Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Indelibles



Image result for madeline wise crashing"
Oh, right. Her. 
I recently attended the workshop production of three one-act plays. Only one was good, despite some stellar actors, but that's not unexpected. It's similar to the success batting average of the much more fully produced plays I see around town.

But as I took my folding chair in the first cramped studio, I was totally distracted - by the sight of one of my fellow audience members.

She was tall and striking-looking, but also very familiar, in a way that instantly engendered feelings of sympathy, almost sadness. But why? From where?

I knew this much: she was an actress, and that whatever I had seen her in, she had been new to me, which is always cool, when you can just accept a performance on face value without the baggage of having seen them in something else.

But it also means it might take a while for me to remember from where, even longer to recall a name. (Thank God for IMDB and IBDB; I see so many plays, movies, and TV shows it can take me a couple of different performances for even the face to stick.)

So I wracked my brain. In the swamp of dozens of TV series or movies or plays I had watched in the past year, she had made a vivid, moving impression. But I couldn't remember: Was it...some Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson movie? An otherwise forgettable off-Broadway play? A TV drama...or comedy?

As the lights went down for the first one-act, I mustered this much: the mystery woman had been a male protagonist's girlfriend, who loosened him up in important ways, but she had ultimately been rejected as too extreme.

And though the writer clearly wanted us to ultimately agree and cheer the protagonist for ending up with a more "matched" partner, I remember feeling at the time, her character had been dealt with unfairly by the exigencies of the plot/limitations of the lead character.

That is the kind of performance that sticks with me, especially in the current morass of streaming. A new face who brings that something unexpected, extra -- indelible.
Ben and Jesse, roles not just defined but expanded by their performers
Sometimes - as with Michael Emerson as Ben Linus on Lost or Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad - the actor is so good that the writers end up rejiggering the entire series to accommodate them. (Vince Gilligan had actually planned Jesse would be killed off in Season 1).

Tim. Blake. Nelson. 
Other times, even when their onscreen presence "pops," like Tim Blake Nelson did in O Brother Where Art Thou alongside Clooney and Turturro - it can still take years for other TV/movie writers/roles to properly utilize their talents. This past season he shines in both Watchmen and Just Mercy (right). (The Coen brothers have always had a particular knack for elevating underutilized/theater actors, including Fran McDormand, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Michael Stulhbarg, and Steve Buscemi.)

For me, recent indelible "new" performers have included Taron Egerton in Rocketman, and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart and then Unbelievable (though it turns out I had seen her years earlier on Justified).
Image result for kaitlyn dever justified"
Kaitlyn Dever in Justified, 2011
In this year's batch of award-season movies, both  Julia Fox in Uncut Gems and Ana de Armas in Knives Out both gave noticeably indelible performances, despite being surrounded by much more seasoned and well-known actors. 
Fox and de Armas, matching Sandler and Craig
*      *      *
By the time the lights came up after that first one-act. It dawned on me where I'd seen my fellow audience member, and why she'd evoked such a singular response.

She'd "recurred" on an HBO half-hour I was late to watching, Crashing, created by Christian stand-up comedian Pete Holmes, loosely based on Holmes' real-life saga, in which he came home to find his wife, the only woman he's ever slept with, in bed with another man. It sends him on a downward spiral of crashing on other people's couches, but ultimately helps him find himself and his comic voice.
[Side note: why hadn't I discovered this warm, humane, original and funny series when it first aired?
It premiered 1) a month after Trump was inaugurated, so I was distracted, and 2) soon after, I attached myself to Showtime's hour-long series set in the stand-up comedy world, the unjustly underpromoted and underviewed I'm Dying Up Here about the L.A. scene in the 70s. So I didn't feel the need to check out another show about stand-up.
Image result for im dying up here"
If you haven't watched THAT, I also totally recommend it. Not the least of which for its amazing, endearing and yes indelible ensemble of mostly "unknown" or little-known actors, acing a most difficult balancing act - convincing both as comedians in various stages of careers, and as sympathetic characters in dramatically extreme situations.]
Anyway - the actress who I had recognized memorably inhabited "Kat" on Season 3 of Crashing. Kat is unapologetically ambitious, comfortable in her own skin, and sexually forthright compared to Pete's usual comfort zone. And for a while, he allows himself to be subsumed, stretched and elevated by her spirit.

