Topical Storm

Earthquakes and hurricanes are not the only natural disasters looming in the zeitgeist.  Television viewers are about to face a topical storm in the new fall TV season.

Have YOU been downsized, fired, 401K bankrupted or Madoff-ed?  Or maybe it’s merely families and friends reeling from the economic downturn?   Then have no fear – you’re represented in, oh, 75% of the 12 pilots I’ve screened in the VERY unscientific study I’ve done of the new TV season.  In these fictional/faux true series (both comedy and drama) the premise of the new show is the one time rich (or at least economically functioning) family or child or adult must start over because either a) they b. their ex-husband or c. another family member was rendered broke by the arms of a crumbling economy (guess which one?) or perhaps by some shady nameless or familiar business partner or acquaintance who ran off, misused or unwisely invested their life savings — leaving them virtually penniless, unemployable or just generally pathetic but plucky.  This, of course, allows them to be the fodder for, or spewer of, unlimited drama and/or jokes.

And speaking of laughs, are you looking for a new PHRASE or WORD in the zeitgeist this season because you are tired of “…really?,” or “no worries…” or “…it’s all good.” (Note:  if it’s ALL good, does that mean it’s never bad?  Really?)  The networks are hoping so.  Because in, oh, 90% of the half-hour comedy pilots I saw there is a new phrase/catchword of the next fall season.  And that word is – drum roll – vagina.

Yes, vagina.  Is that a funny word or a funny topic?  Or both?  I think only a woman is allowed to have an opinion on that – and even then, it needs to be considered in the context of who said it.  Playwright/activist Eve Ensler, a very talented woman, made a huge cultural impact and paved the way for our ease with the word with her play, “The Vagina Monologues” back in 1996 and it has been performed all over the world and then some.  But that was sooo 1996, ‘97 and ’98. And God knows one or two people have used and made light of the word before and since.  Question:  Since it’s been 15 years since “V.M,” is that the length of time to takes for something to get into network television zeitgeist?  Well, perhaps that’s pretty quick. Gay men were around at least since the beginning of TV, if not earlier, until one of them (us) starred in their (our?) own sitcom called “Will and Grace” in 1998.  And I am pretty sure African American people were around even longer, which I guess is why network TV allowed them to finally have their own sitcom, “Julia,” starring the talented and quite beautiful Diahann Carroll in 1968.

The same can be said of Margaret Cho, before her threatening tattoos, who changed it for Koreans with her show in 1994.  And so on….

THE POINT IS – something is no longer topical 10 or more years after it first happens.  Or is it?  Well, it depends in what sort of culturally elite circles you travel in (sarcasm?).  Certainly, in network (and often even cable) TV land these elites (wait, who? Sarcasm again) are treated as if they have plague – not to mention how many elite are now marginalized in political races.  But is something like the economic crises topical or old news two years since it happened.  Hmmm.  Networks are betting it is because it’s been so long since it’s been going on and, well, it IS still going on. Even if it’s been dissected, bisected and trisected by every 24 hour news channel and live conversation around every dinner table in the land almost every day.

Good for TV trying to be current.  I like that.  But why does it feel sooo old?  Because one needs more than a topic or a phrase to create something worth watching.  There’s something called characters, intriguing situations that are multi-dimensional and have some depth.  Or if not depth, then true wit based on situational observation, even of the silliest kind (e.g. South Park, anyone?).  This was not the case with many of the pilots you will (or won’t?) watch next month.  I won’t name names because the pilot is not always among the sharpest episodes of a series (uh, “Mad Men” and “Dexter” not included).  But network execs, who often bellyache that they’re outdone by cable TV at the Emmy awards each year – take note.  It takes a lot more than a topic to write a good paper as any teacher, or in this case Chair, will tell you.

Sure, there is reality TV – meaning the genre, not the concept.  Bachelor and bachelorettes, contests where people try to stitch together, cook together, love together,  can work.  But we’re not talking reality here – we’re talking old TV series television – or what it used to be (which isn’t reality but a dramatic or comedic reflection of it).  In other words, another kind of entertainment.  And a topical explosion does not get you anywhere near as far as a tropical storm.  The second is usually pretty-far reaching or it wouldn’t be so-named. The first is a benign condition that can become far-reaching only if it’s employed in some specific way.  That’s the best entertainment can do (with the exception of a few great belly laughs). Otherwise it just starts swirling among all the other millions of other things in the air.  And we have enough of all the rest of the swirl (or is it swill?) already out there.  Don’t we?  Time, as always, will tell.


“How come the stuff I spend two years working on doesn’t go anywhere and something I spend, like, 10 minutes on, people go crazy over?”  I read that Facebook post over the weekend from one of my former students (I can’t remember who wrote it – but alas – that is the Facebook way, isn’t it?) and smiled in a bit of recognition.  I’ve felt that way over the years but it’s certainly not something I want to confirm publicly to young creative people.  I want them to try hard and do their best.  Sometimes it takes two years to do something really well.  In this age of fast returns, you really DO need to train yourself to put the time in.

And then this weekend happened.

