Monday, April 30, 2012

"Euphemisms - Part One"

Euphemisms mean nothing. That’s their designated purpose. You want to obscure some questionable behavior, concoct a euphemism. Covered by a phrase that means nothing, you can get away with virtually anything.

Recently, I talked about Edward Bernays, the guy who invented “Public Relations” – the business and the euphemistic title. Bernays didn’t want people to know he was manipulating the public, so he came up with a euphemism to pretend that he wasn’t.

How do you know something’s a euphemism?

On its own, it makes no literal sense.

“Public” is a word, and “relations” is a word. But put the two together, and, if you were a Martian who knew English but not euphemisms, you would have no idea what they’re talking about.
“‘Public relations.’ As opposed to what, private relations?” Or is it private relations in public. I don’t understand.”

Mock not that hypothetical Martian. Free from euphemistic familiarity, their confusion is entirely not surprising.

There are dozens of euphemisms in common usage, each of them hiding a dirty little secret. Today, we will examine the most magnificent obscuration of them all, the Mother or all Euphemisms:
“Friendly Fire.”




I’m the bullet that’s going to kill you.

Really? I thought you never saw those coming.

It’s not a hard and fast rule.

How come you’re introducing yourself?

Well…I’m friendly.

So. You’re “the bullet with my name on it.”

Not literally, of course, but, that‘s me.

Any chance I luck out and I’m just badly wounded?

Sorry. To be totally honest – and it’s the least you deserve – I’m part of a fusillade. You’ll be dying in a hail of bullets. I’m just the first one to get here.

So I should prepare for a series of bullets flying into my body.

I’m afraid so. But I kill you instantly – you can see by our eye contact that I’m headed for your brain. The other bullets just…you know…make more holes. You won’t feel them at all.

That’s good to know. Well, what did I expect? I’m a combatant. I voluntarily joined up. Nobody put a gun to my head; though they sure made it sound better than this. It’s the Nature of War. Sometimes, you kill the enemy; sometimes, the enemy kills you. This happens to be the second of those options.


What? I’m not dying?

No, you’re dying, all right.

Then what was the “Well”?

I’d rather not say.

What’s there to say? The bullets are flying fast and furious…


And one of them…

To be accurate, a fusillade.

Thank you for reminding me – a fusillade of their bullets is about to hit their mark. What am I missing here?

Do we really have to go into this?

Go into what?


Come on! I haven’t got all day!

Okay. But you’re not going to like it.

You mean, it’s worse than being mowed down in a fusillade of bullets?

Point taken. Let’s say it won’t make things any easier.

Out with it! What’s worse than me being mowed down in a fusillade of enemy bullets?

Being mowed down in a fusillade of bullets from your own people.


I told you you weren’t gonna like it.

My own people are doing this?

Ain’t that a bitch?

My own side. Is shooting me dead.


Don’t they like me?

They like you a lot. When they find out, they’re going to feel terrible about this.

I don’t understand. How did this happen?

I don’t know military jargon, I’m just a bullet…but somewhere down the chain of command, there was some misinformation passed along, the result of which is that, instead of the enemy, your beloved Brothers in Arms are shooting at you. And – credit where credit is due, though I can also see the irony – those guys are really good shots.

“Taken out” by your own people. That is really messed up.

Believe me, although bullets are by nature “casualty neutral”, I am sickened to be a part of this.

What’ll they tell my family?

That you were killed by the enemy.

They’re going to lie?

If they can get away with it. Who’s going to contradict them, the enemy? “I’m sorry. We killed a lot of you people. But not him.”

It doesn’t seem right.

Not morally, but it makes a lot of sense. Your family’s going to feel bad enough as it is about this. Do you really want them to feel bad and pissed off?

I guess not.

It’s win-win. You die a hero. And the army avoids a lawsuit. And if the truth ever comes out, they have a wonderful name for what happened.

What, 'murder'?

“Friendly Fire.”

“Friendly Fire.” (THE SOLDIER THINKS THIS OVER) I like it. It’s painless. It’s alliterative. A First Class euphemism. The last thing you think of is, “killed by his own guys.” That’s funny. That is the last thing I’m going to think of.

Sad but true. ‘Bye.


Friday, April 27, 2012

"A Special Place"

I am not saying it happens a lot.  Or that I come through every time it does.  But it’s happened more than once.  So I say, write it down.

The first time it happened was a few years ago in Toronto, when I was visiting my family.  There was a gathering in my nephew’s backyard and, among other family members, was an infant who was not yet speaking but was nevertheless making a tremendous amount of noise.

Sometimes, that’s how it is with babies.  They’ve been fed, their diaper’s been changed, they should, in theory, have nothing to cry about.  But they’re screeching their heads off.  And nobody knows what to do. 

They simply can not be calmed down.  Not with kisses, not with quiet reassurances, not with gentle rocking – nothing’s working.  If anything, it’s getting worse.  The kid’s bellowing’s getting picked up on “Sonar” in the Southern Hemisphere.

You feel bad, watching this.  The baby is definitely distressed, and you don’t like to see that.  Also – and this is secondary, though that may not be the case for everyone – they are incredibly annoying.  How much caterwauling can you put up with, before seriously considering foster care?

I decide to take action, if by “deciding” you mean I just did it. 

Before I am consciously aware of my actions, I am standing in front of this blubbering infant, opening my mouth, and letting out a series of loud, high pitched whoops.  One after another, each whoop spaced a second or two from its resounding predecessor.


Like that.  I had never done this before, and had no idea why I was doing it now.  It just came to me.  And I whooped.

And it worked!

The kid stopped crying.  He relaxed in his mother’s arms and stared at me.  While I’m whooping away.  Afraid that if I stop stopped, he would immediately start crying again. 

