Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"A Magical Moment in the Theater"

It’s Toronto. I’m in my late teens.

My mother, my brother, his wife Nancy and I are attending a road company production of the musical, Carnival, a show based on the lovely, Leslie Caron-starring movie, Lili. On Broadway, Carnival starred Anna Maria Alberghetti. The Toronto production starred, I don’t know, Florence Henderson.

Instead of the immortal Jerry Orbach, who co-starred in Carnival on Broadway, the road company brought us Ed Ames, an Ames brother who played “Mingo” on the Fess Parker series, Daniel Boone. On Broadway, a featured role was played by the magnificent Kaye Ballard. We got Jo Anne Worley, from Laugh-In.

That’s touring companies. Their agent calls:

“I got you a job.”


“No. Toronto.”

What does the Toronto audience get to see? A cast full of disappointed actors.

But none of that matters.

The late teen me loves musicals. Unfortunately, Broadway’s in New York and I’m shoveling our driveway in Canada. The best I can do when the latest hit musical premiers is to buy the “Original Cast” album as soon as it’s available. And play it till it melts.

Then, maybe two years later, when the national tour plays Toronto, I go to that show, knowing the songs backwards and forwards. But particularly forwards.

And so it is with Carnival.

You’ve never seen the show. But you know it. And then you see it.

That’s the set-up.


We’re in our seats, me on the aisle. I can barely contain my excitement. The lights go down. The show is about to begin.

It’s the Opening Number. I know exactly what’s coming.

The curtain is up. The stage is virtually bare. The first sound you hear is a lone concertina, playing the introductory notes to Carnival’s enchanting, waltz-rhythmed theme, “Love Makes The World Go Round.” The orchestra joins in. At first, softly.

Roustabouts file onstage, and immediately set to work. To the accompaniment of an intensifying orchestration, the roustabouts take that bare stage and

…assemble a circus before our very eyes.

The opening song proclaims, with a rollicking announcement:

The circus is in town!!

Di-rect from Vienna

For se-ven days only

At po-pular prices

These won-ders of wonders

Whose da-zzle and daring

And (blah blah-blah blah)

Have astounded the capitals of Europe

And confounded the Orient as well.

And as the “setting-up” continues in full swing, the circus artistes begin polishing their talents – jugglers, acrobats, aerialists and clowns. The stage is swirling with activity, as they sing…


Come on

Mortgage your house and





Venice, Cologne,





Di-rect from Vienna

For se-ven days only

At po-pular prices

At this point, out of the corner of my eye, I notice my sister-in-law Nancy elbowing my mother, urging her to look at me. Turning to look, my family is astonished by an electrifying transformation. As I watch Carnival burst into glorious reality before me…

My face is aflame,

My eyes are on fire,

My mouth is agape,

I am entirely


And entranced.

I never worked in the theater. I climbed a different mountain. But I’ll tell you this:

Whatever I accomplished in television

It never left me aglow.

And you can forget about entranced.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"A Y.K. Faux Pas"

Yesterday’s celebration of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar reminded me of a story my brother told me concerning a High School classmate of his named Roman Dakishin (last name spelled phonetically, in deference to my not knowing how to spell it correctly.)

Roman Dakishin hated going to school. Exploiting any opportunity to be absent, Dakishin would not only stay home on holidays associated with his religion, he’d take off everybody's holiday, claiming affiliation with whatever religion that happened to be celebrating that day.

Unfortunately, on one occasion at least, his ignorance gave him away.

Yom Kippur – pronounced Yom Kee-poor – arrived, and, as was his proclivity on such occasions, Dakishin took the day off. The next morning, he cheerily returned to class. Though not without a challenge.

“Where were you yesterday?” his Home Room teacher inquired.

“Jewish holiday, Sir,” chirped the transparently not Jewish Mr. Dakishin.

“Ka Yipper!”

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"A Special Kind of Thinking"

There’s this theater in Toronto (or there was) called “The Silent Cinema.” My mother and I drove by there once.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s ‘The Silent Cinema.’ They show silent movies there.”

“You mean like The Marx Brothers?”

“No, Mom. The Marx Brothers are ‘noisy’.”

“Of course they are,” she now realized, explaining with irrefutable logic, “Otherwise, how would you know one of them couldn’t talk?”

Happy Birthday, Gertie P.

I love you dearly.

And thanks for passing a little of that special kind of thinking along to me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Seven"

I haven’t done one of these in a while. At least, not formally. I mean, when you think about it, every story I tell is the story of a writer. I’m the writer. And I’m telling the story. What else could it be?

But the “Story of a Writer” oeuvre was constructed to focus on my career. I’ve felt reluctant to hurry too quickly down that road, which I estimate is close to eighty per cent completed, because if I complete chronicling my career, readers who were drawn here only because of that aspect of my blog will go away, and I’ll end up with fewer readers, and fewer readers is not what I’m shooting for.

There’s also, well, what I wrote yesterday about specialization. (This point is particularly petty and spiteful.) It rankles me that only my pronouncements on writing are perceived to have value. It makes me want to withhold my wisdom in that area until the world surrenders and says,

“Okay, Earl. We’ll listen to you about everything.”

Yeah, well that’s really mature.

Who said I was mature? You want “mature”, read Paul Krugman.

All right. Enough.

I was working at Paramount, on what ultimately became two consecutive two-year development deals. My primary responsibility was to come up with ideas for new half-hour comedy series. During that period of employment, I also participated in two on-the-air television series, Lateline, co-created (with John Markus) and starring now Senator Al Franken, and Kristin, starring Broadway musical icon, and recent Emmy winner, Kristin Chenoweth. (As a favor to the studio, I additionally served as a one-day-a-week consultant on a Paramount comedy called Goode Behavior, starring Sherman Hemsley, an assignment which I’ll quarantine from the shows I cared about by enclosing it in brackets.)

Like the songs I’ve made up – and I’ve made up less than a handful – series ideas come to me when they come to me. I can’t force them to materialize. There is, however, a structuring external schedule involved. When I was working, there were two “pitching” periods per year, times when you could “pitch” your series ideas to the networks. If successful, these “pitches” would evolve into series debuting in the fall, or as mid-season replacement series.

The rest of the time, writers with development deals either pitched in as consultants in on series the studio currently had on the air, or they took extended naps until the next pitching period. I specialized in the latter. I believe the studio was aware of my marathon snoozes and didn’t care that much, my evidence being that, every year, they’d send me a blanket as a Christmas present.

Of course, there’s always the impetus of guilt. I mean, you see studio executives in the commissary every day. Their hands may be waving a friendly “Hello” from across the room, but their no-nonsense eyes are inquiring, “What have you got for us?” You both know they’re paying you big bucks to come up with those series ideas. Finally, your foot-dragging imagination groans a begrudging, “O…kay”, and it does.

I came up with a notion about a guy with a family (I think everything I ever created was a family show, with one exception, which was an idea called Bob’s Basement, about a man who lives in a basement apartment with his pet falcon, and has this magical television that transforms the humdrum occurrences of his workday to conform with the formats of specialized channels, such as the “‘Cool Bob’ Channel”, the “Honesty Channel”, “Bobby’s Cartoon Channel”, “Bobby After Dark”, and the “Revenge Channel”, to name just a few. Everyone who read Bob’s Basement hated it. Except me.)

The main character for the series was a psychologist working in a major Northeastern metropolis. He made good money, but his clients are everyday neurotics who provide little excitement or professional challenge. Bored and burnt out, the psychologist decides to reconfigure his life, relocating his family from the Big City to his small, “Rust Belt”-blighted hometown, where he takes a job working as a “Human Resources Coordinator” at a struggling factory, badly in need of a shot in the arm.

A one-sentence summary:

Seeking to reinvigorate his life, a psychologist returns to his hometown, taking a job at a demoralized and financially troubled factory, populated by workers who used to beat the psychologist up in High School.

I called the show Company Man.

It felt like a solid series idea. Timely, fish-out-of-watery, interesting characters, natural conflicts. For the deeper levels, I could draw on the training and experience of my psychologist wife. Not to mention that I’d been in therapy once or twice (or five times) myself.

The studio liked the idea and arranged a meeting at NBC. NBC responded to the “pitch”, and ordered a pilot script. I wrote the script, and then a second draft based on the network’s notes. During the writing period, an idea for the show’s theme song came to me, a signal that my unconscious was actively in the game.

In the song, I imagined an alternating “back-and-forth” between a male black, blues singer with a low, buttery-smooth voice and a “yakkety-sax” type saxophone. It went something like this. (If you have an instrument handy, the lyrics section of the melody is an ascending E-G-A-C):







(Different melody)




As luck would have it, NBC cut the project off after the second draft. A pilot episode was never produced.

