Friday, March 30, 2012

"A Well-Intentioned Mistake"

It seemed like a brilliant idea. A win-win situation. There’d be credit for inspired innovation. And historical authenticity as a bonus.

We were familiar, in the course of our London theater tour experience, with productions taking chances with their approaches. We saw Hamlet, set in a mental institution. And Pippin, played as a video game. The British National Theater’s Juno and the Paycock’s alteration of the proceedings was, though unconventional, not nearly that ambitious.

In other elements, it hewed respectfully to writer Sean O’Casey’s original concept. No changing Dublin into Chicago. No “time-jumping” to the 60’s. This was 1920’s Dublin, during Ireland’s sad and brutally violent civil war.

I am not privy to the specifics of the proposal – I know only what our tour guide had explained to us, as a “heads up” on our way to the theater – but it appears that somebody – maybe it was the set designer, perhaps feeling “If I have to design one more Irish hovel, I will kill myself!” had come up to the director, possibly with a picture book of Dublin in the 20’s in hand, and said,

“You know, Mr. Director, the Irish working poor of that period didn’t actually live in closet-sized, little apartments. The truth is, they rented rooms in capacious Georgian houses, that fallen badly into disrepair.

“What I’m suggesting is that, instead of playing the scenes in a cramped and constricted living room like The Honeymooners – which is in this case, factually incorrect – why not, perhaps for the first time ever in the staging of this play, set the action in the location where it would more likely have taken place?”

And so they did.

The result was a play involving a destitute Irish family, occupying an enormous, high-ceilinged, albeit run down, living area, with a long, large window facing the the street, an expansive setting in which, during far better days, George the Third, or some other Upper Class George that the Georgian architectural style was named after, might have celebrated pampered little Georgie Junior’s birthday party.

Still, there was the research. The adherence to historical accuracy, it was determined, would enhance the current production’s verisimilitude.

We are not English, and we’re not Irish. So the accent in which the actors delivered the lines was virtually indecipherable to us. In addition, the enormous playing area, rather than the tiny set Juno was normally performed in, severely dwarfed the actors, and swallowed up their words – Strike Two, in our ability to pick up any of the dialogue.

And all the time, the audience, who, lacking the benefit of Patrick’s explanation for the creative decision, is presumably wondering what this impoverished family is doing in this gargantuan living room?

A creative choice, made for the right reasons.

And it undermined the entire production.

The lesson?

Be careful about brilliant ideas.

They may only be brilliant in theory.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Answering A Question Somebody Else Asked Somebody Else"

JED asked me a question based on a question someone asked Ken Levine on his blog’s “Question Asking Day.” No problem with that. I too “borrow” questions from there sometimes, offering variations on Ken’s answers. I could institute a “Question Asking Day” here, I suppose. But for that, I’d need a regular flow of questions. And to be honest, based on the answer I’m about to give JED – I have already heard it in my head – I’m not certain I’d be up to the task.

JED writes, in part:

“Ken was answering a question about storylines where two characters are in love but can’t reveal it to each other for one reason or another. He was asked how he decides to pick the right time to allow the characters to get together.”

JED forwarded this question to me, because Ken Levine used Rhoda as an example of “when the wrong decision was made”, and I wrote for Rhoda, though as JED correctly reports, it was after the first season, and they already married.

Let’s start with this. Comedy is fueled by tension, of which there are a number of different varieties. There’s the tension underlying the maintaining of a secret (two “girls” living in a Girls’ living facility are actually guys in drag – hello, Bosom Buddies.),

Tension also feeds the comedy based on a surprise or a practical joke (though this is less a series underpinning than an episode’s. In a drama, you can harbor a secret till the cows come home – unless the secret is that there aren’t any cows, in which case they never come home – but in comedy, after a while, the harboring of a secret gets tiresome, and stops being funny – goodbye, Bosom Buddies.)

Another way tension can is generated is from fish finding themselves precariously – and hopefully hilariously – out of water. In Best of the West, I had a clueless family migrating to the wild and woolly West, where the “tenderfoot” Dad, goaded into a gunfight exclaims, “I don’t want to shoot at this man!” To which a local citizen, more experienced in these matters replies, “Suit yourself. But he’s sure as hell’s be gonna be shootin’ at you!”

Yet another source of tension? Ideological adversarialism. That’s Major Dad. A “by-the-book” Marine major meets and quickly marries a widowed Liberal journalist with three daughters. Watch the sparks fly!

(Until, after I exited the series, when the male lead, who was also an Executive Producer, started dismissing his “wife-adversary’s” point of view without discussion, leading Major Dad to lose its engine and reason to exist, and turn silly.)

Finally, a longstanding source of comedic tension is male-female tension, otherwise known as sexual tension. The Taming of the Shrew, 1591. It doesn’t get more longstanding than that. (And more recently, though less so on network television, same sex versions have been added to the mix.)

I don’t do “sexual tension” very well. That’s why two of my four Cheers episodes were about “Coach”, and one featured Rhea Perlman. The fourth was involved Sam saying “I love you” to Diane, but he didn’t mean it “that way.” Diane had just presented him with tickets to a boxing match Sam intensely wanted to see. It was an appreciative “I love you”, and the funny part was that Diane embarrassingly misunderstood. Oh, yeah. And misunderstanding also creates tension. As does embarrassment.

Owing to personal discomfort, I will limit comment on this area of inquiry. I will ask only one question. At what point is there the most powerful sexual, and therefore comedic, tension – the point before the battling adversaries “get together”, after they “get together”, or after they’re married, or its more recent sitcom alternative, are living together as a couple?

Do we agree it’s the first one?

