Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
I can’t tell you how surprising it was.
I’m watching Seinfeld. It’s, I don’t know, the last or nearly the last episode of the season. Jerry’s searching for something in the couch in his apartment. He lifts up a pillow and discovers a man’s wallet.
I, the viewer, explode into hysterics. This is a rarity. I am laughing uncontrollably at something on television. Tears are literally rolling down my cheeks.
Why? Because of the thoroughly unexpected surprise of that moment. You see, earlier that season, Jerry’s Dad had lost his wallet. (He insisted it was stolen during a medical office visit.) And now, many episodes later,
The wallet is back!
It was gone. It remained unmentioned. And now, there it was. The “Missing Wallet” mystery had been solved!
Why is this moment so deliciously special? (By the way, I was asked why I like Seinfeld so much by a reader who doesn’t. It’s a tough one to fully and accurately explain. But maybe I’ll try sometime.)
The moment is special, because it’s incredibly rare for a situation comedy – unless it employs a “continuing story” format – to refer back to anything that happened on an earlier episode. It almost never happens.
TV series have amnesia about the past. (Like it’s possible to have amnesia about the future.) It’s like “Groundhog Day”, not in that the exact same thing happens over and over, but in that whatever happens in one episode is entirely forgotten in the next episode and, for that matter, forever. It’s like someone living entirely in the current moment. In real life, this is a diagnosable illness. In TV, it’s “business as usual.”
Please excuse me for using a thirty year-old example, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about new shows to pick a more recent one, though I’m pretty sure the “Amnesia” issue continues to apply.
In every episode of Three’s Company, the engine of the plot involved a hilarious misunderstanding. And yet, despite this seemingly endless series of accidental confusions, the “misunderstander” never stops to think,
“It occurs to me that I have a habit of misunderstanding things I accidentally overhear. Maybe I should take a moment to make sure that I didn’t misconstrue the context and meaning of what I accidentally overheard this time.”
Three’s Company enthusiasts will attest to the fact that thoughts of this nature never come to the character’s mind. Not only because if the misunderstanding is cleared up, Three’s Company’s “comedy engine” would be terminally disabled, but because, in order for the story to play out, the characters must have no memory that a similar – dare I say identical – situation has ever occurred in the past. When, in fact, it occurs
Well, you know, comedy’s fluff, and what are you gonna do? But this happens in dramas as well. Most egregiously in my favorite form of entertainment, the old western series, and most egregiously in the longest-running western series of them all, Gunsmoke.
Listen to this.
Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons. Now let’s say that during the average Gunsmoke season, they filmed twenty-six episodes. I imagine they actually did more at the beginning of the show’s run, and, maybe, they did less of them later. But let’s say, twenty-six episodes, on average.
In the course of those twenty-six episodes – and I’m not exaggerating for comic effect here; I don’t have to, because it’s true – Gunsmoke’s hero, Marshal Matt Dillon, got shot at least four times per season. Nothing fatal, because, you know, he’s the star of the show. But the bullets went in, and, unless they just grazed his skull, they needed to be dug out.
Think about that. The man received four gunshot wounds per season. And, frequently, more. I recall once, Marshal Dillon was actually shot four times in a single episode. I mean, you know, it wasn’t like it was an hour show and the marshal got shot every fifteen minutes.
“Come on! I just barely got patched up from the last one!”
What happened was, there was an ambush, and the lawman caught four slugs in the ensuing melee. That one was “touch and go”, as I recall. A couple of bullets came out easy, but the other two were really in there. Fortunately, “Doc” knew his business, and he pulled the marshal through.
As I said, Matt Dillon getting shot was hardly an unusual occurrence. A couple of episodes later, the marshal’s doing his “rounds”, and before you can “Duck!”, he’s back on the operating table.
Let’s do the math here. Let’s say that, instead of twenty years of episodes times twenty-six episodes per year – that’s five hundred and twenty episodes – there were only four hundred episodes, and the marshal took a bullet every fifth episode. That means –are you ready for this – that during Gunsmoke’s entire run, Marshal Matt Dillon was shot
The man took eighty bullets. That’s a boatload of punishment. I mean, you’d think there’d be very little of him left. And yet, every week, there he was, looking hale and hardy, especially for a man who’d endured over six dozen gunshot wounds.
That’s series television. Not only does your mind forget what happened before, your body does too. Despite the severe injury visited upon it, you come back the next week, and it’s like,
“Me, shot eighty times? That’s funny. I feel just fine.”
