Camera Ready

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When I was younger I thought I’d be an in front of the camera guy. But as it’s turned out I’ve spent most of my life as a behind the desk fellow who is occasionally a behind or beside the camera consultant. However every so often, meaning not all that much, I am ready, willing and able in front of the camera and, if shot just the right way and caught at the correct moment, can be quite effective at the task at hand.

The latter will certainly not make me the gay male Oprah – one of my few printable fantasies of the last ten years – but, well, at least it’s a start. To what I’m not sure. But something tells me that with the way the media, information and general business and social interaction are going, it would behoove each of us to learn how to be in front of the lens in order to make our case, sell our story, or simply just be the best and most appealingly real (Note: Or even calculatingly unreal) version of us.

... because this creep could be around the corner

… because this creep could be around the corner

I was recently interviewed by the local news for a piece on noisy neighborhoods. More specifically, to speak about the nightmare house above us being illegally rented to huge party givers and events for upwards of $5000-$7500 per night on varying weekends and weeknights – and for usually more than half the month – by our lying scum of a neighbor who has ignored my previously very polite and in-person pleas to cease and desist.

Of course, I didn’t call him a lying scum of a neighbor on camera. I let the evidence speak for itself. Not that I had any control over what would be in the final piece or how it would be cut together. All the more reason to stick to the basic facts of what happened and let truth and reality do most of my talking.

Can you tell I'm saying torture? (click here to see the full video)

Can you tell I’m saying torture? (click here to see the full video)

I think I did fine but certainly could’ve done better. Maybe torture was not the best adjective to categorize this situation given we’re living in an age of waterboarding and beheadings, as my sister so ably pointed out. (Note: And what ARE family members for anyway if not to remind you of this kind of stuff). Actually, I did instinctually realize that after I said it but frankly, I couldn’t think of any other word to get the point across. It feels “tortuous” in my limited world. You try to sleep when Snoop is rapping outside your back door electronically amplified many times over until he reverberates throughout the rest of the house past locked windows, doors, bedrooms and even ramped up allergy air filter machines at 3 and 4 in the morning.

Just call me Mr. Wilson.

Just call me Mr. Wilson.

Of course – I didn’t refer specifically to rap music on camera. That wasn’t the point and I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue race (or musical taste) has anything to do with this. It doesn’t. But I’ve seen enough as a reporter, publicist, screenwriter and general media commenter and gadfly to know that one too specific slip of my tongue might’ve taken over the story in an entirely different direction. Yes, the music that was playing was mostly rap and because it involved loud speaking and a persistent beat it was particularly annoying. But I had to consider – would it have been any less upsetting if they were blasting Better Midler, Lady Gaga or the score from Les Mis? Well, maybe at first but that would quickly fade. I can recall being at a local diner too late one night when I was in high school where the broken jukebox played Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for two hours straight. We were stoned and hysterical laughing for most of it but eventually I did want to strangle someone – or at least knock over the revolving standee of cheesecake and baked goods right through the window and into someone’s – anyone’s – face. And we weren’t trying to sleep at 3 or 4 in the morning.

a different kind of torture device

a different kind of torture device

The sheer level of incompetency displayed by others (and even sometimes myself) when placed before the camera is continually shocking – okay, well then let’s just say surprising. (Note: See sis, I’m listening). And to be clear, I’m not talking about home movies or videos here. I’m referring to planned interviews, speeches – political, business or recreational – presentations, and general work or play versions of ourselves we project out into the world when we are knowingly being recorded or in a place where we will likely be. Not to mention, a lot of this behavior comes from professionals presumably being paid to know a lot better.

Here’s one very minor example that turned into a major story this week amid the debate over the blue/back vs. white/gold dress and Congress almost defunding the Department of Homeland Security:

In her post-Oscar comments on Red Carpet looks, E! personality and Fashion Police co-host Giuliana Rancic, decided to publicly take the petite, bi-racial18 year-old Disney Channel actress/singer (and beloved Dancing with the Stars runner-up) Zendaya Coleman to task for her too ample….wait for it….DREADLOCKS!   Sitting stiff-as-a-board upright in the studio – flawlessly coiffed in designer duds and shot in the best TV lighting a basic cable channel like E! can buy, Ms. Rancic carefully considered the image of this young girl smiling in her designer white Grecian dress and carpet-ready new hair before sniffing:

She has such a tiny frame this hair overwhelms her. Like, I feel like she smells like patchouli oil…. and weed!

I'm more wondering why Zendaya was at the Oscars... but oh well

Dress aside.. was anyone else wondering why she was at the Oscars?