Finally, I run out of steam and the “Whoop Machine” shuts down.  The kid?  He was totally back in the game – comfortable, smiling, done with the five-alarm cacophony that had recently monopolized the proceedings. 

The relatives looked relieved and impressed, but more than both of those, they looked curious.

“Where did that come from?” 

I had to be honest with them.

“I have no idea.”


We are in Hawaii, April, 2012.  My wife and myself, our two daughters and their husbands, and baby Milo, age six months.  A non-speaking infant.

We are driving back from Roy’s, a well-known eatery, a twenty-minute drive up the coast from our hotel.  Milo had behaved impeccably at the restaurant.  The other guests could easily have been unaware there was a baby in the house.  He was as silent as the napkins.   

But it is now past his bedtime, and our luck, in appears, has run out.  Milo starts to cry, a continuous wail complete with little “baby tears” that can shatter your heart, especially if you’re family.  Milo is required to remain in his car seat, so Rachel’s removing him to nurse in not an option.  “Plan B”, his bottle of expressed milk is now empty.  The child is blubbering away.  Nothing, it seems, can mollify his discomfort. 

“Cryomania” is in full swing.  Dr. M, our driver, is breaking the speed limit.  We need to get back to the hotel.  For all our sakes.  I mean, we love Milo dearly, but we – some of us, at least – are this close to shot-putting the kid out the window.

Everything has been tried.  Nothing has succeeded.

Suddenly, without thought…

I begin singing him Jolson songs.  Starting with “Swanee.”  Followed by “April Showers”, “California Here I Come”, and then “Liza”, which I don’t even know.  And I am not just singing these songs, mind you,

I am singing like Al Jolson.

The baby immediately stops crying.  And for the next ten minutes, he sits mesmerized in his car seat, staring at me with these big, saucer, blue eyes.  For the next ten minutes, I “Mammied” our party back to the hotel, with no further unpleasantness.  Except for the singing.

A Jolson medley to quiet a baby.  Where did that come from? 

Recently, a commenter named Dave complimented me on a line I wrote in my posting about the Dalai Lama?  I went back and looked at it.  And, though I had written it just the day before, I had absolutely no recollection of making it up.  That line came from the same special place the decision came from to sing Jolson tunes to an inconsolable infant.  (And to whoop in Toronto.)

Meaning, nowhere I can put my finger on.

I remember the Dalai Lama line was written during my second pass through the material.  It had not occurred to me my first time around.  And then, there it was.

It’s funny, “funny” in the sense of “odd” mixed with “embarrassing.”  I had no control over these things.  Yet I still take pride in having done them.

Does that make any sense at all? 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"'Girls' - From A Distance"

Have you ever wanted to read your young adult daughter’s diary?  Or listen at her bedroom door when she’s dishing her homies?  Or secretly audit her phone conversation with a heterosexual male acquaintance?

I haven’t.

Meaning, the new HBO series Girls is really not for me.  “Not for me” in two ways – “Not for me” the way a slasher movie or seafood restaurants specializing in crustaceans are not for me.  And “Not for me”, meaning, I am not even close to being the show’s target audience.  (Not that I would only watch shows about rapidly aging Jewish men. which is good, because there aren’t any.) 

Also – See:  First paragraph – Girls’ terrain and subject matter makes me eminently queasy.  (It turns out it is “not for me” in three ways.  I should know by now not to specify the number.)

But, you know…I used to create TV series, and Girls’ executive godfather is Judd Apatow who I peripherally know from The Larry Sanders Show, plus I’d been hearing good things about Girls, plus I’m acquainted with one of the lead actors, so I was curious to see what they were doing. 

What they were doing is charming, smart, insightful, funny, quirky without crossing the “Diablo Cody” line, sweet, endearing, human and fresh.  All courtesy of creator/writer/director/star, 25 year-old Lena Dunham. 

Can such a young person satisfyingly perform simultaneously in all these capacities?  She’s doing it, so I guess she can.  (It helps that it’s HBO rather than a commercial network that demands at least 22 episodes per season.  With a shorter order, Dunham can complete all the scripts before starting production, and, if she chooses to, write all of them herself.)  

I imagine a “pitch” for Girls being something like, “It’s Sex In The City for a generation that can’t afford to take a taxi.”

I was no fan of, nor am I an expert concerning, Sex In The City, as I watched less than two entire episodes, repelled by my passionate disinterest in designer footwear and the selection of revealed intimacies that made a subplot out of farting during sex.   


Girls, for me, is more grounded in a world with which I can at least partially identify, and is, therefore, more appealing.  The characters lead believable, contemporary lives.  Hannah, the main character, "works" as an unpaid intern.  (Anna did that at least twice, her second internship evolving to full-time employment.) 

The girls, and their men, also look less like fashion models than like regular people.  Casting talented but –almost as a statement – unglamorous actors is an Apatovian trademark, dating back to Freaks and Geeks, a signal they are conscientiously “going for real.”

Girls’ dialogue seems, for the most part, natural and unforced.  The scenes are short when they need to be, and extended when letting them run would make them better.  (I notice the same thing in Mad Men, the pacing in both cases, feeling, as a result, more of this world than the world of scriptural necessity.  I was constantly writing scenes shorter than they needed to be, in the self-censoring interest of “keeping things moving.”)

The situations and the characters’ response to those situations seem appropriate to their age, and the age they live in.   The sex scenes…oh, dear…feel authentic, motivated, if sometimes irrationally, and not primarily for Peeping Toms.  Best of all – refreshing, because it’s uncommon in American entertainment – their way of going about it reveals illuminating glimpses into character.  It’s not just “doing it.”  (Thank you, Lord, for getting me through that paragraph.) 