Maybe that’s why TV is so popular. In real life, if you’d been shot even...three times, you wouldn’t be feeling so good. You’d get twinges when it rained. On TV, on the other hand, it’s tabula rasa. The mutilations of the past are erased, and it’s on to the next bullet hole in the leg, shoulder, or abdominal area.
Or the next outrageous misunderstanding.
That’s why a discovered wallet is so utterly amazing.
A show with a memory.
Announcement: Next week we are going to this health spa that we go to in Mexico. I'm taking a laptop, and I hope to write stuff from there. But I may not be able to. I may mess up technologically , or forget a cord, or maybe Mexico may have different electricity, or Mexican drug gangs may invade the premises, seeking gluten free heroin. Anything is possible.
I've already posted one thing for Monday, so at least there's one thing. Hopefully, there's be more. Otherwise, it's Spring Break, and I will see you April the Fourth.
Hasta la vista.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
A commenter named, or at least acronymed, Jed, wrote:
“Does it help your writing that you’ve been an actor?”
First off, thank you, Jed. Not for asking a question, though that’s gratefully appreciated. Thank you for saying that I’ve been an actor. I’ve never been an actor. But I like the sound of hearing that I was.
(Actually, that may not be technically accurate. If “being an actor” means I got paid for being an actor, I was an actor. Once. I appeared in a movie called Cannibal Girls, made in Canada, and directed by an ultimately successful director named Ivan Reitman.
The actors on Cannibal Girls were paid…wait! We were paid, not a salary, but a percentage of the film’s profits. Of which there were none. So we were paid nothing. So, in fact, no. I have never been an actor.)
I did, however, attend acting school. Once, at UCLA, at The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, and a year at the Actors’ Workshop in London, where I studied the Stanislavki Method.
It was during this second foray into thespianic training that I learned something that – in answer to Jed’s query – served me very well forever after as a writer.
For those of you who are too busy to read beyond this paragraph, I will summarize what I learned in a nutshell. It is all about intention. In a scene – whether you’re playing it or writing it – optimal success will result from the actor or writer’s having a simple, articulatable intention going in, in other words,
“At this moment, what exactly does the character want to achieve?”
An actor’s precise understanding of the character’s motivation narrows the choices appropriate to the moment, in gesture, tone and inflection, informing their approach, and energizing their “attack.”
It’s the same with the writer. A writer’s crystal clarity concerning a character’s motivation illuminates which words to use and shapes the spinal structure of the scene.
I apologize for those last two paragraphs. Word soup. I’m really better with examples. So let me pull one from my Actors’ Workshop Memory Box.
We were asked to learn a speech from a play, and perform it in class. I chose a speech from, maybe my favorite play of all time, A Thousand Clowns (1962), by Herb Gardner.
I first saw A Thousand Clowns on Broadway when I was seventeen years old. I was blown away by how funny it was, and how insightful it was, and how skillfully a writer could blend those two essential elements together.
The protagonist in A Thousand Clowns is social misfit named Murray Burns, a television comedy writer, who had worked on a children’s series called the Chuckles The Chipmunk Show, but had abruptly quit, because the job was eating away at his soul.
At some earlier point, Murray’s sister and her six year-old son were staying with Murray, when the sister went out to buy a package of cigarettes, and never came back, abandoning the child with Murray.
Murray and his nephew’s relationship flowered – the whimsical Murray, as an example of their free and easy relationship, allowing the boy to pick his own name, and to change it as many times as he wanted until he was twelve, at which point, he had to choose a permanent name.
The problem was that , the New York Child Welfare Department is concerned about…well, now, Nick’s welfare, and they’re were coming over to assess the living arrangement, to determine whether, in the “best interest of the child”, Nick should remain in his uncle’s custody – and at the moment, Murray doesn’t have a job.
Nick, agonizing over the possibility of his imminent removal, urges Murray to look for work. In the speech I chose to perform, Murray confesses, that one afternoon the week before, when Murray had ostensibly been looking for a job, he had actually gone to the movies instead.
I performed the speech, I think, pretty well. It was not that hard. The speech was exquisitely written. All I had to do, as I’ve said many times to actors performing my work, was to “deliver the mail.”
Don’t “act.” Don’t get in the way. The words and feelings are there. Just communicate them truthfully. (I know there’s an arrogance in that, but I really believe, if the writing is good, the actors can be more helpful by not working so hard.)
Anyway, here we go. From A Thousand Clowns.
