Friday, June 29, 2012

"Snoopy Science"

Everyone’s got an agenda, including social science researchers.  The difference is, when “science” says something – “a recent scientific study has demonstrated – people take its conclusions seriously.  Especially when that study supports their agenda.

My agenda will appear at the end.  But first, other people’s.  

On Wednesday, June the 13th, Nathanial Frank, credited as “a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law” – what exactly is a “visiting scholar”?  Do they not have to show up every day, or just visit when they feel like it? 


Mr. Frank wrote a commentary in the Los Angeles Times, criticizing a study by Mark Regnerus, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research, according to Professor Regnerus, “clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults – on multiple counts and across a variety of domains – when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father.”

Referencing same-sex marriage, Regnerus writes elsewhere that children of same-sex parents experience greater “household instability” than others, and that it could be too much of a “social gamble” to “support this new family form.”

(This pronouncement is important, as the Supreme Court may soon determine the fate of same-sex marriage.  Taking Regnerus’s “social gamble” warnings under consideration in the legal context of “compelling interest” – the state’s interest in the child’s welfare – the Court could find a persuasive reason to rule against it.)

Mr. Frank criticizes Mr. Regnerus’s study as, what I will now put in quotes, “bad science”, both methodologically and because it does not support the professor’s conclusion.  Mr. Frank claims that the study itself acknowledges that “what it’s really comparing with heterosexual families is not families headed by a same-sex couple but households in which the parents broke up.”

Thus, according to Frank, Regnerus “fails the most basic requirement of social science research – assessing causation by holding all other variables constant.”  

Mr. Frank also suggests bias, because Professor Regnerus’s study was funded, in part, by a conservative institute, who, according to Frank, “have cited research that – it’s claimed – shows that gay parenting is a bad idea.”

Because his only concern is exposing the inadequacy of anti same-sex parenting studies – his claim being that “no scholarly research, including the Regnerus paper, has ever compared children of stable same-sex couples to children of stable different-sex couples” – Mr. Frank has little interest in defending the acceptability of single parenting.  This is not his issue.  At least, in this commentary. 

In fact, as part of his argument that same-sex parents are being unfairly singled out for scrutiny, Frank kind of throws single parenting under the bus, saying, 

“Given all the research on the hardships of children raised by single parents, there is still no movement to preemptively remove kids from broken homes after every divorce or ban single people from having kids.”
Frank’s agenda is transaparent.  So, with his arguably sloppy science and less than certain conclusions, is Regnerus’s.  And so, not surprisingly, is mine.  Though I’m not a scientist, so I can’t get yelled at.  Says me.

Male-female parenting.  Same-sex parenting.  Single parenting.  They’re different.  It is possible that one may be more optimal for childrearing than another.  But before we go there, I would argue that the quality of childrearing depends, most significantly, on the people involved, an issue that cannot be studied scientifically, because every individual is their own sample, and for research you need “cohorts.”

More importantly, or equally importantly – I can’t decide which; I just know it’s not less importantly – is the question of degree.  How much, if at all, or how little, is the difference on the children raised under the various arrangements of parenting? 

What if the difference is not that big?  What if the range within the different parenting arrangements is greater than the range between one arrangement and the others?  What if  “individual differences” – involving the temperaments of both the parent(s) and the kid(s) - are a more determining factor of their children’s future success than the number of parents, or what gender they are?

It makes you wonder.  Doesn’t science have better things to do with its time than poke around in what, may prove to be, statistically insignificant differences?

Science can study anything it wants (though it has historically been known to stick its nose in where it doesn’t belong, cranial measurements, etc.)  Sometimes, however, when there is no compelling urgency, it is better – “better”, in terms of a standard other than scientific – for science stay the heck out of it, and let things just work themselves out.    

That’s my agenda.  And I‘m stickin’ to it.

(Overarching Thought:  If everybody has an agenda, who are you going to believe?)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"We Like Small Circuses"

We are visiting a Northern Italian city called Como.  Our primary activity there is taking long but casual walks to check out the surroundings.  It is on one of these excursions that we spot a large billboard by the side of the road, a pasteboard advertisement for the Togni Brothers Circus.  (For “gn”, read “ny”.)

We like small circuses.  We are determined to go. 

I do not remember how we got tickets, but I recall insisting on the “best available.”  Which we received.  We would be sitting Second Row, Center.

On the night of the performance, it is raining quite heavily.  "Downpour" would not be an exaggeration.  But the inclement weather in no way inhibits our enthusiasm. 

We like small circuses. 

What we did not know, however, and discovered only afterwards – once again, I do not recall how – was that days before the performance we were attending, the Togni Brothers had had a familial falling out and the brothers had split up, the departing Togni taking several of the circus’s acts with him when he left.  It was only during the performance that we discovered exactly which acts those were.

We enter through the flipped-up flap of the deteriorating circus tent, and are ushered to our seats.  We are indeed sitting Dead Center, two rows from the circus’s diminutive single ring.  As it turns out, however, there is nobody sitting anywhere behind us.  Maybe because of the inclement weather, or maybe due to reasons we were at the time unaware of, there are about twenty people in attendance. 

All of them seated in the first two rows.

Looking around, we take note but are unfazed by the rainwater cascading down through the numerous holes in the top of tent.  For us, threadbare equals charm.

During a pre-show moment of reverie and repose – “Look at us!  We’re at a little Italian circus!” – suddenly, and without warning, a large chimpanzee wearing a tuxedo jacket and a diaper vaults unceremoniously onto my lap, draping a hairy, simian arm around my shoulder. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a large chimpanzee jump into your lap, but, one, they are quite heavy, two, any wild animal landing in your lap can be startling, and three, I can now tell you from personal experience, the impeccable formalwear notwithstanding, those chimpanzees really smell.  And, as it is now sitting in my lap, its dirty sweat-sock aroma is quickly being transferred to me. 