And yet – and this is not a bad “and yet”, as the familiarity provides reliability and comfort – Girls’ underlying infrastructure rests on identifiable storytelling construction.  We have seen it before.  Just not this way.

Four gal pals making their way in Manhattan – not new.  The delineation of the lead characters – one’s “together”, one’s a mess, one’s worldly, one’s innocent – diametrical opposites – we have seen that before too. 

This opposition extends to the guys they’re involved with – one, infuriatingly solicitous, the other, less thoughtful than a girl might prefer.  Once again, not are the characters different, but, for dramatic and comedic effect, polarly ying-yang.  

The second episode, in which a girl thinks she’s pregnant, and in the end it turns out she’s not?  That’s “Little old lady, her canary flies out the window…flies back in” – which is the underlying structure of almost every episode I, and virtually ever other television writer, has ever written. 

The “Name of the Game” however, is not what you do – which derives inevitably from the “Scriptwriters’ Toolbox” – but what you do with what you do.  It’s all in the “moves.”  And in that, Girls is a pleasure-inducing delight.

Hannah, an aspiring writer, makes a pitch for her parents’ financial support until she finishes her memoir by saying,

“I think I may be the Voice of my Generation.”

Then, self-awaredly walking it back, she says,

“Or at least…a voice…of a generation.”

(A tiny quibble.  She should have said, “a voice or my generation”, as she is unlikely to be the voice of any other generation.  She could also say, “a voice of my generation, hopefully the one that sells books.”  But that’s just a suggestion.)

In another scene, when Hannah the Writer is trying to console her assumed pregnant friend concerning a scheduled abortion, her friend angrily shoots back,

“I’m not a character for one of your novels.  Stop staring at my face so hard.”

I have never heard that before.  And I like it.

In the end, what makes Girls so appealing to me is the palpably heartbreaking vulnerability of its characters.  I care about these girls.  They could be – and may in fact have been a version of – somebody I fathered.

I don’t know if I’ll watch it again.  The “queasiness factor” may be too much for me to overcome.  But I will root for Girls.

And, perhaps, now and then, I might sneak a little peak.

Veep is cleverly written but has no discernible heart.  If it gets one – and perhaps you can alert me to that – I will give it another try. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Hawaiian Holiday - The Non Dalai Lama Section"

Day One…


Lounge at the beach and read. 


Back on the beach. 

An afternoon dip in the ocean. 

A dip in the pool. 

Exercise in the gym (optional). 




Days Two To Eight…


Possible Reaction Number One:  I am so envious.

Possible Reaction Number Two:  You flew five and a half hours for that?

For me, it’s an ideal vacation. 

But there’s not much to write about.

I can tell you that the weather was sunny with a steady temperature of eighty-four degrees, the heat of the day tempered by the zephyrous trade winds, or as it’s called in the tropics, at least by me, God’s air conditioning.

I can pass along some beach chatter.  At one point, Anna observed,

“[Her husband] Colby’s bathing suit has sharks on it, and Dad’s bathing suit has fish on it.  Colby’s bathing suit could eat Dad’s bathing suit.” 

I was too mellow to read anything into that.
I can relate how, at breakfast, the restaurant’s longtime hostess who knew us from our previous visits, welcomed us back, and inquired how we were doing.  I replied that I was really enjoying our less than “Fully Occupied” April visit, as compared to our traditional and more frenzied Christmas week stays, adding.

“No restaurant reservations.  No fighting over beach chairs.  (See Earlier Post:  “Too Big For My Bathing Suit – a Two Parter.)  No being thrown off the Katzenbergs table.” 

This was a residual sore point.  On an earlier visit, while I was breakfasting, this same hostess had approached me with the news that I had mistakenly been seated at a table that the Katzenberg family (Jeffrey Katzenberg being the Dreamworks co-founder) had reserved for their entire two-week stay, and I would therefore have to move, which I begrudgingly did.

“You remember that?” she exclaimed, a note of anguished surprise in her voice.

The surprise was not that I remembered.  I recall all my slights and humiliations.  The surprise was that she remembered.  I guess it was no fun doing the tossing either.  We were now eternally bonded, twin victims of a Katzenberg bruising.

I watched a hotel guest swim out to a dock-like raft, anchored about fifty yards from shore, after which a “Jellyfish Warning” was posted on the beach, restricting people from going into the water.  I wondered if the hotel guest had to remain on the raft, till they took the “Jellyfish Warning” down.  What if it took days?
Waiting for my bagel to toast, I struck up a conversation with a hotel guest visiting from Australia.  Angling for a “Commonwealth Connection”, I mentioned that I was originally from Canada, to which the Australian replied,

“I lost my spleen in Canada.”

I immediately felt terrible.  Well, not immediately.  First, I thought,

“Why is he telling this to a stranger?”

But then, I empathized.  Nobody wants to be reminded of a missing internal body part when they’re on vacation, and there I was, thoughtlessly dredging it back up.  Expressing interest to soften my inadvertent faux pas, I asked him where he had lost his spleen.  He said, “In Toronto.”  To which I replied, hoping to distract him with a joke, “My brother’s in Toronto.  Maybe he could look for it.”  It did not seem to help.  My bagel popped up, and I strategically moved on to the lox station.
I spent the first two days catching all the rays I could.  I spent the rest of our stay avoiding them, in hopes of averting an unwelcome diagnosis.

What is the appropriate protocol when a young woman stands directly in front of you, wearing a bathing suit, composed of a neckerchief knotted around her waist, and a string?  What exactly am I supposed to do?  And if the answer is nothing…how?

