Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"What's The Deal With That?"

A Confession:  I do not know everything. 

Sometimes, a thing’s simply a “head scratcher” to me.  And on those occasions, I like to put the thing out there, in the hopes that, in the vast, cumulatively omniscient blogosphere, a fragment of which floats by this venue, somebody will have the answer and they’ll tell me and then I’ll know and I’ll be able to say,

“I do not know everything, but I know one more thing than I used to know.”
And thereby feel somewhat better about myself, which, if not the whole, is a substantial purpose of this exercise.  Not “feeling better about myself”, knowing more than I currently do.  Okay, the other thing well.  Let’s be honest about it.

So here’s the question.  With an obligatory preamble, so you will feel like you are getting your money’s worth.

An article in the paper recently reported that comedian/actor Paul Reubens, best known for his self-created character, the inimitable Man-Child “Pee Wee Herman”, was releasing – or re-releasing, probably – DVD’s of his Saturday morning kid’s show (but adults like it too) Pee Wee’s Playhouse, after doing some “technical enhancing” to make them better, though I can no longer recall what that involved.  (Probably because the “technical enhancing” of a television show is meaningless to me.  I do not ever once recall myself saying – or thinking – “If only that show looked better.”)     

I loved watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991) and my daughter Anna (1983 – and still going strong) did too.  We also loved Pee Wee’s first movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), in which Pee Wee’s bicycle is stolen and he gets a tip that it’s in the basement of the Alamo, so he treks down to Texas where he disappointedly discovers that the Alamo doesn’t have a basement.  It was a wonderful experience.  We laughed, and we learned.  

Okay, I’m rambling.  The point – and the one I have the question about – is that, for me, at least, and possibly others as well (including, it would appear, Reubens himself, who keeps going back to “Pee Wee” more than thirty years after he created him) – it is my herein stated opinion that the performer, Mr. Reubens, does not come anywhere near as alive portraying other characters as he does when he plays “Pee Wee.” 

In fact, when he does other stuff, he kind of fades into the woodwork.  I mean, he’s capable enough, but when he’s “Pee Wee”,

He’s electrifying. 

The question is:

Why is that?

You play other parts, and you’re fine.

But in one particular role,

You’re a skyrocket. 

And it’s not just Reubens.  I have noticed this phenomenon with other actors as well, two immediately jumping to mind:

Henry Winkler and Jason Alexander.

Here are two trained and talented performers.

But if they’re not “George” or they’re not “The Fonz”…

I’m not really that interested.

What is this mysterious phenomenon – which, for all I know, they have an actual name for – about?  I mean, it’s the same guys.  But when they are playing “those parts”, the comparison, I mean, it’s a not a gradual gradation.  It’s like,

Off the charts!

I mean, it’s almost like they’re possessed.

Where does that “thing” go, I wonder, where, when they play the roles they are most popularly identified with, you cannot take your eyes off of them, but when they play other parts… you can?

I am sure I am not the only one asking this question.  I imagine, occasionally at least,  the actors in question wonder the same thing.

“I don’t get it.  When I’m “George”, I’m a home run.  But when I’m Dunston Checks In, I’m a dribbler to the shortstop.”

I once saw Henry Winkler onstage at a school variety show fundraiser.  He played a father in a sketch and he was perfectly acceptable.  But then suddenly, he let loose this ferocious “Fonzie”-like growl, and the audience (including myself) just froze. 

The abrupt contrast was discombobulating.  It was like an enormous pterodactyl from a summer blockbuster had suddenly materialized, its overpowering presence holding a mesmerized gathering helplessly in its thrall.

You meet the guy later, and it’s “Hello, how are you?  How’s the family?”  And sure, he’s not acting now, but when he’s playing those other roles, his “magnetic aura” is a lot closer to the “How’s the family?” guy’s than to the “The Fonz.”

Illuminate me.

What exactly is that about?
Happy New Year, Everybody!  And drive safety.  My readership is limited.  I need all of you to survive.  Of course, I am concerned for your sake as well.  Just 'cause I mention that second doesn't mean it's not important to me.  Really.

Celebrate.  Be careful.  And come back.

I'll see you in 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Tipping A Hat To The Naturals"

So I’m standing at the “turnaround” juncture of my “Wednesday Walk” – Groundwork, where I procure my coffee, turn around, and return home.  My favorite selection – in fact, the only one I order – is “Venice Blend.”  Being a congenital “moderate”, I hew insistently to the “Middle Strength” representative of coffee.

