words, tempting the Fates, but we said them anyway – “The Couple That Never Fought.”

It is not in my nature to be able to say, “This is really good” directly. But I wanted M to know it was. What I needed was a signal, to tell her I was happy. Corny but clear. Silly yet precise. But unspoken. Without me even in the room.

I’m sitting in the bedroom, pondering gestures. And then it comes to me. I had once heard something about toilet seats. (I know that sounds like a leap but it isn’t.)

Regular readers are most likely aware that I’m not now, nor was I ever, a worldly type of person. What I knew about women, especially living with women – Does Mom count? No? – There was not much to draw on.

When you live alone, as I had for the majority of my adult life – I’ll be honest – you don’t think a lot about toilet seats. But I had this vague memory that… …leaving them up, or leaving them down, one of them was the right thing to do. I remembered that.

But I couldn’t remember which one it was.

I gave no thought whatsoever to toilet seat practicalities – what the whole “Up” and “Down” thing was really about. I was focusing on the gesture. But exactly which gesture it was I hoped would convey the message I was too shy to communicate in words

I just didn’t know.

I was firm on the toilet seat gesture itself . The only thing left was to decide on the direction:

“Up”? Or “Down”?

It wasn’t that tough. Whichever decision I landed on, I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Finally

I decided on “Up”. (I know. But I didn’t back then.)

Why did I choose “Up”? It seemed like a salute.


“Down” was just down. I mean, hey, the seat was already down. How would she know that I’d done something?

I walk into the bathroom. I lift up the seat. I walk out.

I return to the bedroom, exceedingly pleased with myself.

She’s going to be so happy.

I wait.

Finally, M comes into the bedroom. I’m reclining on the bed, thinking a big hug can not be far away. Accompanied by those three words we all want to hear.

M utters a different three words. Not “I love you”, but

“I’m moving out!”

“Why?” I cry in shock, anguish and surprise, none of the feelings I was hoping to enjoy.

“Things were going so well,” she explains, her anger flecked with hurt. “But now you’re taking me for granted.”

“What do you mean?” I honesty have no idea what she’s talking about.

“You’ve started leaving the toilet seat up! It’s over!”

Thankfully, it wasn’t over. We got past it. And tomorrow, we celebrate our 27th anniversary.

I was thinking of some way to honor this milestone. Something I could do to express …you know...

I only know this. Symbolic gestures are not an option.
A special “shout out” to a newly-minted twenty-six year old who happens to look like me. You know who you are. And you know how I feel about you. Happy March two-oh Birthday. The day before our anniversary, one of them being the first day of spring, which to a guy who grew up in a cold place, was always the best day of the year, now for more reasons than one.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"The Only Time 'The Three Stooges' Ever Made Me Laugh"

I imagine movie companies, especially the makers of those low budget “B” movies of the thirties and forties, felt no compunction about stealing classic comedy routines performed by nameless vaudevillians and inserting them, without credit or compensation, into their pictures. “Niagara Falls” (‘Slowly I turned…”), the “wallpaper routine” (everything sticks to the paper hanger’s hand), likely even the I-almost-died-laughing-the-first-time-I-saw-it, “Who’s On First?” popularized in pictures by Abbott and Costello.

This material-pilfering had to explain the only funny thing I ever saw The Three Stooges do, a “bit” exponentially sharper and as a result funnier than their standard repertoire of slapping and eye gouging. It’s not that I’m against stupid comedy. But I need it to be smart underneath. Like The Bowery Boys (who specialized in hilariously choreographed donnybrooks) and the sneaky-funny rurality of Ma and Pa Kettle.

(I mentioned this one before, but it’s my blog, and I’m doing it again.)


PA: Ma, I think there’s a hole in the roof.

MA: How do you know, Pa?

PA: I finished my soup three times.

The Stooges were just stupid. Two Jews, and a third sometimes a Jew sometimes an Italian, knocking each other silly to the accompaniment of amplified sound effects. They never made me laugh. And in case of the eye gouging, I heard my eyes actually go, “Ew!” I don’t know about you, but it’s very rare for my eyes to say anything.

So Stooges – stupid.

Except this one time. Which makes me think the routine was stolen.

The Stooge who isn’t Moe or Larry is standing in front of the Witness Box in a courtroom, ready to testify in a case. He is self-assured and nattily attired, his smart-looking outfit topped by an impeccable Homburg hat. He carries a black umbrella in his left hand.

“Take off your hat,” drones the Bailiff.

The man, we’ll call him Curly – though it could have been Joe or Curly Joe – transfers the umbrella to his right hand, and with his now free left hand takes off his hat.

“Raise your right hand,” instructs the Bailiff.

Curly returns the hat to his head, transfers the umbrella to his left hand and raises his right hand.

“Take off your hat!” barks the Bailiff.

Curly transfers the umbrella to his right hand and takes off his hat.

“Raise your right hand!”

Curly returns the hat to his head, transfers the umbrella to his left hand and raises his right hand.

“Take off your hat!”

Curly transfers the umbrella to his right hand, and takes off his hat.

“Raise your right hand!”

Curly returns the hat to his head, transfers the umbrella to his left hand and raises his right hand.

“Take off your hat!!!’”

Curly transfers the umbrella to his right hand and takes off his hat.

“Raise your right. Hand!!!’

Curly, revealing a stress-induced, nervous blink, repeats the maneuver ad infinitum, his once-confident facade dissolving into helplessness before our sympathetic but laughter-filled eyes.

Thank you to whatever comic genius conjured that up.

And thank you, Stooges, for at least trying to elevate your game.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Indignity After Dark"

I’m an avid collector of, “What now?” An accumulator of new and exciting ways of, “It couldn’t get worse”, and then it does. These are personal experiences. The “understood” words after, “It couldn’t get worse” are “…for me.” That’s probably obvious. Why would I collect your experiences? How would I know what they were?

This memory floated into my mind after writing yesterday about “Rewrite Night.” I believe I made it clear that I wasn’t crazy about that process. Well, one time, it wasn’t just that. Which would have been plenty. It was that. And then this.

I was consulting one night a week on a Showtime series called, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Years later, I also consulted on Garry’s HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show. I’ll reserve talking about Garry for another time, except to say he’s a master of the comedy of personal discomfort. Never my favorite comedic genre, but he handles it better than anyone.

Wait. There’s one line I have to tell you, because it’s so beautiful in the way it capsulizes an entire character in a few short words. And I don’t just mean Garry’s character. I mean a certain character type, which very easily could include me.

