Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Rooting Interest - A Calculation"

Given the option, I root for my home teams, those being Toronto, my ancestral home, and Los Angeles, where I currently reside.  This baseball season, unfortunately, the Blue Jays finished last in their division, and, after periods of stratospheric success, the team at one point going 42-10 (forty-two wins, ten losses), the multi-talented Dodgers flamed out in the second round of the National Baseball League playoffs, losing to the (St. Louis) Cardinals, who themselves advanced to the World Series.

The carnage left me nobody to root for. 

I have to root for somebody.  Without rooting, baseball is a tedious procession of balls and strikes.  For me, rooting is essential to my enjoyment of the game.  If I don’t root, I can’t watch.

And if you don’t watch…?

Lemme get back to you on that one, Italics Man.  You know I can’t fake an answer, and at the moment, I do not currently have one.  Let us just stipulate that I need to watch, and move on; otherwise it’s an abbreviated post and I’ll see you tomorrow.

I need to watch, and I need to root.

We’ll let it pass.

Thank you. 

So I look at the teams participating in the World Series.  My choices are:  The aforementioned St. Louis Cardinals, and the Boston Red Sox, who, having last won the World Series in 1918, have recently prevailed twice (in ’04, and ‘07), and at this writing – leading three games to two and playing at home – are on the verge of winning a third time.

(GLOAT NOTE:  At the start of the playoffs, these are the two teams I predicted would survive to compete in the Series.  I may even have said it out loud.  Why did I pick them?  Of all the playoff contenders, the Cards and the Red Sox were the two most fundamentally sound baseball teams – pitching, fielding, hitting, and managing.  But leave us keep our eye on the ball here.  We are not talking about picking a winner.  We are talking about selecting a team for me to root for.  I just threw this in to bolster my credentials… okay, just to brag.)

Returning to the premise:  Rooting is fun.  It makes things matter.  Or at least, in the grand, overall scheme of things, pretend to matter. 

I needed somebody to pull for.

But who?

What do I care about St. Louis or Boston?  I have never visited either place, nor did I have any connections to them whatsoever.  Neither venue meant anything to me.  They were simply two cities whose teams had made it to the World Series. 

It did not appear that I’d be rooting for anybody.  I would effectively be a passive observer (a notch down in the “Couch Potato” classification from active rooter.)

I would watch. 

But I would not care.

So here comes Game One, and a Boston hitter slams a double.

And I spontaneously crack an enormous smile.

Only then did I realize I was rooting for the Red Sox.

The question was…


What was my internal calculation that impelled me choose the Sox over the Red Birds?

Let’s see…

In their “Glory Years” during the ‘00’s, the Red Sox had been managed by Terry Francona, whom I had met when he managed the South Bend White Sox, a minor league baseball team of which I was once a one-forty-second owner.  (There were forty-two “Limited Partners.”)  I liked Terry a lot, so it was possibly that that made me lean in the Red Sox’s direction.

On the other hand, Francona was unceremoniously dumped after two World Series victories (their first since 1918!), and since the ownership had not fired themselves and were consequently still in place, I should despise the Red Sox and therefore never root for them.

Yet I was rooting for the Red Sox.

Moving on…

Tom Werner, once a television production impresario and now one of the three owners of the Red Sox, had hired me to work on The Cosby Show.  So I perhaps was rooting for Tom’s team.   On the other hand, Tom had ignominiously participated in engineering Francona’s departure as manager. 

So it was a wash.

Back in the sixties, the Cardinals were the Major League team I had listened to on the radio, their broadcast station, KMOX, so powerful, it’s signal carried all the way to Toronto.  (If I maneuvered my radio to the appropriate position.)  I had rooted for the Cardinals then.  Why not today?

Prior to this season, the Red Sox’s current manager had managed the Toronto Blue Jays.  You gotta get a couple of points for that. 

Don’t you?

The Red Sox players had decided to grow beards, some of them extremely long ones, vowing not to shave till they won the World Series.  The Cardinals, on the other hand, (with the exception of Adam Wainwright) were clean-shaven and comparatively colorless.