Without going into too much detail (because my therapy appointments are between TWO people, not the five or so that read this blog), I wrote something in that period that I spent – well, a weekend on.  It was hard work.  I didn’t just toss it off like I   sometimes  NEVER do here.  But, I mean, it was only a weekend.  Yet something clicked.  In a very good way.  If I knew what it was I’d do it again.  And maybe I will.   Or not.  But the point is – people love this thing I created and it is now “making the rounds.”  While another script I spent two years on (okay, off and on) is languishing.

Talk about prescient.  Who IS that student and my apologies for not mentioning you by name.  And for not giving you your own blog or at least providing everyone I know with a link to your existing one.  Or at least referring my 392 virtual friends to YOUR Facebook page (“He’s only got 392 friends?  Wow, I thought he was more popular than that…”) so they can closely peruse your likes and dislikes and can become as smart as you so obviously are.

I preach passion and hard work to myself and to my students.  But – what does working hard and bringing your passion mean  exactly?  Do you measure it in hours, weeks or years put in?  Does the amount of time you spend slaving and sweating diligently directly correspond to your level or potential level of success?  How do you measure the (work) years in your life?

(Note: I actually still love the score of “Rent” despite the fact that we’ve all probably heard this song 525,600 times.)

While intense repetition and study certainly cannot hurt in improving your abilities at anything, particularly over a long period of time, does it guarantee success?  Certainly not.  And – can it actually, well, have the inverse effect – that is to say actually hurt what you’re doing?  I hesitate to say this, but sometimes – YES.

My small triumph this weekend (and it’s a treatment, not a feature script, no one tosses those off in a weekend, despite what they tell you) might have taken a shorter amount of time than many of the projects I’ve written, but it is also attributable to all the years of experience, hard work and time I’ve put in on EVERY project, good or bad.  Taking two weeks or two months or two years instead of two days probably will not make it any better and, in fact, might have made it appreciably worse.

On the same token, I can’t help but wondering – was the two years I took on the project that’s languishing too long?  Did I shoot myself in the foot (although there were times I would have liked to have shot myself in the head) by painstakingly reworking so many drafts, rewriting and restructuring and rethinking over so long of a period of time?  Only time and I can be the best judge of that but, in retrospect, I suspect – Yes. (Or Maybe.  Or really – I just don’t know.  But possibly).

Now before you all jump up and down with permission to cut corners and limit your work time, let me be clear – this is NOT what I’m saying!

Hell to the...

What I am noting is that the intensity of how you work (and take it from someone who is VERY intense that way – if you don’t believe me, I’ll give you my shrink’s number) can cut both ways – it can draw on passion that fuels great drive and a wonderment of creative energy.  Or – it can drill you right into the ground with self-hatred – flagellating yourself for not ever being able to get your art right; convincing yourself you have no creative talent; or overchecking your ideas with anyone on the street (sometimes literally) who will listen and with your inner self. You end up wondering aloud or silently if what you’ve created in your little lair is any good at all, or will ever be good at all on this or any future project you’ll ever do.

(As if you really don’t know.  I mean, really – everything you do for the rest of your life will be bad?  Really?  Come on)

Bottom line:  If you’re so worried about the judgments people will make on your work that it’s always (or mostly) in the back of your mind while you’re doing it you’re guilty of the great sin of – OVERTHINKING.   And you’re not working at your craft at all.  Because what you’re really trying to work at is pleasing other people, or presumed people, or your idea of what people want – which has nothing at all to do with creation and only to do with getting praise, pleasing your mother, or father or some other “parent.”  Or perhaps proving to yourself that you actually, truly and really do have the right to be doing what you’re doing and might, just might, have some small, tiny, invisible unseeable and yet just not noticed, modicum of talent.

That’s self-flagellation.  And about as far from creativity as I can imagine.  And if you’re also doing your work over and over and over, reinventing it in endless and various ways just to achieve that end because deep down you doubt that your work can ever be right, especially when at least one of two other people disagree – that’s OVERTHINKING AND self-flagellation.  And it’s time to stop it.  Now.

The very nature of facing a blank canvas of anything takes a great deal of faith and a lot of courage.  It’s wonderful and fun, and tricky and rewarding.  If it wasn’t all of those things, everyone would be doing it and, believe me, they’re not.  What they’re also not doing is ALWAYS judging you.  That’s all in your mind.   Oh – of course they’re JUDGING (you and your work).  Every one does everyday.   But not constantly.  Chances are they’re only judging themselves constantly (unless they’ve read this blog, have been in therapy or are somehow one of the 32 people in this world who’ve had a healthy upbringing).  And as for your work (and you) it’s judged barely, and often by people who are unqualified.  You know the old Hollywood expression – “Opinions are like a—holes.  Everyone has one.”

But who cares what they say anyway.  You’ve got, like, 6.94 billion other people in the world and they might feel exactly the opposite way.  And because you’re not omniscient, you’ll never know all of their opinions.  So why pick and choose the negative one that any one of them might think?  Or why be that voice yourself?  Think about it.

But don’t overthink it.