Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Destiny"

Nearing the end of my final year in High School, my Guidance Counselor advised me that I should become an accountant. My Guidance Counselor was also my history teacher. I had another history teacher who was also my gym teacher. They doubled up. But my Guidance Counselor was really a history teacher. And my other history teacher was really a gym teacher.

I was instinctively aware that my gym teacher wasn’t really a history teacher. And my gym teacher was aware I was aware. This led to repercussions. One occurred during “Parent-Teacher Conference Night”, where my gym teacher told my mother, in reference to his history teaching,

“Your son looks at me like he thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

(My mother passed along this little tidbit when she got home. She thought it was hilarious.)

My blogging skills do not include the ability to show pictures. If it did, I would post a photo of me looking like I think that the person I’m looking at doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The best I can do is a description. My eyes kind of light up, my eyebrows arch quizzically, and there’s this questioning smile playing skeptically on my lips.

I never intended to embarrass anyone. (It was pretty much a secret exchange.) My reaction emerged spontaneously, the result of my gym teacher who also taught history saying something I knew he had cribbed from the text book – preparation for class had led me to read the same material he had – and getting it wrong.

I’d have been better off keeping my facial expressions to myself. The other venue of repercussion was at P.E., where my behavior earned me endless sessions of gymnatorial payback.

Okay, so this lightly trained career planner informs me I should become an accountant. Where did he get this from? Apparently he’d developed the impression that I didn’t like people, and was therefore more suited to working alone. The suggestion he offered during this abbreviated session meant to clarify my future was that I seriously consider working with numbers.

The advice wounded the directionless and impressionable almost High School grad that was me at that time. An adult had just told me what to be, and my response was an unspoken screaming

“No-o-o-o-o-o!!!!!”

When I got home, I tried to cover my discomfort with a lame joke. After telling my brother my Guidance Counselor had advised me to become an account, I replied, almost manically,

“I can account. A-one. And a-two. And a-three. And a-four.”

It wasn’t just accountancy that portended a grim and terrifying rest of my life. It was every job I knew of. Doctor. Lawyer. Wholesale clothier (my family’s business). Investment Guy. Teacher. This was just prior to the sixties, with its anti-authoritarianism and its “Do Your Own Thing.” There were fewer acceptable options. And all of them looked horrible. “Horrible” meaning I could not see myself doing any of them till I died. Or a day, even.

This may sound weird to you, I don’t know. But for me, the best thing about being a writer is that I didn’t have to be anything else.

I couldn’t be anything else. Me, doing a “Grown-up” job? There’s simply no way I could handle it.

Dr. Earl:

“I’m going to step out of the room now, and the nurse is going to come in and tell you that you’re going to die.”

Lawyer Earl:

“Sorry I lost the case. Here’s my bill.”

Wholesale Clothier Earl:

“Who knew people hated corduroy?”

Investment Guy Earl:

“I bought high and I sold low.”

Teacher Earl:

“I have no idea how to get you to learn.”

These jobs have serious consequences. That’s not for me. Writer? You stink it up, you toss it in the wastebasket. You hit the “Delete” button and start again. The only victim of failed writing is time and paper. And with computers, just time.

I know it’s an accomplishment to have achieved success and longevity in a field that’s competitive and requires special abilities, an endeavor many people wish they’d participated in and, for whatever reason, didn’t. But the satisfaction pales when, deep down, you have the unshakable feeling that

“That’s all I could do.”

There is an “up-side” to this condition. When you’re sure you can only do one thing, you tend to give it everything you’ve got. The situation creates an urgency. It’s not like you’ve neglected to formulate a “Plan B.” “Plan B” does not exist.

So I wrote. And continue to write today. It’s a solitary profession, but I’ve always enjoyed working alone.

Wait a minute…

Okay, he got the “numbers” part wrong, apparently never checking my math grades. But the “working alone” part?

Not bad for a part-time professional.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Evidence and Belief"

Yesterday, I revealed my requirement for a meditation process disconnected from any religious or spiritual belief system. Since a lot of people hunger for a belief system they can surrender to, I thought it appropriate to explain my reasons for proceeding in the other direction.

Believing is tough for me. I never quite fit the mold.

BELIEVERS: We believe in an eight-sided thinking system.

EARL: I’m a seven-sided thinker.

BELIEVERS: Sorry. Can’t come in.

EARL: Seven’s pretty close.

BELIEVERS: Is it eight?

EARL: No.

BELIEVERS: Can’t come in.

EARL: That doesn’t seem fair.

BELIEVERS: Adjust. Become an eight.

EARL: But I’m a seven.

BELIEVERS: Can’t come in.

So there’s that. I never get in. Not that I want to get in. I’d just like it to be my choice. But that’s not the biggest problem here. My real disenchantment derives from the fundamental concept of “belief” itself.

Two summers ago, I took an extension class at UCLA called, The History of the Conservative Movement. Since my views tend to skew in most cases, though definitely not all, in a more leftward direction, I was interested in learning about the origins of the political movement with which I generally disagree.

I read about Edmund Burke (1729-1797). A really smart English guy. (Actually a really smart Irish guy, who relocated to England). Burke advocated honoring the traditions of the past, because history – through its failures and its successes – could teach valuable lessons to the generations that came after.

Burke was not, however, against change. He understood that change was not only inevitable, but natural and desirable. What he opposed was rapid change. He wanted whatever changes were decided upon to be integrated gradually, so they wouldn’t be, as they turned out to be in, say, the French Revolution, anarchically disruptive.

From this I learned that conservatives today are not the same.

Okay, so we’re in, maybe, the eighth class of our twelve-week session. Somehow, in passing, our professor mentions that “The American Dream” – a precept dearly cherished by conservatives, grounded in the concept of inevitable upward mobility – had been scientifically demonstrated to no longer exist.

The professor asserted that recent studies had shown that, not always, but more often than not, and more often than in the past, people today remain in the same social and economic position as the earlier generations of their families.

Now, from Day One, there’d been this Libertarian pain in the ass who sat in the back, barking out his knee-jerk conservative “talking points” (without once ever raising his hand). When he heard “The American Dream” being challenged by accepted scientific data, this mulish irritant reflexively replied,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”

Immediately, I thought (but neglected to say out loud), “Well, there you have it. That’s the whole ballgame right there.”

Scientific evidence, versus belief. Two opposing ways of reaching a conclusion. As compatible as apples and doorknobs.

I’m an “evidence” guy. If you want to convince me of something, you better be packing some reliably verifiable facts. When I hear what sound like reliably verifiable facts casually dismissed by “Conservative don’t believe that”, I get unhappy.

Make that angry.

Why angry? The dismissive attitude doesn’t knock me out. And I’m not thrilled with the condescension. The word “supercilious” happily jumps to my mind. Why “happily”? Because in High School English, we studied a book called, Words Are Important, which, every week, presented us with twenty valuable but little-used words, and one week, “supercilious” was one of them, and I never get to use it, and I’m happily grateful to be using it today. The guy was definitely supercilious.

Dismissive. Supercilious. These are things “evidence” people have to put up with from the ever-confident “belief” crowd. Now, do “believers” catch unjustified heck from the “evidence” cohort? You’re dern tootin’.

“Bring us your evidence that God exists, you softheaded promoters of invisible nonentities! And while you’re at it, let’s see your proof for Santa and the Easter bunny as well!”

Ever since science started discovering stuff, I have been an enthusiastic supporter (though not actually present at the time) of the view that it was not appropriate for science to be evaluated by the principles of religion, or any other non-evidentiary belief system. However, I am an equally enthusiastic supporter (and far more present) of not evaluating religion or any other non-evidentiary belief system by scientific principles. Come on, now. Fair is fair.

What we seem to have are two procedurally different processes for arriving at the truth. Are they then equal? Ehhh, not quite.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road. (Whatever that means.)

I am not aware of “believers” being burned at the stake by scientists. The opponents of belief may carp. They may criticize. They may sneeringly deride. They may ridicule mercilessly and haughtily “pooh-pooh.”

But they don’t kill you.

That’s the difference.

I think it’s a big one.

Taking it to the personal level (and it always comes down to personal level)….

Not infrequently, over the past two thousand years, belief held by the majority, beliefs dismissing, ignoring and over-riding demonstrable evidence, have delivered, to put it mildly, really bad times for a group of hard-lucks known as the Jews, a team on which, by birth, I happen to be a player. Beneath all the blah-blah, this is the reason I feel, not just an intellectual challenge, but a personal threat in the words,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”

Throughout history, many conservative belief-generated impressions have left the People of the Six-Pointed Star – among other minorities – in dire and dreadful jeopardy for their lives.

When functioning in the “non-faith” departments, the world is far better off with evidence.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"A Meditation On Meditation"

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST MAY ACTUALLY BE USEFUL.

(There is no reason a warning necessarily has to be bad.)

I’m a jumpy guy. That’s part of the package that, when you put it together, makes me. I have mitral valve prolapse, hair that’s been slow to turn gray, an ability to write, and chronic jumpiness. Among other attributes. Some “Yahoo!” (my mellifluous singing voice), some “Eh” (I’m borderline on height), and some “Could somebody please that this back?” I will keep that list of disappointments to myself.

A doctor once attributed my jumpiness to an “anxious temperament”, prescribing blood pressure medicine for the rest of my life. I hate being classified that way. An “anxious temperament.” I wanted to punch the doctor in the face. But I didn’t. Which only added to my anxiousness.

Here’s the deal. I know this is true about writing, but I believe it’s equally true of other impossible tasks. It may even be an natural law of the universe.

In order to successfully write – or hit a golf ball, or play the piano, or face a man down in a gunfight – to perform at your optimum level, it is necessary to be in a physical state of

Relaxed concentration.

Write it down.

