Friday, February 26, 2010

"LIberals Abroad, Invited to Dinner"

One of the cornerstones of the liberal belief system is an unequivocal respect for the diversity exhibited by other cultures, their mantra concerning those countries’ habits, as compared to what we’re used to at home: “It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.”

Accept people as you find them. Anything less reflects cultural superiority. And that, liberals believe, is wrong.

Okay, here we go.

Liberal couple, taking in the sights of some exotic foreign land. Totally lost, they stop a passing stranger and ask directions to some off the beaten path sacred…something, a location indicating that the couple has done their homework and are deeply interested in the country they have chosen to explore.

The stranger is gracious and polite. Feeling comfortable in his company, the couple asks for a dinner recommendation, an eatery specializing in “authentic cuisine.” The stranger immediately insists that the couple have dinner at his house. Since they are interested in the culture, here’s a chance for them to experience how the people actually live. At the same time – his wife being a wonderful cook – they can experience a gourmet version of the country’s most popular dish.

The liberal couple jumps at this opportunity. No exotic foreign land Burger King for them. Thanking him profusely, they enthusiastically accept his generous invitation.

After touring the sites of interest, the couple returns to their hotel to change. While there, they use their Blackberry, or whatever, to Google the country’s most popular dish, eager to learn what delicacy they’ll be treated to at their upcoming dinner.

The country’s most popular dish is dog.

There is little question about it. They’re going to have dog for dinner.

Now this is not a country that eats dog because they’re poor, or lack dining alternatives. In their culture, dog is a delicacy. They serve it at birthday parties.

As for the couple, we’re not talking about food extremists. They eat meat. Just not, you know…pets.

So what do they do?

They know what they want to do. They want to say, “No, thank you.” But they can’t. They’re liberals. They have an ethos to uphold, an ethos that requires them to be nonjudgmental and flexible.

“When in Rome…” Go with the flow. Eat what you’re offered. Even if it barks.

Looking for sunshine. Well, there’s this guy on the Food Channel whose entire act involves eating “unusual” foods from other countries. It’s usually not that bad. Maybe this won’t be bad either.

Wait, we’re missing the point here. It’s not a question of how the thing will taste.

It’s a question of what it is.

It’s dog.

There seems no way of getting out of this without offending your hosts. What are you going to tell them? “I’m sorry, we had dog for lunch”? “My doctor told me not to eat anything you can train to bring you your slippers”? “In our religion, the canine is believed to be the embodiment of God”? They’ll see right through it!

And by the way, “not offending your hosts” also misses the point, the point being you’re either true to your “diversity” principles or you’re not.

There is no way around it. This is definitely going to happen. Were the couple to be run over after their dinner, when the coroner performed the autopsy, they would discover, among the stomach contents, “substantial traces of dog.”

From then on, it’s pure agony. You dress as if you’re going to your own execution, you pick up some flowers, when you step into their house, you remove your shoes, because that’s what they do, and you do what they do, because that’s who you are, dammit!

You meet the family. You make small talk. “You have a beautiful home. And those exquisite carvings. Are they teak?” Your our mouth is on “automatic.” While your mind is aflame with a single thought:

“We’re going to eat dog. We’re going to eat dog. We’re going to eat dog!”

I wrote a chunk here, but it went too far, so I took it out. Not because I was afraid of losing your respect. I was afraid of losing my respect.

Dinner is served. The couple gets up and head for the table, their gait as unsteady as a sailor’s on a turbulent sea.

It begins with the salad. There’s a bug crawling around. But, suddenly, that’s nothing. Compared to what’s coming.

Then, there’s the soup. Consomm√©. No chunks at all. Why is it that color? Why to think about that? You’ve had soup. This is soup too.

Of course, you can’t really enjoy it. Because you know what will follow.

The Main Course.

I’ll leave you to imagine the couple’s barely concealed panic as their hostess backs in from the kitchen, carrying the object of their dread. What comes next? They eat it, they don’t eat it, they try to eat it and gag, it’s not dog after all, but an indigenous form of chicken, you can finish it any way you want. What’s certain is, the couple had a very difficult evening.

By contrast, a conservative’s response to this dining dilemma would be simple and direct:

“You want us to eat dog? Hell, no! What kind of people are you? Eat ‘Buster’? Are you kiddin’ me? You people oughtta be shot!”

Forget the “oughtta be shot” comment. That’s just the way they talk. The point is, in this matter, I side unapologetically with the conservatives, favoring honesty – minus the bombast – over “phony-baloney.”

When judging other cultures, there’s always a line, across which lies “Unacceptable Behavior.” It’s simply a question of where you draw it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"A Story...and maybe something about writing"

At home, when I work out on the treadmill, I do it listening to books-on-tape on my Sony Disc Man. I don’t have the other thing. Where you have to upload the stuff onto your computer, and then download it onto the thing. I don’t know how to do that. And why would I want to do that, when you can simply stick the disc into the Disc Man and press “Play”?

The one drawback is there are a lot of wires involved, wires connecting the Disc Man to the headphones, and separate headphone wires as well. Sometimes, these wires get snarled up. It doesn’t affect the sound or anything, you don’t hear a strangled voice because the wires are all tangled, but it does shorten the wires, which means, because I’m holding the Disc Man in my hand, that I have to bend over while I’m listening.

This morning, it became too much. I’m busting my hump on the treadmill but, because of severe “wire tangle”, I am so hunched over, I look like an Orthodox Jew engaged in aerobic prayer.

I needed to separate the wires. But I’m not good at that. I have little manipulative dexterity, no patience, and no idea how to do it. I’ve tried this before. I’d pull wires when you’re supposed to push them, and the tangle simply got tighter. Some people are good at stuff like this. They look at the mess, and know exactly what to do.

My grandfather (my mother’s father) was one of those people. Zaidy Peter. (Zaidy, or some variation thereof, is Yiddish for grandfather.) Zaidy Peter came to Canada from Russia when he was twelve. Though curious, I learned nothing about his earlier life.

“What was Russia like, Zaidy?”

“Bad.”

That’s all he ever told me.

My grandfather became a dress designer. (His brother, Benny, was reputedly the first Jewish architect in Toronto. It was an artistic family.)

Zaidy Peter was meticulous. I remember how he’d approach to his allotted portion of Sabbath boiled chicken (Zaidy Peter had an ulcer which required a bland diet). With laser-like precision, my grandfather would slice off a small morsel of chicken, insert his fork at the precisely determined spot, and deliver the morsel to his mouth, where he’d chew each bite the exact same number of times.

At the end of the meal, after his immaculately cleaned plate had been removed to the kitchen, Zaidy Peter would gesture grandly to the area of white, Sabbath tablecloth directly in front of him. The ironing crease remained fully intact. And not a food stain in sight.

Meticulous. Was Zaidy Pete. Also painstakingly patient.

Perfect attributes for a dress designer. Equally perfect, it turned out, for unsnarling tangles.

When I was about ten, I had a toy puppet, or, more precisely, a marionette, because it wasn’t a hand puppet, it was a two-foot high molded doll you manipulated through four separate strings stapled to two plywood sticks, each string activating a different part of the doll’s anatomy – the mouth, both arms and the legs. My puppet was an Indian.

I enjoyed playing with my puppet. It was a pretty elaborate toy for a kid. I was proud of how I could bring this dummy excitingly to life. I’ll stop right there. It’s getting a little creepy.

The problem came when I set the puppet down. Somehow, because of I put it down carelessly, when I returned to it later, I found the puppet strings all knotted together and snarled. The tangle affected the puppet’s position when at rest. Its arms were bent in at an alarming angle, its legs hung awkwardly in the air. It looked like my puppet had really bad arthritis.

I couldn’t fix it. Whatever I tried made things worse. Responding to my counter-productive efforts, you could almost hear my puppet screaming, “Stop!”

I carried my mangled plaything to my grandfather. “Zaidy, can you fix this?” My grandfather gently lifted the contorted puppet from my hands, meditating on the problem for a quite some time. Then, with the nimble fingers of a man who sewed for a living, he went to work.

Slipping things through, pulling things under, twisting things around. I can’t give you the specifics, because I had no idea what he was doing. But whatever it was, it was working. You could see the snarl cluster get gradually smaller, and eventually less tangled.

And then, he was done. My puppet was once again standing upright, its strings separate and distinct. I thanked my grandfather for his miraculous efforts, and went back to play. After which, I put my puppet down, the strings got re-tangled, and I returned to him for help. Which he always provided.

My grandfather had the gift. I didn’t. Or so I thought.

We now return to my exercise room. My Disc Man’s wires are irretrievably intermeshed with the headphone wires. The thing’s just a clump of knots. My grandfather is nowhere in sight. I have to deal with this crisis myself. If I don’t, my books-on-tape habit would induce a permanent stoop.

I sigh, externalizing my dubious hopes for success, and I get down to work. I examine the catastrophe, and consider what needs to be done. I move a wire. I flip something under. I pull something through. I spin something around.

And after ten or so minutes,

The problem is fixed.

I stand there, holding my fully rehabilitated Disc Man, my mouth hanging open, amazed by what I had just accomplished.

I had untangled the wires. Me. Alone. With no help whatsoever.

And you know what?

It wasn’t that hard.

Now here comes the part about writing. If I wanted to end this on a moving and sentimental note, I might say that I realized there was a part of my grandfather that still lived inside me, the part that untangles knots. The problem is, that wasn’t how I felt. There was no spiritual uplift. What I felt was a sadness. With a soupcon of regret.

Why? Because now, my grandfather’s accomplishment was no longer that special. Even I could do it. Sure, he took the time, and that was nice. But the gift, the thing that distinguished his achievement, had lost some luster. The memory would never be the same.

That’s the difference between writing fiction and chronicling events as accurately as possible. One yields – by design – a satisfying conclusion. The other…it’s what it is. As a chronicler, I’m confined to writing what actually happened. Even if it’s a letdown.