Until he isn't. Boo!

Her name? Is Madeline Wise. I looked her up and she has done a lot of theater, none of which I had seen, and since Crashing did a Fox pilot and a sci-fi movie. Her website includes a series of self-tapes of things President Trump has said. I now see on her Twitter page she wishes to be referred to as "A Lovable Badboy Actress." 

Done. I wish her a long and full career.
*     *    *
It goes without saying - and yet here I am saying it - that actors have very little control over the vicissitudes of their careers. Even if they even get to audition for a project, even if they get chosen, even if that project turns out well, even if it gets seen. And it's worse for female actors. 

The ghost of the Ambassador. Demolished 2005
Back in 2003 between TV gigs, I did a piece accompanying an Elle magazine fashion shoot at the asbestos-laced Ambassador Hotel in LA.

It had been shuttered since 1989 and was supposed to be turned into a school but was in a limbo that had given it a creepy post-apocalyptic Addams Family vibe, which wasn't helped by the fact that it had been where RFK was gunned down in 1968.

The magazine's editors had selected a bunch of up-and-coming actresses proffered up by the latest set of projects and publicists. They included Zooey Deschanel, Mischa Barton, Jessica Alba, Rose Byrne, Naomi Harris, Diane Kruger.

I remember thinking at the time, who of this crop will make it? (P.S.: The hotel was demolished two years later.)

Had you asked me back then, 17 years hence, which one would be playing a modern version of Medea at BAM, would I have guessed right?

I just saw the second preview of a play at the Atlantic, Anatomy of a Suicide, by Alice Birch, a writer on Succession whose previous work I liked.

Though Carla Gugino is the marquee name, she's matched and then some - partly because of what the script demands - by the actress playing her frazzled, when not besieged, daughter, Celeste Arias.
Image result for celeste arias anatomy of a suicide
Celeste Arias with Richard Topol in Anatomy of a Suicide
I actually recognized her, because I'd seen her just last year as Elena in Richard Nelson's recent low-key, contemporary rethink of Uncle Vanya. But this performance is the one that I will long remember.

Will she headline as Medea in 17 years? Well - that's not up to me. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Culture Cure

Met Museumgoer looking at Felix Vallotton's 'The White and the Black" (1913)
How do we keep it together during times of chaos? 

A friend recently posted on Facebook: 
"Happy to say I'm taking some time off to get my head/body together (right now they're in different time zones) but I had to cancel my plans for a walk-on-deserted-beaches sojourn because of family responsibilities...I wonder if I could run a few possibilities by you wonderful people?"
His ideas ran the gamut from Meditation and Psychedelics, to Electroshock and Gastric Bypass, to Public Service. (Already attempted: lying in bed all day with the shades down reading a long book about targeted killings by the Mossad.)

He asked if we had any other suggestions. 


It was half-kidding, but, in days like these, half-not. 


Many of my friends and I feel worried about the sky falling. (Indeed, tragically, just before Christmas a woman was killed by a piece of a building near Times Square.)


Reading my friend's post, I realized I hadn't written on this blog in more than a year - since before the midterms! The last one I felt compelled to register had been about the bomb scare at work

So what have I been doing since? Immersing myself in what I'm learning to think of as the Culture Cure. 

First and foremost, I continued writing (and rewriting) a play - my first - about George McGovern, Thomas Eagleton, and McGovern's daughter, around the issue of mental health, the Presidency, and the conflict between public and private lives. 
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt's stellar cast: (Lucy Consagra, stage directions) 
Susannah Perkins, Juliana Canfield, Greg Hildreth, Zoe Winters, Greg Keller, CJ Wilson, Susie Pourfar, Peter Grosz, James Udom, Adam Harrington

Audible sponsored a developmental reading at the Minetta Lane Theater with an amazing director and cast that helped my next revise. And also continued my hard-won wisdom on the realities of the theater marketplace. 


Meanwhile, I have thrown myself headlong into culture consumption. 


I've always been an avid consumer of theater, music, art, movies, books, and nature, but in this era it has taken on an almost frenetic pace. Just ask our cat Nico.
Some theater I saw in 2019 
Improviser Tami Sagher and actress Cristin Milioti at UCB
After being rejected from Hunter College's Playwriting MFA Program, I set about my own theater education. I'll trek to an afternoon reading in a small upstairs space of a work in progress about David Mamet writing a play about Harvey Weinstein. Or a playwright's master class about writing a musical even though I will never write one. Or the monthly Gravid Water show at Upright Citizens Brigade where actors learn scenes and improvisers arrive onstage not knowing what play they're in. 