Without “relaxed concentration”, you will never be performing entirely at your best. Separate the two – it doesn’t work. Relaxed without concentration, you’re unfocussed. Concentrating without being relaxed, you’re too tight. But put them together – relaxed concentration – and you’ll achieve things that will amaze you, your parents, your teachers and your friends.

How do you get there? Well, I’ve known writers who pursued that objective by various means, some involving breaking the law, spending large sums of money, and endangering their livers. These were not options for me. I try not to break the law, I avoid spending large sums of money on products that disappear quickly and require urgent replacement, and since I have but one liver, I try to act kindly towards it.

But as I said, I’m a jumpy guy. And jumpiness and relaxed concentration do not comfortably coexist.

“Relax.”

“You don’t say ‘Relax’ to a jumpy person.”

“Okay. Then concentrate.”

“How can I concentrate if I’m not relaxed?”

So there it is. A conundrum. A dilemma. And a problem.

It’s the seventies. People are trying different things. One of them is “Transcendental Meditation”, or TM. For better or worse, it is not in my nature to participate in anything spiritual, either new or longstanding. I am extremely wary of all belief systems. No gurus for me. No mantras. No being reborn. Being born once was traumatic enough.

But I needed help. I was too jumpy to write at my best.

I found this book, I don’t remember how, maybe I read a review of it somewhere. The book is called The Relaxation Response, by Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson studied a whole range of meditation techniques, and from his exploration, he distilled a biologically supportable, ideology-free meditation process, offering a grounded claity to jumpy people, who didn’t want to pray.

I’ve been using it for thirty years.

Every morning, when I wake up, the first thing I do (or the second, if I have to “go”) is I meditate. Here, I’ll save you the price of the book, I’m sure Benson won’t mind. This is what you do.

Sit in a comfortable position, with no constricting clothing. Close your eyes. Relax your body (by breathing into the tight places). And breathe.

Inhale through your nose, slowly, then slowly exhale, through your nose. One more thing and we’re done.

Instead of focusing on some meaningful word or phrase as you exhale, Benson determined you could use anything. He suggested the generic word, “One.” (Not “The One.” Just “One.”) The point of the word – and you can repeat any word or sound you want – is to concentrate the mind on something, to keep it from doing what minds do – race around crazily from thought to thought.

That’s all there is. Inhale through the nose. Exhale, and think…”One.” Inhale through the nose. Exhale…“One.” If your mind wanders – and it always does – gently bring it back to what you’re doing. Inhale through the nose. Exhale…”One.” The thought that flashed into your mind may be important. But to me, nothing’s more important than the immediate task at hand.

Meditating sets up the entire rest of the day.

Two examples, demonstrating the contrast. Actually, it’s the same example, two times. Which makes it scientific. ((I know “science” is a belief system too. But this one you can validate.)

Every, I think it’s July, the national TV-writing press corps flies to Los Angeles, to screen the pilots of the new shows gracing the schedule during upcoming season. It’s a ritual, which I believe has been cut back, if not curtailed, by the recent economic downturn. But they used to do it all the time. (Actually twice a year.) The press corps screens the pilot, then interviews the lead actors and the show runner(s).

It’s 1984. I’m the Executive Producer of The Cosby Show. But I hadn’t written the pilot (actually a fourteen minute presentation), so I didn’t think I’d be involved in the press activities. I was wrong.

I was completely unready. I wasn’t dressed right. (I had to borrow a sports jacket from (Cosby Show co-owner) Tom Werner. More importantly, believing I’d be enjoying a day off, I hadn’t meditated.

My performance before the television press corps was, being generous, not my best. Responding to their questions, I was unfocused, meandery, and not funny. When it was over, I introduced Cosby to Dr. M. This was his post mortem to her concerning the event.

“I hope you husband can write. Because he certainly can’t talk.”

Ouch but true.

FLASH FORWARD

Five Julys.

It’s Press Junket Time again. I am the Executive Producer of a new series called Major Dad. This time I’m ready. I’ve gotten a haircut. I’m dressed appropriately.

And I’ve meditated my ass off.

I “kill” at the Press Junket. My respond to their questions, spontaneous and unrehearsed, elicit thunderclaps of laughter; whatever they’re drinking is squirting out of jaded reporters’ noses. Strangers are congratulating me, saying I’m “funnier than Letterman.” The following week, my effusively received ad-libs, in their entirety, are printed in TV Guide.

The difference between the two press conferences?

Inhale through the nose. Exhale…”One.”

Meditation works.

Have you ever reached a totally relaxed state?

Never.

Have you gotten close?

I don’t think so.

But you still meditate.

Sure.

Why?

Because it’s better than being jumpy.

Way better.
-------------------------------
In reference to unsolicited submissions: In my day, we were instructed never to open an envelope that did not come to us from a reputable agency, for fear of legal repercussions down the line. I cannot speak with any expertise as to the situation today.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"The 'Annual Inefficiency' - Follow-Up"

Oh boy.

Here’s a writer with a, possibly, overdeveloped hostility towards his “overseers”, who hasn’t participated in pilots for years, spouting off about the horrible inefficiency of the pilot process. Bias and credibility issues abound.

And yet…

It’s true I am no longer involved in the pilot business. I just know that, during the time that I was, a period when the networks were prohibited from owning the shows they broadcast, they interfered a tremendous amount. Today, the networks own the shows. Would it be reasonable to believe they would now interfere less?

So there’s that.

Then, there’s the “argument” issue. In “The ‘Annual Inefficiency’ – ‘Take Two’”, (posted April 23rd, 2009), I specifically referred to arguments which “frame their opponent’s position in such an extreme manner as to make it appear ridiculous.”

So what happens?

Mike The Blogger refers to “your explaining that the writers are experts and the executives should not interfere…” Diane Kristine claims I want TV writing to work “with no interference from the people who hold the purse stings…”

Brrrrrrrrr. (That’s me, shivering with frustration, my jowls jiggling from side to side.)

It is not my argument that networks should never be allowed to interfere. I even indicated specific junctures where they are every right to. The thing is, there’s interference, and there’s interference. One, you could call “reactive interference”, where whoever it is, the networks, your spouse, the Crafts Services person, provides an honest reaction to your efforts. I’m in favor of that type of input. Sometimes a writer is too close to the material, and it’s illuminating to receive responses from an “outside eye”, professional or otherwise.

The other type of interference could be called “proactive interference.” This one involves – if it weren’t being practiced by “the people holding the purse stings” – egregious boundary crossing. Comments venture beyond, “That part was confusing” or “That made me uncomfortable”, to “our thoughts”, suggestions, which, because they hold all the cards, become not suggestions, but orders.

I wouldn’t think of walking into the networks’ offices and telling them how to program Thursday night. Why then do people, as equally as unqualified as I am to program a network schedule, feel so comfortable delivering their “thoughts”, which, invariably, send the project hurtling towards a migraine-inducing predictability?

Despite how it may sound, it isn’t (exclusively) an ego thing that sends steam shooting out of a television writer’s ears. Writers respond to the signals they’re given. Ask any writer who’s gone to pitch at a network. You can count on this. At some point, the network executive will gush about how thrilled they are to be in the “Earl Pomerantz business”. It’s quite a heady experience. Reassuring, even. Makes you feel like going out and buying something expensive.

You then go away and write the script, in the – you like to believe – unique and delightful way you write scripts. Call it “The Earl Pomerantz Way.” You hand the script in, and the network’s “headline” reaction is this: “We still love the idea. We’re just not crazy about the way you wrote it.”

Two reactions come to mind. The first one is:

“Huh?!”

Expanded version:

“I thought you wanted to be in the ‘Earl Pomerantz business’.”

“We do. We just don’t want you to write like this.”

“But writing like this is what being in the ‘Earl Pomerantz business’ means.”

The second reaction is, “If you want me to write like somebody else, why don’t you just cut out the middleman and bring them in?” The answer is, they probably did, and when they handed in their script, they told them to write like somebody else. Possibly even me.

I may be on to something here. Maybe if every writer just moved one job over…

So there’s that. (Yeah, but you got paid a lot.)

Now before we move on, I’d like to reiterate, from a post on Major Dad (“Story of a Writer – Part Twenty B” – November 13, 2008), an example of a time when a network suggestion was gratefully and enthusiastically received. In the original concept of Major Dad, the Marine character was a widower with three kids from both the traditional sexes. The network suggested, instead, that the Marine character marry a non-Marine-loving woman with three daughters.

I immediately recognized this as a way better idea, offering a greater number of comedic possibilities. I thanked the network for the idea, and happily incorporated it into the show. It also helped that the suggestion came at the earliest stages of the series’ development. There was nothing to do over, because we hadn’t done anything yet.

So there’s proof. I’m not against network interference, just certain types of interference. Like damaging suggestions, offered at inopportune times, in a less than respectful “my way or the highway” delivery.

(And for that, I was labeled “difficult.”)

Moving on…

Diane Kristine references HBO’s short-lived series, John From Cincinnati. I never saw it, but I know it was written by David Milch, who has a spectacular track record (NYPD Blue, Deadwood, among others). John From Cincinnati was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Which, ostensibly, makes it “Exhibit A” for “‘Creatives’ Gone Crazy!” – the balancing “other side of the coin.”

I wasn’t there. But it’s imaginable that a major talent, working on a premium cable channel, would demand and receive unchallengeable creative control. He messed up on this one. (Commenters may write, saying they loved John From Cincinnati, but it’s generally conceded that the show was a failure.) Sometimes, as the great writer-director Billy Wilder used to say, you’re aiming at the wrong target.

Or, you have a bad day. Nobody bats a thousand. The question is, if you’re looking for a hit, who do you send to the plate, Manny Ramirez, or some guy who’s enthusiastic about baseball and has seen a whole lot of games?

Batters, like idea-suggesters on television series, are not all equal.

