Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"American Labor Law Cramped My Acting Career"

The term Taft-Hartley, a federal act passed in 1947 restricting – or regulating depending on your point of view – the power of labor unions, has a special meaning in the entertainment industry.  Specifically for film and television actors, an actor not in the union who becomes “a principal performer” (says a line) is immediately eligible to join the “Screen Actors Guild” and is covered under the SAG contract with the production company for 30 days, after which he or she must join SAG or cease working on any union production.

So much for the educational portion of the program.  The rest is my standard recipe of biography and foolishness, seasoned with my patented misplaced sense of personal entitlement.


In 1983, or ’84 – I am not a great researcher; I explore the web for a while, my eyes start to water, and then I give up – I was asked to appear on an episode of the cult favorite though low rated half-hour comedy Buffalo Bill (starring Dabney Coleman, and created by the team of Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, whom I had met years earlier when I wrote scripts for The Tony Randall Show which Tom and Jay were in charge of.)

(A side-note about what show business does to people:  When I failed to recognize Tom upon running into him a couple of years after he had retired from the television business, his response to my observation that he looked different was, “That’s because I have stopped seething.”)

I was contacted – by either Tom or Jay or perhaps it was the show’s casting director – and asked if I was interested in playing the role of “Crazy Eddy” Felsik, “The Human Salmon”, thus monikered because he had gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel (which was locally significant because Buffalo Bill, a sitcom about an acerbic talk show host, was set proximal to Niagara Falls, in Buffalo, New York.) 

(By the way, the Canadian Falls are indisputably more breathtaking their American counterparts.  FYI, in case you only have time to see one of them.) 

The role would involve a couple of hours’ filming and the delivery of a single line.  I immediately said yes.  The production then “Taft-Hartleyed” me (as I was not a SAG member), and off we went.  (I received the minimum “scale” for my performance; it seemed wrong to negotiate with friends.  Plus,  I mean, you know, who am I kidding?)

When I arrived, I went straight to “make-up”, after which, stripping down to my underwear, I was put into a wetsuit and hoisted into a barrel.  (The wetsuit included the connected rubber hood that claps tightly around your ears and makes it sound like you’re holding a seashell to each of them, and hearing “stereo ocean.”)  The barrel was then raised onto a mobile wooden platform, where, at the appropriate moment, I was rolled into the scene in which I would perform.

The episode’s plotline was that Buffalo Bill was in a ratings slump, and they needed a stunt to pull them out of the doldrums – hence, “Crazy Eddy’s” reprising going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  My arrival into the scene was greeted by an extended, over-the-top rant by host “Buffalo Bill” Bittinger, who was irate, because, by associating with “Crazy Eddy”, the show was selling itself out for ratings.  At the end of his tirade, a still-fuming Bittinger exits wherever they are, ferociously slamming the door.  After which I deliver my line, which was,

“And I thought I was crazy.”

It’s hot wearing a wetsuit.  And it’s even hotter, bordering on “health-endangering ordeal” wearing a wetsuit under blazing studio lights.  But that was my costume, and that was the situation that prevailed – me in a wetsuit, standing in a barrel under blistering overhead lighting.

I could not have been happier.

Less happy, however, was the episode’s director – the multi-hatted Tom Patchett.  Firstly, I was told not to make faces while other people are speaking.  You’ve heard of over-acting.  Well apparently there is over-reacting as well.  And I was doing it.  I was instructed to calm down my face.
(During the third or fourth “take” (of, I believe, a total of six), I noticed, John Fiedler, a respected and oft-used character actor, standing “statue still” through the entire proceedings.  At first glance, he did not seem to be doing anything.  But, in fact, he was doing the “consummate professional’s” version of listening, in contrast to myself, who was LISTENING!!!!!!!!  I had no idea how behaving Fiedler’s way got you any attention.  But I belatedly realized that that wasn’t the point.     

Then, there was the question of my “line reading”, the inadequacy of which led to numerous “retakes.”  I had rehearsed my line at home, but it was clear that the director was unhappy, his eyes reflecting the transparent regret that they had not secured a legitimate actor.  I tried several variations on my reading, adjusting my intensity, as the line, “And I thought I was crazy” has its own prerequisite rhythm.