It would not have been relevant for me to even mention Zendaya being bi-racial had Ms. Rancic’s comments not played into some unfortunate stereotype a certain segment of the population has about…people who sport dreadlocks? The type of non-white persons we usually see wearing them? Something else? Hmmm.

Well, whatever it was caused a real crap storm. Ms. Rancic and the show quickly issued more apologies than George W. Bush ever did about the war in Iraq, Fashion Police co-host Kelly Osbourne quit over the remarks and unnamed sources have accused Ms. Rancic of trying to channel perpetually politically incorrect yet hilarious former co-host, the late Joan Rivers, in a desperate attempt to be funny.

... and this is an actual Joan Rivers joke from Fashion Police

… and this is an actual Joan Rivers joke from Fashion Police

The latter could be getting to the heart of the matter. Which of us has not made some sort of offensive flub that unintentionally revealed our own prejudices or how ill-suited we were to public joke-telling? However, what made this flub particularly noteworthy was not only the willingness of the co-host to state it to everyone in the world but the fact that it was scripted. That’s right, Ms. Rancic apparently did not think of that line on her own but had it written specifically for her by one of the show’s…writers?

It’s true – someone sits in a room and actually gets paid for making up those kind of comments, jokes and/or mere witticisms… which sort of makes what was said a bit worse. Presumably, a professional joke scribe, director, crew member or network somebody might know better. Except when they don’t. Meaning, if one is going to traffic in borderline racist, sexist, and homophobic insults in order to get a few laughs and drive up the ratings – or one’s own pubic status – one has to take the hot hair heat that rises and inevitably blows back from employing that kind of strategy.

Ya hear that G?

Ya hear that G?

I remember working in marketing on a movie with the brilliantly talented actress Anne Bancroft, who had some really funny and interesting stories about her experiences over the years in show business that she shared in various press interviews. I mean, they were really good and they revealed small bits of herself again and again and again. But after a period of time I began to realize – wait a second, I already know this about her. Did I read it, did I dream it or was it…oh, right, it was essentially the same story. Savvy actress that she was, Ms. Bancroft learned early on the best strategy when faced with speaking about very personal experiences about you and your craft publicly. Give a few to them and keep the rest for yourself. Just update, alternate, embellish and recycle some of the best stuff a bit through the years and no one will ever notice. Except those whose job it is to go through the torture of countless interviews with you and most certainly they’d never tell. Oops.

It's ok if Tay-Tay says it, right?

It’s ok if Tay-Tay says it, right?

Of course, this isn’t a good strategy for the majority since most of us don’t have those kind of acting chops. Not to mention, she could also be very spontaneous and say hilarious and telling comments on the record at the right moment. But being a smart movie star she was also quite well aware of exactly how she came across and why. Always. It’s not about lying but owning who you are.

As one really high priced shrink once pointed out to me: There’s nothing wrong with thinking anything. But there’s also nothing wrong with taking a few minutes to think about whether you want or need to say it out loud.

Yes, it was expensive advice but worth every penny. I pass it on to you for free.

 

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The Chair’s 10 Best of 2014

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Of course 10 best lists are bogus. After all, what exactly is “best?” Even the first dictionary definition itself can’t decide. It states:

BEST

  1. 
of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.

I don’t know about you but I find there is a hell of a lot of difference between excellent, effective and desirable. In fact, the moments in my life I can remember being at my most desirable in no way made me the most excellent person in the room – especially when that number was two. Truth be told and given what usually prompts human desire, I’d actually argue that the exact opposite was true.

I can recall once or twice being so excellent at something that it is hard to imagine someone wouldn’t have found me equally desirable. But wait, let’s forget that. If you’ve been in the presence of any writer at his or her most excellent you’d know it’s not a pretty sight. Hair askew, loved ones, friends and usually hygiene totally ignored. Not to mention common courtesy. Meaning – don’t even THINK about interrupting, much less BREATHING, because I will KILL YOU. Or worse, BLAME YOU for stopping the flow. Not to mention what the world will do to you if any more of this genius is lost from its most excellent source – Me.

I have no idea what you're talking about Chairy

I have no idea what you’re talking about Chairy

Finally, we’re left with effective and nothing about the word effective comes close to evoking best. Michael Bay is probably one of the most effective filmmakers to ever work in contemporary Hollywood but, uh – best? Well, you see how words deceive. And yes, he can take it. He married us for it. Which only proves that Edward Albee is the all-time best.

Here then in no particular order are my 10 best of the year. I define best as jarring, original, memorable and cool – to me. There is nothing scientific about it. It’s a purely subjective list. As are all those that deal in bests.

