Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Six"

Where do ideas for new television series come from? That’s an easy one. They come from your life. The more difficult question is this: 

What makes that idea suddenly show up?

As a Beatle might say, “D’nno.”

An idea flashes in your mind. Why? Where was that idea yesterday? And what made it jump into your consciousness today? Why not tomorrow? Or next week? Or never?

Is the process like getting sick? Yesterday you were fine; today, you’re in the hospital?

How does that happen?

Maybe it is like getting sick. You have this germ – or in the creative realm a germ of an idea – inside you, it gradually…germinates, and then, when it’s fully formed – in which case, it’s also like pregnancy – it just pops out.

What do you think about that? An idea equals a baby equals a disease. Each displaying your own personal stamp. Except for the disease, which is, like, squirmy, wormy cocci that look the same in all sick people. But the rest of it seems to fit. The germ and the germinating. And the popping out. Three out of four.

The germ, the “gestation period” and out it comes. That’s all I’ve got on that process. (And there’s always the possibility that I’m wrong.)

Though, if I am, how would you account for this example? My first pilot idea, arriving unexpectedly at the start of my new “development” arrangement at Paramount. Watch the process: The Germ, the “gestation period” and (as Larry David would call it) “The Pop-Out.” Not necessarily in that order.

The Germ

When I did Best of the West, my stepdaughter, Rachel, was around eight. And she was a knockout – black hair arranged in pigtails, green eyes and freckles. Asian tourists at Disneyland asked if they could take pictures of her. The All-American Kid. Also clever, easygoing, energetic and playful. And in no way show bizzy. Thank God.

I was preparing an episode in which the “Calico Kid”, played by Christopher Lloyd, had decided to retire from his current profession as a gunfighter, settle down and become a peace officer. The only problem was, becoming a peace office required a minimum of a Third Grade education. (I made that part up.) The “Calico Kid” had no education. To earn his Third Grade Equivalency Certificate (something I also made up), the kill-crazy gunman would have to enroll in school.

A scary-looking gunfighter, sitting in a tiny desk with a classroom full of kids. That was the concept, a hopefully funny one. To fill the other desks, we would obviously need a bunch of “students.” On a whim, I asked Rachel if she’d like to be an “extra” for the filming. She said it sounded like fun. So I put her in the show. No big deal.

Not so fast.

On the night the episode was filmed, there were agents in the audience. After the show, the agents approached Dr. M (who was M at the time). They told her how much they liked Rachel’s “look”, and they handed her their card. Very nice. A “professional” compliment. We figured that was it.

Not so fast again.

A few weeks later, we get a call from the agency. “Would you be open to having Rachel audition for a network TV pilot? Just like that. Rachel – no experience, no training – was suddenly thrown into…who knows what?

From extra to potential series regular. Bing-bang-boom.

End of story, Rachel auditioned for the pilot, but she didn’t get the part. But she very easily could have. She didn’t seem too disappointed. Her Mom called it an “adventure.” I viewed it as dodging a bullet. Kids working in show business? Replace “show business” with “coal mines”, and you’ve got my take on the situation. It’s exploitation without the “being buried alive” part.

What Popped Out

An idea for a television show. Though I changed things a little. I mean, “Executive Producer’s kid ends up in a series, that’s Tori Spelling; I wasn’t interested in that. The rich get richer? Not my favorite fairy tale.

I invented a story about a young boy growing up in Indiana, who “just for fun” agrees to sign on as an “extra” in a major motion picture, being shot “on location” in hi sown hometown. The movie’s casting director senses potential and encourages the boy’s mother to bring him to Los Angeles during “pilot season.”

(This actually happens all the time. Every year, parents pull their often entirely inexperienced children out of school, and transplant them to Hollywood, for like a month, in hopes of their kids, against enormous odds, will land roles in upcoming new series.)

In my version, called Big Shot, the kid actually gets the job.

Let’s break this down. “From ‘extra’ to series regular”? That came from what almost happened to Rachel. Call that Element Number One. Element Number Two? “Indiana” came from our having a cabin in Indiana, a locale that is, by its nature, diametrically opposite to Hollywood.

Element Number Three? Not long ago, I wrote about Dr. M’s being upset that, in another Best of the West episode, I had required a young actor to participate in an activity – adult-style kissing – that was inappropriate to his age. Presto! The essence of the series – “insider necessities” clashing with “insider common sense.” Throw in my prejudice against children working in show business as a point of view, and the components for a viable TV series were all in place.

When those elements, drawn from experience and fueled by a focused and passionate perspective, finally congealed in my head, the idea popped right out.

The Gestation Period?

Fifteen years.

But it happened.

How do you make it happen faster?

You’re asking the wrong guy.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"A Dog Story"

I have two dogs. One’s made of metal and the other’s made of stone. The dog made of stone, which we’ve had for years, sits in our garden, beside a turtle, which is also made of stone, but it’s painted green. The stone dog is just stone-colored. I think he’s shaped to look like a basset hound. I have never given him a name.

The dog made of metal, which I’ve owned only a few months, is an indoor dog.

Indoor dogs, you give names to. I named mine Mickey. Mickey stands by my chair. I pet him as I watch TV.

Mickey’s a skinny dog of uncertain lineage, white with brown spots, an alert stance and a tail curling permanently in the air. Mickey’s very smooth, now even more so, because of the petting.

That is my entire history with dogs.


Last weekend, we were eating at our favorite restaurant, called Pizzicotto. I have never had a bad meal there. Everything is fresh and delicious.

Pizzicotto is owned by two Italian sisters. When they run out of ideas for new soups and “specials”, they call relatives in Italy for suggestions. You can’t get those amazing dishes anywhere else. I guess other restaurants don’t know those relatives.  And the relatives they know don’t cook as well.  It's also possible they don't know anybody in Italy.

My seat that day gives me a view of the street. There are a few tables set up outside. It’s a nice day, and people are eating at them.

Suddenly, something unusual happens. Police arrive, and they handcuff a man who was eating outside. They then walk him away from the restaurant window, so we can’t see them anymore.

What we can see is the man’s dog. A skinny, young-looking, white dog, tied by his leash to a parking meter pole directly in front of me.

The dog is going nuts.

His master has just been carted away, and he’s really upset. Maybe he’s concerned for the master – I don’t know how dogs think – but I do know he’s alone. An abandoned, frightened puppy.

The dog tugs furiously at his leash. His eyes look terrified. His tail’s whipping around a mile a minute. His mouth opens plaintively. But he doesn’t bark.

A waiter from the restaurant, who apparently knows the arrested man, goes out to try and calm the dog down. He carries out some water, sloshing in a metal take-out container. The dog refuses to calm down. And he doesn’t drink the water.

The waiter re-enters the restaurant, saying he’s going to call someone he thinks will take care of the dog while the police situation is worked out. Meanwhile, the dog continues yanking at his leash and behaving upset.

To my surprise, I’m getting upset too.

Passersby are stopping to try and comfort the dog, but the dog pays no attention to them. They then continue on their way.

I decide that I want to go out there. Dr. M, a regular viewer of The Dog Whisperer, dispenses some tips. Ease into it. Establish contact in stages. Then sit down beside the dog, and gradually take control.

I give it a shot. Following instructions, I feign disinterest. Then I slowly back up towards the dog. The dog comes over. I wait. No eye contact. Finally, I say hello. Slowly, we begin to connect. I sit down on the sidewalk. I start petting the dog.

The dog calms down.

A woman passes by, inquires what’s going on. I tell her the story. Police took the dog’s owner away, and left the dog behind. “That’s a terrible story,” she says angrily. “It’s ruined my entire day.” And then she goes off.

A young policewoman returns to find out what plans have been made for the dog.

Her gun is holstered not on her side, but in front, the way Bat Masterson wore his gun on television. I ask her what will happen if nobody comes from the dog.

“He’ll be taken to the pound,” she replies courteously. “If there’s no problem, he can be picked up from there in three or four days.”

What if there is a problem? I don’t ask that, but I think it. When I’m concerned by what the answer might be, I rarely ask the question out loud. The possibilities are too painful.

Finally, it’s time for me to go. I say good-bye to the dog, and get up from the pavement. There’s a reassurance from the waiter that the dog won’t have to go to the pound. A friend of the owner’s has agreed to pick him up after work. I let the matter go. As the Lone Ranger used to say, “My job here is done.”

I go home. But remain worried.

You never have to worry about dogs made of metal or dogs made of stone.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"The Stories of Our Lives"

Michael Jackson – pop icon.  Michael Jackson – child molester.

Two stories snapshotting the same guy. Each story has evidence to back it up. One is true to a certainty. He was a pop icon. The other story’s backed by strong suspicions, which is enough to make it true to the people who believe it.

Stories are all around us. This weekend, we have houseguests. Their stories are visiting.

A selected sampling (in no way comprising the entire picture):

The wife expressed concerns about government-run health care with a story whose message was: “If it costs less money to chop your leg off than fix it, they’ll chop your leg off.” That’s a powerful story. If the woman believes that story – or has strong suspicions in that direction – it will be difficult winning her over to government-run health care. There’s that chopped-off leg story to overcome.

The husband is a Personal Injury attorney. He knows about the Power of the Story. His job is to tell the jury a story that will persuade them that his client has been wrongfully damaged. His opponents will tell the jury a different story, a story that will persuade them their client is not responsible for that damage. The outcome of the case will be determined by which story the jury finds more persuasive.

The truth of the situation? It’s not really an issue. All that matters is what the jury believes is true. And what fuels the belief that causes them to be swayed by one story more than by the other one? I’d give a big vote to personal experience.

“The government never sent me my tax refund.”

How’s that person going to feel about government-run health care? The folks who never sent him his tax refund responsible for administering questions of life and death? No, thank you. Maybe the unsent tax refund only happened once, but to the person it happened to, that’s all the evidence they need.