Right there is the answer to JED’s question. From the point of view of the comedy – and that’s what they’re paying us to do – the decision as to when to get the couple “together” is based on, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson might say if he wrote for television, and he wasn’t at his best – the maximal extension the sexual tension.

That decision is easy in movies and plays. You delay the “getting together” till the end. On the other hand, Cheers ran for eleven years. Can you imagine – assuming that Shelley Long had stayed on – Sam and Diane not “getting together” for eleven years? That would be quite a wait. Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty did it for twenty on Gunsmoke. But those were entirely different times. (Though the process was impeded by the marshal’s continually getting shot.)

There is like an algorithm at play here. The optimal point of getting two characters together is the point at which the couple can no longer stay apart, without their appearing to the audience to have “time traveled” here from the fifties.

In an era when couples are “getting together” earlier and earlier in their relationship, including before the relationship even starts, the “getting together” issue has become quaintly academic. With television mirroring real life, when couples wind up in bed together by the end of the pilot, the series will need to be premised on some other source of tension. The sexual option has been deleted from the menu.

In my view, Rhoda’s mistake was not getting Rhoda and Joe together at the wrong time; it was getting them together at all. Rhoda, at her funniest, was a hilariously sharp-tongued single woman, who was constantly struggling to find a man. Getting her involved and then married deprived her of her edge. And getting her divorced was just sad.

“Okay,” you might say, “but the woman was turning forty. And this was the seventies, when woman still overtly aspired to get married. (This is perhaps still the case today, but the pressure is demonstrably less intense, the word “spinster” being no longer in regular use.)

“The Rhoda show runners had to do something!” you might add. “How funny – and again, we are talking about the seventies – is a situation comedy about a seemingly desirable single woman, rapidly approaching middle age? ”

It’s true. That was quite a problem.

The good news?

It wasn’t my problem.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Shimmering Truths"

Yesterday, I mentioned a friend who came down with some serious health symptoms. The event, sudden and disturbing, reminded me of some shimmering truths, “shimmering truths” being truths that generally fly under the radar, but, once noticed, they reverberate and glow.

I offer, today, two such truths. Hopefully, they have not already come to your attention, though if they have, I believe you will agree that they are indeed shimmering.

Shimmering Truth Number One:

The day before you’re sick, you’re not sick.

(Though it is not equally the case that the day after you’re not sick, you’re sick. The majority of the time, the day after you’re not sick, you’re also not sick. It’s interesting how that only works consistently in one direction.)

Okay, back to “Shimmering Truth Number One.”

Here’s the weird part. You wake up in the morning, and you’re sick. And the first thing you say, often in a whiney voice, is,

“But I wasn’t sick yesterday.”

Why is that reaction weird? It’s weird, because being sick the day after you were not sick is hardly an unusual occurrence; it is simply the way it works. (I know. There’s, “I think I’m coming down with something.” But I’m counting that as already being sick. The day before that, you did not think you were coming down with anything.)

You have a sore throat, a cough, a fever, a swelling, a numb finger, a mole that doesn’t look right, a shooting pain, a twitch, a splitting headache, uncontrollable hiccups – any symptom – large or small – that was not present yesterday?

You have got it today.

And you’re surprised. Or shocked. Or perplexed. Or worried. Or (if you’re me) terrified. Why? Because you have it now and did not have it the day before.

Real World To Earl: You never have it the day before.

I suspect that the reaction to being sick today when you were not sick yesterday – which is always, without exception, the case – relates to a “shimmering truth” which is substantially different from your actual reaction – which is “Duh!” Name one time when you’re feeling sick when you didn’t feel fine the day before. Okay? So what are you talking about?

What you’re talking about is this:

The unsettling unpredictability of personal health.

Message: Feeling fine today says nothing about how you’re going to feel tomorrow. So what then? “Live for today?” Fine, if that’s your style. It does not happen to be mine.

Judging from my blog, I primarily live for yesterday.

The real message is, if you find yourself sick when you were not sick the day before?

Stop being so astonished.

It happens every time.

Shimmering Truth Number Two:

Comes in the form of a story.

After Anna was born, Dr. M experienced some post birth-giving complications, which were ultimately nothing, but were worrisome at the time. After waiting things out in the hospital, sometimes alone, sometimes cradling newborn

Anna – after she’d been deposited in the “newborn” room but had been voted out by the other newborns due to excessive wailing – I was informed that there would be an interval before it would be determined whether more medical interventions would be necessary, and that I should go outside, and get a bite to eat.

So I did.

I went to nearby Izzys Deli. I was too keyed up to eat, but a doctor had told me to, and when doctors tell me to do things, my habit is to roll my eyes, and then do them.

So I’m sitting in Izzys, immersed, I quickly discover, in this cacophonous din, the unmusical version of the “Wall Of Sound.” It’s like I have seashells fused to both ears, and I am incessantly bombarded by overlapping echoes.

For the most part, the ambient clatter is an indecipherable babble. But amidst the pandemonium, recognizable phrases distinguish themselves from the jangle:

“Waiter! We need more ketchup!”

“This pot roast is cold!”

“Our table is wobbling.”

“Mommy! I have to go pee pee!

“I distinctly told you, ‘No onions!’”

“More ketchup! Pu-leeeze!”

At this moment, I am thinking…two things. One: Should I have the soup, and if so, should it be the matzo ball or the barley? And two: “Are you kidding me! My wife is in the hospital. And you’re obsessing about ketchup!

“Shimmering Truth Number Two?” No matter what crisis you may personally be experiencing, the world goes on as usual. They do not care about you. And, when the tables are turned, as compassionate as you may be, or at least think you are, you will not care about them.

