Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"What Just Happened?"

This summer, I was tickled to read the oral history of one of the craziest episodes in TV history -- in which a dog who's digested marijuana makes off with the heart being brought into a hospital for a character's transplant.  Because I had been part of that creative process, as a story editor on season 6 of One Tree Hill.  

In fact I was kinda sad I hadn't been interviewed. 

I would have told the reporter the episode probably contributed to me not being asked back the following season, because when the creator, Mark Schwahn, pitched the dog-heart scenario, I blurted out "You can't do that!" 

Being told "no" was a trigger for Schwahn, who often reminded us he'd grown up in a trailer park and, with no showbiz connections, created the young-people smalltown soap opera and kept it on the air despite getting no respect from critics -- or even his own network.  Every season he concocted a finale that could double as a series finale, because he was never told in advance that the show would be renewed. Six seasons in, he bristled that he was still arguing with the higher-ups over his casting choices. In fact even though the show was produced by Warner Brothers, instead of being on the legendary studio lot the offices were on the lower-rent "Ranch" down the street, in a grim little trailer (a weird ironic twist given how far he'd come from his origins). 
Perhaps in retaliation, he made so many out-there nutty plot choices that the room had developed the catchphrase, "What just happened?" to remind us to think outside the box. While critics may have looked down on it, it outlasted, say, The West Wing by two seasons. 

So: when I blurted out "You can't," Schwahn bellowed back "Handelman! Never say 'can't'!" He was the king, and I was the peon. 

We both knew I was lucky to be there-- in fact he had rescued me from the scrap heap. He'd interviewed me for season 5 and not chosen me, and then my agents had dropped me. So a year later when they called to say he was looking for me, I landed the gig with no agents at all. 

So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions -- they'd started out as assistants and been promoted over the years, and owed him everything. Writers were sequestered from set, unlike most shows, so they had no relationship with the cast and crew, and at the end of each season he told the writers there was no guarantee they'd be back, creating a culture where you were anxious to keep your job. Same thing with the cast, who were plucked from relative obscurity (except for Chad Michael Murray) and suddenly had that most elusive thing for an actor -- a steady gig. 

To be clear, the room was hardly a daily terror -- we shared a lot of laughs, exchanged Christmas gifts, and socialized. Schwahn at times could be funny and kind and even self-deprecating, cared deeply about the show, liked mentoring people, and actually let them write a lot of their scripts -- not as common as you might think. 

But that whole ethos -- "I can do what I want, and you all owe me" - had its dark side. One of the writers began dating a guest actress, and soon lost favor with Schwahn. When the lead actors were in L.A., they'd stop by the office to meet the staff, but the actresses never did. There was lewd talk, requests for backrubs.  One writer kept her private life super private from all of us for fear it would diminish her currency with Schwahn.

It was horrible for women, but created a bad work environment for everyone. You never knew when The Boss would be angry. 

Schwahn hired me in part because I had worked at Rolling Stone and he was a passionate music fan -- in fact in his office he had a sign saying "What would Crowe do," referring to Rolling Stone writer turned auteur Cameron Crowe (whose own credo had been "What would Wilder do," about Billy Wilder). 

But it was tricky to try to guess "What would Schwahn do." Sometimes he rebelled against a plot point simply because someone else had thought of it. Some veteran writers purposely didn't put their best stuff into first drafts for fear of outshining him. He would bring in his scripts and want us to praise individual lines. 

When it came time to write my episode, it was so late in the season I didn't want to miss out on the plotting of the finale. While most writers took the full two weeks to write their episodes.  I came back into the room with my first draft after only four days. One colleague cautioned me that no matter how good or bad the draft, the timing itself would backfire -- "He likes to think he's the only one who can write that fast," he said. 

My father had died toward the end of the season, and after it wrapped I was back in New York clearing out my parents' house, Schwahn emailed me at midnight LA time -- 3 a.m. my time -- and I happened to be awake when it arrived. He wrote that he was letting me go because of a budget crunch, the "last one out/first one in" thing, plus he knew I'd "have so much to deal with back east." 

I found out soon after that he replaced my slot with two young female writers looking for their first gig.
Cut to eight years later. 

"Have you been following this?" a former colleague of mine texted me yesterday. "This" was a link to an obscure website I had never heard of, which had focused on a string of Saturday tweets from a TV writer I'd never heard of, named Audrey Wauchope. 

Wauchope was motivated to tweet her truth publicly by Friday's news that the showrunner of FOUR concurrent TV shows, Andrew Kreisberg, had been 'suspended' for inappropriate sexual behavior to underlings. (I won't spend the time here asking how it is humanly possible to supervise four series at once, nor point out how many other qualified, talented underemployed writers could have better handled the duties and responsibilities.) 

It started on Friday with her heartbreaking observation, "Today was the day I realized I've spent my entire life nervous to think I was funny because I'm not comfortable in male arenas."

