Monthly Archives: August 2010

A P.S. to the Previous Posting

The big Iraq War cheerleader John Cole admitted how much he got wrong. That's one.

Tonight's Political Comment

Barack Obama's speech this evening doesn't seem to have pleased anyone. Pro-Obama folks thought it was wishy-washy and unfocused. Anti-Obama folks don't like anything he does. Fred Kaplan sums up some of the things wrong with it.

But at least the Iraq War is over…sort of. Was anyone happy with that whole thing? Can anyone explain what we accomplished that was worth all those lives and resources? I mean, apart from stopping Saddam Hussein from using those Weapons of Mass Destruction? Some reporter with Nexis access oughta dig up all those jokes and comments that once dotted the press and Internet about how weapons inspectors like Hans Blix had to be deaf, dumb, blind and bribed not to have found solid evidence of them because even the stupidest person in the world knew that Saddam had 'em. Did you see anyone ever apologize to Mr. Blix and his fellow inspectors? I didn't.

Earlier today on CNN, I saw two people (no one famous) saying that it was too soon to withdraw troops. One was some guy at a truck stop, whose rhetoric was not unlike John McCain's. Someone once summarized McCain's Iraq strategy as: "We stay until there's absolutely no reason for us to stay…and then we continue to stay." I thought that was an unfair exaggeration until I heard a McCain speech that said pretty much that.

The other person was a very sad lady whose son died in Iraq. Her argument was that if we leave now, her son and all the other fallen soldiers will have died in vain. So we owe it to them to stay (i.e., get more soldiers killed) until we accomplish something — anything! — that justifies her loss. That's a sad argument for any war. If some demented leader sent our troops to fight a war that everyone thought was pointless and unwinnable, you could still use that argument as a reason to keep it going. And someone would.

Go Read It!

Lenny Bruce wrote in his autobiography that he got a discharge from the Navy back in World War II by faking homosexuality. Someone has located proof of this.

Today's Video Link

From the 11th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony: Elaine May and Mike Nichols show us how these things should work. Something like this would certainly have livened up Sunday night's telecast…or at least, the half of it that wasn't about Betty White…

From the E-Mailbag…

Jeremy W. writes…

I was impressed with your advice to writers about being late with their work. What advice can you give to those of us who have trouble summoning up the muse on demand? I have trouble creating with a deadline. When I don't have a deadline, I'm usually able to come up with something that I like. When they tell me it has to be in on Tuesday, I freeze up and have trouble concentrating. What can you suggest?

Well, my first piece of advice ties in with all that counsel about not being late. If deadlines inhibit you, try to get started A.S.A.P., which makes the deadline that much less threatening and formidable. If it has to be in on Tuesday, don't wait 'til Sunday night or Monday morning to get started.

My second piece of advice is to search for the spine of what you're doing. If you're having trouble getting started, you may not really know where it is you have to go. Let's say the chore at hand is to write a commercial for cheese-straighteners. Ask yourself what it's really about: Why should anyone buy a cheese-straightener? Why should they buy your cheese-straightener? What is it about cheese-straighteners that people need to hear? If you can't answer those questions, maybe you don't know enough about this project to write it and you need to turn your attention there. If you have to write a story about a talking gerbil, ask yourself what it is about this particular talking gerbil that interests you and would interest someone else? Again, if you can't answer that question, there's where the problem is located.

Or maybe you don't have enough of an assignment. Stephen Sondheim used to say that the most difficult job was when someone comes to him and says, "Just write a song" or "Just write a song about love." There are simply too many starting places in a task of that sort. On the other hand, if someone approaches him and suggests, "Write a song about a lady sitting at a bar whose boy friend has just dumped her and she's feeling sorry for herself," then he has something to build on. If an editor tells you, "Write me a fantasy story" and that's all the direction you have, maybe you need to impose a discipline on yourself. Maybe you need to arbitrarily pick something you care about — you're mad at your sister, you're afraid of grasshoppers, you love ham, whatever — and use that feeling as a foundation on which to build. You may wind up writing about something else but that could get you started. And moving — even in the wrong direction — can often be preferable to not moving at all.

That's especially true if you're the kind of writer that I hope you are, and which I try to be. That's the kind that's prolific but who recognizes that sometimes, you have to throw out everything you wrote yesterday. You have to like what you write, at least when you write it, but not so much that you can't bring yourself to toss it into the dumpster and rebuild. Fear of spending time and energy writing the wrong thing can be very inhibiting for a writer. Given the choice, I would rather write for three hours and then delete it all than spend those three hours staring at the screen, trying to think of the perfect thing to write. The latter usually doesn't lead me to knowing what I want to write, whereas the former usually does.

