Friday, May 28, 2010

"Five Songs"

(This one’s risky, but what are you gonna do?)

In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, and the nightmare began. Stripped of their jobs, their rights and their freedom, the Jews were conscripted into hard labor, digging peat, which is coal, out of pits, they called bogs. To keep up their spirits, they adopted a name. They called themselves, “The Peat Bog Soldiers.”

Far and wide as the eye can wander

Peat and bog are everywhere

Not a bird sings out to cheer us

Oaks are standing, gaunt and bare.

We are the Peat Bog Soldiers

Marching with our spades

To the bog.

Up and down the guards are pacing

No one, no one can get through

Flight would mean a sure death facing

Guns and barbed wire greet our view.

We are the Peat Bog Soldiers

Marching with our spades

To the bog.

But for us there is no complaining

Winter will in time be past

Someday soon we will cry rejoicing

Homeland dear you’re mine at last.

Then will the Peat Bog Soldiers

March no more with their spades

To the bog.

And then it got worse. The Jews were rounded up and herded into ghettos. Many surrendered to their oppression. Still others fought back.

Never think this present journey is your last

When heaven’s skies and all above are overcast

Because the day which we have hungered for is near

And our footsteps will re-echo we are here

Because the day which we have hungered for is near

And our footsteps will re-echo we are here.

It’s with our blood and not with ink we wrote this song

No sparrow sang it flying merrily along

But in the blazing hell of Nazi conquered lands

Our people sang this song with rifles in their hands

But in the blazing hell of Nazi conquered lands

Our people sang this song with rifles in their hands.

So never think this present journey is your last

When heaven’s skies and all above are overcast

Because the day which we have hungered for is near

And our footsteps will re-echo we are here

Because the day which we have hungered for is near

And our footsteps will re-echo we are here.

Later, the ghettos were evacuated, and their inhabitants crowded into cattle cars, and transferred to the camps. They were scared. And they were confused.

On a wagon bound for market

There’s a calf with a mournful eye

High above him flies the swallow

Proud and swiftly up in the sky.

How the winds are laughing

They laugh with all their might

Laugh and laugh the whole day through

And half the summer’s night.

Dona dona dona dona

Dona dona dona doh

Dona dona dona dona

Dona dona dona doh.

“Stop complaining,” said the farmer

“Who told you a calf to be?

Why don’t you have wings to fly with

Like the swallow so proud and free?”

How the winds are laughing

They laugh with all their might

Laugh and laugh the whole day through

And half the summer’s night.

Dona dona dona dona

Dona dona dona doh

Dona dona dona dona

Dona dona dona doh.

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered

Never knowing the reason why

Not all creatures like the swallow

Have the power to learn to fly.

How the winds are laughing

They laugh with all their might

Laugh and laugh the whole day through

And half the summer’s night

Dona dona dona dona

Dona dona dona doh

Dona dona dona dona

Dona dona dona doh.

In 1945, the Nazis were defeated, and the insanity ended. For the Jews, redemption was at hand. But they would have to fight for it.

Day and night the storm is raging

We stand grim and battle scarred

Fearless fighters, we stand and attack

We strike fast and we strike hard.

From Mettulah to the Negev

Cross the desert to the sea

Every man a daring warrior

Fights that Israel be free.

Always first and never tiring

Our young nation with our lives we guard

For we are the striking force of Palmach

We strike fast and we strike hard.

And then it was over. After two thousand years of degradation and abuse, a people would finally have a home.

Oh sing a song of victory, Israel

Oh sing it out forever, Israel

Oh sing of all the glories of the past

For we have found our promised land at last.

Or ring a bell and tell the world we’re free

And tell them all we paid for liberty

No other people paid a price so high

To see the star of David in the sky.


Lift up your voice

Our dream was not in vain.

Oh, Lord, help us rebuild

Our temple once again.

Oh sing of those who fought at every gate

And through the years endured a world of hate

Oh sing of peace in which we all shall dwell

Sing it out



(There are people who are not happy that the State of Israel exists. If you’re interested in a history describing the conditions that led to its formation, I recommend a book called Emancipation by Michael Goldfarb.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"The 'Hope' Season"

Spring is traditionally the season of hope. With spring’s arrival, Canadians have the hope that winter will soon be over. They’re wrong, but they have that hope.

During Spring Training, every baseball team harbors the hope of making it to the World Series. Even the Orioles.

And in the television business, when the networks announce their Fall Season schedules, people who made pilots that season nurture the hope that their shows will be picked up (and that those shows will subsequently run longer than statistics on the matter indicate they have any reason to expect, making them wealthy, successful and content.)

I was once one of those people.

I will now describe the rollercoaster ride attendant to that experience.

In the spring of 1980, we made a pilot for ABC of a comedy western called Best of the West. After the filming, during which the studio audience had gone wild, enthusiasm for the series ran extremely high. An ABC executive confided, “Our only question is what night we should schedule it on.”

That sounds like they liked it, doesn’t it? I thought so. In fact, I was so happy, I went out and splurged on expensive cowboy hats for the major players on the show as congratulatory mementoes. Texas Hatters of Austin, Texas individually branded “Made Especially For…” (and the person’s full name) inside each hat. I still have mine. The hatband’s made of feathers. Very striking. Very dust collecting.

Comes, what they call, the “Up Fronts”, and ABC announces its new Fall Schedule.

Best of the West is not on it.

Hm. Apparently, they couldn’t decide what night to schedule it on, so they didn’t schedule it at all.

I was looking forward to being on the Fall Schedule. Not just because it meant I had a show on the air, but also because, subsequent to its selection, Best of the West would be showcased in TV Guide’s annual Preview Edition. I’d been saving TV Guide Preview Editions since 1957. What a thrill it would have been to have a show I created immortalized in a "collectible".

It didn’t happen.

Because we weren’t on the schedule.

There was, however, a consolation prize. Though I’m unsure of the reason – I’d like to think it’s because the show was good – ABC ordered twelve episodes of Best of the West for immediate production. Including the pilot, that made a thirteen-show order, a full half-season of episodes.

ABC’s intention appeared to be that, when some fall-scheduled series faltered, Best of the West would be ready to jump in as a mid-season replacement.

We were understandably encouraged by their support. We made twelve really good episodes. Our confidence was high.

Midseason arrived. Shows on ABC’s schedule did, indeed, falter.

Best of the West was not scheduled as a replacement.

The announcement hurt a little less than the first time, partly because it had already happened once, but also because TV Guide’s midseason Preview Edition was not all that special. I didn’t even collect them.

Back then, there were only two television seasons – the fall season (announced in May, beginning broadcast in September) and midseason (announced in November, beginning broadcast in January).

Best of the West had not made it either time. We now had to wait for next “Up Fronts” the following May – a shelved 1980 model vying for contention against the shiny, new 81’s.

After the grueling ordeal of producing twelve episodes, Dr. M and I took a special, “you earned it” vacation, a photographic safari to the game parks of Kenya. When we returned to London on our way home, an agent there relayed the announcement that ABC had (finally) scheduled Best of the West.

It was a bit of an anticlimax, partly because we had made it on our third try, partly because I’m an unappreciated jerk, but also, maybe most significantly, because we had recently been in the company of elephants and rhinos.

On the other hand – my heart pounds retroactively – when TV Guide published its 1981-1982 Fall Preview Edition, there, featured all by itself on Page 51, across from an ad for True cigarettes…

I bought two copies.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"A Senior Moment"

The show is about to begin. James Taylor and Carole King at the Hollywood Bowl. I’m there with Dr. M and her friend, Wanda, who was tenacious in her efforts to procure tickets, and had generously footed the bill.

Seated at the end of the row, I spot two women standing in the aisle, waiting to get in. I get up to allow them to pass. As I do, I yawn.

Responding to my yawn, one woman exclaims, “The night is young!”

To which I immediately shoot back,

“But I’m not.”

It was a spontaneous response, and not a little embarrassing, it being the truth, and all. Minutes later, an alternate “comeback” bubbles to mind, something clever and moment-rescuing.

“It was a yawn of excitement,” I imagined myself saying.

That’s a funny response, putting “yawn” and “excitement” in the same sentence. Those words don’t belong together. That’s what makes it funny.

He needlessly explained.

The problem is the line sounds forced, a face-saving cover-up. By the way, those two jokes demonstrate an essential truth about comedy: It can reveal, and it can conceal. I chose to reveal. Actually, no, I didn’t. There was no choice whatsoever. I just opened my mouth, and out the thing came.

The show begins. Two sixties legends, impressively doing their thing. I heard someone say, “They’re the Lawrence Welk of our generation.” That bothered me. If they’re Lawrence Welk, what does that make me?

Old. Is what it makes me. Very, very old. And, as a bonus, out of touch.

My response to the concert is enthusiastic. This is not surprising. Though, over time, many albums passed through my car’s CD player, three CD’s remained immune to replacement for almost twenty years, two of them being Carole King’s Tapestry and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. (The third was Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman.)

I was a member of this concert’s core demographic. (Though, looking around, so was pretty much everybody else there.) Someone asked if I thought the audience would be partaking of drugs and alcohol, to which I replied,

“If their doctors will let them.”

To my ear, the two performers seemed minimally diminished by the passing decades. Their musicianship was impeccable, their voices (especially Taylor’s) as clear and evocative as ever. Carole King’s voice may have betrayed some time-tarnished roughness. But she easily made up for it with her remarkable energy.

The concert offered no updated arrangements, no Dylanesquely rejiggered rhythms. Just the old songs played the fondly remembered way. Close your eyes, and it’s 1971. And your heart doesn’t have a ring around its recently repaired mitral valve.

It turns out, however, that the L.A. Times reviewer perceived the proceedings decidedly differently, his displeasure reflected in his critique the following morning.