It’s a good thing I don’t charge for these things. I might have had to give you your money back.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"A Curious Syndrome"

It happens all the time. And it just happened again.

Two weeks after my surgery, I am told I'm required to participate in an exercise program to get my body, and particularly my heart, back into shape. Now, I don’t mind exercising. I’ve been exercising regularly for twenty years. What I do mind – maybe more than most people, I don’t know – is people telling me what to do.

There is no rehab facility near my house. There used to be, but it closed down for financial reasons. Apparently, the paltry insurance reimbursements do not justify the expense.

The nearest program is – the way I drive – half an hour away. (The way Dr. M drives – eleven minutes. But she wasn’t driving there. I was.) There’d be a total thirty-six rehab sessions, scheduled three times a week. That’s thirty-six “there and backs” I really didn’t want to make.

Each session is an hour and a half long. Add in the two half-hour drives, that’s two and a half hours out of my day, three times a week. Man, was I pissed.

Well, I went the first time. Everybody was nice. They taught me how to click the electronic “leads” onto five adhesive white circles, and where to stick the adhesive white circles onto my chest and below my ribcage.

(Here’s a “head scratcher” for you. I am required to press three of the adhesive white circles onto the hairiest parts of my chest. Later, when I peel them off, it really hurts, because when I peel off the circles, the chest hair beneath those circles is pulled off with them.

Two days later, I apply the adhesive white circles to exactly the same spots, and when I peel them off later, the chest hair beneath them is pulled off again. The question is, where did that chest hair come from? Did it grow back in two days? I don’t understand it. It hurts every time.)

The reason you attach the electronic leads to your body is so the nurses can monitor your heart function (through readings recorded on a computer a screen) while you exercise. They also take your blood pressure before you start, during your peak exercise time, and after you finish. The exercise is basically an extended aerobics program, so they can see how your heart handles the exertion. Later, they add a light weights routine.

There are four different appointment times. I go at seven-thirty, waking up at six (so I could meditate), and leaving the house by seven. It was winter, it was often still dark when I left home.

I went early, because the traffic was lighter at that time. I also wanted to get my rehab obligations out of the way, so I could have the rest of the day for my personal activities, such as practicing the piano and writing this blog. As a bonus, it was easier to find a spot in the parking lot.

The nursing staff was friendly, knowledgeable, generous and kind. Every holiday was celebrated with appropriate decorations, adorning the walls and hanging from the ceiling. They played music while we trod the treadmills.

The staff did, however, display an inherent nurse’s condition, which I picked up on during my recent hospital stays.The condition boils down to, “Keep the patients in the dark.” It’s not their job to tell us what’s going on. That’s a doctor’s job. If a nurse told a patient what was going on, they ran the risk of being reprimanded.

“Who do you think you are, a doctor?”

The problem is, there are no doctors anywhere in the vicinity. Despite their absence, however, the well-conditioned nurses behave exactly the same way. This makes for an odd situation. The people who are there aren’t talking, and the people authorized to talk aren’t there. There’s something wrong about that.

My fellow rehabbers, they were my tribe. And I don’t mean Jewish. This was my new tribe. We’d all been through it, “it” meaning some form of “they opened me up, and they messed with my heart.” We were brothers. (And a small number of sisters. This sampling, though admittedly small, suggests that heart ailments strike men in disproportionate numbers. Waah.)

After an aborted effort to persuade my cardiologist to get me out of the program early, I dutifully do my time, impatiently counting down the sessions. It’s twenty-five percent over. I’m half done. Ten sessions to go. Then, eight. Then, six. I miss several sessions, due to a family obligation. Others are cancelled, due to Bank Holidays and Christmas.

What I was unaware of was that the rules stated you must complete the thirty-six sessions within fourteen weeks. So yesterday, when I was told I’d be “graduating” in three more sessions, I was taken by surprise. Yesterday was Session Thirty-one.

I could feel myself getting irritated. Again, strangers were controlling my fate. They tell me thirty-six sessions; now, it’s thirty-four. I hate it when somebody’s running my life and it’s not me.

Still, I am getting sprung two sessions early. That’s good. Two fewer six o’clock wake-ups. Two fewer drives to the place. Two fewer ripping the hair off my chest. Two fewer eleven dollars for parking.

Three sessions and it’s over. I’m a lucky Jewish man.

Or so I felt. Until this morning

I’m exercising on my treadmill at home, and after about five minutes, I detect a distinct change in my energy level. Something’s different. I feel listless and tired. I can barely keep up with a treadmill program I’ve been doing regularly for weeks. I am not imagining this. I am definitely dragging. I wonder, “What’s going on?”

And then it hit me.

I don't want to leave.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Uppie!"

You know that game. In our family, it’s called, “Uppie!”

Little kid, maybe two, three years old, you pick them up in the air, hold them way over your head, and they’re cackling and laughing and squealing with delight; finally, you set them back down. And what do they always say?

“Uppie!”

Then want you to do it again. So you do it again, and they’re as squealy as the first time, if not more so. You set ‘em back down…

“Uppie!”

And you do it again.

And again. And again. And again. And again.

Till you can’t do it anymore. Your arms are aching. Your back is in spasms. You’re completely out of breath. You’re done. But they’re not.

“Uppie!”

“No more ‘Uppie!’ I’m tired.”

“Uppie!”

“I can’t do it anymore.”

“Upp-ieeeeeeeeee!!!!”

That’s little kids. It’s also regular watchers of television series.

Many regular watchers of television series are adults. I am not comparing them to children. Except in this one area.

The “Uppie!” area.

What makes a successful television series? (I limit myself, as I did throughout my career, to comedies.) Lots of things. An appealing cast. Consistently funny writing. An interesting arena. And also – and I’m not certain where it ranks on the scale of importance to a series’ success, but I think pretty high –

Repetition.

Audiences respond when a series plays the same tune every week. Of course, this assumes they liked the tune in the first place. If they did, what follows, for the run of the series, is the half-hour comedy version of “Uppie!”

Every episode reiterates the story in the pilot. The characters remain one-dimensionally consistent. The jokes are modular replacements of the establishing original joke. And then there are the catchphrases, repeated, generally once per episode for the duration of the series:

“Here come de judge!”

“Dy-no-mite!”

“Did I do that?”

“How are you doin’?”

“Pretty…pretty good.”

Catchphrases are the purest form of “Uppie!”

It’s an occupational hazard for writers in the genre to tire of the repetition earlier than the regular viewer. We know what’s going on. In the most extreme example, I remember watching the pilot episode of Three’s Company. The show ended, and I distinctly remember saying to whomever I was sitting with:

“That’s a very funny show. I’m never watching it again.”

I didn’t need to watch it again. I was almost certain every episode would be the same as the first one. I don’t believe I was too far off the mark.

Yes, TV series need to be reliable in their approach; otherwise, viewers will quickly become disenchanted. If they tune in for that show’s particular brand of “Uppie!” and don’t get it, they’ll stop tuning in. They want “Uppie!” every week. The "Three Amigos" deviated from audience-pleasing western adventure movies and instead made “The Amigos on Broadway.” The movie tanked. The studio boss correctly assessed the problem:

“We strayed from the formula, and we paid the price.”

You can’t stray from the formula, or the audience will go away. The thing is, it’s a delicate balance. The continually repeat yourself, and the audience will go away. You don’t want the audience to go away. You’ll lose your health benefits.

You know, the more I write about this, the more it appears to be more about me than it does about you. Unless you wrote television comedies too. There are reasons to believe that, for the regular viewer, the repetition in television series may not be a problem at all.

At a recent lunch, Ken Levine, who writes a popular blog of his own (bykenlevine.com), told me that, during the later seasons of Cheers, when the repetitions were starting to wear thin, the show received higher ratings than any time in its history. The audience doesn’t seem to mind repetition, even with a perceivable dip in quality, as long as they get their weekly dose of “Uppie!”

The whole issue came to mind, because I’ve become tired of a show I really liked when it premiered, the show being, The Big Bang Theory. I know, at its essence, the show is a not particularly groundbreaking version of, “Four Nerds and a Hottie”, but there was something unique about the way it played out.

For one thing, the show’s creators were not required, as they would have been in my day, to dumb down the socially inept physicists’ dialogue, so it would “play in the Midwest.” Instead, the characters are permitted to speak pure, unadulterated…“I don’t know what they’re talking about, but it sounds refreshingly on the money.” Respecting the audience with “‘real deal’ genius talk” seemed, to me, startlingly original.

In the beginning.

Now, it feels like the same thing every week. The “never-their-strength” storylines have become numbingly similar, the jokes are reminiscent of the same joke from the week before. The one change – and it’s not for the better – is that the show has coalesced around a single character – “Sheldon” – who is virtually required to carry the series on his own.

During Big Bang’s first season, I made it a point not to miss it. Now, I check in on an episode, and it feels like I’ve already seen it. And it isn’t a rerun.

I’m pretty much finished with The Big Bang Theory. Not so, however, is the show’s audience, whose ratings, perhaps through the “word of mouth” of its regular viewers, continue to improve.

It’s hard to pinpoint why people remain loyal. Maybe it’s the show’s humor, which, though not necessarily smart, is endearing, rarely offensive, and a cut above the competition in “ha-ha.”

Maybe it’s the show’s appealing group of likable losers.

Or maybe it’s just “Uppie!”

Ask any little kid.

You never tire of “Uppie!”

Monday, February 22, 2010

"I'm Tired of Hearing It"

Sometimes, I hear things said on TV I’m almost certain are not true. And I’m tired of hearing them.

Sometimes, I’m almost certain the thing that’s being said on TV is not true, because it fails the “That doesn’t sound right to me” test. And sometimes, I’m almost certain it’s not true because of something I vaguely remember that says to me, “If that thing I vaguely remember is true, this isn’t.”