Last summer I was especially proud to see (3x) my older daughter's NYC directorial debut, about a six year old girl who wants to be a boy (and her annoyed 4 year old brother), which got deservedly well-reviewed and got the playwright published
But this past week in early January was unusually packed. 
Often accompanied by my intrepid brilliant, creative artist partner Syd, I saw

(Friends of ours happened to star in one of the plays, be both the book's author and interviewer, and the painter having the opening. But that's not always the case.)
Blair Underwood, Rebecca Traister, Peggy Orenstein, Nicole Wittenberg
Yes, this breakneck gorging is sometimes exhausting - I nap more than I used to. 

But conversely it has also proved more revivifying than any anti-depressant. Art and culture keep cracking open new vistas on the world and responses to it, much-needed brain food beyond the daily newschurn or frustrations. 
* * *
Art isn't just a respite - it directly addresses current events. And the passionate and thoughtful response is different than that in the newspaper or on cable news. Peggy's book tackles young boys attitudes toward sex; Soldier's Play is about racism and the South and the military.

During my trip to the Met I was stunned by the giant painting in the Great Hall called "Resurgence of the People" by Kent Monkman, a takeoff on Washington Crossing the Delaware:
The Whitney Craft show included much social commentary, including these two pieces - Cupboard VII by Simone Leigh from 2018, a sculpture depicting Black womanhood using a pot and a grass hut:
And Elaine Reichik's 1998 needlepoint Sampler (Kruger/Holzer) that includes the timeless 1977 Holzer quote about abuse of power.
Then walking in East Harlem over the weekend, I stumbled on a giant street mural tagged by @killertaco666 that included this piercing figure:
And - in the middle of writing this post - I ducked out to see another play - How to Load a Musket by actress Talene Monahon (who, incidentally, had starred in the Weinstein/Mamet workshop).
Musket starts out as a docutheater piece based on interviews with re-enactors of the "Rev" and Civil Wars, but during her research, Trump and Charlottesville complicated, darkened and deepened the research, wrestling with not just old history but where we are and where we are headed.

So the art cure isn't merely about avoidance, but processing.
* * *
The other thing I did that week was furthering my biggest act of self-care this past year - spending three hours in Central Park's 36-acre Ramble, learning the maze of paths and inspiring history.
Back in October 2018, when the bomb scare evacuated us from our offices, CNN was still in the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle. So we were directed to take refuge just inside the Park's southwest corner.  It helped soften the freak-out. 

Two weeks earlier, I had attended a community meeting intending to gripe about my beloved pool being shuttered and replaced by the Central Park Conservancy, the non-profit group formed in 1980 that runs the park with the city. I couldn't believe their plan meant that the pool -- essentially in my backyard, a five minute walk from my apartment -- would be out of commission for several years. 
I was all prepared to wave the outraged civic activist (and swimmer) flag inherited from my late parents - who in the 60's had lobbied my hometown to build a municipal pool complex

Then I looked around and discovered that, along with fellow lapswimming diehards, there were also equally annoyed hockey players, birders, and environmentalists, all with their own sets of grievances. 

The Park's Chief Landscape Architect Chris Nolan and his architect team heard us out. Then they presented a slideshow of their $150 million plan. (Nolan explained that he had joined the park in 1996 expecting to stay only a couple of years. Instead he has made it his life's work.) 


They wanted to remove the mid-1960s cement Lasker Rink that had landed in the park like an alien spaceship, cutting off a natural stream and creating an eyesore for anyone emerging from the beautiful Huddlestone Arch. 

They walked us through the site and made a pretty convincing case. 

The new pool would resemble a pond, be much more integrated with the landscape, and well - just look at it! 
By the time they finished, I was not only in favor of the project, I had signed up to attend an open house for volunteers. In a few months I would learn to be a greeter in the visitor kiosks and centers. (right)


But after hearing the history of the mid-1850s decision by city elders, worried about the population boom downtown of poor immigrants, to build an entirely manmade version of nature, I decided to further train to be a weekly "Iconic Views" tour guide. I ended up donating more than 100 hours of my time in 2019 to the Park. 

