Friday, April 29, 2011

"The (Equally) Elusive Mystery of 'Can't'"

I had finished my day’s work – which currently amounts to exercising, practicing the piano and writing this blog – and I am now relaxing, doing what most people do when they have time on their hands – I turn on C-SPAN, and watch the workings of government.

So there I am, a bowl of granola balanced on my stomach, not entirely fully clothed, and what flashes onto the screen on C-SPAN 2 is Al Franken, a man I had worked with for six months on the NBC series Lateline,

Presiding over the Senate.

Take a moment to fully process this contrast in situations. I’m lying in bed in the middle of the afternoon, eating granola in my underwear. And my former colleague Al Franken is sitting in throne-like splendor, presiding over what’s been called the most exclusive club in the world.

After processing the uncomfortable feeling of…not quite measuring up , my mind awakens to this curious question:

How did he do it?

How did a guy who worked his entire life in the Silly Business of Show get it into his head:

“I think I can be a United States Senator.”

How does a person think that? And then turn it into an actual reality?

Yesterday, I said that I’m able to do what I can do because I can. After a while, accomplishing what I’d accomplished many times in the past is a simple matter of “doing the possible.”

Yes, I am aware that before writing my first sitcom script or my first blog posting, I had not done those things. How did I manage that first step, ultimately turning those untried challenges into reliable commonplacities?

As I admitted yesterday, I have absolutely no idea. What troubled me – and trouble me still - is that having gotten those challenges under my belt, I was unable to take the next step. What I was able do was, apparently, my limit.

I wrote a couple of spec screenplays, and then I stopped. I wrote theme songs for the TV shows I created, and then stopped writing songs. I never wrote a book. And I never wrote a play.


Because somewhere inside me, I did not think I could.

Okay, maybe comparing yourself to a former writer turned United States senator is unnecessarily punishing. It’s an anomalous long shot. A one-in-a-million situation.

No need to measure your accomplishments against an exceptional case. Just eat your granola, and feel good for your old pal up there, wielding the gavel.

So I’m over it. As much as a person who’s never over anything can be. And then, one night, I’m remoting around the channels, and I see a movie just starting, I don’t remember the name of it, but at the end of the opening credits, are the words:

“Written, produced and starring Ice Cube.”

“Written, produced and starring.”

And the question arises once again:

“Mr. Cube, sir. How did you do that?”

I could barely do “written.” And here’s a guy who did “written”, plus two other incredibly difficult jobs. I believe there’s another movie “Ice” also directed. Three assignments weren’t enough for him. He had to throw in a fourth one.

The big show-off!

Sorry for that outburst. What I really meant was, where inside somebody does it come from to think,

“Writing, directing, producing and starring in a major Hollywood motion picture?

Bring it on.”

Where does such confidence come from?

Doing a little research on the multi-talented Mr. Cube, I learned that he’d started out in the music business, and had then segued into acting, debuting in Boyz in the Hood, and befriending that film’s director, John Singleton, who later advised him,

“If you can write a record, you can write a movie.”

You can?

I couldn’t. I mean, I never wrote a record, but I wrote half-hour comedies and I couldn’t write a movie. Record to movie” seems to be a considerably larger leap.

And yet, he did it. And then threw in producing, starring and directing, because, I suppose,

“If you can write a movie, you can produce, star in and direct a movie as well.”

Sure, why not? As long as you’re doing the impossible, you may as well pile it on.

It was mentioned to me that Ice Cube grew up in a tough environment, and when you’ve survived tough times, you feel you can do anything.

I don’t know. Overcoming adversity may have done the trick for Ice Cube, but it’s hardly the Universal Key. A lot of people who grew up in tough times were knocked down by those tough times, and they never got back up.

Yet, living through the case conditions that flattened others, Ice Cube prevailed, and flourished. And so the question remains:

“How did he do it?”

People can jump universes, transforming from “show folk” to senator. People can write, produce, star in and direct. Surgeons can go to work every day and take out a person’s hearts and replace it with a healthier heart, and then go out for a nice dinner.



Is it genetic? Is it learned? Was there an inspiring parent or important person in their lives involved?

Why can the unexceptional of us only do what we can do and we can't do what we can't do?

The answer – and I apologize for this, though it could generate some insight into the matter – is the same response I gave to how I can write five blog postings a week:

I have absolutely no idea.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"The Elusive Mystery Of 'Can'"

Sometimes, though not often enough to my liking, people come up to me and say, “Earl, it simply amazes me that you have the fertility of imagination to be able to write five always surprising postings every single week. How the heck do you do it?”

They may not use those exact words, but I know that’s what they’re thinking. They just don’t want to embarrass me by saying it out loud, so they resort to a less effusive version of the same idea. Sometimes, it’s just a look, which, with my natural insight, I infer as astonishment and admiration. I am a skillful reader of hidden compliments.

Anyway, back to the question.

How am I able to write five postings a week?

I have no idea.

Sorry if that’s disappointing, but what can I tell you? It’s a mystery.

The simple explanation is, “I can do it, because I can do it.”

Which to people looking for the key to successfully accomplishing difficult tasks may be equally disappointing. My apologies again. If you want helpful answers, try Drew Pinsky.

