Thursday, September 30, 2010

"I Blame Lombardi"

The replay confirmed it.

Though a pitched ball had hit the knob of Derek Jeter’s bat, Jeter grimaced as if the ball had hit him, and the umpire dutifully awarded him first base for having been hit by a pitched ball.

Let me be clear here, in case you’re not familiar with the contents of the baseball rulebook. There is no regulation in the baseball rulebook that states:

If a player pretends he has been hit by a pitched ball with such persuasiveness that he convinces the umpire that the infraction has actually taken place, the player will immediately be awarded first base.

It’s not there, that rule. There is no “You get first base for good acting.”

To be entirely honest, Derek Jeter was awarded first base

For cheating.

Okay, successfully cheating. You don’t get first base for butchering the performance. You take a step towards first base, and the umpire goes,

“Not so fast.”

There is no automatic ejection for “faking being hit by a pitched ball.” There is no fine. They don’t flash E-B (error, by the batter) on the scoreboard. The response is invariably chuckles all around.

Nobody’s chucking because the batter cheated. They’re chuckle because he got caught.

The day after Jeter’s, if not Oscar-winning then at least Golden Globe-winning performance, I’m listening to a sports call-in show on my car radio. Traditionally, a sports call-in show has two hosts. And the way these shows works is this:

The hosts always disagree.

It doesn’t matter what the topic is. They are automatically on opposite sides. That’s the format. That’s what listeners tune in for. That’s how they make money.

Question: Since Reggie Bush has been proven to have violated NCAA regulations while playing football at USC, should Reggie retain his Heisman Trophy?

One Host: “Absolutely.”

The Other Host: “You gotta be kidding.”

Question: Having been accused of using steroids, should Roger Clemens still be eligible for the Hall of Fame?”

One Host: “Without question.”

The Other Host: “What have you been smoking?”

Sports call-in shows are exclusively about arguing. That’s how they function. Stir up some controversy. Light up the phones.

But on that day…

Question: What do you think of Derek Jeter’s pretending he was hit by the ball?”

One Host: “It was smart.”

The Other Host: “I agree.”

WHAT!!!!!!!

I couldn’t believe it.

Two sports call-in show hosts,

their livelihoods depending on delivering inflammatorily expressed opposing points of view,

abandon

the single precept of their show’s format

and on the specific issue of cheating,

agree

that it’s okay.

Are you KIDDING ME????

I’ll tell you something. I blame Vince Lombardi for the whole thing.

Football fans well know that Vince Lombardi was the immensely successful head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the early sixties, when the Packers won five football championships in a row.

Football fans also well know Lombardi’s most famous quotation, which pertains directly to the subject at hand.

“Winning,” quoth Lombardi, “isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Let’s look at that a second. What is the man saying? He is saying that

Winning

Is the only thing.

There is nothing else except winning.

Nothing.

Trying your best?

Meaningless.

Exceeding expectations?

That’s loser talk.

Giving them a real run for their money?

More loser talk.

Winning.

That’s all there is.

Now Americans can’t leave anything alone. They like to enhance things, make them bigger and better. And so, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” was quickly followed by a more provocative, though unquestionably consistent, follow-up to Lombardi’s pronouncement.

To wit:

“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

It makes sense if you think about it.

If winning is the only thing,

And cheating helps you win,

Then, ipso facto,

If you’re not cheating,

You’re not trying.

Now if this were just about sports, it wouldn’t matter a hoot. But the philosophy took wing, landing everywhere in the culture.

A District Attorney withholds information beneficial to the defence.

Because winning is the only thing.

A candidate misrepresents their opponent’s record

Because winning is the only thing.

A poultry concern assures customers their salmonellic chickens are healthy.

No one will buy a chicken with salmonella. And to win in the chicken business, you have to sell as many chickens as you can.

Therefore, if winning is the only thing, if you’re not lying about your diseased chickens, you’re not trying.

They don’t have that in England. In England, it’s “Good show” and “Well played” and the time-honored, “giving the man a sporting chance.”

Not here. Maybe never here, I don’t know. But certainly not after Lombardi.

Who I blame for everything.

Is that fair?

“Fair.”

It’s funny. That’s the first time that word has come up.

------------------------------------

I had a doctor's appointment scheduled for 10:45 A.M. I didn't see the doctor till after noon. "We got backed up," the nurse explained. "We had a couple of Clippers in here." I didn't know what she was talking about. I thought it was some kind of euphemism. Turns out, they had basketball players in there.

I guess if you're taller, you take longer to examine.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Voting Question"

I was watching a documentary on the making of the epic movie, Gone With The Wind. The focus was on the venerable blockbuster’s legendary producer, David O. Selznick, a man driven to take action, even when the evidence suggested it was hopeless.

The documentary relates this story, which crystallizes the essence of Selznick’s character.

Selznick is playing at a roulette table. Somebody comes up to him and says,

“Look out, David. This game is rigged.”

Selznick, continuing to play, replies,

“I know. But it’s the only game in town.”

This brings me, naturally, to the question of voting.

Knowing the game is, though not rigged, troublingly problematic in the “It really matters who we elect” department,

Why exactly should I vote?

Civic minded people disparage people who don’t vote. “If you don’t vote, you get the government you deserve,” they decry.

This leads me to wonder, if you do vote, what do you get then? The government you don’t deserve? I don’t know what that means.

Let’s restrict the issue to voting in national elections, where the electees will consider our country’s most serious problems. They may not do anything about them, but they’ll consider them. Which, you have to admit, is a step up from paying no attention to them at all.

I’m reminded of the old vaudeville act, where, Louie, a sad-eyed mutt, sits, motionless, on the stage, oblivious to his trainer’s commands, while all the time the trainer retains a buoyant sense of hope, announcing,

“He sees me.”

