Friday, May 30, 2008


Numbers are your permanent companions, shadowing your life from “Hello” to “Goodbye.”

A baby is born. Your doctor reports:

“The baby’s height is in the ninetieth percentile.”

“Is that good?”

“I don’t know about ‘good.’ But of every hundred babies that are born, ninety of them are shorter than yours.”

“What does that mean?”

“You have a tall baby.”

“Is that significant?”

“It’s interesting.”

“But does it matter?”

“Not really.”
“Then why did you tell me about it?”

“Most people like to know.”

“That they have a tall baby?”

“Parents brag about that.”

“Well, I may be a voice in the wilderness here, but as far as I’m concerned, height is not important in a baby.”

“You wanted to know her weight.”

“Weight matters. Babies with low birth weights can die. Nobody dies because they’re short.”

“Well, people generally like knowing these things. Though I’m seriously regretting telling you.”

Numbers. Sometimes, they’re important (birth weight); sometimes, they’re not (birth height). Interestingly, as children grow, it’s their height that takes center stage. When a relative crows, “Look how big she’s gotten!” they’re rarely talking about her weight. That’s usually a more whispered observation.

In adulthood, the emphasis reverts to weight. You never hear about Height Loss clinics.

Unlike words, numbers have no intrinsic implications. They’re simply numbers, used for counting, weighing, measuring and comparing. Numbers are essential to sporting events. This is sports without numbers:

“Who won the game?”

“What do you mean?”

Numbers have no significance till our culture applies one to them. Consider your I.Q. Simply a number? Or a powerful bragging device? SAT scores. Just numbers? Or calling cards to the finest colleges? Even your Area Code has a subjective meaning. Especially in L.A.

“What’s your area code?”


“The Valley.”

“Yes. What’s your area code?”


They may try to hide it, but you can hear in their voices.

“’Three-one-oh.’ Now that’s a number!”

Numbers, in themselves meaningless lines and loops, can shimmer with significance. And nowhere more significantly than in the health arena. In medicine, numbers and what they indicate can be the difference between “Go home, you’re fine” and “Sit down, we need to talk.”

Blood pressure, cholesterol, thyroid, prostate issues – phantom killers, all monitored by numbers. You feel perfect, the test numbers come back, “Not so fast.” You may feel tip-top, but the numbers are telling you you’re wrong.

Medical numbers have transformative powers. They can make a non-believer suddenly religious:

“Your numbers are up!”

“Oh, God!”

“Your numbers are fine.”

“Thank God.”

What a surprise. You’re religious and you didn’t even know it.

Once aware of its life-and-death-indicating significance, your number can dominate your consciousness. Suddenly, otherwise reasonable people are obsessing about their number. “Is it climbing? Is it dropping? Is it holding? Is it jumping?” In time, they become so attuned to their number, they can actually feel it, fluctuating in their bodies.

“I had a bad thought, my number went up. I’m worried it went up. It went up again!”

Suddenly, every aspect of their behavior is minutely scrutinized, every action evaluated as to how it will affect The Number. Everything changes. They’re not doing this, they’re refraining from that, they mustn’t go too fast, they mustn’t go too far. Pretty soon, they’re not doing anything at all. They’re just sitting there. Very still. A prisoner to

The Number.

An exaggeration? Offer someone a French fry and check out their reaction.

We started with birth numbers. We’ll finish with

“Irving Pivnick – dead at 72.”

Death. The final number. By itself, devoid of significance. But watch this. The same number – 72 – the “dead at” number – observed from varying perspectives:


Seventy-two? A young man.


A geezer.


The national average.


He went too soon.




Seventy-two, nothing! He was seventy-five!

And the rest of us?


Seventy-two, huh? I can beat that.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a doctor’s visit for blood test. I recently received the results.

The concern about numbers can make your heart jump, which, of course, is not good for your numbers. My doctor reassures me that if I’m feeling all right, my panicking in the examining room waiting to hear my numbers is generally unwarranted. I’m simply being tested to track the effects of the medicines I’m taking. However, since the medicines I’m taking are for ailments for which I never experienced any symptoms in the first place, I don’t feel particularly reassured.

Plus, I’m a natural scaredy-cat.

My numbers turned out to be fine. I have to go back in six months, where I’ll go through the entire process all over again. Is it good news? Yes. But it’s good news with an appointment.

It looks like the “confronting the numbers” issue is never going to end. Until I do.

The “six months” reference sends me directly into Henny Youngman mode:

“Doctor gave me six months to live. I told him I couldn’t pay the bill. He gave me another six months.”

I paid the bill. And I still have to go back.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Saddle Up! - Part Seven"

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



RAILROAD FIREMAN: The train robbers climbed into the cab, and they shot me. I never understood that. Why would they shoot the fireman?

ENGINEER: You were a threat.

FIREMAN: What could I do? Throw wood at them?


FIREMAN: The fireman is essential. Without me feeding the boiler, the train comes to a screeching halt.

ENGINEER: No offense, but anyone can throw wood into a boiler.

FIREMAN: So what you’re saying is…

ENGINEER: You were expendable.

FIREMAN : They shot you sometimes.

ENGINEER: That, I never understood. I’m driving the train.

FIREMAN: You know what was really strange: Shooting both of us. I mean, I can see shooting one of us, though I’m not sure it disproportionately had to be me. But shooting both of us...

ENGINEER: Nobody said train robbers were mentally stable.

FIREMAN: Now, I think that’s unfair. Train robbing is a formidable undertaking.

ENGINEER: What is this? The “Stockholm Syndrome” for train robbers?

FIREMAN: I respect their tenacity, that’s all. It’s not like a bank that sits there and you walk in. They’re robbing a moving entity.

ENGINEER: You appear to have some serious admiration for these hooligans.

FIREMAN: Train robbers never flinch from a challenge. Stage robbers? That’s horses against horses. Train robbing is horses against the most powerful technology known to man at that juncture. Did they throw their hands in the air in futility? Did they say, “Trains are too much trouble, let’s rob something easier”? No! They laughed at the odds and they went for the glory.

ENGINEER: But they shot us – mostly you – for nothing.

FIREMAN: That was bad. But understandable. Outlaws were generally poor and uneducated. The railroad was the future. Killing us could be seen as a symbolic gesture, a desperate lashing out at the inexorable press of progress.

ENGINEER: You may be over-thinking this.

FIREMAN: Why do you think they shot us?

ENGINEER:­ They were maniacs.

FIREMAN: That’s a rather simplistic answer.

ENGINEER: It’s a western. People want action. You get on the train, and you shoot somebody.

FIREMAN: They could have just beaten us up.

ENGINEER: They preferred to kill us. Or at least the part of the gang that did the killing. The way I see it, train robbers are divided into three distinct categories.

FIREMAN: You’ve given this some thought.

ENGINEER: I have. One group stops the train, either by pulling up the tracks, or by blocking them with an obstruction, like a chopped-down tree. It’s a physical job, so the strong train robbers are assigned to do that. Then, there’s the group that robs the passengers. These are your charming train robbers. They don’t want trouble, just money, valuables, some harmless flirting. Which brings us to the third group.

FIREMAN: The ones who shot us.

ENGINEER: Every gang has its morons and lunatics. They need jobs too. So the leader tells them to “take care of” us. Unfortunately, these kinds of people need precise instructions. “Take care of” isn’t quite specific enough.

FIREMAN: They shot us…

ENGINEER: …because nobody told them not to.

FIREMAN: I still think they were envious of our place in a world that did not include them.

ENGINEER: Fine. Speaking of envious, were you ever envious of me?

FIREMAN: You? Why?

ENGINEER: I was the engineer.

FIREMAN: I was the fireman.

ENGINEER: I got to say, “All aboard!”

FIREMAN: That kept me up nights.

ENGINEER: I was in charge of the train.

FIREMAN: Yeah, yeah…

ENGINEER: I got to blow the whistle.


ENGINEER: That’s it, isn’t it? You were envious of me because I got to blow the whistle.

FIREMAN: I blew it sometimes.


FIREMAN: When you weren’t around.

ENGINEER: I think I see what’s happening here. When you were talking about train robbers being envious of us, you were really talking about you being envious of me.

FIREMAN: That’s ridiculous.

ENGINEER: Fess up. After all these years. You were jealous of me being the engineer.

FIREMAN: Well, why shouldn’t I be? You had a cap. Authority. “What time is the train leaving?” I knew what time the train was leaving. But did they ever ask me?

ENGINEER: It’s something you ask the engineer.

FIREMAN: And we all knew who that was. Hauling out your big gold watch and checking the time in a real showy way. “Look at me. I have a big gold watch!” You always barked to me. “More speed! More speed!” What do you think I was doing, taking a nap?!!!

ENGINEER: You realize it was a movie.

FIREMAN: You were very bossy.

ENGINEER: We were playing parts.

FIREMAN: Two indispensable co-equals. Did you ever think of playing it that way?

ENGINEER: I thought I was fair.

FIREMAN: Really? Did you ever offer to trade?

ENGINEER: Trade what?

FIREMAN: Trade parts.

ENGINEER: Did I ever offer to trade parts?

FIREMAN: Well, did you?

ENGINEER: I didn’t have the authority!

FIREMAN: You were the engineer!

ENGINEER: Are you listening to yourself?


FIREMAN: What was I thinking? You know, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to look back.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Commercial Success"

Best of the West ran for one season, minus three episodes. I don’t know if the last three were ever aired. I have them in a box in my garage, if you’re interested. Although when I looked recently, I couldn’t find the box. It’s in there somewhere.

Of course, if our groundswell of BOTW grassroots enthusiasm shakes Paramount into action, we may someday be able to watch the entire series on DVD. In the meantime, a thoughtful commenter reported that has something you can check out now. I haven’t had time to watch it beyond the catchy theme song, so I’m not sure what’s there, but the theme song itself is worth taking a look at, and humming along with. I wrote that song. It sounds like every TV cowboy theme song I ever heard, especially “Bat Masterson.” But it’s a little original too.

