Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Different Ways To Go"

“Any old ‘Newhart’ tales you might share?” inquired commenter Guy on February 11th.

I fear, overall, that I generally disappoint my readership with the paucity of “war stories.” Were my blog to be rated on a scale of “one-to-ten” in the category of “Battlefield Memories”, I would be lucky to achieve a “3.”

There’s a reason I provide so few colorful reminiscences from my thirty-year television writing career, thirty-five if you count Canada. I’m just not entirely certain what it is.

I once speculated that one possible explanation for why I recall so little of what I experience is because of a show business version of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, with immediately apologies to those who suffer from the real version, which is exponentially more serious.

A second explanation – Read: excuse – for my paucity of recollections about working on shows is that for a substantial chunk of my career, though I was steadily employed and handsomely remunerated, I didn’t work on any shows.

Instead, due to some earlier success, I was offered “Development Deals”, where my job involved sitting in an office and “developing” ideas for new television series. If these ideas were shot down, during the two “pitching seasons” of the year – “Fall” and “Midseason” – I was then pretty much on my own. To nap. To experiment with other forms of writing – screenplays, personal essays (some of which subsequently morphed into blog posts.) To watch every second of the O.J. Simpson trial that went on for months. Such solitary, sedentary and often horizontal and unconscious activities do not evoke scintillating recollections.

Explanation Number Three: In a large number of the series I’m identified with – Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Cheers – I wrote scripts, while never being on those shows’ writing staffs. Ipso facto, for those of you scoring at home in Latin, combining my solitary scriptwriting time with my “Development Deal” activities, we’re looking at a man who spent eighty or more per cent of his career,

Working alone.

Providing less than a breeding ground for “Front Line Memories.”

Now, so that Guy does not go home empty-handed…

Newhart, comedian Bob Newhart’s second hit series in a row, involved Bob’s character, Dick Loudon, and his wife, buying and running, with no prior experience, a country inn in rural Vermont. I knew Newhart’s creator Barry Kemp from when we both worked on Taxi. I recently wrote, in a comment response, about helping Barry with suggestions for his pilot script. When Newhart sold, Barry invited me to write an episode.

Barry Kemp also provided me with my first full-time job as a consulting “Story Editor.” Every Monday, that week’s script would be messengered to my house. I would study the script, and then offer suggestions, as I had on the pilot. The job offered two great satisfactions. I enjoyed evaluating scripts, and proposing ideas I believed would improve them. Additionally, I could perform this enjoyable duty without “going in.” No driving. Yay!

When you’re pitching a story idea, however, you have to go in. I can happily report that, on this occasion, there were no car accidents, and no getting lost. As to the competency of my driving, you would have to ask the other drivers on the road. I do not, however, remember much honking.

We live in a Craftsman Bungalow, which Dr. M (and her friend Ruth) had rescued from demolition by getting it declared a Santa Monica historic landmark. (Then later, we bought the house.)

Drawing from my life as I consistently do, my Newhart proposal was a story in which Dick submits his inn for consideration as an historic landmark. The upgrade in the inn’s status would be good for business, and, though Dick refuses to admit it, it would also make him extremely proud.

The story would include the overtly calm but actually excruciatingly nerve-wracking preparations, leading up to the inevitable inspection by the outwardly polite but scrupulously picky Landmark Committee. Finally, there would be the decision.

In the story – in contrast to my own experience – Dick’s inn is deemed charming, but not worthy of landmark designation. Dick then has to deal with the reality of being the owner of a charming but ultimately landmark-unworthy country inn.

In the end, after wandering off to some nearby hill to do some thinking – a spot the locals have appropriately dubbed “Thinking Hill” – Dick’s “Aha!” Moment involves the transforming insight:

“So what?”

Dick loved the inn before, and there’s no reason to now love it any less, just because some know-nothings rejected it as a landmark.

So that was my story. I really liked it. It felt real. I saw the potential for comedy. And I believed the “So what?” resolution had freshness and a reverberating significance. Barry Kemp liked the idea too.

Also in the room when I was pitching my story was Bob Newhart’s close friend, comedian Dick Martin, who is most famous as half of the comedy duo that fronted the once extremely popular variety show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Martin, who directed episodes on both of Bob Newhart’s series, was asked what he thought of the story I had just pitched as an episode for Newhart.

“Great drama”, he replied.

Ouch. What Martin, a veteran performer in the comedically broader venues of Las Vegas and nightclubs, was saying, was that my “landmark” story was not an inherently funny idea.

To this day, Martin’s observation continues to rankle. Primarily, of course, because it was true. I guess what I do is “tell stories funny”, rather than “tell funny stories.”

I guess that’s okay.

Although I kind of wish I could do both.

Do you see why I never liked going in?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"My Favorite Kind of Comedy"

I know. It’s just my comedy preference, and not a Natural Law of the Universe. But when it scores – the comedy style that I overwhelmingly prefer – I want to take a moment, and tip my blogatorial hat.

I don’t have a lot to say about the Oscars. They’re an awards show for other people.

Also, the way the movie business works today, there ought to be two awards shows – one for popular movies, and one for good movies. Why confuse things by pretending it’s actually one business.

Also, they mark the movies on a curve – it’s the “Best Picture This Year.” This is hardly a towering standard. What if they had a bad year for pumpkins, and the “Biggest Pumpkin” was the size of a grapefruit. “Hey, it’s still the biggest pumpkin this year.” Yeah, but you can’t carve a face on it.