I knew the project was in trouble the minute I sat down for my “script notes” session with the NBC executive. The first thing he said, was,

“Did you enjoy writing it?”

Any writer who’s been through this experience I am certain will agree. You hear that question, and your show is unquestionably is dead. The only reason for bringing it up is to make the executive feel better about shooting the project down. “Sure, we destroyed his hopes and dreams. But at least he enjoyed writing it.”

I came up with a couple of other series ideas under my Paramount deal, including one that, in many ways, was the most original, half-hour script I have ever written.

But that’s for another reading.

I leave you today, hopefully humming…



Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"The 'Down' Side of Specialization"

Will you please welcome, Emmy award winning television writer, Earl Pomerantz.


Thanks for havin’ me.

It is our pleasure. Earl. You specialized in writing in the half-hour comedy format.

Yes, I did.

And how long did you do that?

For parts of the past four decades. Or, to be more precise, for all of the two in-between decades and for sizable hunks of the first and the fourth.

Would it then accept the title “Expert” in writing in the half-hour comedy format?

There are five of us. One’s too rich to speak to anyone, two are dead, and one won’t come out of the house. So here I am.

And it is indeed wonderful to have you.

Thank you.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? When exactly did your interest, that ultimately led to your becoming a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format, begin?


Great. Now of course, starting out, you weren’t immediately a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format. How did you develop your abilities, such that you ultimately became a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format?


You certainly had quite an education, didn’t you? Tell me, as a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format, when coming up with an idea for a show, what is it that tells you, “This one has the makings of a half-hour comedy series”?


Super. Now, as a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format, do you have any theories concerning what exactly it is that makes people laugh?


How true that is. Finally, not to become too pedantic on the subject, but as a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format, ‘Whither, the sitcom?’


Where is half-hour comedy headed in the future?


Thank you for your thoughtful, knowledgeable, and at the same time often quite amusing responses.

Happy to be here.

Now with our few remaining moments, are there any final words of wisdom you would care to pass along?

I don’t know about wisdom, but it’s good to remember that television can be a great learning tool. Someone considering a career in TV writing may have watched this show and learned something that could help them. But like everything, there’s another side to television. The television can do damage by broadcasting programs….


…that sew seeds of hatred and division…

Get off!

…just because Freedom of Speech says they can…

We don’t want to hear it!

…and there’s money to be made doing it.

Boo! B...

Why are they booing me?

Because you’re a specialist in writing in the half-hour comedy format.

But I have something to say…

About the half-hour comedy format?


Then nobody wants to hear it…from you.

Ladies and gentlemen…

The “down” side of specialization.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Two Prehistorics go hunting. Two buddies, living in neighboring caves. This is not hunting for sport we’re talking about. Not beer coolers and antlers on the wall. We’re talking about is hunting as a life and death situation. And not just for the animals.

(I know you can also eat berries, but certain varieties are poison, and the book identifying which are which is eons in the future. Eating animals is safer, because there are no, or at least fewer, poisonous animals. The most poisonous animals are the ones that ate poison berries. To avoid them, you look for telltale berry stains around their lips and a look in their eyes saying, “I don’t feel so good.”)

After following the spoor – which is a fancy way of saying tracks, though it could mean animal droppings; either way, it’s something hunters follow – the two Prehistorics come upon a herd of animals, grazing in a meadow, or maybe slaking their thirst (which is a fancy way of saying they were drinking some water.)

Each hunter selects his quarry, which is a fancy way of saying the animal they’ll be throwing their spears at. (“Hunter talk” seems to bring out the “thesaurus” in me.) Quarry selection is extremely important. The animal can’t be too small; there are a lot of mouths to feed. But it can’t be overly large either. Though there’s this natural impulse to brag, “I killed the biggest one there!”, you must always consider the practical issue of lugging the thing home. Otherwise, it’s,

“I killed the biggest thing there!”

“Oh, yeah? Where is it?”

“It was too heavy to bring home.”

“Nice story.”

Trial and error (the only method of learning at the time) has shown the Prehistorics that for optimal success, the two hunters need to throw their spears at the same time. Throwing the spears consecutively will alert the herd to danger.

“Look! There’s a spear in Larry.”

“Yeah, we better get out of here.”

And they’re gone. For the best chance of nailing more than one animal, the “Two- Throw” is unquestionably the way to go.

So that’s way they do.

With varying results.

Hunter Number One is a superior hunter. His spear hits its mark, the animal falls – “There’ll be stew in the pot tonight!” (This is akin to a basketball announcer’s calling, “Swish!” or “Yes!” A Prehistoric “hits from outside”, and it’s “There’ll be stew in the pot tonight!” If they showed Prehistoric Hunting on the Versus network, I’m pretty sure that’s what they’d say.)

Hunter Number Two? Let’s just say hunting is not Hunter Number Two’s forte. But he does his best. When Hunter Number One chucks his spear, so does he.

In a demonstration of progress, Hunter Number Two’s spear actually hits the animal he was aiming at. Unfortunately, his spear turns in mid-flight, making contact with the animal, not with its point but with the wooden shaft that the point is attached to, before dropping harmlessly to the ground.

Hunter Number Two is working under a handicap. Severely limited arm strength. The prevailing wind, which did not affect Hunter Number One’s effort in any way, had pushed his throw sideways, resulting in the shaft striking the animal instead of the point. And “striking” is a generous description. The animal barely knew he’d been thrown at.

If this hunting failure had been an atypical episode – no harm, no foul. The wind blew his spear sideways. So what? We’ll get ‘em next time. The problem was, this, or some similar mishap, happened on every hunt. His spear fell short. It caromed off a tree. Once, he actually grazed the back of his own head.

Hunter Number Two never killed anything. The result of this failure was that, while the caves of successful hunters featured families looking comfortably fed, his cave presented the Prehistoric equivalent of Bangladesh. Skinny people. Nothing to eat.

Time was running out. There are only so many “no food” days a cave family can survive. Until, before you know it

They’re food.

It didn’t happen. And here’s why.

The two hunters are heading home, one empty-handed, the other with dinner slung over his shoulder. Hunter Number Two is in full “Complaint Mode”, hoping Hunter Number One, as he often does, will take pity on him and offer him, maybe the tail to take home, so his wife can pacify her family with bowls of unnamed animal-tail soup.

This time, however, the tail offer is not forthcoming. Instead, Hunter Number One utters five words that would change life as it was then lived forever. The five words were these:

“I really like your sandals.”

“These things?” replies Hunter Number Two. “I made them myself.”

“We make everything ourselves,” then adding, mumblingly, “though my sandal-making’s about as skillful as your hunting.”
“I guess we all have our talents,” observes Hunter Number Two. And that’s when it hits him. The world-altering insight.

You hear a lot about the barter system, but considerably less about what makes the barter system work. Which is specialization. There’s no point bartering if both people have the same thing.

“I’ll give you a hat for a hat.”

“I’ve got a hat.”

What makes bartering successful is that people trade different things – food for sandals – each of which springs from their special area of specialization.

With specialization, nobody has to do everything anymore. You offer your best thing, and you barter for what you need but aren’t great at doing yourself. Later, rather than trading something for something else, exchanges were transacted through the medium of money (which you received by providing your services to somebody else), then eventually through credit cards, and of course today, through the accumulation of enormous debt. But that’s another story.

(A story I presciently told in one of my weekly newspaper columns almost forty years ago. Check the archives of the Toronto Telegram, 1968-70. “Percy Neeps – ‘Where It’s Near.’”)

Specialization definitely has its “up” side. Without it, I’d be operating on my own heart.

“Hold that mirror still, will ya! I kinna see whot I’m dewing!”

(Sorry. I suddenly went Scottish there for a second.)

But there’s a “down” side to specialization.

Which I’ll happily grumble about tomorrow.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Surgeon Search - Chapter Two"

“The ‘Sister’ will sign you in.”

These were the first words I heard in the dimly lit Reception Area of the hospital where we’d had come for our Surgeon Search kick-off consultation with “Surgeon Number One.” (“Surgeon Search – Chapter One”: September 15, 2009.)

I then proceeded to a nearby desk, where a seventyish nun lady with a calming spirit and heavenly penmanship signed me in, and directed me to the surgeon’s office.

That was my introduction to “Hospital Number One”, out of which “Surgeon Number One” would operate, and where my, hopefully, not too many days of “after care” would be provided.


Introducing “Hospital Number Two” (out of which “Surgeon Number Two” would operate):

A large, semi-circular arrival area worthy of an Oscar-night drop-off.

Valet parking.

