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.

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Overthinking

“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.

Big Red Lips: Learning from Lucy

LucyIf one more talking or writing head on TV or in print proclaims that young people entering the marketplace will have a near impossible time getting a job or that the “millennium” generation better get used to the fact that they’ll never live as good as their parents, I’m going to scream. Or let someone do it for me.

And they say it with such certitude – with intellectual arguments — and near irrefutable evidence. “Unemployment is at an all time high.” “The economy is crashing.” ‘The world is teetering on the brink of disaster.” And just checking the web, TV or newspapers for the daily riot quotient only seems to confirm this outlook.

Those entertaining a career in entertainment would seem to have it even worse. It’s an unstable business full of illogical people. Or perhaps it’s an illogical business full of unstable people. Take your choice. Or choose both.

OR PERHAPS NEITHER.

Because while this news certainly upsets me as a screenwriter who wants to work again, it makes me positively (but in a good way) LIVID as a teacher of many extremely talented, creative, enthusiastic students of the millennia who want to be in entertainment and are doing more than entertaining that career option. They are actually doing it. Or trying to do it. Or are entering or about to enter the marketplace despite what you say.

To these courageous youngins I say, it’s never not always wise to listen to your nay saying elders.

To their elders I say – SHUT UP THE F&$K HECK UP!!

Dream stomping is such a common pastime in our culture, especially during tough times, that it’s almost become de rigueur. Remember the old adage that it’s not enough to succeed, but you have to see your friends (or loved ones) fail? – multiply it by a lot and you get what’s going on now. People will say – “oh, we’re just being realistic – “warning ‘em” “preparing them “ For what? Another reason not to get out of bed in the morning? (as if we needed to add to the list) A new and improved excuse to not try anything new at all? (I mean, if that’s the case, why even wake up at all?) Are you saying that it used to be easy but now it’s hard? Or it used to be difficult but now it’s impossible. Or something else? Because whatever is being said, I can tell you from the trenches, is extremely, uh….. (let’s be polite here) counterproductive?

What is productive in August – a time when Congress, the president and other people who have paying jobs are on vacation (it still is vacation even if you’re unemployed) and are still looking for a laugh – is to go to the tried and true for some WISDOM that’s stood the test of times and yeah, even a few laughs. (hey, we’re on vacation).

And what better place to look for all that than to Lucy.

Yeah, Lucy. As in Ricardo. She was a housewife in the 1950s. Actually, she was a fictional character. But rather than listen to anything the dooms-dayers are saying, I’d urge every young (and old) person to watch a bunch of the made up, meaning not real, “I Love Lucy” episodes from the past and consider some of the lessons imparted for the present. If you don’t want to do it because I said so – do it in honor of Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday – which was commemorated nationwide in various celebrations, writings and web/TV pieces last week. Heck, even Google posted a clip on their page from “I Love Lucy” in recognition of her centennial. And how many black and white TV show fictional characters from the fifties do you see Google modifying their logo for? (The correct answer is ——NONE). Given Google’s standing as a success model in our post millennium world, that and that alone, should mean that at least some of her lessons are worth following.

LUCY LESSON #1 — BE WILLING TO TRY SOMETHING NEW – meaning — BE FEARLESS IF YOU WANT IT. You may or may not know Lucy was determined to break into show business with or without the approval/help of her bandleader husband Ricky. So determined that she talked her way into being the TV commercial pitch lady on one of his upcoming TV appearances despite the sour taste it left in her mouth (with dubious results).

LUCY LESSON # 2 – THERE IS ALWAYS A PLAN –Lucy was consistently told by her bandleader husband Ricky she could not be part of his nightclub show for various reasons (talent being a big one) but she knew she had it and always came up with a plan to prove him wrong. Even if it meant doing the jitterbug right after the eye doctor dilated her pupils and she couldn’t see.