Also, I don’t know the actors anymore. I watched with my daughter, and I kept going, “Who’s that?”

I guess I had more to say about the Oscars than I thought.

Anyway, what interested me, as a student of the game, were the various forms of comedy on display during the evening. There was host Billy Crystal, steeped in the comfortable rhythms of “Comedy Past” – “Puppets. Acrobats. We’re a pony away from a Bar Mitzvah!

You got the whole megilla there: The “Rule of Threes”, a setup and a punchline, and “Bar Mitzvah” where “chopped liver” used to be. In short,

Business and usual.

Judd Apatow’s Bridesmaids ladies drumrolled the “Short Subjects” awards with penis jokes. I’m sure that made the nominees proud.

“They’re penising up our category!”

But that’s what Judd’s known for. Judd Apatow without a penis joke is like Sinatra showing up and not singing “My Way.” He has to do it!

Once again, business as usual.

Robert Downey Jr. behaving bizarrely? Isn’t that his whole life? And a spacy, young actress, pretending she’s on drugs. (Or is.) All together now…

Business as usual.

So what’s fresh? Chris Rock, saying what it is. I call that “It” comedy.

“It” comedy is the truth as a joke, delivered without artifice, shock or formulaic construction. You just stick to the facts. People sense the genuineness, they feel liberated from illusion, and they laugh.

Chris Rock came on to introduce the “Animation Awards.” His performance is on Youtube, but it’s kind of messed up, so I will have to convey it, much less persuasively I’m afraid, in words.

Warming up the audience, Rock did a semi race joke. It was funny, but it felt a little obligatory, the race-joke equivalent of Apatovian Penis Land. Rock explained how wide ranging performance in animation is for the actors.

“If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.” Rock later added, “You can’t play white, My God!”

The joke made me laugh, because “donkey” has a “k” in it, and because of the contrast. Mostly, however, I laughed, because it’s true. Black actors have actually played a donkey (Shrek) and a zebra (Madagascar.)

I do not, however, see people taking to the streets because an African American can’t play a white person in an animated feature. They can’t play a white person anywhere. (Unless they do that Wayans Brothers stuff.) The problem is the limited range of roles black actors are permitted to play, not that they can’t play a race that they’re not.

But the joke was still funny. Especially if he’d stopped at “zebra”, and let it stand as the truth. Watching his performance, it felt like “You can’t play white, my God!” was belatedly thrown in, an ill-considered ad-lib that hurt, rather than helped.

But now we get to the comedy gold. Rock reported how other actors complained about the difficulty performing in animated movies. That’s wrong, Rock revealed. Acting in animation is “the easiest job in the world.”

The content here is not exact, but it went something like this. “I go in a booth, and I say, “What’s the line?” and they say, ‘It’s time to go to the store.’ So I say, ‘It’s time to go to the store.’ I say what’s the next line? They say, “It’s getting dark outside.’ I say, “It’s getting dark outside.’ And then they give me a million dollars.”

“It” comedy.

It’s simple. It’s honest. It’s illuminating. And explosively funny.

And in the comedy huff and puff of the Oscars…

It shines like a diamond.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"The Mouse That Roared"

On February ninth, in response to a post about two veteran cowboy movie actors freaking out at the prospect of performing in front of a live audience, ever-welcome commenter Ms. Zaraya inquired:

“Do you have examples of seemingly meek people acting tough?”

To which, my answer, and the genesis of the title for today’s post, is…


Not just because I like talking about me. But also because I have no idea what actors I’ve worked with had to overcome in order to deliver the goods. Not once, after a performance did any actor come up to me and say,

“I’m actually quite meek. And look what I did!”

So I don’t know about anybody else. I barely know about me. And the little I do know about me, I may actually have wrong.

For current purposes, I shall interpret “acting tough” and “acting boldly”, more specifically – since my about-to-be-described “actions” were, with one exception, verbal rather than physical – “speaking up.”

My qualifying list of such behaviors is embarrassingly short. The following are six occasions on which I – whose needle on the “Assertiveness Gauge” hovers precariously close to “Empty” – spoke up. I acknowledge, however, that these examples of “Speaking truth to power” can just as easily be categorized as inappropriate outbursts, bordering on Aspergers.

(I have, in truth, mentioned many of these before, but I welcome the opportunity to house them in a single post, so they don’t get lost. My outbursts are precious to me.)

Okay. Here we go.

- On the very first “show night” of The Cosby Show, when asked by the star if I had any suggestions for improving his performance, I replied,

“I really wish you’d learn your lines.”

- During a show we were working on together, singer Robert Goulet would habitually punctuate his jokes by punching me in the shoulder. Finally, having had enough, I reflexively punched him back, punctuating my reaction with the words,

“Don’t punch me!”

(Two-example “Summary of Effectiveness”: Robert Goulet never punched me again. Bill Cosby never learned his lines.)

Moving on…

- When asked by the iconic Canadian comedy team “Wayne & Shuster” who’d been performing together for over thirty years what they could do on their next TV special to re-invigorate their act, I replied to Johnny Wayne, the Alpha Dog of the duo,

“This time, why don’t you stand on the left?”

- After pitching a pilot idea to a Conference Room full of CBS executives, the network president told me I’d be contacted about their decision. When I inquired if he would be calling me himself, the CBS president pointed way down the table to a lower level executive, indicating she would. To which I replied,

“Oh, right. That way, everybody has a job.”