I’m walking down the hall to the Writers’ Room, where I’ll be consulting on the script. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show chronicled the world of a single, male comedian, highlighting his problems with the various women in his life, including a platonic next-door neighbor. The show felt very much, in theme if not in execution, which was highly stylized, like the early Seinfeld. I actually thought Garry’s show was better. Then, early Seinfeld matured into middle Seinfeld. After that, there was no comparison.

But in the beginning, Garry’s show was more inventive and funnier. I actually shunned early Seinfeld out of loyalty to Garry. I’ve seen early Seinfeld since. I didn’t miss anything.

Anyway, I’m walking down the hall, and I pass Garry’s office, and the door is open. Garry’s on the phone, engaged in what sounds like a serious conversation. (It’s not like I hung around and eavesdropped; you could hear that right away.)

I only heard Garry say one thing. But that one thing said it all. About Garry, and, had I’d been in his shoes, I’m pretty certain, about me. Sounding serious and borderline anxious, Garry asked this precise question to the person on the other end of the line:

“How much do I have all together?”

I heard it. I archived it. I kept walking.

I met many interesting writers on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. One was the show’s co-creator, who also wrote it’s theme song, which includes whistling.

I met another writer who’d go on to co-write Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I adored, and Men In Black, which I didn’t get.

A third writer informed me that he owed a certain studio a half-hour comedy pilot. He was blatantly dismissive of the project he’d proposed. It turned out to be Full House, which ran for years, making the writer vast sums of money.

I wonder what it feels like. “I’m rich. But from that!” (This is not me, putting down Full House; it’s the creator of the show.) Is it something you get over, realizing, perhaps with therapeutic assistance, that the money spends the same as if you’ve written The Graduate? I guess you’d have to ask the guy.

Rounding out the staff was an older writer, highly regarded in his day, but whose more recent claim to fame was flying to tornados and finding someone to have sex with as the twister passes overhead, because…you’d have to ask that guy.

Okay, so I go in, and I do my consulting. We get done around one-thirty in the morning. Lemme backtrack a second. When I arrived, I had parked in a nearby lot, passed through a tall, turnstiley-type gate, and walked to the building where the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show offices were located.

Okay, back to the present. I come out of the building, one-thirty in the morning, and I trudge towards my car. When I reach the turnstiley gate, I discover that it’s been locked with a padlock. (I later learn that the gate’s always padlocked after midnight.) I can not go through the gate.

I can see my car, sitting alone in the parking lot (the regular writers parked somewhere else). But I’m separated from it by an eight-foot chain-link metal fence.

It’s been a long night. I’ve pretty much had it. And now, I can’t get to my car and go home, because the gate I came in through has been padlocked. And there’s a fence.

Imagine if you will, an exhausted and irate middle-aged Jewish man, a man with minimal arm-strength, at one-thirty in the morning, climbing a fence, to get to his car. All I’m thinking is, “I’m too old for this.” Which is technically untrue, since I had no ability to climb fences at any age.

I participated in many subsequent “Rewrite Nights”, some fun, some excruciating, many in between. But as I sat through those torturous rewrite sessions, enduring the agonizing silences of a roomful full of people who’ve “got nothing”, my spirits were bolstered by one strong and certain belief.

No matter how arduous the work, no matter how long it took to get done, at the end of the night, I would not be required to fit my foot in one of those chain-link metal “diamonds”, and pull myself over a fence to get to my car.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Three"

Imagine a “Writers’ Room.” A team of comedy writers is rewriting a script very late at night. They’re stuck on a joke. They can’t move forward until they get it. Everyone’s exhausted. They’ve been at it for hours.

Finally, a writer pitches a joke. The other writers respond.

“Too broad” (funny but unreal), critiques one writer.

“Too ‘on the nose’”, (obvious), complains another.

Bob Ellison, one of the best joke writers in television, points deliberately to his watch.

“Two-thirty,” he astutely observes.

“Rewrite Night” in a nutshell. Tired people struggling to be funny with time running out. My stomach’s doing “flip-flops” just thinking about it. “Rewrite Night” had two objectives. One, obviously, was to make the script better. The other was maybe less transparent but equally important. What was it?

To get in your car.

“Getting in your car” indicates you’re done and you’re going home. That sentence triggers retroactive feelings of joy and relief. For me, there was nothing better than going home.

That says a lot. It suggests that I didn’t particularly enjoy “Rewrite Night.” Guilty. I don’t know if this put me in the minority, but when I looked around the room, either as show runner or as a consultant helping out, other people did seemed to be having a pretty good time. For me, however, somewhere deep inside, or not so deep, it felt like a punishment.

“Rewrite Night” – which can actually be three or even four consecutive rewrite sessions for the same episode – is a sometimes gratifying, sometimes excruciating, but always pressure-packed necessity. Its requirements vary in difficulty. Some weeks, a script just needs some minor “tweaking.” Other times, it’s a “Page One” rewrite, meaning you start at Page One and rewrite the entire thing.


A total rewrite in a few short hours. It sounds impossible, but somehow it gets done. Where does that energy come from? Wherefrom the inspiration? The motivation comes from two places. First, from the knowledge that the cast and crew expect a new script the following morning. And second, until that script gets done

You can’t get in your car.

No script is ever perfect. It always needs some adjusting. The following is an extended but hardly comprehensive list of reasons:

Sometimes, the script needs cutting, so it can fit into its allotted time. After that, you have to smoothly blend the two sections, from which the middle section has been cut out, back together. This is often harder than you imagined. Like gluing a broken teacup so you don’t see the crack.

Rewriting is also required when jokes, which seemed funny on the page, turn out to be considerably less so when the actors deliver them standing up.

There are times when the storyline needs clarifying. You could be working on that script for a month, and somehow at this desperately late hour, you’re still agonizingly trying to determine, “What exactly is this story about?”

“Standards and Practices” – the network censors – could have sent a memo saying, “You can’t say that”, or “You can’t mention that specific product.” (This was before the networks, falling on hard times, started encouraging not just the mention but the placement of specific products in the middle of the episodes.)

Network or studio “notes” could have requested our “revisiting” certain moments in the script, which for them, or the phantom audience they claim to stand in for, are somehow “unclear”. (This is not the same as us clarifying the story. This is being instructed to clarify parts of the story that, to us, are already clear.)

The star could be having problems with certain “transitions”, which generally means they want more lines.

The budget requires the cutting and replacing of a joke for which some costly prop had to be rented or built, or because buying the rights to some recorded “music cue” turned out to be too expensive. (For some reason, Universal would charge Universal’s Major Dad more to use their copyrighted music than other studios did. That always seemed odd to me.)

