Thirtysomething for Twentysomethings

2681badb0d4438484f06ce00fdcd74f8

Fame is fleeting.

Someone first coined that phrase but I’m not sure whom.

What I do know is that it has been repeated enough to become a cliché.  And that it’s what people in the biz tell you, or their therapists tell them, or perhaps you tell yourself when you receive no resounding public recognition for what you perceive to be your outstanding achievements.

Oh, don’t feel bad, even if you became famous it wouldn’t last.  I mean, even the mega millions you would have been bound to make probably wouldn’t last.  Not to mention all the good will – and jealousy. Uh, yeah, that’s true.  Think of it this way – since it looks like you’ll never be famous, chances are no will ever be that jealous of you and you’ll be free to live your life away from intense public scrutiny.  That’s something, isn’t it?

Well, one supposes it is a sort of bad form to not be thankful for even the smallest of life’s blessings these days.  Still, the above logic is more than a bit challenging.  For example, should we all be grateful not to be Carrie Underwood this week after the fairly scathing reviews she received from the media as Maria Von Trapp in NBC’s live three hour broadcast of The Sound of Music? Certainly, no one wants to be called: A snow globe with scarcely any flakes or Swiss Miss Maria. Or to have their work critiqued with phrases like: To say that Underwood was no Julie Andrews is one of life’s greatest certainties or…It was the speaking that did her in. 

Snark 101

Snark 101

On the other hand, SofM was a ratings bonanza for NBC that provided the network its best Thursday night numbers in almost 10 years.  Not to mention, Ms. Underwood is an internationally known, multi-platinum recording star with many buckets of millions and a seemingly quite happy marriage to a very, very good-looking hockey player (Note: Yes, nobody knows these things for sure – and the latter can be either a blessing or a curse — but still…look for yourself).

Ugh.. seriously?

Ugh.. seriously?

The cynical among us, and I might detect a few in the room – certainly in the room I am now alone writing in – might easily prefer the one authentic quote I was able to dig up about fame.  That one comes from that well-known lover of humanity, the diminutive and dead French dictator of more than three centuries ago– Napoleon Bonaparte.  Quote:

Glory is fleeting…but obscurity…is forever.

Wow, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it?  Or it would be — if it were true.

Last week, I attended a sort of public writer’s salon. It wasn’t exactly like what you read happened at Gertrude Stein’s house on the Left Bank of Paris almost a century ago.  But it did take place in L.A. at the Writers Guild of America’s multi-purpose room. So there is at least, on a sliding scale, some small smidgen of street cred.

Mr. Thirtysomething

Mr. Thirtysomething

Richard Kramer, one of the original and lead writers on the seminal 1980s TV drama thirtysomething – a one time renowned TV series that was about nothing other than the behavior of a group of friends long before Seinfeld, Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl took that type of low concept idea and ran it through the post-modern, too hip for the room, Snidely McSnide, comic/soap opera blender – was on hand to read from and talk about his recent novel, These Things Happen.  He also brought along three very well-known actors from thirtysomething – Melanie Mayron, David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechette – to sit beside him, reminisce and read other various parts of the book, now in development to be a cable series at HBO.

Melanie (second from right).

Melanie (second from right).

David and Peter (and the famous morning after scene)

David and Peter (and the famous morning after scene)

It is interesting to note that when I spoke about some of the evening to my students – all juniors and seniors in college – none were familiar with this once quite famous television show (Note: didn’t their parents watch the tube?  Did not one of them ever Google the phrase 30something or even 20something  to see where they came from instead of just being annoyed by them?).  Well, perhaps none of this is surprising.  But what also momentarily took me aback was that not one (that’s zero) of them had even heard of Ms. Mayron, Mr. Grant or Mr. Frechette.

That is, until I mentioned …

Mr. Grant was a writer on both Brothers and Sisters and Smash and is the showrunner for the new upcoming HBO comedy series about three young gay men living in San Francisco.

… and that Ms. Mayron is the prolific television director of such ABC Family shows as Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and Switched At Birth.

(Note: Mr. Frechette, over the years a favorite actor of mine who earned two Tony nominations since thirtysomething for such plays as Eastern Standard and Our Country’s Good, is still quite well known in the theatre but, times being what they are, doesn’t quite register on the faces of young, aspiring TV and screenwriters.  Still, two out of three ain’t bad).

David, Melanie & Peter... or who?

David, Melanie & Peter… or better know as: who?

What does all this tell us?  That fame is fleeting but at least none of the four artists onstage has faded into total obscurity?  Well, not exactly.