- While working on a Public Affairs-type show, the pretend-muckraking host offered to ask any question the writing staff wanted him to of his guest, union strongman Jimmy Hoffa, who had recently been cleared in a high profile, jury-bribing case. I immediately proposed,

“Ask him if he bribed the jury.”

- On first meeting Republican pollster/slash/consultant Frank Luntz who informed us he was currently devising ways to maximize the damage to then President Clinton as a result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, I wondered, though not silently,

“How did you ever get to be so scummy?”

It is arguable that none of these are examples of a meek person acting tough. My responses could be equally characterized as rude, unnecessarily hurtful, show-offy, impulsive, or, at the very least, unwise.

Point taken.

But how about this one?

April the Twelfth, 1974. It’s a Friday afternoon.

I am at the Toronto airport, about to fly to Los Angeles, to, one, work during the upcoming weekend on a previously co-written Sanford & Son script that needed fixing, and then, on the following Monday, join the writing staff of a Lily Tomlin special (a staff which included, among other writers, the incomparable Christopher Guest.)

I was assured that my work permit authorization would be registered at “American Immigration” at the airport. I would not have to lie and pretend I was “traveling for pleasure.” I had an actual job, the appropriate paperwork had been completed, and it was absolutely clear sailing.

“Mr. Hollywood Working Man” would be winging to the Coast.

Except that the American Immigration Officer had no idea who I was. No paperwork. No work permit authorization. Too late to pretend I was “traveling for pleasure.”

My first reaction was panic. I’m meek. How do I know that? Do the logic:

“Meek people panic in a crisis.”

“I panic in a crisis.”

“I’m a meek person.”

“They told me you’d have the paperwork.” “We don’t have the paperwork.” Normally, that’s “Game Over” for me. I’d say something like, “That’s weird” and would promptly return home.

Not this time.

Instead, superhumanly adrenalized and refusing to be denied, I raced over to a bank of pay phones (and I don’t normally race anywhere; even on colonoscopy “Prep Day”, I saunter.) I call the Department of Immigration in Los Angeles. (I do not recall where I got the change for the pay phone. I may have ripped it from the hand of a young child waiting at a concession stand to purchase some Smarties. I was in the state of mind to do that.)

On the phone, I demand (!) to speak to the official handling my paperwork, and once I get him, I insist (!) he remain on the line. I ask my friend who has driven me to the airport (and whom I’d asked to stick around “just in case”) to hold the receiver. I then race – again, race – back to the Immigration Officer, interrupt him in the performance of his duties, grab him by the sleeve, and virtually drag him to the pay phone, where he receives confirmation of my legal working status – which they had accidentally forgotten to pass along – I have my paperwork stamped and authorized,

And I get on the plane.

I am sixty-seven years old.

Number of times when I legitimately acted tough:


I’m not certain about this, but I have the sense that to escape from the “meek” designation?

You need at least three.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Where's Steve?"


Dass awwwl it is.

For three years, during the mid-seventies, I’ve got the best job I ever had, and the best job I would ever have. I’m writing eight episodes a year for the Mary Tyler Moore Company. I’m writing Mary. I’m writing Rhoda. I’m writing The Bob Newhart Show. I’m writing Phyllis. Shows I once watched on television and thought, “I can do that” – now, I was doin’ that!

They gave me money. They gave me an office. They gave me my own parking space. Every morning, they waved me onto a cozy studio lot, radiating the ambience of an Ivy League campus. And at Christmas, they gave me a Mary Tyler Moore belt buckle.

It was the place I wanted to be. Writing for, arguably, the best half-hour comedies on television, and working with the finest practitioners around. I am not by nature a “group” person; I’m more of a “Groucho” guy – “Any group that would want me for a member isn’t worth joining” – but if I had to be in a group, this was the best one I could imagine.

Mary’s then husband, Grant Tinker, who ran the place, was renowned for insulating his “creatives” from network interference. And the shows – an anomaly in television history – were not only of top quality but were also commercially popular.

It was three seasons long, but, while it was happening, quoting the title of a baseball novel (by Mark Harris) about an all-star pitcher in the Major Leagues,

It Seemed Like For Ever.

And then, one day, I got a momentary glimpse of “The Other Side.”

Basking in my self-satisfied cocoon of contentment, and unable to imagine anyone voluntarily leaving such an arrangement, I remarked to my more veteran colleagues that, once in a while, names that I’d see regularly on the writers’ credits of MTM episodes would inexplicably disappear, and I wondered about that, asking, as an example,

“What happened to Steve Pritzker?”

The response to my seemingly innocent query was an uncomfortable and stony silence.

I never met Steve Pritzker. But I looked up his credits, and I saw that, among a respectable list, Steve Pritzker is credited with writing eight episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This occurred before I arrived, but eight episodes of a classic series – Steve Pritzker must have been pretty good.

“Where did he go?” I asked again.

More silence. The kind that means something, but if you’re on the outside – as, being still if not wet at least damp behind the ears I was – you have absolutely no idea what it was.

All I knew was,

Steve Pritzker had suddenly and entirely

Left the Building.

It felt kind of creepy. I’m alive and flourishing, and someone else is gone, the attendant coldness reminiscent, in a way, of combat, where you‘re told that a soldier you were passingly familiar with had run into the proverbial “bullet with his name on it.” And nobody wants to talk about it. The person is just…


In my naiveté and enthusiasm, this was the first time I realized it could happen.

