Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"My Mother Loved The Theater"

When my Dad was around – which was not long, he died when he was 37 – he and my mother would regularly fly to New York (from Toronto) for brief, jolt-of-excitement getaways.  Years later, my mother would regale me with tales of the shows they had seen at the Cotton Club, featuring performances by iconic entertainers, like Cab Calloway and Lena Horne.  When she  talked about it, her eyes lit up.

(Why did I go into show business?  I wanted to do something my mother liked.)

As a widow, my mother would join friends on jaunts to New York, where she’d return with bags full of little, round “sprinkle candies” (I think they’re called non pareils) and a collection of Playbills – the official program for all Broadway shows – from historic musicals such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story and The Music Man. 

These Playbills, when she delivered them to me, were never smudged or rolled up, but in mint condition, flat, crisp and unwrinkled.  (The unspoken message was, they meant something.)  I added the latest programs to the pile, diligently stacked on a special shelf in my bedroom.  To me, they were priceless artifacts, secret missives from a magical place. 

Finally, when I was sixteen, my mother took me to New York.  Not me and my brother.  Just me.

We stayed at the Paramount Hotel, in the heart of the theater district.  You walked out the door – rows of theaters.  On the same street as the hotel!

We ate at not expensive but famous nearby eateries – Toffinetti’s, with their oversized sundaes, the Automat – you dropped some coins in a slot, lifted a window, and there was a sandwich, or a whipped-cream-topped dish of Jell-O.   Then, there was Howard Johnson’s, with its 28 flavors of ice-cream (Toronto had chocolate, vanilla and strawberry), and its counter, where I’d sit and gawk in amazement at the skillful and unruffled short-order cooks, their hands flying, as they whipped up half a dozen dishes at the same time.  Those gifted guys (and today, gals too) do not get nearly the credit they deserve.

Times’ Square was a wonderland of neon and famous billboards.  Look, there’s where they drop the ball on New Year’s Eve!  And over there, that’s the world-famous Camel’s Cigarette billboard, a constant expulsion of smoke billowing out of the billboard’s mouth.

And then, there was our reason for being there – the theaters.  There were, I don’t know, maybe forty of them, in a ten-block radius, each of them sporting an illuminated marquis, the participants’ names, glowing in the night.  Deep, deep, deep, deep down, I wondered my name would ever be up there.  And told no one.

We saw Fiorello! (at the Broadhurst Theatre)­ ­– I had memorized the entire original cast album; it did not disappoint, coming to life before my eyes.  (A bonus, I was previously unaware of – there is a character in Fiorello! named “Mrs. Pomerantz.”)

We saw Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon’s first stage play, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.  A reviewer of the day praised,

“Mr. Simon served up a multitude of sprightly lines.  Best of all, he has provided some explosively hilarious moments rooted in character.”

That may well have planted the seed.

There was a single but notable misstep on our excursion.  One of the greatest musicals of all time – or at least a musical with one of the greatest scores, and indisputably the best overture – was Gypsy, starring the inimitable – meaning, never duplicated, though she is imitated all the time – Ethel Merman, at the Broadway Theatre.

I loved Gypsy – again, I had immersed myself in the album.  (That’s how it worked back then.  If you were from out of town, you bought the original cast album, long before you had access to the show.)  My mother, however, nixed our seeing Gypsy, because it was about strippers, and she didn’t want me exposed to such depravity.  At least, not with her, sitting beside me. 

Missing seeing Merman in Gypsy was one of my lifelong regrets.  (I saw a subsequent production starring Angela Lansbury.  She was better as a teapot.)

The last show we saw was The Unsinkable Molly Brown (at the Winter Garden Theatre, where the immortal Al Jolson had once performed, and where I subsequently saw Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.) 

And therein lies a story.

We bought our tickets at the box office, a few days ahead of time.  (Back then, you did not have to be a venture capitalist to be able to afford good theater tickets.  The best seats in the house were less than ten dollars.  Two weeks ago, I paid a hundred a forty-two fifty for the mezzanine.)

Okay, back to the story.

Saturday matinee, we arrive at the theater, and are taken to our seats.  Not bad at all – right on the aisle, about a dozen rows from the stage.  We sit back, eagerly awaiting the overture for Meredith Willson’s entertaining though not-quite-matching follow-up to Music Man.  Again, I was already familiar with the score. 

A couple steps up beside us.  Politely, they ask us if we’re certain we’re in the right seats.  We assure them we are, showing them our tickets to seal the deal.  We are definitely in the right seats, and the couple departs.

Moments later, the couple returns with an usher, who asks to see our tickets, which we happily produce.  The usher studies the tickets, and then announces,

“You are in the right seats.  But these tickets are for next Saturday.”

Apparently, the box office had accidentally sold us tickets for the following Saturday matinee rather than the current one, a serious mistake because, by then, we’d be back in Toronto.

We get up, relinquishing our seats to the couple they belonged to.  The question is, “Now, what?” 

Taking responsibility for the error – though it’s the ticket buyer’s responsibility to check their tickets at the time of purchase – since the seats were entirely sold out, the usher invites us to watch the show from the rear of the orchestra, in the not sold out “Standing Room Only” area.  

And so, with no option besides leaving, we proceed to the back of the orchestra, where, leaning against the partition, we watch a hoarse-voiced Tammy Grimes pluckily survive the sinking of the Titanic.

By intermission, however, my mother, standing in heels, is pretty much played out.  The dutiful son, I go over to an usher, and throw myself at his mercy. 

“My mother is old, and I have no muscles.  Is there anything you can do for us?”