“The hospital gave my cousin the wrong medicine and he died.”

Someone’s suing a hospital for negligence. That guy’s on the jury. Is there any question which way they’re going to vote?”

The memory of past experiences gives us evidence for our current beliefs. But we don’t remember everything. We assume that’s because our brain isn’t big enough. But maybe that’s not the reason. It seems like there’s a selection process going on. But what is it?

What makes us remember what we remember, and forget what we forget?

I’m jumping ahead to something I think I know. Once our belief about an issue becomes set, whether it’s about some thing – Kate Hudson movies – or someone – our spouse – or some group of people – “Them” – or some institution – “the guh’mint” – we then tend to retain in our memory only those examples that support that belief.

As the supporting examples mount up, our belief grows progressively more unswerving. Before you know it, it becomes an “always”, as in “The news media always distorts the facts” or “‘Jerk-face’ always leaves in underpants on the floor.” For that particular believer, it truly is an “always”, owing to their having filtered out all memories of when the media was on the money and the underpants were in the hamper.

But that’s down the line. That’s after the belief has already been established. What I don’t know is the reason for the original step. How does your belief become your belief in the first place? It’s not inevitable. Consider this:

You’re a little kid. It’s the first time this happens to you:

You fall down, your parents let it pass, you get back up. What do you remember from that experience – your own resilience, or your parents’ “neglect”? And – the important question – what led you to make one selection over the other? The question is important because whichever “lesson learned” you absorb will color your experiences for the rest of your life.

My hunch is the explanation lies in the genetic sphere. But I really don’t know.

What do I know? I know some unclear-to-me process determines what we choose to remember, and what we remember justifies our beliefs. Those beliefs then go on to motivate our actions, and reveal themselves though our stories.

I think about these things. It’s my world. I tell stories every day.

I wonder why I remember some stories and not others. I wonder about my story selection process And I wonder why I tell the stories the way I tell them.

This is important to me. I’m exposing these stories to the public. What exactly are they saying about me?

What do your stories say about you?
The "scheduling" function on my blog doesn't seem to work anymore, so I can't write stuff one day, and schedule to publish it another day.  I now have to publish manually.  To give you something fresh to read in the morning, I will have to publish the night before.  I don't know why any of this should be of interest to you.  I just thought I'd pass it alone. 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Report From Hell - One of a Series"

It happens to everybody. Today was my turn.


For a number of years, we’ve been signed up with a low-priced, long-distance service called Telecom USA. Really liked it. No basic fee. Pennies a minute to call England and Canada. I have family in Canada, and Anna spent her “Junior Abroad” year in London. Telecom USA has been extremely useful. For “useful”, read “cheap.”

They liked me at Telecom USA. I could tell. Every few weeks, this cheery-voiced young woman – she was automated, but cheery-voiced nonetheless – she’d call me, and thank me for using Telecom USA. And I’d say, “You’re welcome.” I am unfailingly polite to the automated.


June the tenth, I receive my most recent bill from Telecom USA – five dollars and forty-three cents. The bill is not due till July the first. I’ve got three weeks to pay it. I set the bill aside.

Three days later, on June the thirteenth, I’m surprised with another letter from Telecom USA. I open the envelope and take out the letter, wondering what it could be. It turns out it’s not good.

On the top of the letter, stamped, bold and in “caps”, are the words: FINAL NOTICE. This already seems odd, since I had never received any previous notices. The letter makes it sound like I’ve been holding out on them. It’s an admitted flaw of mine. I do not respond well to unwarranted accusations of wrongdoing.

I read the FINAL NOTICE letter.

Dear Telecom USA Customer:
Your cancelled Telecom USA account has an outstanding balance.

I immediately get angry. I know I’m going to have to call these people, and if you’re a regular reader, you’re aware how uncomfortable I am on the telephone. Especially talking to strangers. This would definitely include strangers who see me as a deadbeat.

I’m a Good Boy. I pay all of my bills on time. When I go on vacation, I pay them early. How dare they FINAL NOTICE me!

Why am I going to have to call these people? Because there are two mistakes in the letter’s first sentence. As far as I knew, my Telecom USA account had not been cancelled. And there was, I was certain, no “outstanding balance.” I only recently received my last bill. And the payment wasn’t due for three weeks.

I’m a busy man. I have blog posts to write. I can’t waste my valuable time dealing with people sending me erroneous FINAL NOTICE letters. On the other hand, I can’t have a cancelled long-distance service. What if I have to call long distance?

I have no choice. I pick up the phone. And I call the number provided in the letter.


I wade through half a dozen cycles of “series of options” instructions, till I finally get to a person.

“Customer Service.”

They were unaware they were being ironic. Unless they’re the same guys who called Fox News “Fair and Balanced.”

With patience mixed with indignation, I inform “Customer Service” that I have no “outstanding balance”, and demand that he explain to me why my Telecom USA account has been cancelled. “Customer Service” tells me that, before he can help me, I have to call the “Collection Department” and speak with them.

I (reluctantly) call the “Collection Department.” (That’s where the deadbeats call.) But because I want the process to move forward, I do. There I encounter the only sweetheart in the entire operation. Her name is Cecilia. Cecilia senses from my urgency that I’m on a rampage. (Before the call, I had instructed myself to stay calm. I “lost it” in about thirty seconds.) Working in the “Collection Department”, Cecilia deals with “unpaid balance” people all the time. Her experience tells her I’m not one of them. Her trust in me turns down the flame.

Cecilia, who’s based in St. Louis, volunteers to guide me through my ordeal, an ordeal that involves speaking with people from around the world, some of whom speak so quietly, I can barely make out what they’re saying. “They’re not as outspoken as we are over here,” explains Cecilia.

The problem was this. It’s a circle. The first “Customer Service” assistant Cecilia transferred me to explained that he was unable unblock my service until a “Customer Service” assistant in another department reactivated my account. When I was transferred to that department, however, the assistant there referred me to the department where they unblock the service. Cecilia immediately jumped to my defence.

“We’ve already been there.”

It was a heroic effort. And heartily appreciated. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. For the next half hour, I was ping-ponged between the department where people told me I needed my account reinstated and the department where people refused to reinstate it. After three round trips, leaving me exactly where I had started, Cecilia offered some sensible advice.

“If I were you, Earl, I would give up.”

I thanked Cecilia for her help and her company, and unhappily took her advice. But not before being informed by the last “Customer Service” assistant I spoke to that Telecom USA had recently been sold by MCI to Verizon. I was then asked if I was interested in signing up for a new long-distance service with Verizon.


I hung up. After allowing myself some “seething time”, I called AT&T and signed up for a long-distance service with them. The rates are higher. I’m going to miss those automated “Thank you’s.” And I’ll probably never get to talk to Cecilia again. But what are you going to do?

When I’m on my deathbed, the thing I’ll regret the most will be the time I lost getting the runaround from Telecom USA. Well, maybe not the most, but it’ll be up there.


Twenty minutes later, the phone rings. It’s Verizon, with a follow-up (automated) survey, inviting me to rate my experience with their company.

“We see that you recently called us about some problem. We’d like to know how we did.”

The survey included a series of multiple-choice questions, and ended with an opportunity for an extended verbal report. I simply told them what happened. Based on the grade I gave them, if Verizon were a student, they would now be attending remedial summer school.

A three-word summary?

“I hate you!”

Okay. I’ve vented.

Now how about you?


My blog stopped working the way it normally works. I've been here all the time, apparently blogging to myself. Sorry for the inconvenience. We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.
My dictionary defines “criticism”, as, first, “an act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” The second definition of “criticism” is, “an act of passing severe judgment; censure.” In the third definition, they don’t bother judging at all; they just kill you. Or at least that’s how it feels. Am I tipping my hand in this matter?

“Criticism”, generically, means “passing judgment.” It could be positive; it could be negative. But that’s not how the term is generally applied. When you say about someone, “They have a problem with criticism”, this rarely means they have a problem hearing the words, “That was really great.” I mean, that’s possible, but if you do have a problem hearing the words, “That was really great”, it’s unlikely to compare with the problem you have hearing the words, “That was so bad, it should be a crime for that person to attempt anything like that ever again. Preferably a capital crime.”

I personally find negative criticism numbing, and demoralizing, and at its worst, creatively immobilizing. It’s hard doing this stuff, and “hard” rises to “impossible” when it’s publicly asserted that you stink at it.

Sensitive to my sensitivity, Dr. M delivered the L.A. Times review of Best of the West in the form of a newsprint doily, having carefully cut out all the critical parts, so what I’d end up reading was an entirely positive review. With a number of holes in it.

All this comes to mind because yesterday, I found myself being highly critical of The Hangover, a new movie comedy I barely chuckled at. The Hangover will survive my condemnation. Last weekend, it took in another 26.9 million dollars at the box office, bringing its current total to a hundred and fifty-two point nine million, on its way to a projected take of two hundred million dollars, or more. But surviving my criticism is not the point. I spoke harshly of other people’s work. And it didn’t feel good.

(My first draft version read, “I spoke angrily about other people’s work.” That was a “giveaway” of my actual feelings, so I covered it up, by changing “angrily” to “harshly.” I am now giving away the “giveaway.” I was angry at The Hangover. Not only was it not particularly well done, in my view, but it reflected the type of comedy that put another type of comedy – the carefully observed comedy of everyday life – and the people who write it – including myself – out of business. That’s enough to make you angry, don’t you think?)

It’s also enough to distort your critical judgment. This is something I have frequently noticed about critics. Very often, critics seem to be speaking less about the thing they’re reviewing than they are about themselves. I’m sure it’s not easy separating the two, but you have to try. Otherwise, the reader will be learning more about the critic than the thing they’re criticizing. And that’s not what reviews are supposed to be about.

“Did he like that ‘restaurant’ movie?”

“I’m not sure. But I think somebody once gave him a bad table.”

I really don’t care about that.