The immutable “Rule of Threes” requires a third example. To maintain the standard, however, I will reserve my reporting to two.

Shimmering truths are hard to come by.

If I think of third one, I will let you know.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Way Up North"

Northern California is to Southern California as an Ivy League college is to a suburban Junior High.

Northern California wears a sweater, and means it. Southern California has a sweater, but they drape over their shoulders.

Northern California is organic and natural. Southern California is raging silicone.

Northern California has fertile grazing land extending to the ocean. Southern California is desert sand extending to beach sand, dotted by grass that was flown in from somewhere else, along with most of SoCal’s inhabitants.

Northern California says: Eternal. Southern California says: “A Tradition Since 1996.”

Nestled in the hills above the Northern Marin County village of Inverness is a rustic lodge established in 1917, where, upon our arrival for a celebrational anniversary getaway, we were presented with mugs of hot apple cider, spiked with rum.

I believe we had a very enjoyable trip, though I cannot say for certain, the welcoming libation rendering me drunk for our entire stay.

Every decorative element in our cabin was chosen with thoughtfulness and care, the décor consistent with the lodge’s magnificent, natural surroundings. It all seemed to fit, from the massive, claw-footed bathtub to the wastebasket that was a milking pail. No TV or DVD player, the only nod to modernity, a red rotary wall phone, which on closer inspection, turned out to be a push-button wall phone, with the buttons arranged in a circle, to make it look like a rotary wall phone. I smiled goofily at the subterfuge.

I had never had rum before.

The single “touch” we could have done without was this enormous deer head, mounted over the wood-burning fireplace. It wasn’t the entire deer, just the head, including antlers – which could have served as a hat rack for twelve – and an extended upper chestal area, suggesting that the deer, intact, must have been truly gigantic.

I am not of the hunting fraternity, but I don’t see what the big deal is about hitting something that big. I mean, how could you miss? It’s like bagging a billboard. I mean, you hit a rabbit – it’s small, it’s fast – that’s something! Though a mounted rabbit head is admittedly less impressive hanging over your fireplace.

The “breakfast included” was entirely in keeping with the motif, everything, natural and home grown. Homemade granola, locally cultured yogurt, fresh eggs – I am not an egg eater, but I could appreciate their freshness – the chickens waddled up the stairs and laid them on our porch. No, they didn’t. But the menu assured us they were fresh. The porch stuff I made up.

Remember, I was still drunk.

When we had regained our ability to walk in a reasonably straight line, we left the room, touristing at the nearby town of Point Reyes, home of the Cowgirl Creamery. I bet you didn’t know where that was; now you do. Also – I’m jumping around here, but in the context of landmarks? – the original Peet’s Coffee emporium is in Berkeley, which we visited later.

Peet was an entrepreneurial pioneer, thinking, “People will pay more for coffee, if only it didn’t taste like mud.”

The “natural” motif continued, as we purchased souvenirs for the family in the form of pads of notepaper, made from organic cow poo. You can’t pass that up, can you? For five ninety-five? And it smells like paper, not what it’s made out of.

Yet another example of American entrepreneurialism: “What can we do with that stuff we keep stepping in? I know! We’ll turn it into paper, and sell it to idiots!”

Lunch was at a Point Reyes restaurant, trumpeting two choices of beef, one, “grass fed”, and I forget what the other one was, because I don’t care.

My only thought was about cows receiving one form of nourishment thinking, “I wish we ate the other stuff.” I leave open the possibility that cows may not think that way. It’s a form of arrogance, I suppose, to imagine that every species on the planet thinks like me.

We visited a state park that included the recreation of the village of a now extinct indigenous Indian tribe. You could almost hear their ghostly voices saying, “Thank you for your interest. We could have used some of that when we were alive.”

We drove down a bendy road to a hiking trail leading to the ocean. After starting down a path which was steep and of an indeterminate distance to the ocean, we quickly ascertained – being educated people – that if a hiking trail is steep going down, it will be equally steep coming back up. And considerably harder to negotiate. After ten minutes, we decided to turn back.

As the years roll by, it is a concern that such surrenders may be attributed in our minds to advancing decrepitute. As we returned to our car, I tried to nip that notion in the bud, saying,

“I’d like to believe that when we were younger, we also wouldn’t have done that.”

We were comforted by that thought as we drove away. Though not entirely persuaded.

Though our rustic rendezvous was relaxing and revivifying, at the end, things took an unwelcome and unexpected turn.

On our last night, we’d been invited to dinner and an overnight stay at our friends’ Joan and David’s place in Berkeley. That morning, we were informed that David had developed some worrisome symptoms, though we were encouraged to come anyway.

Shortly after our arrival, with the symptoms persisting, David was instructed to check into a hospital, for observation and testing. Joan and David immediately drove off, leaving us alone in their house, where we cleaned up from dinner, and eventually went to bed. The next day, we left for home, lacking any knowledge of the condition of our host.

I hope he’s okay.

I like David. And I want him to be well.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"The Most Powerful Man In The World?"

The President of the United States is generally considered to be the most powerful man in the world. And yet, look at all the things – and I am sure there are others, which perhaps you can suggest – that the president of the United States could not possibly ever say.

The State of the Union is not that great.

Does God exist? I have absolutely no idea.

I really don’t like (insert name of a vegetable grown exclusively in a battleground state)!

The president can do very little about gas prices.

The assembly line jobs are never coming back.

This country would be safer is less people had guns.

You know what would be beautiful? If just once, my Appointments Secretary would say, “You have to pardon the turkey, and that’s it.”

