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Recommended Reading

The New York Times calls for the investigation and prosecution of U.S. officials who okayed and carried out a policy of illegal torture.

It'll never happen just as 99% of those who manipulated Wall Street to steal zillions will never see a barred window from the inside. But at least someone's bothered about it.

Subway Slasher

I'm oddly fascinated about bizarre pricing practices in business…like stores where you can buy a certain item for 79 cents or two for $1.65. I often notice in supermarkets that they're selling Friskies canned cat food for 50 cents a can or a box of 20 cans for eleven dollars. This is presumably known in the trade as a Reverse Quantity Discount.

Last evening, I went out on some errands and on a whim — and because I had a coupon — I decided to pop into a Subway sandwich shop. On the way in, a homeless gent asked me for spare change and I made a mental note to give him any I had on my way out.

As I mentioned here, I occasionally like Subway and when I do, I get either a meatball marinara sandwich or a tuna sandwich. The coupon I had said, "Buy ANY 6-inch sub with a 30 oz. drink and get ANY 6-inch sub of equal or lesser price FREE!" So I went in, figuring I'd get one of each — one meatball, one tuna — for the price of one of them.

The lady behind the counter said I couldn't do that. She pointed to fine print on the coupon that said, "Not valid on $2 subs or Flatzilla." And then she pointed to the big menu board where I could see that the meatball marinara sandwich was on sale for $2.00. "You can't get a $2.00 sandwich in the special," she explained.

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I said, "I don't think that's the intention of the offer. They don't want me to get two sandwiches for $2.00 but they're fine if I get any two for $4.50." $4.50 was the list price of the tuna sandwich and most of the other ones on the menu board.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't make the rules and the $2.00 sandwiches cannot be purchased on the coupon deal."

I explained to her that I wanted to buy a tuna sandwich for $4.50 and also pay for a 30 oz. drink (and they could keep the drink since I don't ingest soda) and then get a meatball marinara sandwich for free since it was, as the coupon said, an "equal or lesser price."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't make the rules and the $2.00 sandwiches cannot be purchased on the coupon deal."

"No, no," I tried to explain. "You're telling me that if I buy the tuna sandwich for $4.50 and pay for a 30 oz. drink, I can have a $4.50 sandwich for free but not one that usually costs $4.50 and is on sale at the moment for $2.00!"

"Exactly," she said.

"Okay, let's try it this way. Let's say I come in and ask for a tuna sandwich and a coke. You make them up and then I show you the coupon. You say, 'Oh, for the same price, you're entitled to pick another sandwich for free!' Are you with me so far?"

She said yes.

"Fine. So I say I'd like the meatball marinara. Do you then say, 'I'm sorry, sir. For your free sandwich, you have to pick a more expensive one'?"

"That's right," she said. "Would you like to talk to the manager?" Just then, the manager walked in, probably returning from taking his dinner break at a better, saner restaurant. I explained the whole thing to him, concluding with: "So if I want two of your most expensive sandwiches, they'll run me $4.50 but if I want one of your most expensive sandwiches and one of your least expensive sandwiches, that'll be $6.50."

The manager said, "Yes, sir. Those are the rules."

By this point, I realized that they weren't the stupid ones here. The stupid one was the guy spending all this time arguing over two dollars…actually fifty cents since to get the deal, I was also going to buy a $1.50 soda I didn't want.

So I went out and asked the homeless guy what kind of sandwich and drink he wanted. He said, "Black Forest Ham on 9-Grain Wheat with plenty of mustard, and a Diet Coke." Then I went back in and used my coupon to get a Black Forest Ham on 9-Grain Wheat with plenty of mustard and a Diet Coke and as my free sandwich, I got tuna, plus I bought a $2.00 meatball sandwich. Then on the way out, I gave the ham sandwich and the drink to the homeless gent and went home with my meatball sandwich and my tuna sandwich.

Yes, it cost me way more than it should have but I got to use my goddamn coupon. Don't tell me I don't know how to save money.

Mighty Marvel Mini Mania

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I'm still accepting nominations of old posts from this site that are worthy of a reprise. This one is from March 3, 2004 and I chuckled when I read the line I'd written then about being a Marvel completist. Back in '66, you could be that for under two dollars a month. I haven't done the math but I suspect that even if one adjusts for inflation, to be that today would cost a few thousand percent more than it did then. One of the foundations of Marvel's success in the sixties was that they achieved a kind of brand loyalty that is not possible in this era.

