Friday, April 30, 2010

"Coming Out"

Don’t tell my wife.

Nah, it’s okay. She already knows.

I guess I’ve always known too. Deep down. I just couldn’t face the truth.

But, you know, the pressure builds up inside you, and it has to come out, the consequences be damned.

I’m about to make a confession I have never dared to say out loud before. Deep breath, and here we go:

I’m a conservative.

Oh. I feel better now. Look, I’m smiling. And why not? I am finally free.

Let me say it again.

I’m a conservative!

Ooh, the exhilaration! Gosh amighty! I’m out and I’m lovin’ it!

A careful observer would have spotted the telltale “giveaways”, subtle chinks in my liberal orthodoxy. I’d say “black” instead of “African-American.” I’d say “Indian.” And I’d never feel guilty. (Because my intentions were benign.)

In my writing, I refuse to say “his or her”; I say “their.” “His or her” is an insult to rhythm. “Their” says it all. In a single syllable.

My personal character screams conservatism. With my money, I insist on a conservative investment strategy, wishing only to keep up with inflation. And a tiny bit more.

I’m a conservative dresser. Corduroy goes in and out of fashion. I’ve worn it continually for years.

I’m conservative in my eating habits. When I’ve had my fill, though there’s still plenty left on my plate, I stop. I’m also a coffee-drinking conservative. No more than one cup a day. And when frequenting my favorite coffee emporium, no “Bitch’s Brew” – too strong – no “Angel City?” – dish water. Shunning the extremes, I choose “Venice Blend.” An unswervingly conservative selection.

I’m a cowboy fan. Cowboys live by conservative values. It’s in their “creed.” Honestly. Loyalty. Fair play. Courage. Trustworthiness. Respect for all people, and for the land.

I admire the cowboys, and the values they hold dear.

Who wouldn’t?

I support health care for everyone, because you shouldn’t have to go broke, because you or a loved one happened to get sick. I’m against capital punishment, because, matters of life and death are God’s business, not ours. And if you’ve got more money than you need, what’s the problem in sharing some of it with the poor?

Maybe it’s ‘cause I’m new to conservatism, but I really don’t see the conflict.

Not long ago, I took an Extension class at UCLA called “The History of the American Right.” I realize taking one class doesn’t make me an expert. I believe eight classes make you an expert.

Yes, I’m kidding. Conservatives can kid.

I can truthfully say that that class really opened my eyes. For the first time, I identified with conservatives.

They sounded like me.

Most significantly, the class introduced me to Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century thinker, honored as one of the Founding Fathers of conservatism. Burke believed you acted conservatively by being thoughtful and deliberate in your decision-making.

In a phrase, we’re talking “Hold your horses.”

Edmund Burke believed in change. Not the inevitability of change – “It’s coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Burke believed change was natural and desirable. Though he opposed the

“What do we want?”


“When do we want it?”


type of thinking,

Burke stood equally against the

“What don’t we want?”


“When don’t we want it?”


point of view.

As a conservative, Burke eschewed the extremes, favoring

“What do we want?”


“How do we want it?”

“Thoughtfully and deliberately.”

With no exclamation points.

I guess anyone has a right to define what “conservative” means. And there’s no rule saying the belief system can’t re-configure itself over time. (The faction who once championed Prohibition were the liberals.) The problem for me is, as of now, I have no ideological home.

I can’t join today’s conservatives, because they seem a long way from “thoughtful and deliberate.” However, if they ever decide to return to conservatism’s earliest principles, despite the insults and abuse that are certain to come my way,

I may very well join up.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"A Tale of One City"

When a person from here is out of town and someone asks them, “Where’re you from?”, they say, “L.A.” or “Los Angeles”, or, if they’re feeling bitterly poetic at that moment, “The City of Shattered Dreams.”

That’s a generic answer you give to strangers, so they won’t get confused. To the outsider, Los Angeles appears to be one place. But it isn’t. L.A. is a bunch of separate municipalities that, over time, have spread, until, like pancakes on a griddle, you know what they do, you’ve got a couple of pancakes cooking too closely together, and if you don’t do something with the edge of your spatula, they merge, like two amoebas getting friendly, morphing into one large, misshapen pancake.

That’s Los Angles. A giant, misshapen pancake.

Los Angeles may be one place to strangers, but people who live here answer to a more specific geographical designation. And not just gang members – everybody. You ask someone here, “Where’re you from?” and, among dozens of other answers, you’ll hear, “Silverlake” (where my daughter Anna and the other cool people live), “Venice”, “Mar Vista” or, if they’re from “the Valley”, “Van Nuys”, “Sherman Oaks” or “Studio City.”

Some of these spots are incorporated cities, with their own police and fire departments and local governments. Some are ethnic enclaves, like “Koreatown” or “Little Tokyo” (as far as I’m aware of, there is no “Jewville”.) Some “Where’re you froms?” are simply boundaried and clearly identifiable neighborhoods.

One of the joys of living here is that you can easily visit these various locales. There are, maybe, a dozen of them within a half hour’s drive of each other, their borders, usually so indeterminable, you can’t tell when you’ve passed through one area and entered another.

“Are we in Santa Monica?”

“We were in Santa Monica. Now, we’re in Brentwood.”

Five minutes later…

“Is this still Brentwood?”

“No, it’s Westwood. Five minutes north is Bel Air. And to the south, is Cheviot Hills.”

“What’s east?”

“West Hollywood.”

“And west?”

“Brentwood! We just came from there!”

These places are very close together. The thing that makes you feel like you’re out of town is that is of them is uniquely different. In some cases, startlingly different.

Three examples:

Beverly Hills is a city. They have a mayor and everything. Somebody like Bob Barker, or Zsa Zsa Gabor. A lot of Jimmy Stewart-era actors once lived in Beverly Hills. That’s where the “Tour of the Stars’ Homes” buses drove around. I believe they still have those. But now it’s the “Tour of the Homes the Stars Used to Live In, But Now It’s Rich People You’ve Never Heard Of.”

We go to Beverly Hills primarily to eat at Nate ‘N Al’s Deli. It’s famous. Larry King eats there. For me, the drive to Nate ‘N Al’s is worth making, because of their mushroom barley soup, their still warm, hard-crust–mooshy-in-the-middle rye bread, and their dark meat turkey, served by no other deli I know.

When you walk the streets of Beverly Hills, you may spot a famous person, you may not. I am notorious in my family for thinking I’ve spotted a famous person, but it’s not them, my most recent boo-boo being a “not Diana Ross” spotting.

In Beverly Hills, everyone you see is exquisitely dressed and impeccably groomed. (This immediately causes me to stand out for shlumpiness, for which, in Beverly Hills, I believe you can get a ticket.) You can imagine citizens of Beverly Hills hiring specially trained wardrobe and hair and makeup consultants to come at their house and prepare them for their public appearance.

“So what are we dressing you for today? A wedding? An awards ceremony?”


The Beverly Hills wealthy come from the “If you got it, flaunt it” School of Ostentation. “You see this magnificent gold jewelry I’m wearing – the necklace, the rings, the bracelets, the thing around my ankle? This is nothing compared to what I’ve got sitting at home. This is for walking my dog.”

Not all rich folks are conspicuous showoffs. In Malibu, a short drive up the coast, the affluent behave entirely differently.

Unlike in Beverly Hills, the denizens of Malibu do not “Dress to Impress.” Instead, they dress like their children – t-shirts, jeans, baseball caps and sneakers (though they’re all the most expensive versions you can find.)

Malibu’s defining motto could quite easily be this:

“‘Old?’ Never heard of it.”

In Malibu, you’re only old if you’re dead; otherwise, you’re under forty.

What you regularly see in Malibu are men in their seventies (they’re gray and balding, though there’s still enough left for a ponytail) roaring into the Cross Creek shopping center, riding enormous motorcycles, their newly minted babies strapped securely in the back.

You heard me – Social Security recipients, blessed with infant children. Courtesy of wife Number Two, Three or Seven. It’s the Standard Malibu Couple – a deeply tanned codger, dressed like Gilligan, accompanied by a mouth-droppingly youthful wife. I don’t know where they stash the earlier wives. Maybe be in Beverly Hills.

Coming somewhat back to earth, my hometown of Santa Monica, upscale, though well below the Beverly Hills or Malibu stratosphere, is generally considered to be an ocean-abutting enclave for liberals.

If you were looking to define Santa Monica by a single, personal possession, it would definitely be the Prius. The place is swarming with them. Our family alone (if you included Anna’s b.f., Colby) owns four. Rachel, Anna, Colby and Dr. M. (For what I drive, See: Yesterday’s posting.)

It’s very possible to stand beside a black Prius, your sensoring device firmly in hand, and not be able to unlock the door, because it’s not your black Prius. Look down the street, and you’ll see half dozen other black Priuses, any one of which could be yours. A couple can be ruled out, because they’re sporting bumper stickers trumpeting causes you don’t care about. Otherwise, they’re entirely interchangeable.

I can imagine easily getting arrested for trying to break into somebody else’s car. Though a Santa Monica conviction is unlikely, due to the “multiple black Prius” defense.

I hope you enjoyed my superficial tour through some of the many cities in the city of Los Angeles. Come and visit sometime. Who knows? Your stay may inspire you to generalizations and clichés even shallower than my own.

Though, admittedly, I have set the bar pretty high.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"The Comfort of Old Friends"

This may be an “Old Guy” thing. Or it may be a “cheap” thing. Or, it could be the “perfect storm” confluence of “Old Guy” and cheapness colliding explosively together. It could also be neither.

(Argument for “It could be neither”: I have never used “perfect storm” or “confluence” before, so you can’t say I’m resistant to new things. And I don’t see myself as being cheap, though certain close relatives may disagree. With persuasive examples.)

What I’m talking about is…well, examples abound:

When I go to the gym, which I’ve been doing twice a week for over twenty-five years (since the time I had retina surgery, where the recovery process required me to lie down for six weeks, and when I got up, my legs forgot how to walk) I always bring with me a green nylon tote-bag, containing a bottle of water (all L.A. people carry water, to avoid the possibility of suddenly dying of thirst) and a pair of now-frayed workout gloves, which I wear to protect my delicate hands from developing calluses, as I hoist enormous barbells, weighing up to seven pounds.

