Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The Best of Earl" (2)

Hello Readers,

This is Earl's daughter Anna writing to let you know that the surgery went great!! The robots did a wonderful job. He is in recovery at the moment and when coming out of his haze, he proclaimed, "I love anesthesia!" Thanks for all your comments. Earl is looking forward to coming back to the blog and sharing some surgery stories.


"Report From The Picket Line"

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Hasta La Vista"

Happy trails

To you


We meet


Happy trails

To you

Keep smi





Who cares about the clouds when we’re



Just sing a song

And bring the sunny



Happy trails

To you

Till we




So long,

Buckaroos and


I'll see you down the road.


Stay tuned for "The Best of Earl", which starts tomorrow. Catch posts you may have missed, and re-read posts you just can't get enough of. It's a real Earlebration. Don't miss it.

I'll know I'm receiving enough pain medication when the guy in the bed beside me is smiling. Anna just sent me this YouTube link of the Best of the West theme song, plus two clips from two different episodes. Enjoy!

Friday, October 23, 2009

"A Writer's Handicap"

I’m not sure which part to begin with, the embarrassing part, or the disgusting part. I’m leaning towards starting with the embarrassing part, in hopes of building up some good will by volunteering something embarrassing, and then hitting you with the disgusting part, which you’re unlikely to appreciate at all. Yeah, I think I’ll do that.

(Upon further pondering, it appears that my entire life strategy may hinge upon the idea of wanting to be liked, which, if you don’t have time to read this whole thing, may, in a nutshell, be my “Writer’s Handicap.”

Okay. The embarrassing part:

I’m acquainted with this guy who won two Oscars for writing screenplays. Though a generation older than me, the man is brimming with enthusiasm and twinkle. He told me told, I believe without my having asked him, that what he looked forward to most in movies when he watched them growing up was the kissing.

Now, understand, it is ingrained in my genetic predisposition to find ways of making myself feel bad. I don’t know why. It’s there, and I live with it. I hear an Oscar-winning, make that a double-Oscar-winning screenwriter, tell me that what he looked forward to most when he watched movies growing up was the kissing, and I immediately conclude:

“I have no chance being successful as a movie writer.”

Why not?

Because the thing I looked forward to least in movies when watching them growing up was the kissing. (No, second least. The first least was the violence.) Moreover – and this is the embarrassing part – I still don’t like watching kissing in movies.

I still look away.


Because kissing, to me, is personal. And personal, to me, means private. And private, to me, means you look away.

(Also, though this is, admittedly, more on an intellectual level, I’m aware that people kissing in movies don’t mean it. Not, I mean, as the people they are. Kissing in movies involves one actor kissing another actor, because that’s their job. The script says, “They kiss”, so they kiss. They’re simply following instructions.

This setup has always triggered a squirmy reaction, supplementing my discomfort on the “privacy” grounds. Two strangers, people who may never have met before working on this movie – passionately doing…whatever the script calls for them to do. And that’s okay, because passionately kissing or doing whatever they’re being asked to do in the script, is a professional requirement. I’ve got a goofy smile on my face right now, because it seems so bizarre.

An actor returns from work to their partner, of whatever relationship or gender, and the partner asks, “What did you do today?”, and the actor says, “I simulated some stuff. It was totally choreographed. There were hundreds of people watching. It was nothing.” And the spouse says, “Great. What do you want for dinner”? To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? How can they do that?”)

(One possible answer is they can’t.)

Returning to the topic at hand, okay, so some double-Oscar-winning screenwriter looked forward to the kissing in movies. Is that necessarily a death sentence to me as a screenwriter?

I would have to say absolutely.


That double-Oscar-winning screenwriter’s reaction to kissing in movies is radically more in sync with the general movie-going public’s reaction to kissing in movies than mine is.

Which, who are we kidding, it is.

With the consequent implications relative to my ability to connect with the general movie-going public. Spelling it out: There’s a good chance I will not be able to.

Okay – having, hopefully adequately, softened you up – we now proceed to the disgusting part.

I’m back in Toronto, decades ago. I’ve been invited to a small gathering to discuss, with a trained professional, the creation of a new comedy improv group. The first thing the trained professional wants is for us go around the room and say what we hope to get out of participating in this group.

The first couple of aspirants say they want to learn and practice improv techniques, with the hope of, down the line, mounting a live public performance. It is now my turn. And I say something like this:

“I don’t want to be in a show. It’s just that I spend a lot of time in my head, thinking my own thoughts. I came here to get some idea of what ordina….”

I hear what I’m about to say. “I came here to get some idea of what ordinary people think.” That’s right. I’m about to call everyone else in the room “ordinary.” I stop myself in the middle, because I realize how insulting that’s going to sound. Nobody wants to be called “ordinary.” And that’s just what I was about to do.

I somehow wormed my way out of my faux pas. But I never went back there.

A lot of people will misunderstand what I was trying to say. I’m hoping you’re not part of that group. When I was blundering my way towards distinguishing myself from “ordinary” people, I wasn’t saying trying to say I was special.

I was saying I was different.

And not in a celebrational, multi-cultural manner.

I was saying I was “different” is the sense of not being normal, where “not being normal” is defined not judgmentally, but mathematically, as in, not part of the vast majority of people.

How do you imagine having a career writing for a mass audience when you’re not normal? Like, for example, when your least favorite part watching movies (actually second least besides the violence) is the kissing, and, I would guess, a very large number of people like that part the most, or at least it’s up in their Top Five?

Now you might suggest, “If you’re not into a certain activity personally, you could pretend.” That’s true, and a lot of writers do that. Randy Newman wrote “Short People” and “Davy, the Fat Boy”, and he’s neither particularly short nor particularly fat. On the other hand, Randy’s not writing about being short or fat; he’s writing about reacting to someone else being short or fat. In a mean way. The thing is, I’ve met Randy Newman. And he’s not mean at all. He’s very nice. Yet, he seems to be able to be mean in his songs.

In a certain way, I have no imagination. I mean this is the sense that, if I haven’t experienced something personally, or it’s not something which, in some way, strongly resonates with something I’ve experienced personally, I can’t write about it. At least, not in my mind, convincingly. Can I write devious? Not like devious people can. (Or writers who can imagine being devious.) Can I write “smoothly persuasive”? “Mean-spirited”? “White hot rage?” “Craftily manipulative”? “Silkily seductive”? (I just giggled.)

How did I make it as far as I did? I restricted myself to formats, like the network half-hour comedy, where the range of permissible emotions and experiences were, then at least, and I suspect still to a great degree, enormously limited. I was also (not always unhappily) bound by traditional joke rhythms, and highly constricting storytelling formulas. Added to that, whenever possible, I went heavily in for absurdist comic logic, which, though often clever, is, by definition, a cerebral rather than an emotion-driven technique, thus sidestepping a wide range of uncomfortable feelings.

I did what I could. But I found it virtually impossible to expand my range. (Not to mention the courage that would have taken.) Now, I write a blog, once again working securely within my comfort zone.

I called this “A Writer’s Handicap.”

I believe I have made my case.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I read this once.

The shortest book in the world:



That’s how it used to work. If you were sick, you died. The doctor came. He brought his black bag. But there wasn’t much in it.

“I saw a bottle in there.”

“Yeah, that’s for me.”

People die all the time. Now and then. But in the Olden Days, it just seemed more expected. Almost an everyday occurrence.

“Where’s Mary?”

“Died in childbirth.”

“And the baby?”

“Gone too.”

“The older brother?”


“The Dad?”

“Eaten by a bear.”

“Is there anybody here at all?”

“Me. And I just stepped on a rusty nail, so, goodbye.”

Dangerous times, the Olden Days. You could go from anything. Just like that. (I just snapped my fingers.) I’m sure it was no less of a tragedy when death was more common. People were still devastated. But they seemed to – and this may be wrong, I don’t know, I wasn’t there – they seemed to accept death more as an inevitable part of life.

Death was all around them back then. In rural cultures, they participated in it themselves. They killed animals for food or to protect their animals. Which they later went on to slaughter and wring their necks.

In the Olden Days, there was no doubt about it.

Death happened.

Frequently, and like that. (I just snapped my fingers again.) And you could do very little about any of it.

“I thought you had a date.”

“He ate the wrong kind of mushroom.”