Back around '66, I used to occasionally baby-sit for a family down the street. "Baby-sitting" is probably the wrong term. I was 14 and the kid in question was 10 and we often hung out together and played games and such. When the kid's parents went out for the evening, they'd pay me to play with him 'til it was his bedtime, then stick around downstairs until they got home. I made about six bucks for this but that was enough then to buy all the DCs and Marvels — and the output of a few other small companies — for an entire month. I could even "gamble" money away trying to get all the Marvel Mini-Books. Here's what I wrote about them in '04…

Long before comic books discovered the mini-series, there was the mini-comic. In 1966, Marvel issued six "comic books" that, depending on the size of your monitor, may have been even smaller than they appear in the above photo. They actually varied a tiny bit in size but were generally under 7/8" in height and a bit less than 1/4" thick with black-and-white interiors. Each was bound along the left ledge with the kind of rubbery glue used to bind a pad of writing paper and featured jokes and an occasional smidgen of story. I dunno who wrote them but some of the art was stats from the comic books and some of the new art was by Marie Severin.

I first heard about them in the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page when they said…well, here. I'll let you read it for yourself:

Upon reading that, I immediately began checking out every vending machine I passed. As a more-or-less Marvel completist, I had to have them. For weeks, the search was fruitless but then one day, my father took us to a White Front department store down in the Crenshaw district…down where white folks never went in '66 unless they wanted to save money buying a washing machine. While my parents priced Maytags, I scoped out the vending machines and sure enough, there was one with with Marvel mini-books therein. Alas, it also had other stuff. You put in a nickel, turned the handle and you got a little plastic egg with a cheapo toy in it — a ring, a balloon, a little top, something of the sort. From what I could estimate as I peered in the glass, the odds were only about one in ten that you'd get a Marvel mini-book.

I ran off and found a nice snack bar lady who changed a dollar bill into ten nickels (all she had) and two quarters. Then I ran back to the machine and began feeding in those nickels. I got a Sgt. Fury mini-book, a Captain America mini-book and a lot of tin rings.

A cashier at the camera counter turned my two quarters into ten more nickels, which was all she had. Those nickels got me a Hulk mini-book and another Sgt. Fury and a bunch of tops and whistles, and there was a little inch-square jigsaw puzzle that consisted of four pieces.

I found my parents and relieved them of all their nickels. I think they had about eight between them but they only got me eight more crummy toys.

This went on for about an hour. In later years in Vegas, I would see grown men and women look almost hypnotized as they pumped quarters and silver dollars into slot machines. I experienced some of that at the White Front that day, plus I had to run about and find nickels. By the time my parents had picked out and ordered a washer, I had squandered every five-cent coin within three blocks of that department store and I was still without the Millie the Model mini-book. To make matters worse, I could see a dozen Millie mini-books in their little plastic modules inside the glass dome of the vending machine. They were distributed across the top of the pile and the machine picked from the bottom, so what I was seeking was perhaps unattainable without injecting a few hundred more nickels.

"Let's go," my father called. I fed in my last nickel — the last one I had, the last one I had time to feed — and got an insulting little sticker. I shoved it into a paper bag I was filling with my acquisitions and headed for the car, defeated. I knew full well I'd never see another vending machine that sold Marvel mini-books; that there would always be that aching void in my life…no Millie the Model Marvel Mini-Book. Sigh, weep, moan. But when I got home and sorted through all the unwanted prizes I'd amassed — things that would look chintzy in a CrackerJack box — a Millie mini-book fell out. I couldn't imagine how I managed to get one and not notice, but there it was.

Since then, I've had things go right in my life and things go wrong. When they go wrong, I occasionally think back and recall how I completed my collection of Marvel mini-books. And I remind myself that sometimes, things just plain work out for the best, and you don't always understand why.

Quick Pick

Looking for last minute gift suggestions for yourself? Well, at this moment, Amazon has the complete Blu-ray set of The Dick Van Dyke Show (list price: $349.98) for $49.99. That's a great set of one of the best TV shows of all time for an incredibly low price. If you don't have it, get one.

