Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"When Are You Finished?"

Two days ago, I wrote a post about our recent visit to Northern California. That night, it came to me that the post was too long. Even “good” can get tiresome, if there’s too much of it. (“Pretty good” can get really tiresome.)

I therefore decided to divide the post into two installments, publishing them on consecutive days. In order to successfully pull off my “Plan B”, I had to find the appropriate “breaking spot”, the precise point where I could naturally end “Installment One”, and with minimum damage to the narrative flow, open “Installment Two” the following day.

To find this appropriate “breaking spot”, it would be necessary for me to read the entire piece over again. Which I proceeded to do. And while I was reading it,

I began to make changes.

It had not been my intention to make any adjustments to the posting. I believed, after writing and rewriting the piece the day before until it seemed like further revision would make it no better and possibly even worse, that the optimization of that posting, now two postings, had been skillfully accomplished.

And yet, there I was the following morning, sitting at my computer,

Making it better.

Discovering “typos”, after thinking I had caught and corrected them all. Making necessary clarifications to a story that, a day earlier appeared to be crystal clear. Discovering more evocative modifiers after believing the modifiers I had selected to be ideal. They weren’t.

I found idealer ones.

The following morning.

I know myself. I’m aware of my tendencies. Not my “daily life” tendencies – at least not all of them, not even all of them that aren’t shameful and disgusting – I’m talking about my writing tendencies.

I know I’m a rewriter. I rarely “nail it” on the first try. And I know that, given the chance to rewrite ad infinitum,

I would.

I am not talking about the same day. Every day, when I finish writing a post, I believe, as I mentioned,

“That’s it. I can make no further improvements. It’s done.”

But provided the opportunity – as I was when I decided to chop an extended posting in half – I would find myself back at it. Making changes. And, in fact, to my surprise and my humbling bewilderment,

Making it better.

Silly me, yesterday. I thought it was perfect. Well, that’s an exaggeration. But I did think there was no more I could bring to it.

I was wrong.

I just needed a small break. Then I am back to work and, suddenly, astonishing upgrades come flooding into my brain. Why didn’t I see them yesterday? I have no idea. It’s just the way it works.

The problem is, according to this arrangement, I could write the post, complete it to my total satisfaction – it’s not just that I’m tired, or bored; I really believe that it’s done – come back the next day, improve it, come back the next day, improve it some more, come back the next day, improve it still further…do you see where I’m going with this?

I would never, ever be finished.

Instead of more than eight hundred and fifty postings, I would, instead, have


Which I continue to be working on.

That can’t be right, can it?

If it isn’t, however, we are left with the troubling question:

When exactly are you finished?

A fellow writer used to call the needless reexamining of a line that got a laugh when it was originally pitched, “Stabbing the frog.” I respectfully believe otherwise. I do not view our contrasting approaches in terms of better and worse, simply different. (Though my intensity may have inadvertently conveyed judgment.)

It never occurred to me that that writer was lazy – “We’ve spent enough time on this.” I never thought he had inferior standards – “It’s good enough.” I not for a second believed he was cynical – “What difference does it make? It’s only television.”

That writer had implicit faith in the “rightness” of the original impulse. And I agree with him. The inspiration is essential. But, for me, it does not rule out a – time-limited – exploration of ameliorating alternatives.

I even pondered if “Stabbing the frog” were the best way to describe the situation.

I am still working on it.


Correction: In Friday's posting, the actual price of the Navajo rug we returned was eleven hundred and fifty dollars, not eleven hundred. I remembered my mistake after I wrote the posting, and made a mental note to go back and fix it. And then I forgot to. I think I'll make actual notes from now on. Or fix the thing immediately. I am happy to report that I have made the appropriate adjustment for the posterity version of the posting.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Our 'No-Cal' Adventure Continues"

The main purpose of our “road trip” to Northern California – other than seeing the mentioned yesterday Joan and David, and our equally wonderful friends, Patsy and Bob, was to attend a fundraiser for Audubon Canyon Ranch, longstanding a bird-fancying organization. We had visited one of their preserves on an earlier trip. It was located on a high hill, from which, using powerful telescopes, you could look into egrets nests, and watch the egrets doing their thing. (I guess it’s not “Peeping Tomism” when you’re looking at birds.)

Before going to the fundraiser, we were invited to visit Patsy and Bob’s cabin, in the Russian River area. The setting was densely treed and extremely remote, bringing to mind – at least to my mind – the locales of every “slasher” movie I had ever seen. The kind where the guy in the goalie mask “chain saws” and otherwise mutilates the campers. I did not mention this impression to Patsy and Bob. Instead I gushed,

“It’s so private!”

And I left it at that.

And now, an incredibly boring side story.

(For those of you who have a short time to live, you may not want to waste your remaining precious moments reading this. For your assistance, I will write the story in italics, so you’ll know when to jump back in. And, of course, sorry you have a short time to live.

Why am I bothering to tell this incredibly boring story? I have to. Why do I have to? I don’t know. I suppose it’s like the unattractive person who is never asked to dance at the prom. You feel bad excluding them from the proceedings.)

Okay. So here we go. Final warning: It’s boring.

We dropped by an Antique Mart in Sebastopol, accumulating assorted trinkets and “collectibles”, whose value, in total, amounted to seventy-nine dollars. We then spotted a Navajo rug hanging from an overhead rafter. We had it brought down, we look it over, and we liked it. We also liked the price – four hundred and fifty dollars. After being offered a ten percent discount, we liked the price even more. We bought Navajo the rug. Dr. M paid with a check.