Some sample quotes:

“James Taylor and Carole King made no effort to disguise their ages Thursday Night…”

“[The] show offered depressingly little of value to anyone not pre-determined to relive good times gone by.”

“King and Taylor didn’t disappoint Thursday because they’re too old to make a fresh impact on listeners. They disappointed because they seemed so uninterested in trying.”

The reviewer had missed the point of the enterprise. The concert was specifically billboarded as a reconstruction of the song list featured in the couple’s first onstage pairing at L.A’s Troubadour back in 1971. King and Taylor didn’t disappoint its audience. It gave them precisely what they’d purchased tickets to hear.

Also the reviewer, who I imagine hails from a younger generation, was oblivious to the show’s fundamental message, a signal that spoke loudly to the entertainers’ assembled contemporaries:

“Look at them. They’re up there. And they’ve still got it.”

The music critic may have seen ho hum and business as usual. I saw two sixty-somethings who were still around and doing all right.

Make that three,

If you include the yawner.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Thank You,Rita; The Other Guy, Not So Much"


So I try to get on the Internet through AOL, which is the way I originally learned how to do it. At that time, I thought AOL was the Internet, because I had to go through AOL to get on it. Sneering children subsequently taught me better.

So I try to get on the Internet, and for the first time ever, the response flashes on my screen:

“Password Invalid.”

This seemed very strange to me. I had saved my password a long time ago. Normally, all I did was click to get on AOL (and the Internet), and it automatically took me there. This time it didn’t. Why didn’t it?

“Password Invalid.”

I felt confounded and perplexed. How could a saved password – meaning a password I didn’t type in so I couldn’t have accidentally typed in it wrong – suddenly become invalid?

My reaction to the problem was immediate.

I freaked out.

Not just because I couldn’t get to my email or post on my blog. (I can’t post via Internet Explorer.) I freaked out because I was reminded once again that, in a world grounded in technology,

The individual controls


In a freaked out condition – at least in my freaked out condition – clear thinking is no longer available. Like a rat that keeps racing down the same path in a maze only to continually run into the same dead end, I continually exited the AOL sign-in place, and then went back to it, typing in my password again and again. And guess what happened every time?

“Password Invalid.”

Followed by a cheery “Goodbye” printed in red.

I tried a different password, just in case I’d forgotten my password, even though I hadn’t. The response to this Plan B, not surprisingly:

“Password Invalid.”

I went to the “Forgot Your Password?” place. (The word “moron” is understood.) They asked me some private question about my pet’s name. I typed in the name of the only pet I ever cared about.


I then went to a “Help” place, where I got the phone number for AOL Tech Support. I dialed the number, and I heard a pre-recorded woman with a buttery voice say this:

“If you’re calling for “Man Wants Man’, press One. If you’re calling for ‘Man Wants Woman’, press Two. If you’re calling for ‘Woman Wants Man’, press Three. If you’re calling for ‘Woman Wants Woman’, press Four.”

I listened with a dropped jaw. Clearly distraught, I had dialed the wrong number. But what was that about!

I hung up and dialed again. This time, I got AOL.

Not unexpectedly, my Tech Support assistant was a fellow from another country. I told him my problem. The man did some quick checking, and then announced, with total confidence, “I am absolutely certain I know what your problem is.”

“Great. Can you fix it?”

“I cannot.”

The Tech Support assistant explained that there had been some “inappropriate activity” on my account, and as a result, my password had been de-activated.

“Is that like when they find suspicious activity on my credit card account, and they cancel my credit card?”, a situation that has happened to me on numerous occasions.

“It could be a problem of that nature,” he replied, noncommittally.

“Could it be something I did?” I ventured to ask

The Tech Support assistant from another country’s response came in a tone familiar to anyone who’s watched The Man Who Knew Too Much, paying special attention to how the foreign police respond to American tourists accidentally caught in a web of intrigue.


The “perhaps” implied, “I know more than I am at liberty to say. But if you are concerned that I consider you a suspect, you have interpreted my manner precisely.”

The Tech Support assistant then informed me that the only way I could begin to correct my problem was to write the Crime Assistance, or CAT team, in Sterling, Virginia. I was severely taken aback.

“Write them? You mean like a letter with a stamp?”

“That is correct,” he replied crisply. “A letter with a stamp.”

I scribbled down the Virginia address, thanked the man and hung up. Frustrated by the prospect of an endless exchange of letters until my problem was finally resolved, I went back to typing in my password, hoping the situation had miraculously cleared up by itself. It hadn’t.

“Password Invalid.”


I moped for the rest of the day. Fortunately, later that afternoon, I got a call from my stepdaughter, Rachel. I complained about my problem, because that’s what I do. The always sensible and maturely assertive Rachel instructed me to call back AOL Tech Support and demand to speak to a supervisor. I told her I couldn’t do that. I have never had the ability to go over anyone’s head, fearing that the person whose head I went over would somehow track me down and kill me.

Rachel had, however, inspired me to try again. I redialed – very carefully this time – AOL Tech Support.

I got a woman named Rita.

I repeated my complaint to Rita, telling her that the previous Tech Support assistant had advised me that the only way I could handle my problem was with a letter to Virginia. Rita told me she that would not be necessary. She could help me right then and there.

Rita gave me a new password, a combination of numbers and letters, which she immediately helped me trade in for my old password. I was back in business in less than five minutes. I thanked Rita profusely. I then asked her where she was from.

“Bangalore, India,” she replied.

“A place I have never visited,” I heard myself stupidly say. I went on to announce that I now had a newfound respect for AOL’s Tech Support operation, a reputation tarnished by my unfortunate run-in with the “Perhaps” guy. Rita responded thusly.

“My records show that your previous Tech Support assistant was from Romania.” There was a hint of disdain in her voice when she said the word “Romania.”

I asked her what time it was in Bangalore.

“Five-thirty A.M.”

I learned that Rita had been on the job since seven-thirty the previous evening. Her explanation: “We have to be here when you are awake.”

“Rita,” I said wistfully, “I believe our relationship is about to end. Thank you again. And I wish a very pleasant rest of the day. Or a good sleep. Or whatever you do after this.” She thanked me for patronizing AOL, and that was that.

Lesson learned? If you call AOL Tech Support and the guy’s from Romania? Ask immediately to be transferred to India.

And if you can, get Rita.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Origins Of This"

Engaging in the “Archeology of Me”, I find myself searching for when I started doing this. It’s a strange activity – writing. It’s not something most people do. I mean, people write what they need to write, but they don’t generally make things up and put them on paper. I do. And it seems like I – not always have, because there was a time when I didn’t, like when I was six – but I’ve been doing it for quite some time.

In third grade, I wrote “Bugs Bunny and The Banana Factory.” But that was, like, a classroom assignment. Everybody had to write something. Though no one, other than myself, wrote “Bugs Bunny and the Banana Factory.”

I don’t recall what that story was about, though the title offers certain clues. What I do remember is that my teacher, Mrs. Knight, dragged me to other classes, where I stood on a chair, and read “Bugs Bunny and the Banana Factory” to strangers. It was an odd, and not entirely pleasant experience. I don’t enjoy standing on chairs. You never know about the sturdiness of the legs.

The next time I remember writing anything, I was sixteen years old, and I was at camp. This time, though it was still an assignment, that assignment was directed exclusively at me.

The camp director, whose name was Joe, asked me if I’d be willing to write something for the “Visitors’ Day”, I don’t know, program, booklet, newspaper, magazine, something the parents would receive, and then throw away, unless their kid had something in it, in which case they would save it, and then forget where it was.

I said I would do it. Not because I wanted to write anything, but because I was afraid of Joe. Not just Joe. Joe and authority figures. Both of whom, in this case, were Joe. Though I’m sure the assignment gave me a stomachache, on some level, a level that I wouldn’t connect with until considerably later, writing something did not seem like it would be impossible.

So I did it.

As usual, when I’m stuck for a topic, I write about cowboys. It’s what I know the most about. That, and camp. But my camp observations were not the kind of stuff I thought Joe would want the parents reading about on “Visitors’ Day.”

“There are bats in the outhouses.”

Parents read that, and when they leave, their kids are in the back seat.

So I wrote about cowboys. And because I have a certain kind of brain that thinks a certain kind of way, what I wrote about what this.

I thought about the long-running western, Gunsmoke. And how, on Gunsmoke, Marshal Matt Dillon and his sidekick Chester would be riding along, and they’d come upon a dead body, sometimes, in the middle of nowhere. The next thing you know, they pull a shovel out of their saddlebag, climb down from their horses, and proceed to dig a grave for the deceased.

It seemed to me, that, on Gunsmoke, Matt and Chester came up on a considerable number of dead bodies, resulting in their being required to dig a considerable number of graves. Grave digging is no easy talk. You have to make a big hole, drop in the body, fill the hole up, find some kind of a marker, and plant that in the ground. That kind of work can take hours.

I imagined that after continually coming across all these dead bodies that they always had to bury, that one of them, more likely Chester than the upright Marshall Dillon, would become fed up with the whole thing:

Lookee there, Chester. Isn’t that a dead body?


Over yonder. By that sycamore tree.

I don’t see anything.

I’m pretty sure it’s a body.

I think you’re seein’ things, Mister Dillon. Must be the heat.

We better ride over there.

Mister Dillon, our horses are plumb tuckered out. We shouldn’t be makin’ them do the extra work of ridin’ over to see if there’s a body lyin’ someplace. It jain’t fair to the horses.


It is a body.

That’s a body lyin’ there, all right. But I figure he’s just sleepin’.

We’d better make sure.

Oh, now, Mister Dillon. Supposin’ that man’s just worked himself near to death, pullin’ tree stumps, or plowin’ the field, and he got so exhausted, he just dropped where he stood, and fell asleep right there on the spot. Now how would you feel, if someone woke you up from a desperately needed sleep?

We have to see if he’s dead.

He’s not dead. There, you see that? He’s movin’.