Some of my advisors – I won’t mention names – are more clueless than I am. No, wait! I will mention names!

Legalize marijuana? Alcohol's legal, is't it?

I’d like to see what happens if, just once, I paid tribute to coal in Iowa and corn in Pennsylvania.

A lot of the Opposition party are idiots!

The extreme element of my party are a bunch of whiney babies. They continually want more.

As hard as I try, whenever economists start talking, I immediately glaze over.

I’d help the poor more, if only they’d vote.

Of course I go to Wall Street for campaign donations. They’ve got a potload of money!

Capital punishment is as barbaric as the thumbscrew and boiling in oil.

Have you read the Constitution? The president is really hemmed in.

On the days when this job really sucks, I imagine that Nixon arranged Watergate, so he could get out of here early.

No “Mistakes were made.” I made a lot of mistakes!

Sometimes, I look at the other side of an argument, and it seems kind of reasonable.

I’m gonna start puttin’ a “g’” on the end of “puttin’.“ And I’m gonna stop saying “gonna.”

If it weren’t for Lincoln and Roosevelt, I’d be considered a really good president.

I had this dream, where this guy was going to assassinate me, and I went over to his house and shot him!

They asked me, “Do you think we should go to war?” I said, “Ask somebody else!”

There is a percentage of the electorate that is just plain stupid.

“The Most Powerful Man in the World?”

Peut etre, non.

And let him try saying anything in French!

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Aging Series"

A new reader, Tania, who, as they said Bull Durham “announced her presence with authority” – welcome Tania – spoke about shows “veering off course because the writers appear to be following the gag or funny story idea rather than the character and the character’s story/truth.”

Yes. No, wait, that wasn’t a question, so, I agree. Television series, some old and tiring, others, relatively new but failing to connect with the audience, resort to altering, or cannibalizing, their original template, in a desperate effort to stay in the game.

Let me deal with the second type of show first. Basic principles: A show has a concept. It was sold on the basis of that concept. The pilot gets made, it gets on the air, and it proceeds to make episodes, all the time remaining firmly grounded in that original concept.

It turns out, it’s not enough. The show is floundering in the ratings. Cable cooking shows are doing better.

At this point, adjustments are required in order to survive. The series’ creator may say, “But the show sold on the premise of this concept. Why can’t we stick with it, and just try to do a better job?” (If you’re sensing some personal angst in this lament, you are not entirely incorrect.)

Though an honorable idea, the reason you cannot remain true to the original concept that that the network bought and said they loved, is because if you do, you’ll be cancelled.

So you look for a lifeline.

A standard remedy, at this point, is to eschew reality, and go “larger than life”, much larger, if necessary, often lurching into fantasy, ironic “cutaways”, and dream sequences. It rarely works, but you have to do something. Even though the most reasonable strategy would be to cut your losses, and try again.

The audience has spoken. Your idea did not connect. They do not want a realistically depicted series set in a Community College. And sticking a “clown nose” on it is not going to help.

It is simply time to move on. And remember that even though your show crashed and burned, you went home with quite a bit of money.

30 Rock is different. Though never a commercial blockbuster, it was a big success with the most desired demographic. Apparently, everyone who watched it bought a Lexus.

30 Rock was never entirely realistic. The Tina Fey/Alec Baldwin scenes felt fundamentally truthful, but the writing staff never wrote anything, and the Jenna character and the Tracy character were, I believe from “Episode One”, crazy.

From the get-go, 30 Rock was a two-humped camel. I only liked one of those humps. You can probably guess which one.

Of all the recent Thursday night NBC comedies, 30 Rock was the only one I tried to watch regularly, though when I sometimes forgot, I noticed I did not feel that bad. (I also like Parks and Recreation, because it generally sticks to its concept, and despite some forced quirkiness in the characters, it has an undercurrent of heart.)

30 Rock offered my favorite sitcom joke in a decade. (30 Rock’s “ha-ha” ratio was, for me, statistically not high, but I was always drawn back on “hope.” It’s like finding a needle in a haystack and thinking, “If there’s one, there definitely has to be more.”) Anyway, here’s the joke.

An editor, who’s asked what he’s working on, replies,

“I’m assembling a piece for the Today Show on how next month is October.”

My kind of comedy. Simple. Fresh. Irreverent. And insightful. I literally went “whoosh.”

Moving on…

Shows that have been on a long time inevitably run out of gas. But since every produced episode means more money in syndication, they continue making them, even when they are indisputably driving on fumes.

There are only so many stories you can write about a paper company that’s not doing that well. There are only so many variations you can do on a character’s idiosyncratic behavior. You can write only so many repetitions of the premise, “This idea can’t miss, and then it does” before the audience is light years ahead of you. You keep throwing them fastballs, and eventually, they will see them coming.

So, one reason shows, in Tania’s words, find themselves “veering off course” is because they have entirely exhausted their possibilities. Another reason is that, not infrequently, the “brain trust”, the show’s creators and much of the original writing staff, has cashed in or burnt out, or both, and have moved on, leaving the work to the lesser gifted of our fraternity, who, aside from being burdened by the best permutations of the jokes having already been done, cannot match their predecessors’ superior gifts. (On occasion, some “phenom” replacement will show up, but that is far more the exception than the rule.)

The funny thing – if by “funny” you mean annoyingly unhelpful – is that, on the strength of momentum and its deservedly praised earlier episodes, a series that is creatively past its prime can be pulling in the best ratings of its entire run.