When I started writing here three years and three months ago, I was undeniably more wobbly in the certainty department. And now still, on those days when I’m scrambling for an idea. But most of the time, I can just do it.

Why? Because I can.

Repetition breeds confidence. And confidence instills certainty. Repeating what I mentioned once before, I have never started a blog posting I didn’t finish. Once the idea for the posting captures my enthusiasm, it’s pretty much clear sailing. And a boatload of fun along the way.

It was the same in my other job – the job that paid money – writing sitcoms. You write a fifty-or-so page half-hour comedy script – over the years, I either wrote or co-wrote close to a hundred of them – and doing the next one becomes predictably possible. (I assume it’s the same for heart surgeons, only with more blood.)

As with the blog postings, I never abandoned a sitcom script I started.

(With one exception.

Bill Cosby wanted me to write a Cosby Show episode about the sexually explicit lyrics in popular music, triggered by Dr. Huxtable’s catching his six year-old daughter mindlessly parroting some age-inappropriate “Rap” lyrics.

Cosby wanted me to contrast this corrupting-of-minors outrage with the G-rated music of his youth. The problem with this idea was that Dr. Huxtable’s musical preference growing up was the blues. And blues lyrics, though cleverly euphemized, are…I mean…they’re just…equally as dirty, if not worse. For those with delicate sensibilities, I will respectfully dispense with the examples.

After making my most determined effort to ignore the gaping hole in Cosby’s story, I informed Dr. C that I was unable to complete the assignment. To his credit, Bill replied, “If you can’t, you can’t”, and that was it. This was the only time in the sitcom world that I recall not finishing what I started.)

What helps in both situations – blog and sitcom writing – is that at some point, your brain starts to act like flypaper. Workable episode, or posting ideas, start sticking to it. Once you become sensitized, those ideas seem to be everywhere.

A waiter says, “An excellent choice” to your companion’s lunch order, putting you suddenly on the spot to order something equally “excellent.”

That’s a posting. Which I immediately record in a notepad I’ve started carrying around.

A writer, toiling for the Old Testament, agonizes over whether it’s “The Shadow of the Valley of Death” or “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”, and his wife tries her best to help him.

That’s a posting. “A Writer’s Curse.”

Chris Matthews, who plays on my ideological ball club, takes to stooping to the schoolyard strategies of the other side.

That’s a posting.

My friends babysit my goldfish while I’m away, and when I get home, the goldfish is dead. Boom! – an episode of Taxi. (Reprised in an altered form on Cosby.)

With sitcoms, and now with blog postings, I became comfortable believing that I could do what I’d done before. Where I got stymied in my career was when I was confronted with the challenge of doing something I had never tried.

That story is considerably less smile inducing. I will tell you about it tomorrow.

I’d like at least one more day of people thinking I’m amazing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


You think you’re out, and you get pulled back in, to something not exactly the same, but it feels very much like it.

When the opportunity arose for me to compose the wording for Anna and Colby’s wedding invitation, my mind and emotions – not always in sync – combined for the identical response:

“I can do this.”

So I did.

I went upstairs to my office, and wrote the invitation, in a simple and natural style, consistent with the overall “Wedding Concept”, designed by the couple, with the help of their wedding planners, specifically to their tastes.

The invitation felt like them. And, after several tinkering reworkings,

It was done.

I then took it downstairs, and I showed it to Dr. M, to see what she thought.

And that’s when it started.

The exact same feelings.

The feelings I felt every time I handed in a television pilot script for consideration as a series. I was never nervous while I was writing. It was the “Submission Stage” when the butterflies arrived.

When I was under contract, there were two harrowing stages to this process. The first step was to get the studio I worked for to sign off on the script. Receiving “Studio Approval”, the script was then sent to the network, for final consideration.

In the case currently in question, Dr. M was ”The Studio. “

I handed her a lonely, single sheet of paper, and as she started to read. Reflexively, I turned nervously away. I always dreaded it when people read my work in front of me, leaving me inevitably trying to decipher every facial expression, hesitation, alteration of breathing pattern, and, when it was a comedy, the vaguest intimation of amusement.

Against all my self-protecting impulses, I turned back, and I looked at my wife’s face.

I found it melting with satisfaction. Which really means something. Dr. M is the toughest of markers. Winning her approval is the opposite of easy. To my enormous relief, and my bottomless need for reassurance, she sincerely

thought it was good.

The first hurdle had been surpassed. “The Studio” had approved.

It was on to “The Network.”

In this case, my daughter, but it was “The Network” nonetheless.

That evening, I overheard Dr. M on the phone, telling Anna, who lives a block away from us, that she was bringing something over to her. As she left, I asked if she was also taking “the ’words’ thing.” She said she had it, and then she left.

I detected a familiar catch in my throat. My submission was going to “The Network.” All I could do now was wait.

I was looking forward to receiving a call:

“Dad, I love it!”

There was no call. Two hours later, Dr. M returned.

“What took you so long?”

“We were chatting.”

Normally, I do not ask people what they think of my efforts. That’s only asking for trouble. This time, however, I could not restrain myself. So I asked,

“What did she think of ‘the thing’?”

To which the reply came back,

“She liked it.”

Two immediate “red flags.” Dr. M’s report of Anna’s response was not close to matching her own enthusiasm. And

Anna had not told me herself.