Despite how it seems – you’re riding high and doin’ great, your prospects for success stretching endlessly in the future –

You could go!

Twentysomething years later, after, gratefully, a substantially lengthy career and some noteworthy achievements,

I did.

It’s a chilling lesson, but it has to be learned.

Sooner or later,

We’re all Steve Pritzker.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"The 'Larry Sanders' Experience"

A while back, a reader inquired about my experience on Garry Shandling’s revered and respected The Larry Sanders Show. I will begin my response to that inquiry by inviting you to take this short test.

Who said (or did) this – Garry Shandling or “Larry Sanders”?

a) Arriving at a breakfast meeting, he immediately apologizes for being “a little down”; he has broken up with his girlfriend. When asked “When did it happen?”, he replies, “Nine months ago.”

b) After completing his memoirs, he becomes severely depressed over how little he has accomplished in his life.

c) Required to leave an important “rewrite meeting” for a pre-arranged massage, he waffles back and forth over whether he should continue working, or keep his massage appointment – “I should really stay and help you guys” - “But she came such a long way to give me this massage”, before finally exiting for his massage.

d) On the phone to his financial adviser, he furtively inquires, “How much do I have all together?”

The answers below.

The secret to the incomparable wonderfulness of The Larry Sanders Show is that the distinction inherent in the foregoing test is virtually impossible to make. The real Garry Shandling could have said (and done) any of those things. Conversely, any of them could fit seamlessly into an episode of The Larry Sanders Show.

As I read or heard somewhere – and have repeated to you ad pretty close to nauseum – comedy is reality, plus ten per cent (for exaggeration.) Garry Shandling’s magnificent gift is that, in his highly specialized and microscopically scrutinized universe, comedy is reality. And that’s it.

Shandling is an expert on the emotional workings of the modern Homo Neuroticus, particularly subgenus Show Biznicus. Here’s a story that may have appeared on the show, or if it didn’t, it could have.

David Duchovny calls to invite Larry to an “A-List” event at which supermodels will be in attendance, in particular the hottest supermodel of the moment, of whom Larry has a particular interest, having just glimpsed her less than fully clad body gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Shortly thereafter, Duchovny calls back, with apologies. He has to cancel the invitation, having discovered a conflict on his calendar, making it impossible for him to attend the event.

Larry subsequently discovers that Duchovny did indeed attend the event, but, instead of taking Larry as promised, Duchovny dumped Larry in favor attending in the company of (the hottest male superstar of the moment.)

Shortly thereafter, Duchovny is a guest on The Larry Sanders Show, at which time, while acting overtly gracious and polite, Larry surreptitiously tears Duchovny to pieces.

And now, the answers to the quiz:

a) Garry.

b) “Larry.” But for all I know, it could have been biographical, and it could also be Garry.

c) Garry.

d) Garry.

In the “c” example – at which I was present – after a prolonged self-flagellation over whether to keep working or leave for his massage and finally opting for the massage, I recall my voice saying, “Thank you for sharing your insincerity with us.”

To no reaction whatsoever.

Weeks later, I submitted three jokes for “Larry” to perform during the monolog part of the show. Joke writing is not my forte – I am primarily a “Story Man” – but the jokes came to me, and I thought I had nothing to lose by passing them along.

Instead of perusing my three-joke submission, Garry elected to read them out loud in front of the writing staff, in a flat and word-fumbling manner that showed them to less than their best advantage. The jokes fell flat.

Feeling insecure about my one-liner-writing abilities, I reflexively assumed that my jokes were not funny, and dutifully took my beating. It was only today, while assembling this post, that it struck me that I myself had been unblinkingly “Duchovny-ed.”

(For saying. “Thank you for sharing you insecurity with us.”)

Real life, and the TV show. For the great Garry Shandling, they were one and the same.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"A Critical Review"

In response to a post called “The Critical Condition” (Feb. 6, 2012), a reader calling himself – and for all I know it’s his actual name – “Johnny Walker” spoke about the idea of multiple viewings of the same movie on a single day, which he (or she, if a woman is choosing to call herself “Johnny”) attempted, and discovered that, though one’s experience of a movie is essentially subjective, “the major successes and flaws [of the movie} are felt by all audiences.”

I suspect that may be correct. Which is why many filmmakers, especially comedy filmmakers, like to “test screen” their movies, so they can fix what needs fixing before they open.

First, allow me to weigh in on the “test screening” process itself. Acknowledging that I was never in such a situation, since no movie script I wrote ever got made, still, I would be highly resistant to the idea of pre-testing my movie. For me, when it comes to any work of art, even (forgive me for including it as art) a blog post, your inner mechanism (an amalgam of training and gut instinct), the same mechanism that guided you concerning what to include and what to leave out in the first place, remains your most reliable weathervane.

Here’s why I find “pre-testing” a questionable process. Two words: Mitigating Circumstances. Say, as a surprise to the audience, they screen your movie after another movie – the movie the audience came to see – and that movie stunk up the place. The audience has been put through the ringer, and may no longer be in the mood to be entertained.

Then, there’s, what they call, the “halo” effect. Judd Apatow has a reputation for making hilarious comedies. Now, his name comes on the screen, and the audience is already laughing. And “Apatow” is not even a particularly funny name.

How accurate will that test screening be? The opposite, of course, is also the case – a test screening of a movie, made by unknowns. “Unknowns” have to earn their laughs the hard way – by being genuinely funny. And some audiences still may not respond, because the “auspices”, as the elements in a project are called, lack the pre-assigned Seal of Approval.