I admit neither of these criteria meet the scientific standard for validity, but since I’m am just trying to figure things out, and have no stake in the outcome one way or the other, I have a comfortable faith in my observations. I mean, they’re my observations, and I’m a pretty good guy. How bad can they be?

To narrow things down, I will restrict today’s gripes concerning things I’ve heard on TV I’m almost certain are not true to two examples in the area of income taxes. No, I am not a secret accountant. I am merely applying my logical and relatively unbiased mind to the things I’m being told. If that’s not enough for you, come back when I’m talking about television, where my expertise is more firmly established. Although even there, I’ve been told I don’t know what I’m talking about.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this said on TV, but it bugs me every time. A guy comes on, and either to make the point that current tax rates are comparatively low, or to make the point “They’ve done it before, they can do it again”, says,

“You know, back in the Eisenhower Administration, the highest tax bracket was ninety percent.”

If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it twenty-seven times. My response to this pronouncement, which I make directly to my television, is

“Nobody ever paid that.”

I mean, can you imagine? Rich people paying ninety percent of their money in taxes? They’d have blown up Washington first.

Here’s how they got around it. During the Eisenhower Administration, there were loopholes galore in the tax code that allowed people in the “ninety percent” tax bracket to pay considerably less than that, and, in some cases, nothing at all. Nobody paid ninety percent.

Nobody.

I’m almost certain of it.

Find someone who lived during the Eisenhower Administration. Hurry, because they’re old. Ask them if they remember anyone paying ninety percent in taxes back then. I’m sure, if they can remember and can talk, they’ll say no. Or give you one of those “Get outta here!” gestures. Which means the same thing.

Nobody paid ninety percent.

And yet, this statement continues to be made – which literally is true, it just doesn’t mean anything. And, at least in my TV watching experience, nobody ever calls them on it.

Okay, that one was, “That doesn’t sound right me.” This next one I know from personal experience. So I have stronger evidence that it’s true.

A guy comes on TV. He’d really like income taxes to be lowered (or disappear completely). He’s absolutely against taxes being raised. Especially on people in the highest tax bracket. His reason?

“If you raise taxes on the wealthiest of our citizens, those great entrepreneurs, who start businesses, and innovate, and create jobs, and produce goods the world wants to buy thus boosting our economy, those entrepreneurs will be dis-incentivized from doing those things, and they’ll all go sailing.”

My response, based on personal experience?

They won’t.

I know a number of really wealthy people, and I know that if you raised their taxes, those people would continue doing what they’re doing, with not a single thought about sailing or any other rich guy retirement pastime.

Why?

Because they’re crazy about what they do.

They love it. They’re totally addicted. And not to the money.

They’re addicted to the game.

You can see it in the way they throw themselves into their work. You can see it in how hard they find it to go home. You can see in the way they almost salivate when they talk about what they do. And they don’t when they talk about anything else, including how much money they have.

Rich people almost never talk about how much money they have. And it’s not because they’re modest or they don’t want to make you feel bad. It’s because, though money is important, it’s nowhere close to what it’s all about. Money, as former pitching star Orel Hersheiser is reputed to have said, is simply “our way of keeping score.”

The score, of course, matters. But it’s a by-product. What these folks really love – and can’t do without – is the action.

Put them in prison and they’ll play for matchsticks. Take away their matchsticks – why would you give prisoners matchsticks in the first place? – and they’ll play for fingernail clippings. Hair follicles. The "special dessert." The rewards are secondary. Primarily, it’s the playing itself.

And how the playing makes you feel.

They’d do it for nothing. Fortunately, they don’t have to.

That’s why I know if you raised the tax rates, as has been suggested, from thirty-six percent to forty-one percent, no entrepreneur worth his salt would close up and go fishin’. They’d grumble about it, then they’d play for less.

It wouldn’t stop their competitive juices from flowing. It wouldn’t deaden their enthusiasm. It wouldn’t keep them from going, “I’m in.”

No one on TV says that. They just say “dis-incentive.”

It’s wrong.

And I’m tired of hearing it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Baby Aspirin"

My cardiologist, Dr, T, recently switched me from a blood pressure medicine whose side effect is it makes you tired to a blood pressure medicine whose side effect is it makes you light headed. There are apparently no blood pressure medicines with no side effects. You just pick the one whose side effects you object to the least.

Sometimes, a medicine’s side effects are, like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” You’ve seen the TV commercial for the pill that helps you stop smoking, but among its side effects are “suicidal thoughts or actions”? That would be your “no-brainer.”

“I don’t crave cigarettes anymore. But I found myself walking onto the freeway.”

“What else have you got?”

Dr. T also recommended I take a baby aspirin every day. Baby aspirin. It’s cute. It’s tiny. It’s yellow.

I don’t want to take it.

I don’t want to take any medicine. Some, however, are necessary. The others I question, fueled by my pea-brained knowledge of medicine, along with an annoying (to doctors) dose of stubbornness.

Baby aspirin decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The thing is, tests in connection with my recent surgery to repair a heart valve indicated that my arteries were clear and my heart was strong. Dr. T himself informed me that, this being the case, considering my current age, I am an unlikely candidate for a heart attack or a stroke.

It’s a simple question of logic. If baby aspirin is for people at risk for a heart attack or a stroke, and I’m not at risk for a heart attack or a stroke,

Why do I have to take baby aspirin?

When I posed this, to me, entirely reasonable question, Dr. T, he gave me a look. The look took me back to my early twenties.

I’m sitting in my dentist’s office in Toronto – Dr. Singer – a wiry, rather attractive fellow, who resembled a movie star of that period. Or maybe it was a hockey player. In Canada, the two are interchangeable.

It could have been Dick Duff, a talented player for the Leafs, who, upon unexpectedly being traded to Montreal, wrote a touching letter in the newspaper, thanking Leaf fans for their acceptance and support. Dr. Singer looked like Dick Duff.

Or maybe it was David Janssen.

Anyway…

I’m in the chair, and in comes Dr. Singer, holding the x-rays which he has just taken of my teeth. I guess that’s redundant. What else would a dentist x-ray?

“You have a broken foot.”

“What do you mean?”

“I pointed the machine wrong.”

No. It’s my teeth.

Dr. Singer has a serious look on his face, covering, I believe, a gleeful feeling. The serious look says, “You have a ton of cavities.” The gleeful feeling says, “I’m going to Miami Beach!

“You have nine cavities,” he announces, as he slides the x-rays onto a screen and switches on an illuminating light, so he can point out the cavities, and I can be confused, because I don’t see anything.

“Nine cavities?” I moan. “Are they big ones?”

“Four are big. Five are little.”

I try desperately to collect my wits, seriously buffeted by the recent bad news.

“What if you filled the big ones, and left the little ones for another time?” I suggest.

That’s when Dr. Singer gives me the look, the look Dr. T mirrored, when I asked why I had to take baby aspirin. The look was a mixture of pity with helplessness. Dr. T let it speak for itself. Dr. Singer augmented it with three ominous-sounding words.

“They’re your teeth,” he responded.

That was all I needed to hear.

“Fill them all”, I instructed.

It never fails.

“They’re your teeth.”

(Unspoken) “It’s your heart.”

I take a baby aspirin every morning.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Hey! Not So Hard!"

On a small number of occasions, I have enjoyed the thrilling opportunity of meeting professional athletes. No really big names, but still – athletes. Big, burly guys, with enormous hands that were in perfect proportion with the rest of them. I was in awe of these magnificent, physical specimens.

My most lasting impression about meeting to these ball-playing behemoths was their handshakes. They were always gentle. I’m talking, “Are you kidding me?” gentle. Virtually Oscar Wilde-like in their gentleness, unless Mr. Wilde happened to be overcompensating that day.

“The only thing worse than a weak handshake is a strong handshake”

Wilde might have aphorized, in one of his less witty moments.

Since it happened on every occasion I can remember, it occurred to me that these super-strong athletes knew the score in the handshaking department, and they deliberately pulled back on the pressure. Why bother showing off? These people had nothing to prove.

“You think I’m not powerful? I just ‘chest-bumped’ a guy in the end zone, and fractured four of his ribs.”

The “careful” handshakes I continually received made me imagine that, sometime early in their careers, along with lectures on avoiding drugs, managing your money, and steering clear of floozies who may pretend to love you but are really in it for all they can get, athletes were also required to submit to rigorous instruction in the area of “Shaking Hands With Ordinary People.”

This training would involve drilling the athletes on the appropriate amount of “squeezing pressure”, covering a whole range of “meeting the public” situations – “Shaking Hands With Children”, “Greeting The Elderly”, “Remember, She’s A Woman”, and “Go Easy, He’s From France.”

Of course, there could be occasions, like when greeting a fellow athlete, or a guy who could have been an athlete but their parents made them go to law school instead, where it would be permissible to drop your guard and “Let ‘er rip!” – an unspoken nod to the “Brotherhood of the Strong.”

Under normal circumstances, however, if my experience is any guide and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, athletes, working from the premise, “Better Safe Than Sorry (and Sued)”, anchor themselves on the “gentle” side of the dial, and you’re shaking hands with a five-fingered fish.

There’s a verbal equivalent to the athlete’s “handshake” problem, a condition labeled – I believe by parents who don’t care for it one bit – the “Smart Mouth Syndrome.” The “Smart Mouth Syndrome” generally involves a sudden and inappropriate lashing out, the assault invariably dripping with sarcasm, or, as Monty Python might call it, its “weasly coosin”, irony.

People designated “Smart Mouths” – and we know who we are – need to constantly monitor themselves against devastating, angry tongued outbursts. Otherwise, somebody may end up in the therapist’s office. Possibly, for decades.

And now comes the confession.

I know it was a traumatic situation, but I’m not interested in excuses.

At my mother’s funeral, I am introduced to the rabbi who will conduct the upcoming memorial service. It’s the first time I’m meeting him. I learn later – though an educated guess would not have been far from the mark – that the man orchestrating my mother’s final sendoff is twenty-seven years old.