This was not, as they say, my first rodeo. These were definitely not good signs.

The next day, there was still no word from “The Network.” I tried to keep myself busy, but the mind…the mind! I knew one thing for certain. Though I was still hoping for it, I knew that Dr. M’s report and the ensuing passage time now made “I love it!” an extremely remote possibility.

Finally, there’s a call from Anna. Okay, here we go. “The Network” is on the line.

But it wasn’t about that.

Anna had called to remind me that a Federal Express package, containing her “Save The Date” cards, had been shipped to our address. She wanted me to alert her when it arrived. I read nothing in her tone of my submission. Though aware of the dangers, I was impelled to take the risk.

“What did you think of what I wrote?” I inquired, with measured casuality.

“I liked it,” she replied. “But I think we need to work on it a bit, to give it a little more color.”

And there it was. A B-minus. That’s the “Report Card” version. The “Network” version?

“There are only so many scripts we can ‘green light’ to pilot. We are still currently weighing our options

Over the next few days, some clarifying criticisms of invitation wording emerged, comments like, “It’s too vague” and “It feels more like an invitation to a barbecue.” I knew there was no use defending my effort. In a way, I was not surprised. “Simple and natural” never gets the acknowledgement it deserves. Its difficulty to pull off is often invisible to the untrained eye. It’s like movie stars playing themselves.

I felt the faint, but familiar, trickle of “flop sweat.” And a whisper of irritation. I was a professional, after all. Anna’s response reminded me of a wonderful writer who’d submitted a pilot script to his, now, network president daughter, where she told him,

“It’s not your best work.”

But, of course, there’s a difference. Networks notoriously pass judgment with little or no idea of what they’re looking for, or of recognizing it when it appears. Anna and Colby, on the other hand, know exactly what they like. They had a total right for their wedding invitation to be exactly the way they wanted it.

Of course, that was my head speaking. My feelings, by contrast, were in dithering disarray. I told Anna that there were a million ways to write the invitation. I assured her I could do better. I suggested a collaboration, to guarantee that the work would meet with her approval.

The response was ambiguous.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

I think they’re bringing in another writer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


In recent times, on his show Hardball, Chris Matthews has called the Republican member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann, a “balloon head”, “pretty close to a nut case”, and has accused her, facetiously I assume, of being hypnotized.

This criticism is not at all helpful.

I admit I have not watched nearly as much Fox News as I have MSNBC. But judging from those admittedly unequal samplings, it appears that the MSNBC approach is to call the other side on the lack of factual underpinnings for their ideologically driven assertions.

The other side fights back less with evidence-based counter-arguments than with moral indignation and insinuating labeling, the “umbrella” accusation being that the president – and, by association, his supporters – is not “one of us.”

That, basically, is the primary distinction. One side fights with factual evidence; the other, with name-calling. (Full disclosure: I’m with the evidence-based crowd.)

Now, however, it’s getting muddy, because here’s Chris Matthews, the, generally, facts-arguing commentator,

Resorting to name-calling.

This is, as mentioned, not helpful. And here’s why.

First of all, those of us who are longstanding residents of the fact-based community are now legitimately vulnerable to the oft-heard schoolyard taunt:

“They do it too.”

It is easily provable – by counting – that one side “does it” considerably more often than the other. But even so, it’s

Goodbye moral high ground.

Secondly, notwithstanding the fact that Bachmann’s questionable assertions – for example, that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery when they didn’t – earned her the epithet “balloon head”, Matthews ignores the fact that Bachmann’s calculated pronouncements make perfect, persuasive and energizing sense to the audience she was speaking to.

Third – and this one’s tied to “second” – Matthews – representing “the enemy” – allotting considerable airtime for his, arguably, unhinged and, inarguably, disrespectful assault on Bachmann, increases Bachmann’s legitimacy and stature. Nobody attacks a “nobody.” Which, by definition, validates Representative Bachmann as a powerfully emerging “somebody.”

Fourthly, it’s not real classy attacking a woman. And for a liberal, doing so in terms, to which men who make similar assertions to Bachmann’s are generally immune, Matthews’ remarks seem embarrassingly hypocritical.

I suppose it can be statistically determined whether name-calling works as a strategy for energizing support from your political base. I suspect that it does. Emotion stirs up the blood. And propels the stirred-up to the polls.

But personal attacks also broaden and deepen the political divide, making it even harder – it’s already crazy hard due to the way our political system is structured – for the men and women sent to Washington to work together to find answers to our most urgent and difficult national concerns. Their stirred-up constituents will simply not permit it.

I know using intemperate language is about ratings. I know it’s about gamesmanship. I know it’s about gaining the strategic upper hand any way you can.

The thing is, beyond show business and the “down and dirty” of political combat, there’s something real going on here. Real people in this country need actual help. Real problems need thoughtfully considered solutions. Real injustices need to be reversed. And real changes need to be considered, so that government can do what it was meant to do creatively, productively, responsibly and efficiently.

For these essential things to happen, the least helpful approach I can imagine is name-calling.

My “facts based” team used to understand that.

But apparently they’ve forgotten.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"The Writer's Curse"

Time: The B.C’s.

Place: Israel. Or Palestine. Or whatever they called it in the B.C.’s.