The test audience’s reaction can be affected by other elements out of the filmmakers’ control, such as the elements themselves. I once saw a cartoon in an English satirical magazine called Punch that was set in a small circus. A clown and an acrobat peer outside the circus tent and the rain is pelting down; it’s a virtual deluge. Observing the downpour, the acrobat turns to the clown and he says,

“Fancy you chances of having them rolling in the aisles today, eh, Rollo?”

The response of a sodden test audience could easily send insecure film producers dashing back to the editing room to rethink the entire project. The studio may even decide to abandon the project then and there.

“What happened to your movie?”

“It got rained out.”

Bad news can also be a factor. Fancy pre-testing your hilarious new comedy on September the twelfth, 2001?

But before this gets away from me, I want to talk about, not the specifics of a movie, but its overall effect – “I liked it” - ”I hated it” – and how, in my experience, I have made some remarkable misjudgments.

I remember – when we were invited to such things, because I was on lists – attending a fundraising event, where the Penny Marshalll-directed movie A League of Their Own (1992) would be shown.

My original reaction was that overall, despite some very funny lines, especially the ones delivered by Jon Lovitz, I didn’t like the movie. It was too long. It was sappy. It was predictable. The movie had four endings. Its climactic moment was ambiguous. Tom Hanks is no home runner hitter. And, perhaps most importantly, the real-life lady ballplayers, shown in action during the closing credits, were, even in old age, exquisitely graceful and naturally athletic, while Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, and generally, all the actors portraying these actual ballplayers were not.

All of the above observations are correct. I’m a professional; do not challenge me. I am kidding, of course. Even professionals get it wrong. Sometimes, because they’re professionals. Focusing on peripheral concerns, while ignoring the gem that’s staring them in the face.

What I missed during my first viewing of A League of Their Own, a movie I have since come to adore, was the movie’s unashamed humanity.

During World War II, a women’s baseball league was formed, pretty much as a stunt. But the league became popular, due to some of the girls’ “playing to the camera” but also due to the fact that many of the participants’ turned out to be terrific ballplayers, and the games became more legitimate contests than voyeuristic spectacles.

At least, that’s how the movie told it.

There are touching moments all the way through A League of Their Own. A major storyline involves two fierily competitive sisters, who finally “connect” in old age.

Another moving moment, occurs when a telegram delivery person passes through the clubhouse, bearing what is clearly a “We regret to inform you” announcement, the camera revealing the terror in each of the girls’ eyes, fearing that it’s their loved one who’s been lost in action.

There is, finally, the women’s league’s reunion during its induction ceremony into the baseball’s venerated Hall of Fame, during which they join together to sing the league’s official anthem, (reminiscent of a camp reunion, with aging former campers belting out, “We’re Having A Wonderful Time At Camp Ogama.”)

Was the movie flawed? Everything’s a little flawed. Some people think Mona Lisa’s smile sucks. Tom Hanks is still nobody’s idea of a slugger. And the climactic moment remains ambiguous, though whether that’s accidental or intentional, I have no idea.

But what I missed the first time around was the pure and deep and sincerely truthful emotion. And in a work of art, that’s what ultimately endures.

If I were a movie critic, I can see myself having to write two reviews – one, my instinctive response to the movie, and the other, when needed – and it would not be infrequently – the corrective review, where I would apologize for missing the point.

I don’t know how real critics get it even close to right in a single try.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


They seem to be connected, though I cannot imagine a process that would cause that to be the case.

We will begin with this:

I am now sixty-seven years old. And I still do not feel like a grownup.

Does anybody identify with that? And by “anybody” I mean men. All women are grownups. With the onset of puberty, biological realties come flying at them, which they can neither duck nor avoid. And at some point, a goodly number of them experience childbirth, pushing out babies, which have been – like it’s a normal thing, because, for women, it is – incubating inside their bodies.

Such eventualities automatically propel women into the “grownup” category. Though disagreements on this point are welcome. I could be wrong, having no direct experience in the matter myself.

I will not go into detail, at least not on this outing, about why I do not feel like a grownup, and how not feeling like a grownup manifests itself in my daily life. I will, however, offer one recent example of my feeling like I’m six.

The California state tax office (known as the “Franchise Tax Board”) has determined that those required to make quarterly estimated tax payments must now make those payments online. (Rather than by the previous method of sending a check in the mail, their rationale being, I’ve been told, that the Franchise Tax Board does not trust the United States Postal Service to insure that that check will ever arrive.)

I cannot tell you the amount of tremor and trepidation the online submission requirement triggered in my, psychologically at least, six year-old body.

“What if I do it wrong?”

(Big people are going to yell at me.)

And, in fact, despite my and my assisting daughter’s best efforts to comply, we did subsequently receive a “Dishonored Payment Notice”, indicating that we had done something wrong, and would now be subjected to an as yet unspecified penalty.

In turns out that we had not done anything wrong. The problem was that the “routing number” which we were required to provide, a number, we were instructed, could be found at the bottom of my checks, turned out to be a different “routing number” than the “routing number” our bank uses for electronic money transfers. (Something our bank had omitted to tell us.)

This inappropriate “routing number” (my head hurts every time I say “routing number”) led to the rejection of our submission, which generated the subsequent “Dishonored Payment Notice.” (And the as yet unspecified penalty.)

