Monday, March 31, 2008

"The Audience Writes The Script"

Two quarters ago, I took an Extension class at UCLA called Sociology and Mass Communication. The course offered some illuminating revelations, especially on the physiological effects of watching television. But its central concern was, in my view, not nearly as serious as my sociology professor made it seem, though I’m sure she would vociferously disagree.

The professor insisted we should all be alarmed that a diminishing number of corporations – something like six – control of all the major media outlets. To her, this situation insured a conservative ideological bias in the media.

Earl says, you don’t have to worry. (A view that made me not tremendously popular in that class.)

In my view, media corporations, do not care about ideology anywhere near as much as they care about money.



Am I crazy?

Probably, but not about this.

Fox News is conservative. No argument there, except maybe from Fox News, but, you know, please, we have ears. Fox News is not conservative, in my view, because the company’s boss, Mr. Murdoch, is conservative. Fox News is conservative because there was a marketing niche – conservative-leaning news viewers – whose proclivities were not being met anywhere on television – and Fox News filled the gap.

And they made a lot of money.

What evidence do I then have that Mr. Murdoch’s corporation is not ideologically committed to a conservative bias?

Fox Television.

Fox Television is not conservative. Much of Fox Television’s programs, starting with The Simpsons and Family Guy – let alone When Animals Attack Babies, or whatever – are so, comparatively, extreme, they would never be considered by Fox Television’s more conservative competitors, CBS, NBC and ABC.

Fox Television was trying to appeal to an audience that, once again, the other networks were ignoring, in this case, men, particularly younger men, around fourteen. Fox Television, with demonstrably non-conservative programming, filled that gap as well.

And they made a lot of money.

You see the common denominator there? It’s not ideology that’s at play here, it’s cash. Unless you’re against the maximization of profit – which would make you frighteningly un-American – you have little to fear from the media companies who, like the rest of us, are merely trying to get rich. Or, in their case, “Holy Moley!” rich.

Rest easy, America. Corporations care less about ideology than they do about “da dollah.”


Corporations may own the media, but they do not, in the end, control the media. Who does?

You do.

Every Friday, new movies open around the country. The corporations have millions, often, hundreds of millions, tied up in these movies. They’ve done their best – through market research, tracking movie trends, pre-release screenings – to insure that their movies will be successful, but, unlike people with real power, they can’t guarantee anything.

That’s why, after those Friday openings, executives (and filmmakers) endure a tortured Saturday and Sunday, awaiting reports on how their movies did on that first, invariably, success or failure-determining weekend. The movie companies hope their endeavors will be successful, but there’s no way they can control what’s actually going to happen. Who can?

You can.

The same goes for television. Generally, new T.V. shows debut in September. Their futures will be determined in the first few broadcasts. Who will determine their futures?

You will.

In both movies and television, the outcome has eluded the corporations and fallen into the hands of the American (and now the worldwide) entertainment-viewing public.

“Corporate control”? Not so much.

Wait, it gets better.

Not only does the audience control the commercial result, the audience, in my experience, has a fundamental influence on the material itself. Hence, the above title:

The audience writes the script.

A personal example.

I’m in charge of running Major Dad. I write a script about the Major and an unknown adversary locked in a yearlong battle of “chess by mail.” Here’s how it works. Before the Internet, people – often strangers – would mail each other alternating moves in a chess match they were playing long distance, matches that could take months, even years, to complete.

In my Major Dad episode, the unknown adversary the Major is playing announces that he’s coming to town; he suggests that he drop by the Major’s house, so they can finish the chess match in person. The Major enthusiastically agrees. He’s excited to confront his opponent in the flesh, imagining, based on his Slavic-surname – and the Major’s boundless self-regard – that his opponent is some super-genius Russian physicist. The opponent arrives. It’s a twelve year-old boy.

That’s the funny surprise.

The kid’s an easy-going delight, bopping to James Brown on his headphones and he takes on the intense and increasingly irritated Major. As the confrontation unfolds, the Major’s almost-teen stepdaughter develops a crush on this chess prodigy. He’s a great, gifted, totally normal kid. And he’s driving the Major batty.

The advantage goes back and forth, the Major attacking, the kid deftly countering. Finally, it’s down to the wire. It’s my script. I get to decide the outcome. And I do. The kid wins.

This episode was filmed in front of a “live” studio audience. When the deciding moment arrived, and the kid prevailed, the “live” studio audience, in unison, uttered this response:


Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The audience wanted the Major to win. It was incredible. I let this sweet, smart, delightful kid prevail against a tight-assed, competitive jerk of a Major

and the audience “awwwwww’s” me?

I hated that! But I learned a bitter lesson. Writers can write whatever they want, but if that’s not what the audience wants

you’re going to get “awwwwwwed.”

So what happens? You end up writing what the audience wants, raising the creative “white flag” in the form a conscious or – even worse – an unconscious, self-censorship. Or, you might truly believe your story should go in a non-traditional direction, but your financial backers decree a more audience-pleasing revision. Maybe you put up a fight. Or maybe you don’t, or your opposition’s a feeble formality. Why didn’t you fight harder? Because somewhere deep down, despite what the story, if told honestly, demanded

you didn’t want to get “awwwwwwed.”

That’s how much control the audience has. It’s something to remember. You, in your overwhelming numbers, can control the choices writers and the media behemoths decide to make.

You’re the tail that wags the dog.

Take advantage.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nine"

In the pilot season of 1975 – “Geez, I wasn’t even born then!” – I’m speaking for my daughter and, hopefully, other young readers, and they probably wouldn’t say “Geez”, which explains why I can’t sell a movie.


In that pilot season, the show-running team that ran The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed. (“Allow me the affectation”) Weinberger and Stan Daniels, had both of their pilots picked up as series for the upcoming season. That meant they’d be running three shows at the same time. Running one show is excruciating; running three at the same time, I don’t even want to think about.

The new shows needed to be staffed with writers, and liking the work I’d done on my Mary script, Ed. and Stan hired me as a story editor on one of their new series, called Phyllis. Phyllis Lindstrom was a character that originated on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A standard programming strategy is to “spin off” a character from a hit show and create a new series, starring that already popular character. The last time they tried that recently, it was Joey. “Spin offs” are hit and miss. Sometimes, they work – Frazier came from Cheers – and sometimes, they don’t. Joey.

This is great, wait till you hear this. Before they hired me for Phyllis, Ed. and Stan reserved a large screening room and sent me there to watch the Phyllis pilot, to see if I liked it. You notice two amazing things in that one sentence? They’d reserved a large screening room. For me! I could sit in any of the thickly padded movie seats I wanted and say, “Roll ‘em!” when I wanted the projectionist to “Roll ‘em”, and he’d “Roll ‘em!”

The second amazing thing was that people I respected and revered wanted me to decide if their show appealed to me enough for me to be willing to work on it. I was almost giddy. I’m giddy again just thinking about it. That’s the third amazing thing. As old as I am, I can still get giddy.

I really liked the Phyllis pilot. It had all the attributes of the MTM brand – it was funny and human, and not at all stupid. I reported to Ed. and Stan that the show had met with my approval. They seemed happy to hear that. And they put me on Phyllis.

The Phyllis writing staff, besides Ed. and Stan, consisted of me – the story editor – and one other writer, who would be the show’s producer.

A moment for boring clarification.

If you ever wondered what the various titles on the writing credits mean, from a writing standpoint, they don’t mean anything. As a writer, you do what you do. Sometimes, a gifted story editor will make a greater contribution than a mediocre co-executive producer. That’s just the way it is.

The title reflects how much you get paid; the loftier title, the bigger your salary. (Titles and salaries are all negotiated.) When it comes down to doing the job, however, everybody’s pitching, and everyone’s the same. Except for the show runner, who retains the final say on what goes in the script.

The producer on Phyllis, whose name was Michael, was younger than I was, but he had more experience. Michael had a unique and original comic imagination. A moment that did not appear that funny on the page would explode when it was performed by the actors. Michael was tuned into something special; he possessed a comedic chromosome the rest of us lacked.

Anyway, it was Michael and me, and Ed. and Stan, who were working on two other shows at the same time, Mary and their other new show, called Doc. With the writing staff set, work began on the scripts. We’d pitch out the stories together, then one of us would go off and write the outline, and then two drafts. Later, we would polish the script together.

I was given the honor of writing the second episode, the first one after the pilot. Even before I started working, when I was merely a viewer, I always believed the second episode was the most important episode of the series. The second episode proved that the show was more than a great pilot. There were other interesting stories to tell. The series concept had “legs.” And a regular viewer. Me.

During my career I was fortunate enough to have written many second episodes. Besides, the second episode of Phyllis, I also wrote the second episode of Taxi, the second episode of Cheers and the second episode of The Cosby Show. When I mentioned this to a group of writers, one of them, a good writer named Ron, said, “Earl, you were one script away from a billion dollars.”

I liked writing second scripts. The characters are still fresh, and not fully formed; the writer of the second episode, by their choices, is contributing to fleshing out characters that could live on for years. You can make them stingy, by a single stingy joke in Episode Two, and that character will be stingy forever. There’s a thrill in contributing to the establishment of the characters. Even if you miss out on the billion dollars.

As it turned out, however, my first Phyllis script was not that successful. I was still a rookie, and being a rookie, I wasn’t as good a writer as I would ultimately become; also, though I showed flashes of ability – even at the beginning – I remained “rookily” inconsistent.

Trouble in “The Room”

The “table reading” room, where the script would have its first out-loud reading, was crammed with actors and production staff. This was the first production day of a spanking new series – lots of excitement, lots of chatter. I had a stomachache. They were about to read my first script. (I wasn’t involved in the production of my Mary episode, though I was invited to the filming, which I’ll tell you about another time. You’ll like that story; there are drugs involved.)

I’ll make this fast, because it wasn’t pleasant. The lead actress arrived two hours late. That means a two-hour stomachache for me. When the actors read the script aloud, the laughs were small and sporadic. At the end, the lead actress was not happy. I felt terrible and about-to-be-fired. I didn’t like being in that room.