I received this tote bag as a, I don’t know, party favor, when I was invited to speak at the prestigious Banff Television Festival, held annually in Banff, Alberta, Canada. The bag was a promotional giveaway from CTV, at the time, Canada’s only independent television network.

My ubiquitous carry-bag is leaf green, with canvas straps. Printed on the side of it are the words, CTV Canada’s Olympics Network. The Olympics referred to are the Summer Olympics of 1988. Meaning,

I’ve been using the same bag for over twenty years.

Why do I still use it? Because it’s not broken. And because it reminds me of a time someone thought I was worth flying somewhere to speak. It also says “me.” To anyone bothering to notice that “That guy’s being using the same gym bag for twenty years.” But, most especially, to me.

It’s my gym bag.

Moving excitingly along…

Last weekend, we took time to cull stacks of unalbumed photographs, many of which included me at a considerably younger age. “Skinnier” and “more hair” are an immediate “given”. More surprising – and considerably more welcome – was another distinguishing identifier:

My leather jacket.

There it was, lustrously shiny, chocolate brown, with greenish, elasticky-type ribbing at the sleeves and around the collar. I still wear that jacket, though the leathery luster is long gone, replaced now by the kind of mottled dullness you might find on the other side of your belt. Or a really old horse.

Photographic evidence proves that I’ve had that jacket for over twenty years. When the zipper broke, I immediately replaced it. When the lining shredded, Dr. M took me to a fabric store, where I chose fabric for a new lining, which we later took to a tailor shop to have sewn in.

A lot of effort? I suppose. But I wanted that jacket around. Why wouldn’t I? It still worked – I mean, the sleeves didn’t fall off. Plus, it reminded me of a moment long ago, when an actress on a show I was running had gazed upon that jacket with covetous eyes. And I was wearing it at the time! That’s a memory worth holding on to, isn’t it?

That was my jacket!

Forging thrillingly ahead…

I have three or four never used wallets, languishing in my night table drawer. Nothing at all wrong with them, they’re perfectly good wallets. I’ve been meaning to switch to one of them, as a replacement for the wallet I’m currently using, for some time. But I can’t do it.

I’ve been using the same wallet for twenty years. It still works – I mean, the money doesn’t fall out of it. Sure, it’s beat up and scratched and mysteriously discolored. Still, you know,

It’s my wallet.

And finally, there’s my car.

A dark green 1992 Lexus SC 400. (They don’t make that model anymore.) I bought the car, which has over a hundred and three thousand miles on it, with part of the money from my last big show business contract. It cost fifty thousand dollars. My hand literally shook when I wrote the check.

Over the years, I’ve spent considerable sums getting the dents hammered out, having it serially repainted, and reupholstering the front seats and the steering wheel. I take it in for regular servicing, where loaner versions of current models leave me thinking, “Wow, these new cars are really good.”

Despite its liabilities – the red dye, or whatever, that illuminates the gas-gauge needle has disappeared, leaving me no way of determining how much gas I have left – I would never consider giving it up.

It’s my car.

I have no similar attachment to clothes. When they wear out, I toss them on the “give-way pile”, destined for Helping Hands for the Blind. The clothes are still usable, and the blind won’t notice they’re worn out. Unless someone tells them. Though who would be that cold-hearted to the blind?

But even with clothes, I retain a nostalgic link. When discarding an item of apparel, I invariably order a fresher version of the exact same garment. The same jeans, the same drawstring pants, the same short sleeved Henleys (cotton sports shirts with no collars). Why?

Because that’s what I wear.

My gym bag, my jacket, my wallet, my car. I’m loyal to them all. I admire that in me. I think it’s commendable. But there’s another, probably truer, reason I hold onto things.

In a world of dizzying change, my longtime possessions reflect a comforting continuity. Times change. I change. My stuff stays the same.

And that’s how I like it.

(And I’m not cheap!)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Searching For My Voice (Again) - Part Three"

I’m putting pieces together here. Bear with me for a minute.


I can be very entertaining.

And I can be excruciatingly tedious.

And I can’t tell the difference.

Me. (About me.)


I had this writer friend who believed his purpose was merely – ooh, that’s judgmental – who believed his purpose was primarily – no, not primarily, exclusively – to entertain, and once at lunch, I casually opined this:

“I don’t know why anyone would write, if they didn’t have anything to say.”


Two Belgians were talking just after The Great War (later re-branded World War I) had come to an end. And one Belgian said,

“I wonder what history will say about this war?”

To which the second Belgian replied,

“I know what history won’t say about this war. It won’t say that Belgium invaded Germany.” *

(* Because they didn’t.)


At camp, everyone said the food was bad. But I was the only one who didn’t eat it.

I’ve been invited to submit a commentary to a political website, and I’m searching for an appropriate “voice” to deliver it in. Now, a hypothetical objective observer might reasonably suggest, “Write it in your own voice.”

Thank you for that suggestion, hypothetical objective observer, but it’s not as simple as that. At least, I haven’t found it to be. I’ve already written and rejected one sample commentary, and have abandoned a second without completing it. Why? Because I didn’t like them.

Why didn’t I like them? Because of the “voice” they were written in. It came off “serious”, angry, superior, naïve, gratingly ingratiating, and laughably obvious in what it was trying to say.

Nowhere near “very entertaining.” Perilously close to “excruciatingly tedious.”

Fortunately, this time, I did know the difference.

I had found my “commentary voice.” And I hated how it sounded.

What’s the problem, Earlo?

I’m not sure, Italics Man. It could just be stage fright. If my commentary is accepted, I’d be sharing a website with serious journalists, people who, before sitting down to write something, solicit verification from sources and look things up. I don’t know any sources. And I’m too lazy to look things up.
I would never distort facts, or make facts up. I just don’t like to get bogged down in them. (There are too many facts, and they are frequently contradictory.) I deal in impressions – the way things strike me – then leave it to the reader to decide if they ring true.

My blog is about me – what I’ve done, and the way I see things. This is comfortable territory. When you’re writing about yourself, nobody, outside people in the psychology business, can say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I’m on safe ground in my blog. And I’m happy with my voice. Evaluating my blog writing, I see “serious” as sincere, “angry” as passionate, “superior” as insightful, “naïve” as endearingly innocent, “gratingly ingratiating” as genuine, and “laughably obvious” as it’s not obvious to me.

I allow the possibility that I’m an easy marker.

The preceding was about tone. We now move on to content.

I can’t write if I don’t have something to say. That seems like a “no-brainer” to me. Some thought or observation catches your mind’s eye, you think it’s important, you pick up a pen. Why else would you bother?

The problem is, when it comes to politics – where I have tons to say – my “voice” instantly becomes earnest, urgent, pedantic and forced. (A law firm you definitely want to avoid.) Only recently has this come to my attention, but it’s undeniably true. When the issues are important, my otherwise reliable “writing touch” suddenly disappears.

Why is that? Because I feel frustrated, and that reflects itself in my writing. My frustration is only partly because, over the years, I’ve been dismissed as a lightweight, lacking academic credentials and professional standing to give credence to my opinions, though that would be enough.

I’m frustrated (I can already feel the anger growing or, if you will, the passion) because I see stuff that nobody else seems to care about. (Welcome to “superior.”)

In an environment where “perception” is permitted to debate factual reality and, frighteningly often, wins, it’s very possible for a substantial chunk of the populace to truly and passionately come to believe that Belgium invaded Germany. (Or that the president was born outside the country.)

But that’s not news – that stirred-up emotions regularly trump the truth. Nor is it news that both sides speak only to their supporters, each side making little effort to consider the position of the other (except for purposes of ridicule).

My wife rolls her eyes when I explain that I turn to news commentary shows in hopes of gaining illumination and understanding of the problems besetting the country and the world. She’s right, and I know it, because I always go away from these shows disappointed. Though commentary shows appear to be in the illumination and problem understanding business, they’re not. They’re in show business. (This is also not news.)

The general concern about the increasing blurring of news and entertainment triggers no format adjustments or alterations in approach. Nothing changes on these shows. Except for the set, the graphics, the catchy “segment labels”, and the musical stings.

Why do commentary shows remain infotainmently as they are? Because people continue to watch.

The news will remain inextricably mired in show business, because, by their numbers if not their pronouncements, the public prefers it that way. (Absent a natural disaster, less fireworky CNN’s ratings are lower than Fox’s and MSNBC’s.) I hate it. And only partly because I was fooled.

I’m starting to think that my angry “inner voice” isn’t sabotaging my opportunity, as I previously believed. I think it’s sending me a message.

If you can’t stand the food, stay out of the Mess Hall.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Searching For My Voice (Again) - Part Two"

There are going to be three parts. I can’t help it. It’s the “Rule of Threes.” It’s in stone.

I’m searching for my voice in an arena beyond the boundaries of where I normally work. After a number of years, maybe seven, I found my voice in half-hour comedy. It’s a strong and (relatively) confident voice. (A lot more confident than my “inner weightlifting voice.”)

My “inner comedy voice” works as a sounding board. I imagine something funny, and I test it against that voice. If that “something funny” passes the “inner comedy voice” test – which in comedy means it makes me laugh – I put it in the script. If it doesn’t, I let it go, and keep trying.

I trust my “inner comedy voice.” I’ve relied on it for thirty years, and it got me a house.

But what happens when I try a different arena? How will my “inner comedy voice” help me in that situation?

Answer: It’s pretty much useless.

Let me be clear here. I’m not saying we only have one voice. We express ourselves in many voices, or more precisely unless we have multiple personalities, various shadings of the same voice. Why the shadings? Because there’s social etiquette involved. Understood, if unwritten, expectations. I’m not talking about “indoor voice” and outdoor voice”; that’s just about volume, or maybe volume and intensity.

I’m talking about the way we verbally relate to people. Different people – your drinking buddies versus, say, your rabbi – different voices. You may even use different “voices” with the same person, for example, when talking to your rabbi in synagogue versus encountering him at a ball game.

It’s a different situation. In one place, he’s wearing an embroidered yarmulke and holding a prayer book; in the other place, he’s wearing a Dodgers cap and holding a (hopefully all beef) hot dog. He’s not exactly the same guy.

