Monday, February 29, 2016

"An Unexpected Change Of Direction"

I was intending to write a blog post about pants. 

Then an email arrived from Jim Dodd, by his courageous admission, “a loyal fan”, whose curiosity was piqued to the point of comment after reading a post verbosally entitled, “Why I Prefer This Kind Of Writing Instead Of Another Kind Of Writing Which Since I Do Not Prefer It I Do Not Attempt”. 

And I wrote recently about keeping it simple. 

Jim writes:

“I really like your insights, Earl.  This is a very interesting post and made me think a lot.”

I did not need to include that remark, as it is unrelated to Jim’s question.  I put it in because I like to hear – and promote – compliments.  Plus, I am about to be “called out” on something, and I thought, “Oh, well.  At least I got a compliment, so I might as well throw it in.”  So I did.

Okay, here comes the “call out”:

“… But when you say you prefer writing non-fiction, I am confused.  It seems to me that all of your previous writing (pre-“Just Thinking”) is fiction.  Mary Richards, Louie De Palma, Marshall Sam Best and the others weren’t real and you were able to make interesting and funny stories about them.  Even your “Cellmate Confessions” post on February 5 was a fictitious dialog between two guys in a jail cell.”

The implication of Jim’s observation can be summarized in one word:


What can I tell you, Jim?  You’re right.

Reverberating Inevitable Implication:  (“If he’s wrong about that, what else is he wrong about?”  This once led to some “big doin’s” surrounding the issue of the earth revolving around the sun.  But not here.  I am simply giving up.)   

It is indisputable that I wrote fiction for a living, though claiming vociferously post facto that I do not choose to write fiction. 

I am smiling.  But it is a smile of cornered-rat desperation.  As I have no immediate answer to this transparent contradiction.  

I am truly and legitimately…


I don’t know.  What can I tell you?  Not as an exculpatory explanation – there isn’t any.  But to at least to somehow illuminate why I have long held this erroneous position.

Jim actually hit on a qualifying descriptive, that, if I chose, would get me off the hook, and this post would be over post haste.

“But when you say you prefer to write non-fiction…”

If you’re looking for “simple”, there it is.  I do “prefer” to write non-fiction.  I did not do so, because, surrendering personal preference to career pragmatism, becoming less mathematician than accountant, I wrote what the people who hired me required.  Not that it was a conscious decision.  They just showed me the money – plus I had always loved television – and off I went.  Leaving my unconscious preference behind. 

This one is a considerably tougher sell.  But the characters I originally wrote for?  In some manner of self-hypnotic deception, I actually believed they were real.  Or at least “real.”  I went down to the soundstage and there they were.  I simply put words in their mouths.  But they were actual people.  People who sometimes asked, “Could you put funnier words in my mouth?”  Fictional characters do not berate your abilities.  Do they?

Understand, also, that the unequivocal intention of sitcoms is to be as funny as possible within the “reality level” of the series.  (Different on Taxi than on Laverne and Shirley.)  The writer’s eye was consistently on the “funny” ball.  You conceived the funniest stories, and wrote the funniest jokes you could think of as structural building blocks for those stories, leading to the funniest resolution of those stories you could possibly imagine.

Every episode was, in effect, a “Funny House”, assembled with the funniest elements at your disposal.  “Funny” was our mandate and our mantra.  “Fiction” or “non fiction” was totally irrelevant to the conversation.


Or “still”… (I am not sure which… It could actually be “nevertheless.”  Or none of the above.)

When I got the chance to create my own series, along with trying to make them as funny as I knew how, I would also ground them in as much situational reality as I could muster.  For example, one of the more quoted jokes from the Best of the West pilot involved Sam’s new-to-the-West wife Elvira sweeping the floor, and when husband Sam, engaged in serious discussion with his son Daniel, asks her to stop, she replies,

“Sorry, Sam.  I just can’t seem to get the dirt off this floor.”

To which Sam illuminatingly replies,

“Elvira, it’s a dirt floor.”

That came from my research.  Many pioneer structures had dirt floors.  Grounding my joke – is my point – in a non-fictional reality. 

That was always my preference – hilarious non-fiction.  In my short-lived series Family Man, I wrote eleven scripts, all eleven of those scripts’ stories emanating from personal experience, as either parent or as a child.  We used my actual house as the “exterior”, and a recreation of our “interior” as the living room.  When decorating my “stepdaughter’s” bedroom, I invited my actual stepdaughter to come down and adjudicate its authenticity.  (Incurring the wrath of the professional set decorator, who did not appreciate taking direction from a child.  Still, it was important to me that I do that.)

