Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Answering Your Questions (As Best I Can)"

It was an ironic formulation.

“Ask me anything!” I proclaimed.

Which I humorously preceded by an anecdote where I answered nothing, my parody of bravado leading to – and I asked for it, so I have no one to blame for this but myself…

More questions to mishandle, opening myself to further ridicule, embarrassment  and shame. 

(And disappointing the well-meaning queriers as well.)

Such are the rewards of a blogger trying to satisfy his readership, risking in the process the perilous possibility of letting them terribly, terribly down.

And so, brimming with optimism and hope,

Away we go with your questions.

GC asks:

“After how many scripts have you mastered your craft?”

Instead of answering myself, let me quote an “immortal” on this matter.  In a recent interview, iconic octogenarian retired novelist Philip Roth was quoted as saying,

“Morning after morning for fifty years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared.”

In these few words, top-of-the-heap novelist Philip Roth encapsulates the “Writer’s Dread” – “What do I write, and what if it stinks?” 

It is in the inherent nature of the undertaking that writers cannot “master” anything.  They can just gradually get better, via learning and repetition.  But, no matter how often you’ve done it, there is absolutely no “certainty of outcome”; hence, the inescapable dread of a type practitioners in other fields know nothing about.  Not the surgeon.  Not the pastry chef:

“I cower at the prospect of the custard swan.”

I never mastered my craft.  Although after about twenty years I stopped thinking I had no idea what I was doing.

pumpkinhead writes:

Okay, I’ll try these two questions again.

INTERRUPTION:  In his detectably annoyed opening sentence, pumpkinhead is reminding me that he has asked me these questions before, his implication being that, although I would frequently solicit questions, I would invariably proceed to ignore them. 

In the style of writer/director Whit (“Last Days of Disco”) Stillman, who specializes in hilarious “distinctions without a difference” (“I am not unemployed; I’m just an employed person who doesn’t have a job”), I shall respond to pumpkinhead’s complain with, “I do not ignore the questions; I just read them and don’t answer them.” 

Why do I do that?  (But before going on, let me apologize for not answering  your questions.  There is no excuse for such behavior.  Except for the following three.)

Sometimes, I don’t have an answer.  Other times, I have one, but it’s not interesting.  And thirdly, I have rarely received enough questions to fill up a blog post – today’s three were accumulated over an extended period of time, and were only submitted – or resubmitted – because I asked for them. 

He said, whiningly. 


pumpkinhead wants to know about the “John” episodes I wrote for Taxi, of which there were two, primarily because the “John” character, and not coincidentally the actor who played him, were dropped after the first season.

I am, by habit and inclination, an “innocent.”  The “John” character was an “innocent.”  Since none of the other writers were generically “innocents”, it was reasonable to assign those episodes to me. 

The “John” character was dropped because the “Tony Banta”, “Latka Gravas” and “Reverend Jim” characters was also, each in their own way, “innocents”, and since they were overloaded with “innocents”, the show creators abandoned the “innocent” they believed to be the least funny and the least successful with the audience. 

And I tried not to take it personally.

pumpkinhead’s second (previously ignored) question involves “the second Angela Matusa episode”, written by yours truly.  The first “Angela Matusa episode”, written by Michael Leeson and nominated for an Emmy, was entitled “Blind Date.” 

The idea for “Blind Date” was based on an actual event experienced by Taxi’s co-creator Ed. Weinberger who, after enjoying a phone conversation with a woman who worked at his “Answering Service”, asked her, sight unseen, out on a date, only to discover that she looked significantly different than her voice.  In the case of “Blind Date”, though I am uncertain about the real-life situation, numerous pounds different.

With Michael Leeson unavailable, writing movies, when the time came for the sequel, triggered by Suzanne Kent, the actress who’d played “Angela’s” having lost a lot of weight (hence the ingenious episode title “The Lighter Side of Angela Matusa”) – the assignment was handed to a less in-demand sitcom writer, me. 