The number of letters of the English alphabet used for writing the (previously unwritten) Hawaiian language was reduced from seventeen letters to twelve in1826.  In 1825, if you looked up Oahu on a map, you would find a town situated on its south shore marked “Honoruru.”  (I did not make that up.  You can find it in Sarah Vowell’s book, Familiar Fishes, page 99.)

Discomfort in the taste department restricts me from talking about the toilet in our upgraded hotel room.  It’s Japanese.  It’s from Toto.  Look it up.  It does things.

Walking to our car after dinner, we noticed a neon sign in the window of a Hawaiian Pawn Shop.  On the top left portion of the sign, it said, “Cash.”  Below that, it said, “Loans.”  On the top right portion of the sign, it said, “Gold.”  And directly beneath that, it said, “And Ukeleles.”

Can you imagine what a fish feels like when they find out they’re the “Catch of the Day”?


A local 7:30 A.M. news broadcast offered a remote broadcast on a new Whole Foods opening in nearby Kailua, but nothing was happening, because the store didn’t open until nine.  The on-site reporter promised to return with an update on the store opening at eight.

By the seventh day, our big excitement was watching a crab ten feet in front of our beach chairs industriously relocating sand.  “That is the most entertaining crab I have ever seen,” observed Anna.  There was no one in our party who would disagree.

There was a noticeable different between the vibe during the Christmas week visit and our current visit in April.  It was easier in April, but there was something missing.  Was it the jangle of holiday excitement, a packed house of visitors, the hotel’s service staff ready to deliver their “A” game? 

Yes.  April was a decidedly more “hang loose” kind of affair.  But there was something else that was different.  Absent the Hollywood high rollers, who could “Green Light” movies and ink “multi-pic-pacts”, what seemed lacking was a pervasive sense of suspicion and hostility. 

In a way, I missed it.

But take that as a curmudgeonly quibble.  We are talking “Top of the Line” perfection.  When dying people are told they are going to “A Better Place”, I imagine that place being a lot like Hawaii.  I don’t know what dying Hawaiians are told.  Maybe “You are going to a place a lot like this.”  Were I a dying Hawaiian, I would likely respond, “In that case, I’d just as soon stay here.”

Aloha, Hawaii.  It is nice to know that you’re out there.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Hawaiian Holiday 2012"

Though I am probably too old to feel this way, I continue to find it neverendingly magical that you can get on a plane in one place, and when you get off, you are someplace completely different.  For us, this experience in wonderment inducement has played itself out three times in a single month, once to Northern California, once to Arizona, and most recently, well…here we go.

We arrive at our luxurious hotel in the Kahala district south of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.  As we step into the lobby, we immediately notice the red carpet and the velvet rope leading to the check-in counter.

Somebody big is staying at our hotel.  I immediately rule out us.

Pulling an icon name out of a hat, though certain they were not allowed to tell, I ask the check-in lady,

“Does their name rhyme with McShmartny?”

I was wrong on both counts.  The name did not rhyme with McShmartny.  And they were allowed to tell. 

The big shot staying at our hotel was the Dalai Lama.

The first thought that came to mind was,

“I thought he was poor.”

My second thought was to ask him to help me with my meditation.

“My mind wanders.  Does that happen to you?”

My third thought – with the assistance of another member of our party – was to imagine a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode in which Larry David is playing golf with the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai catches Larry kicking his ball out of the “rough”, which, for those of you unfamiliar with golf, is cheating.  

When the Dalai calls him on illegally moving the ball, Larry insists it was not he, but a passing squirrel who had nudged the ball into the more playable position, after which it scurried into the underbrush.  It was not a kick.  It was a nudge.

This blatant falsehood, and Larry’s adamant refusal to back down, leads the Dalai Lama, a man internationally famous for his equanimity and repose, to totally “lose it”, throwing an enormous fit captured on i-Phones and catapulted around the world, obliterating his reputation, and drying up his funding. 

Who else but Larry David could make the Dalai Lama lose his temper?

My third-and-a-half thought – a revisiting of the previous premise – was for Larry David to catch the Dalai Lama cheating at golf, forcing Larry into the moral dilemma of either “outing” a universally revered figure, or unfairly losing the match to a Tibetan holy man “who is not quite what he appears to be.”
Just something to do during the extended process of checking in.

To connect with his audience, the Dalai Lama does not hesitate to dip into material that, at least in my days in television, the networks’ Standards and Practices Department would have summarily rejected as tasteless and unacceptable.

When asked at a televised gathering whether it is true that he is always smiling, the Dalai Lama replied, “When I am in bathroom, I am still smiling.”  He then paused for effect, before adding, “Sometimes, it’s difficult to come out.  You need some kind of little pressure.  Then no smiling.”

I can’t imagine Moses doing a joke like that.  Can you?

Even my daughter Anna fell under the spell of the Dalai Lama’s powerful influence.  When she lost her room key, she explained it, not in terms of a mental misstep, but, in a tribute to the Dalai’s teachings, “wanting to relieve myself of my earthly possessions.”
Consistent with my record of being the “This close” guy – I was recently “this close” to witnessing the outcome of a sensational British murder trial, but instead left early – I was “velvet rope close” to seeing the Dalai Lama. 

On two occasions, I was informed that the Dalai Lama would be coming out, and I waited to see him (and experience a, hopefully, life altering encounter).  On both occasions, I was told that, for security reasons, the Dalai had slipped out through a side door and disappeared into a waiting town car. 

For a man who believes in Fate, the guy sure doesn’t take any chances.

7 A.M. 

I get a call from the lobby, where Dr. M, Rachel and baby Milo are about to set off on their morning walk. 