It’s natural to make “voice” adjustments. It’s like appropriate wardrobe. You don’t wear a bathing suit to a funeral, unless, maybe, a swimmer died. It’s not like you’re behaving falsely. You’re simply acceding to the rules. And avoiding getting “those looks.”

Still, there are places where, for me at least, my “inner voice”, in whatever shading, comes up disappointingly empty. When I worked at Universal Studios, I once shared an office suite with a guy who wrote one-hour police dramas. I have never written a police drama. Which I self-consciously expressed to my office-mate this way:

“In my entire writing career, I have never once used the word ‘careening.’”

You can ad to that list, “Shot’s fired” and “Read that dirt bag his rights.”

Okay, let’s stop there. “Read that dirt bag his rights”, to me, is funny. It feels like a parody of police drama dialogue. (And there is evidence that it is. I’ve been advised by a talented writer friend that you would only hear dialogue like that on bad police dramas.)

The problem is, working on my own, I am in no way certain whether that, or any other line of dialogue, is on the money, or not up to snuff. Why? Because I don’t have a reliable sounding board, no determining “inner police drama voice” directing me to put the line in, or leave the line out. I’d be totally in the dark.

I once imagined a police drama “rewrite” session, similar to the ones that regularly took place on half hour comedies. Lacking a personal police drama “quality gauge”, I would have no basis for knowing whether my suggested revisions were an improvement, a lateral move sideways, or whether, in fact, I was making the script worse.

Here then is my impression of a police drama rewrite session:

The suspect’s car careens blindly around the corner. The suspect loses control, his vehicle crashing into a parked car – no, a van – no, a fire hydrant. The suspect bolts from his vehicle and runs – hotfoots it – races down the street. A squad car screeches to a halt. Two officers emerge from their vehicle and yell, “Police!” as they unholster their guns – no, pistols, no, firearms.

Disregarding the warning, the suspect continues down the street. Shots are fired, one catching the suspect in the shoulder, wait, the butt, no, that’s too funny, in the ankle. That’s good, the ankle. The suspect falters, but continues running – wait, he was shot – limping…away.

Suddenly, a woman holding a baby – that’s terrible – an elderly couple, no, a blind man with a dog, emerge from a convenience store, no, a pharmacy, no, a bodega. Using the bystanders as a human shield, the suspect slowly backs away, unaware that officers are approaching from the opposite direction. The officers yell, “Don’t move!”, no ,“Hold it right there!”, no, ‘Freeze!’ Realizing that escape is futile, the suspect reluctantly drops his gun – knife – switchblade – canister of poisonous gas – no, gun – and surrenders.

“Read the dirt bag his rights.”

That’s terrible, right? Too cliché? I mean, it “connects the dots” okay. The guy runs away and they catch him. It gets the job done. But it’s crap. I think. Could I do it better? I’m not entirely sure I could. And it’s not because of a lack of experience. My “inner voice” is of absolutely no help.

Because my “inner voice” is for comedy.

It’s okay. I never wanted to write drama. (And I wasn’t writing drama there, just stupid stage directions. I’d be too embarrassed to simulate my version of dramatic dialogue.)

It isn’t important to me to be able to write drama, any more than it’s important for me to be able to draw, without people constantly saying, “What’s that?”

The problem arises when I want to try a different arena, say, like writing a commentary for a serious political blog like, and I can’t connect with a reliable “inner voice” to show me the way. That’s when it gets frustrating. And a little upsetting.

So upsetting that I put off writing about it for another day.

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Searching For My Voice (Again)"

I received a little booklet once, I don’t know who sent it to be, but what it was was a compact codification of how a writer on a show’s writing staff ought to behave in order to maximize their helpfulness to the show runner. What it boiled down to was one simple rule:

“Write like the show runner.”

This instruction is cold, but it’s accurate. If you want to be of maximum service to the show you’re working on, imitate the style of that show’s head writer, (who is invariably also its creator and show runner).

More than anything, when a show runner receives a script written by a member of their writing staff, they are praying that when they read the script, they will think, “This sounds like I wrote it.”

They’re praying that, because if the script doesn’t sound like they wrote it, the show runner will be stuck having to rewrite it, so that it does. Show runners hate that. (They also love that, because it makes them feel indispensable.)

When I started writing half hour comedies, I would find myself writing like the people who hired me. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t like, “If I don’t write like the people who hired me, I’ll get fired.” It was more, “I like this show. I know what they’re doing. I’m going to write like they do.”

It felt good when my bosses liked what I did. It meant I had done a good job, the ”good job” being defined by how successfully I had mimicked the writing of the people who were praising me.

It’s not just pragmatic for a writer to write like the people who hired them, it’s a natural step in their growth as writers. When you’re just starting out, your “writer’s voice” is not fully developed. Copying someone else’s style helps you hone your craft, and strengthen your confidence. Think of as it the writing equivalent of “training wheels.” Once you get your sea legs under you (sorry about mixing transportational metaphors), you have the muscles and the self-assurance to strike out on your own.

Not that everything I wrote sounded like somebody else. Though each episode’s beats were meticulously worked out in lengthy story meetings, there were always gaps in the narrative, where something undiscussed needed to be injected. It was there that the scriptwriter’s originality got its moment to shine.

I recall a Taxi episode called “The Great Line” in which, “John”, a wide-eyed Midwesterner (subsequently dropped from the series), was given a sure-fire line to pick up a girl in a bar, and he used it. The “Great Line” – and it didn’t come from me; I never picked up anyone – was this:

“Forget the preliminaries. Let’s get married.”

In the episode, the line worked too well. John actually wound up married.

The next day, John returned to the taxi garage, shell shocked and distressed. He didn’t want to be married. And he spelled out his reason:

“I always thought they were connected: You get married, you have kids, you get old, and you die. Somehow, I believed if you didn’t get married, you wouldn’t die.”

That line was me. For better or worse. It reflected a number of my core characteristics – innocence, anxiety, deep thinking and ridiculousness. I was proud of that line, especially when it got a big laugh from the studio audience. For me, the laugh was a vindication. I could not only successfully imitate others. I could also succeed as myself.

(My bosses seemed to appreciate my contribution. At least at the time. It seems noteworthy, however, that when “The Great Line” aired in a slightly shortened version in off-network reruns, John’s fear-of-marriage speech had been edited out of the show.)

Though they’re naturally hungry to write in their own voice, writers need to patiently bide their time until they create the show. (At which point they can insist that other writers write like them.) I finally did that, most significantly, with Best of the West. It was really fun. And highly satisfying.

Well, sir, as I mentioned last week, I’ve been invited to contribute a commentary on a website called My first potential submission, which I shared with you in April 15th’s Self-Inflicted (Writing) Wounds, didn’t feel right. Despite the setback, however, I am determined to try again.

It’s a different venue. It’s like starting over. Once again, I need to discover my own voice.

More on that next time.

(I have chosen to wrestle with this problem in public. I hope watching me work my way through the process may appeal to aspiring writers, as well to people who simply enjoy watching somebody struggle.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Question Period"

Not long ago, Dr. M and I attended an event where Carl Reiner (Your Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Jerk) sat down with Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer to discuss Feiffer’s recently published memoir. (We were invited to the event by our friend, Cliff, a professional photographer, who had chosen his career after watching The Bob Cummings Show, a fifties sitcom in which Cummings played a photographer who was constantly surrounded by beautiful women. Cliff is one of the lucky ones. He knew what he wanted, and he went for it.)

Reiner was a hilarious if occasionally spotlight nabbing interviewer. Feiffer was everything his cartoons are – funny, insightful and resolutely angry over insults and abuses now long in the past. His best story concerned his mother’s having given away his dog, after the pet had lived with the family for only six months.

“Why did you give him away?” demanded the irate young Feiffer.

“Because I knew you wouldn’t take care of him,” the mother replied.

“I’ve been taking care of him for six months!” screamed the boy.

“You wouldn’t later,” came the mother’s all-knowing explanation.

Feiffer was thoughtful and generous in his responses, and on the money in his observations, concerning humor (funny people are funny to take the sting out of their otherwise threatening remarks), learning your craft (he lamented the disappearance of the valuable tradition of internship), and dealing with criticism (act like it never happened).

After the interview came an illuminating “Question Period”, impeded only slightly by the fact that the eighty-one year-old Feiffer had difficulty hearing the questions. Staving off possible embarrassment, Feiffer deftly made glorious fun of his impairment.

What a pleasure it was, witnessing two aging lions (Feiffer more an aging lynx), infirm in certain regards, but sharp as tacks where it really mattered. In the coconut. It was a memorable evening.

The event, which took place in a synagogue, reminded me of a similar “meet the author” event I attended many years ago, which also took place in a synagogue. Synagogues are a natural venue for people promoting their books. Jews are “the people of the book.” Synagogues are a gathering place for Jews. You can sell some books at a synagogue.

It’s a winning strategy. Much better than flogging your memoir at the car wash.

Haling from Montreal, the author on this earlier occasion was the renowned – to Canadians – and deservedly highly praised writer, Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now, among other wonderful and worth reading offerings.)

I don’t know about now, because I don’t live there anymore, but when I did, Richler was the only famous Canadian Jewish writer. America had considerably more of them. I am entirely certain that if Richler been from the States, he’d be studied in writing programs across the country. Richler’s abilities consistently rival his contemporaries – Bellows, Roth, and Malamed – and that’s not Canadian braggadocio; the guy’s really good.

(Imagine. A country so under-populated, there was only one Canadian Jewish author. When he died, they had to put an ad in the paper to find another one.)

I can no longer remember which book Richler was promoting at the time. I only knew this. The guy was a hero to me. I had to hear him speak.

So we got tickets and we went.

Time has erased the specifics of his presentation that evening, though I recall it was skillfully delivered. What stays with me after all these years was the subsequent “Question Period.” Never have I witnessed such a remarkable performance. Not before, and not since.

Though he invited questions from the audience, no matter what the questioners wanted to know, Richler adamantly refused to accommodate them. One by one, admiring fans would rise, offering the standard queries people might inquire of a visiting author, and, as coldly and efficiently as Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, Richler shot every single one of them down.

