Friday, March 29, 2013

"LIfe Is Funny (In Five Easy Steps)"

Backstory:  A few years ago, I received a check made out in Canadian money for about fourteen thousand dollars.  (For a closed Canadian insurance policy.)  When I went to deposit that check into my account, the bank teller informed me I’d be required to pay a “service charge” of four hundred dollars.  Four hundred dollars.  For converting a Canadian check into American money.  I am determined never to pay such an exorbitant charge again.

1.     I receive a check made out in Canadian money for fifteen thousand dollars.  (For a closed forty year-old Canadian mutual fund.)  The current exchange rate reveals that Canadian money is worth more than American money.  

2.     After conferring with my accountant, I endorse the check, and I send it to my brother in Toronto, requesting him to deposit it into his account, have them cut him a check for the “conversion amount” in American money (for which his bank charges ten dollars), endorse the check, and return it to me.  This strategy will allow me to avoid the outrageous four hundred dollar “service charge” demanded by my bank.

3.     The plan is foiled, however, when, lacking verification of my identity, my brother’s bank refuses to accept the check.

4.     In the interim, I call my bank, ready to fight the four hundred dollar “service charge.”  A representative informs me that my bank hadn't elicited a charge for exchange rate services for some time.  Greatly relieved, I inform my brother that the issue had been resolved, and I ask him to return the check to me.

5.     I receive the returned check, and I deliver it to my bank.  It turns out that, during the interceding period, the exchange rate has changed, and Canadian money is now worth less than American money.  In the end, the amount deposited into my account is fifteen thousand dollars, minus the “conversion amount”

Which at this time,

Is four hundred dollars.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Why I Did Not Write About The Oscars"

I could have written about the Oscars a month ago when they happened, but that would have been inconsistent with a blog whose mission and preferred strategy is to maneuver below the radar and avoid attention.  I like to bide my time, let the heat of the moment die down, then jump in when interest is low, bordering on nonexistent. 

That’s what I call integrity.

Though you could as easily call it a congenital aversion to commercial opportunity.  More easily probably.  

In the 2013 Oscars, there were few to no surprises concerning who won.  The primary controversy was this:

The Oscars producers chose a host whose name recognition and comedic sensibility would attract television’s highly coveted 18-to-49 demographic.  The substantial boost in that demographic’s ratings this year suggests that their strategy successfully paid off. 

I myself am in the 67-to-74 demographic.  And we found ourselves maximally challenged by the host. 

Seth MacFarlane was selected to “bring in the kids.”  And apparently, he did.  How?  By being relatively young (39), and by performing material consistent with his hit series Family Guy that was…

And therein lies the problem.  It’s not easy to write this, because every selected adjective conveys a judgment.  And every judgment in this regard is predicated on a difference in the viewing audience member’s age.   

Check out the contrasting assessments of Seth MacFarlane hosting the recent Oscars.  It’s like a generational “potato-potahto.”
Tasteless – Irreverent

Inappropriate – Edgy

Puerile – Liberated 

Disrespectful – Sticking it to the old farts

Not funny – Hilarious

It’s not a hard-edged Dividing Line, of course.  I imagine there were viewers close to my age who were tickled by the “We Saw Your Boobs” production number and the “Jews control Hollywood” slander – I mean, playful pokes of harmless Anti-Semitism – I mean, fun – as, I imagine, there were members of the Younger Set who were stone-facedly unamused. 

But over all, the Older Crowd, raised on the bloodless barbs of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, went “Feh!”  While the “Kids” took Seth’s shameless shenanigans in their cool and casual stride.   

Confining my review to one sentence, I found Seth MacFarlane alarmingly out of his depth, increasingly isolated from the audience in attendance, and noticeably shaken by the end, though he tried gamely to cover it up. 

From a creative standpoint, it is my view that the source of MacFarlane’s difficulties result from the fact that utterances that are funny emerging from animated characters are considerably less funny emanating from actual human beings.  (Especially when those utterances are at the expense of actual human beings with feelings sitting in the audience.)

Excluding the “Human Beings Sitting In The Audience” Factor, I have direct experience in the issue of “human being” comedy versus the comedy consequences of drawn characters. 

Short answer: It’s not the same.

I wrote a pilot once called The Home Team, where, in a role reversal, a recently retired baseball player stays home taking care of a baby, while his wife pursues her dream as a lingerie designer.  (This was in the early nineties, when that premise actually seemed interesting.)

My pilot script was turned down.  But in a plan the studio might call “game-saving” but which I would call  “What the f…”?, the project I created was taken away from me, and put in the hands of a successful writer from The Simpsons, for a total reworking.

By the early nineties, I was in my late forties.  The Simpsons writer was in his early thirties.  The writer switch indicated that the studio believed that the younger writer could infuse a currency into the premise my aging sensibilities were unable to deliver.  The “whether I agreed, and how I did I feel about that” sentence will be left “understood.”