The point of the dolled-up chimpanzee is for some enterprising photographer, partnered with a monkey owner, to take your picture with a primate in your lap, and then, sell it to you in a cardboard frame as you leave.  When I indicate as best I can, speaking no Italian, that I am uninterested in a commemorative snapshot of this unexpected man-monkey encounter, the chimp is hastily whisked away.  Though its stench, unfortunately, remains behind.  

Finally, the lights go down, and the performance begins.  It is only then it becomes apparent that the Togni brother who had taken off had absconded with the troupe’s most gifted performers, leaving rookies, castoffs and also-rans to delight us on that blustery, winter night.

I cannot explain why I find extreme incompetence hilarious.  But I do.  Having bombed myself on occasion as a standup comedian, I try hard to be respectful of their ineptitude, my deferential efforts bringing tear-inducing anguish to my lower lip, which I am required to bite hard, to keep from exploding into hysterics.  Nothing, however, can keep my body from quaking with hilarity.  And my wife is not far behind.

Did I mention we like small circuses?  Well we do.  Small circuses – our all-time favorite being The Pickle Family Circus out of San Francisco – make up in talent and intimacy what they lack in big-budget spectacularity. 

European circuses are world famous.  As a child, I sat in wonder before my TV set, enthralled by the flawless performances of jugglers, acrobats, bear acts and unicyclists that the great impresario Ed Sullivan imported from “The Continent” for his “really big shew.”

Unfortunately, it would be otherwise on that stormy Italian night, watching the acts the departed Togni brother had chosen, wisely, to leave behind.

Maybe it was the weather, the thunderclaps and lightning throwing man and beast precipitously off their games.  Maybe it was just an “off” night.  Maybe these were novices or rarely used bench players thrown prematurely into the spotlight.  But…

The jugglers drop everything they juggle.

The miniature ponies balk nervously at rearing up and resting their fore-hooves on the pony in front of them, forming a hopping chain of two-legged ponies.

The trained poodles prove equally stubborn, yapping uncontrollably and refusing to dance.

The girl twirling sixteen hula hoops smiles gamely, as the four bottom hoops first slow, and then circle clankingly to the sawdust-covered floor.

The acrobat, back-flipping up from the teeder-todder, lands awkwardly on his partner’s shoulders, sending a three-high stack of acrobats crashing ignominiously to the ground.

The tightrope walker, after two uncertain steps on the high wire, loses his balance and cannonballs into the net.

The most talented participant of the evening turned out to be the monkey.  Whom I did not appreciate at the time.

The finale is earns a smattering of applause.  And then we left. 

We still like small circuses.

But we will not be returning to this one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"The Mystery Of Writing Police Dramas - Take Two"

I tried writing this yesterday, but I got sidetracked. 

I have an inordinate amount of admiration for people who can do things I can’t.  This perspective serves a dual purpose.  It allots deserved respect to people who possess talents that I do not.  And it keeps me envious and unhappy, a condition that seems necessary for my wellbeing, the way houseplants need watering.

Even within the narrowly circumscribed modality of writing, I have found myself heartily impressed by the writers of drama.  I have no idea how they do it.  I regularly watch, as part of my television-viewing regimen, the Westerns Channel, and I have to tell you, that even the lesserly lauded series, like Lawman,

The Lawman came with the sun
There was a job to be done
And so they sent for the badge and the gun
Of the Lawman…

tell stories that are carefully constructed, the suspense is effective – “How is Marshal Dan ever going to get out of this one!” – and the outcomes are believable, and not at all Deus ex machina (heavenly resolved.)

Some comedies are not funny.  Dramas always seem to be good.  Even the not great ones.

But as I mentioned yesterday, however, there is one spot in police dramas – which otherwise make reasonable sense – that, to me, seems entirely arbitrary. 

As with drama, the first step in developing a comedy script is to work out the structural “beats.”  The difference is that, in comedy, you are not just constructing a story, you are telling that story in the funniest possible way, making comedy – brag, brag, – twice as difficult to pull off.  (Let someone else be envious for a change.)

I spoke yesterday about the comedy writer’s “inner mechanism”, which evaluates the possibilities, and signals – based on “comedic instincts” (which are at least partly learned) – what to put in, and what to leave out. 

Let me unequivocally stipulate that I am lacking a dramatic “inner mechanism.”  Especially in regards to police dramas, and most especially in regards to that element in police dramas I call – and they probably do too –  “the chase.”  What’s “the chase?”  Allow me to quote myself from yesterday:

The detectives arrive to arrest the suspect. The suspect escapes.  The detectives give chase.  The suspect is eventually apprehended.

The problem is the “eventually.”  How long is “eventually”?  And what exactly is going on while the “eventually” is taking place?

In comedy, I would know.  In police drama?  Not a clue.  So to speak.

I imagine myself at a writer’s meeting for a police drama.  The show runner says,

“We want a chase scene here, of say, thirty seconds.  Put in anything you want.”

I would have no idea what to do.

My first question would be,

“Do we have to have a chase scene?”

Which is not as stupid, or “wheedling out of it”, as it sounds.  From a “story” standpoint, no chase scene is actually necessary.  The detectives could come for the suspect, and the suspect could say, “Okay.”  It is not mandatory for the suspect to run.  It fact, in some cases, it is not even a good idea.  For example, if the suspect didn’t do it, they is better off not running, because running creates the distinct impression that they did

The show runner listens patiently, and then says, “Do it my way.”

You’re the writer.  You are stuck with a “chase sequence.”  How do you know what it needs to be good?

