Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Essence Of Show Biz"

You put on a show, and that’s great.  But even greater is when that show includes a magical element, speaking to what show business is really about, going right back to cave times, where they imaginably first put on shows.   Not long after which the first cave “impresario” began selling tickets to see them.  It’s like the Internet – it started out being for free, and then “pricing” seeped in.  And insidious advertising.  Which is also not new.

“Tired of sharpening your own stick?  Let us sharpen it for you.  And all you have to do is to catch us some dinner.  It’s as simple as that.  We’ll put a nice point point on your stick and you bring us some food.  And now – speaking of food – ladies and gentlemen, a man swallowing a live chicken.  Ta-da!”

Two of the series I got on the air – Major Dad and Family Man – contemporarily localed.  Exhilarating as it is to walk onto a soundstage and see the sets built specifically for your show, it not easy distinguishing one sitcom living room set from another.

Well, wait.  

On Family Man, we replicated our actual living room from our house, which was amazing.  Still, it was a contemporary living room – walls, windows, doors and a staircase - uniquely “homey” but hardly unusual.       

With Best of the West, however – the only half-hour western comedy I am aware of filmed before a live studio audience – Now that was different.

(Note:  This is where my story of “pure show biz” and its accompanying excitement kicks in.  But not to its ultimate degree, which I am reserving for the “payoff”, for I am nothing if not an adherent to traditional expectations, knowing that nobody enjoys their “payoffs” in the middle.)

As the audience filed into the bleachers of Soundstage 24 at Paramount Studios to see a Best of the West filming, they beheld before them, not sets depicting a typical living room and an appropriate “workplace”, but instead the simulated interiors of a “sod house” and a western saloon.

And they started to smile.   ‘Cause it was different. 

The filming began.  And, during the scenes set in “Copper Creek’s” Lucky Chance Saloon, unobtrusively but clearly visible nonetheless, the audience saw live horses (and their riders) passing “outside”, through the saloon’s swinging doors and adjoining windows.  (There was a narrow corridor between the standing “saloon set” and the concrete wall of the soundstage.  It was a tight fit.  I guess they just brought skinny horses.)

Real horses!  Can you believe it?  You never saw that on All in the Family.  A horse’s ass, sure, but not actual horses.

The studio audience had never seen anything like it before.  It was like going to the circus, but with hilarious punchlines.

The festivities began earlier in the day.  Every Friday – when we filmed the Best of the West episodes – a couple of trailers would arrive, and wranglers in authentic cowboy attire – hats, boots, oversized belt buckles and jeans featuring splotches of horse dung – would climb out and unload several horses, brought in to amble past during the saloon scenes, adding verisimilitude to the proceedings. 

It was quite the “eye catcher.”  Heading back from their commissary lunches, studio employees noticeably slowed down to look at them.  And they’d smile.  Although possibly a long way from actual production, studio employees were aware they worked someplace special.  I mean, how often do you spot a passel of ponies in a Law Office?  (Answer:  Arguably, never.)

But that was nothing,

Compared to the “payoff.”

In which one specific Best of the West episode called for “more.

I no longer recall the story.  I think it had to do with Copper Creek being snowed in by a blizzard, the desperate saloonkeeper attracting the cooped up inhabitants with “spectacular entertainment.”

Including a large, performing bear.

Do you remember a bear on Golden Girls?  I do not believe they had one.  In fact, I’m not sure anyone had one.  If there was an Emmy Category:  “Best Performance By A Visiting Bear”, we’d have won it by acclamation.  I could see myself, delivering the “Acceptance Speech” on the bear’s behalf.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t one, so I didn’t.

What was truly satisfying, however, was – yes, the live studio audience cackling delightedly at the onstage shenanigans – but even more rewarding was, earlier in the day, watching crowds of Paramount employees spontaneously mobilize, as if the president or some celebrity superstar were visiting the studio.

It started small.  But then the word spread.

“There’s a bear on the lot!”

The crowd expanded and the giddiness increased.  People were coming out of the woodwork, just to look at the bear.  Prop men, studio bean counters, powerful executives, people who had seen it all, becoming, during their tenures, inured and blasé.  Suddenly, they were kids again, joining the crowd to partake in the available wonderment. 

The bear did a little dance, and the assemblage was miraculously transported, their worldly cares and travails melting harmlessly into the periphery. 