It was during the multiple re-shoots that I determined that I wasn’t the problem. 

It was the line that was wrong.

Crazy people don’t think they’re crazy; other people think they’re crazy.  Ipso and facto, the line, “And I thought I was crazy” didn’t make sense.  What the line following the bizarre behavior of another person should have been was,

“And they call me crazy!”

Knowing Tom, I felt comfortable asking if I could change the line.  Knowing me, Tom felt comfortable saying “No.”  And we shot it again.  And again.  And again.  Until we got it.

Finally, the scene was “in the can”, and they said “Moving on!”, which for the actors meant to the next scene, and for me meant home.  Weeks later, I excitedly watched myself on television.  My dreams of “Eddy’s” possible return, however, were rapidly dashed when it was revealed in the following week’s episode that “Crazy Eddy” Felsik had indeed challenged Niagara Falls in a barrel, but that Niagara Falls had won. 

“The Human Salmon” had floated upstream.

(Or, more likely, downstream, the rushing waters carrying his shattered wetsuit-clad body out to sea.)

The connection of this tale to the Taft-Hartley Law?  After a “principal performer” says one line, “…he or she must join SAG or cease working in any other production.”

That’s how it works – you get one “free one”, and that’s it.  As a result, because of a single line I delivered in a sweltering wetsuit in 1983 (or ’84), I could receive no further waivers for future appearances. 


They wanted me to do a line on (now Senator) Al Franken’s Lateline (1999) fifteen (or sixteen) years later – and I couldn’t do it.  I had been “Taft-Hartleyed” for Buffalo Bill, and that, for my entire lifetime, was that.  My alternative, of course, was to join the union.  But it seemed impractical to do so for one line every decade and a half.  And who knew if that regularity would last?  Nobody stays hot forever.

I had already appeared in Cannibal Girls (1973), but that was in Canada, where the long arm of Taft-Hartley felicitously does not reach.  For you Americans, however, if you didn’t see me on Buffalo Bill, you missed my entire acting career.  You didn’t miss much.  I was a pretty mediocre “Crazy Eddy.”

Though I still think it was the line. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Cancelled-Out Career"

It is not helpful to be of two minds about something.  One mind cancels out the other, and then you’re of no minds about it at all.  This puts a giant crimp on your decision-making process. 

“What do you think I should do?”

“I am of no minds about that.”

“Didn’t you used to be of two minds about it?”

“They cancelled each other out and they’re both gone, which leaves me entirely mindless.  There’s an important decision to make?  You say, ‘Put your mind to it’?  I can’t.  I don’t have one anymore.”
“Two minds” is hard. “None” is sadder.  Neither helps you decide anything.  But I miss the cross-talk. 

I have talked before about the idea of being a comedian, and how, like being an actor, the job I aspired to is different from what it actually is.  Today – as I once secretly did – I can no longer imagine myself being an actor.  The essential element of the job – i.e., acting – seems entirely ludicrous to me. 

I look at actors playing scenes together, pretending to be in a specific location when in reality they’re on a soundstage surrounded by cameras and crewmembers, they’re wearing wardrobe that is not theirs (which may include a pistol and a badge), they’re calling each other by names that are not their actual names, and their mouths rattle off dialogue somebody else wrote for them to say, infusing it with the heartfelt emotions of fictional characters.

“Olivia, this scumbag walks, and he’s free to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting community.”

Cut!  Print!  And lunch!

I don’t know how they do it.  I just know that I couldn’t.  I look Olivia – who I know is Mariska – in the eye, and I’m babbling this overheated foolishness – half way through, I’m laughing and I’m fired. 

Maybe while they’re acting, they’re thinking, “I’m earning a million dollars an episode”, and that keeps them for doing what a normal person would do, which would be rolling on the floor, convulsed by the absurdity of the entire operation.

So that’s acting – a bizarre exercise in collective self-delusion.

Being a comedian?

Well, I’ve talked before about what that takes.  And here’s where the “two minds” arrangement kicks in. 

Join me in “fantasyland” and suppose that it’s possible – as I would like to be – for a comedian to just come out on stage and be spontaneously funny.  No prepared material, just some sketchy notions of areas of interest.  But, fundamentally, their plan is to “wing it”, riffing and ranting to hilarious effect.