Why? I have labeled this phenomenon “The Uppie Factor.” A grandchild toddles over to their doting grandfather and says, “Uppie?” Taking the cue, the grandpa lifts the child high in the air, possibly including the word, “Whee!” and then lowers them back down. At which point, the toddler says, “Uppie?”, and the grandpa is obligated to do it again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

At some juncture, pretty soon if one is of advancing years, the grandpa will, literally, tire of the game, and suggest that they stop playing. Unfortunately, the kid is still getting a huge kick out of this activity, and they insist that it continue. Unable to say “No” to the grandchild, the “Uppie” process proceeds, until paramedics arrive, carrying oxygen.

This, surpassing even than the desire to maximize profits, is the reason shows stick around much longer than is good for them.

Though the energy, excitement and creativity are far in the past,

The audience still wants “Uppie.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"I Once Had A Beard - The Post I Intended To Write Yesterday"

Yesterday, I had a small “Crisis Moment” where I was confronted with a seriously faulty recollection process. I decided there’s not much I can do about that, except, maybe, seek confirmation on the matter from others who were involved, but that’s tricky, because their memories may be faulty as well, possibly in an entirely different direction. I guess the best you can do is the best you can do. There was an old-time umpire who said, “I never called one wrong in my heart.” That pretty much covers it. So on we go.

I am not prone to vanity, but I have to say,

“That is one fine-looking beard.”

This picture was taken through a television set during my performance on The Bobbie Gentry Show, in 1974. I mean, yeah, being prepared for a television appearance, I had professional help sprucing it up, but generically, though I admit prejudice, we’re looking at a beard that really works!

(Full Disclosure: The photo appended to my permanent resident “Green Card” displays a scraggly beard of a fellow I’d be reluctant to sit beside on an airplane.)

Why did I have a beard at all?

I have no idea.

Some possible explanations: My brother had a beard at some point, and I wanted to be like him. Although his was a goatee, and mine was a “wraparound.” (Which I believe is better. But that too may be subjective.) Also, though it was ’74, there was still spillover from the hair-hoarding sixties, where barbers read the paper for ten years until their customers came back.

The sixties produced a follicular rebellion against the “brush cut” fifties, where they cut hair like it was still World War II, and you were trying to avoid getting head lice in the foxholes. I was probably just following the trend. Before that, the only people I met with beards were impoverished Hasidic rabbis who came to our door and tried selling us buttons.

There’s another issue as well. Going sideways for a minute, when I was 16, and a Counselor-In-Training at Camp Ogama, there was a rule that you could smoke, if you got a signed permission slip from your parents. In my cabin of eight campers, the only one who got permission to smoke was me. And I didn’t even want to smoke.

But my mother was always prodding me to “Grow up”, and, back then, smoking was believed to be an integral part of that process. So she signed the paper, and I bought a pipe.

In truth, I still didn’t do much smoking, since, due to my inept packing of the bowl, my pipe kept going out. The result was pretty much a pacifier, with tobacco.

But I was sending a signal: (call it a smoke signal)

“Grownups smoke. I smoke. I am a grownup.”

I imagine there are similarities with the beard.

“Men can grow hair on their faces. I can grow hair on my face. I am a man.”

Logic, it would appear, has its limitations. Closer to the truth was that I was a child with a beard, who smoked.

Hair decoration was a fashion statement, not unlike the, more recent, body piercing and tattooing, but you didn’t have to go to anybody, the hair just showed up. Facial hair could, in fact, give shape to your not as yet fully formed physiognomy. On the down side, if it was not assiduously trimmed, you’d be chewing on your mustache, and finding dinner residue in your beard.

During my first year in L.A., somebody told me that it would take three years to feel fully at home there. They were almost dead on. Three years after I arrived, my career was established, I met Dr. M, and my actual grown up life began to take shape.

And that’s when it hit me. My “Beard Time” was over.

Since my debacle of yesterday, I will not even guess at when I shaved the beard off. I only recall that at some point, the beard became, to my thinking, a concealing disguise, a prop I was hiding behind, because I was not fully comfortable with where – and also perhaps who – I was.

Suddenly, I was consumed with this mental image of a man, walking around Los Angeles, wearing a fake beard that hooked over the tops of his ears. My facial covering no longer seemed like an organic part of me. There was this insistent urge to slip it off, and reveal my true self to the world.

On the practical side, it was probably summer, and the beard was making me itchy.

I accomplished it in stages. First, I shaved off the “connecting area”, leaving a goatee and long sideburns. I tried making the sideburns even, but, being me, one side was always noticeably shorter than the other, until, after evening one side and then the other, there were no sideburns left. I’d have kept going but my actual head hair yelled, “Stop!”

What remained now was the beard. But I looked like I was swallowing a muskrat. So I shaved off the bottom part, and for a short time – I believe a couple of hours – I had only a mustache. That was just ridiculous. Dr. M said I looked “furtive.”

And then it was all gone. I was now returned to my original condition. I looked younger. Cleaner. I became reacquainted with my chin. The madness had ended. I was truly myself. A grownup with no beard who didn’t smoke.

But I still felt like I was six.

Which is apparently part of being truly myself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"I Once Had A Beard"

I have frequently told this story:

I had just returned home, after sixteen months, living in London. From the Toronto airport, I called my brother to ask him if he’d pick me up. He replied that, rather than picking me up, I should take a cab to his house, and he’d pay for the cab fare. I said okay. And that’s what happened.

Here’s what you need to know. When I left for London, my brother had a beard.

Okay, now…

The cab dropped me off at my brother’s house. I dragged my suitcase up the sidewalk, and I rang the doorbell. My brother opened the door, and I saw him for the first time in months.

He did not have a beard anymore.

But I did.

