Friday, May 29, 2015

"Why They Won"

In both hockey and basketball, they are currently winding up the playoffs.  Sometime in June – long after their seasons should naturally have been over but the leagues’ insatiable hunger for money requires them to play forever – there will be a winner, after which the players will be interviewed, the questions to them primarily related to how they did it.

I believe I am a moderately knowledgeable sports fan.  But, though I have watched my fair share of championship encounters, I can rarely ascertain what exactly it was that led to one team’s prevailing over the other.  Unless it’s a blowout, in which case I just assume that the winning team was better.  It is noteworthy, however, that even under those circumstances, that explanation is never offered by the winning team’s players.

“Why did we win?  Weren’t you watching the game?  They sucked!

You never hear that.  More likely, it’s…

“They’re a good team.  We just peaked at the right moment.”

I imagine they say that stuff out of respect for the other team, though their responses show minimal respect for the viewership, who had just witnessed the shellacking with their own eyes and knew that “peaking at the right moment” was hardly the determinative factor. 

I am thinking more about a confrontation between two evenly matched adversaries, where the winning team pulls it out by the slightest of margins.  In an effort to comprehend what exactly that takes, let us examine the responses most frequently articulated by the players on the winning team, rationalizing why they won (accompanied by the parenthetical rebuttals of a player, utterly bewildered by the reasons that his team lost.)

“We stuck to the ‘Game Plan.’  And it led us to victory.”

(“We stuck to the ‘Game Plan.’  And it led us to defeat!”)

“We left it out on the field.”

(“Where do you think we left it – at Burger King?)

“We have a lot of great guys on this team.”

(“Our team full of great guys.  Except for one guy.  But he happens to be our best player.”)
“We busted our butts out there.”)

"We busted our butts out there."

(“We busted our butts and our humps.   We actually busted more stuff than they did!”)

“We play the game ‘The Right Way.’”

(“Like we play it ‘The Wrong Way’?  Okay, once I dribbled the basketball with my nose.  But I was just kidding around.”)

“I give credit to my Dad.  He always pushed me to excel.”

(“My Dad pushed me to excel.  Until my mother called the police.”)

“We committed ourselves from the first day of Training Camp.”

(“We did too.  Except for that day when it was really hot.  Could that one day have really made all the difference?”) 

“I always dreamed about winning the championship.”

(“I did too.  All right, not always.  Sometimes, I dreamed about girls.  But I'll bet they did too.")

“We gave it a hundred-and-ten percent.”

(“Okay, there you got me.  We only gave it a hundred-and-seven percent.  We kicked it up near the end – We gave it a hundred-and-twelve percent.  I don’t know, I guess a steady hundred-and-ten beats an intermittent hundred-and-twelve.”) 

Okay, that’s enough meaningless quotes, although I am certain there are more of them.  Including, “The Good Lord was on our side”, which I don’t want to get into, because, “Believer” or not, it is disturbing to imagine a Supreme Being who would choose to take time off from ruling over the Universe to root for a specific sports team.  I’m just…staying out of that whole thing.

Listening to the un-illuminating, post-game commentary, I cannot help thinking that, deep down, the winning players may not actually know why they won.  So they say the things that make sense because they won, things that the losing players could just as easily have said but they would not have made sense because they lost.

“We left it out on the field.”

“And you still lost?

“Yeah.  Go figure.”

The winners won.  Though it seems possible they are not entirely sure why.  So they say stuff that would have been equally appropriate for the losers to say, but they don’t, owing to its inconsistency with the outcome.

Who knows? 

Maybe the winning players do know why they won. 

They just don’t want to tell me.

Too paranoid?


But that does not mean it’s wrong.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Everyone's 'On' In Los Angeles (Cont'd)

I intended to write today’s post yesterday, but yesterday’s introduction meandered out of control, becoming an entire blog post of its own.  Looking back at it today, I can no longer see the connection that made me think it was appropriate as an introduction.

I thought you might like a reminder of who you’re dealing with.

Anyway, the delay provided me with a more suitable introduction, so it’s good.  I just have to make sure it doesn’t meander out of control.

During – what I call exercise but actual exercisers would call “a casual stroll” along the beach walking path – I passed a stone-faced gentleman, exhibiting the coloration and bone structure of an American Indian, who, using an empty, five-gallon, plastic, bottled-water container as a drum, was beating out the distinctive rhythms of his ancestry, or so it sounded to my admittedly uneducated ear.

My initial reaction to this impromptu free concert was,

“That is so cool!”

My quickly following second reaction was,

“Do you think he’s auditioning?”