Why is this “fantasyland”?  Because it’s impossible.  Nobody is that reliably funny.  Nobody.  To secure your best shot at success, everyone uses prepared material, tested, tightened and reworked, so that they go out there, confidently armed with the “tried and true.”  No “surprises.”  The material, honed over time, is “sure fire.”  

That’s a comedian.  That’s what they do.

One reason (of many) I could not be a comedian is I’d feel very uncomfortable repeating material.  I do not have the professionalism to deliver it sounding “fresh.”  Plus, repeating yourself is boring.  And to some degree, dishonest.

“Hey, I just thought of this.” 

No, you didn’t.

I could never do “The Pie Joke.”  (“The Pie Joke” symbolically representing an extended comedy bit comedian Earl Pomerantz is known for, that, in the patois of the business, is, “pure gold.”  Twenty years – good audience, bad audience – “The Pie Joke” always “kills.” 

“The Pie Joke” is the equivalent of a singer’s “Signature Number”, the one they’re identified with – “Yesterday”, “On The Road Again” – the song the audience came to hear and would be seriously disappointed if they didn’t.  

Never mind that jokes aren’t songs, jokes, to elicit laughter, requiring surprise, which is not there when they are constantly repeated. 

It does not matter.  Sinatra had “My Way.”  The comedian has “The Pie Joke.”

I retain “The Pie Joke” in my arsenal.  But before performing it for the thousand and twenty-fifth time, I would rather pick up a huge mallet and bludgeon myself in the head. 

I know “The Pie Joke” works.  But I am determined not to do it.

So I’m onstage, improvising my act and doing quite nicely, when, out of the darkness of the auditorium, I hear,

“Do ‘The Pie Joke’!” 

I stop, and I sigh.  And I level with the audience.

“I don’t want to do ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“Do ‘The Pie Joke!’”

“I’m sorry.  I hate to disappoint you.  But I am not doing ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“We love ‘The Pie Joke’!”

“I know.  It’s a great joke.  But…”

“Do ‘The Pie Joke’!”

“Look, guys.  I am burnt out on ‘The Pie Joke’.  Instead, I am trying this experiment – every performance, new material.  I mean, tonight, you people are hearing original comedy nobody has ever heard before.  When you think about it, that’s quite an accomplishment.”

“Do ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“I don’t understand.  You already know ’The Pie Joke’.”

“I got it memorized.  I could say it along with you.”

“So why do you want to hear it again?”

“We came for ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“Okay but, you see, I kind of promised myself…


“‘Pie Joke.’ ‘Pie Joke.’  ‘Pie Joke.’  ‘Pie J…”

What are you gonna do?  You’ve got a rebellion on your hands.  So you take a deep breath, you put yourself in the mood, and go,

“This may sound crazy, but I spend my life…searching…for the quintessentially perfect…piece of pie.”

And the audience goes wild.  And that, my friends, is that.  You abandon your “experiment”, and do “The Pie Joke” till you die.  And when you do, they tell “The Pie Joke” in your obituary.

From the “comedian” standpoint, those, as I see it, are your options.  You can free associate on stage, or you can do “The Pie Joke.”  As previously mentioned, the “winging it” option is not realistically doable (and even if it were, a person with my cautious temperament would never attempt it; I might want to, but I wouldn’t.)  “The Pie Joke” option is out of the question.

Why do people not become what they aspire to become?  Because they’re of two minds about it.  And neither of them is possible.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"I Once Hugged A Blind Man"

Sometimes, it’s good to be impulsive.  Especially when you’re overcome by an overflowing feeling of good will, and you can’t help yourself, you have to let it out.  There was no hidden agenda.  No thoughts of personal advantage.  No hope of a possible relationship down the line.  I felt it, and I did it.  No premeditation.  No plan.

In a studio filled with people, I pushed my way through the throng, raced over and threw my arms unabashedly around a blind man.

I doubt that it was memorable for him.  Who knows?  Maybe it happened all the time.  For me, it was a first.  Hugging a sightless stranger.  It sticks in my mind. 

Here’s how it happened.