“I was going to check with Uncle Arnie and some of the other agents about writing for some for the new TV shows. I was on the subway, on my way there and I got off at Forty-Second Street and went to the movies.”
Simple and direct. No frills, no excuses.
“Speaking as the character, what is your motivation for making this speech?” I was asked.
"I want to confess about not looking for a job.”
“Go deeper,” I was told.
I think about the evocative manner in which Murray describes the experience of going to the movies in the middle of the afternoon.
“Now, there is the big question as you approach the box office, with the sun shining right down the middle of a working day, whether everybody going in is as embarrassed as you are. But once you are past the awkward stage, and have gotten your ticket torn by the old man inside, all doubts just go away. Because it is dark. And inside it is such a scene as to fracture even a nut like yourself, Nick, because inside it is lovely and a little damp and nobody can see you, and the dialogue is falling like rain on a roof and you are sitting deep in front of a roaring, color, Cinemascope, stereophonic, nerve cooling, heart warming, spine softening perfect happy ending picture show, and it is Peacefulville, U.S.A.”
“What is the character’s motivation?”
“I want to distract Nick with a mesmerizing story.”
As the speech goes on, I consider its subtle shift in tone, from warmly elegiac to encroachingly melancholy.
“There are men there with neat mustaches who have shaved, and shined their shoes and put on a tie even to come and sit alone in the movies. And there are nearsighted cute pink ladies who eat secret caramels; and very old men who sleep; and the ushers; buddy, you are not kidding these boys. They know you are not there because you’re waiting for a train, or you are on a vacation, or you work a night job. They know you are there to see the movie. It is the business and purpose of your day, and these boys give you their sneaky smile to show you that they know. (Depressed by his own words, quietly, almost to himself.) Now the moral question for me here is this: When one is faced with life in the bare-assed, job-hunting raw on the one hand, and eleven fifty-cent double-features on the other, what is the mature, sensible, and mentally healthy step to take?” (He is slumped in his chair now.)
“What is your motivation?”
“I want to get Nick to forgive me for not looking for a job.”
“I want Nick to love me.”
“Also true, but too general.”
“I want Nick to forgive me.”
“Yes. And that’s how you have to play it, from the first moment of the speech.”
It’s also how you have to write it.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
I’m shopping for Chanukah presents with Anna in her old stamping grounds on the other side of town called Silverlake, famous for its fabulous gift-purchasing boutiques.
We stop for lunch at a restaurant Anna knows called Local. I order something which, it turns out, I really like.
Two weeks later, I am again Chanukah gift shopping in Silverlake, this time with Anna’s betrothed, Colby. Since Colby likes the place too, we once again stop at Local for lunch, where, since I enjoyed it so much the last time, I order the same thing again. And I really like it again.
Flash Forward: Three months.
I’m working at home. Anna calls and says, “I’m going to Local. Do you want me to bring you your ‘favorite’ for lunch? I tell her yes.
The very next day, I am back in Silverlake with Colby. This time, it’s for birthday presents for Anna. With our mission happily accomplished, we head over to Local for lunch.
I’m in a dilemma about what to order. I ask Jack, the delightful manager, “Should I order the goat cheese Portobello burger, or the vegetarian crepe?”
Jack asks, “Have you had the Portobello burger before?” I tell him no. Jack recommends I order it, and I do.
Anna drops by later that afternoon, and I tell her, “Anna, I had this great thing at Local today that I never had before – the goat cheese Portobello sandwich.”
“Dad, she says. “You ordered the goat cheese Portobello burger both times we were there, and I brought one home for you yesterday.”
“Have you had the Portobello burger before?’”
I’m beginning to worry.
I’m shopping for Chanukah presents with Anna in her old stamping grounds on the other side of town called Silverlake, famous for its fabulous gift-purchasing boutiques.
We stop for lunch at a restaurant she knows called Local. I order the goat cheese Portobello sandwich, which it turns out I really like.
Two weeks later, I am again Chanukah gift shopping in Silverlake, this time with Anna’s betrothed, Colby. Since Colby likes the place too, we once again stop for lunch at Local, where, since I enjoyed it so much the last time, I order the goat cheese Portobello burger again. And I really like it again.
Flash Forward: Three months.
I’m working at home. Anna calls and says, “I’m going to Local. Do you want me to bring you a goat cheese Portobello burger for lunch?” I tell her yes.
The very next day, I am back in Silverlake with Colby. This time it’s for birthday presents for Anna. With our mission happily accomplished, we head over to Local for lunch.