Congress sees the problems.

So there’s hope.

But is there any movement?

More than Louie, but not that much.

My assumption is that the purpose of government is to consider with our nation’s problems and find ways to make things better. That’s right, isn’t it? Let’s say it is. Because if it isn’t, I don’t know what they’re doing there.

We want government to enact legislation that will improve the lot of the American people, or something of that nature. The question then is:

How are they doing with that?

Let’s take a look.

From its inception, the American model of government was structured in such a way that, with the best intentions of all its participants, the most predictable outcome remains

Gridlock.

With the worst intentions of its participants?

Worse gridlock.

Putting aside the desire to help find solutions to our country’s most intractable concerns, the opposition party, some of whose support is generally required to pass legislation in the Senate, has no incentive to do anything that will allow the party in power to succeed. You can’t win on the slogan:

“We Helped Them Do What We Were Vehemently Against!”

Okay. So you got gridlock, both systemic and manufactured. Not a hopeful prospect for “Change We Can Believe In”, or any other kind of change. “Status Quo We Can Believe In”? No problem. But you don’t need to vote for that. It’s already there.

We move on to the method in which the voting districts are drawn. Which is to guarantee the parties the closest thing to an electoral slam-dunk. And it works. Generally, over ninety per cent of the current members get a return trip back to Congress.

Maybe this time, with the mood of national dissatisfaction, the percentage will be lower, but I suspect not much lower. And even if some of the faces change, that doesn’t say anything about the parties. Sitting Republicans or Tea Party Republicans – the electee is still a Republicans. Entirely because the districts are designed that way.

So tell me. What incentive is there to vote in a district where the outcome is more certain than any bet you can make on anything? That’s not an election; it’s a rubber stamp. Who wants to go outside for that? It’s November. It could be blustery.

And then, of course, there’s the money. Millions, tens of millions are now needed to bankroll a campaign. Election laws may illuminate where these massive contributions come from? But can we ever know what they buy?

Candidates claim the large donations do not buy influence. But common sense would suggest otherwise.

“Mr. President, I gave you a million dollars. Have you got a minute?”

“Can I get back to you? I’m on the other line with a poor person.”

You think that happens that much?

Let’s end this admittedly incomplete exploration of why we should vote with the question of cosmetics.

What do we really know about any of the candidates? A huge chunk of those Uncle Scrooge-sized war chests goes for professional consultants, whose job it is to make sure we see the candidate, not as they really are, but, exclusively, as that candidate has been – after polls and focus groups and countless, behind-closed-doors strategy sessions determined they should be –

Packaged.

Obama believes in bi-partisanship. Does he really? Or is his position merely a calculated campaign tactic to befuddle the opposition:

“If they go along with me, I win. And if they choose to be ‘The Party Of No’, I was the Reasonable Guy even though they stymied me, so I win.”

This is a genius strategy. At least once.

The president might be entirely sincere. But how could I possibly know that? I thought Hillary ducked sniper fire on the tarmac. And had no idea John Edwards fathered an illegitimate child.

A fabricated candidate, backed by millions in contributions from people who will want something in return, elected, easily in a gerrymandered district, to an institution that makes it nigh on impossible to get anything that matters effectively accomplished.

Tell me again. Why should I vote?

My strongest reason is, as David O. Selznick attested,

“It’s the only game in town.”

With Election Day approaching, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s really enough.



Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"3-D, Then and Now"

After fifty years languishing on cinematic junk heap, 3-D movies have returned with a vengeance.

Well why not? They know how to do it, and it’s selling tickets. This year, movie revenues were the highest ever. Not because more people went to the movies. In fact, less people went to the movies. The tally was augmented by jacked-up ticket prices, particularly for 3-D attractions, such as Avatar and Alice In Wonderland.

If they made a movie they could charge a billion dollars a ticket to see, they’d only have to sell four tickets to smash the earlier box office records to smithereens. I think they’re actually working on that.

“We make a movie. Charge a billion dollars a ticket. We’re on ‘Easy Street’.”

“How many tickets are we going to sell at a billion dollars a ticket?”

“We only need four.”

The thing is, I’m of such an advanced age that I witnessed 3-D movies the first time around, back in the fifties. And I’m here to tell you, it’s not the same.

I liked Alice In Wonderland better than I liked Avatar. This preference probably affects my assessment of each movie’s 3-D contribution; I thought Alice In Wonderland’s 3-D was more effective than Avatar’s. The technique seemed a better match for the story.

But that’s not the point. The point is the technology itself. Which is also not the point. The point is selling tickets. And right now, 3-D is rakin’ in the moolah. People seem willing to pay extra to see it. If 3-D’s success continues, pretty soon, it won’t matter what the movie is. We’ll be paying fourteen dollars to watch a guy taking three-dimensional nap.

“He’s rolling over. Ooh, it feels so real!"

To be honest – and I hope it’s not because of my eyes – I really don’t see that much of a difference. Yeah, things float around a little, and everything appears more vivid. Some dust rises off a table and it hovers in the air, and you see the dust. It’s impressive. If you’re a big fan of hovering dust. But it’s hardly breathtaking.

There were moments while watching Avatar when, out of curiosity mixed unequally with boredom, I lifted my 3-D glasses, to see what the movie looked like without them. It looked different. But not that different. I mean, you could still see it.

By contrast, back in the fifties, if you took off up your 3-D glasses, everything looked shadowy and out of focus. I can’t exactly describe it; it was a long time ago and my eye’s mind is losing its memory.

My point is, in the fifties, you could not watch a 3-D movie without the glasses, and today, you can. I mean, you lose some of the depth and the texture. But who goes to the movies for depth and texture?

“How was the movie?”

“Depth and texture were sensational.”

“And the movie?”

“I don’t remember.”