The fog of grief obscures the memory of how we were introduced. I do, however, affronted by his incongruous youthfulness, remember looking the rabbi straight in the eye and saying,

“First day?”

The circumstances notwithstanding, my behavior had been hurtful and disrespectful.

I had shaken the neophyte rabbi’s hand

Way too hard.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Hating Habits"

I rarely use the word “hate” in this blog. However, I did in a post a few days ago. I hoped you would “get” that I wasn’t serious. The truth is, I actually feel an “old guy” flutter for that person that I said I hated. I was merely being playful.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for a writer to communicate a “wink.”

Since the subject of hate has come up, I will express my personal position on the issue. I happen to have strong feelings on the subject, which I have boiled down to one rule concerning hate from which I rarely deviate:

On the whole, I choose to hate people one at a time.

I don’t hate entire categories of humanity. I have no view – either positive or negative – on races, or genders, or bald people, or people with noses so small I don’t know how they can breathe through those things. The major people groups are simply too big. One of them – women – represents half the human population. How can anyone hate every one of those people?

It’s impossible for me to hate a crowd.

(Unless it’s a crowd I’m stuck in the middle of, and they’re not moving, and I’m feeling claustrophobic, and I’m starting to sweat.)

Nazis are the exception. I hate all Nazis. Say no more. Moving on.

I feel sorry for people who hate entire categories of humanity. Reality will never leave their prejudices alone.

An anti-Semite comes up to a bummed out anti-Semite and says, “What’s the matter?” And the bummed out anti-Semite says, “I met a Jew I liked.”

No matter how proud you are of the group you’re affiliated with, no matter how protective you are of their interests, you have to admit, if you’re honest, that even your group, a group, the mere mention of which makes your eyes tear up and your heart pound like a drum, is not entirely free of idiots.

Realistically, you can’t unilaterally love any large category of humanity any more than you can hate one. Doing so makes a mockery of the concept, “It takes all kinds.”

In any group you can imagine, there is a percentage of wonderful people, the majority of not so bad people in the middle, and then there are the people in your group who, if there were no guilt or punishment involved, you would run over with your car.

You’ll find good and bad in every group. With no exceptions. I’m sure there are some Buddhist monks the other monks aren’t entirely crazy about.

“He doesn’t beg right.”

No group is entirely wonderful. No group is entirely the worst. There are too many individual differences for either position to make sense. Hate people one at a time. That makes sense.

There are people I hate, or have hated during some portion of my life, and I have my reasons. I won’t tell you what they are, because you’re nice people, and you’ll try and talk me out of it, and I don’t want that, and if you persist in your efforts, I’m going to start hating you, and I don’t want that either. So I’ll keep my venom to myself.

I will simply reiterate that my longstanding habit concerning hate is not global.

It’s personal.

I don’t hate categories.

I hate individuals.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is the appropriate way to hate.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Re-Arguing 'Brown Versus Board of Education'"

Before she was appointed to the highest court in the land, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that, as far as abortion rights were concerned, an “equal protection” argument was more legally supportable than the “privacy” argument that won the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case of 1973. For this learned observation, Ginsburg got severely yelled at by the supporters of abortion rights. Why? Because

“We got what we wanted. Shut the f---k up!”

They won the case. They didn’t care how. (Of course, if the issue comes up again, and they’re forced to defend the weaker argument, they’re going to be really sorry.)

A weaker argument was able to carry the day, because, by 1973, the majority of the country was ready to make abortions legal. I’ve heard it said that the Supreme Court never leads, which means, it never gets ahead of where the majority of the country, at that moment in history, is currently situated. With public opinion behind you, you don’t need the best argument, just a good enough one, and you’re in the clear.

This takes me, in my slithery way of thinking, to the decision that integrated America’s public schools – Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. By 1954, when the case was decided, the country at large was ready for integrated schools. The Supreme Court legitimized that readiness by making it the law.

(The vote authorizing school integration was nine to zero, largely because the then Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren, a former politician, and thus sensitive to the power of symbolism, made certain that the Court, including the Southern justices, would speak in a unanimous voice. This doesn’t happen anymore, partly because the Court is terminally divided along ideological lines, and partly because they no longer put politicians on the Supreme Court.)

The law Brown was replacing was Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy established the principle of “separate but equal”, meaning: “Black children are required to go to separate schools, but those schools must be of equal quality to the ‘Whites Only’ schools.”

To spare you from reading the Brown decision in its entirety, I will now provide you with the opinion’s determining sentence. Which is this:

“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

“Separate is inherently unequal.” Such an assertion seems obvious today, but back then, it was a powerful enough argument to overturn a longstanding, crappy law.

The problem, at least to my legally untrained mind, is that “separate is inherently unequal” does not seem like a legal argument. The way I see it, expanding on the problems caused by “separate but equal”, Warren offers more of an emotional argument, based on a psychological reality.

“It’s bad for the kids.”

(In an experiment, segregated young, black girls were shown two dolls, one with a white skin color and one with a black skin color, and they were asked which doll was the “nice” one. The black girls invariably chose the white doll, indicating that, though separate, these girls clearly did not feel equal.)

Because Brown is in no jeopardy whatsoever, revisiting its argument seems entirely unnecessary. Of course, that won’t stop me from doing it. I’ve wasted my time in far less meaningful pursuits than this one.

Why am I bothering? In my view, the Supreme Court embarrasses itself whenever it bases its decisions on anything other than the most persuasive and supportable legal arguments. When they abandon that rigorous standard, the justices are simply a bunch of bullies, throwing their weight around. Behaving in this manner when their cause is just – as in Brown – gives justices the “Green Light” to throw their weight around whenever. And we’ve seen where that leads.

In other words, I’m doing this for the Court. So it won’t become a laughingstock, and cause one of our three branches of government to lose the respect of a nation.

The following is my, in my view, more legally grounded, argument explaining why the “separate but equal” position is unacceptable. There have been times when I’ve gotten a better idea, and I’ve gone back and rewritten a post after it had been published. If the members of the Supreme Court – and I’m sure many of them read this blog – decide my argument is stronger than the one currently on the books – I give them permission to replace the inferior version with its better. Then, down the line, when people study this case, they’ll say, “That’s a really solid argument. I mean, they could have said, ‘Separate is inherently unequal’, but that’s more of an emotional argument.”

Okay.

“The Better Argument in Favor of ‘Brown versus Board of Education’”

By Earl Pomerantz.

Law student for five weeks.

I’m a little nervous. I’ve never argued before the Supreme Court before. Oh, well. Here we go.

“Mr. Chief Justice, and the other eight justices whose names I think I know, but don’t press me on it. Consider the idea of the contract. It seems to me that, in order for any contract to be legally binding, the conditions set down in that contract would have to be acceptable to both sides, meaning, both sides would have to accept the conditions set down in that contract. I just repeated myself. I’m sorry. I’ve never done this before.

“If this does not take place – both sides agreeing to the arrangement – then I put it to you, my partisan Justices, that that contract has no legitimacy whatsoever. It is simply a document, wherein one side tells the other side how things are going to be.

“I ask you, judges appointed for life, who continually give the party that appointed them the decisions they want, how can any arrangement – such as the decision to make public schools ‘separate but equal’ – satisfy the principle of equality, when one side – the ‘White’ side – gets to make the decision concerning that arrangement, while the other side – the ‘Black’ side – with no say in the matter whatsoever, is simply required to go along with what the 'White' side says? Can we say that such an arrangement is really equal? No. It’s simply, ‘This is the way it’s going to be, and if you don’t like it, too bad.’

“Now, if the ‘Black’ side, presented with the ‘separate but equal’ proposal, decided, ‘“Separate but equal” is okay with us’, then so be it. 'Separate but equal' it is. But what if, instead, they replied, ‘You know what? We appreciate your proposal, but, truth be told, we’d just as soon go to school with you.’

That would be equal. But that didn’t happen. The ‘White’ side proclaimed, “‘Separate but equal’, and the negotiation was over.

“An arrangement – a contract, if you will – is being negotiated on the issue of equality. And that negotiation is corrupted, on its most basic level, by an inequality in the decision-making process itself. How, oh, wise and impartial Justices of the Supreme Court, can the outcome of such a negotiation, by any recognized standard of legal ethics, be equal?”

That’s better, isn’t it?

Or should I just shut the f--k up?

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Parental Discretion"

Telling anecdotes about the departed – which is traditional at a shiva, a post-funeral mourning period, where you sit home and well-wishers to bring you cake – my brother recalled the time he announced to our mother that he was going to be a comedian. Her response to this announcement was immediate and unequivocal:

“Who do you think you are, Jerry Lewis?”

I had never heard that story before. It made me happy, and I’ll tell you why. A few years after that, my mother and I were involved in precisely the same conversation. I told her I was going to be a comedian. Her response, though equally immediate, was tellingly different.

She said,

“Who do you think you are, Jack Benny?”

You see the difference? Jack Benny, at least in our family’s opinion, was a lot funnier than Jerry Lewis.

That’s why I was happy. By making this distinction, my mother had openly declared that

I wasn’t a way better comedian than my brother wasn’t.

Of course, there’s a bigger – and less silly – message to take note of here. Though we fluttered around the edges – my brother more so than myself – neither he nor I ever became comedians.

“Achieving People” are a mystery to me. They want something and, in numbers far surpassing the laws of probability, they get it.

I don’t know how they do it. To the degree that I succeeded, I did so through stubbornness, good fortune, and a lot of outside help. I got no help from my attitude. My attitude always sucked.

And therein may lie a clue.

I suspect that some of the “Achieving People’s” success has to do with what their parents told them when they were growing up. I’m not talking about families that drummed into their kids that they're "special", or they're "from superior stock", or that “You can do anything you want” – those come with their own sets of pitfalls. I’m imagining, instead, families where the children were taught that, though failure may hurt, it’s nowhere near as painful as not trying.