“Where’s Louise?”

“The barn fell on her.”

“What happened to the wagon train?”


Life was nothing but bad news. No wonder Olden Days people were more actively religious. Their loved ones were going in and out of life like a revolving door.

“What’s you name?”

“Don’t bother. I won’t be here that long.”

Desperate for understanding, people had nowhere else to turn. So they looked to the heavens, and they (or I imagine at least a few of them) said:

“Dear, God. Would you please stop killing us?”

Eventually, things slowly and gradually, began to change. Medicines were discovered for certain diseases. So you didn’t die from them anymore.

There were safer child-birthing techniques. Mother and baby, not dead at all.

They invented anesthetic. So you didn’t die from shock while they were operating on you. (Plus – a bonus – you were asleep through the whole thing.)

Penicillin and antibiotics. No more dying from the things that used to kill you before penicillin and antibiotics. (My medical knowledge is limited.)

Plus, though arguably most importantly, the doctors started washing their hands.

These advances significantly cut down on the dying. Medical progress cheated death one discovery at a time. “Magic” Johnson. Is there any reason that guy’s still alive? Yes. They invented drugs to save him. And they showed up exactly when he needed them. Now that’s magic.

Today, death isn’t as intrusive as it used to be. Compared to the Olden Days, it’s almost invisible. Few of shoot our own food anymore. We buy it pre-killed and packaged in cellophane. By the time it gets to the supermarket, it doesn’t look like anything that once had a face. It’s just…dinner.

Few people today own cows, and pigs and chickens, so we’ve lost the experience of going after them with an axe. Dead people? They’re almost invisible. The minute you die, they whisk you off to the mortuary. The next thing you know, you’re laid out in a box or poured into an urn.

Mourners will be shedding tears, but a number of them (especially in California) will be bitterly criticizing you, lamenting, “If only he’d eaten more bran.” People may not say it out loud, but for many health enthusiasts, there’s this nagging belief that, you die today, and it’s very likely your fault.

With this type of thinking, how far away is it for an informercial, proclaiming:

“People once said, ‘We’re never going to fly. It’s just not going happen.’ Today, planes take off every twelve seconds. We’re flying around the world. Now, you’re bound to be skeptical about this, but I’m here to tell you that that same ‘turnaround’ can happen with dying. ‘We’re never going to live forever.’ It might just happen. And soon. Impossible? Hey. They said, ‘We’re never going to fly.’”

Sure, people still die. But in a world where death is a virtual stranger, it’s possible to believe that someday, that infomercial may actually sound less crazy. Maybe not in your consciousness, but somewhere, you’re thinking, “Maybe we can live forever.”

And then, you wake up one night with severe shortness of breath because a piece holding your mitral valve in position just got detached. And you go to the hospital, and they tell you you’ve got trouble, and if you go home, you might die.

Die? Really? You mean people are still doing that?

In the blink of an eye, the illusion of invulnerability comes crashing to the ground. Without any comforting explanation.

It wasn’t, “I fell down and broke my mitral valve.” It wasn’t, “A guy sneezed on me on the subway, and he infected my mitral valve.” “How did you hurt your mitral valve?” “I slept funny.” It’s not how it happened. How it happened was

For no reason


A random occurrence. Just like that. (There go those fingers snapping again.) Reminding me of something I never think about, because, unlike in the Olden Days, there is nothing in my daily life that would cause me to think about it.

What I’m reminded of is this:

Anyone, but in this case, me, could die

At any time.

And at any place.

Because of what happened, the awareness of my mortality is now firmly embedded in my consciousness. And I can’t get it out.

So what do I do? Stay inside, because you can die outside? You can just as easily die inside. I could just go to bed and stay there. But, wait, don’t most people die in bed? It’s a terrible dilemma I’m living with. Jolted by this primal reality which has taken control of my brain

I don’t know where to be!

Once I lived my life, oblivious, at least on a moment-to-moment basis, to the possibility of my own death. Now, I’m as “blivious” as I can possibly be!

I wonder how those Olden Days guys handled not wallowing in the reality that was all around them. Perhaps it was being caught up in that whole “subsistence living” process. That won’t work for me. We have food, and we have shelter. We even have a swimming pool. Darn it.

Oh, well. It’s a beautiful day. I think I’ll go outside and look for distractions.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"A Mighty Wind"

I have always gotten stomachaches in libraries. A recent visit to one with my daughter, Anna, revealed that this, I’m guessing, uncommon condition has not gone away.

During my student years – a time substantially preceding the Internet – I went to libraries to do research for papers I was required to write for my various classes. It’s interesting. Just writing that last sentence, I felt the beginnings of a stomachache. Apparently, memories of me inside a library trigger colonic flashbacks. Yup, there’s another one.

I wondered why this phenomenon occurred. I was curious if it happened to others. But I never asked anyone. In case it didn’t.

I decided that the reason I got stomachaches in libraries was the awareness of the overwhelming disparity between the accumulated wisdom of the ages contained in the library, and how much I knew. This humbling thought literally turned my stomach.

I could never absorb all the information in the library. Or the tiniest fraction of it. I faced an Everest of information with a brain that at best might retain a handful of random grains of sand. Standing, utterly defeated, in this House of Ultimate Knowledge caused my gastric system to go into overdrive and spew acidic...

Okay, stop.

It’s a fine explanation. It really is. It makes sense, and, more importantly, it makes me look good. An overmatched Earlo hugging his tortured innards because of his daunting awareness of how much there is to know and how little of it he will ever comprehend. Very special indeed.

Too bad it’s not true.

What is? What’s the real reason I always get stomachaches in libraries?

The answer is very simple. Though, unfortunately, and I apologize for this, not that classy.

The real reason for my inevitable alimenteary discomfort in libraries is almost certainly this:

The real reason for my inevitable alimentary discomfort in libraries is almost certainly this:

The Fear of the Fart.


With silence comes

The Fear of the Fart.

And when you fear the fart,

The fart always comes.

So is revealed the true source of my anxiety:

The dread of making a loud noise in a very quiet place.

(Not the mention inappropriate and, generally, odiferous.)

You can’t stop it. You can’t tell yourself, “Don’t!” Once that seed’s planted in your mind (“You’re gonna do it.”), it’s done. You can’t ignore that thought. You can’t wipe it out. You are the walking embodiment of

The Fear of the Fart.

And when you fear the fart,

The fart always comes.

Everyone will hear it. Everyone will turn their heads. Everyone will see it was you. And everyone will be disgusted.

And there’s nowhere

To hide.

Anna’s searching the card catalogue for the books she requires. I desperately didn’t want to be there. But she’d asked me to accompany her, and I couldn’t say no. She’s been so kind to me recently, driving me to doctors’ appointments. I had to reciprocate. I had to go with her to the library. Even though I knew what would happen.

I try to control myself. Deep breathing and distracting thoughts. Attractive ladies are always good for that. Ooh, look. There are quite a few of them. Customers and librarians alike. My pulchritudinous diversion seems to be doing the trick. Until I remember those same attractive ladies will be witnesses to my shame.

Nobody likes a farter. Even if he’s cute.

We go upstairs, where the books Anna needs are located. So far, so good. I’m keeping things in check. Though it’s hardly clear sailing. I can feel the pressure beneath my belt.

Why do libraries have to be so quiet? I understand “not raucous.” We’re not talking Superbowl Madness. Quiet conversation. The airport waiting area, by the gate. People read there too. Nobody’s going, “Shhhh.”

Libraries demand total silence. For me, “Total” is way too much silence. The thought of, “What if I break it?” immediately springs to my mind. What if it’s me who destroys the silence? That’s the pressure I feel myself under. That’s my overpowering concern. That’s what ignites

The Fear of the Fart.

(And when you fear the fart,

The fart always comes.)

Anna’s picking out her books. I sense that my Moment of Truth is looming. My time is unquestionably running out.

And finally, it does.

But in a different way.

Not a fart. (We can be thankful for that.)

But the longest, loudest stomach rumbling since Mr. “Fat Bastard” exploded in that Monty Python movie.


Not once. But twice. The second one, if anything, louder.


Anna looked at me in dismay.


