Friday, June 23, 2017

"I'm Not Sure What To Call This Yet"


The title of a post points you in a specific direction.  Sometimes, it’s the wrong direction.  So in order not to head down an erroneous pathway, I will leave the title open for the moment.  Except now, I have no focusing pathway.  Oh, well.  Flying blindly…

You might find it surprising – and possibly headshakingly inexplicable – to hear that one of my primary concerns when writing these posts is being assiduously careful never to use the same word twice. 

I am not, of course, talking about “the”, and the like; I am talking about words that matter.  With apologies to “the” and the many short but valuable words I have selected “the” to represent – “A” and its fraternal twin “an”, “but”, “to” and, oh yeah, “and” and also “also” – all wonderful – and admittedly essential – words in this literary enterprise, but they are not, in today’s context, what I am talking about.  Although the word “enterprise” is.  In my world, you use “enterprise” once, and that’s it.  Next time, it’s “undertaking.” 

Bottom Line:  You do not ever repeat words.  Repetition is distracting, as well as reflecting a demonstrable narrowness of vocabularial latitude.  So many words to choose from.  Why serve up the same one twice?

Distraction in comedy is a guaranteed “laugh killer.”  Repeat a word in a joke and you are a “ha-ah”-soliciting goner.

“How tall is he?”

“This guy is so high up there, people are, like, ‘How’s the air up there?’”

Dead.  If it were a good joke – still dead.  Telling a joke that way amounts to the public acknowledgement: “I have absolutely no understanding of what it means to be funny.”

Noteworthy Exception:

Sometimes repetition itself is funny.  But I am not talking about that.   I am not talking about saying precisely the same thing over and over again.  Saying the precisely same thing over and over again can be funny.  But I am not talking about that.  Saying precisely the same thing over and over again?  That’s not at all… what I am talking about.

Hopefully, you are at least chuckling and I can move on. 

Or I can say precisely the same thing an additional time.  Or as many as it takes till I have worn down your resistance.  Suffice it to say,

I am not talking about that.

I am talking about nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives repeatedly used in a single undertaking.  Or a single outing.  Or a single exercise. 

See that?  I’ve got three of them waiting for me – “As needed.” 

Imagine a novel where every woman is described as “attractive.”  Or, for those unable to make the grade, “unattractive.”  It might otherwise be a really good novel.  Still, your inevitable “take-away” would be, “This novelist has a limited vocabulary.”  (An exaggeration, of course, – because that’s what I do – but right now I am listening to a “Book-on-CD” called Dodge City where the word “six-gun” is being egregiously overused.)

I know this is a perennial “sticking point” for me because a couple of efforts ago I used the word “success” and its adjectival companion “successful” three times in the same post.  Reading it over, I felt like an absolute failure as a writer… because I was unable to come up with synonymal alternatives.  I have a thesaurus, but “triumphant”, “prevailing”, “vanquishing” felt like regressing steps down in absolute clarity from “successful.”

So I gave up, using “success” and its variation three times. 

I have to tell you, I did not sleep comfortably that night.

How did I get this way?  It’s my training.

In my early days writing for some of the most respected sitcoms on television – Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, etc – writers were expected to be more than just funny; we had to also be clever and original.  Every joke and line of dialogue was required to be sparklingly freshly minted.  That’s what made those shows standouts. 

That’s what I learned and that’s what I did.  And have continued to do.  Notwithstanding the occasional lapse where I use “success” and/or “successful” three times in one post. 

Oh, the ignominy!  Oh, the shame!

Now, here comes the “turn.”

As mentioned previously, I am a habitual viewer of the show Blue BloodsBlue Bloods, I have found, to my confusion and dismay, plays an entirely alternate game.

Rather than reinventing the wheel with every pronouncement, Blue Bloods talks like reasonably educated human beings.  But not “fancy.” 

Although they are on television, where highly paid writers are expected – I believed – to express themselves in a unique and imaginative manner, the characters on Blue Bloods speak like the everyday person-in-the-street.

The characters say things like,

“It is what it is.” 

“What goes around comes around.” 

“Sometimes it’s better to apologize than to ask permission.” 

They actually said that.  With nary a wink nor ironic acknowledgment that they are spouting retrograde clich├ęs. 