I’m in a dilemma about what to order. I ask Jack, the delightful manager, “Should I order the goat cheese Portobello burger or the vegetarian crepe?”
Jack asks, “Have you had the Portobello burger before?” I tell him no.
“Have you had the Portobello burger before?”
I wan't lying. When I said it, I believed I hadn't. It turns out I'd had the goat cheese portobello burger three times, the last time being the previous day.
I’m beginning to worry.
Which version tells the story more effectively?
Do I really need to worry?
The Best of the West theme song was sung by Rex Allen Sr.
Monday, March 21, 2011
I mentioned recently that current theme songs for half-hour comedies are now eleven seconds long. That could be inaccurate, since I never actually timed them. They could be even shorter.
TV theme songs used to be a big deal, an inviting “Calling Card” to the show they melodically introduced. There were dozens of good ones. Not so much in comedies. They were generally forgettable fluff, with the exception of the deliciously infectious Sanford and Son and The Andy Griffith Show themes. But in dramas…Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, the creepy Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme…
Dee dee-dee-dee-dee dee de-dee…
And of course, there were the cowboy show theme songs, my favorites being…
All of them.
Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Yancey Derringer, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide…
I knew them all at one time, probably still know most of them, after half a century of forgetting almost everything else.
Where do you ride?
What do you fight for today?
When folks need a hand
You’re on their side
Gunslinger ride away.
That’s from a show called – you won’t be surprised to hear – The Gunslinger. The show lasted thirteen episodes, but I learned the theme song. That’s how significant the songs were. And how memorable.
In many cases, the theme songs were the most memorable parts of the show. Then “Mr. Greedy Pants” knocked on the door:
“Hello. We’re the network, and we’d like to have more money. So we’re making all the shows shorter, so we can sell more commercial time. Thank you. And keep up the good work.”
The writers were dumbfounded. “Shorter shows? How are we going to tell our stories?” The answer: “Not as well.” But to mitigate the time-squeezing damage, the writers, in turn, squeezed the only thing that was available for them to squeeze. They shortened the theme songs. To eleven seconds, or less.
I started thinking about that. Who exactly writes these musical hiccups? And how long does it take?
“You know when you drive into the studio, and they check your I.D. for Security?”
“I wrote it then. And I still had time to slip my Driver’s License back into my wallet, without holding up the line.”
Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe these are legitimate composers. Maybe they studied music scoring in college, majoring in “Thumbnail Compositions.”
I imagine them arriving at job interviews, armed with substantial resumes of their previous successes.
“I did the Rodney King beating, I did the Clinton impeachment hearings, I did the tsunami, and, of course, the ‘O.J. Simpson’ theme music.”
“Which one? The one for CNN, MSNBC or Court TV?”
"My favorite! You could almost feel the travesty of justice. And in just...how long was it?
“Six seconds. Would you like to see the original score?”
“You have a score?”
“It was written on Post-It notes.”
“Look, your work is obviously impressive. But we’re dealing with something a little more elaborate here. Eleven seconds. Do you think you can make the leap?”
“I believe I’m ready.”
“You’re very confident. But we’re talking almost double the length of anything in your entire oeuvre. Are you sure you have the staying power?”
“There is no problem.”
“I’m taking a giant risk here. You could be going great guns, and then, half way through, you start noodling around, padding, and repeating yourself.”
“Trust me. I can handle this.”
“All right. The job is yours. But if you flame out after nine seconds, you’re not getting paid.”
Again, possibly unfair. In truth, there are current theme songs that I really enjoy. My three favorites are:
Parks and Recreation
and tied for third,
Outsourced, and Two And A Half Men (the sole entry that includes lyrics, though they’re only one word: “Men.”)
I’m not nuts about the shows they’re attached to. Sometimes, I just tune in for the song. Which isn’t easy. I often miss, and end up catching the last two seconds. My timing has to be perfect.
I will close with my favorite sitcom theme song of all time.
I didn't says it was the best. In said it was my favorite.
Friday, March 18, 2011
Years ago, I was working on a show in Toronto, when my boss came in one morning, and announced that he had just purchased a new Mercedes.
On some primal level, I felt a general uneasiness about buying a car from a country that had been terminally unhelpful to my people, and, being me, I neglected to keep my feelings to myself.
My employer, a co-religionist, immediately tore into me.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, indignation coating every word. “Do you know how many Jews the Mercedes company has hired – in sales, in accounting, in strategic planning, in office management, in design?”
