Friday, September 30, 2016

"Writing Is Not Talking (As Much As Some Of Us Might Like It To Be>"

Bill Cosby – before his criminal difficulties, which, if it crossed your mind I know nothing about – once described to me the imaginary template behind his “stand-up” performances.

It was the image of a man at a table in a restaurant, unspooling his anecdotes, to his companions’ rapt and rapturous attention.

He’s talking; they’re listening and responding appropriately.

That’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to do here.  Not in a restaurant – restaurants are noisy and, inconveniently often, they bring the food to the table as you are about to deliver the punchline.  (You know, that is the first time I ever typed the “punchline” – and that’s the second time – where my computer did not underline it in red.  It’s like my computer finally threw in the towel and they’re allowing me make it one word.  I just thought you should know.  The Human Beings finally prevailed!)

Instead of a restaurant, I favored the image of sitting in a comfortable chair, telling people gathered around me a story.  That’s the stylistic intention of this enterprise,  combatting the reality that we are actually in different places, my imaginatorial “telling” deconstructing clunkily into me typing it now and you reading it later.     

I wanted to create that “stories around the campfire” feeling in my writing. 

Then I remembered Lenny Bruce.

And I remembered I couldn’t.

(Lenny Bruce is the “Patron Saint of Meaningful Comedy” – comedy with a distinctive – dangerously provocative in his era – point of view.) 

Many decades ago, I read two books about Lenny Bruce.  One was his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty And Influence People, the other, a compilation of his stand-up comedy routines, called The Essential Lenny Bruce.

The first book was extremely interesting.  The second book – in which his “act” was presented verbatim on paper – was virtually unreadable – flat, frequently indecipherable and tediously unfunny.

The material was unedited; it was exactly what he performed onstage.  Except instead of being there, you get the transcribed version of what he said. 

It is not conceivably the same.

What exactly was missing?  Not the message, I suppose – it was there if you could extract the nuggets from the extensive verbiage. 

It’s just that… writing is not talking.  (Or, more directly to the point, performing.)

Even if you want it to be.

Imagine seeing Lenny Bruce “Live”, in a nightclub or a coffee house.  (Not that I ever saw him perform “Live” myself.  The closest I came was a paralleling experience when, attending a Randy Newman concert, I heard the explosive reaction when he warbled, “Short people have no reason… short people have no reason… short people have no reason… to li-ive…”)

Maybe this is an obvious point, but some things are so obvious you forget to consider them.  Talking to people, you have substantially more tools at your disposal than when you are writing stuff for people to read.  In the other direction, an advantage to writing is re-writing.  For example, I just tightened that last sentence.  And I rewrote the one after it as well. 

Can you imagine editing your material while you are delivering it onstage?

“A man walks into a bar… I mean, a ‘swell’ – you don’t know the word ‘swell’ – a ‘distinguished gentleman’ walks into… enters… an establishment of alcoholic purveyances… no, just a bar… and he…

“Check, Please!”

You can change things when you’re writing.   Which is a definite plus.  (I just added “Which is a definite plus.”)

But here’s what you give up.

You lose the essential experience of “being there.”  Where you get more than “just the words.” 

You get immediacy.  You get personality.  You get passion.  You get “eye contact.”  You get hand gestures.  You get “loud”, you get “quiet.”  You get sweat, and possibly spittle.  You get a real-in-the-room human being, communicating selected content in the precise tone, timing and intensity they deliberately intend.

Fat chance delivering that on paper.

You can try.  (So I put “try” in italics to heighten the emphasis.)  You can simulate… timing (with three dots, like I did there)… (and there.)  

You can accentuate the moment, giving it its own, individualized line.,

Fragmenting the sentence,

Or marshaling clarifying.  Punctuation.

You can try any stunt you can think of. 

But it’s still not “talking to you.” 

(Full Disclosure:  In some ways, doing it this way is more consistent with my personality.  Right now, I am writing barefoot, wearing gym pants and an unbuttoned ratty old shirt.  Onstage, they would at least want you to wear shoes.  Overall, excluding rare exceptions, I feel more relaxed communicating at a comfortable distance.  Though harboring unexpressed notions of wanting to do “stand-up”, this may, in fact, be a more compatible situation.  I can say stuff.  And you can hate it in a totally different locale.)

Still – being me and therefore wanting everything – I regret the techniques unavailable to me.

Some writers agonize over the most evocative word or descriptive.  (Of course, so do stand-up comedians, and, to some degree, myself.)  Fundamentally, however, I look for the most natural – for me – way of connecting with strangers on paper. 