One rainy day I had only one couple on the tour with me, a retired couple from Manhattan Beach California. After hearing the whole tour, the wife touched my arm and said "This gives me hope for humanity." 

Exactly. 

Then a few days ago, my younger daughter deejayed her first college radio hour. 

She dubbed the show "Tiny Apocalypse" and touted it with the following pitch: "feel like the world is ending? what else is there to do but dance and listen to music that makes you feel good?" 

Ditto. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

10/24


Central Park evacuation site,  11 am, panorama fail by dying phone.
It's not every day you get asked by two different people if you can speak to Israeli media about your day at work. (I declined.) Or you feel obliged to "mark yourself safe" on Facebook. And then learn that even after a pipe bomb had been sent to Hillary Clinton (among other prominent Dems), the President is still being greeted at his umpteenth rally with chants of "lock her up."

But we are living in weird times.

It was already one of those days that people who believe in such things describe as "Mercury in Retrograde." At 7 a.m. I had subwayed uptown to swim at my neighborhood rec center, only to learn the lifeguard was stuck in traffic and the pool could not open. So instead I bought groceries, and, beladen entering my apartment building door, apparently dropped my cell phone. When I called it, I discovered it had been found and retrieved by a good Samaritan who'd fetched a dog from my building to bring to her grooming place around the corner. I got it back and gave her a tip.

So by the time I got to work at CNN I was already a little rattled. Up in the cafeteria, I looked in vain for signs of fall foliage.
Cafeteria view. Trump Hotel on left. (Gold statue = evacuation site.)
Guess we picked the wrong day to help others.
Instead, I saw volunteers as part of today's "Turner Volunteer Day" writing thank you cards to people serving in the Armed Forces. Having terrible handwriting, I had chosen instead to sign up for a 3pm shift of "Medshare," in which I was going to:
Sort, pack, assemble, and box Clean Birthing Kits for pregnant women and newborns in need who live in communities worldwide where birth often takes place outside of a medical facility. 

Instead, at 10:09 am, the fire alarm started going off. I grabbed my phone, wallet, keys and jacket, and, bizarrely, a water bottle. But not my bag with my external cellphone battery.

Unfunnily enough, we'd had a mandatory "active shooter" training a few weeks ago, where we learned where the staircase exits were, how to not get isolated in an area with no escape, etc. But when the voice came over the speaker

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Get Me (Anthem) Rewrite!

In his first 500+ days in office, the President's war against disrespect for the National Anthem has become one of his reliable go-to chestnuts, a greatest hit with a dog whistle chorus that he sings with panache to keep the crowd in his pocket.

But today he took it to another level, by claiming the song is actually good. And I couldn't help thinking comedian Albert Brooks had it right 45 years ago when he did a routine suggesting we needed a national contest to pick a new one, and how that might go.

Since Trump himself is the master of reality TV, maybe it's time to revisit the idea.

After the President learned that only a handful of the Super Bowl Champ Philadelphia Eagles were going to show up for his White House celebration, he disinvited them, claiming (in a third-personese statement) to do so because the players disrespected the Star-Spangled Banner:
“They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.” 
Of course, fact-checkers immediately pointed out that in fact, none of the Eagles on the roster had taken the proverbial knee the entire championship season, but never mind.

Trump rejiggered the ceremony to be a celebration of America, and his early morning tweets began praising the Anthem itself as a wonderful/great piece of music.
7:08 AM:
 13 minutes later: 
But as Trump supporter Roseanne might be among the first to attest, the National Anthem is a difficult thing to sing, both clunky and wide-ranging. And though the lyrics were written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 to an old oft-used tune, it wasn't even crowned our Anthem till 1931, and was toyed with endlessly over the years. As the NY Times has reported
In the 19th century, the tune was regularly refashioned with lyrics to be, alternately, a rallying cry for abolitionists (“Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light, The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming”) or a temperance-movement indictment of alcohol (“Oh! who has not seen by the dawn’s early light, Some poor bloated drunkard to his home weakly reeling”).
So in 1973, when Brooks, then 26, did a routine suggesting America rethink the tune - it had only been in its esteemed slot for 42 of America's 197 years. (And Nixon was one year shy of resigning over Watergate.)
(When I wrote a career tribute to Brooks seven years ago, I embedded a video of him performing it live that since has been removed from YouTube in America due to copyright reasons, so you're going to have to listen to it. Pretend it's a podcast!) 