To the people who do not live here, my response may reaction inexplicably cynical.  But in Los Angeles, unlike perhaps anywhere else in the world, life appears to proceed on concurrent strata, one, involving “What you do”, the other, the possibility of being “discovered” doing it.

Because it’s happened.  Not often, perhaps, but demonstrably more often than it happens in Poughkeepsie, a place-name I pulled randomly out of the air, representing virtually anywhere that’s not here, but with the advantage of sounding distinctly “Poughkeepsie”-ish.

I’m sure that anywhere a parent has a cute baby, strangers suggest they should put that baby in commercials.  The difference is, here, the stranger’s suggestion comes with a business card, soffering professional representation as a “Baby Agent.”

And that’s when you’re not even trying. 

A Los Angelino may have an avocational interest in performing in a play.  The thing is, there is no “Amateur Theater” in Los Angeles.  Everything is a “Showcase.”  Grownups, children, a “fashion show” for Chihuahuas – a producer pops up, screaming –

I want that Chihuahua!

The  result is that, in a city where there are no amateurs, only “professionals-in-waiting”, the joy of “performing for the fun of it” materially disappears.  Taking exhilaration, exuberance and the sheer pleasure of performing along with it.

Which is sad.  In my opinion.  Though not in the opinions of thousands of aspiring hopefuls who move here annually, believing that a chance encounter with the right person could lead to the fulfillment of a dream.  Which will never happen in Sheboygan.  (Selected for the same reason as Poughkeepsie.)

Fine.  But still.  (And here comes the payoff.)

A contrasting pair of examples:

We are visiting our cabin in Michiana Shores, (Indiana, but it is directly across the street from one-hour-later Michigan.)  Within walking distance is the Dunes Summer Theatre, where we have enjoyed numerous productions, mounted and performed by the local citizenry.  Our all time favorite:  Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

It was sensational.  The staging, the costumes, the voices.  But most memorably,

The spirit.

The theater reverberated with an energetic excitement.  The amateurs were “on fire” participating in that show.

Now as luck would have it, the very next evening, I found myself in a theater in New York, watching a production of a musical called The Life, a certifiable Broadway hit, running for over a year and, in 1997, garnering ten Tony Award nominations and capturing two of them. 

What did I notice?

Professionalism.  A substantial budget.  Talented performers.

But no life.  (In The Life.)

And no spirit.

In my humble and unofficial evaluation, Michiana’s The Pirates of Penzance was unquestionably the superior production.

My point?  

As Joni Mitchell’s used to sing, “…well, something’s lost, but something’s gained…”

What’s lost:  The effervescent purity of performance.  What’s gained:  The possibility of big-time opportunity.

In L.A., one of those options has been permanently deleted from the menu.  How do I feel about that?  In a show biz “Company Town”, it’s inevitable. 

I am thinking about going out for lunch today.  And if I do, there is little doubt I will try to be funny with the waitress.

You never know. 

The guy at the next table could be looking for a humorous old person with a wonky eye.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Everyone's 'On' In Los Angeles"

I can feel a meandering introduction coming on…

And… here we go.

I recently read – actually listened to on CD but believe me the difference is negligible – a book entitled “Where Nobody Knows Your Name” written by John Feinstein, chronicling the experiences of a handful of “Triple A” baseball personnel – mostly players, but also managers, an announcer and an umpire.  For those who don’t know, “Triple A” is the highest level of baseball’s minor leagues.  Immediately above “Triple A” is the top-of-the-totem-pole Major Leagues.

The difference between the Major League level and the level immediately below it in “Triple A” is astronomical, starting with the salaries.  The most any “Triple A” player mentioned in the book made was $12,000 a month for a five-month season, totaling $60,000.  (The majority of “Triple A” players make considerably less than that.) 

By contrast, the minimum salary in Major League baseball – the amount no Major League ballplayer can be contractually paid less than – is $507,500. 

Quoting the memorable baseball movie A League of Their Own,

“That would be more, then, wouldn’t it?

Almost ten times more.  For playing exactly the same game.  Only, instead of Los Angeles, it’s Spokane.

My thoughts concerning the gaping disparities between the two levels – and the even greater disparities at baseball’s lower levels – the players in the “(single) A-Ball” team of which I was once part owner received $800 a month – led me to wonder about the gradational situation in my own line of endeavor, and it occurred to me thinking about it, that in, specifically, writing, performing and directing of dramas and comedies made for the networks – i.e., the Major Leagues of television – there are actually no comparable minor leagues whatsoever.