Though we had followed the instructions we were given to perfection, I was nonetheless now faced with the hyperventilatingly inducing prospect of calling the “Franchise Tax Board”, to explain to them why the error had occurred, assertively indicating that it was not our fault, and demanding that the penalty assessment be removed.

Psychological six year-olds cannot “assertively indicate” anything. Nor can they “demand.” Psychological six year-olds can only whimper, crumbling at the first sign of authoritarian resistance.

The “Franchise Tax Board” officials are authority figures. They most likely have badges. They are not listening to a child. Or an adult with childlike proclivities. (Which may make me an interesting writer, but are useless in the current situation.)

I did not call the “Franchise Tax Board.” I instead called my accountant, Don, hoping that he’d call them for me. My accountant, Don, perhaps himself afraid of the “Franchise Tax Board”, or, more likely, simply more experienced in these matters, advised me to simply resubmit my online tax payment, and that we would deal with the penalty issue when it arises.

In the end, I did not have to call those scary government people. However, with no small amount of anxiety, I resubmitted this second effort at an online tax payment alone, with no help from my daughter, who was, on this occasion, too busy to assist.

I await the letter informing me that I messed up again.

Okay, so back to the beginning.

It is my observation that the arrested development in men, initiated in my generation – possibly due to the fact that we stopped wearing fedoras – has infected the generation that came after, to the effect that the lack of maturity now reflects itself in their very physiognomy.

To me, at least – and it could simply be that I’m older than they are – the next generation of men do not look, in their appearance, in any way,

Grown up.

We will take as evidence – because they are the most visible examples – male movie stars.

Think about it. Do any of these guys look grown up to you?

Tom Cruise

Matt Damon

Leonardo DeCaprio

Brad Pitt

Johnny Depp (What kind of grownup is called “Johnny”?)

Matthew Broderick

Tom Hanks (Really.)

Vince Vaughn

Owen Wilson

Adam Sandler

Chris Rock

To name just eleven.

Really. Do any of these guys look like actual adult people?

What’s goin’ on?

Has male infantilism so suffused their natures that now, not only do men not mature emotionally, their faces don’t grow up either?

Movie stars used to be onscreen role models, instructing us on how the adult version of our gender is supposed to behave.

What can you learn from grown up children?

I need a modeling mentor, someone who will demonstrate how to stand tall before the “Franchise Tax Board.”

And it turns out, there’s nowhere to find one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"President's Day"

If I were a really great president, I would not want to share my Special Day with any other president, even if they were a great president as well.

“Let Lincoln get his own day!”

George Washington may have clacked through his ill-fitting wooden teeth.

To which, Lincoln, a humble man, yet with enough self-regard to run for president, might reply,

“I preserved the Union and got shot in the head. I deserve my own day!”

I imagine it’s how twins feel, sharing a birthday. Only those guys weren’t twins, just twin icons. Bad blood would be no surprise.

LINCOLN: It should not be forgotten that four score and seven years ago, Washington lost a remarkable number of battles.

WASHINGTON: I find myself at a disadvantage here, as Mr. Lincoln did not preside until after I was dead. Was the man any good?

Also, changing the holiday’s name to President’s Day opens the door to claims for inclusion by other presidents.

BUCHANAN: How about me? I was a president too.

NIXON: Good luck with that one, Mr. “Dred Scott Decision.” I, at least, was elected to two terms.

RUTHERFORD B. HAYES: You’d have an argument if it were “Disgraced President’s Day.” I, on the other hand, am not remembered for doing anything wrong.

TEDDY ROOSEVELT: You’re not remembered at all! Ha ha! That was a bully joke, wasn’t it?

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Not really. But everyone can’t have natural Irish wit.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: You were also a bit of a hound as I recall. Aoooooh!!!

CALVIN COOLIDGE: Easy there, Wheel Chair Man. You were not entirely innocent yourself!

HARDING: No whiff of “woman trouble” with you, Calvin. Unless rape were defined as “An unwanted inducement of yawning.”

GRANT: “Teapot Dome Scandal” anyone?

WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON: It takes a scandal-ridden administration to know a scandal-ridden administration! No scandals in my administration!

TRUMAN: You never had an administration. You refused to wear a topcoat during your Inaugural Address, and you were dead as a doornail in a month!

JOHNSON: Give ‘em hell, Harry! And try not to blow up any more cities.

READER: Hey, Earlo! Do you know a factoid about every president?

ME: No! Franklin Pierce – are you kidding me? I also never intended to write this much on a holiday. So I’m stopping, right here.


ME: What?

JACKSON: I threw the Indians out of Florida.

ME: Great.

JACKSON: Come on! Would your people retire to a place that was full of Indians?

ME: It was a terrible thing to do.

JACKSON: Miami Beach. Teeming with Indians?

ME: Stop it.

JACKSON: Seminoles in Sarasota?

ME: Enough!

JACKSON: Okay. Have it your way.


JACKSON: I also knew Davy Crockett.

Friday, February 17, 2012

"How Much Do You Make?"

The question concerning Mitt Romney is not so much about how much money he has as about how come Romney pays so comparatively little taxes on that money. The immediately accompanying question is how did the rules get into the tax code, allowing Mitt Romney to pay that such a comparatively little amount of taxes?

We can guess the answer to the latter question. It would appear to have to do with Mr. Romney (and his ilk’s) influence on the tax code writing process, relating, one might reasonably assume, to campaign contributions that afforded them such influence.

