Thursday, February 7, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Two

A framed black-and-white photograph hangs on the wall in my office, a photograph I received thirty years after it was taken. It’s a picture of me, age about twenty, dozing in front of the Camp Ogama Rec Hall, the place where we put on our shows. My eyes are closed, a pencil's dangling from my lips, and a script leans comfortably against my chest. If you wanted to caption that photograph, the inevitable label would be:


The signals were obvious when I studied that photograph thirty years after the fact. I was indisputably a writer. Amazingly, I had no idea at the time.

I should have known. In Third Grade, my teacher, Mrs. Knight, would drag me from classroom to classroom and make me stand on a chair, where I’d read aloud my latest story; one, I remember, was called Bugs Bunny and The Banana Factory. Hey, I was eight!

From age sixteen to twenty-one, I wrote camp musicals, inventing the scripts and putting original lyrics to songs I lifted from Broadway shows. I never thought there was anything special about it. It was just what I did.

Which reminds me of a kid in my High School math class named Tom Jefferson. (This name means nothing in Canada.) Tom always got a hundred in math, and I was in awe of his ability. Once, I said to him, “Tom, how do you get a hundred in math?” This is what Tom replied:

Well, I just sort of …look at the questions and kind of…figure out the answers.”

Tom Jefferson was a natural in math. I was something like that in writing. At least, in writing comedy.

I’ll stop again to tell you something important. It’s kind of harsh, but it’s something you need to know. There’s a quirky, little movie called Funnybones, starring Oliver Platt and Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis plays a successful comedian; his son, Oliver Platt, is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. The problem is, the son is not funny. After bombing with his comedy act, Platt goes to Lewis for some fatherly advice. Jerry takes his son for a walk, where he lays things clearly on the line, telling him,

“There’s this thing called ‘Funnybones.’ You either have them or you don’t. You don’t.”

If you want to write comedy, make sure, make really sure, you have ‘Funnybones.’ ‘Funnybones’ are a prerequisite for writing comedy. Not that lacking ‘Funnybones’ means “Game Over” for your writing aspirations. I recently met a writer on the picket line who tried comedy without ‘Funnybones’ and didn’t make it. He went on to create one of the most successful dramas on network TV.

I keep getting sidetracked. The challenge with blogs is, with unlimited time and space, there’s a tendency to take too much of both. Also, I’m not sure what you want to hear.

When I was twenty-three, I was telling a story to some people during lunch. Afterwards, one of my lunch companions said to me, “If you write up that story, I think I can get it published in the newspaper.” Lacking both job and career aspirations – remember, I had no idea I was a writer – I decided to put the story on paper and submit it to the paper’s editor, who was my lunch companion’s friend.

Nothing happened.

I wrote another story to remind the editor about the first story. Nothing again. Then, I wrote a third story, to remind her about the first two stories. Again, nothing. Finally, the editor called.

“You’ve written three good stories,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“How would you like a weekly column?”

You know, it’s amazing. Just writing that sentence gave me “butterflies” all over again. I’m not a brave person. If someone had asked me to write a column before, I would certainly have said “No”, fearing my ability to come through on a weekly basis. In this case, I was already three stories ahead. So I said, “Yes.”

That weekly column was my first professional writing job. The paper allowed me to write about anything I wanted; in two years, only one story was ever rejected; it was about the Viet Nam War. I loved doing the column. I was paid was twenty dollars a column, which, over the years, rose gradually to fifty. I was writing in the sixties, and I called the column Where It’s Near. You know, not Where It’s At, but Where It’s… Hey, I was twenty-three!

I’d probably still be writing that column, but after two years, I was unexpectedly fired. A month later, the entire newspaper, the second biggest paper in Toronto, went out of business. I guess I was fired earlier with the hope that cutting my fifty-dollar salary would allow the paper to remain afloat, but it didn’t work out.

I think I’ll stop there. Next time, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you how I made the jump from Canada to Hollywood. Looking back, the success I achieved resulted from a mixture of talent, timing, determination and luck. It’s amazing, when I think about it, how it could very easily never have happened.


The One Who Cares said...