I’m proud to be a composer. When Best of the West is rerun in Thailand, ASCAP sends me a check for four cents. I cherish that near-nickel.

This morning, I read that the new Indiana Jones movie did huge opening weekend business. This led me, not for the first time, to consider what it means to be “commercial.” Since show business is now substantially more “business” than “show” – it used to be more equally balanced – commercial success is pretty much all that matters. Which explains why they no longer, as they once did, make movies about Emile Zola.

It’s also why the Oscar show viewership is down. The Oscars honor quality, and these days, not counting special effects, quality and commercial success travel two different, rarely overlapping paths. The movies the audience went to see in the greatest numbers were, for the most part, due to their quality, not under Oscar consideration. That’s not saying the audience has no taste. Or is it?

I’ll consider that and other film-related issues in my soon-to-be-posted “Why I Can’t Write A Movie.” Stay tuned. You’ll love it. I’ve already read it in my head.

Today, I just want to focus on what makes a movie or TV show commercial. I’ll start by telling you about my Uncle Manny. Uncle Manny was my grandfather’s brother who ate pork. Uncle Manny was my only show business relative, if you don’t count my Uncle Milton, who played base fiddle in a string quartet and, fairly or unfairly, I don’t.

Long before I was born, Uncle Manny worked in the Distribution department at a major studio, I believe it was Paramount. In those days, studios owned their own theater chains, supplying their theaters with exclusively movies that that studio made. At some point, the government decided this monopoly was a restraint of trade against independent producers and ordered the studios to divest themselves of ownership of their theaters.

The Distribution departments were dismantled and Uncle Manny was out of work. The good news was that the people who’d purchased those theaters didn’t know anything about movies. What they needed was an expert consultant who could sift through the upcoming releases and determine which pictures had the best chance of commercial success. Leading to:

The Resurrection of Uncle Manny.

Uncle Manny lived in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. He was hired by theater owners on the Niagara Frontier – Buffalo and it environs, like Tonawanda, I love that name – to semi-annually fly to Hollywood, screen all the new releases, and, based on his judgment of their commercial potential, advise his bosses as to which movies they should arrange to play in their theaters.

How did Uncle Manny choose which pictures would be box office successes? Years later, he told me his sure-fire formula for choosing the hits. His theory was this:

“You can never got wrong with ‘F and F’ pictures.”

What are “F and F” pictures? Uncle Manny explained.

“Fighting and (when there were ladies present) foolin’ around.” When there weren’t ladies present, he’d employ the one-word counterpart. Uncle Manny – eating pork and talking dirty!

Uncle Manny’s “F and F” selections invariably paid off. If a movie offered both “F’s” in the same picture – Happy Days Are Here Again!

Whenever Uncle Manny and his wife Belle – a Rosalind Russell type, loud and brassy and hugely entertaining – when they visited us in Toronto, it was always a cause for excitement. American relatives were different. It was like they were in Technicolor and Canadians were in black and white. Americans had lives; Canadians had “We made it through the winter.”

But there was a downside to Uncle Manny’s visits. As a kid, I’d excitedly mention my latest favorite movie. I desperately wanted Uncle Manny’s approval for my taste and judgment. The thing is Uncle Manny didn’t have taste, or if he did, he kept it to himself. He did, however, have judgment. Commercial judgment, which, as a movie consultant, was the only judgment that mattered.

As a kid, my favorite movie, by far, was The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye. That’s the one that includes “The vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.” Then they broke the vessel with the pestle and replaced it with a flagon with the picture of a dragon….never mind, I’ll tell you about that another time. The Court Jester is still my favorite movie comedy of all time.

I tell Uncle Manny how much I loved that movie, believing, naturally, that if I loved it, so did everyone else. Uncle Manny read Variety. Variety printed the grosses, the cumulative earnings of every film. Reading Variety, Uncle Manny knew who loved what and how much. That’s how he knew about The Court Jester. When I told him how much I loved it, this was his response:

“Never made a dime.”

It broke my heart. In two ways. First, Uncle Manny’s report that my favorite movie was a box office failure said to me, “If you think you know what people like, you’re wrong.” The Court Jester’s failure seriously impugned my judgment.

But his words struck even deeper. Imagine you think you’re a wonderful singer, and an expert music person says, “You’re tone deaf.” To be funny yourself, you have to believe you know what funny is. If I thought a movie was funny that others thought wasn’t funny enough to be worthy of their time and money, what did that say about me?

“If you think you know “funny”, you don’t.”

For a person who didn’t even dare imagine himself in show business, this was hardly an encouraging recommendation for the field. I didn’t know what was popular and I didn’t know what was funny. That’s not very helpful to someone who’s thinking about thinking about going into show business.

Considering my career, the early evidence of my commercial tone-deafery was not that off the mark. The things I made up did okay. Major Dad ran for four years, which isn’t bad. But generally speaking, my commercial instincts rarely surpassed the Court Jester standard. (I plan to do a post on my “favorites” someday, considering work that excited and inspired me along the way. Some of that work did well commercially; most of it was inspiringly so-so.)

Being at least somewhat commercial is essential for show biz survival. I know there are artists – or artistes – who claim they have no interest in commercial success. They’re lying. If they mean they won’t pander, that’s one thing. But if you do your work the way you wanted to do it, what harm would it do if your offering hits the commercial bulls-eye?

Commercial success may not mean the work is better, but there’s no reason to believe the success makes it worse. It’s apples and doorknobs - two different things. The thing you did, and the way it was received.

There is one connection between what you do and how it’s received, and that’s this. (And it’s why you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you’re not commercially successful.) Ideas, or products, including creative products, resonate with the consumer to varying degrees, from “Hats off!” to “No, thanks.” The cell phone did really well. People said, “That’s a good thing.” And they bought a lot of them. The cell phone was a hit. Culottes – another offering – did less well.

So there’s the thing you did – the movie or TV show you wrote. The audience took to it, the audience gave it a pass. You connected, you didn’t. The response may have nothing to do with your talent. I once heard the iconic film director and writer, Billy Wilder, opine, “Sometimes, you aim at the wrong target.”

It can happen. You do great work on something and nobody cares about it. Why did you do it? Because you cared about it. That’s the inspiration. That’s where it starts. I care about cowboys. Steven Spielberg cares about adventure serials from the Forties. Why does Indiana Jones do better? Because more people cared.

And that’s where it ends.

Commercial success requires two elements: a creator’s passion striking a universal chord. The right subject at the right time, hopefully skillfully executed. It’s mostly an accident. It just happens to turn out that, in contrast to the cluster of supporters for what you happen to love, what the creators of hits happen to love, millions of people love. It’s not anything you plan. They and their audience are a passionate and enthusiastic “one”. And that’s where the money is.

Sure, once in a while, cynical “F and Fers” will calculatingly aim low with a “slasher” movie or college sexcapades, but those genres eventually wear out their welcomes. Five or six enormously successful sequels, and they’re history.

For the rest of us, you do what you love, and you hope for the best. If twelve people go nuts, then you scored with your target audience. It just happened to be an unfortunately tiny target audience. If you’re Spielberg, your target audience is considerably larger.

And so, consequently, is your house.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Notable Quotables Two"

I’m out of town, and I don’t know how to post from anywhere else. So I’m leaving you some quotes I’ve collected over the years. I did a few on Friday. These are the other ones.

This one, I was related to me by a good writer named Lisa.

A middle-aged couple is sitting at a table in a Chinese restaurant, not speaking. Finally, the wife breaks the deadly silence and says,

“It’s not the egg rolls, Harry. It’s the last twelve years.”

Ready for some Cockney crudeness? I overheard this in a London pub.

Two young Cockney-type working men were discussing their techniques with women. One listens his mate for a while and then says:

“Some blokes think the best way to have their way with a Bird (girl) is to chat them up, be all polite like, ask them questions, listen to their problems.

“Me? I use me ‘ands.”

This one I overheard before a screening of a movie at the Writers’ Guild. One woman confided to another:

“I don’t need a therapist. I need a therapist’s therapist.”

Writers. Always reaching for the high concept.

I had an acting teacher in England. He was an American and he taught the “Method.” My teacher had one line in Doctor Strangelove, which he delivered quite skillfully. Watch the movie. The guy with only one line, that’s him.

Sometimes, while performing a scene in class, I’d get an unexpected laugh, and instead of remaining in character, I’d break up too. That’s a mistake. Good actors don’t do that. To rectify such a problem, our acting teacher would always remind us to

“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

Too bad that wasn’t his line in Dr. Strangelove. It would have been more memorable.

This story was related to me by the manager of a Trading Post when I was visiting “cottage country” in Northern Ontario, Canada.

Back in the 90’s, a woman who had come in the Trading Post to buy an ice cream cone for her husband, found herself standing in line behind a tall, attractive man who looked extremely familiar. The man finished his business, and headed towards the Men’s Room. The woman stepped up and ordered the ice cream.

“Was that Tom Selleck?” she asked the girl behind the counter.

“I don’t know,” replied the girl.

The woman returned to her husband, waiting outside in the car.

“Where’s my ice cream?” inquired her husband.

The woman, clearly discombobulated, had no idea. She went back in the store.

“Did you give me the ice cream?” she asked the girl behind the counter.

“I did,” replied the girl.

“Well, what happened to it?” asked the woman, now totally confused.

The attractive man, having exited the Men’s Room, had overheard this conversation. As he passed, he turned to the woman and said,

“I have two things to tell you. One: I am Tom Selleck. And two: You put the ice cream in your purse.”
As I mentioned on Friday, if you have any memorable quotes – overheard or otherwise – feel free to pass them along. I’ll be back tomorrow with whatever it is I do.