Since we are not dealing with break-the-bank Bourne-franchise budgets, you are pretty clear on what not to propose. 

The Yankees just won the World Series, and the suspect is apprehended during the parade.

You cannot stage a “Yankees Win The World Series” extravaganza.  A scene like that could only be shot if the Yankees won the World Series, and you filmed it during the actual parade.  Ditto for the Mardi Gras

“We’ll get floats, and girls, and a lot of feathers…”

No.  That is way too expensive.   

What you are left with, as options, are low-tech, budget friendly alternatives.  And it has to be believable.  There is no, “Obama is in town, and the suspect accidentally crashes into him.” 

Apprehensions or that nature are extremely rare.  Plus, the Secret Service blows the guy to pieces.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.  (With italical evaluation.)

The suspect trips, and the detectives run him down.

Blah, and anti-climactic.  Thirty seconds of running, and a stumble?  It is hardly worth the trip.  So to speak.

The suspect runs down an alley, and it’s a dead end.

Hackneyed and overused.

The suspect runs into the subway, vaults the turnstile, but when he gets to the platform, the train is just pulling out.

Marginally comedic.  So, no.

The suspect ascends to a rooftop, and leaps a wide gap to the next building. 

How do they catch him?

A detective, anticipating the jump, proceeds into the next building, and is standing there, waiting for him.

Anticipating the jump?  What is he, a Mind Reader?

The suspect jumps into a cab, and a detective shoots out the tires.

That’s “lawsuit by a cab driver.”  They would never do that.

The suspect in on crutches.


The suspect is buttonholed by a street-corner evangelist, and is nailed, listening to his spiel.

While he is trying to escape?

They are very persuasive.

I don’t think so.

The suspect has bad allergies, and when he runs through the park, he gets a sneezing fit.

You’re a drama writer!

The suspect spots a hot air balloon, and climbs aboard, as it ascends from the sidewalk.

What world do you live in?

No, really, it would be great!  The detective fires at the balloon, and it comes floating down to earth.  The suspect is handcuffed, read his rights, and is returned to the detectives’ vehicle, the detective holding the top of the suspect’s head as he assists him into the car. 

Fade Out.  End of sequence.

Go back to comedy.

Wait!  Wait!  The suspect momentarily looks behind him, and runs into a pushcart, where he is found pinned under an overturned umbrella, covered in falafel?


I told you I couldn’t do this.  I just haven’t got the knack.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"The Mystery Of Writing Police Dramas"

I was an expert in writing a certain kind of comedy.  As well as one can in an artistic endeavor, I knew what to do.  My “inner mechanism” – part natural, part honed by experience – directed me concerning what to put in and what to leave out.  It also guided me in rewrites, innerly indicating the better joke, and the superior alternative for maximizing the “ha-ha.” 

In the same way that I know my way around comedy, I do not know my way around drama, in today’s instance, police drama, even though I watch them all the time.  In police drama, I am entirely lacking in “inner mechanism.”  In my more cynical – or, perhaps, competitive – moments, I am not sure there is one.  In comedy, you have jokes, you have relationship moments, you have expository pieces of business, all working in the service of the comedy. 

In drama, the moments seem, to me, arbitrary and and interchangeable.

Take, for example, a repeated element in police dramas:

The detectives arrive to arrest the suspect.  The suspect escapes.  The detectives give chase.  The suspect is eventually apprehended.  A detective “reads the suspect his rights” while escorting him back to their vehicle, where he opens the back door, and places his hand on the top of the suspect’s head so he won’t bump it getting into the car.

We have all witnessed that scene on police dramas numerous times.  Here’s the thing, though.  The detectives come for the suspect, he is eventually apprehended, and they put him in the car.  That’s what you need for the story – the detectives arrest the suspect.

The creative challenge for the police drama writer come during the selection process in the “eventually” section – the content of the chase itself, what you choose to have happen between…the time the…

Uh-oh.  I am suddenly experiencing a powerful magnetic tug, and I can feel myself getting sidetracked.  I can do nothing about it.  The “sidetrack” has me under its control.  It is irresistible.  I cannot escape it.

I am really sorry about this.  I was going someplace, and now, I am compelled to go someplace else.  Please forgive me.  I will return tomorrow to write the post my getting sidetracked prevented me from writing today.  Unless I get sidetracked again tomorrow.

And away we go.


“The detective places his hand on the top of {the suspect’s} head, so he will not bump it, getting into the car.”

Okay.  Personal experience.  I am not saying this is everybody, though I suspect that it is

I have been getting into the back seats of cars my whole life, and I do not recall bumping my head once.  You bend your knees, you get into the car.  How difficult it that?  Even in handcuffs?

And yet, in all my years watching police dramas, I have never seen a detective assisting a suspect into the back seat of their vehicle

Without placing his hand on the top of the guy’s head!

What exactly is that about?  Is it some obscure rider in the “Miranda” ruling?

“The police officer is required to read the person, herein referred to as “The Suspect”, their rights.  See:  Applicable Footnote Below.  “Applicable Footnote Below”:  “And he is mandatorily obligated to place his hand atop the aforementioned Suspect’s head, while assisting the aforementioned suspect into their vehicle.”

Is that part of the law?  Are they duty-bound to do that? 

And what if they don’t?

CAPTAIN OF DETECTIVESDid you read the suspect his rights?

DETECTIVE Loud and clear, Captain.

And did you place your hand on his head while assisting him into your car?

Um, I did.

I detect some hesitation there, Detective.

I always do it, Captain.  It’s “regulation.”

Detective, I don’t care what you “always do.”  Did you do it this time?

Things were moving pretty fast out there.  I can’t be a hundred percent certain.  But I’m pretty sure I did.

Can your partner corroborate your actions?