Blue Bloods characters are not pretending they are breaking new ground with their pithy observations.  Rather than trying to “one up” reality, they simply echo what regular “Joes” and “Janines” in such situations might say.  (They would probably say regular “Joes” and “Janes.”)

Naysayers might describe this as “lazy writing.” 

But, to me, it feels surprisingly refreshing.

And in a way – a “back-to-basics” kind of a way – revolutionary.

It’s like nobody’s “trying too hard.”  By easing up on the assiduous cleverness – see Aaron Sorkin and other pyrotechnical smarty-pantses, including myself, who could have found a more monosyllabic descriptive than “pyrotechnical” – or “monosyllabic” – they sound like regular, lived-in human beings – the scuffed shoes and corduroy trousers of characters.

To be honest, and in the final analysis – because I am not ready to jump into the rest of the sentence – I am not sure what I think about that.  I have a feeling Blue Bloods “normalizes” its dialogue on purpose, so as not to sound snootily elitist.  I see this “regularizing” technique in other aspects of the series as well.  For example, the show’s star, Tom Selleck, is seen repeatedly wearing the same shawl-collar cardigan sweater.  Breaking this television “wardrobe taboo” feels like a deliberate “character statement”:

“This guy really likes this sweater.  And you know what people partial to a particular item of clothing do?  They wear it a lot.”   

That’s what I do.  I wear this Sarah Lawrence t-shirt I’ve got on whenever it’s clean.  If this t-shirt were the word “successful”, I would be summarily drummed out of the “Smart Writers Club.”

So, what’s better, is what I’m wondering – “highly imaginative” or “readily identifiable”?

The Blue Bloods approach has gotten me thinking.  Though I am unlikely to stop obsessing about deliberately repeating myself.

Wait. 

Did I say that already?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"It's Their Problem - But That Doesn't Stop Me From Thinking About It"

Upfront Apology:  I will be unable to write this very well, as my thoughts today go to a character – known in real life as an actual person – who is substantially different from myself.  And I am, sadly, not a skillfully enough writer to satisfactorily delineate them. 

Other writers can do it; delineate characters dissimilar to themselves.  But living by the dictum:  “Nobody does ‘Me’ better than me”, I am obliged to acknowledge the dictum’s implicit corollary:  “I cannot equally successfully do anyone else.” 

My best effort, were I to try, would be seen, by me and probably you as well, as “counterfeit money.”  (Which reminds me of my Canadian brother’s joke about the Jewish counterfeiter who was apprehended because the forged currency he engraved said, “Qveen Elizabeth.”)

We live in a diverse culture in which disparate value systems must somehow learn to co-exist.  For me, a lot of things are, like, “It’s nobody’s business.”  Gender issues, for example.  What do I care?  A former female wants to avail themselves of the “Men’s” bathroom?  So what?  Side-by-side at the urinals, you might possibly hear something interesting, maybe a wistful “I miss peeing sitting down.”  That would be fascinating.  You can tell people about it at parties and they’ll laugh,

Other things, however, which will be revealed in due course, encroach on our daily regular existence.  Recently, I started to think about those underdogs, who may, in fact, be numerically superior but, as things currently stand, you pull the handle on the “Cultural Slot Machine” and the winner is,

“Not people like you.”

(Note:  I am about to talk ignorantly through my hat, as I try to delineate those “Not people like me.”)

What entered my mind were thoughts of ordinary people who unwaveringly never swear –even when they whack their thumb with a hammer – people raised with values of acceptable language and public behavior unlike those currently in vogue, people for whom the words “vulgar”, “crude”, “tasteless”  “coarse” have palpable meaning, people a more “liberated” society denigrates with words like “prudish”, “old-fashioned”, “fuddy-duddy” and “repressed.”  

I bet there are a lot of those people, and I bet they get tired of defending what they grew up to perceive as “natural behavior.”  Of course there’s the fire-breathing ugly contingent,  “Legion of Decency” and the like – but I’m not talking about them.  I am talking about people exhibiting – and expecting in return – traditional “good manners.”  Or are “good manners” just code words for “So-o-o ‘What century are you living in’?”  (I originally wrote “So-o-o ‘Ozzie and Harriet’” but I feared confusion if not outright hostility for the antediluvian reference.)  