The reality was, there was no reason to root for either of these teams.  My calculations favored the Red Sox, but not by a lot.

Still, when that Red Sox batter smacked that double…

I lit up!

I wondered what exactly was going on.

And then it hit me.

Rooting, even for teams you don’t care about, isn’t about calculation.

It’s about emotion.  The decision who to get behind appears essentially arbitrary.  And in no case entirely rational. 

Why do I root for Toronto?  Because my grandparents emigrated there in 1908?  Why do I root for Los Angeles?  Because Lorne Michaels brought me down to work on a Lily Tomlin special?

As important as it becomes, rooting is explanatorily accidental.  It is not a decision we make.  It is a state of partisan selection we unconsciously arrive at.

Win or lose, I had somehow chosen the Red Sox.

And later, when their best hitter and inspirational leader David “Big Papi” Ortiz gathered his teammates together in the dugout during Game Four and, in an unprecedented – for baseball – moment delivered an in-game “settle down and play like you know you can” pep talk…

I was certain I had chosen correctly. 
Postscript:  The Red Sox won.  I was happy.  But I didn't dance.  I'll save dancing for the Blue Jays and the Dodgers.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The Problem With Family Sitcom Show Stories"

When I did a show called Family Man in 1988 – I wrote eleven episodes, though they only produced seven – I determined that all the stories would revolve around experiences that happened to me, either as a kid (I stole chalk from school) or as an adult (I was excluded from the “Preferred List” of life insurance purchasers and feeling bummed out to have fallen into an insurance category that included the Wallendas.) 

I decided to only tell stories that happened to me, not to egotistically project my personal experiences onto the largest possible canvas – though that impulse is not beyond being an unconscious contributor – I did it to guarantee that every story I told on this family network situation comedy would be a story had never been told on any other family situation comedy before. 

I still hoped that viewers would identify with the situations – even though they happened to me and nobody else but me – but I did not want to surrender to telling the same recycled stories – albeit delivered by a different writer and a different cast – that had been told over and over on family sitcoms since radio. 

Moving to today…

Having lemmingly ventured into comedies featuring quirky single girls in their thirties – The New Girl, The Mindy Project, Two Broke Girls, Whitney, something about a bitch you’re not supposed to trust, and something with Chelsea Handler – this season, the networks brain trusts – inevitably relying on irrefutable research – have thrown in their Quirky Single Girls” cards and selected instead – and hardly for the first time – a replacement hand of “Family Sitcom” cards. 

Possibly because of the phenomenal success of Modern Family.  (Or the overall failure of the previous strategy.)  From which – talking about Modern Family – the new shows appear to have learned virtually nothing, offering nothing smart,  nothing grounded in mainstream reality (a category that now includes gay couples with children), nothing tasteful, and, consequently, nothing particularly funny.           

Aware that there is no excitement in doing (or pitching to a network) a series about a typical family – despite the fact that The Middle chugs along creatively and commercially successfully – today’s series creators have opted for family show concepts where the characters have skittered precariously off the rails.  Or are, at least, identifiably different.

Alcoholic Moms, arrestedly developed fathers, prematurely pregnant daughters, a gay single father, and in one case – and we definitely haven’t seen this before – a father with Parkinson’s disease.

(For the most part, the highly dysfunctional characters in these series are the parents.  Which, being only a slightly dysfunctional parent myself – it comes with the package of my overall dysfunctionality – offends me by its exaggeration.  However, being the child of a parent, I kind of know where those show creators are coming from.)

Short summary – They put their money on family shows but, hedging their bets, they made some if not all of the members of those families

Seriously messed up. 

The problem is, in America at least, with the exception of Married With Children (where the family behaved as if their house were located unhealthily close to a toxic waste site) and animated family shows (where you can get away with more because it’s not actual people), you wind up doing exactly the same stories that family shows have always done. 


