Monday, February 28, 2011

"The Great Picture Takes You Out Of The Picture"

Recently, I was talking about the “suspension of disbelief”, wherein an audience member goes, “I’m aware that it’s a movie-play-TV show, but I’m letting go that awareness, and allowing myself to be transported by the production.  It’s fake, but, for the moment, I  am pretending that it’s real.”

That’s “suspension of disbelief”, or more completely, a “willing suspension of disbelief”, “willing” because it’s not that you’ve lost your mind and you suddenly believe that moving shadows on a screen or actors on the stage are the real thing, but because you’re temporarily surrendering your disbelief to the production, or at least meeting it half way.

It’s not easy relinquishing your feelings of disbelief to an entity that is demonstrably unreal.  Unless you’re a child.  Or incredibly child-like.  Part of growing up involves developing the ability to distinguish the actual from the made up.  (Though when it comes to political partisanship, all bets seem to be off.)

You have your cynicism, you’re skepticism, the “big with the kids these days” ironic slant.  With entertainment professionals like myself, there’s the additional problem of “I’ve been behind the curtain.”  You know it’s not real because you’re aware that somebody made it up, that “somebody”, once upon a time, having been you. 

The shows themselves can deliver obstacles to the suspension of disbelief – exaggerated characterizations, stilted dialogue, distractingly crappy production values, improbable storytelling, overall stupidity.  These elements, among others, can literally take you right out of picture, as in,

“Sorry, I’m not buying this.”

Now, as if relinquishing your disbelief weren’t difficult enough, a brand new obstacle has arrived on the scene.  At least, it’s an obstacle for me.  That obstacle is,


Here’s what happened.  A television we’ve had for over twenty years finally cashed in its chips.  Being over twenty years old, the TV was the traditional, boxy-shaped, tubey kind.  Nowadays, you don’t fix those kinds of TVs when they break.  I believe you just shoot them.

The thing worked beautifully for two decades.  But then one day, though the sound remained robust, the picture suddenly pinched down to a narrow, illuminated strip across the center of the screen, becoming viewable only to felines with squinty eyes.  And how much TV do they watch?  Lady and the Tramp, and that’s it.

“Hey, Ming, it’s our show!”

We are Siamee-eeze if you plee-eeze

“What do you think?”

“The picture fits my eyes perfectly.”

Okay, enough of that.  The point is, it was definitely time for a new TV.

Now I hate to be whiney and complainy – Look out!  Someone’s about to be whiney and complainy – I mean, I know I am fortunate to be able to afford a brand new top-of-the-line HDTV, but I have to tell you, for at least right now,

I don’t chlike it.  (For the “ch”, clear your throat, like you’re saying “Chanukah.”)

It’s the picture.

“It’s really clear, isn’t it.”

That’s the problem.  It’s too clear.  The shows look like surveillance videos. 

I know there’s been a continual push to make what’s on the screen appear more and more real.  They even do it with animated stuff, though “real-looking animation”, I have no idea what that means.  Animation is, by definition, not real.  What exactly are they trying to accomplish?

But let’s stick with live-action programming.  Here’s the deal.  With the new, HD technology, everything looks like what it is.  This is absolutely miraculous when  “what it is” is real.  Ballgames are electrifying in HD, because the HD technology is transmitting “what it is”, and “what it is” is a ballgame actually being played somewhere at that very moment.  You can prove it.  You can go there, and they’re playing it. 

And it looks exactly the same!

It’s just spectacular. The picture projected on HDTV is so, I don’t know, complete, it’s like you’re sitting right there at the game.  But without the drunks.  Unless you’re watching it with drunks.

Ditto for documentary footage of flamingoes on the Serengeti.  You can almost feel yourself standing by a lake in Africa, watching thousands of giant, pink birds, flapping their wings and snapping up fish.  It like you’re totally there.  Feeling the hair-raising sensation of alligators slithering up behind you. 

The problem arises when HD technology is applied to something unreal, like a movie or TV show.  Only able to do one thing, HD is still transmitting “what it is”, but unlike a ballgame or a flamingo playground, this time, the “what it is” that HD is transmitting

Is fake.

What we then get is a conflict.  The movie or TV show tries its best to fabricate “reality”, while at the same time, the penetrating HD picture is shining a revealing light on the fabrication.

Suddenly, you’re aware of layered-on make-up, the neatly pressed “wardrobe”, the “outdoor locations” now easily outed as “shot on a soundstage.”  The HD picture is so sharp and vivid, it exposes all the artifices underneath.   Not to mention the flaws.  My visiting brother-in-law reports, “You can not only see the pores in this picture, you can see inside the pores.”  Not all that useful, unless you’re a dermatologist’s television.  Or an inner-pore voyeur.

This is my problem with HDTV.  It’s so real it looks fake.  And in cases where maximum suspension of disbelief is required, the more HDTV pulls you in the opposite direction.

Just to see how it would look, I stopped to check out this science fiction movie.  When I tuned in, a human-sized grasshopper was piloting a helicopter.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a generally difficult sell.  But with the unforgiving clarity of HDTV?

“Sorry, I’m not buying this.”

By a lot.

Why not?  Because it feels like I’m watching documentary-looking footage of something that can’t possibly be true.  The “grasshopper’s” wearing a Halloween costume, and the helicopter is indisputably a toy.

I know I’ll probably get used to it.  But right now, HDTV is just another impediment to my suspension of disbelief.

And I have enough trouble with that already.  

Friday, February 25, 2011

"A Valuable Aptitude, Frequently Overlooked"

I was flipping around the channels recently, when I bumped into a nothing special but successful-enough sitcom to have found itself a comfortable home in syndicated reruns.  The show was created by a person I had worked with, a man who’d created a number of long-running, if not highly decorated, unless you consider the accumulation of enormous amounts of money a decoration, comedy series. 

I had known the man back in the 70’s.  Well, not actually “knew” him, but I had worked with him.  At the time, he was part of a duo, his partner, an acerbic ironist, who could also do magic tricks.  Creatively, they balanced each other out – a synergizing combination of vanilla and vinegar.  Not something you’d want to see on a spoon, but it made for a highly productive writing team.