I was working on a talk-variety show produced in Toronto called Everything Goes, hosted by comedian Norm Crosby, who coincidentally is almost entirely deaf.  (I do not recall hugging Norm, so we are not talking about a pattern here – embracing people with disabilities above the neck.  It was sui generis, if you want to bring Latin into it.  A one of a kind occurrence.)

Everything Goes, a ninety-minute piece of irrelevance, was intended, like the successful prototype of its genre, The Mike Douglas Show, to be syndicated over hundreds of local stations throughout the United States and Canada.  It wound up, I believe, airing on four stations.  And was ignominiously cancelled.

A telltale sign that a show has less than First Class aspirations is that they booked me as a regular performer.  (I also later performed on a CBS summer series called The Bobbie Gentry Show, which got the axe after four airings.  There was a message for me in those experiences.  The message was:  “You’re a writer!”)

Another sign that Everything Goes was determinedly minor league was in the booking selection of the guests.  No superstars, or even close.  Everyone who appeared on the show had either once been famous but were indisputably on the downside of their careers (one guest, comedian Georgie Jessel, was, at the time, in his eighties), or they were relatives of famous show business luminaries rather than the luminaries themselves who had better things to do than fill a guest slot on a failed folly in Toronto.  (Think Frank Sinatra Jr.)

One of the parade of over-the-hillers and never-were’s-but-their-Dads-had-been (e.g., Romena Power, the singer-daughter of movie great Tyrone Power, whom I do not recall singing in anything) was the blind baritone Al Hibbler, whose biggest hit had been Unchained Melody in 1955.  “Johnny on the Spot”, Everything Goes booked Mr. Hibbler a mere nineteen years after his heyday.  When his career had considerably cooled down.

The thing is, I loved Al Hibbler, and I adored Unchained Melody, which I once sang in a talent show at camp, as I recall, to enthusiastic applause.

Oh my love, my darling
I hunger for your touch… 

That stuff really scores when you’re eleven, and wear bifocals.

Who’d have thought, as a precocious pre-teener, rendering this heart-wrenching ballad beside a towering bonfire in Northern Ontario as I swatted away mosquitoes and dodged the spitting sparks that, one day, I would be standing behind the cameras, watching the originator deliver the “Genuine Article” before my tear-filled and awe-stricken eyes?

Not me, I can tell you that.

But there he was, leaning against a stool, deep-voicing the beloved “oldie” to masterful and unforgettable perfection.

Al Hibbler was singing my song.  And I did not in mind in the least that he was singing it better.  (A more impressive concession than you might imagine.)

When it was over, the studio audience went wild.  Al Hibbler had hit Unchained Melody out of the park, an accomplishment akin to Pavarotti nailing…some opera ditty. 

And we were there to see it.

I didn’t think about it.  (Which could easily be the title of my memoir.)  Before I knew what I was doing, I raced onto the stage and threw my arms around Al Hibbler, screaming some variation of, or maybe these exact words:

“That was great!

It was only later that I considered what it must have been like for a blind man, with no alerting visual signals to be physically accosted by a highly-emotional Jewish stranger. 

There are no words to describe how that abrupt assault on that sightless singer’s person must have felt.  No.  I have to no words to describe it.  Imaginably, a blind person might. 

Because my left eye doesn’t see well, I once, not noticing it, accidentally walked straight into a telephone pole.  It was scarily disturbing.  That’s as close as I can get to how the “hug out of nowhere” might have felt.  The shocking contact.  Although, unlike the “Hibbler Incident”, the telephone pole was not racing up to congratulate me.  I am hoping that the circumstances made a difference.

Thinking back, it is not inconceivable that Al Hibbler could have decked me.  I had invaded his personal space, and to this day, I am unsure of his reaction.  I would have to say, reading his face at that moment, I saw less elation than confusion, as in “What the hell’s goin’ on?”

Al Hibbler passed away in 2001.  I am thrilled I got to hear him sing Unchained Melody live.  And I am happy I hugged him. 

Though I am not entirely certain he was.

Now, here’s Al.  (You have to click on it, but it's there.)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Anatomy Of A Script I Didn't Write - Part Deux"

It does not seem to me to be a coincidence that arguably the best situation comedy episode ever written is also, structurally, the simplest.

