Thursday, July 2, 2015

"The Flip"


Writer/director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids) was recently profiled in the Writers Guild magazine “Written By”.  In the course of the interview, Feig talked about the pilot for a TV show that he co-created with Judd Apatow called Freaks and Geeks, now a cult classic for its honest depiction of the horrors of High School, and the passage of adolescence in general.

Feig explained how, after a “Don’t change a word of this” notes-session meeting with NBC, they returned to their office, where Apatow immediately announced that they would rewrite the script.  Feig went ballistic.  Retrospectively, however, he came to approve of Apatow’s decision, explaining,

“It was a method Apatow learned from Garry Shandling.  Be harder on the material than anyone else.”

Okay.

And I just sighed. 

I will tell you why later.

If I remember. 

Or maybe by then you will already know why.

Judd Apatow’s “Garry Shandling Learning Experience” derived from Apatow’s participation on The Larry Sanders Show.  I know a little about The Larry Sanders Show, having served for two seasons as a two-day-a-week consultant, a title that later, at my insistence, was elevated to “Consulting Producer” (because if The Larry Sanders Show won an Emmy, I would receive one myself.  It didn’t, so no Emmy for Earlo.  The show did, however, receive a nomination.  Meaning the strategy could have worked, it just didn’t.  Note:  I like to segregate my less admirable behavior in brackets.)

Garry was incessantly fiddling with the script, trying to deepen and enrich the characters and the situations, pushing in the direction of “more emotionally true to life”, leading the way for comedies like Louie, in which the line where comedy crosses over into the existential pain of human existence is provocatively unclear. 

Although I am no expert on Freaks and Geeks, I did once binge-watch a handful of episodes.  In that far from comprehensive sampling, I could readily detect Shandling’s “go-for-the-heart-of-the-matter” example. 

I was tremendously impressed by Freaks and Geeks.  I had once believed that Dobie Gillis was deep.  And it was, for its era.  But Freaks and Geeks set new standards in portraying the unflinching vicissitudes of teenage existence.

(So far, no sighing.  But it’s coming right up.)

But then…

In terms of the Apatow-Feig cinematic oeuvre,

I witnessed a “flip.” 

HEAVY SIGH.

(There you go.)

Why the sigh?

Because it appears to me at least, that the “Sons of Shandling” have taken things in the opposite direction.

Exhibit A?

Bridesmaids (2011).

A late-thirties woman, life’s on the downswing, finds her last bastion of security threatened because her best friend in the world is about to get married.

This is a truthful, identifiably human and touching premise for a movie. 

How then did it end up with a woman taking a diuretic dump in a sink?

They rewrote the script.  (I am guessing, having never read it, that the “sink dump” scene was not present in the original version.)  This time, however, the rewrite was not in the direction of “deeper and richer.”  It was instead in the direction of “Let’s take a believable situation, and give all the bridesmaids food poisoning!” 

(And the fecal hilarity ensues.)

This is hardly the legacy of Garry Shandling.  Although Shandling whines everything – including “It’s great to seeeeeee you!” – I never once heard him whine, “Let’s make the script fuhhh-nnnnier!

Exhibit B?

SPY (2015).

An overlooked but gifted CIA operative finds vindication and acceptance after being thrust into the life-threatening situation of “going into the field.”

Once again, a perfectly workable concept – A sympathetic fish out of water proves herself, though perhaps unconventionally, to be capable in every regard.  

At the very worst, it’s a Bob Hope movie starring a woman.  (I shall leave it to others to determine if that’s a step forward or something less feministically flag-waving.)

When did that perfectly workable concept become a cavalcade of curse words, punctuated by a woman kicking another woman hard in the crotchal area?  I have no direct evidence in this regard, but I suspect it had something to do with a rewrite.

“Deeper and richer”?

Only if “deeper and richer” involves groping the lead character’s breasts at every available opportunity.  (Which, if it were a conventional movie star’s breasts would be “sexual assault.”)