The next day she elaborated on her experience. She described a writers' room where "The staff sat on couches. Female writers would try to get the spot where the showrunner wouldn't sit as to not be touched. Often men would help out by sitting next to him, thus protecting the women."

Though she did not name the show, anyone could figure it out from her resume -- plus, once she realized she'd held the same title on two shows, she made it clearShe was writing about One Tree Hill - she'd been on season 8, two years after me. 

She opened the floodgates. Soon all three of the show's original lead actresses, Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz, and Hilarie Burton, tweeted their support. (Burton, who left after season 6, wrote "I have been angry for a decade.") 

And within 24 hours, they had collaborated on a group public letter about their mistreatment, enlisted several fellow cast and crew, and Variety ran the story, prompting another ex-colleague to message me, "Truth bombs have been dropped." Male writers on the show tweeted their support. 

Wauchope kindly added she didn’t blame the other writers who were also being manipulated by Schwahn, and the actresses who signed the group complaint said the same thing. As Lenz  put it in a tweet: “I hope you remember that the other writers who built that show with us and under Mark are all, wonderful people.” Sophia Bush re-tweeted another writer’s show of support saying, in part, “…your support meant the world then, as it does now.” The consistent message seemed to be an acknowledgment that everyone below the very top was caught up in a cycle of manipulation. 

As is the case in so many “open secret” situations, the breadth and depth of the secret usually isn’t known by everyone. Often you only see enough to make you uneasy, not enough to make you question whether it’s worth risking your job over. 

Looking back, I realized it's like being in a family with a drunk or abusive parent. It's very hard to break out of the family dynamic. The actresses say they were told if they spoke out, they'd be putting the 100 people on cast and crew out of work. As their statement suggests, this is an unfair burden to put on any young employee. When the show premiered, Bush and Burton were 21, Lenz (then Galeotti) was 22. Writers, though a little bit older, were even more expendable, since they weren't the face of the show. 

I feel especially guilty because in most work situations, I try to help defend women and underlings from any harassment I witness, but on One Tree Hill, I was entering a show and culture that had already been running for five years and to speak up when the boss was being lewd or asking for a massage would have been suicidal. Especially when I couldn't even question a plot point. 

Schwahn had a habit of following such behavior with a loud disclaimer: “I’m only kidding,” which, in hindsight was probably meant to undermine any possible complaint. But I regret not doing more. 

If you were to try to analyze -- not excuse -- Schwahn's particular response to getting power, lording over people and presuming desirability to women -- you might look at his hardscrabble origins - though plenty of people start out like that without behaving this way. He told us of sleeping on the floor of a dorm at college and eating potatoes. He told us of going home at Christmas and all his relatives just wanting him to hand over wads of cash as gifts. But nothing excuses abuse of others. 

With so many stories emanating out of Hollywood, it's hard to know what kind of longterm traction this particular one will have. One Tree Hill is long gone. His current show is up in the air as of this writing. 

This has been a breaking point for women speaking up, which is huge. My hope is that this cultural moment also leads to men speaking up in the moment and nipping this kind of behavior in the bud, instead of being ignorant or complicit. 

The irony underlying the catchphrase "What Just Happened?" is that we should have seen it all along. 

Also ironically, the show was always about being your best self, overcoming a malevolent Dad, and learning how to become an adult (season 5 brilliantly skipped ahead from high school years to post-college return to hometown, which allowed the actors to play closer to their real ages.) 

With the breaking of this story, the biggest headline should be the fierce strength of the female cast and crew assembled by Schwahn.  Not just in how they survived and supported each other, but in now creating a united front to help try to change the industry. Lenz even managed to speak of hope and redemption: 
POSTSCRIPT: two days after I posted this, the cast and crew of his current show, E!'s The Royals, issued its own statement about Schwahn's behavior. He was almost immediately suspended. 
POST SCRIPT 2: Friday Nov. 17, Variety's story with some of the gory, upsetting details of Schwahn's behavior was published. It isn't pretty.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fact-checking the universe

The Deuce premiere. Gambling addict Frankie and his bookie.
1971 NYC. Yay! A Mets reference!  Seaver was my favorite! 
Tug? TUG??? 
My whole life, I've been cursed with a kind of OCD-level need to correct the universe.  I have an almost comic inability to enjoy something I am reading or watching or listening to -- even a museum note about a painting -- if there's a glaring error involved.

At least -- to me it's a glaring error. I'm sure most people gloss over it, or just let it go.

I've joked that since the rise of the Internet and all its sloppiness, I see my main role as its sole copy-editor.  But I DO send emails to writer friends about mistakes in their articles or headlines (since these days they can be fixed). I have tweeted to authors I don't know about their mistakes. I'm trying to keep the world safe from perpetuating - let's not call it fake news -- just ignorance.