After the actors read aloud from Mr. Kramer’s novel it couldn’t help but strike the audience just how good they all still were at the craft of acting – even when they were sitting in chairs reading from a book – and how infrequently audiences are ever given the chance to see them perform their craft on film or in television.  When they were asked if they missed acting both Mr. Grant and Ms. Mayron nodded yes even before the question fully landed.  Mr. Grant willingly shared that it was only when he realized he couldn’t get arrested as an actor anymore that he began writing full time and though he thoroughly enjoys being a working writer and running a show, his ideal job in old age would be to be a journeyman actor – “to just come, do the job that I love, and leave.”

Ms. Mayron mentioned being lucky enough as a young actor to study with Lee Strasberg and offered how often her acting skills come in handy when she’s on the set as a director “moving actors around — I guess that’s what I do now.” To illustrate her point, she and Mr. Kramer spoke of her days before the camera and how in her Emmy-winning role on thirtysomething she always had to be doing something in a scene in addition to saying her lines even if it meant unbagging groceries or pouring numerous packs of sugar into a cup of coffee in a particularly emotional moment. I love good writing, she noted, but the truth is – it’s equally about behavior.

This made me smile as both a writer and writing teacher because it is one of the basics I try to teach my students and stay true to myself in my own work as a screenwriter – and even in my own life.  The idea that it’s not so much what is being said but what is not being said – and that what someone does is much more meaningful than what they intended to do or even say that they will do.  And it was also not lost of me where I first learned all of this — acting class. (Note: These principles were later reinforced during years of psychotherapy, but that’s the subject of another discussion entirely).

Aha moment!

Aha moment!

Additionally, it should not be lost on anyone that fame and recognition can have something to do with great art but they needn’t necessarily.  Ms. Mayron, Mr. Grant and Mr. Frechette, who is still a working actor – are as good or better than they ever were as performers, even if they are not receiving the kind of recognition or opportunities to show their craft that they once did.  One could argue that they should but one could also argue for world peace, an end to Congressional gridlock or for NBC to stop doing live musicals with leads from other mediums who don’t have the chops to pull it off.  But none of those are likely to happen either.

Towards the end of this evening a friend a few years older than me who knew quite well of all the people onstage turned to me and whispered, It’s hard for everyone. isn’t it?  It was really a rhetorical question because, at this point in time and after decades in and around the business, we both knew the answer.  And sure, it’s a resounding YES.

Keep on pushing!

Keep on pushing!

But hard doesn’t mean impossible.  It only means difficult or challenging.  Well, is anything worth having not some of those at various points in time?

To put it another way, all of the people onstage that night figured out ways to be new, creative versions of themselves without falling into a pit of despair over the fact that they couldn’t keep doing exactly what they always did in exactly the same way and expect the same result decades later. That’s not about striving for fame or lamenting obscurity but merely taking stock and doing the work in any form that you can.   Aside from watching an ill-advised network redo of a beloved movie and stage musical and dishing about it with friends, there are so few guaranteed pleasures in life.  But this, it seems, is one of them.  Despite the number of people you have watching you do it, or anything else, on any given night.

Time to Pass the Torch

It strikes me as the height of irony that the Olympics are all about competing to be your best yet NBC’s coverage of the event is a monopoly that has allowed it to be its worst.

I thought this on Friday night as I sat watching the opening ceremonies “live” from London, a full half day after they happened –- which as it turned out was as quickly as any human being in Los Angeles (except those who work at NBC) could get them.

This would have been bad enough had the opening ceremony not gone on to include duds like:

  1. The real Queen of England and the real actor playing James Bond exchanging pleasantries in Buckingham Palace, followed by their (presumed?) stunt doubles jumping out of a helicopter into Olympic stadium.
  2. A floorshow featuring an odd pastiche of agrarian, industrialized and social media-ized Great Britain over the course of several centuries, interspersed with very brief verbal recitations by Kenneth Branagh and J.K. Rowling while hundreds of extras danced in period costumes to the point of distraction.
  3. And a finale of Paul McCartney singing a slightly off tune “Hey Jude” (why that of all his songs?) that made one wonder WWJLD (What would John Lennon Do?).  In answer to the latter I say something welcomingly naughty, but one can only IMAGINE on that score.

What is happening here??

Call me crazy ( or even “maybe” since its Olympic-related) but all this activity made me rethink if being a little desperate and hungry is a good thing (as opposed to starvation and “The Hunger Games”), and if perhaps a few rounds of good old, level-playing field, REAL competition in the world might not just be the better answer for at least some of the things that ail us.

These thoughts surprise me since I’m not much into sports and certainly don’t think unfettered, free-market capitalism is the answer to anything but 21st century greed.  Still, you have to wonder when a corporation like NBC is able to shell out $4.38 billion (yes, that’s a B!) in order to hold you captive to its whims, ratings or otherwise.  One could argue that for billions of dollars a corporation (who the US Supreme Court recently ruled is indeed human) has earned/bought the prerogative to do exactly as it pleases and, legally, one could argue that one is right.  Except – if you toss out legalities and use common sense – is it???  And is it wise for us?