Flash Forward

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I was watching a rerun of the TV series M*A*S*H the other day and I was just amazed at the awesome, almost mystical powers of Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly, portrayed by Gary Burghoff. Not only could that character sense what others were thinking and when helicopters were about to arrive with wounded soldiers…but he could even, in the midst of the Korean War, read a comic book that wasn't published until November of 1968. Astounding.

Recommended Reading

We heard a number of different versions of what happened in Ferguson, MO when Michael Brown was killed. William Saletan looks at the case and notes that a lot of beliefs were unsupported by the evidence.

And of course, it's really odd that the chief prosecutor in this case — the one who convened the Grand Jury and in the view of some manipulated the process to achieve a desired outcome — now says he was well aware some of the witnesses were lying. Apparently, that's now okay in our legal process.

All This Fuss About a Seth Rogen Movie

President Obama said that Sony Pictures Entertainment "made a mistake" by withdrawing The Interview from its Christmas Day release. I'm not sure I agree. Depending on some facts that are not in our possession, it might be a highly responsible action…or at the very least, a course of action in which they did not have much choice.

And I guess I should preface what I'm about to say with the reminder that I am not in favor of terrorists "winning" and that I'd like to think I have a fair amount of street cred as a defender of the First Amendment. I'm also not convinced this is really a First Amendment issue.

The First Amendment says our government can't stop free expression. It says nothing about other governments or parties which may be acting in accord with other governments. A couple of folks on the local news last night seemed to think we have some Constitutional right as Americans to see this movie. Well, no. Sony has the right to withdraw it and bury it and we have no "right" to see it. (Reportedly, some highly-placed folks at Sony were considering not releasing it even before the computer hacking occurred.)

To me, I don't see this as a First Amendment issue so much as an issue of criminal extortion. It's also an issue of the folks at Sony deciding what's best for the folks at Sony and for exhibitors deciding what's best for them.

Right now, I can think of two things I don't know and you probably don't know that might make a difference in how we view this whole matter…

  1. How good is this movie? I don't mean as Fine Art. I mean as something that will sell tickets.

Thursday night at the screening I attended, there was what we call an Industry Crowd, meaning the entertainment industry. I heard much talk about the whole matter and I kept hearing — this is the rumor mill speaking now — that everyone at Sony thought the film was awful and that they were just hoping to get it into theaters and make some bucks before reviews and word of mouth killed it. It's common knowledge the film's release was delayed from last August because Sony demanded changes.

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I'm not suggesting that good films deserve to be defended and bad ones don't. But before the hacking and threats, Sony had the right to decide the film was a lox that wasn't worth releasing. Some execs at Sony felt that way; that the film shouldn't be released…or maybe wasn't worth the problems it might cause. (No one in the film business is dense enough to think a movie about assassinating a foreign leader couldn't possibly get anyone upset.) And they had the right to make that decision. I'm suggesting they still have that right. Which brings me to the other thing we don't know…

  1. How credible are the threats of "9/11 style terrorism" against theaters that show this film?

The Department of Homeland Security says they're not credible and they're probably right. Then again, someone at Sony probably assured the execs there than their computer system was unhackable.

Imagine you're the operator of a multi-screen cinema that was booked to show The Interview. You've heard there are threats of terrorism against any theater that shows this film. Even if it's only a 1% chance, do you still book the movie? And I'm thinking you're not even worried about someone bombing your theater. I'm thinking you're worried about people not coming to your theater, not even to see the other movies you're showing, if The Interview is also on the marquee.

You have a lot of great, potentially-lucrative movies opening on or around Christmas Day: Unbroken, Into the Woods, The Gambler, Big Eyes, Leviathan…plus recent releases like The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Annie. You don't need The Interview to sell tickets. Why risk even the teensy chance of violence or the greater risk of people deciding not to go to a movie where there's that teensy threat of terrorism?

On a purely financial basis, which is the only consideration in so many businesses today and not necessarily a wrong one in this matter, I understand the theaters bailing on it. I further understand Sony deciding that if not enough theaters are going to show it, maybe it doesn't make sense to let any show it…now. And I really understand them saying, "Look, let's take some time and figure out the best other way to exhibit this film."