LUCY LESSON # 3 – IMPROVISE, NO MATTER HOW MUCH THE ODDS SEEM AGAINST YOU – When Lucy’s back was against the wall she NEVER gave up, no matter who much the odds seemed stacked against her. When she was told by her husband she could never get a paying job (yeah, men FREQUENTLY said that to their wives in the fifties) and she indeed found herself in an impossible situation, she still found a way to sweetly (‘cause it was a candy factory) trudge forward.

LUCY LESSON #4 – DON’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER, DESPITE WHERE IT LEADS – When Lucy’s bandleader now turned would be movie actor husband Ricky is not being given a film by his studio (MGM) she pretends to be his agent because A) he doesn’t have one, B) he needs the help and C) the studio needs a push in his direction. Someone has to take the initiative and stop complaining so — she goes into action.

LUCY LESSON #5 – ASPIRE TO SING, EVEN IF NO ONE LIKES YOUR SONG – If you really want to sing, you’ll find your audience – and a way to be heard. That’s the Lucy way. Sure, she might not have had the typical singing voice – but what she lacked in traditional pitch, she made up for in stage presence.

LUCY LESSON #6 – IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH WHILE YOU’RE DOING ANY AND ALL OF THE ABOVE – Lucy is in Italy. She has a PLAN to soak up the local culture in preparation for a potential MOVIE ROLE when an Italian director thinks she could be ON CAMERA – something new and interesting in his next film. No matter she doesn’t know Italian, or grape stomping. She WON’T TAKE NO FOR ANSWER and perseveres even though IT’S RISKY and NONE OF THE OTHER WOMEN LIKE HER.

These are tried and true themes that have survived show business FOR DECADES. They might not all work for you, but I’ll bet at least one does. Or at the very least, lightens the load. And these days, you can’t do much better than that.

SURPRISE!

Jack in the Box

There are so few surprises left in the entertainment world that it puts a great big smile on my face when I find one.  So it was not unsurprising that I was grinning ear to ear last night when I found out that Lauren Ambrose, the flame-haired Emmy-nominated actress who played the slightly screwed up, aspiring young artist Claire on HBO’s brilliant “Six Feet Under” TV series, was cast as Fanny Brice in the upcoming Broadway musical revival (the first in 45 years) of “Funny Girl.”

Now, for those of you who aren’t musical theatre freaks or gay, don’t stop reading.  Because there will be a larger point made.  Fanny Brice is the part that made Barbra Streisand a Broadway and movie megastar and defined her as a performer for decades.  Industry wisdom was that NO ONE could ever do it, be as good or believable, and that it was pretty much a waste to spend millions of dollars in musical theatre (or other) money in order to try and convince anyone (much less an audience) to the contrary.  Still don’t care?  Okay —

How can I explain this to readers under 40?  Particularly those who are heterosexual —

Jaden Smith

Jaden as Harry? I don't think so.

Having someone step into Barbra Streisand’s shoes as Fanny Brice would be akin to remaking the first  “Harry Potter” movie and casting – uh – say – Jaden Smith as Harry?  It just won’t feel right to most people on the first blush.  Or the second.  Or even the twenty-third.

I’m a huge “Six Feet Under” fan and a Lauren Ambrose fan in particular.  Her current turn as a bizarre pharmaceutical rep on the Starz series “Torchwood” is a gem and I’ve seen her be good in lots of stuff over the years.  But playing the quintessential Jewish American musical comedy heroine, the same part played by THE real-life quintessential Jewish American musical performer/heroine of the last century?  Are they kidding?

Then I thought about it and realized.  Well, she can act.  But can anyone act that well in a part that’s been done so perfectly that they’re not right for? (at least according to conventional wisdom).  Hmmm.  Maybe.  But even accepting that, how could she sing it?  I mean, I’ve actually heard her sing.  A former writing partner of mine directed the film version of “Psycho Beach Party,” one of her first roles, and she was quite good.  But – “Funny Girl?”  Are you kidding?