“The Dalai Lama is leaving.  Do you want to hurry over and see him go?”

“No, that’s okay, ” I reply.  And I hang up.

I missed my last chance to see one of the holiest men walking the face of the earth.  I was meditating.  I imagine he would have understood.

Later, when I go to the lobby, I see them rolling up the red carpet. 

The Dalai Lama has left the building. 

I sit on a couch, and breath in what is left of his aura.

It was a thrill sharing living space with the Dalai Lama, though I never saw him at the beach, the buffet dinner, or the gym.  My respect for his mission – though he does seem to favor exotic locales, rather than, say, spreading peace and love in the Yukon – compels me to allot him a special post all to himself. 

The non-Dalai highlights tomorrow.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"I Learned Something From A Situation Comedy"

I learned this from a situation comedy. I can’t remember which one; it only lasted half a season. Which may explain why most situation comedies do not bother being educational.

Okay, here it is. And after you hear it, I promise you, you will never be able to hear “The Star Spangled Banner” the same way again. That’s worth a couple of minutes of your time, isn’t it? Come on. Take a chance.

What was it I learned from that situation comedy?


“The Star Spangled Banner” is fundamentally structured in the form of a question, and an answer.

Pretty good, huh? I’m guessing you didn’t know that. I didn’t.

How does it work? It works like this.

“The Star Spangled Banner” was written during the War of 1812. America was fighting England. And there was a battle going on. A close one. Which battle was it? I have no idea. They didn’t mention that on the situation comedy. I am grateful they mentioned this.

It’s in flowery language, but the question, an important one to ask during a close battle, was this:

“How’s our flag doing?”

Only Mr. Key, who wrote the anthem, fancied it up, so it came out like this:

“Oh, say can you see

By the dawn’s early light

What so proudly we hailed

At the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars

Through the perilous fight

O’er the ramparts we watched

Were so gallantly streaming.”

“How’s the flag doing?”, right? That’s all it says.

And then comes the answer. Written like the guy was being paid by the word.

“And the rockets red glare

The bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night

That our flag was still there.”


“It’s doing fine.”

The last part is just a repetition of the question.

“Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

To which the answer – not included – is:

“We already told you. It’s fine!”

I don’t know why they asked it again, other than to get the words “star spangled banner” into the song. Mr. Key must have like it, and he didn’t want it to go to waste.

They could have done the entire thing in six words:

“How’s the flag? “

“It’s still there.”

But what kind of anthem would that be?

“Please rise for our National Anthem.”

"How's the flag?"

“It’s still there.”

“Thank you.”

Not too pompy, is it?

So they did it the fancy way.

Still, the heart of the matter?

A question, and an answer.

There’s not a lot you can learn from a situation comedy anymore. Except that sex jokes will keep you on the air. Which, if you want to write for television, is probably more valuable than that stuff about the anthem.

Though you never know. The educational sitcom could be the next Big Thing.

You’re right.



Friday, April 20, 2012

"Severely Hurt Feelings"

Note:  Though published today, this post was written before we went away to Hawaii.

My clothes are mad at me.  Not all of them, but enough to make it uncomfortable for me to go into my clothes closet.  There’s a drumbeat of insurrection.  The mood has turned ugly.  It’s not quite Syria, but I feel like the top guy there, my enemy, not “the people”, but an aggrieved wardrobe.

A little background…

Dr. M works, and I don’t.  We depart for Hawaii, early on a Saturday morning.  That means, since her weekdays are busy, that she packs for our trip on the weekend before.  (I bring the suitcases up from the basement.  It is one of my household duties, along with changing the light bulbs and paying the phone and cable bills.  I am sure there are other responsibilities, but they do not occur to me at the moment.)

When somebody else is packing, and your empty suitcase is looking at you, even though your days are considerably freer than the packer’s, you invariably pack too.  Otherwise, you look like a slacker.  Which, by not working, is suspiciously like what I already appear to be.

That’s when the trouble begins.

When I pack a week before my trip, an inevitable process takes place.  First, I decide what to pack – what is going, and what is not.  I pack what is going – the stuff I preferentially like to wear and want to wear on the trip. 

Then, during the intervening period – the week between the packing and the departing – I am relegated to wearing clothing that did not make the cut, meaning I am attiring myself in apparel I would otherwise never put on. 

What this means is that, for an entire week, my wardrobe consists of clothing I do not exactly hate, but if the trip lasts eight days as our trip to Hawaii will, every morning during the time before we leave, when I decide what to put on, I begin the process of, say, selecting a t-shirt – which I change every day and have therefore packed eight for the trip – with my ninth favorite option.

The result is that I have recently been seen walking around in faded t-shirts, overstretched t-shirts, t-shirts that once fit but were shrunk in the laundry, a “Canada” t-shirt with an over-sized moose on it, a gift t-shirt from South Africa whose spear-carrying warriors, through wear and tear, are now shredded and incomplete, a once-funny t-shirt bearing the lettering “Designated Driver” and showing a mounted dog with the reins in his mouth, controlling the horse as his master/rider dozes drunkenly in the saddle behind him, and a joke t-shirt bought at a western poetry gala equating bean eating with farting, the last two t-shirts overstaying their once-reflexive ability to provoke laughter.

Since I packed a week early, I am stuck with looking stupid for an entire week.  (I used t-shirts as an example, but I am talking “top to bottom”, underwear, which went through a transition from jockeys to boxers – I am back wearing the jockeys – and past-its-prime drawstring pants, whose drawstrings have somehow lost their ability to hold up the pants.) 