It’s two-thirty A.M. King David is pacing anxiously in his atrium. His wife Bathsheba enters in her robe. (Which is redundant. I think all they wore back then were robes.)

BATHSHEBA: “What’s the matter, David?”

DAVID: “I can’t sleep.”

“Is it that ‘Goliath Dream’ again? Where you miss with the stone, and Goliath…”

“No. But thank you for bringing that up.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s work.”

“You mean, being the king?”

“Being the king is easy. You decree something and it’s done. Sometimes they anticipate, and they do things I’m just thinking. It’s a little creepy, actually.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“It’s the hardest thing in the world.”

“Not reigning.”

“No. It’s writing.”

“You’re having a writing problem?”

“I don’t understand it. The first twenty-two psalms came – Bam! Bam! Bam! You know, like a psalm a day. ‘Lamentation’ psalms. ‘Praise’ psalms. ‘It’s a beautiful day’ psalms. It seemed so natural. I heard the words in my head and I just took them down.”

“You mean your scribe took them down.”

“I fired my scribe.”


“Last Tuesday.”

“Why? Could you not read his scribing?”

“It’s the Twenty-Third Psalm. I’ve been working on it for weeks. That’s a long time for a psalm. And I can’t seem to get it. I have one thing. Then I change it. Then I change it back. Then I go back to the other way.”

“I don’t understand. If you were having the problem, why did you fire your scribe?”

“He sighed.”

“He sighed?”

“You don’t “sigh’ a king.”


“And after he sighed, he rose. I didn’t say, ‘Rise.’ He rose all by himself. I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘We’re going to need more parchment.’ But with an attitude, you know? Like, ‘His Majesty has no idea what he’s doing!’”

“What is it you’re stuck on?”

“I’m not stuck! Why did you say ‘stuck’? I’m just…undecided. And I can’t move forward till I get it.”

“So you’re stuck.”

“All right, I’m stuck. Are you happy now? I’m stuck!”

“You don’t have to yell at me.”

“I’m the king. I can yell at anybody. (AFTER A BEAT) Forgive me. I’m a little frazzled.”

“Tell me what you’re stuck about. Maybe I can help.”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Really. I’ll be a sounding board. Sometimes you get too close to the material, and you need an outside perspective.”

“Okay, but only because I’m desperate. I’ve got a lot of psalms to write. I can’t get bogged down on ‘Twenty-three.’”

“What have you got so far?”

“All right. It’s a ‘praise’ psalm, which basically says, ‘I’m not afraid, because God’s watching out for me.’ I wish I could just say that, but it’s not very poetic. It started out beautifully, you know? I drew on my personal experience. I had green pastures in there. The still waters. All the stuff I saw when I herded sheep. That’s actually the underlying metaphor. ‘The Lord was my shepherd.’ By which I don’t mean my shepherd; I mean everybody’s shepherd.”

“It sounds lovely. It’s best to write about what you know.”

“It’s the First Rule of writing. I feel like I’m in this really rich area. I’m thinking, ‘This could be my best psalm ever.’ It could be ‘transcendent.’ That’s how good I’m thinking it is. And then…I get to this place. ”Yea, though I walk through…” and I stop. I can’t decide. Is it ‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death’? Or is it ‘Yea, though I walk through the Shadow of the Valley of Death’?”

“And that’s where you’re stuck?”

“I don’t know which it is. The ‘Valley of the Shadow’ or the ‘Shadow or the Valley.’”

“I like ‘the Valley of the Shadow of Death.’”

‘The Writer Speaks!’

“I didn’t say I’m a writer. I just heard both, and one sounded better to me.”

“Oh, it does, does it? Like the ‘Shadow of Death’ has its own valley? It’s ridiculous! Your suggestion doesn’t make any sense!”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“Then help me decide. Don’t decide for me. Jesus Christ!


“I don’t know. It just came out. Look, let’s stop this. You’re just making things worse.”


“And I know why too. You’re deliberately torturing me, because you think I put your husband in the front lines of the battle so he’d be killed and I could marry you which I didn’t!”

“I’m over that, David.”

“Oh, sure!”

“David, you say these psalms are Divinely inspired. Why don’t you relax, take a deep breath, and let God tell you what to choose?”

“That would be lovely, dear. But God, in His Infinite Wisdom, has given us free will. You know what that means? It means I have to decide this for myself.”

“So decide.’

“But what if I decide wrong? I hate free will! I mean, it’s okay in life. But it really sucks in writing.”

“If God is truly your ‘shepherd’, He won’t let you make the wrong decision.”

“So what’s free will then? A tease?”

“Look, do what you want, okay? I’m going back to bed.”

“Good. And thanks a lot for your help. No, really. Woman takes a bath on a roof, and she thinks she knows everything.”

“I knew you were watching.”

“God wanted me to!”

Bathsheba exits. David is once again alone. He continues pacing.

“‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death’…’Yea, though I walk though the Shadow of the Valley of Death’… You know what? The first one is better. But if I go with that now, she’ll think it was her.


Friday, April 22, 2011

"One Delicious Serving of Comedy"

I send you into the weekend with a pitch-perfect movie comedy scene, performed by two consummate professionals who really know what they’re doing.