The message is simple:

“You fell on your face? Get up. You took the wrong path? Go back and start again. They tell you you can’t do it. Maybe they’re right. But maybe, they’re wrong. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. But whatever it is, we’re always here, with a hug and a hot bowl of soup.”

My experience tells me that what parents say to their children is always remembered. “You’ll never make it”? Some people use that as motivation, as in, “I’ll show them!” The point is, whether encouraging or critical, it’s the parental pronouncement that played a significant role in propelling them to where they wanted to go.

It’s not my place to tell you what to say when your child announces they’re going to be a comedian. My only advice is, think before you say it.

Somebody’s gotta be the next Jack Benny. It could be your kid.
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Recommendation: wwwtobigordon.blogspot.com

The writing is smart and funny, the memories evocative and on the money. Give it a read. It's well worth your time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Hey, Diddle-Dee-Dee..."

Marvin Goldhar, whom I knew in Toronto, became an actor at the age of thirty-six. Having arrived at acting at a relatively advanced age, Goldhar retained an outsider’s perspective on the absurdities of the profession.

One night, I went backstage to wish Goldhar luck before he was to go onstage in some local production. I found him alone in his dressing room, peering into a mirror, as he carefully applied his makeup.

“Look at me,” lamented the neophyte actor. “I’m a thirty-six year-old man. And I’m putting brown stuff on my face.”

Acting is a lot of things. Acting is dangerous, it’s exhilarating, it’s liberating, it’s fun. Acting allows you to shed to your persona and escape into the personas of your characters. Acting can make an audience laugh, move them to tears, it can teach, it can inspire. Acting can unlock the audience’s imaginations, lift them up and carry them soaringly away. It can entrance them with its magic, leave them gasping in wonder and delight.

Acting can make you rich and famous, it can take you to exotic locales, it can allow you to work at the top of your profession with the finest practitioners in the field, it can provide you with access to a world of accomplished and fascinating people you would, otherwise, never get to meet. Acting is a lot of other wonderful things as well, that I can’t think of right now. But acting is also, arguably,

A ridiculous job for an adult person to perform.

The result of this final observation – I’m speaking specifically about men here; I’ll leave the other gender to somebody more qualified – is that actors feel embarrassed to be actors. More than embarrassed, they’re ashamed. And success makes things worse. The more successful the actor becomes, the more embarrassed and ashamed they appear to feel.

Why? Because to these people, acting does not feel like a manly profession. Acting is “dress-up” and pretending. That type of work seems a long way from unloading cargo ships and chopping down trees.

I’m not talking about myself here. I’m not an actor. Though there were times I wanted to be. (I attended the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, and spent a year at The Actors’ Workshop in London.) I did not, however, abandon the field because I thought it unmanly. When you grow up wearing thick bifocals, have no muscles and you can’t ride a bike, the traditional “Manly’ Evaluational System” is pretty much out the window. You pee standing up, you’re a man. Moving on.

But there are clearly men in the acting profession – and there always have been – who, because they see themselves as participating in a unmanly profession, feel like they have to demonstrate how manly they actually are. They become hard drinkers (or drug takers), they’re belligerent in public, they throw temper tantrums, they get in fistfights, they knock around women, often women they happen to be married to, and, by the way, they get married a lot.

“I’m too manly for one wife. I’ve had seven.”

Somewhere, someone who mattered told them that acting was a frivolous undertaking. Maybe it was their Dad:

“When are you going to give up this foolishness and try a man’s job, like smelting iron?”

Maybe it was a longtime chum:

“Stop all this girly-work. Come into the mines.”

Maybe it wasn’t somebody else. Maybe these whispers of shame crept up from their unconscious minds. Can you imagine how someone like John Wayne must have felt during World War II? People are dying on the battlefields, and he’s making war movies in Hollywood?

I mean, think about it. Real fighter pilots are dropping out of the skies, and John Wayne’s sitting in half a plane on a studio soundstage, shooting down Japanese “Zeroes.” So what happens? He goes out for a drink after work, and one of his buddies says,

“How many’d you get today, Duke?”

“Lea’ me alone, will ya?”

“How many altogether? In all your movies?”

“Can’t a fellah drink in peace around here?”

“Is it sixteen, Duke? If it’s sixteen, that makes you a fake “Ace.”

Bam! Right in the kisser!

Hey, the guy deserved it. So you pretend you’re in combat for a living. That doesn’t mean you’re not a man, does it?

Bam!

Hey! I’m on your side!

You know, somebody once gave me a different explanation for why actors misbehave. The man was gay, and an aspiring actor himself, so it’s possible – make that likely – I had offended him with my observation. I didn’t mean to, but I rarely mean to offend people, and it’s alarming how often I do.

Anyway, this fellow’s explanation for why actors feel uncomfortable in their chosen line of work is that for many of them – especially the pretty ones – acting involves simply showing up and being themselves. It feels like they’re stealing money. Since, in their view, they’re not actually doing anything, they don’t understand what all the fuss is about, “fuss” meaning huge money, unlimited power and worldwide fame. The situation is disorienting and disturbing. Their life doesn’t make any sense. Ergo, the Bam!

That’s tangible. Their fist on somebody’s jaw. There’s a logic to it. They can feel the connection.

Maybe that explanation is more accurate. Though, bottom line, I don’t see much of a difference. Both explanations involve a sense of worthless activity. Maybe he just objected to my labeling it “unmanly.”

Sorry, Joe.

The thing is, actors feeling ashamed of what they do is, to me, a horrible misreading of how they’re actually perceived.

I once stood in front of a group of minor league baseball players who were dying to go to Hollywood, and I said to them:

“Don’t you know everybody wants to be you?”

I’d say the same thing to an unhappy movie star.

And then run away before he hit me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"I've Still Got It"

My friend, Paul, also formerly from Toronto, put it precisely on the money:

“We love baseball. But hockey is in our blood.”

True, dat!

Evidence.

I attended a hockey game a while back. That game included one telling play, which I will presently describe. (Don’t worry. I’ll go easy on the esoterica. You know what a puck is, right? You’ll be fine.)

A player picks up the puck in his own zone. He heads up the ice, on the right side of the rink. You with me so far? Good.

The player streaks across center ice, into the other team’s zone. The defenders are in hot pursuit, but the guy, a waterbug on skates, is ahead of the pack.

Now….

There’s a spot on the ice, a certain distance away, and to the right (there’s another one on the left) where, if a player shoots the puck from precisely that angle, it maximizes his chances of scoring a goal.

The player in my story clearly knows where that spot is. More importantly – for this particular venue –

So do I.

The proof?

When the player hits that special spot on the ice, and from my vantage point in the stands, I yell,

“Shoot!”

He does.

And he scores.

The people around me are dropping their beers in disbelief. They say, “How did you do that?” My answer, of course?

“I’m Canadian.”

Well, as I said, that game was a while back. I’ve been here longer now. It’s quite possible my hockey instincts have worn off.

Not hardly.

Last night, a friend generously invited me to a hockey game. It’s been years since I’d gone to one, and I rarely watch hockey on T.V., because the camera coverage of hockey on American T.V. is terrible – it’s basically one camera sweeping the ice, like a prison searchlight. Besides, it’s not the Leafs. (The Toronto team.)

It didn’t matter. On three separate occasions, I saw something in the way the play was developing, which, combined an ineffable sense of a building momentum, made me certain that a goal was about to be scored.

And it happened. All three times.

Hockey’s in our blood, all right.

And it’s in there forever.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Sometimes, You Can't Win"

“Earl’s not going to the lecture.”

This announcement was proclaimed, more loudly than necessary in my opinion, by one of the facilitators at the cardiac rehab program I attend named Lauren. The program isn’t named Lauren, the facilitator is. But you probably figured that out for yourself. Sorry for the redundancy.

Here’s the thing. Every post-heart surgery person is required to attend a rehab program – I prefer saying “rehab” rather than “cardiac rehab”; it sounds more “Hollywood” – for thirty-six sessions, which run three times a week. This means that, to complete the program, you have to go for twelve weeks, though, in reality, it’s longer, because the program closes down on Bank Holidays. I’m not actually sure why that is. Maybe somewhere in the building there’s a Blood Bank.

Along with the cardio-vascular rehabilitational activities, the program also includes a series of lectures, structured to be of particular interest to us as a result of, what they call in rehab, our “event.” It sounds like a rock concert. Only the headliner’s a surgeon and the audience is attached to a heart-lung machine.

Among the lecture topics are: “Anatomy and Physiology of Heart Disease”, “Cholesterol – the Silent Killer”, “Super-Foods And The Foods That Will Clog Up Your Arteries And Kill You”, and “Know Your Life-Saving Medications.” Many of these lectures have caused me to leave them more fearful of my survival than when I went in.

They were probably just being thorough.

There are eight of these inspirational lectures in all. This means that, if you attend the rehab program for, roughly, twelve weeks, by the ninth week, you will notice the lecture topics cycling around for a second time.

I am currently in my ninth week of rehab. Hearing that the day’s lecture topic was: “Stress Management – And You Better Manage It, Or Else”, I reported that I would not be attending, as I had already enjoyed that lecture. From this announcement came Lauren’s “Earl’s not going to the lecture.”

Blasted out to the entire room.

I was instantly mortified. I imagined what my fellow rehabbers were thinking:

“Who does he think he is?”

“Too good for the lectures, eh?”

“ Mr. ‘Big Shot.’ Too busy to attend a ‘Stress Management’ lecture. That’s what the lecture’s about, Jerk Face.”

I immediately jumped in to explain.

“Earl’s already been to that lecture”, I announced, as loudly as Lauren had pronounced, “Earl’s not going to the lecture” and possibly louder.

To her credit, Lauren amended her pronouncement, saying, “He’s right. He already attended that lecture.”

Though it was in a noticeably quieter voice.

