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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Three Short Movies I Wrote (And I Really Men Short) II"

Following the positive reception of “The Puck Crisis”, I was assigned to write another short film for The Terrific Hour.  That’s the problem with success – they always want you to do it again.  Failure is easy.  You mess up and it’s over.  No one ever says,

“That was terrible, but we believe you can do even worse.  Back to work!”

On the other hand, you do something good and it’s like,

“Splitting the atom was commendable, Professor Einstein.  Now what else have you got?”

My advice:  Do yourself a favor – fail quickly and be done with it.  You’re going to fail eventually.  Why not get it out of the way early and move on?

“Sometimes I read your stuff in the morning and I go straight back to bed.”

What can I tell you?  You’re welcome.


My follow-up Hart and Lorne filmette was the “Baffin Island” movie.

Baffin Island is a remote and, at the risk of insulting its inhabitants, bleak and desolate, lobster-shaped island, lying just north of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay.  Baffin Island is surprisingly (to me at least) the fifth largest island in the world.  Which is something for its (as of 2008) eleven thousand inhabitants to crow about. 

“We’re bigger than England!”  (Although they have sixty-four million less people.  Which is great, if you like “elbow room.”)


For the writer, a geographical and socio-cultural ignoramus…

Baffin Island is the quintessential metaphor for…


So how does that feel? … Was the premise of my mini mock documentary.

Okay, so here’s the backstory.  Which prefaced the filmette.

The Baffin Island postal service had written to Ottawa (Note to Americans:  That’s Canada’s capital city) requisitioning new hats for its postal workers.  Ottawa subsequently responded by shipping the requested hats, but they were egregiously oversized. 

(INSERT:  Snapshot of chagrined Baffin Island postal worker wearing a plastic-visored postal worker cap falling down over his eyes.  It would have fallen even further had its downward progress not be impeded by his nose.)

Urgent follow-up requests to ameliorate the situation were entirely ignored.  This made the snubbed Baffin Islanders felt like nobody was paying attention.  So the island’s inhabitants held a meeting and they decided upon a drastic resolution:

Baffin Island would secede immediately from Canada.

Their representatives sent an official letter announcing their departure to Ottawa.

But nobody paid any attention.

So they proceeded with their plan:  They would establish the independent nation of Baffin Island.

The real work was now about to begin.  It was a new country.  And they needed just about everything.

First – Their own language.

It is hard to come up with an entirely new language.  Ask Israel.  Israel, of course, had the advantage of Old Testament Hebrew to draw on.  But a lot of new things had been invented since Moses and harried Israeli philologists were responsible for filling in the gaps.

“I studied the entire Pentateuch.  There is no word for ‘soap dish.’”

To mitigate this mammoth linguistic undertaking, Baffin Islanders decided to make things a little easier for themselves.  Rather than devising an entirely new language, Baffin Islanders decided instead to take words they already knew – English words – and simply anoint them with alternate meanings.

CUT TO:  A university lecture hall (actually at the University of Toronto)

An accredited Baffin Island linguistics professor stands before a gathering of
of “Baffin Island adults” (one of whom was myself, acting colder and further north), drilling them in the new national patois, “Baff-Lang”:

“All right class, repeat after me:  For “The man put it pen on the table”, we will now say, “The chair put the shoe on the banana.”

The class dutifully repeated:

“The chair put the shoe on the banana.”

Next:  A Baffin Island National Anthem.

For this, they held an island-wide contest, candidates coming in and auditioning their proposed anthems.  Again, so as not to require its citizens to learn an entirely new melody, familiar tunes were appropriated and provided original, new lyrics.

To the tune of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic “Oklahoma”:

“Ba-a-a-fin Island
Where the snow comes blowing in your face…”

To the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”

“This land is your land
This land is my land
It isn’t Thailand
No, it’s Baffin Island…”

To the tune of “The Birthday Song:

“Baffin Island to you
Baffin Island to you
Baffin i-i-i-island
Baffin Island to you.”

And those were the good ones.

The flag was easier to select.  Unanimously, the approved representative banner would be a totally uncolored, flag-sized sheet of fabric, its decoration representing “Snow, on a white background.”