FILM: Birdman and Boyhood

Looking up

Looking up

No one except a few film critics, most of whom do not partake fully in life because they don’t have the time, have seen every film in any given year. But at least I see a lot. And I say these two stand above and beyond the pack for different reasons.

In the case of Boyhood, the feat of shooting a film with the same actors aging over a 12 year period, rewriting as you go, and emerging with anything coherent – much less emotionally affecting – is nothing but the best. It takes drive, focus and talent. Richard Linklater has always been an interesting and adept filmmaker but in this case he’s managed to circumvent the Hollywood system with a truly original approach to a universal story. Anyone can pick apart the movie’s faults, but no one in the narrative commercial world has had the nerve to take a path this original lately. In 2014, that’s my equivalent of the B word.

Birdman has stayed with me for months and I’m not quite sure why. I liked the film yet in teaching screenwriting have certainly been one of those jerks to – yes – pick it apart. Still, there is something about watching Michael Keaton, a former megastar of the eighties who my college age students now barely know, play an outlandish version of his public persona so heartbreakingly that it makes me occasionally want to weep. Yes, weep. I’m not a total cynic. This is a project that for all of its faults could have gone horribly wrong. Credit director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, another fearless chance taker, and a cast of actors working at the top of their game, for keeping the high wire act alive more times than not to its pretty thrilling results.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE: Malala

Yes, you are

Yes, you are

You’re a smart teenage girl from Pakistan who got shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for other girls and their education. You then endure a bunch of surgeries and manage to not only survive but to continue to speak your mind as you gain intelligence and, well, even more nerve (Note: As if that’s possible). Then several weeks ago, these same Taliban types shoot up a school and kill 141 people, mostly children, and you still continue to speak out. Not with speechifying anger but with calm wisdom and directness. This is why you win the Nobel Peace Prize before you are old enough to vote. And how the world begins to slowly change.

AMERICAN POLITICS: Elizabeth Warren

America's truthteller

America’s truthteller

Let’s have a show of hands – how many of you are still pissed off at the big banks and Wall Street but don’t know what to say or do about it? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. This time she might have been unable to stop Congress from passing a bill several weeks ago that will once again deregulate Wall Street and allow major banks to engage in the kind of risky investments that almost brought down the economy more than six years ago, but that doesn’t mean she will the next time. She’s like the best and smartest teacher in school that you always remember because she was able to take a subject you never could understand and present it in a way that not only made it clear but made you became engaged. The reason for that is that for years she actually did teach at Harvard and innately understands how to simplify unnecessarily complicated principles to undergraduates – meaning the rest of us. Like all the best academics I have ever met, now Sen. Warren doesn’t fall for the fancy linguistic tricks or ill-conceived arguments the establishment class in her field consistently tries to pass off as absolute truth. She questions so we, in turn, learn to question. This is why she probably always gets high evals at the end of every year.

POP CULTURE LOSSES: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman 

Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten

This is not the best but the WORST. Still, it needs to be included because of the ripple effect their deaths seemed to have had across the world. Doing great work in the field of entertainment puts you in public view and when you do it over a long period of time the world feels as if they really knew you and mourns accordingly. And perhaps we all did know them – at least partially. It’s an element of what made them all such outstanding artists.

Still, it is quite odd for three such unexpected celebrity deaths to occur in such a relatively short period of time by less than natural means. Flip the channels on television or the peruse the shelves of a film DVD library and you can’t help but run into these three and marvel at the talent as you simultaneously consider the sudden loss.   JR was in her early eighties, RW was in his early 60s and PSH was in his late forties. Yet in their own very individual ways they each were among the very best at what they did. Which is all any of us can hope for at any given moment in time.

TELEVISION: Lisa Kudrow and HBO’s The Comeback

Oh how we "cherish" you (sorry, couldn't help myself)

Oh how we “cherish” you (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

There is nothing currently on television that evokes the humor, pathos and general uneasy brilliant comic drama that Lisa Kudrow brings to her portrayal of actress/reality star Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. And when I say nothing I mean her performance is unlike anything I (or you) have ever seen on TV (nee HBO) or pretty much anywhere.

This series has returned ten years after being cancelled after only running a year the first time around. That alone is remarkable. But nothing prepares you for the eight episode arc of the new season as you watch Valerie/Lisa endure the indignities of rising towards the top of a profession that often leaves little room for any real dignity (Note: How may professions do?). Or maybe she just chooses wrong. (Note: Who doesn’t sometimes?). Whatever the reason, she is simultaneously the underdog and her own worst enemy and it’s sad, recognizable, funny and uncomfortably cringe-worthy. Most of all – it’s real.

I will miss Valerie Cherish for everything she is and everything she is not. If you haven’t tuned in, do so. And for god sakes, given Lisa/Valerie the Emmy.