No, sir.  He went into the pizza parlor to buy us a slice.  We were both hungry after the pursuit. 

So, no witnesses at all.

Except for the suspect.  And who’s going to believe him?

Do you think this is funny, Detective?

No, sir.

Because it’s not.  Putting aside the disciplinary issues you will certainly be faced with, have you any idea how badly you have compromised this case?

Captain, the man is a serial killer… 

All the more reason for leaving no opening for an acquittal.

An acquittal?  For a little bump on the head?

Let me give you a preview of what will undoubtedly happen in court.  “Your Honor, my client has a contusion on the top of his head.  His consequent disorientation renders him incapable of assisting in his own defense, which he is Constitutionally entitled to do.  I would therefore request his immediate release.  

Come on, Captain.  No judge would ever go for that.

No?  Then how about this?  “Your Honor, considering the detective’s egregious behavior towards my client – by flagrantly ignoring to place his hand on the top of the defendant’s head while assisting him into his vehicle – the door is wide open, so to speak, for speculation concerning other “egregious behavior” the detective or his partner may have engaged in.  Their hands are dirty, Your Honor.  These are rogue cops, recklessly flaunting the rules.  Bad apples like these would not think twice about planting evidence.”

But wouldn’t the prosecution jump in and say, “Your Honor, that is exactly why the detective’s actions, although regrettable, should not be admitted into evidence.  Such evidence is prejudicial to the case and would seriously detract from the central issue of this case – the defendant’s murdering fourteen people.  That we know of.”

“The offense is indisputable, Your Honor.  The lump is clearly visible.  And we have experts who will testify that its size, shape and coloration are all consistent with my client’s head making direct contact with the molding on the top of a car door.  We will further introduce hair and blood evidence – taken from the detective’s vehicle – that are an exact match with the defendant’s.  We’ve got him dead to rights, Your Honor.  The blood is on the detective’s hands.  As well as his car.”

And then, there’s the defendant.

“May I speak, Your Honor?”

“The defendant is not permitted to speak at arraignment.  But okay.  Make it snappy.”

“Your Honor, I may be a serial killer, though I submit that’s a matter for the jury to decide.  What is indisputable is that this detective caused me grievous bodily harm, by neglecting to place his hand on the top of my head while assisting me into his vehicle.  No matter how you feel about me, Your Honor, that is just wrong!  And not only that, but, Your Honor, honestly, I am seriously messed up.  You ask me if I could tell you where I was when the crimes were committed?  I’d be happy to tell you.  But I can’t remember anymore.  You question my not remembering where I was, I’ll tell you the truth, Your Honor, I don’t know where I am now!  I have been horribly injured, Your Honor.  And if that doesn’t merit an outright acquittal, I ask you to take it into consideration during sentencing, in the unlikelihood that I am found guilty.” 

I never realized how serious this was.  I should have shot the guy when he was running away.  You can be damn sure I won’t make that mistake again!

See that you don’t, Detective.  Because your behavior has gotten us into a boatload of trouble!

At the very least, it’s a distraction from the legitimate pursuit of justice.  Or so it would appear, by the care the detectives on police dramas take in not bumping the suspect’s head while assisting him into their car.  And yet, this mandated delicacy did not, at least in one case on Law & Order, stop a detective from, to extract a confession, shoving a suspect’s head into the toilet. 

Again, sorry about the sidetrack. 

I will be back with the other thing tomorrow.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"the Show Runner's Dilemma"

The interviewer reports Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner as being “…well aware of his reputation for being – as he has put it before – ‘an insane control freak.’” 

Check out that formulation.  First, Matt Weiner cops only to his reputation of being an insane control freak, rather than actually admitting he is one.  Then, not only does the interviewer avoid seeking confirmation or denial concerning this reputation, as in, “So, just so we’re clear on this – are you ‘an insane control freak?’”, the interviewer apparently only researched this information.  The awareness of Weiner’s reputation for being “an insane control freak” is not “as he acknowledged to me in our interview”, it’s, “…as he had put it before.”

In other words, the interviewer was afraid of Matthew Weiner, and had no interest in upsetting him.

The interviewer did, however, go on to mention that Weiner’s name appears on the writing credits “…for almost 50 of the show’s 65 episodes.” 

Take that, Matthew Weiner!

Then, feeling his reportorial oats, the interviewer adds, “…a high number for a show runner.” 
And how would he possibly know that?  Aaron Sorkin  (The West Wing).  David Chase (The Sopranos).  David E. Kelley (a lot of stuff).  They were notorious rewriters of their writing staffs’ scripts.  Did Matt Weiner out “shared-credit” them all?  Can you Google, “Show runners who take credit on other people’s scripts?”  That would be impressive.  That is very specific.

I know.  You look it up on Wikipedia, and you count.  But that count may not be accurate.  In my day, show runners also rewrote their writing staffs’ scripts – often extensively – but the protocol was to refrain from taking, or sharing, credit.  Back then, fixing scripts was considered part of a show runner’s job description. 

Of course, this may not be about the show runner’s desire to see numerous appearances of their names in the credits.  Concerned about the feelings of their staff members, today’s show runners may think, “Those writers would not feel right about having their scripts seriously rewritten and then having people mistakenly believe they wrote the whole thing themselves.”  Which, of course, makes sense:

“My extreme disappointment of being radically rewritten has been immeasurably reduced by the fact that the show runner, who makes about fifty times more money than I do, put his name to the script, along with my own.”

Sure, I’d feel better about that too.

I was once sent this booklet – which I can’t find anymore.  I don’t know who sent it to me, but the subject of the booklet concerned how to most successfully collaborate with the show runner.  The gist of the booklet was this:

“Give them exactly what they want.”