I had reached the point in my career where, in order to supplement my income, I was required to participate in the rewrite sessions of the scripts I had written.  I subsequently learned that this was merely an accounting strategy, an effort to pay me a little extra per script without setting a precedent for doing so, by recording the salary bump as a “Consulting Fee.”  The company did not actually expect me to “consult.  I did so, because they had neglected to tell me that. 

Okay, so on this particular “consulting” day, I am having an extended difference of opinion with the series’ show runner, concerning some story point, now forgotten, but which, at the time, seemed life and death. 

Inexplicably, the show runner wants things their way.  I, of course, want them mine.  It wasn’t an ego thing.  I had spent a lot of time thinking about that script, and was convinced that the show runner was taking it in a deleterious direction.  Unfortunately, I was outranked.  And as a result, feeling enormously frustrated.

Finally, it was time for a break.  As I was getting up to go to some uninhabited area and scream, the future successful show creator, then a member of that show’s writing staff, albeit a high-ranking one, leaned over to me and quietly said,

“You’re right.”

This whispered message caught me off-guard.  To that point, I’d been fighting the good fight alone.  And losing.  I felt revitalized by the encouragement.

I immediately pressed the man further, hoping we could take on the show runner together, and by doing so, keep them from making a terrible mistake. 

“How much support can I get from you on this matter?” I excitedly inquired.

To which my new-found ally unequivocally replied,


My first reaction was disappointment.  Actually, that’s not true.  My first reaction was to laugh.  But my laughter masked my disappointment.  Well, not really.  What it was really masking was my utter dismay at a man who, in a heartbeat, had abandoned his integrity, choosing instead a course that was unashamedly political.  Which led  immediately to my second response.  An internal one, this time.  Which was,

“This fellow is going places.”

And he did.

A story is told about a writing team, one member of which was engaged in a heated dispute with a network executive.  As the shouting match escalated to a head, the other member of the writing team broke into the screamfest and said,

“Excuse me.  I don’t claim to be unbiased – I am one of the writers on this project.  But I’ve been sitting here, weighing the merits of both sides of the argument, and I want to go on the record here and now as saying,

“I could go either way.”

That man went places too.

In fact, it may have been the same guy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Accuracy Shmaccuracy"

A family member near and dear to me believes it’s a non-issue.  I respectfully disagree.

You have a movie that promotes itself as being “Based On” or “Inspired By” an actual event.  What is the expectation?  For me, it’s “We’re telling you a true story.” 

How true?  Therein lies the difficulty.  Because it’s not exactly clear.  This is not like some fast food beef patty that, in order to call itself a “beef patty”, is required to contain a legal prescribed minimum percentage of beef.  That may not even be true, but if it isn’t, it should be.  My point is there’s a line.

With “Based On” and “Inspired By” movies, there is no line that apparently exists.  And, according to my near and dear family member, there does not need to be.  Why?  Because,

“It’s a movie.”

That much, I will acknowledge.  It is a movie. 


It’s a movie that’s selling itself in a particular manner.  We are told,

It depicts an actual event

It’s not like any movie.  It’s not The Hangover or Avatar, which are

“Based on ideas we believed would sell a lot of tickets.”

When you, or at least I, attend a movie telling the story of an actual historical occurrence, you, or at least I, go in with a specific expectation:

That what I’m about to see up there on the screen more or less, and not much less,

Actually happened.

This, apparently, is an unjustified expectation.  Why?  Because,

“It’s a movie.”

That’s their “Get out of jail free” card.  And I’m telling you, it’s a slippery slope if ever I slid down one.  Using that non-standard standard, essential elements may be entirely absent.  Imagine going to a restaurant, which touts as being “Inspired By ‘Ocean Front Seafood’”, except they don’t sell any fish in it.

“How exactly is this like a fish restaurant?”

“Well, we have tables, chairs, a waiter, food and the check.  The only thing missing is the fish.”

Would you put up with that?  I wouldn’t.  They’re selling something they’re unquestionably not delivering.  Which, in my mind, constitutes fraud. 

“Not in this case.”

Why not?

“Because it’s a movie.”

“Look.  When you go to a movie that advertises itself as being ‘Based on an Actual Event’, there’s an expectation…”

“There is not.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and I’ve mentioned this before, I believe three time, the third time not ten second ago –

“It’s a movie.”

“But they’re lying to the public!”

“In what way?  The movie was based on an actual event.  They just didn’t say how much it was based on an actual event.”

“To me, that’s blatant misrepresentation.”

“This has been going on for centuries.  Is Hamlet ‘blatant misrepresentation’?”

“Probably, I don’t know.  But I know this.  The first line in Hamlet is not:

‘Based on actual events in Danish history.’”

“It’s exactly the same thing.”

“Not living in the Middle Ages anymore, we expect stories based on actual events to have a substantial level of credibility.  In The King’s Speech, King George sees the speech therapist years later that he actually went, he fiercely resists him, and he is later shocked to discover that his teacher had no medical training.  The research indicates that   King George knew his teacher wasn’t a doctor, and after their very first session with him, he went away brimming with confidence.  This isn’t minor tinkering.  Basic elements of reality have been blatantly misrepresented.”


“Why did they do that?”

“ Are you familiar with ‘Artistic license’?  ‘The king goes for help with his stammer, and he gets it.’  What kind of a story is that?”

“Fine.  Tell a good story.  But don’t mislead the moviegoer.  Instead of ‘Based on An Actual Event’, have the Opening Title say,

‘The following story happened.  Just not this way.’


‘Based on events that were less compelling than the ones we changed them to.’


‘A True Story.  Except for the facts.’”

“Are you finished now?”

“Yes. (A BEAT)  No!  They’re having it both ways – they’re pulling the audience in with the expectation of seeing something factual, then they hide behind ‘artistic license’ to deliver something that’s been inspired by, what The King’s Speech screenwriter calls, ‘informed imagination.’  There is something wrong with that, and it really pisses me off.”