The rewriting process improved the script immeasurably and the episode turned out reasonably well. Two weeks later, another of my scripts was read, and things went a lot better (though the lead actress still arrived two hours late). The script garnered a lot of laughs. The lead actress was very pleased with my work. Though confused.

“Did he write it alone?” I heard her inquire, perplexed by how the same writer could have written a funny script and a crappy one.

By this time, I had had enough. No more stomachaches for me, I resolved. I demanded a meeting with Ed., and I came in with an agitated proposal. (The proposal wasn’t agitated, I was agitated when I proposed it.)

“I don’t want to be a story editor anymore,” I announced.

Ed. was caught off-guard. He wasn’t used to having story editors making ultimatum-like pronouncements.

“What do you want to do?”

I told Ed. that instead of working on the writing staff of one show, I wanted to write scripts for all the MTM comedies, of which there were four at the time. I insisted – insisted, mind you – that at least two of the episodes be for the Mary show; the rest could be spread out amongst the other series. In total, I would write ten scripts per season. (This number, at my request, was later reduced to eight.)

Chutzpah. A new guy telling his bosses what he will and won’t do. Where did it come from? Agitation and fear. I didn’t know much, but I knew one thing:

I didn’t want to go back in that room.

The agreement was made. From then on, I just wrote scripts. No more “table readings”, no more petulant actors, no more rewrites – other people would handle that – and no more late nights. I could keep my own hours as long as the scripts were delivered on time.

They always were.

My great job, which had turned nightmarish, had evolved into an even better job.

And all it cost me was my Phyllis story editor salary, and the chance to learn how to deal with the ups and downs of the series-making experience. Which I, ultimately, never did.

A Footnote: The two brothers who replaced me as the story editors on Phyllis would later go on to create Cheers.

Next on Story of a Writer – The three most enjoyable years of my entire career.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Questions I Was Too Scared To Ask"

Once, when I was teenager, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to go hear a lecture at our synagogue. When you’re a teenager, going to hear a lecture at the synagogue with your grandfather is hardly a “Top-Ten” priority. I told my grandfather I was watching hockey. My grandfather went without me.

The man I missed hearing that night was a visiting rabbi named Abraham Heschel. I know who he is now. I read a book of his and my breath was taken away by the wisdom. On Google, Heschel’s described as “The most important Jewish thinker of the modern period.” The Google entry also mentions that in 1965, Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma. When asked why he was there instead of ensconcing himself comfortably in the ivory towers of New York, Rabbi Heschel replied, “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.”

I learned my lesson. Nowadays, when somebody’s speaking that I need to see, I go. Not that there are a lot of Heschels around; mostly, it’s Larry King, who I don’t go see, but that’s, generally, who’s speaking.

“Sioux Saint Marie. Hello!”

I like to know stuff. Not all stuff. I don’t seem to like to know scientific stuff. I take the long view on science. I like to let the conflicting scientific theories duke it out for a few hundred years, at which point I accept the winner’s position. I’m pretty much “down” with gravity. On the other hand, I remember this guy in the Eighties railing on The Tonight Show about overpopulation and our imminent running out of food. There’s still elbow room and we’re still eating.

Salt’s good for you, then salt’s bad for you, then salt’s not that terrible for you. It’s like “paper or plastic” at the supermarket. First, it was “plastic”. Then, it was “paper”; now, it’s “plastic” again. Or is it those canvas tote things you’re supposed to buy.

Scientific theories, to me, are like wet paint. I like to give them time to dry.

Generally thinking, science simply doesn’t hold my interest. Nor does math. After, counting, I don’t see the purpose of math. Measuring, that’s good too. But what else do you need? I know this is ignorant on my part. No, it’s more than ignorant; it’s stupid. The difference between “ignorant” and ‘stupid”, in my view?

“Ignorant” means, “I don’t know.”

“Stupid” means, I don’t want to know.”

When it comes to science and math, I admit, with a modicum maybe a modicum and a half of shame, I’m just plain stupid. You can’t know, or even want to know everything, I suppose, but that’s pretty much an excuse.

And it’s not that I think the people who are committed to science and math are throwing their lives away. I have a friend named David who engages in advanced mathematical activities, and I like him enormously. He’s smart and he’s funny and a loving and wonderful spirit. But when he talks about the math thing he’s working on, though I try my best to stay with it, not only do my eyes glaze over, my normally engaged brain cells simply up and quit on me. It’s like a brain rebellion. They refuse to want to know.

What I like are ideas. What people think and why they decided to think that way. On both sides, not just the side I agree with; I’m a fair guy. When I don’t agree, I need to know, “What is it in the way that guy’s thinking that leads him to come to that really wrong conclusion?”

I think thinking is important. It’s no accident that this blog is called Just Thinking.

I try to think whenever I can. As I wrote in a recent posting on our daughter’s birthday, when I’m driving, I have been known to slow down to think. This qualifies me as an active thinker. A thinker you never want to drive behind.

Why do I value thinking so highly? Well, it may not be the fact that I value thinking so highly as the fact that I have a deep and visceral fear of ignorance. Why?

In 1965, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, which is the Superbowl of hockey. I ran into the kitchen and screamed, “Mom, the Leafs just won the Stanley Cup!” Without batting at eye, my mother replied,

“Is that good for the Jews?”

Ignorance and the prejudice resulting from ignorance have never been good for the Jews.

So I go to these lectures, to find stuff out. The last couple involved two lawyers, a rabbi and an atheist. Sounds like the setup for a joke, but it isn’t. It’s just the rundown of the people I bought tickets to see.

These events weren’t actually lectures, they were “live” appearances, with a moderator asking questions and the featured guests responding to them. The evenings invariably ended with a question period, where the attenders have the opportunity go up to a microphone and question the guests themselves.

I never go up.

It’s not that I don’t have questions; I always have questions. I’m just afraid to ask them. What if my question’s stupid and the audience groans? What if it’s perceived by the guest as a hostile attack, and they respond by cutting me to ribbons? What if I get tongue-tied, or I’m not well-enough prepared and my question comes out long-winded or vague? What if they “boo” me? What if my fly is open? What if I talk and I spit?

Why do I need that kind of aggravation?

I’ve got three questions, questions that came to me during these events, but that I was too scared to ask. I’m going to ask them here, where it’s safe. If you’re a lawyer, a rabbi or an atheist, or you know a rabbi, a lawyer or an atheist, maybe you can offer up some answers. Don’t be shy. There’s no booing on the Internet.

Okay, here are the questions:

I went to an event featuring two famous criminal defense attorneys. If I’d been brave that night, this is what I would have asked them.

To the Defense Attorneys:

“Say, I’m on a jury, and I’m aware that it’s the sworn duty of the defense attorney to say whatever it takes to get their client set free. With this in mind, why should I, as a juror, believe anything a defense attorney tells me?”

I also went to an event billed as a debate between a rabbi and an atheist on the issue of the existence of God. Again, my courage was a “no-show”, but had it not been, I’d have walked to the microphone and said this:

“I have one question for each of you. To the atheist: What is the atheist’s proof for the certainty that God does not exist? And to the rabbi: Considering God’s performance during the Holocaust, what difference does it make whether God exists or not?”

These may not be profound questions. They may, in fact, be cliché questions, questions that have been asked and answered hundreds of times. I just haven’t been around when they were. I guess I was watching hockey.

You feel like helping me out?

Note: I know it’s Sault Ste. Marie, but I wanted to write it the way it’s pronounced. Call it “Phonetic Geography.”

Also, if you want to connect with me but don't want to appear in the "Comments" secti0n, you can reach my at

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"The Stupidest Thing I Ever Said"

This could actually be a tie among thousands, but this one sticks particularly in my mind. I’ve had it quoted back to me by people who weren’t there when I said it but who must have heard it from someone and thought it was worth remembering. I guess that’s what makes it a special “stupidest things I’ve ever said.” This one is memorably stupid.

I’m jumping ahead in my story of a writer; I’ll get back in sequence later in the week. I just feel like telling this story, get it out in the open, and move on with my life. This gallstone of shame has got to be expelled. Or whatever.

In 1981, or so, I created a television series called Best of the West. In all, I created three television series. This one was my favorite, and, I believe, my funniest. Best of the West is about cowboys and such and, as you know, the most recent evidence being yesterday’s posting, the cowboy genre are dear to my heart. I imagine I could have been a cowboy, except for the skills, which I don’t have, and the courage, which I also don’t have. That’s what’s great about imagining. No reality element whatsoever.

Okay, so I’m running Best of the West. It’s my first time running a television series, an experience that, for me, delivers a daily dose of soul-shaking terror. The issue was quality. I had written and produced a really good pilot, but that took three months. With a series, I’m now expected to duplicate or improve on my pilot’s standard of, if not excellence, then, at least, very-goodness, every week.

And, many weeks, I can’t.

I’ll digress long enough to tell you something you already know. America is about money. No element of the television-process has “quality” as its primary objective. It wasn’t created for that. It was created to make people rich. As my wife once observed, considering what’s involved, when a show turns out successfully, it’s a miracle.

One of the creators of Cheers once calculated that on any given day during production, he’s working on five different episodes at the same time: He’s pitching out the story for a future episode, he’s supervising production of a current episode, he’s casting the following episode, he’s editing the previously filmed episode, and, frequently, he’s writing the script for yet another episode. Five episodes. On the same day.

I get a retroactive stomachache just writing about it.

In England, shows like Fawlty Towers and the original version of The Office have runs of twelve episodes. That’s the entire series, twelve produced episodes. What’s envious about this arrangement from a creative standpoint is that in England, all the episodes are written before the first episode is produced. Instead of working on five episodes on the same day, they work on one. You think that might possibly make the shows better? (Not that Cheers wasn’t good; it was wonderful. But even with the best shows, there’s no way the crushing work load doesn’t influence quality.)