Which is precisely the correct approach.  Generally speaking, show runners do not hire a writing staff to keep them company.  There are a lot of scripts to get out, and they desperately – that word definitely applied when I was a show runner – need help. 

A writing staff can provide a much-needed “outside perspective.”  They can share the load, writing drafts that are “close” and pitching in on rewrites.  A writing staff can add “colors” to the show runner’s palette, contributing story insights and broadening the final product’s range and styles of comedy.  The show runner may be weak on physical comedy or insult comedy or structuring practical joke or “surprise” stories.  The writing staff can fill in the gaps.

What should be understood is that there are various types of show runners.  For example, we have the “It’s only television” type of show runner.  The “It’s Only Television” kid of show runners need their writing staff’s help getting them home as early as possible. 

Though this dismissiveness of the medium that sends their kids to private schools is hardly a prevailing perspective, I did once consult on a series whose show runners, while proceeding through the rewrite process after a table reading, kept one eye on a television which was permanently set on the “Business Channel”, sporadically interrupting our work with big cheers, when it was announced that one of their stocks had gone up. 

You could tell these people could not wait to get back to their big houses, where they could check their portfolios, minus the annoying intrusion of the show they had created.

More common were the show runners who, though conscientious and gifted, knew the series they had nurtured and cared about was not exactly their “legacy for the ages.” 

“Future generations will see this show anad know that a Sitcom God once bestrode this firmament.”

Nothing that lofty.  Hard-working but level-headed, these show runners encouraged their writing staff’s input, rejecting only what was egregiously off the mark.  Of course, the writing staff, bolstered by this positive reinforcement, appreciated the show runner’s respect and trust.  Not surprisingly, they would run through a wall for that show.

Within the same category – and this gets a tad close to home – are the show runners who have auteurish tendencies, but cannot back them up for a number of reasons. 

One, they may not be entirely certain as to what they want, though this does not stop them from shooting down every pitch, till that elusive target is finally hit. 

Two, they lack the requisite physical energy to take scripts home, and during their precious “down time”, rewrite them, often from Page One. 

(Note:  Though difficult, rewriting is easier than starting from scratch.  Hence, the show’s runner’s seemingly contradictory but actually sensible instruction, “Just give me something to hate!”  You can fix something you hate.  You can not “fix” a blank page.)    

Three, the discomfort concerning hurting people’s feelings makes it painful, verging on impossible, to take another writer’s script away from them and obliterate their efforts. 

And four, though the desire to do one’s best work is enormous – sometimes to the degree that you end up not doing your best work because of it – the job does not rise to the level of obsession.  Translation:  The show matters, but you do not want it to kill you.

And then, there’s that last group.  The show runners who have a vision, and, no matter how much effort is required, no matter how many toes have to be stepped on, no matter how crazy they drive themselves, their co-workers and their families, their single-minded objective is to execute that vision to as close as humanly possible to perfection. 

I’m not sure how their writing staffs feel about that.  They may feel they are putting in their time, apprenticing at the feet of a master.  They may feel like they’re getting a free ride, the show runner doing the work, and at the end of the season, they all get an Emmy

The closest I came to this situation was in my early days on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.  Sometimes, I was rewritten a lot, especially on rewrite nights, when, after all the talk of “Character!  Character!  Character!” the truth of moments was suddenly sacrificed in favor of the funniest possible punch line. 

I realized I was a new guy at that time, and accepted being rewritten by my more experienced superiors.  But on a non-intellectual level, it often felt like they were merely “pulling rank”, making the script, not better, but “sideways.”  And uncomfortably – and counter-truthfully – more jokey.

If one were bold enough to confront Matthew Weiner over his reputation as “an insane control freak” – and not just Matthew Weiner, but every show runner who, as they anachronistically say, chose to “run the {completed} script through my typewriter”, I imagine their rationalizations would be uniformly the same:

“I am only doing what is best for the show.”

When the shows turn out as brilliantly as Mad Men, Boston Legal or The Sopranos who would dispute this is actually the case?

Except, perhaps, those shows’ writing staffs

Friday, June 22, 2012

"I Once Had Mono"

This one is not easy to write about.  Not because it’s sad – well it’s a little sad – but because the person who was the least aware of what was going on at the time was me.

Mononucleosis is called, at least I have heard it called, “The Kissing Disease.”  People get it from kissing.  Usually when they’re young, a time when, theoretically at least, some considerable amount of kissing is going on.  People historically get mono in college.

I got mono when I was sixty. 

I can’t say for sure, but I believe I got it at Anna’s college graduation.  This hypothesis makes sense to me.  There was some congratulatory kissing going on.  And we were in a college setting. 

This is generally not what they mean when they say, “People get mono in college.”  You’re not supposed to be sixty when you get it.  And you’re supposed to be going to college yourself. 

Of course, this is all just speculation.  I could have contracted mono somewhere else.  But it felt like I got it in (my daughter’s) college.

The specifics of its onset are predictably hazy.  We were back home, a few weeks after graduation.  I recall feeling shivery.  I recall Anna being over, and her asking me what’s wrong.  I recall wanting her to take my temperature. 

What I could not recall was the word for the thing that you put in your mouth to take your temperature with.  I could only remember the word “thing.”  And that’s what I kept telling Anna,

“Get me the thing.” 

To which she reasonably inquired,

What thing?”

To which I unhelpfully replied, 

You know.  The thing!

I could not access the word.  It’s like my brain was a library and “thermometer” had been permanently checked out.  There would be no help from the Dewey Decimal System.  That baby was gone!

Anna, understandably, became concerned, and she called her mother at work.  Her mother told her to take me to the Emergency Room, and she would join us there. 

At the hospital, they asked me a bunch of questions.  I got them all right.  Until they asked me what hospital I was in. 