I didn’t see him move.

‘Course he’s movin’. See? His hair is blowin’ all over the place.

Chester, a dead man’s hair can blow around. Especially when it’s windy.

I don’t feel any wind.

Are you kiddin’? Your hat blew off four times since breakfast.

All right, then, I’ll just out and say it. I’m tired of this, Mister Dillon. This is the third dead body we’ve found today. And over the last week, gotta be eleven bodies. It’s ain’t right, Mister Dillon. Our job is to hunt down dangerous outlaws, and we’re spendin’ most of our time diggin’ graves.

It can’t be helped, Chester. A man needs a decent burial. Now, get your shovel.

Oh, all right. (THEN) Oh, now, wouldn’t you know it? I left my shovel at the last buryin’.

Then what’s that wooden handle stickin’ out of your saddlebag?

What, that? It’s a broom.

A broom.

I like to bring a broom along. To tidy up the campsite.

That handle’s pretty short for a broom.

It’s a child’s broom. That’s all they had at the General Store. Sweeps as good as a regular broom. Just takes longer.

Chester. It’s a shovel.

Oh, all right, it’s a shovel. Guess there’s no gettin’ around it. We’re diggin’ another grave. Doggone it. If I’da wanted to be a gravedigger, I’da gone and become a gravedigger. But here I am, the marshal’s right hand man, and just about all I get to do is dig people’s graves.

Well, it has to be done. So let’s get him six feet under.

Mister Dillon, do you think, just this once, we could bury the fellah four feet under.

We can’t, Chest…

Oh, now, it’s not like anybody’s gonna come out here and check. “Will you look at that! They was supposed to plant the fellah six feet under, and they ‘shorted’ him two feet.” That’s just not gonna happen, Mister Dillon. Nobody’s ever gonna know.

We’ll know, Chester.

All right, then! I guess I’ll just get to diggin’. Again!

You know, I spotted a farmhouse a ways back. Maybe I could ride over there and get us some buttermilk. Would you like that Chester, a cool glass of buttermilk?

A cool glass of buttermilk’d go real good right about now.

Well, you just start breakin’ the ground here, and I’ll be right back.



You get that buttermilk, Mr. Dillon?

No luck, Chester. There was nobody home.

Well, that’s just too bad. This diggin’ sure makes a man thirsty.

Yeah, well, I’m afraid I got some more bad news for ya too.

What’s that?

Over by the farmhouse?

Don’t tell me.

Yep. I found another body.

I wrote something like that. I don't recall the exact words, 'cause I didn't keep the paper. What's remarkable, to me, is, I could have written the same thing today. I had little trouble filling in the gaps.

Does that mean I'm consistent? Or did I just not get any better?

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Symptom-Free Diseases"

A few months ago, I experienced a troubling symptom, which led to a hospital stay, which led to the discovery of a problem, which led to surgery, which led to recovery, which led to I’m fine.

I understand that arrangement. You feel something, they find something, and they fix it. That’s clean. That’s simple. It’s not fun, but I get it.

As compared to this:

As a result of some blood testing, or, more specifically, the numbers calibrated and passed on the my doctor by some (hopefully focused) blood-testing technician,

I now take blood pressure medicine. Though I feel no external symptoms of high blood pressure.

I take Lipitor for my cholesterol, though I feel no indications of elevated cholesterol.

I take a pill for my thyroid, though I feel no signals of thyroid malfunction.

I take a fourth medicine of a more personal nature (I don’t tell you everything), though I’m not aware of symptoms related to that condition either.

I once said to my doctor, “When I’m waiting in the examining room, I get scared you’re going to come in here and tell me that there’s something wrong with me.”

To which the doctor responded,

“How do you feel?”

“I feel fine,” I replied.

To which the doctor replied,

“If you’re feeling fine, why would you think there was anything wrong with you?”

I had the “comeback” answer in my head, but I sighed, and let it go, because I didn’t want to take up too much of the doctor’s time (and I was afraid he might give me an illness just for spite.) You’re probably ahead of me on this, but I may as well wrap it up.

“Doctor,” I thought, but I didn’t say, “‘feeling fine’ seems to have nothing to do with anything. I feel fine now, and I’m taking four different medicines. And I was feeling fine before you prescribed them.

‘Feeling fine’ is nowhere near as reassuring as I’d like it to be.”

Once again, I’m going in for blood testing.

I feel fine.

And it’s really got me worried.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"On Further Consideration..."

If you’re a regular person like myself, impressed by quick-mindedness, a lofty position and personal magnetism, it is easy to be bowled over by a well-turned aphorism tossed off by a charismatic phrasemaker. On its first hearing, the proclamation sounds delightful and insightful. A private revisiting, however, may leave you going, “Wait a second…”

Two exemplifying examples:

Example Number One

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time."

This declaration was offered by Sir Winston Churchill in a speech he delivered to the British Parliament in 1947. (I looked it up.) In its construction, it calls to mind the mirth-inducing witticisms of Oscar Wilde, along the lines of, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

It is also interesting to note that Churchill wraps up his pronouncement with a conversational flourish.

“…from time to time.”

Kind of casual like, like he’s enjoying a pint with the boys down at the pub. If he hadn’t spoken these words in Parliament, you can imagine Old “Winny” buttoning his bon mot by bringing a cigar to his lips, his gesture camouflaging a self-satisfied chuckle.

Churchill’s observation has the advantage of self-evident wisdom. Fascism had recently been tried, and had stunk up the place. Soviet communism didn’t look any better. A monarchy? “Off with his head?” That was pretty much a thing of the past.

Despite its frustrations and disappointments, democracy was clearly the most satisfactory arrangement of the bunch. Britons nodded, admiring “Our Winston’s” ever so clever turn of phrase, and got on with the business of muddling through.

However, for serious thinkers who gave his pronouncement a second look, there really isn’t much to get excited about. I mean, when you get down to it, all Churchill’s saying is,

“Our form of government may be a D-minus, but everyone else’s is an F.”

To which the serious thinker might respond,

"So what? It’s still a D-minus."

In a pleasing demonstration of mock humility, democracy’s weaknesses are acknowledged, without apology, regret or suggestion for reform. In the “Form of Government” competition, we took the Gold, our prevailing argument:

We stink less than everybody else.”

When you think about it, there’s not really much there. Churchill’s declaration simply – and only momentarily – makes you feel better.

Example Number Two

This one is more current, popularized (if not coined) by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and kept alive by the liberal criticism of the conservative talkocracy.

To wit:

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts."

Wow, there’s a chastening rebuke for you. Moynihan, the fair-minded’s noble surrogate, has called these black-hearted miscreants at their dastardly game.

Unfortunately, he’s incorrect.

Of course you’re entitled to your own facts. That’s what debates are about, people pitting their argument-supporting facts against the facts of their opponents, in an effort to win an acknowledgement that their facts are more persuasive.

Why do they bring in “expert witnesses” at trials? To offer dueling sets of facts. We have facts. The other side has facts. Let the jury decide which facts they, not believe, because, ideally, the facts presented to them are all valid, but let them decide which facts more reasonably support the most appropriate (and, hopefully, most just) legal outcome.

A husband and wife have a fight: “You’re not attentive”, complains one spouse, backed up by laundry list of unassailable evidence. The other spouse responds, “You’re not supportive”, offering equally indisputable evidence backing that point. To win the dispute, each side has accumulated its own facts, selected facts without question, but facts nonetheless.

Who says they’re not entitled to them?

Moynihan had it wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own facts. What they’re not entitled to is their own fabrications, which they shamelessly promote as facts. That’s what Moynihan should have said. It's undoubtedly what he meant. But he didn’t say, "Everyone is entitled to his own facts, but not his own made-up facts", because it’s nowhere nearly as memorable.

Everyone appreciates a well-turned phrase. But a well-turned phrase resonating with an enduring truth, now we’re talkin’.

As regards to the foregoing pronouncements,

"Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on me again, but even more so, because you already fooled me once."

I guess I don’t have it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"What Dogs Think"

So I’m sitting in the Waiting Area at a vet’s office, where I have accompanied my daughter, who has made an appointment for her cat, who has a cough. This is the same vet’s office where we once brought another cat, who didn’t get to go home, a trauma of such magnitude, it is impossible for me to even think about having another pet.

I need a distraction, to take my mind off of “Franky”, the cat who didn’t get to go home. (Though, to believers of a certain persuasion, she may have gotten to go Home.) I find that distraction in a dog waiting to see the vet, a beautiful black and white I-don’t-know-what, but I have the feeling its ancestors rounded things up.

The dog has caught my attention, because, when it was time for it to be taken “in the back”, it insistently did not want to go.

(Note: I mean no disrespect by calling the dog “it.” I did not look underneath to determine its gender, and if I had, I would very likely have remained in the dark.)

The dog’s unwillingness to cooperate left the vet’s assistant no alternative but to drag it to the back. The dog resisted by digging in its nails, which everyone sitting there could detect scraping gratingly along the Waiting Area’s uncarpeted floor. In the cartoon version, sparks would have been flying off of the concrete.

You identify with the dog; or at least, I do. Its behavior is not dissimilar to the behavior I display when my dentist invites me into The Room With The Chair.

I felt a bonding empathy. But there was something else going on as well. An awareness I had never experienced before. Or at least never with such blinding clarity.

This dog remembers.

If it didn’t, it would have padded obliviously into the back, like, “I’m here; now, I’m going there.” No trepidation. No concern. The reason?

No memory.

This was clearly not the case here. This dog remembered what was in store for it in the back. And it insistently wanted no part of it.

This gets me thinking. If dogs can remember – which this one certainly could or why the big fuss? – what else is going on in their minds that we don’t know about?

I’m not a dog. I don’t know what they think. And I’m reluctant to Disney my human impressions onto their doggified brains. It’s possible dogs don’t think anything, though the door to that unlikelihood was rapidly closing. It now seemed likely that dogs did at least have the capacity to think certain things.