We can’t duplicate the English schedule here, because, first and foremost, we’re trying to get rich. To do that, it’s necessary to produce a package of at least a hundred episodes to rerun in syndication, where the real money is. You can’t make diddly with twelve.

A succinct statement of the contrast between the American and the English systems of production was delivered by an English producer I once heard, who said, “In England, we need money to make shows, and in America, you need shows to make money.” A pretty good summary. He probably worked on that a lot before he said it.

Okay, so I’m stalling a little before I reveal the stupidest thing I ever said. But I also wanted to set the context, the context being the gut-churning insanity of making a television series in the United States.

Back to Best of the West, a series I not only created, but for which I also wrote the theme song. I mention that, not so much to brag, but because I’m writing this on a Monday, I’m a little blue, and I wanted to remind myself that once I wrote a song. I’m feeling better already.

My writing staff consisted of myself and two other writers. One of the writers went on to write the movie Good Morning, Viet Nam and is now the conductor of the Myanmar symphony orchestra; the other writer co-created The Simpsons. It was small staff but a talented one.

The writer who co-created The Simpsons was particularly interesting. For one thing, he was the only Republican comedy writer I ever met. For another, and I’m not sure the two aren’t related, he was congenitally upbeat. No matter how hard things got – how late we were working, how stuck we were – he’d suddenly look up from his script, his eyes alive and dancing and he’d shout, “Isn’t this great?” I thought he was out of his mind.

So here we are, Earl and his staff of two, slogging through a “rewrite.” For those who don’t know the process, during the week a script is being produced, there’s an ongoing rewriting process, often following a run-through – meaning rehearsal – where you get to see which parts of script need to be fixed. Scripts are rewritten down to the last minute, sometimes, during the filming itself.

Imagine the situation. It’s twelve-thirty at night. We’re on page eight. The script is forty-eight pages long, so there’s quite a ways to go before we can go home. I mention going home, because that’s always my goal. Well, not always. My goal, originally, was to do the best work I possibly could; but at some point, I got worn down, and that goal was replaced by something that was attainable.

The room we’re working in seems to be completely lacking in oxygen, and it’s affecting our, or at least my, thinking process. I also find an implicit criticism in working at night. I have this nagging feeling that if I were any good at this job, I’d be sleeping by now.

I call a break. Even though we’re only on page eight, I feel like we need to stop and clear our heads, the belief being that we’ll be sharper when we come back. At that point, it’s more a prayer than a belief.

I walk outside. Not far from my office, is a small park, or park-like area the studio has built. On daylight writing breaks, I have found myself out there, with a great joke writer named Bob, playing catch, complete with softball and gloves. At twelve-thirty a night, “catch” is not a consideration. I just want to be out of that room!

I drop down on a bench. I try not to think about our script problems, and fail. I feel bereft. It’s all on my shoulders. I’m supposed to be the leader. And I’m tired, anxious and scared. Hardly leaderly qualities. But that’s the kind of leader I was.

Before I know it, my assistant comes out and informs me that our “break time” has expired. I sigh, rise unsteadily from the bench and, putting one foot in front of the other, drag myself ever so reluctantly back to the office. And that’s when I say it. The stupidest thing I ever said. And this is what it was:

“There’s got to be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

I knew it was ridiculous when I said it. I felt it, coming out. “This is ridiculous”, I was thinking. “Do not finish this sentence.” But the sentence had a momentum of its own. It could not be stopped.

Yes, I was tired, and yes, I was upset. But oh, the ingratitude. The spoiled brattedness. The total and complete lack of perspective. I was thoroughly ashamed.

But I said it.

And, at the time, it was exactly how I felt.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Saddle Up! - Part Four"

(Actors who appeared in classic westerns recall their experiences. As imagined by me.)



“I don’t want to talk about it. Sidekick. Thirty years with that scraggly beard, a moth-eaten wardrobe, and every second word is, ‘Yer dern tootin’!’ That was my ‘catch phrase.’ – ‘Yer dern tootin’. I couldn’t get away from it. Wherever I went, ‘Yer dern tootin’!’, ‘Yer dern tootin’!’ I’m sitting in this upscale restaurant, I say to the waiter, ‘Excuse me. Do you have a vintage Beaujolais?’ He says, ‘Yer dern tootin’!’ It drove me up the wall!”

“I’m was a New York-trained actor, for heavens sake! I played the classics – Ibsen,
Shaw, Pirandello. Big parts, not just the butler. I come out to Hollywood, they say, ‘Can you play a western sidekick?’ I’m an actor; I can play anything. Unfortunately, I played
‘the sidekick’ so convincingly, they wouldn’t let me play anything else. Who can blame them? Would you cast me as a romantic lead after seeing me fall face-first into a ‘cow pie’?”

“How would I define a sidekick? You start with dignity, you strip away every shred of it and what’s left is the sidekick. It’s total humiliation. You fall into a horse trough, you walk into a wall, you fall asleep in a rocking chair and flip over backwards. I had terrible fights with the producers. ‘You’re taking the low road,’ I said. ‘Think: Sancho Panza. He was a sidekick, but he had innate dignity and an earthy wisdom.’ They said,

“Once, I’m coming out of the soundstage, dressed as ‘Soapy’ or ‘Succotash’, or some such nonsense, and wouldn’t you know it, I walk smack into Larry Olivier, dressed as Hamlet. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life. The man saw me in Uncle Vanya.”

“When our movies came out, we’d go out on a multi-city publicity tour, just me and 'The Good Guy'. Funny thing is, wherever we stopped, the audiences seemed more interested in me. I’d get more attention, louder applause, I’d sign more autographs. Did it piss off 'The Good Guy'?

“Yer dern tootin’!”



“I was out of my element in westerns. Foreign Legion pictures, biblical epics, that’s where I felt at home. In The Bible, I played one of the two camels Noah took on the ark. The second one. The funny part was we were both males. Nobody noticed, except the camels. We got a big laugh out of it. ‘Course, if the real Noah had made the same mistake, the camel would be extinct today.”

“‘Sword and Sand’ pictures – there, I was a natural. Then some screenwriter does some research on the West, and discovers that for a while, the U.S. cavalry experimented with camels. The call goes out – I’m out of the desert and into the cavalry. I preferred the desert. Why? The Bedouins never used spurs.”

“The horses on the western set treated me terribly. Okay, maybe that was partly my fault. Early in the picture, they asked me out for a drink, and I told them I wasn’t thirsty. I think that kind of ruffled their feathers. It wasn’t personal. I’m a camel; I drink once a week. I guess I could have tagged along, had a few peanuts. Mind you, if you’re really interested in someone, you could familiarize yourself with their habits.”

“I think, deep down, the horses were afraid of me. They saw me doing better in the desert, and suddenly it’s, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ ‘Course, they had nothing to worry about. Camels may be superior in the desert, but the West is – and always will be – horse country. The cavalrymen felt stupid riding camels. They couldn’t control them, they’d hurt themselves on the humps, they’d make the Indians laugh. The experiment was quickly shelved. The cavalry went back to their horses, and I went back to where they kick you with sandals.”

“I don’t think there’s even one song about a cowboy and his camel.”



“I never made the money the actors made, but it was ‘no contest’ when to came to the ladies. I mean, who’s more likely to set you blood to boilin’, a man who has the guts to fall fifty feet off a roof, or a man who says, ‘Good luck’ and steps into his trailer?”

Monday, March 24, 2008

"The Clueless Investor"

The stocks go up, the stocks go down; bonds go up, and bonds go down. I’m in that stuff. And, since those well-paying writing jobs have gone away, it’s not a theoretical situation. We’re living off our investments. That and medical reimbursements from the Writers’ Guild Health Fund. (It’s kind of comforting. Whenever I get sick, I know there’s gonna be money coming in.)

Okay, so last month, our bonds went in the toilet. Really bad. Now, I’m not a Nervous Nellie; my investments have to tank big-time before I pick up the phone.

They did, so I did. I called my investment guy, who’s been helping me for fifteen years. I try not whimper or sound scared. I fail in both regards.

“What’s going on.” my voice a barely controlled stammer of quivering desperation.

Hey, this is my money. My lifeline to food, lodging and comestibles. And I have no control over it whatsoever.

As usual, my investment guy calms me by giving me a persuasive explanation of why things went bad, ending with a prediction of a happy tomorrow.

“In time, you’ll make it all back and more.”

This prediction is based on the verifiable fact that, over time, the stock market has always gone up. In the long run, you always end up making money. But there’s this saying I have, which goes:

In the long run, you die in the short run.

Whatever my reservations, the conversation with my investment guy, as it always does, made me feel considerably reassured. But did I have any tangible reason to feel reassured? I’m not so sure.

Hiring a highly regarded expert to take care of my investments. That’s an entirely sensible thing to do. I should feel totally reassured, shouldn’t I? So why didn’t I?

Is it a trust issue? Not in the least. There’s no question my investment guy is smart, and absolutely no question that he’s honest – we’re not talking about fools and miscreants here. (I rarely get to use the word “miscreants.” It’s nice to have the chance.)

What exactly does my investment guy do? Let’s talk about stocks. My investment guy, a prestigiously-schooled, highly experienced professional, extensively researches Blue Chip companies, investing only in those that demonstrate the most solid – as he calls them – “fundamentals.” Though I support this conscientious approach, reservations still remain. If things go as predicted, my wife and I will be cruising comfortably through our Golden Years; if they don’t, it’s cat food and begging on the street. (I may be exaggerating here, but the dread of losing everything tends to fire the imagination.)

My investment guy’s reassurances assuage my darkest concerns. What troubles me is the awareness that people in the business of finance appear to have the answer for everything. Whatever happens, they can explain it. Persuasively. You listen and you say, “That’s right.”

Considering this further, it then occurs to me that these money mavens’ success at explanation only applies when they’re explaining situations that have already happened. To paraphrase, without permission, a quote of my brother’s

“Money investors have a remarkable facility for predicting the past.”

