Friday, November 30, 2012

"Something Better - Continued"

In a long-ago eon, CONPLAINIVUS has been bemoaning to a more sanguine ACCEPTIVUS how, throughout history, it has taken the same length of time getting anywhere, because people’s only method of transportation was walking, at which point their resourceful friend INVENTIVUS comes racing by, riding a horse.

ACCEPTIVUS:  Inventivus, look at you!

INVENTIVUS:  Ho, there, peasants.  How goes the walking?

COMPLAINIVUS:  I don’t understand.  How did this happen?

I:  I shall explain.  But first, let me stop my fast animal.  Whoa, there, fast animal!

A:  What does “whoa” mean?

I:  I have no idea.  But when I say it, he stops. 

C:  How did you figure that out?

I:  It’s this method I employ.  I attempt various solutions.  And when I find one that’s effective, I’m there.

A:  Fascinating.

C:  It’s sort of a trial-and-error approach.

I:  “Trial and error.”  Did you just come up with that?

C:  I did.

A:  Complainivus is a wonderful “namer.”

C:  I can name ideas.  I just can’t think of any. 


I:  You know, they’ve got this big bone right down the middle.  I need to come up with something to make it more comfortable to sit on.  (TO COMPLAINIVUS)  Perhaps you can invent a name for it.

C:  A “saddle”, maybe?

I:  You’re fast.  Remind me when I work up the prototype.

A:  So, Inventivus, we were just discussing the idea of replacing walking with riding a fast animal.  But we were stymied by the problem of catching one when, as their speed-describing name suggests, they are impossible to apprehend, and hence , until the current moment, unavailable to climb up on.

I:  Yes, that was the dilemma.  But I cracked it by…(FORGETTING THE TERM)

C:   “Trial and error”?

I:  Precisely.  The first element in ”trial and error” – that sounds better every time I hear it – is observation.  By happenstance – another element often contributory to "game changers" – I happened to observe this fast animal munching leaves from a tree in yon nearby grove.  And I thought to myself, “Hm.  If I were to climb that tree, and the fast animal were to subsequently return for another round of munching, I could drop down from my perch, land on the animal’s back and –  Hakus-Frakus! – (TO COMPLAINIVUS) I made that up, but you can probably do better – I’m riding!

A:  And it worked.

I:  Not the first time.  I had made a strategic miscalculation.  The fast animal indeed returned to the spot that had satisfied his hunger; however, since the fast animal had consumed all the leaves it could reach on the previous visits, it moved on to an adjacent tree, and started munching its leaves.

C:  That’s a funny picture.  You’re sitting in one tree, ready to drop down onto its back, and the fast animal’s dining “next door”, as it were, frustrating your intention.

I:  (POINTEDLY) “Trial and error” involves error.  And that wasn’t the only one.  I’d occupy a tree where the leaves seemed appropriately reachable, and the fast animal would fail to appear, or would appear, but preferred, on that day, to eat grass.  It took weeks until “the necessities” were finally in alignment.

C:  Sounds like you have a lot of time on your hands.      

I:  I shall make up that time riding places, while you two continue to walk.

A:  So you finally landed on the fast animal’s back.

I:  I did.  And was almost immediately bucked off.  It turns out fast animals, not unlike their human counterparts, dislike the weighty encumbrance of the uninvited.  Undaunted, however, I repeated the procedure and, since I had refined my buck-resisting techniques in the course of my unsuccessful efforts, the infuriated fast animal was unable to throw me off.  And now, my ambulatory amigos, I shall never walk anywhere again!  (REMOUNTING)  By the way, Complainivus, do you have a name for my four-legged companion?

C: Seabiscuit.

I:  Why Seabiscuit?

C:  It sounds like a good name for a horse.  I also named the fast animal a horse.

I:  Again, why?

C:  He looks like a horse.

A:  How do you know it’s a “he”?

C:  Have you looked down below?

A:  (LOOKING) Yikes!


I:  Adios, Pedestrians!  I shall meet you at the herd, where you will find me resting comfortably after my exertion-free journey.  (URGING ON HIS HORSE)  Giddy-up, Seabiscuit!

A:  “Giddy-up”?

I:  (SHRUGGING) It makes him go.


A:  That Inventivus is so resourceful.  I could never have come up with that tree-jumping plan.

C:  I might have.  But I’d have thought of a hundred reasons not to do it.

A:  Well, to the innovator go the rewards.  He’s riding, and we’re hoofin’ it.

C:  Yeah, but if he doesn’t track down a similar beast of the opposite gender, the horse is dead, and he’s walking with the rest of us.

A:  (SARCASTIC) That’s a comforting thought.

C:  It took a while, but it came to me.


A:  “Hi ho, hi ho…”

C:  Stop it!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Something Better"

“There’s gotta be something better than this…”  (Sweet Charity, 1966)

I woke up this morning wishing I could somehow break through in my writing, but knowing that I couldn’t, so I wrote this instead.

Two men are walking along a trail.  Their names are “COMPLAINIVUS” and “ACCEPTIVUS”.   These Latinized allusions to their characters are not their actual names, but are meant to suggest that this story takes place in the far distant past.  In truth, this story takes place in the far distanter past that that, in fact, eons ago, before people had names, it was just “Hey, Big Nose!” or “Yo!  Curvy Girl!”  Consider them then as appelational bookmarks that say, “Wayyyyy back there.”  It is apparently the best I can do.

Okay, so COMPLAINIVUS and ACCEPTIVUS are trekking along the trail.

COMPLAINIVUS:  Man!  This is taking forever!

ACCEPTIVUS:  It seems like the same time it normally takes us to get to the meadow.  Mind you, we did have an ample breakfast this morning; it could easily be weighing us down.  (CHUCKLING TO HIMSELF) Or “wheying” us down, since, in fact, we had whey for breakfast. 