We departed the Antique Mart in Sebastopol, heading for Patsy and Bob’s…very safe, I’m sure, cabin. The directions we’d been given instructed us to turn right onto a dirt road, which is immediately preceded by a clearly marked “Refuse Disposal Area.” But we can’t find it. There are trees everywhere, but no dirt road. We are entirely lost.

Suddenly, Dr. M’s cell phone rings. We find the first place we can pull over. It’s Anna, calling from our home, which she happens to be visiting. Anna tells us that she just got a frantic call from the Antique Mart in Sebastopol. (Our home phone number was on the check.)

It turns out they had made a terrible mistake. The rug wasn’t four hundred and fifty dollars. It was eleven hundred and fifty dollars. The price tag just looked like it said four hundred and fifty dollars. To everyone, including the salesperson at the Antique Mart. But not the rug’s owner, who had hit the roof when he heard that his eleven hundred and fifty dollar rug had been sold for four hundred and change.

Being who we are – meaning nice – we turned around and drove back to Antique Mart in Sebastopol, and we returned the rug, which was a bargain at four hundred and fifty dollars, minus ten percent, but was a rip-off at eleven-fifty.

We then drive out of Sebastopol again, returning to our search for Patsy and Bob’s, undoubtedly mayhem-free cabin. Amazingly, we find the dirt road turnoff around a bend, literally fifty feet beyond where we had stopped to take Anna’s call. Dr. M tells me that if she’d have known we were that close, she could have dropped me off at the cabin, and driven back to Sebastapol herself. I’m actually glad that didn’t happen. I felt considerably safer in the car.

Okay, I’m done.

The Audubon Canyon Ranch fundraiser consisted of an outdoor buffet, featuring food “stations”, offering signature delicacies prepared by local restaurants. In the interest of brevity, I will mention only one dish, symbolizing the fundraiser’s culinary motif:

Duck bacon.

Okay, one more.

White bean, wild duck (Apparently, “Auduboners” care about birds, but they don’t give a crap about ducks) and boar sausage cassoulet.

Last one. I promise.

Lavender poached spring rabbit.

Welcome to “roughing it” in Sonoma County. Where you couldn’t get a hot dog if your life depended on it.

I had drunk wine two nights on a row. On that third afternoon at the fundraiser, I refused to drink any more. It is my view that if you drink wine on three consecutive days, you must immediately check yourself into Rehab. Or move to France.

Before leaving for home, I consumed two cups of delicious but extremely strong black coffee. This led to the necessity of even more “Pit Stops” than on our way up, one of them by a primeval, roadside forest. To distract passing vehicles while I jettisoned the excess fluid, I instructed Dr. M to throw her arm around me and pretend we were appreciating the view.

That may have been my favorite moment of the entire trip.

Family News: This was supposed to arrive as two separate announcements, but the first announcement disappeared due to a technological snafu.

The first announcement was that we are honored, excited and finally authorized to publicly proclaim that Rachel and her bf, Tim, will be having a baby sometime in mid-November. So there's that happy news.


On the second night of our San Francisco excursion, while dining at an inn, (which has received one Michelin star, though their forgetting to accompany my soup with a soup spoon could drop them entirely out of the running), we got a call from Tim, heads upping us that he was going to propose to Rachel that evening.

We now have two weddings and a baby in our rather immediate future.

Big changes.

All good.

Congrats times two and our very best wishes to Rachel and Tim.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Studying 'No-Cal'"

The last time we went to San Francisco, we flew.

It took us half an hour to park our car at the L.A. airport, and shuttle over to the terminal.

We waited two hours at the Departure Gate, because the terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center ten years ago.

We waited two additional hours, because the plane to San Francisco was delayed by fog.

And the flight itself took an hour.

Making it: Five and a half hours.

To go to San Francisco by plane.

This time, we drove.

Total Travel Time: Six hours and ten minutes.

Slightly longer, but a significantly better experience. We avoided the adventure of being suspended thirty-five thousand feet in the air.

And we had considerably more legroom.

But, being our ages, we did a lot of stopping along the way. To stretch. And for other reasons. Riding "Shotgun" allowed me the opportunity to notice stuff along the way. One thing I noticed was that, as a result of our frequent "Rest Stop" intermissions, we passed the same motor home three times.

I can’t imagine what they thought about that.

“I must be seein’ things. The same people passed us three times!

Even if you stop a lot, six hours is a long time to spend sitting in a car. To temper the tedium, we took along Books On Tape, or, more accurately, Books On CD.

We started with American On Purpose, a memoir written by "late night" host, Craig Ferguson, and read by the writer himself. It was chatty and entertaining. Almost like having Craig Ferguson sitting in the back seat, telling us about his life. But better.

When we got tired of hearing about Craig Ferguson’s life, we could eject the CD, and listen to the radio. If the man were actually sitting there, you’d have to either say, “Could you shut up for a while, Craig?”, or throw the guy out of the car.

San Francisco is a gem. Beautiful. Compact. Great air. And lots of hills, making it distinctive, but in some cases, problematic. If I were an old person living in San Francisco, I would never go out of the house. And if I did, and I lived in a place that was higher than the place I was heading to, I would never be able to get home.

“I can see my house from down here, but I can’t get back. Will you tell my family I'm here?"

I mean, you could take a cab back, but it would be like,

“Where to?”

“The top of this block.”

I don’t think they’d like that. But who knows? Maybe San Francisco cab drivers are used to old people doing that, and they don't even charge them.

The San Francisco vibe feels like “New York Junior.” It’s bustling with energy. Making it a bracing antidote to laid back L.A. I don’t know which city is actually older, but San Francisco feels like it carefully studied L.A., and as an overall concept, decided that their city would be “Not like that. Possibly even the opposite.” Which, in many ways, it is. It definitely opposite weather.