The sympathetic usher walks us up to the balcony, where, ignoring the fire-code regulations, he invites us to enjoy Act Two of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, sitting on the stairs.  

And so we do.

It was not bad at all.  There is actually an advantage to watching a show from a balcony staircase.  There is nobody sitting in front of you.     

We watched the rest of the show, perched on the staircase of the balcony at the Winter Garden Theatre.  With not a word passing between us, we knew, and we knew the other person new, how special this was.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"The Search"

We recently trekked down to the Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts – a more than an hour-and-a-half drive there during Rush Hour, the return trip later that night: thirty-eight minutes.  We were traveling to a concert, featuring the magnificent New Orleans-style jazz pianist Dr. John, appearing with the renowned Gospel quartet, the Blind Boys of Alabama. 

We had seen – if it’s not a rude reminder to say so – the Blind Boys once before, performing on a bill with country icon Merle Haggard, and perennial 60’s folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.  On both occasions, the Blind Boys blew away the other performers, and absolutely made the place jump! 

You just have to see the Blind Boys in person.  Their infectious energy and matchless spirit lift you right out of your seat.   And not because they said, “Get up!”  I was ready to get up anyway! 

The Blind Boys’ presentation spoke directly to my soul.  To that point, I was unaware I had one.  They had me stamping my feet and feeling the feeling with such uninhibited abandon that when we ran into some friends after the show, the first words out of my mouth were,

I’m ready to convert!”

Earlier that evening, as we were pulling into the parking area, we caught sight of the Blind Boys heading into the building, proceeding in a snaking, hand-on-the-shoulder-of-man-in-front-of-them maneuver, a sighted person leading the way.  Their inability to see was a “given.”  What caught my attention was an awareness that the beloved Blind Boys were getting old. 

(Writer’s Note:  I am aware that referring to adult black men as “boys” is understandably offensive, but that’s what the Blind Boys, their age not withstanding, call themselves.  So for the current purposes, I will too.)

It came to mind that replacements for the rapidly aging Blind Boys will very shortly need to be found.  Cursory research reveals only one original Blind Boy is still in full-time participation.  And he’s up in his seventies.  

This means, that, as has already taken place, unless, God forbid, they disband and disappear, new Blind Boys of Alabama will almost surely have to be recruited.

I started thinking – because, for better or worse, it’s how my mind works – how not at all easy that replacement challenge would be.   

Imagine the minisculity of that target.  The easiest qualification – he said, only partially facetiously – is that they be wonderful singers. 

It goes without saying that any newly-arriving Blind Boy needs to be African-American.  That’s not racist; it is simply the way it is.  All enduring singing groups face personnel changes.  When that happens, you inevitably replace “like” with “like.”  You do not recruit a Caucasian “Temptation.”  Nor a Native-American “Shirelle.” 

Gender consistency must also be maintained.  When the “Supremes” faced attrition, they did not throw a guy in there.  Though there were several, I am sure, who were ready.

So, for openers, any aspiring Blind Boy must, be definition, be an African-American man.  Who can electrifyingly belt out a Spiritual. 

Unfortunately, we are just getting started.  There are still the geographical and ocular considerations.

A Blind Boy of Mississippi?

“Won’t sound the same.”

An Alabama Boy with astigmatism?

“Not good enough.”

An Alabaman, blind in one eye?

“Close, but no cigar.”

You need the entire package – a sightless, black male Alabaman who can sing like a bird with religious convictions.  No wonder these guys stay on till their seventies.  It’s nearly impossible finding someone suitable to step in.

“Wouldn’t you know it?  I’m blind, I’m black and I’m from Alabama.  But, you know, when you step on a cat’s tail?  That’s my voice!  In baseball, you go three-for-four, you’re a hero.  Here, I’m just an out-of-work blind guy from Tuscaloosa.” 

Considering the virtually insurmountable replacement issues, and with a fervent desire for the “Boys” to continue, here’s hoping the current participants remain hale and hearty for a long time to come.  Nobody gets to me like they do.

Except maybe Sophie Tucker singing “My Yiddishe Mama.”

Monday, October 29, 2012

"Thoughts About 'Argo'"

First of all, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the filmmakers to the people from my hometown who went to Argo, believing it was a movie about the Toronto football team.  They could have been a lot clearer about that, and they weren’t.  There are no disclaimers in the ads saying, “Neither Dick Shatto nor Cookie Gilchrist will be mentioned in this movie.”  This was blatant deception to entice Canadian Football League fans into a movie that is not about Canadian football.  Such behavior is simply inexcusable. And I will leave it at that.


I was once, for a short time – six episodes – a movie critic on a local television show.  It was there I learned the difference between a moviegoer and a movie critic.  Moviegoers see movies they want to see.  Movie critics are required to see everything.

As a result of this onslaught of terribleness, movie critics are driven to overpraise movies that do not make them want to rip the eyes out of their sockets and slam themselves repeatedly on the cranium with a shovel.  A less graphic description is that the movie critics start marking on the curve.  As a result of having been bombarded with garbage, a pretty good movie gets elevated to “Must See” status.

And so we have Argo.

As I have oft repeated, I try not to say a creative undertaking is good or bad.  I can only say what it felt like to me.  I liked Argo.  Maybe even quite a bit.  But, while registering my positive reaction, I could sense alongside that reaction the palpable sense of relief that this time, I had attended a movie that wasn’t terrible.  Which may have halo-lighted my reaction.

