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.