Is this giving in to terrorists? Probably. We do that in this country. We cancel airline flights if there's even a vague threat. We evacuate buildings if there are suspicious packages. In a sense, the terrorists/hackers have already won this one. At least one movie — it was to be Steve Carrell's next — has been cancelled due to its anti-Korea theme. And you can pretty much bet that no one in Hollywood is green-lighting anything that involves showing Kim Jong-un's head exploding or which might even annoy him.

Also, cybersecurity experts are saying that just dealing with the computer hack will cost Sony upwards of $100 million and you can imagine what other businesses are suddenly spending to beef up their security. They're terrified it'll happen to them. Add all this up and it's not a bad victory for whoever decided to terrorize someone via computer. Even if The Interview does get released eventually, they'll have won a lot.

And experts are saying there are many other ways Sony can release The Interview. I'm wondering if the company will decide they're cost-effective. They may just seize on it as an opportunity to dump (and perhaps take tax write-offs on) a movie that some folks there didn't think should be released in the first place.

But you're saying — I can hear you — a crime has been committed. What about that? And if Sony did decide they wanted to give it a full release, what should be done? Well, let's forget for a moment that this is about a movie. Imagine foreign hackers break into the computer system of a big company in this country the size of Sony. Or even say it is Sony. They steal data, they publicize things that are embarrassing, they throw panic in all directions because they now have everyone's banking information, etc. Then instead of demanding that a movie be withdrawn or edited, they demand ten billion dollars to not use or disseminate that data. That's as likely to happen as what did happen.

What should be done in that case? I dunno. But whatever it is, I think that's what should be done in this case. Treat it as extortion, which is a very serious crime, not as an assault on our Free Speech. Sony should be free to decide on the disposition of The Interview based on whatever they think is best for their business.

It will not destroy the First Amendment if they decide it ain't worth it. Our Congress will still not be able to make a law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. But before we take up arms to defend its spirit in this case, let's see if the guys who financed this movie still think it's worth fighting for. Because I think it's quite likely they just want to cut their losses and get out before their kids' PlayStations get hacked. Or someone really gets assassinated.

Today's Video Link

Yesterday, we had a neat bit of animation set to The Drifters' recording of White Christmas. He's a cappella specialist Nick McKaig doing his version of the classic Drifters record. Nick's a good singer and he's good at making funny faces, too…

Very Early Saturday Morning

One more thing about the finale on The Colbert Report: If you showed that musical number to someone who'd never heard of any of those people, I think they could do a pretty good job of figuring out which ones were professional entertainers (singers, comedians) and which ones were professional politicians, newspersons or journalists. Most in the latter category looked so awkward and even though their individual voices could not be heard, many could not even bring themselves to mouth along with the lyrics.

I've written a long piece about the decision by Sony not to release The Interview, at least not now. I'm going to read it when I wake up, see if I still agree with it and post it if I do. I don't think this is as big a First Amendment issue as some seem to think it is. And I'm usually pretty militant about First Amendment issues.

And I'm still welcoming nominations for older posts on this site that are deserving of an encore here.

You Never Forget Your First Play

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This was originally posted to this site on August 4, 2003. It's still a very important memory for me and I hope everyone who has kids will take them when they're the proper age to a show they'll remember as well as I remember this one…

My Fair Lady was the first real musical comedy I ever saw performed live on a stage. This is discounting a couple of "kiddy theater" productions I saw at an earlier age which failed to entertain me or, insofar as I could tell, anyone else on the premises. I remember a probably-unauthorized musical version of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins I saw when I was around seven that was so low-budget, they were short 499 pieces of head gear. A lady was playing Bartholomew and she kept doing inept sleight-of-hand to make it appear as if new chapeaus were magically appearing on her head, but she didn't fool anyone. We all knew she wasn't a boy and that it was the same hat, over and over and over.

A few other such plays failed to get me interested in theater. Fortunately though in 1959 or maybe 1960 — I would have been seven or eight at the time — my mother took me to see the touring company of My Fair Lady at the Biltmore Theater in downtown Los Angeles. A gentleman named Michael Evans, who spent much of his career playing Henry Higgins in various productions, played Henry Higgins, and research has suggested that a lady named Anne Rogers was probably the Liza I saw. I have no idea who else was in the cast. I kept the program book, which I remember as having the "generic" Hirschfeld drawing (as opposed to the original Broadway one in which Higgins was clearly Rex Harrison) but I have mislaid it for about the past thirty-five years.