Which brings me to the best cure for Writer's Block I've ever come up with. It's so good that I can't believe I'm the first or even the millionth to come up with it. It's to decide to write something you're definitely going to throw away…and to make it childish and utterly self-indulgent.

You're stuck on what to write…where to start or how to pick up on a script or article you started on and have to finish. Instead of spending the next hour or two banging your head against the stucco, try this. Spend that time writing something that wallows in the most adolescent, shameful fantasy you have. Pick the person in your life, past or present, you most despise. Write a story about how you got total revenge on them and they came to you begging for forgiveness. Or you can go a sexual route with this. Remember that kid who sat across from you in Geometry in High School? The one you lusted after but who treated you like you had smallpox? Write a story about how that person came to you and begged you to have sex with them.

Forget about logic or typos or clever verbiage. Just tell the story in direct, earthy terms. When you're done with it, read it over once, delete it and turn back to the thing you have to write. If that doesn't unjam your writing muscles and get them limber and functioning, then I would consider another line of work.

I'm serious about that. Imagine a dentist who had days when he couldn't bear to fill a cavity or file down some old lady's lower bridge. Maybe he shouldn't be doing that for a living anymore. You don't have to be a writer, you know. It's not compulsory.

There are quotes where famous writers like Dorothy Parker say things like, "I hate writing but I love having written." I never think that attitude makes a writer intriguing or colorful or anything of the sort, just as I never think that suffering for one's art automatically makes the art any better. Some of us have bad, non-productive periods and that's usually something else, something that (probably) has to do with some aspect of our lives other than the pure writing part. I'm not talking about the times that are the exceptions. I'm talking about if you constantly find that writing gives you headaches and a need for Maalox™ and if you're starting to find it an unpleasant chore to stop playing Spider Solitaire and use your computer for the reason you got it in the first place. When writers tell me how painful writing can be for them, I respond with something like, "No one's forcing you to be a writer and it's inconceivable that it's the only thing you can do in this world. Go do one of those other things."

Invariably, they say, "Aren't there times when you hate writing?" I tell them no. I may not like certain jobs or certain people I have to work with…but hey, if I were selling porta-potties, I probably wouldn't like every customer that came in to buy one of every model of porta-potty I had to sell. Don't confuse a bad gig with a bad profession. I've been doing this for 41 years because I enjoy it and can't think of anything attainable I'd enjoy more. I also can't think of too many moves stupider than doing something you don't like for 41 years if you have any choice in the matter. If you're a writer who doesn't love writing, find another profession…something you'd gladly do for the next 41 years without complaining about it all the time. You'll do yourself — and your friends and your family and maybe even your audience — a tremendous favor.

Great Photos of Buster Keaton

Number seven in a series…

Go See It!

This site offers us The Top 10 Clips of Jon Stewart Destroying Fox News.

To Life! Almost Live!

Anybody here watch the Chabad Telethon last night? I apologize for not reminding you it was on…but frankly, strictly as entertainment, it stopped being exciting, and therefore something to which I looked forward, back when Jan Murray gave it up. I guess downsizing has hit everywhere because this year, instead of doing a six-hour telethon to raise the usual six million dollars, they did a three-hour telethon to raise the usual six million dollars. And I'm not forgetting, by the way, that the six million is the point of it all. Chabad does very good work and they need and deserve that money. The telethon succeeded in its main goal…and it probably succeeded in its secondary goal, as well. That's to tell everyone who tunes in about Chabad and what it is and does.

A distant third is to entertain but that's what I'm going to write about here. Jan Murray was a great host and I'm afraid they haven't had one of those since. Fyvish Finkel came close while the hands-down worst was Dennis Prager, who never seemed to figure out that he was presiding over a TV program. This year, the "host" was Larry King and I put that in quotes because as a general rule of thumb, you have to show up at a telethon in order to be its host. Mr. King was not present, having pre-taped a number of segments that were interspersed throughout the proceedings, grinding them to a turgid halt.

So the host wasn't there. Most of the entertainers weren't there, being represented primarily by clips from previous telethons. I'm not even sure the studio audience was there. A lot of the laughter and applause sounded pretty canned to me. Happily, Rabbi Cunin and other, dancing members of his profession were there…and the donations apparently were there. I guess it's an enormous achievement that they still made it to their target tote with half the time and probably less than half the production budget.