I wondered if, perhaps, dogs think things like this:

“How can anyone get around on two legs?”

“What if one ‘dog year’ isn’t seven ‘human years’, but just one?”

“This stuff in a tin they’re feeding me, have they ever tasted it themselves?”

“My tongue is too big.”

“I bark; therefore, I am.”

“Sometimes I feel this overpowering impulse to get sheep to line up.”

“Chasing cars is ridiculo…ooh, there goes a car!!!”

“I wag my tail in time to a tune whose name remains annoyingly on the tip of my oversized tongue.”

“I don’t know a single dog who enjoys wearing a sweater.”

“Nobody likes drinking out of the toilet. We do it, because it’s the only water we can reach.”

“One day I had testicles; the next day I didn’t.”

“I could have the solution to world hunger, but do you think they’d listen to a dog? Do I have the solution to world hunger? I don’t even think about it. Why bother?”

And finally, the thought I see most clearly in this dog’s pleading eyes, as it’s hauled off to an appointment with something altogether unpleasant:

“Don’t just stare at me, you idiot. Help me!”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"It Was Different Back Then"

Mentioning David Lloyd, as I did in yesterday’s posting, reminds me of the way television writing used to be and, I’m pretty certain, no longer is.

When I started writing half hour comedies, shows’ writing staffs were extremely small. On Phyllis, which was the first writing staff I was a member of, and as it turned out, the last, the entire staff consisted of two people, a producer – a wonderful writer named Michael – and a story editor. Me.

Also involved were Phyllis’s creators, Ed. and Stan. But they were concurrently heavily involved with two other shows – The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Doc.

Michael and I were responsible for writing scripts for Phyllis, and also for rewriting scripts written by outside writers. (More on them later.) When the episodes were being produced, we additionally assisted on rewrite nights.

That was a lot of work.

How much work depended on what shape the scripts were in. When a David Lloyd script came in, there was very little rewriting required. David was roaringly funny, and was an expert storyteller. David Lloyd constructed a storyline like an engineer assembling a bridge. You never had to worry about an unexpected collapse.

David and I (after I quit being Phyllis’s story editor), though technically not on any writing staff, were subsidiary adjuncts to the inside team. (David, enthusiastically, and later me, reluctantly, also helped out on rewrite nights, David on a weekly basis, me, only on the scripts I had written.)

It’s helpful to be a part of the team, actually, or as a subsidiary adjunct. Participating in these positions gave you an intimate knowledge of the workings of the show – the ideas they had tried and rejected, the story areas they steered clear of, the actors’ strengths and weaknesses, the comedic and personal tastes of the show runners.

A shorthand would develop that accelerated the writer’s decision-making process, a shorthand unavailable to writers who were less intimately involved.

But with a tiny staff, and, you know, as sensational as we were, David Lloyd and I could only provide so many scripts, additional writing help was inevitably required. This led to a market that I believe no longer exists. The market of the freelance scriptwriter.

Almost every week, outside writers would come in, armed with story ideas, which they would dutifully pitch. In the end, they were either sent away without an assignment (because their story pitches weren’t right), one of their ideas was accepted, or they were given an idea, and sent off to write the script.

Outside writers’ scripts were, more often than not, disappointing. This is not surprising. First, as I mentioned, outside writers, though they’d seen the show on TV, did not have the intimate understanding of it, that writers connected to the show were privy too. Plus, though a few freelance writers wanted to be freelance writers, the majority of them were writers who had not procured jobs on writing staffs, meaning they were generally not the most sought after members of the Guild.

We now enter “chicken-or-egg” country. Either show runners got so tired of rewriting outside writers’ scripts that they expanded their writing staffs so that all the scripts could be written “in house”, or the writing staffs became so big, outside writing assistance became no longer necessary. I really don’t know which led to what. All I know is, at some point, writing staffs on comedies ballooned to a dozen or more writers.

When that happened, the job of outside writer completely disappeared. So did the job David and I did – no more “subsidiary adjunct” writers either. Now, you were either on the writing staff, or you didn’t have a job.

The next evolution was “gang” or “room” writing. In this process, even staff writers don’t go off to write scripts. Instead, every script is written with the show runner and the entire staff working together in the same room. Afterwards, somebody’s name gets slapped on the script, maybe in rotation, so that everyone gets their turn (there is substantial “residual” money involved), but nobody actually writes the script themselves. It is written by “The Room.”

You can see the consequences of this approach. Yes, a script can be cranked out faster – in a day, maybe two, as compared to maybe a week when a writer is sent off alone – but what kind of writing is that? Where’s the care? Where’s the craftsmanship? Where’s the distinctive, personal stamp that allows the viewer to say, “Oh. David Lloyd wrote this script? He’s the best. I have to watch this.”


What you have, instead, are a lot of, often, very funny jokes – that’s what a “room” does best, a dozen writers pitching jokes, with the funniest joke – or at least the joke the show runner considers the funniest (invariably his own) – going into the script. What’s missing is, well, maybe this is exaggerating, but a resonating human voice.

David Lloyd passed away last November. That was sad. But the passing of the writing process he excelled at, where, despite the homogenizing demands of a television series, the writer’s uniqueness could still be powerfully felt, is, arguably, even sadder.
Something weird happened. AOL cancelled my password and won't give me another one. If you want to email me, try I cannot currently access my AOL e-mail, including the "Noreplays", which are really "No replies", that automatically get transferred from the "comments" section of my blog. Sorry for the inconvenience. I'm at the mercy of technology. Amongst other things.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"My All-Time Favorite Job - Part Three"

In 1975, Lorne Michaels, who had brought me to California and had kept me working for nine months, left for New York to start Saturday Night Live, and I didn’t go with him. Unemployed, and out of patrons, I conceived an idea for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and out of that idea grew a job working for the Mary Tyler Moore Company.

My career at MTM started rockily. I was put on the Phyllis writing staff As I’ve explained elsewhere, I didn’t like that job.

After three weeks of employment, I went to my boss, and, in a strategy that would be repeated throughout my career, I asked to be relieved of the job I was currently doing, and demanded to be be given a job that would pay me considerably less money. For those who tend to stereotype Jewish people and crafty businesspeople – “Exhibit A” of “That’s not always true.”

In a voice trembling with “What the hell am I doing?”, I informed my boss that, rather than serve on the writing staff of a single series, I would, instead, write ten scripts (later reduced to eight) for the various series that MTM had on the air.

My boss said okay. I think he just wanted me out of his office. I may have been scaring him.

It turns out that there was a precedent at MTM – a precedent to a writer who didn’t want to be on staff, but just wanted to write scripts. The “precedent’s” name was David Lloyd. David wrote sixteen scripts a year. I was permitted to follow in his footsteps, albeit with half his output, and a percentage of his reliability.

The job lasted for three years, during which I wrote twenty-four episodes for the MTM company’s various series – the flagship Mary show, Phyllis, a show called Doc, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, The Tony Randall Show, and The Betty White Show.

I was given an office (and my own parking space) on the studio lot. The office wasn’t large. It had no window. When I was later moved, it was turned into the copy machine room. It was a good copy machine room. Copy machines don’t mind “no windows.”

Nor, really, did I. I had an office on the studio lot. (And my own parking space.)

Besides, directly opposite, was the door to the outside. I could look straight out my door and see fresh air and sunshine.

Frequently, seeing them wasn’t enough. At those times, I would take my pen and legal pad, and go outside, sit down on the steps, and work out there, sporting my standard attire, which was cutoff jeans shorts, a t-shirt and sandals.

The breeze was soft and warm. The sky was bright. Birds were chirping. You could smell orange blossoms. Sometimes, I would just stop what I was doing, and smile.

“Look at me. I’m writing in California.”

Before my second season, I was relocated to an office on the second floor of a two-floor Spanish-style building featuring a long verandah and a railing, the kind of railing movie bandidos flipped over after catching a bullet. The office was actually a dressing room. The adjoining private bathroom was bigger than my first office. And it came with a shower.

People who ran shows didn’t have that. It was the height of luxury. I could write for a while, and when the going got hot and heavy,

I could take a shower.

Directly below me was the studio barbershop, headquarters to an impeccably groomed elderly gentleman named Sol, who, in his day, had cut hair for many noteworthy celebrities, including Desi Arnaz. Sol set no fee for his services, asking instead, “How much do you want to pay?” And after dusting me off with a little brush doused in powder, he would always send me off with lemons from his backyard.

Many a lunchtime, I would pick up a sandwich at the commissary, and walk over to the “Gunsmoke Street”, the “Dodge City” exterior used on Gunsmoke – find a seat on a wooden bench where “Matt Dillon” might have chewed the fat with “Doc” or “Chester”, an imagined the dozens gunfights staged directly in front of where I was currently munching my “turkey on rye.”

The studio lot had the relaxed feel of a small town, college campus. Interspersed among the soundstages were little parks, some featuring statues and small fountains. Spanning the studio’s borders were “neighborhoods” of fifties-feeling tree lined streets, which served as exteriors for many long-running family comedies, such as My Three Sons.

So there was all of that.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, there was also included in the job working on the best comedy shows on television, learning my craft from the most talented teachers in the business.

But I’m not finished yet. There was also a feeling. Which I can best describe with a story.

Once, at the end of a script session for an episode I was about to write, in a moment of exuberance over doing precisely what I wanted to be doing, I said,

“This is fun.”

To which my boss shot back, “Yeah. Until you get scared.”

To which I replied, “Scared of what?”

More than anything, that blissful obliviousness is what made my three years writing scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Company my all-time favorite job.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"My All-Time Favorite Job - Part Two *"

* (I never know something will go longer than one part until it does.)