Friday, May 23, 2008

"Notable Quotables"

Dr. M and I are going out of town for a few days. We’re driving to San Francisco. When I say, “We’re”, I mean “She’s.” I don’t drive on highways. And when she’s in the car, I don’t drive on driveways. I’m strictly a passenger.

Sometimes, I’m the navigator; I’m in charge of the map. “Navigator” is a job I’m even less suited for than “driver.” If my eyes aren’t good enough to see cars, what chance do I have with the very small writing on maps?

We really ought to fly.

But we’ve had it with airports. September 11th has done something I didn’t believe was possible. It’s made air travel even less appealing than it already was. I’ve never seen a business that mistreats its customers more than the airline business. They’ve got us, and they know it. Airlines don’t have to be nice to their customers, because they’re certain of one thing:

“If you’re not a superhero, you need us to fly.”

I imagine, someday, technology will be developed that will allow people to fax themselves to their destinations. I probably won’t be one of the pioneers in that department. I imagine myself arriving someplace, going up to the Service Desk and saying,

“They lost my nose.”


While I’m away, I thought I’d leave you with some quotes I’ve gathered over the decades. These are comments I’ve heard, or overheard, or other people have overheard and told me about.

I like overheard quotes. They’re often a glimpse into something real. Like candid photographs, they offer flashes of insight that posed pictures or prepared material can rarely provide.

Quotes today; quotes and Tuesday. I’ll be back with prepared material on Wednesday. Hopefully not entirely lacking in insight.

Riding high, Bing Crosby, a popular crooner was bumped from the audience’s affections by newcomer Frank Sinatra. Crosby’s response to this turn of events was this:

“A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime. Why did it have to be my lifetime?”

For current implications, replace “Crosby” with “Hillary Clinton” and “Sinatra” with “Barack Obama.”


Comedian Jack Benny once received an award and acknowledged the recognition with this opening remark:

“I don’t deserve this. But I have a terrible case of hemorrhoids and I don’t deserve them either.”

It may not be that things even themselves out. It could be that nobody’s counting.


A brilliant wit named Oscar Levant once said:

“Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

Remember that when you hear a writer stealing from another writer call it “an homage.”


I was finishing dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida. The waiter brought me the check, along with the traditional fortune cookie.

I broke open the cookie and read my fortune:

“You will soon enjoy a financial windfall.”

“Great, “ I quipped, “I don’t have to pay the bill.”

“Not now,” retorted the waiter. “Soon.”

You think he was ready for that one?


My mother told me this story. She was standing in line at a bakery, and behind her, a mother and her ten year-old son were having an argument. The son wanted to leave, complaining there was nothing in the bakery he wanted.

“What do you mean?” replied the mother incredulously. “They have a hundred different kinds of cookies here.”

“I know,” responded the son. “But it’s always the same hundred.”

My mother had an ear. On my better days, I have one too.

If you have any memorable quotes – overheard or otherwise – feel free to pass them along.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen-D"

Best of the West was not picked up for ABC’s fall season. However, they did order twelve more episodes to be produced, with the intention of premiering the series mid-season.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

The pilot had been liked well enough by the ABC higher-ups to receive, if not an immediate scheduling, at least an order for production. I suspected early on that somebody big at ABC didn’t believe in Best of the West. The network’s subsequent behavior suggests I may not have been crazy. At least about that.

But that wasn’t what I was referring to when I said, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

I was referring to how I was feeling. Enormously excited and deeply – and I mean as deep as you can go without coming out the other side – terrified.

Remember the movie The Candidate? Against enormous odds, this long-shot candidate, played by Robert Redford, is elected governor of California. In the final sequence of the movie, Redford’s sitting in the back seat of a car with his campaign manager, wearing an expression, which I, in a parallel situation, found strikingly familiar.

The last line of the movie?

“So we won. What do we do now?”

Redford, being a superstar, and a natural under-player of emotion, was prevented from displaying terror and dread. I, being neither a superstar nor a natural under-player of emotion had little trouble displaying both. Whatever the opposite of a “Poker Face” is, that’s what I’ve got. Strangers stopped me on the street to ask me if I was okay. If I could have put words to those feelings, they’d have been,

“I’m fine. I just have to find a way to take a script that took me months to perfect and do it again, twelve more times. And faster.”

Television isn’t like movies. When you write a great movie script, you take your money and you move on to other projects. In television, the reward for success is you stay there, cranking out multiple versions of the same idea. And your time frame for doing so shrinks from months to days.

Hence, the terror and the dread.

In reality, my situation wasn’t actually that dire. There was a significant amount of time before we went into production. However, I did have to write more scripts, hoping to recapture the magic the pilot. The problem was I wasn’t sure what that magic was.

I had a great writer friend named Michael who agreed to help me, and little by little, we identified the essence of the show. The seeds of it were in the original script. I had to maintain that focus as I created new material.

The heart of the show was my lifelong affection for westerns. I wasn’t making fun of westerns. I was offering my interpretation. Since I’m not a serious person, my interpretation came out funny. Not “mean” funny – that’s not me – but affectionately funny.


The Plummer Gang has taken over the town. The remaining resisters have retreated into the saloon. Preparing to shoot it out, a townsperson smashes a window with his rifle butt – a traditional move in westerns. But in my version, the irate saloonkeeper, Parker Tillman, who’s going have to replace the broken window, easily raises the sill of the adjacent window, with a sardonic

“Wouldn’t this be just as good?”

That’s what I did. I comedically mirrored the conventions of the genre. So to speak.

Another example:

It’s a standard lynching scene. Tillman, the Bad Guy, has a rope around his neck and is about to be strung up. At the fateful moment draws nigh, Tillman calls over his loyal but far from brilliant henchman, Frog, for some final instructions.

TILLMAN: Frog, listen carefully. I want you to go up behind Kincaid, put your gun in his back and say, “If he hangs, you die.”

FROG: (CONFUSED) If who hangs, who dies?

TILLMAN: If I hang, he dies.

FROG: You want me to say, “If I hang, you die.”

TILLMAN: No. You say, “If he hangs, you die.”

FROG: I die?

That’s another thing I did. While mirroring the conventions of the genre so to speak, I also played with the words.

Once, in a moment of spontaneous lucidity, this insight came tumbling out of my mouth.

“I have an adult’s love of language, and a child’s love of adventure.”

I think that’s right. It could have been my formula for success. But in order for it to be a formula for success, your show has to be successful.

When Best of the West finally went on the air – not mid-season but the following fall – the ratings were, at first, encouraging. The pilot episode was the seventh most watched program that week. Unfortunately, it was downhill from there.

Best of the West was scheduled on Thursday night, going against another new show called Magnum P.I., starring Tom Selleck. Shortly into our run, I had a personal insight into how this “head-to-head” was progressing.

I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, and as I was waiting, I glanced at the fan magazines displayed nearby. Every one of them – I mean, all of them – had big pictures of Tom Selleck on their covers. None of them featured Best of the West.

The feeling was nightmarish. It was like every magazine at the checkout counter was screaming,

“You’re screwed!

The fan magazines weren’t lying. After thirteen episodes, Best of the West was picked up for, what they call the “back nine”, meaning the nine additional episodes to complete a full season’s order. But, seeing we were struggling, ABC decided to move us to a different time period. Friday nights, at nine.

Opposite Dallas.

The most popular show on the air.

I believe I mentioned earlier that somebody big at ABC was not a supporter of the show. They definitely weren’t helping.

I once said to a good writer named Andrew, concerning a network’s reaction to your idea:

“The last thing they say is the first thing they say.”

Networks rarely change their minds. If they were “never really a fan” at the end, it’s because they were “never really a fan” at the beginning. The only exception is when the show becomes a hit, like Seinfeld. When a series blossoms into a surprise success, network executives are always ready with this charming disclaimer:

“I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong.”

Thank you.

Best of the West was cancelled after nineteen episodes, but we completed our full-season’s order of twenty-two. Making the last three episodes felt very strange. The patient had passed away, but we were continuing the operation.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Did I learn anything from this experience? My future experiences suggest not. Or at least not much. When I get around to discussing other show-running experiences, you will see that the terror and dread would come racing back from wherever they hung out when I wasn’t making shows.

It wasn’t about the writing; the pressure to deliver was scary, but somehow, the work always got done. I never had to go on television and say, “I couldn’t think of anything this week.” The real hard part was everything else. Which I’ll talk about another time.

The biggest price I paid for getting what I wanted? Being so self-absorbed, I was oblivious to everything – and everyone – around me.

So this happens.

Years later, I was attending a play performed at an outdoor amphitheater. As the audience started to go in, a woman came up and introduced herself. She informs me she’d worked on Best of the West. It was obvious that I didn’t remember her. I tried to be friendly, probably overly friendly, to make up for the slight of forgetting who she was.

The incident bothered me throughout the performance. When it was over, I made a deliberate effort to find the woman in the exiting crowd. I finally did.

“What exactly did you do on Best of the West?” I inquired, in my most personable tone. I did not want her to leave with the memory of me being oblivious and uncaring.

“I was your assistant,” she replied.

Somebody out there hates me.

Okay, we’re going to go grassroots here.

Best of the West is not currently on DVD. If, after reading this exciting four–parter, you’d like your own personal DVD collection of all twenty-two Best of the West episodes, here’s whom to annoy until they agree to make them available:

Brad Grey
c/o Paramount Studios
5555 Melrose Avenue
Hollywood, California.

Brad Grey probably has an e-mail address. But he didn’t tell me what it was. That could be because I haven’t spoken to him since they invented computers.

Help get Best of the West on DVD. Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourselves. Join the groundswell. Bring power to be people. You’ll be amazed how good you’ll feel.

