Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Fooled Again"

Which takes place with embarrassing frequency.

In the fall of 1968, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my brother (and his family) and Lorne Michaels, a then comedy-writing team toiling as “Bottom of the Credits” writers on the short-lived The Beautiful Phyllis Diller (variety) Show, on NBC.

When I was graciously invited to join the writing staff for lunch at a favored destination, “Chow’s Kosherama”, a combination deli-Chinese food restaurant for groups who were unable to reach a consensus on what they wanted to eat, I was immediately taken by the erudition of the gathered assemblage.  The veteran writers spoke expertly about art, literature, Raquel Welch.  (Who would be “guesting” the on following week’s show.  Plus, I needed one more example for the list.)  (He said, sheepishly.)

Had I not been impressed by these writers’ iconic credits – which included I Love Lucy and The Jack Benny Program – I’d have been bowled over by their wide-ranging knowledgeability.  Being in their presence was like auditing a college seminar of “all profesors.”

Then, returning to their offices, they sat down at their typewriters and wrote “fat” jokes for Kate Smith. 

(Or, more precisely, about Kate Smith.  Judging by her startled response, she had apparently never looked in a mirror.  (Adding to the ignominious litany.) 

This glaring disconnect of intellect was troubling to me.  It’s like they “thought smart” and “wrote stupid.”  I wondered how exactly that felt.  Is one part of their brain going, “For shame!” while another part goes, “That ‘for shame’ got us a swimming pool.”) 

Did I ever ask them about it?  Hey, they just paid for my lunch.

So that was me, ignorant, or blind to reality, once again.  (Of a career I secretly wanted to participate it.)

Writing for television is a job.  You do what you have to do.   (Saving your penetrating insights till you are officially “off duty.”)  I have always suspected “Tough Guy” actors like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum continually got into fights because they believed that the profession of acting was inherently “girly” and they had to demonstrate to the world that they weren’t.  Maybe it was a similar process with sensitive comedy writers.  “You see?  We know stuff.  We just don’t use any of it at work.”

This phenomenon is hardly unusual.  Every job has its obligatory requirements, from which personal deviation is seriously discouraged.

SURGEON:  “When I ‘close up’, I like to stitch in my initials.”

TRIAL LAWYER:  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,rather than a tedious speech, I shall deliver my ‘Opening Argument’ in song.”

AIRLINE PILOT:  “Flying coast-to-coast is so boring, I like to throw in a “Loop-the-Loop” over Kansas to keep myself fresh and give the passengers something to talk about when they land.”

Those people would be fired. 

As would any comedy writer, inserting “The Hegelian Dialectic” into a Gilligan’s Island episode.  A joke writer’s unwavering concern is to get the biggest possible laughs, as exemplified by a blistering critique comedian Red Skelton reputedly delivered to his head writer: 

“There are too many words before ‘chopped liver.’”

I thought – no, there was no thinking involved – I reflexively assumed that writing was different, maybe because I started out as an “Opinion Writer” in the paper, leading me to believe there was an inevitable connection between who you were and what you wrote. 

There isn’t.

At least not in television.  Back then, or, arguably, even today.  With the notable exception of political commentary shows, where, the absurdities of our leaders, showcased for deserving ridicule emerge from the (seeming) uncensored sensibilities of the writers.

Comedy 101:

Comedies, first and foremost, involve jokes.  For the more respected shows, those jokes are deeply embedded in character or in laserly advancing the episode’s storyline.  You are not paid to air your existential insights and learned opinions.  That’s “Pastrami-and Chow Mein” Time.  For business, it’s “Just stick to the jokes.” 

Seinfeld was a sometimes exception.  Not just that “George Costanza” was the sitcomical stand-in for Larry David, and because they paused the plotline for occasional musings about “How often do you trim your toenails?”  The show at times also spoke out explosively for all of us.

My favorite example, which made me – and from the sound of it, the Seinfeld studio audience – squeal with sublime ecstasy and delight:

A telemarketer calls Jerry, in the midst of some conversation with his buddies.

JERRY:  (INTO PHONE)  “This isn’t a good time.”

TELEMARKETER:  “When would be a good time to call back, sir?”

“I have an idea.  Why don’t you give me your home number and I’ll call you back later.”

“Umm, we’re not allowed to do that.”

“Oh, I guess because you don’t want strangers calling you at home.”

“Umm, no.”

“Well, now you know how I feel.”

It says it all.  “A universal annoyance.”  And boy, did Jerry tell them!

I wanted to write entire shows like that.  No jokes.  Just interesting “noticings” and (hopefully humorous) responses.  Maybe that’s not possible.  But has it ever actually been tried?

Intermittently, yes.  (See:  Previous example.)  Here’s one that reflects me, from an episode entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

A doctor treating Ted Baxter for a mild heart attack assures him,

“With proper diet and exercise, you can live to be a hundred.”