I’ve heard people say, “Critical notices are very helpful. They point to what I should try and do better in the future.” These people are usually English, and they’re almost always lying. Trust me. Negative criticism is a dart to the heart. It’s almost impossible to think otherwise.

“It wasn’t you they were criticizing. It was your performance.”

“And who delivered that performance?”

“You did.”

“Thank you. And shut up.”

Okay, criticism hurts. Point taken. But what are you going to do? You come out of a movie you hated, you say, “That really sucked.” Fine. Everyone has a right to their opinion. This is America (and Canada). That’s how it works. (Though less so in Canada.) Still, there’s one thing, I think, that’s important to keep in mind.

The people who made the movie you hated accomplished something bordering on the miraculous. Those people had an idea, they sold it, and then proceeded endure all the struggles required to see that movie through to the end. If you’ve ever participated in such an enterprise, you realize what an enormous accomplishment that is. Just getting it done is a monumental achievement. Getting it done well? The odds against it are astronomical.

On top of that, if the movie turns out to be a commercial success, you may not understand why, but you have to allow that there’s something there, some accidental or otherwise confluence of who-knows-what that struck a nerve with the ticket-buying public. You may hate how they did it, but it’s unquestionable that they connected. In my books, that accomplishment merits an acknowledging tip of the hat.

I tip my hat to The Hangover. My criticism, however, remains. With apologizes for the overkill.

There are a number of challenging issues relating to criticism. Can a reviewer corral their personal prejudices enough to truthfully respond to the material in front of them? Is there an ideal of perfection against which a work can be judged, or are there just different equally worthy approaches to the same end? On a non-professional level, does a lack of expertise, or an excess of expertise – I have a story about that – cast doubt on the validity of someone’s opinion? Important questions, all worthy of exploration.

But they’ll have to wait.

I’m going swimming.
Correction: Okay, so the door to the roof was locked. The guy still had enough energy to move around a mattress. Did he not have the strength to call down, “I’m on the roof”?

Monday, June 22, 2009

"What Does It Mean To Be Old-Fashioned?"

Take a blank piece of paper. Using a hole-punch, randomly punch an indeterminate number of holes in that paper. Let that piece of paper with the indeterminate number of holes in it represent your sense of humor. Or, more specifically, mine. The sense of humor of a person above a certain age, let’s say, over fifty.

Now, take that piece of paper with the indeterminate number of holes punched in it, and place it directly over another a piece of paper, whose indeterminate number of holes represent the sense of humor of a person who’s under thirty.

Look down at the pieces of paper, one piece of paper sitting directly over the other. What do you notice?

You notice that few to none of the holes on those two pieces of paper

match up.

That’s what it means to be old-fashioned.

The reason for this morning’s moaning? I went to see The Hangover. The Hangover, a surprise hit comedy – it’s projected to gross over two hundred million in domestic revenues – is scoring mightily with audiences, particularly with the dearly coveted younger demographic. People really seem to like The Hangover. And they’re recommending it enthusiastically to their friends.

After seeing it, I have no idea why.

I wanted to see what the fuss was about. If you’re a “comedy guy”, you want to know what’s going on. It had been a while since I’d had had any movies ideas of my own. Who knows? Maybe The Hangover would inspire me. Maybe my comic instincts would pick up on what they’re going for, and trigger some internal response like,

“I ‘get’ what they’re doing. And you know what? I think I could come up with something that’s very much along those lines.”

It didn’t happen.

Virtually nothing in The Hangover made me laugh. Once, near the beginning, a child-like (and by default the movie’s most appealing) character took off his pants, unexpectedly revealing some jockstrappy type underwear and casually exposing his pale, flabby butt. I cracked a smile at that. Turns out, that “butt moment” would be the highpoint of my enjoyment.

Time now for my “I’m not entirely out of it” disclaimer paragraph. I nearly fell out of my seat laughing watching the first South Park movie (in spite of their making horribly unfair fun of Canadians). I’m a fan of the Judd Apatow oeuvre, cracking up at substantial chunks of Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Though I’d be hard pressed to produce my own version of such movies, and though I wasn’t always crazy about the storytelling, I at least understood what they were going for. And sometimes, they surprised me, their finest moments totally exceeding my expectations.

By contrast, The Hangover seemed recycled, carelessly constructed and lame.

There’s a tiger in the bathroom.

The movie audience’s reaction.

Big laugh.

My reaction?

“That’s a nice-looking tiger.”

One of the leading characters discovers he’s missing a tooth.

The movie audience’s reaction?

Huge laugh.

My reaction?

“That looks like actual blood.”

The missing groom-to-be, whose disappearance propels the storyline, is finally found sitting on the roof of their hotel in a drugged-out stupor.

The movie audience’s reaction?

A palpable sense of relief.

My reaction?

“There’s nobody keeping him there. Why didn’t he just come down?”

And if you say, “Because he’s in a drugged-out stupor”, I’d say,

“The other guys took the same drugs. How come they recovered from them and he didn’t?”

I will not bore you with any more of my quibbles.

Except for the naked, Asian quasi-gangsterish gay guy whose high-pitched squealings generate not a single moment of hilarity.

And the pristine silver Mercedes you’re waiting to see get trashed, and when it finally is, the moment is neither surprising nor laugh inducing. (Nor is there any response from the Mercedes’ passionately possessive owner when they bring the messed-up car home.)

And the least memorable Vegas quickie wedding chapel scene0 I have ever seen in movies. Or TV.

And the dufus who suddenly morphs into a card-counting winner at the blackjack table.

And the teacher who absconds with his students’ field trip money with no consequences whatsoever.

And Mike Tyson showing up and being sweet but not at all humorous.

And an “out of the blue” black guy, and a good-hearted stripper, and a ball-busting fiancĂ©e whose portrayal is so excruciatingly over the top…

Did I mention the film was projected to gross over two hundred million dollars?

Is The Hangover malicious? No. Is it mean-spirited? No. Is it gross, crude or tasteless? I don’t care about that, but no, it isn’t particularly at all. It’s benign and it’s harmless.

And it’s not at all funny.

To me.

What am I missing? Why didn’t I get one laugh in the entire…however long it was, and it felt considerably longer? What exactly is my problem with this hot, new comedy sensation? The explanation is very simple.

My holes are in the wrong place.

Friday, June 19, 2009


You know how it works. An entertainer completes whatever they had planned for their concert, and at the end of the show, they ask the audience for requests. Audience members shout out suggestions, and the entertainer performs them.

I never shout requests. It’s an ironclad rule. Just like, when a magician asks for a volunteer, I never raise my hand. Other people shout requests, volunteer to be sawed in half, that’s their style. I sit quietly in my seat. Why take chances? Chances of what? I don’t know. I just don’t take them.


It’s back in the seventies. I’m on a date. Not a first date, it was more like our third. Things were moving ahead. There was a possibility something could happen.

The plan was dinner and a show, the show being a concert featuring my far-and-away favorite singer-songwriter, Randy Newman, who was appearing at a Toronto coffee house called Grumbles. My date was enthusiastic. It looked like clear sailing.

Dinner was fine. We head off to Grumbles. Randy Newman’s opening act was Jim Croce, which was funny, because, at the time, Croce had three songs in Billboard’s Top Ten, and, as Randy sardonically declared later, his most popular tune ranked “a hundred and forty-ninth.”

The show’s going great, Randy gliding through his repertoire. “Cowboy.” “I Think It’s Going to Rain (Today)." “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.” (This was before “Short People”, “Rednecks” and “I Love L.A.”) I’m eatin’ it up. My date’s happy. Everything’s going perfectly.

Randy finishes his show. He gets up from the piano, walks offstage – applause-applause-applause – back he comes for the “encores.”

“Anything you wanna hear?” he inquires, to a rapt and adoring audience.

Okay. This was my time, my moment to shine. Nobody knows the Randy Newman oeuvre better than I do. Tonight, I would break my ironclad rule. I would shout out an inspired and unexpected request. Randy would smile subtly at my suggestion, and perform the heck out of it. The audience would go wild. And then buzz.

“I’ve never even heard of that song. That guy who requested it? He must be really special.”

My date couldn’t help but be impressed. There was a possibility something could happen? Well, this could…well, whatever.

What flashed in my mind was the deeply moving though lesser known “Old Man”, which Randy had neglected to perform that night. “Old Man” chronicles a son’s efforts to connect with his dying father. It is brilliant, simple, and sad. Everything I like in a song.

“Everyone has gone away

Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

No one cared enough to stay

Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

You must remember me, Old Man,

I know that you can if you try

So just open up your eyes, Old Man,

Look who’s come to say ‘Good-bye.’”

Randy had barely gotten out “Anything you wanna hear?” when a voice I recognized as my own, though it was speaking with an uncharacteristic authority, called out,

“Old Man!”

Randy heard my request – he couldn’t help it; it blasted noisily over all the others – and he politely replied,


He then went on to play the suggestions requested by everybody else.

My confidence, and the rest of the evening, spiraled downhill from there.


Years later in L.A., I was at a party whose guests included Lorne Michaels. At the time, Lorne was writing The Three Amigos with Steve Martin and Randy Newman. (The party was at Steve’s house.) Randy Newman was also in attendance.

I asked Lorne to introduce us. He did. After telling Randy what a huge fan I was, I immediately followed with, “You ruined my date.” Such behavior is probably why I’m rarely invited to any parties.

Randy remembered playing Grumbles. I filled him in on the part that was more memorable to me, the part where he refused to perform my request.

“What was the song?” he asked.

“Old Man”, I replied, adding, to compound the inexplicability of his transgression: “It’s a really good song.”

Randy agreed. He then went on to explain why he couldn’t perform it. “Old Man” was too big of a “downer” for the audience.

“I could never get them back.”

It was a totally credible explanation, and I immediately accepted it.

