Monday, February 29, 2016

"An Unexpected Change Of Direction"

I was intending to write a blog post about pants. 

Then an email arrived from Jim Dodd, by his courageous admission, “a loyal fan”, whose curiosity was piqued to the point of comment after reading a post verbosally entitled, “Why I Prefer This Kind Of Writing Instead Of Another Kind Of Writing Which Since I Do Not Prefer It I Do Not Attempt”. 

And I wrote recently about keeping it simple. 

Jim writes:

“I really like your insights, Earl.  This is a very interesting post and made me think a lot.”

I did not need to include that remark, as it is unrelated to Jim’s question.  I put it in because I like to hear – and promote – compliments.  Plus, I am about to be “called out” on something, and I thought, “Oh, well.  At least I got a compliment, so I might as well throw it in.”  So I did.

Okay, here comes the “call out”:

“… But when you say you prefer writing non-fiction, I am confused.  It seems to me that all of your previous writing (pre-“Just Thinking”) is fiction.  Mary Richards, Louie De Palma, Marshall Sam Best and the others weren’t real and you were able to make interesting and funny stories about them.  Even your “Cellmate Confessions” post on February 5 was a fictitious dialog between two guys in a jail cell.”

The implication of Jim’s observation can be summarized in one word:


What can I tell you, Jim?  You’re right.

Reverberating Inevitable Implication:  (“If he’s wrong about that, what else is he wrong about?”  This once led to some “big doin’s” surrounding the issue of the earth revolving around the sun.  But not here.  I am simply giving up.)   

It is indisputable that I wrote fiction for a living, though claiming vociferously post facto that I do not choose to write fiction. 

I am smiling.  But it is a smile of cornered-rat desperation.  As I have no immediate answer to this transparent contradiction.  

I am truly and legitimately…


I don’t know.  What can I tell you?  Not as an exculpatory explanation – there isn’t any.  But to at least to somehow illuminate why I have long held this erroneous position.

Jim actually hit on a qualifying descriptive, that, if I chose, would get me off the hook, and this post would be over post haste.

“But when you say you prefer to write non-fiction…”

If you’re looking for “simple”, there it is.  I do “prefer” to write non-fiction.  I did not do so, because, surrendering personal preference to career pragmatism, becoming less mathematician than accountant, I wrote what the people who hired me required.  Not that it was a conscious decision.  They just showed me the money – plus I had always loved television – and off I went.  Leaving my unconscious preference behind. 

This one is a considerably tougher sell.  But the characters I originally wrote for?  In some manner of self-hypnotic deception, I actually believed they were real.  Or at least “real.”  I went down to the soundstage and there they were.  I simply put words in their mouths.  But they were actual people.  People who sometimes asked, “Could you put funnier words in my mouth?”  Fictional characters do not berate your abilities.  Do they?

Understand, also, that the unequivocal intention of sitcoms is to be as funny as possible within the “reality level” of the series.  (Different on Taxi than on Laverne and Shirley.)  The writer’s eye was consistently on the “funny” ball.  You conceived the funniest stories, and wrote the funniest jokes you could think of as structural building blocks for those stories, leading to the funniest resolution of those stories you could possibly imagine.

Every episode was, in effect, a “Funny House”, assembled with the funniest elements at your disposal.  “Funny” was our mandate and our mantra.  “Fiction” or “non fiction” was totally irrelevant to the conversation.


Or “still”… (I am not sure which… It could actually be “nevertheless.”  Or none of the above.)

When I got the chance to create my own series, along with trying to make them as funny as I knew how, I would also ground them in as much situational reality as I could muster.  For example, one of the more quoted jokes from the Best of the West pilot involved Sam’s new-to-the-West wife Elvira sweeping the floor, and when husband Sam, engaged in serious discussion with his son Daniel, asks her to stop, she replies,

“Sorry, Sam.  I just can’t seem to get the dirt off this floor.”

To which Sam illuminatingly replies,

“Elvira, it’s a dirt floor.”

That came from my research.  Many pioneer structures had dirt floors.  Grounding my joke – is my point – in a non-fictional reality. 

That was always my preference – hilarious non-fiction.  In my short-lived series Family Man, I wrote eleven scripts, all eleven of those scripts’ stories emanating from personal experience, as either parent or as a child.  We used my actual house as the “exterior”, and a recreation of our “interior” as the living room.  When decorating my “stepdaughter’s” bedroom, I invited my actual stepdaughter to come down and adjudicate its authenticity.  (Incurring the wrath of the professional set decorator, who did not appreciate taking direction from a child.  Still, it was important to me that I do that.)

There is apparently a “blind spot” in my imagination.  I cannot make up jokes out of “thin air.”  Well, I can, because I learned how.  But watching them now in retrospect, they scream “embarrassingly formulaic.”  My best jokes, the ones that remain resonantly funny, derive from assiduous research or personal experience.

That includes the fabricated dialogue between two felons sitting in a Hawaiian prison.  Of course, it’s made up.  But the idea would never have occurred to me, if we had not thought long and hard about using a California “Handicapped” placard in Honolulu and if, God forgive me, I had not loaned forbidden movies “screeners” to my children.  I am aware that fiction is often grounded in truth.  But this is different.  Though I can apparently not adequately explain how.  Maybe just that the message is more important to me than the medium.  I mean, are these ridiculous statutes, or what?   

I prefer writing non-fiction – based on experience or some factual underpinning – because, as I have written elsewhere, it provides, for me, necessary boundaries to my literary excursions.  Plus – and I know this is silly – I would feel dishonest making things up from the get-go up and trying to persuade the readership that they’re true.  Fearing imminent arrest for “counterfeiting reality.”

Did I write fiction my entire career? 

Of course.

Not once, however, did that ever occur to me.

I was simply doing my job.

Thanks, Jim.  I feel better having finally come clean.  Thanks also for pushing my surely-scintillating “pants” story to another day.

1 comment:

JED said...

Thank you, Earl. This makes me feel better from at least two angles. One is to know that you read my comment. It amazes me that I could write a comment in the blog of a famous person and have that person not only read it but reply to it. I wrote a letter to the President once when I was in college and got a generic reply thanking me for my support of the President of the United States. It was Richard Nixon and it was 1970 and my letter had disagreed with just about everything he stood for. So, he (or his people) had obviously not read my letter or they were trying to do a 1984 on me to try to subvert my intentions.

The other angle of my feeling better is that I did get the point of your post. I ended my comment with, "I'm assuming I am (as usual) missing the point of this piece... I'm just the guy sitting in the last row who always raises his hand but asks questions that have nothing to do with the professor's point." I have often been "that guy" and people will just turn away from me a little and try to ignore what I just said. But you not only didn't turn away, you treated my question with respect and made something of it. I appreciate more, now, how fiction and non-fiction can't really be considered mutually exclusive when it comes to writing comedy.

Jim Dodd