Then I listened to this –

And this

It’s oddly infectious.  And off.  And funny.  And she can really sing.  But I mean – really sing.  Not necessarily like Barbra Streisand.  But the funny, quirky, infectious thing she does could possibly remind me of some performer.  Maybe one from the past.  Let me think.  Hmmm.  Still thinking.  Maybe – Fanny Brice?

The point here is not whether Lauren Ambrose will be a great Fanny Brice or perhaps the disappointment a small handful of nasty and bitter Lea Michele fans were hoping for.  (No, she didn’t get the role – get over it!).  It’s that it took a performer with the drive and talent of Ms. Ambrose to not let the industry define her – but define herself and forge her own path despite what any of us naysayers think.

Can you imagine if after “Six Feet Under” she’d said to her agents – you know what I’d like – to do a big Broadway revival of – “Funny Girl.”  HUH????  Answer:  What about the star of your own TV series on NBC, honey?  There are potentially millions of dollars in that.  What about movies?  They want you as Katherine Heigl’s sister in “29 Dresses” and it’s lots of exposure to a new audience.  What about, uh…wait, even if you can sing, no one can compare to Streisand.  Why set yourself up for failure?  As your agents we’re here to tell you….

Oh, go jump in the lake, CAA.

Now I’m not entirely sure that’s how the conversation went but I can guess.  That’s the advantage of being the chair of this blog.  And I don’t know that I’m so far off.   Except that I hear that Ms. Ambrose is quite a lovely person and would probably not treat the people that represent her so shabbily.  So I’m quite happy to do that for her.

The reason I’m willing to mouth off is that someone needs to occasionally speak for creative risk-taking and artistic independence.  Or at least shine a small (albeit very small) light on artists who  “walk the walk” and follow their muse — Creative people who take chances when they don’t have to, probably passing up many more seemingly sure things in order to do this.  This goes not only for someone in Ms. Ambrose’s position as a working actress, but also for any person in the creative arts who is not working.  We all make choices every day on which projects we’ll work on, what we will devote our time to.  Are we choosing the “sure thing” (as if there were such a thing) or deciding to do what is “calling” to us?  In Ms. Ambrose’s case I can only guess that when some years ago when she decided to play in small clubs as a singer with a retro jazz band called The Leisure Class that she was answering “the call.”  Because it wasn’t for the money or attention.  This isn’t the 1950s. Or even the l920’s.  This isn’t the age of girl singers.  Or turn of the roaring twenties singers.  That really went with, well, was  pretty much last popular in — the age of Fanny Brice.  Oops.

I might have told this story before but it bears repeating.  Many years ago I worked as a publicist on the set of the sequel to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”  It was admittedly not the high point in my career although for some weird reason it is now met with some odd kitschy respectability.  But what I particularly recall from that time is the look of surprise and disbelief on the face of some of the (above-the-line) crew when they found out I was a writer.  (“Yeah, sure, who isn’t”).  This was nothing compared to the absolute shock on some of their faces when by the end of filming I had sold a screenplay I wrote that was packaged with several big stars and given a green light to be filmed less than six months later.  “Did you hear the PUBLICIST sold a movie?”  “How can that BE?”

The entertainment industry (actually the world at large) pretty much wants to define everybody.  It’s easier that way.  Even as I’m writing this I have to cop to the fact that I am probably guilty of it too.   But we all make a big mistake when we set the limits for someone else.  And – for what it’s worth – an even bigger mistake when we set limits for ourselves and what we can do.   If you’re in the creative arts, the very nature of it, the very fun of it, is that there ARE no limits.  It’s a playground.  And aside from a few basic parameters when you’re in the playground there are no rules.  You get to make up the game as you go along.  It’s better that way, certainly a lot more fun.  Because every once in a while the odds are that if you play the game you make up right, you get to be the BIG, BIG winner.  The verdict is out but I suspect that is what’s in Ms. Ambrose’s future.  And perhaps one of ours if we’re willing to follow her path.