Realistically, the slight, now more than three decades old, had never been deliberate. Hearing my story, Randy Newman had been gracious, sensitive and kind. Isn’t it long past time to bury the hatchet and forget the whole thing?

You would think so, wouldn’t you.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Why Some Episodes Play Better On Television Than They Did In Front Of A Live Studio Audience, And Vice Versa"

Meaning, “Why Some Episodes Play Less Well On Television Than They Did In Front Of A Live Studio Audience.” Maybe that’s not “vice versa”, maybe that’s the converse. Or the obverse. I don’t know. Can I just get started here? Thank you.

I’ll do the second one first:

Why Some Episodes Play Less Well On Television Than They Did In Front Of A Live Studio Audience:

You had a magical “show night” – “show night” being the night you film the episode in front of the audience. Everything worked. The audience went nuts. The jokes got huge laughs, and the moments you hoped would be funny were ecstatically “through the roof.”

Everyone’s delighted. Executives are actually smiling at writers. The show runners are riding such a euphoric high, they don’t even bother with drugs. That’s how well it went.

Two weeks later, you watch the episode on television.

And it’s just…not there.

It’s a very strange experience. An episode that seemed “better than perfect” on “show night” comes off stunningly disappointing. Most painfully, those “through the roof” comedy moments are now considerably less funny, confusing viewers at home, the laughter recorded from the “live” studio audience appearing bewilderingly unearned.

“Why are they laughing so hard? It’s not that funny.”

This leads to the suspicion that an enhancing “laugh track” must have been involved.

The show’s participants feel demoralized and perplexed. Where did the “funny” go? Where’s the excitement? What happened to that exhilarating “show night” they’d celebrated with such satisfaction and pride?

Had they somehow been mistaken? Was the episode not as good as they thought it was? Were those explosions of laughter some desperate form of “ear hypnosis”? They wanted to hear them so they did?


At least, not usually. (And what the heck is “ear hypnosis”?)

I will now try to explain this phenomenon.

Starting with this.

Before Conan, there was Jay, and before Jay, there was Johnny. Johnny hosted The Tonight Show, accompanied by a chortling sidekick, and a kick-ass jazz band, fronted by “Doc” Severinsen.

Anyone who watched back then will remember this. “Doc’s” band would entertain The Tonight Show’s studio audience during commercial breaks, the viewing audience hearing only the end of their performance, as the break segued back into the show. When the music ended, Johnny shouted, “How ‘bout that band!” – it became almost a clichĂ© – and the audience would roar their approval.

You’d sit there at home and wonder, “Why are they cheering so hard? They weren’t that good.”

The thing is, they were.

Why didn’t you feel it at home?

Because you had to be there.

(I attended The Tonight Show once; that’s how I know. The band was an energizing delight. But you had to be there. Minus the adrenaline-pumping sensation of “being at The Tonight Show”, and stuck with substandard television speakers, you didn’t come close to that electrifying experience watching at home.)

Same thing with the “show night” episode.

“Being there” makes all the difference. Sharing the same space, breathing the same oxygen, with gifted performers right in front of you, dazzling you with delight? There’s nothing else like it. (I’ve got to write about the “theater experience” some day.)

I personally enjoyed a handful of such unforgettable moments, moments when the audience exploded over something I’d written. One of them occurred on Best of the West, when we did a “runner” – you do the same set-up three times, the third time ending in a hopefully hilarious twist. The “runner” was called, “The Milk Trick.”

“The Milk Trick” is primarily a physical “bit”, and it would take a better writer than myself to do it justice on paper. I will only say that on “show night”, “The Milk Trick” could not have worked better. On television? Still good. But not even close.

In certain ways, a magical “show night” can actually make a successful finished product less likely.

Here’s how.

A broadcast episode has an invariable, network-mandated length. You get prolonged laughs on “show night”, and the episode stretches. I’ve known episodes that were close to a third too long. These episodes then had to be edited down to “time.”

This involves some tricky decisions. It’s only natural to want to hold onto the episode’s funniest moments. But a lot of times they’re peripheral to the plot.

What then do you cut? You cut, or at least cut down, the exposition and the continuity. Also at risk are the underpinnings that set the comedy up. What happens then? Duh. The funny parts, less carefully prepared for, are no longer as funny.

“Editing for time” also hinders the natural flow of the storytelling. Struggling to retain the comedic highpoints, the episode can evolve into a compilation of “greatest hits”, becoming choppy, and losing its shape. An episode once deemed “better than perfect” can, when finished, feel disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying.

On the other hand, episodes, lacking those time-stretching “big laughs”, tend to play more smoothly in your house (and better than they did in front a perhaps attentive but less vocal studio audience.) Though admittedly less hilarious, there’s something rewarding about a story that takes time to connect the necessary story dots, from its premise, through its complications, to its natural, though hopefully surprising, resolution. Consciously or unconsciously, it’s an ultimately happier experience.

Are there episodes that play spectacularly both before the studio audience and on the air? Absolutely. Are there episodes that play badly in front of an audience as equally as badly at home? Sadly, yes. Could I just be making excuses, ‘cause I’m a better story structurer than a joke writer? There’s always that.

But the situation described happens often enough that I thought it was worth examining.

I wish you had been there that night. “The Milk Trick”, in front of an audience?

“Through the roof.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Five B"

Universal Studios is constructed of steel and glass. Paramount’s made out of stucco and soot.

Not counting the famous tour showcasing its back lot, Universal has the appearance of a generic corporate headquarters, its flagship building, the Black Tower, could easily house a national insurance company. Paramount, from its iconic logo at its front entrance, was nothing but a studio.

An old studio.

It seemed a little run down. Unlike Universal’s expansive valley locale, Paramount’s nestled in the borderline seedy section of Hollywood. Behind its northernmost boundary was a cemetery. To me, this is never an auspicious omen.

Paramount’s offices were small. For mine, they had taken two adjoining little square boxes, and knocked down the separating wall, creating an office space that was twice as long as it was wide. I’m a claustrophobic. It wasn’t like the walls were closing in on me. They were already closed when I got there.

Going by its design pattern, its threadbare condition and its overall filth, the hallway carpeting gave the appearance of having been laid in 1932. A couple of years after I arrived, resulting, I believe, from tenants’ complaints, the carpeting was pulled up and replaced. What they proceeded to lay down was a cleaner, thicker-piled version of the exact same carpeting. I guess carpeting was dirt cheap during 1932 and the studio had purchased a ton of it.

I won’t talk about the bathrooms, except to say that the inside of the Men’s Room stalls were illustrated in a school of art best described as Moron Pornography. Universal’s taste ran more to hunters on horseback going after a fox.

(One thing both the Universal and Paramount lots had in common were unexpected fires. I’d look out my window and suddenly in the distance – but not far in the distance – I’d see giant flames shooting into the sky. I was nervous about these fires, until someone informed me that this was the simply the studio’s way of disposing of unwanted inventory, collecting the insurance, and adding much-needed parking areas to the facility. There was the clear impression that these fires were deliberately (and professionally) set.

I found it cynical to believe that was true, though it was curious that the fires always abated at a point entirely consistent the studio’s purposes. There was, like, this predictable line where the fires would inevitably come under control. And it happened every time. Then, after the cleanup, many of us would be relocated to “new parking area.” Eventually, you got used to the fires. I’d see flames out the window, and go back to writing comedy.)

I had worked at Paramount before. I had done Taxi, The Associates, Best of the West and Cheers there. The place held happy memories for me. And yet, returning to these shabby surroundings after the suburban sunniness of Universal, it couldn’t help but feel like downsizing. A substantial cut in pay did nothing to deter that impression.

A good drama writer I know named Steve characterized a writer nearing the end of their career as “running out the clock.” For some reason, I didn’t feel that way. Though I have never been perceived as a positive person – an oblivious person, but never a positive one – when I returned to Paramount, I felt genuinely hopeful.

At that point, the business had not yet turned its back on experienced writers, nor on the multi-camera comedy form I was comfortable with. I was still in the ballpark.

I felt like I still had shows in me. And so did the Paramount people who were paying me. It was simply a matter of sitting down in my long, narrow office and figuring out what they were.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Five"

I had spent eight-plus years at Universal. It was there I enjoyed my greatest commercial success (Major Dad) and the biggest office I would ever inhabit. Universal was also the location of the longest contract of my career – four years.

My eight-plus year stay at Universal was comprised of three consecutive deals: the first one lasted two years and four months, the second one, two years, and my final contract – a reward for having a hit show on television – lasted a, for me, record-breaking four. I mention this to give you a measuring stick for show business job security. A two-year contract was forever. Earlier in my career, my jobs lasted four weeks.

It’s funny about these, what they call, “overall” deals. “Overall” or “Development” deals are agreements between a major studio or production entity and a writer considered to be a “desirable talent.” You became a “desirable talent” because of your association with hit show. I was considered a “desirable talent” because of my connection with the MTM shows, Taxi and, particularly, The Cosby Show.

(Someone looking for a topic for a “media” dissertation might want to chart precisely how many “overall” deals actually paid off with successful new series. Scarily few, by my casual calculation. It turns out, writing for Seinfeld doesn’t make you Larry David.)

During an “overall” deal, the studio or production entity pays the “desirable talent” a negotiated sum (generally a substantial sum), delivered in the form of a weekly paycheck, in exchange for the “desirable talent’s” developing new television series exclusively for them, meaning the “desirable talent’s” not permitted to work anywhere else. (In a way, the payment also serves to take the “desirable talent” off the market.)

“Overall” deals are really attractive. To agents. It’s an easy payday. You sign your client to an extended contract, and you don’t have to worry about getting them work, or where your next commission is coming from, or even speak to that client for a couple of years.

It’s as if when a client’s signed to an “overall” deal, the agent’s signed to one too. The agent makes a handful of these deals, and they can leave town for a couple of years. Nobody’d know the difference.