For aspirants of such undertakings, it is either “The Big Time”, or it’s nothing.  They make no sitcoms in Rochester (where the “Triple A” Red Wings play baseball.)  Nor hour dramatic series in Biloxi (home of baseball’s the “Double A” Shuckers.) 

Such, and other small-market, venues may well serve as “training grounds” for news anchors, sportscasters and weather personnel, but not for writers, actors and directors.   There is no place to effectively “work your way up.”

How then do you acquire the big jobs? 
Writers submit spec scripts they write sitting in their houses (or secretly at their “Day Jobs”), hoping somebody like them.  Actors come out here and give it a shot, while simultaneously rattling off “Today’s Specials” at accommodating eateries that will allow them to take off for auditions.  As for directors… I have no idea how they get their jobs.  I think you just have to know somebody.  (Not being facetious.  Sitcom’s legendary director James Burrows got his start with the MTM organization because his dad, the equally legendary Abe Burrows, had once worked with Mary Tyler Moore.)

The primary difference between the two equally long-shot enterprises – show biz and baseball – is the availability of gradational strata. 

In baseball, you can advance through the levels, and if you don’t make it to the top, or, as happens in Feinstein’s book, you temporarily – or for an extended stretch – make it but are subsequently “sent down”, you can at least, in that situation, remain in the game. 

In show business, if you don’t make it to the top, and the top, in the above-designated areas, is all there is, you are – forgive me if this sounds harsh – a chartered accountant, trying out for the part of “Nicely-Nicely” in the annual synagogue production of Guys & Dolls.

In show biz, you either make it in the “Big Time”, or, as insiders coldly but accurately describe it, you are “out of the business.”

Is that sad?  Perhaps, it is.  Or, perhaps, it isn’t.

In baseball, you can hold onto your dream long after it makes any reasonable sense that you should.  In the meantime – and here’s the “perhaps” that, perhaps, isn’t sad  – you get to continue participating in the game that you love.  

In show business, you either make it, or you immediately – without sacrificing a substantial portion of your life – move on to other things.  But – and here’s the “perhaps” that, perhaps, is sad – you may regret your decision not to go for it, or not to stay with it, forever.

Even getting cast as “Nicely-Nicely” can be a double-edged sword. 

You stop the show at Beth Israel, belting out a memorable rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat.”  That could easily feel exhilarating.  Or it could feel,

“Man, I could have made it.”

Which situation between baseball’s lingering possibilities and show biz’s “You’re either in or you’re out” is better?  “Dealer’s Choice.”  Although, as I have oft been known to say, “You are who you are, and you do what you do.”  So whatever your decision, regrets are therefore inappropriate.

You were who you were.  And you did what you did. 

You know what?

My meandering introduction infected the entire post, leading to my coming to an end without getting to what I was originally planning to talk about.  The post’s title – which I am too lazy to alter – doesn’t even make sense now.

Oh, well.  I’ll write today’s blog post tomorrow.

Unlike show folk and ballplayers, I am certain – barring “Acts of Whoever” – that I’ll be back.  How do I know that?

I have an ironclad contract with myself.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"The Real Reason I Could Never Have Worked On Saturday Night Live"

Over the years, I have received sympathy for missing the opportunity to work on the original incarnation of Saturday Night Live.  There are a lot of reasons I turned the job down, some of them revealing the less admirable attributes of my character, the retrospectively most foolish of those reasons being that I did not think the series was going to last.

Those reasons aside – both foolish and embarrassing – there was another reason for saying “No” to Lorne Michaels’ invitation to move to New York and join, and, it was insinuated, even head up, the writing staff of Saturday Night Live. 

And I did not realize it until recently, when I was being interviewed on a podcast and I heard myself enunciate it, confirming my long-standing belief that I do not know what I think until I hear what I say.

The best reason for my not writing on Saturday Night Live:

I was temperamentally unsuited for the job.

This insight occurred to me when I was explaining to my podcast interviewer Brian something most people probably already know, which is that, on Saturday Night Live, the sketches are all written in one day. 

They pitch ideas on Monday.  The ideas that are approved are written, in a marathon session between Monday night and Tuesday night.   Rehearsals begin on Wednesday, so, except for minor polishes and adjustments, that Monday-Tuesday period is basically it for the writing.

Why was I ill-suited for that unavoidably breakneck-speed writing process?  Do you remember yesterday’s post?

I parse syllables.

That is all you need to know.

For the first time – during that podcast – I realized how excruciatingly frustrating it would have been for me, watching a performance one of my sketches, and suddenly aware of a writing change that would make what I was looking at immeasurably better.