Let’s make up an example:


The stock prices go down. You get scared, you call your investment guy…

“Why are stock prices going down?”

“Because concern is rising over the falling value of the dollar.”

You say, “Thank you” and you hang up. They’re right. That explanation makes perfect sense.


You’re aware that, under the same circumstances, the stock market doesn’t go down. It stays the same.

Investment guys have an answer for that too.

“The investment community shrugged off the rising concerns over the falling value of the dollar.”

That sounds right too. It explains why the stock market didn’t go down. The investment community shrugged off the concerns.

Good answer.

And yet…

I’m also aware of situations when, again, under the exact same circumstances, with rising concerns over the falling value of the dollar, the stock market has gone up!

Same concerns, and the damn thing went up! Can you explain that to me?

Of course, they can.

“Healthy inflation figures offset the rising fears concerning the falling value of the dollar.”

Well, of course. The concerns were offset.

Right once again.

And what do we learn from this little experiment?

“When concerns are rising over the falling value of the dollar, stock prices can go down, stay the same or go up.”

Are you guys kiddin’ me?!

What does that mean for my Blue Chip investments with their solid “fundamentals”? If the rise and fall of a company’s stock can result from factors having nothing to do with the company itself, what good is all my investment guy’s extensive research? I could be paying big fees to a guy who’s basing his investing decisions on information that doesn’t really matter. And the information does matter – information about the future – neither he nor anyone else in that business can possibly predict!

I know the money-investing people will scoff at these observations. They’ll say I’m naïve, untutored in the subtleties of the game. They’ll remind me, once again – they’ll re-remind me – that in the long run, the stock market always goes up. The best thing, they’ll advise, is to leave things to the professionals. And of course, they’re right.

The problem is, they’re always right.

If, for any reason, you'd like to read this story again somewhere else, check it out on I’m told it will be there.

Friday, March 21, 2008

"Anniversary Day"

Our daughter, Anna’s, birthday falls on March the 20th, which happens to be the day before M. (for privacy) and my wedding anniversary. Anna was born on the day before our first anniversary. Over the years, Anna got a party and a cake, and the next day, worn out from the day before, we got… quite often nothing. It’s just the way it is, akin to your birthday falling on the day after Christmas.

So, today’s our anniversary. March the 21st, the first day of Spring. We chose that day deliberately. For people who were raised in cold places – me, Toronto, and M., Chicago – the first day of Spring is the happiest day of the year. No more winter. We wanted to be married on that very special day.

The most amazing thing I can say about M. is that she freely consented to become my wife. I haven’t quite gotten over that. M’s out of town right now, and she hasn’t given me permission to talk about her, so I’ll leave it at that. Also, I’m not a big fan of gushing in public. It seems like showing off.

“Ooh, look how romantic and sensitive I am.”

I choose to deliver my “I love you’s” in private. Though, occasionally, I forget.

Rather than gushing over how fortunate I am, I’ll tell you the story of how we met. It’s a story in which luck plays an enormous role, and action, at least on my part, plays virtually none. Looking back, that’s pretty much how the best things in my life have happened for me.

Okay, here we go.

June, 1977.

Outside the Century City Hospital. A big outdoor patio. I’m waiting for my chest x-rays to be developed; I need the x-rays as part of the package I’m required to produce to obtain my Green Card. Apparently, America needs its Resident Aliens to have healthy lungs.

The only other person on the patio was M., waiting out the results of a glucose tolerance test. I was getting impatient. I don’t wear a watch, so I asked her the time, and she told me. The wait, in turned out, for both of us, would be a quite a while longer.

I asked her if she wanted to take a walk. She said okay. She told me she was a single mother with a four year-old daughter, and that she was getting her Masters Degree in Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University. I told her I wrote for television. I also decided to brag. It’s a little pathetic, bragging to a stranger, but there you have it.

I told her that I’d just won the Humanitas Prize for an episode I had written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The walk ended. I didn’t ask for her name or her number, and I didn’t give her mine. I figured I was ahead of the game just having a friendly walk.

Six weeks later…

I get a call. It’s M.

“Do you remember me?”

“Yes, I do.”

How did she get my number? It turns out that the faculty at Loyola Marymount University voted for the Humanitas Prize; it took little effort to find out my name. My number was in the phone book. She told me she had called for a reason, actually to ask for a favor.

As part of her studies in film and television, M’s class had been given the assignment of contacting someone who worked in the entertainment business, and to interview them concerning their on-the-job experiences. In that way, students would have a better understanding of the business they were planning to go into. Myra asked if could take me to breakfast and talk to me about my work. I said okay.

We met at a breakfast place in Venice. M. asked me some written-down questions, and I answered them. Then, once again, we went for a walk. As we parted, acting way bolder than is my habit, I asked for her phone number. I recorded the number on the filthy windshield of my ’72 Mazda. Then, I went home.

I never called her. Hey, I was two walks and a breakfast ahead. No point in being greedy.

Six weeks later...

Myra calls again. It’s now October.

“Do you remember me?”

“Yes, I do.”

M. has called to invite me to her birthday party. She gives me her address. It’s on a “walking street” in Venice, the kind of street you can walk on but not drive along, meaning it’s hard to find, especially at night. Especially for me. I said I would be there.

On the night of the party, I got in my car and drove to Venice. And I couldn’t find her street. What a surprise. (That was sarcasm.) At that point, there were only two choices – I could keep looking, or I could give up. I decided to keep looking.

I still couldn’t find the street. There was supposed to be a street that led to another street, on the left of which was the walking street. I couldn’t find the first street.

It seemed like time to give up. When the going gets tough, I, traditionally, go home. This time, I didn’t.

Instead, I stopped at a nearby house, got out of my car – in Venice, at night, not the safest proposition back then – I walked up to a stranger’s front door, and I rang the bell. To me, this was brave leaning towards foolhardy. I was still new to this country and retained the impression that all Americans owned guns! And dogs with enormous, pointy teeth.

The stranger who lived there opened the door. I apologized for the intrusion, and in an “I’m really quite harmless” kind of a voice, I asked for directions to M’s street. The stranger gave them to me. I thanked them and returned to my car. Not much of a story there, but better a boring story than getting shot to pieces for trespassing. Don’t you think? And if you don’t…hey!

Getting out of the car taught me a lesson about my feelings for M. Apparently, I liked her.

I made it to the party. M. seemed happy to see me. A second reflection of my feelings for her was that I didn’t make a big deal about how hard it had been for me to get there. That’s probably not true, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t overdo it. At least, not by my usual amount.

Even the inept and the inert make a move at some point. A few days after the birthday party, I asked M. out on a date. Our relationship moved forward – blah – you know, this and that – and five years later, we were married. And we’ve remained married for, as of today, twenty-six years.

It was only years later that one of M’s friends spilled the beans that there had been no classroom assignment to find out what it was like to work in the entertainment business. M. had made it all up, as a pretext to reconnect, and to sleuthfully learn more about me. I could have been angry at having been hoodwinked. Instead, I felt flattered and appreciative, of her interest and her attention.

I still am.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Birthday Girl"

It’s my daughter’s birthday today. She’s twenty-five. How much do we love this girl? Get this. For a birthday present, Anna asked us to send her to her favorite hotel in Hawaii, and that’s where she is right now.

Man, I wish I’d had parents like us.

Love shouldn’t necessarily mean a big present, but this time, it did. I hope she’s loving every second of it. Not because it costs so much, but because, to me, this girl is everything.

Telling stories about our children, I don’t know, those stories, like Hawaiian shirts brought home to the mainland, don’t always travel well. To be honest, I’m not that interested in stories about your children, and I don’t expect you to be interested in stories about mine. Family reminiscences, in my view, should generally remain “in house.”

What am I going to do instead? Well, every Passover, it’s the tradition to retell the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. In the spirit of that tradition, I will, on her birthday, recount the story of my wonderful daughter’s introdus into the world. So here we go.

The Story of Anna.

Part One.

Anna was born a week later than her due date. We were getting tired of waiting, especially the part of the team that was actually pregnant. Then, on Sunday, March the 20th, my wife went into labor.

A Sunday birth, for me, is a good and helpful thing. Why is that? Let’s start with this. As a rule, my wife, M. (for privacy), will not allow me to drive her anywhere. I brake for shadows, and I slow down to think. Myra permits few exceptions to this rule. One exception, though a reluctant one, is she’ll let me drive, when she needs to be taken to the hospital, because she’s just gone into labor. The advantage of a Sunday labor?

Less traffic.

The contractions are closening. The doctor says, “Bring her in.” We get in the car and head for the hospital. I do pretty well; I had secretly practiced the drive.

At the hospital, we discover that the baby is not quite ready to arrive. We’re escorted to a hospital room, not the Holiday Inn-looking room where the delivery will take place, but a regular, normal hospital room. We watch a movie: Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae. Horses and sword fighting. My favorite, after cowboys. M. enjoys it too. It distracts her from why we’re there.

The movie ends. The doctor comes in. Turns out, the dilation thing’s hasn’t moved along that much. The doctor gives us a choice. He can induce labor right now, or we can go home and have the baby tomorrow. M. votes for right now. So do I. We’re ready. And I don’t relish a Monday drive.

All right. So it’s going to happen.

We’re going to have a baby.

We had done the Lamaze. We knew the drill. It’s time to put it into action.

And now, I’ll make an unpopular comment.

I didn’t want to be in the birthing room. Why? It’s not a place I, deep down, needed to be. Unfortunately, this was a time in our culture’s birthing history when we’re transforming from “Men aren’t allowed in the birthing room” to “Men aren’t allowed not to be in the birthing room.” Not only was I uncomfortable in a graphically medical setting, I hate it when you don’t have a choice.

Say no more. I’m there, and that’s that.

The labor was fast. Forty-five minutes. As my wife describes it, it felt like one long contraction. The doctor was concerned. It wasn’t supposed to go like that.

The decision is made to do the birthing in an Operating Room. In case of complications. M’s feeling serious discomfort. Make that, excruciating pain. She’s wheeled into the Operating Room. I follow behind them.