It appears to me that, whereas in their earlier days, the “Apatow Factory’s” objective concerning the rewrite was to dig doggedly in the direction of finding “The Truth of the Situation”…

Dey don’t do dat anymore.

Which disappoints me as an audience member who happens to enjoy “deeper and richer” in his comedy entertainment. But also because, for some reason, the Apatow/Feig juggernaut’s complete lack of self-awareness – or is it honesty – personally offends me.

If you are determined to make your movie as hilarious as you can, and doing so, you believe, involves a woman hiking up her bridesmaid’s gown and pooping in a sink – followed by a reprise of that behavior in the middle of a busy street – then by all means, be responsive to your comedic Muse.  But do not simultaneously claim that you are following in the trailblazing footsteps of Garry Shandling.

Because, whining on Garry’s behalf,

“That’s wrooooooong!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"A Belated Acknowledgement"


When I was growing up in Toronto, we had a minor league baseball team.  I did not see my first Major League game till I was nineteen – Phillies versus the Mets at Shea Stadium in New York.  It turned out it was a 6-0 “Perfect Game” (no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors), pitched by Phillies’ future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

When it was over, I found myself standing in front of my seat, hearing my voice bellowing an appreciative,

“Thank you!

… in the direction of the field. 

Not because I had witnessed the four-leaf clover rarity of a “Perfect Game”, but because I had sat in a Major League stadium, enjoying every magical second of a Major League ball game.

Since that first time, without exception – and I now have dozens of Major League attendances under my belt – in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Anaheim, Washington D.C., Toronto, and San Diego – I have never failed to bellow an appreciative “Thank you!” at the end of every game, before making my way up the aisle to the exit.

(A Small Variation:  During the late nineties, when I consulted on the New York-based series Lateline, I attended {yet another} Phillies-Mets game with the series’ two creators, {now two-term Senator) Al Franken and John Markus.  On that night, the Mets organization handed out complimentary baseball caps to every attendee. 

As the game ended, I stood up and did what I do.  Only this time – as I overheard later John reporting to {now two-term Senator} Al – “Earl just said, ‘Thanks for the hats.’”)

And the thing was…

I meant it.

Moving on…

As a warm-up man – I was, on occasion, the guy who kept the studio audience entertained during the filming of shows like Taxi and Cheers – my approach was demonstrably different from my warm-up man – there were no warm-up women at that time – contemporaries.

Some warm-up men revved up the audience with tried-and-true material from their stand-up acts.  Some offered impressions of recognized celebrities.  One warm-up man dazzled the crowd with his ability to balance a standing-up quarter on the tip of his nose.  Another contorted his face so that he looked exactly like a primate from Planet of the Apes.  Or one of its sequels.

I had no paralleling abilities.  How then did I keep the audience involved?

“You may think you have come here to watch a show,” I would begin, “but you’re wrong.  Because it’s better than that.  Instead of just watching a show, you will be watching us making a show.

“Nobody but this audience will have the advantage of that experience.  You will see the show taking shape before your very eyes.  And you will know all of our secrets.

“When you this episode is broadcast at home, only you will be able to say, ‘You hear that line he just said?  They had to shoot that four times, because the actor kept flubbing his lines.’  And after the third try, he said ‘Dammit! 

“Or you’ll say, ‘Did you hear that joke?  Well, that wasn’t the original joke.  The original joke didn’t get a laugh, so the writers got together on the stage, and they came up with another joke.  And you know what?  It was funnier! 

“Tonight, you will go behind the curtain, and see the show miraculously coming together.  Nobody else will have that opportunity.  Only you. 

“Pretty exciting, isn’t it.”

That’s all I had.  And it goes without saying – at least I hope it does – that, as with all the baseball game “Thank you’s!” and that one “Thanks for the hat”…

I meant it. 

And the audience generally picked up my enthusiasm.  I sincerely loved being there, and somehow, that made the audience love being there too.

I had one boss who thought I was faking.  More than once he’d say, “Knock off that ‘shit-kicker’ routine.” 