I saw this – we both saw this – as a “Passing of the Torch.” In some surreal, Twilight Zone-type transaction involving facial hair, the beard had been magically transferred from his face to mine. It felt distinctly like a sign, Moses conferring the Sacred Covenant unto Joshua, saying,

“I have traveled as far as I can. You are the Future. Take this beard, and go forth unto the Promised Land.”

Historically, that’s pretty much what happened. My brother, mistaking spontaneous comic inspiration for an ability to write scripted material for Phyllis Diller, enjoyed limited success in Hollywood, ultimately returning to his previous trade of lawyering. I, on the other hand, experienced substantial success in the same arena, not the lawyering arena – I quit law school after five weeks – the Hollywood one.

For us, the iconic “Miracle At The Door” echoed with symbolism. I took possession of the beard, and I intrepidly went forth. It’s a wonderful story: Two brothers, theirs paths unalterably “Switched At Beard.” The only problem is,

The story is not true.

And only today have I come to realize it. When I decided to write this post, it was intended to be about my beard. But as my posts occasionally do, it took a left, and is now, instead, about memory. Or, more accurately, the disturbing faultiness thereof.

Did it ever actually happen that my brother had a beard and I didn’t, and when he opened his door, he didn’t have a beard and I did?


Did it happen when I returned home from London?

It couldn’t have.

I have evidence to back that up, but, being factual rather than imagined, it is not all that interesting. It involves chronology, or, and it goes like this.

When I came back from London, my brother’s Hollywood career had not yet taken place, nor had his starring role on his three-year string of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) television specials, during which time, he wore a beard.

All that happened afterwards.

Also, a few after “The Miracle”, I started writing a weekly column in a Toronto newspaper, which included a not particularly flattering caricature of me. And guess what?

I was not wearing a beard.

Oh, yeah. One more thing. When I returned home from England? I did not arrive at the airport. Because I came home by boat!

Oh, man! What a mess!

Two possibilities come to mind here. One, when I left for London, my brother had a beard and I didn’t. While I was away, I grew a beard, and my brother shaved his off, leading to the iconic “Miracle At The Door.” Later, my brother re-grew his beard (for his stint in Hollywood, and the subsequent CBC specials), and I shaved mine off. Evidence: the newspaper caricature. Oh yeah. And then, by the time I went to Hollywood, I had grown my beard back.

So there’s that.


Possibility Number Two: The “Miracle At The Door” took place. But at a totally different time.

Which possibility seems more plausible to you?

Me too. The shorter one.

The problem is, if I abandon my original recollection, there is no “Miracle At The Door.” For that story to work, it could only have happened at that time – the time that it didn’t.

Tomorrow, the beard-related stories I was planning to tell today. Prior warning, however: They may or may not be true.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure the story today is true either.


Married thirty years. An unexpected milestone. And a truly happy one.

The rest is private.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Onstage Jerry"

What impressed me the most about Jerry Seinfeld’s standup comedy performance, which we recently attended at Los Angeles’ massive and venerable Pantages Theater, was how limber the man was.

Now, were I writing for a Yoga magazine, this would be high praise indeed. But I’m not. Which conjures the question, if I’m chronicling the highlights of a show headlined by a consummately skillful comedian, a “professional’s professional”, a man who also starred in my favorite situation comedy of all time, shouldn’t what impressed me the most about Jerry Seinfeld’s standup comedy performance at Los Angeles’ massive and venerable Pantages Theater be the comedy?

I think so.

And yet…

It wasn’t.

It was his inordinate flexibility. Jerry Seinfeld is, as he announced onstage, fifty-seven years old. Hardly a young man. A man, in fact, three years shy of sixty. And yet, in the course of underlining certain moments in his act, he stretched, he squatted, he loped across the stage...

At one point, he lay down on the floor, and he got up again. Just straight got up. No rapid breathing, no labored “Oy!” In fact, listening to him continuing on without missing a beat, unless you had seen it with your own eyes, you would never have known he had just lain down on the floor and gotten up again. I’m tellin’ ya –

That guy is in shape!

Was he funny? Sure. As he also announced onstage, Jerry Seinfeld has been performing standup comedy for thirty-one years. (Or maybe longer. He may have said he first performed in L.A. thirty-one years ago.) You get good at it after thirty-plus years. You know what you’re doing up there.

No stumbles. No extraneous verbiage. Every set-up, crystal clear, every “build”, structured to maximum effect, every punchline, timed to perfection, the entire presentation, like an Olympic, acrobat executing complicated maneuvers on the balance beam, or uneven bars…


No question about it. The man is “top-of-the-line” at what he does.

And yet, what I remember the most was the limberness. Which sent a thought bordering on an insight worming its way into my insight place, the thought being this:

Jerry Seinfeld stretched in every way but with his material.

I don’t text, as I do not own a texting device. But if I did, and I were acronyming my impression of Jerry Seinfeld onstage?


“Same Old Thing.” Did I make that up? I wouldn’t know. Nobody texts me for the same reason. I do not own a texting device. They’d have to text right into my head.

From a content standpoint, Jerry’s repertoire was “business as usual.” Cell phone jokes. Starbucks jokes. Wife jokes, which one person in our party found unfunny, and another found accurate but, come on…

Wife jokes?

Bottled water jokes. People continually getting “re-hydrated.” And then, get this!

Shortly thereafter, Jerry walks over to a stool, holding a bottle of water and a plastic cup, and he…

“Re-hydrates himself!

“Yoo-hoo! Mr. Funny Man! May we have some self-awareness, please?”

There was none to be had. No connection. It’s as if Jerry’s life and his act are two different planets. “In my life, I rehydrate myself.” “In my act, I make fun of those people.”

