Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"It's Not The Same"

This post was inspired by a post I read yesterday on Ken Levine’s always-rewarding blog, One of the things I appreciate about Ken’s blog – perhaps the thing I appreciate most – is that Ken mentions my blog in a list of blogs he recommends as worth checking out, and people come here because of that. Maybe some of them are you. Hello.

Yesterday, Ken offered his opinion on Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, which he liked but didn’t love. Our assessments are close on this movie, which I liked a lot, but didn’t love. Though I did love it in certain spots. But I also didn’t like it in certain spots. Add them together and divide them by the total number of spots, and it comes out “really liked but didn’t love.”

The part I liked the best was the structural conceit of, you’re walking down some quaint little side street in Paris, and an old car shows up and drives you to the 1920’s. This exercise in fantasy was masterfully executed. The Owen Wilson character, who was chauffeured to an earlier era, displayed precisely the right amount of incredulity at this unexpected turn of events. Woody Allen did not belabor the unlikelihood, nor did he did blithely shrug the situation off, consigning it conveniently to the category, “Stuff happens in movies.”

Either alternative would have compromised the moment. But like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Woody Allen did it “just right.”

Ken’s less than rave response to Midnight in Paris was not what caught my attention, and – not exactly raised my hackles, but definitely stirred them around a little. My adrenalin perked up when Ken zeroed in on a particularly weak scene in the movie.

Needing a last-minute present to give somebody from the past, the Owen Wilson character appropriates his fiancee’s diamond earrings. The particularly weak scene involves his fiancee’s frantically searching for her earrings, while Owen stammeringly, and less than persuasively, tries to cover up.

I agree with Ken that this scene exhibited “lazy writing.” If this were a film school project, I, as Woody’s teacher, would have scrawled, “Upgrade!” across the scene’s indifferently written pages.

Having accurately identified the slackly written scene, Ken then, in my view, proceeds a bridge too far, by saying,

“On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions.”

To which I say,

Ken. Anyone who wrote on Frasier can be indisputably proud of their accomplishments. But – and not meaning to be glib about it – there’s a reason there was no Frazier – The Movie.

Television comedy – and here, I am not referring to mini-movie sitcoms, like The Office and Parks and Recreation, but to comedies filmed in front of a studio audience, like Frasier – is an entirely different animal than feature film comedy. To criticize a movie scene for not measuring up to its sitcom equivalent, is like criticizing a rhinoceros for not having a trunk.

Not since the Bob Hope era were movies required, or expected to, fling rapid-fire one-liners at its audience. Movies proceed at an entirely different pace. There are considerably more scenes in movies, so a dependence on one “block comedy” scene – standard in the almost invariable six-scene sitcom – is not as essential. Movies also display a more naturalistic reality level, both in the situation, the thought processes of the characters, as well as the dialogue.

The fact is – and it’s what I resisted most vigorously when I was writing for television – the sitcom format itself is fundamentally artificial. (And way more than it needs to be.)

There are legitimate reasons for this. When you are required to turn out twenty-two episodes a year, you inevitably surrender to, let’s not say a formula, because it sounds “hacky”, but at least a template, so you are not re-inventing the wheel every single week.

Also, there is only so much space on a studio soundstage, limiting the number available sets to two “standing sets” – sets that were used on every episode, and one “swing” set – a restaurant, a doctor’s office, etc, a location needed to tell that particular story.

In addition, earlier on at least, as yet unavailable technology meant there were no monitors for the audience to view scenes that were not being shot directly in front of them, again limited the locational opportunities, which, in turn, constricted the storytelling options.

These logistical considerations generated a straightjacketing sitcom format comparable to a crossword puzzle, where structural maneuverability was at an, often frustrating, minimum, thus leading to a greater reliance on the jokes – virtually the only avenue for creative flexibility.

Two finishing points, possibly three. Throughout my career, I was continually berated for my inability to write jokes, despite the fact that my two most successful pilots, Best of the West and Major Dad, though conspicuously joke-lite, garnered enormous laughs from the audience, and, on occasion, applause.

You can definitely be funny without jokes. As proven, considerably more successfully, by Seinfeld, whose series concept is premised on natural-sounding, everyday conversation (between funny and hyper-observant people.)

Seinfeld also shattered the sitcom mold by multiplying the number of scenes in their episodes. Plus, the show regularly went outside, shooting “New York Street” locations on the studio backlot, in both cases serving the story rather than the Kabuki-like requirements of the situation comedy format.

“A character trying furiously to keep another character else from finding something out.” This is “Hide in the closet!” comedy, a staple in farces of all nations for centuries. Plays would do the scene one way. Sitcoms would handle it similarly, but faster, due to time constraints. And movies would execute the scene their own way, for want of a better word, and I’m getting tired ‘cause we’re nearing the end, cinematically.

Compare a lackluster Midnight In Paris “keeping them from finding out” scene with the brilliance of similarly motived scenes in Some Like It Hot, and I’d say, “Now you’re talkin’!”

But ya duzzn’t hasta compare it with sitcoms. Unless you’re arguing that, generally speaking, television comedies, judged in their own contexts, are better written than comedy movies.

In which case, I wholeheartedly agree.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"My All-Time Favorite Monty Python Sketch"

I mentioned recently that my favorite Monty Python sketch – I actually called it “sublime” – is “Argument”, or as they call it on YouTube, “The Argument Clinic.” With the available technology at my disposal, it occurred to me – I actually heard my “Inner Voice” turn a Cockney kind of British and say,

“‘old ohn, then. I can blah-ee shaw it to ‘em, I can.”