There is apparently a “blind spot” in my imagination.  I cannot make up jokes out of “thin air.”  Well, I can, because I learned how.  But watching them now in retrospect, they scream “embarrassingly formulaic.”  My best jokes, the ones that remain resonantly funny, derive from assiduous research or personal experience.

That includes the fabricated dialogue between two felons sitting in a Hawaiian prison.  Of course, it’s made up.  But the idea would never have occurred to me, if we had not thought long and hard about using a California “Handicapped” placard in Honolulu and if, God forgive me, I had not loaned forbidden movies “screeners” to my children.  I am aware that fiction is often grounded in truth.  But this is different.  Though I can apparently not adequately explain how.  Maybe just that the message is more important to me than the medium.  I mean, are these ridiculous statutes, or what?   

I prefer writing non-fiction – based on experience or some factual underpinning – because, as I have written elsewhere, it provides, for me, necessary boundaries to my literary excursions.  Plus – and I know this is silly – I would feel dishonest making things up from the get-go up and trying to persuade the readership that they’re true.  Fearing imminent arrest for “counterfeiting reality.”

Did I write fiction my entire career? 

Of course.

Not once, however, did that ever occur to me.

I was simply doing my job.

Thanks, Jim.  I feel better having finally come clean.  Thanks also for pushing my surely-scintillating “pants” story to another day.

Friday, February 26, 2016

"A Short Blog Post"

A surprising revelation.

Right there, in black and white.

And, as you will understand when you hear it,

It was a mighty bitter pill to swallow.

I am reading a “Book-On-CD” called Waterloo (by Bernard Cornwell) concerning the monumental battle fought between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. 

At the point I had come to, Napoleon had just escaped exile in Elba and, his supporters rallying around him, was proceeding to Paris, to regain his position as Emperor of France and conqueror of Europe.

The author describes the protagonist thusly:

“He was not a tall man, measuring a slightly than five-foot seven.”

“Holy Cow!” I exclaimed.

I’m five-foot seven flat!

Meaning that Napoleon Bonaparte,

That much-joked-about historical “Short Person”…

Was taller than I am!

I think I am going to lie down.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Booster Shot"

Every day I try to write simply.

And every day I fail.

I almost changed that sentence to “And every day I invariably fall short.”  And in that last sentence changing “I almost” to “I came ‘this close.’”  Further consideration may well have produced “I felt a powerful pressure…”  If only for the alliteration. 

So you see what I’m up against.

All three of those options would have been fine.  (I came “this close” to saying “adequate”.  And, upon further consideration, “acceptable.”)  But all three are not equally simple.

I shall summarize the reasons simplicity is so hard to achieve.  (Or “so difficult to pull off.” Or “such an elevated bar to surpass.”)  I’ll do it fast, ‘cause very little of this makes me look good.  (“Reflects my personal attributes in a positive perspective.”)

Why the anathema to simplicity – AKA – “Too many words” or – more finely still – too many syllables?

A Partial List:  (or delineation)

I want to be accurate.

I want to be colorful.

I want to be evocative.

I want to be “perfect.”

I want to be memorable.

To name just…

I want to be idiosyncratically stylistic.

I want to be admired and respected.

I want to look smart.

… eight reasons…

I want my writing to have “weight.”

I want to extend my hold on your attention.

I want to stretch out this effort so it will appear more significant.

… okay, eleven reasons why it’s difficult to write simply.  (Or “… why writing simply is an virtually unreachable objective.”  Or “… why writing simply’s faced with challenging impediments.”)

One of which – arriving belatedly to the litany – is that I may also be a soupcon overeducated.

For me, the only antidote to overwriting is the reminder:

“Don’t do that anymore.”

And that reminder is wrapped most often in the lyrics of a song. 

Which, if it’s lucky, will be accompanied by a compatibly simple arrangement.

Close your eyes, and listen to this song.  (You may have to go on YouTube to hear it, but it is well worth the exertion.)

And then answer me this:

Is there anything in it you would change?

That’s when they got it right.  (In this case Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold.)

When you wouldn’t change a thing.

The repeated reminder: 

Keep it simple.

These guys did it.

And look how it turned out.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"The Eternal Dilemma Of Special Treatment"

Some people, inexplicably, hate redheads.  “Gingers”, they call them.  Another pejorative, I cannot even bring myself to mention (although you can look it up.)  There is also “Rangas”, after orangutans, or, more specifically their color-matching posteriors.  Sorry about that.  I am simply passing this along. 

My primary prejudice, though not follicular in nature, to an outside observer might seem equally inexplicable. 

