Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Fooled Again"

Which takes place with embarrassing frequency.

In the fall of 1968, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my brother (and his family) and Lorne Michaels, a then comedy-writing team toiling as “Bottom of the Credits” writers on the short-lived The Beautiful Phyllis Diller (variety) Show, on NBC.

When I was graciously invited to join the writing staff for lunch at a favored destination, “Chow’s Kosherama”, a combination deli-Chinese food restaurant for groups who were unable to reach a consensus on what they wanted to eat, I was immediately taken by the erudition of the gathered assemblage.  The veteran writers spoke expertly about art, literature, Raquel Welch.  (Who would be “guesting” the on following week’s show.  Plus, I needed one more example for the list.)  (He said, sheepishly.)

Had I not been impressed by these writers’ iconic credits – which included I Love Lucy and The Jack Benny Program – I’d have been bowled over by their wide-ranging knowledgeability.  Being in their presence was like auditing a college seminar of “all profesors.”

Then, returning to their offices, they sat down at their typewriters and wrote “fat” jokes for Kate Smith. 

(Or, more precisely, about Kate Smith.  Judging by her startled response, she had apparently never looked in a mirror.  (Adding to the ignominious litany.) 

This glaring disconnect of intellect was troubling to me.  It’s like they “thought smart” and “wrote stupid.”  I wondered how exactly that felt.  Is one part of their brain going, “For shame!” while another part goes, “That ‘for shame’ got us a swimming pool.”) 

Did I ever ask them about it?  Hey, they just paid for my lunch.

So that was me, ignorant, or blind to reality, once again.  (Of a career I secretly wanted to participate it.)

Writing for television is a job.  You do what you have to do.   (Saving your penetrating insights till you are officially “off duty.”)  I have always suspected “Tough Guy” actors like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum continually got into fights because they believed that the profession of acting was inherently “girly” and they had to demonstrate to the world that they weren’t.  Maybe it was a similar process with sensitive comedy writers.  “You see?  We know stuff.  We just don’t use any of it at work.”

This phenomenon is hardly unusual.  Every job has its obligatory requirements, from which personal deviation is seriously discouraged.

SURGEON:  “When I ‘close up’, I like to stitch in my initials.”

TRIAL LAWYER:  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,rather than a tedious speech, I shall deliver my ‘Opening Argument’ in song.”

AIRLINE PILOT:  “Flying coast-to-coast is so boring, I like to throw in a “Loop-the-Loop” over Kansas to keep myself fresh and give the passengers something to talk about when they land.”

Those people would be fired. 

As would any comedy writer, inserting “The Hegelian Dialectic” into a Gilligan’s Island episode.  A joke writer’s unwavering concern is to get the biggest possible laughs, as exemplified by a blistering critique comedian Red Skelton reputedly delivered to his head writer: 

“There are too many words before ‘chopped liver.’”

I thought – no, there was no thinking involved – I reflexively assumed that writing was different, maybe because I started out as an “Opinion Writer” in the paper, leading me to believe there was an inevitable connection between who you were and what you wrote. 

There isn’t.

At least not in television.  Back then, or, arguably, even today.  With the notable exception of political commentary shows, where, the absurdities of our leaders, showcased for deserving ridicule emerge from the (seeming) uncensored sensibilities of the writers.

Comedy 101:

Comedies, first and foremost, involve jokes.  For the more respected shows, those jokes are deeply embedded in character or in laserly advancing the episode’s storyline.  You are not paid to air your existential insights and learned opinions.  That’s “Pastrami-and Chow Mein” Time.  For business, it’s “Just stick to the jokes.” 

Seinfeld was a sometimes exception.  Not just that “George Costanza” was the sitcomical stand-in for Larry David, and because they paused the plotline for occasional musings about “How often do you trim your toenails?”  The show at times also spoke out explosively for all of us.

My favorite example, which made me – and from the sound of it, the Seinfeld studio audience – squeal with sublime ecstasy and delight:

A telemarketer calls Jerry, in the midst of some conversation with his buddies.

JERRY:  (INTO PHONE)  “This isn’t a good time.”

TELEMARKETER:  “When would be a good time to call back, sir?”

“I have an idea.  Why don’t you give me your home number and I’ll call you back later.”

“Umm, we’re not allowed to do that.”

“Oh, I guess because you don’t want strangers calling you at home.”

“Umm, no.”

“Well, now you know how I feel.”

It says it all.  “A universal annoyance.”  And boy, did Jerry tell them!

I wanted to write entire shows like that.  No jokes.  Just interesting “noticings” and (hopefully humorous) responses.  Maybe that’s not possible.  But has it ever actually been tried?

Intermittently, yes.  (See:  Previous example.)  Here’s one that reflects me, from an episode entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

A doctor treating Ted Baxter for a mild heart attack assures him,

“With proper diet and exercise, you can live to be a hundred.”

To which Ted grumpily – as, arguably, I might – replies,

“Yeah?  And then what?”

Similar examples of this nature are few.  Normally, you think one way and you write another.  It’s hard not to wonder, sometimes,

“Where did I go?”

In a way, the lack of “personalizing material” is a curious omission.  Comedy stemming from shared experience can yield hilarious consequences.

I wonder why they don’t “go there” more often?

More importantly to this enterprise,

I wonder why I didn’t?

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

In her novel MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, Dorothy Sayers, who had previously worked in an ad agency for about six months, muses about the odd disconnect between the things copywriters liked themselves and the things they were good at writing sales copy for. So the guy who ate only bread made from (the equivalent of) organic whole wheat flour wrote only desperately boring copy on its benefits and was much better at writing copy about bras, while the woman on the staff was better at writing silly light-hearted stuff selling the flour.

In other words: 'twas ever thus.