The scene is from Lost In America (1985). Albert Brooks who starred in, wrote and directed the movie, plays a middle-range employee who, after not receiving an expected promotion at the ad agency he works at, decides to abandon the rat race, sell all his possessions, buy a giant RV, and, with his wife (Julie Hagerty), venture forth into America to, for one thing, “touch Indians.”

While he’s asleep in the room at their first stop – Las Vegas – the wife goes down to the casino, and proceeds to lose all their money, or as Brooks calls it, the “nest egg.”

Desperate, when he discovers that the entire “nest egg” has evaporated, Brooks, dressed in a bathrobe, meets with the casino’s manager, played exquisitely by Garry Marshall, in an effort to persuade the casino to give them back their money.

Why do I love this scene? Brooks’s objective is insane – casinos do not return gambled-away money. But the scene, written and played with such deftness and sincerity, makes it possible to believe that, just this once, they actually might.

This scene embodies my favorite things in comedy – an outrageous situation played entirely straight by performers who, intuitively, “get the funny.”

I think you’ll like it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"'Modern Family' - Year One vs. Year Two"

I caught a break on this one. Last Wednesday, ABC aired two episodes of Modern Family, a new episode from Season Two, followed later that night by a rerun from Season One. It’s like the Fates were saying to me,

“We know you won’t do any research on this, and you’ll end up writing some unsatisfying generalizations, so we, the Fates, are giving you these Season One and Season Two episodes to compare, with no effort on your part whatsoever.”

(Like that makes up for two excruciating paper cuts I received this week on consecutive days, but okay, thank you. Just stop it with the paper cuts.)

Good comedy…and good drama…and good music…maybe good everything… depends fundamentally on the element of surprise. Skillful execution is also a factor (as in the terrific Modern Family episode called “Halloween”, which is admittedly a Second Season episode and my point is that Season One was better, but I was hoping to get that anomalous exception out of the way, so you’ll have forgotten about it by the end.) Although you could say that skillful execution is simply the external manifestation of the surprise, which derives originally from the idea.

(Let me quickly apologize for the previous sentence. I was just saying that the idea and the execution are not separate, but are two parts of the same process.)

Modern Family is constructed out of three micro-family clichés – a Yuppie family with their three (one hyper-social, one brainy and one dufus) children, a nouveau riche old guy with a bombshell, Latina trophy wife, and a doting, bordering on overprotective, gay couple with an adopted Asian baby – under a macro-family umbrella. The show succeeds or fails on the basis on how artfully this panoply of clichés is manipulated.

My argument here, as exemplified by the two episodes handed to me by the Fates, is that during Modern Family’s First Season, the writers manipulated its familiar elements in a more surprising, and as a result more laugh-inducing manner, than during the Second Season, when they didn’t.

Now you may argue that what I’m really talking about here is the “Fatigue Factor.” By its Second Season, I had become tired of Modern Family’s formerly enjoyable act, and as a result, the lacked some of its original, comedic punch.

This is possible. It has happened to me before on other shows. It got tired of Three’s Company after the first episode.

But I don’t think that’s the case here. I think the show really lost some miles off its fastball. But before I present my irrefutable evidence, allow me a short digression to acknowledge the sui generis character on the show.


Manny is a pre-teen, plus-sized, Latin dandy, with style and wisdom far beyond his dozen or so years. Since Manny’s character is an original comic creation, he wears far better than his less uniquely conceived co-characters. There have been numerous episodes where I have found myself laughing exclusively at him.

You can almost feel Modern Family’s very good writers, suddenly sprung from crafting variations on the predictable, licking their chops as they’re thinking up funny lines and perspectives for the irrepressible Mr. Manny. The process feels less pressured. The results,

More surprising.

Okay, back to the inter-seasonal comparison.

One example – but I believe is persuasively demonstrative of my point. (Unlike the “Halloween” episode, which isn’t.)

Perhaps the most prominent cliché-balloon on Modern Family is Cameron. I feel uncomfortable saying that Cameron’s a gay stereotype, for fear of engaging in gay stereotyping by saying so. But that’s how he comes off. So if you want to blame somebody, blame the show, not the viewer.

Though Modern Family is constructed to tell three stories per episode – one involving each of the micro-families – I will focus on the “Cameron” story in the Season One and Season Two episodes, to underscore the contrast. Okay, here we go. I hope this works. I’ve got a lot riding on it.

In the Season One episode, Cameron offers his services as a replacement for the departed drummer in his teenaged niece’s boyfriend’s band. In the Season Two episode, Cameron has enthusiastically volunteers to fill in as director for his nephew’s annual, school musical.

You see the difference there? “Offers his services” versus “enthusiastically volunteers”? And, more tellingly, from the cliché standpoint, “drummer” versus “musical.” I will not belabor this point, other than to say that “Playing the drums” is unlikely to rate nearly as high as “Musicals ”on a survey entitled, “What gay people really enjoy.”

Ergo, “drummer”?

A considerably bigger surprise.

Less comedically original in the Season One story: Cameron turns out to be a really good drummer. More comedically original: When the moment comes for his drum solo, instead of the traditional eight or so bars, Cameron drums away interminably, adamantly refusing to “give it back” to the band.