Hey, Jerry.

You are those people.

Apparently, he did not notice that. And Jerry Seinfeld is a real “Did you ever notice” kind of a guy!

In contrast, Larry David offers, in his public persona, a human being – a monstrously flawed one – but if you prick him, he will bleed. He’ll bleed venom, but he’ll bleed.

Jerry Seinfeld offers…a hologram. There’s a suit up there, it’s moving around, but are we getting a multi-dimensional human being, or Jerry Seinfeld, “trick or treating”, dressed as Jerry Seinfeld?

Jerry mentions three children, but not their names, or individualized genders or personalities. He alludes to a wife, but his jokes project a universal “generic wife”, not the specific woman he married.

The result is a feeling of coldness. “Packaged Jerry”, revealing a fraction of who he actually is.

Jerry re-hydrates.

But not in his act.

And now,

Earl’s Standard Disclaimer:

An artist should be judged by their own intentions, not by what I’d like their intentions to be.

Jerry Seinfeld presents himself in the way he chooses to present himself, as is extremely skilled at doing so.

But, for me, the only feeling he elicited was the feeling that I would benefit greatly if I went back to yoga.


She's twenty-nine

She's in her prime

She's just sublime

She's my "Sunshine."

Happy birthday, Anna Benne.

You're just the best

You ace the test

I'm so impressed

And truly blessed.


Monday, March 19, 2012

"What Exactly Am I?"

During our recent trip to London, I was never without my pocket-sized, pale green-covered notebook, in which I would meticulously jot down my insights and observations. The results have produced more than a dozen blog posts, which, hopefully, have been acceptable.

After writing each post, I would dutifully “X” out my notes on the subject, continuing this process, until I had covered everything I had jotted down, excluding the matters I decided were not worth writing about. I have now “Xed” out the contents of my entire pale green-covered notebook.

Except for one entry.

Once revealed, you will understand why I’ve left it for last. Though you may wonder why I am writing about it at all.

I am writing about it, because it’s like a recently discovered bump in my mouth. Until treated, the smart move would be leaving it alone. But try telling that to my tongue.

Okay. Here we go.

I am standing in the “Gallery Queue” at the “Old Bailey”, London’s venerable criminal court building, where concerned parties – and, if there’s room left in the gallery, random visitors – queue up (line up), to gain entry into the courtrooms, and observe what’s going on.

I am, possibly, overly excited being there. Auditing criminal trials is one of my favorite things to do in London. We saw eight show on our visit. None of them came close to being as compelling as what I saw in those courtrooms.

The pageantry of the criminal trial, complete with black gowns and wigs (even for the women) is, hands down, the coolest show in town. (We shall set aside, for this outing, the issue of finding entertainment in other people’s misfortune. Acknowledging it’s a little dodgy.)

Standing in the queue is a freshly scrubbed young lady, of (applicable only in England) identifiably noble – or at least noble-ish – lineage – it’s the flawless skin and the impeccable bone structure – with whom I immediately struck up an energetic conversation, while we waited to be let in.

The woman turned out to be a recently graduated attorney, who had been dispatched by her law firm to take notes on a particular trial, and report back to her bosses. Our animated “back-and-forth” revealed she was as excited to be there as I was.

(I later discovered that the trial she’d be sent to involved a British company, which had sold aluminum tubing to Slokavia that had been redirected to Iran. I sat in on that trial until proceedings were dismissed, the half hour I observed seriously piquing my curiosity. On a subsequent visit to the courts, where I ran into her again, the neophyte attorney was nervously tight-lipped about the matter. Piquing my curiosity even more.)

We chattered on (during our first encounter) for about fifteen minutes. Then, the door opened, and the court attendant let us in.

It was only then that I discovered that I had irritated another female visitor, who’d been queued up in front of us. I did not pick up her entire conversation with her companion, but I did see her gesturing in my direction, and, in a tone reflecting annoyance, heard her pronounce me to be,



I did not respond to the charge, feeling too wounded to defend myself. Later, however, when the sting of the moment had receded, I revisited the encounter in my mind, deciding I was not “long-winded.” I was, simply, and more accurately,


What’s the difference, you may ask? Without reaching for the dictionary, to me, “talkative” means “amiably chatty”, holding forth on various subjects in an entertainingly enjoyable manner. “Long-winded”, on the other hand, refers to some insufferable yawn inducer, prattling on endlessly, often on a subject nobody cares about.

Though I could see this could easily be viewed as a distinction without an identifiable difference, especially to a nearby queue stander who finds one excruciatingly tiresome.

(Or maybe she was just agitated, because a friend or relative was about to be sent to the slammer, and she had projected her anxiety onto me.)

It is not easy, or even reasonable, for a man who has written more than a thousand blog posts nobody asked him to write, and who has just employed over seven hundred and fifty words to describe an event that could probably be encompassed in a single sentence – “This women called me ‘long-winded’, but I think I’m just talkative” – to deny that I seem to have a lot to say, That I, rightly or wrongly, believe is worth hearing. (Or reading.)



C. Aubrey Smith recounting his exploits at Balaclava – “Guns! Guns! Guns!”?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m not the best judge.

The young attorney didn’t call me “long-winded.” She seemed to be having a good time.

Anyway, now I can put my pale green-covered notebook in the drawer.

I’m done.

And not moment too soon!


Friday, March 16, 2012

"Rate Your Preference"

I present today two renditions of the same song. “Sometimes I Dream”, written by Merle Haggard, and performed in their individual styles by Merle Haggard and Steve Young.

Tell me which version you prefer. I have my favorite, but I want to hear from you.