This was the real show business – undiluted and restorative.  This was the “fun part”, the feeling the studio employees had imagined when they’d signed on.  The experience was exhilarating.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a performing bear materializing at their workplace?  (Except for “animal rights” advocates, bent on freeing performing animals into the wild.)

As they sing in Camelot, “… for one brief shining moment…”

Then the bear entered the soundstage, and it was back to the office.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Maybe It's Not Important"

“But it ought to be”?

You read my mind, “Blue Italics Nosey Person.”  But that’s the part I am trying to eradicate.

I was looking for a recent post where I acknowledged taking the evidence before me too literally but I couldn’t find it and I gave up.  Maybe it had to do with evaluating material – wait, it’s coming back to me now – it’s kind of a magic trick I’ve learned; you give up trying to remember something and it almost immediately comes to mind – I was talking about my revisiting, via reading the script, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane – and realizing that if I took the play’s storyline literally I would have a negative reaction, but if I set the storyline aside, focusing instead on the richness of cultural detail, language and character, I’d discover its recognizable attributes. 

I had taken the Beauty Queen experience too literally.  (Understandable, because I’m a “story guy”, a reasonable albeit, I have belatedly determined, unexculpating – thank you, Law & Order – rationalization.)

So what am I taking too literally and I shouldn’t be this outing?


After her recent passing, L.A. Times television critic Robert Lloyd – whose work I appreciate because his critiques are consistently incisive without eviscerating their targets – penned “An Appreciation” of Mary Tyler Moore.

It is hard every time someone I have known and/or have worked with hits the road.  It is a terrible loss for the grieving loved ones left behind.  And, selfishly, you cannot help wondering, “Who’s next?”

Anyway – he said, thinking about what he would greatly prefer not to think about –

I was fortunate to have written four scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  We were never “buddy-buddy.”  I was a relatively low presence on the totem pole and Mary and her then-husband Grant Tinker – who himself recently moved on – owned and operated the totem pole.

Still, I have one worth repeating personal reminiscence.

Unlike all the other MTM show “regulars” who ate their pre-“Show Night” dinners with the production participants, Mary – intensely focused, chronically shy or aloof, my money placed on a combination of the first two – invariably dined alone.

One night, chatting offstage before the filming of that season’s finale, I announced that I would be vacationing in Tahiti, where I’d try snorkeling for the first time.  In the course of that conversation, a voice suggested that I invest in a mask tailored to my personal specifications which would fit more snugly thereby enhancing my maiden snorkeling experience.

That contributing voice belonged to Mary Tyler Moore.

Shock surprise all around.  Mary had emerged from her self-imposed “Show Night” isolation to offer a valuable – and unsolicited – piece of advice.  I was deeply appreciative, both of Mary’s helpful suggestion and, even more so, her unexpected participation. 

So there’s that. 


In the course of his “Appreciation”, in the context of acknowledging her as a beacon of emerging feminism, reviewer Robert Lloyd described the “Mary Richards” character as a “single, childless career woman – and not regretfully so.”

Hold the phone here.

I have researched this oft-mentioned assertion – more than once to insure my information was correct – examining the series’s pilot episode for the facts.  And here’s what was confirmed.

Armed with the Minneapolis “Want Ads”, Mary Richards interviewed at WJM, a marginally successful TV news operation, looking for not for a career in journalism but simply a job. 

Additonally, in the early seasons particularly, Mary conducted a continued campaign to encounter a Minnesotan “Mr. Right” (and presumably eventually have children.)

I admired Mary’s characterization on the show.  But “feminist icon”, I believed, was a wishful misreading of the available evidence.

This reminded me of a similar observation of mine concerning an equally honored “feminist icon”:


Who despite macho steadfast Ricky’s resistance, maneuvered aggressively to “get into the show.”

The problem with this example was that, unlike Lucille Ball, Lucy Ricardo was excluded from participation in the show not because she was a woman but because she was monumentally untalented.  (Note:  Ethel Mertz, in a “Double Act” with husband Fred, appeared regularly in the show.)

Elevating Lucy Ricardo to “pioneer” status seemed too to be a mischaracterized designation.  Reading Mr. Lloyd’s rounded “Appreciation”, however, I quickly realized my mistake.

Shattering the mold, real life Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore co-ran their own production companies.  Mirroring their personal experiences, the characters they portrayed on their shows were themselves recognizably strong women – independent in their aspirations, indefatigably positive and fiercely determined, active opponents of the prevailing stereotypes of the day.  (“Mr. Grant” notwithstanding.)