“Do you think you’d be better known if you were American?”

“That’s a silly question.”

“What effect did growing up in working-class Montreal have on the way you see the world?”

“It’s all in my books.”

“Which of your books is your favorite?”

“Why would you ask me such a thing?”

On it went, for ten agonizing minutes. It was starting to get funny, in an uncomfortable sort of way. Offered the most innocuous-seeming questions – concerning his influences, his work habits, the secret of his success – Richler consistently and truculently slammed the door.

“How would you compare yourself with other authors dealing with similar subject matter?”

“How would you?”

Finally, after deflecting a dozen or so question, and showing no sign whatever of lightening up, I stood up in front of the gathering, and I said,

“Is there anything we can ask you that you’ll be actually willing to answer?”

I’m lying. That was my fantasy, but I didn’t do it. I wanted to, but I feared Richler would march indignantly off the stage, and the crowd would morph into an angry mob and decimate me with sarcasm.

“Are you happy now? You made him leave the stage.”

“He wasn’t saying anything.”

“He might have later.”

There you have it. The dog has to go. The question can’t be asked.

Feiffer’s mother lives!
A reminder: Readers may feel free to ask any questions they'd like. Though Canadian, I promise not be as icy as Mordecai Richler.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"There's Help and There's Help"

As I mentioned yesterday, a class I was signed up for at UCLA Extension was cancelled. “Pulitzer Prize Winning Plays.” Apparently, not enough people enrolled. Ten million people living in Los Angeles, and there weren’t ten of them (the minimum for a class) who wanted to study some of the best American plays ever written. If the class were “Crappy Screenplays That Sold”, it would have been “Standing Room Only.”

Okay, so I got my enrollment money back on the phone. They were debiting my payment on my credit card. However, if I wanted a refund for my books for the class, I had to return them to the campus bookstore. (The books, which I had purchased on line, had been delivered to me by UPS.)

Fine. The books cost over a hundred bucks. I want my money back. So I get in my car, and I drive to the UCLA campus.

Parking in the campus parking structure costs ten dollars.

“I’m returning some books, because my class was cancelled. It will take ten minutes.”

“Ten dollars.”

I don’t want to pay ten dollars. This road trip is about getting money back, not giving them more. As an alternate to the campus parking structure, I am advised to park at an on-campus parking meter. Against enormous odds, I find a spot.

I will park at a parking meter. I will not pay ten dollars.

The parking meter arrangement is high tech, which, for me, means it’s more than dropping a quarter down a slot. There’s a machine at the end of the row of parking spots. You do something over there. I get out of my car. I walk to the machine.

It’s very sunny out. The glare makes it impossible to read the instructions in the glassed-covered window. I move in close, squint, and I finally decipher it. The first instruction says:

“Punch in parking space number.”

I have no clue what my parking space number is. I walk back to my car. As it turns out, I have driven over my parking space number, so I can’t read it. I get in my car. I back up a little. I get out of my car. I read the parking space number. It’s 5768. I walk back to the machine.

I punch in my parking space number – 5768 – and I press “Enter.” The next almost-impossible-to-read instruction concerns choosing how long I want to park. I punch in twenty minutes, and I press “Enter.”

I’m doin’ pretty good.

The machine says the charge for twenty minutes of parking is one dollar. (Yippee. I have saved nine dollars.) It is now “Method of Payment” time. I press “Credit Card.” The machine says: “Insert Credit Card.” I insert my credit card.

The machine will not take my credit card. No matter how many times I insert it, it won’t go in. There’s this rejecting whirring sound, like a little cough. I’m thinking I’ll just pay cash, but the lowest denomination I have is a five-dollar bill, and I refuse to pay five dollars for twenty minutes of parking. I continue inserting my credit card. The machine continues its rejecting cough.

The preceding was a set-up. The real story begins here:

As I struggle with my credit card, I’m aware that there’s a woman standing behind me, waiting to use the machine. I am holding her up. I turn to her and say what I regularly say when I’m dealing with machines:

“I don’t know how to work this.”

The woman immediately volunteers to help.

“You have to slide your card out faster.”

I slide my card out faster. Nothing happens.

Really fast.”

I slide it out really fast. Nothing.

“That was too fast. A little faster than the first time, but not as fast as that.”

I follow her instructions. Nothing.

“I think it needs to be smoother. Fast – but not too fast – and smooth.

You can’t get mad at a person who’s helping you – because they’re helping you – but the woman was starting to piss me off. I’m doing the best I can, and she’s telling me I’m not “sliding” right. I was “this close” to handing her my credit card and saying,

You do it!”

when the machine belatedly complied. I retrieve my receipt from the plastic-doored receptacle at the bottom of the machine – which the women tells me how to open – I return the receipt to my car, and I place the receipt inside the car, behind the driver’s-side front windshield. I scoop up the books I’m returning, and I head to the bookstore.

“May I help you?”

“My extension class was cancelled. They told me I could return these books.”

“Do you have certification that your class was cancelled?”

“I do.”

I hand the bookstore attendant a slip of paper mailed to me, indicating that the class had been cancelled, and that I had two weeks to return the books for a refund. The bookstore attendant studies the slip of paper carefully, as if he’d been hoodwinked before by forgeries.


I breathe a sigh of relief. But not too long a sigh. We were just getting started.

“Do you have a receipt for the books?”

“I have a ‘Shipping Statement’ that came when the books were delivered.”

I hand the “Shipping Statement” to the bookstore attendant. He studies it carefully. The bookstore attendant then turns and goes into what appears to be the office of his boss, I am guessing, to ask his boss if a “Shipping Statement” is as good a receipt. The decision on this matter takes some time. Perhaps they are looking up the statute. Finally, the bookstore attendant reappears.


Ten minutes of my parking time have now elapsed. My return walk will take a minute. There is still plenty of time.

The bookstore attendant gathers up my stack of books and heads to a large desktop computer. His assignment now is to log the books back in, check the prices, and then, as with my tuition fee, arrange for a corresponding debit on my credit card.

It is clear the bookstore attendant is having problems with his assignment. He calls over a second bookstore attendant to help him. Together, they work on the transaction. But even with two of them working together, the assignment is defeating them. I can see them literally scratching their heads.

Time is becoming a factor.

The conundrum necessitates a repeat visit to the boss’s office. An extended meeting takes place concerning an apparently simple transaction.

Tick, tick, tick…

The bookstore attendants finally emerge and come over to me to explain. Apparently, one of the Pulitzer Prize winning plays I’d received – A Streetcar Named Desire – had not been recorded on the “Billing Statement.” My refund could, therefore, not include the price of that play.

That was the problem. There was a play among the stack that wasn’t recorded on the “Billing Statement”, and they didn’t know what to do. Their boss had made the call. The price of A Streetcar Named Desire would not be included when they calculated my refund. My response to this decision?


The difficulty having been overcome – as they say in Latin – the bookstore attendants return to their computer to arrange for my refund.

Tick, tick, tick…

It is taking forever. My time is running out. Since I’m not getting a cash refund, I impatiently ask,

“Do I have to stay for this?”

The bookstore attendants are too engrossed in their assignment to respond, but I figure out the answer for myself. They still have my credit card. So, “Yes.”

Tick, tick, tick…

The bookstore attendants finally complete the transaction, return my credit card, and hand me a “Confirmation Receipt.” I race frantically out of the bookstore.

When I arrive at my parking spot, a “Parking Control” officer was rolling up in a three-wheeled vehicle. The situation was clear. If I’d returned a moment later, the bookstore attendants would have “helped” me into a sixty-dollar ticket.

I appreciate their efforts – the woman at the parking meter, and the two bookstore attendants – I really do. I am incapable of living in this world. I need all the help I can get. However, though I’m fully aware of how disgustingly ungrateful this sounds, what I’m compelled to say in response to this experience is this:

Help me better.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Shadow on 'The Masters'"

It’s been bothering me for a week, so I thought I’d write about it.

“The Masters” is the Kentucky Derby of golf. It’s the Big One. The tournament even people disinterested in golf pay attention to.

I’ve played golf maybe twice, on the Michiana golf course near our cabin in Indiana. It’s not a real serious golf course. They let dogs on it.

“The Masters” course is spectacular. You can’t help but be impressed by its breathtaking layout, landscaping and design. Not to mention its history, only some of which is racist.

Two big stories emerged during this year’s “Masters.” Phil Mickelson, the eventual winner, had both a wife and a mother battling cancer, and Tiger Woods was discovered to have had sex with every woman in the United States. The problems, though serious, were, in this context, peripheral. The real question was would their personal difficulties affect their play.

Of all sports – this is my view; bowlers may reasonably disagree – golf is by far the most psychologically demanding. Golf offers no available outlet for channeling nervous energy, like hitting people in hockey and football, being constantly on the move in basketball, or scratching yourself in baseball.

In golf, you hit the ball, you walk, and ten minutes later, you hit the ball again. Your success depends unquestionably on your making your shots; but it, arguably, depends equally on your keeping your emotions under control during those ten-minute intervals.

Seeing Mickelson coolly sink that ten-foot putt on the last hole, with millions of people watching and the tournament not entirely in the bag – that’s a champion, displaying mental toughness under maximum duress. It was beautiful to behold.

What inspired me to write this post, however, was not the play; it was the television commentary surrounding the event. I was truly shocked by it. Over the years, I’ve watched thousands of sporting events. This year’s “Masters” had the most negative coverage I have ever experienced.

Coverage of sporting events can be outrageously rosy. “That goal makes it 10-1. They’re on their way back!” This “Anything can happen” mentality is the standard approach for retaining viewers during a blowout. This “Masters” coverage was the opposite. No, not the opposite, it was the same, but in the other direction.

The coverage was: “Anything bad can happen.”

It was incredible. No matter what was going on, the announcers found ways to describe virtually every moment from the bleakest possible perspective.

“It looks hopeless from here.”

“Using a ‘three-wood’ instead of his “driver.’ An enormous blunder.”

“He had a putt from the same spot last year and he botched it horribly. The question is, will he learn from that debacle, or will he duplicate that same costly mistake?”