There’s a great “Arafat” joke in the script and Arafat dies during the week of production (leading to the bizarre now but less so at the time response: “Why do these things always happen to us?”)

There are lots of reasons a script needs to be rewritten. But as far as I was concerned, there was only one:

“You did it wrong the first time.”

I never had the best attitude.

For me, rewriting late at night felt like “Remedial Night School for the Fitfully Funny.” While sometimes spending forty-five minutes searching for a needed joke or line of dialogue, eating congealing dinners out of Styrofoam containers, I had the clear picture of the writers who knew what they were doing peacefully home and tucked smilingly in their beds.

To be honest, talking about “Rewrite Night” is a little tricky for me. You’re not good at something, so you disparage the process. I wasn’t great at “Rewrite Night.” I’ll be “disparaging” in a moment.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it seventeen times – I’m not a joke writer. I re-iterate this confession because a couple of “killer” jokes can put a mediocre script over the top, and these are frequently injected on “Rewrite Night.” That style wasn’t me. Occasionally, I’d contribute in my own style, but as a rule, “The Powers That Said Yes” generally said ”No”, giving me the disoriented feeling of a figure skater in a hockey game.

I’m rarely productive when I’m tired, and “Rewrite Night”, as befitting the name, takes place at night, invariably after a long and stress-ridden day. I meditate every morning. (I'll tell you about it some time.) By the time "Rewrite Night" comes around, my focus and equanimity had completely worn off.

Add to this list, when I was running the rewrite rooms as the creator of the show, I was more than sometimes indecisive and scared.

Now for the “disparaging.” The “Rewrite Room” is a wonderful arena for replacing “so-so” jokes with funnier ones. Writers shout out joke pitches, the show runner picks the one they like best (usually their own), and in it goes. You’re done, until the next joke that needs replacing, wherein the process is repeated, and so on, until FADE OUT, THE END.

However, if you want to write a structured comedic conversation, one that flows organically and builds to its natural crescendo, a “Rewrite Room” is not the best arrangement for getting that done. Doing that requires a single, focused mind, or a writing team with a focused mind, or a limited group of writers, all thinking alike, not a tension-filled room full of high testosterone (including the women) joke pitchers.

The “Rewrite Room” was constructed to help deliver joke-filled comedies, forcing every character to speak in the stylized rhythm of “set up” and “punch line.” This longstanding rewrite procedure contributed, in mine ‘umble opinion, to relegating the venerable sitcom format to the margins, on its inevitable journey to the junk heap.

But that’s one person’s perspective. A person who didn’t care much for “Rewrite Night.”

For many writers, however, “Rewrite Night” was, or at least appeared to be, a total blast. They enjoyed the comradery. The relished the challenge. They thrived on the friendly – though not always – competition. Some of them, for personal reasons – they didn’t have families to go home to, or they did, but they didn’t like them – looked like they’d happy to hang out in that room for the rest of their lives.

Me? I just wanted to get in my car.

Really, really badly.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"The Mother Of All Analogies"

I’ve surprised I haven’t told you this already. It’s maybe my favorite analogy formula of all time. Lemme tell you something. This thing changed my life. Okay, that’s over the top. But I promise you, after you hear it, you’ll be noticing analogizing examples everywhere you look.

The prototype appears in a football movie (and presumably the book it was based on) called North Dallas Forty, written by Peter Gent, a former Cowboys wide receiver. Here’s the situation. A ballplayer is going at it with his coach over some team policy, and the player’s getting frustrated with how the back-and-forth is proceeding. Why is he frustrated?

“Coach,” the player complains, in reference to the dispute, “when I call it a game, you call it a business. And when I call it a business, you call it a game.”

As Gary Cooper said in High Noon, though in an entirely different context, “That’s the whole thing.”

Applying the Analogy: A Current Example

By now, the Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer face-off is old news, but I write these things ahead, so this is Friday morning and the thing just happened last night. The night before on The Daily Show, Stewart touted his upcoming showdown interview with investor pro and CNBC Mad Money host Cramer, while making fun of touting the showdown at the same time. Jon Stewart can’t lose. But that’s okay. Stewart doesn’t call what he does two things. He calls it a comedy show.

I watched the interview. It was past my bedtime, but I wanted to see what was going to happen. The most important thing that happened was I was so tired the following morning, I showed up for my gym trainer appointment an hour before it was scheduled, killed the hour on the treadmill, and was exhausted before my training even started. That was the only meaningful consequence of the Big Event.

The interview itself was a letdown. I don’t know what I was expecting. A fistfight, maybe. Which says more about me, I’m afraid, than… There was no chance there was going to be a fistfight. I mean, think about it. Have you ever seen a host and a guest try to punch each other out on any interview show? It never happens. Not on the most contentious interview show on the air.

Why doesn’t it happen? Because if it did, it would upset the fundamental fantasy-structure of the interview show format – the rarely remarked-upon “host-guest” dynamic.

The host invites someone on their show. An invitation – that’s a nice thing. The guest accepts. That’s nice too. So now a mutual politeness has been established.

How do you follow up “mutual politeness” with punching and hitting? That’s not polite! Not only that, but this happens one time, and nobody goes on that show anymore.

“You want to go on the show?’


“Why not?

“The guy hits people!”

The “host-guest” dynamic has no room for fisticuffs. It’s a civilized environment. Look on the desks. There’s coffee. Sitting in mugs with the show’s logo on them. Who knows? If you behave, you may even get to take your coffee mug home.

Okay, back to The Interview. Jon Stewart, the righteous Man of the People, is railing against, not just Cramer, but the entire corps of CNBC insiders who missed the story of the market crash and misled and possibly deceived a public that took their advice and predictions seriously

And now they’re poor!

Cramer sits there in his costume – suit pants, yellow tie and a pastel shirt with the sleeves rolled up – acting like a kid who’s been sent to the principal’s office and just wants to get out of the place alive. What’s his strategy? It’s classic “Rope-a-Dope.” No attacking. No defending his actions. Just bob and weave, and run out the clock.

“You’re right. I was bad. It was wrong. I promise I’ll do better.”

Can I go back to class now?

You can tell Stewart’s frustrated. He can’t lay a glove on the guy.

“But, but, but…sputter, sputter, sputter…attacks, accusations, a few bleeped expletives…

And it’s over.

And nothing happened.

They shake hands, thanks for watching, and good night.

Why did nothing happen? Here’s why.

The heart of Stewart’s complaint was this:

“You geniuses at CNBC are not doing your jobs!”

The problem is

They are.

What job is that? The only job they care about:

Making money for CNBC.

Busini-tainment. A fabulous enterprise. Totally legal, and it works like this:

“What is this show?”