MEDICINE: Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox

You ride that bike, girl.

You ride that bike, girl.

What can you say about a nurse who goes voluntarily to Africa to fight a deadly disease, returns to the US where she is put into mandatory quarantine by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (even though she showed no symptoms and did not test positive for the virus) and then publicly stands up to said well-known political bully without cursing him out or punching him in the face? That she’s my kind of gal? Needless to say.

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch...

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch…

For those who don’t recall, Gov. Christie insisted on quarantine for Nurse Hickox in a makeshift tent when she returned to the U.S., which caused her to go public and take a stand against the governor by defying his quarantine and returning home to Maine. She did all this with calm determination and the backing of medical facts despite the hysterical witch-hunts and political grandstanding that began swirling around her.

Then once she got to Maine, she and her boyfriend dared to take a bike ride while being hounded by a gaggle of media. And remain polite and calm. I shudder to think what I would have said. #GetChristieNoLove

MUSIC: Annie Lennox, Nostalgia

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

In the 1980s, Annie Lennox was the lead singer of The Eurythmics and known for huge hit records like Would I Lie To You. Once I saw her in concert where she leaned so far into the stage on one foot with her mic that I thought she’d fall over as she hit a note so raw and pitch perfect that you could hear an audible gasp throughout the entire concert hall. Some years later she went on her own and won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal for No More I Love Yous from her second solo album Medusa. She followed that with an Oscar some years after that for best original song, Into the West, from the last of the first three Lord of the Rings movies.

All that being said, it should come as no surprise that for me the best CD/download/album or whatever you want to call it of the year is hers. In Nostalgia she takes classics like I Put A Spell On You, You Belong To Me, Georgia on My Mind and Billie Holliday’s haunting song of the lynching of Black men in the Deep South, Strange Fruit, and presents them all in stripped down versions unlike anyone you have ever heard before. There are so few true real artists these days with worldwide commercial success. She’s one.

APP: Aaron Paul’s YB

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For free or by paying 99 cents for a more advanced version, you can download an app where actor Aaron Paul’s resonant baritone speaks phrases like Yo, bitch or Happy Holidays, Bitch or See ya, Bitch any time you want. Yes, I find this exciting.

See, when Breaking Bad ended its series run we also lost Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, the dumb as a fox crystal meth-cooking sidekick whose signature phrase, Yo Bitch, became a national obsession. A multiple Emmy winner and fan favorite, Paul raised almost $2 million for his wife’s charity, Kind Campaign, which helps young women in need, with a series of contests and giveaways that coincided with the final season. But after being stopped on the street, emailed and tweeted by thousands of people imploring him to curse them out with variations of his signature phrase he gave in and decided to generate some cash with it – for charity and, hopefully, for himself. Because even cursing people out loses its thrill after a while – and especially when they ask you to.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Protests 

Sad realities

Sad realities

The consecutive deaths of too many young Black males in the last year in numerous states by law enforcement has created both spontaneous and planned nationwide protests across the country. In the moment it feels as if this is doing nothing but letting off steam yet through the lens of history one can clearly see this is the American way to social justice and evolution.

I would not have thought this was quite true decades ago. But having been born at a time when the civil rights movement first began taking hold, and then living through the Vietnam War, Kent State, women’s rights, gay rights, AIDS, homelessness, nuclear proliferation and marriage equality, I’ve seen how it works. Societal shifts are only fueled through provocateurs that have a real and righteous point about injustice. Therefore it’s our job to take it to the streets, talk about it, write about it or even just write a check in order to make something happen. It moves at a snail’s pace but things ultimately evolve when we don’t give in or give up. #ICantBreathe.

NEWBORN BABY: Sam Van Buren

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Who is Sam Van Buren, you might ask? Well, the coolest, snappiest and best-dressed baby I’ve ever seen – who happens to be the firstborn of my blog cohort and dear friend Holly Van Buren and her husband Michael.

Holly chooses the images and writes the captions for Notes and it might surprise you to know that she literally gave birth two months ago without missing a single week of choosing images, tagging and posting the blog. How is she able to do this along with everything else she is responsible for in her life – I HAVE NO IDEA!!   

It helps when Sam the Man looks like this...

It helps when Sam looks like this…

Sam the Man, as I call him, takes great photos because he is able to both smile and come off as a hipster all at the same time. Again, I have no idea how to do this. But it does give me hope that one day as he gets older he might teach me. That is if I am not too old. Do not say – too late.

GQ baby of the year

GQ baby of the year

For myself, Holly and our marketing director Samantha Rabstein – who has a few surprises in store for 2015 – that’s all he wrote. In 2014, that is.