Concerned and afraid.

The delivery begins. I try to do my part, but a tough nurse elbows me aside, becoming the actual birth coach. Now, I’m just standing there. Irrelevant, concerned and afraid.

M. courageously does her thing. The baby comes out. It’s a girl. I look at the clock; it’s five twenty-five in the afternoon. I have to admit, it was really something. We had made an actual person. It was pretty cool.

I remember looking down at our newborn and thinking, “She looks like an ‘Anna’ to me.” It was a major surprise. We’d been expecting a boy. Why? Old wives’ tale. If the baby’s “riding low”, it’s supposed to be a boy. My wife, it turned out, had known that it wasn’t.

Weeks earlier, she’d had a sonogram, and the technician had accidentally called the developing fetus ”she.” Aware that I didn’t want to know the sex of the baby until it arrived, M. kept this information to herself, pretending, instead, that it was likely to be a boy.

We thought about boys’ names. We’d decided on Benjamin Alexander. When it turned out we had a girl, and she looked like an ‘Anna’, I did some “on-the-fly” transgenderizing. Alexander became Anna. And Benjamin became Anna’s middle name, Benne. I made that one up.

The name had been taken care of. Then, the difficulties began.

M. was having a bleeding problem; they were having trouble stopping it. The doctor ordered me out of the Operating Room. The nurse handed me my daughter, and told me to take her to the place where they keep the babies. I went there, handed her over, and I waited.

A few minutes later, a nurse appeared with my daughter. Anna was crying and needed to be held. The nurse returned her to me, and she left.

Okay, so. My wife’s having surgery, and there I am, sitting in the Holiday Inn-looking “easy birthing” room, holding a tiny person who was twenty minutes old.


I’m called back into the Operating Room. I hand over my baby, and walk down the hall to face reality. The doctor says he hasn’t been able to stop the bleeding. He may have to perform a hysterectomy. I respond from my bottomless pool of immaturity, and I say,

“If my wife wakes up with less parts than she went to sleep with, she’s going to be really angry.”

The doctor says he’s going to try one last thing. And then, we’ll see.

I return to the “easy birthing” room. The nurse returns with Anna for me to hold. I’m alone and scareder than ever.

Then, a miracle happens. I’m not consciously religious, but I can’t think of a better word for it. As I’m sitting there with my daughter, kind of whimpering – me, not Anna – a stranger, dressed in medical “birthing Dad” attire steps into the room. I tell him what’s going on. He tells me, “It’s gonna be okay.” His words give me desperately needed comfort. The stranger is gentle, he’s supportive and most importantly, he’s there. I’m not alone anymore. Somebody had sent me an angel.

Once again, I’m called to the Operating Room. The bleeding has been, at least temporarily, staunched. There’d be “Intensive Care” tonight; tomorrow would tell the tale. The next morning, M’s in the clear. The crisis is over.

Most hospital visits send you home with a deficit. You leave, minus an appendix, a gall bladder, minus a lump. The birthing visit’s a “plus” situation. You go home with a baby.

Ours was named Anna.

Today’s Anna is a cornucopia of talents. She can do art – draw and paint – she can weave, she can bake pies from “scratch”, she can write and she can knit. And she can charm. Anna possesses guilelessly disarming social skills, talents which surprise her parents, since I have no social skills whatsoever, and my wife is better but no natural. Anna’s a natural.

Sometime, during late High School, Anna said to me, “I’m funnier than you, Dad, and I have been for years.” It’s the only thing she ever said that pissed me off. Not bad for twenty-five years.

I guess there’s only one thing left to say:

Happy Birthday, Darling Anna.

You are my sunshine.

My only sunshine.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Uncle Grumpy - On Equality"

Buckle up! Here’s Uncle Grumpy – on equality.

“In order to be truly fair, ‘equal’ needs to always mean ‘the same.’”


There are times when “equal” shouldn’t mean “the same.” I’ll get to those in a minute. First, I need to show you that I’m not crazy. I realize there are crazy people out there who say “equal” shouldn’t mean “the same.” I’m not one of them.

I understand that, in this country’s history, “equal” not meanin’ “the same” has gotten us into a peck of trouble. Take the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment was the one that freed the slaves. Man, were those slaves happy.

“We’re free!”


“We’re through with slavery!”


“We’re free and we’re equal.”




“Just a second, here. We are free.”


“But we’re not equal.”


“Dang! Tell me something. What would it take to make us free and equal?”

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

They pass the Fourteenth Amendment. Man, were those freed slaves happy.

“We’re free and we’re equal!”


“Equal to anyone!”

Yes, you are.

“We can vote!”

No, you can’t.

“We can’t vote?”


“Lemme see, here. We’re equal.”

Before the law.

“But we can’t vote.”


“Dang again! Tell me something. What would it take to make us free and equal and be able to vote?”

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

You see that? Three amendments for a job that should have taken one. Why did that happen? Because one group was draggin’ its feet over makin’ another group the same. (It also drove up the lawyers’ fees; three bills for three amendments instead of one bill for one. I’ll get to lawyers another time.)

After seein’ the resistance to makin’ “equal” mean “the same”, the people in this country got seriously vigilant. Whenever they saw a situation where “equal” didn’t mean “the same”, they’d make a powerful fuss till “equal” became “the same.” That was the goal, the thing they kept shootin’ for: “Equal” means “the same.”

The question is: Should “equal” always mean “the same”?

Before you knee-jerkedly respond “Yes!”, consider, if you will, this example:

Theaters. The kind where they put on plays. It’s Intermission. Time to tinkle. The Men go to the Men’s Room, do their business, hopefully wash their hands, and they’re out. Women? The women get in line. A scarily long line. And they wait.

Before the “Ding! Ding! Ding!” announcin’ that Intermission is over, some of the women have gotten into the Ladies Room and done their business. But a lot of them haven’t.

They’ve still got to “go.”

At this point, the women still in line have two choices. They can remain in line till their turn comes, or they can abandon the line and return to their seats. The “staying in line” decision results in them missin’ a portion of the performance. The “leaving” decision results in them catchin’ the performance, but they’re in no way enjoyin’ it, ‘cause they didn’t get to “go”!

Conformin’ with reality, it makes natural sense for theater owners to provide theatergoers with, not the same number, but with more Ladies’ Rooms than Men’s Rooms. In theaters, restaurants, ballparks. Sweet Petunias! In ballparks, the Men’s Rooms have troughs. Not that I’m proposin’ troughs for the Ladies’ Rooms – what would they do with them, their laundry? – what I’m sayin’ is: Forget about ‘equal’ meanin’ ‘the same’, give the ladies what they need!

It’s the purists, always gummin’ up the works. “Absolutism!” “No exceptions!” Those twerpdoodes drive me up the wall!

Here’s another one:

Social Security.

Everybody gets a check. Do rich people need Social Security? Yeah, like I need more hair sprountin’ outta my ears! Jumpin’ Jimminy! Don’t give the rich people a Social Security check!

“We have to.”


“Because ‘equality’ requires that everyone be treated the same.”

But it doesn’t make sense! If my house is on fire, do they pour water on everybody’s house? No! They pour water on the house that needs it!

Imagine the Fire Department sayin’, “If we poured water on your house, we’d have to pour water on everyone’s house; otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair.”

Are you kiddin’ me!!!

The Fire Department uses their noodles. They ignore the principle of “equal” meanin’ “the same”, and they put out the fire!

Social Security’s in trouble. Not everybody needs a check. Save money by not givin’ it to the people who don’t need it, so you have money available for the people who do!

“But that ignores the principle.”

Who the hoot cares!

Movin’ on. With trepidation.

The entire feminist movement is predicated on the unacceptability of inequality between the sexes. This has led to a battle for equality – “equality”, of course, meanin’ “the same”– everywhere. If men do it, women have a right to do it, includin’ the military, where women, adherin’ the principle, demand the equal right to kill people from other countries. I’ll leave it at that today; I’m in enough hot water as it is. Remember ladies, I’m with you on the bathrooms.

And let’s not forget this:

The one area where I don’t see women battlin’ for equality. The area is: the equal right for women to die as early as men do. You don’t see a lot of marchin’ in the streets for that one!

On average, men die years – I’ve heard the statistic seven years – before women. If you don’t believe that, walk into any retirement home. The men are in noticeably short supply. If you ask, “Where are the men?”, you will not get the answer, “Golfing.”

The men are, by a huge majority over the women,

In the ground.

Hey, “equality” means “the same”, Ladies. What are you going to do about that one?

How ‘bout this:

Let’s champion the principle of “equality” meanin’ “the same”, as a general rule, but be wise enough to know when this normally worthy principle needn’t apply.

Any takers?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Why I Write"

Like most people growing up, I never thought of writing as something that anybody did. When I watched The Cisco Kid on television, I focused on Cisco and Pancho and if I thought about it at all – which I didn’t – I imagined the words that came out of their mouths were words they made up themselves. Why did I imagine that? Because the words that come out of my mouth were words I make up. Why should it be different for Cisco and Pancho?

My view of the non-existence of writers was likely enhanced by the fact that I didn’t read books. Unlike TV watchers, book readers are not misled into imagining that books write themselves. A giant tip-off is that the author’s name is plastered on the cover of the book, and other places as well. This information not only tells readers who exactly wrote the book, but more importantly – in the generic sense – it brings home the fact that books are written by actual people.

Here’s how oblivious I am. I once mentioned to someone that I didn’t write fiction. To which they replied, “Every show you have ever written has been fiction.” This Flash! was like throwing a pail of cold water in my face. It was an earthshaking wake-up call.

I write fiction? Really?

I never thought of it that way, I really didn’t. I wrote for real people. I’d go down to the soundstage for rehearsal, and there they were. Yes, the real people – the actors – were playing fictional characters, but I never made that extra leap in my thinking. True, the actors were playing fictional characters, but that was the actors’ issue.

I was writing for real people.