Because, not just networks censors, but our American sensibilities will not permit us to be too destructively crazy in a family comedy context.  “Irresponsible” – okay.  “Having your rights read to you crosses the line.  Americans are not comfortable with child endangerment in their comedies.  Abusive family stories are shuttled directly to SVU.  

As a result – and I cannot provide a comprehensive list, as I have merely skimmed the debuting sitcoms – I have noticed yawningly familiar family sitcom stories concerning bullies (cyber-bullies but still), parents competing over their young son’s afterschool activities (hockey versus pottery) and a show where the single gay father is faced with buying his adolescing daughter her first bra.  (We did the same story on Major Dad – my partner on that series insisting on it – although, in that case, the Dad was a macho Marine, which – and I may be prejudiced here suggesting that gay men are more sensitive than Marines – made that version of the story inherently more embarrassing.)

The point here is, no matter how weird or unconventional the family is, American family situation comedies are by their inherent nature akin to Tootsie Pops – a hard shell, with a soft center in the middle. 

No dangerous threats.  No questionable behavior.  Barely a psycho-traumatizing insult. 

Push comes to shove – “Awwww” – they actually like each other.

Expectation of boundaries is why it’s so difficult to make family shows feel original.  Unless you tell stories that have never been told before, because they specifically happened to you.

Of course, Family Man was rejected by two networks – NBC and Fox – and ABC cancelled it after seven episodes.

So we may have to look elsewhere for the breakthrough solution.    

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Another Surprise Ending"

Sometimes when I make a speech of some sort – a wedding toast, a eulogy – I have reprinted its contents in this venue, estimating that it might be of wider interest (beyond those for whom it was originally intended), while also providing another piece in the hopefully fascinating jigsaw puzzle that is the mysterious totality of this writer.  I once even published a speech I put together but didn’t give.

The following concerns another speech I did not deliver recently. Though its contents will remain (substantially) private.

It was a birthday party for Dr. M – relatively intimate and unflashy, albeit with superb catering and two helium-inflated balloons.  The guest list was winnowed down to “the people who really matter to me.”  At the Guest of Honor’s request, there would be a Marimba band (whom she had heard performing at a nearby Farmer’s Market) and a “close up”, card-trick-style magician, because “The Birthday Honoree” adores magic.  See:  Blog Post about our recent Paris vacation, where, because we accidentally discovered it, we attended a performance by a Parisian magician, conducted entirely in indecipherable – by us – French.)

It would be a casual, informal celebration.

No speeches.  No toasts.

Then, encouraged by recently a friend’s wedding celebration she attended in Sweden in which the toasts of praise had extended long into the Scandinavian night, my daughter Anna announced that she wanted to deliver a toast at the party. 

Suddenly, I felt obligated to deliver one as well.  (If only to avert questions about why I hadn’t.  But also, you know, because I’m kind of good at it, and I did not want to be left out.  Note:  Whenever I am asked to make a speech, my immediate answer is a non-negotiable “No.”  Then, usually when I’m about to fall asleep, the contents of an oration assembles itself in my brain, and it’s usually pretty good, so I reverse course, and I do it.  The point is, I do not seek these opportunities out.  Though my unconscious seems eager to comply.)   

Then, however, just days before the party, Anna came down with a debilitating cold, her voice inoperatively weak and raspy.  Her condition impelled her to back out on the toast. 

Now it was just me, as some strung-together notions had in the interim coalesced in my head and I had written them down on paper, and begun rehearsing during spare moments in the day.  Nothing lengthy or elaborate; just two hundred and forty-three words.  A kind of Gettysburg Address of a speech.  But without the carnage.

With Anna bowing out, I immediately determined not to speak.  I knew Dr. M would be the opposite of disappointed, a fact I actually mentioned in the opening to my toast, when I said (or actually didn’t say, but was going to say):

I am pretty good at making a certain kind of a speech, where I tell stories about people, mentioning certain foibles and idiosyncrasies.  I gave (Dr. M) four presents for her birthday.  I would not be surprised that the one she appreciated the most was my assurance that I would not be making that kind of a speech at this party.