Okay, now I’m finished.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The 'King' Versus 'The Queen'"

The Oscars Awards Season encourages people – make that requires people – to compare movies within the boundaries of a single calendar year, which results in some years’ “Best Picture” winners being not that terrific, only the best of less than sterling compilation of nominees, which themselves emerge from a less than impressive slate of movies that were produced that year.  (At the loss of clarifying specificity, I will refrain from providing examples of “Best Pictures” I think weren’t that great, for fear that my examples might be the best movie you ever saw in your life.  I hate to lose readers in the first paragraph.  So I will keep my “Stinkeroo List” to myself.)

A strong “Best Picture” contender for the current Awards Season is The King’s Speech.  I saw The King’s Speech.  I thought it was pretty good.  Maybe, “pretty good” plus.  But feeling no obligation to restrict myself to the parameters of “movies made in 2010”, I herein submit that, within the admittedly narrow grouping called “Movies about the recent royal family in England”, The Queen (2006) was considerably superior to The King’s Speech.

Here’s my reasoning on the matter.  I place a lot of value on originality.  The Queen felt like a movie I had never seen before.  On the other hand, The King’s Speech felt like an After School Special, but with better actors.

The Queen had certain built-in advantages.  The story it told was more current.  (1997 as opposed to The King’s Speech’s late 1930’s).  To summarize The Queen’s storyline:  Lady Di dies in a car crash, and a clash of generations ensues, wherein a youthful Prime Minister presses Queen Elizabeth, whose training and upbringing demand no outward displays of emotion, to make a speech to the country, expressing how she feels.  After days of soul-searching, and a visit to Scotland, with duty trumping discomfort, the Queen finally capitulates, and makes the speech. 

That’s a fresh story.  And the way it was handled – the way the narrative unfolded, the nuanced steps depicted to achieve the desired result, sometimes gentle, but firm when necessary – felt real.  Meaning true to life.  And as a result, rich, compelling, humanizing and alive.

By contrast, The King’s Speech followed the well-trod road of the “inspirational affliction narrative”, offering few deviations from the traditional template.  Somebody’s got a problem – in The King’s Speech it’s a terrible stammer but it could be anything – they adamantly refuse to get help, and then they reluctantly give in.  Things go badly at first, but in time, the helper and the helpee surrender to the process, gradually warm to each other, the lessons ultimately take hold, and in the end, there’s a triumphant outcome. 


When you see a story you’ve seen numerous times before, “originality”, by definition, is off the table.  What’s left then is the skill with which the story is related.  In this regard, The King’s Speech does well enough.  But, to me, this is a secondary accomplishment.  An old joke, skillfully delivered. 

There is also the distraction of the teaming pool of magnificent English actors populating The King’s Speech, gifted professionals who can turn a recitation of the Underground stops on the Bakerloo Line into soaring poetry.  Winning performances can fool you.  It’s like,

“This is warmed-over blabbity-blah.  But look how they’re doing it!”

With the understanding that both films are based on historical events, a movie can’t be overly faulted for telling a less interesting story than another movie.  The thing is, they already made The Queen.  Now, they had to make something else.  And I imagine The Queen’s success at the box office actually helped that to come about.

“They liked the ‘queen’ movie.  Let’s give ‘em a ‘king’ movie.”

Were I being pitched The King’s Speech for possible production, my first question would have been, “How do we tell this ‘story of uplift’, so it doesn’t feel like ‘A one-legged runner wins the Boston Marathon’?”

The difference is, though I could be wrong about this, a one-legged runner has never won the Boston Marathon, which places that story smack dab into the “fiction” category.  And unlikely to be made, because who wants to see a fake story about a one-legged runner winning the Boston Marathon?  If it were the Poughkeepsie Marathon, maybe, because you don’t know if that happened or not.  The Boston Marathon, you could look up. 

(You can also look up the Poughkeepsie Marathon, but that movie’s not going to be made, because who cares about Poughkeepsie?  Here it comes.  “Poughkeepsie happens to be my favorite town in the whole wide world!”)

Since the elements involved in The King’s Speech actually took place, there’s not an unlimited amount of wiggle room when it comes to its execution. 

“The king stopped stuttering, gained confidence, flew to Germany, and assassinated Hitler.”

You can’t do that.  It didn’t happen. 

Not that you can’t change anything.  It is a movie, after all. 

The question is, “How far can you go with those changes?”  And how do such decisions affect the integrity of the project?

These, to me, are important questions.  

Deserving, I believe, of a posting of their own.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Where do we come from

Where do we go

 Is there an “after”

How do we know?

Where do we come from

Where do we go

Last Friday night, at about eleven-thirty P.M., I saw my first ever dead body.

The body belonged to my mother-in-law who, five months short of her hundredth birthday, had, shockingly though not unexpectedly, left the building.  When the call came, I accompanied other family members to the Nursing Home, to deliver our farewells.  I rode up to the Second Floor, stepped into the room, and there she was.

It’s an understatement to say that I was unprepared for the experience. 

I am not a farmer, who has to clean up after the coyotes make a bloody mess of the chickens.  I do not fire guns, wring necks or chop heads off to procure my food.  I leave that to others, and wait for the end product to show up at my supermarket, sheathed in cellophane. 

When my father died, I was six, and was wisely, they believed, shielded from the experience.  When my mother died, I was in Hawaii.  When I arrived, she was already in a box. 

Though hardly oblivious to its existence, I do not know death first hand. 

In this culture, at least today, we are remarkably insulated from any intimate contact with the “no more.”  Death is behind the drawn curtain, down the service elevator, and then off to the funeral home.  It’s as if they have simply disappeared.  A denier could easily believe they are not gone at all.  Though a familiar piece of furniture now sits mysteriously in their living room.

I am not here today to do eulogize my late mother-in-law.  Others are more qualified for that task.  I will mention only three pleasant memories.  We sang old songs together.  She included me in a financial arrangement I had no business being part of.  And she liked to flirt, still at it barely a week before she finally, mercifully, let go. 

(It’s nice to know the range of your appeal.  Mine, apparently, extends beyond ninety-nine.  I am not equally clear about the lower end.)

She was lying in her bed, her upper body uncovered, and open for viewing.  Her eyes were shut, her mouth frozen in a tall “O”, eerily reminiscent of that famous painting, “The Scream.” 

The body lay other-worldily still, devoid of movement, no breathing in and out.  This, as Monty Python might rudely remark, was an ex mother-in-law.

