The first time I came here from Canada to work – April the 12th, 1974 – it was to be part of the writing staff of a Lily Tomlin special (a single hour-long production as opposed to a series.) Lorne Michaels, whom I had worked with in Toronto was the show’s producer and after screening a short film I had co-written for The Hart – my older brother – and Lorne Terrific Hour) which Lily liked and wanted adapted for her special, Lorne invited me to come down and work in the States.
You can imagine how exciting that was. (Which saves me the time and effort of trying to describe it. I don’t know why more writers don’t do that. MARIO PUZO: “Imagine New York crime families and what they do to each other. I’m going to take a bath.” I think that would work great… if you were familiar with New York crime families and what they did to each other. Otherwise, it wouldn’t. So I guess it only works sometimes. I am sure you can easily imagine how excited I was being called down to Hollywood for my first job. So in this case, it is unnecessary to describe it. Though it turns out, it took as long or longer to explain why. Oh, Earlo, you are such a ninny!)
It was my “Big Break.” And in fact, after returning to give up my Toronto apartment – 335 Lonsdale Avenue, I believe there’s a plaque – and arrange to have my ’72 Mazda driven to Los Angeles, I never lived in Canada again. (Which is not entirely a good thing – especially during particularly horrifying election seasons – but, with apologies to Canadians taking offense – which is a demonstrable oxymoron – what can I tell you? It’s warmer.
And in TV writing, it is the Major Leagues.
So I go.
And I do the job. Rewriting the short film to Lily’s specifications, and co-writing two songs with Christopher Guest, one to append to the short film and the second to anchor the production number that opened the program, an up-tempo Motown parody concerning Lily’s car-making hometown of Detroit, including the “Temptations”-mimicking “bridge”…
“Ford, General Motors, Chrysler
Ford, General Motors, Chrysler
Ford, General Motors, Chrysler…
With slick, genre-appropriate choreography. (Which, it goes without saying, I had nothing to do with.)
Okay, now the bricks and mortar of the story. (as opposed to the fun but unnecessary “fluff.”)
Because the American government is nothing if not literal minded, to be permitted to be permitted to work temporarily in the States requires a temporary work permit. In those days, that meant an “H-1 Permit” your employer was obligated to obtain, covering the duration of your employment.
I have written elsewhere about how, when I arrived at Toronto International Airport for my (Writers Guild mandated) First Class flight to Los Angeles and was informed by a burly Immigration Officer with a gun that he had no notification (as I was assured he would have) of my “H-1” work status, I raced to a nearby telephone booth – no cell phones in ’74 – called the “Immigration and Naturalization Service” in Los Angeles, and forced the man to come to the phone and be apprised of my legitimate “H-1” permit approval directly from them.
That’s how badly I wanted to be there.
I bullied a burly Immigration Officer with a gun.
FLASH FORWARD: About four-and-a-half weeks.
I have finished the job, we have a big (end of show) “Wrap Party” and everyone’s happy. I acquire an agent. There is talk of subsequent employment. Everything’s coming up roses for me… and for me. (Sorry. I didn’t think that one through.)
A couple of days later, I receive a letter in the mail.
It’s from the United States “Immigration and Naturalization Service.”
I had no idea what it was about. Who knew these guys knew I even existed? I guess word gets around fast when you do well on a Lily Tomlin special. But a “Letter of Congratulations” from the American government – “Way to go, rookie!”? (I did not believe that’s what it was. But when you’re extremely nervous, you make bad jokes, even to yourself.)
I open the envelope and I read the letter.
Confirming my reflexive anxiety, they were not congratulating me on doing well on my first job.
Instead, they were informing me that, the specific job I had been contracted for having now been completed, I was currently without legal status for remaining in the United States. They went on – providing a number for me to call – to require information about the plans I had made for my immediate return to my country of origin.
Imagine how I felt… no, that’s not necessary. I can answer in one word:
Stricken down to my marrow. (Writer’s Note: In my first draft it was just “stricken.”)
Think about that.
You are rollin’ along singin’ a song, a letter arrives, stripping you of total control of your personal destiny. You have plans to do something and a government agency says that you can’t. And if you do it anyway, you are breaking the law.
It was a shattering moment. In the blink of an eye, my permit runs out and I am suddenly a “hyphenate.”
Earl Pomerantz – comedy writer/slash/”Fugitive from Justice.”
I know the immigration issue is complicated, its acceptable resolution Light Years beyond my pay grade. And even if it weren’t, I would say “Pass” when they went around the table for suggestions and all eyes were suddenly on me. Either that or simulate a spontaneous coughing fit, encouraging them with flurrying hand gestures to move on to the next guy. (And come back to me never. It’s a hideously difficult question, even tougher for being a “Nation of Immigrants.”)
I am not talking about an answer. Nor do I wish to trivialize things, comparing my upgraded career opportunities with the survival-threatening conditions faced by immigrants in – our one common denominator – a similar criminal predicament.
Reading that letter, giving me no alternative but to return to the place I had determined to depart or face punishing consequences…
All I can say is…
When the “Immigration Issue” comes up,
I feel a resonating knot in the pit of my stomach.