Everything was now ready.  On the appointed “Independence Day”, every inhabitant of the island (and their huskies) gathered inside the meeting hall, and, with their hearts pounding with excitement, the national “colors” (so to speak) were hoisted up the flagpole for the very first time, as the venue reverberated with the singing of the contest’s winner – and the world’s newest “National Anthem”…

To the tune of “God Save The Queen”:

“Ba-a-ffin I-island, Ba-a-ffin I-island
Baffin Is-land.
Ba-a-ffin I-island, Ba-a-ffin I-island, Ba-a-a-afin I-island
Ba-a-ffin Is-land.”

The commemorative fireworks were cancelled, as it was a blisteringly cold day and nobody wanted to stand outside and watch them.

The final order of business:  The Economy.

How would the new country support itself? 

To face economic survival, Baffin Islanders needed to seriously ask themselves:  What does Baffin Island have in greater abundance than almost any place else in the world?


An unheated warehouse where you could see your breath when you worked.  (We filmed in a meat packer’s “Ice House.”  Once again, I was an “extra”.  We shot this in the summer.  During breaks, when we went outside, it was a hundred.  When we went back in, it was thirty-two.  I’m surprised I didn’t get Legionnaires’ Disease then.)

Baffin Island exported prefabricated “Snowman Kits” – “Coal Eyes and Carrot Nose Included.”)  They sent (suitably insulated) sheets of ice for rich kids’ birthday parties in Florida.  Working at conveyor belts, they packed cases of snowballs, ordered by the desperate suitors of the daughters of South American dictators, who’d commanded,

‘Bring me a snowball and you may marry my daughter.”

And that’s all I remember. 

“Baffin Island” may have had less of an impact than “The Puck Crisis”, but it worked well enough for me to be asked to write yet another mini-movette, which I shall tell you about tomorrow.

Do you see what happens when you do something right?

The demands never end.

Until you fall on your ass.

Which means, unless you are savvy enough to retire or fortunate enough to die,

The last thing you do is inevitably a failure.

Monday, November 23, 2015

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

Eight to twelve minutes, maybe.

Having mentioned two of them in the context of the Lorne Michaels podcast conducted by Marc Maron, I thought I would tell you about them in greater specificity as a group.  Which I believe will be helpful.  By which I mean helpful to me.

Since I am notoriously incapable of finding past posts when I am looking for them, I will now conveniently be able to not find these entries all in one place.  Which should cut down substantially on the “Search Time” before I give up. 

Is that faulty reasoning?  Is it in fact easier to find three needles in a haystack than an accumulated one?  Oh well.  I am already on my way.

My first short movie was entitled “The Puck Crisis.”  The initial incarnation of this idea appeared on a radio broadcast, during which, five times every two weeks, I would write and perform two-to-three-minute vignettes that were inserted into local radio shows across the country, that country being Canada.  Who else would put up with a comedy skit entitled “The Puck Crisis”?

I pitched “The Puck Crisis” idea to Lorne, wondering if it could be developed into a possible short movie for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) series of quarterly variety show specials produced under the “umbrella title” The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, Hart being my older brother and Lorne being the aforementioned and future “Sultan of Television” Lorne Michaels.  (Though they performed together on the air, Hart and Lorne had agreed to produce alternate episodes of the series.)

Lorne liked the “Puck Crisis” idea, and away we went.  (Note:  The other two short movies I wrote were subsequently also broadcast on that series.) 

Here’s how it went.


Truthful Acknowledgement:  The generating concept of this was not original.  It was inspired by a mock documentary I had seen on a (former Tonight Show host) Jack Paar special called “The Spaghetti Harvest,” in which, delivered entirely straight-faced, we were shown footage of happy paisanos in a small Italian village harvesting strands spaghetti hanging plentifully from trees.

It was not a huge leap – for a Canadian – to go from spaghetti growing on trees to hockey pucks growing on trees.

Although, consistent with the subject matter, my version was (pseudo) dramatic.

The broadcast was structured in ”Breaking News” format, presented with grim “We interrupt this program” urgency.

“Canada’s puck harvest is in danger!”

Enveloped in ominous intonations, the audience was informed with dire intonations that, although perennially robust, this season’s puck harvest had been seriously stricken, the result of a touring Dutch hockey team’s importing a contagious contaminant into the country on the infected blades of the players’ hockey sticks.