I looked down at my shoes, humiliated and justifiably chastened.
“How many?” I asked sheepishly.
“Not one!” he replied.
Following it up with a “Gotcha!” glimmer.
It was a wonderful joke. And a great thing about me? I couldn’t have been more delighted to have been “gotten.”
I was the “Unknowing Dupe.”
And I had played my part brilliantly.
On Sunday, my daughter Anna will turn 28, which makes me considerably older. Despite the chilling reminder of my teetering mortality, I acknowledge this milestone, and I honor my miracle of a daughter, who continues to make me happy when skies are grape
Happy B-Day, A.B.P. I love you to pieces
"Dad"? Who else is writing this?"
Thursday, March 17, 2011
There was an article in this morning’s paper reporting that a satellite broadcasting service is adding subtitles to the show Damages, to assist the audience in understanding Damages’ convoluted storyline, an executive from the company explaining, “We want to fill in the blanks for viewers.”
This practice may seem a little odd, but it is not entirely without precedent. I will speak only about comedies, since I have never written a drama, nor have I ever been confused by the storylines of the dramatic series I was drawn to.
I was never confused watching The Rockford Files.
Jim Rockford would be solicited by a mysterious, beautiful woman, he would say he wasn’t interested in the job, then change his mind, then he’d stick his nose in where it didn’t belong and get beaten up for his efforts (sometimes, his car would also get beaten up), and in the end, Rockford would solve the crime and subdue the perpetrators, and then the police would arrive, when there was nothing left to do but cart the evildoers away. That pretty much covered every Rockford Files episode I ever saw.
No subtitles were ever required.
Apparently, comedy audiences of that era were considered to need a little more help. A show like M*A*S*H, which was not filmed in front of a live audience, was required to include a laugh track, the rationale being the network’s belief that, without a laugh track, the audience would be unable to determine that M*A*S*H was a comedy.
What else could it be? A half-hour drama that refused to take itself seriously?
Today, NBC has a Thursday night lineup of six comedies, filmed without a laugh track, and nobody confuses them with CSI: Miami.
On the other hand, none of these comedies does anywhere near as well as M*A*S *H did in the ratings. So maybe,
The network was right.
Maybe the audience is confused. Maybe they need some directional assistance, like the hour shows that are attacking the “audience comprehension problem” with explanatory subtitles.
I am hoping for something more subtle than a flashing reminder, saying,
“This show is a comedy.”
Or, God forbid, the return of the laugh track.
How about, instead, hiring an experienced comedy writer to supplement the program with subtitles, explaining to the audience why what they have just witnessed is funny.
This could be really helpful. A character in the show would deliver a punch line, and a subtitle would flash at the bottom of the screen, saying something like,
“This joke is funny, because, less than five seconds earlier, the character expressed precisely the opposite point of view.”
“This is funny, because she has just insulted the man, and he’s taking it as a compliment.”
“This is funny, because, after disparagingly opining that, ‘Drugs are a crutch!’ she immediately downs an enormous tumbler of vodka.”
“This is funny, because what the character has accidentally overheard will lead to an enormous misunderstanding down the line.”
“This is funny, because she said the word, ‘ass’ on television, and she wasn’t referring to a donkey or to foolish behavior, she meant the actual body part.”
“This is funny, because having a balance of four dollars and sixty-two cents – which the character revealed in an earlier scene – can hardly be considered, what he has just told a woman he is trying to impress, as having “a substantial amount of money in my savings account.”
“This action is funny, because it is always funny for a man to take a blow directly to the genitals.”
“This is funny, because it’s an embarrassing slip of the tongue carrying sexual connotations, and she just blurted it to her boss, for whom she secretly harbors overpowering feelings of lust.”
“This is funny, because it’s funny for a previously identified heterosexual man to be found in a Department Store Dressing Room, primping in front of a mirror, attired entirely in women’s underclothing.”
“This is funny, because the character said the word, “Pumpernickel.”
Okay, you get the idea. And feel free to offer examples of your own.
It would appear to me – and I’m speaking here as a viewer rather than a veteran writer of television programming, that it is exceedingly unlikely that a show will increase its popularity by treating its audience as if they were stupid.
A wiser approach, I would suggest, would be for the shows, if they’re dramas, to make comprehensible sense, and if they’re comedies, to actually be funny.
Of course, I could be speaking for fourteen people here. The people who already knew that M*A*S*H was a comedy.