Finally, briefly…

Laugh tracks and “incidental music.” Like all creative choices, it’s a matter of taste. If you want to add laughs, add laughs. But you don’t have to make it like New Year’s Eve.

Taxi had this cool jazz “incidental music” playing out of scenes. It fit the show perfectly. Again, it’s a matter of taste. The Taxi music enhanced the finished product. The same can not be said for “hwa-hwa” music.

Once again, I appreciate the comments. Keep ‘em comin’. They’re challenging. Plus, you never know when you’ll receive the gift of some delicious tidbit. Like the people who spent time and money redoing the Married With Children laugh track into German.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"It's Who(m) You Know"

On a scale of 1 to 10, how believable is the answer to the following question:

“How did you get to fly jumbo jets?”

“My sister’s dating the president of the airlines.”

Let’s try another one:

“How did you become a brain surgeon?”

“My college roommate sells scalpels to the hospital.”

Maybe one more:

“How’d you get to be the chairman of Microsoft?”

“I happened to find Bill Gates’s lost puppy.”

Did we hit “1” on any of those answers? Did the needle move at all? Or did it stay firmly planted on the goose egg? Or below.

People generally understand that gaining employment in highly specialized lines of work requires considerably more than “good connections.” You need training. You need experience. An aptitude in the field is also a plus.

It’s not enough to simply want to do it.

As a result, the above explanations for employment register not at all on the “believability” scale.

On the other hand…

“How did you get the writing job on that television series?”

“My accountant does the producer’s taxes.”

“The director’s niece goes to school with my stepson.”

“I ran into the show runner at Costco.”

For a substantial number of people, these answers do not seem nearly as unbelievable.

Why?

Because of the show business myth of, “It’s who(m) you know.”

Why behind that “why”?

In contrast to the earlier examples, people believe that writing for TV can be done by anyone. “Anyone” may be an exaggeration, but there’s this perception that writing for television is not all that difficult. (Maybe you yourself have opined, “There's no way I couldn't write better than that crap!”)

I’m not saying everyone feels this way, but there’s a stubborn belief that many more people could write for television than those few “lucky ones” who are actually toiling at the task. As if writers were interchangeable.

What, then, is the explanation for why “them” and not them? It can’t be talent. There is very little of it in evidence. The obvious alternative?

“It’s who(m) you know.”

It’s goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that this explanation is insulting to the people writing for television. More importantly, it’s inaccurate. No, more importantly, it’s insulting.

And also it’s inaccurate. How do people really break into the highly competitive “writing for television”? In my experience, the following is a far more typically traveled path.

A writer, living…somewhere is inspired to write for television. They sit down, and they write a sample (known as a “spec”) script of their favorite show. Having researched the addresses, they submit the script to a talent agency, or a number of talent agencies.

(An alternate route, though more risky, due to the “rip-off” factor, is that the writer sends their “spec” script to one of the staff writers listed on the credits of the show.)

The next step? The writer receives encouragement. (They’re signed by the agency, or the staff writer sends back a supportive letter, promising to pass their “spec” script up the chain of command.)

Who did this happen to? The Charles Brothers, for one, or two, if you count them individually. (The Charles Brothers produced Taxi, created Cheers, which was later spun off into Frasier.) When I first met them on Phyllis, they told me that they’d written spec scripts for everything, including – and this really impressed me – Gunsmoke. Their supportive letter came from a staff writer on Mary Tyler Moore.

This is hardly an isolated example. I’ve heard this story, or one pretty similar, on a numerous number of occasions.

What about me? Yes, I knew Lorne Michaels. He was my brother’s writing partner, (before they broke up). But that’s not why he gave me a job. It wasn’t – I haven’t checked with him on this, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t – because I bore a resemblance to my brother, and Lorne felt better having someone who looked like that somewhere in the vicinity – a good luck charm with a prominent nose.

Like all businesses, show business is about survival. This is serious stuff. You can’t risk your future by handing a job to an acquaintance who’s not going to help.

“Our ball team has such good fielders, I can afford to put my cousin at second base.”

It doesn’t work that way. With so much on the line – and so much to do – everyone needs to pull their own weight. There’s nobody thinking,

“I think I’ll endanger my show’s chances of succeeding by hiring my former writing partner’s brother who himself is not very good.”

And yet there’s the powerful contingent out there that that’s actually the way it works.

It isn’t.

“Connections” may get you a meeting, or maybe some entry-level opportunity. But only ability, demonstrated on a consistent basis, will get you a career.

(By the way. Writing for television is a lot harder than it looks.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"The 'Annual Inefficiency' - 'Take Two'"

Sometimes this happens.

I have an idea I want to write, triggered by an inspiring insight as to precisely how to talk about it. I start writing, and it goes in an entirely different direction. I look at the finished product, and my inspiring insight is nowhere to be found.

Because that insight meant something to me – it sparked my original enthusiasm for the idea – I am understandably taken aback, looking at a post whose generating impulse is noticeably absent without leave.

This egregious omission causes me some concern. How did this happen? Is there something going haywire with my thinking apparatus? Is everything okay up there?

Since I’m currently studying Descartes’ Meditations at UCLA, I am also compelled to consider whether my cognitive processes are in the hands of some malevolent “evil demon.” Descartes considers this a legitimate possibility. Who am I to argue? I was inspired to write one thing, and then turned out something completely different.

Consider this “The ‘Annual Inefficiency’ – ‘Take Two’”, the impetus behind “The ‘Annual Inefficiency’ – ‘Take One’”, which, since I never thought there would be a “The ‘Annual Inefficiency – ‘Take Two’” was simply entitled, “The ‘Annual Inefficiency.’” (An unworthy homage to my favorite “Friends” joke – “Let’s go out for Chinese food. Or as they call it in China, food.”)

“The ‘Annual Efficiency’”, posted on April 21st, spoke rather energetically on the subject of network interference during Pilot Season. Summary? I didn’t care for it. I argued for allowing experienced professionals to do their jobs, a position which is controversial only in the context of writing for television. And movies, but I never did movies, so that’s for somebody else’s blog.

The rebuttal argument from television executives – or more likely their P.R. departments, since the executives themselves are too busy for rebuttal arguments – might go something like this:

“Nobody respects writers more than the television executive community. But what are they saying? We should put up the money, and then leave the process entirely in their hands?”

What’s fun about a bad rebuttal argument is that it frames their opponent’s position in such an extreme manner as to make it appear ridiculous. “What are they saying? We should simply walk out of Iraq tomorrow?” “What are they saying? We should allow the American banking system to collapse?” Remember Chicken Man? It’s like this style of arguing. “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”

In the matter of the pilot development process, nobody’s clamoring for “all or nothing.” Simply a reality check. Possibly like this one:

A writer pitches a series idea to the network. The network listens to the pitch.

Network Control Point Number One:

They buy the series pitch.

Or

They pass.

The pitch having been bought, the writer writes the pilot script. The network reads the pilot script.

Network Control Point Number Two:

They “Green Light” the pilot script.

Or

They pass.

Having received the “Green Light”, the writer produces the pilot. The network screens the completed episode.

Network Control Point Number Three:

They put the show on their schedule.

Or

They pass.

Supplemental Network Control Points:

During every stage of the development process, the network probes the writer’s intentions, commenting as to whether, in their opinion, the writer has delivered on those intentions, and if the network doesn’t believe they have, encouraging the writer to realize those intentions more completely.

Pretty radical, huh?

Everyone doing what they’re trained to do, the writer, trying their best to realize their vision; the network deciding whether the finished product meets its strategic objectives?

In theory, this is how the procedure is supposed to work. In practice, however, the experience is excruciatingly different. Why? Because the networks are not satisfied with what, objectively, appear to be a rather formidable series of control points. Instead, forgive me if I momentarily slip into dialect,

They wants it all.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Laugh Tracks"

Thanks for your comments on “Why ‘Taxi’ Was Better.” Your feedback allows me to track your interest, and gives me a chance to use a post to respond, which permits me a bit of a break, while also providing me with the opportunity to use “allows me”, “gives me a chance to”, “permits me to” and “providing me with the opportunity to” in the same sentence.” Whoo-hoo.

Also a thanks to Ken Levine for letting people know I’m here. Always a help.

Okay.

Comedians depend on audience laughter to tell them what’s funny. (Current single-camera showrunners seem to think they already know what’s funny, excluding the audience from the process, who, going by the ratings, return the favor by not watching their shows.)

Iconic comedian George Burns was the co-star The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which aired on TV in the fifties after a successful run on radio. Like most sitcoms of its day, Burns and Allen was filmed single-camera, like a movie. A single camera films the same scene again and again from different angles and with different compositions – “establishing” shots (establishing the location of the scene), close-ups, “two-shots” (two actors in the shot), etc. Then they move on to the next scene and repeat the process, until they’ve completed filming the entire episode.

Filming each episode took two or three days. (By contrast, an episode of Taxi could be filmed in less than three hours.) You can obviously see why the single-camera technique is not appropriate for a live studio audience. They’d have to endure watching the same scenes being filmed over and over during a two or three-day period. Who can sit that long? People get hungry.

So, no audience for single-camera filmings. But then, whither the laugher? Radio shows had laughter. Audiences were invited in to watch performers recording the shows. Accompanying laughter became a tradition. Executives insisted it was a necessity. Otherwise, they believed, the audience wouldn’t know the show was funny. (Hence, the laugh track on M*A*S*H, though no one ever explained exactly who it was that was laughing.)

Most early half-hours starred actors rather than comedians, people like Donna Reed, Fred MacMurray and whoever starred in My Little Margie. Most of them had movie actor experience, making them comfortable with the movie-style single-camera technique. They were happy not to have to face a live audience (they weren’t used to it). Plus, single-camera filming required them only to learn the lines for the scene they were filming, rather than having to memorize the entire script, as is required when, like on Taxi, filming the entire episode during a live-audience performance. (No show I worked on ever used cue cards.)