And I am still working on it.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"Meet The Press (Or, As I Called It 'Meet Depressed' Because That's How It Felt After I Did It)"

A month or so after the new fall TV schedule is announced, journalists from around the country and neighbouring Canada – my computer just “underlined “neighbouring” in red, like I spelled it wrong.   Do they make “Canadian” computers that don’t do that?  They would have to, wouldn’t they? 

Okay, where was I?  

Oh yeah.

Journalists from around the country and neighboring Canada converge on Hollywood to interview the shows’ creators and stars.  (I put “creators” first.  The journalists probably flip those.)

As Major Dads co-creator – I received a “Developed By” credit for my efforts – I was delegated – along with stars Gerald McRaney and Shanna Reed – to face a couple of hundred press representatives who had seen the show’s pilot and were desperate for something to write about.

Okay.  A little backstory.

I have mentioned in the past that it has become my habit over the last – I don’t know, thirty-five years – to meditate in the morning immediately after I wake up.  (Meditating before you wake up is called sleeping.)

I have found this practice demonstrably helpful in calming my (naturally agitated) thinking process.  For me, meditating provides heightened focus, clarity, insight and funniness.  Who wouldn’t want that?  Ergo, I meditate every morning.  And it invariably it delivers the goods.

I dutifully meditate the day of the Major Dad press conference.  And just before I face the journalists, I slip outside the Interview Hall, “topping off” my meditational mojo with a bolstering “booster shot” – ten minutes of further meditation.  (Although focused on my breathing, I pick up the muffled responses of my press interview predecessor, Richard Chamberlain, droning tediously through the separating partition.  Dear Lord!  Even the architecture was yawning.) 

I shall spare you the glorious details – while taking a brief moment to relive my personal triumph…………………………… okay, I’m back.  And thank you for indulging me.  I went back and deleted four dots so it wouldn’t take too long, realizing you are busy people and your patience is limited.)

I don’t know whether it was a relief at listening to me instead of to Richard Chamberlain, but my every pronouncement was a towering home run.  Virtually everything I said met with prolonged laughter, and sometimes, even applause. 

This is not a subjective recollection.  You can look it up.  TV Guide reprised some of my spontaneous punch lines in their exalted magazine.  I had no idea where this performance was coming from.  It’s like I was a hotshot comedian and the free bar had opened early.

That’s not true – I know where it came from.  It came from my natural abilities, sharpened indispensably by preparational meditation.

Okay, that’s enough of that. 

It is now five years earlier…

(I just realized, this is the exact storytelling structure as my recent “baseball” post, where we declined from part owners of the team to sitting ignominiously on the grass.  A trajectorial “downer” but it works.   Call it the “dream-to-nightmare” scenario.)

Having been captivated by The Cosby Show’s fourteen-minute “presentation” (the “bargain basement” version of a pilot shot on a borrowed studio set to save money), when I was asked by the project’s co-owner Tom Werner what I wanted to do on the show, abandoning my normal trepidations about leadership, I spoke up and said, “Run it.”

(As ABC “Development” executives, Tom Werner and partner Marcy Carsey had   championed Best of the West onto the network schedule.  The team apparently liked me.   So when, through my agent, I expressed an intense interest in their new series, they – intemperately perhaps – made me the show’s first Executive Producer.)

The Cosby Show makes NBC’s schedule. 

And here – “rumble, rumble”, for the approaching storm clouds – comes the ubiquitous “Press Tour.”

I am a little murky on the specifics, (nightmare’s inherenlty include gaps.)  I know I meditated as usual that morning.  I recall driving to Bill Cosby’s house, and being shuttled, along with the star, to NBC’s Burbank Studio in a cocoa-brown Rolls Royce.  (Drives in cars costing more than your house tend to adhere themselves to your my memory.)  

I am pretty sure I was not informed of the press interview.  I was dressed super casually and if I’d been told about it I would have at least brought an accompanying sports jacket.  And I didn’t.

My understanding was it was only for pictures.  Why they needed me there – nobody asked to take my picture – I don’t know.  But they told me to be there, so I went.

And then late that afternoon, I was apprised of the press conference.  I sensed from the get-go that this was not going to be pretty.  I was dressed wrong, I was embarrassingly unprepared and by the time the questioning commenced…

I had not meditated for almost twelve hours.  (Mediation mojo inevitably wears off.  After that, it’s like Popeye taking on Bluto when he hasn’t had spinach since yesterday.)

To spruce me up before facing the Press Corps, Tom Werner took off his blazer and insisted I put it on. 

So I put it on.

Dark blue. 

Gold buttons.  

And at least two sizes too big. 

I was just swimming in the thing.  I expected the first question to be, “Have you been sick?” 

Capsule summary of the experience:

I was terrible.

No focus.  No clarity.  No insight.  And no “funny.”