It is not like these outfits, in stock but never worn, are fooled by this sudden call to sartorial duty.  These are no “bench players” thrust into the game, with hopes of proving themselves and being elevated to the regular rotation.  These castoffs unquestionably know the score. 

“He is only wearing us because he has to.”

Hey, don’t complain.  You weren’t discarded on the “give-way” pile.

“The “give-away” pile would be better.  At least poor people would be wearing us.  We’re incarcerated in the dresser.  We’re like Hinckley.  A temporary release, and it’s back in the slammer.  Okay, for him, it’s a nuthouse, but it’s the same idea.  We are never getting out!”

It is “Dresser Drawer Purgatory” for the t-shirts.  And they know it, down to their one hundred percent cotton threads.

Once, they were wardrobe “favorites.”  I had selected them after all, except for the South African t-shirt which as I said was a gift though I’d have definitely chosen it if I were there, and the “Moose” t-shirt, a from-the-get-go mistake, which I picked from a tiny array in my hotel gift shop because I wanted a souvenir from Toronto and it was either that or a Mountie doll.
But now, like a former girlfriend where things did not conclude happily, it was not easy to look them in the face.

“We once meant something to each other, and now you’ve cast me aside.  Die!  Die!  Die!”

It’s understandable. 

I am going to Hawaii, with the t-shirts I like better.

And they’re staying home, with moths.

I am sympathetic to their plight.  But it is the natural way of things, isn’t it?  “When you’re hot, you’re hot; and when you’re not you’re not”? 

No.  This is more painful.  I am not simply rejecting these t-shirt; I am exploiting them.  I am wearing them before the trip, only because I don’t want to get the t-shirts I am taking instead of them dirty.  

Then – and they know it – it’s right back in the drawer!

There’s this story I’ve been meaning to write about a guy in the South during the Civil War who proposes the idea of freeing the slaves one day a week.  The way I’m behaving, I feel very much like that guy. 

“You’re freeAnd now you’re back.”

It is undeniable.  I am a slaveholder, with t-shirts!

Oh, the guilt!  The unredeemable shame!

I don’t know… 

I guess I could take the Moose t-shirt.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"A Rewrite Night That Was Not Terrible"

How’ s that for an upbeat title?

“Rewrite Night” says, “This is me. This is what I do under pressure. Watch me shine in a group setting. During ‘Crunch Time.’ When it’s all on the line.”

“Rewrite Night” calls for the writer to rise to the occasion. With apologies to Lou Grant,

“I hate rising to the occasion!”

Or, more accurately, I hate “rising to the occasion” situations. “Rising to the occasion” is the “finals.” What if you flunk?

I mean, how does that look? Failing on “Rewrite Night” is not like in a duel where you mess, up and you’re dead. Here, you mess up, and you’re still there. A walking embarrassment, your subordinates are not sure how to deal with.

“Tough ‘Rewrite Night’, huh?”

“Well, it didn’t kill me.”

“Then it must have made you stronger.”

“If you believe that saying. And I don’t.”

With this less than “devil-may-care” perspective, you can understand my stepping into every Rewrite Room with a soupcon of trepidation.

And yet, sometimes, it works out.

I recall one night, when we returned from a runthrough of Major Dad, burdened with a script in serious need of revision, and not entirely sure what to do. As the show runner, it fell to me to motivate and inspire. That’s right. Me.

The assembled writing staff silently took their seats, a script in “Code Blue” condition breathing shallowly in their binders.

It was time to instill the troops with words of optimism and hope, energizing them to tackle the daunting undertaking we all knew lay ahead. Finally, I looked up at my gathering of subordinates and said,

“Can we do this?”

This was clearly an unconventional approach. Rather than rallying my demoralized staff, I was beseeching them to rally me.

My plan worked like a charm. Not only did I have quality writers, but a more positive and enthusiastic bunch you could never hope to find. On some unconscious level, I had chosen them for just that reason. Not only were they capable writers, but I had this ineffable sense they would never wilt under pressure.

(Their subsequent careers proved me correct. Janet went on to run two shows herself. Years later, Lisa became a solidifying mainstay on Mad Men. And our “Consulting Writer”, Miriam, remained a talented spark plug wherever she worked. Yes, they were all women, which was surprising for a “marine show”, but less so as my selections.)

My question met with resounding exclamations of “We can do it”-ness. I took them at their word. And we got down to work.

I will not burden you with the nuts and bolts of the rewrite, partly because it’s boring, and more partly because I no longer remember. What was wrong with the script? In my professional opinion, I would say…everything.

Except for the original premise. When an imagined “Grand Master” Major McGillis was playing “chess by mail” with (this was before the Internet) shows up to complete their match in person, McGillis’s adversary turns out to be an irrepressible, twelve year-old boy, on whom the family’s eleven year-old daughter develops an immediate crush.

All that was good. The rest, meaning the jokes and the story construction, needed lots and lots of making better.

The lesson here is not what we did, but more importantly, how we did it. I will borrow a French word here, as the appropriate English word eludes me.

We performed our work with elan.

Which expressed itself in the form of shameless silliness. Our “Rewrite Night Meal” had arrived including an overabundance of little, sawdust-tasting dinner rolls. There were more than a dozen of them that nobody wanted.

We were also amply supplied with toothpicks, decorated with these tufts of yellow, cellophane curlicues. An idea arose to put these two items to work, as signifiers of our advancement through this terribly troubled script.

How it worked was that, when we finished rewriting a scene, someone would skewer a dinner roll dead center with a toothpick and jab it into a large bulletin board, suspended on the wall.

This newly minted ritual somehow inspired us, promoting an inexplicable exuberance every time we finished work on a scene, and the call arose to,

“Put up a dinner roll!”

Each doughy impalement met with an eruption of celebratory jubilation.