I couldn’t. 

Because it was real.

Recently, for the first time, I started wondering where that unusual reaction came from?  And then it finally hit me.

It came from my mother.

My mother was a spontaneous appreciator of little moments, moments others obliviously took for granted.    

An exquisitely-folded napkin.  (“Look how they did that!”)  The backyard garden smell of lilacs in the spring.  I can still see her face light up when she proclaimed, “This watermelon is out of this world!

(In addition, my paternal grandmother lit up with beatific contentment in the presence of a really good lamb chop.)

Not long ago, we had dinner at this not fancy but recognizably superior restaurant.  I don’t know what “squash blossoms” are, but my first taste had me doing a “Happy Dance” in my mouth. 

My immediate impulse was to rise up from my seat and shout “Thank you!” to the chef.  I did not do that, partly because my dining companion was unlikely to have approved.  But also because my mind turned to another worthy – and shamefully neglected – recipient of my gratitude.

Hey, Mom...

For teaching me to notice and to appreciate...

Thank you!"

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Voices"


I have been reading a lot of books lately.  Not just on Kindle and “Books-On-Tape”, but actual books that you hold in your hand and you lick your finger and you turn the pages.  I kind of now wish I had been a bigger reader earlier in life.  Take note, younger demographic!... if there is even one of you.

As a kid, I barely read anything at all.  I associated reading with school, and in my free time there was no way you were going to get me to do more reading.  Especially when there was television, which was a demonstrably easier way of assimilating material – like baby food instead of cutting your own meat.

Lemme get right to it.  You know how sometimes, I provide personally selected music for your listening entertainment.  Well, today, I offer personally selected samples of writing, taken from books I have read during the past number of months. 

I have chosen these examples, not because of their literary style, nor because of their content.  I have selected them because of their “voices”, each one different, each one clear and crisp and a bell.  Sorry, I got that backwards.  Each one crisp and clear as a bell.   

Forget about fiction/non-fiction (I offer two examples of each.)  Forget about subject matter.  Forget about depth of intention.  All of these categories are significant.  But just not today. 

Listen to these (snippets of) their stories, and imagine the writer being in the same room with you as they tell them, only they couldn’t make it so they instead distributed a transcribed version in the form of a book. 

These are my most recent favorite “Writers’ Voices”, though they may not hit the bulls-eye for you.  Perhaps you can pass along your own personal examples of the ones who do.

We begin with a hockey player, one of the greatest of all time.  The man never finished High School, but you listen to him talk, and you know in an instant he is a straight shooter and the quintessential “Genuine Article.”

“In the early 1950’s, I played with a rare group of guys who put the team ahead of themselves.  It began with stars like Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay and carried all the way down the roster.  In those years, there’s no question that the Red Wings were stocked with talent, but that wasn’t why they won.  The reasons went beyond our skill on the ice.  We were a close-knit bunch who played for each other as much as anything else.  You never wanted to look down the bench at your buddy and know that you’d let them down.  In the third period, when the game is on the line and you’re dog-tired at the end of a shift, that can be why you dig deeper for the last ounce of energy left in your legs.  Winning a championship takes a whole team willing to pay the same price on every shift. The opposite is also true.  If you don’t care about your teammates, maybe you don’t dig in to get back into position to take away the odd man rush.  Maybe you lose focus and that’s the instant your check slips behind you and tips the puck into the net.  The NHL game moves so quickly that a single mistake can be the difference between winning and losing.”

“Mr. Hockey – Gordie Howe:  My Story.”

I met this sportswriter as this fitness spa that we go to in Mexico.  She wrote a book about NASCAR and she graciously passed along a copy in the mail.  It’s an interesting book.  But more importantly, when I read it, it was like listening to her once again, talking mesmerizingly around the dinner table.

“My first mistake was wearing a dress.  Dresses, I learned, weren’t allowed in the NASCAR garage unless modeled by Miss Winston, Miss Mopar, Miss Mello-Yello, or whatever honorary beauty queen reigned that day, replete with tiara and satin sash across an ample bosom.  But for women not born to ride atop floats, wearing a dress meant you didn’t get in.

