Friday, December 14, 2018

Talking Funny

My old writing partner, Mike Davis, said you can’t talk about comedy and still be funny.  He’s probably correct, though I’m going to do it anyway.  This would not surprise him.

I was addicted to the written word from my earliest memory, but my journey as a comedy writer began in middle school.  In eighth grade, stuck performing in a short play that was a Cinderella rip-off about the four food groups, I asked my Home Economics teacher if I could “punch up the dialogue a little.”  I don’t know where I came up with the audacity to ask this woman if I could re-write her script.  I also don’t know why she let me.  When we finally performed this re-worked gem titled “Vegetabella” for parents on an in-service night, the crowd roared at what we had added to the show.  We were ASKED…not told, but ASKED…if we would perform it the next day for the entire student body.  We quickly agreed.  

It was in high school that I met Mike, my co-author for four comic plays, though those days were more than ten years into the future in 1979.  Our friendship began in the backstage area, waiting for our cue to enter the tense drama we were performing in.  While our audience sat in suspense, Mike and I tried to make the other laugh at jokes most folks would find inappropriate.  The rest of the people would find our jokes merely puerile and immature.  Hey, you gotta start somewhere.

I remember attending a party with Mike where he pulled a magazine insert out of his pocket and announced to the whole room that he was going to fill out a profile for a ‘computer dating service’.  As he answered the list of questions with deliberately screwball responses, the crowd around him grew, as did the volume of the laughs.  His ad-libbed lines were well rehearsed.  I was green with envy and marveled as he worked the room.

People ask me how Mike and I got good enough to be published as playwrights.  My response is always, “By writing badly for a number of years.”  And we did.  There were flights of fancy that went off in all directions.  We weren’t good right away, but we had finished a screenplay by the time we were seventeen.  Our formula was simple, you had to make the other guy laugh because that in itself wasn’t easy.  It was never easy.  That’s how we knew we were learning.  It was close to impossible to make Mike laugh, but I never quit trying.  When you got a good belly laugh out of him, it was like heroin.  I would say or do virtually anything to make him laugh.

Flash forward a few years, to 1986.  We are out of college and keeping the old gang together by hosting weekly poker games in my parents’ basement.  I’m a big baseball fan from way back if you weren’t aware.  I read in the sports page that catcher Steve Yeager had been added to the Seattle Mariners roster.  I remember thinking that he should have been retired.  He was an injury magnet, once breaking his leg in a home plate collision in the first inning of a minor league match-up and staying in the game.  He had pieces of protective equipment named after him.  The ‘Stevie’ protected a catcher’s throat, a devise created after he had his esophagus pierced by a shard from a broken bat.  In addition to all of the other scratches, strains and fractures, let’s just say he was no stranger to the disabled list.  His cousin Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.  Steve broke everything else.

I decided to start a gambling pool with my betting brethren.  Because it seemed like a foregone conclusion, we put down hard cash on a chart, each of us picking the date when we thought Steve Yeager would go on the disabled list.  We skimmed money out of the initial poker antes and bought prizes for the winning guess.  We didn’t have to wait long, it was mid-May if memory serves.  He was limited to 50 game appearances for the year, his final days in the major leagues.   

Late in the season, I traveled with my friends to Michigan & Trumbull for a Tiger game against the Mariners.  I had the chart in tow and weaved my way down to the visitor’s dugout from the shitty seats we had in the outfield.  I caught Steve returning from the bullpen where he had been warming up the day’s starting pitcher.  I got his attention pretty easily, as he had been below the radar for a few years.  When he came over to the railing, I showed him the chart and explained the wager.  Then I asked him to sign a couple of baseball cards for the winner.  He absorbed what he had just seen and heard and then…though I’d given him no reason to…he chuckled and signed a couple of baseball cards.  The man was the MVP of the 1981 World Series and I felt entitled to make fun of him.  I’m lucky he didn’t feel entitled to adjusting my dental work.

Wait, I know you’re a little horrified by what I just told you.  But I’m not done.

Let’s go to Community Theatre, 1994.  I’m performing as Charles Condomine in “Blithe Spirit”, a Noel Coward comedy that is going to be a bit too long and somewhat dated when performed by tremendous actors.  In part, we lacked those actors.  In particular, I played against a young woman who lacked experience, preparation and timing.  On closing night, she was still lacking in preparation and timing.  In an incredibly repetitious play, she routinely threw out lines that were spoken in a previous scene or act, requiring someone to pick up on what she was talking about and bring us back to the current scene.  It happened every night.  We made it through without confronting her angrily as we did not want to make it a bad experience for this young lady.  She was, despite her utter lack of talent, a very nice person.  She was almost entirely unsuited to acting and, certain we would never work with her again, we let her think she was terrific.

Maybe three months after the show closed, I got a call from one of the board members at the community theatre.  The report I received was about the young woman I spoke of in “Blithe Spirit”, who had gone to her doctor for overdue tests.  When the results came back, the diagnosis was cancer.  It was advanced and there was nothing the doctor could do.  They gave her a month or six weeks to live and she almost made it that far.  She died, leaving her mother stunned.  The daughter, who had been the female lead in a play in the spring, had died before the leaves fell in the autumn.  