As I write this, I sense the inevitable “push-back.”  And I understand where it’s coming from.  Historically, “Traditional etiquette” has enforced tons of culturally sanctioned inequities.  “That is simply not done.”  I get – and unequivocally agree – that a lot of that nonsense had to be blown up.  But does it really have to be “All or nothing”?  Is individual liberty the same and “Everything goes”?  (It just occurred to me that maybe it is.)

If a person objecting to the coarsening of our culture is behaviorally tolerant – and there is no reason they necessarily wouldn’t be, and if you think otherwise you might want to revisit your own tolerance – if that person is tolerant, then the life choices of others, for them, would be unworthy of comment, criticism, ridicule or legislative prevention.  It’s just, “People are different – Have a nice day.”  The different does not affect them, it’s “No harm – no foul” and see you at the next Brotherhood (or Sisterhood) Annual Dinner.

But then there’s the media.  (The aforementioned inescapable “encroacher.”)

The media is everywhere; it “gets on you” wherever you go.  The media – with its “Free Speech” protection and concomitant big money opportunities – is inside your house.  You cannot get away the media.  You could throw out your TV, I suppose, but should you have to?    

What I recently started to wonder is what do these people I’ve been talking generically about – people truly uncomfortable with coarseness and crudity – actually watch?  

What do they watch with their children?  (assuming their children are willing to participate in family viewing.  They could respectfully be “otherwise engaged.”)

Note:  Twenty-five years ago, I was warned by my agent – for my own good, meaning my career survival – that I should start writing more “edgy”, “more edgy” being a euphemism for more blatantly sexual.  (Satire and cultural commentary are also “edgy” but they didn’t do any back then.)  My bristling reaction to my agent’s advice – “I can’t!” – reflected an equal amalgam of “I would feel very uncomfortable doing that” and “I have no idea how.”

(The preceding paragraph is the only section of this narrative that is exclusively about me – an unrivaled record for Just Thinking.  The only reason it’s in there is habit.  And now back to the decent people.)

Cable television altered the boundaries of acceptable content.  Other delivery services ran with the ball, all aware that commercial television, due to its pressurizable business model, would be unable to keep pace.  (This sexual “Dividing Line” harkens back to decades ago, when foreign films had the monopoly on nudity.  Then the limiting “Code” went away and American movies quickly caught up, offering the unbeatable combination of nudity and unadorned women who spoke English. 

Still constricted by language and subject matter controls, TV networks, trying desperately to remain relevant, gradually loosened their rules, so that now, even mainstream comedy routinely goes “south of the border” for its laugh-inducing shenanigans.

Where then, I ask seriously, is a legitimate decent person searching for entertainment to turn?

“We do not see the problem”, some might contrarily rebut.  “It’s a different time.”  “Get with the program.”  “if you don’t like what you see, change the channel.”

The question is – asking you to momentarily identify with their troubling predicament –


To what?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Tale Of A (Short Lived0 TV Series (And It's Ultimate Consequences)"

Although Best of the West ran for one season, it took two seasons to produce.

Which, like almost anything I can think of, has its good part and its bad part and I could probably do without the “almost.”  (And the “probably.”)
 
After responding to then ABC development executive Tom Werner’s question, ”What show would you most like to create?” with “a comedy western”, with the network’s “Green Lighting” of the idea, during the Pilot Season (in the spring) of 1980 – though it could possibly have been 1981 – I went to work writing, casting and producing (under the supervision of my bosses Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels) a Best of the West pilot episode than proved resoundingly successful when filmed in front of the live studio audience.  Werner’s network executive partner, Marcy Carsey, effused that ABC’s only problem would be to decide which night to schedule it on.

When the 1980-81 – or was it the 1981-82 – fall TV schedule was announced, ABC’s ultimate decision was:

None of them.

Instead, based on the undeniable success of the pilot filming, ABC instructed us to make twelve subsequent episodes, bringing, with the addition of the pilot, the half-season series order to the traditional thirteen. 

ABC, who, on that delirious “Pilot Night” had assured us that their only problem was which night to schedule it on, now assured us that Best of the West would be the first midseason (around January) replacement for whatever half-hour comedy series that was unable to make the grade.