For the writer, however, it’s a little trickier. I imagine not all writers feel this way, but for me, agreeing to an “overall” deal was like signing away my independence. Throughout my whole career, which, to that point, had spanned almost fifteen years, I’d been a total free agent. I could work anywhere I wanted, offering my services to any project that interested me. I was entirely my own man. I felt like a “Paladin.”

“Have Pen, Will Travel.”

“Overall” deals made me uneasy. As a free agent, I would pitch the idea first. If they liked it, they’d pay me for it. To me, that was tangible. It was clean. A script for a check. With an “overall” deal, they were paying me from “Day One”, with the understanding that I’ll come up with an idea later.

What happens if I don’t?

I’ll tell you what happens if you don’t. They put you on Bosom Buddies. Or some other show you’re not interested in. That’s how it worked. You come up empty, and they “assign” you to one of their currently running shows.

They could do that. They owned you. True, some “overall” deals had “no assigning” clauses in them, but come on. Can you really say “no” while you’re taking their money?

“I’d prefer not work on Bosom Buddies.”

“We’d prefer that you do.”

What can you say to that, except…

“So it’s…what? Guys dressed as women?”

The situation played in my brain as a single, nightmarish image. Me, in a picture printed in Variety, “beaming” beside the President of Television, while holding in front of me a “team jersey” with the studio’s name on the front. Guaranteeing "The best season ever!

Dignity. Thy name is not show business.

I agonized over my decision. But with my agent’s encouragement – I believe he was packed for an extended cruise – I finally agreed.

Eight-plus years later…

When my last Universal contract ran out, the executive who used to be at Universal invited me to join him where he was now, which was Paramount. I happily “inked”a two-year pact.

That’s how it works, I guess. You sell out the first time, and the next time is a breeze.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Indental Servitude"

I feel ashamed.


A total loss of control.

How can people do this to other people? Whither decency? Whither self-respect?

Maybe I’m over-reacting. You decide. I’m way too distraught.


Recently, the dentist I’d been seeing for twenty years decided to retire. And as dentists do, Dr. K – it’s really another letter, I’m protecting his identity with a fictitious last initial, though I’m not sure he deserves it – my dentist, Dr., let’s say, K, sold his practice to another dentist.

This is not unusual. “Practice selling” is an accepted procedure in the dental profession. In ways which I’ll mention shortly, this seems extremely strange. But maybe I’m just jealous. When I retired from writing for television, there was nothing I could sell.

“Would you like to buy my brain?”

“Don’t you need it?”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Never mind.”

When dentists sell their practices, partly what they’re selling is their inventory – the chair, the drill, the x-ray machine, the “spit sink”, the bibs, the big light, the “air hose”, the drawers full of pointy things they poke into your gums…

Dentists have a lot of paraphernalia. And that paraphernalia’s obviously worth something. Not to my retiring dentist. What is he going to do with a Cavitron machine? UPS guy brings a parcel to his house:

RETIRED DENTIST: “Hey, you got a minute? Come on in, I’ll blast some plaque off your teeth.”

They’re retired. They don’t do that anymore. But new dentists, they’re just getting started. And why buy a new Cavitron machine when you can pick up a used one that’s already broken in?

I fully understand that element of selling your practice. You’re selling your equipment. The weird part is that’s not all you’re selling. The retiring dentist is selling something else, something that’s considerably more valuable.

They’re selling their patients.

Now think about this. Dental patients, who voluntarily came to one dentist, are being sold, without their being considered or consulted in any way, to a total stranger.

Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

My dentist sold his practice to another dentist, and part of what he sold to that dentist

was me.

That just seems wrong.

You can’t sell people to other people.

That’s slavery, isn’t it?

“You’ve been sold.”

“Without my permission?”

“I don’t need your permission.”

That sounds like slavery to me.

I know this doesn’t come close to the really horrible version of slavery, but the process – being randomly transferred from one owner to another – is still very upsetting. I can imagine Seinfeld’s “Kramer”, under such circumstances, whimpering,

“I’ve been sold, Jerry.”

I’ve been sold.

I wonder what’s involved in this sale? How is the negotiation transacted? Do they sell us in bulk? Or do they haggle over our individual value:

“Pomerantz. Clenches his jaw. But he always pays on time. I’ll take a thousand.”

“Two hundred.”

“All right! But I hope he bites your finger!”

The unacceptability of transferring ownership of human beings obscures an almost equally troubling issue. Dentists aren’t interchangeable. Just because the new dentist will be working in the same office doesn’t mean that nothing has changed. Everything’s changed.

It’s an entirely different dentist!

What if I don’t like the new dentist? What do I have to do, buy my freedom? Say I can’t afford to. The treatment is unbearable, but I lack the resources to buy my way out. What do I do then? Run away, and seek asylum from a different dentist?

Can I do that? I mean, legally? The other dentist paid for me. I’m essentially their property.

I’m not sure if the Dred Scott case was ever overturned. Maybe freeing the slaves made it a non-issue. But if Dred Scott’s still on the books, as a runway patient, they may be legally obligated to bring me back.

Maybe I should calm down, huh? Who knows? This new dentist may be better than the old one. More compassionate, gentler care, extra free floss. The transfer of ownership might turn out to be a godsend. There could be a noticeable upgrade in my treatment.

The thing is, my new dentist is no spring chicken. In a few years, she could decide to retire. You know what that means.

They’re gonna sell me again.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Whither, The Cow?"

Some people don’t eat cows. Some people extend the prohibition to not eating dairy products, which I don’t really get. I guess they believe that cows aren’t food, and they just want us to leave them alone.

The question is, “If cows aren’t food, what exactly are they?”

I claim no expertise concerning the bovine species. I just think about stuff and today, I’m thinking about cows. My mind goes where it goes. I can’t stop it. I’m not sure I’d want to if I could.


The people who want us to leave cows alone clearly like cows. (Most people pretty much like cows, though it doesn’t stop us from enjoying them at mealtime.) Those who stand up for cows want the cows to be happy and flourish, for them to, in the Star Trek vernacular, “Live long and prosper.”

The problem is this.

Under the system currently in place, people – farmers and ranchers – take care of cows. They don’t do it out of kindness. They have ulterior motives. Farmers and ranchers make money off of cows. They invest in their wellbeing – food and protection, maybe some shots and veterinary bills – in hopes of reaping a profit down the line. There is no altruism involved. These people are in the cow business.

Suppose, however, that there was no cow business, no way to profit from cows whatsoever. Cows simply existed, left completely alone to enjoy their lives. Nobody slaughtered them. But nobody took care of them either. They were simply left to their own resources.

Then what?

Can cows fend for themselves? Can they provide themselves with food and shelter and protection from, I don’t know, wolves? If they can, good luck to them. But if they can’t, what exactly is going become of them?

When cows no longer pay their own way, who’s going to want to invest in them? There’d be no incentive anymore. You think people will sink money into cows and just have them wandering around their property?

Is there any chance cows will morph into household pets? They’re not puppies. They’re actually not that cute. “Cow rides”, does that sound like a future for them? Not as long as there are horses around. They’d have to line up behind camels and llamas.

We’re not India; we’re not going to suddenly to the level of deities and start praying to them. They’d probably just be ignored.

What are they going to do?

I recognize the issue of, “Why do they have to do anything?” It’s a legitimate issue. I won’t argue that “Cows were put here for a purpose” – I don’t know why cows were put here – I don’t know why anything was put here – but over the centuries, a purpose has evolved. Cows became “people food.” All kinds of food – meat, milk, butter, cheese. Cows were a pantry on legs.

The question is, what happens when they’re not?

In my view, cows, rendered purposeless, are on the “fast track” to extinction. A few devoted cow lovers might protect them for a while, but, you know, generations pass, and, eventually, somebody’s going to say, “What are we doing this for?”

It’s unquestionable that the people sensitive to the mistreatment of cows want those animals to stick around. Yet it seems to me, the treatment they’re insisting upon will inevitably lead to the opposite result.

The only way to insure that cows will always be with us is to keep eating them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"The Storyteller's Dilemma"

Yesterday, on the way to talking about something else – don’t ask me what, my memory’s sharper about things from forty years ago…oh, yeah, “Inspiration” – I happened to mention in passing that I stole a book – a paperback copy of Catch-22 – from a kiosk in a London subway station.

Regular readers may recall another personal adventure where I pilfered two published plays from the renowned London bookstore, Foyles.

A further dip into the Just Thinking archives would reveal my recounting that my mother, while shopping with me at Macy’s, departed the premises with an unpaid-for belt. She had gotten bored standing in the checkout line, and abruptly turned and headed for the exit. “Mom,” did you pay for that belt?” I inquired. “Not yet,” replied my mother. And she calmly proceeded out the door.

Today, I am stricken with a troubling realization. You add these three stories together and the Pomerantz’s would appear to be a family that steals.

The truth is, we’re not.

You have to believe me. We are not a pilfering family. My brother may have stolen things, but I have no knowledge of such activities. My Dad – well, he didn’t live that long – but I’m unaware of any pilfering on his part either. So at the very worst, only half my family steals – my mother and myself.

What did we accumulate from our wantonly nefarious actions? Two plays, a book and a belt. Should such paltry pickings tag us for eternity with the tarnishing label of “Thieves”?

I guess it should.

We did it.

We’re thieves.

The thing is, aside from those three inexplicable episodes, even the thieving members of our family

never stole anything else!

The troubling thing is this. Judging from those three stories, an unbiased and in no way anti-Semitic reader could reasonably come away with the belief that the Pomerantz’s are a family of chronic kleptomaniacs, who have to be carefully watched, or they’ll run away with anything that isn’t nailed down.

I’m telling you, that’s not us. We are, on the whole, a kind and generous family. I bought dozens of trees in Israel. My mother was the president of Hadassah.

We made three mistakes. That’s our entire “rap sheet.” Three missteps. Internationally. We’re totally clean in Canada.