Prophetically for today's climate, Brooks begins his routine - recorded live at L.A.'s Troubadour -  by saying "The National Anthem - What happened? Oh, someone got up! No, no. You don't have to stand." 

Then Brooks declares the anthem has to be rewritten "very soon"

Monday, April 23, 2018

My 40 Years of Bruce: A scrapbook


Both the first and most recent times I saw Bruce Springsteen - almost 40 years apart - I sat left of center.

Most everything else had changed.  When we started this dance, I was a high school senior; now he's a senior citizen (and I'm still only 12 years younger). We both had kids (though mine seem more interested in his music than his). He moved his act uptown from the scrungy Palladium (RIP) to a posh Broadway theater, along the way putting a wrecking ball to the original Giants Stadium.

And the face value of my ticket went up from $8.50 (though my scrawl in my scrapbook indicates I actually paid a scalper price, $32) -- to $400. The Times, They Are Ka-Chinging.

The Ties That Bind (and cost big bucks)
I've seen Bruce live maybe 3 dozen times - fewer, to be sure, than the hardcore diehards, but still, more than any other musician, in venues large and small, from acoustic to full strings and horn section - even when he sacrilegiously disbanded the E street band for a tour ("Shayne Fontayne on guitar!" Really?).

I had his poster in my college dorm room, own more Bruce bootlegs than all other artists combined, and sprang for most of his recent overpriced boxed-set-remixed-reissues (even though I will probably never slog my way through all the peripherals, right).

Poster I had in college
But as his core E Street band members have started to die off (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici) and the others - unlike Bruce - have started to show their age from the wear and tear of his marathon shows, I started to feel my Springsteen concertgoing experience becoming something of a replica of the real thing. Not Vegas, not a tribute band, but just less freewheeling. He was still putting out the energy and spirit on stage (a mutual high that he admitted in interviews he was addicted to - as were we all), but I was missing the unpolished spontaneity and quirky personal discursiveness that had helped attract this sheltered suburban kid to his wild-eyed yearning romanticism.

Well, Bruce has been also thinking about (and working on) himself - including publicly, first for my friend Peter Ames Carlin's bio Brucein which Springsteen not only was unusually open about his private demons, but allowed those in his life to speak without NDA restraints; then for his autobiography, Born to Run (recommended in audio form).

I had long joked that as Bruce hit his 60s, instead of exhaustingly touring worldwife, he should just take up residency and just play a month a year at an arena in Jersey and his fan base would make pilgrimages to see him. (In recent years, Billy Joel and Jerry Seinfeld have both done versions of this.) Now Bruce has hit on a plan that satisfies his musical and introspective urges, and one that leaves the E Street Band off the hook: this solo Broadway run, five shows a week, sold by lottery trying to thwart scalpers (as if), opened October 3, 2017 for "8 weeks only" but has been extended three times (as of this writing) to December 15, 2018.

15 months only! (so far)
It's not a rock and roll show, though he does play some of his biggest hits on piano and guitar. Instead, hearing Bruce's elegiac travelogue through his life and career, I found myself newly moved, as he described looking back wistfully at the time when his life was ahead of him like a blank page.  He spent as much time talking as he did singing, and he candidly admitted the man who wrote "Racing in the Streets" was very late to even learning to drive, and that the rebel who wrote "Born to Run" and swore to escape his "death trap" hometown, now resides a stone's throw away. He brought out his wife, Patti Scialfa, for a couple of songs. He revisited the meaning of his friendship with Clemons.

As I sat there, I also realized that, when you spend 40 years in the company of a sentient artist, you accumulate a lifetime of memories - even if the relationship is one-sided (I have only met and spoken to him once - more on that below).

Just as if you live in New York long enough, nearly every block and corner of Central Park you walk in holds a special memory - if you see enough Bruce, it becomes its own narrative of your life, with the inevitable tragedy, comedy, and every now and then, a glimpse of salvation.

I know everybody's got their Bruce stories, but these are mine.
Since most of them predate cell phone cameras, this is my scrapbook.