I shrugged sheepishly. There was nothing I could do. I was actually a little relieved. I had feared the fart. And though I had feared the fart, the fart had not come. Just…


Maybe I’m getting better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Keeping It Real - Follow-up"

Pursuant to a post I recently wrote called “Keeping it Real”, a reader named Jed commented thusly:

Do you think the subject of that episode of “Friends”, the difference in the income of the friends, could never be funny or could it have been fixed?

First of all, Jed, thanks for writing in. Second, thanks for giving me something to write about. And third, how’re ya doin’? Sorry, I needed three.


Income disparity among friends (or strangers even) is an extremely touchy area, and therefore uncomfortable, and further therefore not easy to make funny. Though it’s certainly not impossible. A skillful writer can make virtually anything funny, based on the approach they take to the situation. I’m sure there’s a funny approach to “income disparity.” I’d need time to come up with one, but I wouldn’t put it past me, or someone more talented, to figure one one. It is my judgment that Friends didn’t.

Part of the reason they didn’t was because Friends had not alerted its audience through its “mission statement” (offered subtextually in its pilot) that it would be tackling such meaty concerns. (As I recall the pilot included a runaway bride and a monkey.) Regular Friends viewers were conditioned to expect stories about attractive, single people in their twenties, with uncertain visions of their futures. And stories about sex.

The Friends ambience of choice was borderline fantasy. The friends’ apartments – you could land planes in them. They could never afford them. And the women’s haircuts, one of which triggered a national trend, would have cost even the most prosperous Friend a prodigious slice of their salary. Also, New York looked really clean.

The mistake the Friends show runners made in choosing the “money disparity” storyline was (paraphrasing The Three Amigos:

They strayed from the formula and they paid the price.

Now, back to Jed. The guy who wrote me.

I think that would be an interesting group of articles for you to write; how Earl Pomerantz would have written for various sitcoms. Not necessarily how you would fix bad episodes (although that would be interesting) but how would you fit your writing style in with the existing “universe” of the sitcom if they asked you to come in and write an episode.

Except for Becker, I was never asked to “come in and write an episode.” Wait, that’s not entirely correct. Garry Shandling once asked me if I’d write episodes for The Larry Sanders Shows, but I said no, because I can’t write dirty. I can think dirty, but I can’t write it. (I can also fix dirty, as I did for two seasons on Larry Sanders).

After running Best of the West and Cosby, I was at a place in my career where freelance episode writing was no longer an element of what I did. Mostly, I was contracted to create new television series. The closest I came to involving myself in other people’s shows, and something I really love to do – and would still love to do – was to consult.

People would ask me to come in a day or two a week and help them with their stories. (I would perform a similar service on new shows during pilot season.) But here’s the thing.

As a consultant, the first thing I try to discover is what it is that that particular series is trying to accomplish – to understand and internalize the basic premise of the show. It is not my job to pass judgment on its quality, or alter its direction. Whether it’s a revered series like Larry Sanders, or a less loftily aspiring series, like Goode Behavior (starring Sherman Hemsley) – both of which I consulted on during the same season – my goal was the same: To help the creators of the show fulfill the core intentions of their series’ concept as successfully as possible.

I worked just as hard preparing for Goode Behavior as I did for Larry Sanders. Maybe harder. Larry Sanders almost never sent me scripts ahead of time, the scripts rarely being completed until the night before they were to be read by the actors.

Hitting the wrong note, like the Friends people did on the “income disparity” episode, is easy to do. I did it myself on a show I co-created.

I forget the actual episode, but it was early in the first season of Major Dad. During one rewrite night, I supervised the replacement of the climactic scene of that week’s script with an entirely new one. I really liked what we’d written. But the next day, I was informed that the actors were unhappy, and they wanted to go back to the scene that our new scene had replaced.

I agreed to going back to the earlier version, but on one condition. Before we discarded it, I wanted the actors to read the new scene to me, so I could hear it out loud. The actors agreed.

I went down to the stage. The two lead actors, the director and I sat at a table, and the actors read the rewritten scene for me. It read beautifully. It was sharp. It was funny. And it wrapped up the story in a fresh and satisfying way. Only one problem:

It wasn’t Major Dad.

Nobody had to tell me. I knew it when I heard it, though I’d missed it the night before. It just didn’t feel like Major Dad. It had a different tone. The replacement scene was unquestionably well written. It was just for the wrong show.

It happens to the best of them.

It also happened to me.
I went to the Post Office to renew my passport. Seeking assistance, I entered the "Customer Service" office. There was nobody there. I returned to the Post Office area and said, "I can't find a 'Customer Service' assistant." A Postal Service employee officially replied, "The 'Customer Service' office is closed every day of the week."

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Living Will"

Yeah, it’s part of the surgery process. There are apparently legal problems if you haven’t specified in writing that you’d prefer not to live out your days as a turnip.

Which reminds me of this cartoon idea I had once. I may have mentioned it before, but current conditions propel it into my consciousness. Please forgive the repetition. And if I haven’t mentioned it before, please forgive the memory loss.


A single-panel cartoon.

I’m dead and I arrive at heaven. Wait, let’s not personalize this.

A man’s dead and he arrives at heaven. The thing is, he checked off the box permitting organ donations. As a result, the man reaches the pearly gates, minus his eyes, his heart, his lungs and his kidneys. In the cartoon, these deletions would be represented by black organ-shaped holes in the appropriate locations.

The man hears lively chatter all around him, tennis being played in the background. From the visual depiction, we imagine jaunty exchanges, like, “Throw me the football!” and “You look radiant, today!” Absorbing this auditory information (his viewing apparatus now elsewhere), the man quickly senses that the inhabitants of heaven have retained all their organs, whereas he, in his generosity, has not.

One hyphenated word graces the bottom of the panel.


Another unhealthy thought wafting through my brain…

If the doctors know you’re donating all your organs, do you think they try less hard with you? Dr, M says the doctors don’t know. It’s two totally different departments. But, you know, they’re in the same building, they get together for coffee, who knows what they talk about. All I’m saying is, when I’m surrendering to the anesthetic, I’d rather not hear the words,

“We could really use his nose.”

Random musings as the date approaches.
Responding to a questioner: It is my view that actors from other countries are invariably better trained than our home-grown actor-waiters. In other places, acting is seen as a profession. Actors study hard and continue honing their chops. You wouldn't go to a doctor because he had graced the cover of "Hot Doctor" magazine. (Unless you were looking to marry one.) Respect for acting in other countries is not a contradiction in terms. That's because, in other places, they actually take the job seriously.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"The Two Filming Techniques"

Getting so few questions on my blog makes me think I must have the smartest readership in Bloggerania. Of course, it’s possible I’m flattering myself in thinking this. You could just be not that interested. I, however, lean towards the earlier explanation, though it is not without its surprises. I am reminded of a Major Dad episode I wrote, where the Major imagined he was engaged in a “chess by mail” duel with some brilliant Russian physicist, when it turned out his opponent was actually an eleven year-old boy.

Anyway, when I do get a question, I feel so grateful, I am driven to respond at length. My concern when responding to a specific reader’s question, however, is that many of you already might know the answer to what the reader is asking about, leading to a reaction of boredom on your part to my response.

On the other hand, something I have already written has prompted this question, reflecting, on the questioner’s part, and maybe some others, a reaction of confusion. Now, in an effort to assuage the confusion of some readers, I am risking triggering the boredom of others. It’s a nail-biting profession, this blog writing. We’re walking such a delicate line.

So here’s the reader’s question. And I paraphrase, having forgotten their exact words:

“In the context of situation comedies, what’s the difference between the “single-camera” and the “multi-camera” technique?”

First, goodbye to the people who already know. We’ll see you tomorrow. For those remaining, I will not go to go into any great technical detail on the subject, because I’ll end up boring the rest of you, as well as myself.

I’m going to just jump right in and start with examples of both filming techniques. After I do, you might realize you knew the difference all along. You just didn’t know you knew.

CBS, Monday nights. Four consecutive comedies, from eight to ten (seven to nine Central Time, seven-thirty to nine-thirty in Newfoundland.) All four are filmed “multi-camera.”

NBC, Thursday nights. Four consecutive comedies from eight to ten (seven to nine, Central Time, seven-thirty to nine-thirty in Newfoundland.) All of them are filmed “single-camera.”

Think about those shows. Notice how they look different. Notice how they sound different. Notice their differently written comedy styles.