I didn’t stare, although the impulse was powerfully present.  As was the impulse to run away.  I wanted to say goodbye.  Maybe go over, for one final, gentle kiss on the forehead. 

But then – and I know this is a cliché, though it’s considerably less of one when you’re physically involved – I realized that the focus of our attention, that person who I had known for more than thirty years…

Was no longer there. 

The body was there, her earthly receptacle.  But its longtime resident, the woman who, for a hair less than a century, had called that body “home”, was now


And undeniably.


Leaving behind the corporeal counterpart of an unplugged radio. 

The other part of her – and it seemed unmistakable that there was another part because the part in question was now strikingly missing – call it the soul, call it the spirit, that element in their makeup that makes a person uniquely and essentially them, at some point, that part had quietly fluttered up through the “O”, 

And was now elsewhere. 

Precisely where “elsewhere”, or even if there is a “elsewhere”, I have no idea. 

All I knew was,

There was nobody there to kiss goodbye.

I said a quiet “So long”, and I stepped out of the room.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Forgotten Presidents"

Today on “Presidents’ Day”, we pay tribute to two great presidents – George Washington, who effectively brought this nation into existence, and Abraham Lincoln, who preserved it.  For such towering achievements, these leaders are entirely worthy of a national day of bargain shopping.

Contrarian as I am, I am choosing today to begin a series, paying tribute to lesser-known, and to my mind, unfairly overlooked  presidents.  I will kick things off with a tribute to our ninth president,

William Henry Harrison.

If you know one thing about William Henry Harrison – and most people don’t – it is that Harrison’s tenure in office was the shortest of any other American president.  Harrison died on his thirty-second day on the job. 

Here’s why.  To eschew concerns that he was too old to be president – to that point, he was the oldest person ever elected to the office – Harrison, preparing to deliver his inaugural address, on a cold and blustery day, refused to don either topcoat or hat, while delivering a speech that turned out to be the longest inaugural address of all time. 

Harrison subsequently contracted pneumonia, and he died.

I will argue herein that William Henry Harrison should be remembered as one of our more admirable presidents.  Because of his policies?  No, though in honesty, I have no idea what they were.  What I view as eminently praiseworthy is that this president sincerely believed in something, and despite all efforts to persuade him otherwise, and perhaps common sense as well, the man would not be budged from his position.  Providing what I believe to be a winning campaign slogan for presidential re-election.

“He refused to wear a coat.”

Despite his advisers, and, I imagine, his wife, Harrison immovably held firm:

“Mr. President, (or “William” if it’s his wife), it’s freezing out there.”

“I am not wearing a coat.”

“You are hardly a young man.”

“I am not wearing a coat.”

“Well, at least wear a hat.”

“A hat looks foolish without a coat.”

“Then wear them both.”

“I am not wearing a coat.” 

“I am not wearing a coat.”  The words positively shimmer with integrity.  Imagine the hypothetical alternative.  Suppose word of some sartorial “flip-flopping” got out, which, in matters of this nature, it invariably does.  You’ve got a juicy tidbit for his political enemies, certain to be exploited in campaigns to come:

“He refused to wear a coat.  And then he did.”

Harrison had no choice.  He had to stick to his guns, even if it killed him.

Which, unfortunately, it did. 

Though William Henry Harrison’s birthday is also in February (the 9th), there is no stoppage of mail delivery or discounted mattress sales to honor him.  Is Harrison really less worthy of a national shutdown of the banks than “President Wooden Teeth” or “Honest Abe? 

Washington didn’t want to be president, and then he took the job.  Lincoln wavered on slavery, saying he’d keep it, if it would preserve the Union.  Those aren’t the classiest moves in the world.  Yet they get “days.”  And Harrison, despite never wavering from the only decision that he took on the job, does not.

I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.  And so, in recognition of that admirable tenacity that would surely have served him well if he hadn’t have died before he could do anything,

I do humbly pay tribute to this forgotten president today.

In further acknowledgment, I would like to propose that on the anniversary of Harrison’s inaugural address – March the Fourth – that we all, in his honor, respect and remembrance,

Go outside with a coat.

I know.  No hardship for me.  I live in California.  But I truly believe

It’s the thought that counts.

Next Year:  President James Buchanan, who, for a century and a half was believed to be the worst president we ever had, but now, due to a recent performance in the office, that historic distinction is precariously at risk.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"I Figured It Out"

I have solved a problem.

This may not be “Stop the presses!” news for others, but it is definitely for me, as I am not by nature

A problem solver.

I am a skilled problem identifier. 

I am an articulate problem-describing delineator.

I am adept at criticizing other people’s solutions to problems.

But I am not


In any reliable way,

A problem


For which the problem solvers of this world should be grateful.  People like me make them look incredibly valuable.

Those people should really appreciate me.  Imagine if, among my problem-solving-related attributes, I was an actual problem solver as well.  If that were the case, the problem solvers of this world, the people who solve problems and nothing else

Would be entirely expendable.

Fortunately – for them – I am not an actual problem solver.  So those guys are mercifully off the hook. 

Let me take a moment here to apologize to the legitimate problem solvers for having ventured onto their turf, and solved this one problem myself.  Rest assured, I am extremely unlikely to do it again.  I solve maybe one problem every ten years.  So, really, you have nothing to worry about. 

So what did I solve already?

I solved this.  And by the way, it took me more than three years to figure it out.

Not infrequently, a situation has arisen wherein writers – writers I know well, writers I am merely acquainted with, and sometimes, writers who are acquainted with people who know me, but I personally don’t know them at all – have asked if they could send me scripts, for my professional evaluation.

I generally say okay.  I like evaluating scripts, seeing what they’re like, and determining what they need to be better.  I have a talent for evaluating scripts, primarily half-hour comedy scripts but I can generally read any script and figure out what it’s missing, if anything.  Though there is usually something.  No one has yet written an unimprovable script.

The problem here is this.  And it wasn’t always a problem.

In the past, by which I mean before e-mailing, if somebody wanted me to read their script, they had to hand me, or mail me, or messenger me,

The actual script.

My favorite of those was “hand me”, since it invariably involved a lunch that the scriptwriter would pay for when they handed the script over.  I’d do it for nothing.  But a free lunch doesn’t hurt.