I was asked what my all-time favorite job was. Yesterday, I ruled out The Cosby Show. My Cosby experience had its pluses, but it eventually made me mentally ill, or, more accurately, it ignited the mental illness buried not too deeply beneath the surface.

So, not that.

Continuing the search…

There were three TV shows that I either created or helped create. This seems like a hopeful direction in the hunt for my “all-time favorite job.” Let’s take these show in the chronological order of their creation, and see what turns up.

Best of the West

By far, my funniest series.

Best of the West involved an arena I knew and loved – cowboy shows. I knew the fictional cowboy turf like the back of my hand. (Old joke: “I know…whatever like the back of my hand. (ABSENTLY EYEING THE BACK OF HIS HAND) Hey, I never saw that before.)

I had a lifelong familiarity with the stock company of western characters. Fictional cowboy lingo was my second language. I reveled in riffing comedically on the classic cowboy show situations:

A gunfight, where the guns wouldn’t shoot straight.

The hanging of a corrupt local citizen, where the apparatus collapses in mid-hanging, the scaffold having been built by the construction company owned by the corrupt local citizen.

A miraculous transformation of a saloon into a respectable House of Worship, executed at breakneck speed before the viewer’s incredulous eyes.

Best of the West had a talented cast of regulars. Great guest stars (Andy Griffith, Chuck Connors, Slim Pickens.) We even had a bear.

But the network was never behind the show, (they wound up scheduling it against Dallas, at the time, the most popular series on television.) And the pressure of handling my first showrunning opportunity was immense. This was the time when, during a break from an agonizingly slow-moving rewrite session, I was whinily heard to lament,

“There has to be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

I know. Crazy. But I was seriously stressed.

Being the first show I ever created, Best if the West, as with all firsts, holds a special place in my heart. But my “all-time favorite job”? As the great “Duke” Wayne himself would say,

“Not hardly.”

Family Man

My most honest comedy, meaning, while remaining comedic, it was my most accurate depiction of actual life. This hardly comes as a surprise. Consequent to my accomplishments on The Cosby Show, the then president of NBC commissioned me to write a sitcom version of my family.

I was intrinsically familiar with the territory. Every story idea on Family Man sprang from an event that happened to me, either as parent, or as a kid.

Our objective was maximum verisimilitude. We used our house as the show house’s “exterior”. We recreated our living room as the living room “set.” Even the “backing” behind the set was a blown-up photograph of what we saw when we looked out our window.

I made Family Man without a live studio audience. No audience meant no bleachers. No bleachers meant more room for more sets. More sets meant more locations, allowing for richer and less sitcomically traditional storytelling possibilities.

Excluding the audience also gave me the freedom to experiment with a wider range of comedic options. For example, we did an extended husband-and-wife “I’m not talking to you” scene entirely without words, scoring it in post-production to an orchestrated tango.

Due to the arrangement of the schedule, and the smaller number of shows ordered, I was also able to write all the episodes myself.

But Family Man only went seven episodes. And the leading man, the guy who played me, though a true, comedic genius, wasn’t anything like me. Plus, once again, there was the torturous pressure of running a show.

Family Man was a lovely and rewardingly innovative experience. And it gave Alison Sweeney her start. But my “all-time favorite job”? ‘Fraid not.

Major Dad

My credit here was actually “Developed By”, but I did, in fact, co-create the series.

Major Dad was my greatest commercial success. It ran for four seasons, and might have run longer, if the Universal executive at the time, whose name was Tom, hadn’t butchered the negotiation for a fifth season pick-up.

I only worked on Major Dad for the first season, after which I returned to my office to create new shows and take naps. As I mentioned elsewhere, in my entire career in television, Major Dad was the only time I worked on a show full time for an entire season. The experience wore me down to kindling. (Are you getting that I wasn’t built to run television shows?)

Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney, was a talented and appealing performer. (I once asked him why he thought the show was popular, to which he candidly replied, “They like ‘the guy’.”)

In the beginning, McRaney was game to make Major Dad as funny as we could write it. But as it grew in popularity, he adjusted his priorities, now requiring that his character’s credibility as a Marine to take precedence over the comedy.

This led to conflicts, McRaney complaining we were distorting what “a Marine would actually do” for comedic purposes. (We were. But it’s not like I had a reputation for buffoonery. Harumph!)

The last straw occurred when McRaney personally rewrote a scene without telling anyone – and by “anyone”, I mean me. You don’t do that. And if you do, you lose my participation in your show. Which is what happened.

Major Dad? It got us a swimming pool. But as a work experience? Decent, but no Oorah.

Okay, that’s it. Three shows. All memorable in their way, but out of the running as my “all-time favorite job.”

I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"My All-Time Favorite Job"

Recently, I was asked,

“What was your all-time favorite job?”

I had to think about it. I assumed they meant, “What was your all-time favorite writing job?”, the clarification being necessary, because I had also taught school in London at St. John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School for six months, and had wrapped toys at Harrods, also in London, for three.

I was pretty sure the question asker had not meant those jobs. Though they were both pretty fun.

Thinking back, aside from the aforementioned employments, I have never made a dime at any job other than writing (and, here and there, performing). Over the past forty or so years, I have written for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies (though none of them got made), a baseball program, and now, blogs. It’s a good thing that worked out. I have no aptitude for anything else.

My first thought when I considered my all-time favorite job was The Cosby Show. Collaborating with a immensely gifted comedic mind was, at its best moments, off-the-charts exhilarating. Working with Cosby was like sitting in with a world-class jazz band, trying your darndest to keep up. And, half the time, succeeding.

Once, Cosby, who, at least early in the series, provided most of the ideas for the episodes, sketched out a story with me – about his wife Claire’s sudden craving to have another baby – and sent me off to write the script.

I finished the script, and nobody liked it. To his credit, Cosby took personal responsibility, acknowledging, “This one’s on me.” The script I had written had carefully followed Cosby’s instructions. But, somehow, though the story was a good, it had seriously missed the target.

To his credit, he took the blame.

We were now in serious trouble. We had a show to do next week, and we didn’t have a script. At that point, Bill Cosby performed comedy magic before my disbelieving eyes.

Sitting in a room, surrounded by the show’s producers, the director and a very anxious me, poised with a pen and a legal pad, Cosby proceeded to pitch out an entirely different version of the same story.

This one was noticeably better.

After half an hour of Cosby’s spontaneously extemporizing the outline, and my non-stop getting it down, he stopped.

“Is that a story?” he asked me. I liked that he respected me enough to solicit my opinion on the matter. Which I immediately gave him.

“That’s half a story,” I replied.

Cosby blinked, slowly shook his head, and then looked around, filling the room with “This guy’s pushing me to the limit” irritation. Fortunately, it was accompanied by a gleam in his eye that said, “This man knows his stuff.”

I did.

It was only half a story.

Cosby took a deep pull on his cigar. And then proceeded to pitch out the second half of the story. We were done in forty-five minutes.

I’ve been around some excellent writers – Jim Brooks, Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, Garry Shandling. I never saw anyone pitch out an entire episode in forty-five minutes.

I looked at the man in awe and admiration. Bubbling inside me, I could feel the gravelly, satisfied chuckle of “Fat Albert.”


The problem was, I now had three days to write the script, and the fastest I had ever written a script before that was seven days.

That’s what made The Cosby Show not my all-time favorite job.

I would have to keep looking for what was.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"A Challenge To The Routine"

It was included in his ”Discharge Packet.”

A single sheet of paper, accompanying handouts listing a series of warnings – “Do not pick up anything from the floor for six weeks!” – and prescriptions for ten medications. It read, in part:

When you are 6 months post surgery and interested in being part of the cardiac team…we invite you to become a Heart Families Volunteer at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

It had been six months since his surgery. It was time for him to decide.

Normally, the decision would be easy. He was not, by nature, a giver or a doer. Volunteering would require him to give and to do. Faced with similar requests in the past, he had ceded them to the “natural helpers of this world”, and gone on happily with his life.

But this one seemed different.

He’d been through something. Now others were facing the same thing. He sensed a visceral kinship. An ineffable connection with strangers.

There was his schedule to consider. He did virtually nothing, but he did it on schedule. He wasn’t sure – he had no idea – what would they’d require of him; yet he worried that whatever it was would blow his schedule out of the water, making a shambles of his calm and orderly routine.

“Forget it” was his natural position.

And yet, there was this nudge.

Not long ago, he had visited where the people scheduled for surgery were about to go, a place somewhere between “here” and “not here”, a drug-induced “Waiting Area”, where you lie open and helpless, while skilled technicians tinker with your parts, like a Chevy on a hoist. He knew how that felt, at least as much as you can know, after being severely bopped over the head. Let’s say he knew it in his bones.

A man emerges from a strange adventure, repaired and surprisingly intact. Was he not obligated to share his story? Provide others with helpful tips, and valuable “heads ups”?

Was it not his “survivor’s duty” to inform those about to travel the same road that, as scary and bizarre as their journey appeared, they were more than likely to emerge safely at the other end?

“More than likely.” It was just like him to qualify. What if they didn’t want “qualified”? What if they wanted unqualified reassurances? He knew that wasn’t him. He was incapable of not being comprehensive. Telling the truth meant presenting the “total picture.”

He was hardly a professional in these matters. What if, while presenting the “total picture”, he revealed things the “pre-surgeries” didn’t need to hear, and he wound up frightening them even more?

On the other hand, the request wasn’t for “professional caregivers.” They were asking for people like him.

If you have experienced cardiac surgery and would like to offer emotional support to others who are now walking in your shoes…we would like to meet and talk with you!

He was undoubtedly a professional at that. No diploma necessary. Just the surgery scars.

And the scary memories.

Who wants to relive all of that? Or even enter the hospital building?

It was never his way to get involved. Especially in unpleasant situations, involving anxiety, fear and the possibility of…bwah! Why was he even thinking about this?