“In was the first item on a long list of things I didn’t know about stock-car racing when I was sent to cover my first NASCAR practice in 1991.

“It was a geographical fluke that I drew the assignment, having landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a young sportswriter the previous fall.  And it was a quirk of the era that it later became my beat – an era that saw major newspapers confront the reality of NASCAR, long derided as a fixation of the semiliterate southern fringe, had started commanding TV ratings that warranted broader coverage.  The only thing I knew about NASCAR at the time was that Bruce Springsteen had once mentioned Junior Johnson in a song.  I knew the lyrics to ‘Cadillac Ranch’ cold, but I wasn’t sure if Johnson was real or fiction, dead or alive.”

“One Helluva Ride – How NASCAR Swept The Nation” – Written by Liz Clarke.

Though, I do not read many crime novels, I have come to enjoy Michael Connolly’s Los Angeles-based murder mysteries.  I have primarily read Connolly on “Books-On-Tape”, which makes them harder to excerpt.  So I chose a different writer, whose voice is equally sharp and cryptically intense.

“I need to locate someone.”

“What type of case?” he asks as he lands hard in his oversized executive chair.  The wall behind him is covered with large photos and seminar certificates.

“It’s not really a case.  I just need to find the guy.”

“What will you do after you find him?”

“Talk to him.  That’s all.  There’s no cheating husband or delinquent debtor.  I’m not looking for money or revenge or anything bad.  I just need to meet this guy and find out more about him.”

“Fair enough.”  Frank uncaps his pen and is ready to take notes.  “Tell me about him.”

“His name is Nathan Cooley.  I think he also goes by Nat, too.  Thirty years old, single, I think.  He’s from a small town called Willow Gap.”

“I’ve been through Willow Gap.”

“Last I knew, his mother still lives there, but I’m not sure where Cooley is now.  A few years back, he got busted for a meth sting – “

“What a surprise.”

“And spent a few years in federal prison.  His older brother was killed in a shoot-out with the police.”

Frank is scribbling away.  “And how do you know this guy?”

“Let’s say we go way back.”

“Fair enough.”  He knows when to ask questions and when to let them pass.  “What am I supposed to do?” 

“Look, Mr. Beebe –“

“It’s Frank.”

“Okay, Frank.  I doubt there are many black folks in and around Willow Gap.  That, plus I’m from Miami, and I have Florida tags on my little foreign car.  If I show up and start poking around, asking questions, I probably won’t get too far.”

“You’d probably get shot.”

“I’d like to avoid that.”

“The Racketeer” – Written by John Grisham.  

This last one, I read in preparation to our recent trip to Turkey.  Reflecting a country dangling uncomfortably between two cultures, it is a comic novel concerning the rise and fall of an institution that, although powerful and pervasive, has essentially no practical function whatsoever.

The following response is delivered by a manipulative “visionary” to a complaint by a congenitally reasonable character that a couple, which includes the complainer’s own daughter, having thrown themselves ecstatically into a traditional, dervish-like folk dance, have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

“The same old story.  Rather, the same old stories.  My dear friend, you are an incurable
malcontent.  Knowledge is secondary in such matters.  Action, action, and action alone!”  Then, as if talking to himself, he added:

“Knowledge holds us back.  Indeed it offers neither an end nor an aim.  The main thing to do, to create.  ‘If they only knew, if they only knew…’  But if they knew, they wouldn’t be doing it.  They’d never achieve the same innovation, the same excitement at spontaneous discovery.  Knowledge would stifle it all.  Your daughter has made the evening.  With what?  With her ability to create.  For creation is life.  We are living individuals.  We are people who choose life.  You can scowl at us all you like.”

“I’m not scowling.  I’m simply speaking my mind.”

“Keep your thoughts to yourself, and feast your eyes on this magnificent spectacle!” 

“The Time Regulation Institute” – Written by Ahmet-Hamdi Tanpinar.

