Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"Just Trying To Help"

John Lahr is a theater critic for The New Yorker magazine. I had met him in New York, at a dinner my friend John had arranged, and we got along well. Lahr’s main residence is in London. As we were saying goodbye, Lahr mentioned that, if I was ever in London, he would invite me to one of the weekly salon-type gatherings he hosted. He wanted me to be part of it. I told him I’d be happy to be part of it.

Before I met Lahr, I was an enormous fan of his work. Whenever the latest New Yorker included one of his theater reviews or personality profiles, those were the pieces I’d turn to first. I always enjoyed his writing style, and the content, review or profile, was consistently illuminating and insightful. He was a big time favorite.

I had one quibble with his writing, however. With me, nothing’s ever perfect.

Ninety-six percent of the time, Lahr writes clearly and evocatively, his words skillfully capturing the information he’s attempting to convey. But, invariably, Lahr will inject a couple of words in his pieces – words that are not in general use – and I have no idea what they mean. This always throws me off. It’s like you’re taking a pleasant walk in the park, and all of a sudden, you hit a wall.

A digression. Writers of comedy strictly avoid unfamiliar words. Why? Because we don’t want our audience to hear a word they don’t understand in the middle of a joke they’re being told and go,


Confusion kills comedy. Write that down. In comedy, you want clarity and simplicity. That’s how it works.

Another digression. I promise, these matter. My wife – who for privacy reasons has asked me to refer to her as Dr. M – does the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Every day, even the later in the week ones, when they’re really hard. My wife is intelligent. She’s articulate. She’s been voracious reader since childhood. She knows a lot of words.

Dr. M doesn’t know Lahr’s unfamiliar words either, and she’s as unhappy and I am when they appear. Dr. M interprets these verbal flourishes as the writer’s trumpeting his superiority. That’s not just a voracious reader talking. That’s a psychologist with psychoanalytic training.

What I’m saying is, it’s not just me. A smart, educated woman. My wife. Doesn’t know those words. And is no happier than I am when confronted with them.

What words am I talking about? Okay, this is dangerous. It may turn out that you know what all of these words mean; ipso facto, I’m an idiot. (And so is Dr. M.) But in order for you to reasonably evaluate the behavior I’ll be describing shortly, you have to see these words, so you can judge for yourselves how unfamiliar they really are.

The following is a partial list of the words that stop me dead in my tracks when I’m reading them.

Louche. (Ha! Even Spell Check doesn’t know what it is.)







There are more, but that’s enough – I’m feeling ill. I have no clue what any of those words mean. I don’t use these words in everyday conversation, nor does anyone I know. If I used any of them in a joke, I’d most certainly get “Huheh?” by my audience.

“A rabbi, a priest and this louche guy walk into a bar…”


What I know and have permanently tattooed on my comedy brain is this: Using words nobody knows is a practice you should definitely avoid.

Okay. So.

John Lahr’s doing a profile on Kristin Chenoweth. I’m working on a TV show she’s starring in. Lahr interviews me, among others, for his profile.

I’m beyond flattered that a famous profiler has set aside time to solicit my opinions. I’m saying smart things, and expressing my views cleverly. Lahr’s responses indicate he agrees.

It’s all going great. I’m loosening up. We’re connecting. It feels like, down the line, we could be friends.

That’s when I say “The Thing.” I say it, because I like this guy, and I want him to succeed. (Ignoring the fact that he’s already succeeding.)

“I love your pieces in The New Yorker,” I say with unforced sincerity. “But in every article, you throw in a couple of words I don’t understand.”

That’s when the storm comes in. Lahr’s facial muscles begin to tighten, his mood turning angry and funereal. If he’d let me finish, I’d have said,

“I think you could connect more successfully if you stuck to words that people know.”

Like a comedy person does! You use obscure words, you get “huhed?” by the audience. You get what I’m doing here? I’m trying to help you!

He never got the concept. As soon as “… a couple of words I don’t understand” came out of my mouth, Lahr interrupted, with an intensity I hope never to experience again, and he said,

“You could look them up.”

The man was clearly hurt. I didn’t understand. Didn’t he know I was on his side? Didn’t he “get” that I was giving him some practical advice – writer to writer? Didn’t he realize that, more than anything, I wanted us to get along?

Thinking back, it occurs to me that when he was writing his pieces, Lahr knew he was using unfamiliar words and, like me – like all writers – he had selected them deliberately, likely after long and serious consideration. Those were the words he wanted to use, so he used them. That should have been it.