Movie actors needed the protection provided by the single-camera approach. Comedians need to hear the laughs. That’s why Lucy, or more precisely Desi, devised a system (which became the three-camera technique), where you ran three cameras at the same time, accelerating the process, and allowing the inclusion of a live studio audience. Lucy heard the immediate response, which undoubtedly bolstered her confidence and energized her performance, allowing her to stuff more candies into her blouse..

George Burns used a different approach (possibly because his co-star wife, Gracie, was extremely shy). Burns filmed Burns and Allen without an audience. But he invited an audience in afterwards, to view the finished product, having their live laughs recorded while they watched the show. In this way, Burns could deliver flesh-and-blood laughter, having tested his comedy in front of actual human beings.

This process provided a tricky challenge for Burns and Allen’s editor.

The editor was responsible for assembling the show together for the audience screening. Required to leave space after every joke so the audience’s laughter could fit in, the editor had to determine the length of that space, by ascertaining, at least in his judgment, the funniness of each joke. This was an extremely delicate calibration, resulting in his leaving either leave too much space after a joke, or not enough.

Not enough space caused the laugh to spill over into the following line of dialogue, making it difficult for the audience watching at home to hear it. Too much space – the joke got a smaller laugh than the editor thought it would – left echoing holes of silence, crippling the pace of the entire production. Either way, the editor knew one thing. Mr. Burns was not going to be happy.

I myself faced a similar challenge. I did the show Family Man without an audience. For justifiable reasons, but it didn’t matter, I made a mistake. When I viewed it without a laugh track, the show felt like a soap opera. When I added a “tastefully administered” laugh track, it sounded like a subdued comedy with muffled ha-ha.

However, when I later screened two episodes of Family Man in front of volunteers from the Universal Tour, and they laughed their heads off, I realized one, the show was actually quite funny, and two, I should have done it in front of a live studio audience. Of course, by then, Family Man was history.

Oh, well.

Here are a scattering, or smattering – your choice – of other facts on the subject, mentioned elsewhere in the blog, but gathered together, serving as a “cheat sheet” for your “laugh track” take-home exam.

Laughter recorded from a live studio audience sounds “canned” even when it isn’t. Why? Because the recording system is, I believe the technical word for it is crappy, making actual laughs sound otherworldly and fake.

The other reason is – and you’ll have to take my word for this – jokes and comedic situations are exponentially funnier when you’re witnessing them in person. That’s why the studio audience is still cracking up, while you’re at home going, “I’m finished with that. Move on.”

Trust me. It’s funnier when you’re there.

The following is true of the shows I was fortunate enough to work on. Other shows, I have no idea.

Laugh-machine laughs are not only injected when a joke fails to get the expected response. (More likely when it doesn’t work, the failed joke is edited out of the show.) Laughs are added when the second or third or the twenty-third “take” of a performance is used in the final version, and the audience finished laughing a considerable number of “takes” earlier. Machine laughs are also employed when a large “cut” is made, and a synthesized “blend” is needed to wallpaper over the gap.

Sometimes, the laugh from the first “take” – when the material was still fresh to the audience – is cut out, and inserted after the “take” that ultimately gets used. Only when that’s not possible is “canned” laughter resorted to. (I was told that the machine’s laughs were lifted from shows recorded decades earlier. When I was a warm-up man, I used this information as an encouragement for the audience to go all out. “Getting an inadequate response will require us to use that old laugh track, and if we do, people watching might recognize the laughter of relative who is currently dead. So if you don’t want to make strangers cry, laugh really hard.”)

I hope that covers the subject for you. If it doesn’t, keep asking questions. Ask about anything. I’ll be happy to respond. It’s fun to write about whatever comes to my mind, but once in a while, “interactive” feels really good.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The 'Annual Inefficiency'"

It’s Pilot Season. The time of the year when the commercial television networks make sample episodes for series they hope will be more appetizing than the series whose sample episodes they made during Pilot Season the year before.

The problem is, the same executives, or people cloningly similar those executives, oversaw the making of last year’s pilots, and the pilots of the year before that, ad backwards infinitum, and their perennial batting average is one that would, were they ballplayers, relegate them to the lowest levels of the minor leagues, or oblivion. Based on mathematical projections, which statistically sensitive networks apply in every area of their endeavor besides Pilot Season, there is no indication they’ll do any better this time around.

It seems stupid. You spend millions on pilots. Most pilots never make the network schedule. And the majority of the few that do, fail. The casual observer might detect a substantial waste of money. Large sums, seemingly down the drain, with a not much greater success ratio than a blind brain surgeon.

“Dr.! You just drilled a hole in the anesthesiologist!”

Maybe the networks don’t ultimately care, at least from a financial standpoint. Maybe they rely on some network version of an “R and D” tax write-off called:

“The writers stunk it up. Again.”

It’s good to have somebody to blame. And, unlike Albert Brooks in Lost In America, you may even get (at least a portion of) your gambling money back.

Look, I know how hard it’s very hard to pick a hit show. I read a book once, saying how Desperate Housewives, CSI and American Idol were all rejected when they were originally proposed. Seinfeld sneaked onto the air, surviving long enough for the “bad testing”, normally a series’ death sentence, to be proven incorrect.

My issue is not the unfortunate decision-making. That’s for the executives’ bosses to evaluate. Though I’m not exactly clear on the standard they’d employ.

NETWORK BOSS: “How can I rationalize keeping someone whose decision-making ability is so abysmal?”

NETWORK UNDERLING: “You decided to hire me.”

My beef with the television networks is narrowly defined:

Creative interference.

In my view, that interference takes a “slim to none” situation – developing a potentially successful television series – and turns it more closely, if not precisely, into “none.”

Here’s the question:

Why do smart people with beautifully fitting suits – I’m talking about network presidents – allow – nay, sir – require their employees, who have no background or training in that area whatsoever, to, not personally respond to – that, indeed, is their job – but to dictate character adjustments and story “fixes” and to, God help us, pitch jokes to seasoned professionals who have engaged in exactly those activities their entire careers?

The networks’ response to those seasoned professionals appears to have been adopted from the mantra of the Child Care industry:

“They can’t go around unsupervised!”

The response to that response?

“How much has that supervision helped so far?”

The networks are protected in this matter. We’ll never know what we didn’t get to see (because the networks preemptively shot it down, by dropping the show, or by picking it up but only after radical alterations). This precludes us from making comparisons with what we did get to see. What we do know, however, is how good (and successful) what we did get to see turned out to be. It’s not a very dauntingly high bar.

Moving on to this justification for network interference:

“It’s our money.”

I happen to be sensitive to this position. I can identify. Years ago, while renovating the crumbling craftsman bungalow we had purchased, Dr. M and I ran afoul of an architect who demanded that the house be remodeled according to his specifications rather than ours. We ultimately had to let the fellow go. The reason?

“It’s our money.”

(Also, it’s our house. Which the network can argue as well – “It’s our network.” And now that they’ve been permitted ownership, they can throw in, “It’s our show.”)

The difference?

One:

We knew what we wanted. ( Networks want a hit show, but have no clue how to get one.)

Two:

Dr. M had done considerable research on craftsman bungalows. She was arguably more knowledgeable in that area than the architect. (Network executives may have a plethora of abilities, but few of them could ever be confused with experienced writers.)

And three:

The finished product was intended to satisfy, not an anonymous viewing audience, but us. And, returning us to Point Number One,

We knew what we wanted.

To which argument the networks might politely listen, and respond:

“It’s our money.”

Which brings me to my final point.

It’s their money.

There are Business Affairs honchos, scrutinizing expenditures. There’s a Board. There are shareholders. How do these people, the people whose money it really is, feel about the success levels delivered by the expensive efforts of Pilot Season?

Say something, you guys!

Or nothing ever is going to change.


DISCLAIMER: If I’ve written about this before, forgive me. I’m still trying to have an effect.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Why I Like American History Better Than Canadian History" *

I’ll say it in three words, in case you don’t have time to read the whole thing:

Americans did stuff.

Do you know…wait, I won’t ask you about Canadian history. I don’t want to embarrass you. To which the wiseass American response would be

“Who’s embarrassed?”

Okay, you don’t know anything about Canadian history and you’re not embarrassed. But you’re not embarrassed for the wrong reason. You’re not embarrassed because you don’t care. That insults Canadians. To which, the wiseass American response would be a sarcastic

“Soh-ry.”

(Wiseass Americans are rarely at a loss for a provocative response, a situation which encourages me to renew my Canadian passport.)

The actual reason not to be embarrassed about not knowing about Canadian history is because

not a heck of a lot happened.

I may be, no, I’m sure I am insulting my Canadian readers with this opinion. For that, I’m sarry. (The American version of “Soh-ry.”) I’m not aware of how much Canadian history is taught in Canadian High Schools today, but when I went, I recall learning considerably more British history than I did Canadian. It’s like there wasn’t enough Canadian history for an entire term, so they threw in a little Battle of Hastings and Edward the Confessor to fill it out.

I don’t know if this is true of the majority of Canadians, but I know more about American history than I do about my own. This knowledge came less from study than from movies and television. They didn’t make many shows about Canadian history. And for good reason. To make entertainment from history, something at least moderately interesting would have had to have taken place.

Consider the comparison:

America became a country by battling the British until Cornwallis gave up. The British said, “We quit. The place is yours. We’ll be back in 1812.” (I’m not sure why they came back in 1812. The only worthwhile thing to come out of it was a hit tune by Johnny Horton. “In 1814, we took a little trip…”)

America became a country by fighting for its freedom. Here, as best as I can remember is how Canada became a country. In 1867, a delegation petitioned the British government for Canada to become an independent country, and the British government said,

“Okay.”