Under this odd but encouraging arrangement, we immediately got down to the business of making twelve additional episodes, free from the buffeting intervention of ratings and reviews.  It was an uncharacteristical, dream-like experience, our success coming the hard way – the studio audience was watching a show they had never seen or even heard of and they were having a really good time.  (And that’s without mentioning my “warm-ups.”) 

Midseason arrived, and, with thirteen well received (and artistically rewarding) episodes “in the can”, we were rarin’ to go.  I had been naturally disappointed to be held back half a season, and especially chagrined to have my first show miss inclusion in the TV Guide Fall Preview Edition, issues of which I had personally collected since 1958.   (There may, in fact, have been a TV Guide Midseason Preview Edition but who cares about that?)

Oh, well.  At least we would finally be seen by the televiewing public in the United States and Canada.

Except that we weren’t.

When ABC announced its midseason replacements that year, conspicuously absent on their revised schedule was Best of the West.

ABC explained to us that Best of the West was too highly regarded to be thrown unheralded into the melee, assuring us – as they had assured us on Pilot Night and assured us once again when the fall schedule was announced – that Best of the West would most definitely be on its schedule the following fall.

Passed over twice, Best of the West was a show apparently too good to actually put on the air.

Five months later, ABC’s 1981 (or possibly 1982) fall schedule was announced and, Glory Be!

Best of the West was, in fact, on it.  (And included in the 1981-82, or was it the 1982-83, TV Guide Preview Edition.)

The early ratings were encouraging.  Although we were scheduled against another debuting series, Magnum P.I. (starring ominously charismatic newcomer Tom Selleck), Best of the West did well enough to get picked up for the “back nine” (nine more network-ordered, produced episodes, bringing the annual seasonal complement to 22.) 

Here’s what that “back nine” pick-up meant in practical terms.  By that mid-November pick-up, Best of the West has been out of production for almost a year.  (Note:  Series regulars, though permitted to freelance elsewhere in the interim, are contractually bound to a series for seven years, or its cancellation, whichever comes first.) 

We had exactly nine days to gear up every aspect of production, assemble a new writing staff – unlike actors, writers are not contractually bound to a series – a challenging undertaking as, by mid-November, the most desirable writers were already working elsewhere, and try and remember how exactly we did the show.

We were rusty and we were rushed.  Working under such conditions, well, the “back nine” episodes, I have to admit… something was missing. 

With our ratings dropped (as Magnum’s ratings went up) ABC moved us strategically to a more sheltering time period.  Best of the West was now scheduled against Dallas, the Number One show in the country.  Our ratings understandably dropped even more.

After the nineteenth episode, ABC informed us that we were cancelled.  (This time, they were actually telling the truth.)  We made our final (previously ordered) three episodes after the show was officially over, an eerie Flying Dutchman experience, worthy of a separate installment of its own.

And then we were done.

Those are the skeletal bones of the story, minus the editorializing (aside from my mentioning the continual lying by the network.)  I thought it might be interesting for a change to hear “just the facts”, minus the bloviating subjectivity.

A Single-Sentence Overview:  The Best of the West experience was exhilarating, creatively satisfying, personally eye opening and emotionally bittersweet.

CODA:  My next job as Executive Producer was The Cosby Show, co-owned by erstwhile ABC executives (and continuing Pomerantz supporters) Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey.  My Emmy-winning stint on Cosby led to a lucrative contract at Universal, which resulted in Major Dad, my by-far most successful commercial accomplishment.  (It ran for four seasons.)  

And there you have it.


Best of the West – a two-year, one-season failure that ultimately made my career.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Peek Performance"

Have you ever had the experience where, knowing you are not supposed to look someplace makes you look there obsessively more frequently?  I am confessing to that infraction today:  “Multiple Voyeurism.”  Be yourselves duly forewarned that just reading this opens you to charges of accessory to voyeurism “Once Removed.”  So “Caveat read-or.”

Okay.   Deep breath.

THE WRITER INHALES DEEPLY, THEN GRADUALLY EXHALES.

All right.  I’m ready.   

I am not entirely proud of this, though I did nothing deliberate; I just looked on from a distance and it happened.  But truth be told, the unfolding narrative before me was truly mesmerizing to behold.  And Lord help me, I was too weak in character to look away.  Plus, it was something to write about, which, for a writer, exonerates everything. 