I then went on to complain (because all my speeches about others invariably devolve into issues about me) that the only problem was that that was the only kind of a speech I know how to make.  I then invited the invitees, made up entirely of family and good friends, all of them ideally qualified to do so, to each imagine a personally experienced example of Dr. M’s kindness, and wisdom and generosity and love.  (Writer’s Note:  When you can’t write what you can’t write, write about why you can’t write it.  It’s a neat trick, don’t you think?) 

That, at least partially, is what I’d prepared to say.  Now, it turns out, I would not be saying anything at all.

I did not give it a second thought.  Okay, I may have given it a second thought, but I did not give it a third one.  The party was relaxed and spontaneous and enjoyable and fun, the precise celebration imagined and wished for by the person who in this case mattered most. 

No speeches.  No toasts.

Including the one I had made up.

A glancing disappointment, but easily overcome.

The band, put together by a music teacher from Cal State Northridge – the players were all his students or former students – went through a sprightly repertoire of Marimba-flavored numbers, none of which I was familiar with. 


Out of the blue,

The band broke into a song I knew exceeding well.

Beginning with its infectious introduction:

A wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh,

A wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh….  

As if in a trance, before I knew what was happening, my feet walked me to the edge of the area where the band was set up, and I found myself


Singing along.

First the chorus,

A wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh

And then the verses.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle

The lion sleeps tonight.

In the jungle, the quiet jungle

The lion sleeps tonight…

With all their variations, rounds and recognizable harmonies.

(I was later informed that, with my eyes focused intently on the band – as if it were just me and them and nobody else was around – I appeared – in their words – to be “glowing.”)

The party lived up exactly to the “Guest of Honor’s” specifications.

And I too was happily content.

Regular followers will notice that, as with yesterday’s post (about “Found Money”), reality stepped in, providing an expected, and highly satisfying, twist to the narrative.

I have never much cared for reality.  (As I have been heard to complain, “It does what it wants.”)

But recently, at least,

Reality’s been doing some pretty nifty work.

And now, for your toe-tapping pleasure, not the Tokens’, but the one where I originally learned it:
It might say "Watch on Youtube."  See if that works.  If not, just hum the song to yourselves.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Mid-Course Correction"

It was supposed to go like this.

On the same day that our letter carrier brought me a residual check for five cents, I also received a 17-page “Summary Statement” from the Universal Studios’ Television Division, reporting, with legalistic specificity, that Major Dad (of which I am a profit participant) is still more than four and a half million dollars “in the red.”  (Contractually, no further money will be coming my way until the show is “in profit”, which, in practical terms, means never.)

Let’s start with the residual check for five cents (which, I kid you not, was delivered in an envelope with a forty-six cent stamp on it.   That’s right.  The value of the stamp was almost six-and-a-half times greater than the payment inside the envelope.)

To be actuarily precise, the gross residual amount (for an episode of Sanford and Son) was actually seven cents.  But two cents had been deducted for “Withholding Tax”, leaving me a net payment of a nickel. 

(FULL DISCLOSURE:  The total residual payment was actually fourteen cents.  But since the script was co-written with another writer, my co-writer received a payment for seven cents as well.  Though, since the man is privately incorporated, he is permitted to keep the entire amount, paying taxes on his nickel plus two pennies later at a substantially lower corporate rate.)

Okay, so the message of this blog post would be…what?  In complicated contractual matters, the “talent” is at the mercy of the corporations who are shameless ganaveem.  (Rather than the generally used ganifs, meaning “thieves” in Hebrew – for that is the language from which the original word derives – the actual plural of the word ganif is, in fact, ganaveem.  I just thought you’d like to know.)

Truth be told, it was not much of a story, bordering on the “disingenuous” coming from me, since, paraphrasing fictional ballplayer Chico Escuela, “Cho business has been bery, bery good to me.”

Still, I decided to go with it.  What are you going to do?  They can’t all be “How The Jews Lost The Lead.”  (My all-time favorite blog post.)