Or do it for me. I’ve got the tapes sitting in my garage and they’re turning to dust.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen-C"

ABC approved my script. Best of the West would be produced as a pilot.

I was excited and terrified. I’d never produced a pilot – or anything – before, so there was no evidence that I could. There was no evidence that I couldn’t either, but such thoughts are alien to me.

Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels agreed to supervise the project, so I wasn’t alone. Later, I learned that without that agreement, the show would not have gone forward. Nobody trusted me alone.

Including me.

I would also have the support of Dr. M. Not “You can do it” support, her personal participation. When Dr. M was just M, she had received a Master’s Degree in Film and Television. M would serve as my assistant during the early stages of the pilot-making process, and later, would assist the Associate Producer in post-production, where the final product would be put together. It was invaluable to have M around. Not just for her creative input, but also to remind me to calm down.

The first step was casting. Actors were required to play the parts I’d been playing for so long in my head. When you’re a writer, you are all the characters in the show. At least at the beginning. Well, always, but later, nobody cares.

In the casting process, you replace yourself – one character at a time – with strangers. Hopefully, strangers who are as good as you are in your head, or, if you’re lucky, better.

Casting can be a very frustrating process. First of all, during “Pilot Season”, dozens of pilots compete for the same talent pool at the same time. You may desperately want an actor but they’ve been snapped up by another pilot. You may want an actor your budget can’t afford. You may want an actor, but they won’t audition, because their agent’s persuaded them they’re too big to do that, so unless you’re absolutely certain they’re “the one”, you can’t take the risk.

But the hardest thing is that the vast majority of the actors they bring in aren’t giving you what you want. You’ve lived with these characters for months, you have a precise image of how they’re supposed to be. For me, it’s mostly a rhythm thing; they need to “get” the rhythm of their roles. For the most part, the actors the casting director brings in aren’t doing it.

It’s discouraging. After actor after actor fails to make the material “sing”, you can’t help wondering whether it’s the actor or the material.

It’s interesting that in the paragraphs directly above, I neglected to mention the importance of how the actor looks. There’s a reason for that. I almost never looked at them. Trying to “pick up” the actor’s rhythm, I’d turn my head and I’d listen. This strategy is arguably a mistake when you’re working in a visual medium like television.

Since the casting process was new to me, when actors coming to read told me how much they loved my script, I actually believed them, entering into a discussion with them about which parts they liked the most. Later, it was suggested that the actors might merely be buttering me up. Somehow, that surprised me. I knew the script was good. I just thought they’d noticed.

As a talent selector, you’re always looking for something special, something you may not be able to put into words, which is not a lot of help to the casting director. One actress reading for Elvira, the lead female role, came in and the first thing out of her mouth was, “I get a lot of scripts during “Pilot Season.” Every time, what I do is, I read the script, and then, I decide whether or not to wash my hair. I read this, and I washed my hair.”

I guess that was a compliment. More importantly, it was an original mind at work. That woman eventually got the part.

Every once in a while, we’d take a break and go down to the stage, where they were in the process of building the sets. My eyes were dancing as I looked around. The script said “Saloon”, they built a saloon. The script said, “Cabin”, they constructed a cabin. The script said, “General Store”, and there it was, with a counter and everything.

You know what they told me? During the filming, they were going to have horses riding by the windows, just for atmosphere. Horses. Riding by. Phyllis never had horses.

Everything they were building looked “cowboy.” Maybe not authentically “cowboy”, but authentically fake cowboy.

I couldn’t get it into my mind that I was the boss. I’d make decisions, and people listened! Should there be a moose head hanging in the saloon? I said no. And they didn’t put one there!

My show was coming to life before my eyes. I was a happy Jewish fellow.

Jim Burrows would be the director. This was before Cheers, but I knew from Taxi that he was the best. I was a little concerned when he pointed to the middle of Page Two in the script and said, “There’s your first joke.” It troubled me. I didn’t do jokes. Maybe that was just the way he talked. But if he meant “laughs” rather than “jokes”, I knew there were some big ones long before the middle of Page Two.

In the end, however, Jim brought the material excitingly alive. There are substantial laughs in the finished product that were nowhere in the script. They were pure Burrows invention.

There was a gunfighter guest character in the script called “The Calico Kid.” Chris Lloyd, “Reverend Jim” from Taxi, would be playing the Kid. Chris Lloyd was perfect for the part. Not only was he a talented actor, he also possessed that “screw loose” comic insanity that I treasure. You just need to remember,

“What does a Yellow Light mean?”

We finally got the show cast, with skilful actors in every role. Our first script reading was at Ed.’s house. It went very well. I sang the self-penned Best of the West Theme Song. Everybody laughed. I didn’t remember the Theme Song being particularly funny. But as long as they were happy.

Rehearsals started smoothly. Leonard Frey, cast as the Bad Guy character, Parker Tillman, brought an ironic flourish to the role I had never imagined. Leonard had come in during a casting session in New York. When he read, he was extremely funny, but not with the material. He was funny around the material, which I didn’t much care for. It seemed like he was saying, “This script isn’t funny; I’d better add something.”

That night, M and I saw him in a Kurt Weill revue, and he was meticulously disciplined. M suggested that we bring him back in. We did. This time he did what was written. He was sensational.

The filming of the pilot was scheduled for Friday. On Wednesday night, we arranged a dress rehearsal before a live studio audience, but without the cameras rolling. We needed to see what we had.

What we had was pure gold. Everything worked. The audience loved it. And these were strangers. No one with a vested interest.

That Wednesday performance sticks in my mind. It vindicated many of my guesses. What I thought was funny was funny. I wasn’t talking through my hat. I actually knew something.

And then came Thursday.

Thursday was the day scheduled for the camera rehearsal. Masking tape “marks” were laid down on the floor so, like at a bad dancing school, the choreographed cameras would know precisely where to move. Forward – two, three. Left – two, three. Back – two, three. Side – two, three.

The crew let me sit it the cameraman’s chair and look through the lens. They let me ask stupid questions. I was the boss. The boss can do that.

At the end of the camera rehearsal, we had our final run-through of the entire show.

It was terrible.

Whatever magic had been there the day before had totally disappeared. The energy was gone. The timing was off. As delirious as we’d been on Wednesday, that’s how depressed we became on Thursday. Experts everywhere, and we had no idea what had happened.

And then it was Showtime.

The comedy was back. Not “Wednesday level”, but ninety per cent. The audience clearly enjoyed what they were seeing. Even the quarter of the audience that had been bused in from the Inner City, teenagers whose experience and interests were unlikely to include westerns. Audience finders sometimes make bizarre selections. But when you’re dealing with a new show that nobody’s heard of, you may not have much choice.

During the performance, there was one spectacular moment, a moment my script had accommodated for but had not put into words. Leonard Frey improvised it during the show. And the roof came off.

The story was building to the gunfight. As I mentioned yesterday, the “funny part” was that the guns didn’t work. The gunfighters aimed at their adversaries, and the bullets went everywhere else. Obliterating lights, smashing bottles, shattering mirrors. Twelve shots were fired, and to their surprise and confusion, neither shooter had a scratch on them

Bad Guy Parker Tillman was observing the shootout from an upstairs landing. Tillman had hired the best gunfighter around, the Calico Kid, to gun down newcomer Best, who was making trouble by refusing to pay the “protection” money. What Tillman had witnessed – six shots fired by the Kid, and Sam Best totally unhurt – filled him with annoyance.

Tillman could not believe what he had just witnessed. The shooting was over and nobody was dead. Or wounded even. The now-empty guns had brought a lull to the proceedings. And into that lull, Tillman expressed his disgust and dismay with these three words:

“Well…I mean…”

The audience went nuts.

Later, I asked Frey how he had chosen precisely the right moment to utter those words, words, I repeat, that were not in the script. Leonard Frey, a delightful comic actor, who would be an early casualty of AIDS, replied,

“I was looking for a hole.”

The filming ended. Everybody seemed happy. The ABC executives proclaimed, “The only question we have is, ‘Which night should we schedule it on?’” I felt exhilarated and exhausted. I tried not to think about “the Wednesday that got away”, and be happy too.

We had made a very good pilot.

As the audience filed out, I went over and thanked them for coming. I was feeling good, maybe a little full of myself. I casually asked a passing young audience member what he’d thought of the show. I’ll never forget his answer.

“It’s better than we can do.”

A brief holiday in the air, and back down to earth.

Tomorrow: Doing the show.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen-B"

“What do you want to write?”

“A cowboy comedy.”

That was the gist of a conversation that took place at a breakfast meeting my agent had arranged between me and Tom Werner, later a billionaire from producing The Cosby Show and Rosanne, etc., but at that time a “Development” executive at ABC, along with future partner and billionaire – they were partners; they split the billions fifty-fifty – Marcy Carsey.

As I said yesterday, the time had come for me to create my own show. The guy asked what I wanted to do, and that’s what I told them.

A cowboy comedy.

Why? Two reasons. I loved westerns and I knew a ton about them. Those aren’t the two reasons; they’re two parts of the same reason. The second reason was this:

It was the only series idea I had.

My choice also had something to do with my rebellious, or at least, reactive nature. Remember, I was the one who gave Ted Baxter a heart attack on Mary Tyler Moore.

I’d been working on shows where a crisis in an episode could one of the series’ “regulars” had gotten a bad haircut. Unable to grasp the serious implications of a bad haircut, I found such stories silly and a waste of time, even if the jokes around the follicular catastrophe were hilarious.

It was still a story about a bad haircut.


So I reacted against it. You want problems? I’ll give you problems. How about a gang of murderous outlaws take over your town? How about Indians? How about a blizzard? A drought? A “Mail Order” bride with a questionable past? Life, death, almost marrying a prostitute. That’s trouble! Way more interesting than a bad haircut.

Or another disappointing date.