Also, earlier in the week, Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney had instructed us that he no longer wanted his character to be referred to as “Mac”, though he’d been entirely comfortable with the “nickname” to that juncture. Apparently, his wife called him “Mac” in real life, and he wanted that prerogative to remain exclusively hers. The character “McGillis”, we were told, should now be referred to only as “Major” or “John.”

Since we were all in the habit of referring to “McGillis” as “Mac”, the demanded transition proved seriously problematic. As a result, as we discussed what was needed in the rewrite, we continued, on occasion, to call “McGillis” “Mac.” This mistake had to be corrected, the solution falling to the “tough love” of “Aversion Therapy.”

Our office was stocked with various types of toys, including enough water pistols to arm every writer in the room.

After a short break to “load up”, we returned to the rewrite, each of us keeping their weapon within easy access. Then, whenever somebody forgetfully referred to “McGillis” as “Mac”, we reached for our guns and squirted the miscreant into submission.

The strategy proved an uncertain teaching technique. People stubbornly clung to calling “McGillis” “Mac”, leaving the rewrite liberally punctuated with intermittent dousings.

I do not recall if these shenanigans originated with me. But I made it clear I was fine with it. And if that’s not leadership, I don’t know what is.

Between the squirt guns and the dinner rolls, we made our way to the end of the rewrite. Did the work go faster because of this foolishness? I have no idea. But it sure felt faster.

And the quality of the work? That was the most gratifying part of all.

The next day, we attended a runthrough of a massively rewritten script. The story now made sense. And the laughs, absent during the previous runthrough, were gratifyingly present.

And on “Show Night”, the audience went nuts.

Sometime during the evening, as their unbridled enthusiasm wafted down from the bleachers, I remember turning to my valiant assembled writing staff and saying,

“I guess we know what we’re doing.”

Yeah. That was a rewrite that was…more than not terrible.

It was really fun.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"It's All About The Dinners"

As I have written earlier, “Rewrite Night” was never my favorite chore in the elaborate pantheon of sitcom responsibilities. I am, by nature, a “Morning Person”, and, as indicated in the label “Rewrite Night”, such duties played out a long way from my creative “Magic Time.”

Two in the morning does not count.

I never wrote a script at night. But here they were, demanding I improve scripts when I was entirely out of gas.


Acknowledging my proclivity towards negativity – as the Reverend Jesse Jackson might say, though never about himself – I have determined that, today, as an exercise in balancing the temperamental ledger, I will try and find something positive to say about the “Rewrite Night” experience. Which I never enjoyed, because it felt like a detention.

“You stunk up your daytime writing, so we’re making you stay late.”

Stop it!

Sorry, Italics Man. You can see this “positivity” thing is not easy for me.

I shall monitor your progress.

I appreciate it.

Okay. Here we go.

The best part of “Rewrite Night” were the dinners.

Good start. Tell us more.

“Rewrite Night” participation meant we would not be home for dinner…

Is that complaining?

Stating a fact. As a result, our dinner was supplied – and paid for – by the show. A few shows had their own in-house chefs. The Cosby Show had one. But that was after I left…


I don’t know if he was any good! Cut me some slack, will you?

Sorry. Go on.

More commonly, a Production Assistant picked up prepared food from a nearby restaurant. Every show compiled a stack of “takeout” menus, and via some process – democratic, or the boss chose – a restaurant was selected for that evening’s repast.

The quality of the cuisine depended on the budget available to pay for it. But it was generally pretty good, ranging from Chinese to Italian to deli to quality hamburgers. I was fortunate in this regard, never working with showrunners who, hearkening back to their college days, would thrive on crap.

“Fried chicken makes me funny.”

Fried chicken gives me a gas bubble in my gut.

The secret to the perfect “Rewrite Night” dinner experience was the logistics. What you ate was important. But equally important was when you ate it, and whether it was still edible at the time.

Production Assistants who mastered these logistics inevitably achieved phenomenal success in later life, invariably claiming that, “I learned all I know about organization and management from ordering rewrite dinners for sitcoms.” This is not false humility. It is truly the case.

Runthroughs were called for around four o’clock, running for about an hour and a half. Dinner orders would be put in before leaving for the stage. You could tell how important that was. Everything stopped when the menus were came out.

The essence of the plan was the Production Assistant’s calling in the order at precisely the right time. The goal was for dinner to be waiting for us when we walked in the door.

At the best of times, however, you were precariously rolling the dice, or if you were ordering Chinese, the rice.

What if you ordered too soon, or you ordered on time, but the runthrough ran unexpectedly late, due to problems on the stage, or endless “notes” from network executives who, when they were done, would be driving home and eating with their families?

In these cases, you would return to the office to cold food. Which is fine if you ordered cold food, like deli sandwiches, but otherwise, it’s like,

“I was really looking forward to this. And now I’m not.”

Worse case scenario? The runthrough ran late, or it started late, and you inexplicably did not make your dinner arrangements beforehand. You come back, at, say, seven or seven-thirty, and not only is dinner not waiting for you, it has not even been ordered.

You belatedly make your selections, they call in the order – the food arrives at eight-thirty or, if the traffic was bad, or they were busy and the food wasn’t ready, or they messed up the order and they had to do it again – later.

Okay, first of all, what nourishment were you being fueled by until the food finally showed up? And second, who wants to eat dinner at nine? I mean, what is this, Spain?


Come on! You’ve been working for hours with zero energy, meaning little to nothing has been accomplished. And now you’re stopping to eat. So when you return to work, it’s ten o’clock, or later, at night?

Who does their best work after midnight?

Hookers and hoot owls. Not me.