The time passed, and there was no more free lunch.  Now it was e-mailing.  With attachments.  The attachment being the script.

Now I am not in the habit of reading scripts off of a screen, even my own.  I print them up.  And I read them off paper.

The consequent problem, however,  is that when somebody e-mails me a script, I am required to print it up.  Using my own paper.  A half-hour comedy could be fifty pages long, a movie script, a hundred and twenty pages, or more.

That’s a lot of paper.  I get two or three scripts, I have to go out to Staples and buy more.
So there’s as inconvenience factor involved.  As well as the expense. 

Not to mention the attendant confusion in the whole arrangement.  The confusion being this:

When people contact me, asking if they can send me their script, I usually say okay.  But they can sense a certain hesitation in my response.  Understandably, they interpret that hesitation as a reaction to the imposition involved in their request.  And that’s not what it is.  Mostly. 

It’s the paper.

Now, however,

That problem

Is no more.

I have solved the situation thusly.  My solution involves an insight that hit me entirely out of the blue.  It was literally like a light bulb went off in my head.  Well, not literally, there being no actual light bulb flickering on and off in my head.  So let’s say, figuratively.  But it felt like literally.  It really did.

Here is the thinking process that was involved.  Previously, after I’d printed up the script the writer had e-mailed me as an attachment, I would read the script, think about it, get back to them with my comments, after which my final step, never a happy one, would be to throw the script away. 

Bye-bye, all that paper.

Suddenly it occurred to me that printer paper – all paper actually – has two sides to it, the top side and the other side, which could be the top side, if you turned the sheet of paper over.  Paper is flexible that way.

What this meant was that after I printed up the script and read it, it was not necessary to throw all that paper away.  I could simply turn the pages over to the unwritten side, return them to the tray of my printer,

And then print whatever I wanted on that other side.

Wasting no paper


Eureka!  I had found the answer!

The result of this discovery is that now, when people ask if they can send me their scripts, the hesitation concerning their using up all my paper has completely disappeared.

Leaving only the hesitation concerning the imposition.

Who knows, I may figure out a solution to that too.  But I think I’ll take a little rest first.

This problem solving is exhausting.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"The Willing Suspension"

That’s the unabridged version:

“The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.”

Emphasis on the “willing.”  At that moment, there is no gun to your head, with a scary-looking guy going,


It’s a willing suspensionYou want to disbelieve. That’s why you go to a movie or a play or you watch TV.  For a story, but a different story, not the story of your life, which you already know, and would generally not want to pay money to revisit, but are more likely distracting yourself to forget. 

Your own story?  That’s not going to a show.  That’s watching home movies.

You want a story more compelling than the mundane, “I need to go grocery shopping, and pick up a prescription at the pharmacy.”  You want to laugh more than life randomly allows you to laugh.  You want danger that you can watch, but not have to risk your life actually participating in.  You want soaring romance.  You want reality-busting fantasy, both the nightmarish and the playful.  You want to be scared and safe at the same time.  And other stuff as well.  All missing in life, but available in mass entertainment.

So you pay money – or, if it’s TV, you don’t – and you watch the show.  You know it’s a show, because it’s on a screen, or on the stage.  But when you watch it, if they did it right, you get caught up in the proceedings, and you forget.

You know it’s not real.  But, for the moment, you’re pretending it is.

That’s the willing suspension of disbelief.

What is not the willing suspension of disbelief is the example a commenter named Jeff recently provided, concerning a moment in Dexter where a glaring opportunity to advance the crime-solving process was conveniently overlooked.

This is not an example of asking the audience to suspend disbelief.  This is an example of asking them to suspend common sense. 

Which is a completely different animal.

Understand, the “suspension of disbelief” in a highly delicate arrangement.  Even in the most extreme version of the genre you’re working in, where you’re wayyyyyyyy out on a limb,  the writer must still adhere to some manner of logical and credible consistency.  Or the audience’ll go,

“Wait a minute!”

And immediately depart the train. 

I know.  There are movies, like the Pirates of the Caribbean oeuvre, that make no sense whatsoever.  But that series didn’t take some kind of whiplashing left turn; it never made sense from the beginning, or shortly thereafter.  I think the original outing almost made sense. 

In cases like these, you either get on board, or you don’t.  For the believers it’s, “This is nonsense, but the lead actor’s playing the whole movie as if he were drunk.  Hey, if he’s having fun with it, so will I.”

Generally, stories need to make sense, at least within their own context.  There’s a little girl trapped in a blazing inferno on the top of a tall building.  Fire fighters are struggling to rescue her.  Beams are falling all around.  The girl is screaming.  The enveloping flames are licking at her heels.  The situation looks hopeless.

Suddenly, a huge pelican swoops in out of nowhere, scoops up the girl in his oversized mouth, and flies her to safety.

And the audience goes,



“We can suspend disbelief, but there is a limit.”

An egregious storytelling mistake will actually destroy your suspension of disbelief, obliterating the spell, and plunking you back into reality, a reality that proclaims,

“This movie (play, TV show) is crap.”

Jeff inquires, about the Dexter plot hole,

“Does the writer…think the viewers won’t think about that – or does he just not care what the viewer might think?” 


Do you really think a writer wants to shatter the suspension of disbelief they so fundamentally need to retain the lifeline of engagement between their movie/play/TV show and the audience?

The answer to the second part of your question is,

He cares.

Now let’s examine some other possibilities for the mistake. 

One:  In the pressure and hectic pace of stoking the “Feed Me” furnace that is series television, the writer may have simply messed up. 

Two:  The writer may have noticed the problem, thought, “I’ll go back to that later” and, in the heat of battle, may have simply forgotten to. 

Or Three:  The writer could have convinced themselves that the questionable moment will race by so quickly, nobody (except some “cross the ‘t’, dot the ‘i’ stickler like Jeff) will ever notice.

The latter case is what legendary director Alfred Hitchcock labeled “Ice Box (read:  refrigerator) Logic.”  You enjoyed the movie, your disbelief willingly suspended through the whole thing, you return home, you open the refrigerator to procure a snack, and then suddenly…

You slap yourself on the forehead, the head slap saying,

“Hold on.  How did he get into the apartment, if he didn’t have a key?”