These shows are not the same.

“Single-camera” comedies use movies as their template. “Multi-camera” comedies offer the televised equivalent of a play. Today, in contrast to in my day, there are more comedies shot with the “single-camera” than the “multi-camera” technique. For two reasons.

One, writers today are, generally, more influenced by movies than they are by plays, and their writing-style preference is consistent with that influence. And two, also in contrast to my day, when shows were filmed with actual film, digital technology has made the “single-camera” process more economical.

Yeah, but what’s the difference?

Simply put – and I hope I can live up to that – “single camera” comedies are filmed with – Duh – a single camera. This one camera is used to film each scene from various angles, and with various compositions – long shot, combination shots of groupings of actors, close-ups of individual actors, cutaways to a cat. With “single-camera”, the same scene is required to be shot over and over to maximize, what they call, the “coverage.” Later, selected “takes” are edited together to produce the finished product. I’m hoping that was reasonably clear. A writer can hope.

With “multi-camera” (the process, originally using three cameras, advanced to four cameras, to provide greater “coverage”), scenes are shot with three (or four) strategically placed cameras all running at the same time, allowing you, at least theoretically, to shoot each scene only once. (Sometimes, a certain shot can’t be included, and has to be covered separately in a “pick-up” shot.)

What’s the advantage of the “multi-camera” technique? It’s faster. Who cares? You’d care, if you were paying for the show, and more importantly, if you were sitting in a studio audience and you had to endure watching the “single-camera” filming of the same scene twelve times. You’d go bloody balmy. (Ooh, I went all English there for a moment. Sorry.) Understandably, “single-camera” comedies didn’t have a live audience.

The “multi-camera” technique was developed to make the inclusion of a live audience possible. Shooting a show “single-camera” can take two to three days. What audience can sit that long? By contrast, a “multi-camera” episode can be finished in two to four hours. Paraphrasing Jon Lovitz in A League of Their Own, “That would be less, then, wouldn’t it?”

The presence of a studio audience means you get natural laughter, which sounds considerably better than the previously used “canned” laughter. More importantly, the immediate response of a live audience energizes the actors, many of whom have theater or comedy club backgrounds, and thrive on actual people responding to their work.

It is said that the “multi-camera” process was invented by Desi Arnaz, who used it first on I Love Lucy. Some of this decision had to do with making the episodes available for future syndication (I don’t really understand that part), but the audience also brought Lucy excitingly to life. Would you really want Lucy stomping grapes or stuffing chocolates in her blouse without the live audience, shrieking with laughter? It was the invention of “multi-camera” that made those shrieks possible.

The price, with the “multi-camera” technique, however, was a loss of nuance and subtlety. Both in the production and the writing.

The shooting of a “multi-camera” show requires the three (or four) cameras to be deployed in pretty much a straight line, to preclude the possibility of one camera catching another camera in its shot. You can see how that would limit the cinematographic possibilities in a way that the “single-camera” technique does not.

The lighting on “single-camera” comedies is more specific, because each individual “take” is treated to its own lighting pattern. “Multi-camera” shows are lit like night baseball. There are no shadings whatsoever.

(On Best of the West, I had a Lighting Director who had worked for Alfred Hitchcock. (And now he was working for me.) In the script we were shooting, I had written, INTERIOR CABIN – DUSK. They guy came over to me and said, “Earl. You’ve got ‘DAY’ and you’ve got ‘NIGHT.’ That’s it.” That’s “multi-camera” lighting.)

From a writing standpoint, if there’s an audience present, you feel successful when you make them laugh. And the harder you make them laugh, the more successful you feel. Optimal “big laughter” requires a “Big Formula Funny” style of writing. Set-up – punch line. Bam! Bam! Bam!

“Single camera” comedy writing? More subtle. Naturalistic dialogue. Sometimes, no dialogue at all, just, often hilarious, exchanges of looks. Wordless “reaction” shots. An insinuating camera, catching characters “off-guard.”

Final point. The soundstage, where the shows are filmed, are if limited size, and can only accommodate so much. Since “single-camera” sets can be smaller – you don’t have to allow room for three (or four) cameras to move around – you have room to build more sets on the soundstage, providing the possibility of a greater number of shorter scenes. Writers of “multi-camera” sitcoms, limited by three, or at most, four larger sets, are required to write longer scenes, because there are less locations for them to move to. The number of sets available to you fundamentally affects how you tell your story.

Plus, “single-camera” comedies, unencumbered by soundstage-bound pedestal cameras, can easily go outside. “Multi-camera” comedies can’t.

I think that’s more than enough for you to chew on. Now, here’s a test. ABC, Wednesday nights. Four consecutive half-hour comedies. A mixture of filming techniques. See if you can tell which one is which.

If you can, I’ve done my job.

If you can’t, well, consider whether it’s really all that important.

Thanks for the question, reader.

Keep ‘em comin’.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"It's Not Just Baseball"

The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are advancing in the playoffs.

And in a way, it’s a little sad.

Boston, Colorado, St. Louis and Minnesota have all been eliminated. I watched those elimination games, and what stuck with me most was stricken looks on the faces of their fans.

The fans in those cities - Boston, Colorado, St. Louis and Minnesota - they know what was really at stake. They understand in their bones that when their team makes their last out and they’re through for the year, it’s more than the end of the season.

It’s winter.

The L.A. teams get eliminated…

And it’s more of the same.

The Dodgers lose, the Angels get beat…

Sure, it’ll hurt.

But we won’t have to buy snow tires.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"A Joke Is Just A Joke?"

“It’s just one joke.”

And they don’t understand why you’re fighting for it.

Let me explain.

I’m working on Lateline, a sitcomical version of Nightline, co-created (with John Markus) and starring (now Senator) Al Franken. We did nineteen episodes for NBC, but they only aired, like, five of them. The rest were eventually aired on Showtime. Maybe now that Al’s important, they’ll release the entire set on DVD. I’d like that. We did some really good work.

On Lateline, (now Senator) Al played “Al Freundlich” (which means “friendly” in German), a guileless but legislatively all-knowing news correspondent. "Freundlich" knew precisely and in detail how a bill made its way through Congress. And he knew it wasn’t the National Institute of Health, but the National Institutes of Health. “Freundlich” was a polidiot savant.

Let me say this as a preamble. (I know a little bit about the government myself.) I write in a certain voice, which I’ll call, for want of a better label, mine. However, when I’m in a room with people who write in a different voice, but a voice I admire, not some dumb or leeringly sexy voice, my mind does this flip, and I am able to imitate the way they write.

I don’t become them, exactly, but somehow – and the transformation excites me – I hear myself pitching comedy that would never come to my mind if I were working alone. (Now Senator) Al’s “take-no-prisoners” brand of comedy, which is natural to him, and was further honed at Saturday Night Live, greatly expanded my range. Working with him, I was surprised (and delighted) with the things I came up with.

Example? It’s on its way.

We’re in the Writers’ Room, working on a script wherein “Freundlich’s” wife is chairing an important Washington fundraiser. Franken improvises the cause she’s raising the money for:

FREUNDLICH: (ENTHUSIASTICALLY) “It’s for a new Burn Unit and the Pediatric Jewish Hospital. It’s for kids!”

To which I add:

“And you don’t have to be Jewish. Just burnt.”

Well, people laughed a lot. I even laughed. Partly in amazement. I had never written a joke like that in my life.

We finish the script, and it’s handed in to the network. The next day, we get a call from the NBC censor.

“You can’t do the ‘burnt children’ joke.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s ‘burnt children.’”

(Now Senator) Al hits the roof.

“But it’s a great joke!”

“It’s a great joke” is the comedy writer’s first line of defense. Great jokes are very hard to come by, and when a writer comes up with one, they prefer an enthusiastic “Way to go!” to an order to remove the joke from the script. Such a demand is incomprehensible to us, tantamount to a chef’s preparing a magnificent dish, and being told by his restaurant-owner boss to toss it in the trash.

But this is not the main reason writers explode when they’re told to take something out. Okay, writers never like being told what to do, but this goes far deeper than a sensitivity to criticism.

Getting challenged on their choices goes to fundamental issues of taste and judgment. And on these points, writers are steadfastly unwilling to surrender. Especially to some censor, whose job it is to look useful, and the only way censors can demonstrate their usefulness is by telling writers to take stuff out.