Also – This is wonderful. I’m trying to defend my assertion that I don’t write fiction, which is ridiculous, because I do. Anyway, as I plow ahead – in contrast to a sitcom script, fiction, real fiction – and it’s one of the reasons I rarely read fiction – is abounding in – or replete with, if you will – description.

A sitcom script is almost totally bereft of description. It’s ninety per cent, or more, dialogue. A few simple stage directions: “X enters”, “Y” exits, barefoot “Z” steps on a thumbtack and hops around – nothing elaborate. No

“The crocuses were in bloom.”

I could never write description. I don’t know a crocus from a philodendron. I can’t tell a chipmunk from a squirrel. I don’t know a lot of colors; I never remember what color coral is. Description requires a detailed knowledge of things, and I know hardly anything. Forget detailed knowledge; I don’t even have general knowledge. I, quite honestly, know very few things. Lift the hood of a car – I don’t know one thing that’s under there. Okay, the motor, but that’s it.

When confronted with it in a novel, description bores the pants off me. Nothing’s happening. Which brings me to my biggest problem with fiction. When something does happen in a novel, you know it isn’t true. The things they’re telling me happened in a novel – they never happened. Some writer made it all up. Yes, some novels are placed in historical settings. The historical part happened – Austerlitz – an actual battle. Prince Igor, or whoever?

No existo.

In works of fiction, nobody’s name mentioned anywhere in the novel can be found in the locale where the novel is set’s phone book; and if it can, it isn’t them. It’s somebody with the same name.

To me, fiction writing seems arbitrary. I once read a novel that came highly recommended; it was like, somebody’s favorite book. I don’t remember the name of it, or what it was about, but I remember one moment, when the main character, a woman, was leaving her eye doctor’s office after a check-up, and the author added this detail. These aren’t the exact words, but it was something very close to this:

“Her eye doctor would later be killed in a plane crash while on a vacation trip to Switzerland.”

This detail had nothing to do with the central story of the novel, or any minor sub-story. It’s a totally extraneous – and meaningless – detail. While I’m reading that sentence, and all I can think of is the author, and the question

“Why did he kill the eye doctor?”

I mean, first of all, there was no eye doctor. He didn’t exist; the author made him up. Now, since the eye doctor didn’t actually exist and this detail didn’t affect the story in any way – it didn’t change a thing – please tell me

“Why did he kill the eye doctor?”

Now, I’m completely pulled out of the story. The relationships, the suspense, the resolution, they’re all meaningless to me. Why? Because now I’m aware that just like first, putting in and then, knocking off the eye doctor is a totally arbitrary writer’s choice, so is every single detail in the book. None of it happened for real, so any of it could have happened any way the author decided to make it happen. So what the heck am I reading?

A writer’s choices, choices which could easily have been different choices, if they’d been made by a different writer, or the same writer, if they’d decided to rewrite and reconsider what they’d written. They could change small stuff:

“Her eye doctor would later be killed while on a vacation trip to Latvia.”

Or bigger stuff. Maybe in his rewritten version, the writer could let the eye doctor live. Or have him be run over by a bus. Or maybe he’d give him a rash. Or a boyfriend. You see how arbitrary this is?

The last piece of evidence in my futile assertion that I don’t write fiction is that I always tried to derive my sitcom stories from situations that actually took place. In one series I created, Family Man – which ran for seven episodes on ABC – every episode story was based on an actual event from my life, either stories that happened to me as an adult or to me as a kid.

When the set for the living room was being conceived, I asked the set designer to duplicate my actual living room for the show. The exterior for the house is the outside of my actual house. And the backdrop – normally a generic backdrop you can rent, with a street and a tree and a dog – was, for Family Man, a photographic blowup of what you actually see when you’re looking out the back windows of my house. Some people thought this was hubris, duplicating my own house for a television show. To me, it was just a question of making it real.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you should sense, I hope, because it’s true, that I don’t make anything up. I just tell stories that happened to me. I try and make them interesting, first in my selection, and then, in the way that I tell them. But I never invent anything. It’s not a question of integrity; I literally wouldn’t know how. The fake stories would sound really fake.

My explanation for why I write this way instead of some other way comes, once again, in the form of a story. It’s an embarrassing, and somewhat cheesy story, but what am I going to do? It’s what happened.

I was twenty-three, recently returned to Toronto after a year and a half living in London. I’ll tell you about that another time. I was at loose ends – no prospects, no plans – I’m living in my mother’s apartment. One morning, my mother’s left for work, and I’m hanging around in my pajamas. Suddenly, and to my genuine astonishment, I find myself with a yellow legal pad on my lap and a pen in my hand.

I’m writing a story.

The story was about something that happened to me that mattered. I had no previous interest in getting the events of that story down on paper, but now I was doing it, and while I was doing it, I was simultaneously thinking,

“Why am I doing this?”

But I kept writing. Until I was finished. I read it over. It seemed right, the events and feelings as I remembered them. As I put down my pen, two of the strangest, most unexpected, words flew spontaneously out of my mouth. The two words were these:

“I’m immortal.”

“I’m immortal”? What was I talking about?

As far as I can tell, it’s this.

I had written something, something that had actually happened to me. Now the story was outside of me, and it had the chance – not a great chance, but a chance – of being around after I was gone. The process of writing something that actually happened down, getting it outside of my own personal corporeality, made me feel – correctly or mistakenly – immortal.

I showed that story to two people. By now, it’s long gone. So that “immortal” thing may have been slightly overblown. But that’s the way I felt. Like that stuff will outlast me, and maybe stick around.

Maybe that explains why I sometimes go back and rewrite some of my posts after I’ve already published them.

Immortality demands your best work.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eight"

Here’s a contest for you. No prizes, other than the satisfaction of getting it right. I realize “no prizes” is a little un-American, but remember, I wasn’t born here. What’s wrong with just feeling good about yourself, eh?

Okay, the contest. In this post – a continuation of this writer’s journey – see if you can count how many times I was really lucky, where things could easily have gone the other way and I could have been back in Canada, doing something else for a living. What that would be, I have no idea. Writing is the only thing I’m half-way decent at.

The contest is only partly meant to give you a pleasurable counting-involvement while you’re reading this story. It also relieves me of the necessity of announcing each time I was lucky, “Boy, was I lucky!’ thus allowing this post to read more fluidly, and be less boringly repetitive. It will also drive home the message of the essential part luck plays in people’s careers. I say “people’s” careers and not just mine, because I can’t imagine I’m the only writer who wound up doing well, for whom luck played an indispensable role.

Okay. Back to our story.

When we left off, I had just told Lorne Michaels I wasn’t going to New York to work on Saturday Night Live. Then, falling asleep one night, I’d come up with an idea for an episode of the wonderful Mary Tyler Moore Show, and people who’d written for that show had told me it was good. I then wrote a two-page outline of my idea. All that was left was to sell it. If I did, I’d be working on my favorite show on television, and I wouldn’t have to move to New York.

By the way, if I have any readers living in New York, I don’t want you to be confused by whether I didn’t want to work on Saturday Night Live or whether I didn’t want to live in New York. The answer is both.

I love short visits to New York, but I’ve tried it three times, and I can’t live there. The place freaks me out. Too many people in too small a space. This living arrangement makes its inhabitants abrupt; I’m not comfortable with abrupt people. Or with skyscraper-induced claustrophobia. I know there are millions of people who love living in New York, though as my friend, John, once observed, “People say they love New York; and yet, every weekend, they can’t wait to leave.” Maybe they just love it Monday to Friday.

Sorry for the digression. I just hate losing an opportunity to alienate readership.

I wrote my two-page outline in March. The time of year is important to my story. March is part of the three-months-or-so-long “hiatus” period for television production, meaning, it’s the time when they’re not making shows.

Why is that important to my story? Because during the hiatus period, the runners of the shows, liberated from their grueling production schedules, are now free to get to things they would otherwise not have time to get to. Such as reading submitted material. Like a two-page outline, that just happened to have been completed at that time.

This part is strange. I don’t know why I wrote a two-page outline rather than an entire spec – meaning audition – script. I think it probably had to do with my not wanting to provide the producers with too much to hate. There are two things wrong with that strategy. First, you’re expected to write a whole script; that’s how the producers know you can write a whole script. Secondly, it’s not a volume situation. There’s no magic in two pages. Producers can hate two pages just as easily as they can hate something longer, and more complete. All I was really doing was saving paper. Which, considering my finances at the time, was probably also a consideration.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a female agent during that period. The woman, whose name was Helen, later went on to become Jay Leno’s manager, representing Jay during his struggles to succeed Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show. But that’s for Leno’s blog. He doesn’t write about me; I don’t write about him.

There were barely any female agents back in the seventies. I’d started with a different agent, whose name was Dan. Any time you asked Dan how he was doing, he’d always answer, “Perfect!” This was very strange to me. I had no idea how anyone could feel “Perfect!” all the time. I’ve never felt perfect one day in my life. Dan was my “variety” agent, meaning he represented my on the variety shows I’d been working on. When I turned my attention to sitcoms, my agency transferred me to an agent who “covered” sitcoms. That was Helen.

Helen liked my two-page outline. And she got the show runner of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to read it. How did she do that? Well, first he had time, because it was the hiatus period. Second, he happened to be in town – a lot of show runners go on vacation during “hiatus” – but he hadn’t, because he was producing two pilots for the upcoming season. The third reason I believe my agent was able to get my material to him was because the show runner of The Mary Tyler Moore Show really liked women.

Did anything happen between the show runner and my female agent? I have no idea. All I know is this: One night, I drove to the show runner’s house. The show runner had hired a limo to take the show runner, me and my female agent to a Dodger game. After the game, the limo returned us to the show runner’s house. I got in my car and drove home. The show runner and my female agent disappeared into the show runner’s house.

The next day I had a meeting about my outline.

It’s hard to see the same thing would have happened if I’d had a man agent.