It seems that Saint John’s Presbyterian had also been checked out of my library. 

There were tests – numerous blood tests, a CAT Scan.  I was there nearly five hours.  And not because the Emergency Room was slow.  They got me in right away.  Which should have scared me; they only get you in right away when it’s bad.  I remember feeling more giddy than scared.  Which should have disturbed me even more.  Who feels giddy when they’re supposed to feel scared?

Messed up people, that’s who, of which, at that moment, I was definitely considered to be one.

After the tests had finally been evaluated, a medical person stepped into our cubicle and told me I had mono.  I laughed.  Teenagers get mono.  I was sixty.  Though, truth be told, I have always been a late bloomer.

It felt like I had gotten off easy.  Mono was better than a stroke.  And I didn’t need surgery.  Or hospitalization.  Or even a prescription.  The treatment for mono is nothing.  You lie down a lot.  I already lied down a lot.  I would hardly know the difference.

I left the hospital, I went home, and, for a year or so, I had mono.  And then, it was over, and I didn’t have it anymore.

Except, to a some extent, I still do.

Which is the only thing that makes this story worth passing along.  Why is it worth passing along?  Because, to some minor but still present degree, you, my blog readers are the…what’s the opposite of “beneficiaries”?  Victims?  That’s not right.  “Negative recipients”…is terrible.  I have no idea what the word is.  Although I am almost certain there is one.

What I’m revealing is, my residual symptoms affect you.

For you see, patient readers – or, if you’re in the hospital, reader patients – ever since the onset of my mono – when I could not access the word “thermometer” – words – sometimes very simple words – are entirely unavailable to me.

This is not helpful for a writer. 

Sometimes, to fill the gap, I make up my own words.  Sometimes, I insert a “bookmark” word, or a blank space, and continue on, hoping that, in a moment of relaxation, the word that’s eluding me will come floating back to my consciousness. 

You are probably asking right now, “Can you give us some examples of those words?” To which I must apologetically reply, “I a'm sorry, but none of them currently come to mind; if they did, they would not be examples of “those words.”  I can report, however, that there are three instances of “word unavailability” in this story. 

I mean, come on.  Do you think I wanted to say “word unavailability”?

This is not Alzheimer’s.  Nor the inevitable consequences of aging.  This is a specific, diagnosable illness with a name and a protocol for treatment – “Wait a year, and you’re better.”

Which I am.  Just not entirely.  I see this – in my reliably upbeat way of looking at things – as a rehearsal for the bad stuff.  My possibilities are downsizing before my very eyes.  I was never at a loss for words.  And now – on occasion at least – I am.

It is not getting worse.  But if I had to be honest,

I preferred things before. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"The Fifties I Remember"

I really should have written this earlier in Mad Men’s illustrious run.  But I choose not to allow my tardiness to disqualify me from writing what I should have written earlier, now.  So there.

Let me also reveal that, during its five-season run, I have watched only a handful of Mad Men episodes.  Which, according to my daughter Anna, a rabid Mad Men-iac, invalidates my observations, her exact words, delivered in a withering inflection, being,

“You don’t know, Dad.”

She’s right.  I don’t.  And yet, here it comes.

Mad Men is smartly written, highly imaginative, and exquisitely produced.  But the show’s prevailing emotional ambience reminds me in no way of the Fifties I grew in. 

(Note:  Culturally, at least, the Fifties did not sign off promptly at the end of 1959. It ended, instead – employing Beatles guidelines – somewhere between “She Love Me, yeah, yeah, yeah,” and “Eleanor Rigby.”   Mad Men, currently chronicling 1966, still qualifies as the Fifties, and will, until the ad men’s narrow ties become wide, and paisley.  And the agency goes after the Nike account.    

Okay, first,

My Standard Acknowledgment:  You should not criticize a show for lacking what it was never its intention to provide.

Done.  Now…

What I miss in Mad Men are elements its creator, Matthew Weiner, had apparently no interest in including.  This is an observation, not a criticism. 


Mad Men is famous for its obsessive faithfulness to the period.  It seems contradictory, therefore, for Mr. Weiner to have overlooked a tonal predominance that the Fifties, as I remember it, powerfully projected.

The Mad Men episodes I watched reflected an aching sense of meaninglessness and regret, the main characters seeming unfulfilled, corrupted and sad.  I recall the Fifties as being a fundamentally happy time.  I suspect Garry Marshall felt the same.  That’s why he called his hit sitcom about the Fifties Happy Days.  

“They were happy days.  The people were happy.  They were smiling.  They were having a good time,” I hear him proclaiming, with a bubbly Bronx chuckle.

What I get from Mad Men is a writer’s representation of “Backstage Fifties.”   Everything’s great in front of the curtain.  But draw the curtain aside, and there’s maggots. 

Fair enough.  The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit.  The constricting choke chain of conformity.  I get the message.  The Fifties had a shadowy underbelly.  Not everything was as it appeared to be.

Also, I am in no way sweeping aside the racial and gender inequalities that took the Sixties and Seventies to finally address.  I will, however, argue that the camp songs we sang in 1958, like, “I’m proud to be me, but I also see, you’re just as proud to be you…”, sewed the seeds of the revolution that would tumultuously erupt a decade or so down the line.

That having been said – and acknowledging it’s a bigger “having been said” than anything I am about to talk about – The Fifties were, in my memory, a reverberatingly upbeat era.  (And revolutionary in its own right.)

Consider the music.  The Fifties, where the term “Rock ‘n Roll” was coined (also the term “teenager”), moved from the suppressed sappiness of Patti Page and the Tennessee Waltz to Elvis Presley and his suggestive hip movements, and the insinuating rhythms of Chuck Berry and James Brown.  Beyond the can’t-keep-it- down sensuality, the Fifties also showcased the subversive foolishness of The Coasters, asking the musical, but also the cultural question, “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?”