Which is exactly what I’m about to do.

When selecting a favorite, there are a lot of classic Python sketches to choose from. “The Dead Parrot” and “The World’s Funniest Joke” rank way up on my list. Bu if I had a gun to my head, and someone said, “Your favorite Python sketch!” I would have to say “Argument.” And also, “Please take that gun away from my head. It could accidentally go off. And besides, would you really shoot me if refused to respond? That’s blah-ee demen’ed, that is.” (There’s that Cockney guy again.

The reason I rate “Argument” Number One is because it contains the comedic elements I most admire and am most personally tickled by. “Argument” is smart and silly at the same time. And it’s also brilliantly satirical, poking fun at the compulsively orderly way in which the British go about their business.

Smart, silly and satirical. The three “S’s” of comedy. You can’t get much be’a than ‘at, ahm afride. (I cahn’t seem to shike ‘im. Good Lord, he’s infiltrated the brackets.)

Here’s the idea. A man goes to a clinic where, in some bizarre idea of personal amusement, you pay money to engage in an argument with a trained professional.

As I mentioned when I discussed “writing silly”, when doing so, it is essential to remain scrupulously logical within the context of the silly world you are dealing with, which “Argument” delightfully does. Except in one instance.

See if you can detect what that is.

And now, nitpicking aside, please enjoy


We start with a man walking into an office, anticipating that his unique little pleasure will be adequately satisfied.


Monday, June 27, 2011

"A Growing Suspicion"

I regularly read Ken Levine’s spectacular blog,, which is about a variety of things, but primarily it’s about sitcom writing. I recall a posting he wrote – he writes numerous postings on this subject – wherein Ken educates his readers on the thought processes behind the decisions he and his partner David Isaacs make when they’re putting together a script.

“To get out the exposition in the most interesting way, we did so-and-so. We set up the problem like this, introduced the complication like that, we inserted the office scene to service the this and establish the that, we raised the stakes with an obstacle such as this, and we imagined the funniest possible payoff for the story, which we determined was that.”

It was truly masterful. A virtual sitcom-writing textbook in a single posting. Aspiring writers could stick it on the wall over their computers, follow the template, and before they knew it, they’d be buying a big house. Well, maybe not, but they would definitely be on the right track.

“I got the blah, and then the thing, and then the obstacle and then the payoff. ‘Fade Out.’ ‘The End.’ Ship it!”

What amazes me is not that Ken Levine knows how to write the heck out of a sitcom script. I worked with him. I knew that already. What amazes me is that he remembers all that. Not the story structure. After years of doing it, that’s ingrained in your Brain Place. What Ken remembers that amazes me are the specifics.

I, on the other hand, whose career extended roughly as long as Ken Levine’s, recall almost nothing of the experience. Peaks and valleys. But a detailed breakdown of an entire script? I won’t know. Don’t ask me.

I know I did it. I have the dusty scripts in the garage to prove it. But for the life of me, I do not remember how.

Ask me what I remember most about my three years writing scripts – twenty-four in all – for the Mary Tyler Moore Company, and I will immediately respond,

“Eating lunch on the Gunsmoke street.”

There was a standing exterior set on the Studio City lot, where they filmed all the Dodge City gunfights, as well as those scenes with Doc and Festus yammering away as they headed down to the Long Branch for a drink.

Every chance I got, I would pick up a sandwich at the studio commissary, trek over to the “Western Street”, plunk myself down on the boarded sidewalk, eat lunch, and luxuriate in my surroundings.

I know I attended meetings where we “beat out” the stories, that means we mapped out in painstaking detail the two acts and the, usually, three scenes within those acts, down to the smallest story moment, before I was sent off to write the script. But quiz me on the specifics, and you’ll be met with a blank, lost and helpless stare.

What remains in my mind are the cowboy lunches.

Moving on to Paramount Studios, where I created Best of the West, my first thought in the Remembrance Department is that my parking space was in a lake.

Not when the lake was filled with water. But my designated space in the Paramount Studios parking lot was in a numbered spot in a humungous water tank, which, when filled for production purposes, served as a lake. And sometimes, for the filming, for example, of The Winds of War, an ocean.

This is my strongest recollection of my tour of duty at Paramount Studios. Parking in in a water place. And being relocated, whenever the water showed up.

Universal? Where I created Family Man and developed Major Dad?

After lunch in the commissary, my friend Paul, who also worked at Universal, and I would take walks, tracing the route of the world famous Universal Tour, where we would invariably stop by the “Flash Flood” exhibit, where the big tree fell down on cue, and wave cheerfully at the tourists on the passing trams, assuring them we were okay, and undamaged by the raging torrents.

Eight and a half years at Universal. And that’s what I remember.

It’s like I was sleepwalking through my entire career.

As a result of my surprisingly spotty recall concerning close to thirty years (thirty-five if you count Canada and is there any reason I shouldn’t?) in which I was working in television, I have begun to suspect there’s a malady attached to this remarkable and unfortunate – if you happen to find yourself writing a blog – memory loss.

Meaning no disrespect to people suffering from the actual affliction, I believe I am suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It must be. It’s the only way I can explain the cavernous lapses in my recall ability.