I remember liking the premise of that episode, because it was grounded in diagrammable logic, that goes,

If the only obstacle to your liking me is that I’m overweight

And I am no longer overweight

Ipso facto

Now you’ll like me.

Life not always being logical, however, things do not work out that way, making “The Lighter Side of Angela Matusa” an interesting psychological exploration.  (The idea for which did not originate with me.  It may actually have originated with the actress.)  Was it a funny or memorable episode?  It was probably funny enough.  But the tip-off that it was not memorable is that I have no recollection of it whatsoever.


JED (also re-asking a question; how many people have I let down out there?) inquires what I thought of the BBC-America serialized murder mystery Broadchurch.

It’s been a while now, but I remember appreciating Broadchurch’s style, especially certain unexpected scenes and original “touches” that distinguish quality writing from “writing by the numbers.”  Was it worth making sure I was available for all eight episodes?  (As I do not DVR, and did not, until later, discover I could watch missed episodes on “On Demand”?) 

I would have to say no.  The story seemed padded, my interest held more by the characters than the often tortured twists and turns of the narrative.  To me, it felt like they could have adequately polished it off in two episodes, instead of eight.  Eight episodes is a lot of hours.  For that long, I require historical import.  A World War I series, I’d allow eight episodes.  World War II, possibly twelve.

As for comprehending the accents, it depends primarily on the region.  The further north they go, the harder the characters are to understand.  (When they get to Glasgow, all bets are off.)  My solution to this difficulty is to simply turn up the sound.  But my problem could also be less a matter of the accents than to an incipient “hardening of the earteries.”

Okay, so that’s it for questions.  For me, today’s experience is “win-win.”  If I did okay, it will incentivize you to send in more questions.  And if I stunk it up, it will incentivize you to send in more questions to help me get better at it.

Either way, your questions are always welcome.  And if you don’t hear back, it’s because there were not enough of them to generate a post. 

You see what I did there?

I blamed you guys.

Which is totally appropriate.

When it comes to Readers’ Questions,

It is entirely up to you.


JED said...

Thank you for answering this question, Earl. And thanks for being so gracious. I was very nervous when I hit the return key to send that comment/question. I didn't want to get you mad but I did want you to know about my disappointment in not getting an answer earlier.

And your answer really helped me. I liked Broadchurch very much but there was something I didn't like about it that I couldn't put my finger on. But as soon as I read your answer, I realized that it was the padding that I didn't like. I guess that perhaps they wanted us to feel like we were really getting to know the village better by dwelling on it so long. But I agree with you (now) that it could have been done just as well or better in a shorter version.

This reminds me of going to the doctor with some vague feeling of being "sick" but not knowing what is wrong. But going to someone who know what they are talking about can help you pinpoint the problem. Or allay your fear that what you thought was wrong was not a problem after all. Perhaps I could start referring to you as Dr. E. Or would that be Dr. P?

Jim Dodd

pumpkinhead said...

Earlo, you misjudge me. "Okay, I'll try these questions again," was written in matter-of-factly font, not annoyed font. In fact, you have answered a couple of my other questions before, so thanks for those, and thanks for these!

Might as well ask another question or three while you're in a question-answering mood. Have you ever seen the British sitcom Red Dwarf, and, if so, what did you think of it?

Also, having watched primarily sitcoms my whole life, I have developed the ability to construct sitcommy jokes, often on the spot, and I find myself in real life sometimes giving the sitcom response to something someone says instead of the real life response that wouldn't get me in trouble. Just. Can't. Resist. Do you or other sitcom writers encounter that problem?

Also, is there ever discussion in the writing rooms that goes something like, "But, why wouldn't he just tell her? Really, he'd rather walk the ledge of a building ten stories up than just admit he forgot their anniversary?" And does anyone ever say, "Yeah, you're right, he would just tell her, let's do something else."

GC said...

Thank you for answering my question, Mr. Earlo.