Monday, November 30, 2015

"An Unpopular Reality (At Least According To One Person)"

Is there ageism in show business?

In the literal sense, sure.  Just pop your head into any writers’ room and ask, “Anyone here get up in the middle of the night to pee?”  Or  “Do you guys know any good plastic surgeons?”  And you are unlikely to get a response.  Beyond…

“Go away, old man.  We’re working!”  (The “And you’re not” generously left unsaid.)

Somebody once told me that show business was a “young person’s job.”  At the time, I did not know what that meant.  Of course, at the time, I was a young person.

Is show business, in fact, a “young person’s job”?  Certainly not like sports is a “young person’s job”, because of stuff “going” in your body – resilience, strength, reflexes – meaning you can no longer perform on the gridiron – or wherever “iron” your sport is generally played on. 

Nor is it a “young person’s job” like, say, computer jobs because they’re dealing with advanced technology and you only know Univacs. 

Show business is not a “young person’s job” in those way.  But in some other way is it?

A lot of people believe it isn’t.  Although the ones I know who believe that are all old.

I am in contact with numerous contemporaries who, uninhibited by their chronological designation, are still out there, trying to sell stuff.  I will tell you something.  It is not the place of a person who has written more than two thousand blog posts for nothing to tell anyone else that they are wasting their time.

I just thought, if I were still out there trying to sell stuff, I would be.  So I stopped doing it.  My acquaintances didn’t, and I tip my superannuated cap to them.  Because it is not going to be easy.

The following are some wrong reasons not to hire older writers:

1 – You do not want to look at wrinkles.  For aesthetic reasons, or because they engender shuddering premonitions of, “That’s me soon.”  (And, by the way, it is.)

2 – You do not want to pay older writers what their reputations require.  As with outsourcing, only without Bangladesh, although with a likeminded eye on the “Bottom Line”, it makes fiscal sense for employers to replace experienced, higher salaried writers with younger, more economically paid beginners.  (And pocket the difference themselves.)

3 – You do not want to work with somebody who looks like your dad.  Or in some cases, your stepdad.  (I was going to say “grandfather” but I wanted to get there in smaller increments so as not to disrupt myself in an unhealthy manner.)

4 – You do not want to be shown up by writers, who, through training and repetition – if not superior ability – know better than you do.  (I believe that happened to me once.  And I was summarily sent packing.  Of course, I could be flattering myself, and, in reality, I stunk up the place.)

Those – and others I cannot currently think of – are mistaken reasons for eliminating older writers.  Which is too bad because I believe they can help you.

At this point, however, I respectfully get off the train.

Leading me to sigh, because I know I appear at least to be crossing traitorously to the other side.  Please forgive me for that, but it is what I believe.

My contemporaries still pitching in the marketplace are not necessarily pitching stories featuring characters who are their own age.  (Or exclusively “Period Pieces” set where writers know from experience the contemporary terrain.)  They are instead pitching everything, their works featuring younger characters as well, thereby going head-to-head against writers who are actually that age. 

The problem?

“I do not have to be a coal miner to be able to write about coal mining.”

“No.  But if there is a coal miner who can write, I will unequivocally go with them.”

Delete “coal” and change “miner” to “minor” and you have exactly what I am talking about.

Yes, emotions are timeless, and, since writing is fundamentally about emotions – I will not insult you with an extended list – writers of any age can consider themselves still viable, and therefore still relevant in the marketplace.  Older writers may be even better at delineating emotions, due to the added advantages of experience and perspective.


When it comes to the culture, focusing not the transient trappings of time but on just perennial feelings, like, for example, shame – let us remember that what is shameful to one generation may not at all be – and in numerous instances is not – shameful to the following one.  Or the generation after that.

It is natural to feel shame.  The thing is, from era to era, the “line” at which point you begin feeling that shame has moved.

As it has for numerous other emotions as well.

As Cole Porter sagely opined,

“In olden days a glimpse of stockin’
Was looked on as something shockin’…”

Now, heaven knows…

Anything goes.”

Older writers might imagine what “goes” today.  But they do not know it in their kishkas.  (Read:  Innate “feeling” apparatus.)

Because they can’t. 

Veteran writer, haling from an earlier era, are conditioned to respond differently.  You can fake it.  But like a spy with a shaky accent, your “tell” will inevitably give you away, keeping you from “passing” for what you transparently are not. 

Old writers are inherently not young writers. 

That is simply the way it is.  (Except perhaps for children’s writers.  But some of those guys are weird.)

However, if you want a writer who is savvy, capable, responsible and reliable (except when they have a doctor’s appointment)…

Old is gold.

And it always will be.