“It’s experts offering investment advice.”

“Their advice lost me all my money.”

“You listened to a television show?”

Sound familiar?

“When I call it a show, you call it experts. And when I call it experts, you call it a show.”

I told you it was a great analogy. It works in all situations.

Just not for us.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Gun Check"

I’ve only fired a gun once.

Let me be more accurate about that. I fired two guns one time. Wait. I don’t mean I fired one bullet out of one gun and one bullet out of a second gun. It was this. On one occasion, I fired two guns multiple times. That best reflects what actually happened. But it’s hardly a great opening sentence.

On one occasion, I fired two guns multiple times.

It’s kind of lumpy.

Art and the truth. Always a battle.


And moving on.

At the time of the gun-firing experiment, I was training in a gym with a guy named Matt. I don’t know about other people, but when I’m training in a gym, I like to distract myself from the fact that I’m training in a gym. Otherwise, I start thinking, “What am I doing, training in a gym?”

My personal “distraction of choice” is talking. Matt and I were pretty good at it, so good, in fact, that I often forgot I was training in a gym. Until I had to lift something.

The conversation somehow turned to guns. I told Matt I had never fired one. (Cap guns excluded. Being a longtime cowboy in my heart, I’ve fired a truckload of those. Which leads me to a secondary point, “secondary” only for this post; in reality, it’s equally important. You can fire a million cap guns and still have no powerful inclination to fire an actual gun, especially at someone. This is a point the “anti-toy-gun” advocates steadfastly ignore: The vast majority of us know the difference between “playing cowboys” and dead.)

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah. I told Matt I had never fired a gun. Matt asked me if I wanted to try it sometime. I told him yeah. Why? Because I wanted to know how it felt.

A few days later, Matt drove us to an indoor place where people shoot guns, like a gun club, or something. Matt brought along a couple of pistols of his own, which he was willing to let me try, but he suggested that, being a beginner, I should rent a smaller caliber gun, a .22, as well. So I did.

Then we went in the back.

The back was like a bowling alley with bullets. Shooters stood in parallel lanes, wearing earphones to muffle the noise, and fired at black-circled paper targets, maybe thirty feet away. There was this mechanism, where you could later slide the target towards you, so you could check out how you did.

I sorta already knew this, but it came clearer when I was in there. Different guns shoot differently. With the .22 I had rented, you have to draw the hammer back each time before you pull the trigger. That’s how .22’s work. A consequence of this arrangement is that you have a measure of control over your shooting. The “hammer pulling” requirement allows you some “thinking time” to consider what you’re doing.

You draw back the hammer.

“Do I want to shoot this guy? Yes.”


You draw back the hammer.

“Do I want to shoot him again? Yes.”


You draw back the hammer.

“Do I want to…wait, I’m not sure.”


As you can see, this is a valuable safety precaution. As a result of the “thinking time”, you’ll have only shot the guy twice, instead of a bunch of times.

After firing a few rounds, I checked my target to see how I had done. I was surprised to find that a number of my shots had come pretty close to dead center.

Targets beware. I’m a dangerous hombre!

After shooting a while, I was ready to move up. Matt offered me his 9 millimeter.

What I’m about to describe was hardly my proudest moment. First off, I was incapable of loading the bullets. (I apparently lacked the arm-strength to hold back the spring at the bullet-loading place.) Matt had to load it for me.

You don’t feel all that manly when somebody else has to load your gun for you. Suddenly, I wished I were wearing an explanatory t-shirt with the words, “IT’S MY FIRST TIME…BUT I’M REALLY HAVING FUN!” printed on it.

I took Matt’s gun, walked over and faced the target. I remember needing to brace my shooting hand with my other hand. The 9 millimeter was substantially heavier than the .22.

I pointed the gun at the target and fired. And fired. And fired. And fired. And fired.

I quickly learned that if you don’t let go of the trigger of the 9 millimeter, the bullets keep flying out, one after another. Goodbye “thinking time.” You’re simply blasting away. Which is helpful if your adversary “passed” on “thinking time” and is blasting away at you.

I’m sure if you take lessons, they teach you to take your finger off the trigger. But that first time, it felt much less like I was firing the gun than that I was standing there watching as the gun fired itself.

Maybe it was smoky in there. Maybe it was pungent gunmetal oil burning my eyes. Maybe it was a dusty place. But for some reason, my eyes kept tearing up.

That was my only visit to the gun club.

(But I still watch cowboys on T.V.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"London Times - Part Eight B"

My situation in London had radically changed. Instead of having a full-time teaching job and living in one of the classiest neighborhoods in London, I was out of work and living in a hovel.

A “room and kitchen” in a deteriorating building, a shared toilet down the hall, and no bathing facilities whatsoever, meaning I had to clean up at the often crowded and always humiliating Public Baths, a twenty minute walk down the street. Under such conditions, bathing becomes less “on a regular basis” and more “when you just can’t stand yourself anymore.”

Throughout my six-month stay in that building, I only met one other tenant. Tim, who lived in the basement. I’d been introduced to Tim by pub friends in Hampstead. It was through Tim that I’d learned of the availability of the apartment I was now living in.

Tim invited me down for a visit, and I went. His apartment was smaller than mine and, being in the basement, darker. We’re talking under ground basement apartment. No cute little Laverne and Shirley windows looking onto the sidewalk. A bare bulb in the ceiling illuminated the premises. You manipulated it by pulling a string.

There was a unique element in that apartment that you couldn’t help noticing as soon as you walked in. The man kept a falcon. Indoors. In a basement apartment. A large, impressively clawed, fully grown falcon. Like from the Middle Ages. Except it wasn’t the Middle Ages. It was the late 1960’s. And this thing was living in my building.

The falcon, whom Tim had named Cully, sat perched atop a high-backed chair, to which was attached a long, rawhide leash. The other end of the leash was fastened to the leather collar encircling Cully’s neck.

During our conversation, on numerous occasions, Cully would suddenly spread his substantial wings, let loose a blood-curdling screech, take off, and fly around the room, swooping and screeching at will, then return to his perch, where he calmly remained till his next unscheduled “fly around.”

I did not visit for long.

My life in London had turned rather distressing. My “covering” letters home were the best fiction I have ever written. The truth was, I badly needed a turn in my fortunes. Fortunately, I got one.

I have written about getting a job at Harrods Department Store, where I wrapped toys during the ten-week run-up to Christmas. (“London Times – Part Three” – December 18, 2008.) I have written about meeting a princess and leading my workmates out on strike. (“London Times – Part Three B” – December 19, 2008.) If you haven’t read those stories, check them out. They’re pretty good.