Good question.  Now totally irrelevant.  Why?  Because it doesn’t matter anymore.  They got your money, and you enjoyed the movie.  Post facto realizations?  They don’t mean a thing. 

It’s ovah.

Jeff opens his comment by asking,

“How hard is it for you (or any TV writer) to suspend disbelief?”

I can’t answer for other writers.  Is it hard for me to suspend my disbelief?


But I’ll expand on that another time.

Thank you Jeff for providing me a question that will fill up two postings.

And if I stretch it,

Maybe three.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"What It Takes"

Arianna Huffington first came to prominence as the wife of Michael Huffington, a Republican candidate for the United States Senate.  At that time, Arianna publicly espoused her husband’s conservative beliefs, among them, as reported in Wikipedia, “smaller government and a reduction in welfare.”

Huffington lost his senatorial bid to Dianne Feinstein, and he dropped out of the political arena.  He subsequently announced that he was gay. 

Shortly thereafter, a divorced Arianna Huffington resurfaced, now rebranded as a liberal.  The way I viewed it, an epiphany had taken place.  It was like she said,

“I have discovered two things recently.  My husband likes men.  And I like poor people.”

To my, arguably hypersensitive though I would call principled nostrils, Arianna’s transformation reeked of opportunism.  And I didn’t care for it.  On the two occasions where we found ourselves in the same room, I opted not to interact. 

Arianna is now rich and important, having sold her website The Huffington Post to AOL for a reported $315 million.  It is possible I may have made a mistake.

Recently, I was conversing with a person who was arguing that, though there are a multiplicity of factors involved, the fundamental key to success is “Who you know.”  I reflexively bristled internally over this observation, and a little externally as well, though I tried hard to keep things friendly.  While whole-heartily concurring with the “multiplicity of factors” preamble, I believe the fundamental key to success is “talent.”

Why do I believe that?

Because I have talent.

And this is a comforting thing for a person with talent to believe.

Additionally, my success trajectory, such as it was, had very little to do with “Who I knew.”

It is true that this factor was not entirely absent.  I knew Lorne Michaels, and he got me to California and provided me with my earliest jobs.  But this was thirty-seven years ago; Lorne was a long way from the “Mr. Show Business” he is today.  In those days, he was a struggling producer, looking to make his mark. 

In my view, we helped each other.  Lorne helped me by hiring me; I helped him by doing good work on his shows.  Whether those contributions are of equal value, I will leave for others to determine.  But it was hardly a one-way street. 

Struggling to get The Huffington Post on the map, Arianna Huffington took full advantage of “Whom she knew.”  In its infancy, as what an L.A. Times columnist called “online salon”, Arianna recruited the services of such luminaries as Walter Cronkite, Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron and former Senator Gary Hart, connections she had accumulated over the years, including, I would imagine, her conservative years. 

Since Arianna has no dominating abilities, it is hardly a stretch to assert that “Whom she knew” played a determining role in her rise to the top.

What are we to learn from these ramblings?

What we can learn is that, when discussing the attributes required to get you to where you’re aspiring to go,

It takes all kinds.

And you use what you got.

Of course, when it comes to the tools for “making it”, the list runs considerably longer than “talent” and “Who you know.” There’s “hard work.”  There’s “mastering your craft.”  There’s “mining the lessons the ‘success stories of the past’.”  There’s “patience.”  There’s “perseverance.”  There’s “confidence.”  As well as that elusive element beyond anyone’s control “Timing.” 

Let me humbly suggest, however, that, despite the variety of paths to glory, there is one common denominator all achievers must possess in uncountable amounts.  That attribute, my friends, is…

Wanting it.

More than anything,

That’s what it takes.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Drip City"

Sentimental claptrap.  Fabricated hokum.  Schmaltz.  A shameless manipulation of the heartstrings.

They don’t do it much anymore.  It’s embarrassing now.  We’re far too sophisticated for the button-pushing blatancy.  It is believed. 

Irony rules.  And where there’s irony, there’s no place for blubbering.  Knowing smirks, yes, but no blubbering. 

Especially mechanically evinced blubbering.  It’s okay to cry when they take Anne Frank away.  That really happened.  But fictional tearjerkery? 

Gimme a break.

They made fun of this kind of thing in Sleepless In Seattle (1993).  It was a “the men versus the women”, scene the women acknowledging the glorious weepfest that is the climactic scene in An Affair To Remember, the men parodying such foolishness, recreating the “emotional outpouring” over Jim Brown’s being cut down in a hail of bullets during the payoff scene in The Dirty Dozen.  It was arguably Sleepless in Seattle’s funniest moment.  Though as I recall, that Jim Brown moment was really sad.

Of course, that’s me.  I’m a total sucker for movie sentimentality.  A boy’s dog comes home, and I’m reaching for the Kleenex.  The bandages come off, and they can see – and the floodgates are open!

I wrote recently about the original True Grit, mentioning its last scene, wherein an aging John Wayne, playing “Rooster Cogburn”, first brays “Come see an old fat man sometime”, and then clears a three-rail fence on horseback in what sensibly should have been his swansong as a western movie legend.  The scene moved me.

It would have moved me even more if it hadn’t been so carelessly put together – John Wayne galloping toward the fence and taking off; a long shot of some stunt man jumping the fence, intercut – and here’s where it really gets awful – with a terribly edited “cut-in” of what appears to be “The Duke” whooping it up on horseback, but looks suspiciously like John Wayne rocking back and forth on a ladder, simulating being on horseback – and then a return to a long shot, as the stunt man lands the horse safely on the other side.

That kind of messed up the moment.

A sentimental moment executed impeccably?  Check out the final scene of Ride The High Country (1962).  Two aging cowboys this time – yeah, cowboys again – Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, both acting in their final movie ever.  Straight shooting McCrea lies on the ground, mortally wounded, as a grieving Scott, who’d been planning to double-cross McCrea but had come to his senses in the end, stands over him.  There’s a seven-word parting exchange, laconically appropriate for the venerable buckaroos:

“So long, partner.”

“Ah’ll see ya laydah.”

Scott heads away, as the dying McCrea lowers himself slowly out of frame.