It's exhausting. And I'm not proud of it. And it's probably cost me a couple of jobs where I just should have kept my mouth shut. I kind of think of it as my Wile E Coyote impulse. There's an old Roadrunner cartoon in which Wile E has programmed a piano to explode as soon as Roadrunner pecks on a certain key. He leaves sheet music on the piano. Roadrunner comes over and plays it wrong several times. After cringing, the increasingly furious Coyote bursts forth, pushes the bird aside and pounds out the correct sequence, blowing himself up. (Update: this was apparently the FOURTH time a Warner Bros. Cartoon used this joke, leading me to think Chuck Jones hated the song from childhood piano lessons.) 

With all the accusations of falsehoods bouncing around the world in 2017, easily fact checkable misinformation should not be out there.

I understand how this kind of oversight can happen in the rough and tumble of journalism, with its increasingly breakneck deadlines, but it's still no excuse -- like when, for example, my one-time employer and music bible Rolling Stone published a remembrance by Rickie Lee Jones about Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker, and she misspelled the other guy's name as "Fagan" instead of Fagen. Or, in the obit for Rod Temperton, initially called the hit he wrote with Michael Jackson "Rock with Me," instead of "Rock with You." (Both I sent notes about, and both now are corrected. Was it my doing?) I also corrected a friend's assertion about who had read a statement from Bill Cosby's wife after his mistrial. The friend was grateful, having had to file the piece from an airplane.

But it's always a little more confounding to me when an error pops up in a movie or a TV show. After all, not only did the people on the set all hear it and see it -- the script had to get through many incarnations and get notes and revises from the lowest-level people who proofread them and keep track of consistencies, to the network or studio executives who sign off on them. I find it hard to believe that nowhere in this elaborate chain of command did anyone scratch their head and say "can you check that for me?" ESPECIALLY in the age of the Internet.

One of the classics I always think of is one of the most famous speeches in the movie "Bull Durham" in which Kevin Costner makes a passionate, foul-mouthed stand for what he believes in, and the one nod to literature that writer-director Ron Shelton put in there is that "the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap."

At the time Bull Durham came out, 1988, Sontag had only published a grand total of two novels -- The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967). (She published two more, better-received ones years after the movie - I like to think as a fuck you to the movie?) Her reputation was as an essayist. So why out of all the writers to pick on? It still baffles me.

I had two more such moments recently watching shows I like by TV creators I admire, and both moments undercut my ability to immerse myself in the rest of the programs.

The first was in the pilot of David Simon's The Deuce, set in 1971 New York City. (I posted screengrabs at the top of this piece depicting the moment.) One of the twin brothers played by James Franco, Frankie, approaches his bookie about putting money on the Mets-Reds game, and asks who's pitching. "Seaver?" (Tom Seaver, the Mets ace and my childhood hero.)

But the bookie replies, "Tug."

Now, David Simon is one of my biggest heroes and idols. He began as a hard-working journalist, and turned his experiences into Homicide, The Corner, and The Wire, and has continued to mine real-life stories for some of the most important work on TV looking at our society. I even nominated him to be on the WGAE Council this year, and he decided to run -- and I was happy that he defeated me!

But -- maybe because he's a Baltimore guy? -- he got this one terribly wrong. And it took me out of the story.

Tug McGraw (may he rest in peace) began his career with the Mets in 1965 as a starting pitcher, but a terrible one. By 1971, he was their bullpen ace -- a reliever. Whereas, Nolan Ryan was a starter on that team. Or if Simon wanted a funny punchline he could have said "Ray Sadecki."

But Tug?

Before I wrote this up, I wanted to triple-check that The Deuce script was, in fact, wrong. I saw that Tug did, in fact, for some reason, start one of the Mets 162 games that year, and I briefly had faith that Simon had actually planted an Easter Egg for just my kind of nitpicking nonsense.

Then I looked at the Mets-Reds games played in 1971. There were 12 of them. Seaver started 3 (and even relieved in one). Ryan started two. Gary Gentry started two. Jon Matlack started two. Sadecki, Jerry Koosman, and someone named Charlie Williams each started one.(My brother informs me Williams is who the Mets would trade for Willie Mays at the end of his career)

Not Tug.

While I was pondering whether to tweet this to Simon or let it go, I watched the season 5 premiere of Episodes, on HBO's rival Showtime, which was created by David Crane of Friends and Joey and Jeffrey Klarik of Mad About You -- which is all about Matt LeBlanc playing himself as the former star of Friends and Joey now going down the ladder of Hollywood fame into the murky depths of compromise and crap. For all its cartoonish exaggeration, it is one of the more painful and accurate depictions of what it's like to try to make a living where everyone is cretinous and insecure and powergrabby.