That’s how they were iconic beacons of feminism.

Glossing over those encouraging attributes, I had ignored the subliminal “Big Picture” in favor of the literal evidence of the story.

I had taken Lucy and Mary’s honoring description too literally as well.

Hopefully, some day, I will stop doing that.

It gets tiresome –and embarrassing - continually missing the point.

Friday, January 27, 2017

"Revisiting An Opinion"

This idea fluttered to mind at least partly because of what commenter JED wrote recently about the news game’s proclivity for telling a story.  That is demonstrably on the money.  The people delivering the news believe “telling a story” is the most reliable formula for reaching people and since trying to reach people is their lofty or exploitational – depending on your perception of the news business – that is precisely what they do.

What occurred to me, however, after reading the script of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leelane which I ordered because my aging ears and the actors’ impenetrable dialects caused me to miss huge swaths of the spoken dialogue is that

There is more than one way to successfully reach people.

We often forget that.  And by “we” I mean the people who do and not the people who don’t of whom there are arguably fewer but they nonetheless exist.  The majority of us forget that… I feel confident in saying, while lacking the corroborating evidence to back it up.

Still, I believe it’s correct.  A confirming example, aforementioned in this post, is that if people were not attracted like flame-drawn moths to hearing a story, the news media would not be unilaterally committed to crafting the events of the day into one.

That holds some measure of argumentative water, don’t you think? 

I will now narrow the focus beyond – wait, you don’t “narrow” something “beyond”, do you?  Lemme try that again.

I will now narrow the focus… I can’t think of anything.  I’m going back to “beyond.”

I will now narrow the focus beyond my pontificating generalizations to something I know more confidently about, which is myself, more specifically my personal experience.

I wrote scripts for half-hour comedies.  While engaging in that formidable undertaking, we spent entire workdays, sometimes two entire workdays assiduously “beating out” the stories, meaning structuring the events of that particular narrative. 

What happened?  And then what?  And then what?  And then “what”?  Beat by hammered-out beat by agonizingly devised beat by painstakingly constructed beat.

Sure, there were jokes pitched along the way, which – especially if they came from the Executive Producers – would find their way into the script.  But that was in no way the basic purpose of the exercise. 

Hint, hint.  It was not called a “story meeting” for nothing.

Our extensive efforts went to fashioning coherent, cohesive narratives.  (Which were also required to be funny, making comedy, he self-serving asserted, more difficult to successfully execute than drama.  Though he is arguably correct.  Imagine juggling while tap dancing.)   

What I am saying is, as with assemblers of the news, our laser-like focus was the same:  organizing, honing and communicating the story.

That’s all we thought about.

Not surprisingly then, when somebody with my background attends stage plays and movies whose substandard narratives stink up the place…

I have a negative reaction to those stage plays and movies.

How could it be otherwise?  I have been programmed to see “story as everything.”

And perhaps, I am surmising, not just me.

Does this sound familiar?

“I saw this great movie the other night.”

“Yeah?  What was it about?”

That’s how we talk about things, explaining the experience by telling a story… about the story.  Sure, you likely also inquire if they liked it, but in their answer “for or against”, they inevitably return to what happened.  

I am not certain it can be otherwise. 

“I saw this great movie the other night.”

“Yeah?  What was the subliminal context?”

Who talks like that?  I believe nobody.

And yet…

I read The Beauty Queen of Leenane and I was blown away by just that.  Not the narrative, which was shruggingly familiar and took potholing liberties with my suspension of disbelief – the plot turns on an offstage misapprehension by the lead character who we now see as tragically delusional though there was little groundworking evidence that she might be, making the ultimate “payoff”, when I saw the play, an unacceptably easy way out.

But when I read it, the so-so storytelling melted into the background.  Instead, what rose impressively to the fore was McDonagh’s sensitive understanding of the characters, the subtly balanced primary relationship, the knowing portrayal of the enveloping subculture, and the language.  Ah, the language.

I was going to give you an example, but you have to read it for yourself.  The whole thing is an example, the dialogue, start to finish, like honey – smooth and sweet and natural and rich. 

When I saw it, the play’s searing insight and evocative poetry blew past me, preoccupied as I was with the “eye-rolling” storyline.

My conditioning makes it difficult to escape that. 

But I’ll be missing some remarkable good stuff if I don’t.