(Quoth the writer, trying to regain favor with his contemporaries.  Though it may unfortunately be too late.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

"What I Learned About Writing In Acting School"

“My mind alights on the memory of Robert O’Neill, who taught at and ran the “Actors’ Workshop” which I attended when I lived in London during the 60’s, the
“Actors’ Workshop” specializing in teaching the “Stanislavski Method” acting technique. 

England is not the natural terrain for “Method Acting.”  That’s growing watermelons in Kansas.  In contrast to the “Method’s” introspective methodology, the English acting approach is traditionally of the “outside-inside” variety.  Slap on a mustache and you’re Hitler.

“Method” actors are indoctrinated in the “inside-outside” approach.   For example, actors are instructed to write extensive biographies so they can better understand their characters’ innermost motivations.  (English actors simply put on the costume.  “Oh, look!  I’m a general!”  And they immediately straighten up.)

Many writing professionals also recommend preparing character biographies.  I never did that myself.  Partly because I am congenitally lazy.  But also because the process seems to me to be precariously arbitrary.

‘He attended a good college.”  “He attended to a bad college.”  “He attended a good college but dropped out.”  “He attended a bad college, later transferring to a good college.”  “He never attended college.”  “He attended college, but it had nothing to do with his future success as a professional bowler.”  “He attended a great college but he set it on fire.”   

And that’s just about college.

My summarial conclusion on writing character biographies recalls the elderly hotel porter, who, when my mother refused to share a queen-sized bed with her two young sons replied,

“Well, some does and some doesn’t.”

The same goes for “Sense Memory”, requiring actors to remember seminal events from their personal lives, to help invigorate their performances.  The character’s loved one succumbs, you remember the day your dog died, and you cry.

Alternatively, you can surreptitiously yank a single hair follicle out of your nose.  Hardly Stanislavskian, but I’ve been told the strategies are equally successful.

There is, however, one part of “Method Acting” training with which I wholehearted agree, because I have experienced its positive consequences, both in acting and in writing.

It involves the issue of “articulated intention.”

When Robert O’Neill directed me and my assigned acting partner Belinda Rokeby–Johnson for a scene we would ultimately present in front of the class, what he stressed most emphatically was the necessity for the actor, in a simple declarative sentence, to express precisely what their character is trying to achieve. 

“I want to get you to love me.”

“I want to ‘lowball’ you on buying your pony.”

“I want to persuade you to trust me.”  (So I can murder you when you guard is down).

And any other motivation – good or evil – the role fundamentally requires.

Knowing the character’s “deep down” desire serves as an essential and highly effective “homing device.”  With one unwavering objective in mind… you know how they say, “How do you sculpt a pony?” – “You take a hammer and a chisel and you chip away everything that isn’t a pony”?

“I want to sculpt a pony.”

That’s the unwavering objective. 

An actor needs to retain in their consciousness a laser-like focus on what they are trying to accomplish.  Harboring that decided-upon objective – which you remind yourself of before entering the scene – will lead your acting choices – movement, gesture, intensity and “touch” – to be pared down from a globalized “anything” to “the right thing”, necessary to eventuate that objective.    

I could literally feel the difference.  With the appropriate anticipatory intention, I found myself bursting into the scene with a pinpoint focus and an energized “attack”, providing a knife-edged clarity, unavailable if I had merely stepped into the scene and started verbalizing my lines.

“Hello, darling.”

Suddenly came luminously alive!

It is exactly the same with writing.  If you are specific in your pre-determined intention, extraneous words, thoughts, ideas and imagery readily fall by the wayside.  What then remains is the pristine “pony” you intended to create. 

An articulated intention.  It works in acting.  It works in writing.  It probably also works in life.  The approach works in this venue as well.

“I want to make you a believer in Method Acting’s ‘articulated intention’ technique.”

Did I think of that ahead of time?

Well, my intention is always to write the best blog post I can possibly deliver.  But specifically, in this case?

I had a vague notion of where I was going, but tell the truth, I kind of just jumped right in.

Imagine how much better this would have been if I hadn’t.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"A Thanksgiving Thought"

At the end of the 3-D western Hondo – better than today’s 3-D; the lances flew right out at you, and they literally made you duck – perennial movie Indian fighter John Wayne responded to the marauding Indians being thoroughly vanquished, by saying,

“It’s the end of a way of life.  Too bad.  It was a good one.”

Every year, at our Thanksgiving gathering, each dinner guest is issued a cardboard headband to wear – half of them, with a painted buckle on the front, the other half with a stapled feather on the back.

The dinner’s host wears a full out, though hardly authentic, Indian headdress.

I commit to this annual ritual not just to commemorate the “taught them how to grown corn” story, but to pay tribute to a way of life that was decimated so that another way of life could ultimately prevail.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, and I take great joy in its celebration. 