The report was accompanied by shocking visuals, first of last year’s hockey pucks growing healthily on trees – that part wasn’t shocking – contrasted, underscored by an ominous soundtrack, with this year’s output, the pucks pathetically hanging there, all gnarled and gray-looking, deteriorating before our helpless and agonized Canadian eyes.

The viewers instantly knew the score:

No pucks. 

No hockey.

Oy, Canada!

We then cut to an expert describing in scientific detail what exactly was going on.

The traveling “pucktococcae”, as they were called, had invaded the fundament of the hockey pucks while they were still on the trees, inflicting the pucktococcal equivalent of a “flesh-eating virus.”  

Simulations were shown of the debilitating process, the virulent “pucktococcae” burrowing their way into the center of a maturing hockey puck, hollowing it out, and rendering it functionally inoperative, a delicate phrasing for “It’s a goners.”

The epidemic was inevitably branded “Dutch Puck Disease.”  (Although no lawsuits, reparations or even an apology from the Netherlands were ever demanded by our government.  It was an accident.  And for heaven’s sakes, we’re not Americans!)

Reporters took to the streets to determine “the people’s” responses to the ongoing disaster.  Many appeared genuinely distraught.  One respondent actually “lost it” on camera.

Following that were interviews with professional hockey players, in search of candid reactions.  One player remarked.

“When we were kids – we were really poor, y’know? – so we used to play hockey without a puck.  But at the end, we never knew who won.”

Rounding things out, a devastated puck farmer explained that he had a back-up harvest of lacrosse rackets, but – pucks, lacrosse rackets – it just wasn’t the same.

There are certain parts of this that I am forgetting – because it was forty-five years ago – but in the end, I recall Foster Hewitt, the Toronto Maple Leafs announcer and acknowledged “Dean of Hockey Broadcasting” making a direct plea to the Canadian public for donations to help find a cure for “Dutch Puck Disease”, plaintively intoning,

“Send a buck… and save a puck.”

And that’s “The Puck Crisis.”  Which I am not sure you can access anywhere, beyond my potholed imagination.  Tomorrow, I shall describe another short film I wrote, concerning a portion of Canada that decided to secede. 

I can almost hear the eleven people who saw it going, “I remember that.”  Which is fine.  For the rest of you, it will be a wonderful surprise.

Friday, November 20, 2015

"I Got It! - The Follow-Up To A Story You Have Undoubtedly Forgotten About"

It’s okay.  You’ve got lives of your own and have no need to remember stories I wrote months ago.  (Though it would be very flattering if you did.)  (On the other hand, ask me what blog post I wrote yesterday, and there would be an extended pause before I remember.  Sometimes infinitely extended.  I’d have to actually go back and look it up.)

Okay, so a reminder.

My bodywork specialist whom I colorfully though not inaccurately call “The Horse Doctor” – because he works three days a week on people and three days a week on horses – claims – and I am not prepared to dispute his assertion, as he was a former police officer and has the physiognomy of a linebacker – he claims he has a personal collection of more than eight hundred knives.

(He also has a stash of collectible pens.  Believing, he explains, that in case the pen turns out not to be mightier than the sword, he can always resort to the knives.  I was about to say “fall back on the knives” but the wording sounded precariously dangerous.)


While he was working on me one day, trying to unknot the consequences of longtime postural deficiencies, I mentioned meekly that I myself have one knife.  (Not counting the ones in our silverware drawer.)  My single knife is a Standard Issue Marine “K-Bar” knife which, when I worked on Major Dad, was given to me by its star Gerald McRaney as a Christmas present.  (Mounted on a plaque.  The man didn’t just hand me a knife and say, “Merry Christmas.”)

I mentioned to “The Horse Doctor” that once, when I was twelve, my Uncle Irving, per my insistent request, had given me a Bowie Knife for my birthday.  But it was disappointing because it was too small – it seemed to me like a “Bowie Knifette”.  I had seen the genuine article, or at least its representational replica on The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1956-58) TV series.  I still remember the theme song:

“Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie…
He was a bold, adventurin’ man
Jim B…

Ah, never mind.