Though I’m by no means a "Clothes Person", my sartorial “Holy Grail” is finding a great pair of shoes. In L.A., I am always disappointed. Even in L.A.’s finest menswear stores, the "Dress Shoe" selection – I’m looking for something for Anna’s wedding – looks like it’s from 1962.

Lace-up shoes with those stitches on the "toe." Loafers with tassels. Loafers with “gold” decorations – linked chains or interlocking "Chinese Puzzle" designs. I never liked these styles the first time around. And yet, somebody must, because they never go away.

The last pair of nice shoes I bought was more than four years ago, in Rome. The shoes in Rome are sensational. All of them. I don’t know why they don’t just fly a bunch of them over here. Maybe they do, but somewhere over the Atlantic, they mysteriously transform into the kind of shoes they’d wear on Mad Men.

I know it’s a cliché to think that a city with a large gay population would be the answer my shoe-searching quest. That’s such a stereotype, don’t you think?

In the first San Francisco menswear store we went into, I saw three pair of shoes that were to die for. I bought one of them. (Not one shoe, one pair.) I could tell they were special, which was confirmed when I later showed them to Anna, who anointed them “A 'Ten’!” Unlike her Dad, that girl has taste.

Telltale signs you’re in San Francisco, or its environs. This falls under the dictum:

“By their toiletries shall ye know them."

In total, we were away for three nights. Because of our itinerary, we were required to spend each night in a different place. To confine my observations to a manageable length, I have limited my focus to “bathroom condiments.” Consider them – as I do – representative of the prevailing, No-Cal (Northern California) motif.

Provided in the Bathrooms In Sample-Sized Plastic Bottles:

Hotel Number One

Citrus de Vigne Bath and Shower Gel.

Soy Shampoo.

Pomegranate Conditioner.

Welcome to San Francisco.

Hotel Number Two

Aloe Vera Skin Care Bar.

Relaxing Sea Fennel Body Lotion.

Detoxifying Sea Kelp Shampoo.

Welcome to (nearby) Sonoma County.

On the third night, we were invited to stay at the home of our wonderful friends, Joan and David, in Berkeley. When people invite you to stay at their house, it is not polite to expose their bathroom appurtenances to public adjudication, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that their sample-sized plastic bottles in the Guest Bathroom took no back seat to the Aloe Vera and the Sea Kelp. Who knows? Maybe they took them from the hotels.

Tomorrow: A fundraiser buffet, featuring wild boar, duck bacon and braised quail. I had absolutely nothing to eat.


This is not bullshit or buttering you up, and I would have left it as a comment yesterday, but I got "Brain Freeze" and somehow couldn't figure out how to do it.

The comments people wrote yesterday on the topic of "Greatness" were among the most penetrating and insightful I have ever received. I feel honored and humbled that you would take the time to write such extended, personal and thought-provoking observations.

Thank you.

And I mean it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


My brother-in-law, a musician who especially enjoys jazz, once told me that since the great jazz musician Charlie Parker used heroin, the musicians who aspired to be as accomplished as he was used heroin too, believing that the heroin

was key, or at least a significant contributor, to Charlie Parker’s greatness. This ended up ruining the lives of a generation of jazz musicians.

And it created no new Charlie Parkers.

I think about this issue, maybe more than is good for me. It’d be fun to be great, rather than just good. But how exactly do you get there?

I know about hard work. I know about studying your craft. I know about practice, practice, practice. And I agree that these are indispensible elements in the process.

But – objectively and without judgment –

What about drugs?

Those aspiring jazz musicians didn’t take drugs because Charlie Parker took drugs as a matter of hero worship – Charlie Parker wore plaid pants, so all his wannabes wore plaid pants. (I don’t think Charlie Parker ever wore plaid pants. I don’t believe he was much of a golfer.)

The wannabes believed there was something freeing in the drug-taking experience that allowed Charlie Parker to soar to creative heights that he would have otherwise not have been able to reach. It was the drug taking that released him from the conventional approach, and provided him access into uncharted creative terrain.

I know this idea. Not from music. And not from a personal experience with heroin. It almost saddens me to say that. Such a revelation could have energized my mystique.

I know about this idea from comedy. Decades ago, some well-known comedy personages invited me to go into the desert with them and “do mushrooms”, and I turned them down. I never regretted that decision, especially after one the seekers of that mind-expanding experience returned and glassy-eyed and nuts, beseeching me to sit in his room with him for two hours, while he “came down.”

That didn’t look like any fun at all.

(The man kept insisting that his best friend was dead. And I believe, at that time, his best friend was me.)

I never “did mushrooms”, missing out on its liberating possibilities. But, taking it down a few notches, once, I was working as a “stand-in” for a well-known comedian, preparing guests for a game show pilot in which the comedian would ultimately appear.

During the first hour, I was uptight and unfunny. Then we broke for lunch. During which I consumed one beer. When we returned to work, I was suddenly spontaneous, loose and hilarious. The producers confided that, after what they’d witnessed, if it were contractually possible, they’d have dumped the well-known comedian and hired me. And they weren’t yanking my chain. I was sensational.

One beer. And suddenly, I’m spontaneous, loose and hilarious.


And “hm” again.

It was my brother-in-law’s clear implication that Charlie Parker was so great, not because he used heroin, but because he was Charlie Parker. Another close member of my family, who’s a therapist, denies any positive correlation, believing that drug usage makes things not better but immeasurably worse. Fine. But, y’know, don’t therapists have to believe that?