C:  “Vaguely humorous”, without rising to “actually funny.”

A:  You’re tough.  You didn’t even crack a smile last night when Clumsivus accidentally sat on an acorn.

C:  I’m in a grouchy mood.   

A:  What’s wrong?

C:  Life.  “Life” is wrong. 

A:  What do you mean?

C:  Haven’t you noticed?  It’s always the same!

A:  I don’t know.  You know those big things that used to eat us?  It seems like there’s less of them these days.  Not that we killed them.  They seem to be going away by themselves. 

C:  That is hardly a hopeful sign.

A:  Why not?

C:  If they can, we can.

A:  There you go again.  Always seeing the worst in things.

C:  I can’t help it.  I have imagination.  It swings both ways.

A:  For you, more one way than the other.

C:  Harumph!  Which should not be mistaken for agreement.  (THEN)  Imagination, I have plenty of.  What I don’t have is a “Breakthrough Idea!”

A:  Like what?

C:  Okay.  Every day, we walk to where the herd is, right? 

A:  Which, by the way, itself is different.  I don’t know about you, but I much prefer herding to hunting and gathering.  Sometimes, there was nothing to hunt and gather; you’d come home empty.  The herd, on the other hand, is always there.

C:  Yes.  But it takes us forever to get to it!

A:  It used to take longer.  Which brings up another recent innovation:  Foot coverings.  Remember?  We used to walk on this trail barefoot, and every few steps, it was “Ow!  I stepped on a pine needle!”  “Ow!  A splinter!”  We’d have to stop every five minutes to pull something out!  Then one day, Nikevus came up with foot coverings – and Boom! – it’s like we’re walking on air!

C:   (SARDONCIALLY)  Hooray for Nikevus – Hero of “Painless Perambulation.”  The distance to the herd, however, is still the same.  As is the time that’s required to cover that distance.  You know why that is?

A:  Why?

C:  Because we’re still walking!  Can you believe it?  People have been walking places for millions of years!  Longer, maybe.  All that time, and nothing new has come up to get us places faster!

A:  We could jog a little. 

C:  A temporary solution.  Before you know it, you’re back to walking, and after the exertion of jogging, you’re walking slower than ever!  On average, you get there at exactly the same time!

A:  But you feel morally superior.  You got there.  But you’ve also worked out.

C:  I just wish there was some way to speed it all up.  Can you imagine if there were a superior means of transportation?

A:  Remember after we won that war, we had slaves, and we made them carry us everywhere?  “The Piggyback Patrol”?  Those were the days, weren’t they?

C:  That’s not what I’m talking about.  And, if you’ll recall, over time, their legs got stronger and our legs got weaker.  So when they ran away, we couldn’t catch them.

A:  Man, they were speedy!  Fast animals stopped to look at them.

C:  Now there’s a possibility.  Fast animals.

A:  What about fast animals?

C:  I don’t know, what if we could ride them?

A:  You mean, climb onto their backs and have them take us places?

C:  Exactly.

A:  That would be wonderful.  There’s only one problem. 

C:   What’s that?

A:  Climbing onto their backs in the first place.  You’ve seen what happens with those fast animals.  You go near them, and they run away.  And you can’t catch them because…you know…

C:  They’re…


A:  Right!

C:  So we’re stuck then.  Taking the same time, to walk the same distance.  Forever!
A:  You know what I’ve found that seems to make things go faster?

C:  What’s that?

A:  Singing.

C:  What, “Hi ho, hi ho”?

A:  Sure.

C:  I hate that song!

A:  Fine, then.  We shall proceed in the silent company of our thoughts, mine, upbeat and cheerful, yours, dissatisfied and morose.




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"What The Television Networks Got Wrong"

After writing recently about the sound mixing process during the post-production phase of preparing a show for delivery, I was thinking of topping off that saga with a description of, what they called and perhaps still do, “sweetening”, which involves supplementing the show, where needed, with a laugh track.  I decided, however, that I had nothing illuminating to say on the subject.  There’s a wasted paragraph, saying why I’m not doing something, instead of just not doing it.  I guess I just needed to start with something.

I will mention only one thing.  One show I created for television, called Family Man, was taped on a soundstage without a live audience, the reason for which I have explained elsewhere and, as I have already wasted enough of your time with that superfluous first paragraph, I will not waste it further by revisiting the matter here.

Because Family Man was recorded without an audience present, a laugh track ”sweetening” was required to be inserted throughout the entire show, although this time, I agreed with that mandatory requirement.  A taped sitcom without a laugh track feels like a soap opera, without the improbabilities.  Lacking a live audience reaction, even the Family Man actors weren’t sure it was funny.  An enhancement was definitely necessary.

(As I have mentioned elsewhere, we subsequently screened completed versions of two Family Man episodes for an audience recruited from the Universal Tour, and it turned out, at least according to their response, that the show was very funny indeed.)

Anyway, I mention this in order to make a confession.  During Family Man’s “sweetening” process, which I meticulously oversaw, there were occasions, though not many of them, where I told our laugh track technician, John Bickelhoff, to beef up the laugh he was suggesting we put in.

“That joke is a ‘seven.’  You made it a ‘five.’  Give it another ‘two.’”

John Bickehoff would then adjust the laugh, I’d say, “Good” and he’d say, “Thank you.” 

This is not a case of there being a weak audience laugh and I supplanted it with stronger one.  There was no laugh there.  So I put one in, attempting to give each “laugh line” what I felt it legitimately deserved.  Of course, I had written all of them, so there may admittedly have been occasions when I “rounded up.” 

On the other hand, there were some jokes that Bickheloff “laughed” too energetically, and I instructed him to “take it down.”  Overall, I believe I was fair.  I suppose.