I don't have a specific comment to make other than to say I am enjoying your blog and hope you keep at it. Maybe I'm lying (about the comment part, not the enjoying part) -- your hockey story actually worked better for me in my blissful ignorance of the rules of hockey. As I read it at first, the touch from this young woman terrified Duke and he jumped on the ice in fear. Something about a big, tough hockey player -- even a not particularly skilled one -- doing that makes me giggle. My brain also supplied a pratfall when he hit the ice. Fall down, go boom may not be sophisticated, but it is funny. At any rate, thanks for the stories. I'll read if you'll write.

Unknown said...

I love this direction you're taking. Very funny. Very Real. Very Good

Anonymous said...

"I keep getting sidetracked. The challenge with blogs is, with unlimited time and space, there’s a tendency to take too much of both. Also, I’m not sure what you want to hear."

Please, just keep them coming. My first action upon opening my browser each morning is to click Bookmarks, Funny Stuff, Open all in Tabs.

Your blog and Ken Levine's then magically open.

A perfect way to start the day.

Anonymous said...

Only post "Story of a Writer - Part Three" if you intend to post 4, 5, and 6. Otherwise it would be a cruel tease.

Missives and More said...

More, more , more!

Anonymous said...

I was reflecting on your comments about characters on TV today who play up their mean side... What about Louie on Taxi? He was the most lovable out and out jerk I'd ever come upon up to that point, certainly. (Though even he showed a few soft spots as the series progressed, while never caving this soft side.) And he's really never been duplicated. Different from Archie, too.

Anonymous said...

I meant caving "to" this soft side.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I was twenty-three!

Sounds familiar. I'm 23, and currently interim editor of the weekend Escape section for The Signal, the exclusive newspaper of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Except, when I work on the section, I credit myself as "Escape Editor" in the staff box because I've been in one form of journalism or another for nine years and I've waited for gold like this. Worked damn hard for it, and here it is.

And yeah, they've hired someone as the next Escape editor and to edit the opinion pages in the regular newspaper (long story, wish I had been considered first considering I've been there for two years, but that's ok by me), but for these four weeks, much as I worry about what to put on the pages, I'm going to enjoy myself. In fact, the tagline under the Escape logo was something I thought of in under 3 minutes:

"Working to Entertain You When You're Not Working."

The section comes out every Friday, so it fits.

Anonymous said...


Count me in with the "more, more" contingent. Something you might want to consider is that there are still people who enjoy the sheer pleasure of reading good writing for its own sake. I don't care if you sidetrack and ramble, if that's what you want to call it, because I only wish I could sidetrack and ramble with the elegance and humor you possess.

Also, I'm forty-three, and I spent my formative years watching and enjoying and absorbing the work of you and your peers. Like many people my age I still have a love and deep respect for the type of funny-as-hell workmanship that exemplified those times. I personally would love to read as much as you can stand to share about your work and your career.

^^Now THERE's some serious sidetracking and rambling!

Anonymous said...

Hi Earl. I was at Camp Ogama when you were the instructor there. I was there back in 1968-70 I believe. I remember you and your thick glasses and how much fun you were. My late father once told me we were related but I don't know how. My family wasn't very close when I was younger and less so now. But his name was John William Brown and my mother was Dolly Brown. He was from North Bay and I think that's where the connection is.

I work as a journalist up here in Toronto and was interested to read your story about starting off in the biz. I came across it because I was trying to research Camp Ogama.

Anyway, all the best

Barry Brown

Anonymous said...

I want more about Camp Ogama. I want more about Eddie Bogamoni, and Morris Goldenberg. Not to mention Daisy Russel and Hart Pomerantz. Don't forget Eddie Lieberman. I need more on Jerry Shime and Alan Borovoy, and the Travellers.

I need more.

Anonymous said...

Earl I meant Daisy Saunders. Not Russel.

Anonymous said...

You taught me how to swim. A very gentle and understanding, "I'm holding you...just put your face in..just an inch..that's all." It was in the Ogama swim dock shallow area. Must have been 1962 or so. Who couldn't trust a face like yours? So I did. I am now 55 yrs. old. My life has been a financial failure and I am holding you responsible.

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