A Real Piece of Work

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Nothing is permanent but change, said a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus around 500 BC. Well, one doesn’t have do be an expert in Greece or philosophy to know that this was rather prescient.

Imagine saying something – anything – that is still relevant 2500 years later?

Joan Rivers stayed relevant for at least that long. Okay, maybe it’s more of a “Jewish” 2500, which in my tribe would translate to a lifetime. But if you play it right, one lifetime is enough. And who knows, maybe all those centuries later someone will still be saying, Can we talk, as they dish the latest fashions on a show someone else is watching via some random iPhone. Which at that point will probably be an invisible Nano chip implanted directly into their EYE, rather than the i’s we now all know and love.

The death of Ms. Rivers this week – or Joan, as I was fortunate enough to call her the several times we met – collided with a lot of other renowned celebrity deaths and worldwide news in the last few weeks. But none so strangely 2014 Joan-worthy material as the massive iCloud cyber theft of naked photos of Oscar-winning actress and reigning American sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence, among others, that went viral. It’s sort of beside the point – or perhaps it is the point – but I keep wondering, what would Joan have had to say about all that?

Oh please, if I looked like Jennifer Lawrence naked you could’ve seen those pictures on every website in the world – but never for free. Dumb bitch!! Doesn’t she know one day those boobies will be mopping the floors for free?? (Insert Joan miming a boob mopping visual).

Or maybe she would have taken a different tack about any woman misguided enough to even snap pictures of themselves unclothed-

What is wrong with them? I’ve never even seen myself naked! How do you think I lived this long? (beat) And you wonder why Edgar killed himself.

Oh, grow up!!! You think she wouldn’t have gone there? Well, maybe she would have but surely she would’ve been funnier – a lot funnier. A lot, lot funnier. Which is one of so many reasons why we still need her around.

Would you expect anything less?

Would you expect anything less?

I tweeted this week that Joan Rivers was the only person who could offend me and make me laugh at exactly the same time. I meant it as the highest of compliments. I tend to lose my sense of humor about certain subjects that cut too close to the bone. For instance, I don’t find AIDS jokes funny. In the same way my parents’ friends don’t like to yuck it up about the Holocaust, Mel Brooks’ The Producers not withstanding.  Yet on the latter point here was Joan just a few months ago on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, explaining why she arrived to the studio late.

…They sent this big stretch Mercedes limousine for us and it got stuck – it wouldn’t move for two and a half hours! And I’m thinking the whole time, the Germans killed 6 million Jews and you can’t fix a f-cking carburetor?!

Oh Joan, Joan, Joan.

There is a brand of groundbreaking comedians who changed comedy so drastically that we will never quite see the likes of again because the times have changed so drastically since they started performing in the early and still uptight 1960s. Little-known names like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen (not to mention the tail end of Lenny Bruce) scrounged around the seedy little Bohemian nightclubs of Greenwich Village, New York hoping to board the train of fame and fortune but happy just to be making a couple of bucks.

That was a time when there were exactly two mainstream female standup comics in the entire world – Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields – neither of whom were in their twenties. But every so often through force of will and talent – and often it takes both – someone breaks through the glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton so famously referred to in her 2008 concession speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. This does not mean that even now we live in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-Holocaust or post-gay world – as any number of recent news events certainly bare witness to. It only means that occasionally an individual comes along that won’t be stopped, and they open the door for a few others of their kind who manage to sneak through, which makes the entrance even bigger for a larger but still select group of some more of their types to come in. That is, until it’s the turn of another totally different individual of still yet another group or sensibility – when the cycle starts all over again.

We can thank Joan for paving the way for these ladies

We can thank Joan for paving the way for these ladies

The Bottom line – or – to put it another way: It’s never particularly easy – ever – for anyone who aspires to be at the top of anything when they do not act or look like everyone else at the peak of that mountain that they aspire to.

The terrain one takes to get to the top of the mountain keeps getting updated but the climb is not dissimilar. And it’s an ongoing, lifetime fight that’s a lot more difficult to deal with than the cyber stealing of a celebrity’s private nude shots. Sure, the latter seems particularly sleazy and heinous at this time but is it any worse than the distribution of previously unseen nudies some unscrupulous photographer took that caused now famed TV and musical theatre actress Vanessa Williams, then the first black Miss America, to be deposed from her throne in 1983 for something she did when she was broke and needed the money? Those same types of photos were also taken three decades earlier of another young, aspiring star – Marilyn Monroe. But both didn’t do too badly for themselves (well, relatively) even as they tried to exploit, and in turn found themselves exploited by, the business they so very much wanted to become a part of.