A three-floor high – at least – lobby, built of marble, tile and enormous glass windows, a check-in area worthy of a Four Seasons hotel anywhere in the world, (including those really wealthy Arab countries). Though, itself, hardly understated, this introduction to the hospital resonated with a subliminal message:

“The fact that they are sick people in this building will neither be confirmed nor denied by this truly opulent lobby.”

A lobby of this luxuriosity can engender one of two impressions:

One: “This is a First Class facility.”

Or Two: “What does a Vegas-style lobby have to do with fixing my heart?”

We decide to reserve our judgment.

Our written instructions direct us to a “Consultation Room”, where we are to pick up the “house phone” and dial a certain extension, to announce our arrival. We imagined being collected from there, and escorted to “Surgeon Number Two’s” office where the consultation would be conducted.

The “Consultation Room” is a small, kind of a waiting room arrangement, containing maybe half a dozen fake leather chairs. It isn’t private. There’s another guy in there waiting to see a different surgeon.

We look for the “house phone” to dial the extension. There is no phone in the room.

After fifteen minutes, “Surgeon Number Two’s” non-medical assistant appears, and explains that the reason there is no phone in the “Consultation Room” is that somebody has run off with it. (They apparently also absconded with a couple of the fake leather chairs.) However, now that it’s been visually confirmed that we have arrived, things should be moving along briskly.

Twenty-five minutes later, “Surgeon Number Two’s” Nurse Practitioner arrives – sharp (in the “on top of things” sense), funny and efficient. She asks a bunch of questions, which I answer, and then she leaves, taking with her two disks I had brought, containing some heart test results, so that “Surgeon Number Two” can study them before our consultation. I like the Nurse Practitioner so much, I kind of wish she were in the running in our Surgeon Search. But she isn’t. Something about not being a doctor.

An hour later, the non-medical assistant reappears. We get up. It is time to meet “The Big Guy” in his office.

Well, not exactly.

The non-medical assistant escorts us out of the “Consultation Room”, two doors down the hall to another “Consultation Room.” This one is a little smaller – only three chairs. I do not check to see if it has a phone. We actually never see “Surgeon Number Two’s” office. We are not even sure he has one. For all we know, he just wanders the halls, waiting to be paged.

Finally, ninety-five minutes after our arrival at the hospital, “Surgeon Number Two” materializes in the second “Consultation Room.” We are already aware that “Surgeon Number Two” is “Big in the Business.” During our first consultation, “Surgeon Number One” had volunteered, “He was my teacher.”

“Surgeon Number Two” shook our hands and spoke with an accent associated with a former member of the British Empire, but not Canada. He had black hair and dark, penetrating eyes, bringing to mind the, I think, English actor, Roger Rees. Though a sly sense of humor quickly surfaced, one could easily imagine “Surgeon Number Two” as an evil genius arch-villain, intoning, in a deceptively buttery voice,

“Not so fast, Mr. Bond.”

If the man had not written the book on heart valve repair – and he may well have – “Surgeon Number Two” had unquestionably read it cover to cover. And had memorized every word.
When he was nine.

I like asking a lot of questions, as soon as they come to me. “Surgeon Number Two” likes to say “Let me finish.” Feeling uncomfortable about interrupting people who may shortly have their hands around my heart, I immediately back off.

The problem was that by the time “Surgeon Number Two” finished talking – ten minutes after he had started – I had amassed so many questions along the way, I was unable to remember any of them. Which may – or may not – have been his plan.

In either case, the result of his extended discourse left me relatively speechless, beyond the generic “How much will it hurt?” and “When will I be better?”, which is just me, being terrified in question form.

A lot of times, when knowledgeable people are lecturing on their areas of expertise – such as during my Extension classes at UCLA – I don’t always understand all the words, but I generally get the music, meaning, the overall sense of what they’re saying.

“Surgeon Number Two’s” tune, exquisitely rendered, told me this:

“I am a gifted and respected practitioner, immensely prepared for what’s likely to occur during your surgery. And if the unlikely occurs, you could not be more capable hands. I have explored the advanced techniques (Read: robotic surgery), and I’m convinced without a doubt – something I haven’t had since 1978, and it lasted less than a second – that the conventional approach to your surgery remains the surest and the safest approach.”

Coloring the effect, “Surgeon Number Two” delivered this anxiety-allaying melody wearing clownishly-large, black New Balance sneakers, over which were a visible pair of leg weights, so he could, he explained, exercise while walking the halls of the hospital, since he was unable to get to a gym.

And that was it.

Except for a finishing tooting of his own horn over his trademark concern for maintaining blood flow to the brain throughout the operation. (And who doesn’t want that?)

Summarizing the “Surgeon Number Two” Experience:

The doctor was aces.

But the sterile (and not in a good way) facility left you wishing there was a “Sister” around to sign you in.
Okay, I can't say for a certainty, but I think I did my first hyperlink. If I did, the credit goes to my daughter Anna for teaching me. If I messed up, I take full responsibility for thinking I got it, when I didn't. I hope I got it. I like to learn at least one new thing every twenty years. (The last one was the toaster oven.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Second String Rabbi"

In Toronto, as the Jewish High Holidays approached, our fancy synagogue’s Number One Rabbi would sequester himself in his study, sweating over his upcoming sermons, far and away the most meaningful orations of the year.

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) are Prime Time for synagogue attendance. (Hence the significance of the sermons; you’re speaking to uncharacteristically packed houses.) The most marginal believers find themselves drawn to their houses of worship, as if some spiritual magnet were sucking them out of their secularity and into pre-assigned seating. Their appearance reflects the hope that this once-a-year inoculation of “Vitamin J” will suffice to insure that their names are inscribed in the upcoming calendar’s Book of Life.

(I go ‘cause I like to hear the songs.)

With the head rabbi otherwise engaged, it fell to his second in command to preside over the lesserly considered, more sparsely attended Saturday morning services. The understudy rabbi was younger and less experienced than his superstarish superior. Not to mention a less naturally gifted speaker. To be honest, he was barely ready to perform in public.

The head rabbi and his apprentice were black-and-white studies in diametrical opposition. The assistant was slight in build, where his boss was corporeally substantial. His demeanor was mild, where his superior’s was authoritative. And where his boss’s voice was sonorous and his delivery captivating, the underling spoke in a reedily-thin tone and was yawningly charisma-free.

Everything about the substitute screamed, “No Threat”, a factor you’d have to believe played a determining role in his appointment, especially if the Big Fella (the head rabbi, not God) had a say in the hiring.

Most damaging of all, however, was the content neophyte rabbi’s sermons. In a writing style that can only be described as “apologetic”, he appeared to take back his words the moment they came out of his mouth. The man seemed unable to complete a thought without immediately qualifying its meaning, diminishing its effect to an embarrassing gibberish.

His message was hardly original. During one characteristic effort, he was making the point that the human body – I guess because of the soul, or something – is immeasurably more valuable than the added-up worth of its chemical components. I will not judge the worthiness of his point, only the way it came out. Which was, with minimal exaggeration, like this:


“Science tells us, that the body, or human form – if you will – is made up, or comprised – as it were – of elements, or components – so to speak, whose worth monetarily amounts to two dollars and ninety-eight cents. More or less.”

That’s the way he talked. “If you will”, “as it were”, “so to speak”. For an entire twenty-minute sermon.

My brother and I were on the floor after the first salvo of “so to speaks.” As comedy people, we immediately got the concept, and could anticipate where it was going. My mother, being an adult, but blessed with the family sense of humor, was agonizingly torn down the middle. Remaining straight-faced and looking straight ahead, she angrily barked, “Stop it!” out of the side of her mouth. Closer inspection, however, revealed mirthfully dancing eyes, and a monumental struggle not to collapse in hysterics.

The High Holidays are a time to ask for forgiveness. I belatedly ask forgiveness for guffawing in the face of a man who was simply doing the best he could. My hope is that, decades later, he has overcome his elocultional liabilities, and he’s standing in some pulpit this holiday season, knockin’ ‘em dead. Kickin’ liturgical ass.

So to speak.

Happy “Days of Awe", to all who participate.

To everyone else, have a pleasant week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The Brave One"

Yesterday, I experienced an angiogram. When heart surgeons go in to fix your valve, they want to see if there’s anything else they can take care of while they’re in there, so they won’t have to come back later. They can fix whatever needs fixing while they’re in the vicinity.

OLD “FIREMAN JOKE”: (INTO PHONE) “Where’s the fire? On Maple Street? That’s too bad. We were there yesterday.”

This was my first angiogram ever. So…how, can I say this – I was terrified. How do I handle it when I’m terrified? I announce it to everyone in the vicinity. (And now, also, to you.)