You were saying that dinners were the best part of…

They were. If the restaurant was acceptable. And if the food came on time, and was reasonably warm when it was served. And if we ate it on a table with an actual tablecloth, using ceramic plates and real silverware, rather than Styrofoam containers with plastic cutlery that, at the slightest pressure, will shatter to pieces, sending shards of plastic, flying into your eye.

Then it was good. You know why?

Because you were out of the damn Rewrite Room!

With its uncomfortable seats and its lumpy couches. With the suffocating airlessness. And a heating system, alternately belching sweltering blasts that put you to sleep and Arctic gusts that made you throw on a coat.

The Rewrite Room, with the pressure to create, and the time ticking away, the shrieking silences when nobody had anything and the “Not funny” when somebody finally took a shot, the exhaustion, the bad vibes, the petty grievances and unspoken rebukes?

There was nothing more agonizing.

Unless it was having dinner in the Rewrite Room! Then, you had all of the above, plus the residual odor of sweet and sour chicken. I mean, the place stinks of decaying leftovers, and we’re supposed to….

I’m going to stop you there. Though it should possibly have been sooner.

You’re right. I promised to be upbeat about “Rewrite Night”, and have made an absolute shambles of the entire affair. Plus, I have suddenly turned English.

Give me another chance, will you? Next time, I will tell you about a “Rewrite Night” I really liked.

I’m not sure we can trust you.

Neither am I.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"April the 15th (or, in this case, the 17th)"

I do not like paying taxes. (For the Record: I am grateful to have income to pay taxes on. But still.) (For the Record: I acknowledge being ungrateful for saying “But still.”)

Just generally, I do not like money departing from my bank account. But normally, when it does, I end up with a shirt. I go to a Menswear store, I buy a shirt, the price of the shirt is deducted from my net worth – if I pay cash, or write a check, or use a credit card, somehow, it flies away. But at least I have the shirt. What do I get for my taxes?

I know. Roads. But roads are for everybody. The shirt is exclusively mine. I do not get a knock on my door,

“You’re sharing the shirt.”

“Who with?”


So it’s not the same. Taxes pay for services we all use, and I get that. But still. (That’s the last one. I promise.) They really don’t need me for the roads. If I were never born, they would still have the roads. They wouldn’t even be shorter. My part would be paid for by somebody who was born.

So there’s that. You have a certain amount of money. And after April the 15th (or, in this case, the 17th), the pile is smaller. If there’s a choice between having more money or having less money, I prefer to have more money. Unfortunately, in this case, there is no choice.

Which brings us to another reason I don’t like to pay taxes, the reason being,

“They’re wasting our money.”

It seems to me that “They’re wasting our money” is an issue everybody can agree on. Who’s in favor of wasting money? Besides the people who receive that wasted money.

“We don’t mind at all.”

We know.

Now when I talk about “They’re wasting our money”, I’m not talking about the subjective version of “They’re wasting our money” where the Right thinks they’re wasting our money on certain expenditures, like on a vaguely defined group called “deadbeats” and the Left thinks they’re wasting our money on, among other things, missiles, since we already have enough of them to blow up the world more than once, when blowing up the world once would appear to be enough. Once you’ve blown up the world once, what would be the purpose of blowing it up some more?

“Oh, no! I’ve been blown to smithereens!”

“Oh, no! My smithereens have been blown to smithereens!”

“Oh, no! I don’t know if there’s something smaller than smithereens, but if there isn’t, I’ve been blown to something they don’t even have a word for!”

(Is my bias here showing at all?”)

We can agree that some portion of our taxes will inevitably be spent on things we would rather they were not spent to, but that’s just the way it is. There is no “taxes checklist” where you can, say, opt out of subsidizing the Brussels sprouts farmers because you don‘t eat Brussels sprouts – and we’re all equally upset about that, because there is always something each of us would prefer not to pay for.

So there’s disagreement on that version of “They’re wasting our money.” On the other hand, nobody wants to pay for what they call “Waste, fraud and abuse.” If there were an option in that regard, I think we would definitely all check the box marked, “Not interested.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t, and, at least to some degree, whenever I pay my taxes, I feel like I’m flushing a chunk of my tax payment down the toilet. And then learning we’ve been seriously overcharged for the toilet!

But put all that aside, and I’d still be annoyed about paying my taxes. I am not now referring to the idea of paying taxes. I am referring to the actual process of paying the taxes themselves.

Specifically, my state taxes.

For the past two years, we have been required to pay your California state taxes online. You can pay your taxes by mail – as I mistakenly did last year – but there’s a substantial penalty for doing so.

Other than writing this blog and buying things on Amazon, I prefer not to do things on the computer, because I get confused, and I make mistakes. Once, in preparation for a trip to San Francisco, we ordered baseball tickets to a Giants game from an online ticket agent, and we mistakenly inserted the wrong date and got tickets for the game the day after we wanted to go.

We immediately called the ticket agent on the phone, and though we’d ordered them just minutes before, the man refused exchange our tickets. As a result, we had to reschedule our return flight to L.A. (at considerable expense), so we could attend the game we never planned to go to, because they would not change our tickets to the game we did. Our other option was forfeiting the substantially inflated price of the tickets.

The situation here is similar. If you mess up the online filing of your California tax payment – which I did last year on a quarterly estimate – that payment is rejected, resulting in a substantial penalty for filing late.

Are you getting this? If you pay your taxes by mail, there’s a penalty. And if you pay your taxes online and you mess up, there’s also a penalty. This is very disturbing. It’s like some board game, where you’re going down the river, and there’s crocodiles coming at you from all directions.

This does not put me in a great mood for paying my taxes.

And I was not that happy already.