(It is also not a coincidence that I am disproportionately partial to simplicity in my creative preferences, leaning strongly towards Hank Williams’ “Three chords and the truth” over the studied obscurities of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.)

Imagine a swinging door – it swings one way, and then the other.  That’s the structure of David Lloyd’s highly acclaimed Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” 

A 26-minute episode.  No circuitous twists and turns.  It simply swings in one direction; and then, it’s the opposite.

In short:  Mary berates her workmates for joking about the death of colleague.  Then, at the colleague’s funeral, with her workmates appropriately solemn, Mary herself explodes in uncontrollable laughter. 

You see what David Lloyd did there?  Totally simple.  The story goes one way; and then, it’s the opposite.  Nothing to it. 

Other than impeccable execution.

The “Chuckles” episode brought together three of David Lloyd’s inestimable strengths:  lean and mean construction, superior joke writing, and a mischievous penchant for the darker corners of comedy.  Together, they produced a classic episode.  Only one person could have written it as well.  But that does not mean there aren’t lessons we can all learn from it.

In broad outline:

When a station WJM colleague, “Chuckles the Clown”, is killed in a bizarre accident – grand marshaling a circus parade attired as one of comic characters, “Peter Peanut”, an elephant, presumably mistaking him for an actual peanut, “shells” Chuckles, and he dies. 

Though it is obviously a horrible situation – make that a hilarious situation with a horrible outcome – the office comes alive with a barrage of “ gallows humor”, relating the specifics of the victim to the unusual manner in which he “went” – “He could have gone as ‘Billy Banana’ and had a gorilla peel him to death.” 

When Mary objects to her co-workers’ lack of respect for the deceased, her boss Lou explains to her that death is so scarily unfathomable, people need humor to serve as a comforting safety valve for their emotions.

But Mary will have none of it.  Death, she insists, is no laughing matter, and that’s that.

Then, however, at the funeral, as the minister’s eulogy tries to glean meaningful significance out of Chuckles’ characters’ pre-adolescent antics – referencing Mr. Fee-fi-fo’s memorable catchphrase, “I hurt my foo-foo!” and Chuckles’ show-closing mantra, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”, Mary gradually becomes – with apologies – unmoored – struggling desperately to stifle her escalating giggles, until she can no longer control herself, and, to the shock and horror her workmates, she bursts out in entirely inappropriate laughter.  
When the minister tells her that her laughter is in totally keeping with his legacy and encourages her to “Laugh…Laugh for Chuckles”, Mary “buttons” the situation comedically by breaking down completely and crying her eyes out.

(A parenthetical though, I think, interesting note with mildly ironic overtones:   Mary’s regular director, the incomparable Jay Sandrich, refused to direct the “Chuckles” episode for the same reason Mary berated her workmates – he thought it was in terrible taste.)

Elements of the episode’s success and is its much-deserved classic status?  The “on the money” jokes helped a lot.  Augmented by the generically funny situation – not the death, but the specific manner in which it happened.  Immeasurably helpful too, is Mary’s incomparable performance.  (Mary Tyler Moore’s background as a dancer cannot be underestimated as a significant contributor to her impeccable comic timing.)

The “taste issue” itself is a plus.  Thought the episode skates “this close” to censorable morbidity, “dangerous” comedy is quite often the funniest.  However, in its masterful execution buttressed by the psychological reality that sometimes despite the circumstances you really do need to laugh (or you may “go off” at an embarrassingly inappropriate moment) – “Chuckles Bites The Dust” steers respectably clear of moral objectionabililty.  (Unless you’re Jay Sandrich.)

Still, bottom line in explaining why it worked is the simplicity of its construction.  Mary assails her workmates for laughing, and then later, she does the same thing, or, arguably, worse. 

That’s the story.  No credulity-testing stretches.  No escalating comedic complications. 

Just simple.

First “A.”  Leading inevitably – and hilariously – to “B.”

It’s so simple, in fact, you might say that it virtually writes itself.

Please trust me on this:  

Nothing writes itself. 

But you’ve got the recipe laid out.  A generically funny premise with a credible psychological underpinning, superior joke writing and, most significantly for me, a Ginsu-knife sharp and simple story construction.

There you have it.

Now get to work.