As half a dozen strangers prepared me for the procedure, I informed the nearest one, but loud enough for all to hear: “Do not expect anything ‘manly’ or ‘heroic’.”

Translation: I may whimper. Or, if it hurts, get loud.

That’s my style. I like to lower all expectations of me, especially in the “courage” department, to sub-basement proportions. In the course my pre-procedure work-up, the nurse asked, “Do you have a high tolerance for pain or a low tolerance for pain?” My immediate response: “I have no tolerance for pain.”

I have a feeling that the person I’m really talking to during these “low-ball” assessments is myself. I’m reminding myself, “Do not be concerned about expectations of bravery. You’re a wonderful singer. You can’t be everything.”

The thing is, however, that sometimes I am brave.

Africa – 1981

Dr. M (when she was still M) and I are on a photographic safari in Kenya. (Someday, I’ll tell you the whole story. Today, I’m highlighting being brave.)

We’re in Samburu, one of Kenya’s magnificent game parks. Our guide, Patrick, parks the minivan, and informs us, that if we want to see crocodiles, we should walk down the path he’s pointing to. We want to see crocodiles. So we head down the path, while Patrick leans against the minivan, and fires up a Lucky.

We proceed down the underbrush-bordered path to a lagoon, we see a few crocodiles, and we take some pictures. We then turn around, and start back to the minivan. Except…

Now gathered in the middle of the trail, blocking our way, are, maybe, fifteen to twenty, large and noticeably muscular


Who show no intention of vacating their recently chosen gathering spot.

We are too far away to call Patrick for assistance. And unfortunately, we have, between us, zero experience dealing with baboons. These are not zoo animals. These are wild, ferocious scary beasts. Bunch fifteen or twenty of them together, that’s a lot of sharp teeth and pointy nails.

M is seriously concerned. As am I. The difference is, I have learned from my favorite comic book, Tarzan, how to talk to animals you are not entirely certain are on your side. Mustering inner resources I had no idea I possessed, I puff up my chest and march straight through the hairy assemblage, barking out Tarzan lingo like, Bundolo! Kreegah! as I go.

And I get to the other side.

I could hardly believe it. A baboon Red Sea and I had miraculously parted it.

If I knew the appropriate technology, which I don’t, I could show you a picture, taken by me, of Dr M standing precisely where I’d left her – owing to her skepticism over my Tarzanic­ yammerings – with the baboons massed directly between us. In time, the baboon congregation dispersed, she was able to rejoin me, and we continued up the trail.

But wait! That was just the appetizer. The astonishing main course arrived later that day.

After returning to the game lodge we’re staying at, we decide to unwind on the patio with a Diet Coke and a “cold one.” (The beer in Kenya is called Tusker.) As we pick out a table, we notice, at the pool area below us, a baboon (alone, but uncomfortably large) is harassing two middle-aged women, who appear at a complete loss as to what to do. They’re shrieking and carrying on, it’s all rather amusing, especially considering our multiple-baboon encounter earlier that day.

Until the baboon loses interest in the middle-aged women and heads directly towards us.

I’m telling you, this was one menacing-looking hairy dude. And unrepentantly anti-social. If this guy were a High School student, there is little doubt his full-time residence would be at the principal’s office.

The first thing the baboon does when he reaches us is he grabs M’s purse with her money and her passport in it (which we badly need, and would suffer greatly were it to be carried off into the bush).

M grabs the purse’s strap, and a tug of war ensues, which, if points were deducted for one of the combatants falling down, the baboon wins. What am I doing while this is going on? I’m pretty much standing there, shocked and confused.

And then I’m not.

From the “fight or flight” menu, I inexplicably choose “fight.” I pick up a nearby patio chair, and begin thrusting it in the baboon’s face. The baboon reaches for one of the chair’s legs, to wrest it away from me, but I’m too slippery for him. I continue my onslaught – thrust and retreat, thrust and retreat, driving him away from the fallen M.

M regains her feet and retrieves her purse, as I hold my own against my jungley adversary. Finally – I guess, after their break – two hotel staffers rush to our aid, sending our feral foe into sullen retreat.

When it was over, my heart was pounding like it had never pounded before, more powerfully even than when they were announcing the Emmy winner in the category I was nominated in. This was the real thing. A down-and-dirty primal challenge.

And I had emerged the victor.

Heroic proclivities are generally not my forte.

But sometimes you rise to the occasion.

At certain moments, that’s worth remembering.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"A Workout For 'The Lazy Tongue'"

I learned this at the Actors’ Workshop. Although it was a Method acting school, the place was, after all, still in London, where diction matters. So it was not surprising that one of our teachers, an Englishman, dedication himself to the eradication of garbled enunciation, especially “amongst the Colonials”, dubbing himself The Mortal Enemy of the Lazy Tongue.

To the end of combating telltale Lazy Tongue tendencies, students were required to repeat this vacuous little doggerel, over and over, as quickly as was tongually possible.

I will transcribe it the way my ears originally heard it. But feel free to deliver it in whichever dialect you prefer.

Okay, now.

As fast and as often as you can.

And work that tongue!

Betty Bohtuh boht some buttuh

But she said, “This buttuh’s bittuh

If I put it in my battuh

It will make my battuh bittuh

But a bit of bettuh buttuh

Bettuh than this bittuh buttuh

Will but make my bittuh battuh bettuh.

If your tongue needs a nap, you’ve performed it correctly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Surgeon Search - Chapter One"

Reviewing the Surgeon Search concept:

Dr. M and I are meeting with a number of recommended heart surgeons. At the end, based on standards that are annoyingly unclear, we will pick one to open me up. And, hopefully, fix what’s inside.

Dr. R is Candidate Number One. Being first, we have no one to compare him with. We do however know two people he operated on. Neither of them is alive anymore, but the gap between the surgery and their demise is sufficiently distant to relieve him of any responsibility. We’ve been told that they both liked him.

Dr. R’s office is located in the hospital itself. I think heart surgeons need to be on the premises so in case an emergency arises, they don’t end up caught in traffic.

“I could have saved him, but the President was in town, and they closed Wilshire.”

The office feels borderline shabby, though some large, black-and-white blow-ups of flowers adorn the walls – tulips and lilies. (Wait, aren’t lilies symbolic of…you know, maybe I’ve got that wrong.) The support staff is extremely friendly.

The surgeon is late for our consultation. He’s in the ICU (the Intensive Care Unit), administering to a patient. Fine by me. That’s exactly where I’d want him if I needed administering to.

“I’d like to help you live, but I’m late for a consultation.”

I would not want that.

The surgeon arrives. He looks tall. I’ve read that tall people inspire confidence. In presidential elections, the taller candidate generally wins. (That may be true, but how many of those winners inspired confidence after they were elected? Roosevelt inspired the most confidence, and he spent four terms sitting down.)

The first thing I notice is Dr. R’s sporting a surgeon’s cap and shows no inclination towards taking it off. The cap has a bunch of pastel squiggles on it – pink, turquoise, powder blue. I begin considering inferences from the pastel color choices. Then I notice there’s some lettering on the cap. The lettering reads:

Harley Davidson

I immediately reconsider my inferences.

We go into his office. It’s kind of small. Dr. R sits down and begins reading my cardiologist’s report on my condition. Feeling anxiety-inducing flashbacks of producers reading a script I had written in front of me, I beat a hasty retreat to the relative security of the hall.

He asks me questions. I answer them. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, he speaks in a powerful voice. It wasn’t yelling exactly. It was more like someone who’s used to talking to people under heavy sedation. At first, I imagined he’d become unhinged from the stress of his activities. But on review, I found nothing to worry about in his loudness.

I ask him about robotic surgery, a less invasive technique favored by patients eager to avoid a more invasive technique. Dr R replies thusly:

“When I’m not doing surgery, I appear as an expert witness at trials across the country. The surgeons using robots? I’m always testifying against them.”

His response dampens my enthusiasm. Dr. R acknowledges that robotic surgery is the wave of the future. But for the present, it’s a potential undertow.

Dr. R studies the CD containing my TEE test. The CD contains pictures a camera took of my troubled mitral valve and its errant tendon. When he finishes watching, he says,

“I can fix that.”

I like those four words. And the confident way he says them.

There was one somewhat odd moment. In response to I don’t remember what, Dr. R begins reeling off an unsolicited list of former patients – billionaires, politicians and celebrities he’d operated on. His loose lips seem a breach of personal confidentiality, but what do I know? I mean, his walls weren’t plastered with grateful acknowledgements scrawled on eight-by-ten glossies, like at the dry cleaners. But it did feel strange.

Listing prominent former patients also seemed irrelevant to me. It reminded me of when I got my first apartment in L.A., and I decided to rent a piano. Browsing through the piano rental store, I came upon an “upright” I was curious about. When I asked the salesman about it, he proudly announced:

“That piano was featured on a Mitzi Gaynor special.”