The show runner who really liked women had a partner, whose name was Stan. Stan was smart, funny, hardworking and extremely kind. Years later, Stan and his wife generously allowed my wife and I to be married in their back yard. Allowing us to be married in his back yard was the second kindest thing Stan did for me. I’ll tell you the first kindest in a minute.

The two show runners liked my story idea, and before my amazed and inexperienced eyes, they shaped it into an episode that I would write and they would produce. I couldn’t believe it. Not only had my little outline gotten me a meeting, it was going to be made into an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show! I’ve spoken to other writers about it. A spec outline turning into a produced episode? It never happens.

I went home and started writing. First a longer outline, which they approved, then, the script. I’m sure I was terrified. A lot was riding on this script being good. But I was also incredibly excited. On another level – the “doing it” level – it didn’t seem that hard. It seemed, in fact, like this was not the first time I was writing a Mary Tyler Moore script; it felt very much like I’d done it before, although I could well have been confusing writing the show with watching the show.

Here’s something else. Years later, somebody told me this story. I can’t remember who it was, but I have the strong sense that the person who told it to me had no reason not to be telling the truth.

The show running team had a boss, the co-creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When one of those co-creators returned from his hiatus vacation, he checked in to see what was going on with the show. The show-running team informed him that they’d met with a promising new writer, who’d pitched them an idea they really liked. What’s the idea? The show runners told him. The boss responded to my idea like this:

“I hate that idea! You have to stop him from writing it!”

The show runners explained that the script had already been ordered and they’d have to pay for it, whether they stopped the writer – me – or not. Why not let the writer finish, and see how the script turned out? The boss relented, and the completed script turned out acceptable, thus rescuing my career from early cancellation.

It was that close.

Now. Returning to my obliviousness.

Unbeknowing of the foregoing story, I finished my script and I handed it in. I remember it was a Friday. What’s important about that is that a Friday submission condemned me to a long and miserable weekend, agonizing until Monday over how the Powers That Be would respond to my efforts.

It never happened. Why?

Because Stan called me on Saturday.

He’d read the script and he though it was great. Adopting a slightly English intonation, he opined,

“You’ve got it, My Boy!”

Stan’s Saturday call relieved me of two days of lacerating self-torture. His thoughtful gesture taught me a lesson. Throughout my career, I tried to emulate that thoughtfulness in my dealings with other writers. The man set the standard. I wanted to be like Stan.

I never came close.

Things moved quickly after that. My Mary script was accepted. I was hired for the staff of the producer team’s new series, Phyllis, and I was provided with an office on the studio lot. My office was located directly opposite the door that led out to the parking area. Often, dressed in cutoff jeans and sandals, or sometimes barefoot, I would sit on the steps outside the door and do my writing. It was all pretty amazing. I had my ideal job, I was writing in the sun – in March! – and I didn’t have to move to New York.

The cherry on top of the sundae? One day, I was sitting in my office when a bunch of people came clambering down the stairs from the second floor, on their way to lunch. My door was open, so there was no reason to knock. The crowd walked right in. I looked up to see who it was.

Who it was were the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the creators of The Bob Newhart Show – the one where he was the psychologist – my two favorite shows on television, coming to welcome the New Guy aboard. I was blown away. Literally. As this Dream Team of comedy moved towards me, I reflexively backed away, until I found myself standing atop my couch, my back against the wall.

The gesture spoke the word, and the word was “overwhelmed.”

Okay, did you catch all the “lucky” moments in the story? I counted six of them. In a two-week period! If you didn’t catch all six, you’ll probably want to read the story again. My fantasy, when I write something, is that the world immediately stops what it’s doing and reads it, if necessary, more than once.

Next on Story of a Writer: Quitting “staff writer” for a job I liked better.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"The Body Problem"

People have been dying for millions of years or, if you believe in the Bible, thousands. Yet, after all those years –thousands or millions – we still have no better idea for disposing of the bodies than to stick them in the ground.

Nothing’s changed. It’s the twenty-first century, and we continue to appropriate huge chunks of real estate, dig holes in it, lower down expensive coffins with the Guest of Honor inside, fill up the holes, erect headstones, plant colorful flower beds and manicured landscaping – doing everything we can to keep the place from looking like what it actually is – an elephants’ graveyard for deceased human beings.

Once, there were good reasons for burying dead bodies in the ground. Many of the deceased had succumbed to diseases “the living” were far from eager to contract. The survivors decided the best way to protect themselves from too quickly joining the departed was by distancing themselves from the source of the contagion.

They accomplished this by placing the “problem” in a box, and burying it under six feet of tightly packed earth. That way, the body would be available for the grievers to visit, but from a distance – in this case, a downward distance – insuring that their graveside visits would not kill them.

The appropriate “burial depth” was determined by trial and error. Originally, the dead were buried three feet under the ground, but visitors still ended up catching the disease. Four feet? They still got it. Five; they didn’t die, but they were very sick. The “magic number”, they discovered, was six feet. Seven feet under? A waste of time.

The other reason for burying the remains was to prevent predatory animals from having them for snack. People didn’t like that idea – predatory animals munching on their loved ones. It interfered with the concept of “resting in peace.” This problem was no nightmarish fantasy. There was no question that predatory animals, having no respect for the departed, would eat a dead guy right up. To avoid that, the bodies were buried, on the theory that predatory animals might sense there was food down there but be discouraged by the considerable effort it would take to dig it up. The objective was to produce the following conversation:


PREDITORY ANIMAL NUMBER TWO: “Six feet down, in a box.”

PREDATORY ANIMAL NUMBER ONE: “Let’s eat something else.”

The predatory animals would then wander away, looking for something they could outrun, or a dead thing on top of the ground, leaving the buried body untouched. If you never dug it up and opened the box, you could imagine the body looking exactly the way it looked when you buried it. Don’t let children read the next two words:

It doesn’t.

Today, however, almost all contagions can be contained, and predatory animals – at least
those dangerous to humans – live way out of town. Still, regardless of the fact that the main reasons for burial no longer exist, the procedure endures:

Hole in the ground. Box in the hole. Dirt on the box. ‘Bye.

And I wonder why that is?

Why do we continue to store our departed loved ones in the ground? You’d think with all the brilliant people around – always coming up with better and better can openers – you’d think one of them would turn their attention to the “stiff storage” problem. I mean, besides everything, we’re running out of room.

It’s not happening. No startling innovations. No Gatesian leaps forward. In the area of body disposal, virtually nothing has changed. A gravedigger could materialize from the Middle Ages and, needing no instruction whatsoever, could pick up a shovel, and go straight to work

Yay, verily. We’re still plantin’ ‘em.

The question of where we go – “we” meaning, our spirit, our soul, our essential “usness” – well, opinions vary on that subject; nobody knows for sure. Where our bodies go, everybody knows.

Box City.

Or for some people, Urn City. The cremation alternative’s available to people who find the prospect of spending eternity nailed inside a coffin buried under six feet of earth unappealing. I myself fall into that category; I wouldn’t care for that at all. Being a lifelong claustrophobic, the idea of finding myself confined in a pitch dark, totally airless space where you barely have room to move a finger, just the thought of that makes me…

I’d like to move on if you don’t mind. I’m starting to hyperventilate.

Okay. Let’s stop and notice what I’m doing here, because, to me, this is the essence of the whole problem. When describing the sensation of being in the coffin, I’m describing it from the perspective of me still being alive. That’s unlikely to be the case. No, not "unlikely." With the marvelous medical technology available today to determine when you’re totally dead, they don’t bury people alive anymore, so I’m definitely not going to be alive.

Still, I’m identifying with my remains. My thought process goes, “This guy who’s dead, the one who’s not breathing, or moving, whose heart’s not…doing a damn thing… he’s still me!”

I know "me." "Me" doesn’t like The Box.

It’s this strange yet hardly uncommon thought process that strongly colors our perceptions about death. I give this process a name. I call it


Pronounced: “death-ro-po-morph-ism.”

As with anthropomorphism, which ascribes human characteristics to the non-human and the inanimate, deathropomorphism ascribes living attributes to the Passed Away. Deathropomorphism informs the way we look at death, and nowhere more powerfully than when we’re discussing the Final Arrangements.

Consider the prospect of cremation. Why are people against it?

“I don’t want to be burnt.”

“It’s not you.”

“I once put my hand on a hot stove, and it really hurt.”

“Hello? It’s not you. You’re dead.”

“My hand was all red and blistery. Imagine having those blisters all over my...”

“Forget it! Go in the ground. See if I care.”

We see the conditions of our deadness deathropomorphically. We imagine dead as being exactly like alive, except you don’t have to pay bills anymore. Though I lack conclusive proof on the matter, I have a strong feeling dead is different.

I’ve never witnessed a cremation, but I’ll bet if you went to one, you wouldn’t hear a disembodied voice going, “Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!” Likewise, at the cemetery, I’ve never once heard muffled shouts of, “Lemme out! I can’t breathe!”

And yet, despite my awareness that “death is different”, I myself am hardly immune to deathropomorphic confusion. How else can I explain my foot-dragging reluctance on the issue of organ donation? I know how valuable my “harvested” organs would be; and yet, I can’t keep myself from thinking, “Hold onto those puppies. You might need them later.”

I have this fantasy, supporting my reluctance. I pass away, and – imagining there is one – I get to the place where dead people go. Everybody’s happy and playing volleyball. I, however, am unable join in, because, having affixed a little pink dot to my Driver’s License, I’ve arrived at this hallowed playground minus my eyes, my heart, my lungs and my liver.

I’m still me, except, in strategic areas of my body… I’m holes! And as I stand on the sidelines, incapable – because of my generous but mistaken decision – of participating in this eternal heavenly frolic, a single, wistful word passes across my lips:


This may sound eccentric, but when I die, I’d like my intact body to be shot into space. That really appeals to me. By having “dead Earl” shot into space, I’ll be making a powerful statement against “cemetery sprawl.” Also, as a claustrophobic, I like that there’s a lot of room in space. I could wiggle around.