As the saying goes – though after the Michael Vick incident it is somewhat problematic – I hae dog in this fight. For me, overall, drugs – or alcohol – were never a consideration. I’d be thrilled if it could be proven that clean and sober people can be as creatively inspired as those relying on “supplementary enhancement.” The problem is, there are so many contradictory examples.

Sticking exclusively to comedy:

Lenny Bruce, the godfather of truth-telling, laying-it-bare comedy –“Acute morphine poisoning caused by accidental overdose.” Richard Pryor, Bruce’s direct comedic descendant – blew his face off with crack. John Belushi – “Accidental ‘speedball’ fatality.” (I have no idea was what a “speedball” is.)

Sam Kinison, until he cleaned up – a mess. And to a lesser degree though still worth including, Chris Farley – “Cocaine and morphine overdose. Accidental.”

These aren’t just some cherry-picked selection of drugged-out comedians. These are all comedians who went deep, offering insights and existential truths that made you laugh with your soul. They were “all out” comedians. They held nothing back.

Compare this panoply of visceral groundbreakers with another, admittedly, fine comedian, but of an entirely different species –

Jerry Seinfeld.

Funny. Super observant. Remarkably consistent. But reserved. And unthreatening. Nothing disturbing. No personal revelations. No mind-blowing exposures of our hidden feelings and beliefs. Nothing dirty about the Pope.

I realize this was Jerry’s deliberate self-parody of his act, but it’s not that far from the mark:

“Why do they call it ‘Ovaltine’?”

Good. Very good, even. But never dangerous. Never hitting a nerve.

That’s Jerry Seinfeld. No uncomfortable probing. No mind-blowing illuminations. And, as far as I know, and I’d be surprised to discover otherwise,

No drugs.

Jerry Seinfeld is a supremely competent comedian. Is he great?

I don’t think so.

“Greatness.” It’s a good thing. But do you have to do that to get there?

The evidence suggests…perhaps.

My mind is entirely open on the matter.

Got any ideas?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"The Peter Sellers Story"

A reader has requested that I retell the Peter Sellers story, or, for them, tell it for the first time, since it’s hard for me to believe they’d want to me tell them a story that they’ve already read. Unless, perhaps, they’re my age, and they forgot that they read it.

Anyway, for that reader, as well as those who’ve come more recently to the blog,

“The Peter Sellers Story”

A reprise.

If you don’t know who Peter Sellers is, it doesn’t really matter, because the story stands on its own. But as background, Peter Sellers is – he’s dead, but his work remains present – a brilliant mimic (The Mouse That Roared, Dr. Strangelove), physical comedian (the Pink Panther movies) and shimmering cypher (Being There).

I first became aware of Sellers, listening to the classic BBC radio series from the 1950’s, The Goon Show, where Sellers brilliantly handled whatever voice, situation or character challenge cracked-genius Goon Show writer Spike Milligan directed his way. The Goon Show was comedy from another planet.

Peter Sellers is a comedy hero of mine. (Spike Milligan is another one.)


We’re on the last leg of our trip that included a visit to the incomparable Seychelles Islands, and a photographic safari in Kenya. We break up our return journey to California with a three-day layover in my favorite city in the world, London.

Through his connections, my American agent has arranged for a British agent to provide us with theater tickets for selected plays we had requested to see. The day after our arrival, we went to the British agent’s office, to pick up the tickets.

His name was Dennis Selinger.

I looked up Dennis Selinger on the Internet. It turns out he was one of Britain’s most powerful theatrical agents, numbering among his clients, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Ben Kingsley,

And Peter Sellers.

I was kind of out of it when we visited his office. I still had residual Masai village dung on the bottom of my hiking boots. But despite my post-safari stupor, I remember Selinger telling us this story.

It turns out that Peter Sellers was a devoted adherent of astrology. The man would never make a move without first consulting his personal astrologer for their advice. When he got an a big movie offer, Sellers refused to sign the contract, until after hearing what his astrologer had to say about the propitiousness of the star alignment vis a vis the projected undertaking.

What Sellers was unaware of was that, as soon as he got off the phone with Sellers, the astrologer immediately called Sellers’ agent, Dennis Selinger. If Selinger recommended the project, the astrologer called Sellers back and told him – with the appropriate flourishes – that the job has his astrological seal of approval.

And that’s the name of that tune.

Peter Sellers was crazy. Which I already pretty much knew, because

I had had a personal encounter Peter Sellers a few years earlier. I was working on a variety special on which he was to guest, wherein Sellers threatened not to participate, unless entirely new material were written, tailored to his unique specifications –

“I play two things: A bumbling detective. And a person who breaks things.”

After surrendering to his demands, two new sketches were created – the one I wrote involved a snooty, Sotheby’s-type auctioneer who shattered everything he was auctioning off – and Sellers finally agreed to do the show.

Though not, I imagine, before calling his astrologer and reading him the material.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Safari Snapshots"

Dear Readers,

As requested (by one reader, or was it two?), I am posting a sampling of the pictures Dr. M and I took on our photographic safari in Kenya.

Before you consider criticizing our efforts, please remember that a professor from Santa Monica Community College, where we took a "Photo One" class in preparation for our adventure, gave both of us A's.

And we're talking hard cameras. Not digital.

My thanks to Anna for putting this together. (You really didn't think I did this, did you?)


Friday, May 20, 2011

"Trying To Get It"

Eight hundred and fifty postings. And during that time, have I ever mentioned an interest in the art form known as dancing?

I don’t believe I have.

Would that, do you think, suggest a prodigious disinterest in that particular mode of entertainment?