One might argue that it is different in the case of the Jennifer Lawrence photos since they were private and not done under contract or paid for like the others. But that is precisely what is NOT the difference in 2014. NOTHING. IS. PRIVATE. Especially when it is committed to film or still photography. And most especially when its owner posts it anywhere online. Rule of thumb: assume once you’ve posted it anywhere it can easily be accessed ad infinitum everywhere.

Truth!

Truth!

Joan Rivers recognized where this was all going decades before any of the rest of us did. She operated from the idea that nothing was sacred – especially when it applied to the rich and famous – meaning the people who could afford to take it. And most especially when it came to her stock in trade – laughter.

When another funny woman, Nora Ephron, died several years ago, many of the post mortems cited one of her mottos that she claimed was given to her early on by another comedy writer – her late mother and Hollywood screenwriter, Phoebe Ephron. And that advice was:

Everything in your life that happens to you is material.

Joan took this adage one step further– Everything that happens to anyone else, everywhere else is your material.

And she would tell you where to stick it.

And she would tell you where to stick it.

Joan used this material for her comedy and she was fearless about it. She may or may not have meant it as a motto or way to live in the new 21st century world we are all forced to inhabit but when you stop and think it just might be a pretty smart strategy to realize that:

Nothing is sacred and not much can be hidden. So it’s probably a lot better to be open and honest about it all than to try and pretend you or it are something you’re not.

After all – as one speech teacher said to me years ago when I confessed I was quite nervous to get up in front of a room full of people – everyone goes to the bathroom the same way. Just picture them doing that – or naked in the shower. That should set your mind at ease. (Note: Yes, a teacher in school once told me that. And you wonder why I followed in that person’s footsteps).

But back to Joan, who I’m very happy not to ever have to follow even though in some small way I am.

The early days

The early days

Longevity and fearlessness are rarities in the Business of Show and even more infrequent in the Business of Life. People flame out – their fires doused by others or the group efforts of the unfriendly worlds that cohabitate all around them. That’s why a career of almost 60 years with its countless ups and downs, triumphs, offenses and reinventions – and most importantly – unerring ability to stay relevant to audiences and pop culture no matter what the cost – is worth saluting. Can you name another 81 year-old entertainer starring in three television shows and still doing 300 club dates per year cracking up people all over the world (or even offending them – it’s just the opposite side of the exactly the same coin) up until the night before they died? I certainly can’t. (Click here to take a small break with some of Joan’s best work)

Full confession: Despite having some mutual friends, I only got to speak to Joan at any great length more than a year ago at a friend’s birthday party. She was funny, self-deprecating and incredibly smart and well read – a softer, more thoughtful version of her stage persona – and a lot more gracious that I expected. After several hours together – and in one of the rare moments when the laughter died down – I decided to go for it and share something I told her I had always wanted to say to her. A long beat went by and she looked at me a bit fearfully and said, uh, oh.

My own "Can We Talk" moment

My own “Can We Talk” moment

Oh no, I responded, it’s nothing bad.

Okay, she said, still not quite believing.

It’s just that – I always wanted to thank you. See, in the early eighties you did the first AIDS benefit I ever went to at Studio One (NOTE: A small gay nightclub in West Hollywood) and it was at a time when no one else famous was really speaking up. I just so really appreciated it. As did many of my friends who are no longer here.

She looked back at me sincerely and said thank you and revealed that she had received several death threats that evening if she dared to perform.

Weren’t you afraid, I wondered?

A little, she responded. But we hired a couple of big bodyguards, who I’m sure everyone thought just worked there. I would never NOT do the show because of that.

Fearless.

In the middle, at the beginning and to the very end.

Background Check

Pull up a seat in the spotlight

Taking a seat

People go into the entertainment business for all sorts of reasons and who’s to say if any one reason is right or wrong.  Talent, fame, and communication are the top ones.   Equally compelling are: aversion to 9-5 employment, fun, sex, glamour, and money.  And finally, there’s my favorite – because it’s the only thing I’m really good at that I don’t hate.   Doubtless, there are still more.

I have heard any and all of these from my students – inspiring artists that they are – and none of them surprise me because I’ve also heard every one of them from one other person very close to me…myself.

Yes, aside from knowing early on I had some writing ability, I was also drawn to the biz that is show for lots of unsavory reasons that I suppose I’m not proud of.  Except, I sort of am because after decades in and around this world I know I’m not alone.  Who of us isn’t occasionally bowled over by the glamour (even when we realize there is a lot less of it than we thought) and reduced to the 9-year old fan we once were or perhaps still are? Is there anyone among us who didn’t at some point want to be heard or noticed in some small way so they could stick their middle finger up at all the doubters or other people who discounted or ignored them?  And I can’t imagine there is not a person here that has or will not at least once enjoy certain carnal pleasures and/or attention available to them because of this particular show-y world they chose. (And for those who haven’t cashed in on the latter…oh come on – you know you have!).