Anyone see the makings of an exciting miniseries in that story? A patriotic folk tale? A blood-stirring anthem?

We went to the British
One bright summer’s day
We asked to be a country
And the British said okay…

“Way to take it to ‘em, boys!”

A proud moment in a country’s history, a country that would not have its own flag for another hundred years, and would continue to have to stand for “God Save The Queen” at the end of every movie. (My friends and I always tried to gauge when the movie was about to end and sneak out early. Soh-ry, Your Majesty.)

Canada became a country by legislative fiat. The British North American Act. There’s something to set your heart to pounding.

“My Pappy died for The British North American Act. No, wait, he didn’t. But he did sign the petition. By Gum!”

America fought a four-year Civil War, where, since both combating sides were Americans, the American death toll was disturbingly high. Canada, as I cloudily recall, also had some form of civil-war type confrontation in 1837. I believe it lasted a day.

I remember hearing about the two opposing “armies” marching up (and down) Yonge Street (pronounced “Young Street”) to engage each other in battle, Yonge Street being Toronto’s longest thoroughfare, both then and now.

Apparently, what happened was that, when the two sides came within sight of each other, one of the combatants – p’rhaps nervous about the impending battle, eh? – accidentally tripped, his gun went off, and both sides immediately ran for the hills. There’s likely more to the story than that, but that, because it’s how the teacher told it, is what stayed in my mind – an accidental misfire, and that’s all she wrote.

Once again, no miniseries possibilities. Maybe a short Public Service Announcement. A fifteen-second recreation, followed by an actor playing a “typical Canadian” saying:

“Remember now, if you’re walkin’ with a gun – though I can’t for the life of me think why you’d be doin’ that – make darn sure your “safety’s” on. Holy Geez, you don’t want to trip and fall and accidentally shoot somebody’s eye out. Show some consideration, fer cryin’ out loud.”

Finally, this warning, flashing across the screen:

1837. It happened once. It can happen again.

I know it’s not deliberate, but it almost seems as if Canada was trying not to have a colorful past. Consider this little historical tidbit.

How Canada Became English Rather Than French

1759. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. England versus France, for all the marbles – beaver pelts, the logging industry – the whole ball of wax. The battle itself, I know nothing about. It could have been magnificent. I have no idea, in no small measure because my teachers had no interest in dramatizing the material. Know when it happened, know how it turned out, and move on to the history of Hudson’s Bay Company.

The only thing I remember about The Battle of the Plains of Abraham – and this just makes me shake my head in dismay – is that by the time the encounter ended, both commanding generals – England’s Wolfe and France’s Montcalm – had been killed.

First question: What kind of generals stand that close? Second Question: Both of them? I know it’s actual history, but Americans wouldn’t stand for such an embarrassment.

“They both got killed?”

“They both got killed.”

“No.”

Americans would demand a rewrite. You can’t have both generals getting killed. It’s like a joke.

THE FRENCH: “We are surrendering. To ‘oom do we ‘and over our sword?

THE ENGLISH: “D’nno, mate. Our commanding general’s been killed.”

THE FRENCH: “Really? Ours too.”

Sound like Battle of the Bulge material to you?

I know. You don’t make history for entertainment purposes. Although America appears to have had that in mind. The Alamo? Custer’s Last Stand? That’s killer stuff. That’s sure-fire box-office.

What does Canadian history offer by comparison?

I believe we invented insulin.

Pretty good.

But it's no Davy Crockett.

* I know there are people who find American history problematic. I speak only from the perspective of its not being excruciatingly boring.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Why 'Taxi' Was Better"

When people hear that I wrote for Taxi (I wrote nine episodes), they often respond by saying, “Taxi was one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. Why don’t they do shows like Taxi today?”

Sometimes, I think they’re just telling me that to make me feel better. You know, “What you did was better than what they’re doing now, so you shouldn’t feel bad that you’ve been unceremoniously cast aside.”

Eh.

Sometimes, they’re just saying, “I liked the shows they did when I was young, but when you get down to it, I didn’t really like them, I just liked being young.”

Them, I understand.

Sometimes, however, they’re actually saying something about the show. What I hear them saying is that they enjoyed Taxi’s honest and imaginative storytelling and the richly developed characterizations. The bulk of the credit for that belongs to the writers, not me especially – with two exceptions, I didn’t come up with any of the story ideas that became the scripts I wrote – the kudos go primarily to the prodigiously talented Mr. Brooks, Mr. Weinberger and Mr. Daniels. It also didn’t hurt that Taxi had maybe the most talented ensemble of actors ever assembled.

But there was something else.

I believe writing is fundamentally affected by the prevailing technology. I recently tried to explore how creativity was affected by the fact that the authors of the enterprises were writing with a feather. Tethered to so tedious a method of getting things down, not to mention an elaborate and flowing sentence-writing style, I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how the feather-writers could remember what they were trying to say. I can’t a lot of the times, and I’m writing short sentences quickly. How did those ancient quill pushers pull it off? The answer is,

I don’t know, but they did.

Maybe they had better memories than we do. That happens. People once walked seven miles to town; we’re out of breath going across the street for a paper. When we don’t use them anymore, because of technological advances or other reasons, previously well-honed faculties can atrophy and ultimately disappear, or at least become seriously diminished. Once, storytellers used to sit around a fire and recount entire oral histories. I can barely remember a phone number.

I may have to accept that I may never figure that mystery out.

This one I know. Because I was there.

I know one reason, I think an important one, why Taxi was the show that it was.

Again, aside from the talent involved, it involves the issue of available technology.

Taxi was filmed in what’s called the “three-camera” format, (a format that became the “four-camera” format when they subsequently added a camera). In the “three-camera” technique, all three cameras film the scene at the same time. This results in your having three times as much film as you can actually use (if you do extra “takes”, even more). The final product is achieved by editing the most desirable portions of the filmed material together, resulting in the show you end up seeing on TV.

Taxi, and all other sitcoms filmed in this manner, was filmed in front of a live studio audience, three hundred or so people waiting for hours outside, only to be ushered in to sit on back-spasmly uncomfortable bleacher seats. These were the folks we were contracted to make laugh.

The bleachers are situated a number of feet above the soundstage floor, allowing audience members to see the performance, as the cameras set up in front of them are filming it. This is vitally important. Audiences don’t laugh at performances they are unable to see.

The laughter of the studio audience is essential. It energizes the performers, and allows the writers to feel successful, hugging each other triumphantly at the completion of “show night”, rather than going out and shooting themselves. You can’t have that. Writers are notoriously bad shots. They may well miss and accidentally take out a departing audience member whose only crime was not laughing enough.

“Audiences don’t laugh at performances they are unable to see.”

That’s the whole thing right there. Think back to what film was. A spool of shiny brownish material with sprocket holes down the sides. Film was the medium on which the show was recorded. Unlike “digital”, where you can see what you’ve just shot immediately, with film, that’s not possible. To see what’s on the film, you have to send the footage to Fotomat or someplace, and get it developed.

What did this mean specifically to Taxi? Because Taxi was shot on “pre digital” film, there were no immediately generated pictures for the audience to watch on the monitors. Their only access to the performances was the performance itself.

Lacking that “digital” advantage, Taxi was prevented from doing scenes performed on sets set up behind other sets. The studio audience might be able to hear the performance, but they wouldn’t be able to see it. Suddenly, they’re at a radio show.

You notice on Seinfeld? Due to digital technology, Seinfeld was able to build sets where the audience couldn’t see the scenes directly, but they were still able to watch and laugh at those scenes by looking at the monitors. This allowed them to build considerably more sets, which, in turn, initiated an entirely different style of storytelling.

Without digital technology, Taxi also couldn’t, as Seinfeld could, go out onto the “New York street” – actually a standing set at Studio Center, California – shoot an exterior scene, and show it later that week to a live audience watching on the monitor. Why not? No time to develop the film, no monitor.

What was Taxi restricted to, besides the garage set and maybe one other interior location?

Words

characterization

and storytelling.

That’s all they had to work with. A minimum number of (necessarily longer) scenes, in a limited number of locations. What held people’s attention? The writing and the acting.

I’m not against advancing technology. I don’t know how to use it, but I’m not against it. The hope is that we remember the good parts of what did – parts in no way precluded by technological progress – and not allow them to disappear.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Whose Blog Is It, Anyway?"

The assumption is that a blog represents the uncensored expression of the blogger’s thoughts and feelings, hopefully skillfully enough delivered as to be worthy of the busy time of strangers. But that’s a bonus, the “skillfully enough delivered.” On its most basic level, a blog is simply a platform where guys, or the female version of guys, can freely and fearlessly express whatever they want. To paraphrase the respected rabbi Hillel,

“If not there, where?”

You’re not getting paid. That’s the “down” side. The “up” side is, because you’re not getting paid, you have no payer to answer to, no one to gracelessly remind you, “I’m writing your paycheck. Do what I tell you.” With a blog, there are no external pressures to submit to. You write what you want to write.

Or do you?

A Primary Concern

You don’t want to write for nobody. You’re hoping somebody will read it. Otherwise, you can save the wear and tear on your fingers, and simply talk to yourself. I actually do that a lot. Dr. M doesn’t care for it. She thinks I should be talking to her. She doesn’t know I’m doing her a favor. She wouldn’t like what I’m saying to myself. That’s why I’m saying it to myself.

Bloggers have to please somebody or they’re out of business. Which is embarrassing – losing a job that doesn’t pay anything. I don’t even know if there’s a word for that condition.

“I’m unemployed.”

“From what job?”

“No job at all.”

That’s really depressing.

You don’t want that to happen.

To keep that from happening, the blogger’s required to maintain at least a minimum number of readers. Your perception of what that “minimum” would be is subjective, but the word “minimum” suggests, no matter who you are, it’s not a very big number.