Because they were asking for his help. And he knew exactly what it was about.

But what about his blog? Every day, he spent multiple hours, crafting stories for expectant readers? What if his newfound responsibilities required him to cut down on his output? Or stop writing entirely?

Reality Check: He had started the blog to do something useful with his time. Now, a request to do something truly useful had come up. Could he reasonably blow off a “truly useful” situation, using the “surrogate” as an excuse?

His blog worries were also just like him. He had no idea what was needed, and he’s already pleading, “No time.” Talk about jumping the gun.

Who knows? They could find him unsuitable for the job. As he might easily be. (Whoa, how would that feel? – volunteering, and being told “No.”)

He just couldn’t take that chance. Swaying their decision, he would inject telltale signals of “bad attitude” into the conversation – “It’s quite a drive for me”, “I’m not sure it’s something I’d be comfortable doing”, “It sounds like a lot of work” – triggering rejection, and returning to blame-free normalcy, saying, “I wanted to do it, but they turned me down.”

It felt familiar, that behavior. And not entirely good.

Outsiders might remark, “What’s the big deal? You do it, or you don’t.”

That’s true. It’s not like they were counting on him; they didn’t know he existed. And if weren’t for that note in his “Discharge Packet”, he’d be utterly clueless about them.


Hold on, with the “still.” What if they wanted more than he was willing to give? How do you say “No” to the sick and the scared? What if his obligation became overwhelming? – panicky phone calls in the middle of the night, visits to “post-ops”, tubes everywhere, funerals for patients he counseled who didn’t make it.

Who knows where things will lead? You stick in a toe, and you’re in over your head.

Crazy thoughts? Perhaps. It was an occupational hazard. He was a writer. This was how his mind worked when his imagination was on fire.

His crazy thinking sent a message. It was a really tough call.

“Pick up the phone. See what’s involved.”

“Let it go. You’ll feel bad for an hour; and then you’ll forget.”

“Do it. They need you.”

“It’s a noble impulse. But it’s not really for you.”

He sat quietly at his desk, wrestling with his decision.

The phone was sitting there.

Did he notice an accusatory tone in its demeanor?

It was probably in his head.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


People driving “hybrids” brag about how rarely they have to visit a gas station like an old man bragging about how he doesn’t have to visit the bathroom at night to pee.

“Once a day, and I’m good. Maybe, twice. Okay, three times. But never at night!”

I’ve heard about, I don’t know, some “booster” thing you can install in your “hybrid”, that makes your mileage even better – a hundred, a hundred and fifty miles to the gallon. Soon, people will be driving by gas stations the way bald people drive past barbershops. They remember them, but they don’t need them anymore.

This new bragfest reminded me of a story I once heard on the Jack Paar Show. Paar was The Tonight Show host before Johnny Carson, who was The Tonight Show host before Jay Leno, who was The Tonight Show host before Conan O’Brien, who was The Tonight Show host before Jay Leno. (Jay Leno is the Grover Cleveland of Tonight Show hosts, a presidential succession reference I thought you’d enjoy.)

Along with the ubiquitous celebrities, who came on to flog whatever, and to boost the show’s ratings, Paar also invited, who I assume, were his friends, all of whom were magnificent raconteurs. You probably wouldn’t know their names, but there was Oscar Levant, (who wrote Memoirs Of An Amnesiac), Alexander King (who wrote May Your House Be Safe From Tigers), and Jack Douglas (who wrote My Brother Was An Only Child). All of them were originals, uniquely funny, and maybe a little twisted. Even as a kid, (the show ran in the fifties), I recognized kindred spirits.

I believe it was Douglas who told this story. He lived somewhere outside New York City (where The Tonight Show was then produced) with his Japanese wife, Reiko, who occasionally also appeared on the show, cracking up the audience with her either calculatedly hilarious or “she can’t help herself” fractured English.

This was the story:

When they first became available, a neighbor of his purchased a Volkswagen, the Prius of its day. Not in its technology, but in the fact that the German import got considerably better mileage than the American gas guzzlers which, at the time, enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the car market. There were Merecedes here and there, and the odd Jaguar, but those were for rich people. Regular people drove American cars.

After purchasing his new Volkswagen, the neighbor could not stop bragging about the mileage he was getting – forty miles to the gallon, sometimes, even more. He would claim that he now visited his gas station so infrequently, the gas station attendant had forgotten his name. (If you frequented the same gas station back then, they’d remember your name.) That was his little joke. “The gas station attendant has forgotten my name.” It was not surprising for a geek who bought an unattractive car for its mileage to consider that hilarious.

Finally, his neighbors, fed up with the man’s bragging, decided to take collective action to get him to stop. They would do this by messing with his head.

Taking turns, one of the neighbors would sneak over to his house late each night with a five-gallon can of gasoline, and under the cover of darkness, he would refill the tank of the man’s Volkswagen with gas.

Over time, the Volkswagen owner found his gas mileage miraculously shooting up. He was now getting three hundred miles to the gallon! It was amazing, he ecstatically proclaimed. Instead of visiting the gas station every two weeks, he didn’t need to visit the gas station at all!

Finally, after weeks of surreptitiously filling up his gas tank, the neighbors switched their tactics. They now sneaked over to his house, and siphoned gas out of his tank. Suddenly, the man found himself visiting the gas station every day.

Almost immediately, he stopped talking about his mileage.

The story reflects different times. In those days, foreign cars were seen as an insult to American know-how. Good gas mileage was something you made fun of, rather than something you wanted to get in on. People’s garages were left unlocked.

But most telling, for me I think, was the fact that neighbors back then actually did things together.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"What Matters Most"

In 1978, the voters of California passed Proposition 13, amending the state constitution via an initiative process, in an effort to provide tax relief to property owners.

The reason some believed that tax relief was necessary was that, during the seventies, California property values had shot way up. As a consequence, property taxes had shot up commensurately.

Some people thought the tax increase was reasonable.

“Your house is worth more, you pay higher taxes on it.”

Others, precursing the Reagan-era “Taxpayers’ Revolt”, were righteously incensed.

“My house is only worth more ‘on paper.’ The check I am required to write now is for actual money.”

As a result of Prop 13’s passage, institutions whose budgets relied on property tax revenues, found their funding severely cut. Among them were schools, parks, libraries, police and fire departments. Following the cuts, the California school system, previously rated first in the country fell to forty-eighth. Many believe there’s a connection.

Essential to this story is the fact that, while property taxes were skyrocketing, the California state legislature did nothing. Their neglect of this issue opened the door to Proposition 13.

Why do I dredge up this ancient history? To relate it to current history.

Recently, the state of Arizona passed a law, dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. Though the change came via the legislative rather than the initiative process, the message was the same:

The people of Arizona, through their representatives, though I’m certain the “reps” were aware of their constituents’ predilections in this matter, believing that the Federal government was dragging its feet concerning illegal immigrants, took action to handle the problem themselves. Unfortunately, as with Proposition 13, their solution was highly problematic.

Arizona police are now legally required to detain people they reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally, and are authorized to charge immigrants with a state crime for not carrying immigration documents. From a Constitutional standpoint, I’m not even sure you can do that. But that’s what they did.

There are many ways to look at a story:

You can look at the Arizona immigration story as the White Guys versus the darker-colored guys.

You can frame it as “Amur’kins” versus “those dern fur’ners.”

You can view the story from the “There are people breaking the law” perspective.

You can see it from “Every nation has the right to determine who comes into their country, just as homeowners have the right to decide who comes into their house.”

You can look at the immigration story from the standpoint of businesses closing their eyes when they’re hiring workers, because their only concern is finding somebody to do the job.

You can see the story from the perspective of desperate people doing what desperate people always do – when “where they’re from” can’t feed you, you up and migrate someplace else.

You can talk about a federal government that seems to focus more on political calculation than on trying to make headway on a serious problem.

You can write about a media that’s on top of the story when it’s hot, and “Leave a message, and we’ll get back to you” when it’s not.

To name just eight ways of looking at a story. All of them illuminating, educational and undeniably worthwhile.

I will now offer Perspective Number Nine.

Since every commentator views their perspective as “The Story”, and I choose not to be an exception, I believe my “take” on the Arizona illegal immigration story is the most important one. I do so, because my concern spans all times and places, and infuses all issues.

And here it is.

Whether it's an elected legislature or a public referendum, when reasonable people are unwilling to address legitimate problems with reasonable solutions, extreme people will inevitably jump into the void with extreme solutions.

For further examples: Check the history books. (In California, please call ahead, to see if the libraries are open that day.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

"A Worrisome Concern"

You have to be careful what you write in your blog. People could be reading it.

Anyone who’s spent time around people realizes there’s a wide spectrum of “individual concerns”, ranging from “I can see someone worrying about that” to pointing your index finger towards your head and making the “Cuckoo” sign.

A writer on a show I worked on confessed – well, it wasn’t really a confession; he seemed happy to volunteer the fact – that he would always take a scissors and cut up the underwear he was throwing away, to remove any possibility of their ever turning up at a crime scene. I found that…odd.

What I’m about to reveal to you does not, I believe, rise to that level of oddness. Where exactly it ranks, I will leave to the reader.

I, Earl Raymond Pomerantz, harbor the belief that somebody will cast me in a movie, where I’ll be locked in the trunk of a car, because they read in my blog that this is something I would not at all enjoy.

Okay, start ranking.

For some of you, I imagine, we would not have to get to the “trunk of a car” part for your suspicion of my looniness to kick in. It might simply be triggered by the question,

“Who would ever cast you in a movie?”

Fair enough. There are a lot of reasons my being cast in a movie is highly unlikely. I will spare you the list. And spare myself the unpleasantness of having to assemble such a list.

On the other hand – though I’ll admit it’s a tiny “other hand”, perhaps that of a newborn – I direct you to where you will find included in my resume an appearance or, more precisely, a featured appearance in a movie entitled Cannibal Girls. So, though the eventuality of my being cast in a movie is unlikely, the possibility does not reach “science fiction” proportions, since it has already occurred once.