So what? How does it play?

This question goes double for surgeons.

Finally, Dr. R performed a routine examination. I didn’t pay close attention, but Dr. M later confided that she had liked the way he listened to my heart. He closed his eyes and really listened. (By the way, I now have a really interesting-sounding heartbeat. If I had the technical expertise, I would – I don’t know the word – broadcast it over the Internet, so you could experience something truly unusual. To me, it sounds similar to the incidental music on Seinfeld.

Pa-pop pop pa-pop whoosh.

Thumbnail response to Dr. R: If I only had one surgeon to choose from, this guy would be fine. But my arrangement offers the luxury of meeting others.

Such is the brilliance of Surgeon Search.

There’s more to come.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Men Of The World"

It was a crisp autumn day. Though it could have been March. I really can’t remember.

I’m living in London, teaching at St. John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School, and taking thrice-weekly classes at The Actors’ Workshop, a Method drama school in a city world-famous for the other style (studying The Method in England is like learning to play ice hockey in Hawaii.)

I need a break.

English food is…you know. I don’t need to pile on. All I’ll say is there’s only so many steak and mushroom pies you can eat, remaining vigilant that they don’t give you steak and kidney pie by mistake (the kidney bits are shinier than the mushrooms, but it’s no easy call.)

I decide to go to Paris, where the food, even on a minimal budget, in reputed to be better. (It is. But what really knocked me out was that they sold wine in cafeterias. I’d been frequenting them my entire life but not once had ever left a cafeteria drunk.)

I’ll talk about that trip another time, although the main thing I remember I already mentioned. “I just ate in a cafeteria. And I’m drunk!” My other memorable experience was attending a production of The Odd Couple done entirely in French. I knew enough French (five years studying in High School) and enough Odd Couple (having seen productions in New York, Toronto and London) to easily follow the plot. The French rendition did have its own unique flavor. More garlicky, I believe.

Anyway, to get to France – this was before the Chunnel, which now transports you from England to France via a tunnel beneath the waters – you had to take a train from London to Dover, on the English coast, then get on a boat that would take you to Calais, on the French coast.

If the Nazis had wanted to invade England, they could have bought tickets going in the other direction. Instead, they, inexplicably, did something else, involving bombing the crap out of London. I never understood why they did that. Maybe they thought if they pummeled London thoroughly enough, Churchill would offer them free tickets on the boat to make them stop. That’s probably not the explanation, but I’ve never heard a good one.

Anyway again, I buy a ticket in London that will take me to Dover that will take me to Calais that will take me to Paris. I get on the train, and I find a seat. A window seat. I enjoy a picturesque view of the English countryside, after we finally leave London, whose outlying areas sport a surprising number of dwellings that retain outhouses in their back yards. I imagine these were some of the blokes I ran into when I was availing myself of the tubs at the Oasis Public Baths.

A man settles in the seat beside me. A lived-in-looking character, a cross between Gary Busey and Mickey Rourke, which, when you think about it, is not much of a cross, since they’re pretty much the same guy.

The most distinguishing feature concerning my seatmate is that he is accompanied by an enormous dog. I have little knowledge of dog breeds, but judging from its size and girth, its appeared to have had genetic contributors outside of the canine species. It was, like, bear, mixed with wolf, mixed mountain lion, mixed with maybe a different kind of bear.

The animal seemed docile enough, resting placidly by my seatmate’s legs. Muscular legs, I took note, which could squeeze the life out of the dog, if it started channeling its more dangerous predecessors. My judgment was it was unnecessary to change seats.

I can hear myself breaking the ice with some memorable cleverness, like,

“Big dog.”

Whatever I said, it got the ball rolling. We immediately struck up a lively conversation. I don’t remember the details, but I recall the whole thing feeling particularly “grown up.” We were two Men of the World, one traveling alone, one with canine companion, our sites set on the fabled excitement of Par-ee.

The train reaches Dover. We de-train, and board the boat. There is no question of separating. We’re travel buddies. We find seats together on deck. A waiter drifts by. We order pints of English beer.

The image is slowly materializing.

Men of the World.

Drinking on the crossing.

Our order arrives. We exchange “Cheers!” and casually quaff our room temperature brew.

The boat disembarks. We’re on our way. The sea is noticeably choppy. A brisk breeze stings our reddening cheeks. Nothing matters. I’m living in an English novel. I feel tweedy and content.

My travel buddy needs to avail himself of the “facilities.” He asks me if I’d mind watching his dog. I say, “Bob’s your uncle!” (I don’t, but I wish I had. It pretty much means, “That’s easily done.”) I take charge of the dog. And he heads off to the Gents.

So there I am, bobbing atop the Straits of Dover, a pint glass of “bitter” in one hand, a heavy, leather leash in the other.

And then it hits me.

The most excruciating seasickness I have ever experienced. This is big-time mal de mer. My temples are pounding like pistons, my stomach’s doing flip-flops, and my face is turning green. Strangers are coming up to me and asking if I’m okay. Usually adding, “Smashing dog!” before continuing on with their lives.

Forgive me for being indelicate, but what I needed most at that juncture was to go somewhere – very quickly – and puke my guts up. The problem is, I can’t go anywhere, because I’m babysitting a dog. I mean, what can I do, hand him over to somebody else?

“Listen, this isn’t my dog. Would you mind taking care of him until somebody you never met before comes back for him?”

What would you say if a stranger asked you that? Even one who looked like he was about to die?

My only option was to the take the dog with me. This option became immediately unavailable when I got up and tugged on the leash. The dog didn’t budge. (This may have something to do with his master’s having instructed him to “Stay!” before he took off. Or, more likely, because the dog weighed three hundred pounds.) I yank on the leash as hard as a seasick person can yank. Nothing. It’s like trying to move a building that you’ve roped with a lariat.

I now have no choice. I just have to sit there. Feeling sicker. And sicker. And sicker.

Finally, the dog owner exits the Men’s Room. Quickly sizing up the situation, he picks up the tempo of his return. I hand him the leash, and I race to the blessed sanctuary of sinks and toilets.

Racing into a stall, I proceed to evacuate foodstuffs from my body, dating back to the early Fifties. Birthday cakes from when I was eight years old come flying out. Hot dogs from forgotten ballgames. Souvenirs from “All-You-Can-Eat” brunches. Hello, lamb chops and blintzes!

I entirely empty the vault.

When I finally emerge, I rejoin my travel buddy. But it’s not the same.

We were still two bon vivanty Men of the World.

But one of them had a little throw-up on his windbreaker.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"A New Series Idea"

One of Dr. M’s favorite TV shows is a series on the House and Garden Network called House Hunters. I take pains not to deride my wife’s viewing preferences, lest she rejoin with the fact that I’ve watched the same Law and Order episode twelve times. Of course, that’s different. I’m not really re-watching the episodes, I’m re-evaluating the legal arguments, which is an entirely different thing.

Anyone buying that?

Here’s how House Hunters works. A couple is looking for a place to live, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in more exotic places, like in Costa Rica, or Rome. A local real estate agent offers them three possibilities to check out, and at the end, the “house hunters” pick one of them.

That’s the whole show.

No sarcasm intended – though a little may have trickled in on its own – House Hunters can be pretty suspenseful. Every episode is skillfully constructed so that each property provides the prospective buyers with deal-clinching or deal-breaking pluses and minuses, over which the couple “Ooooh’s” and “Aw’s” as they’re shown about the premises.

“The living room is so spacious.”

“But the deck faces a condemned neighborhood.”

“The kitchen has all the amenities.”

“But the second bedroom is kind of small. I thought it was a walk-in closet.”

“The kids are going to love this swimming pool.”

“Yes, but there’s no fence around it. They’ll drown.”

Though perhaps not scintillating, House Hunters has a way of holding your interest. (Especially considering what else in on.)

We stick around to see what they’ll finally choose: The “cookie-cutter” condo with the magnificent ocean view? Or the less expensive “fixer-upper” with unlimited “upside potential”?

“When we return, we’ll find out which home Todd and Isabel have chosen to make their own?”

Be honest, now. Who wouldn’t return for that?

Okay, so that’s the prototype.

Now here’s my version.

Recently, our cardiologist gave us the names of several surgeons, all of whom (just like the realtor and their houses) he thinks are just what we’re looking for. What happens now is that we meet with each of these surgeons, and in the end, we decide which one of them will repair my heart valve.

Do you see what I’m going for here?

It’s exactly the same show. The format is identical, except instead of houses, we’re choosing a heart surgeon. It seems perfect for the Medical Channel.