The Harrods job filled many needs at the time. A regular income. A place to go every day. Multiple toy wrapping adventures. But one “perk” rose in importance far above the others:

There was a shower in the “Employees’ Lavatory.”

No more Oasis Public Baths for this fellow. From now on, I was showering at work.

For other Harrods workers, the lunch break meant a generously subsidized three-course meal at the “Employees’ Canteen”. For me, it meant a generously subsidized three-course meal at the “Employees’ Canteen”, and getting clean without having to share a bathing facility with chimney sweeps.

Whenever it suited me, I would enjoy my roast beef, chips and peas luncheon, then proceed to the “Employees’ Lavatory” for a full and proper “wash-up.” It was hardly luxurious, but compared to my recent experiences, it was the penthouse at Claridge’s.

Clean. Well lit. Beautifully tiled. And I didn’t have to share. The shower was all mine. For as long as I wanted. (Or at least till my lunch break was over.)

I showered and I sang. I always sing when there are good acoustics. Showers. Tunnels. Underground garages. It’s what I do. No inhibitions. I just open up and I let it fly.





One day, I returned to my workstation, showered, shaved, hair neatly brushed and smelling like Lifebuoy Soap.

That’s when I learned about the “mystery.”

“Where have you been?” cried an excited co-worker.

“I was taking a shower.”

“So you didn’t hear it?”

“Hear what?”

“It was all over the store.”

What was?”

“The place was absolute chaos. Everyone was trying to find out where it was coming from. But they couldn’t figure it out.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The singing.”

“The what?”

“Somebody. It was coming out through the air vents.”

“They were singing?”

“The Impossible Dream.”

“Was it any good?”


“The singing. Was it any good?”


“You really didn’t hear it?”

“I told you. I was taking a shower.”

I believed I had never sung publicly in London. It turns out I was wrong.

I want to thank those who sent along their thoughtful and persuasive comments on “funny numbers.” I will only add – and I’ll speak for all writers though they didn’t ask me to – that when you come up with a “funny number”, there is no planning or premeditation involved whatsoever. The number just pops out. There may be a legitimate explanation as to why that number is “right”, but these are retroactive considerations. The number just happens. And it’s always right. And that's not just for number. Blurt without censoring and you'll always be "on the money."

Questions and comments always gratefully appreciated.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"London Times - Part Eight"

After living in Hampstead for seven months, I was evicted from my Bedsitting Room at 10 Church Row for being rowdy. (This is the only time me and “rowdy” have ever appeared in the same sentence.)

Mrs. Tompkins, my landlady, had a particularly narrow vision of the concept. I was challenging “rowdy” simply by coming out of my room. In fairness to her, it was summertime, and Canadian travelers were regularly ringing her doorbell to “look me up.” I guess she got tired of the door never being for her, and she decided to evict me. In truth, it was the visitors who were rowdy, but she could hardly throw them out. They didn’t live there.

I did.

And I had to go.

“Going” meant a lot more than finding a new place to live. I couldn’t find anything nearby in my price range, so I was forced to relocate to a different and distant part of town. This meant I wasn’t just losing an exceptional situation. I was also losing my community.

Sure, I could take the “tube” up to the Horse and Groom. But it wasn’t the same. I was an outsider now, no longer a citizen of the neighborhood.

The pub had been important to me. The “regulars” had taken me in. Once, a group of them invited me to accompany them to the Epsom Darby, a traditional, annual horseracing event, taking place the following day. I told them I couldn’t go because I had to teach. The next morning, they rang my doorbell, and told me to get in the car.

“I can’t,” I re-explained. “I have to work.”

“No, you don’t. We called your school. You’re ‘sick.’”

And off we went to the Epsom Darby.

I experienced many such kindnesses during my Hampstead stay. I’d have one more before I left.

On my last night at the pub, the manager – I now remember his name was Eddie, not Jimmy as I previously reported – presented me with a surprise going-away present. It was a half-pint beer mug, beveled glass with the official Horse and Groom, Hampstead etched on the side. I was told that pub glasses are legally protected in England, the licensing procedure making them “Property of the Crown.” Stealing a pub mug is like stealing a mailbox.

They gave me one as a memento. I’m looking at it right now.

I moved to a mid-city district called Euston. It was a totally different environment. A block away sat Euston Station, which housed both a train and an Underground station. (Euston Station also offered a “canteen” which sold a pretty decent steak pie. How do you tell the difference between steak pie and steak-and-kidney pie? The latter has bits of shiny meat in it. Those would be the kidney bits.)

The Euston neighborhood had a “downscale” feel to it. The buildings were caked in soot and indifferently maintained. Though decades had passed since World War II, there were empty lots still piled with rubble from “The Blitz.” My four-story building had been left untouched. It’s as if German pilots had flown over it and said,

“Ve are not vasting a bomb on zat!”

It wasn’t much of a place.

Why did I take it? The rent was two pounds a week. That’s less than six dollars. Charles Dickens would have called it a steal.

The landlord was decidedly “absentee.” Some oil company, as I recall. I paid the rent by mail. I was given a long, rusty iron key for my door. I looked at it and thought, “I have moved into a self-service prison.”

The apartment was small and dusty. The floors were uncovered plywood. The entire unit (furnished by Oxfam – read: Salvation Army) consisted of a room and a kitchen.

You will notice what I didn’t mention. I didn’t mention a bathroom. I didn’t mention it, because my apartment didn’t have a bathroom. There was a toilet, shared by all the floor’s tenants, at the end of the hall.

You will once again notice what I didn’t mention. I didn’t mention a shower or a bath. There’s a reason I didn’t mention a shower or a bath.

The building did not include a shower or a bath.

How did I take a shower or a bath?

I went down to Shaftsbury Avenue, the main thoroughfare of London’s glittering West End, and availed myself of the Oasis Public Baths.

Public baths are a longstanding English tradition. A lot of places – places poor people live – were constructed with neither indoor plumbing nor bathing facilities. The former need was accommodated by outhouses. The latter, by the public baths.

The Oasis, the closest bathhouse, was a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. This was not an easy adjustment for me. A person accustomed to middle-class amenities was now required to walk twenty minutes down the street to take a bath.

The culture shock, however, was only beginning.

My First Visit to the Oasis Public Baths

I arrive at the premises, clutching my bath towel and my shampoo, contained in a plastic bottle shaped liked Popeye. I pay the shilling (twelve cent) fee. I am handed a tiny bar of soap and a number. I proceed to the “Waiting Area”, planting myself on a rough, wooden bench, alongside other people who are waiting to take their baths. Many of them appear to have spent the day working underground.

