Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Circus Freude"

“If there were an award for “Hypersensitive Overreaction”, I’d be a “Certifiable Finalist.”  I apparently over-identify with failure.  I view success, ot with exultatio but wit relief.

I ave to stop writig ow.  Tree letters o m computer have stopped workig.

I mea it!”
There is little that is more pathetic, after paying top dollar for great seats at a performance of a circus internationally celebrated as “The Greatest Show On Earth” than a person saying, peering coweringly into his lap,

“I can’t look.”

That was me.

What was I doing there?

Backstory:  Rachel found out that the world-famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus was in town and she wondered if we would care to join her and husband Tim, two and three-quarter year-old Milo and three-month-old Jack at a mid-morning performance.  We immediately said “Yes!” though with that company we’d have said “Yes!” to anything.

“We’re going to get the car washed.  You wanna come?”


We really like those guys.  Is what I’m saying.

As a couple, our distinct preference is for the folksy ambiance of little circuses.  We have attended the Togni Brothers Circus, in Como, Italy (just after the Togni Brothers had broken up, leaving us to watch what appeared to be the less proficient of the divied up entertainers), the La Porte Indiana County Fair Circus (where we had to leave at intermission due to an enjoyment-sapping infestation of mosquitoes – INDIANA-BORN USHER:  “I’m surprised you lasted that long.”) and California’s Pickle Family Circus (which was perfect.)

But, greatly appreciating the invitation, it was “Big Circus here we come.”

As we approached the circus’s Staples Center venue, we were bombarded by picketers opposing the mistreatment of animals.  There were no picketers, it should be reported, favoring the mistreatment of animals, though by the picketers’ standards, those would include everyone buying a ticket to the circus.

It is not in me to object vigorously to their passionate concern.  But to me – and not being an actual jungle animal I am necessarily anthropomorphizing – well… I once wrote an Interview With A Giraffe (which is in here somewhere) in which the giraffe-interviewee, dreading their imminent return to “the Wild”, when queried about the liberating option of “freedom”, insightfully replied,

“Freedom’s just another word for running for your life.”

In some ways, the “Circus” alternative appears pampering by contrast.

CIRCUS ANIMAL:  “They feed us, they bathe us, they brush our hair and they give us treats all the time.  So we hop on our back legs for a few seconds, and yeah, sometimes their particular training techniques are not all that appreciated.  But, compared to being ripped to shreds by our natural predators… we’ll take this.”

(Which reminds me of the book that all the animals carry with them called Who Eats Who, so when they see an animal they don’t recognize they can check the book and find out whether to run after them or run away from them.  Which reminds me of the Lion King song, “The Circle of Life”, which celebrates being eaten by the appropriate animal rather than by hyenas.  The End.)

The entire outing was intendedly Milo-centric, as Baby Jack is at this point fully occupied adjusting to his extra-utero environment and focusing his eyes.  Overall, Milo appeared not quite ready for the circus’s stimular onslaught, though he was visibly transported by the motorcycle act. 

As for me, well… I had surmised it was an impending heart procedure that made me a “Fraidy Cat” at a pre-surgery performance of Cirque Du Soleil.  It turns out, however, I am just naturally terrified.

I don’t know why other people find entertainment in the perilous activities of others – and judging by the audience’s enthusiasm, the majority of people do – but somehow, this curious enthusiasm eludes me.

Unlike the under-three year-old Milo who balked stubbornly only at the “Big Cats” presentation – demanding a temporary extraction from the premises – I was, by contrast, upset by virtually everything, though, as a adult, I was compelled to remain in my seat,  gazing distractingly at my jeans.

Everything felt life-endangering.  The seven motorcyclists speeding around in intricate patterns inside the perilously constricted “Globe of Steel”, the aerialists swinging way up by the ceiling, the equestrians racing their horses at break-neck speed, as they slid under their bellies and, grazed by galloping hoofs, worked their way up the other side. 

Where were their mother’s, I kept wondering, hollering, “Stop that!  You’ll kill yourself!”  I find it death-defying crossing a really wide thoroughfare on foot.  These crazies risked their mortality before lunch.

I also realize that it was not just challenging death that upset me; it was also humiliation.  There was this cohort of women, flinging these sort of barbell-shaped objects high in the air and then catching and balancing them on narrow strings with unbelievable dexterity.  I could barely look at them either.

What if one of them dropped one, I agonized?  Would they get yelled at?  Would they get fired?  Would they get demoted to the clown contingent, forced into red noses and floppy shoes, offering in uninspired foolishness to an uncaring crowd?

Why did their fate concern me?  I have no idea.  You would think dying would be more serious than the shame of dropping a thing off a string.  But the way my “fear sensors” reacted, they felt disturbingly the same.

“If there were an award for “Hypersensitive Overreaction”, I’d be a “Certifiable Finalist.”  I apparently over-identify with failure.  I view success, ot with exultatio but wit relief.