Now.

From a literal standpoint, “Earl’s not going to the lecture” is factually correct. I wasn’t going the lecture. Lauren had not said anything wrong. As far as it went. It just didn’t go far enough. Her pronouncement, “Earl’s not going to the lecture” lacked contextual completeness, leaving those who heard it with an incorrect impression of who I am.

I don’t skip lectures. I just don’t go back to lectures I have already attended.

You see the difference? It’s a big one.

For a stickler.

Sadly, I had been forced into a “lose-lose” situation.

I had corrected the record, so people wouldn’t think I was too good to attend the lectures, and by so doing, I had revealed myself as a stickler.

I hate Lauren.


(Secret: No, I don't.)
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In answer to a recent commenter, the distinctive laugh on "Taxi's" laugh track belongs to one of "Taxi's" creators, Jim Brooks. "Ah-ah-ah." I heard once that he used it to prime to live studio audience into laughter. That's why it generally comes before the audience's laugh. It's also what allows you to hear it so distinctly.

Keep the questions coming. Sometimes, I actually know the answers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Two of a Kind"

In baseball, Major League teams are constantly on the lookout for a “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop.” Not just that. They’re also hoping to uncover a “fleet-footed center fielder”, a “fireballer” who can throw strikes, a “Block of Granite” behind the plate, and a “Bopper” at First Base. But we’ll stick with the shortstop example, because that was the first one that came to mind, possibly because it’s the most recognizable of all baseballical prototypes.

It started with…I don’t know who it actually started with, but during my time of following baseball, it started with Luis Aparicio, a “slick-fielding Venezuelan shortstop” who toiled marvelously, primarily in the service of the Chicago White Sox.

Following closely in his footsteps was Dave Conception, who “flashed the leather” on Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” teams during the mid-nineteen seventies. Aparicio and Conception, plus a predating shortstop in the same mold named Chico Carrasquel, were all born in Venezuela, initiating, by their elegant play at the position the term “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop.” Today, the majority of “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstops” come from the Dominican Republic.

You can spot imperfect versions of the “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop” performing in the minor leagues. These lesser models look and move and adopt the confident air of a “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop”; they’re just not that slick fielding. They’re reminiscent, but not up to the standard of “the real thing.” George Clooney, with big ears.

Facsimiles appear in every arena. You perform your duties in a certain style in whatever endeavor you’re engaged in from brain surgery to trash collecting and it reminds people of a predecessor who wielded a scalpel or flipped over a trash can in a strikingly similar, and spectacularly competent, manner. Permit me to me use an example from writing. That will include myself.

I shudder to consider how many strata below his my abilities place me, but – and here I take a deep, humbling breath before continuing – the prototype of my style of writing is Mark Twain. Yeah. The greatest American writer of all time. The way I see it, Mark Twain and I are cut very much from the same cloth, though we are unquestionably unequal, me, having totally neglected to write any masterpieces.

It’s the type of writer I’m talking about. Mark Twain is the “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop” of a certain kind of writing, and I’m looking up going, “I do that. Just not as well.”

What brought this questionable effort to associate myself with iconic greatness to mind? I have just started a book entitled, Mark Twain: Man In White, by Michael Shelden. Though I’m only on Page 47, I am, so far, enjoying the book very much, not least, because what I’m learning about Mark Twain, particularly his approach to writing about his life, reminds me very much of me.

Rather than putting them down on paper, Twain liked to sit in a room and relate his stories to a stenographer, believing “good talk [to be] so much better than the best imitation of it that can be done with a pen.”

I’ve said those exact same words. Only shorter. I’ve spoken in this very venue about my determined intention, though not always successful, to “write talk”, or, slightly more elaborately, “to write at the speed of thought.” Though my stenographer is a word processor rather than the real thing, which I’d be too shy to employ, I agree that, for the type of writing that members of Twain’s and my category of writer aspire to, what “can be done with a pen” can never rival the clarity and insight that can be inspired through the bubbling cauldron of conversation.

You see? Right there. If I were talking, I would never have said “the bubbling cauldron of conversation.” I’d have said “what just comes out of you when you talk.” That’s the difference. A perfect example of why writing’s not as good as talking. As least when I’m involved. And, apparently, Mr. Mark Twain as well.

I realize there are other types of writers, writers who revel in painting elaborate word pictures. But that’s just another style. We’re all playing the same game; we’re all trying to connect. But not all of us are “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstops.” Some of us are “fleet-footed center fielders”; others, “Blocks of Granite” behind the plate.

Me and Mark Twain? We play the same position. And we play it in a similar fashion.

The two of us like writing about the times we live in, and the way people behave. We enjoy dissecting our hallowed institutions and our deeply held beliefs, offering pronouncements on how it all works, or, more frequently, pretends to work.

One final similarity. Speaking to a titan of industry, who was his close personal friend, Twain remarked, “You and I are a team; you are the most useful man I know, and I am the most ornamental.”

I feel quite ornamental myself. It’s heartening to know that our founding “slick fielding Venezuelan shortstop” felt exactly the same way.

Friday, February 5, 2010

"'Lateline' By-Product - Experiencing The Other Side"

Shuttling between L.A. and New York for my job on Lateline provided me with an unexpected insight into television executives, one I would, otherwise, have never experienced. For one moment in time, and, possibly, for the first time ever, I saw television executives as people.

I freely admit that I don’t understand television executives, both network and studio. What I mean, specifically, is I have no understanding as to what it was that propelled them into show business.

My reason for not understanding why television executives go into show business is that their skills – and they do have skills, I readily admit that – have, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with entertaining the public.

I have creative abilities; show business nurtures creative abilities; I go into show business. That makes sense. That I can understand.

Television executives have different abilities – they’re charming, they’re socially at ease, they dress beautifully, they are administratively skillful – these are commendable attributes. I don’t happen to have any of them, but others do, and good luck to them.

I just have no idea what they’re doing in show business.

I have a theory about the adversarial relationship between “creatives” and executives. Executives are envious of “creatives”, because they want to do what “creatives” do – have fun being creative – but they can’t, because they’re not creative.

“Creatives”, on the other hand, or a vast number of them, can’t do what executives do. But they’re not envious, because they don’t want to do what executives do. Who would? It seems like a terrible job.

The problem is, the executives are in charge. And part of their job is to pass judgment on the work of “creatives.” “Creatives” hate that. Why? Because, one, who wants to have other people pass judgment on your work? And two, look who it’s coming from?

People who aren’t creative.

Moving on.

I’m in Los Angeles, sitting in a tiny room at Paramount Studios, watching a closed circuit television monitor. I am in the company of two Paramount executives, the President of Paramount Television, and the executive assigned to the show.

What we see on the television monitor is the cast of Lateline, plus the production staff, gathered around a table at Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. The script for this week’s episode is about to be read. There’s a closed circuit camera in the room, so that the “table reading” in New York can be watched by the executives in Los Angeles. I’ve been invited o the viewing, because, though I’m currently in Los Angeles, I am the Consulting Executive Producer on the show.

So there we are. Me and two studio executives in a tiny room in Los Angeles, watching a Lateline “table reading”, taking place in New York.

The reading goes how it goes. There are good parts, and parts that need fixing. The reading ends; the room in New York empties. Lateline’s Executive Producers, Al Franken and John Markus, repair to the Writers’ Room. There they will receive a call from the Paramount executives in Los Angeles, during which the executives will delineate the “concerns” they wish to have addressed during the upcoming rewrite session.

The Paramount executives put Al and John on “speaker phone”, so everyone on our side can hear them. We, in turn, are on their “speaker phone” in New York. The Paramount executives begin with the obligatory, “Nice work, guys”, then start in with their litany of “concerns.”

From the moment the Paramount executives start talking, Al and John shoot down every comment, observation and suggestion they make. Their most frequent responses are, “No-o-o!!!, “That’s crazy!” and “What are you talking about!”

I know how Al and John are feeling. The main thing they’re feeling is exhausted. Throw in beleaguered and horribly overworked. And now, as a result of this phone call, you can also add creatively second-guessed and personally attacked.

Al and John’s battered feelings trigger impatience, belligerence, irritation and rudeness, as they continually interrupt, and talk very loud. I’ve been there. I’ve behaved the same way myself, and worse. Often. And I felt justified in doing so. Now, alone with the executives, I would see what the experience felt like from the other side.

The executives looked stricken and bewildered. It’s like they’d been hit by a truck. A truck driven by a member of their family. You could see the hurt in their faces. They didn’t understand it. They were trying to help, and people were yelling at them.

It was an uncomfortable sight to behold.

So, there. Now, nobody can say I’m never sympathetic towards executives. They can say I’m rarely sympathetic towards executives, but they can’t say “never.”

Because I just was.
---------------------------------
In response to the question concerning “The Traveling Six-Gun, yes, it was the same gun Dennis announced he was transporting in his “Carry on”, along with the exquisitely hand-tooled leather holster. But he had to check it.

Feel free to ask any questions you want. Sometimes, I not as clear as I think I am. Or as comprehensive. If you want me to elaborate on anything, just ask. I’m prickly, but I’m accommodating.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Earl Fantasy Number One"

It’s my birthday today.

I’m 65.

Once again, this is the oldest I’ve ever been.

But it’s getting scarier. My grandfather was sixty-five. That’s old.

Unless I live to a hundred and thirty, I have gone way past the half way point. Way, way past.

I’ve noticed the changes. And I’m not just talking about the galoot I see in the mirror. My playful banter with the ladies behind the checkout counters has officially consigned me to the “Aww” version of the “adorable” category. Not that I had any intention of following through. But there’s a saddening certainty that, without coming into of billions of dollars, sixty-five sets me permanently on the bench.

When you reach the age where the government pays for your medicine, you realize there are certain things you will never get to do. For me, these are not realistic things I would do if I only had the time or the money or the guts. These were just harbored fantasies. They were never going to happen. But when you’re younger, you have an easier time fooling yourself that they might.