It could be something else. The writers of the tax code could just think,

“Mitt Romney is a cute Mormon. Let’s give him a break on his taxes. But let’s make it for everyone in his situation, so people won’t think we’re just doing it for Mitt.”

That’s all I have to say on this matter. The arrangement pretty much speaks for itself. I do have some time left, however, so I shall carry on, in a slightly different direction.

The Talking Heads on Television insist that the question posed above – the disparity in taxpaying rates between a huge portion of the American populace and Mitt Romney (and his ilk) – is a legitimate question for debate, while the question of Romney’s actual net worth is discussionally irrelevant.

The Talking Heads on Television tell us that the amorphous but frequently referred to “American People” do not begrudge wealthy people their great fortunes. Which leads to the rather personal and slightly embarrassing question:

How come I sort of do?

Is it because I’m from Canada? There are billionaires in Canada, I think, two of them. By now, maybe three; I’ve been gone for a while. But even, if there are four, or a double-digit number of Canadian billionaires, the idea of enormous wealth disparity doesn’t seem to fit the landscape.

Canada’s a “European-style entitlement community.” When people get sick, Canadians believe money shouldn’t be the issue. Getting better should. I don’t know. Maybe that kind of thinking had an effect on me.

Or maybe it’s because I went to Camp Ogama, where there was an attachment not just to an equality of opportunity but also to an equality of outcome. We had camp-wide “Color Wars” – which at our camp, were packaged not as a “Color War” but as “The Hungarian Revolution”, the competing teams being the workers, the farmers, the students and the doctors – and every one of them ended in an “Ogama Tie.”

Americans believe it’s their Constitutional right to make as much money as they can,

though that right is not stipulated in the Constitution itself. We hear of the “pursuit of happiness”, which perhaps may actually mean the “pursuit of money”, but the Founders of our country were too embarrassed to say so.

But that’s not in the Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, the writers of the Constitution perhaps thinking that that matter had already been covered. They may also have been thinking,

“Do we really want to put ‘greed’ in the United States Constitution?”

Though not in the Constitution, unlimited wealth is the not so secret mission of every American.

“We want it all! And by ‘all’ we mean ‘money.’ Not that that we want all the money, because we need people to buy our stuff and they wouldn’t be able to if we have all the money. So let’s put it this way. When we say ‘We want it all!’, we don’t mean ‘all the money,’ we just want more money than everybody else.”

Of course, some people don’t make anything or sell anything. They simply move money around, and they receive astronomical commissions for doing so. Right now, those guys, with the possible exception of the internet guys who actually invent things once in while, make more money than anyone.

This is entirely understandable. It has to do with the size of the pie. If the pie in a leveraged buyout is fifty billion dollars, and you’re negotiating the deal, even if your commission is only one percent – and it’s probably more – that’s five hundred million dollars. Or, more loudly – THAT’S FIVE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS!!!!

Sometimes the size of the pie changes and even though your percentage of it remains virtually the same, suddenly, through “pie inflation”, your personal paycheck skyrockets.

Media and merchandising revenues (exploited through the advent of free agency) have elevated athletes’ salaries from a small number of thousand dollars a year to twenty million. Today’s athletes are not better than the athletes of the past, at least not that much better – but boy, are they raking it in. Doing pretty much the same job.

Maybe to some degree, athletes are lavishly paid because they are perceived to be “unique talents” (not unlike show business participants). But pro athletes were also unique in the ‘20’s to the ‘60’s when, except for a Babe Ruth, they were paid atrociously. What changed? The size of the pie. (And their ability to bargain for their fair share of it.)

And then there’s doctors. This one, I don’t understand. They may have had job security and prestige in the community, but in the past, if they weren’t, like, surgeons, doctors were not particularly well paid. And then, one day, they were. How did that happen? Did their pie expand too? If it did, why? Maybe the public’s evaluation of what their work required them to do went up.

“You have to do that! We’re giving you more!”

(Ditto for plumbers and morticians.)

For whatever reason – and the only reason I understand involves pies – some people make more than their counterparts in an earlier era, and some people make more today – and sometimes, a ton more – for doing what they do than other people make today for doing what they do.

Income disparity.

I’m no Socialist, but it seems a long way from an “Ogama Tie.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"The Biggest Scandal In Show Business"

The biggest scandal in show business is not the most recent celebrity exiting a vehicle, minus what is generally considered to be an essential item of clothing. That’s not even a scandal. That’s a photo-op.

When you hear what it is, you will likely say, “That doesn’t hold a candle to the other thing”, but nonetheless, the biggest scandal in show business, light years beyond all the others, is

Creative bookkeeping.


Okay, but also not “snore”, because it has victimized virtually everyone in the entertainment business, and even if you don’t care about them because they’re rich, it’s still stealing.

“They’re rich” is exactly the argument that was once offered on 60 Minutes by Sid Sheinberg, at the time, one rung down from the “Top Guy” at Universal Studios, during a segment about actor James Garner suing Universal Studios for breach of contract:

“He makes a terrific salary already”, proclaimed Sheinberg.

Like that’s a justification for “Breach of Contract.” Overlooking how astronomically much more the studio breaching the contract makes, and – throwing it in to be nasty – how much Sid Sheinberg makes and how he’d react if his contract were breached.

Being even nastier, in contrast to the incredibly appealing and therefore almost immeasurably valuable James Garner, would anybody tune in to anything to watch Sid Sheinberg? Unless it's a segment of 60 Minutes, where they can enjoy seeing Sid justify “Breach of Contract” by saying “He makes a terrific salary already” with a straight face?