But in the season five premiere, Matt LeBlanc offers his former two showrunners tickets to a Madonna concert, bragging that he had met Madonna at Andy Warhol's factory in the 80s -- and when questioned about knowing Andy Warhol, he retorts that "Blondie introduced us."
I'll tell you why. 
I don't even know where to begin with this one, but let's start with this: The Factory's last incarnation shuttered in 1984. The following year, 1985, LeBlanc (since we're talking about Matt LeBlanc here, not a character) graduated from high school in Newton Mass (same class as Louis CK!). He did his first national commercial in 1987- -the same year Warhol died.

Since Matt LeBlanc signed off on saying all this, maybe it's, I dunno, some kind of version of the truth. Or a parody of this kind of bragging. I'll let it pass.

But then this: "Blondie introduced us."

Does LeBlanc mean the whole band? Because the band Blondie broke up in 1982 -- when LeBlanc was 15.

I am pretty sure he's referring to Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie. Did or does anyone -- particularly people who actually know her -- call her "Blondie"?

I do not believe so.

As I am watching this, I am trying to give the benefit of the doubt, it's just a comedy, let it go, David.

My best-case scenario? Maybe the script originally said "Debbie Harry," but someone (young) gave the note "Nobody knows who that is." and when it was explained, the compromise was "Just say Blondie." But with so many other names that could have been dropped -- why stick with this awkward one, when the rest of it already seems utterly nuts?

With this many questions rattling around my head, I start to hear that Wile E Coyote piano tune, drowning out the rest of the dialogue. (As I did when I saw the daughter on The Americans put a coin in a payphone before picking up the receiver - see below.)

Oh, how I wish I didn't.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Triumph Lost and Found at the WGA Awards

 “I guess the WGA thought  it  would be fun for the children’s category to be presented
 by a foul-mouthed puppet—but  unfortunately, Sean Spicer wasn’t  available.” - Triumph
Awards shows might look glamorous on TV and in pictures, but in person, they're often a slog to sit through - even if you're nominated, but especially if you're just an audience member.  Long-winded thank-yous, irrelevant claptrap, long walks from the balcony to the podium.

But this year's Writers' Guild East Awards (a parallel ceremony was being staged live in LA simultaneously) - because of a perfect storm of host, presenters, political situation, nominees, victors, and honorees -- was remarkably rewarding and entertaining for me. Not just as a member, or as a TV viewer, but as a former journalist And it ended with a hilarious near-tragedy-turned comedy, involving Triumph the Comic Insult Dog's missing trophy.

Cobb (right) applauds Bernstein (center) 
Though I've been part of the nominated shows in the past, this year I was there as a member of the Guild's activities committee, working as a volunteer, drawn partly by the host - The Daily Show's Lewis Black - as well as the promised presence of Wire creator David Simon, on hand to present an award to his fellow Baltimorean John Waters, and I was hoping against hope as a TV viewer that The Americans, written and shot here, would finally win a much overdue award.

I had the happy task of ushering New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, who produced the Frontline documentary Policing the Police and was being given the first Walter Bernstein Award,  for writers "who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity." The award is named after the Blacklisted screenwriter hero - who is still sharp at age 97 and was sitting at the table with Cobb (left) - a living testament to standing up to governmental malfeasance.

From the get-go, the proceedings had a special charge to them. It's hard to explain how much harder the East Coast community of writers has to work to succeed in showbiz, which prefers everyone to be under its eye and thumb in L.A. -- and have stuck to their creative guns while doing so. Among those in the room: Simon, Waters, Tina Fey, Kenneth Lonergan, Jill Kargman, John Patrick Shanley, Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the staffs of John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Colbert,  as well as unionized broadcast news journalists like our President, longtime Bill Moyers writer Michael Winship.

The intro to Lewis Black - another inveterate New Yorker who I first encountered when he was staging plays by aspiring playwrights like Aaron Sorkin downstairs at the West Bank Cafe in the 80's - correctly stated, "He was the voice of Anger in Inside Out, and was also the voice of anger in literally everything he's ever done."

He spoke of watching Trump's recent press conference while trying to write his monologue, "and I was forced to realize yet again that we are living at the intersection of satire and reality."

I had one personal agenda for the night: Before the ceremony, I tracked down Steve O'Donnell, former Letterman head writer who was getting the Herb Sargent Award, who, with his twin brother humorist Mark, had written a piece for me at Rolling Stone in 1988 when I edited its first Comedy Issue with his then-boss on the cover alongside Johnny Carson (Left) (Yes, that's how old I am.)

Letterman, Steve & Mark 1982
Mark -- a sweet soul who wrote the book to the musical Hairspray as well as one some of my favorite humor pieces ever, including the June 1980 Esquire classic, "The Laws of Cartoon Motion"  - (example: "Any body suspended in space will remain suspended in space until made aware of its situation. " -- the reason I reached out to  him to execute this idea -- had died suddenly in 2012  (They had eight-- eight! -- other siblings.) 