I believe it would.


Not long ago, Dr. M’s friend, Leah, called and asked her if she was interested in attending a performance of a well-known Modern Dance troupe, currently appearing at a downtown theater. Dr. M replied that she was. Leah then added that her husband, Paul, was also interested in attending, so she wondered if I had any interest in attending as well.

This immediately put me on the spot. If it were just the ladies, I’d have had an easy “out.”

“Why don’t you two go?”

But that wasn’t the way things were. A male person had already accepted.

Leaving me no choice whatsoever.

Thank you, Paul.

Okay, so I’m at this event. Two hours of uninterrupted – except for the intermission – dancing. Rather than behaving with the begrudging reluctance a macho cliché, I am determined instead to find out what this dancing thing is all about. I mean, the theater is almost totally filled. They can’t all be there under duress. Maybe dancing isn’t so what I think it is. By which I mean, not for me.

Why “not for me”?

Because it’s dancing.

And what’s wrong with dancing?

I’m a writer. My preferred method of communication is words. Dancers communicate with their feet. I don’t understand that, since there’s a much easier way of doing it. You just open your mouth, and people immediately know what you mean. For the non-cognoscenti (from the Latin, cognosco-cognoscere, meaning "to know") such as myself, dancing, not unlike mime, is two hours of “What the hell is going on?”

Tonight, they’ll be dancing to the music of Handel. There’s a big symphony orchestra. Four opera soloists are also in the mix. It’s a combination of music and singing.

All in the service of the dancing.

What kind of dancing exactly? Twenty-four dancers, evenly split, male and female. They are colorfully attired. And they’re all barefoot. There’ll be no scuffing of the stage floor tonight. Though there could be splinters.

The evening is divided into performing segments – twelve segments in the First Act, seven in the Second. (Meaning, if you get through the First Act, you’re almost two thirds of the way through. Not a great attitude, but I’m looking for any ray of sunshine I can find. While, of course, still learning about “The Dance.”)

In “Segment One”, a male dancer stands on stage alone. And every time a female dancer races by, the male dancer intercepts her, lifts her up in the air, holds her aloft for maybe three seconds, after which he lowers her to the floor, and she races away. That happens six times in a row. It is pretty much the high point or “Segment One.”

I will not describe each segment individually, for fear of falling asleep at my computer, and inducing a similar effect on my readers. Prior to the beginning of each segment, one, or a number, up to four, transparent curtains would be lowered, dividing the stage horizontally into sections. Sometimes, a solo dancer would dance “clean” in front of the audience, meaning with no curtainically separation.

On other occasions, one or a group of dancers would dance with a curtain veiling them from the audience, producing some effect, though I have no idea what that effect is supposed to be.

Sometimes, the dancer, or group dancers, in one section of the stage would mirror the movements of the dancer, or group of dancers, in another section of the stage.

Sometimes, the dancers' movements would be complementary. I think that’s the descriptive I’m looking for. And sometimes, the movements would have no relationship to each other whatsoever.

Sometimes, it was funny. One of the vignettes portrayed what appeared to be a hunting scene. Dancers played horses. Other dancers played “the hounds.” And three other dancers entwined themselves together to form the trunk and branches of a tree. Inevitably, the “hounds” scrambled over, and urinated on the tree.

The major triumph of the First Act was that I was able to stay awake for the whole thing. This does not mean I enjoyed, or, to be honest, understood a large portion of what was going on. But at least I saw it.

In my defense, it was not easy to remain attentive. There was no narrative to follow, leaving the performance lacking any kind of “arc”, or tension inducing “build.” What you had in the First Act were dancers skillfully (I imagine “skillfully”; I mean, nobody fell down, or anything) going through their paces, covering twelve consecutive, but in no way interrelated, vignettes.

After which you got to stand up and walk around in the lobby. And maybe purchase a cookie, a "Good job!' compensation for staying in the game.

The Second – and final – Act was more encouraging, partly because it was the second and final act, and partly because, as mentioned, there were seven segments in it instead of twelve. But there was also, I think, something else going on, which I can explain in one of two different ways.

The Second Act was objectively better. Or I was finally getting the hang of what exactly was going on. (It is possible it was both.)

What I started to realize was that the core concept of the performance was concerned with shapes. The point was not to focus on one dancer – unless they were the only dancer on the stage – but to focus instead on the spatial relationship between the dancers or groups of dancers, and the configurations they constructed on the (curtainically divided) stage.

What the audience was watching was a human kaleidoscope, a constantly changing mosaic, forming, dissolving, and then re-forming into yet another rearranged alignment.

That wasn’t all they did. But it was the only part I could figure out. It was a program about shapes.

As I left the theater, while my companions took the elevator, I availed myself of the stairs, where my eye caught sight of an audience member with an impressive shape of her own.

Perhaps the evening’s entertainment had heightened my sensitivities to the shapes that surround me.

Perhaps not.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Choice"

Note: Because of the technical mess-up, I am posting "The Choice" again, just in case you hadn't read it. Sorry for the possible redundancy. And to the reader who complimented my on my patience, there was no patience involved. I was out of town at the time, and I had no idea what was going on. I posted ahead, so you'd have something to read while I was away. But thanks for the compliment anyway. I will "bank" it, and use it when appropriate.

There’s something you may not know about the television pilot production process, the culmination of which is reflected in the recent announcements of the networks’ upcoming schedules.

A little background.

But first,

A caveat:

Television hot shots have a faster track to getting their shows on the schedule. The following tracks the trajectory of the foot soldiers, which, for a substantial portion of my career, meant me.