I’d like to believe.

We are visiting Austin, feasting on, as described yesterday, upscale, “Nouvelle Southern” cuisine.  I order a poached carrot salad and the fish – “Tilefish”, which I never heard of before.  (Note:  I am generally averse to ordering seafood in a place whose nearest body of water is a man-made lake, fearing, at least subliminally, man-made seafood.  Or at best, a fish that had a longer trip to the dinner table that I did.  As it turned out, it was wonderful, the dish’s prohibitive price tag suggesting my main course had been flown in on a private jet, in a personalized fish tank.)

Anyway…

During a lull in our dinnertime chitchat – after thirty-five years of marriage there are few topics of conversation that have not been thoroughly hashed over – an attractive couple, early to mid-thirties, is ushered to a nearby table, Yuppie-casually attired and looking youthfully fit.   

Little did I know a Three-Act play had just been seated beside us.

They order individual cocktails (Dr. M and I shared one) and the man, a take-charge restaurant smoothie, selects the appetizers, his female companion acquiescently in sync.  They seem naturally comfortable together.  No wedding rings, so it is seemingly a date.  Although hardly a first date.  

I glance down at her feet – don’t ask me why, not because I am ashamed but because I have no conceivable explanation.  There, resting under the table, I discover a pair of canary-yellow shoes, with stiletto, I don’t know, three or four-inch heels.  (It’s not like I went, “Excuse me.  How big are those heels?  I plan to write about them later.”)  They looked like really high heels.  Of indeterminate extension.

Directly above the shoes are these patterned, limoney-green… stockings, socks, tights – I don’t know where they stopped, I just noticed the bottoms.  From the ankles on down, she was sartorially impressive.

That was, like, Act One – “The Introduction.”  With appetizers.  I then look away, to chat with my spousal companion or maybe dig into my salad.  For whatever reason, my attention to the proximate couple is momentarily diverted.  More than momentarily.  There are minutes where I pay no attention to them at all.

I feel a powerful nudge to revisit the footwear,

And here comes Act Two.

While I was occupied elsewhere, the woman’s pedal positioning had radically altered.  When I turn back, her left foot is wedged insinuatingly between her companion’s elegant loafers, with no imminent plans it looks to me for moving away.     

There was nothing overtly sexy about this maneuver; I mean, it could imaginably have been worse.  Still, my instinctive reaction was that I shouldn’t have been looking, and because I believed that I shouldn’t have been looking, I looked longer, and more frequently, my mind aflame with,

“Look what she’s doing in a restaurant!”

Finally I turn determinedly away, addled by their wanton display of personal intimacy.  (Without the judgment that “wanton display of personal intimacy” generally implies.  Hey, live and let live, is what I say.  Not often, but I say it.)

I do not look back for some time.  Oh, maybe a couple of times, to see if anything had changed, and it hadn’t, except that the male companion had ordered another cocktail, the pedal entanglement apparently making the man thirsty.  Or need external buttressing.  Or both.  The palpable signals suggest, reading his mind without his permission, a sense of “clear sailing” for the remainder of the evening.

Having polished off my delectable Tilefish and its fish-egg accompanying garnishment, I curiously check back with the amorous neighbors.

Say “Hello” to Act Three.

And a surprising “twist in the narrative” it was.


I quickly see that the female dinner companion’s left foot has now resettled at “Home Base.”  Her male companion’s feet, I notice – and here’s the surprising part – sit no longer in “neutral” position but are instead defiantly drawn back – way back – his defensive “Body Language” expressing a retroactive displeasure with the foregoing shenanigans and a demand that they promptly cease and desist forthwith. 

Who saw that coming?  I didn’t.  Did you?

The young woman had made her move, and her erstwhile complicit consort  

had unequivocally retreated.

What was this dramatic pas de quatre – the woman’s right feet serving merely as “observer” – really about?

Hey, I’m not the analyst.  (And the dinner table inhabitant who is had been oblivious to the foot-featuring histrionics.)  I have no idea of what had actually transpired.

Which did not deter me from enjoying a truly memorable experience.

It was like, “Dinner and a show.”


And I only paid for the dinner.