Argo tells a wonderful story, one that was only recently declassified, which explains why it has not been told before.  When the Iranians in 1979, invaded the American Embassy in Tehran, six embassy employees escaped and sought sanctuary from the hordes who took their co-workers hostage (for 444 days.)  At this point – because it happened in the actual story – the movie atones for misleading Torontonians expecting to see (standout Toronto Argonaut quarterback) Doug Flutie on the big screen.

The story tells us that the six embassy escapees sought protection from the “Kiwis” of New Zealand, and were turned away.  They were also sent packing by the “Brits.” Imagine that.  A plucky nation that had withstood the “Blitz” thought it too dicey to take in the six American escapees. 

Who finally gave them refuge?

The Canadian Ambassador!


Meanwhile, back in America, they come up with what is considered to be the “best bad plan” to get the six Americans out of the country:  They will invent a fake movie purportedly to be filmed in Iran, pretend the Americans are part of a team of Canadian filmmakers making a brief, exploratory visit, and then, with falsified Canadian passports, spirit them out of the country.  The man who will spearhead the operation is CIA operative Ben Affleck, who also produced and directed the movie.  Not the fake movie.  Argo.  (Though, if memory serves, Affleck produced the fake movie as well.)

This is, to me, a wonderful story, one that, though I am no expert in these matters, I believe would make a spine-chilling and identifiably personal – because it happened to actual people – movie.

When you have a great story to tell, your objective as a filmmaker is to, at the very least, not screw it up.  Though I’m not sure this is the high praise those attached to the filmmakers were hoping for, it is my opinion that Argo did not screw up the story.

I have quibbles about the story.  Duh.  When do I not?  You say, “It’s a real story, so they had to follow what happened.”  No.  Movies are not required to be historically accurate.  And, I have read, Argo is not – they apparently extended the final escape sequence to amplify the suspense. 

In my view, if they were tinkering with the structure, they could have expanded the length of time the escapees had to prepare for their “make or break” confrontation with Iranian government officials at the airport. 

Instead, the Ben Affleck character says, “I am taking you out tomorrow.”

One day of preparation?  This is a wasted opportunity for “Building to the Moment.”  In The Great Escape, it was weeks before they finally escaped.   Another taut thriller, Three Days of the Condor – that’s three days of edge-of-your-seat excitement.  Although I was recently informed that the source book for that movie was called Five (actually I've been told, six) Days of the Condor.  Okay, a movie requires condensation.  But one day is too condensed. 

The actors playing the six escapees were believably apprehensive, bordering on freaked out.  Ben Affleck, however, made up for his charges’ jitters by being a wooden lump.  Affleck’s performance was remote and emotion-free, Obama during the first debate.  It was like while he was acting, he was thinking about directing.  And he forgot to direct himself to act.

None of this matters.  Because the climax – the plane’s final takeoff from Iran with the Iranian military in hot pursuit, is bang on the money.

A few months after it was over, I bought a video chronicling the Toronto Blue Jays winning the World Series in 1992.  As I watched that video, I experienced moments that were so tense and uncertain, I was actually frightened they were going to lose.  

I'm pacing around like a crazy man, my heart is pounding, my stomach is in knots.  I kept having to remind myself, "They won!  They won!"

It was the same with the climactic moment of Argo.  I knew they got away.  And yet, the way the “Departure Moment” was paced, performed and edited, you could easily believe that the plane had been called back at the last second, “The Six”, plus Ben Affleck, apprehended, and marched off to their doom.  Not all stories end happily.  I still haven’t gotten over The Alamo.  

Though there were winning performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, what won me over, and had me hand-pumping like Kirk Gibson rounding the bases was how Argo pulled off that climactic moment.  Though hardly a classic, Argo is crowd-pleasing, professional movie, made from a great story that they didn’t screw up. 

Oh, and one more memorable moment.  In preparing “The Six” to pass for Canadians, one of them was asked to name the last three Canadian Prime Ministers.  (This was 1979.)  From my seat in the dark, I rattled them off before the actor did:

Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and John Diefenbaker.

Ahhh.  Now that’s a good movie.

Friday, October 26, 2012

"The Worst Plane Ride In The World (Which Does Not Involve Almost Dying, Which, I Have, Fortunately, Never Experienced"

One Christmas when our children were young, we decided to eschew (“Gesundheit.”  “Thank you”) our traditional Christmas-week vacation to Hawaii and travel instead to London, my favorite place in the world, so I may possibly have exerted some influence on the matter. 

This is not about the trip, which was memorable, and not just because seven year-old Anna won the heart of a bellman at our London hotel named Charlie Farley.  If not for me saying, “London” not “Hawaii”, we would never have made the acquaintance of a man with such a deliciously rhyming name. 

This is instead about our flight, or, more specifically, our return flight to L.A. from London, which takes about a year and a half, with favorable headwinds.  (The other direction takes a year, but when you get off the plane, it’s London!)  The carrier was British Airways.  I only mention their name because I hate them.  And you will soon discover why.

We’re at LAX, which is L.A’s airport.  I don’t know what the “X” stands for.  Maybe LAA landed clunkily on their eardrums.   Although the Tahiti airport is FA-A-A (pronounced Fah-ah-ah), and they have no trouble with that at all. 

Anyway, we were on the Waiting List for an upgrade to “Business Class”, so when we checked in, we immediately inquired about the chances for enhanced legroom and a hot cookie when you land.  To our excitement and delight, we were informed that there was indeed available seating in “Business Class”, and that our upgrade was approved.  (There is a little-known “Victory Dance” designed specifically for upgrade approvals, which we immediately broke into before a terminalful of gawking travelers.) 