A whippersnapper writer of comedy was criticizing his choices. That’s what was hurtful, I guess. Though it was never intended to be.

Since then, two things have happened. I, and my wife, have interrupted our reading to look up obscure words in the dictionary, especially the word “louche.” We find ourselves looking up the same words, again and again. And we still can’t remember what they mean. They just don’t seem to stick.

The second thing is, since that unfortunate interview, I’ve been to London at least three times. No salon invitations from John Lahr.

I leave the final verdict to you. My own conclusion? I tried to make a helpful comment, and it was taken a different way. Is there any more to it than that? Or is that all there is?

Whatever. It still makes me sad.


Sally Roll said...

I picked one of the words at random and looked it up. "Recondite: difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend." How ironic. (But hopefully not jejune!)

MikeThe Blogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MikeThe Blogger said...

Woody Allen used "jejune" in Love and Death for a comedic line. But it was because nobody knew what it meant that the line was funny.`Of course everyone ran home to look it up, then never used the word again and forgot what it meant.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, maybe I'm an overeducated snob or something, but none of those words are that obscure to me; I recognize them all and use most of them (maybe not "anodyne").

But my attitude is, when I'm reading and I encounter a word I don't know, I do look it up. The word exists to be used, it's my responsibility to know it if I already don't, not the writer's to dumb down to my level. My take is not that he's showing off when he uses these words, they're just the right ones for the sentences where he uses them.

I think Lahr could have reacted more graciously, but I was honestly surprised that this wasn't intended as a "dumb things I did once" story -- I thought that's where it was headed, and was caught up short that there was no such reversal at the end.

My apologies -- normally I find myself agreeing with your points, but apparently not today.

Jon88 said...

Okay, here's my helpful comment: Instead of asking Lahr to dumb down his column (by the way, how do you fare with the rest of the magazine?), you could stop reading it, or just skip over the unfamiliar words.

Oh, you didn't find that comment helpful? Gosh. Maybe he didn't find yours helpful either. Maybe after having written that column for a couple of decades (I'm guessing), he didn't really think he needed your "How to Write Good" tips. Sure, maybe he's a snob and looks down on the sitcom scribe. But he's no neophyte, and your suggestion reminds me of all those people who object to Sondheim's music because they can't hum it.

Anonymous said...

My,my, what idiosyncratic comments. It is not "dumbing down" to write so you will be understood. A writer using an unusual word is much the same as a director using an unusual camera angle. It shifts the reader's or audience's attention away from the story to the person telling the story. Anything that distracts from the story is wrong.

As for Mr. Lehr's reaction, who cares? What kind of real friend could not handle such a comment?

Max Clarke said...

Ah, Love and Death.
-- That is so jejune.
-- Jejune? You're accusing me of jejunosity? I'm one of the most june people in all of Russia!

There's a moment in Woody Allen's film, Manhattan. Diane Keaton and WA are in a museum. She tells him about all the millions of facts and figures in her head. In fact, she can name all the moons of Saturn. She starts a few, and finally WA says to cool it, the names of the moons of Saturn never come up in normal conversation.

Did he use syzygy? You can't be a heavyweight without it.

Earl Pomerantz said...

You guys are great. I don't need you to agree. When people disagree with what I've written, it means there's at least two of you out there.

That's all I'm looking for. Something to build on.

More controversy to come.

coniston said...

Dear Earl, your blog is terrific. I have told about a gazillion people...Since I live in London, I can tell you that all of those words appear in the newspapers here. So Mr Lahr wasn't necessarily being a snob, but he MIGHT be.
There is a program called MASTERMIND (makes Jeopardy look like Wheel of Fortune) which has been on air for about 50 yrs...guess who has won it the most? No, not teahcers or librarians...TAXI CAB DRIVERS. The question is why? I think I know the answer but would love to hear your guess.

growingupartists said...

96% ain't bad. And wow, 7 o'clock every morning, amazing!

Unknown said...

Perhaps Mr. Lahr's reaction was not as graceful as it could have been, but it is understandable. I reacted in a similar fashion, the day after the first television program I had written premiered. I went on a victory lap to some of my old haunts, including the coffee shop where I worked during University. My former manager proceeded to tell me, in detail, all the problems with the episode from the night before.

I kept my reaction as neutral as possible -- he also thought my script's vocabulary was too advanced for an 'average' audience - but I came very close to losing my temper. Had I been a seasoned pro with years of experience, I would have even less tolerance for sideline criticisms.