In the fifties, you remembered. Often with re-visiting nightmares.

The fifties was a time when the movie studios were running scared. Television’s popularity was skyrocketing; people could now stay home and be entertained for nothing. (Later, the studios got into the television business themselves, and the threat to their survival was ended. Why they didn’t consider that strategy originally, I have no idea. But there must have been a reason. Studio executives aren’t stupid.)

Back in the fifties, the studios bet on the strategy of offering the audience the type of movie entertainment television couldn’t compete with. Big name stars. Lavish productions. Smell-o-vision.

And 3-D.

I’m not talking about the weak tea that passes for 3-D today. I’m talking about the real 3-D, the 3-D where stuff was continually flying off the screen.

Three Classic Examples:

The House of Wax

My first 3-D experience. The premise? Instead of sculpting wax replicas of people, they murder the actual people and dip them in wax. I don’t know why that was better, but that’s what they did. Then somebody uncovered this grisly enterprise, and all hell broke loose.

In three dimensions.

I remember to this very writing, a guy opening a closet door, and a wax-stiffened corpse falling out

Directly into my lap.

That’s 3-D.

Hondo

A John Wayne Indian picture. For two hours, I’m dodging arrows and lances headed straight into my unprotected body.

That’s 3-D.

A Movie Whose Name I Can’t Remember

There’s a climactic fight on a rollercoaster, way up high. Some guy, struggling desperately to stay on board, finally loses his grip, plummeting from the rollercoaster,

Directly into my lap.

That’s the 3-D experience I remember. Dodging pointy projectiles, and people, both dead and plummeting, falling

Directly into my lap!

A flying horse? A fluttering, glowing who-knows-what? They’re fine. But I’m not dodging, and nothing’s falling in my lap.

I know old people are always complaining, “It’s not the same.” But I’m telling you something.

When you’re talking about 3-D movies.

It’s not.

------------------------------

It's my mother's birthday today. The first one she isn't around for. I just thought I'd give it a mention, on the outside chance that those folks can read these things.

Happy birthday, Gertie.


Monday, September 27, 2010

"I Don't See It"

I’ve always had eye issues. I was born with cataracts, my mother having contracted German measles while she was pregnant with me.

(When she was a little kid, Rachel would confuse measles with another malady and would announce, “My Stepdad has bad eyes, because his mother had rabies.”)

As a result of this childbirth affliction, there has always been this sensitivity in the visual arena.

Okay.

I’m, I don’t know, kind of young (and innocent), and RCA, which made televisions back then, was introducing an exciting, new broadcasting innovation:

Color TV.

To promote their new product, RCA injected some color TV programming into NBC's schedule, NBC being the network RCA owned. You could tell which programs they were because, immediately before that show came on, a very deep voice would announce:

“The following program is being broadcast in compatible RCA color.”

What did that mean? It was very simple. If you had a color TV, you could see “the following program” in color. But if you had a black-and-white TV, you would see the show in black and white. That’s all it meant.

Since, at the time, our family owned the earlier kind of TV, we continued watching everything in glorious black-and-white. (Years later, when every TV was a color TV, I started to miss the earlier format. “The whole world is in color,” I lamented. “It would be a refreshing change of pace if something was still in black-and-white.” Oh, the ingratitude.)

Anyway…

I’m watching this, announced as “being broadcast in compatible RCA color”, TV show with my older brother. Who, at this point, decides to engage in one of the most pleasurable pastimes an older brother can enjoy:

Tormenting his Junior sibling.

In this case, a punishing excursion in ocular “Gaslighting.”

“Look at that!” my brother suddenly exclaims, his voice bursting with excitement.

“Look at what?” I reply.

“Don’t you see it?”

“See what?”

“The color!”

“This isn’t in color.”

“You heard what the guy said. It’s definitely in color.”

“But only if you have a color TV.”

“Are you saying you can’t see it?”

“See what?”

“Oh! Look at that red! Look at that blue!”

“Stop it!”

“Those trees! The leaves! They’re so green!”

“It’s not funny!”

“Oh, my God! It’s so beautiful!”

“I’m telling Mom!”

“You really can’t seeit?”

“I can’t see anything! I mean, black-and-white. But not color!”

“That’s really too bad.” (A LONG PAUSE) Do you think it’s your eyes?”

The doubt had been planted. Virtually from birth. Could it really be possible? Could my eyes actually be impaired in such a way that I could only see TV in black-and-white, while my brother and everyone else in the world could see it in color?

I didn’t know. I was a kid, not an ophthalmologist. But to allow myself the best possible shot at normalcy, I got up from the television, retreated to the bathroom, and, using soap and very hot water, I put everything I had into washing my glasses.

This memory comes to mind because 3-D movies are currently in vogue. And I have to tell you,

I can barely tell the difference.

Which is odd, because when 3-D first came around back in the fifties, I really, really could.

Is it possible that my eyes have might have lost something?

Tomorrow: 3-D movies. Then and now.

And while we’re on the subject of movies – and while I’m still stealing questions from Ken Levine’s blog – I would like to briefly weigh in a question Ken was asked, concerning why some TV actors make it in movies and some don’t. I believe I know the answer.

If you want to make in movies, you absolutely must have a really large head. It’s a big screen up there. You have to fill it up.

Example in point: Chris Rock. The guy is hilarious. He should be a huge movie star. But he isn’t. Why isn’t he?

He has a small head.

I’ve heard other explanations. But none of them resonate as strongly as “The Large Head Theory.”

I think it’s right.

-------------------------------

Since you asked me...

While I was concentrating on my typing, my clipboard slipped off my lap and under my desk, landing behind a foot-supporting apparatus, so I really couldn't see it, even when I looked under there. And I looked a number of times. It was only there on the last look.

