“Conventional Wisdom” asserts that as you get older, you gradually mellow, the gripes and grievances of the past ultimately evaporating. You begin thinking “What difference does it make?” You let go, the things that once troubled you, in time, mattering less and less.
FULL DISCLOSURE: This has not happened to me.
True, the vituperative fires have substantially receded. But the lingering embers of umbrage naggingly persist.
GERONTOLOGICAL KNOW-IT-ALL: “That ‘letting go’ thing? That happens in your eighties.”
Yeah, well we’ll see. If I’m around that long. Otherwise, I am “forgiving” ashes. Unless my returning “Dust to Dust” adheres tenaciously to a grudge.
This thing happened… wait, I am looking it up… okay, thirty-two years ago. I was a two-day-a-week consultant on a short-lived, CBS comedy-anthology series, entitled The George Burns Comedy Week, whose Executive Producer was Steve Martin.
Steve Martin had been a spectacularly successful comedian – he played stadiums – and then movie star, who, riding his enabling famousness, branched into other areas of the business.
On the show’s first day “Production Meeting”, I, although not a full-time participant, was invited (or was it instructed?) to attend. (Earlier that day, I had gotten into a fight with legendary comedian George Burns because, I believe, he reminded me of my grandfather. Not that he demanded an unquestioning acceptance of the Torah, but something about him felt incendiarily familiar. Maybe it was the billowing boxer shorts they both wore. To keep the crease in his trousers before a performance, erstwhile vaudevillian George Burns, when I was encountered him, was not wearing his pants.)
The initial “Production Meeting”, spearheaded by the actual “working” (rather than essentially “honorary”) Executive Producer ran its course, outlining the general direction of the show. Then Steve Martin took over. In an effort to define the series’s stylistic parameters, he observed,
“While developing some of the stories (during earlier pre-production meetings), I’ve heard people saying, ‘The character wouldn’t do that.’ Let’s make them do that.”
I sat there, quietly. But, apparently, my face, without asking permission, spoke for me. And it was not going, “Hear! Hear!”
After the meeting, I was standing outside, simmering down though not quickly, when Steve Martin, whom I had never spoken to, approached me and apologized for saying anything that may have possibly upset me. I said, “I’s okay.” Because he was my boss. And because he played stadiums.
The thing is, my entire training to that point – with some exceptional writers – had drummed the exact opposite instruction into my head:
“Character! Character! Character!” (Meaning, character “honesty” and character consistency.)
We had inviolable “Marching Orders.” If the character would not “do that”, you do not write that. Now, here was Executive Producer Steve Martin insisting we should.
I don’t want to get into a diatribe here – there is my volatile blood pressure to consider – but if you don’t write a character “in character”, how exactly are you supposed to write them? The alternative approach seems, then and today, to be arbitrary and capricious. Not to mention bizarre, confusing, juvenile and dumb.
Then I remembered The Jerk, a cutting-edge example of audaciously “coloring outside the lines.” Though I enjoyed The Jerk, I did not consider it a replacement template for respectable comedy writing.
CRAZED SNIPER SHOOTING AT GAS STATION ATTENDANT NAVIN JOHNSON, MISSING NAVIN AND HITTING THE NEARBY OIL CANS INSTEAD.
NAVIN: (FRANTICALLY PANICKED) “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!”
And so forth.
I loved that. And numerous subsequent “so forths” as well, though they made a proverbial mockery of my training. (Explanatory Note: A “character” that will say or do anything is, by definition, not a character. What exactly would “characterize” them?)
It was then I awoke to an overriding exception.
Steve Martin’s deranged comic intensity – albeit a sincere deranged comic intensity – works to laugh-inducing perfection… when Steve Martin himself is performing it.
But when he isn’t, it doesn’t.
Which brings me, excruciatingly belatedly, to my point. (Especially for those holding their breath till I got to it.)
Bright Star, a Broadway musical written by Steve Martin. (With Edie Brickell.)
L.A. Times review, by Senior Theater Critic Charles McNulty. (Whom you can see trying to be nice – because it’s Steve Martin – before inevitably brandishing the hatchet.)
“As one theatergoer’s bliss is another theatergoer’s cornball, let’s accentuate the positive before delving into the negative of a show that reveals just how thin the line is between cornball and charming.”
The Prevailing Difficulty: “As dramatists, Martin and Brickell fall readily into clichés. Plot overrules character, and change occurs by fiat.”
In other words, “Let’s make the character do that” is not working.
The Critics’ Conclusion: “A few theatergoers in my vicinity seemed to get misty at the end…. My eyes were as dry as Death Valley.”
Personal Confession: Seeing Bright Star on Broadway, I myself got misty at the end. (Nobody ever called me consistent. Or if they did, they definitely won’t anymore.)
Despite my teary-eyed surrender, however, I adhere firmly to this contention:
“Let’s make the character do that” works demonstrably better for Steve Martin the performer than for the actors he’s writing for. And that’s not just me talking. Senior L.A. Times Theater Critic Charles McNulty agrees with me.
As Taxi’s Louie DePalma would say, twisting the triumphing stiletto:
Thirty-two years after the fact.
(Awaiting the time when stuff like this will not matter anymore.)