Maybe it’s because the announcers were English, and they’re used to waking up to gray skies. True, American commentators can be relentlessly upbeat, but these guys went entirely the other way. The weather was perfect; the announcers were raining on the parade.

And it never let up.

“He must be kicking himself after butchering such a relatively easy shot.”

“He can’t possibly make ‘par’ from there.”

“Years ago, another golfer who fell apart in a similar ghastly fashion. He hanged himself later that week.”

Once, after a golfer stroked a longish putt, the announcer went, “No”, after which the ball went directly into the hole. The announcer’s reaction? “Oh.”

The situation was becoming ludicrous. It was as if someone had discovered all the negative thoughts, self-doubts, worries and concerns golfers need to banish from their minds in some “Things You Can’t Think” receptacle, vacuumed them up, delivered them to the announcers, who spewed them out over the airwaves.

“If he misses this one, he’s finished.”

“I can only imagine his inner torment, playing so poorly in front of family and friends.”

“Where does he go from here? I think it’s time to rethink his entire game.”

“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

It never stopped, even when the guy won:

“Well, now, it’s off to the clubhouse, where he’ll be helped on with the traditional “Green Jacket.” Let’s hope he doesn’t split it down the seams. That would be hugely embarrassing.”

They didn’t actually say that. But it would have fit right in.

I’m hardly what you’d call a positive person, but this was “over the top” negative. It made me so angry, I was hoping at some point, the announcer would report:

“The shot is hooking horribly to the left, flying hideously awry, and, oh, it’s actually headed this way and appears to be flying directly towards my head. I can’t imagine surviving such a devastating blow.”

Sadly, I was disappointed.

Oh, well. That’s golf.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"Private Conversations"

I’m thinking of getting one of those “Blue Tooth” earpieces, so when I’m talking to myself, people will think I’m on the phone.

It doesn’t have to work. I don’t need a phone. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have a phone, meaning a cell phone. Most of the time, it sits in the kitchen, “charging” itself. On rare occasions, a squeak will come out of it, indicating that I’ve “missed a call.” It takes me about twenty minutes to determine where the squeak is coming from. Once I do, I have no idea how to retrieve the missed call. I just unplug the thing, hoping the squeak will go away.

The earpiece idea is not about having a phone; it’s about camouflaging my habit of constantly talking to myself. It’s not because I care what people think about me. I just don’t want to upset them when they see my lips moving.

“Look at that. We go for a nice, peaceful walk. And there’s a crazy, possibly dangerous person, yakking away to nobody. I think I’m going to be sick.”

But if I had an earpiece…

“No, look. He’s on the phone.”

“Oh. Well, that’s okay then.”

You see the difference?

I talk to myself. It’s how it is. It could be outside on a bench, it could be in a store, sitting in the “Man Chair” – the special seat provided to men, while they wait for their female whatevers to finish shopping – it could be in my car, it could be on a walk. I’m alone two minutes, and my lips start moving.

And not just when I’m alone. I realize how insulting this is to family and friends, but the thing is, nobody’s more interesting to me than I am. Two explanations come to mind: One, I am endlessly entertaining to myself; I know exactly how to get to me. And two, even when I say the most outrageous things to myself, I never disagree.

I’m the ideal conversation partner. I just love what I have to say.

Besides keeping myself glorious company, talking to myself provides other positive benefits. There’s a line I once heard in a play that said: “How do I know what I think, till I hear what I say?”

I take that quote literally.

Imagine having a head full of thoughts and not knowing what any of them are. You may as well have no thoughts in there at all. It is only by saying them out loud that I know that those thoughts exist, and, more importantly, I know exactly what they are.

“Saying them out loud.” This part of the process seems to disturb people the most. Why do I have to say things out loud? Why can’t I just think those things? Or, worst case scenario, move my lips without making a sound.

Okay. “Just thinking things” is not the same as saying things out loud. Thinking comes in flashes – bim, bam, boom! Your brain is like a pinball machine. Ideas keep bouncing off each other, interrupting the flow. As a result, thinking rarely involves fully formed thoughts. For that, you need a more complete articulation, the thoughts congealing into complete, coherent sentences. That comes from saying things out loud.

As for the second point, “Why not simply move your lips?” Sometimes, I do that – when I’m around my loved ones, and I don’t want to unnecessary piss them off. It turns out they resent me anyway. Because they think I’d rather talk to myself than talk to them. I say, “Incorrect.” I only talk to myself when it’s quiet. The minute they start talking, I stop talking to myself, and immediately talk to them. It’s not like I say, “Shhh. I’m talking to myself.” That would be rude.

In situations when I’m alone, well, once you’re moving you lips, you’re already making people uncomfortable. You may as well go all the way. Besides, if I don’t make some sounds when I’m talking, I can’t hear what I’m saying. My ears aren’t that far from my mouth, so I don’t need to speak that loud. But I do need to speak loudly enough for my ears to pick up the words. Otherwise what am I doing? I’m moving my lips for no reason. Now, that’s crazy.

Talking to myself is demonstrably productive. Many of my most satisfying blog posts originated from my talking to myself. This one, for example. I imagine – though I have no hard evidence to back it up – that doing this blog has propelled talking to myself into overdrive. It’s understandable. I have a furnace to feed. I can’t waste precious time thinking nothing.

But even if I didn’t write a blog, for me, talking to myself is a natural activity. “Natural” in its generic sense. When my inner thoughts reach my moving lips, they’re delivered in their natural state. Precisely worded, and impeccably timed.

I “kill” when I’m talking to myself. And that’s why I do it. Talking to myself is the only arena where I attain perfection.

It is also the arena where I can say whatever I want. I can be dangerous. I can be disrespectful. I can be tasteless. I can be silly. I can be crude. Sometimes, I’m even slightly racist. (As in the Avenue Q song, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist…Sometimes.”) During private moments, I’ve been known to adopt the persona of a philosophical, old Negro man.

“When it comes down to certain behaviors, well…some does, and some doesn’t.”

So I’m racist but respectful.

Before I go, I want to make one thing clear, in case there’s a disease-label attached for my behavior – “auto-hablation”, or something. Although I’ve been accused of doing so, to say that I talk to myself "all the time" would be a gross and inaccurate exaggeration. I do not talk to myself all the time.

Sometimes, I sing to myself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Lost Love"

“Today I passed you on the street

And my heart fell at your feet

I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you…”

Hank Williams

In Yiddish, it’s called a stoch – a sharp stab in the gut. (The “s” is pronounced “sh” and the “ch” is pronounced like you’re clearing your throat.) You may recognize this feeling, whether you can pronounce the Yiddish version or not. It doesn’t feel good.

I haven’t worked in show business for six years, but the desire to still want to is undeniable. That’s what gives me the stoch.

I feel the stoch when I drive past an outdoor “film shoot”, with their milling crews desperately fighting the clock, the Kleenex-in-their-collars actors sitting in Director’s chairs awaiting makeup, the massive cameras stationed idly to the side, ready for placement. There it all is. The running everywhere, the barking of orders, the delirious excitement of putting on a show. And I’m not part of it.

I feel the stoch every Wednesday, when I religiously pore over the television ratings in the morning paper, counting how many comedies rank in the “Top Twenty.” Generally, two. Maybe if they’d…nah.

I feel the stoch when my piano teacher regales me with stories of going “on the road”, backing some old but still active entertainer, an exiled outsider to the jokes and the camaraderie.

The stoch haunts my unconscious, causing accidental slips that reveal it all. Last week, I got an e-mail announcing that a UCLA extension class I’d signed up for would not be held due to insufficient enrollment. When I reported this to Dr. M, instead of saying, “My class has been cancelled” I said, “My show has been cancelled.” There it was. As plain as day.

Others in my position had successfully moved on. One former television-writing friend was now affiliated with the Dodgers as an award-winning co-host of their post-game “Call-In” show. Another acquaintance had proceeded from a celebrated career as writer, comedian and best selling author to become a United States Senator.

Maybe it’s just the people who didn’t matriculate to exciting “Second Acts” that experience the stoch, I’m not sure. I wonder if those who made satisfying transitions also miss it, or if the new stuff relegated their show biz memories to a cardboard box in the garage.

I also wonder if people in other lines of work experience the stoch? Redundant assembly line workers, auto execs, people who sold them sandwiches from a truck, when they drive past the plant they walked in every day, do they feel the stab I feel driving past Paramount, Studio City and Universal Studios? I bet they do.

Maybe you’re thinking, “If you miss it so much, why not try and get back in?” A reasonable question. For people who don’t understand. Today – though it was always the case to some degree – every writer being considered for a television job needs to be approved by the network before they can be hired. Even someone they want for one day a week requires network approval. That’s the kind of lock the networks have on things. At this point, I couldn’t get approval to watch a show.

What exactly is it I miss, and still want to be part of? A complete examination would take an entire separate post. And some Sodium Pentathol. Maybe it’s not even real. Maybe I don’t still want to do it, I’m simply engaging wishful wallowing. I don’t know. I just know how it feels.

Every repertoire needs a “hurtin’ song”, to demonstrate the performer has depth.

Consider this mine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Self-Inflicted (Writing) Wounds"

I’ve been in this situation before. The person-in-charge asks for a writing sample. In the situation before, it involved NPR’s All Things Considered. They were considering me for a slot as a regular commentator.

What did I submit to impress the heck out of them? A commentary about how NPR’s commentary delivery process was deceiving, because the audience was actually being read to, rather than being spoken to directly, as they were trying to make it appear.

That was my big gripe. People were reading their commentaries, and the listeners, at least consciously, were unaware they were doing it.

This, in part, is what I wrote:

“I’m not talking to you right now; I’m reading to you. When I said, “I’m not talking to you right now; I’m reading to you”? I was reading that. When I said, “I was reading that”? I was reading that too. “I was reading that too”? I was also reading that. I’m reading this entire thing!”

They didn’t care for it. Too smart-ass, they explained. I was undermining the commentary-reading tradition. In time, I came to realize that that submission was a mistake. Inexplicably, considering my objective, I was making fun of the thing I wanted them to hire me to do. I was also calling them deceivers. Not a good idea.