The whole writing process involves deciding as you go what to put into your script (or whatever it is you’re writing) and what to leave out. Writers censor themselves constantly, struggling to produce a work that expresses not only what they’re trying to communicate, but their unique and stylistic distinct way of saying it.

What makes one writer different from another writer? Style (which includes tone and taste) and content. That’s all we’ve got. Our essential “us-ness.” Expressed by each and every choice we make. It is therefore infuriating when our essential “us-ness”, arguably the quality that got us the job in the first place, is brought ringingly into question.

The establishment of a show’s voice is as important as the establishment of the show’s level of truth that I spoke about yesterday. Both contribute to defining what an audience can expect when they tune in. Now, I’ve heard network executives say many stupid things. But none is stupider than telling the creator of a new series, “You’re a new show. You haven’t earned the right to break the rules.”

The clear direction there is, “Be ordinary. When you’re a hit, we’ll relax the boundaries.” The problem with that is that “ordinary” shows get cancelled. If a series can’t capture its audience early with a way of presenting itself that distinguishes it from the pack, it won’t be around to be accorded the munificence of the networks’ loosening of the reins. When I worked, this network shortsightedness was apparent all the time. I don’t imagine it’s gone away.

After striking out with the censor, (now Senator) Al took his appeal to the highest level, calling, and screaming, at the president of NBC. At the same time, he remained reasonable.

“You have to take the joke in context. ‘Al Freundlich’ is a guileless innocent. He’d never take a gratuitous shot at “maimed children”. He’s just excited about the fact that the Burn Unit is for everybody. That’s why he says, ‘You don’t have to be Jewish. Just burnt.’”

And then he’d scream some more.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Lateline was cancelled. And not because it was blanded out. For the most part, it wasn’t. Lateline failed because not enough people watched it. There’s no saying for sure, but I doubt it would have been more popular if it had been duller.

I claim no private wisdom on why television shows succeed or fail. I just wanted to make the case for why, sometimes, it’s important to fight for one joke.

And I believe I have.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Keeping It Real"

In the early nineties, I attended a one-man stage show starring a comedian named Rick Reynolds. Two things attracted me to the performance. One was that Reynolds’ manager was the revered Jack Rollins, manager of Woody Allen and many other outstanding comedians, giving Reynolds a lofty stamp of approval. The other draw was the title of his show:

Only The Truth Is Funny

I recall the show being very entertaining. Though Reynolds’ act was comprised of extended anecdotes concerning his often nightmarish life, he made you laugh, the more so, at least for me, because you knew those stories were true. Reynolds’ life had some agonizing turns to it. But it made for an extremely funny show.

I thought, as Eddie Izzard often goes…”Yeh.” It is indeed the case that Only The Truth Is Funny. And then, as I often do, I thought again. And what I thought was, “Not so fast.” (I’m pretty much ready to discard my first thoughts, since my second thoughts are invariably deeper and more rewarding. My eighth thoughts are amazing, but by then, most people have generally left the room. Including me.)

I believe it can be persuasively argued that only the truth is funny. But with a caveat. (Not to be confused with Dick Caveat, who was also represented by Jack Rollins.)
That caveat is this:

Yes, only the truth is funny


Not all the truth is funny.

You see what I did there? I agreed with the basic premise. But I qualified. Not all the truth is funny. A lot truth is not funny.

As I learned, or was reminded, I don’t recall which, while watching a particular episode of Friends.

I was a regular watcher of Friends, enjoying a great number of its episodes. Though I never cared who fathered Jennifer Aniston’s baby, which generated stories for, I don’t know, the last three seasons, I found the actors engaging and talented, and the jokes often hilarious, my favorite being,

“Let’s get some Chinese food. Or as they call it in China…food.”

That joke was just sitting there. But somebody found it. To which I proclaim, “Hat’s off!”

Top to bottom, Friends was a savvy enterprise. But once, early in the series, they hit a wrong note. By doing the right thing. That right thing being

Trying to tell the truth.

The story was about money. Some of the Friends had decently paying, fulltime jobs, and some didn’t. I think the breakdown was three and three. The show runners decided to do an episode about that. To wit:

How do you handle it when the Friends who have money problems can’t keep up with the Friends who don’t? How does the “affording” issue affect the group’s decision-making? How does it affect the spontaneity? The group cohesion?

In short, how does money affect the Friendship?

It sounds like a workable idea, based on the undeniable truth of the Friends’ situation. The result, however, was one of the sourest episodes in the history of the series.

It just didn’t feel good. And to a “feel good” television series, that’s the exact opposite of what they want.

It turns out Friends facing the truth about their unequal financial situations was, though true, painfully unfunny. It cut too close to an uncomfortable bigger truth. The capitalist reality. Where, without ignoring differences in wealth, we’re expected to act like they don’t matter.

For one episode, the Friends confronted that issue. They never did it again.

What do we learn here? First, we learn, as previously mentioned, that not all the truth is funny. Some of it is downright painful. And other things as well. If we have a desire to be entertained, we should not expect total truth from our television shows. (Who ever did? Me, and I was wrong.)

The best each television show can do is to define from the outset the level of truth that show will be making an effort to maintain. This is the undercurrent message of the pilot. It not possible for a show to tell the whole truth. There are always idiosyncratic “blind spots.”

Por ejemplo:

The Korean War lasted two years, but M*A*S*H, the show about the Korean War lasted eleven.

On Gunsmoke, Marshal Matt Dillon caught a bullet at least four times per season. Over the show’s twenty-year run, that means the man was shot over eighty times.

I don’t watch The Office that much, but does that paper company make any money at all?

How does the show on 30 Rock get done when you never see anyone working on it?

Could the obsessively id-driven Larry David we see on Curb Your Enthusiasm ever have run a successful television series like Seinfeld?

You like the show, you ignore the blind spots. As long as the show remains consistently faithful to its intentions.

The truth of Friends was bouncily delivered by its theme song:

“I’ll Be There For You.”

The Friends lived up to that.

Despite the disparity in their incomes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"What's On Your Mind?"

I have an idea for a post chronicling how Friends, an enormous hit in its day, followed arguably the most important writing rule I believe in – “Write as truthfully as you can” – and wound up making one of the worst episodes of their entire series.

I also have an idea for a post concerning (now Senator) Al Franken’s comedy, Lateline, where I personally witnessed (now Senator) Al “going to the mat” with the NBC censors over one joke, not because it was funny (although it was), but because it represented the show’s boundaries-breaking audacity, which a new series desperately needs to promote its uniqueness.

I’ll probably write both those posts in the near future. They’re good stories, especially for people interested in half-hour comedy. The thing is, sometimes, you go to the computer to write something, and a part of you – the part where your talent lives – says,

“Ahhh, maybe later.”

I wanted to write those two stories. Did I mention they were good stories? I think I did. And they are. I’m not kidding. Really. They’re fascinating. As you’ll see when I write them. It’s just that sometimes, despite your best efforts to focus your mind on delivering the wisdom and experience of a longtime television scribbler, that mind – and the talent that dwells therein – is insistently, perhaps, obsessively monitoring other concerns.

This, then, is a story about when you have the intention of writing one thing, but that gifted thing inside you is determined to write something else.

Which, today, is this.


Written last night at 3:29 AM


When I go down to the hospital

They’re gonna go in my side.

They say it’s less painful than cracking your chest

But what do I do if they lied?

They’ll still my lungs and quiet my heart

And when they’re done, they hope they restart

Today’s the day the robots go in my bo…dy.

Okay, it’s out. Tomorrow, I’ll return with Thoughtful Observations on the Sitcom Genre.

Unless something else comes up.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Saddle Up! - Part Twelve"

Actors (including disgusting feathered animals) recall their roles in old-time westerns.





“What I remember most is the heat. It’s hot? There’s the smell of death in the air? That’s our cue.

“‘Bring on the vultures.’”

“We had three moves, that’s it. We could hover in a tree – which is generally a one vulture thing – gather on the ground – that’s a group; one vulture can’t gather – or we could circle in the sky – which could be solo or in a group, depending on the budget. Vultures don’t come cheap. They ‘lowball’ ya, you can peck their eyes out.”