Our family was decked out in attractive sweats, to insure sartorial comfort during the extended flight.  I include this passing detail because it matters.  As you will shortly discover.


Our vacation is over, and we are heading back home.  We check in at the British Airways counter at London’s Heathrow Airport, where we, once again, ask about available upgrades.  (We had the “air miles” to merit these upgrades; it was just a question of “Is there space?”) 

After checking her computer, we were informed by the British Airways representative that, yes, there was available seating to reassign our entire family to Business Class.  However, before we were able to explode into our Victory Dance, we were further informed that

Get this!  No, that's not loud enough.  GET THIS!!!  No, more.  GET THIS!!!!!

The announcement started with a transparently insincere and inappropriately Royal, “We’re sorry”, after which the obsessively snooty British Airways representative explained to us that their airline had a “Dress Code” for their “Business Class” passengers, and that, as our current attire did not rise to the designated standard, an upgrade, though available, would not be provided.

Can you believe that?!?

We were wearing exactly the same clothes on our departure from L.A., and they had no problem concerning the upgrade.  Now, because of some British Airways “Dress Code”, we were banished from “Business Class” and unceremoniously exiled into “Coach!”

Of course, we resisted, our, to me, indisputable argument being that, until that very moment, we had never heard that there was a British Airways “Dress Code” for “Business Class”, and that, if we had known, we’d have dressed appropriately, meaning in something other than the clothes we had worn on the flight over and they’d had absolutely no problem with. 

Was it possible there was only a “Dress Code” in one direction?

Though she listened dutifully – as she was undoubtedly trained to do – the British Airways representative was steely eyed and unbending.  We were entirely overmatched.  The woman had survived the “Blitz.”  If she’d prevailed over the Luftwaffe, the fulminating Pomerantz’s would be but a momentary humming in her ears.

“It’s ‘Cowch’ for yew, mah dearies.  And be ‘appy we down’t ban you from the pline altogever!”

She didn’t actually talk Cockney.  But I don’t do “stuffy.”  It is beyond my writing skills to simulate on paper speaking superciliously through your nose.

After, what appears in retrospect, to have been token resistance – we did not even ask to see her Supervisor; we were afraid she’d be even tougher – we were ushered onto the Tarmac, where we climbed a flight of movable stairs onto the aircraft, and directed to “Coach”, which, on this plane, meant ascending a spiraling staircase to the second-floor level of the plane.  (The “Coach” passengers were apparently a protective buffer for their betters, in the event that, should some massive object, like, perhaps, another plane, come crashing down on top of our plane, the peasants in the “cheap seats” would be decimated first.)    

Just as we started fastening our seatbelts, our plane experienced an emphatic jolt, little a brief but more than 5 on the Richter Scale earthquake.  The cabin wobbled from side to side before returning to the resting position one expects from an airplane whose engines have not yet been turned on.  No panic.  But there was confusion.

Shortly thereafter a voice came up on the intercom, speaking in the educated and rounded tones one might expect from a radio “newsreader” reporting the events of the world over the BBC:

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I please have your attention.  In the process of its removal, the retractable staircase has apparently penetrated the outer skin of the aircraft, inflicting damage that, I’m afraid, will need to be attended to.  We deeply apologize for the delay, made necessary by an accident that should not have happened.

We then proceeded to sit there, contorted in “Coach”, for six hours, after which we were instructed to “deplane” and walk back to the terminal, where we waited an additional hour, until a replacement plane was located and taxied in. 

Seven hours of waiting, added to an eleven-and-a-half hour flight.

And we didn’t get the upgrade.

After returning home, I related my tale of severe annoyance to our travel agent, who immediately made a call, which resulted in a free lunch with a member of the British Airways Public Relations department, accompanied by a heartfelt apology and a complimentary British Airways overnight bag. 

I retain that overnight bag to this very day.  But I have never used it.  It remains imprisoned in a dank and moldy closet in the furthest recesses of our basement, next to the water heater.  If that water heater explodes, that closet gets it first.  Oh yes, and there’s spiders. 

That’ll show ‘em, huh?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Start Spreading The News - Part Two"

Attending the first show of our New York excursion, I drop into my seat beside my wife and announce,

“I am now officially a woman.”

Before you jump to bizarre conclusions, here’s why I said that.

The play is called Peter and the Starcatcher, a mischievous prequel to the Peter Pan story.  Before I head down to my seat, I ask the usherette where the Men’s Room is.  She immediately starts to chuckle.  Apparently, the young woman finds some secret amusement in the idea of a man who has to pee. 

I am thinking of riposting a clever, “Hey, you pee too, lady!” when she directs me to a long line of men, to the end of which I confusedly proceed.  It is there I learn that the only available Men’s Room is flooded, meaning all male theater patrons feeling “the need” must line up and wait, till the problem is taken care of.  There are still fifteen minutes until showtime, so I decide to wait.    

And wait. 

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

It is now almost showtime, and the scuttlebutt is that the Men’s facilities will be Out of  Service” for another twenty minutes.  There’s some chatter about us invading the Ladies’ Room, but this is just men-desperately-needing-to-pee “Big Talk.”  There is no way we could possibly pull that off.  (Though I have experienced trailblazing women who did.)

The lights start to flicker, the universal signal for, “Please take your seats, the show is about to begin.”  I reluctantly abandon the line and – like the throngs of women who queue up outside the “Ladies Room” at “Intermission” but never get to “go” – I proceed unhappily to my seat.

How was Peter and the Starcatcher?  As I later, reported to my daughter who asked precisely that:

“Mom liked it.  I had to pee.”