Who then is to blame for this utterly misleading characterization of my family? I am. And I feel terrible about it. The misunderstanding is entirely my fault. But what can I do? I’m a storyteller.

And there it is. That’s the whole deal.

It all starts with that simple fact. I’m a storyteller. And storytellers tell stories. That’s where the attention comes from. And the love.

Boring stories get you nothing. “I bought Catch-22 at a kiosk in a London subway station. The line to pay was really long. While I waited, I opened my copy of Catch-22 and started reading it.”

That kind of story? – No attention, no love. That story gets you yawning. And a universal shunning of your blog.

On the other hand…

“I stole a book.”

Now you’re on to something. It’s colorful. It’s surprising. It’s picaresque. “What a scalawag. He stole a book.”

“And I stole two plays.”

“And my mother stole a belt!”

What’s a writer to do? You can’t talk about every single other time when they went into places and paid for everything. Who’d want to hear about that?

It’s simply the way it is. The best stories are unusual and compelling. But you mix those ingredients with the selection process of a needy storyteller, and what do you wind up with?

Stories whose cumulative effect suggests the Pomerantz’s will steal the fillings out of your teeth.

We won’t.

We’re nice people.

But I can’t prove that with my stories.

They’d bore the pants off ya.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Were there times in your career when you were having trouble writing and you needed some type of inspiration to help prime the “funny pump”?

Yes there were, Italics Man. And thank you for your interest.

Could you please tell us about it?

I will, since you asked me so nicely. Early in my career, though I’d given up my apartment in Toronto and had had my Mazda driven down to my apartment in Los Angeles – reflecting some confidence on my part that my career here was solidly established – I was still subject to the periodic waking nightmare of, “I don’t know how to do this!” I was certain I would shortly be returning to Canada, which would have been unfortunate, not to mention inconvenient, since my Mazda and my apartment were now down here.

I remember being given two weeks to write a script, and spending the first of those weeks doing nothing, and by “doing nothing”, I mean hugging my severely cramped-up belly and rocking back and forth as I stared, helpless, at an immobilizingly empty page. These crises in confidence were regular occurrences during my Mary Tyler Moore years, when I was contracted to write eight scripts per season. At those moments, the assignment seemed insurmountable. How do you write eight scripts when you are unable to pick up a pen?

The problem wasn’t writing; it was writing funny. I know drama writing is hard too – doing anything at a high level is hard – but during those episodes of agonizing self-absorption, I imagined it was a lot easier than writing comedy. In drama, you just put down what happens.

Say it’s a police drama:

The detectives drive down the street.

They park the car.

They get out.

They walk up to the house.

They ring the doorbell.

A guy (say his name is Markison) answers.

“Mr. Markison?”


“You’re under arrest.”

The detectives cuff Markison, while reading him his rights.

Like, how hard it that? Half a page, it took thirty seconds.

You write a police drama, you just write what they do.

Yuh duzzn’t have to make it funny!

I know that’s ridiculous, but, I’m tellin’ ya, my brain was on fire. In reality, my assignement that difficult. I had an outline. I know where the story was going. The problem was, my bosses were counting on me to make it hilarious.

And I was too freaked out to breathe!

After three days of torturing myself in various ways, including visiting the Help Wanted section of the newspaper to investigate alternative careers – they seemed to need a lot of “Backhoe Operators”, which wouldn’t have been a good job for me, since I had no idea what a backhoe was – I decided to put myself in the mood by seeking inspiration from the funniest book I had ever read.

The plan was simple. The book’s funniness would get me in a funny mood, and that would get me started. Laughter breeding laughter. That was the concept. It was certainly better than my current situation – panic breeding knots in my stomach.

The funniest book I have ever read is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. When I lived in England, I had stolen a copy of it from a kiosk in the London Underground. I hadn’t meant to steal it, but the line to pay for it was long, and my train was coming. So I walked away, book in hand.

I remember convulsing with hysterics reading Catch-22 on the subway. Thunderclapping peals of uncontrollable laughter. Nervous passengers were changing their seats. Some actually changed cars.

An early laugh-inducer from the book:

A guy lying motionless in a hospital bed, sheathed entirely in bandages. A bottle hangs from a pole, delivering liquid nutrients through a feeding tube. A tube from his groin carries liquid waste to a second bottle. When the “feeding bottle” was empty and the “urine bottle” was full, the nurses simply switched the bottles and the process continued.

Catch-22 sparkled with many such sidesplitting set-pieces. I was certain re-reading them would release me from “panic mode” and unleash the funny impulse I knew I possessed.

I was comedically constipated. The book would be my…whatever you take for that.

I picked up Catch-22. I turned to the section I described above, eager for the welcome, and hopefully motivating, relief of laughter. I re-read the “guy in the bandages” scene.

It made me extremely sad.

Instead of laughing, I now felt terribly sorry for the guy in the bandages. I mean, that guy was really messed up! I quickly flipped to other remembered funny moments, and discovered that my reaction to them had been diametrically altered. The situations now seemed excruciatingly painful. I couldn’t believe I had found any of them funny before.

It was a devastating experience. The funniest book I had ever read had let me down. I had reached for a lifesaver and found it made out of lead.

Now what?

The first week of my scheduled writing period went by. Not a word on the page. The second week began.

I’d like to deliver an epiphany here, some celestial “Oooh-Ahhh!” moment that liberated me from my torment and miraculously got me going. What happened, in reality, was this. And I apologize if it feels like a letdown.

Sometime during the beginning of that second week, I simply sat myself down and I started to write.

Act One

Scene One

Fade In:

And off I went. Tentatively, at first, but then, following a detailed outline – crafted by myself but mostly by the show runners – I worked my way through it, building confidence as I proceeded.

By the end of the second week, accompanied by a “How did that happen?” feeling, it was done.

With no thanks to Catch-22, I had somehow completed my assignment. My inspiration, it turned out to my perpexitude, amazement and surprise,
was me.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"Sometimes A Kiss Is Not Just A Kiss - Followup"

I was writing about the second thoughts I had concerning requiring a ten year-old actor in my sitcom Best of the West to behave in an age-inappropriate manner for the sake of a laugh, the behavior being to passionately or at least (hopefully) stimulatingly passionately kiss a teenaged girl (the actress, as I recall, turned out to be twenty-three).

A number of readers believed my concerns were unnecessary:

Frequent commenter, “Anonymous”, opined: “If it makes you laugh, it’s funny.”

“Joe” commented: “Nothing is inappropriate if it’s funny.” (“Joe” quotes Eddie Haskell, whom I wouldn’t trust about anything.)

“Boyscribe” offered the “Violence is worse” perspective: “One wonders…if you had written a drama about a boy in the west who killed someone ala ‘Robocop II’, would there have been the same objections?”

“Steve MacDonald” supported my original decision. And berated my retrospection:

“Trust your decisions and don’t reconsider things you can’t change.”

I thank everyone for trying to make me feel better, for reminding me of “the bigger picture”, and for encouraging me to stop second-guessing myself, although if I took that advice, I’d have considerably less to write about.

My primary concern was not whether kissing is good, or better than violence, or whether the moment I had crafted was funny. For the record, I believe kissing is good (except for the inappropriate kind; you’ll have to decide for yourself what that includes), that it’s light years better than violence, and that the situation I had concocted was unquestionably funny.

The question – and I’m saying that writers need to factor this into their decision-making – is, “What does what I’m asking the person to do doing to the person I’m asking to do it?” Writers may not want to submit to this consideration, fearing it may interfere with “the most compelling method of telling the story”, but the argument is, you have to. Actors are people. (Despite the response to that claim in The Producers: “Oh, yeah? Have you ever eaten with one?”)

We’re not talking about a novel here, where you can make the characters do anything you want them to do. Characters in novels don’t go home to their families after work. And they don’t carry those icky “work feelings” along with them.

My example was about a kid. Kids represent a special category, as recognized in the law, and in the hearts of their parents. You’ll notice that in current entertainment, children come in for some brutalizing treatment – kidnapping being the most prominent atrocity.

I have a theory about why “threatened children” plays such a prominent role in contemporary storytelling, especially threats to the children of the rich. There’s nothing you can take from rich people they can’t easily replace. Their only area of vulnerability is their children. Children represent “the irreplaceable treasure.” Though not wealthy themselves, people on the lower economic levels can readily identify.

“You can take my prized lawnmower. But lay off of the kids.”

To penetrate the emotions of an increasingly jaded audience, children are frequently required to pay the price, and by “children”, I mean child actors. Judging by the harrowing activities kid-actors have participated in, apparently neither the kids nor their guardians are complaining. I guess they’re happy to have the job. Which’ll help pay for the therapy bills down the line.

It’s not just child actors who are exploited. All actors are exploited. The scene says they cut off a guy’s ear, they cut off a guy’s ear. And you never hear a peep out of anybody. Not even from the guy whose ear’s getting cut off. Except maybe, “Am I screaming enough? I was thinking, ‘My character’s a tough guy’, so I’ve been holding back. I could give you more if you want.”

What about sex? Well, there was a time, reaching up to the sixties, when there was a noticeable “nude gap” between American movies and the films produced in other countries. European movies were regularly “outnuding” us, making American movies seem backwards. I don’t know if the studio bosses went to Congress, tearfully claiming,

“We can’t compete!”

but, somehow, the American “Movie Code” was abolished, and off came the shirts. And the pants. And everything else they had on.

Did the actors mind the mandatory exposure? You’d have to ask them. Actors are a different breed. Normally, they’d be called exhibitionists, but they’re doing a job. They go into a trance, and whatever behavior comes out, it’s not them doing it,

“It’s my character.”

I do recall one naysayer. Some superstar actress during that period was quoted as saying, “When I’m naked up there on that seventy-foot screen, it’s not the character’s breasts the audience is staring at, it’s mine.”