“There was this ‘special business’ bit they’d give us sometimes, where we’d spread our wings real wide and go ‘caw.’ Vultures don’t go ‘caw’ – that’s crows – but they liked the sound, so they dubbed it in later.”

“Circling was the worst. Nine or ten ‘takes’, circling round and round, a vulture can get pretty queasy, lemme tell ya. Why would they need nine or ten ‘takes’? Prima donna directors, thought they could get more out of us. ‘Could they have, maybe, a glint in their eyes?’ No. We just circle.”

It’s not well known, but we vultures have a pretty good sense of humor. It’s subtle. Kind of dry. What do we do that’s funny? Well, if you watch closely, you’ll see us circling in one direction, and when they cut back to us, we’re circling the other way. Once, as a goof, instead of circling, I did ‘Figure Eight’s.’ I didn’t work for a year.”

“By the way, that’s what distinguishes vultures from buzzards. Buzzards aren’t funny.”

“My biggest pet peeve? I’ve always resented the word ‘carrion.’ It’s just dead animals. Isn’t that what you eat?”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"My Football Dilemma"

Of all the major sports – of which I include hockey, though others may disagree, believing it can’t be a major sport if its nationally televised games are broadcast on Channel two hundred and seventy-five – the sport I am least enthusiastic about is football.

There are reasons for that. I have given them before, so I’ll do it fast. First of all – no, that’s not first of all, this is first of all – critically assessed, football is a neck injury surrounded by a game. Call me wimpy, but I find the imminent possibility of paralysis interferes with my enjoyment of an event. This also explains why I rarely watch boxing, and avoid car racing. I mean, comedians “die” on stage, metaphorically. In boxing and car racing, they can actually die.

“And I saw it happen!”

And that’s a good thing?

So much for doing it fast.

My city doesn’t have a professional football team, so I have nobody to root for. I don’t bet, so there’s no financial interest. I am also troubled by a sport whose most recognizable figures are the head coaches.

The coaches are the game’s biggest stars. Control freaks with a scowl. Dictators with headsets. These maniacs retire, and when they say, “I want to spend more time with my family”, you can hear their families screaming,


The game is smotheringly micromanaged. The quarterback comes onto the field with a preset series of plays written on his wristband. And when he runs all of those, further instructions are delivered through the radio in his helmet. For me, this constricting manipulation takes all the “juice” out of the game. It’s like a movie star being forced to wear an earpiece, and during the scene, the director, sits off-camera, ordering his emotions.

“Okay – your first three reactions – happy, then angry, then really, really sad.”

“You want tears?”

“Did I say I wanted tears?”

“Sorry. I just thought…”

“Don’t. Think. This is a two hundred million dollar picture. Nobody thinks but me.”

And nobody calls the plays but the coach.

Okay. Argument against football made. Case closed.

And then I turn on the game.

And I see this:

The quarterback takes the snap, goes back to pass. The defenders break through the line. Appearing certain to be sacked, the quarterback eludes the grasp of the oncoming rush, all the while looking downfield for an open man. As he’s about to be tackled, he spots his wide receiver, steps up, and lofts a spiraling “bomb” in his direction.

Leaping high over the defensive back, the receiver makes a “fingertip” catch near the sidelines. The expected move is to run out of bounds. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he turns away from the sidelines, racing laterally across the field. When his path is blocked, he reverses directions and heads back where he came from, picking up blockers as he goes. He finds the narrowest of seams, bursts into the clear and streaks towards the end zone.


There was undoubtedly a set play at the beginning. But at some point, it broke down.

And the players took control.

And did impossible things.



And under unbelievable pressure.

Watching it brings tears in my eyes.

I’m hooked.

And seriously confused.

What can I tell ya?

I love a game I don’t like.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Eight"

Sometimes, I simply enchant myself.

Not all the time. Enchantment, in my work, reflects the achievement of something original and surprising, an accomplishment as exhilarating as it is rare. And “rare” is fine. I wouldn’t want to enchant myself all the time. Or even a lot.

“Ho hum. I’ve enchanted myself again. Yawn, yawn, yee-awn.”

Enchantment doesn’t happen that often. Just often enough to remind you it could.

Case in point.

I’ve got a development deal at Paramount. They’re paying me to create new series ideas for half-hour comedies. I mentioned one of them in “Story of a Writer – Part Twenty-Seven.” Company Man. I read that script in preparation for writing that post. It’s okay. Workmanlike. Funny in spots. Moments of originality. But it feels fundamentally formulaic, and it doesn’t really hold up.

This one does.

When I was a kid, there was this long-running afternoon local talk show that was broadcast out of Buffalo. (Toronto got all its American programming from Buffalo.) The only time I got to see it was when I was home sick from school. The show wasn’t really for kids. Still, I found it bizarrely mesmerizing.

It was called Meet The Millers.

Meet The Millers was co-hosted by a husband and wife couple, Bill and Mildred Miller. When you’re a kid, you’re not good at judging ages. I guessed the Millers to be in their mid-forties. Even if they were younger, they had an older feel about them. Bill had a military-short haircut, wore loafers with tassels, accessorized by a rotating series of cardigan sweaters. Mildred masked her spreading girth in large print dresses, and stuck knitting needles through her tightly wound bun.

Even as a kid, I sensed some gender-related role reversal going on. Bill covered the cooking segments and gave imaginative tips on making your own Christmas tree decorations. Mildred interviewed suspected members of the Mob. If there’s such a thing as a Gender Demarcation Line, Bill and Mildred seemed to have slipped over in opposite directions.

Bill was fussy. Mildred was stern. Bill was emotional. Mildred was a rock. Bill was passive aggressive. Mildred was brutally direct. But beyond their atypical personal traits, what made the show irresistible was the subtext of their interactions, which subtly but clearly exposed the nature of their relationship. Nothing was ever expressed directly, but there were definitely moments when even a boy watching at home with a fever could receive the message that…

These people hate each other.

And sooner or later,

They’re going to explode.

The purported concept for Meet The Millers may have been straightforward – a long-married couple hosting a local talk show

But underneath, it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Taking that riveting relationship as a starting point, I wrote my version of Meet The Millers, as a pilot for a half-hour situation comedy.

I didn’t pitch it anywhere. The show was too one-of-a-kind. I had to demonstrate what I wanted to do. So I wrote the whole script. “On spec”, as they say.

At this point, I would normally quote extended excerpts from the script, to give you a sense of what it was like. But with this one, I can’t. Meet The Millers is cut from one extended piece of cloth. You can’t extract hunks of it out of context and have them mean anything.

Meet The Millers is different in fundamental ways. For example, the fifty-page pilot script concerns a grievance Bill is harboring, which seriously affects his behavior, but we don’t discover what’s eating him until Page 42. Professional “script doctors” would frown mightily at that. But in this case, the extended buildup and its belated resolution is what Meet The Millers is all about.

The naturalistic dialogue is designed to appear improvised, rather than structured in the set-up, punch line tradition. With “Bill” and “Mildred’s” voices clearly in my head, I wrote down what I thought – what I was pretty certain – they’d say. The situation was fabricated by me, but their responses to it were uniquely their own.

A couple of months after finishing the script, I met Martin Short in an airport VIP Lounge. (I was commuting to a show in New York at the time, and everything was First Class.) I knew Martin to say hello to, but not well enough to call him Marty. I said hello. I also, very uncharacteristically, asked if I could send him a script I had written.

It was Meet The Millers. I thought he’d be perfect for Bill.

A few weeks later, Martin Short invited me to his house. It was Canadian Thanksgiving. (Martin Short is Canadian.) I never knew when Canadian Thanksgiving was, but apparently he did. (Now I know too. It’s the same day as Columbus Day. Canada can’t wait till the fourth Thursday in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. By then, the only thing you’re thankful for is the arrival of the snow plough.)

I guess I’d been notified ahead of time, but I was still surprised when Catherine O’Hara (also Canadian) showed up, interrupting her own preparations for Canadian Thanksgiving. (Apparently, everyone knew when it was but me. I don’t even understand Canadian Thanksgiving. We didn’t have pilgrims.)

We then went off to this little room, where Martin and Catherine sat down with their scripts, and provided me with a private reading of Meet The Millers.

As the script was performed, I could see the mistakes I had made. To my relief and satisfaction, there were not a lot of them. And I was confident I could fix them.