Also, someone asked if "pure comedy" is riskier than rat-a-tat joke comedy. Yes. And so, by the way, is physical comedy. Risk avoidance precludes both, to the eternal detriment to the comedy-writing palette. However, in multi-camera comedies, where they have numerous runthroughs before filming, the material is tested in dry-run rehearsals, and if it works, they'll give it a shot.

This is another reason I believe single-camera comedies are rarely as funny as multi-camera comedies. No runthroughs to test the material.


Friday, September 24, 2010

"Do-do-do-do (The 'Twilight Zone' Theme)"

Okay, I’m a little crazed.

Um, I don’t have strong feelings about the supernatural, one way or the other. If a palm reader charges reasonable prices – like a dollar – I’ll give them a try. Someone asks me, “What’s your sign? – I tell them. Maybe I can learn something astrologically valuable.

Chinese restaurant slips me a fortune cookie, I always read it. I’m intrigued by the unevenness of their writing standards. And besides, what have I got to lose?

What I’m saying is, when it comes to otherworldly possibilities, I am not a naysayer. I’m a “show me proof”-sayer. I will sign on with whatever the evidence suggests.

All right. So here’s the situation:

I’m composing yesterday’s post. And here’s how I do that. I type stuff on my computer, and when I finish a draft of it, I print it up. I then take the printed pages, and I pin them onto a clipboard. I re-read the material on the clipboard, revising on my computer as I go.

I can’t read on a computer. I’m from another time. I need the flow that only reading off a sheet of paper can provide. With computers, you have to keep scrolling down, a process which jostles my writing rhythm and disturbs my comprehension.

Okay, so I’m composing yesterday’s post. I’m three quarters of the way through my third pass of the material, trying to make it better.

Starting to feel hungry, I’m thinking about breaking for lunch. I figure I’ll finish this pass, and pick it up after I eat.

I’m typing on the computer. I go back to my lap, where I’m balancing the clipboard,

And the clipboard is gone.

I never felt it go. I don’t know what happened to it. It appears to have completely disappeared while I was working.

Be me for a second, so you can experience the full impact of my reaction. I’m reading from the clipboard that’s sitting in my lap. I see something I want to change. I look up, and make the change on the computer. I look back in my lap to continue reading…

No clipboard.

Where did it go? I hadn’t let my office. I hadn’t even left my chair. And yet…

Poof! The clipboard has vanished.

I have this rule when I’m trying to find something.

“If the thing’s not where you think it is, look for it where you think it isn’t.”

To me, it’s a matter of logic. If something’s not where you think it is, the only place it can be is where you think it isn’t. There are only two categories of places – the place where you think the thing is, and the place where you think the thing isn’t. And you’ve already ruled out one of those places – the place where you think it is. Logic requires us to conclude that the only place the thing can be is the only place that’s left – the place where you think it isn’t.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

I made a thorough search of the place where I had last seen the clipboard – my lap – and it wasn’t there. I then proceeded to look everywhere else – my office, my bedroom, the bathroom, downstairs, in the kitchen, all the places that I hadn’t gone with the clipboard, since, as I mentioned, I had not, throughout that time period, left my chair.

It seemed ridiculous, but what else could I do? The clipboard was definitely not where I thought it was – in my lap – so it had to be where I thought it wasn’t – everywhere else.

The clipboard turned out not to be where I thought it wasn’t either.

I had one last hope. I solicited the assistance of our long-time, wonderful housekeeper, Connie. Connie can find anything.

“Where did you take it?” she inquired, searching for clues.

“It was sitting in my lap!”

Connie couldn’t find it either.

At the point of this writing, almost four hours later, my clipboard with my pages attached to it appears to be

Nowhere.

The possibility arises that the clipboard may have slipped through a crack in time, tumbling into another dimension. I see movies about that stuff, and I have no idea what they’re talking about. I thought I had an open mind on these matters. What I’ve learned, however, is when it happens to me, I find myself skeptical of the entire idea. I’m not at all certain any other dimensions exist.

But if they don’t,

Where the hell is my clipboard?

-----------------------------------------

Follow-up: Many hours later, I found my clipboard. And I was right. It was somewhere I thought it wasn’t. And extremely well hidden, I might add. So I’m not entirely crazy.

Well, good. Mystery solved. As for the existence of other dimensions? As we’d say about a scene in a script that we hadn’t written yet –

Evidence: To come.

By the way, sometimes, I think I need to get out of the house, to gather material for blog posts. Now I'm not sure. I just did one without getting out of my chair.

--------------------------------------------

Follow-up On "Pure Comedy": A commenter wrote that the "Jim Takes His Driver's Test" clip exists "precisely due to Jim's character." That's technically correct. But all comedy, even the most extreme examples, come out of something. And the choice of jokes that reflect character is wide-ranging.

This particular choice exists primarily to make the audience laugh hysterically, which, in fact, they did. But do you know anyone, even a 60's burnout, who would actually behave this way? The misunderstanding? The repetition of the same thing. Four times. Each repetition spoken more slowly and deliberately that the last? The comic structure of this moment,the way it was delivered, and the decision to do it in the first place, that's what makes "What does a 'yellow light' mean?" pure comedy.

By the way, I didn't write it. My guess is it was written by someone high up in the "Taxi" writing staff's food chain. If an underling had suggested it, it would likely have been rejected as "too broad." That's how it often works on a writing staff. If the boss suggests it, it's hilarious. Anyone else? "What were you thinking?"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"More Pure Comedy (Some Of It Mine)"

I had a couple of examples left. And I like thinking about pure comedy – comedy for its own darn sake – because it makes me happy. No bristling commentary. No struggling to make a point. Pure comedy is the pretend shotgun that shoots colored confetti. You just point, aim and pull the trigger.