I’m worried I’m about to make the same mistake again. There’s a website called It’s a news and commentary website, similar to the Huffingtonpost. After corresponding with PoliticsDaily’s Editor-In-Chief, Melinda Henneberger, I was invited to submit a writing sample for possible publication. What I’m dying to send her is this:

“The Choice”

I understand the impulse.

I worked in network television, both in Canada and in the U.S., for thirty-five years. I know what it’s like to drive through studio gate to my specially allotted parking space. I’ve felt the exhilaration of seeing my name printed in giant letters across a television screen. I’ve experienced the satisfaction of receiving an award in front of the cameras, smiling at the possibility that my snooty high school contemporaries were watching, scratching their heads incredulously, as their lips form the single word,


I understand the hunger for the spotlight. My craving for it persists even in retirement, writing a daily blog, and seeking greater attention through ancillary outlets. The seductive siren song of celebrity, I would call it, if I were into alliterations, which I’m not.

That’s me. That’s how it is. And being relatively normal, I imagine it’s not that different for others.

I will now change the subject. But I will bring it all home. I promise.

When it began, the television news business was a dull and stodgy operation. Men in tweed jackets read from sheets of paper they held in their hands. We didn’t expect much from the news back then. “Just tell us what happened, who won the game, and if it’s going to rain tomorrow.” As they said on “Dragnet”, “Just the facts.”

The people who gathered those facts were hard working, invisible and, from what I’ve read about journalism, seriously underpaid. They appeared to be dedicated. Why else would you work hard invisibly for an undersized paycheck?

Television news back then was seen, even by its providers, as a service to the community, a quid pro quo for an unpaid-for slot on the public airwaves. Then, with the arrival of one show, everything changed. The TV news business was about to receive a transformational makeover.

“60 Minutes”, with its exposes, celebrity profiles, “Common Man” commentaries, and its “tick, tick, tick…” debuted and quickly became hugely popular. And “hugely popular” in television, and everywhere else now that I think about it, means hugely profitable.

Emerging from that “shop”, “60 Minutes” demonstrated that the once “loss leader” news divisions were capable of making substantial amounts of money for their networks. And from that point on, they were required to.

Incrementally, the “tipping point” was reached, it inevitably tipped, and broadcast news became “Welcome to the circus.”

Cable news was simply the next generation. Call it “Makeover 2.0.”

Cable news must be profitable; the shows’ hosts are paid millions. Also, in mine ‘umble opinion, the programming appears to be mislabeled. Cable news networks don’t actually deliver much news; they primarily offer commentary. From an accuracy standpoint, MSNBC, for example, should really be called the “Cable Commentary Network.” But it’s not. And it’s a little confusing.

Journalists, many of them highly respected, regularly appear on cable news programs. I don’t know how long it takes them to travel to the studio, get made up, and wait in the “Green Room” to go on, but it must consume a substantial amount of their time.

I understand why they want to do it. See: above. I’m sympathetic to the impulse. I’m also sympathetic to the idea of maximizing your financial opportunities. Still, I can’t help feeling that when you make the decision to become a journalist, understanding the sacrifices that choice will entail – what can I tell you? – you gotta be a journalist.

There are stories that need to be covered. Not little stories, like whether the president bowed too deeply while greeting the head of state of another country, important stories.

Forgive me for exhuming ancient history, but it still bothers me. I’d really like to have known whether Iraq really had WMD’s, and whether they were responsible for attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know people were on that story at the time, but we never got the facts till it was, unfortunately, too late.

John Edwards could arguably have become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. In retrospect, I’m thinking – hopefully, without bursting a blood vessel – we really should have known more about this guy. Because if his secret had come out after he was nominated, it would have elected the other guy, and if it had come out after he was elected, it would have brought down the government. The “Inquirer” had the “scoop”, but nobody listens to them, because they’re the “Inquirer.” So we didn’t know.

Two stories with monumental implications, and the public is totally in the dark. And I’m wondering, “Where were the journalists?”

Am I unfairly blaming the journalists? It’s very possible. I can imagine there are often powerful obstacles keeping them from doing their jobs. But since that’s another story I’m not being told, I can only guess at what they might be.

It comes down to this. I’m a regular person. I need the journalists out there doing full-time journalism. Otherwise, who’s going to be my champion, gaining access to places I can’t get into, uncovering information I would otherwise never find out? Who will rescue me from my ignorance, and let me know what’s actually going on?

It’s fun to be famous. I understand that, I really do. But Woodward and Bernstein also got famous. They did it the old-fashioned way.

They informed the public.

That’s what I’m thinking of submitting – a story to a journalists about how journalists fell down on the job. As the “Cowardly Lion” said in The Wizard of Oz,

Talk me out of it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"A Belated Missile Proposal"

The other day, I heard a report on TV about the president’s wanting to alter our missile policy. I don’t remember the details. It wasn’t important, beyond the fact that it could keep us from being blown up. Anyway, the policy adjustment is not the point – mushroom cloud, no mushroom cloud – whatever, Dude. For me, the report’s simply my “make it current” pretext for telling you this story. There, you got it out of me.

I’ve always taken this position, and nobody’s dissuaded me of it, mostly because I don’t talk about it out loud. Until now. During the Cold War, when American children were drilled to drop under their desks when a siren went off – though not Canadian children, who, apparently, nobody cared about, or Canadians are too sensible for such mishugus (insanity) – there was a lot of talk about the “Missile Gap.”

The “Missile Gap” referred to the mathematical differential between the number of nuclear missiles we had versus the number of missiles the Russians had. It was a counting thing. Apparently, there were satellites in the sky that could take pictures, from which could be determined precisely how many missiles each country had in their respective arsenals.

Whether the “counting thing” was true or not, I have no idea, but people high up acted like it was true, so it doesn’t really matter. You can get just easily blown to pieces by misinformation that’s believed to be true as by information that’s actually true. Ask the people in Iraq.

I’m also shaky about this part, “this part” meaning the precise number of missiles required to blow up the world. I guess it depends on how powerful they are. Maybe it only takes one missile, if it’s a really big one. Maybe two. They hit us; we hit them. (Notice I said, “they hit us” first. Even Canadians have prejudices.)

But let’s be conservative here. Not “Let’s bomb them before they bomb us” conservative, mathematically conservative. Say it takes ten nuclear missiles to blow up the world – five of ours, five of theirs*. (* I’ve made up an arbitrary number, because of my ignorance.)

What I recall is that, at the time they were counting them, the actual number of missiles were, like, fifteen hundred missiles each. Maybe we had a few more than them, maybe they had a few more than us. Whatever. That’s three thousand nuclear missiles*. (* Also an arbitrary number, but my overall point, I believe, still holds.)

If, as I ignorantly hypothesized, it only takes ten nuclear missiles to blow up the world, three thousand nuclear missiles could blow up the world – give me a minute – um… three hundred times. That’s right, isn’t it? I know it’s a lot of times.

(I’m aware that the concept of blowing the world up more than once falls more into the category of poetry. After you blow up the world once, that’s pretty much the ball game. You blow up the world three hundred times, and the last two hundred and ninety-nine times don’t really count. I mean, who’s going to do the counting?)

Okay, so the “Missile Gap’s” about numbers – we’re falling behind, they’re pulling ahead – it’s all about how many. And people took those numbers seriously. Big people, like people running for president. I believe the term “Missile Gap” was coined by the Kennedy side when JFK ran against Nixon in 1960. (Which immediately gave birth to another distinction – the “Exaggeration Gap.”)

It was all about numbers. Not just about numbers, of course. The missiles had to work. And when they didn’t, they took them back to the shop and refined them until they did.

This was no fairy tale. There was some big-time Boom-Boom roaming the earth. At least in two countries. The other countries lined up – the Soviet Bloc; the Us Bloc – and they hid behind them. (The Soviets actually conquered the countries first. Not China, but the other ones. Not North Korea, or Viet Nam or Cuba. But they had influence in those places. We had influence in other countries.)

Stick to the numbers, Earlo. The stuff you don’t know about is embarrassing.

Sorry. Here’s my point.

If it was simply a question of numbers – of, for example, their counting how many nuclear missiles we had – why didn’t we just build a few real nuclear missiles – say twenty times more than you need to blow up the world, so, like, a hundred – and make the rest of the missiles out of cardboard?

How would you do this? Well, there are some “Prop People” out there, trained to construct authentic-looking “mock-ups” of things in movies, making them look so authentic, it’s virtually impossible to tell the facsimile from the real thing. The only difference would be that the studio-built “mock-ups” of the missiles wouldn’t work. But why would that matter, when you’re only counting them from the sky?

I imagine this type of subterfuge has been pulled of in movies many times. I’m pretty sure that the military doesn’t lend out its nuclear missiles for film shoots.

“What if we don’t get them back?”

Would be just one of the problems.

So the “renting the missile” option is out. When they require nuclear missiles in movies, the filmmakers use documentary “stock footage” of actual missiles doing things, like taking off, or blowing up on the launching pad, or

They make missiles out of cardboard. Or some other material that, on camera, looks like an actual nuclear missile.

(There is a third option – the studios could build nuclear missiles of their own – I imagine there’s a “How To Build A Nuclear Missile” website on the Internet. But that would be way too expensive. Besides, what do you do with it when you’re finished? )

Speaking of expense – as I was in the brackets – that’s another issue solved by my little proposal. Cardboard nuclear missiles are cheaper to build than actual nuclear missiles, I imagine – though I’m not a nuclear missile builder myself – a lot cheaper.

Since the enemy is only counting them, it wouldn’t matter if the missiles actually worked. I mean, the majority of them. You could still have those hundred you need to blow up the world twenty times. The rest of them could be just as valuable a deterrent if they merely looked like they worked.

It seems like a great plan to me. And the beauty part is, no one’ll ever find out they were tricked. Why? Because it’s unlikely any of these missiles will ever be used. They haven’t been so far, because, I imagine, of what they call the “mutually assured destruction” problem, meaning, if the missiles were used, everybody would be blown up. Even the most passionate “hawks” are not enthusiastic about that eventuality. That’s Goodbye, Columbus.

There seem to be only two options. If the missiles, as it appears, are unlikely to be used, it doesn’t matter if the majority of them are made out of cardboard, or whether or not they work. On the other hand if the missiles that work are used, everyone’s dead, so there’s no one to discover that the majority of them were made out of cardboard.