Okay. Here we go.

You pitch your series idea to the network – in late summer, early fall. If they like it, they “Green Light” a pilot script, meaning, they pay you to write a pilot script. You write – October, November, December – you get network notes, you make changes, you hand it in before New Year’s.

January, February – the networks decide which of their pilot scripts they want to “Green Light” for production. If you get the go-ahead, you make the pilot – March, April, early May. Mid-May, the networks announce their schedules, which include returning shows, plus the new pilots that made the grade.

Going back for a second. The expense of “Green Lighting” the writing of a script is relatively small. The expense of “Green Lighting” a pilot for production is, conservatively, twenty times higher. Therefore, networks are considerably more cautious about taking this financially burdensome step.

Understandably, the networks try to hedge their bets. They do this by encouraging the pilots’ producers to cast actors that the audience is already familiar with, and likes. This explains why the former cast members of Seinfeld and Friends were all cast in pilots. They were known – and audience-preapproved – quantities.

Another way of protecting their investments is for networks to lobby for the casting of famous people who had never done television before, leading to phone calls from network executives to producers in which the words, “Find out if Sandra Bullock is ready to do television” are uttered.

So. It’s actors from successful shows, movie stars ready to “take the leap into television”, actors the networks already have under contract in what that call “holding deals”, and anybody a network might call “an intriguing option.”

Now we get to the part about the pilot production process that you may not have known.

If for some reason – you can’t agree on the right actor, or you can, but they’re tied up with another project – the casting of your pilot does not meet with (obligatory) network approval, the entire project is

Thrown away.

That’s right. Even though the network liked your idea enough to order a script, and even though they liked your script enough to order a produced pilot, they do not hold this project they have acknowledged they like over to the following pilot season, or any future pilot season.

They just dump it, and it’s gone.

Which means,

There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get that pilot cast and network approved


That’s where “The Choice” comes in. And it’s a real doozy.


I write a pilot script for a comedy called Family Man, a series loosely based on my own – and my family’s – personal life. My script earns me the “Green Light” to produce the pilot…

And I can’t find the guy.

The actor who will play ”me” in the series.

And, as recently mentioned, if I don’t find that guy,

Family Man is dead.

After an extensive investigation of the L.A. prospects, my boss at Universal calls me up and says,

“The network is very interested in Sam Waterston for the role. We’re flying you to New York, to get him to say ‘Yes’.”

And there you have it. The network will be highly encouraged to “Green Light” production, if Sam Waterston plays me. And it has fallen to me to get him to do so. Whether I want him to or not.

Which is the problem. I have seen Sam Waterston play many roles, and never once seen him be funny.

And this worries me.

I do some research. I ask a highly respected comedy producer who has worked with Sam Waterston, “Is Sam Waterston funny?” The producer tells me he can be. His response reassures me. I had once seen a feature film – Eagle’s Wing (1979) – on cable, in which Sam Waterston played an Indian. So apparently Sam Waterston can do anything.

In my heart, I didn’t believe Sam Waterston was right for the part. And therein lay “The Choice.” I can tell my bosses “No”, that in my professional opinion, Sam Waterston for this part was a terrible idea. The thing is, the survival of my project was on the line. It we didn’t cast the part, it was “Bye-bye, Family Man.

The medicine was highly unpalatable. But it was life or death. So I took it.

I flew to New York on the “Red Eye” – you fly all night, and you land there– red-eyed – in the morning. I went out to the Astoria Studios in Queens, where Waterston was filming a Woody Allen movie – September (1987.) I invited him to lunch, during which I tried my best to charm, flatter, tickle and cajole him into doing the show.

(Waterston had read and enjoyed my pilot script, and he had previously agreed to the meeting. It’s not like I’d kidnapped him, or anything. I probably couldn’t have pulled that off.)

Waterston was interested, but remained on the fence. We parted with his agreeing to give the proposition some serious thought.

As it turned out, it was the Passover Season. So after meeting with Waterston, I flew up to Toronto, to rejoin Dr. M and our kids, who’d flown in from L.A., and “Seder down” with the Pomerantz’s.

At our reunion, Rachel excited ran up to me to find out how things went. I told her that the guy said he would think about it. Rachel immediately raced back to her mother, and screamed,

“Mom! Sam what’s-his-name said ‘Maybe’!”

Owing to a last-minute suggestion from our director (David Steinberg) Family Man was ultimately produced starring a considerably more suitable actor (Richard Libertini.) Sam Waterston went on to Law & Order, where he played Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy for sixteen seasons. I have watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order.

Sam Waterston never made me laugh once.

But he was my only hope at the time. And if he’d have said yes – and it was my on shot at keeping the project alive – after a token show of resistance, I’d have happily swallowed the medicine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Two Stories About Monkeys, A Cultural Insight And An Epilogue"

Monkey Story Number One

The large, painted sign read:


We thought they were kidding. A scary sign to give tourists a story to tell:

“They told us it was dangerous, but we took the trail anyway.”

Our guide assured us it was okay. He informed us that, if we wanted to see “the big crocs”, we should hike down to the river about a quarter of a mile away. He’d take a “cigarette break” at the minivan, and we’d reassemble there when we got back. We said, “Fine”, and off we went.

They told us it was dangerous, but we took the trail anyway.

We hiked down to the river. We saw some pretty big crocs. We watched them for a while, and then, after about ten minutes – I mean, they weren’t doing tricks or anything – we got bored, and we headed back.

Halfway up the trail, we were confronted by a substantial pack – there were at least a dozen of them – of rather serious-looking baboons, who were gathered, and apparently comfortably settled, in the middle of the path. The gathering was blocking our way out. There was no way we could get by. Without passing directly through the baboons.