The performances were sublime. Martin had remembered Meet The Millers from his youth. (He sang me the show’s theme song, which I’d forgotten but immediately recognized.) Martin got “Bill” immediately. And Catherine shone as “Mildred.”

When the reading ended, I thanked them both profusely for the “audience of one” demonstration of their prodigious talents. I was extremely excited by what I had witnessed. The script had passed the test, sparkling under Martin and Catherine’s knowing performances. If these two talented and name recognizable actors were willing to sign on, I was certain we could at least get a pilot made.

Unfortunately, they weren’t.

Martin, though clearly intrigued, chose instead to star as a show biz blowhard in a fat suit named “Jiminy Glick.” Catherine expressed a general disinterest in series television, proclaiming, “Who wants to play the same part over and over?”

Meet The Millers would never be made. Was I disappointed? Of course. Some series are cancelled after a couple of episodes. Meet The Millers bit the dust after one, unofficial reading.

But what a reading it was.

Hearing “Bill” and “Mildred” brought to life by two comedic virtuosos, what can I tell you?

I was enchanted.

And reading the script this morning, I realized a major contributor to that enchantment?

Was me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Surgeon Search - The Decision"

It’s not a murder mystery. It’s not Clue.

“Mr. Boom in the place with the thing.”

But in a way, it is structured like one. As with murder mysteries, there are multiple suspects, each with incriminating possibilities of being “The One”:

“He was always jealous of Nigel.”

As well as evidence ruling them out:

“At the time of the murder, she was seen buying a cumquat.”

My report on our interviews with the three surgeons under consideration to perform my heart upcoming surgery was intended to be objective. But I fear this may not have been the case.

No writer is ever totally objective. Distorting biases inevitably seep in. Even with history, whose intention, at least, is to be objective, you just never know for sure.

I was taught that in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons, and that during that battle, the defeated King Harold was shot in the eye.

This little tidbit has always stayed with me. I have a visceral reaction to people being shot in the eye. I’ve had vision problems my whole life, but nothing to equal an arrow in the eye. Of course, it’s possible this eye-maiming incident never took actually place. History is written by the winners. They can say whatever they want. Embellishing to their hearts content.

“Who’s going to stop us?”

“The people who know the truth.”

“We killed them all.”

“No, we didn’t. You see? You’re embellishing already.”

“History is ours to write. The vanquished have been forbidden to own pens.”

And so we get “Harold was shot in the eye.” Which is entirely unverifiable. Maybe Harold was in reality shot “near the eye”, but they said “in the eye”, because it made a more colorful story. Writers do that all the time.

“So what if it0 wasn’t raining. We’ll say it was raining. No! ‘It was coming down in buckets. ’ If we’re lying, we may as well go all the way.”

There’s also the possibility of deliberate bias. Maybe the Battle of Hastings’ “Official Historian” was a relative of the archer.

“My cousin shot King Harold in the eye.”

In the eye, or near the eye.”

In the eye. It’s here in the history book.”

You wrote the history book.”


“You embellished the moment so your cousin will look good.”

“My cousin is a wonderful archer. You know the most amazing part of it? My cousin called the eye!

“That’s over the top.”

“Okay, I’ll leave that out.”

We don’t really know what’s true. I sit in on three surgeon interviews, and, out of fear, or wishful thinking, or whatever, I hear what I want to hear (robotic surgery is less invasive), and I filter out what I don’t (the robotic technique is not reliable in handling emergencies). Later, when I write about it on my blog, the filtered-out information is inevitably dis-included. The Robot Guy seems the obvious choice. And lo and behold, with only my prejudiced reporting to go by, my readers tell me – in overwhelming numbers – to “Go with the Robot Guy.”

Which leaves me concerned that my one-sided reporting drove them to that conclusion.

If this is the case, then I can say with total confidence: I would not make much of a mystery writer.

“The Finger of Guilt points in many directions. But you, sir, are covered in the victim’s blood, you are still holding the murder weapon, and you’re wearing the deceased person’s hat!”

“But it could have been somebody else.”


We’re going with Surgeon Number Three. We believe he is capable, experienced, and his robotic technique promises a shorter (and easier) recovery period.

Our concern, or more precisely my concern, is that this decision may possibly be the product, may well be the product, is unquestionably the product – pick your favorite – of selective evidence.

Well, maybe, maybe not. But, whatever the reason, it’s Surgeon Number Three.

I feel like the “Cowardly Lion” after making a bold pronouncement in The Wizard of Oz.

“Talk me out of it.”
My surgery is scheduled for October 27th. I could be out for a while. I know there are readers who have hopped onto this juggernaut along the way, and have therefore not had the opportunity of enjoying all my posts. You could catch up while I’m gone. Read every single one. But that decision may say more about the condition of your life than about your enthusiasm for my work.

Another option is for longer-time readers to contact me with suggestions concerning your favorite “Posts of the Past.” With my newfound ability to hyperlink, I could then re-publish those stories and present them as The Best of Earl. I’ll throw in some “favorites” of my own, and between us, we could fill it up with gems until my return. (Unless my hiatus is extended, or there aren’t enough gems.)

Sometimes, the titles I choose for my posts are so ingenious, they provide little indication of what they’re about. This makes it harder to find stuff. But I’ll give it my all if you’re interested.

Please let me know.

Thank you, as always, for being there.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Inspirational Music"

This one’s a little embarrassing. But if you’ve walked through hospital corridors wearing a gown that doesn’t close in the back, and had strangers shave you in unusual places, “embarrassing” loses a lot of its meaning.

I was reminded of this when I was writing about watching the opening of a touring company’s production of Carnival when I was a teenager, and going all “aglow.” My mother originally turned me on to musicals. And I was grateful. The good ones seemed to have magic in them.

I was in need of magical assistance at that time. You may have noticed my posts are conspicuously light on The Teenage Years. I think I missed them. It’s like I fell asleep when I was twelve and woke up when I graduated from college.

My pre-teen buddies, bopping hormonally through their maturity agenda, had casually left me behind. I felt abandoned, confused and painfully unclear about my future. I was pretty much in a fog. That’s why I don’t write about those times. No standout memories. Except that the Leafs won the Stanley Cup four times. (And not once since.)

I was aware of my aptitude for comedy. (I said things and people laughed.) So I knew I had something. But from a career standpoint, I had no idea how to get from “here” to “there”, “there” being somewhere where “funny” was viewed as a well-paying medium for personal advancement.

I had no connections. I had no “game plan.” My gifts for self-promotion were (and remain today) woefully inadequate. I saw myself wanting to be something my talents clearly suited me for, but for the lack of other attributes, settling for something else. Something considerably less satisfying.

No confidence. No clarity of purpose. No – in the sense of Someone lovingly guiding me towards my destiny – faith.

What did I have?

I had songs.

I called them my “Brave Songs.” Energizing anthems, gathered from musicals, which, when I played them on records, or sang them at the top of my lungs, filled my limping spirits with much-needed infusions of hope. It’s all corny goo. I know it. If you hate corny goo – like on Space Mountain – there’s the “Escape Door.” You can cut out now, and not get any of it on you.

All I can say is these songs got to me when nothing else could. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. The following is a representative sampling. Some lyrics elude my memory. I haven’t thought of these songs in quite some time.


Inspiring songs from musicals. They may be corny. But they got me to my twenties.























































Thank you “Brave Songs.” You were always there when I needed you.

And I may just need you again.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Surgeon Search - Chapter Three" (I was going to call it "The Final Chapter", but it sounded too creepy.)

The parking lot was a zoo. Jammed lanes, narrow parking spaces, abandoned cars sitting everywhichway. It’s like the people dashed out of their cars and raced to their appointments, like it’s a sold-out football game, and they don’t want to miss the opening “kick-off.” Confused cars are looking at each other, going, “They just ran out.”

This is hardly a conducive atmosphere when you’re shopping for a heart surgeon. The first two hospitals we visited (heart surgeons’ offices are located in hospitals) offered valet parking. The chaos here suggested the “Fall of Saigon” parking lot, where the Vietnamese dumped their cars before climbing onto the helicopters.

Recapping for new readers, Dr. M and I are making a grand tour of heart surgeons, to determine which one we’ll select to repair my leaky valve. Surgeon Number Three is our final candidate. (The “Rule of Threes” does not just apply in comedy.) We interview him, and then we decide.