The Olympics are about excellence, humanity (the non-corporate kind) and grit.  Yeah, there’s money and sponsorship and opportunity thrown into the mix but, when it comes down to it, you can’t prevent a superior athlete from a war-torn country from decimating another from a large, rich industrialized nation and thus prove his or her superiority for all the world to see.  In other words, at the end of the day it’s not about how much money you have but how good you are at what you do.

This is not the case for cash rich NBC or for the rest of us who choose to watch the show and, as fans, expect to at the very least see the real version of a live event we elected to watch.

Despite Twitter, You Tube, Facebook and other streaming technology, NBC has figured out a way to block almost all immediacy of every match up and thus render its billion-dollar coverage pretty lackluster for world-wise consumers.  Yes, there is online streaming of each event but only if you are in front of your computer at the precise moment NBC’s cameras happen to be there in London time.  Otherwise, for the competitions geared to primetime (meaning all the ones you really want to watch), you have to wait 9-12 hours in order to raise NBC’s prime time ratings.

In need of a serious lift…

True, you can watch it some 9-12 hours later on your tv/tablet in high resolution and technically feel as if you’re there, both out front and backstage.  But that’s only technically – meaning high def, clear as glass pixel images.  What you might consider the best parts of the event STILL get cut or filtered by correspondents who you’d rather see serve as the actual bullseye in Olympic archery than pose as experts asking the questions you might never ask if given the opportunity to have been there live yourself half a day before.

For example, in its infinite wisdom, NBC chose to excise what was arguably one of the most emotionally moving segments of the opening ceremony – a haunting tribute to victims of the 2005 (7/7) terrorist bombings in London which occurred just a day after the city was chosen to broadcast this Olympics.  Instead, NBC decided American audiences couldn’t relate to worldwide terrorism and chose to run an interview by its new resident haircut Ryan Seacrest (who Deadline Hollywood’s Nikke Finke recently dubbed the “Viscount of Vapidity”) with uber Olympian Michael Phelps that could have won Olympic gold itself were they giving out medals in television blandness.

Am I sounding bitter and petty?  Then don’t take my word for it – judge for yourself.

The memorial tribute you missed

click for full video

vs.

click for full video

The Viscount of Vapidity barely distracting Michael Phelps on TODAY

(because all copies of the infamous Olympics interview has been removed from the Web)

Seacrest is an apt target of derision not because he’s uber successful and wealthy but because he is so clearly devoid of anything related to what the Olympics is really about – namely excellence and grit.  He is everything the Olympics isn’t.  As was NBC’s decision to use this interview instead of staying with one of the few planned emotional moments that director Danny Boyle (who also had little competition) created for the London ceremonies.   It makes one wonder whether the Olympic Gods actually decided to curse Phelps to fourth place and thus deny him a medal of any kind in his first race in London in retaliation.

Thanks Zeus!

Certainly this is life in the real world when everything, including all of us, are on the chopping block for a price.  But what the top 1% of the “job creators” need to know is that the changing platforms in world media will not allow them to gorge themselves with a diet of indulgent choices forever.  At some point, there is an Arab spring for everything – a “tipping point” where audiences turn off and, as they used to say in the sixties, “turn on” in ways their elders never imagined.  Ask the music industry.  Check in with the production heads at film studios.  Survey some of the smarter, more prescient business people in the world who make their money by inventing things and recognizing trends or potential needs.  You might want to even call some of the leading climate scientists who were being laughed at 10 or 20 years ago if the recent rash of heat waves across the country haven’t knocked out your phone service.

All of this is what makes the world a still somewhat pleasant, amusing and consistently wondrous place to live in.  There is indeed something called evolution, despite the very vocal minority of worldwide religious fundamentalists who to this day spend a lot of their capital (both financial and intellectual) trying to deny it.  Evolution is defined as “the development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  What that means is that try as one group might to make choices for you that you don’t want, eventually that one group will overreach and the world will change enough and evolve to something more complex that will accommodate the majority.

Oh I could puke.

There is no timetable on this, as much as one wishes there were.  But it will happen as sure as Seacrest will manage to annoy me sometime in the very near future (try today).  Because what it will come down to is a world that runs, and has always run on good old level-playing field, real competition – whether it be women’s volleyball, horse dressage or corporate indulgence (some might even go so far as to call it censorship) in any particular industry in any particular year.

Competition ain’t so bad!

The wisest among us, both individual humans and the corporate kind, will take the lead of the most practiced Olympic athlete at their peak performance and prepare for the race that will inevitably come.  The competition is long but ultimately there can only be one real winner.  Despite what we’re being sold.  Or told.   And both history, as well as evolution, have a way of making things right – or at least giving the least likely among us more of a fighting chance that we will run with.