That actress couldn’t see the distinction. And, to take a considerably lesser example, neither could I.

I was once featured as “comic relief” in a Canadian-made movie called, The Merry Wives of Tobias Rouke. Don’t bother looking for it. It never got finished. The production ran out of money during the editing process, and the raw footage ended up in the trunk of the director’s car.

(If you want to see me in a movie, you can catch my performance – or at least the “trailer” for that performance – in Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls on YouTube.)

I was standing chest-deep in a pond, attired only in a pair of flaming red “Long Johns.” The director thought the scene would play funnier if I took the “Long Johns” off. I told him I didn’t care for the idea.

The director hoped he could “wait me out”, claiming a series of “technical delays”, in hopes that I’d finally be worn down and surrender my underwear. I shivered in that water for over an hour, minnows nipping at my submerged body parts. The pressure was uncomfortable, but I stuck to my guns. (I also thought of the damage those minnows would have done had I been standing there “unprotected.”)

Why did I refuse the nudity request? It didn’t seem right. And I don’t mean for the character.

I imagine, if this had happened in the States, I’d have immediately been replaced. But in Canada, I kept my job. Because there’s more respect for personal integrity up there? I don’t think so. There’s just less actors.

"Blind Spot"

I will shortly continue my “Story of a Writer” series with my moving from Universal Studios to Paramount, where I’d been once before and now I was back. For those who enjoy “Story of a Writer”, I apologize for the long gap between postings. For those who don’t enjoy it, how ‘bout that long gap between postings?

A memory of my Paramount experience recently fluttered into my mind. It involves my first tour of duty, specifically when I was serving as the “Warm-Up Man” on the second season of Cheers. You may recall my relating that my newborn daughter, Anna, was a marathon crier, and I’d asked (Cheers creators) the Charles Brothers to help get me out of the house. My pleadings led to the “Warm-Up” assignment, where, ironically, I frequently regaled the audience with anecdotes about my newborn daughter, Anna. My affection for the kid was commensurate with my distance from the crying.

As part of my “Warm-Up” arrangement, I was provided transportation from and back to my house. The Cheers filmings ended late, and my night driving was a danger, to myself, and to anyone unfortunate enough to be traveling the same road. (Before my “transportation arrangement”, at the end of each Warm-Up, I would actually tell the audience which route I’d be taking, to allow them the opportunity of going another way. If the audience had been unresponsive, I deleted those safety recommendations. You had to earn them.)

Let me be clear. We are not talking “limo” treatment here. Every TV show has an allotment of drivers assigned, who were responsible for pickups and deliveries of whatever was needed. During the second season of Cheers, a regular pickup and delivery was me. I was driven around in a not very new station wagon.

One night, after the show, I climbed into my “transportation”, and, as usual, I engaged in some casual chitchat with the driver. It turns out my driver that night had been a “teamster” (It just means driver; there are oxen involved.) for quite some time. And with longevity, come stories.

“You see this street?” he began, gesturing to the street directly alongside the Cheers soundstage. “Back in ’56, this was totally made over to look like the Chinese capital for the John Wayne movie, The Conqueror.

“It was?”

I was genuinely intrigued. I had seen The Conqueror as a kid. It was one of the worst movies ever. “Duke” Wayne playing Ghengis Khan. Terrible.

I also knew something else about The Conqueror. Numerous people who’d worked on the movie had later died of cancer, including Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armandariz, and the director of the movie, Dick Powell.

There’s a strong suspicion that the reason for this disproportionate number of cancer fatalities was that the film had been shot in Utah, not far from a Nevada Test Site, where experimenting was being done on above ground nuclear weapons. The prevailing winds had apparently blown radioactive fallout directly onto The Conquerors’ location.

“Did you work on The Conqueror”? I inquired.

“Yup. On location and here on the lot.” (Research tells me that producer Howard Hughes brought back sixty tons of Utah dirt for “re-shoots.”)

“You know about the ‘cancer story’, I suppose.”

“Yeah. I don’t think there’s anything to it.”

“You don’t?”

“Nah. It’s pure coincidence.”

Well, you know me. I can’t leave anything alone. And I have to be funny.

“How are you feeling?” I chucklingly inquire.

“I’m fine,” he replied. “I mean, I’ve got leukemia. But it has nothing to do with that.”

We passed the rest of the trip in silence.

I don’t know how people do that.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Sometimes A Kiss Is Not Just A Kiss"

Best of the West.

The episode’s called “Daniel’s First Love.” Ten year-old Daniel Best, the reluctant western pioneer, has a crush on a new girl in school, thirteen year-old Jolene Hickerson, whose family hails from “hill country”, where people marry young. Jolene’s relationship with Daniel incenses Jolene’s “intended”, Jimmy-Jack McInerny, to the point where Jimmy-Jack refuses to go ahead with the wedding. Seeing the marriage plans obliterated, and aware of who’s responsible, Jolene’s irate father insists (at gunpoint) that Daniel replace Jimmy-Jack and marry Jolene instead.

That’s the basic premise of the episode. A ten year-old boy unexpectedly finds himself married.

I thought it was hilarious.

In the Second Act – be patient, there’s a point coming – Jolene and Jimmy-Jack reconcile and decide to run off together. Daniel, who “loves” Jolene, strongly objects. Jolene tries to explain why their situation is untenable.


Daniel, our marriage, it’s not a real marriage. Do you know what I mean?




That’s what I mean.

Realizing his position is hopeless, Daniel reluctantly relents. But not before asking for one final favor.


At least you can give me a good-bye kiss. For the good times?

At this point, the script (which I dug out of the garage) says this:



Still leaving?


(ENTIRELY CAUGHT OFF-GUARD) Yes. But I’m leavin’ a little sadder.

The episode played beautifully, especially on television. (Someday, I’ll write about how some episodes play better on TV than they did in front of the live audience, and vice versa.) My girlfriend, Dr M, who was just M at the time, was not at all happy. She had a serious problem with the kiss.

M thought it was outrageous for me to have forced a young actor into such an inappropriate situation. A ten-year old boy, delivering a deep, passionate kiss (though it’s unlikely he actually delivered one)? She found it disgusting.

And exploitive.

And wrong.

(And she may have harbored some second thoughts about me.)

Executive Producer, Earl Pomerantz, defended his actions. We’re doing a comedy, I explained. We are endeavoring to get laughs. It is precisely the “inappropriateness” that makes the “kissing moment”, and the entire episode, for that matter, funny. (For heavens sakes!)

There was no winning that argument. There was only (possibly) losing the girlfriend. At some point, we agreed to disagree and we let the subject pass.

Writers own their characters. They can make them do anything they want. And they do. (Two and a Half Men has an uncle bringing a parade of women home to have sex with, with, at least at the beginning of the series, a young kid living in the house. The problem is, you consider such behavior inappropriate and there’s no Two and a Half Men.)

Even though they’re imaginary, it’s worth considering whether a writer has a responsibility to the characters they create (and the actors who portray them). Twenty-something years later, looking back on that kissing moment in “Daniel’s First Love”, I’m thinking probably I was wrong.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"A Tale of Two Restaurants"

Restaurant One:

La Grande Orange.

A new bistro-type cafe a couple of blocks from our house. Dr. M and I had dinner there the day it opened. We liked it. So a week later, I take Anna there for lunch.

A few minutes after ordering, the waitress brings my lunch, but she doesn’t bring Anna’s. We wait. After fifteen minutes, I call a man over who looks like he’s in charge. I explain the situation to him.

The man immediately apologizes. He’s very sorry this has happened. It’s a new restaurant; they’re still working out the bugs. The man gives me his card. He’s Brian. He’s the manager. Brian assures us that next time we come in he’ll take care of us. I don’t know what that means, but I say “Thank you”, and Brian takes off, hopefully to rectify the problem.

Ten minutes later, Anna’s lunch has still not arrived. I’m about to look for Brian when another man comes over. It’s Bob. He hands me his card. The card says Bob’s the Founder-President of the restaurant. Bob also apologizes, if possible, even more sincerely than Brian.

The waitress brings Anna her lunch. The waitress apologizes as well. Then Bob prints, “Dinner for two – Free” on his card, and scribbles his name. Bob explains. On our next visit, whatever we want, it’s on the house. There seems to be there’s no end to their kindness. Who knows where it will end?

“Because of the stress we caused, we’re getting each of you a massage.”

“I have a beach house in Malibu. It’s yours for the weekend.”

“The company has a private jet. We’re flying you to Paris.”

“The Maserati parked out front? Here’s the keys.”

“Two tickets for the space shuttle. Enjoy.”

It was almost becoming oppressive. When we finished eating, I asked Anna if she wanted a cookie from the restaurant’s bakery.

“No,” she replied, worn down by the restaurant’s generosity. “They’d probably want to give it to us.”

Restaurant Two:

The Palm.

A high-end steak restaurant. I decide to splurge and go there for my birthday.

Dinner for two at The Palm. In honor of the occasion, I wear my brand new camelhair sports jacket. I’m really looking good.

During the course of the meal, a waiter trips directly in front of me, spilling an entire platter of green beans on my jacket.

A restaurant representative comes over and apologizes. He instructs me that after I get the sports jacket dry cleaned, I should come back with the receipt, and the restaurant will reimburse me for the price of the cleaning.


A few days after the incident, Dr. M and I return to La Grande Orange, where we’re graciously treated to our complimentary dinner. Founder-President Bob drops by to see if everything’s okay. Dr. M orders desert, less because she wanted to than because the waitress looked hurt when we originally turned it down.

A few days after the incident, I return to The Palm with my dry cleaning receipt. I explain the situation to the man behind the Reservations Desk. He tells me to go fuck myself.

A tale of two restaurants.

La Grande Orange

and The Palm.

One place we’ll go back to.

And one place we won’t.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Speaking of Basketball..."