The following description does not seem unduly hyperbolic. There I am, cowering in the trenches, scared out of my wits at the enormity of the undertaking and the omnipresent fear of career extinction, the unceasing emotional battering resulting in my only being able to remember assorted scattered incidents, illuminated by the “rockets red glare” and the “bombs bursting in air.”

Normally, I remember things. I just wrote about my Junior High School teacher from fifty years ago. I remembered Miss Lloyd! Why can’t I remember my months of creativity and planning assembling Major Dad and Best of the West?

Why? Because I was out of my mind!

That’s the only reason I can think of.

Do I equate my experience with a soldier in combat? Don’t think for a second that I do. But there are similarities. The enormous gaps in my recall. And my reluctance to dwell too long on what happened.

Bruce Jay Friedman wrote a book where his protagonist toils in the Public Relations Division of the Police Department. For his services, the character receives, not the real thing, but a mini badgette.

I think I have the badgette version of PTSD.

Call it Post Traumatic Television Syndrome.

It was fun. But boy, was it scary.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Imagination, Eh? (Doesn't Seem Very Practical)"

I take no joy in criticizing my country of origin, but there is persuasive evidence around, suggesting that my beloved home and native land is seriously lacking in imagination.

Not all kinds of imagination, I must disclaim off the top. In the “imagination that leads to discovery” category, Canada holds a back seat to no one. We did invent insulin, don’t forget. I know it was 1923, but, as far as I know, there is no statute of limitations on tooting your own horn about life-saving discoveries, managed by jabbing a needle in your arm every day. That one holds up.

What I am talking about are frivolities. It is highly unlikely Canada could have invented the Slinky or the Hula Hoop. That, for better or worse, is not us.

In the “Frivolity” department, Canadians apparently have a recessive gene of “fun.” “Fun” is quintessentially American. Not necessarily because Americans like fun, but because they know that “fun” invariably arrives conjoined to its jingly Siamese Twin – “profit.” And “America” is “profit” spelled backwards. Not really, but wouldn’t it be amazing if it was?

“The Voice of the Lord hath spoken in our spelling.”

Evidence that Canada is deficient in the “Frivolity” sub-section of “Imagination”:

I have mentioned elsewhere that the game of basketball, invented in Canada, flamed out as a popular sport when Canadians, employing peach baskets for baskets, refused to cut out the bottoms, fearing the ruination of two perfectly good peach baskets. This resulted in all the games inevitably ending with a score of “two-to-nothing.” (After the first basket, the ball didn’t come out, and the game was over.)

The preceding story may have been made up, but, the following, sad to say, is not.

In 1967, Canada got a new flag. What’s on it? A leaf. How’s that for imagination? It’s like a a guy was heading over to the “flag design” committee meeting, spotted a leaf on the ground, and said,

“What aboot that?”

And the proposal met with resounding approval.

“A leaf. That’ll do just fine.”

Speaking of leafs – he ingeniously segued – Toronto has a much revered hockey team, called the Toronto Maple Leafs. When I was a boy, before the Blue Jays, Toronto served as the home of a minor league baseball team. The name of that Triple “A” franchise?

The Toronto Maple Leafs.

Based, I suppose, on the argument:

“They already know one name. Why make them learn another one?”

Practical to a fault. But imaginative? Sorry, boys. Low marks.

I have saved the most spectacular example of deficient imagination for last. Also in the sports arena. But this time, it’s football.

Things have changed in recent years, but again, when I was growing up, there were nine teams in the Canadian Football League. Two of them had the same name.

By contrast, the National Football League has thirty-two teams. That’s three times plus five teams as many as the number of teams in the Canadian Football League. And yet, facing that daunting challenge, the challenge the Canadian Football League had so ignominiously fumbled, the CFL’s American counterpart was able to come up with thirty-two different names for their teams.

Quibblers will maintain that the two Canadian Football League teams with the same name do not have exactly the same name. (And here, he belatedly mentions the names.) One of them was the Saskatchewan Roughriders. And the other was the Ottawa Rough Riders.

See the difference? One word. Two words.

Quibblers will also assert that the two teams bearing the same name played in different divisions of the Canadian Football League – the Ottawa Rough Riders playing in the Eastern Conference, the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West.

“Oh, well, then. It’s okay.”


“How about if one of them’s called the Roughriders, and the other one’s called the Rough Riders?”


I will remind these quibblers that the National Football League has eight divisions. Yet they did not deem it worth courting ridicule by placing teams with the same name in all eight divisions. Or even one other division, say, the Miami Dolphins and the Seattle Dol Fins.

American quibblers will bring up the fact that for a time, New York had a baseball team and a football both called the Giants. I suggest further research be done to determine if there were any Canadians involved in that decision. Besides, the Giants baseball team, affected at least in part I’m sure, by the embarrassment of having to share a name with the football team, sensibly picked up stakes and moved to San Francisco. Where the football team’s called the 49ers.