Accepting “maintaining a minimum readership” as a condition for blogospheric survival, which, by having started the blog we’ve acknowledged we’re interested in, what then, precisely, is involved?

Let me be clear here. I am not discussing “How To Write A Popular Blog?” You would need to go elsewhere for that information. What I’m interested in examining is, is a blog truly an “uncensored expression of the blogger’s thoughts and feelings”, or, in an effort to attract a minimal number of somebodies to insure survival, does the blog, consciously or unconsciously, evolve into some crowd-soliciting sales tool funhouse-mirrorly different from the blogger’s original intention?

For openers, reader responses shape the content. Wait. Before that, reader responses shape the output. I post five days a week. Why so regularly? Readers have come to expect it from me. Do I want to post five days a week? I’m not really sure. But it’s noteworthy that the pace of my output is not entirely under my control.

Back to content. As a former big league television writer, I have stories to tell about, among others, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Cosby Show and Larry Sanders. I also have thoughts about how careers happen, and “hands on” particulars on what’s involved in the writing. TV writing is an area I can speak about authoritatively. I am happy to pass along what I remember, and take a crack at questions readers who are interested in the process want to ask.

Would I want to write exclusively about television? No. It’s not a question of downplaying my experiences. Writing for television was a dream come true. But it was also a shitload of work, and extremely stressful, especially when I was running the shows. My goal was to complete the daily requirements and then go home. That’s not a very interesting story. It’s just a guy doing his job.

I’ve tried to be balanced talking about my what I did. There was genuine excitement, and I hope you picked up on that. But I made sure to show you the human toll as well. Again, however, did I under-report the human toll to avoid sounding ungrateful for the opportunity, not to mention unappealing in my character? I probably did. Nudging me away from my “uncensored expression.”

How about style? Do I try to be funny? I hope I don’t push it, but I do, generally, focus on stories with humorous formulations, though hopefully, there’s more. But by angling for laughs, am I seriously distorting the stories themselves? And what valuable but unfunny stories am I leaving out entirely?

It’s a meaningful question. What truth-damaging alterations does the blogger succumb to in the name of trying to please the public?

How about effort? Recently, I rewrote, and, I believe, improved, a post published over a week ago. Did I do that for you? Or did I do it for me? I think I did it because I thought of something that would make the post better and I felt duty bound to include the improvement. But it wasn’t entirely art for art’s sake. I alerted you to it in a subsequent post.

Tone. Too angry? Too vindictive? Too self-serving? Too sad? Critical calls when you’re writing for others. But they have nothing to do with “uncensored expression.”

Finally, there’s opinion. Here, I’ll defer to my superior and writing hero, Mark Twain. In his essay, “The Privilege of the Grave”, (reprinted in the New Yorker, December 22 & 29, 2008), Twain asserts that,

Its (the grave’s) occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech…. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder; we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact: free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact.… Murder is sometimes punished, free speech always.

So there’s that.

I tell ya, it seems like it’s my blog.

But I wouldn’t actually bet on it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Early Impressions of My New Home"

Last Sunday marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of my moving here from Canada, to work in American show business. The following are three of my earliest and most penetrating observations concerning my adopted country. It’s not the entire story by any stretch. It’s just three things that hit early – Bam! Bam! Bam!

The first thing I noticed – it seems trivial but it really stood out – was that in America, you got your newspaper delivered every single day. Back then, in Toronto, either for religious reasons, or because employers felt newspaper workers deserved an occasional break, there were no newspaper on Sundays, Christmas Day and New Year’s. Here, neither God nor compassion got in the way of customers’ receiving their papers. Which got me thinking,

“America really cares about service.”

Two:

Shortly after my arrival, I was watching a “Breaking News” report on a local TV station. The authorities had surrounded a house in Los Angeles, where members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical political organization, were holed up. It was a standoff. Nothing happening for hours. Then, as I’m watching, and this wasn’t entirely clear, but it seemed like the authorities set the house on fire, with the people they were trying to capture still inside. That ended the standoff. Which got me thinking,

“America doesn’t fool around.”

Three:

A couple of months later, when I arrive at the office of the show, Phyllis, where I’m working, I’m informed that an actress who's a “regular” on the show has been killed. “Was it a car accident?” I inquire, the only way I could conceive of for someone not sick or very old dying unexpectedly.

“No,” I was told. “She was murdered.” They called it a “drive-by”, a term I had never heard before. Which got me thinking, in a swirling haze of shock, confusion and dismay,

“I must want to be in American show business really badly.”

It’s important to remember the way you used to think. An “outsider’s perspective” doesn’t last forever.

----------------------------
I’ve rewritten portions of “Writing at the Speed of Thought.” (April 3, 2009.) Check it out. It’s better.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"London Times - Part Eleven"

They told me, “Order kosher food.”

After fifteen-plus months in London, I was going back to Toronto. It was enough. How do you know when it’s enough? You just know. I was ready to return home.

To what? I had no idea. But I was getting used to that. My entire stay in London, I had pretty much no idea of anything. I took things one calamity at a time.

It turned out that, over time, I had accumulated too much stuff to carry home with me on the plane, or it would be too expensive, or something. Somewhere the idea came up of cashing in my return plane ticket and traveling home by ship, where I could transport as much stuff as I wanted. That’s what I did.

I’d be sailing to America (New York City) on the Queen Elizabeth, an enormous ocean liner, one of the most luxurious of its day. My limited finances prevented me from traveling First Class. I would, instead, be traveling “D” class.

When a Canadian acquaintance heard about my plans, she advised, I believe resulting from personal experience,

“Order kosher food.”

She told me that the kosher food on British steamships was superior to standard English fare. Having partaken of standard English fare for fifteen months, I had no trouble accepting her suggestion.

I packed up my accumulations and boarded this gigantic ship, little of whose space was taken up by my room. For the duration of the voyage, I would occupy a tiny cabin, with a closet-sized bathroom, and no window. You don’t get windows when your room is below the water line. There’s nothing to see, and there’s a concern about leakage.

The price of my ticket also bought me a roommate. An older fellow. I don’t believe he spoke English. I’m not entirely certain about that, because the guy never opened his mouth.

The crossing would take six days, Thursday to Tuesday. Somewhere, there was a map on the wall with a progressively extending dotted line, so that passengers could see exactly how much of the voyage we’d completed. There were times when the travel tedium rose to such a level, that you wanted to sneak up in the middle of the night and surreptitiously add dots.

The first dinner. I arrive at an enormous dining room. Hundreds of people, packed together, ten to a table. Being the “kosher food guy”, I am assigned to “special seating.” I am dutifully ushered to that table.

There is nobody else sitting there.

Apparently, I was the only person who had ordered kosher food on the entire boat. Or at least in “D” class.

I sit down, alone, at a table for ten. People are staring at me, wondering which communicable disease I am afflicted with. I try to act cool. But it’s hard when you’re sitting by yourself at a huge table, and everyone else is crowded together, barely able to move.

On top of that, my table looked significantly different. Arrayed in front of me was every imaginable item of Jewish paraphernalia – a yarmulke (a religious head-covering apparatus), a prayer book, matzoh (and it wasn’t Passover), Sabbath and memorial candles (should my trip coincide with the anniversary of the death of a close relative), and, of course, since I was having brisket, a non-dairy butter-like substitute.

I also had the only Jewish waiter on the ship. You could tell he was Jewish, not just from his appearance and his over-the-top accent, but by the fact that I was never allowed to leave the table without finishing every last morsel on my plate, and, when I finally was released, I went away accompanied by a small parcel of “something for later”, lovingly wrapped in an oversized napkin.

Six days. Eating alone. A solo citizen of Jewland. But my friend had been correct. The food was outstanding. And, understandably under the circumstances, plentiful.

Not everything ran smoothly. One evening, I was selecting my favorite parts from an entire chicken, when I noticed people from other tables getting up and exiting the dining room. Not in large groups, but continuously, a couple at a time.

I wondered where they were going. Perhaps there was a movie or some live performance starting, and I’d missed the announcement. It was very strange. It’s the middle of the meal, and people are walking out.

Then I noticed something else. Waiters were scurrying around the dining room, chaining the tables to iron rings bolted to the floor. Again, I had no idea what was happening. Had somebody, unbeknownst to the passengers, been secretly stealing the tables? I said to my waiter, “Moishey, what’s going on?” He replied, “Don’t worry yourself. It’s nuttink.”

I soon discovered it wasn’t nuttink. The dining room was emptying because passengers were becoming seasick. I guess seasickness strikes different people at different times, an explanation for the staggered departures. This suspicion was confirmed when, after about half the dining room had emptied out, the dreaded mal de mer suddenly attacked me.

There is no delicate way of discussing seasickness. The short version is, you simply want to die. The affliction is intense and unrelenting. There is no “break” from seasickness. You can’t, you know, get off the boat till you feel better, and then come back on. You have to ride it out. The words “ride it out” just made me feel queasy.

It was a “March Crossing”, which I subsequently learned was traditionally bumpy. The word “bumpy” just made me feel queasy. I was told that big ocean liners had “stabilizers”, which prevented seasickness. Not true. I was told it was better if you stood in the middle of the ship. Also not true. Nothing was true. Except you puked your guts up till you were empty. Then you barfed retroactively, tossing up birthday cake from when you were ten. Okay, I’ll stop now.

This also happened. This girl, apparently attracted to men who look green, took a shine and…I don’t know…maybe it’s the rhythmic rocking or something, but from the agony of seasickness, came something unexpected and nice. The specifics, I’ll keep to myself, but I’ll tell you this. That never happened to me on a plane.