I have been informed that someone has apparently hacked into my Address Book. If you get a message from me concerning "a world of pleasure and satisfaction", it did not come not from me. This is unquestionably obvious to my friends, acquaintances and regular readers. Do I appear to know anything about worlds of "pleasure and satisfaction"? Maybe I ought to check into it myself. If you're interested, feel free to follow through. Just know I had nothing to do with it. As if anyone would actually think I did.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
It was Friday Night. “Show Night” for Major Dad. The studio audience was filing in. There was excitement in the air. The painstaking script preparation had taken weeks, rehearsals an even more intense five days.
It would all pay off tonight.
And it would be worth it. Because we cared. More than anything, we wanted the show to be good. Everything else came a distant second to that passionately embraced objective.
The show mattered. It didn’t need to be verbalized. We felt it in our bones.
I am standing on the stage floor, pretending that I don’t want to be noticed. The Universal Studios President of Television, a smart and decent man, approaches. The look on his face says he is not coming over to tell me what a good job I’m doing. For a man in his position, he seems uncomfortable, and somewhat embarrassed.
“I want to ask you something,” he begins. “And don’t feel obligated to say, “Yes.”
“Okay,” having been offered the alternative, “No.”
The man chuckles semi-sincerely, then forges ahead, as I suspect he’d been instructed by higher-ups to do.
“How would you feel,” he continues tentatively, “if, at some point, while the show is on the air, the ‘Energizer Bunny’ flashes across the screen?”
My response is instantaneous.
“What?” (Read “What?” with a mixture of surprise, confusion and dismay, or if that’s too hard, surprise with a grimace, or if you can’t manage that, just the grimace.)
“They want to try something new,” he explains. “Audiences are switching away during commercial breaks. So they want to inject the commercials directly into the show.”
I call that “The Turn.”
Now I’m not an idiot. I was always aware that the programs were candy, intended to attract audience eyeballs who would then be on hand to sample the commercials. That’s how commercial rates are determined, on the basis of how many eyeballs the show delivers to the commercials, or more specifically, how many people, which is “number of eyeballs divided by two.”
Up till “The Turn”, the illusion was maintained that there was an actual respect for the show’s sancrosancticity. There was the show, and there were the commercials and, excluding the singular exception of the old Jack Benny Program where the commercials were woven seamlessly and humorously into body of the episode, the two remained fire-walledly distinct.
Now, while the actors were using every technique they could muster to entice the viewer into surrendering to the scrupulously crafted storyline, it was proposed that the “Energizer Bunny” go scooting across the screen.
The gloves were now off. A big change was a ’comin’.
It started with shortening the shows. When I broke in, a half-hour comedy ran twenty-six minutes, with four minutes for commercials. When I was done, they were down to twenty minutes and change, with almost nine minutes for commercials. That’s right, folks. Quietly, over two or so decades, the “commercial breaks” time percentage had more than doubled.
When people say shows like Taxi had more depth and texture than shows today, time-shrinkage is primarily the reason why. Longer shows, more depth and texture. Shorter shows, less depth and texture. And eleven-second theme songs.
Increasing the advertising minutes, however, didn’t really do the trick. The audience simply switched away from the commercials for twice as long. To combat this strategy, it was necessary to proceed to “Plan B.”
Hello, “Product Placement.”
For the television business, this was a total one-eighty. Before “The Turn”, writers were forbidden from mentioning the names of products, for fear of a conflict with the show’s actual sponsors, who would purchase airtime later, so no one had any idea who they were going to be.
As a result, set decorators were required to duplicate the graphics on well-known breakfast cereal boxes, while being prohibited from using the cereal’s actual name. This led to identical-looking “near miss” names on the cereal boxes, like “Rice Flisbies” and “Quarker Oats.”
After “The Turn”, sponsors paid substantial sums to have their products inserted into the shows, the more popular the show, the more money the “product placers” were required to pay.
Now, usually, the products appeared unmentioned, but sometimes, as in the “Junior Mints” product placement in Seinfeld, they were an integral part of the storyline. (Kramer was watching an operation from an overhead gallery while munching “Junior Mints” when one of the mints eluded his mouth, dropping into the clamped-open body cavity below.)
In was while watching Seinfeld that I noticed an even more surprising turn of events. Apparently, a “mention” on Seinfeld was so desirable, the sponsors didn’t object to having their products brutally disparaged.
Can you imagine the phone call setting up that arrangement?