Cue the waterworks.

I know it’s all subjective.  One viewer’s “moving moment” is another’s “Let me outta here.”  But when they work, they work.  And none more powerfully than a late scene in the baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams (1989)

A guy builds a ballpark in his Iowa cornfield, and, as was whispered in his ear, if he built it they would come, they did.  Who came were the ghosts of ballplayers of the past, resurrected for a final sampling at the pastime they revered.  Among the returning ghosts was the male lead character’s ballplayer father.   In life, the two had never gotten along. 

But now it was different.  It was their last chance at connecting.  As the dead Dad is about to leave, evaporating out of the cornfield into who knows where, the lead character, afraid he might never see him again, agonizes over what he should do.  His wife suggests,

“Introduce him to your daughter.”

If your dad is dead, and you have a young daughter – mine is, and I did; in 1989, she was six – that moment just tears you to pieces.  Not just sobbing.  Primal moaning, and gasps for breath.  

Examples will vary, relative to differing sensibilities.  But those ones work on me. 

A final pondering.  Sometimes, it’s easier to cry at sentimental claptrap than at the real thing.

I wonder why that is.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"The Inclusionary Rule"

Last week, I talked about Family Guy, a show I said I liked and didn’t like, didn’t like because of – and I’ll quote myself here – 

its infuriating satisfaction with its own unevenness.”

I’ve never seen a show like this.  It seems to have no standards whatsoever.  Which is, apparently, a source of pride for the guy who made it up.

“Look at us.  We can do a great joke and then a bad joke.  We’re renegades.  We can do anything!”

I won’t give you examples of Family Guy’s “good” jokes and “bad” jokes.  Judgments of that nature always get me into trouble.  I offer an example of some joke I think is hilarious, and there’s bound to be someone, or even multiple someones, who’ll say,

That’s not so funny.”

And vice versa, of course, as well.  I’ll single out a joke I think is tasteless, or stupid, or “It might be funny if I understood it, but I don’t”, and the feedback will be, “You’re an idiot; that’s hilarious.”

So no examples.  Just a studied observation from a comedy professional:

Family Guy is all over the map.

Now, you’d think a show like that would be easy to write.  No standards – no problem.  You pitch it; we use it.  Finished by five; dinner with the family.

I’m thinking at this point, “Not so fast.”

One of the primary responsibilities of a show runner is to decide, in an effort to maintain a series’ tonal continuity, including tonal comedic continuity – “There’s comedy we do on this show, and there’s comedy we don’t do.  Great jokes can be shot down, not because the show runner thinks they’re not funny, but because they don’t fit the comedic temperament of the show. 

(Imagine a Two and a Half Men joke on Seinfeld.  The Seinfeld characters would just look at each other, sharing a perplexed shrug.)

I made that kind of mistake once myself.  Once.  Hah.  But this is the one that comes to mind.  It happened on Major Dad.

Very early in the show’s run, during the second or third episode, I wrote a scene that the actors were reluctant to perform.  It didn’t feel “right” to them.  Just writing that gives me a stomachache.  Confrontation is not my favorite activity.  Especially concerning matters of taste and judgment, which are notoriously subjective:

“It doesn’t feel right to me.”

“It feels right to me.”

Then what?

Sidestepping a kerfuffle, we wrote a replacement scene, and it worked okay.  But I was curious.  So I put on my “I don’t want a fight” voice, and I said, “Would you guys do me a favor, and just read the other scene for me?  I need to hear it for myself.”

The actors agreed.  We went off to a table, they retrieved the pages of the discarded scene, and they sat down and they read it to me. 

The experience was very educational.  The scene was funny.  So I was right about that.  But listening to it made me quickly aware that it didn’t fit the show we were trying to do.  It sounded, instead, like Major Dad if it were The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

That’s an example of a situation where, early in a series’ development, even the guy who made the show up got it wrong.  The point I’m making here, however, is less about my personal incompetence, which is always entertaining, but about the fact that you can’t get it wrong, unless there’s a “right.”  And what I’m saying is, every show has a “right.” 

Sometimes, that “right” is apparently apparent right from the get-go, owing to the show runner’s certainty as to exactly what they want.  Other times, as exemplified by the Major Dad incident, the discovery evolves gradually. 

None of this seems true for Family Guy.

Except that I’m wrong.

I never met Family Guy’s creator, but I’ll bet, though the show doesn’t transparently reflect it, Family Guy too had a “right.”  Though always mysterious to some degree, Family Guy’s standard of inclusion must be particularly elusive to its writing staff.  I can imagine a writer sitting there going, “Anything seems to go on this show.  But I just pitched something, and the guy said ‘No’.  How exactly does that work?”

Just because a show seems to be comedically erratic doesn’t mean it is.  Elusive or otherwise, there is inevitably a standard.  Why?  Because it’s somebody’s show, and they have a sense, perhaps not always clearly articulated, of what they want in it, and what they don’t. 

And how exactly is that standard characterized?

That can best be delineated by the words of former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Potter Stewart who, when he was required to decide what was pornography and what was not, wrote:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kind of material I understand to be embraced{b}ut I know it when I see it.”

That, ultimately, is the show runner’s “standard of inclusion.”  “I know it when I see it.” Or, in the case of a pitched joke, hear it.  Though every show’s standard of inclusion is different, the common denominator is that every show has one.

I know there’s a standard.  There has to be.  But as a semi-regular Family Guy viewer, I have no idea what it is.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Indisputable Evidence"

"California is the Land of Immortality."  Discuss.

When he lived here, my older brother I believe quite accurately observed:

"In California, every day is Tuesday."

Meaning, that in California,

Eve day is the same.

"Every day is the same" means...

Nothing changes.

If you live in a place where nothing changes,

You don't change.

If you don't change, then you don't get old,

And you don't die.

California is the Land of Immortality.

Wait.  Doesn't "discuss" mean you examine the two sides?

Absolutely.  When there are two sides.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Pure Magic"

In a posting I cleverly entitled “‘The Duke’ and ‘The Dude’”, I compared the new True Grit with the original, saying that, in terms of “look”, the current version appeared more “autumnal”, finishing, critically, with the observation:

“You don’t remake a movie for the leaves.”