My heart goes out, in retrospect, to the beleaguered CFL announcers, especially the radio announcers, who were required to call a game where the Saskatchewan Roughriders were pitted against the Ottawa Rough Riders. I can imagine the proceedings going something like this:

Roughriders ball on the Rough Riders thirty-five. Roughriders break the huddle, heading up to the line of scrimmage – the Roughriders on one side, the Rough Riders on the other. The ball is snapped. Handoff to the Roughriders fullback, who blasts through the Rough Riders front line…breaking tackles, and charging into the Rough Riders secondary, where he’s swarmed over by Rough Riders. Fumble – Roughriders! Picked up by the Rough Riders, racing the other way, the Roughriders in hot pursuit. The Rough Rider fumble returner is finally brought down by the Roughriders on the Roughrider twenty-two. First and ten, Rough Riders deep in Roughrider territory, with the score Rough Riders – twenty-one, and Roughriders – sixteen, after the two-point “rouge” scored earlier by the Roughriders.”

I have heard that a number of those CFL announcers were heavy drinkers. I can easily understand why.

Standard Rebuttal: But Earlo, you’re frivolous to a fault, and you’re Canadian.

Standard Rebuttal Response: That may be true. But I had to change countries, or spend my life in the principal’s office.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Writing About The Process"

You may think this is a “Filler Posting.” It may actually be a “Filler Posting”, I can’t say for sure, I haven’t written it yet. However, if the judgment as to whether this is a “Filler Posting” is based on the writer’s intention, let me assert forthwith that this is not in any way intended to be a “Filler Posting.” Understanding that if “intention” is not the criterion for whether a “Filler Posting” is a “Filler Posting”, then it may, in fact, be a “Filler Posting.” This opening paragraph is certainly a “Filler Opening Paragraph.” I am just clearing my throat.

The idea for this posting came to me in the car. I’ve been thinking for weeks about writing a story entitled Great Moments In History (That Almost Certainly Never Happened). I was imagining it might develop into a series, though at the moment, I have only one Great Moment In History (That Almost Certainly Never Happened, and for a series, I would probably need more.

I wanted to write about comprise in government. To me, that’s what government’s all about – getting something done by having the opposing sides give and take on their positions, until a mutually acceptable compromise has been attained. This issue is current, because, given our highly polarized political landscape, compromise’s reputation has been blackened, resulting in the fact that nothing important is getting done.

The problem is, contrarian that I am, the first issue that came to mind is one in which compromise is entirely out of the question.

This self-sabotage occurred, because the “funny” part of me took charge and said, “Compromise, shmompromise. Important but dull. Now, wouldn’t it be funny if I took an issue that was entirely uncompromisable, and treated it as if it were?

This led to my idea for Great Moments In History (That Almost Certainly Never Happened) wherein I imagined two emissaries, one representing the North, the other, the South, who meet secretly in an Eleventh Hour effort to avert the Civil War.

Their discussion involves a compromise over the issue of slavery. The Southern representative proposes that, to prevent a disastrous civil war, the South will agree to free the slaves

One day a week.

Does that make you laugh? It makes me laugh. Why? Because it takes a reasonable concept – compromise – and fills that concept with Silly Putty, by applying it to an arena in which, due to the specific nature of that situation, it cannot reasonably apply.

(It is always risky to explain why something is funny. The explanation is invariably boring, it could possibly be wrong or at least a less likely explanation than another that has not as yet come to mind, and thirdly, the funny thing whose ha-ha inducing quality you are trying to explain may, in fact, not be funny, at least not to everyone. This is why I generally avoid explaining comedy, this being a notable exception.)

Why does this concept interest me? Because I like writing about ideas. I have fun writing dialogue, which the proposed posting, after the introduction, would include nothing but. I enjoy the Comedy of the Absurd – exemplified most sublimely in Monty Python’s classic “Argument” sketch. This idea has it all.

And yet, for the moment at least, it must be filed under the category:

Postings I Can’t Write



Setting aside the taste issue – whether writing about slavery with even the most benign intentions would be okay – and the fact that I believe in compromise and it might be counterproductive to heap satirical derision at its doorstep, the main reason I am currently unable to tackle this posting is because it’s hard.

There’s a legal-argument-level logical clarity required in writing a posting in which the two opposing pre-Civil War factions debate freeing the slaves one day a week. (I just like saying that. It makes me giggle every time.)

If you’re writing something silly, it must make indisputable internal, logical sense. Otherwise, it’s just stupid. Any sloppiness in its execution can send it careening off the rails into disreputable Goofyland.

Think of Alice In Wonderland. The rules in Wonderland are different, but they are inviolably adhered to. Consider Catch-22, a masterpiece of a specific kind of logic – military logic – turned against itself, until it is entirely and murderously illogical.

“I’m want a discharge from combat, because I’m crazy.” “Why do you think you’re crazy?” “Because I think the war’s going to kill me.” “If you think the war’s going to kill you, you are not crazy, and are therefore not entitled to receive a discharge from combat.”

That’s some catch, that Catch-22. Sublime logic. And you’re dead.

And why does a posting’s difficulty to execute trigger my decision to temporarily put it off? Because, at the moment, given the demanding requirements of the undertaking,

I simply haven’t the strength to pull it off.

(Making this vulnerable to the charge of “Filler Posting.” I am writing about not writing something.)

For the past three weeks, I’ve been fighting a cold. Or an allergy. Or an upgrading of my acid reflux condition. Or something else. (House has affected the way I think about illness. One symptom – five possible causes.)

Whatever it is, and this is what I really wanted to tell you, though there is no heavy lifting involved, an explanation for why many writers become writers, the process of writing, the rigorous demands of focusing and concentrating, thinking and revising, evaluating and improving, this process takes an unbelievable amount of energy.