“Hello, ‘Cotton Dockers’?’ I’m calling from the Seinfeld show, and we were wondering if you would mind if we mentioned ‘Cotton Dockers’ on our program, and said that anyone who thought that the ‘Cotton Dockers’ commercials were clever was an idiot.”
“No problem. Now how much would you charge us for that?”
Something like that must have occurred. Because that’s exactly what they did.
They also did this:
“Hello? Is this the producer of The English Patient? Yes, I’m calling from Seinfeld, and we’d like to know if it would be okay with you if we trashed your movie on the air?”
“Trash it in what way?”
“You know, having one of our characters say that The English Patient is excruciatingly boring, and maybe that it’s the worst movie they have ever seen in their lives.”
“You want to decimate our movie on Seinfeld? What can I tell you? We are deeply honored.”
“Great. We’ll send you the bill.”
(I’ll be honest with ya. If I’d been the producer of The English Patient, I’d have probably said “No.”)
It was then a small step from “product placement” to placing advertising – pop up’s, billboards, animated bunnies – right into the show, an early proposal of which I had personally witnessed on that Major Dad show night. How did I respond? I do what I do best. I passed the buck.
I pointed to Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney, standing imposingly on stage in his Marine uniform, and I said to the Universal Studios President of Television,
“Ask Mr. McRaney if it’s okay to put a bunny in the show. If it’s okay with him, it’s okay with me.”
The Studio President smiled knowingly, then wisely retreated to his seat.
But in time, he and his “exploit every ‘’Profit Center’” ilk would return.
And when they did, television as we knew it would never be the same.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Besides being a master teacher of comedy, both as a performer and as a writer – I once witnessed him pitch out an entire episode story in less than an hour – Dr. William H. Cosby, Ed.D. taught me a reverberating life lesson, involving the distinction between when you think something’s all on the line when it actually isn’t, when you imagine the thing matters tremendously when it only matters a little, between when you feel everything’s riding on it when very little, in fact, is, between when you believe it’s for all the marbles when it, in truth, is for a tiny marble-ette.
Have a piled up enough baloney on that sandwich?
You can never have too much baloney.
Yes you can.
Well, peel some of it off, and save it for a snack.
You realize you just turned a metaphor into actual food.
I think I’ll just keep going if you don’t mind.
And not a moment too soon.
Thank you. Here’s what happened. I have moved to New York for The Cosby Show show, and this is the first episode we’re producing, a script I wrote, concerning a family funeral for a departed, pet goldfish. Besides making that episode, we are also shooting additional scenes for The Cosby Show’s pilot, a fourteen-minute presentation, which requires expansion to the standard, episode-length twenty-two minutes.
One of the new scenes concerns a freaked out father-to-be who has fled the “birthing room”, and “Dr. Huxtable” is faced with the task of calming him down and bringing him back in.
It’s the morning of the “table reading”, where the actors read the script out loud before the assembled production staff – fifty or so people – so we can see what’s working and what needs to be fixed. At this point, the actor who will play the freaked out father-to-be has not yet been hired. Dr. Cosby asks me to fill in for the missing actor and perform that part at the table reading.
I am immediately terrified.
Why? Well, in my own memorable words,
“What if I mess up?” (Though I may not have used the word “mess.”)
Dr. Cosby instantly replies to my exaggerated concern, and herein lies the life lesson,
“Bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the first.”
(To those less familiar with baseball than an understanding of this analogy requires, the length of a regulation baseball game is nine innings. Labeling this situation the ‘bottom of the first” designates it as a situation wherein not a whole lot is realistically at stake.
Bill Cosby had captured it in a nutshell. Responding to his request, I had injected “bottom of the ninth” urgency into a “bottom of the first” situation.
My lightning-quick response reflects a “fight or flight” reaction, bringing to mind oft-quoted (imaginary) bumper sticker on the back of my car that says,
“I BRAKE FOR SHADOWS.”
The offer was made for me to fill in as an actor – an offer that I, objectively, should have been thrilled by – and I immediately jumped. Really, really, embarrassingly to the point of excruciatingly shamefully,
Old Cos gently – though not without a smile of satisfaction – reminded me it was the “bottom of the first”, and I immediately came back down to earth. I read the part – very well, I must admit, though not well enough, apparently, to be invited to actually play the part in the show – and that was not.
I may have told this story before, as part of some meandering, self-congratulatory tale of my enviable exploits. I showcase it alone today for easier retrieval. You may need a reminder of this someday. It’ll be right here.