(I would embed the trailer for Cannibal Girls into this post, but that would only encourage you to watch it, which I heartily do not recommend. I’ve never watched it all the way through. I stop after I’m brutally murdered, just before I am eaten. I never said I appeared in a good movie. I only said it happened once, and could, therefore, happen again.)

It is also my belief that writers often make convincing actors. Having had considerable experience acting out the parts as we’re writing, I know that I, and many other writers, would deliver an “honest reading” of the material, which, when you come down to it, is what acting is all about.

So, I have acted in movies before, and I would not embarrass myself, if the opportunity arose for me to do so again. The nagging question here is, “What exactly would they want me to do?”

I have already copped to my inability to persuasively eat eggs, owing to the fact that I don’t like eggs. I could fake it in a pinch, I suppose. Or they could fake the eggs, replacing them with some more palatable egg-like substitute. Or they could change it to pancakes. Which I heartily enjoy.

I could not, however, tolerate being locked in the trunk of a car. The moment door is slammed shut, I would simply freak out, pounding on the inside of the trunk, and screaming my fool head off. The director would have to yell, “Cut!”, and crew members would be required to come running with water and oxygen. (And, hopefully, a hug.)

I cannot be locked in the trunk of a car. It would, very simply, do me in.

Well, now it’s out. I have exposed my “Achilles’ Heel.” And I'll tell you something. Confession may be good for the soul. But out here, I feel mighty vulnerable.

I imagine some movie director out there, whose script includes a kidnapping scene – I mean, it’s not a starring role; a man could be kidnapped and maybe murdered, just to get things started; you never see him again, after the glimpse of that “I’m going to die” look on his face as the trunk door is lowered to the locked position.

It’s a minor role. A cameo suffocation.

I can see the wheels turning in the director’s mind:

“I need a guy to get locked in the trunk of a car. I need him to look frightened out of his wits. Now, I could hire some actor and say to him, ‘Act frightened.’ Or I could find someone who has admitted his greatest fear is being locked in the trunk of a car, cast him in the movie, and ‘shoot the actual fear.’ I think I’ll do that.”

Sure, when the director calls, I could simply reply, “I’m a blog writer. I don’t act in movies.” (Even though I have.) The problem is, deep down, I want to act in more movies.

Despite yearning Buddhistically for a life of “no aspirations whatsoever”, being western, and weak, I still have a few. And one of them is acting in movies.

So they’ve got me.

You might ask, why would anyone behave so perversely as to exploit a fellow human being’s deepest dread? Because they’re making a movie, and they want that movie to be as good as it can possibly be, which in this case means rather than faking a “panic moment”, casting an actor they know will be pee-in-his-pants terrified.

Writers have often been accused, not always unfairly, of superficiality in their work. Cowering behind slickness and style, they seem adamantly unwilling to probe beneath the surface. Critics may chalk this up to limited insight, or a paucity of talent. But it could be something else. Writers may be wisely protecting themselves from self-exposure, fearing if they reveal their darkest secrets,

they could wind up locked in the trunk of a car.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

"Naturally Funny"

The Savart wheel is an acoustical device that was created by French physicist Felix Savart (1791-1841), which he used for research on lower frequency limits on hearing.

The device consists of a mounted metal disk having a large number of teeth with uniform spacings on its circumference. When the toothed disk is spun in rapid revolution, and an edge of a playing card is held against the teeth, it produces a shrill tone. When the speed of the wheel slows down, the shrill tone correspondingly diminishes in pitch. Thus, the frequency in tone is directly proportional to the rotation rate of the disk.


That was scientific principle Mr. Sullivan, our eleventh grade Physics teacher, was trying to demonstrate, using the Savart wheel as a “visual aid.”

It was an electric wheel, the disk, maybe, six inches in diameter. You plugged the wheel in to make the disk rotate. And there was a switch on it, for adjusting the speed. Mr. Sullivan used, not a playing card, but a rectangular piece of “shirt cardboard” – we called it shirt cardboard, because it served as the backing for shirts, when they came back from the dry cleaners.

After turning it on, Mr. Sullivan inserted the piece of cardboard between the teeth of the rapidly spinning disk, immediately generating a high-pitched shrill tone. He then extracted the cardboard, adjusted the wheel so the disk would spin faster, then reinserted the cardboard, causing the shrill tone to return, but this time, in a noticeably higher pitch.

Conclusion – See: Above.

It was now time for Mr. Sullivan to choose a student to duplicate the experiment. I don’t know why that was necessary. We had all had it with shrill tones, and were eagerly ready to move on.

But somehow, Mr. Sullivan deemed it to be an important element in our education. Perhaps he wanted to show how “scientific” the experiment was. The “scientific method” requires multiple repetitions of the same experiment, yielding the same result every time. That’s science. That’s how it works.

You let go of the apple, and it falls down every time. That’s gravity. “Gravity” is proven science, because the apple always falls down. The apple falls up one time? It’s back to the drawing board. And no place in the scientific pantheon for you.

Mr. Sullivan wanted to show us, not just the relationship between speed and tone frequency, but that on every occasion, when you insert cardboard between the teeth of a rotating disk, and then increase the speed, what results is a higher, though equally irritating, shrill tone.

Science is repetition yielding the same result. And you don’t have to be a highly trained high school Physics teacher to achieve it. That same predictable result could be produced by any idiot in the world.

Mr. Sullivan chose me to duplicate the experiment.

I went up to the front of the classroom. Mr. Sullivan handed me a piece of grayish cardboard. He switched on the Savart wheel. He then nodded to me to insert the cardboard between the teeth of the now spinning disk.

I behaved as instructed, imitating precisely the move I had seen Mr. Sullivan make just moments before. My efforts immediately produced the shrill tone. However, unlike with Mr. Sullivan’s demonstration, the moment I inserted the cardboard, the disk’s teeth started chewing it up, and shredding it to pieces.

I stood there, looking genuinely confused, as miniscule flakes of decimated cardboard came flying off the wheel. It was like a cardboard snowstorm. My classmates were in hysterics. Mr. Sullivan was biting his lip. The only person not laughing was me.

I had no idea what I’d done wrong. Other than not immediately extracting the shirt cardboard when it started to snow. I kept holding it between the teeth, till there was nothing left to shred. I guess I was in shock.

I had generated a cardboard blizzard in my eleventh grade classroom. And the perplexing thing was, I did exactly what Mr. Sullivan had done – I had inserted the cardboard between the teeth of the disk

What was the difference between the two demonstrations, or, more specifically, the two demonstrators?

The only thing I could think of was that Mr. Sullivan wasn’t naturally funny.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

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

Having studied the script, I arrived at the rewrite session for the According To Jim pilot, armed with my usual flurry of suggestions – “fixes” meant to streamline and clarify the story, but also proposed dialogue I thought would help nail down the characters, while simultaneously drawing laughs.

The rewrite room offered a wide range of volunteers. (All of us were unpaid.) There were young writers, looking for a break. There were friends of the show running duo, boasting comedy backgrounds, though little sitcom-writing experience. And there were veteran writers – like me – hoping to stay in the game just a little bit longer.

Some members of the older contingent looked, and acted, desperate – their “pitches” seemed forced, and they laughed at their own jokes, often alone. I didn’t feel desperate. I was simply there to work. But I did sense, even at my advanced age, an energizing excitement.

The work went slowly. Around midnight, with the job barely half done, the show runners dismissed the room, saying they’d finish the rewrite themselves. Before I left, I handed them my script, containing suggestions for improving the scenes we had not gotten to.

A few weeks later, ABC picked up According To Jim for its fall schedule. I was not invited to consult on the show.

However, for its second season, I was. I don’t know exactly how that happened, though I have a feeling my agent twisted some arms. The show runners were his clients as well, and I’m thinking he kept badgering them until they took me on, which they finally did, most likely, just to make him stop.

After months on the sidelines, I was once again employed. There would be no car to drive me to and from the studio, as there’d been in the past. My fee was half of what I was used to being paid. I had to share an office with “Rewrite Man” who came in on a different day. Still, I was delighted to be there.

The job was not entirely without its perks. We got free flu shots.

The According To Jim rewrite process was different from any I had previously experienced. After deciding how we would proceed, the writing staff would be broken into two groups, each group rewriting one act of the two-act script. Later we would re-convene, to smooth out the discrepancies that inevitably arose.

According To Jim’s show runners had an extensive background in improvisational comedy. Others on the writing staff did too. Their improv training made them fearless “pitchers.”

Having faced an audience “unarmed”, meaning with no prepared material, they felt no inhibition pitching jokes to a room full of writers.

The difference was that many improv-inspired jokes, though dazzling in the moment, on deeper scrutiny, melt away like snowmen in the sun. My training required the jokes to be sturdier.

Despite our differences in approach, during my first season there, at least, I felt valued for my contribution. A writer’s assistant once confided to me that, the next day, when my suggestions were on display at the run-through, he and the other writer’s assistants would play a game called, “Was Earl right?” I was told I regularly scored an impressive number of “Yeses.”

Unfortunately, I was not always at my best. One week, to make up for a day I had missed, I worked on the show two days in a row. On the second day, which should have been a run-through day but wasn’t due to the star’s unavailability, a second rewrite was ordered, even though, without the benefit of a run-through, we had no way of determining what, if anything, we had rewritten the day before needed to be changed.

In a moment of frustration, I complained, “We’re not making this better. We’re just making it different.” Overhearing this, the “staff snitch”, whose name was Jeffrey, immediately raced to the show runners and ratted me out, and I was called in and (gently) reprimanded. This unfortunateness was entirely my fault. I had inappropriately run off at the mouth.

I chalk it up to exhaustion. I was used to working only one day a week.