To which Ted grumpily – as, arguably, I might – replies,

“Yeah?  And then what?”

Similar examples of this nature are few.  Normally, you think one way and you write another.  It’s hard not to wonder, sometimes,

“Where did I go?”

In a way, the lack of “personalizing material” is a curious omission.  Comedy stemming from shared experience can yield hilarious consequences.

I wonder why they don’t “go there” more often?

More importantly to this enterprise,

I wonder why I didn’t?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"What's Entertainment?"

It is not unusual for a person to think about people they care about.  But when you – by which I mean I – find myself thinking, as I did at a recent congenial dinner with a friend, about people I don’t care about, I know something other than what’s on the surface is going on, though I cannot for the life of me figure out what.  (Or what “for the life of me” means.)
I warmed up the conversational exchange with my traditional pre-Oscar musing:

“I wonder how studio executives feel when none of their blockbusters get nominated for Oscars and the movies that do are seen by a comparatively paltry number of filmgoers?”  

Like I care about how studio executives feel.  Which by the way is “Super Duper!” since some of their movies – forgetting the kind of movies they are, but I’ll give you a hint; the “fourteen year-old boy” audience loves them – went through the box office roof.  Allowing those studios – via their subsidiaries – to invest in smaller pictures, regularly recognized by awards.

So it’s “Win-Win.”

They would proclaim. 

(Their vacuous “moneymakers” remaining embarrassments, except at studio shareholders’ meetings.)

I say, once – and beware of an old person starting a sentence with “once” – quality movies were also popular movies.  Now, studios have to settle for an unholy alliance betweem the smart brother making real movies and the dumb brother, producing theme-park fodder that rakes in a fortune.

Here comes the “bridge” in my thinking.  I like to alert my readers to the “turns.”  It’s like “Route Guidance” warning you of an upcoming “parked car on the shoulder.”

My next “I have definitely said this before” was that when I started in television, quality sitcoms were also commercially successful.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Cheers.  (And, forgive me.)  The Cosby Show.

So it is not impossible to pull off.  They just don’t do it anymore.  The Big Bang Theory, the top-rated television comedy, is fine.  But no one will ever mistake it for All In The Family or Barney Miller.  

That was “Hop” and “Skip.”  Now for the always accompanying “… and a jump.”

With skyrocketing viewing alternatives, the fragmented television landscape decrees smaller audiences for individual programs, bringing an inevitable acceptance of lower ratings.  No longer would a show, like my show Family Man, be cancelled with seventeen million viewers. 

The issue for me is,

“How small is small?”

Are these streaming programs actually “hits”, an accolade previously calculated by volume?  Or are they just darlings of the media, getting unmerited attention?  (The vaunted New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum regularly mines value from shows, like the recently reviewed The End of the F***ing World, that starts out, she explains, being a comedy that is “so cruel it doubles as an endurance test” which then evolves into “a convincing teenage romance”), programs of that nature that not only “Flyover Country” but trendy portions of Los Angeles have no idea are on television. 
The sensible response comes back that “A good show is a good show.  What difference does it make how many people are watching it?”

The show Frank’s Place then comes up, recently mentioned in reference to the passing of its creator, Hugh Wilson.  Frank’s Place.  Quality show.  Died in the ratings. 

Does that make it a bad show?

No.  But even in failure, Frank’s Place garnered millions of viewers, just not the, sufficient for the time, thirty million.  (Three networks.  The goal was collecting one third of the available audience.) 

I don’t think streaming outlets promote their ratings.  As with their conceptual predecessors Showtime and HBO, they are selling subscriptions, touting,  “You can’t see the show if you don’t ante up the subscriptional dough.”  (Or something more demonstrably artful.)

For streaming services, the “Name of the Game” is “unusual.”  (Risk averse networks, whose “business model” remains dependent on “Da Numbahs”, eschew the “unusual”, leaving “smart and quirky” to the technological “New Kids.”)

And here’s where I sound ancient.

I understand “The business model has changed”, “success” now computed by added subscriptions rather than audience ratings, which is an viable approach or they wouldn’t be doing it.  You can, apparently, make money producing these shows.  Even though, by earlier standards, almost nobody is watching.

But that’s “Business.”

The question is,

Isn’t at least one element of “artistic achievement” being able to attract a reasonable-sized audience, reaching a “critical mass” viewership via the show’s intrinsic ability to “connect”? 

Or is that an old-fashioned concept? 

That a hit show requires people.

Does the application of “good” now include no assessment of “popular” whatsoever? 
I’m just askin’ here.  (It feels bizarre, arguing this position.  I admire creativity.  And I come off sounding worrisomely like a mogul.)

I “get” that this is a “radically altered environment.” 

Still, I am left with the grumpy ungenerous question:

“What does it take to get cancelled around here?”

