Monday, August 27, 2012

"I Once Won 'The Humanitas Prize'; Unfortunately, I Was Drunk"

Wikipedia tells us that the Humanitas Prize, established in 1974, is “an award for film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning and freedom.”  Barbara Walters said, “What the Nobel Prize is to literature and the Pulitzer Prize is to journalism, the Humanitas Prize has become for American television.”  (Meaning no disrespect to the Humanitas Prize, but when she said that, Ms. Walters may have been on some mind-altering substance herself.)

It’s a nice trophy – a clear, plexiglass rectangle mounted on a black plastic base.  The award also comes with money; the half-hour comedy winner gets ten thousand smackeroos.  I used my prize money to buy my mother some new floor covering for her Toronto apartment.  Nothing says ‘human dignity, meaning and freedom” like some plush, beige, wall-to-wall carpeting.  At least not in our family.

I was awarded the The Humanitas Prize for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977.

Ted Baxter, the annoyingly self-centered news anchor, is stricken with a mild heart attack.  When he returns to work, he is entirely transformed, now committed to appreciating every moment in what he has come to realize is a scarily fleeting existence.  The problem (meaning, the funny part) is that, as annoying as Ted was as a numbskull egomaniac, he is equally as annoying as an appreciator of life. 

Ted regularly disrupts the newsroom, insisting they intermittently stop what they’re doing, sit quietly with their eyes closed and “breathe in life.”  Since his “smell the roses” requirements impede their newsgathering abilities, it is finally decided Ted has to be told to knock it off.  Ultimately, however, they are unable to chastise Ted, because, when you get down to it, he’s right. 

Even though they’re aware that it ultimately wears off, as Ted proves when he returns to his vain and annoying self, the news team is determined to retain that special feeling for as long as they can.  The show ends with them standing awestruck at a window, appreciating a beautiful sunset.

That is the plotline for my episode that won The Humanitas Prize.

Starting as an idea about somebody getting a heart attack, the story evolved into an episode promoting human dignity, meaning and freedom.  Sometimes, you just get lucky.

I submit “Ted’s Change of Heart” to the Humanitas Prize judging committee, an assembly of Paulist priests headed up by the prize’s originator Father Elwood Kieser and I leave the rest to Heaven. 

And it came to pass, in the Year of our Lord, 1977, that lo, Earl Pomerantz’s episode was nominated for the Humanitas Prize in the category of half-hour comedy.  I would throw in “Hallelujah!” but I fear I have been blasphemous enough already.)

There’s an “Awards Luncheon” in the middle of the day (because that’s when you eat lunch) at an L.A. “Restaurant Row” eatery called “The Tail of the Cock”, a name not easy to acknowledge without giggling. 

If you’re nine.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show has its own table.  All the nominated shows do, including the competitors in my category, All In The Family and M*A*S*H.  I immediately realize that with that kind of competition, I have no chance in hell (with apologies to the Fathers) of winning.

We sit down, I take off my shoes.  I’m Canadian – that’s what we do.  (Because our footwear is usually waterlogged with melted snow.)  There is wine on the table.  It’s free.  I’m not a big drinker, but the combination of free alcohol and my absolute certainty of losing is too tough to resist. 

As I enjoy my free lunch, I consume an enormous amount of wine.

The “Awards Presentation” begins. 

Half-hour comedy category:

They call my name.

I have won the Humanitas Prize.

And I am entirely inebriated.

I get up…unsteadily, and, I make my way to the podium. 

In my socks.

Having not expected to win, I have nothing prepared to say.  And since I am extremely drunk, my mind – where I do my best thinking – is at the moment unavailable to me. 

So I babble.  I had never attended a Humanitas event before, so I have no idea what’s appropriate.  It’s an award situation, so I start thanking people.  My agent, everyone at our table, all the people who worked on the show and made it worthy of recognition.  I slap random words together, the majority of them slurred.  I finish my speech, and pad stocking-footedly away.

Then I remember something.  I had forgotten to thank the drug company, of whose generous largesse I was now a recipient.  I turn around, and go back to the microphone. 

“I forgot to say something, “ I continue, in “Part B” of my acceptance speech.  “I want to thank the people who put up the money for this prize.”  I should really have stopped there, but I was drunk, so I didn’t.  Instead, I added, before concluding my remarks, “They must really make a lot to be able to give this much away.”

And then I sat down.

After the ceremonies, there was a press conference for the winners.  The other Humanitas categories included hour drama, movies-for-television and documentaries.  I remember getting angry because the representative for the documentary – an actual firefighter – and the winner for comedy – myself – were not being asked any questions, the reporters instead focusing on the drama and the movies-for-television winners, who were deemed to be more prestigious.  Still, drunk, I spoke up.

(INDICATING THE FIREFIGHTER) “Why don’t you ask him a question?  He saves people’s lives!”

After perfunctorily dealing with the firefighter, the press corps finally turns to me for a single penetrating question:

“Do you also write barefoot?”

I don’t recall my answer.  But there was a scowl included in my response.

A final step remained in the proceedings.  After the press conference, we were driven to the NBC Studios in Burbank, where the Humanitas Prize winners would pre-tape an interview to be broadcast on the following morning’s Today Show.  I spent the entire twenty-minute drive with my head out the window, gulping down enormous amounts of air, in hopes of sobering up before the interview.

It was not to be. 

A person does not get on the Today Show that often.  You would hope that on that exceptional occasion when you do, you will not be babblingly incoherent.  In my case, that hope was ignominiously dashed by the unwise consumption of several glasses of complimentary red wine.

I made no sense whatsoever.  And I looked drunk on the air.

I had won an award promoting human dignity.  And in the process, I had lost all of mine.
A Redemptive Postscript:  Three months later, I met a woman outside a hospital, and we took a walk.  I did not mention my name, but I did say I had won the Humanitas Prize that year.  As it turned out, the woman was studying film and television production at Loyola Marymount University, a facility administered by the Paulist priests, who vote for the Humanitas Prize.  She asked at school “Who won this year’s Humanitas Prize for comedy?”, she got in touch with me, and we were ultimately married. 

This fortuitous encounter puts a happy ending on my Humanitas Prize debacle.

But that does not mean I don't think about it.

And cringe.


Carlton said...

That might be a funny sit-com episode, itself. Certainly most of us have done things that are cringe-worthy; but most of us don't get the opportunity to do so on such a BIG stage. It must be some consolation knowing you also got 10-thousand smackeroos. I do vaguely recall that episode. Obviously, it was very good!

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; that you cringe today made my laughing at your story all the more uncomfortable. It was funny and sad, then funny again.

Thank you,