Friday, March 20, 2015

"Punching Below Your Weight"

Otherwise known as…

Writing “down.”

In the early 1950’s, comedian Milton Berle was the biggest star on television.  In one of his signature “bits”, Berle would inadvertently mention needing some “make-up.”  You would then hear the reverberating off-camera call, “Ma-a-ake-Up!”, after which an under-sized actor wearing over-sized horn-rimmed glasses (named Arnold Stang) would appear brandishing an enormous powder puff, he would walk wordlessly up to the comedian, and slam him directly in the face with the powder puff.  A deflated Berle would then turn slowly to the audience, registering a “take” of “How the mighty have fallen”, his face now entirely “powder-white”, his head sheathed in an enveloping cloud of talc. 

End of comedy bit.

A call for make-up, a reverberating reiteration, and the star gets whacked in the face with a giant powder puff.  And this didn’t happen once.  Throughout the show, any time the star inadvertently mentioned “make-up” – the audience laughing in anticipation – Arnold Stang and his dangerous powder puff would be back. 

The “Powder Puff” routine was always funny.  Even I laughed.  I was seven, but I laughed.

Here, finally, you’ll be relieved to hear, is my point.

Somebody wrote that. 

And it worked, so in the context of his job description, he – it was almost certainly a man – was a success.  I recall a well-known comedy writer creating a fictitious comedy writer named “Rags” Raglan, whose immortalizing claim to fame was that he had written “the ‘Banana Sketch’ for Hope”, Bob Hope being a legendary comedian, and the “Banana Sketch” being a “recognized classic” comedy sketch that included a banana.

This writer could boast – except this time it was real – that he had written the celebrated “Powder Puff Sketch” for Berle.

That’s what he did.

Compare this archival “case history” with the quote from an interview with Jill Soloway (creator of Amazon’s Transparent – Man!  I’m getting a lot of mileage out of one interview – where Soloway describes the cognitive dissonance she experienced between what she in her early years in the business was required to write versus what she instinctively wanted to write:

“We were all sitcom writers writing these shitty sitcoms, but in this back room we were all being real and funny and dirty, deep and spiritual and silly.  I wanted to take that voice out of the computer and onto the stage.”

I was not writing in the early fifties; I was barely printing.  But visiting Los Angeles – where my brother and his junior partner Lorne Michaels toiled for six months in the late 1960’s – I was introduced to a few “old timers” who, along with my brother and his partner, were staffing what turned out to be a short-lived variety series called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.

The veteran writers I met were articulate and educated and sophisticated and aware.  Yet one of those gentlemen could very easily have written the “Powder Puff Sketch” for Berle.

When I entered the coterie of big-time comedy writers, I noticed a familiarly similar phenomenon.  Judging by the uninhibited Writers’ Room banter, my contemporaries appeared subversive, off-color, tuned in and hilarious.  What they were required to deliver, however, appeared considerably beneath their capabilities, not descending to “Powder Puff” level, but the gap between what they could do and what they were permitted to do was demonstrably considerable. 

Borrowing a boxing analogy, these writers were clearly “punching below their weight.”

Today, with new delivery systems free of censorship and the necessity to attract “the masses”, the writers’ working environment has definitely improved.  You can now create a series for Amazon about a gender-switching parent and pick up a Golden Globe for Best Comedy.

I can imagine a conversation in a mid-1950’s Writers’ Room:

“Hey, what about a show where the father surprises his family by becoming a woman?”

“Yeah!  We could call it ‘Father Knows Breast.”

The Writers’ Room explodes in laughter, the hilarity eventually dying down, there’d be a deep, collective sigh, and they would go back to work.

“Okay, where were we?”

“Jim comes home from the office, goes to the hall closet, replacing his suit jacket with a cardigan.  Margaret enters from the kitchen wearing an apron and says…”

A collective sigh indeed.

Of all the differences in TV writers’ working situation, the preceding is the most significant.

Today’s writers can write as smartly as they can think.

I could to some degree, because by then, the requirements were evolving in the direction of “more real.”  But the “Power Puff” writer?  The man could have had a PhD. in literature from the most prestigious university, he could futilely rationalize that the powder puff assault echoed the historical Court Jester’s speaking “Truth to Power”…

Sure, if it makes you feel better.  But clear-eyedly, that guy was forever fated to be more creative in his imagination than he would ever be doing his job.

Many of these writers, I discovered, had a half-finished novel secreted in their office desk drawer.  And therein lay the frustration: 

They were too gifted for what they were doing.

But not gifted enough to finish a novel. 
Birthday wishes to my sunshine, my only sunshine, the recently upgraded Director of Residential Design.  No words could possibly describe... so I won't even try.

I adore you, Young Lady.

And I will till they turn out the lights.

Also, because that's how our family calendar works, tomorrow is our 33rd wedding anniversary.  I do not talk about her that much, because she does not want me to. Just know that my enforced reticence is in inverse proportion to my admiration and affection. 

What can I tell you, I got lucky.  And I have remained so fore thirty-three years.

And counting. 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Happy birthday and congratulations to both of you.


B B said...


Will you any need make-up?

Frank said...

Maybe it's time for Lena and Jill to rehash 'Leave it to Beaver'.

Ps- Congrats on 33 years!