One’s critical faculties are significantly affected by the undeniable Call of Nature.

Next, it was Once, a musical based on the movie of the same name which, when I saw it a few years ago, had really gotten to me.  Spoiler Alert:  Nothing ultimately happens in the relationship.  But, somehow, the “nothing” that happens in the movie was more satisfying than the “nothing” that happens in the musical.  

I am not exactly sure why that is.  It could be because the musical spells things out more than the movie did, when, for the sake of balance and proportion, as well as respecting the intelligence of the audience, they needed to be spelled out exactly the same amount. 

Still, as with The Book of Mormon which I had seen in L.A. two weeks earlier, it was enjoyable seeing a new generation of writers invigorating the musical form.

A break from my theatrical musings to report some good news: 

On previous visits, while riding New York’s public transportation, younger people were invariably getting up and offering me their seats.  I must be looking healthier because this time, everybody just sat there. 

Sitting down is nice.  But it’s encouraging when they think you don’t need to.

Follow-up:  At a restaurant, Dr. M insisted that I take the last seat available for people waiting for tables.  Apparently, my wife thinks I’m in worse shape than strangers do.

(This may sound racist, or observant, or possibly both, or maybe just wrong, but when you’re in a Chinese restaurant and Chinese people are dining there, doesn’t it always seem like they’re eating better stuff?)

We saw a new comedy/drama called Grace, which had opened only two days before.  A printed sign in the lobby announced that the play would be performed without an intermission.  You know a show is not to your liking when the first words that come out of your mouth when it’s done are,

“Imagine if this were twice as long.”

Forbidden Broadway is a revue in which four super-talented performers play multiple roles lampooning current musicals and their ego-inflated stars.  Two observations:  One – the bigger the target, the bigger the laughs.  And two – a staple of Sid Caesar’s classic variety series Your Show of Shows was the spoofing of the blockbuster movies of the day.  The difference is that Caesar’s comedy was the product of artful but venomless exaggeration, while Forbidden Broadway’s formulating principle seems to be, “Everyone’s an idiot, except us!  Though satirically skillful, what we’re left with is an unmistakable sour taste.
An unexpected surprise:  The New Yorker’s Arts Festival was going on during our visit, which included an event featuring Girls’ writer/director/Executive Producer/star Lena Dunham.  As it turned out, our cousin’s wife knew the woman who’d be interviewing Ms. Dunham, and was therefore invited to attend. 

I, however, was not. 

Instead, I attended Hotel Transylvania with our cousin and their ten year-old daughter. 

How was the movie?  I would not know.  I fell asleep. 

Writer’s Note:  Not all unexpected surprises are good ones.

A whirlwind extended weekend in New York.  We used to enjoy these transcontinental escapes early in our relationship.  We wondered if we were up to the rigors of such excursions thirty-plus years down the line. 

It turns out we were.

On top of the fun and excitement that makes New York a wonderful place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, it’s reassuring to know

We’ve still got it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Start Spreading The News..."

I knew I was in New York.  We had not yet left the airport, and I had already been yelled at.

We took a SuperShuttle to Manhattan, and the driver dropped us off twelve blocks from our hotel, after the man who sold us the tickets promised we’d be delivered right to the door.  A car we hailed drove us the remaining twelve blocks, but charged us an exorbitant sum for doing so.  Then, after checking into our hotel, we took a cab to the Village for pizza.  The cabdriver got seriously lost along the way.

We had been in the city less than an hour, and already we had been lied to, egregiously overcharged, and suffered the frustration of a cabdriver who did not know where he was going.

And I loved every minute of it.

I am not being sarcastic here.  (Computers should have a button you push to insure readers that, even though you may sound sarcastic, you actually mean what you are saying:  “Control – NR”, for “No, really!”)

You need New York to be like New York.  Otherwise, why bother going?  You travel to the South,

“Do you have any pecan pie?”


Then what you doing there?

“Can we go to the Freedom Riders’ Museum?”

I mean, it’s interesting, but it’s no pecan pie.

Visiting New York City without being insulted and monetarily abused is like sampling an olive lacking that peculiarly oily-musty taste that makes you not want to eat olives.  You might as well eat a grape.

We flew Virgin America for the first time.  Right from the get-go, it was an entirely different vibe.  The check-in area sported huge arrangements of fresh-cut flowers, and there was (like I know what I'm talking about) hip-hop music pulsing over the PA.

“Whoop!  There it is!”

We weren’t going on a plane trip; we were going to a party that plays old rap music!  The ambience continued onto the plane itself.  Rather than white, the in-cabin lighting was an iridescent purple.  We weren’t just going to a party; we were going to a party in a nightclub!  Thirty-five thousand feet in the air!

I felt so jazzed, when they asked if I was prepared to handle the “Emergency Exit” duties that our seating location required, I exuberantly replied, “I can’t wait!”  I would have said it anyway, because it’s silly.  But this time, I almost meant it.

The one drawback was that the normally adjustable, overhead reading lights were in a fixed position, requiring me to lean awkwardly to my right, so as not to be reading in the dark.  But hey, who cares?  You don’t go to a party in a nightclub to read!  This was an entirely different experience.  One in which I’d be enjoying four hours and fifty-seven minutes of wishing I could read.  (That one was sarcastic.)

Before I jump into the specifics, I need to come clean about my bittersweet reaction to the city.  Of course, my shameful ingratitude for the munificent bounties that have been bestowed upon me in my extremely fortunate life will come shining through here, but what are you gonna do?