Anyway, I'll tell you what I remember of the experience. I remember my mother briefing me for days about what I was going to see, explaining and perhaps over-explaining the story. I also remember going there with a certain familiarity with the songs, inasmuch as my folks played the cast album over and over and over. I still own their copy of that record and it's a wonder you can even get a sound out of the thing today, so worn down are the grooves. I remember getting dressed up for the event and I remember my father, for God knows what reason, dropping us off at the theater and picking us up later, rather than coming in with us. Most of all though, I remember The Orange Drink.

At the time, it was apparently quite customary for legit theaters to sell orange drink at intermission. I assume they had alcohol and soft drinks but one could also purchase a certain orange-hued beverage that they all sold — or at least, they sold it at the Biltmore. For days before we attended, my mother not only told me about the show but explained that at intermission, she would buy me this terrific orange drink. I realize now she was very worried that I would find My Fair Lady an utter bore but she figured, I guess, that I would at least enjoy the orange drink. At least, I heard so much about it that I began thinking, "This must be some orange drink" and presuming that it was so special, you could only get it if you sat through an entire musical comedy.

Our seats were high in a balcony, several kilometers from the stage and all the way on the left. I sat there in my suit and tie all through the first act, trading off with my mother on using a pair of very old binoculars she owned. I enjoyed the show a lot but my mind kept drifting to thoughts of the wonderful orange drink I would be savoring at intermission. When the moment finally came, my mother took me out to the lobby and bought me a small carton, like a milk carton, of what turned out to be a pretty mediocre orange drink. It was very much like Kool-Aid — sugared water with artificial coloring and flavor, and I didn't particularly want to drink it but figuring it was part of the ritual of the theater, I did. For all I knew, the second act couldn't start until every child in the place finished his or her orange drink.

As it turned out, I liked the show a lot more than the orange drink. And it's funny what you remember from an experience like that. I remember the "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" number with the buskers pushing Liza around stage on a flower cart and whistling. I remember Alfred Doolittle and three other characters singing, "With a Little Bit of Luck." I remember Doolittle doing, "Get Me to the Church on Time" and in it, I vividly recall Doolittle in his tuxedo saying goodbye to someone. He did an elaborate gesture of removing one of his gloves so he could shake hands. Then he shook with the still-gloved hand. Then he put the glove back on the hand from which he'd removed it. Big laugh.

It all added up to my first real memory of the theater. It was many years after that I began attending on an even semi-regular basis but when I did, something connected with that first experience. First time I took in a show on Broadway, I found myself flashing back to that balcony at the Biltmore and thinking, "This is the same wonderful experience." Maybe it was even better. On Broadway, they don't make you drink the rotten orange drink.

Today's Video Link

An annual Christmas tradition on this blog…

Who's Who

The folks at Slate have "annotated" the finale from The Colbert Report to show who everyone is. Their video is full of code I don't want on this site so you can go to this page to watch it.

I have a feeling that Keith Olbermann, when he chose what coat he'd wear to the studio for this, asked himself, "What color jacket could I have on that guaranteed I'd stand out and be noticed?" And then when he got there and they saw it, the person who was staging everything thought, "Hey, I'll show him! I'll put him in a shot with Big Bird!"

Report Report

I was a tad disappointed in the last Colbert Report but, you know, the show's batting average was still amazing over its nine year run. Folks I know seem split on how he's going to do in the time slot Mr. Letterman is vacating. I think he's a lot more talented and innovative than anyone else who's been competing in late night for quite some time. If he tries to do the same show as everyone else, he'll just disappear into the mix. I'm thinking he won't.

That finale with a zillion celebs flooding onto his stage last night was impressive, though. Here's an attempt by the folks at Talking Points Memo to identify all of them. They seem to be updating the page every so often to add in more names. One wonders how certain people there felt about sharing a stage with Henry Kissinger in that some of them have fingered him as a war criminal. (Oh, what am I saying? War criminals are getting to be socially acceptable in our country…)

It Takes Two

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I've been having an Into the Woods week. Tuesday night, I saw a pretty good stage production of the musical. Last night, I went to the Motion Picture Academy's theater to see a screening of the new movie, followed by a panel discussion with the director, screenwriter and most of the stars. The panel discussion was pleasant enough, though 95% of it was about how much they all loved being involved in this film and how much they loved working with each other. Meryl Streep and Tracey Ullman spent a lot of it playfully annoying each other.