Yes, indeedy. Little Early Peemerantz was bathing with miners.

After half an hour, my number is finally called. I follow a man holding a long, crank-looking object down a badly lit corridor. He unlocks a door with a number on it, and I follow him in.

Inside is a worn but surprisingly clean bathtub and a hook on the door to hang my clothes on. That was it. The tub had no “hot” and “cold” handles. That’s what the crank-looking object was for. The man attached it to the…whatever, and alternately cranked in hot and cold water for my bath. (The “crank” method kept unscrupulous bathers from abusing the “hot.”)

The man asked me to feel the water to see if the temperature was to my liking, and when I told him it was fine, he filled the tub, said I had fifteen minutes for my bath, and left.

I’m not clear on the explanation, but, apparently, there are parts of your body that are more sensitive to hotter temperatures than other parts. For example, my hands, which I had used to test the bathwater, are not sensitive. Other parts, however, parts I now found myself lowering into the water, are extremely sensitive. So sensitive, it turned out, that it was necessary for me to remove myself from the tub.

Which I did. Rapidly.

On my first visit to the Oasis Public Baths, in a misguided effort to insure that my bathwater would not be too tepid, I had ordered it cranked in way, way too hot.

I am standing there, naked beside the tub, waiting for the rising steam to abate, so I can again get back in the bathtub. You’re probably ahead of me at this point, but this is exactly how it went. Just as the water had cooled enough to allow me to climb back in…


‘Time’s up, sir. Time to go.”

One shilling. No bath.

Eventually, I familiarized myself with the process. But taking the twenty-minute trudge home afterwards, my hair, damp and stringy, my pre-bath clothing clinging to my body (it was too cumbersome to pack a different set of clean clothes), carrying my water-logged bath towel and my now-slick Popeye shampoo bottle, though unquestionably clean, I never failed to feel bewildered by my predicament.

Tomorrow: Rescued from the Public Baths.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"The Things Writers Notice"

When a writer notices something, there’s the hope that what they noticed will be interesting to more than just them. What they really hope is that their observation will be sufficiently fascinating, illuminating and insightful that the reader will say, “Good on ya, writer, for bringing that to my attention, because, not being a writer myself, I hadn’t noticed.”

For a writer of comedy, “funny” can be hopefully added to that list.

Not long ago, I noticed something funny while I was watching C-SPAN 2, a network not normally famous for its comedy. For those who don’t know them, the C-SPAN channels – we currently have three of them – are cable television channels whose primary programming is the unedited coverage of both houses of Congress. On weekends, C-SPAN changes its format, offering interviews and lectures featuring authors who’ve written non-fiction works on politics, culture and history. I watch the C-SPAN channels a lot.

The “funny thing” was broadcast during “Non-Fiction Weekend.” The participants were a female interviewer and a female guest who’d been employed in the public relations department of the Bush administration, specializing on issues of national defense. The guest was on to promote a book she had written, concerning the P.R. strategies devised to support the former president’s military policy in Iraq. The interviewer, an acknowledged opponent of the war, had been specially selected to take her on.

So far, nothing funny. But there were soupcons of at least dramatic, if not comedic possibilities. These soupcons were embedded in the personae of the adversaries. The interviewer, at least comparatively if not objectively, appeared, well, “bookish.” She was dark, not unattractive but no “knockout”, and perhaps not as attentive to her grooming and attire as, say, her mother might have preferred. This woman’s demeanor said, “I’m fully aware of grooming and attire. But I’m here on business.”

Indulging in stereotypes, one might call her “The Smart One.”

Her adversary was strikingly attractive, confident and blond, with a fair (and flawless) complexion. As befits a Bush administration representative, she was conservatively groomed, attired and bejeweled. Everything about her screamed “Money.” But tastefully. We should say everything about her purred “Money.”

Call her “The Prom Queen.”

Things got strange almost from the beginning. Early in the hour-long interview, I’m not good describing women’s hair, but a substantial section of the front of “The Smart One’s” straight brown hair abandoned its assigned position, winding up directly between the woman’s eyebrows, dividing her forehead almost perfectly in half.

Try and imagine this. The front of “The Smart One’s” hairdo was swept over to the side in front, and a substantial hunk or hank (as in the song “Honeycomb”) of “The Smart One’s” hair had escaped from her hairdo and fallen onto her forehead and into her eyes, behind her glasses. (I forgot, “The Smart One” wore glasses. Did I really need to tell you that?)

“The Smart One” maintained her composure, but you could sense she was distracted. Though she remained focused, nailing “The Prom Queen” on the non-existent Iraq-9/11 connection and the undiscovered Weapons of Mass Destruction, you could tell she was also thinking about her hair.

This is not my imagination. The “hair thing” was driving her crazy. It went like this. She asks a question, the hair’s between her eyes. The camera cuts to the guest for her answer, and when it comes back to the interviewer, look at that! – her hair’s neatly back in place!

“The Smart One’s” about to mount another assault on the former president’s Iraq policy, here comes the hair, sliding down her forehead, and coming to rest back between her eyes. This time, “The Smart One” doesn’t wait for the camera to cut away. She swipes at her hair without breaking her inquisitive stride. But the errant hank refuses to stay put. Before the camera can cut away, the runaway hair’s sitting there, splitting her forehead once again.

You can almost read “The Smart One’s” mind. She’s considering altering her strategy. “If I ask shorter questions, my hair won’t have time to fall down while I’m on camera.” It’s a sound plan. She can swipe it back in place while the camera’s on “The Prom Queen.”

Unfortunately, the cool and wily “Prom Queen” is ahead of her.

Realizing “The Smart One’s” predicament, “The Prom Queen” begins shortening her answers. The camera cuts back to “The Smart One”, capturing her in “mid-swipe.”

“This can’t be happening!” you can almost hear “The Smart One” lament. “I have people watching. My family. My friends. This is my big chance, an opportunity to show producers what I can do. I’m tearing this woman to shreds, exposing her as a transparent fraud defending a disastrous policy. But none of that matters.

“The only thing they’ll remember is the hair!”


“THE SMART ONE”: (SWEEPING BACK THE ERRANT STRANDS) How did you deal with the credibility issue when it turned out there were no WMD?


“THE PROM QUEEN”: Well, you have to remember at the time, the world believed Iraq had WMD, including President Clinton.


"THE SMART ONE": (HAIR BACK BETWEEN HER EYES) He may have believed that but he didn’t take the country to war.

For the viewer, our Iraqi policy has become secondary. The show’s turned into: “Where’s the Hair?”