Other than the time when I worked as a consultant on Lateline and, being a consultant, I felt no responsibility whatsoever, whenever I tried to live in New York,
as I confessed in an earlier post, New York City has unceremoniously bucked me off. 

Subsequent visits to New York inevitably come with the whispering reminder that I was never successful there.  The very idea that I’m there strictly for fun, carries the unspoken rebuke,

“…and not for work.”

“New York, New York” says,

“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere

I did pretty well in other places. 

There?  Not so much.

Incidentally, other than feeling depressed by it, I have never understood that line.

“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere…”

What are they talking about?  New York City is the Mecca of finance, fashion, theater, art, journalism.  entertainment, publishing.  If you made it there, why would you then choose to proceed to a lower rung?  

It's like,

“I made it to the Yankees.  Now it's, 'On to the Toledo Mud Hens!'

Moving on…

During our Thursday night to Monday morning visit – really only three full days – I saw four plays and one movie.  That’s a good month for me in Los Angeles, where you need to get onto a highway to go anywhere, and inertia pins you to your chair at home, watching ballgames. 

Just walking in New York is experiential delight.  You’re walking in Los Angeles – especially if you’re not walking a dog – and it’s like, “What, is your car in the shop?” 

Fifth Avenue in New York is Saks, and Bergdorf’s and Lord & Taylor.  You walk down Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica, and the big excitement is counting “Smog Check” operations.  There is there of them in one block.

With your permission, we will stop here for “Intermission”, except for a final observation.  Over the years I’ve been visiting, the tone in New York seems to have shifted, from acerbically crude to airily whimsical.  Where once you saw posted signs saying,

“Spitting is a dirty, filthy habit.  Don’t do it!”

there are now signs in the fenced-off grassy areas in Central Park saying,

“Lawn closed for renovation.”

Okay, one more.  This happens because New York’s sidewalks are extremely crowded, and being from a place where walking is generally a prescription meted out by cardiologists, I really do not know the answer to this question.

What is the protocol for when a person in a wheelchair rolls over your foot?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Cleaning Up My Desk - The Final Adventure"

As you may or may not recall, I wrote a post entitled “Premise Pilots vs. The Other Kind”, in which I weighed in on the red hot debate concerning the premise pilot – which depicts “how it all got started” – versus “The Other Kind”, that being a pilot offering a representative episode of the series.   In that post, I came down unequivocally in the camp, “It doesn’t matter.” 

My indisputable evidence?  The classic Mary Tyler Moore Show opened with a premise pilot, the equally classic Dick Van Dyke Show kicked off with a representative episode. 

It doesn’t matter.  Cased closed.

Not so fast. 

Sorry, I will slow down.  Why?  Because there are readers, and sometimes, they have opinions, which, inexplicably, differ from my own.  Mike decidedly believed the premise pilot to be an egregiously misleading sample, writing:

And that’s why networks request representative episodes for evaluation prototypes.  So they don’t get suckered into buying a series with only one joke.

the words “you ridiculous, self-justifying, over-the-hill know-nothing” left out but entirely understood.

Or perhaps I’m being oversensitive.

I will merely say in rebuttal to Mike’s comment these two words: 

Three’s Company.

a one-joke series that ran for eight or nine years, I am too lazy to Google which it was.

I distinctly recall watching the Three’s Company pilot, and when it was over, thinking, or saying out loud, or saying out loud to another person – they are all the same to me –

“This show is very funny.  I am never watching it again.” 

Why?  Because as a one-joke series, I knew every episode would be, with minor variations, exactly the same as the pilot.  And, for me, once was enough.

Fortunately for Three’s Company, a huge audience enjoyed the repetition of the one joke more than I did, and the show ran for a decade, or nine or eight seasons, does it really make any difference?  The point is, it was a one-joke premise, and it was a hit. 

Proving, at the risk of repeating myself,

It doesn’t matter.

You know what a hit show is?  A show the audience likes to watch.  Networks cannot predict what an audience is going to like to watch; if they could, their failure rate would not be so embarrassingly high.  By the way, it’s not the networks’ fault they can’t predict what an audience will like to watch.  Nobody can predict that.  The difference is, network executives are paid substantial sums to act like they can.  What a job!

“I promised I could pick hits, and in reality, this cannot be done.  Unless I’m extremely lucky, I’m gonna get yelled at!”

The networks glom on to a theory that representative pilots give them a better shot at predicting the success potential of a new show.  I invite someone who is interested enough and has a lot of time on their hands to research past series to determine how many premise pilots became hits, and how many were “The Other Kind.”  My guess is “fifty-fifty.”  Though I am always open to admitting I’m wrong.  Not happy about it, but open.  I mean, when the facts are against you, what are you going to do?  Even the church said, “Yeah, I guess the earth does revolve around the sun.”  It took them a few hundred years, but they eventually manned up.  And so would I.  Just show me the numbers.

Another reader named Jed asked if I was aware of shows

where the pilot was the highlight of the series.

Yes, but they were not successful shows.  If a show reflects a precipitous dropoff in quality, the audience quickly catches on and the show succumbs to early cancellation. 

I once worked on a show called Phyllis, in which a popular character – Phyllis – was spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Phyllis benefitted from the audience’s familiarity with and affection for its lead character.  It also had a very funny pilot written by Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels. 

The problem was, though Phyllis started fast, the series at its core had no depth or meaningful direction, making it extremely hard for the writers to come up with new and interesting stories.  (Also, Barbara Colby, a Phyllis regular and a wonderful comedic actress, was murdered during Phyllis’s first season.)