Speaking of basketball, as I was yesterday, I take great pride in reporting that the great game of basketball was invented by a Canadian. Dr. John Naismith. Unfortunately, there were no tall people in Canada, so the game moved south of the border where it immediately became a tremendous success.

There was a more serious obstacle keeping basketball from flourishing in Canada, one stemming from the contrasting natures of our contiguing cultures. As you may know, the original game of basketball was played using suspended peach baskets as the baskets.

There was a drawback to using the peach baskets. The two teams would scrap ferociously for the ball, one team would finally take control, they would drive to the basket, a player would shoot, and if they were on target, the ball would land in the peach basket.

And not come out.

Frugal Canadians were generally unwilling to supply a second ball. This meant that, after the first basket was scored, the game was over. Basketball games always ended with the same score: two-to-nothing. Sometimes the games ended pretty quickly, like in seconds. On the other hand, if the teams were evenly matched and the defenses were tight, or if both teams were bad shooters, the games could go on for six or seven minutes.

It was not easy selling tickets to these contests. People generally like their entertainment to last somewhat longer. If traffic was bad and you got there a few minutes late, there was a good chance that you’d miss the entire game.

One answer to the “not coming out” problem would be to carry a ladder onto the court after every basket, climb up to the beach basket, and retrieve the ball. Someone had to have brought in a ladder to put up the peach baskets in the first place. The thing is, by the time the game started, that person would almost certainly have left, taking the ladder with them. You can’t just leave a ladder sitting there for the whole the game. It might be needed at home. (Remember, we’re thinking Canadian here.) Besides, dragging a ladder onto the court after every basket would have really slowed down the game.

Of course, there’s another way of the ball coming out of the peach basket. You’ve probably already thought of it yourselves. But that solution is no – you should pardon the expression – slam-dunk, due to the aforementioned contrast in the Canadian and American cultures.

Imagine a couple of American visitors, coming up to Canada, to check out the “new game.” They’re barely in their seats, when the first basket’s scored, and the game is over.

American reaction:


Canadian reaction:

“Good game!”

And it’s off for a beer.

AMERICAN VISITOR: “What do you mean, ‘It’s over’?”

CANADIAN: “Well, the ball’s in the peach basket.”


CANADIAN: “Well, we can’t get it out.”

AMERICAN VISITOR: “You can’t get it out.”

CANADIAN: “No. Don’t you see? It’s up there in the peach basket. Way up high.”

The Americans exchange looks of head-scratching bewilderment.

AMERICAN VISITOR TWO: “Did you ever think of cutting the bottom out of the peach basket?”

CANADIAN: “What’s that now?”

AMERICAN VISITOR: “If you cut out the bottom, the ball will fall out.”

CANADIAN: “You’re saying, cut the bottom out of the peach basket?”


AMERICAN VISITOR: “Then you could keep playing.”

CANADIAN: “It's true you'd be able to keep playing. But what happens to the peach basket?”

AMERICAN VISITOR: “I’m not following you.”

CANADIAN: “The peach baskets. They’d be ruined.”

ANOTHER CANADIAN: “You try using a peach basket with no bottom? The peaches’ll fall through it. Right onto the ground.”

CANADIAN: “It’s the bottoms that keep the peaches in.”

The Canadians shake their heads, smugly chuckling at the "clueless" Americans.

AMERICAN VISITOR: (TO AMERICAN VISITOR TWO) “What the hell are they talking about?”

CANADIAN: "Destroying a perfectly good peach basket. Even a child would know better than to do that. (CALLING) You there, Jimmy McDonough. What would happen if you and you pals were to cut the bottoms out of your peach baskets so you could play basketball?”

JIMMY: “Our Mum would kill us!”


AMERICAN VISITOR TWO: “It’s just a couple of baskets.”

CANADIAN: “‘Just a couple of baskets.’ Peach baskets don’t grow on trees, you know.”

ANOTHER CANADIAN: “Besides, once one of them tries it, they’ll all want to do it.”

CANADIAN: “Where will you put your peaches then, Mr. Yankee Doodle? In your pockets?”

AMERICAN VISITOR TWO: “Take out the bottom.”


AMERICAN VISITOR: “Do you like the game like it is?”

CANADIAN: “It’s not high scoring, I’ll grant you that. But we appreciate the subtleties.”

ANOTHER CANADIAN: “And it doesn’t eat up our valuable time.”

AMERICAN VISITOR: “Look, I’m tellin’ ya, you got a fabulous concept here. You mess up a few peach baskets and you’re on your way.”

CANADIAN: “Now you listen here, mister. This is Canada. And in Canada, you don’t sacrifice your livelihood for a few moments of meaningless fun. It’s not always about the almighty dollar, you know. You have to be sensible about things.”

AMERICAN VISITOR: “Nice meeting ya.”

The Americans go home, taking the game of basketball with them, but making minor adjustments. They add tall people, and cut the bottoms out of the baskets.

The rest is history. Basketball became an international sensation and made billions. Today, the Canadian national pastime

is lacrosse.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Rooting For The Enemy"

I get a call Friday afternoon.

“I’ve got an extra ticket to Lakers-Nuggets Game Seven on Sunday. Would you like to go?”

“YES!” (The “yes” came fast. It was like, “Would you like to goyes.”)

That’s how it started. An invitation to Lakers-Nuggets, Game Seven. The deciding game of the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals, determining which team would move on to play for the championship. I’m a huge Lakers fan. And even if I weren’t, it’s the deciding game of the finals, not the actual finals, but the finals before the actual finals, which is still big enough that if you’re any kind of basketball fan, and somebody invites you to that game, you really – racing towards desperately – want to go.


Anyone following the NBA playoffs knows what happened. For those who don’t…you know how they say, when they’re talking about upcoming playoff games, like, “Game Seven, if necessary”? Well, this one wasn’t necessary. The Lakers clinched in six games. Game Seven, being unnecessary, was never played. Meaning, no me, Sunday, at Game Seven. There was no Game Seven.

No game at all.

On the Friday before, however, I have no such awareness. I just know that the Denver Nuggets are down three games to two. The Nuggets beat the Lakers in Game Six, the series is tied three-three, and I’m there at the Staples Center for the deciding Game Seven. It’s as simple as that.

Context. I’m in heaven at Lakers playoff games. Dr. M and I went often during the “Magic” Johnson era. I adored the “80’s” Lakers – Kareem, Worthy, Rambis, the inspirational Michael Cooper, but especially “Magic”, pushing the ball up the court, making impossible passes to the open man only he seems to be able to see. The excitement in those days was unbelievable. Plus they won five championships.

(When she heard “Magic” was retiring because he’d contracted the HIV virus, Dr. M called me at work and broke the news to me personally. I thanked her for taking the time to call me. “I didn’t want you to hear it from a stranger,” she explained.)

This, of course, is a different team, but I’m still a huge Laker fan. I wanted to see them beat the Nuggets. And when I say, “see”, I mean sitting in a seat in the place.

A Game Seven was by no means a longshot. The Nuggets had to win Game Six, but there were plenty of reasons to believe they would.

1) The Nuggets had to win or they were eliminated. For them, it was “do-or-die.”

2) The Nuggets had prevailed in two earlier playoff series and had beaten the Lakers twice in this series. They were a very capable team.

3) Game Six was being played in Denver, a significant factor, as, of all the major sports, basketball is the sport with the most reliable “home court advantage.”

An L.A. loss was a distinct possibility. And from the moment I received the invitation, I knew where I stood. As strange as it would feel, for Game Six of the Western Conference Finals, I was rooting for the Nuggets.

Game Time.

We have out of town house guests. We go out for dinner. We come home. I turn on the TV. It’s the second quarter.

The Lakers are ahead by thirteen points.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

It’s an odd experience, pulling for the other team. The Nuggets have two star players, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. I haven’t a clue who the other players are. But it doesn’t stop me from rooting for them.

“Get the ball, Dreadlocks Guy!”

“Grab that rebound, Spiky Haircut White Guy with the colored tattoos!” Man, he was an ugly looking fellow, a grotesque stranger from the opposing team. And I was cheering the guy on!

Was it helping? No.

As luck would have it, the Lakers are playing their most spectacular game of the season. Everything’s working. They’re stopping them on defense, and their shots are all going in. Seeing my Game Seven appearance slipping away, I supplement rooting for the opposition with – it’s not my proudest moment – rooting against the team I love.

That doesn’t work either. Kobe sets for an outside jumper.

“Miss!” I call out.


Odom blows a lay-up.

“All right!” I enthuse.

Gasol tips in the rebound.


Great shooting, tough rebounding, tight defence – the Lakers did everything right.

But lose.

The Laker lead continues to grow. My houseguest confidently opines that it’s over. But I refuse to lose hope. Though the odds are increasing, I am confident the Lakers can still blow it.

This is hardly wishful thinking. All season, the Lakers have been notorious for giving up what appeared to be insurmountable leads. There was also the searing memory of last year’s finals, when the Lakers coughed up a twenty-four-point advantage to the Celtics. My houseguest stubbornly insists that it’s over.

“The Lakers have a twenty-point lead,” I explain with mounting irritation. “The Nuggets have them just where they want them.”

Though the Laker lead continues to expand, I remain steadfast, and defiantly hopeful.

“As long as there’s time on the clock, there is still a chance for a miracle collapse.”

It didn’t look good. The Nuggets seemed to be standing around, letting the Lakers score one uncontested basket after another. The Nuggets seemed like they were playing in a daze, like people had kidnapped their loved ones and were holding them for ransom:

“Lose or they die.”

I know that’s an improbably rationale for why the Nuggets played so badly. More likely, there was just this massive conspiracy to keep me from going to Game Seven. Which doesn’t really seem fair. I don’t remember doing anything to them.

The final score was Lakers – 119, Nuggets – 92, Lakers taking the series four games to two.

It’s funny. My favorite team had broken my heart before. But this was the first time they ever had done it by winning.