I will not presume to cover an entire decade in a single blog post.  My interest is in contrasting the anomic moodiness of Mad Men with the general buoyancy in the Fifties I remember.  Maybe I remember it that way, because I’m an upbeat kind of a guy. 

No, I don’t think so.

Okay, here we go. 

Mad Men is marinated in irony.  I do not recall a lot of irony in the Fifties.  With the exception of the “…’much’ formulation, which plays out like this:

An absent-minded pedestrian bumps into a fire hydrant.  You pass by and tongue-in-cheekily inquire, “Walk much?”

Pretty tame stuff.  “…much” and “hardly” – you say “hardly” when you mean a lot – and that’s about it.
The primary reason for Fifties optimism is that, more than any other decade, the Fifties was constantly bringing us spanking new inventions for our convenience, amazement and amusement. 

Yes, I know about today’s computers and i-everythings.  But those are basically variations on communication devices.  (And by the way, how much communication do we actually need?”)

The Fifties innovations were all over the map.  And, man, were there a lot of them!  It seemed like a new product, gadget or gizmo came out every couple of weeks. 

Here is a necessarily partial list of advances that put smiles on our Baby Boomer faces.  Many of them may have been devised earlier, but they came of age during the Fifties.

Are you ready for an impressive list of products?  Okay, here we go.


Toaster ovens.

Long-playing records.

The Osterizer Blender

Hula Hoops.


Commercial jet travel.

T.V. dinners.

“Automatic”-transmission cars, with still unsurpassed imaginative designing  (Read: fins).

Pop Tarts.

Wrinkle-free clothing.

Frozen Orange Juice.

Air conditioning.

Clip-on ties.

Transistor Radios.

(Perhaps, if you are of the age, you could remind me of others.)

When you live in a time when a barrage of new and fun stuff keeps coming at you – with the promise of much, much more on the way - it seems like a good time to be alive.  (As opposed to our current time, and, come to think of it, virtually any era since the Fifties, when anxiety and grumpiness seem to prevail.  Do you recall saying on any recent New Year’s Eve,  “It’s too bad this year is over.  It was really sensational.”  It’s more like, “Let’s hope next year is better”, isn’t it?)

It is mainly Mad Men’s insistent not-as-I-remember-the-Fifties moodiness that prevents me from being a regular viewer.  Having said that, I was totally enchanted by the last scene from a recent Mad Men episode, in which Don Draper allows an embittered twelve year-old in need of a treat to drive.  

That one made me really happy.

It is possible that I'm missing something.  I'd be happy if you straightened me out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"A 'Just Thinking' Exclusive!"

Rush Limbaugh is a woman.

He is?

I read it on the Internet. 

Who wrote it?

I did. 

Is it true?

It must be.

How do you know?

I read it on the Internet.

Is everything on the Internet automatically true?  Of course not.  Then again, is everything on the Internet automatically wrong?

Think about it.

It appears on the Internet; the seed has been planted.  And then – call it common sense – takes over from there.

“I consider myself a fair-minded person.  Obviously, there is nothing wrong with being a woman.  Roughly half of humanity are women.  There’s no shame in it at all.  So why would you deny being what you are? 

The thing is, though, when you go – How old is Rush now?  Early sixties? – well, when you go that length of time representing yourself as a man…coming out and announcing you’re a woman?  That would be, you know, weird.

Now I don’t know Rush’s audience breakdown exactly, but I imagine a lot of them are men.  In fact, I would speculate Rush’s audience is more men than women.  And these would be your traditional men.  More conservative than liberal, I’d imagine.  

Considering how popular Rush is – and has been for years – you have to believe that these men trust him, and respect him, and hold him in awfully high regard.

So here’s their “Icon of Truthfulness” – and I don’t think I’m exaggerating, from his audience’s perspective – and it turns out that all this time he lied to them and is actually a woman.

Do you think those men would stick with him?  Or would they feel, I don’t know…betrayed?

Let’s think about what’s at stake here; let’s weigh the man’s options. 

Rush Limbaugh rakes in tens of millions of dollars a year.  Do you think he’d risk all that, plus the…well, I mean, it has to be – pardon the pun – a rush, to have this platform where you can sit behind a microphone hour after hour and tell the truth as you see it to millions of listeners, who are hanging on your every word. 

Do you really think he’d take the chance of losing all that, just to come clean and tell the world he’s a woman?  Would you?

I’ll put it this way.  If Rush Limbaugh were actually a woman, he has a lot more to lose than he has to gain by saying so.

I admit I have no direct evidence on the matter.   I mean, have you ever been in a Men’s Room with the guy?  I haven’t.  Truth be told, the idea seems very unlikely.  But “hand on the Bible”?  I cannot vouch for the man either way.

Then again, there’s his attitude toward women on his show.  Remember when Rush took apart that Fluke woman for her stand on insurance covering contraceptives?  I mean, sure, that’s a bedrock conservative position to take.  But it’s also, when you see it from the other side of things, anti-woman. 

We’ve seen this kind of cover-up before.  These Congressmen, they come out against gay rights, they attack gay lifestyles, and everything?  And then later, it turns out those hypocrites are gay themselves

Put it this way:  Who is more likely to go nuts about the rights of women than a closeted, self-hating woman who, their entire life, has tried to – and been successful at, at least to this point – “passing” as a man? 

Again.  Not saying it’s true.  But it does make you wonder.

You know, historically, this is hardly unheard of.  During the Civil War, for one, but I’d bet in every war, there’s been a certain number of women who cut their hair short and dressed up like men, so they could go out there, and get in on the action. 