It’s weird. A guy writes a song and another guy does it better. Wait! Did I just give away my preference?

Actually, I didn’t. There’s a third singer in the race. But, unfortunately, they are not available on Youtube. That guy can only be heard in my basement. And he may be the best one of them all.

Anyway, there's still these other two Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"An Unusual Dentist"

“Teeth, teeth, teeth, teeth,

Teeth, teeth, teeth.

The bottom of the sea

Is covered with teeth.”

Do you see how many times I repeated the word, “teeth”? Seven times. You’re a writer. So you know that’s exactly the right number of times to repeat it.

“Teeth, teeth, teeth, teeth

Teeth, teeth, teeth.

The bottom of the sea

Is covered with teeth.”

You repeat it seven times. Nine times is too many. Five times is not enough.

This was my introduction to my first dentist when I moved to Los Angeles, Dr. Sydney Garfield, recommended by Lorne Michaels (who had arrived in L.A. a year earlier) which he supplemented with the credit – not a professional credit, of course; this was Hollywood – “He does Jack Nicholson’s teeth.”

Jack Nicholson’s teeth looked all right. So I went.

Before moving on, three things are worth mentioning about the above-quoted poem: One, Dr. Garfield had written it himself, including it in his book, entitled, not surprisingly, Teeth Teeth Teeth. (He had quoted it to me to demonstrate the timeless indestructibility of teeth, the bottom of the sea being covered with them.) Two, he believed he was a writer – hence, the certainty concerning the seven-time repetition of the word “teeth.” And three, while he was quoting the poem, he was simultaneously scraping plaque off my teeth, having previously anaesthetized me with Nitrous Oxide, also known as “Laughing Gas.”

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the poem.

Dr. Garfield’s Beverly Hills office was unique in my dental-office-visiting experience. The walls (and ceiling) were plastered with sketches, paintings and murals, all of them painted directly onto the walls (and ceiling.)

Imagine a person, totally tattooed from head to toe. This was that tattooed person, as an office. There were also assorted sculptures, which, if not executed by the same artists, seemed products of the same artistic school – The School Of People Making Wacko Art And Paying For Their Dental Work With It.

For most of the years that I went to him, Dr. Garfield worked entirely alone. No receptionist. No dental hygienist. No partner. In fact, thinking back, I also do not recall any other patients going out or waiting to see him. I’d come in, and it was just Sydney, me, and the artwork.

Physically, Sydney Garfield is hard to describe, partly because I’m not a great describer, and partly because he did not look like anybody I had ever seen before. His face had a polished, waxy quality, as if recently buffed at a nearby carwash. His hair was shiny, jet black and surreal. It wasn’t a toupee, I don’t think, though by contrast, it gave toupees a comparative credibility. These slightly “off” characteristics made me think that if those parts were less than authentic, which parts of him could I actually rely on?

His age? Elusively indeterminate. He told me that, prior to becoming a dentist, he had been an aeronautical engineer, working on the design of Howard Hughes’s The Spruce Goose. The Spruce Goose had been built in the 40’s. So he was at least twenty-five years older than World War II.

Equally elusive was his career track. He started out as an engineer, he gave it up for dentistry, and when I met him, he was determined to switch his line of work once again. This time, to screenwriter.

This change in employment was not always enthusiastically received. He told me how, when he mentioned it to his celebrity patient when he flew up to work on his teeth during the filming of The Misssouri Breaks, Mr. Nicholson had replied, (imagine here an indeterminately aged engineer turned dentist turned screenwriter’s imitation of a world-famous movie star):

“Sydney, you’re a great dentist. Whaddaya wanna be writer for?”

But that’s what he desperately wanted to be. And as his initial effort, he had penned a spec (unpaid for) movie script, entitled, Le Juicy Giraffe, whose subject was – again, not surprisingly – plastic surgery.

The script read like a medical manual, typed in a screenplay format. Not just a medical manual, but a medical manual that had been written by a writer, who, it would not be a giant “reach” to believe, had been under the influence of Nitrous Oxide when he did so.

Every dental visit was the same. I’d arrive for my appointment, and there was Sydney, sitting alone in his waiting room, screenplay in hand, eager to read me his latest scenes or revisions from Le Juicy Giraffe.

He had chosen me to read to, it was assumed, because I was a writer. Though this is hardly a certainty. Once, he called my house, and finding me not at home, he read his most recent material to my stepdaughter, Rachel, who was, at the time, less than ten.

Years later, I caught him on a Cable Access Channel, where, for a small fee, you could appear on television. Sydney had purchased airtime so he could sit and read his movie script to whomever happened to be tuning in.

Sydney’s show biz connections were limited, at least, as he assumed, compared to mine. Once, he called to ask if I could get him a meeting with Jerry Lewis. I informed him I did not know the man.

Have I adequately sold “unusual” concerning this man? I believe I have. But you should also know that his unusualness had its touching side. Knowing I was fearful of treatment, Sydney once drove out to Santa Monica, to pick me up and take me to his office. I already mentioned his providing me with Nitrous Oxide, an anesthetic generally restricted to more serious dental work than a cleaning. And finally, you know how after they work on your teeth, dentists always say, “No food or drink for at least an hour”? Immediately after my appointments, Dr. Garfield invariably took me to lunch.

His passing came as a shock to me. One day, a friend called and said, “Did you read that your dentist died?” And so he had. It was in the paper. Sydney Garfield had been hit by a car, while crossing an intersection. A sad but perfect ending for a mind-wandering dreamer.

He was probably thinking about Le Juicy Giraffe. And how he might interest Nicholson in playing the lead.