I told Tom Werner I wanted to do a comedy western. And Tom Werner said okay.

At that point, a “Yes” from ABC was hardly a major investment. They’d pay me to write a script. If they liked it, they’d order a pilot. But there was no guarantee. The commitment was only for the script.

I was a long way from having my new show profiled in the TV Guide Preview Edition. But I could dream.

And I did.

Was a cowboy comedy a good bet for a television success in the early 1980’s? Well, it did have things working against it. They high point of TV westerns’ popularity had been the Fifties and Sixties. This, as I mentioned was the Eighties. Making the timing less than ideal.

If you’re hoping to delight the world with your own personal funny “take” on westerns, it would help if there were westerns – or one western even – currently on the air, so the audience can understand what you’re talking about. Otherwise, you’re running into the “Huh?” factor, as is “I don’t get it.” And also – though for reasons different from the “bad haircut” situation – “Who cares?”

A comedy western in the early Eighties was a definite long shot.

My hope was to make the show so funny and special and wonderful and good that its undeniable quality would make it a success.

Note to Future Series Creators: That may not be enough.

Making a show as good as I could make it was the only thing I knew how to do. It still is.

ABC had aired a comedy western called F Troop back in the mid-Sixties. When there were still westerns on television. F Troop was popular – or at least popular enough for DVD’s of it to be available today – but it was a different style of writing from what I do.

“Yes. F Troop was funny.”

(That was my inner critic talking. It’s a pre-emptive voice. It nails me before anyone else does.)

F Troop was funny. But broadly funny. There was little pretence that the characters you were watching were any more than human cartoons. But if the writing’s sharp, and the acting style’s in sync with the writing, cartoons – even human ones – can be highly entertaining.

It just wasn’t my style.

What is my style? As truthful as I can make it. To me, the more resonatingly true the moment, the funnier it is.

Someone once defined comedy as, “The truth plus ten per cent.” Meaning, the truth, plus minimal exaggeration. F Troop was “comedy plus a considerably larger per cent.” As the exaggeration quotient escalates, the situation becomes less believable and as a result, less funny. It’s comedy from another planet.

But that’s me talking. I don’t claim – and never will – that there’s only one kind of comedy. There are lots of kinds. But there’s one kind I like best.

I didn’t need to study westerns. As a result of a wasted childhood watching every cowboy show from Gunsmoke to Buffalo Bill Junior, I was fully knowledgeable in that department. What I didn’t know was the reality, specific details about the West as it was, which I could contrast with the movie and television versions to generate the comedy.

I started doing research.

My agent generously provided me with the 26-volume Time-Life Books series, The Old West. I studied it like Talmud. As I hope you’ve noticed in this blog, I almost never make anything up. I just tell the stories the way they happened. If there’s comedy, it emanates from the story itself, and my point of view when telling it.

One surprising discovery in my research was that, due to faulty manufacturing, the guns in the real West didn’t always work that well. They blew up, they caught on fire, and for no apparent reason, they, sometimes, didn’t shoot straight. I decided to include that final factoid in my pilot. During the climactic shootout, unlike movie and TV gunfights, the shooters hit everything but the people they were aiming at.

Here’s another moment that came out of my research. Let me set the context.

The premise of the series concerned a family immigrating to the West after the Civil War. (I re-tell the entire “back-story” in the Best of the West Theme Song, for which I wrote both melody and lyrics. If you see me around, I’ll sing it for you. I’ll actually sing pretty much anything. I like to sing.)

The family in Best of the West includes Sam Best (wherefrom, the show’s title), who, inspired by romance and adventure, comes West to start a new life in Copper Creek, Montana. His new wife, Elvira, is an aristocratic refugee from the recently ravaged South, whom Sam, a Union officer, ran into while burning her plantation to the ground. The third member of the family (the “Earl surrogate”) was Sam’s ten year-old son, Daniel, who had calculated his survival prospects in the wild and woolly West, and demanded an immediate return to their home in Philadelphia.

The show’s final scene takes place back at the Bests’ one-room cabin. As a result of the aforementioned shootout, Sam, the unexpected winner, has been appointed town marshal. Daniel views this appointment as a guaranteed death sentence. A heated argument ensues between father and son.

Meanwhile, Elvira, hopeless in this unfamiliar environment, is making herself useful by sweeping the floor, her efforts becoming increasingly vigorous, and increasingly irritating to Sam, setting up this exchange:

“Elvira, would you stop sweeping, please?’

“Sorry, Sam. I just can’t to seem to get the dirt off this floor.”

“Elvira, it’s a dirt floor.”

That came from my research. Many cabins had dirt floors. I don’t know if that’s the funniest thing I ever wrote, but I’ll tell you this:

Twenty years after Best of the West, I was doing a one-day-a-week consulting job on According To Jim. One day, driving onto the lot – Studio Center, once again – I’m abruptly halted by the studio Security Guard. I immediately stop and roll down my window.

The guard comes over and tells me he recognizes me from Best of the West, having then been a Security Guard at Paramount, where Best of the West was produced. As the line of cars behind me continues to grow – and become increasingly impatient – the guard insists on reproducing – in detail – the entire “dirt floor” conversation, including the set-up, to prove to me that he’d remembered the whole thing, and still found it the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

Eyeing the honking congestion behind me, I turned down his request to sing him the theme song. I could hear him humming it as a drove away.

I liked how my Best of the West pilot script turned out. It was funny, and reflected the tone I was trying to achieve. I submitted my script to ABC and waited for the response.

The pilot writing fee was five times the amount I was paid for writing an episode. I made sure not to spend any of the money, in case, after reading my script, ABC demanded that I return it.

Tomorrow: Making my first pilot.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen"

A page in my career was about to turn.

I had written something like thirty-five half-hour comedy scripts for the MTM shows and for Taxi, and another show by the Taxi creators, The Associates. I had won an Emmy Award (and been nominated for two others), the Humanitas Prize, and a Writers’ Guild Award. People thought I was pretty good.

I was ready to try for a show of my own.

Or was I?

Creatively, yes. I was capable of writing a reliable half-hour comedy script, and I knew how to invent characters. I had contributed a successful, continuing character to Phyllis, an “I’m ninety – I can say anything!” old lady, named "Mother Dexter". I knew how to do that stuff. I was ready to create my own series.

The problem?

I’ve already told you how I refused to work on writing staffs. I preferred to write scripts, and go home. I’m a writer. A writer writes. As Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” I’m Earl, the Writer Man.

I’m a writer. That’s all what I yam.

The problem was my success as a writer was pushing me into uncharted territory.

There was a contract I was offered at Paramount called the “over-all deal.” When you had an “over-all deal”, you received, in exchange for developing new series ideas, an agreed-upon annual sum for usually a minimum of two years, which was then divided into weekly paychecks.

Up to that point, I’d only been paid for piecework; I received the Writers’ Guild minimum for every script I wrote. As John Lovitz observed in A League of Their Own, compared with what I was currently making, an “over-all deal” would be more.

I turned down the “over-all deal.”


When you take an “over-all deal”, what you’re saying is, “I can come up with great ideas for new television series.” That felt like too much pressure to me. Promising something, when you have no idea whether or not you can deliver? What if I didn’t come up with anything? Wouldn’t they be mad?

I was comfortable with what I was doing. When you’re paid for a script, you give them a script. No problem. But when you’re paid to come up with great series ideas and you come up with nothing, or unacceptable series ideas…

You see what I’m saying?

I could promise them a script, because I’d done it before. I couldn’t promise them winning series ideas, because I hadn’t.

I know, it’s stupid. Other people had deals, I had deals later in my career, sometimes I came through, sometimes, I didn’t. That’s how it works. It’s a gamble. But at that point, I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t say “Sure!” about what the deal expected of me when what I was feeling was, “Who knows?”

The other issue in “over-all deals”, is that if you don’t fulfill your obligation, you could be asked to work off the money they were paying you by lending your services to one of the studio’s shows that’s currently on the air, possibly, one you don’t care for. An “over-all deal” carries with it the implicit nightmare of,

“We’d like you to work on I Married an Orangutan.”

If you’ve struck out in the “development” arena, how can you say no?

“You’re failing and you’re refusing to work off the money?”

I never wanted to be put in the position – while depositing their paychecks into my bank account – of saying,

“That’s correct.”

There was no certainty I’d be put in that position, but I prefer things clearer, more concrete. Consider this.

After two years at MTM, I determined that my work deserved more than the minimum payment per script, or “scale” as they call it. My scripts were better, I wanted to be paid more for writing them. That seemed fair to me.

Not to MTM.

A hard-to-deal-with executive named Mel announced that MTM had always paid “scale” for scripts, and they didn’t want to set a precedent by paying me more. He did, however, agree to this. For every script I wrote, the company would pay me an additional “consulting fee”, thus making my per-script payment about fifteen per cent higher than “scale.”

Did I have to do more work for the extra payment? No. Though the company was calling it a "consulting fee", I was not required to consult on anything.

I know, it’s stupid. I already wrote about the strangeness of the negotiating process. (“Story of a Writer – Part One”, in February) Mel wouldn’t increase my scriptwriting fee, but he’d give me more money, if we called it a “consulting fee.” And I didn’t have to consult.

It exhausts me just writing about this.

Why am I bothering? So I can tell you this. After we agreed to the “consulting fee” – and with nobody requiring me to – I began showing up on “rewrite nights”, to consult on each of the episodes I had written. Even though it was strictly a bookkeeping strategy, I didn’t want to be vulnerable to the charge of getting a “consulting fee” without actually consulting. So I consulted.

It’s just the way I am.

A writer who was not capable of playing the game.

Summing up:

I had the ability to create a television series. My track record had earned me the opportunity. But, because of the requirements of the position, if my idea turned into a television series, I would not be able to write and go home anymore.