And there you have it.

Four writers. 

Four uniquely distinct voices.

Reading their books, I felt like I had made four very interesting new friends.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"A (Curiously) Unasked And Possibly Unanswerable Question Which May Explain Why It is Unasked Though That Does Not Mean It Should Necessarily Remain Unasked And I am Asking It Today"


My latest candidate for “Longest Title.”  Thirty-one words, including the one in brackets.  (And why shouldn’t we include the one in brackets?”)

In his recent column in the Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni challenges a style of argument is which a certain behavior is justified – or at least deemed acceptable – because of a contrasting example wherein the behavior is significantly worse. 

Examples from Bruni’s column:

"Sure, the Roman Catholic Church has not done right by women.  But those Mormons have more to answer for!”

“Yes, there are college presidents with excessive salaries.  But next to football and basketball coaches on many campuses, they’re practically monks!”

And, by far, the pukiest example offered by Bruni:

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton insisting on “perspective” for a “Religious Freedom Bill” allowing the state’s merchants to deny services to people based on their sexual orientation, offering the comparison that

“In Iran, they hang you for the crime of being gay.”

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it? 

“We don’t hang gays.”

(IRANIAN GAY PERSON:  I’d take that any day.  But I know what you’re talking about.”)

“They do it more!” exemplifies of a cluster of justifications that originate in the Fourth Grade schoolyard, and are perpetuated, with a surprising lack of embarrassment, by adults.

Do these sound familiar from Elementary or Middle School?

“They did it first!”  (AKA:  “They started it!”  Justifying “finishing it” as brutally as they want to.)

“They do it too!”  (Regularly argued by someone who also does it but considerably more often and inevitably more severely.)

“They do it more!”  (AKA – Bruni’s point in his article:  Their behavior is worse!”  As in, “So we lop off a finger.  They lop off your entire head!  Would you rather have that?  Huh?  Huh?”)

What we’re seeing with these arguments is a deliberate smokescreen, serving to exonerate – their supporters would call it “contextualize” – unacceptable behavior. Bruni concludes his observations with a remindering “Reality Check”:

“There are standards to which government, religion and higher education should be held… There’s right and wrong, not just better and worse.”

Which brings me, finally, to my question.

I am currently reading – on Kindle, and I am a whiz on Kindle, Yay! – a book called The Heart of Everything That Is – The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, written by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.

Red Cloud was an Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior chief who, after rising to the top due to his victorious exploits against rival Indians, was (at least temporarily) successful in defeating the American forces marshaled against him, and in therefore slowing down the expansionism of the migrating settlers from the East. 

NOTE:  The issue of “Treatment of the Indians” is an ideological minefield.  You cannot use a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb that somebody with an opposing perspective will not find objectionable, or at least biased, and then yell at you for using it.  Let it be on the record that, like most people, although perhaps a little more so because of the ubiquitous “Jew Thing”, I condemn any policy in the direction of genocide.

Putting my folk art-buying dollars where my mouth is, my identification with American Indians is recognizably reflected in our living-room, adorned as it is with Indian photographs, paintings, pottery, and artifacts of various types, including a “Kachina Doll” and a small, metal “paint box” containing wrapped sachets of Indian “medicine” – I rub “Soar Joint Medicine” purchased at an Indian “Pow-Wow” on my barking thumb joints every morning.  I am unequivocally “All in” with the Indians. 

And yet I am still troubled by this question.        

Let’s be grown-ups about this.  Meaning, no “They did it too!”, “They did it first!” and “They did it more!”  We are looking for answers, and those perspectives are not helpful.

Frank Bruni reminds us that, in certain institutional contexts at least,

"There's right and there's wrong."

Acknowledging the unforgivable behavior exhibited by the more recent arrivals to this country in their interactions with the people who were already there, setting aside all blaming and recrimination…

What exactly would have been the “right” way to handle things?

Maybe you can tell me.

As I am at a loss for a workable solution.

(Which in no way exonerates what we did.)