The details of the process are unimportant. I could be shot out in my own capsule, go as part of a group, it doesn’t really matter, though, if it’s a group, I’d prefer a seat near the front of the capsule; I have a tendency to get airsick…

There I go again. Mr. Deathropomorphic Man. What the heck am a talking about? – “I could wiggle around…” “I’d prefer a seat near the front…” “I have a tendency to get airsick...”

I’m dead!

And “dead” isn’t like that.

Is it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Getting It Right"

Okay, so here’s a confession. Last week, I went into the archives – or whatever you call them – of my blog and I rewrote one of my already published posts. You may find that strange. I did. Nobody is likely to read that post again. Nobody. Ever. And yet, I thought of a better word than the one I had written, and I felt compelled to go back and delete the word I’d thought was the right word and replace it with what I now believe is really the right word.

I’m a little ashamed of myself. But not so ashamed that I’m unwilling to share what I did with my readers. The real “ashamed” stuff, that’s not coming out. Unless I’m completely out of material.

No, never.

I do this all the time – rewriting. I try to make whatever it is better, nudging it ever closer to perfection. It’s frustrating. Every time I write something, I think, “That’s it.” But it’s never “it.” There’s always an “it” that’s a little more “it.” Till you finally get there.

And that’s the point – I believe there’s a “there.” I believe, and I may be wrong, that there’s actually a “right” in these matters, and that you can get there, if you just keep at it. A lot of people disagree about that. Especially in the creative arena. They think “right” is subjective. One person’s “right” is another person’s “wrong”, meaning there’s no objective right or wrong. All there is is a countless accumulation of differing opinions.

This is a central battle between liberals and conservatives, primarily in the behavioral arena. Conservatives believe in objective standards of right and wrong. Liberals contextualize. Wrong but with an explanation; or not wrong at all, but actually “right for them”, in the context of their circumstances. All that’s for another post, which I’ll warn you about ahead of time, so you can avoid it. Today, I’m focusing on writing.

My confession continues.

Not only do I constantly rewrite myself, I also rewrite other people. Even though none of them asked me to. I guess it’s the way writers are. Maybe painters do the same thing. They study a painting in a gallery or museum, and they think, “The tree’s in the wrong place.” Maybe if you’re an expert artist, you can actually say something like that. Maybe you can’t. Maybe “tree placement” is simply a subjective question of “Artist’s Choice.” But if it is, how do you distinguish between good artists and less good artists? Or is there no such thing as that either? Then again, if it’s all just subjective, how come some artists’ paintings cost more to buy? Is the price predicated on tree-placement ability, or is it just hype?


Back to writing.

I rewrite movies while I’m watching them. I rewrote Knocked Up a little, even though I thought it was a very good movie. I only rewrite very good movies. The bad ones, even rewritten, will still pretty much stink. But good movies, movies edging towards perfection, somehow, inspire me to help them to make it all the way.

It isn’t major, my Knocked Up “fix.” But I think it would have helped. Maybe I’m wrong about that. You tell me.

Okay. The woman’s in labor in the hospital room and the doctor’s making a fuss about anesthetic. The guy, the Rogen guy, takes the doctor into the hall and lays down the law. Then, the woman’s sister comes in and starts making a fuss, and the Rogen guy takes her in the hall and lays down the law to her. Two scenes, exactly the same. To me, that wasn’t the best way to handle one of the most important moments in the story.

They did the “lay down the law” scene twice; I’d have done it once. To me, and maybe to the Immutable Rules of Writing, but, most importantly, to the rule of the audience’s emotionally responding to that significant moment, once would have been better.

So there’s that.

I also rewrite song lyrics. And sometimes, the melodies, though I’m not as confident about my melody rewriting. That could be subjective. Although it seems like the best tunes sound exactly the way they should. Imagine your favorite song. Now, imagine it being different. You can’t. They got it right. That’s what makes it a great song. That and what you were doing the first time you heard it. That stuff, I leave alone.

But I do rewrite lyrics. Lyrics is just writing with rhymes at the end, so, technically, it’s my field. Which lyrics do I rewrite? Well, for the past couple of years, I’ve been taking piano lessons. I bring my teacher songs I like, and he devises arrangements within my playing ability, so I can accompany myself when I sing. I love to sing. Maybe more than I love to do anything else. I don’t have a great voice, and breathing problems keep me from holding notes too long, but none of that matters. I’m singing for myself. And to me, I’m the best singer in the world. I’m also fortunate that my wife likes the way I sing too. In singing, I’m the King of my House.

Recently, I’ve been studying Rainbow Connection, by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. It’s a good song, and my daughter asked me to learn it, so I did. The tune is infectiously catchy and the tone is wistfully upbeat – all good.

But there is one section – the “bridge” section – where the song goes

All of us under its spell

We know that it’s probably magic…

As I once said, in another context, “No good that one.”

The lyric doesn’t make sense. You can’t “know” that something is “probably” anything. You can’t. Knowing connotes certainly; “probably” connotes uncertainty. Uncertainty’s what “probably’s” all about. You can’t be certain about something of which you’re uncertain. Unless you’re certain in your uncertainty. And that’s not what Rainbow Connection is about.

What about this instead?

All of us under its spell

We know that it’s got to be magic…

Isn’t that better? A tiny, little change, and it hurts nothing. It scans musically, it’s lilting, it’s positive. More positive than “We know that it’s probably…” Now, we’ve got two certainties: “Know” and “got to be.” That’s definitely an improvement. It’s consistent. It’s melodic…

And it’s right.

Isn’t it?

Okay. I’m aware that by criticizing other people’s work, especially successful work, I’m open to the multiple charges of “snooty, superior and jealous.”

“Hey, Man, where do you get off, criticizing a fabulous movie, and a lot of people’s favorite Muppet song? If you think you’re so great, why don’t you go write your own blockbuster movie and classic song? You big Loser!”

I’ve got to be nicer to myself when I write the other guy’s dialogue. The thing is, I can’t help rewriting. I see some written stuff – mine or other people’s – and my mind immediately kicks into action. Am I jealous of other people’s success? Always. But “snooty and superior”? That’s not the point. I have an enormous respect for talent. And when their work advances towards perfection, it’s like, “Come on! Let’s get there!”

Also, I’m fully prepared to have it work both ways. I fix what you write; you fix what I write. Judd Apatow, Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher:

Be my guests.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"The Smartest Thing I Ever Said"

It was the smartest thing I ever said.

When I ran Major Dad – meaning to you non-TV-writers I was in charge of the writing room – a good writer named Lisa, said to me, “Sometimes when somebody pitches a joke, you say, ‘Too many words.’ What exactly do you mean by ‘too many words’?”

Instead of answering Lisa directly, I responded by singing the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, except I deliberately added one note, so it came out


That’s what I meant by “too many words.”

Announcing this may be giving away more than I realize, but that was the smartest thing I ever said. It was the type of thing that normally wouldn’t occur to me until I was in the car on the way home, but this time, it materialized smack in the moment. I was thoroughly delighted with myself.

Here’s why it’s a smart thing. Or, at least, why I thought it was at the time. I’ll admit some reservations shortly. For now, just let me bask in the glow of my rightness, will ya? How many times do you say the smartest thing you’ve ever said? Once.


All right. Moving on.

Comedy is like music. There’s a rhythm to it, a specific number of beats. A good joke (“joke” meaning any line of dialogue leading to a “ha-ha” reaction) will get a good laugh. But the same joke, delivered in exactly the right rhythm, will get you a bigger laugh. I can’t explain why. The rhythm is noticeable. It just makes a difference.

I once heard a story about a young writer who was working on The Red Skelton Show, a variety program that ran for on television for something like eighteen years. Red Skelton was a famous clown/slash/sketch comedian with decades of comedy experience – night clubs, movies, radio. As the story goes, the young writer spotted Skelton conferring with his longtime producer. The young writer edged closer to the two men, eager to pick up some comedy wisdom. What he heard was Red Skelton, pointing to the script, and complaining:

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

It’s a funny thing. When you’re talking, you don’t think about beats, the correct phrasing emerges spontaneously. But when you start thinking about it – like when you’re writing rather than talking – it’s like the centipede that starts thinking about which of his hundred legs to move first, and in the process, finds itself unable to walk anymore. Actually, it’s not exactly the same – unless you’re talking about Writer’s Block – because, normally, you can still write. It’s just harder, at least, for me, to write as fluently as I speak. I think it has to do with typing being slower than talking. Maybe you could get closer to spontaneity by speaking into a tape recorder; I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been too self-conscious to pull that off. I end up singing into the tape recorder instead.

The Red Skelton story and my story make the same point, only mine came with music. I felt good about my wise musical response for quite some time. Then I started wondering if it was true.

Yes, comedy has a rhythm. But is it always the same rhythm? Or does the rhythm differ from situation to situation?

The answer, of course, is the latter. Chris Rock performs his comedy differently than Jerry Seinfeld. How do they differ? Subject matter, curse words, ethnic chatter, but infusing it all is a noticeably different rhythm. My point stands, however, because inside the material each comedian delivers, there’s an individualizedly-set metronome, steadily counting off the beats. Deviate from that rhythm and it’s “Da-da-da-da-dahhhhh!”

My answer to Lisa could have left the implication that I was saying all jokes have the same rhythm. (It also sounded like I was saying that my jokes were comparable Beethoven’s music; you can’t see me but I’m looking ashamed about that one.) Every comedy context has its natural rhythm, but the rhythms can definitely differ.

Sometimes, it’s Da-da-da-dahhhh!

Sometimes, it’s Dum p’tang-p’tang wop!

And sometimes, Deedle-de-deedle-de-doo.

A writer needs to find the appropriate rhythm for the people or characters they’re writing for, and stick to it unswervingly, like the beat in a rock song, or any song, I was trying to sound cool there, and failing. What you can’t do, is impose the same rhythm on everything you write. Unless you’re writing for yourself.

Which I am. Which is what I’m doing. And that’s what I’m doing. Like in this blog.

Gimme a minute. I’ll get it.