So I wanted to take the opportunity of being in the same room with Steve to give him a copy of the issue.  He didn't have one and was incredibly gracious and grateful.
Page one of the O'Donnell brothers' Comedy Timeline, Rolling Stone Nov. 1988
Davis, Franken Sargent, Miller Chase
The Herb Sargent Award is named for the late first SNL head writer -  the grown-up in that anarchic room (see photo, right), who had written for everyone from Steve Allen to Johnny Carson, who died in 2005. (I'm also so old I attended SNL rehearsals when Sargent was the head writer.)

The award is for a writer who embodies Sargent's "spirit, commitment and comic genius" as well as "his dedication to mentoring new writers." 

O'Donnell displayed all that, and more. After a tribute by colleague Steve Young and a taped intro from bearded Grizzly-Man-Letterman (who ended saying "Your first wife always hated me") O'Donnell gave a midwestern humble speech claiming the award committee had confused him with some other writer -- naming many, many people he thought worthier, including Letterman's first head writer, Merrill Markoe, SNL legend Jim Downey, and Chris Elliot.  He also named Mark, saying in that case the confusion would be understandable "since we were identical" slyly adding that Mark was "such a writer - and so, so handsome."

The speech disproved O'Donnell's own observation that comedy writers are "such big babies!"

Mark O'Donnell would have liked to see the tribute to his Hairspray source, John Waters, by David Simon, which included this sentiment:
"Fuck 'Normal.' There is no 'Normal' Normal is a lie....a prison...'Normal' is a fascistic sentiment, and one that prevailed in the American experiment for far too long. Indeed today in this country, we are seeing a last retrograde and reactionary assertion of whatever 'Normal' is supposed to be." 
After a bunch of in-your-face clips from his work, Waters closed his speech by quoting a line from his most recent film,  A Dirty Shame
“Make a list of all the people you fucked, and then apologize to their parents.”
“See? I got an award for writing that line!” Waters exclaimed. “Anything is possible.”

 But for me the icing on the cake was the appearance of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who, in a stroke of genius, had been enlisted to present the children's programming awards. As Triumph himself explained,  “I guess the WGA thought it would be fun for the children’s category to be presented by a foul-mouthed puppet—but unfortunately, Sean Spicer wasn’t available.”

Triumph had already won a WGA award earlier in the night, defeating the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys with his 2016 Election Special. Smigel dubbed the subset of his writing staff on hand to accepting the award "a parade of Jews."  
"People for years have told me how funny I was doing Triumph, but there are a million joke writers" -- he pointed behind him to Monk creator Andy Breckman, Nathan For You creator Michael Koman, standup David Feldman and Conan writer Josh Comers. He bemoaned the fact that all his Triumph jokes later were going to be about losing so "we have a lot of work to do." 

But he did end up losing the award. More on that in a second. 

I had profiled Robert Smigel, the genius behind Triumph, for TV Guide (right) back in 2000 when he had a series on Comedy Central.

He'd already been a writer on SNL (including the animated TV Funhouse segments) and Conan. But even back then he knew Triumph - which started as a goofy voice he made up when his wife gave him the puppet -- might end up being his most long-lasting contribution to comedy.

(He's also used comedy to fight autism (he has a son with autism), spearheading the annual "Night of Too Many Stars."  )

Triumph made me cry with laughter.
After the ceremony ended, I approached Smigel to congratulate him, but he was distracted.

It turned out that while he was on stage performing as Triumph, he had stowed his trophy backstage - and it had gone missing.

This was bad. The volunteers had actually been warned to keep their eyes on the trophies because they are pricey (and remember Tom Brady's missing Super Bowl jersey, now valued a half million?)

I ran around asking employees of the Edison Ballroom if they'd seen it. I asked fellow volunteers if they'd nabbed it for safekeeping. But nobody knew what had happened.

I returned to the scene of the crime and looked under tables, on the floor, and then -- in a garbage can, face down -- there was Triumph's trophy. I couldn't tell if it had been tossed there or fallen in, but it was definitely his -- the name was engraved right on it.

I ran it out to Smigel, who was relieved but also wanted me to take him backstage and show him the exact place it had been. He was flabbergasted. But Triumph had been snatched from the jaws of defeat. (PS: THE AMERICANS WON!)
From Triumph to trash to triumph again. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My Father's Dreams of Obama

Walter Handelman (1931-2009) in the Navy circa 1954
Eight years ago tonight, my Dad, Walter, left a Super Bowl party and died in his sleep. On each anniversary, like others on Facebook who've lost loved ones,  I usually post a classic photo (like the one above) a brief tribute, and get a lot of sympathetic "likes."

But this year feels like something more is in order.

I realized it had to do with an email he sent me and my brothers after election night 2008 -  that I wound up quoting in his eulogy not two months later.  He died only 12 days after Obama's inauguration.