Anyway, deciding not to write or least not write primarily about “sweetening”, what came to mind instead was the neighboring idea of what the networks, as with the obligatory laugh track, got wrong. 

(M*A*S*H creator, Larry Gelbart, insisted his show have no laugh track, as he said famously, “Just like the Korean War”, and lost.  M*A*S*H was summarily “laughed”, even though it was never explained exactly who it was that was laughing.)

The “laugh track” was finally abandoned on shows not shot in front of a live audience (Modern Family, Parks and Rec), though I imagine the process persists for “audience” shows, allowing laughs lifted from I Love Lucy to live on on Mike and Molly.

Here are some examples of things the networks got wrong.  Perhaps you can suggest others.

- There were once an obligatory “station breaks” between every show, where the network’s logo or “call letters” (remember the NBC chimes?) were injected.  It was discovered that this break in the action allowed viewers the opportunity to flip around to check out what the other channels had to offer.  Wisely, the “station breaks” were dispensed with, and now each show blends seamlessly into the next one.  Now, before a viewer gets a chance to say, “I hate this show”, they are already watching it. 

That change took about forty years.

- An unswerving network “no-no” when pitching pilots was “No shows about show business.”  Too “inside”, it was explained; the audience is unfamiliar with the “arena.”  Fortunately, they forgot to tell Jerry Seinfeld that, and he ended up doing pretty well.

- The audience “testing process”, dutifully conducted before new shows were chosen for the schedule, disadvantaged non-traditional concepts and characters deemed to be “unlikable” or “weak.”  I am unaware of the role testing plays in the networks’ decision-making process today, but, in my day, test audiences were the Supreme Court, and their dial-driven decisions were The Determining Factor.

- Due to a fear of conflicts with time-buying sponsors, writers were forbidden to mention the names actual products on the shows.   Now, with network scratching for revenue streams, “product placement” within the body of shows is ubiquitous.  They don’t care who the sponsors are anymore, but once, this was crucial.  It drove me nuts to see prop men placing cereal boxes on kitchen shelves that resembled the packaging of actual cereals but were mandatorily labeled Flaker Oats and Rice Krisbies.  I mean, I’m trying to make the show feel real, and they’re giving me Cheeri-ho’s.

(Seinfeld, ever the ground-breaker, went beyond mentioning to actually making fun of products – the banality of the “Cotton Docker” commercials, the tediousness of The English Patient.  As far as I know, their cereal boxes touted actual cereals.)

- Beyond likability, all actors on TV series were once required to possess, minimally, what they called, “Conventional good looks.”  Or better, if possible.  This requirement has also been loosened, though only recently.  Compare, if you will, the cast of actors on Friends with cast on The Office.

The cast of Friends – all six of them – were white, stylishly attired, and ready for magazine covers.  The actors on The Office, on the other hand – and this is the only part of The Office I like, and, in fact, find revolutionary – reflect various levels of attractiveness, multiple races, and rotundities, as well as baldnesses, run the gamut on the “neatness-slovenliness” continuum, and look generally like people who would buy the magazines with the Friends faces on them, but never in a million years, grace their covers.  Well, maybe now they will, because the networks have allowed them to appear on television.  You cannot believe how long it took to get regular looking people on the air, based on the networks’ concern that regular looking people would never watch them.

I was going to finish with an explanation of why networks, despite abandoning many of their foolish and yet formerly “set-in-stone” regulations, will always play second fiddle to cable, but I’ve run out of time, so I’ll cover that in a separate post at a later date.  Right now, I have to go clean up, to get ready for a Barbra Streisand concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

I want to look good for Babs.

We have a history.

Which I will tell you about sometime.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"The Greatest Job I (Almost) Never Had"

I had it, for a short period, at the beginning of my career. 

For three years, I wrote scripts for various series produced by The Mary Tyler Moore Company.  That’s basically all I did; scriptwriter, and that’s it. 

For me, that was the greatest job of all. 

For me. 

For others, “scriptwriter” is an introductory steppingstone to greater power, opportunity and cash, “scriptwriter” traditionally being the bottom of the ladder, the lowest rung, up from which you were expected to climb.  (Nifty “prepositional” work there, huh?  Thank you, Miss McFadden, Grade Six English.)

If I’d been smart, I’d have remained there, writing scripts for my entire career.  But I did not do that.  (There’s a sigh in that sentence.  Can you sense it?) 

It wasn’t just that my agent was encouraging me to move up.  He was, but I could have ignored him.  And it wasn’t simply the “Siren Song of Show Biz Success.”  That was there too.  And I confess I was not entirely immune to its call. 

It’s not easy saying “No” to “Big”, or at least to that possibility.  Also, realistically, there’s the element of “How long can you keep doing the same thing?”   Nature – or something – seems to demand advancement.

But there’s another reason I could not remain permanently where I was, one not involving weak will or closet ambition so it’s not my fault, making it my favorite explanation of all, plus it has the added advantage of also being true, so I’m substantially off the hook.  Yay.

At some point relatively early in my career, the job of “outside scriptwriter” (“outside” of the writing staff) – freelance writer, if you will – went totally away.

I am not entirely sure why that happened.  But there came a time when writing staffs got larger, and all the scripts began being written “in-house”, meaning by the writing staff itself, the result being that the job of “outside scriptwriter” completely disappeared.  Poof!

Way back when, (meaning before my time although, to more recent writers, I’m way back when), when there were smaller writing staffs (maybe the show runner and two story editors), and more episodes produced – series were once required to make 39 episodes per year – it made sense to hire outside writers to help carry the scriptwriting load. 

But with larger staffs – a dozen writers or more – and fewer produced episodes required (on cable, a full order may be 13 episodes, or less), “in-house” writing became the way to go. 