And though I have enough of it to write this, I lack the sufficient amount of inner “go juice” to write what amounts to, if executed successfully, a Socratic dialogue on the subject of freeing the slaves one day a week. (There I go again, though not quite as enthusiastically.)

Consider the well-oiled machine. That’s a writer at full strength. Anything less – a proverbial bug in the system – and your performance is thrown off. Can you write when you don’t feel well? Of course, you can. When you’re under a deadline, you have to. Some athletes have even reported playing better when they’re sick, the illness requiring them to intensify their concentration.

I can’t do that. I never could. If there was any wiggle room at all, I made a point not write when I felt crappy, as I knew my condition would diminish my sharpness, and my diminished sharpness would produce a script that was fighting a cold. (Or whatever it is was I actually had.) So I didn’t do it.

And I’m not doing it now.

When you notice a posting that begins with two pre-Civil War negotiators sitting down at a conference table, you will know I’m at full strength.

Till then, the oppressed people of my story will not be enjoying “No Slave Tuesday.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The other day it was labeling. Today, it’s packaging. I’m nothing if I’m not about externals.

“The blog writer you read. Is he deep?”

“He’s very deep about the surface.”

It’s a little story. Something I happened to notice. And I thought I would write about it today.

I knew this guy once who was working on – producing, directing, maybe both – an original musical about pioneers, employing traditional, American folk music. I mentioned to him that I was interested in both pioneers and musicals, and asked if I could take a look sometime.

As it turns out, they were having a Dress Rehearsal of the show that weekend, and the guy graciously invited me to drop by. He gave me directions to get to the theater. I looked entirely befuddled – he didn’t know “befuddled” is my default facial position – so he suggested, instead, that I come to his house, and he’d drive me there himself. I made a great effort to look less befuddled when he gave me directions to his house.

The drive turned out to be relatively easy. I only got lost twice.

Okay, so we’re at this little theater. I believe it was in a church. Or near a church. I have the distinct recollection of crosses. The guy sits me down in the empty “house” – “house” meaning the place where the audience sits, and “empty” meaning that, at that moment, I’m the only one sitting there.

Everyone else is in frantic motion, making final adjustments for the show’s first complete run-through with costumes. I sit there, enchanted, taking in this incomparable and magical show before the show.

People are hammering. They’re positioning the props. They’re rolling in the covered wagon – what’s a pioneer musical without a covered wagon?

The writer and director huddle over last minute changes. The actors are running their lines. The singers are vocalizing. The dancers are limbering up, doing things with their legs I couldn’t possibly do, but did not mind watching.

A few weeks earlier, a CD had been recorded of the complete musical score. The guy had given me a copy, and I had listened to it many times. I really liked it, particularly a haunting ballad, delivered by a pioneer woman who was about to die.

Suddenly, through the preparatory din, my ears caught the plaintive strains of that haunting ballad. This did not sound like the same voice that had performed the song on the CD. Though the CD rendition was good, the version I was currently listening to sounded substantially better.

I looked around to determine where the singing was coming from. Finally, I spotted a young woman in an oversized sweatshirt and overalls, hauling something onstage, I don’t remember what, but it appeared to be extremely heavy. As she transported this ponderous prop, the woman, for her own amusement, it appeared, was j“killing” with this song. I mean, this lady was knocking it out of the park!

Now I could be coy here and pretend to wonder why this clearly talented “Prop Girl” wasn’t performing in the musical. But it wouldn’t be true. I knew instantly why she wasn’t in the show.

The young woman was – please forgive me, but I am telling it the way it was – very seriously overweight. And that, as they say, was that. If they were doing Hairspray, maybe. In a pinch. But in this show, and almost any other you can think of, the young woman, whose abilities argued persuasively she should be “up there”, did not – excuse me, once again – fit. Everything about her said “Stagehand.” Nothing about her said “Actor in a musical.”

Except for her talent.

I had witnessed this phenomenon before. I recall a girl at camp who played piano for the shows. Once, during a rehearsal break, for reasons only she could explain, the accompanist hopped onto the stage and belted out one of the show’s signature melodies with an ability and verve the show’s performers came nowhere close to matching. But her “packaging” said, “Sorry.” And when rehearsals resumed, she was once again in front of the piano.

Is that just the way it is? “Type casting” for everything? Including life? No wiggle room? No chance to defy the mold? People look at you, and you’re pigeonholed? Actor? Stagehand?

I hated that I understood the young woman’s predicament so easily.

And I wished for her – and for myself as well, I imagine – that the situation were otherwise.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"The Speech"

A few weeks ago, Dr. M asked me if I would make the welcoming speech at her psychological institute’s upcoming fundraising dinner. I said no. I then went home and immediately wrote the speech.

I showed it to her, to see if the content was appropriate. That was one of my concerns. On those rare occasions when I’m asked to speak at an event, my initial response isn’t not, “That’s too scary for me”, it’s “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

I had still not agreed to make the speech. I just wanted Dr. M to see what I would say in it, if I did. Though I do have to acknowledge that it’s a little weird to write a speech I had already refused to deliver.

I have never asserted that I was normal.

My “I wouldn’t know what to say” concern dissolved when Dr. M enthusiastically approved of the content. But there were other obstacles to overcome. Agreeing to perform before strangers is generically scary. To anyone. Even the most experienced practitioners. It was said that Jack Benny, who told jokes to audiences for over half a century would bite his fingernails to the quick, in fearful anticipation of how the audience would respond.