By contrast, in the “school musical” episode, Cameron invokes “Sondheim”, throws a Fosse-like “Power Fit”, and during the performance, everything in the production goes “hilariously” awry.

Ho, and


Modern Family’s First Season was special, because the writers were able to think beyond the stereotypical box. The Second Season (though considerably less so in the “Halloween” episode), they got lazy.

Or tired.

Or burnt out.

Or I’m wrong.

It’s hard to maintain a series’ consistency. I know. On the only season we did of Best of the West, an L.A. Times critic called the show “uneven.” It hurt, but he was right. (It hurt, because he was right.) And that was just one season.

Modern Family is fated for a happier journey. A longer run. Awards recognition. And a syndication bonanza. I just hope that journey includes a “second wind” of First Season-like surprises.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"What Does 'Good' Mean?"

It seems ironic to me that one of the most difficult types of postings for me to write are the pieces involving my opinion of some TV show, or movie, or such like. I was recently asked to explain why I believe that the second season of Modern Family has fallen off qualitatively from the first season.

My gut tells me that this is the case, but articulately justifying that position, it feels like answering a really difficult exam question. You need clarity, concision, specificity, supporting examples. And I’m not a hundred percent certain that I am up to the task.

I’d much rather write about seeing an afternoon movie in an empty movie theater. With subject matter like that, nobody can tell me I’m wrong.

“I can’t believe there were no other people in the theater.”

“Vas you deah, Sharlie?”

(That’s an old vaudevillian catchphrase, employed after the comedian confronts his partner with an improbably exaggerated whopper.)

Preferentially, I am no fan of disagreement and controversy. I like it calm. I am fully aware that one man’s…something is another man’s….something else, it takes all kinds, you can’t tell a book by its cover. That one doesn’t fit, but I needed a third example. The “Rule of Threes” demands it.

You know what I mean. Your opinion is as good as everyone else’s, and it needs to be respected. Nobody likes to be told their opinions are crap. Watch House and check out the faces of the doctors when House tactlessly shoots down their opinions on what’s wrong with that week’s mysteriously dying patient. They look like they’re going to cry.

Sure, opinions about TV shows and movies aren’t life and death – not even scripted TV life and death – but people have serious, personal investments in their professed points of view. It’s like their opinion stands as a public representation of their value on this earth.

“You opinion is stupid. Ergo, you’re stupid too.”

I listen hard when people express their points of view, especially when their opinion conflicts radically with my own. It’s important for me to try and understand exactly what it was in their thinking process that led them to such an erroneous conclusion.

I’m kidding, I think. It’s just curious to me. I mean, I’m coming out of a movie theater, after seeing a picture I really didn’t care for, and I overhear another exiting audience member saying,

“That was awesome!”

What we just saw? Really? I am deeply skeptical of that evaluation. The producer’s mother, attuned to her Sonny Boy’s delicate sensibilities, might have offered a supportive “Very nice”, but even she wouldn’t have dared an opinion of “Awesome”, for fear of being turned into a pillar of salt.

Besides being wrong, calling a movie “awesome” is not the correct way of rendering an opinion, (duly noting that I’m rendering an opinion on the correct way of rendering an opinion.)

I believe people ought to render their opinions as a personal preference, the middle ground of appropriate opinionizing being, “I liked it; I didn’t like it.”, rising to “awesome” – when it’s not being overused – to designate the top level of approval, and descending to, “I think they should have the Death Penalty for people who make awful movies” as a designation very close to, if not at, the bottom.

The confusing part here is that, on a parallel track with “personal opinion” – well, it doesn’t have to be geometrically parallel, just a different track – there is, in fact, the possibility of an objective evaluation.

I believe it was Aristotle – or somebody big – who set down specific principles by which a work of art can be objectively evaluated. So, if you’re applying standards of that nature, then yes, you are justified is using descriptives such as “good”, ‘bad”, “awesome” and “coming nowhere close to ‘Aristotelian standards’ garbage.”

You can also use words like “good” and “bad” – carefully and with the utmost humility – if you’re a professional writer.

Through experience and meticulously programmed innards, a writer can sense if a work is or is not what it should be. The best writers, or at least the best critics of writing, can articulately explain the rationales for their positions. I’m not certain that I can. My responses are generally more a matter of “feel.”

But even that “feel” comes with what must be acknowledged caveats.

Times change. And in some not entirely explicable way, “good” and “bad”, to some degree at least, change with them. After Modern Family, I stuck around for the debut of a new ABC series called Happy Endings.

Watching the new program, I could immediately tell that, though both Modern Family and Happy Endings were situation comedies, Happy Endings was going about its business in a substantially different manner. Though I myself did not laugh much, I had a sense that, the target they were shooting for, they were, more often than not, hitting.

I am not prepared at this time to say that, on their terms, Happy Endings was good, because I am not as yet exactly clear on what those terms are. I just know something interesting was going on, and by that standard, the series merits further investigation.

Then, of course, there is the always dangerous “Sour Grapes Factor.” They’re working; I’m not. So I hate everything they do – especially if it’s successful – and consequently, in the guise of “professional evaluation”, I self-righteously label the product of their efforts, “bad.” Poisonous thinking is always a possibility, one that seriously needs guarding against.

Okay, back to the beginning. Why do I believe the second season of Modern Family falls short of the first?