I rambled aimlessly for twenty minutes, laying a seismically measurable omelet.

Again, I have evidence this was not a subjective evaluation.  When we were done, Bill Cosby turned to my wife – who was present, although neither of us recall why – and said to her,

“I hope he can write.  Because he sure can’t talk.”

You know how in Casablanca they say, “We’ll always have Paris”?  Well I’ll always have the Major Dad press conference. 

The thing is… (BIG SIGH)

I am stuck with the other one as well.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

"Vin Scully Once Threw Me Out Of His Announcer's Booth"

A belated companion to (the late, beloved baby doctor) “T. Berry Brazelton Once Punched Me In The Stomach.”

I was hired to adapt a book entitled A Pennant for the Kremlin for the movies.  A titan of industry dies and, during the disbursement of his numerous holdings it is discovered he has left the Chicago White Sox to Russia.

And hilarious, baseball-inflected “culture conflict” ensues.

I was ultimately relieved of my responsibilities on that project, but not before securing unlimited access – through connections at Universal Studios where I was working – to Dodger Stadium for the duration of that season.

I was understandably excited. 

There are multiple freeway approaches to Dodger Stadium.  I got there driving on Sunset Boulevard, which took inordinately longer but preserved the safety of countless freeway frequenters, and myself.  (Though they’d have had interesting stories to tell when they got home.)

A veteran Universal P.R. executive named Herb met me at the stadium.  Herb took me into the Dodgers clubhouse and later onto the field.  As we headed up the tunnel, I called to him, excitedly tapping the bridge of my nose.  The message:  I could smell the ball field’s grass before I saw it.

I have a lot of evocative memories of that experience but the “grass smelling” story will have to suffice.  I need to move this along. 

Herb showed me the Press Box, which led to my meeting Vin Scully.

As you may or may not necessarily know, after a record sixty-seven years broadcasting Dodger games – both in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles – Vin Scully is finally hanging up the microphone. 

In his season-ending game announcing at Dodger Stadium, which included a tenth inning home run, gaining the Dodgers victory and the Division Championship, Vin handled this “Crescendoing Moment” like he was friskily in his prime. 

In modulated rhythms – simply, accurately and succinctly:

“Swung on, a high fly ball deep into left field, the Dodger bench empties… can you believe it? – A home run.  And the Dodgers have clinch the Division and will celebrate on schedule.”

And then, as is his “M.O.”, Vin strategically went silent, the roaring crowd – better, he knew, than words possibly could – grandly accessorizing the accomplishment.

Meeting Vin Scully in person… I don’t know… 

Herb and I were sitting adjacent the Press Box and, after we were introduced, Vin casually sat down and joined us at our table.  The rest of it is a bit of a fog.

I recall a massive World Series Championship ring he was wearing.  I recall Herb reporting that there would be (apparently requested) complimentary tickets to the Tony Orlando and Dawn concert waiting for him at the Universal Amphitheater “Will Call” window.  (A possible “quid pro quo” for my Dodger Stadium opportunity.  It felt exciting being part of a deal allowing Vin Scully to see Tony Orlando and Dawn for nothing.)

I recall – because I’m an idiot – quoting one of Vin’s trademark “flights of poetry” I’d retained from a recent broadcast back to him.       

The camera panned to a toddler sitting in his father’s lap, wearing an oversized Dodger baseball cap, and Vin, talking about the child “waiting for his dreams to grow into his hat.” 

I think that one drove him away.  Though maybe he just needed to get to work.  In any case, during our ten-minute or so visit, Vin Scully could not have been more gracious, humble, personable or companionable.

FLASH FORWARD:  A week or two later.

I am up in the Press Box, drawn to the game by a momentous encounter:  The two phenomenal young pitchers of that era, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela and the New York Mets’ Dwight Gooden would be squaring off in what would be a classic confrontation.  (Gooden pitched nine innings and Fernando eleven, in a game ultimately captured by the Mets, 2-0, in the thirteenth.)

The Press Box was bulging with media.  There were not enough seats, so I stood quietly in the back.  Then I overheard someone say that the Press Box “overflow” would be shunted to unfilled seats in the uppermost bleachers.  (The worst seats in the house.  And, more importantly, not in the Press Box.)

Thinking fast, while acting invisible, I slipped down the hall till I spotted Vin Scully’s broadcast booth.  Weighing my options – which were zero – I opened the door to Scully’s announcing “Inner Sanctum” and stepped noiselessly inside.

This was my answer, I thought.  They would not be able to find me and I would be spared being exiled to the hinterlands.

I was tempted to ask, “Is this okay?”  But I instead remained mum, hugging the booth’s back wall and hoping I could stay.  I mean, I wasn’t some crazed interloper.  We had sat down and chatted.  And the guy was really nice.