Dad was a lifelong Republican - but a bygone species of moderate sometimes referred to as "Jacob Javits Republicans" - who last voted for a GOP Presidential Candidate in 1968.

All my life, Dad hadn't been that communicative about his emotions. My mom (a lifelong Democrat, whose dad was a labor lawyer) was the, shall we say, expressive and dominating partner . The two of them were inseparable - literally. At some point we surmised they had never spent more than a few consecutive days apart their entire 49 years of marriage.

She died suddenly at 70, in October 2007, of an aneurysm, while swimming. (He had found her and had jumped in to the pool fully clothed trying to rescue her, but she'd died instantly.)

After all those nights in a couple, in his solitude he uncorked a new (or rather, hidden from me and my brothers) frankness that gave us a new relationship with him.  

He would often go to Mets games solo, leaving her seat empty rather than trying to replace her companionship. and confided to us that at bedtime he often "spoke" to her.

Here's the email he sent after Obama's election. 
Obama's win was an historical event in our country's history.  It is hard to overstate its meaning, the full extent of which will not be known, probably, in my lifetime. 
I feel proud of our country, in a way that I have not fully felt for many years.  Hope is what has gotten us through one crisis after another during the 20th century, and is what we can cling to into the 21st.   
And in Obama I think we have a president who has the intellectual capacity to seize the opportunities that make hope a reality  As someone who served in the armed forces, and who has made the ideals of Boy Scouting a central part of his lifetime, I am happy to see a  person in the White House who shares my belief that the leadership of our country on the world scene, as we had during World War II, is the most important gift we can make to humankind. 
I talked to Mom about this at length, aloud, last night, and felt her with me as I dropped off to a deep and dreamless sleep.
getting Eagle Scout award
I keep wondering what Dad -- an Eagle Scout who lobbied for years to try to get the Boy Scouts to accept gay scouts,  an ROTC Navy Lieutenant,  a private-practice estates and trusts lawyer who did pro-bono and reduced-rate lawyering for churches and prison education and homeless outreach, and a tireless local volunteer, including a 2-year stint as the mayor of my hometown -- would think of the pendulum swing that occurred this election.

I imagine it might be something like how my folks in their seats behind first base at Shea Stadium reacted when the Mets - inevitably -- imploded.  Let's just say, there was a lot of...expressed emotion.

As they headed to the parking lot, however, they did not swear off the Mets or baseball or the traffic jam forever. They knew the season was 162 games long. And if the Mets didn't make it to the playoffs, there was always next year.

I'm trying to keep that in mind.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Survey Says?

Family Feud prepped us for this. 
We are drowning in surveys. I'd be saying that even if it hadn't been the year of a Presidential election (one which, by the way, proved the utter ineptitude of endless polling). All month we've been getting what amount to survey results about movies, music, books, photos, stories of the year. (The Chicago Sun-Times email this week helpfully declared this the "Year of the Cubs and Trump.")

Our constant loop of feedback has weird consequences: Jan. 1 2017's Sunday Times just arrived with an entire printed section consisting of the "Most Read, Shared & Viewed" Stories of 2016 (reminding me of when TV shows used to run "clip" episodes with characters having flashbacks to save production costs).
For readers with no Internet?
When the Internet started, we were all lured into voicing our opinions: not just the things we bought on Amazon and eBay, but the sellers themselves. Not just a Facebook post or Tweet, but our comment on others'.

More recently, the convenience and economy of Uber comes with the price of having to rate our drivers - and be rated by them.  (The main result I've noticed is the increase in forced personal interaction with drivers.)

Bryce Howard's ratings soon go south (Black Mirror)
The "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror earlier this year (right) took the social cost of such ratings to their illogical conclusion, where lives were ruined by bad numbers.

For a while, I gamely played along

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Pool Disrupter (An Election Parable)

Swimming is what I do for exercise and for mental health - the latter more than ever this election cycle when I've been working at CNN and having to immerse myself in the daily morass.

But I was reminded again this morning, there's one swimmer who keeps making it difficult for me to lose myself - and the situation has echoes of the campaign.

Public pool lap swimmers are generally a collegial, accommodating bunch. We all have our routines, but we understand that since we have chosen to exercise not on a lake or on a solo elliptical machine at the gym, we have to pace ourselves and dovetail with our fellows.  If there are two swimmers, you split a lane. More than two, you swim in counterclockwise circles. Some pools even designate "slow, medium, fast" lanes to help sort things out.

But some people just don't care - about others, rules or decorum.

Case in point: One day last summer I was at the excellent community pool in Durango, Colorado (left), and found 10 of the 11 lanes had two swimmers sharing. So as is customary, I stood at the end of the 11th, and when the lone swimmer arrived, I tapped him on the shoulder to inform him we'd be splitting it.