It was then that we had second thoughts about the sign.

Dr. M did not want to disturb the animals, lest, by disturbing them, we would upset them, and they would gang up on us, and, working in concert – a baboon mob as it were – they would tear us to pieces. Her position was to wait until they left of their own accord, or until our guide came down to find out what had happened to us.

My “Ape Man” impulses, however, had other plans. Despite Dr. M’s (reasonable) protestations, I proceeded forward, wading straight into this feral gathering, shouting “Bundolo! Kreegah!” and other commands I remembered Tarzan using when going toe-to-toe with various murderous beasts of the jungle.

The baboons parted like the Red Sea – if the Red Sea had had orange fur, sharp teeth and pointy nails – and I passed right through. If you don’t believe me, we have a photograph in our album, taken by me, safely on the “other side”, showing Dr. M, cowering about thirty feet down the trail, with the pack of baboons in between.

It really happened. I have the picture to prove it.

An Even Better Monkey Story

We have returned from our morning “Animal Sighting”, and we decide to enjoy a cold drink on the terrace behind the lodge. We notice, with amusement, that, about twenty or so yards below us, a woman was desperately grappling with an agitated monkey. We were glad it wasn’t us.

And then, suddenly, it was.

The monkey skittered up to where we about to sit down, and immediately grabbed Dr. M’s purse, containing her passport, her money and her personal I.D. (Items it would not be good to have carried off into the wild, and lost.)

Dr. M reached for her purse, and a tug of war ensued, culminating in Dr. M’s losing her footing, and slipping to the ground. For a moment I stood there, frozen. Then, entirely reflexively, I exploded into action.

Yes, me.

Having no desire to engage in hand-to-hand combat with an agitated monkey, I picked up a nearby chair, and, holding it in front of me with both hands, I proceeded to fend him off, by continually jabbing the chair towards the animal’s face.

Apparently not expecting a skinny-armed tourist with pacifist tendencies to put up a fight, the monkey seemed genuinely surprised. As it turned out, that monkey did not know whom he was dealing with. To be honest, I did not know whom he was dealing with either.

I fought off the screeching primate, defending my fallen mate for what felt like ten minutes, but could actually have been one. At that point, reinforcements arrived in the form of hotel personnel who had noticed our plight and had raced to the rescue. But there was no need for rescue. The matter was entirely under control. And I didn’t even need “Tarzan noises.”

Though I did need a beer. And a long, normal pulse-rate-restoring nap.

A Cultural Insight

As we drove along, I inquired of our guide Patrick if he did anything else besides taking out tours. Patrick revealed that he supplemented his meager stipend as a tour guide by selling the fruits and vegetables that he grew on his tiny, four-acre farm. He asked me how many acres I had. I replied that I had no acres.

Patrick shot me a look of absolute bewilderment. The contradiction baffled him. How could a person with no acres afford to take himself and his lady on a luxurious photographic safari to Kenya? It was a “learning moment” for both of us. My “land poor” revelation cast an illuminating light on the issue of relative wealth.

From then on, Patrick’s demeanor left the impression that he truly felt sorry for me. Though this did not stop him from angling for a very large tip at the end of the tour.


When we flew back from Nairobi and landed in London, I suffered the jarring culture shock memorably depicted in Tarzan’s New York Adventure. (And why not? I had behaved like Tarzan. Why shouldn’t I react like him upon entering a teeming, noisy metropolis. Known as “civilization.”) On the ride through this startlingly contrasting terrain, I was stricken with an agonizing, doubling-over stomachache.

Later, when I had sufficiently adjusted to my environment, we visited a high-powered theatrical agent named Dennis Sellinger, who had arranged, as a favor to my American agent, to provide us with theater tickets for the plays we’d requested to see during our three-day London stopover before flying home.

After telling us a hilarious story about his then client, Peter Sellers – which I’ve related before, but will repeat upon request – Mr. Sellinger informed us of some “good news.” ABC had placed Best of the West on its fall scheduled. The show would appear Thursdays at eight-thirty, after Mork and Mindy.

This is true, though for regular readers, that should go without saying. Though I’d been immersed Best of the West for almost two years, and had anxiously waited out the determination of its fate, having experienced the magic of the past two weeks – luxuriating in the Seychelles, and snapping photos of the animals in their natural habitats – I reacted to the career news Mr. Sellinger passed along with a feeling of

Spontaneous indifference.

It just didn’t seem to matter.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"We Once Went To Africa - Part Five"

We are flying in a four-seater propeller plane, headed to our first of the five game parks we will visit, Amboseli. I sit up front beside the pilot, sporting a goofy, Sky King remembering grin. Dr. M sits behind us, noticeably less enthusiastic.

(There are two kinds of people – those who feel more comfortable with someone else flying the plane, and those who feel more comfortable flying the plane themselves. “Flying the plane” being a generalized euphemism for being in control. I hail from the former of those two categories of people; Dr. M, from the latter.)

As we begin our descent, our pilot picks up the microphone of his two-way radio, and he mumbles a few “call letters” and some other stuff I can’t make out and probably wouldn’t understand if I could. I do not hear a return response.

A few minutes later, the pilot tries again. Again, no response from the “tower.” His third effort is also met with eerie silence. Succeeding efforts draw a similar response.

I am now starting to worry. I imagine landing at the airport, and discovering a bloodbath. On the first day of our photographic safari. I further imagine the assailants, hearing word of our imminent arrival, patiently waiting to pick the wealthy travelers’ pockets. After… we are gone.