None of this negates one’s talent and creativity.  The passion for one’s art.  The wanting to not only be heard or listened to but – yes, lofty thought – in some big or small way ultimately change the world for the better through what you say.  I’ve felt the latter more than once or twice and, especially when I was younger, was absolutely sure that these dreams would indeed come true.  And anyway, who is to say they haven’t?  It’s not always evident how change happens or who contributed what to the mass success of a project or an artist with even a casual comment or specific creative contribution along the way.   You might indeed be famously heard and change things yet you also might never know how much, nor will the many people in the world know.  But, I mean – does that negate what you’ve done, your talent or you?  Does that make you a failure?  I don’t think so.  And – for your sake – I certainly hope you don’t think so.

Every now and again, it's ok!

Every now and again, it’s ok!

The biggest and smartest talents among us know this and quickly, even routinely, credit other people for helping them along the road to success in very significant ways – sometimes proclaiming that person or persons were partly (or even in some measure equally) responsible for it.  And I actually suspect even the most ego-crazed, conceited nightmares of stars deep down know this too because there is nothing that fuels the egomaniacal fool more than the fear of the world finding out that deep down inside they indeed have been fooling everyone all along and, when the curtain is pulled back, they will be revealed alone as The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In other words – nothing.

All of this and more are covered not only in my bi-weekly psychotherapy sessions but also in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a new documentary about some of the most famously unknown background singers in the business.  These people, mostly women, sang the most prized choruses or riffs or actual vocals of some of your favorite songs from the 60s through today.  In fact, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Luther Vandross, Sting, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and many, many more are more than happy to let you know (well, to a point, that is) that parts of their records you are singing to (especially the hook/choruses) only really work because they or their producers or managers had the good taste or cash to be able to hire these “unknowns” to add their ample abilities to their final creative project.  A project that, ironically, none of these background singers are ever really known for by anyone but this select group.

There used to be this new agey question they asked in the seventies that might just still be around today and it goes like this:

Are you the star of your own movie?

Correct Answer (If You Live in the Real World of Show Business):  Well, it depends on what you mean by “star” and “movie.” 

Loving Darlene Love

Loving Darlene Love

Remember the timeless sixties hit: He’s a Rebel, sung by The Crystals?  Uh, that was really background singer Darlene Love singing lead but record producer Phil Spector decided that The Crystals were more marketable (and controllable) so Darlene’s name got erased.  How about the gal who famously dueted with Mick Jagger on Gimme Shelter – a song that feels as if it has been used in every other trailer for a Martin Scorsese film in the last 25 years?  That gal would be gospel diva Merry Clayton – who memorably wailed the chorus: War, Children – It’s just a shot away, It’s just a shot away! while she was 8 months pregnant and in curlers at 3 am because Mick Jagger and the Stones needed a female belter in their middle-of-the-night recording session and she was game when the call came in an hour before.

There are younger singers like Lisa Fischer, who for decades has sung on many of the most famous records and live performances of Sting, Luther Vandross and Tina Turner, and people like Tata Vega, David Lasly and Charlotte Crossley – names you probably don’t know but whose vocals you remember if you ever heard anything by James Taylor, Bette Midler or Stevie Wonder.

Know any of the Pips?

Can you name the Pips?

One watches the singers in this film and audibly gasps that any creative person with that amount of talent could possibly be what the biz routinely labels as an unknown. How does that happen?  Well, in the same way other people are known.

But rather than reviewing the film, perhaps its best to cut to the bottom line two questions here:

Q1: Who makes it in the business and who doesn’t? And why?    (Ok, that’s already 2 questions)

A1:  A small group if you consider the larger percentage. And for many reasons, some of which were stated above.

Q2 (or Bonus Question for those really counting numbers):  If I work hard enough, believe in myself and am also super talented by professional standards, as well as my own, doesn’t that guarantee I will make it too?

A2:  Well, if making it means becoming commercially successful, famous, a household commodity, or even a wealthy (or financially comfortable) artist who, at the end of the day, is revered by your peers, the answer is, quite simply — No.

Not all all.  There is no guarantee, or even likelihood, of anything.  At all.

Though (and here’s the killer) it is possible.   Confusing?  You bet it is.

I once heard Joan Rivers address this question of who makes it or not in an interview and she incorrectly stated: The cream always rises to the top.  Well, that might be scientifically true in a coffee test kitchen but it is simply not the case in show business, much as we all would like it to be.