I watched for half an inning, enjoying not just this incomparable pitcher’s duel but hearing Vin Scully describing it… from a seat just a few feet in front of me.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a voice said to me, “Would you step outside, please?” and I was escorted into the hallway.

And that was it.  A whispered message had been sent to “Security” and, just like that, I had had been booted from Vin Scully’s broadcast booth.  (Although not from the Press Box where I was, thankfully, permitted to watch the rest of the game.)

Later, back at the studio, I wrote a contrite letter of apology to Vin Scully, whom I sadly – though not necessarily to Vin – never encountered again.

This story is inevitably about me, because I am the “Designated Writer.”  But I met a great man, and it seemed the appropriate occasion to pass it along.  
Just a Note: Today would have been my mother's one hundredth birthday.  Happy birthday, Gertie.  Wherever you are. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"The Mysterious Pursuit Of Knowing Stuff - A Continuing Inquiry"

Warning:  Expect no definitive answers.  The greatest philosophers in history have struggled with this question.  What do you want from me?

Someone told me about this.  You may be already aware of it. 

When two sports teams compete in a championship event, in order for the commemorative championship t-shirts (among other cherished paraphernalia destined for the “Giveaway Pile”) to be available for immediate purchase, the manufacturers have to print up championship t-shirts for both teams before the game.  (Meaning, before the game’s outcome has been determined.)

When the game is over, the t-shirts of the champions are offered immediately for sale.  The “Championship” t-shirts of the losing team, on the other hand, are apparently donated to charity, landing in Africa where they are distributed to impoverished citizenry lacking adequate clothing.

As a result, there are people – a lot of them, possibly – walking around Africa, believing that the New York Mets won the 2015 World Series (the Kansas City Royals actually won it) and that the Carolina Panthers won Super Bowl 50 (Nope, it was the Denver Broncos.)

Think about that.  I know there’s Google and blah and whatever.  But say they these folks don’t have access to Google and blah and whatever.  Africans are walking around wearing demonstrable proof that the Mets and Panthers won their respective championships, oblivious to the fact that the t-shirts that are telling them so are wrong.

Imagine an African youngster, identifying a baseball team with perhaps the first mint-condition t-shirt they has ever owned, bragging with typical fan-like enthusiasm that the Mets won the 2015 World Series

A companion contests that assertion.  The neophyte Mets fan barks, “Wait here!”  They race into their bedroom and they return with the t-shirt:

“2015 World Series Champions – The New York Mets.”

Case closed.

The argument is unequivocally over.  What’s possible rebuttal could be offered?

“They lied on your t-shirt”?

It sounds crazy.  Who tells a lie on casual sportswear?

The assertion is now disseminated truth.  The Mets won the 2015 World Series

Because t-shirts don’t lie.

Although in this case,

They do.

Consider now, instead of factual evidence emblazoned on donated active wear turning out to be wrong, that are debatable and uncertain, issues of conjecture or opinion, matters in factual dispute, examples of which are too numerous – Read: tedious – to mention.

And also beside the point.  Because the question today is not “Who’s right?”

The question today is “How do you know what you know?”  And can it unquestioningly be trusted?

Think of the lifetime accumulation of “certainties” filling up your head.  How did they originally come to you?  And how did you come to determine they were “certainties”?

“My Dad (Mom, Grandpa, Grandma) told me.”  “My teacher (professor, Spiritual Advisor, or, as an African-American personal assistant of mine once described when she was a kid, a white man) said so.” 

“I read it in a book (a newspaper or magazine, I saw it on the internet – Yikes!)”  “A guy I know laid it on me and said if I didn’t believe him, he would punch me in the face.”  (Communications of “certainty” not infrequently involve coercion.)  “Donald Trump said so and we know it’s true because he tells it like it is.”)

I am not here to dispute anyone’s beliefs.  I have paralleling concerns for where my own beliefs came from?  Considering all the information from all the various, possibly unchallenged, sources – somebody told us something but how exactly do they know? – those thoughts, beliefs, and strongly held and often loudly expressed opinions that came not from our own efforts and experiments but from outside and are now an indelible conglomeration of who we are… well…

When we say we are unique, original and freethinking individuals…

What precisely are we talking about?

I know for a certainty who won the last World Series and the Super Bowl.

But barring verifiable factual evidence…

I don’t know anything.

“Knowing you know nothing.”  Where did that come from?

Oh yeah, Socrates.

You see that?

Even my ignorance isn’t my own.

And while we’re at it,

What if the beliefs of the original “Know I know nothing” guy

Are as fallacious as an African t-shirt?