I despise, with a power that gets my innards churning to the point that I am sometimes required to lie down and take a nap…

The practice of special treatment for anyone.

Holding an even greater inimicality for the offspring of the wealthy.  Who, from their earliest moments, are the unceasing beneficiaries of special treatment – invariably without their even noticing it – having lifted nary a finger to have earned their charmed lives and pampered existences.

Let me be clear that I am not a Communist.  The distribution of income in this country may be far from equitable – ballplayers accrue incomes that are astonishing, not just to toilers in less lucrative lines of endeavor but to former ballplayers as well.  I have no difficulty with such disparities, if there are accomplishments to back it up. 

You earned it honestly?  Enjoy your five hundred-dollar haircut.  (Hopefully distinguishable from Supercuts.)  

When you have a prejudice, it is important, I believe, if you are unable to overcome it, to at least notice that it’s there, and to attempt to keep your responses when your prejudicial buttons are pushed conscientiously under control. 

And, of course, using my specific prejudice as an example, you must do your darnedest to eschew special treatment yourself.  (Note To Myself:  Try more frequently to employ the word “eschew”.  It seems to immeasurably elevate the discourse.)

The problem is, as with many prejudices one is struggling to overcome, one rushes sometimes to the opposite extreme.


Early in my career – although I had experienced success – regular work – and recognition – an Emmy Award and another nomination in two tries – I was invited to the filming of a new pilot, written and produced by my immediate bosses at the Mary Tyler Moore Company, Ed. Weinberger and the late and beloved Stan Daniels.     
It was the “hiatus” vacation period when shows are traditionally out of production.  (Which is also the time they make pilots.)  I had the day before returned from an extended vacation to Tahiti.  As I headed toward the studio, I happily reveled in my incredible good fortune.

Yesterday, I was basking in tropical splendor.  Tonight, I was a guest at a possibly historic television event!  (It wasn’t, but it could have been.)

There were no tickets for the filming.  It was “First come, first served”, in a gallery with a limited capacity.  I found the stage they were shooting in, I went to the end of the line, and I waited.  Maybe forty-five minutes.  Passing the time humming Tahitian melodies I had been regaled with on my recent excursion to paradise.

My Gauguinian reverie dissolved with somebody suddenly calling my name.  I open my eyes, and it’s Stan.

Wondering why I was standing in the line.

“I am trying to get in,” was my answer.  Or something equally transparent.

Stan immediately extracted me from the queue, escorting me straight into the soundstage, to a “Reserved” front row seat in the gallery.  Somehow, I was supposed to know that that was “Standard Procedure” for a person in my position.  I felt honored simply to be invited.  It never crossed my mind it was unnecessary for me to stand in line.

Was that an excessive reaction to my antipathy to special treatment?  I don’t think so.  Though my superiors got an incredulous chuckle at my expense.

Example Two:

I am in London. 

Once again, I am standing in an extremely long line, this time, outside the House of Parliament, where at the appointed moment, the number of people who will fit in the gallery will be invited inside for “Question Period”, a British parliamentary tradition during which members of the House of Commons question the sitting Prime Minister, often hilariously and extremely pointedly.

Today’s session looks to be additionally contentious, as the Prime Minister had announced that he would go back on his campaign promise not to “top off” (increase) college tuition fees, incurring an angry reaction, not just from the opposition party but from the Prime Minister’s own party as well.  There are reports of the possible chance of a “No Confidence” motion, meaning that the government could actually be toppled because of this controversy.  (Which the English laughingly pronounce controversy.)

All in all, it was “Big doin’s”, and I wanted desperately to get in there and witness the fireworks.

In line immediately in front of me was a, perhaps, eleven year-old girl and her accompanying parents, who had connections in government, and who, like me, were waiting patiently to get in.  Being garrulous, bored and colonially likable, I struck up a conversation with my proximate “line-mates”.   Marked by amiable banter, the ensuing interval passing quickly and enjoyably.

Moments before the scheduled “Door Opening” for “Question Period”, a man suddenly appeared – not dissimilar to the Stan Daniels situation – plucked the politically “connected” family out of the line, insuring their inclusion in the gallery by taking them in before everyone else.

As the family headed away, I caught sight of the young girl looking seriously in my direction.  I wondered if, at the last minute, she might tug sharply on her mother’s sleeve and exclaim,

“Mummy, can we ask that nice Canadian fellow join us?  He is ever so funny.  And he did so want to get in.”

It did not happen. 

Though, to my dismay and disturbance, I was secretly hoping that it would.

For shame and for stupid.

There was a line full of people out there.

Who exactly did I think I was?