Instead, Earl, the Writer Man, would be in charge of the entire show, required to do everything that being in charge of a show demands.

The thing was, because of the jobs I’d refused to do along the way, and because I’m me, I came this exciting moment in my career lacking the experience and the character attributes to carry it off.

And here comes the offer.

Next on "Story of a Writer" – “Best of the West”

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Situation Ethics"

I first heard about “situation ethics” in the Sixties. The concept has bothered me for forty years.

“Situation ethics” asserts that right and wrong behavior are defined, not by a set of overarching principles or beliefs, but by whatever’s required by the specific situation.

Okay, so that’s different from “Old School” morality. Let’s see how it works.

Since September 11th, there’s been a lot of talk about torture. The overarching principle would be, “We don’t torture” The words “no matter what” are understood. “Situation ethics” suggests that the situation itself will determine whether or not we torture.


“A major catastrophe in which thousands of people will be killed can be averted if we torture the terrorist for information that could stop the catastrophe from taking place.”

Thousands in jeopardy? “Situation ethics” says, “Torture away.” This assumes, of course, that the torturing will result in averting the catastrophe, a premise that would appear to be problematic in an era of death-craving fanatics.

If a terrorist’s willing to die for their beliefs, they might not be put off by a little torturing. They might even inject some mischief into the proceedings by divulging totally unhelpful information.

The belief that torturing works may merely be a matter of the torturers’ projecting their own fears onto the people they’re torturing.

“I’ll tell you what. If they tortured me like this, I’d be singin’ like the proverbial canary.”

To more accurately understand the situation, we may just need braver torturers.

There’s also a problem with the “numbers” issue. What exactly is the number of people required to be saved before torturing becomes okay? Thousands? You say, “Go for it.” What about hundreds? How ‘bout sixty-two people? Is it okay to torture to save sixty-two people? What about thirty-seven? Or twelve?

How about one person? Can you torture someone to save one person? If it’s a child? If it’s a guy who’s “this close” to finding the cure for cancer? If it’s a loved one? If it’s you?

“Situation ethics” requires you to make these crazy calculations. There’s a person buried in the ground, and if you torture the person who buried them, you could, maybe, save their lives.

“Who did they bury?”

“Rob Schneider.”

“I never cared for that guy.”

Is this really how we want to base our decisions? I’m not saying you torture the burier. I’m saying decisions should not be based on a lack of enthusiasm for lowbrow comedy.

If “situation ethics” were merely concerned with torturing, it wouldn’t be terrible, because torturing doesn’t come up that often in every day life. Unfortunately, “situation ethics” has “jumped the fence.” Look around.


Strategy maven Chris Matthews pronounces: “In the Democratic Party, the candidate runs to the Left in the primary, then tacks to the Center in the General Election.”

I hear that, and my reaction to the candidate is, “Who are you?”

other than a person who’ll say whatever it takes to get elected.

If the candidate’s adjusting their principles to specific situations, how do you know what – if anything – they actually stand for? The standard response to my complaint:

“It’s politics!” The words “you simple-minded moron” are understood.

Two problems:

One: “It’s politics” doesn’t make it right.


Two: It’s not just politics.


“We’re not trading Garvey.”

Rumors fly that beloved Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey is on the trading block. These rumors are immediately refuted by the Dodgers.

“Steve Garvey is family. You don’t trade family. You can take this to the bank: We are not trading Steve Garvey.”

Next day’s headline:

"Garvey Traded"

Wha’ hoppin’?

The Dodgers’ explanation:

“Negotiations were at a very delicate stage. Any indication of our intentions would have seriously damaged our ability to move forward.”

“Situation ethics”:

A lie’s not a lie, if you have a good reason.

Of course, if you’re at all interested in principles, you might want to steer clear of

Show business.

But even in the world of lying to your face and stabbing you in the front, this one gave me incredible whiplash:

Back in the Nineties, the president of NBC flew to Washington to testify on the issue of sex on television. The complaint was there was too much of it. And America, through its elected representatives was deeply concerned.

The president of NBC appeared at the hearing, duly chastened.

“We got the message,” he announced.

What did he do then?

Well, a few weeks later, the president of NBC moved Friends, a blockbuster comedy with sexual hi-jinx at its core, to the eight o’clock time period – seven o’clock Central Time. This time period had previously been branded The Family Viewing Hour, a period set aside for broadcasting television shows suitable for family viewing.

Let’s summarize here:

After proclaiming to Congress that he “got the message” about reducing the amount of sex on television, the president of NBC returned to Hollywood and re-scheduled a sex-driven comedy to The Family Viewing Hour.

And that was acceptable?

No. It wasn’t acceptable.

It was mandatory.

The president of NBC explained that as president, he was obligated to NBC’s shareholders to maximize their profits. He fulfilled that fiduciary obligation by moving a valuable asset – Friends – to a time period where it could make NBC and its shareholders more money.

It just happened to be during The Family Viewing Hour.

A person says one thing in one place with total sincerity, and another thing in another place with total sincerity, and there’s no concern that the two things that were said are exactly the opposite.

What is that?

“Situation ethics.”

If I wanted to summarize “situation ethics” in two sentences, I’d have quoted a famous line said to have been delivered by some studio boss, who was furious at one of his writers. Ranting and screaming, the studio boss decrees:

“That son-of-a-bitch is banned from this lot! I never want to see him back here, until we need him!”

I’ve never known how to proceed in the world of “situation ethics”. All I can do is to look on in amazement.

And write about it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"A Transgression Revealed"

I have stolen.

I take grateful advantage of this blog to bring this long-buried embarrassment to light. My behavior was shocking to me. I’m a Good Boy. Good Boy’s don’t steal. And yet, I did.


What a relief it is to finally unburden my troubled soul of these heinous transgressions. I feel a weight being lifted from my shoulders. I can finally breathe free. Almost. First, I must elaborate on the details. It’s a rule. It’s in the Unburdener’s Code.

Both thefts took place in London, England, a place I where lived for a year and a half during the 60’s. Remind me to tell you about that sometime.

Okay, so I’m waiting for a subway in the Baker Street Underground station. Nearby, there’s a kiosk, a small stand, selling newspapers and candy, but also paperback books. I see Catch-22. I’ve heard of Catch-22. I hear it’s a special book. I decide to buy it.

I’m in line to pay for it. The line advances excruciatingly slowly. Ten minutes, and I’ve barely moved up. I see my train pulling into the station. I abandon the line, and get onto the subway.

Holding an unpaid-for Catch-22.

Minutes later, I’m sitting in the subway, howling at a character wrapped entirely in bandages, whose nutrient and urine pouches are exchanged, when one of them is full and the other one is empty. I never enjoyed a book more.

And I wasn’t hit by lightning.

Flash Forward: Several months.

Still in London, at a famous bookstore called Foyles. Four floors of books, one floor – just plays. I was studying acting at the time. Plays were the thing.

I peruse the inventory, finally selecting five plays. Believing Foyles is over-charging for these items, I pay for three plays, slipping the other two into the large pocket of my beige overcoat.

I walk outside, a Foyles carrier bag holding my paid-for plays, my coat pocket hiding the counterband.

Riding home on the subway, I refuse to take out the “stolens”, in the fevered belief that I can only be arrested if I’m caught in the act of actually reading the pilfered material. What about Catch-22? Being a book-loving country, I imagined England’s allowing every reader a one-book stealing dispensation.

This second time, however, I sat in terror, fearing the mere act of removing the pilfered plays from my pocket would send lights flashing, sirens blaring, a squadron of “Bobbies” springing from their hiding-place, and me summarily carted off to gaol.

An old English prison, still inhabited by characters from Dickens.

If they stay in my pocket, I’m fine. So that’s where I leave them, till I’m safely home, behind closed doors. There, I can liberate the ill begotten plays, and integrate them with their innocent counterparts. Which is exactly what I did.

Five plays, together on my table. Three paid for, two not. You couldn’t tell them apart.

It’s weird not being punished when you do something wrong. I mean, not being rewarded when you do something good, that’s actually better. Doing a good deed without reward reflects a nobler level of generosity. But it doesn’t work the other way. Doing bad, and not being punished. It feels odd, like…“What?”

Bad deeds need to be punished or the world seems strangely out of balance. You’ve heard the theory that criminals want to be caught? I know what they mean. It’s not just the relief. It’s that, without retribution, the world, as we’ve imagined it, doesn’t make sense.

Could life really be that arbitrary? It feels a little scary.

At the very least, an unpunished crime feels like unfinished business.

Decades later, I decide that my business needs finishing. Visiting London, I make a pilgrimage to Foyles. I pass the first test. Nobody seems to recognize me.

I have come to make amends. But how? I could find the manager and confess. But that might be uncomfortable. For both of us. I imagine some avuncular Stuffy Guy stifling a chuckle, and saying,

“My Dear Boy, the Statute of Limitations on that infraction has long since been exceeded.”

I wouldn’t know what to reply. And the problem wouldn’t be fixed. The “out-of-balancedness” would remain in the universe.

I decide to perform my penance privately. I know this wasn’t the perfect answer, but it was the best thing I could think of at the time.

I scour the bookshelves, searching for exactly the right book, which in this case meant the least appealing book I could imagine. I figure that by paying full price for a book I didn’t want, I’d be compensating Foyles for my earlier vandalous behavior. Before, I had taken something I’d wanted and not paid for it; now, I was taking something I didn’t want and paying for it.

Hey, it was a gesture.

After an extended search, I found exactly the book I was looking for.

Famous Hangmen of England.

It was the perfect book. I really didn’t want it.

I retain Famous Hangmen of England on my bookshelves. I’ve never even glanced at it.

Personal experience suggests the proclivity towards stealing bears a genetic component. My mother stole too.

At least once.