Before abandoning these unlikely but, until recently, imaginable possibilities, I have decided to file them for posterity on this blog. I don’t know how many of these fantasies there are; I keep some secret even from myself. But I’m kicking off the series with this one:

Earl Pomerantz – Performing at the Cowboy Hall of Fame

I come onstage, dressed as “cowboy” as my spouse will allow me to appear in public, and in a voice, more energetic than melodic, I open my mouth, and I start to sing:

He cleaned up the country

The Old Wild West country

He made law and order prevail

And none can deny it

The legend of Wyatt

Forever will live on the trail.

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp

Brave, courageous, and bold

Long live his fame, and long live his glory

And long may his story be told…


Back when the West was very young

There lived a man named Masterson

He wore a cane and derby hat

They called him Bat

Bat Masterson…


Who was the tall, dark stranger there

Maverick is the name

Ridin’ the trail to who knows where

Luck is his companion

Gamblin’ is his game…


Whistle me up a memory

Whistle me back to where I want to be

Whistle a tune that will carry me

To Tombstone Territory…


“Have Gun – Will Travel”, reads the card of a man

A knight without armor in a savage land

His fast gun for hire meets the calling wind

A soldier of fortune is the man called

Paladin…


They sing of Yancey Derringer on every danger trail

On river boat, in manor house

And now and then in jail

They say that Yancey Derringer

Had ruffles at his wrists

Brocade and silver buckles

And iron in his fists…


Ringo, Johnny Ringo

His fears were never shown

The fastest gun in all the West

The quickest ever known…


Johnny Yuma was a rebel

He roamed through the West

Did Johnny Yuma, the rebel

He wandered alone

He got fightin’ mad, this rebel lad

He packed no star as he wandered far

Where the only law was a hook and a…


Lawman

The Lawman came with the sun

There was a job to be done

And so they sent for the badge and the gun

Of the Lawman…


Cheyenne, Cheyenne, where will you be camping tonight…


Sugarfoot, Sugarfoot

Easy lopin’ cattle ropin’

Sugarfoot…


Bronco, Bronco, tearin’ across the Texas plains

Bronco, Bronco – Bronco Lane…


He roamed the wilderness, unafraid

From Natchez to Rio Grande

With all the might of his gleaming blade

He fought for the rights of Man.

Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie

He was a bold, adventurin’ man

Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie

Battled for right with a powerful hand

His blade was tempered and so was he

Indestructible steel was he

Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie

A fightin’ and fearless and mighty adventurin’ man…


Keep

Movin’, movin’, movin’

Though they’re disapprovin’

Keep them doggies movin’

Rawhide

Don’t try to understand ‘em

Just rope and throw and brand ‘em

Soon we’ll be livin’ high and wide

My heart’s calculatin’

My true love will be waitin’

Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.

Get ‘em up, move ‘em on

Move ‘em on, get ‘em up

Get ‘em up, move ‘em on

Rawhide

Ride ‘em in, cut ‘em out

Cut ‘em out, ride ‘em in

Ride ‘em in, cut ‘em out

Rawhi-i-i-i-i-i-ide

Hyah!

And the crowd goes wild.


Coming Soon: Earl Pomerantz Entertains at the White House”

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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

Lateline was not a successful television series. We filmed nineteen episodes, but less than half of those were aired on NBC. The remaining episodes were ultimately broadcast on the cable network, Showtime. Both Paramount and Showtime are owned by the same company, Viacom, so it was arranged to, as they say, “burn off” the remaining episodes there, extending them from their network broadcast length of about twenty-two minutes to a cable-mandated thirty minutes by having Al conduct comic interviews with actual politicians before each episode was shown.

One of the pleasures of working on Lateline was my getting to meet prominent politicians. This is a big deal for me. I know those guys. They run the country.

Once, when Dr. M and I visited Washington, we had the opportunity to have lunch in the Senate Dining Room. I looked around, and there was Teddy Kennedy (wearing a dark suit a house slippers), John McCain and Kay Bailey Hutchison. These guys were superstars. To me, it was like eating in the old MGM commissary, and spotting Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Durante.

Lateline specialized in delivering political heavyweights as guests. The list included Senator (and future presidential candidate) John Kerry, Representative Barney Frank, Democratic House leader, Richard Gephardt and Clinton Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. Sadly, none of their appearances helped boost the show’s ratings.

My biggest thrill by far was accompanying Lateline’s creators, Al Franken and John Markus, on a visit to the White House, which included a half-hour meeting with Vice President, Al Gore. One reason for our visit was to try and persuade Gore to appear on Lateline. We argued that it would show off Gore’s lighter side, which could help with the electorate, should he decide to run for president. Who knows how history might have changed had the Vice President agreed to our proposal?

One of Vice President Gore’s pet projects involved shortening and simplifying the language in regulations, making them more understandable to the regular person. While in the White House, Al Franken made a comedic plea before Gore and a substantial press gathering, opposing editing the regulations, as the process would destroy the efforts of Franken’s (mythical) uncle, Abe Franken, who had written the regulations in the first place. Heading to the White House, Franken asked us to brainstorm on some ideas for his speech. I remember contributing the line,

“Not all our regulations are too long. The Second Amendment could have used more words.”

Al delivered the line impeccably. It got a huge laugh.

I just thought I’d throw that in.

As far as the show itself is concerned, I liked Lateline, primarily for its efforts to do a comedy about something that mattered, rather than about dating problems. Not that dating problems don’t matter, I just don’t care about them. I also thought Lateline was funny, primarily due to Al’s wide-ranging comic sensibility. I will return to that shortly.

From a conceptual standpoint, Lateline had fundamental identity problems, stemming from the fact that it was a political satirist’s version of a sitcom. I don’t want to be pedantic here, or more specifically, boringly pedantic, or dogmatic, or more specifically, boringly dogmatic, but a television series’ success hangs almost exclusively, not on its agenda, but on whether or not the audience cares about the characters in the show.

A funny series can fail, unless the show’s characters are appealingly drawn (they don’t have to be likable – See: Seinfeld), and the characters are played by actors the audience warms to.

There’ve been a small number of sitcoms set in a newsroom. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of them. I’ve watched the Mary pilot a number of times, looking to see if “Mary Richards” applied for the job at WJM, because she was interested in the news business.

From what I could tell, that wasn’t the reason. She just answered an ad in the newspaper. Her interview for the job with Lou Grant had nothing to do with the news – it was more a Mary-Lou tangle concerning Mary’s typing skills, her age and her religion.

My point is, the news element on The Mary Tyler Moore Show merely served as background. What Mary was really about was the plight of a single woman of thirty living in Minneapolis. We remember the characters – “Mary”, “Lou”, “Ted”, “Murray”, “Rhoda”, “Phyllis”, “Sue Ann” – that’s what made us watch. Why? Because we truly cared about those guys. Also, the Mary show was consistently funny.

Murphy Brown centered on a 60 Minutes-type show. I don’t remember Murphy Brown that well, but what stays with me is "Murphy Brown’s" prickly persona, how she kept firing her assistants (there was a different one every week), and that there was a painter redecorating her house who never finished the job. Again, it’s the characters that stay with me.

In its favor, Lateline did stories never before seen in the history of television. In one episode, Lateline presented a show-long tribute to the wonderful comedian, Buddy Hackett, who, it was reported, had recently passed away. The only problem, as it turned out, was that he hadn’t. You don’t see episodes like that on Cougar Town.

Another episode, involving the ne’er-do-well son of an African dictator, who happened to be a college classmate of Lateline’s intern, Raji, ended with the son’s returning to his homeland, where he was subsequently torn to pieces by the country’s rebels. This episode clearly had dark undertones, but because of Franken’s ability to extend the boundaries defining “what’s funny” – a product of Al’s broad comic sensibility and his experience on Saturday Night Live – the episode was hilarious. For me, that’s what made Lateline stand out. The show took risks unimagined by its tamer contemporaries.

My favorite episode of Lateline was based on a story I suggested. The episode was filmed, single-camera – documentary style – and this was before The Office. Al’s character, “Al Freundlich”, is asked to play a small role, as a newsman in a hundred million dollar movie. The documentary (chronicling “The Making of a Blockbuster”) brings to light how Al, with the purest of intentions, continually points out factual inaccuracies in the script, the corrections of which result in such costly delays and extensive re-shooting that the production is inevitably brought to its knees and is finally forced to close down.

Aside from the idea, which tickled me, and is entirely consistent with “Freundlich’s” character, I marveled at the lavishness of the episode’s production (insisted upon by Al), which included highly paid guest stars, such as Rob Reiner, Vanessa Williams and Martin Sheen, who was cast here as the President, before playing the same role on The West Wing. Who knows? It may have gotten him the part.

I’m proud of the work we did on Lateline. The experience was amazing, the working conditions – especially the living-in-a-hotel part - See: Yesterday's Post – surpassed anything in my career. Plus, I learned a ton about writing comedy from Al Franken.

A favorite comic strategy of Al’s is repetition. Al’s crazy about repetition. Saying the same thing again and again – in other words, repetition – Al just loves it. Al finds it hilarious to say the same thing again and again. Repetition? He can’t get enough of it. Not Al. Not Al Franken. Not our Alsy Boy. Not Senator Al.

It works pretty good, doesn’t it?

And Al would do it more.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

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

We filmed six episodes of Lateline in Los Angeles. I believe I worked full time on those. We then filmed thirteen additional episodes in New York. On those, I served as a consultant, reading drafts of scripts e-mailed to me in Los Angeles, and making suggestions for ways of making them better. It turned out, however, that Lateline’s creators, Al Franken and John Markus wanted a greater participation from me. They therefore proposed an additional element to my job.

What they offered me was a schedule, wherein I would fly to New York during Lateline's hiatus weeks – every third week of production – and work full time, helping revise already written scripts, as well as co-writing original scripts with Al and John.