Tell me what you think of this title:

Surgeon Search

Maybe I should try a prototype right here on the blog. After every interview with a heart surgeon, I’ll give you my impressions of how things went, the pluses and the minuses. Who knows? Maybe I’ll let you vote on which surgeon I should pick. (But weighted, so that my vote counts for more. Come on. It’s my heart.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m smelling a hit here.

Whoo-hoo! I’m back in the business!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Movie Jobs I Never Got To Do"

I had a successful career writing for television. My movie-writing career is a different story. A very short story. Or, more precisely, no story at all.

Be gentle, will ya? I’ve got heart problems.

Sorry. I was just trying to be accurate.

Accuracy isn’t everything.

That doesn’t sound like you.

It’s me with heart problems.

Can I still tell the story?

Sure. It’s a good story. It’s about my favorite subject – human foolishness.

Your own?

My own foolishness is not without entertainment value. But given the option, I greatly prefer other people’s.

So I have permission to proceed, Mr. Pre-Op Italics Man?

You do.

Thank you.


Being a successful television writer occasionally earned me the opportunity to, as they say, call “take a pass” at a film script, originated by another but that wasn’t quite right. “Taking a pass” means reading the script, looking for ways to improve it. It’s called “taking a pass” because that’s what you do.

You temporarily pass by the script.

The job gives you a shot at one rewrite, maybe two, and then the script proceeds to an unspecified number of other movie writers who are hired to “take passes” of their own. That’s how movie writing generally works. It’s “gang writing”, conducted by gang members who never meet. (Except maybe at a credit arbitration.)

Okay, so one day, I’m asked by an executive at Disney named Marty (who I’d never met) if I’d be interested in taking a look at a script originally written by the highly successful French writer/director, Francis Veber (La Cage aux Folles, among dozens of others). I said sure.

The script I was sent was pretty much a literal translation of the original script, which Weber had already made into a successful movie en France. Now Disney wanted to make an English-language version, and to that end, they were searching for a writer to make script changes deemed necessary for the transatlantic crossover. I was one of, I’m sure, many candidates for the job.

I diligently prepared for the meeting. I realized I’d be discussing the script with its original author, and that would require diplomacy and tact. Of which, I have neither.
My only hope was to know what I was talking about.

As I pored over the script, I focused on those elements where the story points or character-driven action felt more French than believably American. I identified maybe half a dozen places where I was certain adjustments would need to be made. I wasn’t talking about mistakes of any kind. It was merely a matter of cultural differences.

I went to the meeting.

I don’t go in much for personal descriptions. All I’ll say is that Francis Veber was a very handsome fellow. He spoke in a smooth and confident English, dolloped charmingly in French dressing.

After some obligatory small talk, we got down to the business at hand.

I mentioned that I had a short list of cross-cultural concerns, moments I felt needed re-imagining for an audience lacking the French sensibilite. (Imagine that last “e” with an accent aegue.)

I offered my first example of a scene I believed needed changing. Monsieur Veber listened in respectful silence. When I finished, he responded. (I believed he sighed first.)

“I will say only zis. When zat scene played in ze zeeter, ze owdience was loffing, and loffing. I am telling you, it was so funny, zey could not stop loffing. And loffing. And loffing.”

Marty (the producer) remained silent. I was entirely on my own. As politely I could, I explained to Monsieur Veber that, though I had no doubt that French audiences found that scene hilarious, American audiences might not get it. And therefore, not loff.

Monsieur Veber considered my remarks (I believe he stroked his chin), and then replied.

“I am not opposed to changing zat scene, if euw ‘ave zumthing to replace it with zat is funnier. I will only repeat zat when zat scene played in ze zeeter, ze owdience was loffing, and loffing, and loffing. More zan a minute, zey were loffing. It was so funny.”

It gets tiresome writing in dialect, so I will summarize our encounter thusly. It’s not so much summary, actually, as a loop. After every of the half-dozen suggestions I made, Monsieur Veber responded in precisely the same fashion. He surrendered to the possibility of replacement scenes – if the replacements were funnier – but he assured me that when the scenes I was criticizing played in the theater,

“…ze owdience was loffing and loffing and loffing.”

The meeting ran mercifully short. As I passed Marty on my way out, I announced,

“This guy doesn’t want to change anything.”

To which Marty replied,

“I know.”

Leaving me the angrifying but (wimpily) unasked question:

“Then why did you ask me to come here?”

In the end, Veber’s English version of the movie was just the French movie over again. Word for word, and scene for scene. It failed. This came as no surprise to me. French moviegoers have a greater tolerance for “slapstick reality.” (I’m not sure exactly what that means. Then again, I’m not French.)

I imagine the whole experience left Monsieur Veber shaking his head. How could American audiences sit stone-faced at those classic, comedic moments, when, en France,

“…ze owdience was loffing and loffing and loffing”?

This is just one movie job I never got. Once, a producer asked me to “take a pass” at the script for his movie, Cannonball Run V. I read the script.

I told him it was perfect the way it was.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"A Regrettable Incident"

We’re getting close to the time in the Jewish calendar when believers (and a number on the periphery, especially those heading into surgery) hearken back to memories of regrettable behavior, in hopes that asking for forgiveness will clean the slate, allowing their “contracts” to be renewed for another year, their names comfortably inscribed in the Book of Life.

If this strikes you as religious mumbo jumbo, think of it as personal rehabilitation. Flashbacks on regrettable behavior offer opportunities for upgrading such behavior in the future. Not because of some hoped-for reward, but because of the sobering realization that that wasn’t you at your best.

Here’s what happened.

I’m one of two Executive Producers on the sitcom, Kristin, starring Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth. I’m not popular with the writing staff, being a generation older, and not much in sync with their comic sensibilities. Our “out of sync-ness” resulted in their not giving me what I needed from them creatively, at least not often enough. The disappointment made me grumpy. Making me even less popular with the writing staff.

We assemble on the soundstage for “Show Night”, maybe Show Eleven of the thirteen-episode order. Everyone’s trying to make the best of things, but the “get along” bonds are seriously starting to fray. The staff is sensing the show’s not going to make it. (It ultimately ran for four episodes.) Interactions become formal and short. Eye contact is the exception.

I need a redeeming “Big Moment”, some way to win back the writers and make them like me again, or least recognize my abilities. Of course, none of this is conscious. On the surface, I’m simply going about my business.

Sometime during the filming, I go up into the bleachers to talk to the audience. Talking to the audience almost always bolsters my spirits. I feel free up there. And sometimes, spontaneously and unexpectedly, I can be really funny.

I ask the audience if they have any questions. (I have no prepared material. I’m a counter-puncher. I play off whatever they ask me.)

The audience asks questions. I surprise us both with some off-the-cuff, funny answers. It’s going pretty well.

Then this teenaged boy, a black kid (which probably shouldn’t matter, but it does), maybe, I don’t know, sixteen, raises his hand.

“Hey. What’s your question?”

“How do I get a job here?”

“What kind of a job do you want?”

“Any kind.”

To a probing comedy mind, this is an opening. To the question, “What kind of job do you want?”, the response, “Any kind” is incongruously vague, leaving dangerous room for ribbing and fun-poking.

“Okay,” I begin, “let’s try to narrow this down. You’d like to work at the studio.”


“Doing what?”


The audience chuckles. I forge ahead in my exploration.

“Let’s see now. Would you like to be, I don’t know, a director?”

“Okay,” responded the teenager.

The audience laughs at this response, a response stemming, perhaps, from a gameness to try anything, or an urgency to escape unemployment. Unfortunately, it made no sense. A young fellow with no credentials whatsoever has just offered to take on arguably the most challenging and technologically demanding job on the entire show.

The response is comedically unreasonable. A person walks into a hospital looking for work, and when asked, “Would you like to be a brain surgeon?” replies, “I’ll give it a shot.”

You can’t do that.

Having been offered a gaping hole of comic possibility, I reflexively drive right through.

“So you want to be a director, huh? You think you can handle it?”

“I think so.”

“Fine. Then here’s what we’ll do. You stay where you are, and – I know this is unlikely – but if our director happens to die, and the Assistant Director and the Second Assistant Director die too, in some kind of directorial epidemic – then we’ll call on you, and you can come down to the stage and step right in.”


“Okay,” I “aside” to the audience. “He’s ready.”

The audience is now howling. I wrap it up with one final shot (a little Cosbyesque, I thought):

“You know, we actually wanted you for our director all the time. We just didn’t know where you were.”

The kid sits down. The audience rewards me with prolonged and enthusiastic applause.

I had unquestionably “killed.” Returning to the stage, the formerly hostile writing staff surrounds me, congratulating me on my triumph.