To me, making the vast majority of the missiles non-functional is a “win-win” proposition. We terrify our enemies, for a considerably lower price.

I don’t know why they didn’t do that in the first place.

Or did they?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I was once partnered up with a guy to work on a show. The guy had written on a successful one-hour drama, whose scripts included scattered moments of comic banter. This, he believed, gave him adequate credentials to cross over into half-hour comedy. The studio thought the project needed some authentic comedy muscle, so they put us together to develop the show. (I love it when I’m associated with anything involving muscle.)

The guy and I wrote the pilot script together, and after it sold, we co-wrote subsequent episodes and co-ran the show. We got along well, though early in the process, we had one contentious moment. Though he had no legitimate comedy resume, the guy demanded a screen credit on the show equal to my own.

I told him I had no problem with that. I did have a small problem with that, but not one worth going to war over. My only demand – and this was worth go to war over – was this: I wanted the last word on whatever went into the script, which meant, most importantly, that I’d have the power to decide which comedic suggestions, pitched by the writing staff, and by my partner, were actually comedic. The guy said okay. Phew. Because I was prepared to go to war over that. And now I didn’t have to. Phew, again.

The guy and I collaborated for one season. It was very difficult. Not because of the guy; his presence there was actually a plus. Working on a series full time is always stressful and exhausting, at least for me, because I’m not built to work full time on a show. I’m built to write scripts and consult on other people’s shows. I committed to it, because that’s what the situation required.

In my entire, semi-lengthy career in television, this was the only time I worked for an entire season full time. People told me I aged.

My partner proved adept at handling the business aspects of the show – including the executives – and was also helpful in his co-writing capacity, by offering valuable plot suggestions, but, most importantly, by providing believable set-up dialogue to for the jokes, supplied almost exclusively by me. The problem arose when he tried his hand at the comedy. Invariably, I had to say no. Which, as you recall, was our agreement.

I will now jump to the end. About a year after we stopped working together, and having had no contact with him whatsoever, I get a letter from the guy. He explains that he’s enrolled in a program, wherein, as part of his rehabilitation, he is required to make amends to all the people he had wronged in the past.

Apparently, I had been one of those people, so he apologized for wronging me. He then wondered if we could have lunch so we could talk about the whole thing.


I’m thinking about this. And my mind goes here:

“Hi, Earl. I’m writing to tell you that I secretly did harmful things to you for a year, and I wondered if we could get together, so I could lay out in detail you how incredibly clueless you were about the whole thing. What do you say?”

“Hey, Earlsky. You know how you worry about people taking advantage of your innocence, inexperience, gullibility and trust? News Flash: It’s entirely justified. Let’s have lunch.”

“So, Earl. Here I was, doing things to damage your career and undermine your authority, and you were insanely oblivious to the whole thing and I’d like to fill you in on all the juicy details at lunch. Y’interested?”

I did not take the guy up on his offer.

Had the revelation bothered me? Of course, it bothered me. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t, I would, suddenly turning Cockney. For a full year, I’d been seriously bamboozled (after “Gustav Bamboozle”, who could fool anyone about anything, including himself, into believing “Bamboozle” is an actual name.)

Reading that letter, I felt violated, embarrassed, humiliated and reddened in the face. I mean, fool me once – shame on you. Fool me every day for a year – I go home, I lock the doors and I never come out. Not because I’m ashamed. Because when I come out, they’re gonna fool me again.

Was I mad at the guy? I don’t know, he obviously had problems. And to be honest, it’s not hard to forgive someone for doing something behind your back, because “behind your back”, by definition, means you didn’t know they were doing it. I mean, how angry can you feel about their doing something you had no idea was happening?

Even after you know, it’s not that hard to forgive them, because the misbehavior is long over, and as far as I could tell, there were no damaging repercussions. That’s what made it not hard to forgive the guy. Either that, or I’m a really nice person.

Nah, I’m not. Two pieces of supporting evidence: One: I did not agree to the lunch, which might have delivered the guy some healing closure but I didn’t give a hoot.

Two: Though I could readily overlook the guy’s serial misbehaviors, what I couldn’t overlook was his believing he had certifiable comedic credentials. He didn’t. Thinking he did dishonors the wonderful uniqueness of the accredited and acknowledged comedically gifted. That, my friends, is unforgivable.

I mean, who does the guy think he is?

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Screenwriting Class"

After about ten years of writing for television, I decided I wanted to learn how to write movies, so I enrolled in a screenwriting class. It’s strange. I never took a television-writing class. I just did it. But, somehow, movie writing, although the arena was hardly alien to me – I had seen a lot of movies – felt like something I needed to be taught.

Why? Maybe it’s the scale of movies – bigger stars, bigger budgets, bigger screen. Maybe it’s because movies are more prestigious than television, and I felt humbled in their presence. Maybe – though I probably couldn’t have articulated this at the time – it’s because television and movie writing are two substantially different animals, springing from the same family – like cats and panthers – but inherently not the same.

It’s badminton versus tennis. At their highest levels, neither format is easier than the other; they simply draw on different muscles. (When I talk about television writing, I’m referring to the more “grounded in theater” comedies I worked on that were filmed in front of a live studio audience. Single-camera comedies, like 30 Rock and The Office, are exactly like movies, only shorter, and you don’t have to pay to get in.

When I decided to take the screenwriting class, what I was looking for – I don’t know what I was looking for. I was afraid of trying something new. I thought some training might make the transition easier. It didn’t. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. Nah, I probably did. But I took the class anyway.

The class was taught by a highly regarded movie-writing teacher and “script doctor.” A “script doctor” either rewrites a movie that needs fixing, or more likely in this guy’s case, suggests strategies for the writer to improve the script themselves.

(Once, while standing outside the building where the class was being held, I saw a car screech to a halt, my teacher raced to the curb, a script was forced into his hands through the window, and the car sped away. I had no idea what was going on. But the arrangement felt creepy and clandestine. A law firm it is best to avoid.)

Our class took place on Saturday mornings, in a structure where the Writers Guild Film Society used to screen movies. If memory serves, it was an eight-week course, but it could have been four or six weeks, and each class was two or three hours long. Memory is great, if you don’t want to recall things precisely. I know I went to that class. That part’s a certainty.

During whatever number of sessions it was – I’m starting to believe it was four – our teacher focused on one movie script – the script of Casablanca, which, incidentally, happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time, that doesn’t involve horses.

Our teacher deconstructed the Casablanca script scene-by-scene, demonstrating how masterfully it was put together, every scene evolving organically from the scene before, the characters distinctly delineated, every plot point carefully established, all of it building to that climactic moment at the foggy airport. There the resolution will take place.

The situation is tense. Will “Ilsa” fly away with the heroic freedom fighter, “Victor Laszlo”? Or will she stay with “Rick”, the emotionally damaged man she truly loves?

If you’ve never seen Casablanca, you should skip this paragraph, because I’ll be giving away the ending. It’s not such a great paragraph anyway; I’ve read it; you’re not missing that much. Those familiar with Casablanca know that Rick makes Ilsa go with Victor, to inspire him in his resistance efforts against the Nazis. The ending is supposed to be surprising, but when you think about it, the options were severely limited. Casablanca was made in 1942, at the height of the war. What other choice did they have? “The war’s not important; you’re staying with me”? They’d have pelted the screen with popcorn.

To be honest, I’ve retained very little of the content of that screenwriting class. What did stay with me, however, was the one lesson our teacher said was the most important lesson of all. And that lesson was this:

If you want your movie script to work, you have to, first, imagine the ending of the story you’re trying to tell, and, keeping that ending in mind, structure things meticulously, from Page One, so that the movie’s payoff will feel satisfying, and, when you look back on it, inevitable.

This was the teacher’s message. This, more than anything, was he wanted us to take away.

Our teacher had put the Casablanca script under a microscope, dissecting it to its minutest components, then reconstituting it to its final perfection. His presentation was remarkable. I realize he wasn’t making it up as he went along; his lectures were painstakingly prepared. But he really made it all sing.

Speaking of singing…

Like a cherry topping an ice cream sundae, at the end of our last class, after explaining how Casablanca’s celebrated accompanying song, As Time Goes By, a song written a decade earlier, was chosen – because it so exquisitely echoed the story being told – our teacher, unaccompanied, began singing that iconic tune, in a not unpleasant voice:

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by…

It was a nice touch. The “button” to an enjoyable class. But then, unexpectedly, he went on.

And when two lovers woo
They still say “I love you”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
Time goes by.

Okay. That was great. Thank y…

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date

It was here where I started biting my lip.

Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate

I’m blinking tears away from my eyes.

Woman needs man
And Man must have his mate
That no one can deny

I’m struggling not to laugh. If only he’d stop.

It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die

I am now pinching myself really hard.

The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.

Thank God. It’s over.

Oh, yes, the world will always welcome lovers

I can’t take anymore.

As Time…

I really can’t.


I’m going to explode!


It was absolutely excruciating. But there was one thing about the class that, in retrospect, was worse. It occurred to me later that it’s commonly known that, when they started shooting Casablanca, the script didn’t have an ending. They came up with one sometime during production.

That being the case, why did the teacher explain how essential having an ending is by taking as an example a movie that notoriously began filming without an ending?

That was the second mystery of the screenwriting class. The first?

Why did he sing

the entire


Friday, April 9, 2010

"Why I Love 'Law & Order'"

By being picked up for next year, Law & Order will become the longest running scripted drama in television history, its twenty-one seasons surpassing Gunsmoke’s twenty, though I suspect Gunsmoke exceeds Law & Order’s episode output, since, in Gunsmoke’s day, they made 36 to 39 episodes per season, whereas today, they only make 22 to 24 episodes, and, if you’re picked up for only half a season, 13.

Phew, that’s a long sentence. And not all that interesting. Though for those who do find it interesting, I can imagine the heated debate:

LAW & ORDER FAN: “We’re the longest running drama.”

GUNSMOKE FAN: “We made more episodes.”

LAW & ORDER FAN: “We’re the longest running drama.”

GUNSMOKE FAN: “We made more episodes.”