When I returned from England, my mother met me in New York. She didn’t like how I was dressed, so she took me to Macy’s and bought me new clothes. She paid for everything.

Then, she saw this belt.

We’re in line to pay for it. The line’s advancing excruciatingly slowly. Ten minutes, and we’ve barely moved up.

Sound familiar?

Suddenly, my mother turns away and heads for the exit. I follow her, surprised and alarmed.

“Mom, did you pay for that belt?” A rhetorical question, since I knew she hadn’t.

My mother responds with a two-word reply:

“Not yet.”

She continues walking, and disappears into the street.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Doctor's Visit"

I do not feel positive about visits to the doctor. Most doctors’ visits, they tell you you’re fine. But at least once, they don’t. And you never know which visit that’s going to be. It could be the one coming up.

Part of my attitude derives from my natural negativity and fear of death. But some of it stems from my Canadian upbringing. There’s a whole different perspective on medical problems between the United States and Canada. The Canadian view, evolving most likely from British antecedents, is nowhere near as cheery.

There’s a children’s hospital in downtown Toronto, or at least there was. You know what it’s called?

Sick Children’s Hospital.

I know they’re just being honest but come on! Children, holding their parents’ hands, climbing the steps of the hospital, they look up at the sign:

“Sick Children’s Hospital.”

How do you think that makes them feel? How about this:

“Oh, my God! I’m sick!”

Can that really be helpful? Is that really a positive influence on their brain chemistry, which may be the only thing that’s giving them a fighting chance? Sure, the kid knows they’re not doing great, or they wouldn’t be checking into a hospital. Healthy children aren’t doing that. Healthy children are frolicking in playgrounds. But if you’re climbing those steps – already scared – it seems to me the last thing you need to be reminded of is

you’re sick!

America – the Smiley-Face country – has a different approach. What’s the most famous children’s hospital in the country?

City of Hope.

That’s better, isn’t it?

“Sick Children’s.”

“City of Hope.”

Which one would you bet on?

From a medical standpoint, I was raised with a decidedly negative vibe. When I visit the doctor, I am not going with hope.

So here’s the deal. Every few months, I’m required to have a blood test. I take certain medicines, and the doctor needs to know whether those medicines – helpful in controlling my cholesterol and my blood pressure – are destroying my liver. Apparently, they don’t make medicines that help something, which don’t, as a side effect, annihilate something else.

They ought to work on that, don’t you think? A medicine that helps more than it hurts is nice, but we really need to do better. How about a medicine that just helps? Is that too much to ask?

Don’t think I’m being ungrateful. It’s not like I don’t give these medicines credit. I’ve told people on many occasions that I’m currently living on borrowed pills.

When you step into the Waiting Room, you know that every person waiting to see the doctor has a disease. Nobody’s there for a shoeshine. So the first thing you have to do, after signing in, is to decide exactly where you’re going to sit.

I usually sit as far away from everyone else as possible. I’m not a doctor; I can’t tell what people have by looking at them. I mean, the sneezers, people coughing into a hanky – they’re easy. But we’ve all heard about “The Silent Killers.” How are you supposed to tell who’s sitting there with one of those time bombs ticking inside them?

Keeping your distance is just plain common sense. The problem is the people who arrived before me are already occupying those seats. People spread out in a Waiting Room like a basketball team playing “zone.” Nobody’s risking “Man-To-Man.”

This first visit, I won’t be seeing the doctor. Unless he passes by. Then, we’ll wave. What I’m there for today is the blood test, no small concern in itself. The blood test is the indisputable evidence. You may be feeling tip-top. The blood test tells you, “Not so fast.”

The news my doctor will deliver two weeks from now will result from information, in the form of numbers, compiled by a blood technician who may not have ranked at the top of their class. Those numbers are significant only if by “significant” you mean they will determine my entire future.

And then, of course, there’s the featured player in the blood test – the needle. That’s how they get blood out. They can’t wait till you cut your thumb slicing a bagel and then scoop the blood up off the counter. They jab a hole in your arm and they go in and get it.

The blood-taking station at my doctor’s office is an open affair. That means there are several seats side by side, so that a number of people can have their blood drawn at the same time. The consequence of this arrangement is, if you turn your head to avoid seeing the needle being plunged into your arm, you’re looking directly at a person having a needle plunged into their arm.

You know how they say it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your suffering. I’ve never found that to be helpful at all.

There’s one other issue. It’s a little sensitive. At my doctor’s office, there’s one blood taker who, to me, is superior to the others. His name is Lewis. Lewis is a magician with the needle. The Sultan of Syringe. He easily finds a suitable vein, and when he draws your blood, you can barely feel it. It’s like, “I’m done? Really?” Also, there’s no scary-looking weeks-long “after-bruise.”

The problem is sometimes I’m assigned to somebody else. It’s hard for me to say, “Can I wait for Lewis?” I don’t want to hurt the inferior blood-takers’ feelings. Usually, what I hear back is, “Lewis is busy.” Sometimes with a vindictive edge.

“You like Lewis better than me?”

A needle in your arm is painful enough. It doesn’t help when the person administering it is a jealous jabber.

I’ll return to this when my results come in. If you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know they weren’t good.

Sorry. That’s just me being negative.

I can’t help it.

I’m a product of “Sick Children’s Hospital.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Saddle Up - Part Six"

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




CLARA: They called us the ‘Schoolmarm Sisters’.

SARAH: We spent our careers playing schoolmarms.

CLARA: Children and chalk dust. We’re your girls.

SARAH: If they wanted the pretty young thing who brought refinement to the West and a flutter to the hero’s heart, I got the job.

CLARA: And if they wanted the hawk-nosed spinster who terrorized children and sent the sidekicks running screaming into the night, they asked for me.

SARAH: You were ‘The Pill.’

CLARA: And you were the beauty.

SARAH: Not really fair, was it?

CLARA: It’s how it was.

SARAH : We shared an apartment back then. The studio’d call and say, ‘We want the pretty one’ and I’d say, ‘Speaking.’ If it was, ‘We want the witch’, and I’d say, ‘Clara, it’s for you.’

CLARA: Different sisters. Different jobs.

SARAH: It’s funny how a beauty and a crone could have been produced by the same parents.

CLARA: And with totally different personalities.

SARAH: And wouldn’t you know it? They’re exactly opposite to our looks. I’m actually the snippy one.

CLARA: And I’m warm and cuddly. Though I always played the Battle Axe.

SARAH: Because of your looks.

CLARA: And you played the love interest.

SARAH: Because of mine.

CLARA: I still get a call now and then. Sarah’s been retired for years.

SARAH: You know what they say. Beauty fades. But homely goes on forever.

CLARA: I’m still working, Dear.



“In all the westerns I acted in, I never got the Good Guy. Not once. I was better looking than the ‘rancher’s daughter’, my figure – there was no comparison. But no matter how the Good Guy felt about me – and standing close, you could tell he was interested – he always wound up with that stuck-up, little blondie.”

“If there was a Mexican sidekick, maybe I’d end up with him. He wasn’t handsome like the Good Guy. And he rode a smaller horse.”

“To get the job, you just had to be pretty and be able to make the ‘ch’ sound – it comes from your throat – so you could say the word ‘chwhy.’ You know, like

‘Chwhy you come back?’

They wouldn’t let me say, ‘Why did you come back?’ like a normal person. No. That wasn’t ‘speetfire’ enough. It had to be ‘chwhy.’

“‘Chwhy’ did they make me do that!”

I'm kidding. See, you thought I was serious.

We don't talk like that!

“Sometimes, I, I mean, my character would get mad at the Good Guy, because he throws me over for that skinny little nothing, who treated me like her maid, which, okay, I was, but did she have to act so snooty about it?

‘Conchita, would you fetch me my shawl?’

‘Si, senorita.’

It made me sick. ‘Fetch it yourself!’

“I’d get so jealous, I’d do an awful thing. I’d tell the Bad Guy where the Good Guy was going, you know, so they could ambush him. I know that was horrible, but – ay, Chihuahua! – he made me so angry! I mean, he made my character so angry. You see that? After all these years, I still identify with her.”

“After I betray him, I feel terrible. I mean, he treated me like a dog, but, you know, I love him. So I run to warn the Good Guy about the ambush. And what happens when I do that? And I mean in every damn picture?

They shoot me!

“I know why they did that. It made things easier. Now the Good Guy won’t have to choose. In my heart, I know he would have chosen me. I mean, look at her and look at me - are you kidding me? The only reason he didn’t choose me is because I’m dead.

“And because it’s the Fifties. They didn’t mix back then.”

“I’ll tell you something. The script may have said it was the bad guys that killed me. But in my mind, it was always the girl.”



“We filmed in Arizona in the middle of August. Hundred and ten, hundred and twelve. And for me, it was petticoats, petticoats, petticoats. I was just drippin’ – if you’ll pardon my language. And wearin’ that hoop skirt? Well, I couldn’t sit down! They’d have to feed me leanin’ against a cactus.”

“My character’d start out all stand-offish-like. I’d be playin’ the colonel’s new wife, or whatnot, comin’ West to join him at the fort, or wherever, and wouldn’t you know it, our stagecoach’d be attacked by Apaches, or Comanches, or some such.”

“I’d behave like I’m used to better. They’d offer me rattlesnake to eat, and I’d look down my nose and say, ‘I’d rathah stahve.’ But when the battle got goin’, my natural goodness would rise to the fore, and I’d pitch right in, loadin’ rifles, and tendin’ to the wounded.

“Those petticoats came in right handy right there; I’d tear ‘em up and use ‘em for bandages. Wasn’t that clever?”

“I always believed my gradual losin’ of those petticoats had an underlyin’ meanin’, you know? Like I’m droppin’ layers of defenses, separatin’ me from reality. By the end of the movie, I was virtually petticoat-free. Stripped bare, if you will. I’m certain that was symbolic. It’s like I’m sayin’, ‘I’m one of you now. We’re all the same.’