Clouds in my coffee

Clouds in my coffee

This is not to say those successful are untalented.  But there are usually others far worse but also better than they are.  Sting graciously put it much more eloquently in the movie when he answered the question:  So many factors – luck, timing…

It is indeed a bitter pill to swallow that you might be much more talented than others in your field and that yes, somehow the dream never happened for you.  Oh, you know the one.  It’s different for everyone but basically they’re all the same.  Getting your work seen and being rewarded accordingly; the recognition; the success, whatever it means to you or others – yada, yada, yada…

No one should suffer under the delusion that the answer lies in fairness because the world SHOULD be fair.  It isn’t all of the time.   Sometimes it is.  Maybe it is all the time and you’re spiritual (which I’m not) and believe none of us can see the true bigger godly picture.  But for the rest of us mere mortals – wow – sometimes it really does not seem right or just or, well – happening the way it should.  That’s okay.  That’s the way that it IS.  And there is only one true real response.  To keep at it, to keep doing your work – without result – as much as possible, while keeping it real – the best that you can.

I find myself occasionally getting stuck just like everyone else – in the morass of expectation and disappointment and unfulfillment and yes, occasional bitterness.  But seldom, at this point in my life, can I stay there long.  I know better.  I know the truth.  That all I have now is all I had when I came in – my talent and what I have to say and that determination to do so.  No one can ever take that away from me.  But myself, I suppose.  Which is the true irony, don’t you think?

I’m reminded of a great scene in the movie Quills – based on Doug Wright’s play.  The Marquis de Sade, a controversial writer in his time of sexually explicit material, was finally thrown in prison for his work and all writing instruments (his quills) and paper were taken away from him.  What did he do?  He opened his veins and used his own blood to write on the prison walls.

No, I wouldn’t advise this.  It’s a dramatic illustration. (Sort of like the Bible, but that’s the subject of another discussion).

Although, it would be Dexter approved.

Although, it would be Dexter approved.

You are going along with your own worst enemies and destructive powers by stewing in your own soup of bitterness and resentment.  True?  Absolutely true.

Everyone can be a writer and filmmaker and pretty much any kind of artist today.  Anyone.   Thanks to the accessibility of technology.  Plus, there are so many more places to be seen.  Though ironically there seems less of a chance to reach a mass audience because so many more people can and are trying to with the help of social media and the digital revolution.  Why does something go viral?  Or hit it big?  Or get bought in mass quantities?  It’s all sort of the same answer it always was, isn’t it?  Because it does.  Talent?  Sure.  But as Sting says, luck and timing?  Absolutely.

Some of the odds might be changing in the more traditional real world.  For the longest time mainstream Hollywood movies were made mostly by white people – older white males, to be specific.  Not that there weren’t women, people of color (and other, ahem, minorities) in various positions helping them.  But if you look at the percentages you will see it hasn’t been too encouraging.

There are, however, recent signs of inclusion from that most exclusive and perhaps elitist of show business organization – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  This select, invited group of several thousand men and women not only make up the industry’s top movie professionals but they also vote each year on the Oscars – the awards everyone likes to say don’t matter but the awards (and show) that most people, in some way, pay attention to.

Diversity?

Diversity?

Right now, women comprise just 23% of all Academy members, but this year 32% of the 2013 inductees (88 of 274 people in all) were women.  In addition, this year the total inductees of people under 50 also rose to 35%, which should hopefully begin to equalize the voting power to more contemporary tastes (too bad Brokeback Mountain and Crash aren’t competing next year), since right now only 14% of the total membership of the Academy is under 50.  There are even more people of color being invited in, too.  The Academy is about 94% white at the moment.  But this year only 71% of its new members will be Caucasian.  (Okay, that does need to be worked on, but still….)

Clearly, none of us have crystal balls that work or else we wouldn’t have gotten stuck this summer taking a chance on films like The Lone Ranger or Man of Steel (If you haven’t gone – really, you don’t have to).  But what is absolutely also known is that if you are not producing material (aka using your talent) you have absolutely no shot at luck or timing or reaching anyone or anything (aka your full potential or desires).

Once when I pondered about taking a job I didn’t really want to do after a long, painful round of unemployment and self-pity, a more experienced person dared to quote this cliché to me – work begets work.  Years later, I finally got what was being said.  Work of any kind, is a road to something productive and positive and will take you somewhere.  Which is better than nowhere – the place where you are now if you’re not working.  I loathed discovering this, particularly since I saw it as a little too Power of Positive Thinking for my hip tastes.  Still, that doesn’t make it any less true. Then or now.