Tuesday morning, I’m standing on deck as we pass the Statue of Liberty. I feel myself tearing up. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because a chapter of my life was closing, and I had no idea what was next. On the other hand, that salt-water spray can really sting your eyes.
-------------------
Sorry this didn't appear at the regular time. I must have messed up.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Words Without Meaning"

Last Friday, I spoke about the difficulty of communicating the word mutzuh, the Passover cracker of choice, to a person who, through no fault of his own, had no familiarity with word. Every time I said the word, mutzuh, he looked at me with a mixture of confusion and pity, as if detecting the first step in an affliction where I, someday, wouldn’t be able to be understood at all.

Who knows? This could be an actual medical condition. You speak words you think are words, but to the person you’re speaking them to, they’re just random noises. The condition probably has a name, all conditions do, otherwise, how could you say, “That’s what he’s got”? But if the name is accurate, nobody would understand what it means.

I’ve pondered this on many occasions. It’s just an observation.

SHOOT IT DOWN IF YOU WILL. (ADD DARTH VADER REBERB TO TASTE.)

My observation is this:

I know I’ve repeated ad inching rapidly towards nauseum my belief that there are no “funny numbers”, only “right” numbers. You mention the right number in the right situation, and it’s automatically going to be funny. I’m convinced there are no “funny numbers”, because the same number can be funny in one situation and not in another. On the other hand, a number, which has never been funny in its life – eighteen – can suddenly turn hilarious.

“The baby’s starting to talk? Big deal. I’ve been talking since I was eighteen.”

Okay, so that’s numbers. Now what about words? Are there “funny words”?

I know. Pumpernickel. The hard “k’s”. Yes, there are definitely funny sounding words. But my mind is elsewhere today. I’m back there with mutzuh.

A word is odd, and then, upon repetition, funny, not because of the way it sounds, and not because you don’t understand what it means, but because, to the listener, it doesn’t sound like a word at all.

I’m remembering a scene from the movie, Best Friends, starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. Burt and Goldie are getting married. And the person marrying them, played by the magnificent Richard Libertini, speaks with a thick though not easily identifiable accent.

Libertini gets to the “vows” portion of the proceedings where he recites the words…

“And all my earthly goods I thee endow.”

But with his accent, it comes out,

“And all my earthly goods I dee-‘n-doe.”

In turn, Goldie and Burt are required to repeat what the “marrying person” has recited to them. When the first one, Goldie, gets to these words, she is utterly perplexed. The confusion leads to an exchange that goes something like this:

“…And all my earthly goods I dee-‘n-doe.”

“And all my earthly goods I…excuse me, what was that again?”

“I dee-‘n-doe.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not getting…”

“I dee. ‘N-doe.”

“I dee-‘n-doe?”

“I dee-‘n-doe.”

“Okay. ‘And all my earthly goods I dee ’n doe.’”

The situation grew funnier with the anticipation of Burt’s “dee-‘n-doeing” next. If you’re lucky, this scene is on Youtube. Watch it. You’ll plutz. (convulse with laughter.)

Therein lies my observation. Words become funny when their meaning as actual words is taken away.

Take any word at random. Take “random.” Forget that you know what it means. It’s just a two-syllable sound. Now, repeat the word over and over as fast as you can.

randomrandomrandomrandomrandomrandom

It’s starting to sound silly, isn’t it?

randomrandomrandomrandomrandomrandom

Are you laughing? If you’re not, say it again about fifty more times.

I’m telling you, you take away its meaning as a word, and every word becomes funny.

funnyfunnyfunnyfunnyfunnyfunnyfunnyfunny

Put it to the test. Open a dictionary. Okay, I just did. It happened to be from the back. I’ll pick a word at

randomrandomrandomrandomrandomrandom

Okay. “Yarn.”

yarnyarnyarnyarnyarnyarnyarnyarn

“Do you have any yarn?”

“How much is the yarn?”

“How much yarn do you want?”

What the heck is yarn?

And there you have it. Without the comprehension that it’s actually a word, every word is

gibberishgibberishgibberishgibberishgibberishgibberish

You see? It’s not just mutzuh.

It’s every word in the

dictionarydictionarydictionarydictionary

dictionarydictionarydictionarydictionary

dictionarydictionary

dictionarydictionary

dictionary….

Stop it! You’re killing me!

Friday, April 10, 2009

"The Word That Wasn't There"

When written, it’s matzo. Or matzoh, for those inclined to press the “h” into unnecessary service.

But here’s the thing. It’s pronounced

Mutzuh.

That’s all you need to know.

I’m in Toronto, in my mid-twenties, living alone. I had started with two roommates, but each in turn had gotten married. While I remained a longshot for a date. (It’s funny. Every time I lost a roommate, I wondered how I’d be able to pay my now increased rent. And on both occasions, my concern was assuaged by the unexpected arrival of supplementing or better paying jobs. I took this as the definition of “lucky.”)

One day, I go shopping for mutzuh. It’s the Passover season, so why not? As religious obligations go, eating mutzuh for eight days is not exactly a surrendering commitment. It’s a minimal hardship. It makes crumbs, but that’s about it.

I walk into my local supermarket. Not a mega, not a convenience store, something in between. It serves the neighborhood, of whose ethnic composition I am vaguely unsure.

I go up to a teenaged employee. Vigorous, friendly, and blond.

“I need to get something. Maybe you can help me find it.”

“Sure,” he replies. “What are you looking for?”

“It’s a Passover thing. You only eat it during the holiday.”

“Okay.”

“It’s called mutzuh.”

There’s a short hesitation.

“I beg your pardon?”

Mutzuh.”

Another hesitation. Accompanied by confused blinking. I try to explain.

“It’s a kind of a cracker.”

“Crackers are on ‘Aisle Six’.”

“It’s not a regular cracker. It’s a special Passover cracker.”

“What do you call it again?”

Mutzuh.”

Limited skills prevent me from accurately describing the look now inhabiting the young store employee’s face. Every time I repeat the word “mutzuh”, he stares at me, clearly concerned that I am losing my faculties. He’s imagining that there’s this short-circuiting “haywire” thing happening in my head, compelling me to lapse into meaningless gibberish.

Mutzuh.”

It must be like a Twilight Zone experience for him. He’s standing in a store in his apron, confronted by a customer, who’s speaking English…then he isn’t…then he is again. And he thinks he’s making perfect sense!

The boy feels alarmed at what might be coming next. I could start drooling at any minute. Or race to the “Produce Department” and start throwing fruit.

For me, it’s getting more and more frustrating. I know the word mutzuh; why doesn’t he? I try saying it slower, as if my deliberateness will liberate him from his confusion.

Muh. Tzuh.”

He tries it himself.

Ma-zah?”

Muh. The ‘uh’ sound, like in puck.” I know he knows puck. He’s Canadian.

He gives it a shot.

Muh.”

“Good. Now 'Tzuh'. Puck again, only with a 'Tz' in front of it.”

Tzuh.”

“Great. Now, 'muh'. 'Tzuh'.”

Muh. Tzuh.”

“Okay.”

Muh-tzuh

“That’s it.”

Mutzuh.”

“Yes!” It’s magnificent. A quintessential “Rain in Spain” moment. We’re “this close” to dancing.

“Do you have any?” I ask, as our euphoria dies down.

“Do we have any what?”

Mutzuh!”

“I don’t know what it is!”

The kid’s starting to lose it. He’s right, of course. Just because you can pronounce a thing doesn’t mean you know what the stuff is. Or where to find it in the store.

My problems are compounding. Separate from the frustration of not being able to be understood, and even more anxiously felt, is an engulfing sense of ethnic paranoia. The longer this takes – and it’s taking quite a while – the more certain I am that this neophyte employee will finally lose patience and hit the secret “Jew Alert” button.

Suddenly, a powerful spotlight will beam directly on me. The Anne Frank “Wee-ah-Wee-ah” sirens will start blaring throughout the store. And as a crowd of questionable tolerance gathers, a yarmulke, tallis and tephilin (religious paraphernalia) will drop from the ceiling and I’ll be required to demonstrate how they work. It was terrifying. I can’t do tephilin!

Dreading repeating the word mutzuh one more time, I left the store without getting any. I borrowed a box from my mother.

And to this day, I am incapable of requesting anything of a religio-ethnic nature in any supermarket of any size.

Not gefilte fish.

Not the “shank bone” for the seder plate.

And definitely not

mutzuh farfel.

Farfel. That doesn’t sound like a word even to me.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"A Belated Haroseth Recipe"

2 apples, unpeeled, cored and finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup sweet Passover wine

Combine the apples, walnuts, honey, and cinnamon in a bowl and mix well. Add enough wine to bind the mixture. Serve in a bowl or roll into 1-inch balls and arrange on a serving plate.

Make yesterday.

------------------------------
Haroseth, which I've come to enjoy making, is a traditional part of the Passover ritual, representing the mortar the Jewish people made while laboring as slaves in Egypt. This recipe for Central European Haroseth comes from Judy Zeidler’s The Gourmet Jewish Cook.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Agreements"

Years ago, I watched a documentary on PBS that came to a disturbing conclusion about the television rating system. This was no phony-baloney opinionator talking off the top of his head like, well, okay, me. The producers interviewed many knowledgeable people in the field. These guys were legit. Wait, I’m legit, in that I don’t make stuff up. These guys were authoritative.

The conclusion the PBS documentary came to was this: The ratings system does not accurately measure what the ratings companies claim it accurately measures, that being, the size of the audience watching the show. And that’s its whole job. So, practically then, it doesn’t do anything.

Except it does. I – and every other creator of a television show – have had shows cancelled because of low ratings. This is a tangible consequence of the system. And a highly visible one as well. I don’t know about where you live, but in L.A., the ratings are printed in the paper every Wednesday morning, like baseball standings.

You can see exactly where your show ranks against all the other shows on the air, most importantly, your competition – the shows airing on the other networks at the same time. As a show runner, you get the ratings delivered to your office. But you don’t have to wait that long. You can monitor your entire future from the comfort of your own breakfast, over a bowl of spoon-sized Shredded Wheat.