The original Bowie Knife was a weapon of gargantuan proportions. 

Why did I need a weapon of gargantuan proportions?  I didn’t.  The knife would primarily come into service at camp, cutting, debarking and sharpening the points of
hot dog and marshmallow sticks.  Otherwise, I would just look at it.  Maybe wave it around a little when I was alone.  Though I did none of that with the embarrassing “Mini-Bowie.”  I just put it in a drawer.

“The Horse Doctor” revealed that he had an actual-sized Bowie Knife, and, triggering an involuntary shiver, he abruptly promised to give it to me. 

Months passed, and he forgot.  (Which is what the original post on the subject was about – controlling my anticipation of a bestowment that might never arrive.

A couple of visits ago, I tangentially – and manipulatively – broached the subject.  I mean, it’s not right to say, “Remember that Bowie Knife you promised to give me?  Well where the heck is it?”

And yet, gul darnit, I really wanted that knife!

What I did instead was, a propos of I no longer remember what, I said,

“You said you were going to show me your Bowie Knife.”

Do see the “sneaky” part there?  Well, it worked!  The “Horse Doctor” immediately jumped to the bait, replying,

“I was going to give it to you.”

And on my following visit, he did.

It was magnificent.  A real Bowie Knife beauty.

A wide nine-inch blade (I measured it later), polished hardwood handle, made of Damascus steel, an alloy meant to both hold its edge and not easily shatter.

I held it in my hand, and I immediately began singing.

 “Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie…
He was a…

You get the idea.

I thanked “The Horse Doctor” profusely.  I was in “pig sticker” heaven. 

The question now was,

“How do I get it home?”

My thoughts run immediately to 1981 when I announced that I would be visiting a Best of the West actor who was in the hospital, and my boss handed me a brown paper bag full of marijuana and told me to take it to him.

Despite enormous peer pressure to fulfill this “harmless request”, I adamantly refused to do so.  At that time, I was not a citizen, just a “Resident Alien”, and being caught transporting marijuana meant immediate deportation back to Canada, where, for a number of reasons, I was not excited to wind up.

As with carrying illegal contraband in my car, I was certain being caught with a knife with a nine-inch blade in public would cause difficulties should I encounter the constabulary.

“Your brake light is out, and… wait!  What’s that in the passenger seat?”

Not that I feared he would take me for a mass murderer.  For practical reasons, among mass murderers, knives are rarely, if ever, their personal “Weapon of Choice.”

“Am I going to be next?”

“Just as soon as I pull it out of this guy.”

But still, a man driving around with a nine-inch-long Bowie Knife…

“The Horse Doctor” had sensibly delivered it in a plastic bag.  I was not entirely certain if that was worse.  Is a knife in a bag considered a “concealed weapon”?  

I drove carefully, though not inordinately slowly, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to myself.  And, consequently, to the “thing.”

But I kept looking at it, eager to enjoy its curvaceous company as soon as I could.  (A traditional Bowie Knife has a curved blade at the bottom, and for the first half or so of it, the top edge of it’s curved into a blade as well.  As a result, if it is required, you can simultaneously cut both upwards and downwards.  This, in its day, was a game-changing innovation.  It was the “Clip-on Bowtie” of knives.)

At every stoplight, I had to battle my impulse to take it out.  But I couldn’t.  What if the driver beside me looked in through the window and reported me.

“Yeah, there’s this guy with a giant knife driving beside me.  I just thought you ought to know.”

I did not want anyone to see me with that knife.  And then, this revelation suddenly hit me:

I did!

I mean, what’s the use of having a Bowie Knife if nobody knows you’ve got it?

My struggle was not about keeping others from seeing my Bowie Knife.  It was in preventing myself from showing it to them!

“Look what I got!”

And I have to tell you.  I had to fight really hard to prevail.

I counted the number of streets left till I was home.  Then the number of blocks.  Then the number of houses.

Finally, I turned into my driveway… 

And I could breathe.

Right now, my long-anticipated Bowie Knife rests in its pristine leather scabbard just a couple of feet behind me.  I have to stop writing now.

And go play with it, and sing.

I am not a dangerous person.

But, God help me, I am enthralled by exquisitely tooled weaponry.

Oh, and fire.