In the speech I wrote, I immediately tried to curry favor with a self-deprecating introduction:

Good evening. I’m Earl Pomerantz. I’m (Dr. M’s) husband. Dr. M is the Clinical director of the (name of institute.) If this were a show business event, I would be considered, what they call, the “non pro.”

Beyond generic nervousness, however, there was also the fact that this was an audience of practicing psychotherapists. As I said in my speech,

I have to tell you, I feel a little uncomfortable standing up here in front of a roomful of psychological professionals. Right now, you’re probably assessing my body language, thinking, (WITH CONCERN) “I ought to give him my card!”

And on top of all that, these were Dr. M’s co-workers I’d be taking on. One of whom was the institute’s founder, a woman who, though miraculously robust, was a hundred-and-two years old. In my many years around these people, I had never heard one person poke even the gentlest of fun in her direction. (At her age, it could easily prove to be the “cause of death.” Nobody wants that on their resume.) I registered my “taste” concerns in the speech.

I also feel a little uncomfortable, because, being an outsider, I’m not exactly sure how to approach this. I don’t know what’s appropriate to say. Where’s the line? I mean, you have your founder, (mentioning her name), a woman who’s a hundred and fifty years old…knew Freud personally…they may have had a little…(wavering hand gesture, indicating an intimate relationship) It’s hard to know for sure. There’s nobody left to ask.

Can I say that? – I don’t know – Is that okay?

There would also be a special honoree that evening.

And then there’s the man we’re honoring tonight, (mentioning his name.) What can I say about him? That’s (Dr. M’s ) boss. She has to go in there on Monday.

­And then I said,

Let’s try this.

The fact is, (the honoree) and I don’t have a giant direct relationship. What it amounts to pretty much is that, at his Christmas party, I carry in the ham. And get pig juice on my sports jacket. That sports jacket cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

As is my way, the content of my speech was based entirely on fact. Except, maybe, the “Jewish cemetery” thing. That may not be true. I am not beyond inserting elements for comedic effect.

But not many. Firstly, “Sticking to the facts” is my comedic “comfort zone.” I do carry in the ham at the guy’s Christmas party. And, on occasion, I have dribbled pig juice on my sports jacket.

The second advantageof sticking to the truth is that if they don’t laugh, I can always fall back on, “I’m not trying to be funny; I’m just telling you what happened.”

Moving on…

Adopting the “put upon” persona I’ve been promoting for a lifetime, both onstage and off, I proceed to tell an extended story about how, though, I am not accustomed to cooking,

I came from a generation that never thought we would have to. We were wrong.

When Dr. M calls at the end of the day from work saying she’s coming home, it occasionally falls to me to prepare dinner.

Which I semi-graciously do, fixing the only thing I know how to cook – broiled chicken,

It’s easy. As long as you remember to turn on the broiler. I forgot to do that once. Dr. M came home, and it was, like,


rice pilaf,

No problem there. The directions are on the side of the box.

and, for a vegetable – broccoli.

Which involves boiling water and steaming, but I don’t remember for how long. Broccoli doesn’t come with directions.

The problem arises when,

Just as Dr. M is about to leave, (her boss) saunters into her office, plunks himself down on one of her chairs and says,

“(first name of Dr. M)…I’d like to run something by you. “

He then proceeds to tell her about a problem he has already talked to her about…five thousand times. But he behaves as if he has never spoken to her about the problem before. What’s the problem?

(WITH INTENSIFYING CRAZINESS) “We’re running out of money. Where’re we gonna get the money? We gotta to find the money! We need to make some money! How’re we gonna get the money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money!!!

By the time Dr. M finally comes home – two hours late –

....the chicken is all dried out, the rice pilaf is a brick, and the broccoli is all… (gesture, indicating wilted)…it’s like seaweed.

That is the nature of (Dr. M’s boss) and my “indirect” relationship. I’m collateral damage. Keeping her there listening to his obsessing, turns my gourmet dinner into chicken jerky…and two totally inedible side dishes.

Those are the highlights of my speech. I worked on it every day, sharpening, refining, doing everything I could think of to continually make it better. All the time insisting that I wanted to do it. Dr. M replied that if I didn’t, that was okay. She would write her own speech and deliver it herself.

Over the next couple of weeks, I asked Dr. M how her speech was coming. She told me she’d been too busy attending to the myriad details of the event to get to it. Her behavior gave me the feeling that she would never write that speech, and I’d be pressed into service, whether I wanted to be or not. So I continued working on mine.

Then, three days before the fundraiser, Dr. M e-mailed me a draft of a speech she had written, asking me if I would take a look at it.

Dr. M’s speech was very good. And more importantly, it was vastly more suitable than the speech I had written. If you go back, you will notice one prominent element in my speech’s construction.

It is not about the Institute. It is not about the fundraiser. It’s not, except tangentially, about that night’s honoree.

The speech was almost entirely about me.

I called Dr. M and told her I really liked her speech. I then went to work, doing what I do best.

I helped make her speech better.

That evening, I sat proudly as Dr. M stood at the podium. Her speech, which we had practiced together at home, was solid, appropriate and successful.

I was certain the right decision had been made. Though it did not stop me from quietly mouthing portions of my speech to myself throughout the evening.

Monday, June 20, 2011


This almost never happens to me. The last time, I was twenty-two. Which makes it, I believe, worthy of a post.