But then – It was a miracle, I tell ya! – my blog post was hijacked by reality.

And I wound up with this.

On that same day I received my dual financials disappointments, I am running an errand at a nearly shopping center, which includes a supermarket inside of which is a Bank of America (where I bank) automatic Teller Machine.

Having decided to kill two birds with one stone, I bring along my residual check for five cents so I can deposit it (automatically) into my checking account. 

And watch my bank balance jump!

When I arrive at the machine, I find the man currently using it in a discombobulating tizzy.  Apparently, while conducting his transaction, the customer has mistakenly pressed the “Spanish Language” button, and he does not speak – or read – Spanish.  He asks me if I can help him.

I proceed to do what I generally do in a crisis.  I freeze.  The intervening time, however, allows the customer to figure out what he needs to do about the “receto.”  He then completes his business, and walks out of the supermarket.  (I actually think I helped him more by not doing anything, because he solved the problem himself.  Which, in the long run, is really better for his self-esteem, don’t you think?  I do.  And I’m not just saying that.)

It now being my turn, I step up to the machine.  I slip in my Bank Card, punch in my “Pin Number” and press “Enter.”  I then indicate “Deposit”, and when I am offered the choice of “Cash Deposit” or “Check Deposit”, I press “Cash Deposit.”

Which is a mistake.  Since I am trying to deposit a check.  I press “Cancel” and I start over. 

“Pin Number.”  “Enter.”  “Deposit”, “Check Deposit.”

And that’s when it happens.

The green light strip over “Take Cash” slot starts blinking…

And two hundred dollars comes tumbling out. 

Now, in some twisted and entirely inaccurate way, I have always equated using a Bank Teller Machine with playing a slot machine, even though – and this is why it’s entirely inaccurate – when the bank machine “pays off”, it is paying you with your own money.  Nevertheless, there is always that jolt of excitement when those twenties come pouring out.

This time, however, it appeared that I had actually won!

I wasn’t trying to make a withdrawal at that point.  I was trying to deposit a check for five cents. 

And then, suddenly, there’s two hundred dollars!

My immediate reaction was that that money belonged to the frazzled non-Spanish speaking customer who had gone ahead of me.  Even though, the machine’s screen had entirely cleared and rebooted – or something – before I started my transaction. 

So, in reality, this couldn’t have been his money.

And yet, all reason aside, I still believed that it was.  And I felt terrible about it.  So I waited – a good five minutes – for him to come back and reclaim what was rightfully his. 

But he didn’t.

Leaving me holding two hunn-ed dalah

That was not my own.  (And which I refused to insert in my wallet, laying it on top of the Bank Teller Machine, like some discarded receto.)

While waiting, I deposit the five-cent check, and withdraw some money for myself, which coincidentally is also two hundred dollars.  Although instead of that amount, I had now in my possession…

Four hundred dollars.

I did not know for a certainty what had happened – had Bank of America declared a one-time-only “Two-For-One Day” at their Bank Teller Machines, and I had simply not heard about it?  But that wasn’t right either.  How could they have known ahead of time how much I was planning to take out?

If the money wasn’t the guy before me’s and it wasn’t mine, by process of elimination, it was the Bank of America’s.  I thought for a moment about keeping it, rationalizing it as an issue of “balancing the books.”  I mean, hey!  Multi-national corporations were unconscionably shorting me on my residuals and my profits.  Why not consider this a justifiable exercise in capitalistical payback?

As I drove home – my money and theirs now sitting in my wallet – it became clear that, knowing myself, and the depths of my guilt feelings – both conscious and otherwise – that if I kept the bank’s two hundred dollars, I would unquestionably find a way to seriously damage my car, which is twenty-one years old, and for which I bear an emotional attachment rising almost to the level of family. 

I do not want to damage my car.  So the next day, I drive – carefully – to our nearby Bank of America branch office, and I give back the money.  

I immediately feel better.  Even though there had been no reward.

If you don’t count a much better blog story.