(When I got shot down with an audience of seventeen million.  And I never sold a film though they’re making crapola.  Yeah.  I guess it’s about that.)

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Not Just Elephants Never Forget"

At a recent breakfast with a good writer friend – the “good” describing both the writer and our friendship – he informed me that he had written a play about himself as a young writer embedded in the staff of idiosyncratic veterans.  And by “idiosyncratic” he meant borderline meshugah.  (Yiddish for crazy.  Although some of the writers were Irish.)

The following incident took place forty-two years ago, this summer.  So you know I can reliably nurture a grievance.
I told him it was a great idea for a play – a work is always more resonant when writing from personal experience.  I told myself – silently – that I could have written that play, having endured similar experiences early in my career.  The only difference between my good writer friend and me was that he did it and I didn’t.  Which would only bother me if I cared. 

Did I care?  At that moment, a little.  But truth be told, I’ve got bigger fish I have left unfried.

Besides, I prefer doing this.  You tell one story, and you go home, or if you are home, you go out.   A whole play?  That’s like seventy-six blog posts.  With the same characters, a compelling storyline and a blockbuster resolution. 

I lost confidence just writing those words.     

So here’s todays “one story” our conversation brought to mind.  Which I shall try to keep brief.  Yeah, right.  Two hundred and forty-one words, and I haven’t even begun yet.


After writing on two Lily Tomlin specials, which turned out…

“Move it along.”


I was a young writer on a Flip Wilson special, teamed up on the first day with a longtime, respected writer named Don, who was nineteen years my senior in age, and even more so in experience.  We had been given the “go-ahead” to write a sketch idea we’d come up with concerning a “Nature”-documentary filmmaker and his accompanying cameraman, assigned to wait for “as long as it takes” to “capture” some (likely apocryphal) exotic, miniscule insect emerging from its burrow.

We wrote it together.  It was pretty good.   A team of professional filmmakers, one an optimist, the other a pessimist, the pessimist railing against the excruciating boredom – because, after days of round-the-clock surveillance, the thing had not yet come out – and the optimist’s unshakable certainty – confident it eventually would.   

(You can guess which of those characters I brought brilliantly to life.)

To my surprise, after some initial jitters collaborating with an “Old Pro” – who was  twenty-five years younger than I am today – I found myself successfully pulling my weight.  I pitched a commendable share of jokes, a lot of which made it into the script.  (Don, understandably, being the final “arbiter of inclusion.”)

A brief but necessary digression.

Producer Lorne Michaels had this one idea for a show, which served him well later in his career:

A comedy ensemble.

Sound familiar?

This time, however, Lorne upped the conceptual ante.  He would surround then popular comedian Flip Wilson with a troupe of comedy All-Stars:  Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Peter Sellers.

Consistent with the “ensemble concept”, these superstar stalwarts would be featured in some sketches and play subsidiary roles in others.

So far, so “Revue-like.”

Then Peter Sellers flew in from London, immediately announcing that he would not play subsidiary roles in anything.  (Or one of two guys waiting for a bug to come out.)  His instructions as to what he would do were definitively simple:

“I play a bumbling detective.  Or a character who breaks things.”

Otherwise, he was going home.

Given this deal-breaking ultimatum – I always hate when performers I revere behave like idiot prima donnas – we immediately went back to work.  Another writer threw together a “bumbling detective” sketch, while Don and I cranked out “a character who breaks things” routine: a clumsy auctioneer who breaks every priceless antique he touches – which I believe was my idea, but maybe not, but I’ll take credit for it anyway, because I’m angry.

And here’s why. 

When the new sketches were completed, the next step was to take them to Peter Sellers at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where, as instructed, we would perform them out loud for his approval.  The prevailing stakes were substantial.  He likes them – he stays.  He doesn’t – he’s in a car to the airport.

During the last moment before departure, veteran temporary partner Don calls me aside and conveys two words that will be forever etched in my consciousness:

You go.”

That’s right.

“Senior Writer on the Team” Don had wimped out, “pulled rank” and dispatched “The Kid.”

It was I who would be reading a “physical comedy” sketch in which there was virtually no dialogue to the incomparable star of The Pink Panther and The Mouse That Roared.

I was nervous because of what was on the line.  But my predominant feeling was rage, at Peter Sellers, for putting us through this torturous ordeal, but even more so at Don.

I mean, the man’s like, decades in the business, and I’m, you know, four months out of Toronto. 

Shouldn’t he be going and not me?

Well, I went, reading the “Auctioneer Sketch’s” ubiquitous stage directions in a quivering voice – a combination of “Stage Fright” and resentment – and we awaited his response, which was this:

Peter Sellers would remain in the show.

I, by rights, should have been happy and gratified.

But instead, I was furious at Don.

And despite the salving element of time,

I still am.