You can play that loop till the cows come home, after which the cows would immediately leave, because who wants to listen to that all night?

I’ve been an enormous Law & Order fan from the very beginning. I continue to watch the syndicated reruns to this very day. Often more than once a day, and often the same episode more than once, though not the same episode more than once on the same day. More on the “same episode re-watch” issue later.

(I rarely watch the two Law & Order spin-offs – Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit, being particularly put off by the latter series, beginning with its title. They’re not special victims, they're “Horribly Sexually Abused Victims”, though that doesn’t quite “sing” like “Special Victims.” It’s like the show’s selling point: “If you like victims, you’ll love the special victims.”)

I was working at Universal Studios at the time Law & Order was created there, so I know a little about the back-story. Apparently, in the late eighties, hour shows were not selling well in syndication. The then studio boss was therefore intrigued by the idea of a drama, whose single-story episodes could be split into half-hour segments, thus making them easier to sell.

Out of this business necessity came Law & Order, offering two separate components of the same half-hour story – the first component concentrating on “law” (the police investigation) and the second on “order” (the trial). At some point, however, the “splitting the episode” experiment was abandoned, and the show was delivered intact in its now familiar one-hour format.

(One other semi-interesting factoid to round out the story. The “law and order” concept had already been done. It was called Arrest and Trial. The main difference was that each episode of Arrest and Trial lasted ninety minutes. The series ran for one season.)

Why do I love Law & Order? Is it because of the “ripped from the headlines” storylines? No. The “ripped from the headlines” episodes are my least favorite and, in my view, the show’s least successful offerings.

Is it the suspense? Despite how it’s promoted on television, Law & Order has little to do with “Cracking the case.” Invariably, the person arrested near the middle of the episode committed the crime.

Is it the “clank-clank” music they play to bridge the scenes? I like the “clank-clank” music – it seems to fit – it sounds like prison bars clanking shut. The “clank-clank” music is indeed an enhancing effect; but I wouldn’t want to listen to an hour of it, let alone twenty-one seasons. Three or four “clank-clanks” per episode is about all I can handle.

Is it the show’s acting that I appreciate? The series’ regulars’ acting has been, generally, uneven and is, to a large degree, irrelevant. The show is the star. Over the years, Law & Order has regularly changed its continuing cast members, indicating that even the producer doesn’t care who’s in it. As long as they’re cheap.

(Parenthetically, in the late eighties, Universal dispatched me to New York to try and persuade longtime Law & Order regular, and fine actor, Sam Waterston, to star in a comedy pilot I was making called Family Man. Waterston seemed genuinely interested, but he ultimately turned us down. Which proved to be a good thing, because, during his sixteen-year tenure on Law & Order, Waterston has never made me laugh once.)

I love Law & Order because of the arguments. In the end, the tension on Law & Order depends not on their tracking down the perpetrator – they invariably do – but rather on whether or not the protagonists – the New York District Attorneys’ Office – can successfully make their case to the jury.

Our interest is held till the last minute, because – and this is what’s great about Law & Order when it’s at its best – the arguments are written in a skillful and carefully considered manner. The audience may know the defendant is guilty – being privy to information that’s been ruled “inadmissible” in the trial – but there is no way of our determining which of the opposing lawyers' arguments the jury will buy.

The jury's decision involves more than their simply applying the law. In virtually every episode, you have longstanding legal concerns – for example, you’re not allowed to kill people – going head to head with emotional issues.

For example, a light-skinned black attorney, passing for white at some snooty law firm, kills someone who’s threatening to expose his secret. His lawyer argues for a ruling of “Temporary Insanity, due to ‘Race Rage.’” We’re aware of our country’s history of discrimination. If this discrimination did not exist, the defendant would have had no need to conceal his racial identity. However, given the, arguably, still-present climate of inequality, his client, argues his attorney, was compelled to act the way he did.

Sometimes, it’s the D.A’s office that plays the “emotion” card. A gun manufacturer makes a rifle that, though legal, can be easily converted into a more deadly assault weapon, which is not legal. The D.A. puts the gun manufacturer on trial, calling them a cold-hearted menace to public safety. The gun manufacturer’s attorney claims that his client’s actions were entirely within the law.

In every episode, Law & Order’s suspense hangs not the question of innocence or guilt, but on

How will the jury decide?

One final factor that keeps me returning to Law & Order reruns. Remember when I said, “More about the ‘same episode re-watch’ issue later”? This is “later.” So here we go.

I watch the same episodes of Law & Order over and over for a very simple reason. As many times as I’ve seen them, I almost never remember how they turn out. Credit for my forgetting can be explained by the reasonable and even-handed manner in which the cases are presented. Though it could also be a matter of advancing age.

Enjoying multiple viewings of the same episode – one of the meager blessings of a deteriorating mind.

Though I wouldn’t have watched once, if I didn’t love the arguments.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Hitting in the Clutch"

What do you know? It’s a trilogy.

Two posts ago, it was “Punt” – there’s a creative Moment of Truth and despite your best efforts, you are unable to come through. Yesterday, the Moment of Truth was imaginatively sidestepped with “A Brilliant Idea.” Today, the Moment of Truth reappears. But this time, it has to be confronted. Successfully.

There is no way around it. It’s the bottom of ninth with the game on the line. There is no pinch hitter available. It’s you. And it’s now.

Exciting, isn’t it?

The example this time is not comedic. It’s musical. But it makes no difference. Moments of Truth are all the same. The target is there. You hit it dead center. Or it’s over.

Here’s a confession that may cost me some male readership. Of the particularly manly variety. Which I can scarcely afford to lose. My daughter, Anna, once asked me who I thought read my blog more, men or women. I reflexively replied both. I don’t think either of us believed me.

Here comes the confession. Gentlemen, prepare to flee.

I was a big fan of The Little Mermaid. Not the story. Too girly. And I’m not trying to win the men back by saying that. The story meant nothing to me. A half-fish girl wants to live on land. I’m really not interested.

What I loved about The Little Mermaid was the colorful underwater world the animators devised, and most especially, I loved the songs, most especially of the “most especially” the Jamaican flavored “Under The Sea.” And even more “most especially” than that, I loved “Kiss The Girl”, which I can almost play on the piano, though don’t ask me to, because I’m too nervous to play in front of people.

The Little Mermaid’s songs made me an immediate fan. As a result, I could hardly wait for the movie’s songwriting team’s – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s – follow-up animated outing, Beauty and the Beast. (It was helpful to have had a very young daughter at the time. I had a “cover.” I could pretend I was going to these movies for her.)

The first part of Beauty and the Beast disappointed me. Not the visual element, that part was fine, though I’m not really a visual person. Basically, I watch with my ears. I don’t care about HD or 3-D, or any other D. Just give me a picture that’s not out of focus. When it is out of focus, I start worrying it’s my eyes.

It was Beauty and the Beast’s songs were letting me down. Generally, they were eh. Nobody one does this like Gaston. Nobody does that like Gaston. What do I care? I didn’t like Gaston.

An entire song of bragging? I’m Canadian. Bragging turns me off.

The other notable song, “Be Our Guest”, was so vanilla, it ended up as a jingle for some hotel chain.

Where’s the fun here? Where’s the memorability? This was a Disney musical. I wanted “Zippity-Doo-Dah.” Not a laundry list of Gaston’s accomplishments, and high-kicking crockery.

The movie I’d been looking forward to was losing its hold on me. I was on the brink of falling asleep. Which, to be honest, I do a lot in movies. But this time, I wanted to.

We’re beyond the halfway point. I can feel the movie edging towards its Moment of Truth. The “Big Event” is about to play out.

There’s this grand ballroom. The beast, bathed and nicely dressed, is having a date, or something, with the girl, also nicely dressed (and presumably bathed as well).

They’re eating at a long table, one of them at each end. Then, the girl gets up, walks the length of the table (not on the table, beside the table.) She takes the beast’s hand, and escorts him onto the dance floor. She places his hands in the appropriate spots, and they begin to dance.

This is it, the “make or break” moment of the movie. Dramatic. Romantic. And emotional – a self-conscious ugly guy, with what one imagines are enormous feet, is slow-dancing with a really beautiful girl – who knows which way this will go? So there’s danger in there too. He’s so big, and she’s so petite…though, you know, it’s a kids’ movie, so it probably won’t be too bad.

It is also the Moment of Truth for the songs. So far, nothing has popped. No competition for Randy Newman in the “Best Song” Oscar sweepstakes.

This is the title song. It has to clear the fences. The entire movie is riding on it.

The introduction is sweetly melodic. It’s a promising start.

And here we go. I’m a little on edge. Everything’s on the line here.

Shhh. The teapot is singing.

“Tale as old as time

True as it can be

Barely even friends

Then somebody bends


Wow. They rhymed “be” and “unexpectedly.” That was surprising. And that rhyming pattern. “A-B-C-C-B.” I’ve never seen that before. I like it. I also like that eternal quality they’re going for. It’s not just any story. It’s a “tale as old as time.”

Let’s see what they do next.

“Just a little change

Small to say the least

Both a little scared

Neither one prepared

Beauty and the Beast.”

Neat and compact. I like the “scared” and “prepared” rhyme. This song growing on me. Will the “bridge” keep me onboard?

“Ever just the same

Ever a surprise

Ever as before

Ever just as sure

As the sun will rise…”

There’s a surging quality in the arrangement. It’s carrying me away.

“Tale as old as time

Tune as old as song

Bittersweet and strange

Finding you can change

Learning you were wrong…”

Whoh, this song is deep. And now it’s surging even higher!

“Certain as the sun

Rising in the East

Tale as old as time

Song as old as rhyme

Beauty and the Beast…”

Okay, now go quiet. Oh, my God, it is going quiet!

“Tale as old as time

Song as old as rhyme

Beauty and…

The Beast.”

Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Maybe for the song. Its wisdom has moved me. Its lyricism has touched my heart. Most importantly, the writers had faced their Moment of Truth head on

And they hammered it out of the park.


My thanks to my friend, Gracie, who provided me with step-by-step instructions for embedding things in my blog, and to my daughter, Anna, for successfully following those instructions while I watched. It looked really easy.