When I wrote Best of the West, I did a lot of research. Rather than merely parodying the classic moments in western movies, I wanted the comedy to come out of the actual reality of the times.

My goal was to have Best of the West feel like a situation comedy that was made in 1865. No technological anachronisms. No references to an unknown future.

One thing I learned from my research was that the guns in the Old West didn’t always work that well. Sometimes, when you pulled the trigger, the guns blew up. Other times, they burst into flames, the flames frequently igniting the shooter’s clothing.

I couldn’t exactly duplicate such mishaps on my show. Actors balk at losing fingers for a laugh. And they hate it when the script calls for them to be engulfed in a fiery inferno. But the general concept stayed with me.

Sometimes the guns didn’t work.

In the pilot episode’s climactic scene, Sam Best, The Good Guy, faces off against “The Calico Kid”, a notorious gunslinger, hired by Parker Tillman, the local “bad apple”, to “take care of” this Good Guy nuisance. At the critical moment, the two combatants drew and fired.

Making use of the information that sometimes the guns didn’t work, I had both of the shooters’ guns seriously malfunction. I mean, the bullets came out okay, but they sprayed all over the place, hitting everything but their intended targets. Glasses shattered. Bottles exploded off the shelves. Bystanders, safely out of the line of fire, found themselves suddenly diving for cover.

The bullets went everywhere. But the two combatants, dismayed by their weapons’ erratic performance, remained entirely unhurt.

Finally, the exasperated Tillman, witnessing the debacle from an overhead stair landing, threw his hands in the air, and exclaimed,

“Well…I mean…”

Pure comedy.

Grounded, at least superficially, in reality. It was true that sometimes the guns in the Old West didn’t work. But two guns in the same gunfight, both malfunctioning in precisely the same manner – neither one of them able to propel their bullets in the direction they were aimed?

Let’s say that’s unlikely.

With pure comedy, however, historical authenticity is a lesser consideration. The primary issue is to elicit maximum laughter.

And we did.

Another premise for pure comedy came from something I personally observed. I would not have to change a thing. The situation was perfect just the way it was. At least, to me.

It is Christmastime in Los Angeles. I am strolling through an open-air mall/slash/theme park in the Valley called City Walk. The spirit of the season is everywhere. And part of the celebration would include a Christmas-themed presentation performed by children.

When I joined the semi-circle of curious bystanders, I was greeted by a group of what appeared to be Middle Schoolers, standing behind a long table, on which sat a series of brass bells with handles, each bell tuned to a different note in the musical scale.

I’m sure you’re familiar with this type of entertainment. In this case, each participant was responsible for two bells, which they would ring at the appropriate moment, to generate a bell-ringing rendition of a song. In this case, the song would be the iconic “Silent Night.”

Unfortunately, by “show time”, two of the young bell ringers had failed to appear. Since the available bell ringers were fully occupied with two bells to ring each, the absence of two participants meant there would, inevitably, be bells that would be unable to be rung.

Well, as the saying goes, “The show must go on.” And so it did.

The ensemble went into “Silent Night”, minus its full complement of bell ringers. Unfortunately, the loss of essential bell intonations left noticeable gaps in the familiar Christmas carol.

It’s hard to reproduce what I heard verbally, but the Middle Schoolers’ rendition of “Silent Night” with some bells missing sounded something like this:

Ring

Ring-Nothing

Ring

Ring

Ring-Nothing

Ring

Ring ring

Nothing…

Nothing Nothing

Ring

Ring ring

Nothing

Ring-ring

Ring ring

Nothing

Ring

Ring ring

Nothing

Ring-ring

Ring

Ring-Nothing

Ring

You get the idea. In deference to the religiosity of the material, and the fact that the kids were trying their best under difficult conditions, I bit my lip as hard as I could, to keep from laughing. But pretty soon, my lip was starting to bleed. So I quietly headed away, the gap-toothed rendition of “Silent Night” echoing painfully in my ears.

I pitched the “bells” idea as the payoff to a proposed Christmas episode for a certain very popular current sitcom. Later, the irate series show runner called my agent, and excoriated him for sending him a writer –me – who was so pathetically old-fashioned

It appears that pure comedy is not welcome in the cooler-than-Thou Age of Irony.

My final offering may be the granddaddy of all pure comedy. It originated at a time when audiences were perceived to be more innocent. I believe they were actually less innocent. The reason they appear more innocent was they were so continually beaten down by life, they were accepting of a primal level of comedy that would simply allow them to laugh.

The reality element of this comic notion stems from the fact that, in the olden days, baseball players had strange nicknames, like “Dizzy” and “Daffy”, “The Big Train” and “The Georgia Peach.”

The comedy routine takes the real situation a step (or more) further, and we end up with this, to me, the funniest piece of material that was ever set to paper.

This particular version overstays its welcome somewhat. But at it’s heart, there beats the very purest of pure comedy.

Enjoy.





Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Pure Comedy"

Disclaimer: Jokes I find funny may not be funny to you. That’s just the way it is.

This idea for this post came to mind when I was writing about the only joke on The Office that ever made me laugh out loud. Michael Scott, relying on a GPS for directions, drives his car directly into a lake.

That’s pure comedy.

Constructed less to reveal character or advance the storyline than to simply elicit laughter, pure comedy bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the place that made cavemen snort whatever they drank back then out their prehistoric noses.

Pure comedy does not need to be outrageously broad, though a skillfully-choreographed pie fight would definitely qualify. Pure comedy can also be sublimely subtle. The most proficient practitioner in this regard is a French comedian who made movies in the fifties, named Jacques Tati, his finest effort, for me, being Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is filled with dozens of deliciously unobtrusive comedic observations. Huge laughs are elicited from our simply listening a screen door in great need of oiling creakily opening and closing, again and again.