I ave to stop writig ow.  Tree letters o m computer have stopped workig.

I mea it!”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Blurring The Line"

A couple of weeks ago, the Emmy Awards nominations were announced (Just Thinking­ – “Timeliness of Content” – D), and a reflexive babble arose concerning the “blurring of the line” between the comedies and the dramas. 

I did not write about that then – and I’m not sure why I am writing about it now, except that I just recently mentioned my preference (though not necessarily the audience’s) for the “Comedy of Ideas” which invariably derives from dramatic story premises rather than the purely comedic, and it led me to go back and think about what exactly is going on.  

My overall sense of the matter was that the line between comedy and drama has at in certain ways always been blurred, and that the current situation is just a question of an increasing degree.   

Has the line actually been blurred?  To me, it has simply been relocated.

When there was Taxi, there was Laverne and Shirley.  Shirley… I mean, surely – just kiddin’ around – the former series included more dramatic elements into its storytelling than the latter, whose most insightful determination was, "We will never let boys come between us.”   

Still, no one could categorically confuse Taxi with Hill Street Blues.  There may have been a variations in the comedic recipes, but you could easily tell the comedies from the dramas.  There were no murders in comedies.

To me, the issue of the “blurring of the categories” is an “Inside Baseball” concern.  The Emmy voting committees are having increasing difficulty determining where the nominatable contenders belong.  By “Inside Baseball”, I mean, for the majority of us – “Who cares?”

Concerning this controversy, wherein what might have previously been perceived as a drama, Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, is competing this year in the “Best Comedy” category – this is not at all a “vice versa” situation; you will never see The Big Bang Theory competing against Game of Thrones for “Best Drama” – what attracts me is less the “blurring the line” concern than the more interesting “Why is this happening?”

To me, the comedy/drama “blurring” is not in the categories.  It is in the fundamental natures of the series themselves.

(Sidelight:  In the Tony Awards, comedies and dramas are not segregated; they compete against each other in “Best Play.”  Many plays regularly intermix comedy and drama; there are big laughs in Virginia Woolf and dramatic interludes in the later Neil Simon comedies.  The only segregation in the Tonys is between “straight plays” and musicals, which are easy to distinguish, in that in “straight plays” nobody is singing.  At least not with an orchestra.  End of sidelight.)  

Only in television awards are there distinct “Comedy” and “Drama” categories.  Today that distinction, once as easily identifiable as the distinction between “straight plays” and musicals, appears less and less meaningful.   

The question I believe worth investigating here is…

How did that happen?

How did some “dramas” fall into the category of “Best Comedy”?  Now there are astute observers who believe they do not belong there.  It has been argued that shows like Orange Is The New Black and Girls are not comedies, and have therefore been mis-categorized.  It is my view that they haven’t.  For me, it is not an issue of categorization.  It is an issue of the ever-altering definition of “comedy.”

Which explanation for how comedy’s evolving definition should I tackle first?  I don’t know.  Lemme say, “In No Particular Order” and let comfortably off the hook.

There’s the “Cable Factor”, and now the “Streaming Factor” as well, wherein the business model for those outlets is not “audience size” but subscriptions, or buying cable (for its “Basic Cable” programming.) 

These new business models do not require a mass viewership.  And apparently, the audience drawn to (or who can afford) cable and Netflix is untroubled by a blending of drama and comedy that was never successful and still isn’t on the commercial networks, who now distinguish themselves from cable – I read this term for the first time today in the paper – by calling themselves “Legacy Networks”, by which they apparently mean, networks that programming that is nominated for very few Emmy Awards.

That’s the “Cable Factor”:  You do not require massive numbers to stay on the air.
And cable audiences are more comfortable with the swirling of comedic and dramatic ingredients.  What else is there?  Well, the yang to the audience’s yin are the content providers themselves – i.e., the writers.

As a result of the entertainment influences in their lives – combined with the influence of the world they live in – the new – younger –writers’ senses of humor has gotten increasingly layered, savvier, subtler and darker.  

This altered sensibility is inevitably reflected in their work, a sensibility in sync with the new, younger audience who were shaped by the same influences.  (As well as the older audience who have hungered for programming worthy of their intelligence who were formerly unchallenged by the networks’ lowest common denominator entertainment.)

Funny writers, liberated from outmoded formats – Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner originally wrote for the more confining joke-every-ten-second-infused situation comedies filmed in front of a live studio audience – crafted new, hybrid confections, where they could embrace a dramatic storytelling technique without abandoning their rich and nuanced senses of humor.  (Weiner cut his drama-writing teeth on The Sopranos, which itself could be considered a dark, omerta-driven meta-comedy.) 

I did not originally write about the “blurring of the line” between Emmy categories because it didn’t matter to me.   It did, however, seem interesting to examine the reasons this categorizational conundrum has occurred.