As a result of his revisions – and his reputation coming off a very hot show – the Simpsons writer got the pilot script picked up for production.  (The “how I felt about that” sentence will also remain “understood.”)

One day, I wander down to the stage to see how they’re doing, taking a seat in the empty bleachers that on show night will be filled with a live studio audience.  I just wanted to see how they were doing.  (With my show!)

They were rehearsing a scene with the ballplayer and the baby.  It’s a “drooling scene.”  (Not found in the original version.)  In the scene, the baby is required to drool on cue.  (And the hilarity is intended to ensue.)

Among the myriad of other things they can’t do (as opposed to animated babies who can do anything you want them to), live babies cannot drool on cue.  I look in dismay on as the “Special Effects” people inject “fake drool” into the baby’s mouth. 

In my view, at least, live babies (again in contrast to drawn babies), do not look cute drooling.  They look like you need to run for a tissue.

Here’s what we’re dealing with here.  A writer whose stock-in-trade is animation has imagined a sequence that could, conceivably, be hilarious in the animation arena but is tasteless, jarring and inappropriate - descriptives some applied to Seth MacFarlane’s outing as an Oscars host – in the real-life context of actual people, which includes babies.

Sidebar:  How could “animated baby drooling” be funny?  The answer revolves entirely around the execution which, with the unlimited possibilities could be anything.  How slowly the drool comes out.  The baby’s “visual response” to the drooling.  (“Look at that!  I’m leaking!”)  How long the drooling lasts, the longer, the funnier.  There can be issues of coloration, contingent on what the baby had recently consumed.  Like balloon animals, the descending drool could “shape-shift” into various images, consistent with the fantasies projected in the infant’s mind.  None of this can be achieved with live babies.  With live babies, you get “spit out of the mouth”, and that’s it.       

As the man said:  It’s not the same.  Not in my pilot.  And not on the Oscars. 

But that’s my opinion.  And it could just be camouflaging the fact that I’m old, and I don’t get it.  I don’t want to be “the guy who doesn’t get it.”  (This is especially “ow”-ey to a guy who has gotten it for so long.) 

The only thing I want to be less than “the guy who doesn’t get it” is “the guy who bends over backwards to get it”, in a desperate effort not to seem over the hill. 

I could offer the opinion that, even on his own terms, Seth MacFarlane did not solidly deliver.  But I feel deficient in the legitimacy to back that up.

So I didn’t talk about the Oscars. 

I just wanted to tell you why.   

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"I Once Pretended To Be My Brother"

Once every fifty or so outings, I seek absolution from strangers for a personal misconduct, committed in the past.  The transgression I am currently asking forgiveness for is the one emblazoned on the title of this post.

I wasn’t doing much at the time.  Maybe writing a weekly newspaper column for twenty-five dollars.  That’s right.  I was making twenty-five dollars a week.  And it wasn’t the Depression.

Warning:  There is going to be a lot of “I do not remember” in this story.  Hopefully, what I do remember will suffice to make this exercise worthwhile.  I am hesitant to prejudge on the matter, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be close.   

Okay, here we go.  Man!  It’s starting already!

I do not remember how the idea originated.  I could make something up, but, as I will shortly acknowledge, I have no aptitude for lying, even if it’s on paper – or cyber-paper – even to strangers I am unlikely to run into.  I do not subscribe to the genre called memoir, which is now apparently defined as an autobiography not limited by the facts.  I prefer the truth as I remember it.  Albeit with gaps.

Around 1970 or so, there was a game show broadcast on a local station in Hamilton, Ontario, a city about forty miles from my hometown of Toronto – which was basically a charades show.  Not “basically.”  It was literally a charades show.  I guess nobody has a copyright on the “charades” concept.  Either that, or it was plagiarized in Hamilton.

To spice things up, the show’s contestants were comprised of what passed in the province of Ontario for celebrities.  Hockey players.  Actors.  Musicians.  Hockey players…

For some reason, probably because I was craving attention at the time – and at what time am I not? – I was determined to be a participant on that show.  “Determined” is an unusual descriptive for me.  Usually, I just wait for things I am hoping for to happen.  Inexplicably in my life, a surprising number of them do.

I remember calling up the show to offer my services, accentuating the name “Pomerantz” while under-representing the “Earl” element, thus allowing them to believe that the caller was, instead, my celebrated older brother Hart who, at the time, with his then partner Lorne Michaels, was writing, producing and starring in  four hour-long comedy specials per year on Canadian national television.

The reason I didn’t present myself unequivocally as my brother is less an issue of my inviolable moral standards than that I am congenitally incapable of lying.  I have no “poker face” – even on the phone – and when I say something untrue, I have a tendency to giggle.  Which immediately rules me out as a candidate for “spy.”