The Writers Guild tried to protect the freelance business by mandating that a script or two per season be reserved for “non-staff” writers, but the show could easily get around such restrictions, by, say, giving a not-technically-on-the-staff Writer’s Assistant with writerly aspirations one of the mandated “non-staff” assignments.

This brings me to the one disclaimer in favor of all the scripts being “staff written.”  Staff writers – and Writer’s Assistants as well – are in the show’s Writers’ Room the whole time, making them privy to the ongoing discussions concerning the series – what works and what doesn’t, “pitches” that have already been suggested and rejected, determinations as to what a series character would do and what they would not, the taste and sensibilities of the show runner(s), the series actors’ strengths and weaknesses,, what the studio audience responded to and what they did not, etc, meaning I’m tired of this list and I want to move on.

As a consequence of this “Insider’s Edge”, personnel attached to the show had advantages of various shapes and sizes that were unavailable to the freelance writer.  When I worked on shows, I can attest to the fact that considerably more work was required when revising a freelance-written episode, as compared with the “in-house” variety. 

End of disclaimer.  And end, too, of the freelance scriptwriting business. 

The greatest job I ever had had been ignominiously consigned to the dustbin of “We don’t do that anymore.”

Leaving my only available option moving up the ladder to jobs I was temperamentally and experientially less suited for (I had barely ever worked on a writing staff, so I had little idea how a show is actually run), leading me to rise, as The Peter Principle unkindly describes it, to my universally visible “level of incompetence.”

I envied the writers who had gone before me, writers would could flourish just writing, never being required to ascend to levels for which they were unfit, and possibly even uninterested. 

I recall meeting – through Dr. M, who, before she became a psychologist, had earned a Master’s in Film and Television Production – one of her teachers, named Joe, whose impressive list of writing credits included some of my favorite shows, such as Naked City, one of the top police series of its day. 

Joe, who was about to retire when I met him, was clearly proud of the fact that he had spent his entire (film and television) career “just being a writer.”

You can’t do that anymore.  Certainty not in television.

There was also this other guy I was aware of, who, before making his name as a playwright, had created two (like them or not) hit series – The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family. 

It appeared to me, from a distance – I had only one brief encounter with the man – that he worked for a company, in which his entire job description involved,

Creating television series.

And then, rather than running them, sitting full-time in his office, creating other ones.

This makes sense to me, meaning that’s what I wanted to do – make up shows and not work on them.  And it also, I think, really does make sense.  A person invents a new product – they don’t require them to then go down to the shop floor and work on the assembly line making that product, or even manage the assembly line.  That person is too valuable for that.  They invent exciting and successful new products.  Why the heck have them doing anything else!

(Rebuttal:  You have a great chef in the kitchen.  When people come to that restaurant, they expect their meal to be prepared by that chef.  If the show creator does not stay with the show, you’re getting dishes devised by one chef, but prepared by another, perhaps inferior one.  So there’s that.)

But still.  I could imagine myself writing scripts, and later, when I was ready, writing pilot scripts.  The only problem with that plan is that that’s not the way it works.  And, though I am not involved anymore and my knowledge of the current arrangement is just a whisper in the wind, I believe that’s still not the way it works. 

They continue to make the show creators run the shows.

Whether they’re good at it or not.  

Monday, November 26, 2012


You work five days a week on a show, three of those often until midnight or later. If next week’s script isn’t ready, or a new story needs to be pitched out, you may work on the weekend as well. (Some shows, to keep up with what needs to be done, work seven days a week. For eight or nine months.

I once heard myself lament – shamefully – concerning the grueling process involved in making a TV series – adjust this for inflation, because it was in 1981 – “There must be an easier way to earn three hundred thousand dollars a year!”

Sunday is quite often your only day off. But then, it often turns out, there’s a “mixing session” scheduled, and your only day off flies lamentably out the window.

What is a “mixing session”? A “mixing session” is the final post-production procedure before an episode is delivered to the network. During the “mixing session”, the music is inserted into the program – primarily the “playouts” and “play-ins” between scenes – and the sound effects and dialogue are given their last refining adjustments.

As I recall, the “mixing sessions” took about three hours per episode, and we generally handled two episodes per session, so that was six hours deleted from your only day off of the week, plus “driving time.” The mixing studios were never anywhere near my house.

The “music mixing” element is generally easy. The show’s composer writes and records a number of “music cues” – those seconds-long musical “bridges” you hear between the scenes, and during the “mixing sessions”, you “lay in” those music cues, meaning you insert them into the show, taking care that the timing of those insertions are just right.

You do not want to start the music too early and step on a scene-ending laugh, nor do you want to play the music too long into the following scene and risk covering a significantly expositional line of dialogue.

It’s all “trial and error.” And “feel” – getting the timing just right. Line – laugh – music – picture “up” on the next scene, “fade out” music – first line of dialogue. If you’re compulsive, this relatively simple task could take a considerably amount of time. I mean, you’re sitting there, having lost your only day off of the week. You may as well “get it right.”


Before continuing further, let me acknowledge that “sound mixing” for a sitcom is “Nursery School” compared to “Post-Graduate” sound mixing of a feature film, on which months may be spent dealing with literally hundreds of effects. In sitcoms, your primary goal is for the dialogue to be “clean”, meaning clearly hearable – I wrote that stuff. And I not want it covered up.

So, for example, a character’s speaking when they open a door “at night”, and outside, from an earlier pass at the sound mixing, an “owl” hoots, inadvertently covering the dialogue. This “sound cue” now has to be adjusted.