Can a play or movie do both – tell a spectacular story along with a captivating milieu? 

I leave it to you to illuminate me.  For nothing immediately comes to mind.  I know –Shakespeare.  I’m thinking something in my lifetime.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"Risk Assessment"

I have just slipped into bed.  The television is on, though Dr. M is already asleep.  A problematic sleeper, Dr M claims that the only way she can fall asleep is to find something on television she sincerely wants to watch.  “Dull and uninteresting” are unable to pull it off.  The program has to be fascinating. 

What’s on as the woman sleeps contentedly beside me is an apparently scintillating – because it obviously did the trick – science program.  They are talking about the moon and how in four million years – they seem to have calculated this precisely – it will come close to the earth and eventually blow up. 

This program is not for me.  I have a myriad of problems to deal with.  I do not need an exploding moon appended to the list.

I am not yet ready to turn in.  The TV is on.  The solution for wasting my remaining waking moments of the day is to watch it.  The only question is “What?”

There are no family rules about changing the current channel once the channel’s selector has gone to sleep.  I have the run of the Spectrum­ – our new cable provider – spectrum to turn to.

As previously mentioned, my television viewing options have been substantially diminished.  I will not watch cable news, until they find a way to harness their prejudices and make their observations conform to identifiable reality. 

I have abandoned former standby Law & Order:  SVU, having belatedly come to understand that horrible sex crimes are not a license for (SVU’s creator) Dick Wolf to print money.  Or a means for the casual viewer to be entertained.

And late-night Seinfeld reruns have finally worn out their welcome.  It’s surprising how even classic comedic moments lose their power to amuse after thirty or so repetitions.  (Exception:  Lucy and the conveyor belt.  Explanation:  Physical comedy has extended “staying power.”)

So what’s left for me to turn to?

What is left for me to turn to, after no matter how many previous viewings, is Law & Order, The Original.

I am not entirely sure why Law & Order retains an enduring enthusiasm for me.  My best guess is that at their core Law & Order episodes are moral conflicts and I appreciate the debate.  As a professional word user, I also appreciate the language.  Plus, Law & Order’s onscreen violence is minimal.  The victims are found dead.  We do not actually watch them succumb.  Which I like.  Not watching them succumb.  Not watching them succumb.   (That’s interesting.  Four words whose assigned emphasis creates the opposite intent.)

Anyway, that’s not what this is about.  What it is about is this.

First of all, day or night, it is not hard to find a Law & Order episode playing somewhere.  Brandishing my remote, I can easily find one in less than a minute. 

The problem – cutting directly to the chase – are the inevitable Chung-Chungs.

Regular Law & Order viewers will recognize my onomatopoeical representation as the trademark transitional sound inserted at the completion of a scene.  There are no Chung-Chungs in the middle of a scene – that would be terribly distracting, the actors turning their heads wondering, “What’s that?”  More significantly to the problem at hand, the Chung-Chungs are not inserted at the end of every scene, just an indeterminate percentage of them.  There may be an identifiable pattern involved, but it would take a professional Chung-Chungologist to uncover it, and that is, sadly, not me.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  First, an explanatory tidbit.

Without fail – this has been proven more often than was enjoyable for either of us –  the Law & Order Chung-Chungs inevitably wake Dr. M up.

Not Law & Order itself. 

Only the Chung-Chungs.  It only takes one.  And she's totally awake.

You can immediately see my dilemma.  I want to watch Law & Order.  But I cannot hazard the Chung-Chungs.


As a Law & Order aficionado, I can generally anticipate the Chung-Chungs.  And being fast on the remote, I can preemptively “mute” them.  That solution, however, is not guaranteed. 

Although my inveterate show-watching conditioning allows me to detect the end of a Law & Order scene when it’s arriving, first, as I mentioned, they do not Chung-Chung at the end of every scene so there is no absolute certainty a Chung-Chung is on the horizon.  “At the end of every scene” – that’s easy.  The “variable interval” schedule?  Ask any lab rat.  That one is murder.

The second issue is, sometimes, I get so caught up in the narrative, a surprise Chung-Chung can ring out before I can “neutralize” it. 

And then she’s awake.

And she’s not happy about it.

So there you have it.  The show I am ready to watch contains a noise that inevitably wakes up my wife.  Not cascading gunfire.  Not unexpectedly raised voices. 

Only the Chung-Chungs.

I am lying in bed… 

Wondering what to do.