What else could it mean if the “tower” wasn’t responding? My nerves were already fraye, because my little run-in at the airport. (See: We Once Went To Africa – Part Two.) Plus, virtually every article in the Nairobi paper, I noticed, included brutal, hyper-aggressive-type verbs, as if the local inhabitants took such behavior in stride. People were always “pouncing” in these articles. Businessmen had the competition “by the throat.”

When we finally landed on a tiny landing strip, there was nobody there. More specifically, there was nothing, other than a small landing strip, there. No airport. No “tower” to alert of our arrival.

What was our pilot doing with his repeated announcements, I inquired? He was alerting nearby airplanes of our position.

I might have been a little jumpy.

Soon, however, the more reasonable portion of my brain took charge. If people had been brutally massacred during photographic safaris, surely the word would have gotten around, and tourists would have stopped going on photographic safaris. To my knowledge, no such misadventures had taken place. (If they had, the Nairobi would have licked its chops covering the “carnage.”)

My paranoia subsided. It was time to settle down. And look at the animals.

Which is what we did, during our twice-daily, two-hour excursions around the game parks. Our guide-driver, Patrick, shuttled us around in a white, Volkswagen minivan, whose roof was specially hinged, so we could stand up inside, and photograph the animals. (Rather than getting out of the minivan, and being eaten.)

The two expeditions took place early in the morning, and around sundown, both animal “feeding times.” Sometimes, the call came out, “Another group just found lions eating a gazelle. Let’s move!” And people would interrupt their breakfasts, and race out to shoot a pride of lions with blood on their faces, eviscerating their prey.

(I never quite “got” the “Circle of Life” concept, so loftily venerated in The Lion King. As far as I can tell, the “Circle of Life” is just animals eating other animals. I know the story. The hyenas take charge, and mess everything up. But what exactly did they do? Eat the animals out of order?)

Dr. M and I specifically skipped the blood banquets. But we never missed our two-a-day opportunities to head out, and meet the animals where they lived. I am not a huge fan of house pets. But experiencing animals, free and flourishing in their natural habitats? There’s something exhilarating about that. That’s what we came to see.

And that’s what we saw. Confident-looking lions, elegant giraffes, zebras (both white zebras with black stripes and black zebras with white stripes. Really.) Lumbering rhinos, hungry hippos, loping herds of antelopes, wildebeests and gazelles, and, my hands-down favorites:

The elephants.

To locate the elephants, we picked up a special “elephant finding” guide. The elderly gentleman – I’ll bet he was around when there was hunting – displayed the traditional low-hanging earlobes – they hung, like a foot down, the result of ear-piercing, and then stretching them with weighted stones. Every once in a while, the guide directed Patrick to stop. He then stepped out of the minivan, and inspected the “signs”, which generally meant elephant poop.

Shortly thereafter, as if on cue, a dozen or more ponderous elephants emerged from the underbrush, and to our excitement, and a little bit, our terror, they surrounded our suddenly flimsy-feeling minivan, as we stood up, and shot dozens of pictures. Photographically, they were almost too close. We had to use our shortest-distance lens to capture them in their enormous entirety.

We also encountered less familiar wildlife. Flocks of exotic birds, such as the highly colorful Superb Starling, which is apparently ubiquitous, because its picture graces a Kenyan stamp. We also saw dik-diks (dwarf antelopes), gerinuks (slender antelopes who eat the high foliage by standing on their hind legs and stretching upward with their giraffe-like necks), dung beetles (beetles rolling balls of dung around that were considerably bigger than the beetles themselves), and the Rock Hyrax (which resembles a guinea pig, but is not quite as attractive.)

The only animal we missed was the cheetah/slash/leopard. This incompletion upset me. But I was only being greedy.

The game park lodges we stayed in were invariably First Class. Our meals featured elegantly prepared entrees, with those cream-filled swan pastries that you regularly find at weddings, for dessert.

So this won’t get too long, I will mention visiting only two, diametrically contrasting locales. One of them was the Mount Kenya Safari Club where peacocks strolled freely in the garden – where we were given the “Vice President’s Suite”, whose giant picture window gave us a magnificent view of the towering Mount Kilimanjaro.

Once, during “Cocktail Hour”, I found myself, seated under a large, mounted elephant head, enjoying brandy and a cigar, wondering, “How did I get here?” and should I really be feeling such giddy excitement, surrounded by a room filled of taxidermied trophies.

On the other side of the coin, we arranged a visit to a Masai village. When we arrived, we found flies everywhere, though the locals themselves seemed entirely untroubled by their landing on their faces.

When we entered the village, I immediately felt my hiking boot stepping into something squishy, which, I looked down, and discovered was cow dung.

“I just stepped in cow shit,” I announced. Then, I surveying the building material of the huts of the village, adding, “This whole place is cow shit.” And so it was.

After hosting a guided tour, the village chief permitted us to take his picture. That’s when I noticed something strange. As I centered him in my viewfinder, I suddenly recognized who he was. This was the same fellow whose picture my friend Jim Burrows had taken when he’d visited Kenya the year before.

Apparently, this was a “show village.” They brought all the tourists there. Now, instead of feeling like white folk exploiting the indigenous population, it seemed more accurate to view the exploitation as mutual.

We got out of the place as soon as we could, many of the flies finding asylum in our minivan as we headed away.

It is, of course, impossible to convey the uniqueness of this once-in-a-lifetime experience in a single posting. (We used up forty roles of film.) But, hopefully, this was a satisfying taste.

Wrapping things up. Tomorrow: Two stories about monkeys, a cultural insight, and an epilogue.