Notice, before we move on, that it’s always the “Second in Command” who’s assigned the dirty work. The “Second in Command” is the Vice Principal job of any operation. That’s the hatchet man. The “Top Guy”, in this case, Lew Wasserman, remains above the fray, smiling beneficently, and contributing to charity. Still, you can be sure of this:

Mr. Sid don’t go after James Garner less’n dat nice Mr. Lew tells him to.

If you’re detecting less than my usual bonhomie concerning these matters, chalk it up to “I’ve been there, folks.” Major Dad was made at Universal. True, the studio went into “deficit” producing the series – “deficit” meaning the episodes cost more than the amount the network contracted to pay for them, requiring Universal to make up the difference, in hopes of profiting down the line after the series is sold to syndication. The thing is, the studio itself was one of the main reasons the show’s budget was so high.

Under the heading of “Expenses”, Universal charges a non-negotiable fee for the use of its facilities and services, including a “per episode” fee for the services, or the availability at least, of a fire station, situated on the studio lot.

I cannot claim to have ever sat down with the budget and studied all the charges the studio applied against Major Dad. But one of the reasons I didn’t is that, when I noticed the charges assigned on a weekly basis for the Universal fire department, I gave up, chuckling ruefully and shaking my head.

I prefer my comedy in scripts, rather than in budget statements.

Later, when Major Dad became available for syndication, a point at which various entities could bid on the 96-episode package, Universal decided to accept the offer of the USA Network.

The USA Network is a subsidiary of Universal Studios.

“What’s that smell?”

Sorry. But still. Can you imagine how intense the bargaining process must have been, a business entity, “going to the mat” against its own parent company?

“How about this amount?”


Universal Studios sold Major Dad to itself.

As part of my deal, I was contractually entitled to receive money when Major Dad went into profit. Unfortunately, every year – now, closing in on twenty – I get a financial statement, informing me that the series remains “in the red.”

The fire station got its money up front. I’m still waiting.

Ah, well, I really shouldn’t complain.

I made a terrific salary already.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Two Ways To Go"

Such is the reverence for their beloved performers of yesteryear, that on New Year’s Eve when we were in London, there were separate hour-long television specials celebrating two British comedy legends, one, a team, Morecambe and Wise, and the other, Tommy Cooper. My focus today is on Cooper.

Tommy Cooper was a beefy, good-natured, Man of the People-type, who appeared onstage wearing a tassled, red Shriner’s cap and a dark suit and tie. While engaging the audience with a mixture of scripted and seemingly improvised comedy patter, Cooper performed a series of hackneyed magic tricks, none of which ever worked.

Cooper was like your funny uncle, who shows up for family gathering in a condition reflecting a recent unwisely extended visit to the pub. Though his act was relentlessly corny, Cooper’s enthusiasm and good spirits would inevitably capture your heart. Slapstick silliness is not close to my favorite form of comedy but, living in England in the sixties, whenever Tommy Cooper appeared on the telly, I would never fail to watch.

In 1984, at the age of 63, and nearing the end of a successful career, Tommy Cooper, while performing live on television suffered a heart attack and died

On the air.

The audience, familiar with his shenanigans, believed that Cooper’s stumbling to the floor was simply a part of the act. The resulting experience was…

Laugh. Laugh. Dead. Laugh.

Cooper’s career and his life ended simultaneously.

One way to go.

In Canada, Helen Baillargeon hosted a daily fifteen-minute television show called Chez Helene (“Shay ‘aylen”). After running for fourteen years, from 1959 to 1973, Chez Helene was cancelled by the CBC (the Canadian national television network), even though it was still popular. Baillargeon, who was fifty-seven when her show was dumped, disappeared from public view. She lived another twenty-four years.

(By the way, cancelling popular shows is not unusual in Canadian broadcasting. My brother served as a regular on a comedy/panel series called This Is The Law, which, though it continued to score high ratings, was axed by the network, because, they explained, they wanted “to give somebody else a chance.” That’s Canada for you. Fair to a fault.)

I may have read about this, or I may have made it up. But even if I made it up, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; it just means it was not reported. The following event still could have taken place. And when I heard of Chez Helene’s abrupt cancellation after fourteen years, it seems likely that it did.




For fourteen years, stwangers would pass me on de stweet, day would say, “Bonjour, Helene! Comment ca va?”

Were day zaying “Bonjour” to me, Helene Baillargeon, or to the “Helene” from the show? I don’t know, because “Helene” is not simply a character on TV, c’est moi! But wut duz it matter? Day were friendly. Day were nice. Always a greeting. Always a smile.

Will day still say “Bonjour” to me? Now dat I am no longer “Chez Helene”?

Dis is impossible! Four fourteen years, I am on national television, and – like dat! – day take it away from me? How can day do dat!

I am “Chez Helene!”

What wuz da reason? Was I an inferior “Chez Helene” zan I was before? No! If anyt’ing, I was better! A more deeply human “Chez Helene”, a “Chez Helene” with colors! Dear God! I watched some of dose early “Chez Helene” episodes. I was terrible! Day should have cancelled me den! But now? How could day! I am at the top of my form!

To dem, it duz not matter. “The show has run its course. It is time for it to go.”

“Chez Helene” is no more.

Who am I now?

“Laugh. Laugh. Dead. Laugh.”

Suddenly, it doesn’t sound that terrible.