So that’s what I did today.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the circus and my fear, not of clowns, but of absolutely everything else.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"'Serious Comedy' Versus The Actually Funny Kind"

Sorry for so many posts on a similar subject matter.  I just go where my impulses take me.  I am eminently grateful that they are at least taking me somewhere.

The writer’s obsessing question is:

“What story am I going to tell?”

And, if you’re writing comedy, the immediate paralleling concern:

“How am I going to make it funny?”


If the story you choose to tell is a generically funny one, the second question has been automatically taken care of:  You just (as skillfully as you are able to)…

Tell that (generically funny) story.

(Note:  I am about, before venturing further, to discuss situation comedy stories that are generically funny, i.e., the kind I never favored and was incapable of writing.  Readers.  Do you know how agonizing it is to discourse upon matters you know virtually nothing about?  How uncomfortable and embarrassing it is, how torturously painful it feels to dive in, knowing the results will lack the clarity and persuasiveness of personal experience?  I am juggling in the dark here, people.  A little sympathy, tolerance and understanding, if you will.  Thank you.)

Moving on from the bracketed plea for forgiveness…

“Mistaken Identity.”  “The Practical Joke.”  “The Misinterpreted Exchange.”  To name but three such genres, because I cannot think of any more, though I am confident there are others.

Comedy premises that have you laughing from the get-go, mirthfully anticipating their hilarious resolutions.  Are these generically funnily-premised stories difficult to write?  Everything is.  But they enjoy the distinct advantage of radiating “funny signals.”  You know it’s a comedy, and you are pre-programmed to laugh.  And have been from the earliest days.

CAVE MAN STORYTELLER:  “So… Are you ready for this?…Zog steps up to this big…behemothyou know how he walks with that confident swagger… DEMONSTRATING ZOG’S SWAGGERING STRUT)… and he says, (IMITATING HIS VOICE)  ‘I am Zog!  Zog fears nothing!  (LEANING IN CONSPIRATIORIALLY)  The Giant Whatsit takes one step towards him (BARELY CONTROLLING HIS CHUCKLING DISDAIN)… Zog immediately drops his spear and runs away screaming “Help me!  Help me!”  Who knew that dopey Neanderthal could move that fast!”

And of course, Zog is standing directly behind him.    

The funny story (and situation) offers an advantageous “leg up” when entertaining an audience.  The “laugh inducers” are inherently built in.  You call a character “Jack Tripper”, and for eleven years, you just watch him trip.


To develop strategies for “comedifying” what are substantially dramatic storylines…

(I’m not saying it’s harder.  Yeah, I probably am.  Though I admittedly know better.  “Good” is good, in whatever genre you choose to write.  And, of course, vice versa.)

I was never drawn to the hyper-dramatic comedies, favored by the Norman Lear Company which did episodes on racism, the evolving roles of women and pregnancy ending.  To me, though such offerings were often interstitially hilarious – complements of some of the greatest comedy writers from an earlier era (Your Show of Shows, I Love Lucy) – in the final analysis, I did not enjoy being lectured to, and my ultimate reaction to those series was “Pasadena.”

As my career choices reflect, I was more personally attracted to the individualized, human foible storylines favored by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its similarly focused successors.  On the comedy/drama continuum, these shows reflected a stylistic middle ground, believable as everyday experience, situated somewhere between farce and hysterectomy.

Concerning my own output…

My first pilot, Best of the West (1981-82), contrasted between the West of the imagination with the West as it actually was.  The series’s most successful comedic moments played directly on that discrepancy.

Family Man’s (1988) pilot episode came from a story I was told by a woman I cared about who, at a party, had heard the party’s hostess assert, “Any woman who doesn’t work isn’t worth talking to.”  The Family Man wife was a woman whose job of choice was raising three children at home.

Major Dad (1989) was premised on the inevitable fireworks attendant to a “lifer” Marine’s marrying a left-leaning newspaper reporter with three daughters.

And Island Guy (circa 1996), a pilot I made but which did not go to series, involved the confrontation between untrammeled Polynesia and capitalistic USA.

None of these, as you can see, are “Two guys dress up in drag so they can live in a female dormitory.”  (Or a guy living with two women, hoodwinking their landlord into believing he’s gay.)  They are, for better or worse, “comedies of ideas.”

No judgments.  Everyone does what they do.  The only standard is how skillfully you pull it off.  (And the ratings, the audience’s preferences being a perennial confusion to me.)

My most clear-eyed self-assessment suggests an arguable imbalance in my recipe, the dramatic storylines overshadowing the comedy, producing a high-minded confection, lacking playfulness and fun. 

That was my combination, and I did pretty with it.  Though I was never the most popular ice cream flavor, I provided a highly palatable pistachio.

Today…well, the recent Emmy nominations, involving niche favorites (the contemporary television business model no longer requiring a mass audience) dredged up the question concerning the ever-increasing “blurring of the line” between comedy and drama.

But I shall defer such observations until tomorrow.  (As I have illuminated you sufficiently today.)