Here’s the thing, though.  For months, whenever I order “a small ‘Venice Blend’”, I am informed that they are not brewing “Venice Blend” that day. 

For months now – no already-made “Venice Blend” when I come in.  Instead, I am  offered another blend, or, as an alternative, an individualized “pour-over” of “Venice Blend” which is fifty cents more expensive and takes longer to deliver than the already-made.  (Which they would just have to pour, rather than individually “drip-coffee “prepare.)

Given no acceptable (to me) alternative, I surrender to the “pour-over.” 

But I am curious about this.  When I inquire if they ever brew “Venice Blend” on Wednesdays, I am dutifully informed that Groundwork’s numerous available coffee assortments are on a “rotation.”  They are simply not brewing “Venice Blend” that day.

I respond by explaining that I have been coming into Groundwork every Wednesday for months, and not once during that entire agglomeration of Wednesdays have they ever brewed “Venice Blend.” 

Which means either that something else is going on, or I am the unluckiest coffee drinker in Santa Monica.

I did not say that last part out loud.  But I thought it very loudly in my brain.


While awaiting my “pour-over”, I… you know, it is common to say “I caught sight” of something but not “I caught sound” of something, a phrase that would come in particularly handy right now, because that’s exactly what happened. 

There was music emanating from the emporium’s sound system, and, waiting patiently for my “pour-over”, I inadvertently caught sound of what they were playing.

The selection turned out to be one of my favorites – the incomparable Louis Armstrong, doing “A Kiss To Build a Dream On.”  Unfailingly when the gravel-voiced singer and master trumpeter performs, I melt deliriously into the moment.

As I always say, though not said recently in this venue…

I like it when it’s good.

To me, Louis Armstrong is a “Natural.”  How do I define a “Natural”?  His delivery is consummately skillful, consistently surprising, viscerally human and – most importantly – seamlessly effortless. 

The “Naturals” are an unquestionable “Forces of Nature.”  Other “Naturals” on my inevitably age-inflected playlist:

Jimmy Durante, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday. 

All are instantly identifiable.  The “Naturals” are like snowflakes.  There is only one of each of them.

Sinatra and Willie Nelson are also instantly identifiable.  But I have, rightly or wrongly, this sense of calculation in their presentations.  They’re sensational, but they virtually never “let it fly.” 

The “Naturals” let it fly.  They can’t help it.  They’re “Naturals.”  

Magic Johnson was a “Natural” on the basketball court.  You never knew what he was going to do.  That’s because, I believe, he never knew what he was going to do.
On the court, Magic’s teammates had to be ever alert to his spontaneous improvisations; otherwise, there’s the ball, hitting you in the head.

Here’s a contrarial wrinkle.

Larry Bird was not a “Natural.”  He could not run and he could not jump.  But he worked harder than anybody, and his tireless training and driven determination elevated him to elite, superstar status. 

Demonstrating – you kids out there – that you do not have to be a “Natural” to excel.

Conversely – and I cannot give examples, because…well you will see why in a second – there are “Naturals” who, believing they could simply coast on their ability, got nowhere (and are therefore unknown today), because being innately gifted isn’t enough.  Even the “Naturals” are required to arduously and conscientiously put in the time.

I don’t know about “Natural” writers.  Writing is inherently a “trial and error” situation.  No one I know consistently “gets it” on the first attempt.   

Plus, writing’s accomplished in private.  The work may appear effortless, but only your wastebasket knows for sure. 

Sometimes, like when I’m playing the piano, I inadmirably envy the “Naturals” because of the galactic distance between their talents and my own.  The “Naturals” were born to do what they do.  I, apparently, was perennially destined to struggle.

We can’t all be “Naturals.”  (He concluded with a sigh.)      

But isn’t it wonderful to have them around.

When you are waiting for your “pour-over” because, no matter what they tell you…

They do not brew “Venice Blend” on Wednesdays.

(Note:  You have to actually go on YouTube to hear this.  A drag, no question, but your ears will thank you if you do.  Plus, you'll probably smile.  Which is a bonus.    