You don’t want to take the “owl” sound removed entirely, because the hooting creates the illusion that of an actual “outside”, obscuring the reality, which is, “You’re on a studio soundstage, and there actually is no “outside.” This is the reason the “owl sound” was inserted in the first place. The objective now is, in the service of “protecting the dialogue”, to retain but “soften the owl.”

This alteration is possible because the dialogue was recorded on the stage during a live audience performance, while the “owl effect” was added from, what, in my day, was an eight-track cassette of “ambient owl noises”, selected from the studio’s “Sound Library.” Emanating from different sound sources, the two sounds can be manipulated individually, allowing you to “soften the owl” without “softening the dialogue.”

However – Example Two:

A character delivers dialogue while closing the onstage door, inadvertently causing the “door close” to, as with the overly loud owl, to cover the dialogue. This situation is different. In this case, both the dialogue and the “door close” have been recorded by the same onstage microphone, meaning, in sound-editing parlance, that the two sounds – the dialogue and the simultaneous “door close” – are “married.” You can therefore not alter one sound without altering the other. The two are inextricably bound together. Hence the term – “married.”

What do you do in such cases? If the line of dialogue is important enough, you “wipe” – meaning you erase – both it and the “door close” from the sound track. You then bring back the actor, and you re-record their line of dialogue on the “Dubbing Stage.” “Step Two” is, you fabricate a new “door close”, and you technically “move it away” from the re-recorded dialogue (you might have to change the picture, so it is not showing the door when it closes, thus obscuring the fact “door close” sound has been moved.)

Your other option is to “manufacture” a softer “door close”, so it will not interfere with the re-recorded dialogue.

Sounds like a lot of work, but it matters. I mean, I know it’s only a sitcom, but still.

Oh, yeah, FYI? The actor was almost certainly instructed to close the door before starting their dialogue, but they forgot. If they’d remembered, none of this “reconstruction work” would be necessary, and I’d be home considerably earlier, enjoying what remains of my only day off of the week.


The last procedure I will describe concerning the sound mixing process is called “Foleying.” Sometimes, the sound library is lacking the precise sound effect that you have imagined in your head. In that case, it is necessary to stop, and construct an entirely new effect, right then and there.

I will now stop talking and defer to a “Foley” scene from Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981), in which Albert plays a film editor toiling on a third-rate “Space Epic.” The clip will tell you everything you need to know. About sound editing.

And obsession.


Friday, November 23, 2012

"One Movie I Can Never Resist"

There are numerous gradations to my appreciation of movies, the lowest of them being, ”Every second I was watching it, I was hoping the roof of the theater would cave in and kill me”, to the highest level, which is, “If I am ever totally incapacitated except I can still think, put this movie on a loop for me to watch, and leave me alone.”

Very close to that highest plateau is “the movie that, when I’m flipping around the channels and I spot it, I am compelled to stop, and watch it, no matter how many times I have already seen it.”  (This is one rung above “When I’m flipping around the channels and I spot it, I am compelled to watch my favorite parts of it.  These categories are subtle and interesting, don’t you think?)

(By the way, while I’m in “Brackets Mode”, I’m thinking there’s an actual name for this, since it happens so many times.  What I am referring to is this.  You’re flipping through the dozens of movie channels your cable package offers, and you stop at a movie that you’re kind of interested in, and the amazing thing is, the movie is at precisely the same point in its progress – the same scene, the same moment in the story – as it was the last time that you spotted it.  It is utterly mind-blowing.  They’re actually finishing the sentence that they started the week before!  It’s like the movie “self-paused”, waiting for me to come back!

How on earth is that possible, especially considering how incredibly often it happens?  I mean, sometimes, I stop, not because I’m that interested in the movie, but in sheer amazement that it’s continuing on from exactly the same place.  I mean, you can’t walk away from that.  That’s magic!)

Okay.  So, not long ago, I’m flipping around the movie channels, in a desperate effort to avoid watching an episode of SVU for the – I’m ashamed to admit the how many-ith – time, and I come upon All The President’s Men (1976).

Yes!  No, bigger.  YES!!!

I love that movie!  All The President’s Men is, like, a hair below “put it on a loop, and leave me alone.”  The World Series is on; I’m watching All the President’s Men.  (That may not be the definitive test anymore.  The World Series was on, and millions of people were watching Up All Night.)       

All The President’s Men is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore – it’s about something.  Maybe HBO would do it as a miniseries, but not with superstars the likes of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  (Unless they were old and couldn’t get work anymore.)

For those of you who don’t know, All The President’s Men, based on a book with the same title, written by the reporters played in the movie by Redford and Hoffman, concerns a historic moment in the very recent past (four years before the movie came out, two years before the book was published) in which two low-level reporters from the Washington Post uncover a story, and, against great difficulty and crushing pressure, pursue that story till it leads to the resignation of the President of the United States (Richard Nixon).

Big story, huh?  I like big stories.  Especially when they’re big, true stories.  This provides an insight into my entertainment preferences.  Even if it’s exaggerated-for dramatic-effect soap opera, I would much rather watch “The Soap Opera of Real” than “The Soap Opera That Is Entirely Made Up.  Who wouldn’t?  (Demonstrating  Romney-esque superciliocity.) 

“The President of the United States was forced to resign, before he is put on trial for siphoning ‘hush money’ to criminals”?  “Someone on ‘General Hospital’ is revealed to be his dead brother’s twin, and it’s the other twin who is actually dead”?  Come on!  Where’s the comparison?

I remember when I first saw All The President’s Men how amazed I was by the film’s gripping suspensefulness, despite the fact that the audience already knew what was going to happen – “They get the president.”  This achievement is almost entirely, in my view, attributable to the writing.

I never read the book, so I cannot compare the movie to it in terms of its structural telling of the story.  But the movie is – what do they call it, a procedural?