His reply was shocking. "I don't do well with splits." He turned and headed back into hogging the lane.  Instead of crowding two other swimmers, I waited for someone else to finish and took her place.

That was a one-time incident. But the situation at my neighborhood rec center pool in Harlem is chronic. I was ecstatic to discover the beautiful tiled space when I moved uptown 6 years ago, and I have adjusted my life to match the Parks Department's limited lap swim hours, during which orange cones are set up by the lifeguard to designate them slow, fast, medium, respectively.
Over the years a melting-pot group of regulars - African-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Latinos, Caucasians - is usually partaking of the M/W/F 7-9am slot. Among the most memorable a 90-year-old woman who paddles the whole time on her back; a 90-pound woman who swims entire laps underwater along the pool bottom; a bearded guy who wears no goggles yet zooms past most of us; an elderly guy who works out with water barbells in the deep end, and a heavyset man who does some lackadaisical water exercise in the shallow end of the slow lane but mostly harangues anyone else in earshot.

Then there's the Big Guy.

When I first enter the pool room, I know what kind of workout it will be if The Big Guy is in the water. He's retirement age, well over 6 feet, pear-shaped, probably 300 lbs., and he swims a full 90 minutes three times a week.  His pace is very very very methodical (ie slow), taking elaborate, wide-swath flip turns at each end, which would be fine if he were in the slow lane. But

Monday, August 15, 2016

No Reply

Why hasn't she answered me? - Warren Beatty as John Reed

I think she HAS answered you. -- Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman (Reds, 1981)

Instead of any epic historical scene, the moment in Reds that has forever lodged itself in my brain is the above small, intimate exchange between Emma Goldman and John Reed near the end, when John is suffering and doesn't know why his wife hasn't written him back. The harsh lesson is, sometimes silence is the answer. 

I was reminded of the concept in a TV writers' room a few years ago when I was complaining to one of my colleagues about being besieged by people wanting to meet me for advice about TV writing.  

"Oh," he said. "When I get emails like that, I just never write back."
I was shocked. "What?" 
"That way, they never know if I read it, or even got it." 

Wow, I thought. That's harsh. 
But I am starting to see the wisdom of his approach. 
The latest one came this week via a LinkedIn email. With not so much as a how-d'ya-do, a complete stranger reached out with the subject line "Matt Santos meets Top Gun" (Santos is a West Wing character invented in the seasons after I left the show, but I doubt he clocked that).  

I have removed identifying details, but you'll get the gist. 
Good evening Mr. Handelman,
I am the Chairman of the Board of [redacted].
In addition, I have completed a novel that will be released next year - [title redacted].[Plot redacted]
It is a Tom Clancy-like techno-thriller. I think it is a great read -- but would appreciate your thoughts. 
If interested I would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript -- as a pdf. It renders nicely on an iPad.
Thank you for your time -- I have enjoyed your work for a long time. 
Now, to my mind, if you're going to reach out to a complete stranger, you don't save the obligatory compliment of their work till the last line. And you don't shorten "Regards" to "Rds" because you're in a hurry. Does he want me to consider it as a screenplay to pitch? Or is he just looking for a free editorial consultation? But most of all, WHY ME? 

I composed several replies to him off the top of my head, the first being, 

Dear Sir: I have no experience in marketing but I happen to have completed a 400 page marketing proposal for a software company. It reads super easy on your phone. LMK if I can send it.
But then I realized -- I don't have to write back at all! 

Admittedly, his is an extreme version, but I get approached in similarly out-of-nowhere ways all the time.  It's the blessing and curse of having written for well-known publications and TV shows.

Don't get me wrong. I am not averse to helping others. In fact, I've tried to be a mentor to coworkers many times in my various jobs and careers. For example, at Vogue, I encouraged many underutilized editorial assistants - at least one of whom had a Masters in English - who were relegated to answering phones, fetching coffees and checking fashion product placements -- to pitch reviews and start writing. Several did and moved up the ranks; at least one went on to become one of New York's most long-tenured editors in chief. When a temporary ABC news job ended, I helped get my assistant her next gig. 

For a long time, I tried to be responsive to people who wanted to find out more about TV writing. Probably because I felt so guilty at my good fortune.  I got

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Doppelgänger Documentaries

By chance, this weekend I watched a pair of great sports docs made five years apart about the intertwined lives and careers of two pairs of athletes and was struck by the thematic parallels -- and telling differences -- and how they reflect issues of race and class that continue to haunt our national dialogue. 

McEnroe/Borg:Fire & Ice, an HBO sports doc made in 2011, depicts the short but intense rivalry between tennis's two top male players, tempermental John McEnroe and unflappable Bjorn Borg, at the turn of the 80s, which peaked quickly, then sent both men into different kinds of tailspins. 