The Waiting Area, once again, is nondescript and borderline shabby, especially around the carpeting, but with one minor difference. The smallish room includes two flat screen TVs, one broadcasting a series of nature shows – when we arrived, a school of multi-colored fish were swimming in formation, generating a calming influence on the entire room.

The other screen, set up by the seats, featured a selection of games – Checkers, Solitaire, Battleship, interspersed with a continuous loop of smiling photos of the office’s doctors and support staff. If you’re judging surgeons by “Waiting Areas Designed To Make You Forget Why You’re There”, this place was the hands-down winner.

Also a plus – our appointment started precisely on time. We were shocked. There was no time to play checkers.

A final Waiting Area observation. A woman sitting next to me revealed that her husband, who’d had a “triple by-pass” performed by the surgeon we were about to meet, had been released from the hospital two weeks earlier and was already feeling great. As if on cue, her relaxed husband stepped into the room, looking as if he’d recently had a massage rather than open-heart surgery. It almost felt like they were “plants”, like the doctor had offered them a reduced rate for the surgery rate if, afterwards, they would hang out in the Waiting Area and look like “It’s nothing!”

After a brief pre-interview, we were ushered into the surgeon’s office – medium-sized, with a magnificent view of the Hollywood hills. This is, ultimately, not a big factor in our decision-making since, as a patient, it’s unlikely I’ll be recovering in the guy’s office. I’m just saying it was a truly remarkable view.

Surgeon Number Three was tall, gray-haired, reserved (either by temperament or professional distance) and a bit shaggy in an Alsatian dog kind of a way. He spoke in an indeterminate accent; you couldn’t tell where he was from, possibly Spain or Italy. His first and last names both ended with an “o.”

Surgeon Number Three reviewed CD’s of my angiogram and my TEE test, where they put a camera down your throat, thankfully a small camera. I am grateful for these technological advances. In the old days, they put a painter down your throat.

Oh, yeahhhh!!!

All three surgeons we met with agreed. I had a mitral valve in need of repair. We found no “different drummer” dissenters who studied my case and proclaimed, “They’re all crazy. You’re fine!” No. Three surgeons – same diagnosis.

Here’s the difference.

Surgeon Number Three was a robot guy.

To put it kindly, the surgeons we interviewed earlier were not fans of the robotic option. One surgeon reported, that as an expert witness, he testified against robot surgeons in court. The second surgeon characterized his competitors as cosmetic surgeons of the heart. Their only value was for people seeking smaller scars.

Surgeon Number Three made the case for his experience (150 valve repairs, all performed robotically). He had few kinds words for traditional surgeons who “go in the front” (meaning they crack your chest open), accusing them of an unwillingness to consider a new approach.

Robotic surgery is not without risk. Nor is it without post-operative unpleasantness. (I’d say “pain” but why scare myself? I read this too.) And yet, the technique does have an undeniable appeal. Using the House Hunters analogy, the House and Garden network show on which Surgeon Search is based (a couple looks at three properties, and at the end, they choose one to buy), this third interview was like being shown a property with intriguing possibilities, and then being told, “Oh by the way, this house comes with an indoor swimming pool.”

On the other hand, two highly respected surgeons had assured us that robotic surgery is crap.

Plus, the parking at that place was atrocious.

Plus, my daughter Anna alerted me to the possibility of “evil” robots.

They look reliable.

And then,

They turn.

Okay. Our tour is over. It is now time to evaluate the pluses and the minuses and make our decision. Our options: Three knowledgeable experienced and highly respected surgeons. The question is:

Which one will we choose?

The tension is mounting.

Weigh in with your choice, if you wish. Our decision will be announced on Tuesday.

To assist in your decision-making, I will attempt to hyperlink once again. Mr. Drum Roll? If you please.

Surgeon Search – Chapter One

Surgeon Search – Chapter Two
I seem to have my "scheduling" function back. Yay. It is my habit to schedule my posts so that, East Coast or West, the post will be available at 7:00 AM. Six o'clock Central Time. Seven-thirty in Newfoundland.

Thank you for your patronage.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Saddle Up! - Part Twelve"

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.



“During World War II, Hollywood was strapped for bullets. They were needed on the battlefield.

“There were rumors production on westerns would have to shut down, because, you know, how do you make cowboy pictures without bullets? The issue was debated at the highest levels. It was said the president himself weighed in, F.D.R. being a particular fan of Hoot Gibson. Finally, the decision came down that, like baseball, westerns were a national institution, essential to home-front morale. The studios were ordered to keep crankin’ ‘em out. And as good patriots, they did.

“The caveat was that the ‘bullets problem’ had to be worked out. Westerns needed to be ammunition-free, or the genre was dead for the “duration.”

“It’s not like westerns ever used actual bullets. It was more how it appeared. For example, those little loops ‘round the back of your holster where you kept your replacement ammunition? There had to be something in there. Otherwise, the audience is wondering, ‘What’ll they use to reload?’

“Someone thought of the idea of paper bullets, which were foil-wrapped pieces of cardboard shaped like bullets. The things looked like bullets, at least from a distance. But what happens when you have to, at least, pretend to reload? You can’t slip cardboard bullets into your six-gun. The bullets would bend. Wooden bullets were also considered, but they had a hard time making them shiny.

“Then they wondered, ‘What if they keep shooting and never reload?’ Truth be told, they didn’t reload that much before. Still, it looked pretty phony, shooting forever without putting in new bullets. But, you know, there was a war on, and everyone had to do their part. Our part was looking like dumbasses by never reloading.

“Unfortunately, moviecraft being what it is – the power of illusion and all – everyone thought we were using bullets even when we weren’t. Westerns fans started boycotting the pictures, complaining that we should be saving those bullets for the Nazis and the Japanese, instead of wasting them on owlhoots and Indians. I tried reassuring people that we weren’t using bullets anymore, but they didn’t believe me. They’d hear the “Pow! Pow!” – which the studio inserted later – and believed we were squandering ammo.

“Producers started brainstorming about ways of bringing bad guys to justice besides shooting them. Finally, someone suggested the bullwhip. Whoever he was, the man deserves a medal. He single-handedly saved the wartime western.

“The whip was the perfect alternative. It was made of rawhide, which wasn’t rationed, so it didn’t hurt the war effort. Whips also struck terror into the hearts of the bad guys. Outlaws had no problem being shot, apparently, but they wanted no part of the sting of the lash.

“It was the time of my big break. When the war started, a lot of the stars joined up to fight. Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Autry. I couldn’t enlist ‘cause I only had one kidney. This made me ‘available’ for pictures. It’s a funny thing. Before the war, I couldn’t get arrested in the movie business. In a way, ‘Pearl Harbor’ was the luckiest day of my life.

“Being a big, strapping fellah, they, naturally, put me in westerns. At the time, it seemed like a dicey career move – starting in westerns when they were moving away from bullets – but as is often the case, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“It was down to three of us for the lead role in Whip Crack in Laredo! The studio issued us bullwhips and we were sent home to practice. The winner would be the one showing the greatest aptitude. Three days later, one fella had taken his eye out. The other fella injured his cat. All I did was bring down our dining room chandelier – before my wife told me to practice outside. I got the job as the least terrible of the three.

“The actors playing the bad guys made a fuss about working with me, because my whip cracks were supposed to miss them, but sometimes they didn’t. The first day of shooting, I flicked off a fella’s earlobe. Don’t think the Actors Guild didn’t make a stink about that! I had to pay all his doctor bills. Good thing it was a person, though. If I’d nicked up some animal, they’d have probably kicked me out of the business.

“After a while, though, I became pretty skillful. I got so good, the Sound Department didn’t have to put in those whip-cracking sounds anymore; I could make them myself. From then on, I just kept improving. I’d go out on promotional tours – I remember once, this kid in the front row was really heckling me. ‘You’re a fake! You couldn’t whip cream!’ I didn’t say a word. I just carried my whip to the front of the stage, and I flicked the popcorn out of his bag.

“One kernel at a time.”

“When the war ended, the old Good Guys came back, packing loaded six-guns. Realizing my heyday was ending, I left show business and went into real estate. I own a big chunk of the San Fernando Valley.

“The down payment on my first property?

“Bullwhip money.”