Dr. M and I were invited to a celebration, honoring…I have to keep this vague, because…well, you’ll see in a moment.

The celebration was held at a Russian restaurant in a non-descript edifice in the Valley, except that it had turrets. The restaurant was on the Second Floor. (A Chinese restaurant was on the First Floor.) You had to go up in an elevator. I don’t like elevators. Or celebrations for people I don’t know. (And for very few people I do know.) But I had promised to be a good sport, and not complain.


The elevator opened into a large, cavernous party room. The first thing that catches your eye that, suspended from the ceiling, is this enormous “Old Country”-style chandelier the size of the Mother Ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was hoping we would not be seated beneath it.

The woman in whose honor the celebration was being held came up to greet us. She introduced us to her father, a thick, cinder block of a man reputed to be involved in some murky underworldly entanglements (hence, the requirement for vagueness.) Throughout the evening, the phrase, “rival gang reprisals” was never far from my mind.

Dr. M and I were strategically seated opposite a couple with therapeutic credentials (Dr. M is a psychoanalyst), at a long table, weighed down with platters of appetizers – fish, beef, chicken, caviar, pancakes with butter, potato puffs with sour cream – a virtual cornucopia of delights. “This is all the food that’s missing in Russia,” I cleverly observed. The shrink couple responded with a smile, though it could easily have been mistaken for a wince.

Sitting before me were two glasses – a wine glass, and a short glass, maybe four-inches high, maybe one inch in diameter. The glass was so inconsequential, it seemed like little damage could be done by its contents.

How wrong can a man ignorant to the ways of alcohol be? The glass was for Vodka.

I asked the waitress to take it away. I’d have a little red wine, but that would be it.

The waitress seemed hurt. Like I’d insulted her mother’s borscht. I immediately changed my tune.

“Okay. I’ll have some.”

The waitress filled my glass with a transparent liquid. I raised it my lips, and took a tentative sip. It tasted like spot remover. Either that, or lighter fluid. Of course, I have never tasted either of those things. But I imagine that, taste-wise, it appropriately belongs in that neighborhood.

The contents of my glass disappeared rather rapidly. After all, it was not a big glass. Seeing it empty, a waiter arrived to refill it.

“Please, no”, I insisted. Followed by, “Just a little.”

My glass was immediately re-Vodkafied.

The platters kept coming. Some of the dishes were salty. And since there was no water provided – we actually asked for water, and the waitress made a face – the only way to dilute the food’s salt content was with Vodka.

So that’s what I drank. And I continued to all night. My response to an offer of a third glass was, “Yes, please.” By the fourth glass, I was pouring it myself.

At some point, I began thinking of it as a science experiment, the objective of the study being, “How drunk can I get?”

My first observation was that, as I got more inebriated, I apparently got funnier. Watching the platters of caloric delicacies continuing to arrive, I bemoaned,

“It’s not fair. I have a doctor’s appointment in two days. And they’re going to weigh me!”

The couple across the table – the erstwhile wincers – now roared with laughter at my every pronouncement, including that one, which, to be honest, did not really deserve it. Since these people were also liberally throwing back that clear but potent liquid, I was not sure if I was suddenly hilarious because of the Vodka in me, or because of the Vodka in them. I immediately regretted not saving my “food missing in Russia” comment for later. It would probably have killed!

It was now time for the entertainment. Four women – Dr. M later corrected me, explaining that it was two women and two men. My confusion could have been due to the long hair on the men. Or it could just have been the Vodka.

The performers alternately sang a song in English and a song in Russian, though, except for “My Girl”, they were very difficult to tell apart. My confusion could have been due to the heavy, Russian accents. Or it could have been the Vodka.

Every number was followed by some sort of Slavic “Shout out” that, to my inebriated ears, sounded like this:

“Russian words. Russian words. Russian words. Russian words. ‘Happy Boorsday! Russian words. Russian words. Russian words. Russian words.”

I don’t dance. I danced. Crazily. Meaning, loose-limbed and freely. Under flashing strobe lights that turned the dance floor into a herky-jerky silent movie. Gyrating around me were an uncountable number of stunningly attractive Russian nymphets, all sheathed in breathtakingly tight fitting, sequined party dresses. I could easily have been cited for “Underage Gawking.” And pled “Not guilty because of Vodka.” And lost.

After the music came the live entertainment. Two women Cirque de Soleiled from a rope dropped from the ceiling. A couple danced, twirling fiery torches. A woman undulated provocatively, accompanied by an enormous snake. It was now almost midnight, and I had consumed…a lot. So none of this may have actually happened.

When we left, with the clock inching towards one A.M., they were still delivering fresh platters of food to the tables. There was talk of dessert, but we had consumed enough. We had consumed enough around eight-thirty.

As for my personally conducted science experiment, I learned something very important that night.

Never conduct a science experiment when you’re drunk. You will not remember any of your findings the following day. And if you jotted anything down, you will not be able to read what you wrote. And if you can, it will be nonsense.

What I do remember is having a really good time, and – since, when I’m drunk I can eat anything – eating everything. Plus one Vodka-induced sensation.

My face felt like rubber. And I could not feel my feet.

And I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Great Observation And A Wonderful Joke"

I heard these recently, and, for me, they both hit the target, dead center.