“Tell us your secrets!’

(GIGGLING)  What secrets?”


For whatever reason, my strategy proved successful.  I was booked for an upcoming taping of the charades show. 

I cannot remember how I got to Hamilton, as the trip involves driving forty miles each way on the highway, and at that point, the number of miles I had ever driven on the highway was “None.”  Was it arranged for somebody to drive me there, possibly another participant on the show?  That sounds right.  But it’s a long way from insisting that it is.          

However I got there, I arrived at the studio, and was welcomed by the charades show’s impresario.  I recall little about him, other than he was tall, he wore white pants, and he had changed his name from Randy to Riff.  I have no idea why.

“It’s a better name.”

By what standard?

Riff greeted me with a look reserved for those occasions when they’re expecting your famous brother and it turns out instead to be you. 

Smiling mouth.  Disappointed eyes.

But what can they do?  It is time for the taping – five episodes in one day – and it is too late to bring in the brother they expected, even if he wanted to do the charades show, which he didn’t.  

The format was familiar.  Two teams of contestants.  Players are called up one at a time, crafting the best clues they can think of to get their teammates to guess the charade.  In the end, the team guesses the charades in the shortest period of time is the winner.

There was one additional element to this current offering of charades.

The contestants were provided the answers ahead of time.

Pulling this hoax off is not as easy as it sounds.  Yes, we knew the answers in advance.  But we had to play the game like we didn’t.  Which involved acting, and most importantly, timing. 

The primary “no-no” was not to blurt out the answer too quickly, or you would give the subterfuge away.  Since I have already admitted I cannot lie – and participating on a rigged game show is a “close cousin” to lying – you will not be surprised by the following turn of events:

A “Clue Giver” on Earlo’s side stands in front of their teammates, studying a slip of paper containing the answer to the charade.  They then mime the signal indicating the cranking of an old-time camera.


The “Clue Giver” then holds up four fingers.

EARLO’S TEAM:  Four words!

The “Clue Giver” holds up one finger.

EARLO’S TEAM:  First word!

The “Clue Giver” hesitates for a moment, formulating their “Game Plan.”

EARLO:  “Gone With The Wind!”

Do you see what the problem is there?  Exuberant Earlo jumped the gun, delivering the correct answer, before receiving any clues.  This can only mean one thing:

The contestants got the answers ahead of time.  (And at least one of them was unable to act like he didn’t.)

Overall, I scored pretty well comedically, and at the end, Riff offered his sincere congratulations, forgiving me in a good-sportedly fashion for not being my brother.  Riff labeled me a “counterpuncher”, which means that, though I did not initiate the comedy, I would embellish it to substantial comedic effect. 

I was reactively funny, humorously sensitive to events, and to others.

And so I remain to this very day.  I may still be unable to ignite the shenanigans.  But boy, can I weigh in!   

This, in part, is why I am hesitant to assert that I’m funny – the other part being “What if I assert it and I’m not”?  I am incapable of being funny in a vacuum.  But place me in the vicinity of a windbag, or in a “Security Line” at the airport that’s not moving, and, as the “Great One” Jackie Gleason used to say…

“And awayyyyy we go!

I had fun doing that charades show.  If it ever turns up in reruns somewhere, check out my counterpunching. 

And my inability to pretend I wasn’t cheating.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Still The Same...And Maybe Even Somewhat Worse"

It started early with me.  I was eight.  I had insisted that my brother take me along when he and his pals went downtown to see the new 3-D “Horror Movie”, The House of Wax.  On the street car to the theater, my brother jostled my delicate sensibilities with verbal previews of the scary moments I was about to experience.  A closet door would open, and the movie being in 3-D, a dead body coated in wax would be falling directly into my lap.

We bought our tickets, and went inside.  But by that time, I was so worked up, I stubbornly refused to go into the theater.  Since I was unable to negotiate a return trip on my own, I was required to spend two hours waiting in the lobby, until the movie ended and my brother emerged to take me back home. 

What I had learned from the experience was that I am overly sensitive to frightening images, and, especially if I’d been primed with advance knowledge that they were coming, I am physically incapable of watching them.


I am in my mid-twenties, serving on a panel (of three), participating in a local television show, where the panelists are sent off to see movies, returning later to debate their merits on the air. 

The series was ending, and they had hired me to fill in during the final six broadcasts.  If the show had run longer, I most certainly would have been fired.  And here’s why:

One of the movies we were dispatched to see was The Godfather (1972.)  I had already read and enjoyed the book, and since the movie faithfully followed the book’s plotline, I knew in advance where the “scary parts” were, most especially the scene where a guy wakes up to discover his prized horse’s severed head lying beside him in the bed.