A writer I respect complimented me on that line.

In a posting called “A Race To The Finish Line”, about my struggle to eat up all the bananas we bought before they went bad, I lamented the hopeless situation of that Central American fruit’s rapidly turning rotten, by quoting a fictional medical scientist observing,

“We’ve eradicated diphtheria, banished smallpox, and made polio a thing of the past.  But we can do nothing for the banana.”

A commenter named Ian singled that line out for commendation. 

I’m proud of those lines, and several others than have won praise during my tenure here, but I am reluctant to take credit for them, because I was not truly involved in making them up.  I was simply the medium.  They just popped into my head, and I wrote them down.

Since no thought, plan or premeditation were involved in the process, I attribute these – let me flatter myself and say – “inspired moments” to the only explanation that satisfactorily accounts for their existence:

Pure magic.

I mean, what’s magic?  Something that’s there, and then it isn’t.  Which is not this.  But it is its opposite – something’s that’s not there, and then it is. 

Where did these things come from? 

I have no idea.

(I’ll keep this thought segregated between brackets, but experiences of this nature make it less difficult for me to believe in other things lacking rational explanations.  And I’ll leave it at that.)

I know that other writers – I will call them my “betters” – have more “moments of inspiration” than I do.  But I have enough of them to be humbled and grateful to be their Delivery System.  I wouldn’t want it to happen too often.  It would diminish my surprise each time one of them shows up.

I know.  I’m easy to make fun of:

“Oooh, look at me.  I’m the Chosen One – Touched by a Special Angel.”

Okay, two things.  One, my amazement at what comes out of me is genuine.  And two, I am not saying I'm uniquely special.

Which leads to the point of this posting. 

When I hear a line that delights me to the point of near ecstasy, a line courtesy of another writer moved by the Invisible Spirit of Inspiration, I am proud and honored to acknowledge its magnificence.

This one is not even a whole line; it’s a three-word phrase.  But it almost literally took my breath away, meaning it didn’t entirely, but it came astonishingly close.

The line derives from an episode of Family Guy, a series I alternately admire and can’t stand.  Why?  Because of its infuriating satisfaction in its own unevenness.

The moment in question involves a conversation between two Family Guy regulars, concerning another character’s recent sex change operation.  The exchange turns to the character’s anatomical rearrangement below the belt, which the show’s “baby” character who speaks with an English accent describes as

“…a casserole of nonsense.”

Sometimes, when a line takes me totally by surprise, I don’t laugh.  Instead, my jaw drops, and I respond with a mixture of wonder, amazement and incredulity and awe.

And I respectfully tip my hat.

It is clear the “magic” visits other people as well.

Suddenly, for me, who receives those visits myself on occasion, a connection is made.

And the world feels a little less lonely.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Emerging Etiquette"

Etiquette.  It has always cramped my style.  Etiquette, and its fascistic Field Manual of Behavior,


When I was a kid, my mother was always hocking me at dinner about my habit of using the Mr. “Peter Pointer” finger of my left hand to guide the peas onto my fork.  I anarchically thought, “What difference does it make?”  The circumstances gave me no choice. 
(A position I continue to maintain today.)  Without that corralling forefinger, I’d be pursuing those elusive little buggers all over the plate. 

As a person who has always chafed mightily on the etiquette bit, my antennae are continually on the alert for likeminded co-conspirators.  One, most certainly, is Larry David, his bristling against “the rules” being a central theme on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Why do you have to tip the “Captain” in a restaurant?  (What exactly do they do?)  And what’s the deal about the “one-year cut-off”, such that a gift is deemed unacceptable if it’s delivered to the couple more than a year after the wedding?  

Sometimes, David turns the tables, instituting mandates of his own, concerning issues such as the time of night after which it is no longer appropriate for people to call you on the phone,  (Larry says it’s after 10 P.M.), and the “pop in”, involving visitors arriving unannounced at your doorstep.  Though in these cases, Larry demands adherence to the rules rather than decrying them, either way, comedically, he’s still mocking the entire etiquette arena. 

Overall, especially after the “formality housecleaning” of the 1960’s, I thought the whole etiquette racket was out the window, with its “Children should be seen and not heard” and its “You cannot wear white after Yom Kipper.”  But that appears to have been wishful thinking.  My update on this matter, gleaned from recent experience, suggests that, while certain rules have gone away, new issues of etiquette have stepped in to take their place.

The most recently minted Rule of Etiquette?

“You cannot invite someone over to watch the Super Bowl on a television that is qualitatively inferior to the television they have in their own house.”

Here’s how that was revealed to me.

Dr. M and I are lunching at a local restaurant.  Our longtime friend Cliff suddenly appears.  We hug.  I’m excited to see him.  In a moment of exuberance, I inform Cliff that I’m having a few people over on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl, and I enthusiastically invite him to join us.

And then I remember something. 

A year or so ago, Cliff had invited me to his house to watch some important basketball game, so important, I can’t remember what it was anymore.

It was then that Cliff introduced me to his new, top-of-the-line, flat screen television.  It was big and bright and, literally, picture perfect.  I mean, you could see their souls.  I can imagine somebody on the screen checking themselves out on Cliff’s TV and saying, “I didn’t look that good in real life.”

I know my TV.  It’s a “big screener” – even bigger than Cliff’s – but it’s got tubes.  Rear projection, or something, I don’t know, but it’s definitely not one of those mammoth computer screens that now passes for a television.  It was unquestionable that from the pixel perspective, not to mention the “black-to-white” contrast ratio, I was seriously outgunned.

The truth is, it wasn’t just a Super Bowl gathering – it was an extension of my birthday, which had occurred on the previous Friday.  And therein lay the dilemma.  By inviting him over, I was putting my good buddy Cliff uncomfortably on the spot.  I was asking him to weigh his friendship for me against his ability to stay home and watch the Super Bowl, with a considerably clearer picture. 

It was up to me to be “the man” in this situation.  I told Cliff that he didn’t have to come.

Cliff’s response to my magnanimity was to say nothing.

The protocol had been entirely on his side.  He’d had no intention of coming.

Apparently, etiquette still lives. 

It has simply changed its address.