“Do you think that’s true? Or am I readin’ too much into it?”

“Am I really a Southern Belle? Well, let’s see now. Southern Belles are notorious for bein’ single-minded and headstrong and I’d have to plead guilty to that. Southern Belles are also known to be scandalously flirtatious. I don’t rightly know about that one.

“Do you think I’m flirtatious, Mr. Pomerantz?”

Monday, May 12, 2008

"A Provocative Insight About Comedians"

A group of writers, sitting in the commissary, having lunch. The discussion turns to comedians, at which point a smart and respected writer expresses a highly provocative opinion:

“All comedians are conservative.”

To many at the lunch – especially me – those are fighting words. Comedians, conservative? No way! Comedians are firebrand revolutionaries, irreverent challengers of the status quo. Not to mention my personal heroes.

Lenny Bruce, conservative? He railed against censorship. Richard Pryor? He blew the lid off race, as Chris Rock does today. Bill Hicks? George Carlin? Sam Kinison? Conservative? Are you kiddin’ me?

Unlike the Vegas mainstreamers who wore tuxedos and talked about their wives, cutting edge comedians broke down walls, attacking traditional values with dangerous language and incendiary points of view. Even the tuxedo guys weren’t totally toothless. When the airlines lost their luggage, they spoke up.

“Where’s my luggage!”

No. Comedians are the anti-establishment Voices of Truth, angry, courageous and unquestionably ahead of the curve. The writer claiming they’re conservative was totally out to lunch. So to speak. Because we were, y'know…at the time…out to lunch.

A small point there, but, you know, we mustn’t be sloppy.

For years afterwards – I wasn’t that busy – I thought about that discussion and you know what? I came to agree with the smart and respected writer.

Comedians are conservative.

Even the drug users.

Maybe especially the drug users.

You can tell comedians are conservative by what they choose to talk about in their acts. No, that’s wrong. It’s not what they talk about; it’s the underlying reason they talk about it.

The comedian’s richest terrain is the screaming chasm between the way things are supposed to be and the way things actually are. What comedians champion are the principles we were trained to believe in as kids, taught to us by our parents, our teachers, what we read in history books, or the Bible, all, you will notice, powerful reservoirs of traditional values.

Comedians contrast America’s loftiest principles with life as we hypocritically live it.

Comedy’s primary message?

“This country has incredible values. How come we don’t live up to them?”

Your father says he’ll take you to the circus and then backs out. The kid cries,

“But you promised!”

And that’s the ballgame. Where does comedy come from?

It starts with a broken promise.

Lenny Bruce’s spotlighting censorship cried, “Hey, America. First Amendment. Whadaya say?”

“All men are created equal” – Declaration of Independence. Comedians – particularly non-whites and women – base their entire acts on a one-word rebuttal:


Even the old-timers dealt with broken promises.

Old joke:

“My wife told me she wanted to go someplace she’d never been before. So I took her to the kitchen.”

What was Henny saying? He was saying that in traditional marriages, women were expected to cook, and his doesn’t. Since that joke gets a laugh – mostly from men, I imagine – it appears a lot of other wives don’t cook either.

“But you promised!”

Today’s comedy is both different and the same. Identity Politics has multiplied the points of view; the comedic outcome, however, remains constant. Whatever your perspective, you’re inevitably doomed to disappointment.

Two comedians, one female and one male, telling the same story.


“Last night, I fixed my boyfriend dinner. I marinated, I chopped, I diced, and I sautéed. I serve him this magnificent feast. And what does he say?


No ‘Thank you.’ No ‘Great dinner, honey.’ Not. A word. That night, we’re making love, and he’s pulling out all the stops. He’s patient, he’s considerate – I have to look twice to make sure it’s him – he was magnificent. Finally, we finish. You know what I say to him?


End of joke.


“Last night, my girlfriend fixes me dinner. Well, whoop-de-doo. My father got dinner every night. Of course, I can’t say that to her. It would spoil the “treat.”

In fact, whatever I do here, I’m screwed. If I don’t say anything, I’m taking her for granted. If I say, ‘Great dinner, honey’, she won’t hear ‘Great dinner, honey.’ She’ll hear ‘Why don’t you do this more often?’

I can’t win!

I come up with a solution. I’ll show my appreciation in the bedroom. I decide to be the perfect lover. I’m patient, I’m considerate. It’s a top-of-the-line sexual ‘Thank you.’ Finally, we finish. And you know what she says to me?


End of the other version.

What’s going on here?

Dueling Disappointments.

The Double Let-down.

Unmet expectations. It’s the rich fodder for comedians, both sides crying

“But you promised!”

And where do these thwarted expectations evolve from?

Conservative values.

The woman expected appreciation for her cooking; the man expected what his Daddy had.

They both got


The smart and respected writer was right. But also a little wrong. The values comedians champion are conservative. But the insistence they be lived up to, that’s revolutionary. Why?

Because throughout our history,

they never have been.

And they should be.

Whoops? That’s me being conservative.


Two things I’d love to hear from you about:

Thing One: Do you think the smart and respected writer was right? Are comedians essentially conservative?

Thing Two: If self-labeled conservatives believe in traditional values, why don’t they insist they be lived up to?

Friday, May 9, 2008


I like thinking about “firsts”. The first anything. Most “firsts” are trial and error experiments. Some of them are dangerous.

Here’s the report from the first guy who ate mushrooms:

“There are different kinds of mushrooms. Some are good, and some will kill you. I ate the wrong kind, so, goodbye.”

We owe that guy a lot. He’s why we can eat shitakes without flinching.

Everything has a “first.” The “first” gets things started. They tell you, “This is the second one”, you say, “What was the first one?” they say, “There wasn’t one” – no. There’s something wrong. There’s always a “first.”

This, by the way, is also a traditional proof for the existence of God. There had to be a “first” to get us started. What was it? God. What “started” God? Nothing. God's, what they call, the Prime Mover. God starts everything; nothing starts God. Then, someone says, “If you can imagine God not needing to be started, why can’t you imagine something else not needing to be started, like the universe?” and you’re off to the races. A centuries old debate.

I just wanted to throw that in. We’re a full-service blog here.

Okay. This is my first “first.” Hold on to it. It could become a collectible.

The First Wheel

“What’s that you’re rolling?”

“It’s the wheel.”

“The wheel, huh? Why do you call it the wheel?”

“What else would you call it?”

“Fair enough. You’ve been working on that for some time.”

“Years. The original wheel was square. It didn’t work. You rolled it, and it went “ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.”

“Nobody wants that.”

“Totally useless. I was stuck for a long time. Then, I’m falling asleep, and it comes to me. ‘Make it round!’”

“It certainly rolls better.”

“There’s no comparison.”

“So what’s it for?”

“What do you mean?

“What do you use it for?”

“I use it for rolling.”

“For rolling.”

“Sure. You walk along and you roll the wheel beside you.”

“Why would you want to do that?”


“For what purpose?”

“It’s different.”


“How many years have you been walking?”

“Virtually my whole life.”

“And it’s tedious, right? You’re just walking. Well, not anymore. Now you can have a wheel to roll along beside you.”

“I don’t get it. Who needs the wheel?”

“That’s just typical. That’s you. ‘Who needs the wheel?’ ‘Who needs fire?’ How long did you eat raw meat before you finally gave in?”

“Cooked food isn’t better. It’s just warmer.”

“Everyone says it’s better. For you, “It’s just warmer.” You’re very stubborn, you know that?”

“Don’t put this on me. Your wheel doesn’t make sense. Ask anyone, ‘Would you rather just walk or walk along rolling a wheel?’ A normal person says, ‘Who needs the wheel?’”

“Kids love the wheel.”

“So it’s a toy.”

“At present. But the kids are our future. They’ll take the wheel and run with it. So to speak. Remember when our ancestors had the spear? They didn’t throw it. They waited till the animal got close and they stuck it in.”

“Why would you throw a spear? If the animal doesn’t die, it walks away, and you’ve lost spear. Spears don’t grow on trees, you know?

“Actually they do.”

“I was speaking metaphorically.”

“The point is, it took a kid – an ignorant ‘know nothing’ – to defy convention, and throw the spear. If you were honest, you’d admit it’s an improvement, because, as you know, when you’re close enough to stick it with your spear, not infrequently, the animal collapses on top of you.”

“Not necessarily. You stick with the spear, and you get out of the way.”

“Here we go again. Stubborn.”

“I’ve had the same spear for twenty years!”


“You’re changing the subject. When you were coming up with the wheel, what did you imagine was its purpose?”

“Look, I’m the inventor. I gave birth to the wheel. I made it round. That’s two big things. I leave it to others to take it from there.”

“In the meantime, you’ll walk along, rolling your wheel.”

“Proudly. (AFTER A BEAT) You know what I’ve noticed?”


“When I’m rolling my wheel, sometimes it rolls ahead and I have to run after it.”


“So I may not only have invented the wheel. I may also have invented exercise.”


“It’s very aerobic. Would you like to try it?”

“No. (THEN) It’s not like we’re a sedentary people.”

“Terrific. Now he’s knocking exercise.”

“I’m only saying…”

“What is the matter with you? Are you against any kind of progress whatsoever? Is nothing allowed to change? ‘Why do we need to stand erect? What’s wrong with slithering along the ground?’ We have to move forward. That’s who we are. Always forging ahead. Every generation standing on the shoulders of the…”

“Excuse me. Your wheel just rolled down the street.”

Next on “Firsts” – the first guy who tried to sell life insurance. in our nature. Every invention building on the last. Each generation standing on the shoulders of the one before…

“Excuse me. Your wheel’s rolling down the street.”

Next on "Firsts" - the first guy who tried to sell life insurance.