I could feel that moment coming as I wriggled in my seat, agonizingly torn.  I had a job to do.  I was a movie commentator.  We would be discussing The Godfather on the upcoming broadcast, the “horse’s head” scene being one of the most memorable sequences in the picture.  I had to watch it, didn’t I?

Well, I couldn’t. 

The camera moves slowly into the bedroom, and I’m racing out of the theater, finding safety once again in the blessed sanctuary of the lobby.  As after returning to my seat, I would do second time, bolting from the theater when Michael emerges from the bathroom with the pistol, moments before he blasts multiple bullets into the two guys in the restaurant. 

On the subsequent broadcast, I was not particularly illuminating about The Godfather.  Though, if I’d been queried about the lobby’s carpeting, I’d have wowed them with my expertise.  It was pale yellow.  Thick.  Decorated with spiraling circles.  I could also identify the stain pattern.  To this day, I have not seen The Godfather in its entirety.


Last week.  I am now in my late sixties.  And, if anything, I am a bigger “‘Fraidy Cat” than ever.  Which is unfortunate, because I miss out on movies I might otherwise enjoy, like Django Unchained, whose satirical sensibility I’d appreciate, if it weren’t for the multiple whippings and other forms of, for me, “way over the line” mutilations and annihilational mayhem. 

Forget Django Unchained (2012.)  Not long ago, I was seriously challenged by Mrs. Miniver (1942.) 

Though Mrs. Miniver is a World War II picture, it is visually anticeptic, devoid of the anatomical graphicity of, by contrast, the Spielberg World War II picture (and bloodbath) Saving Private Ryan (1998.) 

As with the Godfather example where I wimpily took flight, I knew when the upsetting part was coming.  (I had watched Mrs. Miniver before, and was only able to survive the upsetting part because I didn’t.)  

I was familiar with the plot sequence.  There’s a “Flower Show” scene, culminating with an “Awards Ceremony.”  Then, an “Air Warden” breaks in, informing the attendees of an imminent German air attack, and instructing everyone to return immediately to their homes.

Mrs. Miniver and her new, sweet, young, new daughter-in-law set off for home, during which, as a result of heavy aeronautical strafing, the young daughter-in-law is struck by shrapnel, hangs on for a few minutes, and then dies.

I dread the moment when she “gets it”, even though there is no blood, or any apparent great pain involved.  Compared with the gratuitous splatter of today’s movies, the wounded woman’s response to her injury feels less like someone being penetrated with flying shrapnel than like someone accidentally sitting on a thumbtack.

There’s a surprised, “Oh!”, some final moments, and she’s gone.

Tame as it is, however, I still find the scene excruciating to sit through.  Though on this viewing, I am mightily determined to try.

In our bedtime routine, Dr. M falls asleep with the television playing, while I struggle to do the same, though my preference is to fall asleep to the natural sounds of the deepening night.  On this occasion, as she has not as yet dropped off – after which it is okay to turn off the TV – I am confined to lie there, listening the tony dronings of Mrs. Miniver, moving inexorably to a moment I would greatly prefer not to experience.

I instruct myself to fall asleep before it happens.  But I can’t, partly, because the TV is playing.  But also because I am anticipatorily distressed by what I know is inevitably on its way. 




This is exactly what I do not want to hear.  And there’s nothing I can do about it.  Because it’s coming.

I instruct myself to relax, reminding myself that I am not that impressionable kid anymore.  Also who knows?  Maybe Dr. M will fall asleep first, and I can turn it off before it happens. 

No such luck.  She’s enjoying the movie.  Because of that – and, because I am unwilling to explain why – the option of changing the channel is unavailable to me. 

There is no way around it.  I will have to “go the distance”, and, like the Brits in the “Blitz”, I must steel myself to that certainty.

Mrs. Miniver moves inexorably along.  They are announcing the “Flower Awards”, which I know comes directly before “The Moment.”  I can feel my heartbeat speeding up.  I try to get it under control, reminding myself “It’s only a movie”, it is (comparatively) not that bad, and that I’ve gone through it before and it didn’t kill me.

After some controlled yoga breathing, my heartbeat returns to a regular ba-bump.  But then the “Air Warden” breaks into the “Awards Ceremony”, informing the attendees of an imminent German air attack, and instructing everyone to return immediately to their homes.  

My heartbeat is racing once again.

I am counting the seconds, now aware that it’s going to happen, and that somehow, I am going to have to get through it. 

Okay, fine.  I’m resigned.  Bring it on.  I’m a big boy.  I can handle it.    

They get in the car.  I hear the car doors slam shut.  I hear the ignition turned on…

And I’m up, sweating, out of bed, and racing out of the bedroom, not to the lobby – our house is not equipped with a lobby – but to solace and protection of my nearby office.

From eight, to sixty-eight.

I have not changed a bit.