After two seasons consulting on the show, I was not invited back. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be. As the season wore on, my suggestions had been meeting with diminishing enthusiasm. There was even mention of eyes rolling when I opened my mouth.

Walking out of the production office after completing that year’s final rewrite, riding down on the elevator, and heading for my assigned parking space, I instinctively knew it was over.

Not my job on According To Jim. My career writing for television.

My one disappointment concerning my According To Jim experience was not introducing myself to Brad Paisley, a wonderful country singer, who was dating and ultimately married an actress on the show, and often hung around our production offices. I admired Paisley’s work, especially “The Fishin’ Song.” I later learned that at the time, he was living two blocks from my house. If I’d opened my mouth, we could have hung out.

Oh, well. You always have regrets.

I’m sure memories of my work life will continue to float into my consciousness. But in terms of a “roadmap” summary – “I went there, and then I went there” – after thirty-one chapters, some of them multi-parters, the “Story of a Writer” saga has officially come to an end.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirty-One"

After I left Paramount – which occurred after Kristin came and went – I didn’t work for a year.

Having been tagged by a Paramount executive (not entirely incorrectly) as being “Out of sync with the marketplace”, there was no chance of my securing another “Development Deal.” “Development Deals” are for people hired to come up with ideas for new shows. Writers who are “Out of sync with the marketplace” are deemed only capable of coming up with ideas for old shows.

The only jobs now available to me were series’ staff positions, either as a full time participant (which I’d avoided my entire career), or as a part-time consultant. There were only two times a year you could get those jobs. They called them “staffing seasons.” You could get hired for a show that started in the fall; or barring that, you could get work on a mid-season replacement show starting in January.

Not working for a year means not getting hired during either of those “staffing seasons.”

It also means not working for a year.

Although marketplace resistance to my employment ultimately proved insurmountable, my agent continued trying to find me work. To my relief, he had abandoned his attempts to get me to alter my writing style – “You have to write more edgy” was his repeated-to-death admonition.

Though I hated hearing that, my agent was dispensing practical advice. He was telling me he would not be able to get me back in the game, unless I helped him by producing a writing sample, showing I could write in the style of somebody they were willing to hire.

The trouble is I can only write like me.

There was one final avenue of employment, though you couldn’t actually call it employment, because the job didn’t pay anything. They did, however, give you dinner.

I had officially entered “hobo mode.” I’d perform some chores that needed doing, and in return, I would get me some hot eats.

The “chore” in question was consulting on pilots. Earlier in my career, consulting on pilots – made during the between-season “hiatus” periods – had been a welcome supplement to my regular income – writing scripts for shows already on the air.

Back then, consultants on pilots were generously paid for their services. For some reason, these payouts were often hidden, delivered in the form of wads of cash deposited in a paper bag, and logged in the budget under “Miscellaneous.” I don’t know why they did that. You’d have to consult an accountant’s blog for the answer.

Consulting on pilots was lucrative, and relatively easy. Once, while receiving a substantial sum for two days work, I wound up doing nothing.

Former M*A*S*H co-star, Loretta Swit, was set to star in an hour-long police drama, playing a socialite-detective (I don’t how many of these there are on actual police forces), partnered with a street-smart wiseass. Humorous banter would be interjected between the mayhem and car chases, stemming from the irreconcilable contrast in the partners’ backgrounds.

The problem was that the humorous banter penned by the series’ creator, a respected writer of television drama, was noticeably not humorous.

Enter Mr. Funny Pants Consultant. Not just any Mr. Funny Pants Consultant, a Mr. Funny Pants Consultant who was comfortable writing smart and subtle character comedy. In other words, me. Or a hundred writers like me, but I got the job.

In preparation for my consulting assignment, I did what I always do. I pored over the script, looking for ways to make it better. This being a police drama, and the original writer being fully capable in that department, I would not be focusing on the story, as I do when I’m consulting on comedies. For this job, I had a single, specific assignment:

“Funny up” the banter.

Which I tried my best to do. When the “Meeting Day” arrived, I came to work, bearing a script sprouting with Post-its, stuck to the pages where I’d rewritten the dialogue. After some peremptory banter – “I like your work.” “I like yours too.” – we sat down, and we started on “Page One.”

As I read him my suggestions, I very quickly became aware that, though polite, and appreciative of my efforts – he even chuckled a few times – the writer was unwilling to change a word of his script. It was clear that bringing in a “‘funny’ consultant” had not been his idea. He was simply going along with it, so as not to be considered “difficult.”

It was clear he was simply going through the motions. He’d say,

“That’s good. But let’s go with what’s already there.”

“I like that. But I like what I had better.”

“Hilarious. Let’s do what I wrote.”

After two days of work – the second of which ended after an extended lunch – not one of my suggestions was included in the script.

My “take” for my efforts was a substantial check, and two lunches. Oh, and Loretta Swit, who’d dropped by to see how things were going, surprised me with a departing, startlingly friendly smack on the lips.

So there was that.

Flip the calendar a decade or so

And consultants on pilots are no longer being paid. There was no need to pay them. The number of comedy-writing jobs was shrinking, leaving experienced comedy writers scrambling for work. Instead of a lucrative source of income, consulting on pilots now served as an audition, one night to show off your wares, in hopes that if the pilot goes to series, you’ll have impressed the show runners enough for them to consider you for a job.

It was a far cry from a big paycheck, free lunches and a startlingly friendly smack on the lips.

It turned out, my agent had a client writing-team, who’d created a series for Jim Belushi. He urged his clients to let me consult on their pilot. They said yes. I appreciated the opportunity, but, in truth, the risk of including me was minimal. I might be able to help them. And if I didn’t, the cost to the production was zero.

So off I went – an unpaid consultant on According To Jim.

I was genuinely excited.

I had something to work on.

(To be continued)

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Two-Way Street"

Back in Toronto, I had a friend named Jack. After graduating for the local university (as did I), Jack went on to get an MFA at the Yale School of Drama, studying alongside Henry “The Fonz” Winkler and Emmy-winning actor Ken Howard (who once co-starred in a pilot I wrote called Island Guy.) It was the end of the academic year, and Jack needed to get his belongings out of his dorm room.

At that same calendarial moment, I harbored thoughts of becoming a stand-up comedian. (It was a bad idea, but sometimes, you have to burn through the bad ideas to get to the good ones.) I’d arranged – or, more accurately, it was arranged – I have little ability to arrange things myself; somebody has to do it for me – anyway, an arrangement was made for me to appear at a “New Comedians Showcase” at the Improvisation in New York City. I just needed to get there. Hopefully, considering my financial situation at the time, cheaply.

Aware of my circumstances, my friend, Jack, who had a car, and was driving to Connecticut (where Yale is) to pick up his stuff, asked if I’d be interested in accompanying him, after which, he would drive me to New York City for my comedy debut, after which we would drive home.

I said yes, and we went.

Since the drive to Yale would take more than one day, Jack had arranged for us to spend the night with friends of his, who lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. We arrived there that evening, and were cordially welcomed.

Allow me some haziness. I know there were a lot of people in the house, eight, maybe, ten smartly dressed gentlemen. Plus an uncomfortable number of cats (My “Comfort Number” for cats is one; this pack shot way past my quota.) I also recall that among the guests was a playwright, whose oeuvre included Equus, a play I had seen and had thoroughly enjoyed (even though it involved blinding some horses. They didn’t really do it. It was a play.)

I recall a very good dinner at a beautifully set table. I recall a lot of wine being consumed. There may also have been other mind-altering substances – I’m not being coy here; I don’t remember. But it was the sixties, so their presence was probable.

I remember a succession of exquisitely told stories, met with explosive peals of laughter. I remember myself, being uncharacteristically silent. I don’t recall saying a word. The other guests were charming, sophisticated and successful. And I was none of those things.

I guess I was in awe. Or shy, or exhausted from the drive, or drunk, or, likely, all of the aforementioned. I mainly spent the evening keeping a steady succession of cats from leaping into my lap.

Finally, it was time for bed. Our host escorted us to our sleeping quarters, and bade us good night. We carried in our overnight bags, and looked around. The room was of ample size, decorated in the style of the house – which was Colonial – and had one bed.

It was a large bed, I believe, a “king.” But there was only one of them. And there were two of us. Two men. Two adult men. And only one bed.





Belated realization: It was a gay house. Everyone there was gay. I should have picked up the signals – more than one houseguest had been wearing a scarf – but I hadn’t. My only thoughts were, “That guy wrote a good play”, and “I really wish there were fewer cats.”

I guess it was no leap to assume we were gay too. Two guys traveling together, seeking shelter in a house full of gays. It was a misunderstanding. The most natural thing in the world.

Jack and I laughed. Nervously. But confidently. Then we got ready for bed. We slept really far apart.

The next morning, our host asked, “How was your night?” to which I replied “Excellent.”

Then I realized that could be taken two ways. So I added, “I slept very well.”

Even though I hadn’t. I had things to think about. They’d thought I was gay. Did that bother me? It was a little odd. Was their conclusion merely a casual assumption, I wondered? Or did these fellahs have insights into these matters of which I was personally unconscious?

The truth is, being a congenital “stickler”, what bothered me was less that they thought I was gay than that they’d made a mistake. I like things to be what they are. And they’d gotten those things wrong. That’s what really bothered me. I’m almost certain of it.

The thing that stayed with me longest from this long-ago experience was how unquestioningly I was accepted. It didn’t matter what I was. I was their friend’s friend – end of story.

I was included in the bunch. Erroneously categorized, but included nonetheless. Who knows? Maybe they’d labeled me consistent with my natural proclivities, and they simply didn’t care.

People accepting you for who you are. It feels good.

It also seems like that feeling ought to run both ways.

Overcoming intolerance is a lifetime endeavor. That surprising sleepover in Stockbridge was my illuminating first step.