Doc & Darryl, ESPN's latest in its stellar 30 for 30 series, charts the instant stardom and nearly as rapid descent into addiction and self-destruction of two young New York Mets phenoms of the mid-80s, pitcher Dwight "Doc" Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry. 

You can look up all the career stats somewhere else, but what struck me was this: 
  • Borg won Wimbledon at age 20, won it 5 more times and the US Open 5 times, but retired at 26. 
  • McEnroe won the US Open at 20, won it 3 more times and Wimbledon 3 times, then took a year off at 25, married Tatum O'Neal and never won another Grand Slam. 
  • Gooden was Rookie of the Year at 19, Cy Young the next year, and in the World Series the next. Then he started being suspended for drug use, and though he pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees at 31, never had a dominant season after he was 25. 
  • Strawberry was Rookie of the Year at 21. His productive years lasted a bit longer -- till he was 29, and he actually hit 24 homers as a Yankee at age 36. But he was suspended three times for drug use, was arrested for soliciting sex, and he too never matched his first few years' dominance. 
What both films make clear is that all four men became

Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh, Yoko. (Of Bowie and Photoshop)

We're all devastated today by the death of David Bowie.  Social media is full of sadness from those of us who survived adolescence learning from Bowie that it's not just okay to be different, it's actually more interesting.  As I commented elsewhere, There are only a handful of artists so iconic we take their eternal presence in our lives for granted. So when they die we are truly shocked they were mortal. 

So many artists chimed in with loving memories and feelings, like Annie Lennox, who sang at Freddie Mercury's memorial with him. (awesome rehearsal clip is here
Like a gazillion other people, I feel stunned by the news that David Bowie has departed this earth. At the loss of...
Posted by Annie Lennox on Monday, January 11, 2016

Singer Amy Rigby posted plaintively about her husband, Wreckless Eric, 
"I can't bear going upstairs to tell Eric about Bowie...I just can't. If I don't tell him I can pretend it's not true."
And then there's Yoko Ono. 

I am sure she meant well. 

But Yoko posted her own feelings today about Bowie's death -- well, it was all about David and John Lennon's relationship:

 "As John and I had very few friends we felt David was as close as family.

and she declared he'd been like a second father to Sean.

She chose to illustrate her post with this photo: 
Cool, right? 

Except a friend of mine had just posted the original photo, which seems to have been from the Grammys, and seems to have looked like this:
Let's give her the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Make Plays, Not War

When I signed up for a seven-hour marathon of theater in a church gym about bugs taking over the earth, the last thing I expected was it to be relevant to current events - or that it would give me hope for humankind.

But that's what happened when I attended closing night of the crazy-genius Honeycomb Trilogy by the promising playwright Mac Rogers.

The night before, ISIS had wreaked terror in Paris, killing over 100 people, and I had to wake at 4:15am the day of the plays to go in to CNN to produce an hour of live coverage anchored by Michael Smerconish as the (heart-)breaking news still was developing. It's what CNN does best but you wish it never had to do it.

It was one of those seat-of-the-pants broadcasts where behind the scenes guests kept being moved in and out of slots as different technology glitches and availabilities shifted underfoot - and the writing for the teleprompter was often still wet when Smerconish was reading it.

Amanpour on the cene with Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman
Right before the gifted Christiane Amanpour went on the air live with the deputy mayor of Paris, someone in the control room suddenly wondered aloud: "He's going to speak English, right?" Luckily he did. (Looking at the playback now (right), I see we had the wrong clock code on the screen, showing NY time instead of Paris.)

Smerconish did a great job - even booking two of the guests himself the night before while on a Stairmaster - and pushing back when guest Mike Huckabee turned the actions of ISIS against all natives of the countries where it's housed. Afterwards we all went home to nap.

But I had to wake up to get to the first of the three plays, which started at 2pm  My girlfriend and I had first heard the plays touted by a Facebook friend who works in theater, and I then read the Times review by Alexis Soloski, whose taste I trust.
an exhilarating D.I.Y. saga at the Gym at Judson, imagines an Earth subjugated by an apian race. Over the course of these ambitious dramas, which you can and should see in a marathon showing, a Florida family introduces, abets and opposes these insectoid overlords, the People of the Honeycomb.
It certainly promised to be unlike anything I had seen in decades of New York theatergoing - half of the curiosity was how the hell they would pull it off on a single set.

Just before heading into the theater on Washington Square South, we noticed that groups had assembled in the park to memorialize the killings in Paris, and a French flag had been hung in the Arch (which Stanford White had modeled on Paris's Arc De Triomphe.) (right). 

How homespun an experience were we in for? The person behind the lockbox checking off our names from the ticketbuyers list was the playwright himself.
Scene from Advance Man, the first play in the Honeycomb Trilogy 
The set was a drab American living room, and the large, committed cast totally was attuned to Rogers' witty and lively scenario  The plot involves a group of astronauts who return to Earth from Mars