But it seems to me that, somewhere between “Firsts” and “Seconds”, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that, to be what we ultimately became, somebody was paying the price.

I don’t know what more to do about that.  Beyond keeping it in mind.

And saying,

Happy Thanksgiving.

To everyone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"Three Short Movies I Wrote (And I Really Mean Short) III"

This third and final mini-movie got me started in Hollywood.  Lorne Michaels howed the version I had written for The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour to Lily Tomlin, Lily liked it, and said, “If he can adapt this movie for me, invite him to join the writing staff of my special.”

I could.  And Lorne did.

And off I went.  (And ultimately remained.)

And now, a brief, unfortunate preface.

The original notion for this filmette was conceived by fellow Terrific Hour writer Sheldon Rosen, an expatriate American who had emigrated to Canada after deserting from the United States army during the Viet Nam war.  After he pitched the idea, we paired up and wrote the script for the movie together.

The thing is, although I got to go to the States because of it, my collaborator, required to steer clear of America for fear of immediate arrest, had to remain in Canada.   (By no means a terrible place, but he missed out on the career opportunity.)

I have tried to locate Sheldon Rosen on numerous occasions to personally thank him for his indispensible contribution to my advancement, but I have to date been frustratingly unsuccessful.  Still, I am aware I am beholden to somebody.  And I have never forgotten that.


Here’s the idea.

FADE IN on a room in the “Pediatric Ward” of a hospital in the municipality of Dull City.  (Note:  Any allusion to Canada is purely coincidental.) 

A beaming nurse steps into the room, carrying a newborn, wrapped head-to-toe in a soft, gender specific blanket.  The nurse moves to the hospital bed, passing the baby to their eagerly anticipating mother, the father standing glowingly nearby.

Slowly and carefully, the mother draws back the blanket, so she can, for the first time, set her adoring eyes on her just-born offspring.

The new arrival is ultimately revealed.

And they’re different. 


A bulbous red nose.  Humongously oversized feet.  A white powdery complexion.  And a frizzy mane of fire engine red hair.

That’s right.

The startled woman has given birth…

To a natural-born clown.

(Note:  The “clown-baby”, who was a male in the original version, was converted to female in the Lily Tomlin adaptation.) 

What follows is the quintessential “fish-out-of-water” scenario – a congenital cut-up raised by a disapproving family, the situation compounded by living in “difference”-intolerant Dull City. 

Putting it delicately,

The kid doesn’t fit in.

She scoops up peas with their fork and playfully flings them across the table at her siblings.

She squirts “fizzy-water” at her schoolmates.  And interceding teachers and Hall Monitors.

And consistent with her genetic constitution, she is incapable of passing a pie without picking it up and throwing it at the nearest available target.  Or, if they are standing nearby, “mooshing” it into somebody’s face.

She simply cannot help herself.

Inevitably, there are “well meaning” interventions, such as sessions of professionally prescribed “Aversion Therapy”, to break the prankster of her anti-social behaviors, rendering her a “functionally normal” citizen in Dull City society.

Nothing works. 

No matter how many jolting shocks are administered, when the patient is handed a pie, she cannot stop herself from throwing it.  Leading to…

Throw – “Ow!”  Throw – “Ow!”

The irrepressible “clown-alien” is inevitably ostracized, her lack of friends and familial encouragement breeding feelings of loneliness and displacement.

And then…

Walking idly down a backstreet, the clown-child – now a youthful adult – drawn to the sounds of uninhibited merrymaking, discovers, gathered secretly in a basement, people who look and behave exactly like her.

(Note:  In the Lily Tomlin Special version, I collaborated on a “Clown Anthem” which was inserted at this juncture, co-written with fellow writing staff member Christopher Guest.) 

What an invigorating revelation!  The Dull City “outsider” has found a like-minded subculture.  For the first time in her life, the unique “clown-girl” feels accepted, connected, and genuinely happy.


The clown clubhouse is raided by the cops. 

Ordered to root out the “Undesirables.”

The climactic scene involves a frantic, silent-movie-style melee between the “authorities” and the”troublemakers”, the clowns fighting their adversaries with everything they’ve got – slap sticks, seltzer bottles, “Whoopie Cushions” and pies.

I do not, forty-five years later, remember how the film ends.

But I am certain it was happily.

My career ultimately took me in a different direction, writing half-hour comedies showcasing character and dialogue, rather than short “concept” films, featuring commentary and silliness.

I had fun doing those little movies.

And I hope you enjoyed hearing about them.

Postscript:  I am remembering the chorus of the “Clown Anthem”:

“Oh, we are clowns, and proud to be
Big feet and red noses, white faces and free.”

Lily didn’t like “white faces”, thinking it was racially discriminatory, so we changed it to “bright faces.”

And they say I am not flexible.