Maybe I'm making too much of this but it's always sad to see another remnant of live television disappear. The telethon was broadcast live but so much of it was pre-taped that it was like they're trying to wean themselves off the live part. I suppose it's inevitable…and frankly, it hasn't mattered much since Jan Murray went away. Next year, they might as well just pre-tape the whole thing, including the part at the end where they announce they're raised the usual six million dollars.

Today's Video Link

This is pretty much what life is all about. Or should be…

The video that used to be in this position seems to no longer
be available at the location where I once found it.

Great Retractions

Just saw this online…

STORY REMOVED: US–Jeremiah Wright-Ark
By Associated Press

The Associated Press has withdrawn its story about Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright referred to people who wrongly believe Obama is Muslim as "sycophants," not psychopaths.

A corrected story will be sent shortly.

Sycophants…psychopaths…what's the difference?


I hadn't realized it when I posted that Charley Chase clip this morning but there's a lot of him on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow. That's because, as Leonard Maltin reminds us, it's Thelma Todd Day on TCM. They're running films she made with Charley, films she made with Laurel and Hardy, films she made with the Marx Brothers, films she made with Zasu Pitts and even films that are wonderful just because the lovely 'n' funny Ms. Todd is in them without some other comedy great on the premises. I share my friend Leonard's admiration for the lady and her work. Here's the schedule. Adjust to fit your timezone and the vagaries of your cable provider. There isn't a bad film on that list.

Go Watch It!

Here are some good, short video interviews with Laraine Newman, one of the smartest and best performers I know.

Working It Out…


Stephanie J. Block

I have decided to just become a shameless shill for the Reprise Theater Company of Los Angeles. For quite some time now, they've been staging short-term revivals of long-running musicals with minimal production values. This season, they're offering us They're Playing Our Song, Gigi and Kiss Me, Kate…and based on past results, I'd say they'll do a fine job with each of them.

They're Playing Our Song (book by Neil Simon, music by Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch) runs September 28 through October 10. The above graphic showing only Jason Alexander as its star was made before they'd finalized his co-star. I don't think it's been announced but it will be Stephanie J. Block, who won much acclaim in the recent Broadway production of 9 to 5. Tickets are now available for that show and for the entire season.

As noted, the show opens September 28, which is a Tuesday. That's the first public performance. The formal opening, with press and V.I.P.s in attendance, is Wednesday, September 29. Then the following Saturday, October 2, the 2 PM matinee will be preceded (from Noon 'til 1 PM) by a lecture/discussion of the history of the show. The Reprise folks have had the wisdom to secure a noted theatrical authority to present this…and, of course, I mean me. I'll tell you more about that when I figure out what's going to happen there but for now, I just thought I'd mention it in case you're pondering when to go see the thing.

Today's Political Comment

Steve Benen summarizes a lot of what the whole Glenn Beck rally thing is about. It's about freedom…but not the freedom of gays to marry or Muslims to build community centers or poorer Americans to not be destroyed by medical bills. It's about my freedom to get what I want at the expense of anyone else's freedom.

And oh yeah, let's all be free to watch Glenn Beck's show and buy overpriced gold from his sponsors.

Children Will Listen

Hey, here's an idea I had that's working. Every so often, one has to.

The Archive of American Television has recorded hundreds and hundreds of hours of videotaped interviews with important folks from the history of TV. You could sit at your computer the rest of your life practically and watch these videos — all wonderful stuff — but who has the time for that? I don't…so here's what I did…

Step one: I captured most of the ones that interested me to a little folder on my computer. By now, you probably know how to do this…there are about ninety ways. If you're using Mozilla Firefox as your brower, there are several plug-ins that'll do the trick, saving them as FLV files.

Step two: I extracted the audio from them into a separate MP3 file. There are plenty of utilties out there that'll do this, at least for the PC. I used a free one called FLV Extract, which I downloaded from here.

Step three: Then I put some onto my iPhone to listen to like podcasts in my car or when travelling. On the planes to and from Indiana, I heard my pal Lee Goldberg interview Dick Van Dyke. You don't lose that much on these by losing the visual and if I'd waited 'til I had time to watch it, I'd never have gotten around to it.

Most of these interviews are fascinating. There are a few where they just got to the people too late in their lives — the one with Howie Morris is sad because of how much he could no longer remember, though I'm glad they did it. If you're a professional writer (of TV or otherwise) or want to be one, I suggest experiencing the Larry Gelbart conversation in its entirety. It's really a trove of great, important material and moving it to my iPhone for listening is about the only way I'll have a chance to mine enough of it.