The board member knew that my parents videotaped the show.  Was there a possibility that we could furnish this grieving mother with a copy?  I assured the board member that it was not a problem.  I was willing to give her my copy.  I had no attachment to the show.  I would leave a copy in the theatre office the next time I went by.  This was not a problem for two weeks…fourteen days when I forgot all about what I had meant to do.  The board member called back and asked if I remembered my commitment.   Yes, I replied testily.  I remember.  I’ll drop it off.  Two more weeks passed.  What she didn’t know was that in the days between the first phone call and the second, I had quit smoking.  I was a smoker whose mouth had made the commitment to quit before the brain was allowed into the discussion.  The result was weeks of nastiness.  I was sick with my addiction to cigarettes and sick of myself for the weakness.   I was still in this state when I got a third phone call from the board member.

She knew nothing of my situation, of course.  But having called me two times previously, she felt the need to add additional pressure.  She lectured me about this mother’s loss.  Remember when I talked about saying or doing ANYTHING for a laugh?  Yeah.  That becomes second nature.  I looked for the punchline in everything.  When under pressure, I simply tried harder for the joke.  When my lack of nicotine came up against this sweet woman’s begging for a videotape, I screamed at the board member…


Of course, she was still dead.  Like that joke.  Dead on arrival.  I found the videotape of “Blithe Spirit” and left the house.  I bought a pack of cigarettes on the way and left the cassette in the theatre office.  I held that board member in great esteem and considered her a friend.  But I lost her as a friend that day and deservedly so. I could blame it on cigarettes, but that wouldn’t be true.  My real addiction was to the joke.

Hey, I’m not expecting forgiveness.  I’m not even asking for it.  I’m just telling you that your favorite comedian, no matter who it is, has said things in their own circle of friends (likely other comedians) that would make your mother blush.  They might make your father blush.  Hell, I’m blushing right now and I wasn’t even there.  

People that work in comedy are going to push it every chance they get.  They will push the envelope, push the boundaries of good taste, they will practically push an old lady down the stairs to get a laugh.  We live in a time where we have seen it all and heard it all and you often have to shock an audience to get a response.  If that’s what we have to do, we will do it.  Either it will work or it won’t.  Even if it doesn’t work, in private we will laugh about it later.

The problem is that so much humor comes from hostility.  We rarely take the time to ask if a joke came from a good place or not.  The point is moot, as there is no instrument with which to measure it.  But rest assured, if you possess buttons, comedians will continue to push them.  They don’t know any other way.  Perhaps their controversial words will start a national conversation, but more likely outrage will rule the day. Dennis Miller, before he became a Republican talking head, said that we will not be truly free until we can make fun of anybody for any reason.  He might be right.  

Perhaps I could push Dennis Miller down a flight of stairs and test his theory.  Just to be safe, I’ll push an old lady too.  With comedy, you can never be too careful.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Body Count

When I published my one-act play “Code Five” earlier this year, I was open in admitting it mirrored my own difficulties with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).  I told few at the time about the odd occurrences that came just before and after its acceptance.  This is that story.

“Code Five” is a two-person show where a solitary therapy session (after five years of treatment) creates the breakthrough for a young man who is mentally tortured after surviving a mass shooting.  It dramatizes the destruction of lives that can occur when a person lives through a violent crime.  A survivor is supposed to feel like they are one of the lucky ones but it often doesn’t work that way.

When I first sent it to my publisher, they were open to the idea of a play about P.T.S.D.  They had, in fact, been actively looking for one.  After their first read in late summer, the response was lukewarm.  It was generally felt that the play was missing something, some small bit of humanity that needed to be fleshed out.  They liked the overall story but asked me to have another run at it using some of their suggestions. I reluctantly agreed.

I don’t have a problem taking suggestions from an editor.  I’ve been doing this professionally for twenty-five years this December.  But I really didn’t want to dig back into this story.  It was hard enough to write initially and I had already put it through five drafts before I offered it up for publishing.  Each time I would revisit the story the pain was still there, though it had been more than twenty years since I had been the victim.  Sometimes I would begin to cry and have to get up and walk around outside until I could pull myself together.

I finally came up with an idea to incorporate most of my publisher’s suggestions.  I finished a sixth draft and resubmitted it in late September.  It took quite a bit longer to hear back the second time.  It made me very nervous, thinking that perhaps my rewrite had destroyed what they liked about the piece.  Finally, I wrote them and asked if there was a problem with my play or if, perhaps, Mr. Tech-Savvy-Playwright had e-mailed the document into the Internet ether.  No, I was assured, we will get to it, they were in fact looking forward to it, but they were VERY busy.  Okay, I thought.  Good enough. 

By the time they got back to me, it was December.  They couldn’t say enough good things about it.  They said I had addressed EVERY ONE of their concerns and that the piece was near perfect.  “A couple of my readers CRIED when they read this,” I was told.  It was accepted for publication.  They sent me a galley late in the month and I agreed to check it over the holidays and have it back to them in early January.