One of my favorite moments takes place at Hulot’s vacation spot’s Dining/slash/ Recreation Room, where the hotel guests have come together for an evening of card playing. The room includes a dozen or so tables, with the guests crowding around each of them, all engaged in some unspecified card game, say, gin rummy, or bridge.

Hulot is sitting at a table. At one point, he drops one of his cards. He bends over to retrieve it, and when he sits back up, because his chair has somehow swiveled, he suddenly finds himself playing in a card game at an adjacent table.

The situation is the same; they’re still playing cards. But everything else is different. It’s as if Hulot had wandered into a parallel universe, in which the people are also play cards, but it’s different people, and a different game.

Our laughter derives from Hulot’s understandable confusion. And it’s pure comedy, because the vignette has been designed exclusively to elicit that laughter.

Pure comedy is not accidental. To succeed, it must be meticulously constructed and perfectly executed. It must also have at least a minimal connection to reality. Otherwise, the audience will go,

“I don’t know what they’re doing.”

And when they do that, they don’t laugh.

The Carol Burnett Show was the last really good variety show. Being a variety show gave the Burnett show the license to go broader than, say, sitcoms, which needed to hew closer to everyday life, to retain their credibility. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Richards couldn’t suddenly start speaking with a Swedish accent, pop ping-pong balls out of her mouth, or burst into song, because the audience would go,

”I don’t know what she’s doing.”

And when they do that, they don’t laugh.

On variety shows, you can do virtually anything, as long as it’s remotely credible. This free-ranging opportunity opens the door for pure comedy.

A classic example: The Gone With The Wind parody. Specifically, the part of the story where Scarlett O’Hara has become so seriously impoverished she is relegated to transforming the fabric from her living room drapes into clothing.

Scarlett comes downstairs in her newly tailored outfit, a dark green velvet floor-length dress. You become quickly aware, however, that the dress had previously been drapes, because the outfit’s design includes…

a still-attached, heavy, brass curtain rod which spans the breadth of Scarlett’s shoulders, and considerably further.

In this case, the funny part, beyond the insane look of the outfit itself, is Carol Burnett’s casual demeanor, behaving as if she has successfully reconfigured the drapes into a dress, when it is hilariously clear that she has pretty much just taken down the curtains, and dropped them over her head. Burnett behaves as if nothing, in any way, is wrong.

Burnett’s entrance in the “dress” received one of the loudest, most prolonged laughs from the studio audience I have ever witnessed. And I was cracking up at home as well.

Today’s final example of pure comedy comes from a show that was rightfully praised for not being outrageous or broad, but was, instead, one of the finest examples of character comedy of all time. I am referring to the TV sitcom, Taxi.

Maybe what made this moment of pure comedy even more effective was that it was embedded in a show that was, traditionally, more naturally grounded. The moment in question involved Taxi’s Reverend Jim character’s taking his driver’s test.

The moment gained its credibility from the fact that the Reverend Jim character was a sixties burnout. As the result, the parameters of what passed for reality in his case were proportionally expanded. Also, actor Christopher Lloyd’s, hilarious, but more importantly sympathetic, portrayal contributed greatly to selling an otherwise credibility-testing situation.

This time, rather than describing it, I think I’ll just show it to you. If I can.

Wish me luck. I’m venturing into Technoland.

Alone.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"An Exciting Sighting"

I'm was sitting on a bench near the gym’s entrance, waiting for my trainer to arrive for my workout. This is Gold’s Gym we’re talking about, home of the serious bodybuilders in Los Angeles.

And me

There’s a metal staircase behind the bench, which leads up to (and down from, it’s a dual purpose staircase) the locker and shower area. I’ve never been up there. It’s for people who are going to work after their workouts, and that is no longer me. Which provides me the luxury of showering at home. All day, if I want to.

I hear heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. He reaches the floor and moves past the bench on the way to the exit, almost rolling, in an athlete’s confident amble. He’s an oversized man, packed into an exquisitely tailored light gray suit. I can only see his back and the right side of his face. He looks familiar, but I’m not sure. The certainty comes when one of the trainers calls out his name.

“Hey, Magic.”

I immediately melt in my seat.

Earvin “Magic” Johnson is heading out the door.

A short exchange ensues between the trainer and the incomparable basketball legend who spearheaded the Lakers to five championships back in the eighties. I cannot make out the words. My ears are ringing with awe.

My feet feel cemented to the floor. Which is why I didn’t jump up and race after him. It would not have been uncharacteristic for me to do so. Once, in my youth – who am I kidding, I was thirty-five – while walking back to my condo, I spotted a man, driving a burgundy Rolls Royce convertible past me, headed in the other direction. It took me a moment to “lightbulb” his identity. It was Mohammed Ali. I instantly turned, and I chased him down the street. Not to talk. Just to look at him for as long as I could.

Magic was more to me than an iconic sports hero. It was like he and I had a bonding connection. We had both done well in the same decade, me, in television, he, on the basketball court. We’d performed at the highest level, garnered multiple awards, earned substantial contracts and the respect of our peers. Two champions, flourishing in our respective professions. That’s how I looked at it. Although, I believe, I’m the only one.

One of my favorite sayings is, “I love it when it’s good.” And nobody was better than Magic Johnson. He was electrifying to watch; you could not take your eyes off him for a second.

No talented ball hog like Michael Jordan, Magic’s forte was distributing the ball, enhancing not himself, but everyone on the team.

You never knew what he was going to do. Sometimes, even his own teammates were confounded, Magic’s behind-the-back passes glancing embarrassingly off their heads. Mostly, however, they caught it, they shot it and they scored.

To me, the sign of true greatness is being memorable even in defeat. My favorite Magic moment was watching him quarterback the Lakers back from a twenty-point deficit, scoring or assisting on eighteen consecutive points in two minutes.