The audience is shown, in glamor-free detail, the methodical manner in which the two reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, hampered by minimal contacts in high places and no personal clout whatsoever – or maybe that’s what left them unencumbered to pursue that story, isn’t it great how that works both ways? – painstakingly plod ahead, hounding witnesses – Bernstein with “pick-up artist” let’s-call-it charm, Woodward with Midwestern sincerity – till the witnesses reveal what they know, accumulating and arranging the, originally, befuddling pieces of the puzzle, building their story, step by two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards step, under the direction of the mysterious “Deep Throat”, until finally, they have their story; and then, with the courageous support of their editor Ben Bradlee, they collectively withstand the heat, going public with their accusations.   

I don’t know about you, but I am exhilarated and drained at the same time!

There have been disputes about who specifically is responsible for All The Presidents Men’s script, but the screenwriting Oscar went to William Goldman (who also won an Oscar in 1969 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) 

William Goldman was the Aaron Sorkin of his day, by which I mean they were arguably the best screenwriters of their generation, and they both “got” people, which make their movies so rich and, at least for me, multiply watchable. 

The difference is, it being from different generations, the people they “got” were different kinds of people – Sorkin’s people being “the smartest kid in the room” kind of people (The Social Network), Goldman’s people being intelligent though lacking Mensa qualifications, decent and determined.  Though I loved The Social Network (I paid twice to see it; not paid twice to see it once, I actually saw it two times.), I am more comfortable with Goldman’s thoughtful, well-meaning bumblers. 

I wonder why.

I’m not saying All The President’s Men is my favorite movie of all time.  I have different favorites in different categories.  But, with the exception of the western Red River, which I will also stop everything to watch, there are few movies that grab me and hold me like All The Presidents Men. 

Though not far behind it are The Bowery Boys, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and the better outings Ma and Pa Kettle.

“Ma, I think there’s a hole in the roof.”

“How d’ya know, Pa?”

“I finished my soup three times.”

I always stop for that one.     

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"Thanksgiving Wishes"

I am too full to write much.

I just wanted to thank my family publicly for the always amazing, creative and delicious comestibles.

I want to thank this country for letting me in, and providing this cool holiday that we apparently also have in Canada, though nobody told me about it when I lived there.

I also want to thank the Indians, and leave it at that.  Except to say that Thanksgiving Dinner, in tribute honor and respect, I always wear a headdress.

Last but not least, to the children of the turkeys:  Thank you for letting us eat your parents.  It's unlikely you'll feel better when I tell you they were delicious. I just wanted to let you know what happened after they disappeared.  And how indispensable they are to the festivities.

Oh yeah, and thank you for reading this blog, always or once in a while.  You are my oxygen, and you know how well people do without that.  I sincerely appreciate that you're out there.

And that's it.

I love this holiday.  No presents are required.  And you get to nap in the afternoon without feeling old.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"I Saw 'Lincoln'"

“Lincoln” offers unusual pleasures not everyone is going to appreciate.  

Let this present commentary record that any film that takes the time to fully and precisely explain, in legalistic clarity, why “The Emancipation Proclamation” freeing the slaves is not ultimately sufficient, and why, therefore, a Constitutional Thirteenth Amendment freeing the slaves is additionally required, and further, why said amendment must be passed before the Civil War is over is a film this moviegoer will long cherish and remember. 

With these self-same facts, however, can another “Lincoln” moviegoer respond with equal sincerity, “It’s so boring!”

I like a movie that treats me like a grownup.  And I am thrilled to wrestle through all the tangled talky-talk, and when it’s done be able to proudly state, “I stayed with it, and I got it!” 

Yes, I had to pay the price, fretting uncomfortably through a mercifully compact opening battle scene, where director Steven Spielberg got to play with his techno-toys to produce memorable moments of mutilation and carnage, the only one I recall, since I spent the bulk of the time staring down at the floor in front of me, being a soldier stepping on an opposing soldier lying on the ground, boot in his face, pressing his head under a mud puddle, so he’ll drown. 

I don’t know.   I already knew the Civil War was terrible.  I did not need a boot- drowning to remind me.

It’s fine.  As I would gladly pay the price of my discomfort for the wonderfulness yet to come.   The mandatory slaughter scene gratefully behind us, “Lincoln” settles into a meticulous chronicling of what is basically a partisan legislative wrangle, like if a more current movie were made about the “Affordable Health Care Act”, or a vote raising the debt ceiling.   

And, of course, History assuring us that we have a Thirteenth Amendment, the resolution of this dispute is seriously spoilered, the only other explanation being that that, like elevators and office buildings, in deference to superstition, the Amendment number “Thirteen” was cautiously skipped over.

In backwards order, building as usual to the most salient observation, here are the reasons “Lincoln” so satisfyingly struck my fancy, and will be a movie, if not in its entirety, extended swaths of which, I would happily to see again.

Third in importance – the production design and lighting, all indoor spaces made to appear to be illuminated exclusively by hearth-fire light, candlelight or oil lamps.  It looked like indoors, 1865.  Not that I was actually present at the time, but it is no great stretch to imagine an inhabitant of that era, momentarily reprieved from “dead”, invited to come forward and pass judgment on “verisimilitude”, scanning the astonishing replification, and going, “Yep.  That were it, all right.” 

They spend a few bucks hewing assiduously to detail, and I am carried magically back in time.

The second impressive element is the script by Tony Kushner, most famous for Angels In America.  Like Spielberg, Kushner has applied research and discipline to the task, complementing the tempered direction with credible dialogue fitting time and moment, free of inappropriate flourishes and retrospective psychologizing.

And then, there was Lincoln.  I would say “the man who played Lincoln”, but Daniel Day-Lewis immersed himself so deeply into the reedy speaking voice, the Midwestern, folksy cadence, and the labored movement of a man weighed down by more than what any man should be asked to carry, I felt always in the mouth-dropping presence of the actual sixteenth President himself.