If this were an actual comedy, a hairdresser would be dispatched to crawl along the floor and slip the interviewer a helpful “Bobby pin.” But this isn’t a comedy. It’s C-SPAN 2. No help. No “Bobby pin.” Just an excruciating hour of humiliation and shame. Were “The Smart One” on the fence on the matter, this shattering experience could land her unquestioningly in the camp of “There is no God.”

In the end, what we’re left with is a P.R. flak emerging without a scratch, and a tormented, “deserved better” interviewer, whose rebellious hair has let her down.

If you’re a writer of a certain inclination, it’s something you notice.

Monday, March 9, 2009

"Getting It Right"

A few years ago, I attended an Oscars party on the Big Island of Hawaii. In attendance were Senator-In-Waiting Al Franken and his family, the late actor Peter Boyle (the Dad on Raymond) and his family, Franken’s book agent and his family, my daughter Anna and myself. (Dr. M, studying for a licensing exam, had requested our absence while she prepared.)

The Oscars party took place in the Boyles’ condo, adjacent to our hotel. It was nice to be invited. There was great food, an Oscars pool (which I co-won), and the “Big Show” itself on TV.


They come to the award for “Best Editing.” Before it’s presented, the producers inexplicably stage an elaborate production number, featuring The Lord of the Dance. There are smart people in the room. And one of them reasonably inquires:

“Why are they doing a dance number to introduce an Editing award?”

Without missing a beat, I reply,

“It’s a little known fact that when an editor does a particularly good edit, he gets up and he does a little dance.”

The room explodes in a thunderclap of laughter. And it just keeps going. An extended eruption of spontaneous hilarity. I am genuinely taken aback. Having never uttered the line before, I had no idea it was going to be funny.

It turns out it was.

I’ve thought that moment many times. Not about why it was funny. I’ll never know why it was funny. A happy confluence of I don’t know what. What I thought about was the line itself. Where had it come from? And why precisely those words, in precisely that order?

Where did the line come from? I have no idea. I just opened my mouth and out it came. I’m completely in the dark as to where the stuff that comes out of me comes from. To me, it’s magic. And I’m eternally humbled to be the medium of its expression. (Except when it comes out not funny, which it occasionally does. My brother once mused about that situation. Confused by a joke he had blurted that fell flat, he complained: “It felt just like the good ones.”)

Why precisely those words, in precisely that order? (Why does that matter? Because delivering the line precisely that way contributed significantly to its success.) At the risk of repeating myself, that’s magic too. Which I’ll return to in a moment. But first, I'll digress.

Someone once said, “Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.” Another guy explained about writing, “You sit down at the typewriter and you open up a vein.” They were both making the same point. Writing is really hard.

As a writer, you try to reproduce what your mind’s telling you, struggling to retain the original naturalness and spontaneity. Unfortunately, there’s this time lag due to the process of stenography that inevitably slows things down, at which point, you’re likely to start thinking, and when you start thinking, there goes the naturalness and spontaneity. Self-censorship aside, this problem does not occur when you’re talking.

Confession: On my best writing day, I could never write as intuitively as I talk.

(Another time, I’ll talk about how the computer brings a writer closer to “talk” than any medium of putting things down in history. Way closer than chiseling words into a tablet.)

Which brings us back to my “dancing editor” line. Mentioning it represents my oblique response to a commenter’s question about “funny numbers.”

The commenter writes that after years of marriage, his wife, a First Grade teacher, still “talks to me like I’m five.” The commenter proceeds to examine why “five” is the right and funniest number.

I’ll tell you why “five” is the right and funniest number.

Because it is.

Unlike the comedic “rule of threes”, which you ignore under penalty of “no ha-ha”, no number is inherently funny or unfunny. It depends entirely on the context. In his context, the commenter concludes that “She talks to me like I’m six” is not funny. He’s right.

However, in Neil Simon’s hit comedy, Barefoot in the Park, the lead male character, a starting-out attorney, reports that he just won a case where his client was awarded ten cents. As a result, his firm has now assigned him all cases valued at “six cents or less.”

The number six? Funny as heck.

The “funny number” rule does not exist. Getting it right involves surrendering to the magic. When you do, as with the “dancing editor” line, the right thing just naturally pops out.

And when it’s right, it’s funny.

That goes for talking and that goes for writing.

Friday, March 6, 2009

"Maybe My Favorite Funny 'Movie Moment' Of All Time"

Yesterday, I talked about the mathematical component embodying the comedic structure of a joke. That was fun, wasn’t it? There is, however, another way of getting a laugh, which, though carefully set up, depends hardly at all on mathematical calculation but almost exclusively on emotion. Such situations invariably elicit reverberating peals of laughter, evoked, not by formula, but by the audience’s awareness of what a character is feeling.

I happen to be partial to physical comedy – Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati – and comedy wrapped in music – Naked Gun’s Leslie Nielsen singing “The Star Spangled Banner”, making up the words as he goes along. But my favorite laugh of all, the laugh that reaches the deepest inside my innards and resides there the longest, is the laugh generated by what I call (and maybe other people also call)…

“The Moment.”

My favorite example of my favorite movie “moment”? A “moment” that arrives late in the highly praised 1982 comedy, Tootsie. Tootsie is not a movie I’d watch again and again – the jokes are now familiar, and the surprises surprised me in 1982 – but when it’s on TV, I make sure that I catch the “moment.” It’s not a long sequence – maybe ten seconds long – but it never fails to tickle me with delight.

There are three problems with what I’m about to do. That’s a lot. One, I’m going to try and reproduce with words a “moment” that was executed in the movie without words. I may not be artful enough to pull that off. Two, the power of the “moment” relies on a gradual build-up, which evolved through a considerable portion of the movie. I don’t have that going for me either. Third, no matter how accurately I describe it, you may not think it’s funny.

You know what? I’m not going to do it.

No, wait, that’s cowardly. I at least have to try. Okay, I will.

The best way to enjoy the “moment” is to watch the entire movie. Not just the “moment” itself; it’s the context that makes the “moment” work. Barring that, however, I offer the following:

Tootsie is a farce, so the story gets crazy. Basically, you have Dustin Hoffman playing Michael Dorsey, a “difficult” unemployed actor who, out of desperation, disguises himself as “Dorothy Michaels” and auditions for a female role in an ongoing soap opera, and gets the part, ultimately blossoming into a popular sensation.

At one point, “Dorothy” is introduced to Michael’s co-worker’s widowed father, Les (Charles Durning), who is immediately smitten. After spending time together, Les proposes, giving “Dorothy” an engagement ring.