It was a wild, “Go crazy” time, the Lakers scoring on every possession, continually stealing the ball from a demoralized opposition, who only moments earlier, were breezing to victory. The Lakers wound up losing by two points. But oh, those incredible two minutes!

I wanted to tell him how much joy he had brought me. I wanted to teasingly rebuke him for spoiling basketball for me, because he showed me how the game should be played, with intensity, a chess player’s instinct for the perfect move, and – and here’s a word I’ve never used before – √©lan, and nobody picked up the torch after he retired. I wanted to tell him how heartsick I felt when his career was abruptly cut short by his life-threatening illness.

I didn’t tell him anything.

I just watched him amble out the door.

And I smiled.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"They're Not Talking To You - Take Two"

I already wrote this once. Now I'm trying to do it better.


I don’t have a stopwatch or anything, but it is my strong impression that MSNBC spends more time talking about Sarah Palin than Fox does.

I’m no expert in these matters, but it seems clear that if cable news stations of whatever persuasion excluded all inveighing against the other side, their shows would be over in eleven seconds.

Every cable news show has to fill an hour’s worth of time. The shows need content. Apparently, after weighing the alternatives, it appears a decision has been made that, rather than trumpeting the ideas and accomplishments of their ideological allies, the cable news outlets will instead devote the majority of their airtime gleefully battering the opposition.

I understand why they do that. What I don’t understand is why do cable news anchors act so shocked, surprised, outraged and distressed by the pronouncements of people who have contrary beliefs?

Consider this.

If a non-Christian heard some Christian religious leader preach, “We’re going to heaven, and everyone else is going to hell”, rather than thinking, “That’s crazy!”, they would simply shrug and think,

“They’re not talking to me.”

If a Christian heard that God’s countenance will never shine upon a person who eats pork, rather than thinking, “That’s an odd thing to believe”, they would think, once again,

“They’re not talking to me.”

If a wife is not a member of a religion that says, “When the husband dies, the wife gets cremated along with him”, she can breathe easily, remembering,

“They’re not talking to me.”

Every group has its own beliefs, which, to the people who don’t share those beliefs might, in the extreme cases, sound insane. The only thing worth saying about that is,

“They’re speaking to their believers, and I don’t happen to be one of them.”

After that, it’s no longer worth talking about.

And yet, you replace these religion examples with political examples, and that’s pretty much all cable news stations ever talks about.

I mean, “They’re not talking to you.” End of story. Wouldn’t you think?

That does not seem to be the case.

Keith Olbermann continues to excoriate every new Palin “tweet”, bellowing,

“That woman is an idiot!”

Chris Matthews bleats, “I don’t understand that guy”, after a guest insists that the President is a Muslim.

Commentators on Fox respond with alarm and incredulity to a Nancy Pelosi utterance they consider to be rampant Socialism.

That’s the whole show. That’s virtually all they do. And the audience continues to watch. They can’t be watching to learn anything. There’s nothing there to learn. Except that when people you don’t agree with express claims and opinions you find totally incomprehensible,

“They’re not talking to you.”

And you only need to learn that once.

So if there’s nothing to learn, there’s must be another reason people tune in.

A personal digression, which, I hope, makes the point:

I was participating in a writing session in a fancy hotel’s hospitality conference room. I was chewing on a fingernail, and – I have no excuses for this – I absently dropped it on the carpet. Moments later, a colleague discovered it, and immediately began to complain,

“Look at this! It’s a fingernail!”

“I’m afraid that’s mine.”

“They put us in a room with a dirty fingernail!”

“I just dropped it. It’s mine.”

“This room is filthy!”

“I just dropped the nail.”

“We ought to complain to the manager.”

“It’s my fingernail. I dropped it. Just now.”

“This is entirely unacceptable!”

“The fingernail? It’s mine. I just dropped it.”

Why didn’t my repeated admission of the facts make a difference? The guy didn’t want to hear it. He was having too much fun.

As are the people watching cable news.

The way I see it, cable news is divisive, an impediment to the country’s ability to solve its problem, and potentially harmful to its citizens.

But maybe there’s a simple explanation for that

They’re not talking to me.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"The Brotherhood of Faith"

It seems unusual to think of religion as being “The Little Guy.” Except in the context of mainstream media, where religion serves as a regular punching bag for angry non-believers and writers looking for an easy target.

Since I am – or at least was – or maybe still am with this blog – a contributor to mainstream media – okay, this isn’t mainstream, but you know what I mean – I find myself in an environment where going to bat for religion feels surprisingly similar to defending the underdog.

When was the last movie you saw where a religious character was “The Good Guy”? The only group that suffers a greater media pummeling is “Big Business.” But, of course, they deserve it.

Let me make clear what I’m speaking up for here. Organized religion, you’re on your own. And historical religion, with their meddling and their mayhem? I don’t know how anybody could defend that. Those guys were…ungodly.

And please, don’t give me any, “The other side’s just as bad.” They’re not “just as bad.” They’re not even close. The treatment the scientific community received at the hands of religion, as compared to the disparagement heaped on religious people today? I wrote a line about that once, clarifying the disparity. It went:

“No scientist ever burned a religious person at the stake.”

Dismissive and condescending? Absolutely. But they never lit them on fire.

What I’m defending here is personal faith, on which my view is the following:

Somebody’s personal faith is no more my business than their personal choice of music. To me, it may sound like meaningless noise, but it’s got nothing to do with me. It’s somebody else’s music. And it apparently gives them what they need.

Turning your nose up at somebody else’s faith is like sending back someone else’s food in a restaurant. The dish may not be palatable to you. But they’re the ones who have to swallow it.

What particularly chafes me in this regard is the attack on faith by a group of people whose careers are fundamentally grounded in it.