There I am, witnessing an imperfect version of my work unfolding in front of me, and I can’t do anything about it!

This morning, on one of my now “Thursday Walks”, my mind unencumbered because nothing happens on my Thursday walks, I imagined, with alarming clarity, the following scenario:

It is 1975.  I am on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live.  The cast is performing the show’s pre-“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” sketch written by yours truly, for the first and only time.

The sketch’s premise?

It is five minutes before “Armageddon.”  An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, its colliding impact certain to blow the planet to smithereens.

An engineer – played by Dan Aykroyd – has over the years, been sneaking spaceship parts home and constructing an “Escape Vehicle” in his garage, as he explains it, “Just in case.”

And here we are – “Mr. Prescient.”  The world is coming to an end, and he is the only person who’s prepared for it.

It is now time to make their move.  Aykroyd assembles his household – his wife (played by Jane Curtin), their two teenaged children (played by John Belushi and Gilda Radner), their voluptuous Swedish au pair (played by a voluptuous Swedish “extra”) and an unobtrusive lodger, renting an apartment in their basement.

The confident patriarch is about to push the button and fly the family to safety.  He pushes the button.  There is a recognizable “Click.”  No flames emerging from the bottom of the spacecraft, and no “Lift-off.”

The father is perplexed by this mysterious “failure to launch.”  He makes furious adjustments, each met by a progressively nerve-rattling,


The wife sardonically – “Nice try, Einstein” – berates her husband’s futility.  In his defense, he explains, “I’m a “Mechanical Engineer.  I constructed the tail.”

Explaining that she is “handy around the house”, the wife volunteers to try, her suggestion garnering misogynistic retorts from her flying failure of a husband.  Supported by a “Well I could hardly do worse” rationale, the wife assumes the “Command Position”, and she gives it a shot.


The teenaged boy is afforded his turn to start the spaceship.  (“He reads a lot of Kurt Vonnegut.”)


Followed by the teenaged daughter, because “What have we got to lose?”

No “Click.”

They are now officially going backwards.

It is thirty seconds to “Kablooey!”

The confessions being to pour out – emotional unburdenings before their inevitable demise.

The husband admits to an affair with the voluptuous Swedish au pair.  The wife confesses to an affair with the husband’s brother, pointing triumphantly to their son and revealing,

“Jeremy is not yours!

The son (Belushi) blurts, “Oh yeah?  Well that’s nothing!  His older sister calls out, “Jeremy!” and he immediately goes silent.  Surreptitiously, they reach out for each other’s hand, exchanging a revelatory squeeze.

“None of that matter anymore,” laments the father, “because we cannot get this fakakta spaceship off the ground.”

Out of the shadows, the till-then silent lodger, his face deeply buried in a book, speaks up.

I can do it.”

The camera closes in on the lodger, revealing the face of that week’s SNL “Guest Host” –

Mercury Sevenastronaut John Glenn.

Who, of course, does exactly what is necessary, saving everyone from destruction.

As the sketch is unfolding prior to the “Surprise Reveal”, I am standing behind the cameras beside Lorne, who watches the proceedings on the monitor.  Suddenly, it hits me.   

“Oh, my God!  It’s not ‘I can do it.”  It’s “I think I can do it”!

Lorne immediately “Shushes” me, as I had blurted my illumination while the show was being performed.

“I need him to change that line!” I exclaim, my voice now under control, in volume, if not in intensity.

Without thinking about it, I make a distinct move towards the stage, intending, in my moment of unscheduled insanity, to interrupt the performance, and whisper the improved version of the line into John Glenn’s ear so he can do it right, and not close to right but not right enough.

Lorne immediately grabs me, preventing me from stepping in front of the cameras, simultaneously whisper-shouting, 

“What are you doing?

“I thought of a better version of the line!”

To which he replies, encapsulating the reason I could never have worked on Saturday Night Live,

“You idiot!  It’s too late!

Dissolve Forward, and I am at the SNL after-party, nursing a Heineken, mumbling, “‘I think I can do it.’  Why didn’t I think of that before?”

I fantasize an emboldened “alternate Earl”, at the strategic moment, eluding Lorne’s control, walking directly onto the stage, and, to the surprise of both the audience and the actors, first, sincerely apologizing, and then explaining my intrusion, insisting that the line about to be delivered be replaced by the better version of the line before allowing them to continue with the performance.

That might actually have been funny, a “Breaking the ‘Fourth Wall’” interruption by an obsessed comedy writer, determined at all costs to get everything “exactly right.”

A “Memorable Television Moment”, perhaps.  The problem was, what would I have done the following week,

When the same situation happened again?