Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Company Of Excellence"

“I love it when it’s good.” – Me.

Having championed this episode of the sitcom Lateline (co-created by John Markus and {now Senator} Al Franken), I find myself standing nervously outside a trailer, listening on headphones as a scene from it is being played out inside it.  The director calls, “Cut!’ and I contentedly exhale.  It had gone better than expected.

Much better.

The primary character in that scene is played by actor Peter Riegert (star of one of my favorite movies, Local Hero.)  As Riegert exits the trailer and descends the steps to the pavement, I smilingly approach him and say,

“Whenever something I’ve written turns out better than I imagined – the actor getting everything out of the material and then some – I am reminded of all of the other times when it didn’t.”

(Note:  Those were not my exact words, which I did not transcribe at the time, unaware that I would be quoting myself some seventeen or so years down the line.  Besides, when a perfectly-articulated pronouncement emerges spontaneously, you can no more reproduce it precisely than whoever makes them can reproduce a snowflake.  That’s why no two of them are ever alike.  Your entire concentration goes into the invention, and there is nothing left for remembering how you did it.)  


I realize, with no little embarrassment, that a lot of the time, I write about show business in negative terms, causing the reader to perhaps wonder why I ever went into it in the first place.  It would appear, judging by my recorded anecdotes, that I almost never enjoyed myself. 

I did.  Though I found it bordering on unbearably stressful. 

“But there were some things you liked about it, weren’t there?”

There were a lot of things I liked about it, Blue Italics Words Person. 

“Then how come you never write about them?”

I don’t know.  Maybe I think the “complainy” stories are more interesting.  Or maybe I think chronicling the travails I surmounted make me appear more heroic.  Or maybe it’s just the way I naturally see things.  Plus – and this is going to sound crazy – maybe I believe that if I dwell on the difficult parts of a business at which I succeeded and others didn’t, that those “others” will perhaps be less angry at me because it was terrible.

I told you it was going to sound crazy.


Show business wasn’t all terrible.  And one of my favorite parts of it was…

I loved it when it was good.

Like Peter Riegert’s performance in that trailer. 

And what I saw recently on television.

(And overly extended setup?  To me, it was exactly the right length.)

Mom may be the only current half-hour comedy I feel I could successfully contribute to.  Meaning nothing at all.  I’m just saying.  It is also recommendably worth watching.

Mom, involving two generations – and possibly three – of addicts, reaches occasionally for easy laughs and “below the belt” implications – arguably the easiest laugh of them all – but it rarely abandons its inherent “darkness” in favor of comforting punch lines.

It also has some gifted participants – spearheaded by Allison Janney, with Anna Faris, Mimi Kennedy and Jaime Pressly in admirable support. 

These skilful comedians get the most out of their dialogue, offering “colors” and nuances to often uneven material.  (In series television, not every episode can be a gem.  Even Seinfeld did “The Bizarro Episode”. “That was my favorite episode!”   Yeah, like I didn’t know that was coming.)

I switch to Mom for no explainable reason and I run into a performance that dazzles my impulses and warmens my heart.

The episode’s guest star is (Tony Award-winning) Linda Lavin.

I watch her performance in wonderment and awe.  (You could detect her co-workers responding in similar fashion.  They seem to be acting and taking notes at the same time.)

How to describe a post-graduate lesson in sitcomical artistry?

Pointed but recognizably human.  Briskly paced, yet impeccably patient.  A hardly groundbreaking line like,

“You know when it get easier being a mother?  When she’s dead.”

The woman totally “nailed it”.  I watched it over and over on ON DEMAND.  The delivery was exquisitely timed, and brilliantly matter-of-factly.  Not too angry; not too self-pitying, not too jokey, honoring the truthfulness of the “moment”.  My description is inadequate here.  All I can say is, like the perfect golf swing, it made precisely the right sound.    

And the inevitable “Heartfelt Moment”:  It was genuinely touching.  I’m thinking, “Look at me.  I am ‘tearing up’ at a  sitcom! That’s how unbelievable she was.  Elevating the clichéd “long-suffer mother” to “You just can’t take your eyes off her.”

And all of it on television.  Where you get it for nothing.

When I witness a consummate professional like Linda Lavin getting everything out of the material and then some, I am reminded of what drew me to that “fakakhta” business in the first place.
And I am reminded to tell you.

Those sparkling surprises made up for a lot of what I had to put up with along the way.

And sometimes I forget to remember them.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Lavin was indeed tremendous in both this episode and the other episode she appeared in, earlier this season.

Aside: one of the great pleasures of MOM is seeing so many wonderful actresses over 40 on screen at the same time playing really interesting women. Don't get me wrong: I've loved shows that were all, or almost all, male, too. But the frequency with which MOM fields episodes with six female characters feels so astonishing that it reminds me how rare it is.