I liked the movie a lot. It's very lovely and extremely faithful to the show. Journalist Pete Hammond, who moderated the panel after, and James Corden (who's quite wonderful as the Baker) both made the interesting point that they managed to cut a three-hour play down for a two-hour movie without losing anything notable. Actually, all the performers are quite wonderful and, since the purpose of this showing was to rally some support for Academy Awards, I found myself wondering which of them, besides Ms. Streep, they're going to put up for Best Actor/Actress and which ones will have campaigns for supporting roles. In many ways, the best performance was given by the cinematographer.

The film hasn't formally opened so I guess I'm not supposed to post a real review…and by the time I can, everyone will be reviewing it and raving about it. It's a fine piece of work and if you have any love for the material, you won't be disappointed.

One Phone Call

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Early in 2011, I posted this piece of what I still think is sound advice. And hey, if you have a past posting here you think is worthy of a reprise, please drop me a line and tell me. In the meantime, here's what I wrote about the awesome, life-changing power of One Phone Call…

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If you have a steady job, you may want to skip this. It's directed to many friends, acquaintances and total strangers who never have jobs that are all that steady: Writers, artists, actors and various other freelancers who think it's a big deal if they get something that pays them for six months or a year…or who even subsist on a string of one-shot gigs.

It's been a rough couple of years and no one's forecasting a huge change in this one. Our unemployment level is impossible to chart but (obviously) way too high. I can't remember a time of so many calls and e-mails that include the phrase, "Please, if you hear of anything…" The answer, alas, is that I rarely hear of anything.

So what can we tell these folks? The first thing to remember is that there are two kinds of problems in this world. You might be unfortunate enough to have both kinds at once but you should never forget that there are two kinds — the ones that can be largely solved by One Phone Call and the ones that can't. "I don't have a job" can be solved with One Phone Call. Someone calls up and hires you. That happens all the time…admittedly, not as often or as perfectly timed as you would like but it certainly happens and if it's the right One Phone Call, the problem disappears in its entirety. Gone. Evaporated. A distant memory. Congrats.

The other kind of problem is the kind that can't be solved by One Phone Call. Being very ill would probably be the most obvious example but it can also be a relationship problem that isn't going to get better and we can all imagine plenty of other situations. I have a friend who has severe Fibromyalgia. No One Phone Call is going to make that go away.

People keep plunging themselves into depression and despair because they mistake the first kind of problem for the second kind. Neither is fun and I'm not suggesting the second kind is necessarily hopeless. I know plenty of folks who've recovered from pretty severe disasters. I just think it's valuable to distinguish between them and to not overdramatize the former into the latter. I don't know how many times a friend has called on Monday, wailing about unemployment and speaking in the bleakest, most depressing terms. And then on Tuesday, they get that One Phone Call.

It doesn't always happen that neatly. But it does happen.

When it doesn't happen, that may be because of simple numbers. It's sometimes the case that the talent pool is too large for the marketplace. Back in the eighties in the animation business, there was a period when there were 25 cartoon series in production in Los Angeles, many of them Monday-Friday shows that required 65 episodes to fill out a season. That meant a great demand for scripts and a lot of people who hadn't been animation writers before suddenly became animation writers. Dozens of 'em.

Then only two or three years later, there was a downswing in production and the business was down to (I think) 16 series, mostly Saturday-only shows that produced but 13 episodes a year. I may have the precise numbers wrong but it was something like a 70% drop in the quantity of scripts that were needed.

There was not, however, a 70% drop in the number of animation writers looking for work. Some got out (mostly those who were never fully in) but not enough for there not to be a lot of frustrated folks asking themselves, "What happened? I had plenty of work last year…and this year, I can't get anything." That can be jarring, especially when you plan your life on the assumption that this year's income will approximate last year's income.