I don’t know, lemme think about it another day. Maybe I’ll come up with something worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Exit Strategy"

When we left off last time, I was treating you to a lesson concerning the untrumpeted advantages of staying in the house. Perverse person that I am, this drove me to submit myself to the world’s uncertainties the following afternoon.

Don’t get the idea I’m agoraphobic; I’m not. I generally stay home, because I find few places worth the effort of putting on my shoes. The world is deficient here. Not me.

Says I.

My lifestyle of choice deeply concerned my mother who raised me. “Go outside. Be with people.” was her anguished, invariably ignored, imprecation. I had no interest in such advice. I had my programs. It was Toronto, meaning it was blisteringly cold, and there was no place I particularly wanted to go. Leading to my oft-heard response to her externally-directed beseechments,


Now, however, with my day’s responsibilities, such as they are, completed, I check the morning paper, and select a movie I will go to at a nearby multiplex. Not that “multi”, maybe six movies. Which is five more than the theaters I attended growing up, where we were limited to one.

I chose a movie that I knew Dr. M didn’t want to see, and off I went, walking the half mile or so to the theater. I walked there for two reasons. One, I had just been to a spa, where you get into the walking habit. And two, my car was in the body shop, and I did not want to risk driving the rental car, for which I had not purchased insurance, informing the rental agent I was covered by my regular car insurance, when I was not at all certain I was.

Arriving at the theater, I receive an unexpected surprise. It is “Seniors Tuesday” at the AMC. For the entire day, movie tickets for Seniors are just six dollars. Down from the usual eleven. This puts an enormous smile on my face.

Which immediately disappears when, for the “Small” popcorn and the “Small” bottle of water that I purchased inside, I am charged nine twenty-five.

“No ‘Seniors Tuesday’ for food, I guess, huh?”

The Concessiorairess shakes her head.

“Nine twenty-five.”

Six dollars for the movie, nine twenty-five for the refreshments. That’s like paying less for a ticket to a ballgame than you pay for the parking. Something is seriously out of whack.

There were two people working behind the concession stand. I mention that for a

reason. For the entire remainder of my outing, these would be the last human beings I would encounter.

That’s right. I step into “Theater Two” where my movie is playing, and the theater is entirely


It’s strange enough, in its way, to attend a movie by yourself. But then, to step into the theater and discover that the audience would comprise of “just you”, it’s like,

Strange squared.

Beginning with,

Selecting your seat.

“Anywhere” sounds like pretty much a slam dunk. But with so many choices, it is real easy to get it wrong. Yes, you can keep changing seats till you’re entirely comfortable, but how many times can you do that without seeming crazy, even to yourself?

To find “The Perfect Seat”, I deliberately adopt a mindset, which takes the form of this question:

“Where would I sit, if if wasn’t “just me”?

I imagine a theater, holding a substantial audience, and I look around, trying to determine, “Which seat would I choose, if the theater had people in it? The seat, which, if I found it still vacant amidst the burgeoning crowd, I would say to myself, ‘This is my lucky day!’”

I know that sounds odd, but it’s the only way I could do it.

I finally pick a spot on the left aisle, two rows closer than halfway back. I sit down. Yes, I confirm to myself with unmistakable certainty, despite the unlimited options, this is, indeed,

“The Perfect Seat.”

“Complaint Number One”:

Movie theaters today are entirely automated. There is no projectionist back there, someone you can appeal to, and say,

“Hey, Bruno, it’s just me. Can we skip the ‘Sneak Preview’ for the debuting ABC Family series Switched At Birth? Can we ‘fast forward’ through the trailer of Thor?

“And those Public Service announcements? ‘Don’t talk? Don’t “text?” ‘Don’t speak on the phone? It will disturb the moviegoing enjoyment of the other patrons’?

Are you kidding me?


I can do anything I want. I can take off my shoes. I can take off my pants if I want to. Though, as my daughter later advised, that might leave me vulnerable to what she artfully described as “A ‘Pee Wee’ Situation.”

The system is disinterestedly pre-programmed, like an elevator that stops automatically at every floor. You must endure the entire journey. Whether you want to or not.

On top of that – “Complaint Number Two” – I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when they show the previews at the movies? They really jack up the sound. A procedure that is excruciatingly painful to an older person’s ears. Dr. M has been known to cover hers with her hands.

And that’s when an audience is present. Can you imagine what that amped-up preview audio feels like

When you’re the only person in the room?

In a similar but different modality – “Complaint Number Three” – consider the situation, wherein the air conditioning, set for the movie-going comfort of a considerably larger crowd, is blasting unilaterally

At you.

Resulting in a drippy nose that, as we speak, is heavily moistening my lower countenance.

The optimist’s perspective: It’s a “Private Screening.” In theory, maybe. But hardly the experience Louis B. Mayer might have enjoyed.

“It’s too loud!”

“Yes, Mr. Mayer.”

“And turn down the air!”

“Yes, Mr. Mayer.”

This was an entirely different situation. I am hardly Mr. Mayer. And there was nobody to complain to.

Finally, we come to the movie itself, a courtroom entertainment no better than a middle range Law and Order, the reruns of which I was missing by attending this picture.