GROWIN' UP
1977, sophomore year. I'm at Steve Hertz's house. He's a senior and, LP's spread everywhere, has been playing deejay to help upgrade my musical taste from the mainstream I'd embraced so far (Beatles, Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Eagles, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, Queen. ELO, ELP).

Steve puts on a song: "You know this?"
Of course.
"This is the original. Isn't it so much better?"

The song is "Blinded By The Light."
I only knew the version I'd heard on the radio, by Manfred Mann's Earth Band (in which the confused Brits sing "revved up like a douche" instead of "deuce").


I dunno -- a little tinny sounding? I am still not sure. (!)

Eventually Steve wears me down. And when he graduates, a senior in the next class, Eric Alterman, imparts an even bigger Bruce fandom knowledge (as well as inculcating me into the Clash and Elvis Costello). He would later write a fan's appreciation book.

Soon I am tuning in to Springsteen's live radio broadcasts and taping them on my cassette deck,

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Same as it ever was

Think today's deep-dish partisan divide is unprecedented? Just listen to episode 5 of Slate's Slow Burn, its deep-dive story of Watergate. It provides helpful context for the period we are living in now.

If you don't think supporters of a sitting President were ever this die-hard loyal despite all rational reasons not to be. If you think it's only the current bitter climate in which a party seems to be willing to self-protect at any price.

But most of all if you think that Devin Nunes' accusatory behavior - and apparent marching orders from the White House is some kind of aberrational anomaly.

In case you don't have the time to sit through the podcast, I will "spoil" some of it here, because it is historically important. And fascinating.

The most amazing nugget I took away from the episode was that the narrative I had always believed - that John Dean had come clean about Nixon's culpability, and then was buttressed when a White House staffer revealed that everything in the White House had been taped, was some kind of 1-2 punch of The Truth Tellers routing out the Bad Guys.

In fact, the only reason the tapes ever got exposed is much more happenstance - and only occurred because the Nixon White House was trying so hard to obliterate Dean's credibility that it overreached and unwittingly exposed its own secret.


(Not unlike the recent Nunes Memo which unwittingly undermined its own argument. Trying to assert that the Russia probe was bogus because it was launched by the Steele Dossier, it also included the fact that what really launched it was George Papadapoulos's earlier loose lips about Russia providing dirt on Hillary.)

John Dean testifies, 1973
White House attorney Dean wanted to testify in full to Democrats before any Republicans heard what he had to say, because he worried the White House would immediately hear his testimony from its compatriots mount a counter narrative. And it turns out he was right. Because as soon as he testified, the committee was given transcripts of conversations that Dean had in the White House to undermine his story.

But a savvy investigator (of course who, is, again, a partisan squabble, even today) was like, wait, why do you have these transcripts? Does someone have a really good memory? Or are there some kind of tapes we don't know about?

My memory of all this was that the White House guy who helped install the recording equipment in 1971, Alexander Butterfield, had heroically decided to come clean like Dean.
Butterfield testifying
That turns out not to be the case. In fact, when interviewed at age 86 he told the Washington Post in 2012, that he was willing to remain vague unless he was asked specifically about the tapes, and he doesn't like being thought of as a snitch.
“Frankly, I don’t like being known as the man who revealed the existence of the tapes. It makes it appear that I ran full tilt to the Watergate committee and told them eagerly and breathlessly the very information that Nixon considered top secret. That was not the case. I was facing a true dilemma: I wanted very much to respect Nixon’s wishes and at the same time to be cooperative and forthright with the congressional investigators. The wording of their questions meant everything to me. And when Don Sanders, the deputy minority counsel . . . asked the $64,000 question, clearly and directly, I felt I had no choice but to respond in like manner.”
Why wouldn't he want to be known that way?  Because of loyalty?

We are very lucky the overreach happened, and that someone thought to ask the question, or it may never have come out.

And without those tapes (which, as David Frost pointedly asked, why didn't Nixon destroy them?) Nixon would have continued to maintain his innocence.

And he had many True Believers.

As I write this, there's news from CNN and the NYT that Steve Bannon is refusing to speak to the House committee despite a subpoena. And one can't help wonder if he knows the John Dean playbook - that he wants to save the truth for Mueller and not give away what he knows to those who will run it immediately back to the White House.

Maybe that's not why this is happening. We may not learn the full truth for another 40 years. That's a slow burn indeed.


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 --

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

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

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. 
NOVEMBER 5 2008
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.