It’s funny.  Sometimes, I sorely miss movie stars, the way they leapt from the screen, energizing and elevating everything – worthy and unworthy – that they were in.  Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant.  I can imagine Stewart playing Lincoln, or Gregory Peck, because he did.  But as charismatically cinematic as they were, the movie presences of the past could never have produced the mesmerizing performance of an arguably less striking actor, disappearing into his role.  

I can easily imagine the other four contenders for Oscar’s Best Actor 2012 shaking their heads, thinking, “Man!  Why did he have to do that in my year.”

And here’s the clincher.  Call it “The Coda.”  A two-and-a-half hour movie about accumulating the necessary votes.  An assassination at the moment of victory.  And then, finally, a resurrection, in an ending I would strongly have argued against and been wrong, where we see the re-elected president delivering his Second Inaugural Address, in which, after years of hardship, rancor and unspeakable loss, Lincoln finds within himself the inexplicable humanity to proclaim:

…with malice towards none, with charity for all, with a firmness in the right which God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.

Folks, a talky movie left me blubbering in my seat.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"I Saw A 'Modern Family' I Liked"

I stopped watching Modern Family regularly early in its second season, when I noticed they were going for easier laughs and more predictable storylines.  I would check back on occasion, encountering more “eh” episodes than “huzzahs”, an example of the latter being the delightful Second Season “Halloween” episode, where the bearded, red-headed lawyer character was caught scaling down a building clad in a “Spiderman” costume.  (He believed the lawyers in his office were expected to come to work that day in costume, and it turned out they weren’t.) 

That one was special.  But overall, I found Modern Family offering diminishing surprises.

So I’m holed up upstairs – ‘cause when a baby’s sleeping – we are currently boarding baby Milo and his parents – the house goes unequivocally on “mute.”  For reasons more likely related to “there’s no game on tonight” than actual enthusiasm, I decide to return to Modern Family. 

My choice is also a defensive maneuver, since Dr. M is less likely to reject watching Modern Family than an SVU episode – always my “default viewing” selection – and if I don’t find a mutually acceptable option, we will end up watching her favorite form of entertainment – any show where a couple is looking to buy a house. 

Dr. M agrees to watch Modern Family, and I am rescued for one night.

The episode – I believe it’s “Episode Seven” of Season Four – turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable.  Immediately, my analytical mind leaps to the task of ascertaining the reason why.  I used to do shows.  I remain interested in the process. 

That I had never entirely figured out. 

I recall during those three years when I wrote eight scripts per season for The Mary Tyler Moore Company that, invariably, one episode per season would rise demonstrably above the rest.  This situation always perplexed me.  Though I admit I am easily perplexed.   

All eight MTM scripts had been written by the same capable writer – me – and yet, every season, one of them was noticeably superior.  


In my exploration, using Fourth Season Modern Family “Episode Seven” as my guinea pig, I come down to three elements, the third of which, I believe, being the most salient.  For “dramatic build” reasons, I shall leave that one for last. 

Okay, so my third point explaining why this Modern Family episode stands out relates to the generous allotment of funny jokes.  For plot reasons I will explain later, the chubby gay character is required to fix breakfast for his young niece and nephew.  The meal’s primary component is fake bacon, which he claims is indistinguishable from real bacon except for the look, the texture and the taste.   He first labels this alternative breakfast meat “fakin”, then quickly amends the name –  since he prepared it from scratch – to faux fake bacon, or “fokin.”

For me, that’s three bunched-together laughs.  More than I’ve gotten recently from entire episodes of Modern Family.

Shelley Long plays the older character with the “Trophy Wife’s” first wife, who, if not entirely crazy, appears alarmingly overmedicated.  As reflected in this joke:

“I recently discovered my cat Frances buried in the backyard.  I’m just praying that she died first.”

A little twisted, but, to me, still funny.

Last “good joke” example, and my personal favorite:  The airhead older sister has been kicked out of college and her parents are helping her pack up her belongings.  The airhead daughter claims the expulsion has been a wake-up call for her, and from now on, she is determined to knuckle down. 

As they’re about to exit the dorm room, the airhead’s father says, “Where are my keys?”  The airhead daughter says, “They’re on the make-up table.”  To which, her mother ruefully responds,  “Oh, honey.  That’s a desk.”

Last line in the show; big laugh from me.  I believe Dr. M even cracked a smile at that one.

I could offer other “quality joke” examples, but I’m tired.  Trust an expert.  The episode had a surfeit of them.  And if you don’t care for “surfeit”, how’s “plethora”?  (Any Three Amigos in the audience?)

The second element explaining why this Modern Family episode was, in my view, a number of cuts above the others is casting.

As I mentioned, the older guy with the “Trophy Wife’s” first wife was played by Shelley Long.  Why is this important?  I will tell you.

Say you’re a capable pick-up basketball team, and Larry Bird comes along and says, “Can I play?”  Right away, the level of all the other players shoots up, in an effort to keep up with their Hall of Fame teammate. 

Shelley Long not only brought spark and sparkle to her guest-starring role, she raised everyone around her’s game as well.  Add that to the regular players’ confidence delivering first class material, and you have a talented cast working at the top of their abilities.

Now, finally, the main reason I believe this Modern Family episode excelled:

They were telling an important story.

As compared to the story they did a few weeks ago, wherein the older guy’s tortured by his pregnant “Trophy Wife’s” snoring.  Yawning is contagious.  I contracted it from that episode.

The inciting incident here is that the airhead daughter had been arrested for getting drunk at a college party, and falling on a policeman.  This is, essentially, not a funny story.  It’s a dramatic story, with significant consequences. 