Though, early its run, it ranked as high as “Number 3” in the ratings, Phyllis’s concept was revamped for Season Two, and by the end of that season it was cancelled, a shiny balloon with an irreparable slow leak.

Having said that, for the most part, the problem of a series being a dud after a promising start is rarely a matter of a failed concept.  Failed concepts don’t generally make it that far.  (The exception being when, as with Phyllis, big shots are behind the series.)  

Interested readers should know that – auteurs aside – subsequent episodes –  including the second one – are invariably written not by the writer who penned the pilot, but by a writer on the show’s now assembled writing staff, a writer who does not have the pilot’s DNA in their bones, and to that point has not yet to learn how to successfully simulate it. 

Check who wrote the series’ second episode.  If the name is different from the pilot writer’s, you can expect a creative drop-off. 

(Exception:  I wrote the second episodes of Taxi, Cheers and The Cosby Show, and they turned out pretty well.  I once mentioned having written those three “second episodes” to a writer, who observed, “You were one script away from a billion dollars.”)

Finally, Jill Pinnella Corso wondered,

Do you think it’s possible to do a single camera kind of subtle comedy with a studio audience?

No, I do not.

Even with the current technology, which allows the studio audience a close-up view of the actors via the overhanging monitors – meaning the audience has essentially come to the studio to watch the show on television – the live audience’s expectations – those expectations being “big-time funny” – would not be met by the single-camera style of comedy, which is more, what I call, “glancing blow comedy”, naturalistic, subtle and overheard.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, you are inevitably required to write differently when an audience is present.  These people did not wait two hours to get in to chuckle.  They want to laugh their pants off!  Maybe, in time, you could condition a live audience to respond to something else.  But most likely, they would condition themselves to make alternate choices:

“What’s that show like when you see it in person?”

“I smiled a few times.”

“Yeah, I think we’ll see a show that’s actually funny.”

Having made the effort to show up, an audience really wants to laugh.  That’s why there are no live studio audiences for dramas.

No, it isn’t.  I just wanted to end silly. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Cleaning Up My Desk"

Before I regale you with observations from our recent foray to New York, I want to clean up the debris on my desk and in my brain concerning issues related to sitcom pilots, spec, premise and otherwise.  I received some disagreeing feedback on these subjects, and rather than moving on, I find myself reflexively digging in, defending my attitudinal and point-of-viewdinal turf.

I don’t know…“but I’ve been told”…writers breaking in are now being asked to provide, along with spec scripts for current series, an original spec pilot script.  Before I give in and say, “If that’s what they want, then that’s what’s they want”, let me first observe that, to me, the requirement of a spec pilot script makes an understandable but miniscule amount of sense.

Asking a starting-out writer to write a pilot script is like asking an intern to perform brain surgery, minus the life-and-death concerns, and the breaking the bad news to the families.  Meaning it’s not really that serious.  But it is, to my way of thinking, equally unreasonable.

INTERN:  “I don’t know what they expected.  I just bought my ‘scrubs’ yesterday.”

Before I wrote a pilot, and only then because I was invited to do so by a network executive – okay, so I’m not aggressive and I wait for things to come to me, but may I move on to the point I am trying to make here?  Thank you.  

Before writing my first pilot, I had worked on network television shows for seven years, and had written close to thirty episodes produced on half-hour series such as:  The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, The Tony Randall Show, The Betty White Show and Taxi.  In addition, I had also written for two Emmy nominated specials starring Lily Tomlin, one of which won.  (The other of which lost to various colorful pieces of felt, otherwise known as The Muppets.)

So I’d done stuff, okay?

But that’s not the point:  Earning your stripes.  Working your way up.  Paying your dues.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  Although, you know, there may be something to that as well.  I mean, wait your turn, eh?

What I am talking about is the prerequisite of an essential and priceless education derived from working on established shows before attempting to (even on spec) create from scratch a series of your own. 

As an episode writer, you have the opportunity to learn from your betters, regularly participating in story meetings where you can you observe first-hand how the experts handle the essential elements of the process: 

How to structure a story, building organically to its climax and its ultimate resolution.

How to move the story along, rejecting extraneous, albeit hilarious, side-trips. 

How to exclude jokes, albethey hilarious– if there’s an albeit, why not an albethey? – that obliterate character.

How to write scripts to fit the time allowance for the episode – not nineteen pages, not a hundred and twelve.

Which leads to:

How to cut your favorite joke, because, from a clear-eyed perspective, it slows down the story.  (This is often referred to as “killing your babies.”)

Then there’s:

How to favor the series “regulars”, rather than giving the best moments to a one-time-only, visiting guest. 

How to write something which, while nudging the envelope, remains within the range of what whatever network you are pitching it to will find acceptable to do. 

To name just seven indispensible lessons you pick up.  Not to mention working to an externally-determined deadline.  And also seeing the “finished product”, learning through the audience’s reactions what worked and what didn’t. 

I recall reading spec scripts for series I worked out which, when I finished them, left me wondering,

“Has this person actually seen this show?”

Trying overly hard to distinguish their efforts, wannabe writers, in what they might defend as a dazzling display of originality, made the characters behave exactly the opposite to the way they normally behaved on the show.  “Mary Richards” as a slut.  “Tony Banta” as a genius.  Possibly as a result being hit on the head, or consuming “a drink that does funny things to people.”  Or maybe, in the end, “It was all just a dream.”

New writers will not generally – I exclude the Lena Dunham anomalies here, and besides, that’s cable – be selling pilots before putting in at least a little time working on somebody else’s series.  Why not focus on the skills involved in what they will first be asked to do – working within the demands of an existing structure.  Show runners don’t want you to write like you; they want you to write like them.