Monday, December 29, 2014

"Civility In The Rewrite Room"

Regular Feedbacker Wendy M. Grossman recently asked for my experientially derived comments concerning “the rough, anything-goes culture” in the half-hour comedy rewrite rooms, with particular reference to the (verbal) harassment of women. 

Okay, first the disclaimers.

Disclaimer One – It was a long time ago, and it is now difficult to remember. 

Disclaimer Two – Although I have experienced myself responding empathically to harassed people of all varieties, I am inevitably not as sensitive to the “harassment signals” as a woman sitting in that exact same room would be, so I may easily have missed stuff.

Disclaimer Three – In my thirty years of participating in the production of half-hour comedies, I spent substantially more than half of that time out of production, either freelancing scripts or enjoying lucrative “Development Deals” where my time was primarily divided between thinking up ideas for new comedy series, extended lunches, watching televised trials of former football stars who murdered two people and was inexplicably acquitted, and naps.  Therefore – certainly compared to Ken Levine’s – my “hands on” rewrite room experience is limited. 

Disclaimer Four – My idiosyncratic experiences in these matters may not be representative of the overall climate and tendencies of half-hour comedy rewrite rooms across the spectrum.

Having said that…

Exhaustion can make you say stupid stuff.  (Maybe that should be Disclaimer Five; I don’t know; it’s borderline.)  I know I was not always at my best.  Though I shall refrain from specific examples at this juncture.  I can attest, however, that my infractions were never genderly discriminatory.  I messed up with everybody.

Now having said that…

I would have to affirm that, ninety-five percent of the time, I witnessed no behavior of the nature Wendy inquired about whatsoever.  (And by the way, I do not believe that many any of the shows I worked on less funny.)

Before I flip this in another direction, I will tell you that some very talented female writers of my acquaintance have reported being ignored in rewrite rooms, to the extent that they were required them to whisper their joke pitches into the ears of adjacent-sitting male writers in order to ultimately have their suggestions acknowledged.  If being ignored is a personal insult – and who would deny that it is – I have it on good authority those kinds of shenanigans definitely take place.  Or at least they used to.

Which is stupid, not only on a respect level, but rewriting shows is excruciatingly difficult.  Why shut out somebody who could help you get the job done and get you into your car, driving happily home to your loved ones, your welcoming outdoor cat Franky, and your bed?

Also, as a show runner, why would you create or condone an environment that would inhibit the contribution of a co-worker who’s been paid thousands of dollars to pitch in?  Are you kidding me?  Who’s going to be an enthusiastic team player when their teammates are deliberately piling on?   “It’s all in fun.”?  Look at their faces!

Okay so the short answer to Wendy’s question is back there somewhere.  Behavior of the nature alluded to?  I saw remarkably little of it.  That’s my story.  The trouble is,

It’s an uninteresting story.

Nobody wants to tell an uninteresting story.  I don’t, that’s for sure.  And I realize my story is uninteresting.  That’s why I threw in all those disclaimers.  They are not just disclaimers.  They are also excuses.

“Forgive me for boring the pants off you.  I am hoping these four or possibly five disclaimers get me, at least partially, off the hook.

There is another issue going on here as well. 

What I told you – concerning my personal experience in rewrite rooms – was the truth.

It just wasn’t colorful.

Or provocative.

Or compelling.

Or corroborative of egregious behavior, which, although entirely indefensible, remains, in its recounting, alluringly attractive, in the way car accidents are attractive, and traffic moving regularly is not.

Why, you might inquire, did I post an uninteresting story?

To demonstrate the magnetic attraction of certain stories – stories where undesirable things take place – as compared to another category of stories where they don’t, stories editors of writing have been known to call,


Except they’re not.

They’re stories, all right.  They are just not fascinating stories. 

And they are therefore invariably dismissed.
Leading to an imbalance in our perception of the way things are.  That way, according to the stories that catch and hold our attention, being… 


Who’s to blame for our Disproportionate Attraction to the Unfortunate, and its inevitable conditioning of the way we perceive human nature, the world we live in, and the possibilities for the future? 

We could blame the storytellers for their sordid selectivity.  We could – as I habitually do as I have no longer anything to lose – blame the audience, for supporting (with their money, their time and their attention) one kind of story to the exclusion of the other.

Though inanimate and therefore seemingly blameless, I, nonetheless, blame the stories themselves.  There is something in the inherent DNA of certain stories – and you know the ones I am talking about – that make them virtually irresistible.