Try and imagine the impact this revelation has on a television person. Your show’s fate depends entirely on the ratings. And a PBS documentary says the ratings aren’t accurate. Information of this nature can take your breath away. Your show’s getting cancelled as a result of a system that doesn’t accurately measure what is it that got your show cancelled – the number of people watching the show.

That’s like making medical decisions based on information from a thermometer than doesn’t accurately measure temperature.

What the heck is going on?!

What’s going on is this. Commercial television networks sell advertising time based on the size of the audience watching a particular show. Today it’s more about the size of a segment of the audience – the younger segment – but it’s still about the size. The larger the size of the younger audience watching the show, the more the networks can command from the advertisers.

And how is the size of the audience measured?

It’s measured by the ratings.

As mentioned, a show’s cancellation or renewal is also dependent on the size of the audience. And how is the size of that audience measured?

It’s measured by the ratings.

But hold on there, Baba Louie. That PBS documentary reported that the ratings don’t accurately measure the size the audience.

And here’s the part that make me crazy. Are you ready?

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t?

No, sir. You see, my boy, there’s a system in place. Everyone’s a party to it – the owners of the shows, the networks, the advertisers. This system allows business to be conducted in a reasonable and comprehensible manner, allowing everything run smoothly. It is able to run smoothly, because the system is based on an Agreement that’s accepted by everybody involved. And that Agreement is this:

The ratings accurately measure the size of the audience.

But they don….

Stop it! You want chaos in the business process? No way to measure if a show is a hit or a flop, no way of determining the price of the commercials, is that what you want? Because that’s exactly what you’ll get if you don’t have an Agreement. Business requires a mutually acceptable measuring apparatus. It establishes a context in which the conversation can take place. You got agreed-upon “numbers”, you can talk business.

It doesn’t matter that the “numbers” aren’t accurate?

Oh, Early, you’re so na├»ve.

But it’s based on a lie.

An agreed-upon lie.

The truth doesn’t matter?

Sometimes the truth is actually the enemy.

It is?

Enron was one of the most highly respected companies in America. They had stadiums named after them. Ken Lay’s on Larry King.

Respected publications agree: Enron employs an “innovative business model.” Wall Street agrees. They promote the stock to their clients. Investors agree. The stock goes through the roof. Making everyone involved in the Agreement – Enron, its employees and its stockholders – rich and happy.

BUH BUH BUHHHHHHH!!! (OMINOUS FORESHADOWING MUSIC.)

A reporter carefully studies Enron’s “innovative business model” and concludes that “The Emperor has no clothes.” Subsequent investigations back the reporter up.

This revelation sends Enron stock plummeting to zero. Enron employees lose their jobs and their pensions. Arthur Anderson, a respected accounting firm, goes out of business. Enron executives go to prison.

This may sound like a foolish question, but who’s the Bad Guy in this monumental collapse, Enron and its enablers, or the reporter who refused to play along, obliterating the Agreement?

Are you kidding me?

Who’s the Bad Guy?

The reporter was simply telling the truth.

The truth brought it all down. The Agreement made everyone rich and happy.

But if something’s wrong, it’s bound to come crashing to the ground sooner or later.

Really? They’re still reporting the ratings.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"A Surreal Experience In The London Underground"

There’s an Underground station that has a pub in it. I think it’s Baker Street, but I could be wrong.

I’m at a table in the pub, drinking my “half of bitter”, waiting for the train.

A feel a tap on my right shoulder.

I turn to the right.

A man, sitting at the next table, is staring at me. A laborer, it appears. Fiftyish. Unshaven. A little scary around the eyes.

The man’s holding a knife in his right hand.

It’s a butter knife.

The man gestures downward.

I focus on the knife.

The flat side of the butter knife is facing up. The man flips it over. Now the other side of the butter knife is facing up.

The man flips back to the first side. There are now four squares of torn napkin paper, about a quarter of an inch apart, lined up along the flat side of the butter knife.

The man flips it over. There are now four squares of napkin paper, about a quarter of an inch apart, lined up along the other side of the butter knife.

He flips the knife back to the first side. The squares of paper have disappeared. He flips the knife over. No squares on the other side as well.

The man flips the knife to the first side again. The squares of paper have returned. He flips the knife over. They’ve returned to the other side as well.

The man shrugs enigmatically.

My train arrives.

I thank him for the magic trick,

And I head for home.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Writing at the Speed of Thought"

Ever since I started this blog, I have placed little notepads in every room in the house. That way, when an idea comes to me, there is somewhere close by I can go to to write it down.

It’s not just the idea I jot down. It’s also clarifying notes, notes that convince me there’s something there, and that I have Earlishly fresh ways of writing about it. Later, I go upstairs and toss these jotted inspirations on a pile on my desk. The majority of them evolve into actual posts. Others, on further consideration, have found the wastebasket as tightly wadded mini-basketballs.

It’s not just that I’m old. And it’s not that I’m too lazy to go upstairs to my computer. And it’s not that my memory’s that bad. (I recently memorized the list of 44 presidents.) There’s something valuable to me about recording the idea immediately, while it’s exciting and brimming with possibilities.

Many times, an idea comes to me and I think, “I’ll write it down later”, and then later, I either can’t remember the idea, or I remember it, but I can’t remember what I wanted to say about it. Whatever hidden place great ideas came from, that’s where they went back. I ransack my mind, and it’s nowhere to be found.

I wish I knew where that place was, where inspired ideas come from and where they go when you lose them. It sounds like a very creative place. I imagine a library…no, an “Idea Playground”, brilliant notions running around and having fun. Not just a playground for funny ideas. The cure for polio used to live there. But somehow, it got out.

I don’t know how to get to that place. (Does anyone?) But I truly believe there’s this magical fountain of unconscious creativity. Remember I said there were no “funny numbers”, only right numbers? I said that the surest way for the right number to leap to your consciousness is to open your mouth and let it fly. No intervening thoughts or judgments, just

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you seventeen times…”

New technologies have helped shorten the gap between inspiration and execution. There are computers that take dictation. You say the words, the computer write them down. The next step is computers that take dictation directly from your mind. (Maybe they have that already and nobody told me.)

The goal for me, in order to deliver the purest and most truthful form of written communication, would be to ultimately be able to write at the speed of thought.

Which brings me to the thing I don’t understand.

I alluded to it yesterday in “Shakespeare’s Scribe.” I meant to write about it then, but I got sidetracked by silliness. I was having so much fun with a peripheral element – the relationship between The Bard and the guy who wrote his stuff down – I never got around to my actual point. So I went back for it today.

I try my best, with my computer and multiple notepad placements, to get my thoughts down as quickly as they come to me. For me, speed is of the essence. Write it or lose it, or at least its inspirational heartbeat. But these old guys – Shakespeare, Newton, Thomas Jefferson – they weren’t able to write quickly. They were writing with feathers.

You’ve seen their writing. Long, convoluted sentences, packed with colorful phrases and clarifying clauses. They go on forever. I can lose my chain of thought going from my chair to a notepad. How were these people of the past able to retain their complicated ideas long enough to get them down?

We read their words off a printed page. But that’s not how they wrote them. They scratched their inspirations out one long and looping letter at a time, incessantly dipping their quills, frequently blotting to avoid a smudge.

I find it baffling that, throughout all this stenographic huffing and puffing, they continued to remember what they were trying to say.

Thomas Jefferson, sitting at his desk, starting out on the Declaration of Independence.

“Okay. What am I trying to say here? I’m trying to say….‘We’re rebelling and here’s why.’ So why don’t I just say that? ‘We’re rebelling and here’s why.’

“I can’t. That’s not good enough. Posterity demands a show. They’re going to read this in schools. If we win. It needs to have some weight. Some historical gravitas.

“I want to say, ‘We’re rebelling, and here’s why’, but I need to say it…stylishly. And comprehensively. After all, this is a quasi-legal document. We can’t have any loopholes.

“All right. Let’s get started.

“We have to explain why we’re having a rebellion. People from other countries and the people fighting in this rebellion are going to want to know why we’re doing this? You can’t just, you know, go down to Concord start shooting. You need an explanation. Otherwise, it’s just craziness.

“We start with a preamble – to explain why it’s necessary to explain why we’re rebelling. Okay, got it. Pick up the quill, dip it in the ink, and off we go…

“Wait. ‘Think before you write.’ Good idea. Otherwise, there’ll be a lot of scratching out. Let’s see now. ‘When in the course of human events…it becomes necessary for one …people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another….’ Okay, okay. That’s good. I like it.

“Here were go. ‘When…’ Big ‘W’. Down…and up, and down…and up. Lovely ‘W’ – one of my best. Now, ‘h’…big stick, and… the little chair… Curlicue ‘e’…and… ‘n’ – ‘h’ with a little stick. Okay, that’s ‘When’. Looks very nice. Pick up the blotter – blot, blot, blot – put down the blotter. Re-dip the quill…back to the paper, and what’s next?

“Uhhhh…

“Darn it! I forgot where I was going.”

There’s a knock on the door.

“Jefferson?”

“Who is it?”

“Franklin.”

Jefferson lets him in.

“How’s the Declaration coming?”

“I made a start.”

“What have you got so far?”

“‘When.’”

“‘When’, what?”

“I can’t remember. But I’m telling you, it was really good.”

The guy scratches out one word, blots, re-dips his feather, and has no recollection of where he was going. That’s my fantasy. But it’s not what happened. Instead, using the slowest writing technology imaginable, short of a mallet and a chisel, Jefferson maintained his inspiration and focus and penned a beautiful and flowing Document for the Ages.

To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, “Can you do that? I can’t do that. How can Jefferson do that?”

Do you think we’ve lost something?

If we have, what is it?

And how do we get it back?