And by this I mean

Comedians.

Faith involves certainty concerning something that cannot be proven. Aside from the God area, no human activity is more dependent on unprovable faith

Than comedy.

What is a joke? A joke is a funny line or story or observation that made you laugh when you thought it up. Is there any certainty it will make anyone else laugh?

None.

You may think you know what you’re doing, but every comedian has told a joke they thought was sure-fire but turned out to be a dud. Comedians have delivered the exact same joke – it killed with one audience; it died with another one. New comedian goes onstage, confident they’re funny, and they quickly learn that the audience disagrees with that assessment, as exemplified by the time-honored heckle,

“You stink!”

That’s just the way it is. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no certainty in comedy.

This is why, throughout his career of more than half a century, Jack Benny, one of the most successful comedians of all time, continually bit his fingernails to the quick. This is why other comedians drink, fortify themselves with drugs, or spend decades babbling in therapy.

“I don’t know whether I’ll be funny or not, Doc!”

“That’s right.”

They were funny before, but there is no certainty they’ll be funny the next time. This uncertainty ought to tie comedians up in knots, and make them go,

“Bla bla blabba dabba.”

But for the comedians who persevere, it doesn’t. They just keep going up there. And the thing that gets them back onstage, without guarantees, and with no certainty of success, is precisely the same fuel that powers religion:

Faith.

And yet, it’s comedians who most viciously ridicule the people who rely on faith. They don’t seem to be aware of something.

“That’s you too!”

There was one who, I think, understood.

Richard Pryor came out on stage, and before he’d start his act, he would say – not to the audience, not to himself, I don’t exactly know who he was saying it to –

“I hope I’m funny.”

I don’t know what that sounds like to you. But to me, “I hope I’m funny” sounds very much

Like a comedian’s prayer.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Immortality - It's Not Always That Great"

I really wanted to play it for you. Hearing it would have a way more powerful impact than what I’m about to attempt. I was prepared to try “embedding” it all by myself. But I went on Youtube, and I couldn’t track it down. I’m sure I’d be able to, if I knew precisely what to ask Youtube, but I don’t.

Computers are incredibly helpful, when you give them specific instructions, but when every effort fails to deliver the desired result, the computer screen just stares at you blankly, like,

“What do you want?”

Maybe after you read this, someone out there will be able to help me with this. I apologize in advance for giving you the best I can give you, but it’s nowhere near as good as what I wanted to give you, but I can’t give you what I wanted to give you, because I can’t find it, so I have to settle for this. And I apologize for that sentence as well.

A one-sentence backstory.

When I finished writing the first thing I ever wrote that nobody asked me to write – it was a personal story I felt compelled to get down on paper – I put down my pen, and I said to myself – there was nobody else around, though it didn’t stop me from being dramatic about it…

“I’m immortal.”

I was shocked by those words. They just flew out of my mouth. A spontaneous utterance. I was uttering something big there. Something profound. You get something outside of yourself, it has a chance of sticking around longer than you will…

You’re immortal.

Which feels like a good thing to be.

Even if you’re personally not around to enjoy it.

The problem is, sometimes, immortality doesn’t always work out the way you’d like it to.

Example:

The thing I can’t find.

What is it? It’s the theme song, recorded back in the thirties for a “Poverty Row” movie studio, specializing in producing extremely low budget “B” westerns. Lone Star or Monogram, or Lone Star released by Monogram, I honestly don't know. The theme played at the beginning and end of all their movies.

And it’s a doozy. Rivaling, though not quite equaling, the energy and excitement of the Gold Standard of all western theme songs:

“The Lone Ranger.”

More than seventy-five years after it was recorded, when I sit down to immerse myself in one of these third-rate cowboy pictures, that galvanizing musical theme never fails to inflame my senses.

Okay, so here is my phonetic recreation of that music. If you heard it, it would be better, but what can I tell you? I already did tell you. I can’t find it.

We start with an orchestral recreation of the breakneck rhythm of galloping horses. Think: The opening bars to the Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties theme. Unless you don’t know what that is. In which case, you’ll have to settle for this:

Ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump

Ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump…

Breaking in is this sharp and stirring trumpet solo, carrying the melody.

Duuum…

Buh-duh-dum ba-dum
(You go way up on that last “dum”)

Buh-duh-dum ba-dum
(You go up again)

Buh-duh-duh dum…

And again.

Duuum…

Buh-duh-dum ba-dum (Up, up!)

Buh-duh-dum ba-dum (Up, up again!)

Buh-duh-duh dum…

The main theme proceeds to this Mexican-sounding musical bridge, which is a little cheesy, but most bridges sound cheesy…

Then it’s back to the theme.

Duuum…

Buh-duh-dum ba-dum

Buh-duh-dum ba…


The first time is fine. But on the second time through,

That’s when it happens.

On the final “dum”, the second time through after the somewhat cheesy Mexican-sounding bridge – oh, man, it tears me up just writing about it –

The note emerging from the trumpet…

Cracks.

Maybe it’s because of faulty fingering. A loss of concentration. Blowing wrong – I don’t know, I don’t play the trumpet. But for some reason, nearing the end of the up-till-then impeccable performance, the note comes out jarringly off-key. Like an adolescent choir member who’s voice is changing.

And they kept going. All the way to the end.

I can imagine the trumpeter, playing it cool to conceal his embarrassment, asking the conductor, “Can we take it again?” And the helpless conductor replying,

“We’re a poor studio. We can only afford one take.”

And there you have it.

One day, an itinerant trumpeter is leaving to work at some “Gower Gulch” recording studio, he kisses his wife and he says,

“Honey, I’m playing the solo for the studio’s theme song today. I’m going to be immortal.”

He was right. He is immortal.

But he’s immortalized with a broken note.