I had gotten ‘em back. Shown them an old guy could be funny. I was in heaven. And then it hit me.

He only wanted a job.

He has simply asked a question. And I drowned him in derision in a desperate play for approval.

He only wanted a job.

This experience took place eight years ago. And I still play it over in my head. Looking back, the least I could have done, after reaping glowing accolades at his expense, would have been to get him the number for the studio’s employment office. How hard would that have been? Too hard at the time. I was too busy, basking in delirious self-satisfaction.

I hope the guy landed on his feet. And I pray there’s a statute of limitations on behaving like a jerk.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Someone came up to me at a party, and said,

“I hear you’re a comedy writer.”

I quickly corrected them.

“I’m a writer.” I replied, “and it comes out funny.”

This (meaningless to others) distinction is important to me. “Comedy writer” suggests funny hats and “the life of the party.” A comedy writer is an instant “ha-ah” machine responsible for delivering bellylaughs on demand.

“Mr. Hope needs three more Angie Dickinson jokes.”

“Mr. Leno needs three more Paula Abdul jokes.” (It’s all the same. Only the targets change.)

Instant punch lines. Fast and funny. I have absolutely no aptitude in that direction. (Unless, I’m in a room, competing. And then, look out!)

It’s not a moral thing – “I’m better than that.” It just isn’t my style. Also, unless they’re original in their formulation or point of view, that stuff never makes me laugh.

For me, comedy is simply the dialect I speak in. There’s “guy from another country”, there’s “Southern Belle”, and there’s “You make your point, but the way you express yourself makes people laugh while they’re listening to you.” That third one is me.

When it’s working.

That’s the next point. Nobody’s funny all the time. (Or to their spouse, ever.) It’s a question of batting average. You make people laugh more often than you make them go, “I have no idea what you’re talking about”, and you’ve earned the right to be called a funny guy.

But it’s never sure-fire. Which is a bit of a mystery. My older brother, known to many as the funniest person they’ve ever met, will on rare occasions misfire with his comedic spontaneity. His perplexed response to the misfire? “It felt just like the good ones.”

There’s a lot of pressure on people expected to be funny. If I were be totally honest, that’s probably the reason I balk at being called a comedy writer. I’m resisting the expectations that come with the label.

If I say, “I’m a writer, and it comes out funny”, I’m making nowhere near as dangerous a comedic claim as, “Get ready to pee in your pants.”

If my pronouncement turns out not to be hilarious, I can say, “It wasn’t a joke. I was just talking.” I can get away with it because I deliberately avoided the joke formulation. Comedy writers can’t do that. They’re identified by the traditional structure, and are obliged to live up to it. There’s nowhere to hide. If their concoction bombs, they’re exposed to the claim, “That joke sucked!” And by the way, “You suck too!”

The last point I leave to philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Without going into detail, one of Locke’s beliefs was in primary and secondary qualities. Locke viewed color as a secondary quality. The apple, he argued, is not actually red. However, its substance has to power to produce the impression of redness in the observer.

It’s the same with comedy. The funny is not out there. The “out there” may trigger the funny. But the actual funny resides in the consciousness (or unconsciousness) of the receiver. Or it isn’t. If a comedian starts a story saying, “This is really funny,” and a heckler shouts, “We’ll be the judge of that!”

They’re right.

Nothing’s funny until somebody laughs.

Unlike the apple that emits the same signal to everyone (unless you’re color-blind), the funny signal is highly subjective. You can tell the exact same joke, and one person might laugh, another say, “What?”, another go, “That’s lame” and another, smack you in the face. And I’m sure there are other responses as well. All to the exact same joke. You prepare the best way you can – sharpen your material, perfect your delivery – but in the end

It’s not in your hands.

Comedy is a really tough town. Even for the best of them.

Richard Pryor, my favorite stand-up, certainly of his day, would always open his act with a four-word mantra slash prayer.

“I hope I’m funny.”

Hoping we’re funny.

It’s the best we can do.

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Saddle Up! - Part...I Don't Know, It's Been So Long"

Actors who played classic roles in westerns great and not so great remember their experiences for posterity as imagined by me because I never met any of them and the best I can do is make it up.



“I’ve been a drunk all my life. I figure, ‘How hard can it be to play one in a movie?’ I go to my first audition, I get out my first few lines of dialogue, the director says, ‘I’m not buying it.’

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m not convincing as a drunk? I am a drunk. I came drunk to the audition! I breathe in the guy’s face, he nearly keels over.”

“The director tells me two things that start me on a long and distinguished career as a movie drunk. Number One: Never go to an audition drunk, which I knew, but I got there early and there was this bar across the street and what are you gonna do, you know, I’m a drunk. Rule Number Two – and this really opened my eyes:

‘Drunk’ in real life is not the same as ‘drunk’ in a western.”

In fact, it’s the opposite. The last thing a real drunk wants is for people to know he’s a drunk. In westerns, that’s the whole idea.”

“I wangle my way into a studio screening room and I do a whole this marathon. I study every drunk who ever appeared in a western, from the highly respected Thomas Mitchell (in Stagecoach) to a fellow named ‘Banjo.’ At first, I got terribly offended. ‘They’re ridiculing my people.’ But after watching maybe a hundred westerns, I realize, ‘They’re ridiculing everyone: Indians, Mexicans, heavy people. Why not drunks? Are we any better than anybody else? Of course not. We’re drunks.”

“I stole bits from just about every movie drunk I saw – that kind of pinwheel look in their eyes, the wildly swaying gait, the way they ‘shlurred’ their words. I thought, ‘That’s not “drunk” to me. But if that’s what they want, I’ll sure as heck give it to them.’

“I went whole hog on the thing. I mussed up my hair and grew scraggly whiskers. I had a ‘drool vest’ made up – that’s a vest with fake drool sewn into it. I bought a spittoon and practiced stepping in it by mistake.”

“The best town drunks were ‘crazy like a fox.’ Pretending to be ‘three sheets to the wind’, they’d secretly gather information, leading directly to the triumph of justice. Drunks like that made all drunks stand a little taller. There was nobility in the degradation. They were doing their part. Sometimes, they got killed for their troubles. It made us all proud.”

“I liked to add an undertone of sadness and self-loathing to the role. Injecting those ‘colors’ made my town drunks feel richer and more layered than those of my competitors.”

“A drunk pretending to be a sober person pretending to be a drunk. Now that’s acting.”

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"A Shining Haven of Certainty"

I don’t want to interrupt my mellifluity with clunky exposition, so I’m putting it at the top.

Ontario is a province. That’s like a state, only we have ten of them, and you have fifty. Forty-nine, if Texas secedes. One other expository nugget. My hometown of Toronto is located in the province of Ontario.

During my academic era – though apparently not anymore – the province of Ontario required a thirteenth Grade of High School. But only if you wanted to go to college. If you didn’t, you could graduate after Grade Twelve. Post Grade Twelve graduation jobs invariably involved repairing things. Since my natural response to anything broken is to “take it in”, the college track was my only choice.

I had to go to Grade Thirteen.

Other than English, which was mandatory, Grade Thirteen offered a variety of subject options you could choose from. Well, that’s not exactly correct. If you were planning to become a doctor, you were required to take the pre-requisite math and science courses.

(It always amazed me that eighteen year-old kids knew what they wanted to be for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know what I wanted to watch on television that night. Yes, I did. Cowboys. I just said that for dramatic for effect. Having now added this, I stand pretty much exposed and embarrassed. But the point stands. They knew what they wanted to be. I didn’t.)

People who had no idea what they wanted to be could take anything. I took languages – French, Latin and German – and biology. Each language class, including English, broke down into two separate courses – grammar and authors (literature). I took nine courses in all – eight languages (English, French, Latin and German, times two), and Zoology.

(A note on my academic abilities. I was never an understander. But I was a magnificent memorizer and (informational) regurgitator. Once, taking a Zoology midterm, I got the highest grade in the class. Later, when the teacher gave back the exams, he asked me to stand up and read aloud one of my splendidly correct answers. As I stood there, regaling my classmates with my impeccable response, I could simultaneously hear myself thinking, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.” I had learned it all. But I’d understood nothing.)

The Grade Thirteen “Finals” – each exam was two and a half hours, and we often wrote two of them per day – covered the entire year’s work – September to June. Going over that much material took an intense amount of studying. Fortunately, aside from being a magnificent memorizer and (informational) regurgitator, I also possessed a prodigious amount of sitzfleisch. I think I spelled that right. My spell check doesn’t do German.