In the climactic scene, Michael reveals his true gender identity during a “live” broadcast of the soap opera. Consequences ensue, one of which is the necessity of Michael having to return the engagement ring to Les.
We’re in a local bar-type hangout, somewhere not big city. Michael enters, maybe orders a drink, I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter.

Les nurses a drink further down the bar. Apparently, they had arranged to meet, so Michael could return the ring. Les inadvertently glances down the bar, and spots a guy he at first doesn’t recognize. We then see the dawning realization. Les is now aware that the guy he’s staring at is the male, and actual, incarnation of the woman he loved.

Which brings us to the “moment.”

Les unleashes a glare of lip-curling hatred towards the oblivious Michael.
We’re talking thermonuclear disgust, fueled by humiliation, shame and hurt. His face turns red, his eyes betray murderous intentions, and it appears as if his head might actually explode. As Les continues to hold that look, deepening in its intensity…

…your humble blogger is “chaka-ing” (read “ch” the Jewish way) with uncontrollable laughter.

A brilliant “moment” (courtesy of the writer), exquisitely executed (by the actor).

Timeless because its human, and hilarious because it’s real.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"The Mathematical-Emotional Matrix of Comedy"

Woof! What a title! It could be my most impressive title yet!

Much, and by “much” I mean virtually all, comedy construction is mathematical in nature. Totally “by the numbers.” A structural formula, if you will. Mathematical formula alone, however, is not comedy. It’s logarithms. And other “numbers” things I’ll never understand. The element that masks the mathematical formula, turning it into comedy, is emotion.

You with me?

Allow me to explain.

No, no more talking. I nearly choked on those last couple of sentences. Instead, I’ll give you an example. Observe how the emotion draws you in, though it’s the precise, mathematical infrastructure that inevitably gets you the laugh.

I devised a “Cold Opening” for a Cheers episode I wrote. A “Cold Opening” is a comic vignette, generally independent of the episode’s story, appearing at the beginning of the show – before the “Opening Titles.” That’s what makes it a “Cold Opening”; it starts the show “cold.” No introduction. Just…Boom. You go.

My Cheers “Cold Opening” went as follows:

Carla, the acerbic barmaid, is on the phone. Carla’s babysitter has called her, explaining that she can’t get Carla’s baby to go to sleep. You can hear the child wailing heartbreakingly over the phone.

Carla comes up with a strategy. She instructs the babysitter to bring the “receiver” to the baby’s ear. When it’s reported that’s been done, Carla begins singing, softly and soothingly, into the telephone:





The Cheers bar crowd is moved by Carla’s serenading her baby over the phone. One by one, they begin to join in.



The chorus continues to grow…


Till by the end, the entire bar is crooning...


Carla holds her ear to the phone. She smiles, then reports to the awaiting crowd...

“She’s asleep.”

Hearing the good news, the crowd erupts in a celebrational cheer! Horrified, Carla goes back to the phone. Her face says it all. The cheer has woken the baby, who is wailing its lungs out once again.

You see the mathematical construction?

You see the emotional camouflage?


There’s nothin’ to it.

(I add one other element: The “Reality Factor.” When I wrote that “Cold Opening”, Anna was a baby, and it was impossible to get her to sleep.)
A Reminder: If you have questions about comedy writing, or any other aspect of the work I was engaged in, do not be discouraged by the fact that I am often sidetracked from writing about such matters and write about living in England instead. I am happy to share my wisdom and experience concerning any and all issues related to the wonderful business of show. Warning: Do not allow questions to fester inside you unasked. Such behavior could prove dangerous to your long-term health.

Ask me. I know stuff; viz, “The Mathematical-Emotional Matrix of Comedy.” Where else would you see something like that? Well, lots of places. But it’s unlikely they used the same title.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Uncle Grumpy Pleads His Case"

Come on, Nephew. One more post.

Cable news. Again?

They’re driving me nuts! What’s one post? You just did four posts on teaching in England during the Dark Ages. You can’t spare one post for something important?

If cable news is driving you crazy, don’t watch it.

“Pay not attention to that mole on your nose.” That’s no answer. You ignore something important, you wind up with half a nose.

Look, nobody takes cable news seriously…

They don’t? Then why do those shows’ hosts make millions of dollars? Does that make sense to you? “Nobody takes your seriously. Here’s six million bucks”?

The hosts are paid well because they draw an audience.

Doing what?

Commenting on the news.


In an entertaining manner.

So it is news or entertainment?

It’s both.

It can’t be both.

But it is.

I know! That’s the problem! These people take the news – which doesn’t belong to them, it’s news – and they manipulate it for profit. And they’re shameless about doing it. That’s what got my dander up. Chris Matthews. Smart guy. Thinks fast. Knows his movies. They’re talking about the economy. Oh, that’s another thing. These guys do a show every day. They have to. That’s the deal. And every day, on “Matthews”, “Olbermann”, “Rachel”, they discuss the faltering economy. It’s like a guy taking his pulse every twelve seconds. Talking about the economy makes investors nervous. Which makes the economy falter even more! But the do it anyway, because…

That’s their job.

It's still hurting the economy. It’s the same thing with the president. “How’s the president doing?” How’s he doing now?” “How’s he doing now?” “How’s he doing now?” Back off a little. Let the man breathe!

The president and the economy are the "Big Stories." You can’t stop them from talking about them. And there’s no way they’re going to ignore the "Big Stories." It’s bad business.

Free speech and free enterprise. Our two most cherished values. But they’re being exploited. And it’s killing us.

Don’t. Watch.

You’re right. I shouldn’t. Lemme tell you how shameless they are. I’m watching “Hardball”. Some journalist reports that in a column, he called Treasury Secretary Geithner, “…the ‘Doogie Howser’ of the Treasury.” Suddenly, he’s embarrassed, so he says, “That may be a bit unfair…” Matthews interrupts, saying, “That’s what we like here.” Then he’s feeling a little exposed, so he adds, “Stay unfair. But close to the truth.” You hear what he’s telling him? “Stay unfair, but paint the ‘unfairness’ in a veneer of credibility.” That's how blatant it's become. They’re announcing their “Game Plan” on the air!

You ever listen to conservative commentary?

It’s all the same. Distortion for profit. It just hurts more when my guys do it.

What do you want them to do?

A much better job. Do shows that help me understand what’s going on. Not the gamesmanship, the actual problem. If that doesn’t excite them, say good-bye, and go off the air.

They’re not going to do that.

Then they will suffer the consequences.

Which are?

A blistering diatribe from me. Listen, kid. These guys are doing real damage. Someone has to hold them accountable. What do you say? Will you let me lambaste them on your blog?

Sorry, Unkie. It’s time to move on.