Okay, so there’s the question of getting a sense of the writer’s “original voice.”  Trust me.  Evaluating a “voice” does not require an entire pilot. 

The episodes of Phyllis written by Earl Pomerantz, Michael Leeson (The War of the Roses), Glen and Les Charles (Cheers) and the show’s creators, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, despite working with the same concept and writing dialogue for the same recurring characters, were significantly and identifiably different. 

Beginner writers:  Do not worry about it.  (As I did earlier in my career.)  Your “voice” is your voice.  It is inevitably present in everything you write.  Teachers, agents, producers, executives:  It is not that difficult to detect.

In the two-page outline that I wrote on spec for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which got rookie Earl Pomerantz’s sitcom-writing career off the ground, I included one line that was subsequently quoted back to me as the reason they brought me in and gave me a chance.  A single line…and they knew recognized my “voice.” 

It did not take an original pilot script.    

I will now return to where I started.  If they require aspiring writers to include a spec pilot script as part of their submission “package”, then that’s what you have to do.  I write in opposition to this requirement because, A, I disagree with it, and B, you know, when you wind up on the losing side of a Supreme Court decision, you are nevertheless permitted to write a “dissent” for the record.  Sometimes, down the line, these dissents become influential, being quoted in cases that lead to reversals in the original decisions.

Consider this my (hopefully influential) dissent.

Friday, October 19, 2012

"The Necessity, Or Otherwise, Of Making Sense"

Not long ago, I wondered out loud about whether I was being too narrow in my evaluation of movies by placing an overwhelming priority on the necessity for logic.  Holes in the narrative were an absolute “deal-breaker.”  One “head scratcher”, and I’m out.

I went on, however, to reference movies that I originally rejected because of their logical insufficiencies that I later came to admire and even love, one of them being Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992), which I originally scoffed at, because, for one reason, Tom Hanks was served up as a home-run-hitting slugger, when his less than Ruthian physiognomy suggested a difficulty grounding one to shortstop, but later came to revere.

Maybe, I considered in the post, when rejecting films I ultimately came to appreciate, I was over-emphasizing the “logical” requirement, while short-changing the movies’ “Intangibles”, which, upon further consideration, triggered the reversal my original opinion. 

I did not include this in my original post, because I feared I might be perceived as being sarcastic when I did not mean it to be, but maybe, in the current movie-going environment, a film’s making sense is not only not the most important thing, it is now, actually, an option.  (Can you see how that might be construed as sarcastic?  Even if I wrote “And I’m not being sarcastic” after it?  That might, in fact, make it sound even more sarcastic.)

I am being entirely serious here.  (And not as you might infer, or even believe I should be, sarcastic.)  Maybe logic isn’t always, and should not always necessarily be, the primary issue.   (Even though I personally am temperamentally programmed to need it to be.)  Maybe “making sense” is a “style cramper” for the artist in any medium driven to go “deeper.”

With these thoughts floating in my mind, on Sunday morning September the 30th, I come across a commentary in the L.A. Times’ “Calender” section – read:  “Entertainment” section; apparently, the Times’ Marketing Department believes they can sell more papers if they avoid the word “entertainment” – written by film writer and historian Steven Farber, which targets this concern, using a movie I discussed in another post, The Master, as an exemplifying case in point. 

Check out his opening paragraph:

The few negative reviews of “The Master” – and yes, there have been a few – have used adjectives like “oblique” and “opaque” to describe this often perplexing opus from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.  More enthusiastic critics have described the film as “elusive”, “enigmatic” and “confounding.”  One glowing review rhapsodizes that the movie “defies understanding.”

I cannot say for a certainty but I think Mr. Farber was being sarcastic.

Like me, enigmatic movies do not seem to be the commentator’s cup of confusion.  Farber cites other practitioners of cryptic filmmaking’s current vogue-iness, singling out (or “doubling out” ‘cause there’s two of them) Terence Malick (Tree of Life, 2011) and Christopher Nolan (Inception, 2010)  Generally, he goes on, planting his flag unequivocally in the “making sense” camp,    

Too many movies, novels and even TV series dispense with all sense of logic; they revel in unintelligibility and dare audiences to enter their tangled web.

At the end of his provocative and well worth reading commentary – if you’re interested, you can do some Internet voodoo and track it down – Farber compares The Master with (the currently re-issued classic) Lawrence of Arabia, observing that

(Lawrence) is a visually stunning, thematically rich film that is not without its mysteries…reminding us that clarity in art does not preclude complexity.

I was thinking of ending this post with an “embed” of Ernest Pintoff’s Oscar-winning animated short The Critic (1963), in which we hear Mel Brooks’s crotchety “Old Jew” voice trashing the dots and squiggles on the screen, intended to represent “Modern Art”, offering critical potshots like, “It must be some kind of symbolism… It’s symbolic of junk!

After re-watching The Critic, however, I decided that, though entertaining, this disparaging perspective was no longer – if it ever, in fact, was – representative of my own.  

I recall once standing in front of a large Jackson Pollock canvas – I never looked to see what it was called – staring at these, what appeared to be, random streaks and splotches, getting a sense of the piece in its entirety, and discovering startling and unexpected tears in my eyes. 

Logically…there was no “logically” – it was streaks and splotches.  But somehow, the artist’s intention, eluding my intellectual defenses, was screaming to me, “My head is exploding, and this is a picture of how it feels!”

Earl’s Conclusion:  If it gets to you, it doesn’t have to make sense.  

If it doesn’t, it may very well appear to be garbage.