Sitzfleisch literally means…I don’t know what it literally means, something to do with “sitting meat.” What it refers to is a person’s ability to sit in one place and concentrate for extended periods of time. Sitzfleisch is an extremely useful attribute when you’re cramming for your Grade Thirteen “Finals.” Fortunately, I had sitzfleisch to burn. Still do. (Sitzfleisch is also a useful attribute for writers.)

I have always studied (and worked) with music playing. I find background music drowns out all extraneous distractions, including, for me the most oppressive distraction of them all, silence. As I prepared for my “Finals”, this studying style led not only to my absorbing the material, but also to my (unconscious) committing to memory the entire Top Forty of 1963. (Including I Will Follow Him, It’s My Party, My Boyfriend’s Back and Da Doo Ron Ron.)

Despite my admitted strengths, I still felt enormous pressure. I didn’t believe I was going to fail, but what if I choked? There was a lot riding on these exams. Not only did doing well mean getting into the college of my choice (The University of Toronto), but, owing to recent family financial reversals, I needed to score high enough to win an Ontario Scholarship, whose four hundred dollar award would go a long way towards paying my tuition. I had always been an “A” student – if you don’t count gym, and Manual Training – but this one was for all the marbles.

The heat was really on. I had no idea how I’d perform.

I needed a safety valve, a welcoming respite from doubt and fear. Surprisingly, I found it in mathematics. Not hard mathematics. The simple applications of multiplication and division.

Whenever I couldn’t take anymore, I’d set my studying aside, and pick up a pen and some nearby notepaper. On that paper, I would randomly write down two three-digit numbers, one number directly over the other. I would then multiply those two numbers together. When I finished, I would divide the answer I had gotten by one of my two original numbers. If I’d done my computation correctly, what I’d end up with was the other number.


That’s how it works. (Whoever invented mathematics made it up that way.) You multiply two numbers together, divide the answer by one number, and you get the other number. Every, single time. I can’t tell you how comforting that was at the time. With all the uncertainty swirling around, there was this one place where I knew, without question, how things were going to come out.

Today, as I proceed towards my rendezvous with my medical destiny, I find myself returning reassuringly to the tried and true.

Four hundred and seventy-eight times six hundred and ninety-five. Five eights are forty, carry the four, five sevens are thirty-five…
Thanks, commenter, for illuminating me about the Fifth Third Bank. Sometimes, comedy requires the persistence of ignorance. But once in a while, it’s okay to sacrifice the “ha-ha” for something you’re truly curious about. It can’t happen too often, however, or you’ll wind up an accountant. My apologies to accountants who are actually funny.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"The Mysteries of Life - Step One"

As we get older, there are certain life mysteries we feel an increasing urgency to comprehend. With time winding down, there’s a pressing drive to understand.

I’ll begin with a small, nagging perplexity, in hopes that clarifying this slight but troubling puzzlement will provide me with the impetus to confront life’s more enduring questions, like, “Where do we go after we die?” That one’s down the line. We’re starting easy.


We’re driving through Chicago and some towns in Indiana. We notice this chain of banks. Each of the branches has a sign hanging outside it. The sign reads:

Fifth Third Bank.

Question One on our extended journey towards Ultimate Wisdom:

What the heck does that mean?

I’m not used to funny names for banks. Having grown up in Canada, I’m more comfortable with bank names I can understand. The Bank of Montreal is called that because the bank’s headquarters are in Montreal. The Toronto Dominion Bank is centered, not surprisingly, in Toronto. The “Dominion” part’s been added to puff the operation up. (Montreal banks don’t need puffing up, because their city has a better hockey team.)

We also have the Bank of Nova Scotia. Fort Knox (theoretically) backs up our currency with gold? The Bank of Nova Scotia guarantees its assets with codfish. You can’t go near those vaults.

So that’s what I’m familiar with. Banks with names that make sense. The Fifth Third Bank? I have no idea what they’re talking about.

We (Dr. M and I) become curious as to how a name of this nature could have evolved. We drive around, looking for banks of a lesser denomination – The First Third Bank, or The Second Fourth Bank. Our investigation yields no such entities.

Nor do any banks appear to have built on the Fifth Third Bank. There is no Eighth Twelfth Bank. There’s only that one thing.

Out of nowhere, it appears, someone decided to leap into the middle of the numbering system and call their bank The Fifth Third Bank. Apparently, this is not illegal. Nor does there seem any oversight on bank naming. It looks like you can name your bank anything you want.

The question is,


The Fifth Third Bank?

My experience has taught me that there’s always an answer. Once, when visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico, we noticed an ad for a restaurant called, Dave’s Not Here. We drove a considerable distance to eat at Dave’s Not Here, primarily because we liked the name. Once, we were there, of course, we felt compelled to ask the inevitable question:

“Where is Dave?”

To which we received the simple yet satisfying response:

“He’s in jail.”

(Once he completes his sentence, I imagine the restaurant will re-christen itself, Dave’s Back Out.)

As with that question, I’m counting on some reader from the Midwest, or somebody in banking, or maybe a person who specializes in bank naming, to illuminate me concerning this bizarre seeming institutional moniker.

I simply don’t get it.

Every journey begins with a first step. So with the journey towards complete human understanding. Let this be our Step One: Solving the perplexitude of The Fifth Third Bank. Fueled by the momentum of that mystery’s resolution, we can then proceed with humility and baby-step incrementalism to our Second Question:

“Who put the bomp in the bomp-ba-bomp-ba-bomp?

Who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong?”

The journey is long.

But the rewards are immeasurable.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"A Little Lesson That Taught Me A Lot"

One final little memory nugget before I (reluctantly) close the books on my camp stories for the season…

I don’t want to say goodbye

To the sum-mer…

I’m a Senior Counselor. Eighteen years old. I’m in charge of eleven-year old boys, “in charge” being a laughable euphemism. My campers were entirely beyond my control. The next year, they gave me six-year olds. I did considerably better with them. For one thing, when they ran away from me, I could catch them. They had shorter legs. Eleven year-olds were too fast for me. In every way imaginable.

We’re playing baseball. My cabin against a cabin of similar-aged kids. We’re up to bat. There are no dugouts. My kids assemble behind the backstop, waiting for their turn to hit.

The backstop surrounding the home plate area is made of wood, about three feet high, above which there’s mesh wire fence, wrapped around a wooden frame, rising to about ten feet. The fence is made up of interlocking diamonds of wire. The holes are big enough to stick your fingers through.

A point lying at the heart of this story.

The story being, me, trying to keep my campers – one camper in particular – from sticking their fingers through the fence. You don’t want kids sticking their fingers through the fence, because of the chance of a foul ball suddenly flying backwards and mangling those fingers to pieces.

Mangled campers’ fingers. That’s trouble for everybody.

Okay. The kids are leaning against the backstop. A number of them have their fingers through the fence. My first instruction. Calm and easy.

“Okay, guys. No sticking your fingers through the fence.”

The kids obediently remove their fingers.

A few miinutes later, I look back, and I notice that one kid – his name is Jeffrey – has his fingers snaked back through the fence.

“Jeffrey. Take your fingers away from the fence.”

Jeffrey pokily withdraws his fingers.

A few minutes later…

They’re back.

You can hear the sigh of frustration in my voice. In fact, I may have actually sighed.

“Jeffrey! Cone on! Do you want to hurt yourself?”

Once again, Jeffrey withdraws his fingers.

Moments later,

They’re back again.

Fueling my incremental boil.

“Jeffrey! How many times do I have to tell you? Take. Your fingers. Away from the fence!”

“O-kay!” whines Jeffrey, rapidly becoming a poster boy for Truculence.

I check back later…

You got it.

I have no idea what to do. I try everything in my (limited) counselorly arsenal.

“Jeffrey, are you listening to me? Or am I talking to the wall?”


“Jeffrey, I’m warning you…”


“Get away from that fence!”

Nothing works.

Whatever my approach, Jeffrey’s stumpy little fingers repeatedly insinuate their way back to the “No-no Zone.” It feels like a war. A war, which, like many wars, started out being about one thing but evolved into something else, in this case, a battle over my authority as a counselor. It was still about Jeffrey’s fingers, of course. But not just about Jeffrey’s fingers. We were long past that.

Bernie Green was our soft-spoken Unit Head. (Unusual, since most Unit Heads were of the “rah-rah” variety.) Apparently, Bernie had been quietly observing the Earl-Jeffrey hostilities from a distance. Now he decided to take action.

Here’s what he did.

Bernie casually sidled up to the backstop beside Jeffrey, and in a calm and sincerely concerned voice said to him:

“I’m worried about your safety.”

There was a long beat where nothing happened.

Then Jeffrey withdrew his fingers.

And he never put them back.

I learned a lot of lessons at camp. But none was more valuable than that one.

“I’m worried about your safety.”

That’s all it took.