A barely TV-level attraction, experienced under sub-polar weather conditions, with ear-shattering sound. And I am watching it alone.

But hey.

I was out of the house.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Baby, It's Cold Outside"

Sometimes, I get bummed out about not having a job, and being at home all time.

And then…

I had driven my car to the body shop to have a little dent and scratch work taken care of. As the Service Attendant filled out the paperwork, I heard the employee at the adjoining desk, complain,

“I was supposed to get up at seven. But I woke up at four.”

“What made you wake up?” he was asked.

To which the body shop employee replied,

“This job.”

Ten minutes later, a rental car agent named Brady arrived to shuttle me to his office, so could rent a car while the bodywork was being completed. Brady explained that he couldn’t shake hands, because he had wrecked his right hand the day before, skateboarding at the beach.

Five minutes after arriving at the rental office, I overheard a customer explain that she needed to rent a car because her previous rental car had been stolen.

Sometimes, you learn from experience. And sometimes, you learn from other people’s experience. From the avalanche of woe I became privy to in less than half an hour, I learned that

I am just fine

Exactly where I am.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Who's With Me?"

Before he got, as they say, “big in features”, Judd Apatow served, as I did, as a “Creative Consultant” on The Larry Sanders Show. What I remember about Judd was three things: One, he was extremely well connected (at my request, Judd secured Anna two hard-to-get tickets to a Stone Temple Pilots concert, a band Anna adored, and I never heard of.)

The second memorable attribute was that Judd Apatow would regularly pitch outlandish jokes, virtually none of which were remotely funny. After which – arguably his most memorable attribute of all – Apatow would immediately cry out,

“Who’s with me!”

A call to arms that would invariably be greeted with deadly silence.

Nobody was with him.

Nor should they have been.

That was the most indelible Apatow memory on The Larry Sanders Show. The always desperate-sounding, “Who’s with me!” And then,

The silence.

I know the feeling.

I experience it when I appropriate this blog to rail against some disturbing situation, and the response to my position is zero.

I most recently experienced this echo chamber of empty support while taking a stand against people who slip their sunglasses into the top of their Polo shirts, and people who drape their sweaters over their shoulders and knot them in the front, rather than putting them all the way on.

Nobody cared. Nobody – as reflected by the zero comments on that posting –

Was with me.

Well, I’m nothing if not foolhardy. So here I go again.

I’m sure this has happened to all of you, so there’s, you know, an identifiable, common experience. Whether you agree with my reaction is up to you. I am hoping, of course, that you will.


We’re sitting in a restaurant. The waiter comes over to take our order. Dr. M orders first. The waiter, recording her selection on his pad, responds:

“An excellent choice.”

The waiter then turns to me, his pen poised to take down my order.

I am now on the spot. My wife has just ordered a selection, which, according to the waiter at least, has been deemed, “an excellent choice.” I am targeted with the “follow-up.”

The heat is definitely on. Will my selection meet with an equally positive response? Or will the only sound I hear be a pen, scratching deafeningly on an order pad?

Steak salad. That’s what I wanted. That’s what looked good to me. But, I wondered – or maybe “worried” is the better word – “Is steak salad anywhere close to ‘an excellent choice’?”

It’s pretty ordinary, steak salad. Unless they make a particularly excellent steak salad. And how could they?

What can you do to a steak salad? It’s steak. And it’s salad.

I am seriously reconsidering my order, so I too can have it conferred with the ultimate “Waiter’s Accolade”:

“An excellent choice.”

There are two problems here. There is no way to predict which selection on the menu this waiter will consider “an excellent choice.” Is it something exotic like the “Freshly ground ostrich burger”? Or is it a dish that this restaurant happens to excel at, which I couldn’t possibly guess, because I’ve never eaten there before, I have not read about the place, and have gotten no “heads up” about it from others?

“If you dine at Pepe’s, you simply must order the catfish ravioli!”

I could choose the same thing Dr. M ordered, which has already been anointed, “an excellent choice.” But deliberate copycatting? How is there anything “excellent” about that?

And then there’s this other troubling question:

The waiter’s credibility.

What makes this guy an expert on excellent choices? “He’s a waiter. The man knows about food.” Really? Then there’s, “The man works here. He knows what they do best.” I see. And if I order something they stink at, will he just as readily divert me from “a horrible choice”?

What if this is just some self-serving, waitperson’s strategy, a flattering puffball he throws off just to butter the customers up? How deep does this recommendation go? Is there some serious judgment involved, or will he “excellent choice” you no matter what you order?

Another possibility is there’s a hidden meaning to “an excellent choice”, like, it’s an excellent choice, because it’s actually the worst thing the restaurant makes, but the waiter gets a bonus every time somebody orders it, ostensibly for pushing it, but in Dr. M’s case it happened spontaneously, and what can be more “excellent” – from the waiter’s perspective, that is – than that?

Or it could be a question of “preemptive conditioning.” The food tastes terrible, but the diner thinks, “I must be wrong, because the waiter said it was an excellent choice.”

All these thoughts are now rampaging through my brain, none of which ever would have dawned on me, if the waiter hadn’t said,

“An excellent choice.”

My position, to all waiters interested in receiving a sizeable tip, from me at least, is this:


Do it.

Okay. I am on the record here.

Who’s with me?