Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Unsung Heroes"

I remember an episode of Seinfeld in which two women in a bar or at a comedy club or in a bar at a comedy club – that’s not important, okay? 

What’s important is that, wherever they were, these two women superciliously disparaged George for imagining he could score points with them by bragging that he had just co-written a television pilot for NBC. 

Two shallow women eviscerating an even shallower Costanza for thinking that boasting about a television writing credit was his undeniable ticket to the “Promised Land.”  (A joke the Seinfeld writers made at their own expense, though their self-satirizing potshot is arguably inaccurate, not because there is in fact a cultural cachet in writing for television, but because of the substantial paychecks that accompany that dubious enterprise.)

Almost from the beginning, television writing has been accorded a lowly designation on the literary totem pole, more towards the supporting hole in the ground than that scary, beaky, birdy thing at the top. 

TV writers are rated lower in the proverbial pecking order than screenwriters. Which is wrong, because screenwriters have virtually no control over their material while television writers have some.

So there!

My overall view on these matters is:  It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it.  Baggers at supermarkets are not particularly loftily valued in our culture (or probably any culture.)  But I have witnessed variations of performance ranging from “Wizards (and Wizardesses) of Baggery” to “You just put a half gallon of milk on top of the eggs.”

Once, in Florence, Italy, a venerable waiter deboned a fish at our table with such skill and efficiency, I literally rose from my seat and accorded him a standing ovation.  (As I recall, the man’s response to my enthusiasm was an annoyed bewilderment.) 

In the specific realm in which I have toiled – writing for money – there is no status I can imagine lower than the uncredited practitioner, writers, albeit salaried, who put pen to paper, often – as the following examples will shortly detail – brilliantly. Their names, however, have been separated from their efforts. 

Consider (as I once did in the past in a post entitled “Those Thrilling Years”) the anonymous writer who in his “Lone Ranger” radio series introduction, wrote:

“A fiery horse with speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-yo Silver!’  The Lone Ranger!  With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, this daring and resourceful Masked Rider of the Plains fought for justice in the Southwestern United States.  Return with us now to those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear – the Lone Ranger rides again!”

That’s no iron pyrites, folks.  That’s the genuine article!

RADIO PRODUCER:  “Write me some ‘blah-blah’ to start the show.” 

And they came up with that. 

It’s a home run.  The slugger’s name, sadly, forever unrecorded in the record books.

I have also in the past – because I have made it my mission to do so – shone an egregiously neglected light on the comedy writer (or team) who penned Abbott and Costello’s magnificent “Who’s On First?”  To me, the most hilarious comedy routine ever created.  The first time I saw it, I laughed so uncontrollably, my mother was seriously concerned for me survival.

And yet, once again, the authorship of this comedy classic – with the exception perhaps of professional archivists – is entirely unknown.

My attention today falls on a third noteworthy but uncredited contribution, returned to my attention when I recited it to coming-up-on-three-year-old Milo, who, since birth it would seem, has been in tshe imaginatorial thrall of superheroes, his “Outerwear of Choice” alternating daily between Batman and Superman, invariably with the accompanying cape. 

He probably won’t remember my doing this, but once, arriving to find him decked out in full Superman regalia (except for the boots), I broke spontaneously into the opening introduction to the 1950’s Superman television series.

“Faster than a speeding bullet!

More powerful than a locomotive!

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

‘Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!

It’s Superman!’

Yes, it’s Superman!  Strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  Superman!  Who can change the course of mighty rivers.  Bend steel in his bare hands.  And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fought a neverending battle for Truth, Justice and The American Way.” *

(* Recited from memory.)

I am aware there is great poetry.  And literature.  And playwriting.  And screenwriting.  And yes, even great television writing. 

But, to me, the contributions of the practitioners I have just mentioned – fated to eternal anonymity – stand at (or at least near) the top of evocative accomplishments– “Change the course of mighty rivers” – are you kidding me? – the world of English Speaking Arts and Letters has ever been honored to include.  And if it doesn’t, it should.

College courses should be created to study these heart-pumping openings.  (“Here’s Adventure!  Here’s Romance!  Here’s O’ Henry’s famous Robin Hood of the Old West…the Cisco Kid!”)  Research grants provided to discover the names of the unsung geniuses who made them up.

And now – via a technology I have just barely under my control – an actual demonstration. 

Get ready to be stirred.  (Even if you’re an uncomfortable flag waver.)

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Your post - particularly the Abbott and Costello bit - reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend not that long ago:

wg: One of the people I went to high school with has a son who writes for THE DAILY SHOW.

Friend: Doesn't Jon Stewart write his own stuff?