When something unexpected comes up, and you’re reflexively ready to hit the roof, harken back to the wise words of Doctor C,
And remember what inning it is.
Friday, March 11, 2011
(Warning: If lavatorially-related material is not your cup of tea, have a great weekend, and I’ll see you on Monday.)
Okay, for the rest of you…
I am availing myself of a restaurant bathroom – euphemistically tagged “the washroom” in Canada, and in England, not euphemistically at all, “the toilet.”
I am standing at the place where you stand to do the thing I went in there to do – is that delicate enough for ya? – and, being me, I am singing a song. I can’t help it. I find myself in an echoey venue, such as a bathroom, or an underground parking garage, and I immediately take advantage of the acoustics, and energetically burst into song.
Being the age that I am, the entertainment ends before I have entirely completed my, uh… my work there. The advancing years have been known to draw these things out. So I’m still standing there, and I need something else to sing.
Suddenly, I notice a printed sign suspended on the wall in front of me. The sign is a reminder to the restaurant employees whose countries of origin are apparently elsewhere since the sign is written in Spanish. It’s a three-word reminder:
“Laven Los Manos.”
Well, I took Spanish in college, because my hometown of Toronto is full of Italians and, being a contrarian, I refused to learn a language that would actually be useful to me. Also, the Italian classes started at eight A.M. So, forget that!
Three years of college-level Spanish had educated me sufficiently to be able to translate the words, “Laven los manos.” The words mean, in English,
“Wash your hands.”
Being highly creative, and requiring slightly more Urinal Time, I immediately invented a song based on an employee advisory on a bathroom wall. I won’t do the whole thing for you, since I’ve been informed by one of the more squeamish members of my family that it’s tasteless and not funny, but I will give you the first verse, which goes thusly. Imagine a peppy, syncopated Latin rhythm accompanying these words.
Two bars of spirited introduction, and then:
Laven los manos
Laven los manos
Laven los manos
Laven los manos
Laven los manos.
Don’t pee and just walk away…
Trust me. The rest of it is equally Sondheimian.
Finally, I am done. I zip up, and then, less because of a suspended sign which is not for me anyway than “That’s the way I was brought up”, I dutifully repair to the bathroom sink.
There are two sinks to choose from. I select the one on the left. There are no political implications involved; it is simply the sink closest to the urinal. I turn on the water, mixing hot and cold, seeking a satisfying “warm”, which I ultimately confect.
Suspended above the counter is a single, long-necked soap dispenser. I press down on the plunger to procure the requisite dollop of soap,
And no soap comes out.
I press down again. No soap. And a third time. No soap. From these three escalatingly vigorous efforts, I conclude,
There is no soap in the soap dispenser.
Okay. It’s not as serious as “There is no toilet paper on the roll”, but it’s still not great news. You can rationalize at this point. You know, “Soap’s not penicillin. It’s not, like, some wonder drug that will immunize you against debilitating disease and imminent death. It’s just soap.”
But who are we kidding? Soap in the bathroom is hardly a “decorative touch.” It’s an essential component of the “Laven los manos” operation. I’m not exactly clear about the nature of its contribution. Soap is slippery; maybe it assists in sliding the pee germs off of your fingers.
But that’s just a guess
What I do know is that soap is a fundamental part of the process. And there is no soap whatsoever in that bathroom dispenser.
Things could be worse, of course. There could be another person in the bathroom with me, which, if that were the case, would require me to do what any mature male adult would do under the circumstances– pretend there was soap in the dispenser, and mime, extra energetically, spreading it all over my hands, maybe adding,
“Not a lot of suds, but it’s soapy”
To help seal the deal.
Fortunately, I am alone. Alone…with my conscience. And a sign, reminding me – albeit not in English, but what difference does that make? – what to do. And I’m not entirely doing it.
There is no way around it. In a few moments, I will be emerging from that bathroom, with incompletely lavened manos.
Will people know? Will they pick up some signal? Will they read it in my eyes?
“Red Alert! ‘No-Soaper’, at Two O’clock!”
Maybe they won’t know. But I’ll know. And I’ll wonder why people are suddenly giving me what appears to be an, otherwise inexplicable, wider berth.
What happens if I, God forbid, have to shakes hands with somebody? Will I suddenly change my style and go “Howie Mandell” on them, offering up a less contagion-carrying fist bump?
As I re-enter the restaurant, I quietly make myself a promise. The first chance I get, I will slip into the nearest available bathroom, go crazy with the soap dispenser, and conscientiously finish the job.
I never do.