Great observations and wonderful jokes have three things in common. They may have more things in common and I can’t think of what the others are right now, but I know there are at least three.

One, great observations and wonderful jokes are startlingly original. Two, in the case of the observations, they are shimmeringly insightful (and if that insight elicits laughter as well – extra credit.) Wonderful jokes are hilarious (and if they’re insightful as well – ditto on the extra credit.)

The third element, is that both great observations and the wonderful jokes are constructed so artfully, you do not, in any realm of possibility, ever see them coming.

Here now are examples of what I view as Top of the Line versions of a great observation and a wonderful joke. See what you think.

And feel free to offer examples of your own.

The Great Observation

The following is a quote by Ambrose Bierce, a man I know nothing about, but of whom I became an instant fan when I heard he said this:

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

The Wonderful Joke

My “body mechanic” – yes, I have a “body mechanic”; doesn’t everyone? – who’s a former Los Angeles police officer, revealed the local constabulary’s predilection for noirish humor, which he exemplified by passing along one of our Police Force’s favorite jokes:

A man takes a little boy into the forest. They press ahead, going deeper and deeper. It’s dark. It’s creepy. There are wild animals growling in the underbrush.

The little boy says,

“I’m scared.”

To which the man replies,

“You think this is scary. I have to come out of here alone!”

(It may not be everyone’s favorite subject matter – or anyone’s – but you’ll have to admit – unless you heard it before – you did not see it coming.)

“Getting it right” makes a writer dance and sing. That’s because it’s so incredibly difficult to do.

Hats off to Ambrose Bierce, and the originator of “the kid’s not coming out of the forest” joke.

They got it right.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The Best Baseball Movie Ever"

The general consensus is that Bull Durham (1988) is the best baseball movie ever. I agree. It’s the best, because it’s the most real. The players are human and profane, and every moment feels almost documentarily truthful, and probably is to some substantial degree, because Bull Durham’s writer/director, Ron Shelton, played some minor league baseball, the minor leagues being the movie’s setting, specifically Durham, North Carolina.

(I have a rivaling favorite baseball movie that, by contrast, is unrealistic to a fault, but nevertheless conveys the irrepressible spirit of baseball that I know, feel and love. It’s called It Happens Every Spring (1949), and it’s about a baseball-loving college chemistry professor (Ray Milland) who accidentally develops a formula that repels wood.

When the pitcher (Milland) throws a baseball treated with this concoction, the ball hops abruptly over the bat, making the batters continually swing and miss. Yes, it’s a fantasy. There is no such concoction. Also, Ray Milland can’t pitch. But the movie makes me smile in my soul every time I watch it.

How often do they show it? It happens every spring.

There’s a lesson here. A movie doesn’t necessarily have to be real to connect. It just has to hit its intended conceptual target. Like a perfectly thrown strike.)

I looked on YouTube for my favorite scene from Bull Durham, but I couldn’t find it. So I’ll tell you about it instead. The team’s taking a long bus ride to a road game and, to pass the time, the know-nothing young, “phenom” pitcher (Tim Robbins) starts singing, “Try A Little Tenderness”, but he totally botches the lyrics.

“She may get woolly, women do get woolly…”

The arrogant kid’s ignorance irritates the “never made it” minor league veteran catcher (Kevin Kostner), who angrily informs him that the correct lyrics are,

“She may get weary.”

Women don’t get “woolly.” They get weary.

What do I love about this scene that I can’t find on YouTube? Everything. It’s extremely funny, while simultaneously demonstrating a fundamental truth. (People often inadvertently get lyrics wrong, and if they gave it a moment’s thought, they would realize that what they’re singing doesn’t make any sense.)

The scene also demonstrates the inevitable adversarial tussle between youth and oldth. Its inclusion in the movie reminds me of a major difference between feature films and half-hour comedies. In movies, there is always time to go “off story” for a tangential, albeit revelatory, interlude.

I also love that the writer thought of it. The right song, and the exact absurdly wrong word – woolly.” Who knows? Maybe something like this actually happened. You can easily imagine that it could have. Which may be the best good thing about the scene.

My second favorite Bull Durham scene involves the tortured acknowledgement by the Kevin Kostner character near the end of the movie of how very close he came to becoming a Major League ballplayer. One more hit a week – that’s all it would have taken – and he’d have made it to “The Show.”

I couldn’t find that scene either.

There a lot of other on-the-money scenes I could pick, but they all have language I’m not crazy about including on this blog.

Leaving me two available choices. (The numerous options themselves show how remarkable this movie is.) One scene – again on a long bus ride – offers the Kevin Kostner character lyrically regaling his entranced minor league teammates with a description of the idyllic conditions he experienced during his all too brief promotion to the Major Leagues.

“You know, you never handle your own luggage in ‘The Show’? Somebody else carries your bags? You get white balls for batting practice. And the ball parks are like cathedrals.”

You can check that one out for yourselves. I’m going with something else.

I like this scene because it’s funny, but also, it has one of my favorite lines in it. The cocky pitcher insists on throwing his fastball, so as to “announce my presence with authority.” What you have there is a pitcher simultaneously doing his own play-by-play.

Bull Durham is worth watching in its entirely. It’s way more than just a baseball movie. It’s also a multi-faceted love story – man-woman, man-man, and man-personal dream.

Enjoy this scene. Steep yourself its specialness, like the magical baseball in It Happens Ever Spring.

Which I also recommend.