In an interwoven story – Modern Family tells three stories per episode – the yuppie couple’s youngest son has an allergic reaction to the “faux-kin”, which was prepared with soy, and they’re off to the hospital.  And the third story involves the potential fireworks when a first wife first learns that the second wife is pregnant.

All these stories matter, by which I mean “sitcom” matter, rather than “Hurricane Sandy” or an outbreak of meningitis.  Stories that matter provide a buttressing spine to the comedic hi-jinx.  Stories that don’t matter, like the snoring story, stand entirely on their jokes.

That’s why you have to start with a solid, believable story that matters.  When you have one, the jokes seem to come more easily, and more generically.  Throw in a “top-of-the-line” guest performer, and you’re on your way to an episode that undeniably stands out. 

Why can’t you do that every week? 

Because stories that matter with comedic possibilities are not easy to come by.

I once pitched a story for The Bob Newhart Show during a time when comedian Dick Martin was a consultant on the show.  When he was asked what he thought of the idea, Martin replied, “Good drama.”

Though Martin meant it as a criticism, when I heard that, after recovering from the stinging rebuke, I knew we were on the right track.

The best comedy episodes emanate from the essential underpinning of a dramatic storyline.

Says me.

The end.

Monday, November 19, 2012

"The Second Time"

I have written earlier about how I meditate every morning just after I wake up. 

I find meditation to be extremely helpful.  One of the trickier parts, however, is designating a specific time to do it; if you don’t have a regularly set time, then it’s “I’ll do it later” and more often than not, there are intervening concerns, and you never get around to it. 

The “when” problem is alleviated by meditating the first thing after you wake up.  Then you don’t have to designate a time.  You wake up and it’s “Now.” 

If you don’t wake up, then finding the time to meditate is the least of your worries.  But that’s a different story.  Written by somebody else. 

Somebody who woke up.

Why meditate?  For me, a man with what my doctor once delicately labeled “an anxious temperament”, my waking hours are infused with a pervasive jumpiness.  I’m not talking about A.D.D. here.  It’s not like I’m doing this, and I suddenly want to do that.  Or I have a mind that compulsively jumps from thought to thought. 

My issue has more to do with the kinds of thoughts my mind jumps to.  What kinds of thoughts?

I’m working on my blog, and, in a blink of an eye, I am awash in concerns over an upcoming colonoscopy.      

Intrusions of this nature can easily sidetrack your train of thought.

Meditating helps me be focused and – I hate to use this word because I think it’s used Scientology – clear.  This is particularly helpful in my writing, where a relaxed mind can release delightful surprises, offering insights and connections that come seemingly out of nowhere.  Suddenly, thoughts are emanating from a deeper and truer place, the words, “Where did that come from?” arising, as these revelations appear.

It is all kind of miraculous.

I discovered my meditation technique in a book called The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, who’s a doctor.  That’s important to me.  I have no interest in esoteric cults or countercultural weirdness. 

I am basically a conservative person.  No gurus for me.  No daytime lawyer, wearing drawstrings and a turban.  No “I’m not Larry anymore.  Call me El-Wahul! 

Benson’s method is scientifically determined, a researched distillation of what all mediation processes include.  You sit comfortably in a quiet place, you relax your body, you observe your breath going in and out, and as you exhale, you focus on a word – “one” or “calm” – to block out the flood of distractions coursing through your brain (because you can't think two things at the same time.  Try it.  It's impossible.)  Twenty minutes, and you’re done.  That’s all there is to it.

Though I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years, I am still not great at meditating; I do it right, generously, maybe a quarter of the time.  But even so, I am unquestionably aware of the difference.  After meditating, I am sharper and more comfortably at ease. 

And I definitely write better. 

Example:  I wrote the first section of this post last night, and I thought I was done with it.  Then, this morning after meditating, I reread what I’d written, and rewrote more than half of it. 

It’s better now.  Stuff I had not picked up on last night – imprecise word choices, continuity issues – jumped out at me after I’d meditated.

When I was working in television, I would never think of showing up without meditating, the result being a demonstrably superior output, and a considerably easier-to-deal-with Earlo. 

I was a marvel in the morning.  Easygoing.  Razor sharp.  Inspiringly on my game.

Then the day wore on.  And I wore out.

Not really “wore out”; I just said that for balanced sentence structure.  What happened was that, through the day, my “meditational edge” began noticeably to wear off.  Imagine a person who has chugged down one of those “Five-Hour” Energy Drinks, during the sixth and subsequent hours. 

It was heartbreaking to watch.  The later it got, the further I faded. 

A disastrous situation when you’re writing for television.  Some of the most important work – the revising of the scripts – takes place at night, a time when the “Morning Meditator” is increasingly losing his mojo.

The answer to this problem, of course, is screamingly obvious. 

Meditate again, later in the day.

I never did that.

Why not?

I never found the time. 

Thinking back, this sounds transparently foolish.  But when I ran shows, here’s what I could never imagine announcing to my writing staff:

“It looks like we’re going to be here a while.  But even though it means not going to work right away, I need to push back getting started twenty minutes, so I can meditate.  This may sound like a contradiction, but I promise you, if we begin later, we’ll be out of here earlier.”

I could never say that; it sounded too selfish.  In truth, however, the idea of a second meditation rarely came to mind.  I was way too shortsighted. 

I ignored the strategy guaranteed to get us home sooner, and we consequently got home later.

In glorious retrospect, I realize I should definitely have meditated that second time.  It would have been better all around.

For the writing.

For my co-workers.

And for humanity.

I was going to write “And for myself”, but “For humanity” sounded like a bigger ending.  Maybe if I meditate again, I’ll come up with an improvement. 

It really works.  I’m tellin’ ya.