I had friends who lost homes or had to move to cheaper apartments or otherwise downsize their lives. Many punished themselves and agonized, wondering as many creative folks do at times and especially lately, "What am I doing wrong?" There are four possible answers to that question…

  1. Some people are not as good as others, at least in the eyes of those who do the hiring and buying. That is not always the same thing as just being good since sometimes, those who hire and buy have odd tastes and whims. The kind of jobs I'm talking about here — writing, drawing, even acting — are meritocracy jobs. You get one because someone thinks you're the best available person to fill some need they have. So you might not be getting hired because what you do just doesn't coincide with the tastes and judgment calls of those who make the selections and that might be (just might be) because you're not that good. If you've had some success in the past, it's probably the former of those two options. But the latter is always possible.
  2. Some people are not as well-known to those who make the selections as they could be. You might be doing something wrong in that you're not known by those who can pick you…though I don't think that's the problem as often as some think it is. There's a tendency to think, "Well, if they don't know how good I am, they must not have seen my work." That's easier to believe than, "They have but they weren't impressed." Still, it's at least possible that you need to do something to cut yourself away from the herd and not just be one more entrant in the cattle call or slush pile of submissions from whence few emerge. (I should also add that I've seen people — actors, especially — unsell themselves by being too pushy, too arrogant or, most often, too desperate. A casting director once said to me, "Anyone who feels they have to tell you how good they are probably isn't very.")
  3. Sometimes, it's just casting. Actors especially know this. You're a tall white guy and all the jobs this week are for short black women. You can try everything within your power but you're still going to be a tall white guy. It works that way with writers and artists, too. Editors may think you're good but they think you're good at film noir drama and this week, they need folks who can handle funny talking poodles. It may or may not be possible for you to diversify…though that's at least easier for you than it is for the tall white guy to become a short black woman.
  4. And lastly, it may just be the numbers. This is the most likely thing you're doing wrong. You're one of fifty people competing for ten jobs. No matter how wisely the selectors select…no matter how they pick or choose or flip a coin, forty people ain't getting hired. On an individual basis, you might think, "Well, why can't I be one of the ten?" There are times when you are, just as there are times in Blackjack when the dealer deals you a 10 and an Ace. But imagine a gambler who then asks, "Well, why can't I always get a 10 and an Ace?" Because you can't, that's why. The numbers don't work like that.

What you're doing wrong in at least the last two situations is that you're not diversifying enough. The marketplace is ever-changing. When I got into TV writing, I met a lot of unemployed guys who'd written Banacek-style cop shows and variety programs. Those guys either diversified or they didn't work…and amazingly, some of them stubbornly chose to not work. They'd actually say things like, "Hey, I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm doing the same thing I did ten years ago when I was working constantly." It was like the business was out of sync with them, not the other way around.

Some though knew enough to write other kinds of TV or to pursue novels or comic books or journalism or even to get out of writing completely. One I know became a top film editor. Even if what you do is still commercial, you should have other outlets for when one contracts…because they all do at some point. And the time to think about what else you might do is before that happens…because it's always easier to break into a new area when you can do it at a proper pace and not out of desperation.

I know a lot of talented people. I do not know anyone who is good at one thing who can't do anything but that one thing. A good actor may also be a good director. A good artist may also be a good writer. A good comedy writer may also be a good mystery novelist. Instead of asking yourself, "What am I doing wrong?" maybe you oughta be asking, "What else would I be happy doing?" I'll bet there's something and it may not be a huge career change. It might be as modest as writing for a younger audience or in the case of actors, accepting the reality that maybe you're getting a bit too old to go out on a casting call for "college age types."

Also, New Media is creating a lot of new job descriptions that weren't there for you to contemplate when you decided what you wanted to be when you grew up. I've actually turned down offers (admittedly for rotten money) to be a professional blogger. That's not a career path I considered when I was in high school but someday soon, it might be viable.

But for crying out loud, don't sit around and cry out loud and wait for the business to revert back to the way it was when you had all that work ten years ago. The odds are that it won't. If nothing else, think of it this way: The more different things you do, the more people might want to work with you. And the more people want to work with you, the better your odds are of getting that One Phone Call. Because if you're out of work and all your problems in life flow from that, your situation isn't as hopeless as it might feel. You just need to get that One Phone Call.