When I finally opened the file between Christmas and the New Year, it was the previous version of the story.  With no one in the office until January 2nd, I sat on my hands and waited to hear back.  They promptly responded to my e-mail after the holiday and sent me another galley.  It was still the wrong one.  “The one you’re looking for is the full-length one,” I explained.  “The one with four more characters.”  They were even happier to hear that.  Four more characters meant four more scripts to sell.  I resent the sixth draft so it would be right in front of them and they promised to get back to me promptly.  Here’s where things got weird.

“We’d like to stick with the one-act version if that’s okay with you,” they explained.  It just has so much heart.”  I said okay.  They’d always seemed to have my best interests at heart.  I signed the paperwork and took a deep cleansing breath, eager to write comedy again.  One thing bugged me though. 

The version that they accepted in December was the same one they equivocated on in August.  NOT ONE WORD of the text had been changed in the fifth draft.  But something changed…what was it?  When it finally hit me, I cried again.

It was the body count.  Not in the play, but in America.  In August, there were no mass shootings that stayed in the news.  We’ve seen that the murders of two or three people sometimes can’t even top the news cycle, much less hold it for more than a day.  But in October a mad man mowed down 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas.  November’s headlines were about a church in Texas where 26 had been killed.  In December, the play that had been missing something in August hit them viscerally in the gut.

I woke up to the headlines today about Pittsburgh and can’t imagine the pain in that city or in the Jewish community.  I mourn for those who lost their lives.  I worry about those that remain.

Again, the point of my play was about the collateral damage.  The incident I was involved in might have rated a blip in the newspapers but it affected me profoundly.  What will become of the people who didn’t die in the Synagogue?  Will someone lose their faith because they can’t believe in a God who would allow the slaughter of the devout?  Will someone take their own life because they can’t reconcile their survival with the loss of life for others?  Will one of the police officers involved be quicker to fire their weapons when threatened?  As children weep for lost parents, we dither and speak in platitudes and indulge in what-ifs.  The only thing certain is that we will hear little or nothing about Pittsburgh after another, larger, shooting.   

Sadly, today we all understand one thing that rolls around in the head of deranged killers.  The wounded left lying in hospital beds and the devastated lives of uninjured survivors are unimportant.  Whether its journalism on the front page of a newspaper or a fictional piece in a drama catalog, it’s only the body count that matters.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

You Remember A Summer Evening

You remember a summer evening, you were coming home from a funeral.  You’re friends with the widow and it’s always hard to see someone in that sort of pain.  Yet when you pull into the garage and get out of the car, those blues all melt away.  A little girl shrieks, “Daddy!” and runs into your arms.  Your wife, always waiting for just such opportunities, snaps a picture that will hang on the wall even after twenty years.

You remember a baby that was no trouble, but always curious.  After ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ her first words were “What’s that?”  

“What’s that?”
“What’s that?”
"What’s that?”

She asked a hundred questions a day.  We did the best we could to respond honestly.  Sometimes, being honest meant saying we didn’t know.  But we could usually find the answer in a book.

You recall the little girl learning to read and the world that opened up to her.  Yet one book would only provoke more questions, which required more books, that maddening, delicious circle.

You marvel that it was more than fifteen years ago when she would sit on the other side of the kitchen island while you prepared dinner, discussing politics and the issues of the day.  She wasn’t yet ten years old.  It doesn’t occur to you until years later that her interest in the issues was not focused on the policy, but on the people effected by the policy.  

She mothers her little brother.  She mothers certain ones of her friends.  She screws up the courage to talk to a school counselor when someone she knows has been self-harming, or making steps to run away from home.  She feels everything deeply.  She stands up for what she believes in and speaks her mind, even when her voice quavers.  Soon, even that isn’t an issue.

You watch her go away to college and pursue her passions.  When she speaks to you about issues, her words are fast and fevered and you realize that the student has become the teacher.  Even as you defend your position, you secretly wonder if you’re somehow wrong.

She collects degrees and steps out into the world and realizes she has been sent up to home plate with a walking stick when she needs a baseball bat.  You suppose it’s possible to hit a home run with a walking stick but…what was it Giles Corey wanted in “The Crucible”?  Oh, that’s right…more weight…

She decides that a law degree is the weapon of choice and passes the LSAT on the first try.  She collects an acceptance letter and a nice scholarship for a law school that will take her from her home state for a considerable amount of time.  Still, you know the revolution will not be fought from an arm chair.  While you found your solace and a small amount of success in writing about the world as you wished it was, she decides to follow Gandhi’s advice and BE the change she wants to see in the world.  You joke that the little girl that was no trouble is now a woman that will be nothing but trouble to political opponents.  You wouldn’t have it any other way.

She leaves.

You remember a summer evening, you were coming home from a funeral.  

You also remember that you each said ‘I love you’ when she drove away, which means she can come back any time she wants to.  

These arms stay open all night.