The “bad news” stories – like the proverbial “Bad Boys” and “Bad Girls” – have, at least in our culture, a traditionally greater appeal.

And I am not sure there is anything we can do about it.

Except shine a light on it, now and then.

Friday, December 26, 2014

"Christmas At Harrods - Conclusion"

AThis morning, prior to today’s effort, I found myself singing a stirring rendition of “Freiheit”, a song I learned at camp concerning the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which began – not the war, the song:

Spanish heavens spread their brilliant starlight
High above the trenches and the planes
From the distance morning comes to greet us
Calling us to battle once again…

This inspirational “Call to Action” unconsciously came to mind because I knew that today, I would be writing about a revolution of my own, and by “my own”, I mean that it was instigated, encouraged and spearheaded entirely by me.

As hard as that may be to believe.

Although maybe it’s not that hard, as, at the core of every revolution is a complaint, and there are fewer World Class complainers on this planet than yours truly.  The difference is, this time, the issue was undeniably legitimate, and my response to it went well beyond sub-vocal disgruntlement.

On this occasion, I took a risk, and put it all on the line.

It was December 23rd.  And everyone in the “Toy Wrapping Area” was sick.  Not just pampered sissies like myself.  Longshoreman where coughing their guts out!

The problem was inadequate ventilation in the “Toy Wrapping Area.”  Blizzards of, what I shall have to call “work dust” because I do not exactly know what it was, floated detectibly before our eyes.  No fans.  No ducts to blow the detritus away.  Not even a window, to allow the fresh (okay, frigid, winter) air to circulate for our bronchialogical protection. 

These were our working conditions.  While wrapping presents for British High Borns and Blue Bloods…

We were simultaneously breathing this crap in.

The result was, for virtually all us, a raspy and persistent sandpaper cough, a cough that hurt with each succeeding repetition, the discomfort emanating from deep down in our lungs.  Our very breathing was becoming difficult.  It was like a room full of “Collective Asthma.”

It was likely me who first made mention of this problem.  But my co-workers, not famous for their volubility, grunted angrily in assent.  It then occurred to me we were talking “Serious Epidemic” here, and that something urgently needed to be done.

I organized the men – I like the way that sounds – and together, we insisted that our gruff Glaswegian overseer arrange a meeting between us and the store’s… I don’t know who it was, maybe the Personnel Director who had hired us, it was somebody in a suit, I know that.  Sensing trouble – and possibly danger, he said with a glimmer of insurrectional excitement – Mr. I-never-once-had-a-clue-what-he-was-talking-about responded spiritedly to our demands.  (Very possibly because he was hacking up sawdust as well.)
The next thing I knew, we were marching – well, not all of us, me and one other co-worker – to a showdown with “Management”, where we would tender our complaints demand that something immediately be done about them.  I would not be surprised if, as we advanced toward this confrontation, the inspirational “Freiheit” was not pounding encouragingly in my brain:

We’ll not yield one foot to Franco’s Fascists
Even though the bullets fall like sleet
We’ll defend those peerless men, our comrades
And for us there can be no retreat…

We arrived at our meeting.  We presented our complaints, firmly and unequivocally.  

And they fired us.

Remember what I said yesterday about “It’s nice having them over a barrel”?  Well, it turns out we didn’t.  By December 23rd, we were one day away from the end of the “Christmas Shopping Season”, and they most definitely did not need us anymore.  I guess we should have complained earlier.  But we were not coughing up sawdust quite yet.

So ended an experience, forced upon me by economic necessity, for which I was congenitally not “type-cast”, but which gratefully provided me with a rare example of personal resilience, access to much-needed showering facilities, and I met a princess. 

Plus, much to my surprise, I got six new stories out of it.  

It was nice taking a stroll down “Recollection Alley.”

Happy “Boxing Day”, and thank you for coming along.
Coda:  Twenty-five or so years later, in a distinct change of pace from our annual visits to Hawaii, we took our family instead on a Christmas vacation to London.  An obligatory component to that visit was my schlepping everyone around to the “Points of Interest” of my personal history.  Which, of course, included Harrods. 

No Harrods reunion would be complete without a visit to “Toy Wrapping Area”, whose location I ferretted out and whose door I surreptitiously opened, to take a curious peek inside.  It looked surprisingly the same.  Except…

It had a window.