What I’m saying is, it has happened before.  And come to think of it, Rush’s hair is cut pretty short.

Or course it would be easy for Rush to dispel the controversy and end the speculation once and for all.  He could call a big press conference and just “Drop ‘em.”  Then we would settle things once and for all.

Unless, of course, he rigged up some kind of contraption that, at least from a distance, could pass muster as the genuine article.  I mean, when you’re as rich as Rush is, you can order up pretty much anything you want.

So, even then, I suppose…there may…still be doubts. 
I tell ya.  Thinking this through and all, Rush Limbaugh could very well be a woman.  I mean, there is mounting evidence that he might be.  And on the other side – well I’d say we have his word for it, but as far as I know, the man – and I will call him that until proven otherwise – has not spoken out on the matter at all. 

Makes you wonder if the guy’s got something to hide. 

Rush Limbaugh.  A man?  A woman? 

We may never know for sure.”

It does not take much to believe the unbelievable.  You just have to want to.

And that’s a fact.

You read it on the Internet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Examining Nepotism"

If you want to see a picture (actually two pictures) of me wearing a really nice shirt, check out the most recent issue of Written By, the official magazine of the Writers’ Guild of America West (there is also a Writers’ Guild East, which, for some reason is separate).  The issues includes an article about mentors, in which I am prominently featured.  I am unable to vouch for the article, as severe character flaws prevent me from reading it.  But I cannot speak highly enough about the shirt.

What I did read in Written By, which is an entertaining and informative magazine – and only marginally “Rah! Rah! For Writers!” – was an interview with writer/actress Zoe Kazan, whose movie Ruby Sparks (which she wrote and stars in) will be coming out this summer. 

The name Kazan is readily recognizable.  Zoe’s Zadey (grandfather) was Oscar-winning film director Elia Kazan – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On The Waterfront (1954).  Zoe’s parents are also in the movie business.  Her Dad, Nicholas wrote, among other screenplays, Reversal of Fortune (1990).  Her mother, Robin Swicord wrote, among other screenplays, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).  And together, they co-wrote the movie Matilda (1996).

Zoe Kazan would seem to easily qualify as a member of what I once heard a barely-scraping-by actress call “The F-in’-Lucky Club.”  A young woman, (still in her twenties) descendant of a multi-generational show biz-“connected” family – how could she fail?  The “Secret Of Her Success?”  She was “f-in’ lucky” to have been born into the right family.

Envious people say mean things.  With no evidence beyond Zoe’s last name, they immediately imagine an undeserving “no-talent” making it entirely on “family coattails.”  Bitter people need to believe such things.  How else to explain their own failure?

Okay, let’s get serious here.

Webster’s Dictionary:

nepotism (n.) patronage or favoritism based on family relationship.

“‘Connected’ people have definite advantages.”  Is that true?  Does nepotism increase one’s chances of “making it in the biz”?  In general, it does.


The most obvious way is that nepotism opens doors.

“Margorie Shmeplap’s daughter has written a screenplay.  Do you think we should check it out?”

“Who’s Margorie Schmedlap?”

“Elia Kazan’s granddaughter, whose parents are Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, has written a screenplay.  Do you think we should check it out?”


Why, “Absolutely!”?  They are betting on bloodlines.  Which I shall return to in a moment.  They are also more likely to check out Zoe’s screenplay, because her family knows, or at least can more easily gain access to, the person who said “Absolutely!” 

“The impossible” is less so when you’re “connected.”  It’s not easy getting an agent.  But if your parents already have one, “getting an agent” as easy as calling them on the phone.

Let us now return to “bloodlines.”  Bloodlines are real.  Ask any racehorse owner who paid top dollar for a Kentucky Derby winner’s semen.

In all sports, it is noteworthy how many offspring of former players are also involved in the game, at the highest, most competitive levels.  Are you telling me genetics had nothing to do with that?

I will return shortly with an exception.  But I’m building an argument here, and I want to remain on track.

The third advantage of “nepotism” relates to “being around the thing you’re aspiring to do.” 

This one is huge. 

Example One:  You’re in Toronto; you have no available role models: 

Your dream of being a Hollywood writer appears entirely unrealistic. 

Example Two:  You’re in Hollywood; your parents are both writers:

It’s like,

“My parents do it.  What’s the big deal?” 

When you are proceeding in a vacuum, staring down a long, untraveled road, one of the toughest issues is believing you can do it. 

When your parents are doing it – they’re not special, they’re Mom and Dad, and they do it every day – there is no a reason to believe you can’t.

So, “connections”, genetics, and “my parents and all their friends are in show business, there’s nothing to it” – three undeniable advantages of nepotism.  The challenging thing about having a show business background is often wanting to be something else

“A pharmacist?  Why?”


When I was part owner of an “A-ball” baseball team – the absolute basement level of professional baseball – we had, for a time, a third baseman named Pete Rose Jr.  Baseball fans will immediately recognize the name.  Pete Jr.’s Dad, also named Pete, got more hits during his career than any player in baseball history.  (The only reason he is not in the Hall of Fame is because he was caught betting on games – including games he was involved in – and was banned from the sport for life.)

Pete Rose Jr. was what is called a “journeyman” ballplayer.  And not one of the better ones.  A perennial minor leaguer, Pete Jr. did advance to the Major Leagues.  Pete’s father played in a record-setting 3,562 games.  Pete Jr. played in fourteen.

My ultimate point is this:

There’s a song in the musical Fiorello called “Politics and Poker.”  Identifying the indispensible ingredient for success in both politics and poker, the closing verse explains,

“In poker and politics


You’ve gotta have

That slippery



You’ve gotta have

the cards.”

Nepotism definitely greases the wheels.  But you are ultimately going nowhere, Brother – or Sister –

If you haven’t got the cards.