There would be six trips in all, ranging from nine to sixteen days in length. I’d be flown to New York First Class – with limo service to and from the airport – be put up at the Trump International Hotel, directly across from Central Park, and all my expenses would be covered.

I said I would do it.

You know what? I’ll talk about the work tomorrow. Today, it’s the perks.

Flying First Class. Ample legroom. Ice cream sundaes. And a cookie when you land. You also get to see famous people enjoying the same treatment as you are. (Which, inverted, to highlight the significance, means you’re enjoying same treatment as famous people.) I once saw Minnie Driver giving Matthew Modine a soothing foot massage. I had the faint hope that Minnie would be moving about the cabin, dispensing soothing foot massages to all of us. But no. It was just Matthew Modine.

The Trump International is, or at least was a decade or so ago, a hotel where famous people were put up, primarily so they could avoid the crowds. The building itself was unimposing. (Though “The Donald” might disagree.) No oversized lobby, it was not particularly showy on the outside (as compared, say, to the Waldorf Astoria). The Trump looks like a building of condos – half the building actually is condos. It’s also where they put people up who’ve been brought to New York for extended work stays, and the “they”, whoever “they” are, are paying.

Denzel Washington was there when I was there. Mike Tyson. And the hot teenie-bopper group of the day, Hanson. Although the venue was meant to insure privacy, the word had clearly gotten out, resulting in rotating teams of thirteen year-old girls, huddled across the street, on “Twenty-four hour Alert”, ready to report to the faithful, and scream rapturously, at the first glimpse of a “Hanson Sighting.” I’d emerge from the front door to looks of extreme pubescent disappointment.

The Trump International is a suites hotel. Every unit includes a living room, bedroom and a kitchen. There was no room service, although you could order up from the five-star restaurant on the ground floor. I avoided doing that, because it was ludicrously expensive, and not covered by my deal. Once I splurged and ordered a lemon tart. I believe it was twenty-two dollars.

I like hotel rooms with their own kitchens. Having a kitchen means you don’t have to go out for every meal. And when you order in, there’s a fridge available for storing the leftovers. In my situation, there was yet another bonus.

I was there over Thanksgiving, and Dr. M and Anna flew in for the long weekend. Taking advantage of the kitchen, after purchasing the appropriate cookware, Anna, then in her teens, proceeded to produce a perfect pumpkin pie and a chocolate-pecan pie, which she presented to the Frankens, our hosts for that year’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Sometimes, I’d run into famous people at the Trump. One evening, heading out to dinner, I found myself sharing an elevator with Denzel Washington, dressed in sweats, and heading for the hotel’s basement gym to work out. (Denzel needed to be in shape, as he was shooting Hurricane at the time, playing a character who had once been a top middleweight boxer.) I offered that it took a lot of discipline to go exercise at that time of the day. Denzel agreed.

“I’d rather be going out for a steak and a glass of wine,” he lamented.

We reached the Ground Floor. As I stepped out of the elevator, I turned back to Denzel and I said,

“I think I’ll have that.”

And I left him to his exercising.

The Trump International was extremely security conscious. When I had Chinese food brought in, the “Front Desk” always called upstairs to see if I’d ordered Chinese food, fearing, perhaps, or at least making sure, that the man carrying steaming bags of Chinese-smelling ingredients had not actually come there to kill me, or to snap my picture for the tabloids. I always appreciated their concern.

Was the arrangement perfect? Almost. One problem, however, did arise.

During a couple of my extended stays, I had availed myself of the hotel’s laundry service. This, it turned out, set off huge alarm bells at the studio.

Upon returning to L.A., I was ordered to present myself immediately to the office of the Paramount’s President of Television. When I got there, I was confronted by an agitated President of Television holding a serious-looking memo.

Apparently, my laundry expenses had been the hot topic of the studio’s most recent “budget meeting.” My hotel laundry bill – I actually knew this already, but I wasn’t paying, so “So what?” – was obscenely high. Setting aside the important issue of filmmaking, it was decided that, from now on, I’d be required to take my laundry to the local Dry Cleaners.

Which, on my following visit, I did.

The next day, I picked up my laundry from a Dry Cleaners’ a couple of blocks from the hotel. Tearing open the wrapping, upon returning to my room, I discovered that all my underwear had been shrunk to a size suitable only for very small Vietnamese children. I had to throw everything away.

The hotel’s laundry prices may have been exorbitant, but when you factor in the bill for replacement underwear, and it was pretty much – you should pardon the expression – a wash. I did not, however, charge the studio. Who needs to be the topic of another budget meeting?

The Lateline job conditions were a dream come true. I had always wanted to live in a hotel, ever since I saw “Paladin” do it on Have Gun – Will Travel. When I checked out for the last time, I gave everyone who’d been helpful to me during my multiple visits an appreciative tip. The Trump International had made an indelible impression on me.

A half a dozen years later, when I was visiting New York for Anna’s graduation from college, I asked if we could stroll by the Trump for old-time’s sake, and Anna agreed. As we passed the hotel, the doorman, who resembled the actor David Schwimmer, called out,

“Hello, Mr. Pomerantz. You haven’t been around for a while.”

Though hardly its most celebrated visitor, I had apparently made an impression on the Trump International as well.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Nine

It’s important for a writer to remain productive. It’s especially important for a writer being paid weekly under a studio “overall deal.” If a writer’s not productive while being paid weekly under a studio “overall deal”, the studio “overall deal” goes away, and the writer is sent home, languishing grumpily until somebody invents blogs.

Okay.

One afternoon, while napping in my long, narrow office (I never liked that office) in the Clara Bow Building on the Paramount Studios lot, I am informed that there’s a call for me from (now Senator) Al Franken. I get up and head to the phone, hoping not to sound like someone who was just recently asleep.

I had met Al Franken once, about a quarter of a century earlier. He was working on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live – our meeting took place during the show’s first season – and I was visiting, at least partly, to see what I’d passed up. (I’d been invited to write on the show, but had turned the offer down.)

I had brought Lorne Michaels a crate of oranges from L.A.’s Farmers Market as a present. (A Californian bringing his New York-based buddy some oranges in the winter. What I guy!) Looking for a place to put the crate down, I ran into Al in the SNL offices, and he gave me a hand.

I introduced myself. Hearing my name, Al’s immediate response was:

“Oh. You’re the guy who wouldn’t work for us.”

My decision seemed stupid at the time. The show was on magazine covers. It was a national phenomenon. Reminding me that I’d turned down working on a national phenomenon struck me as Al’s saying,

“Oh. You’re the guy who’s really stupid.”

Al’s comment had remained with me for twenty-five years. And now, here he was again. I was apprehensive about picking up the phone.

It turns out, what Al was calling about was a series idea he’d come up with that he’d recently sold to Paramount. He was wondering if I wanted to develop it with him. (I imagine a Paramount executive had suggested he call me, due to my sitcom experience, and also due to the fact that I was not currently productive.)

Al explained that the series he had in mind was a multi-camera, half-hour comedy concerning a fictional news-interview show, modeled after ABC’s Nightline.

Al’s show would be about putting a nightly news-interview program on the air. The series “regulars” would include a hierarchy of producers, a team of news gatherers, and a host.

Al’s enthusiasm rose noticeably as he described his intention of including actual politicians as guests. It peaked when he explained that the show would stay current by injecting material at the last minute, commenting on the top new stories of the week.

Regular readers know that I am not a person who sees the glass as being half full. For me, the glass is always chipped, cracked and mildewed, and whatever liquid fills half of it is seen as terminally murky and crawling with germs.

I told Al I wasn’t interested.

Why? I just said why. I invariably vote "Nay." But if you want actual reasons…

The biggest upside of Al’s project was Al. He knew politics, and could be counted on to deliver a show that was smart, pointed and extremely funny.

I knew Al could come through with the political guests, because he knew these people – especially the Democrats – personally, having written jokes for many of their campaign speeches.

(As I later learned, Al is fearless about calling people, and he always thinks big. Al originally wanted Jerry Seinfeld to do the warm-up for the pilot episode of this series. He ended up with me. He also invited Neil Simon to write an episode for the show. He ended up with me.)

The biggest downside of Al’s project was Al. First, although unquestionably a funny writer, Al had no experience writing half-hour comedies, where, in the final analysis, creating strong, identifiable characters is more important than the funniest jokes.

Writing broadly drawn sketches, based on some clever comedic concept, with one-dimensional characters and, often, inconsequential endings, is hardly the ideal training ground for writing what are essentially televised one-act plays. (He harumphed, in a condescending tone.)

Also, having worked almost exclusively on a show that did inject jokes at the last minute, commenting on the top news stories of the day (in their Weekend Update segment), Al ignored the fact that the “lead time” between a sitcom’s production and its airing on television – at that time between two and three weeks – would prevent his most cherished element of the concept from ever happening.

One final problem that precluded our working together was that Al lived in New York and I lived in Los Angeles. Why is that a drawback in the era of modern technology? It isn’t, really. It just gave me another reason not to do it.

I wished Al “Good luck”, and went back to my nap.

A few months later, I get a call from John Markus, a writer I had hired for The Cosby Show, who had remained in New York – where The Cosby Show was produced – after his participation on that show had ended.

John explained that Al Franken had contacted him about the project I had said “No” to, and John, a man of considerably more optimism, had said, “Yes.” They had written first draft versions of four scripts for a show, now called Lateline, and John wondered if I’d be interested in reading them.

I said I’d be very much interested in reading them. (Partly out of interest, and partly, once again, to check out what I'd passed up.)

I received the scripts, and I read them. They were fresh and exciting. They also made me laugh. I called John and complimented him and Al on their work. John asked if there was any way I could see myself participating in the show. I said I would consider being a consultant of some sort. And John, with Al’s approval, said “Great!”

That’s how I became a consultant on a news-themed situation comedy called Lateline.

More on that later.