Hubris

icarus

Q:  What do you do when your real life exceeds your wildest fantasies?

A:  Keep it to yourself.

This is what comes to mind when I think of Seth MacFarlane as host of the Oscars.

By the way, the above is a quote from James L. Brooks’ very excerptable and very prescient screenplay for Broadcast News, an original script that was nominated for but did not win the Oscar in 1987 (that went to John Patrick Shanley’s more audience-pleasing Moonstruck).  Mr. Brooks’ dialogue was spoken by a somewhat empty-headed, pretty boy reporter (a much younger William Hurt) being groomed for network anchorman to a nowhere near as attractive veteran reporter (Albert Brooks, who incidentally now looks much better and younger than Mr. Hurt) being passed over for the job.  Imagine Seth MacFarlane 25 years from now, no longer well-groomed, svelte and hip but bald, pot-bellied and sallow-faced, talking to, say, a much older Seth Rogen, who right now could stand in for the young Albert Brooks and will likely look as good or better than the older Albert Brooks in two and a half decades, and you might get what I mean.

He has nice teeth.. I guess?

He has nice teeth.. I guess?

In any event, I have no idea if Mr. MacFarlane expected to one day be on the Oscar stage hosting but clearly it is reasonable to believe that two long-running, mega successful television series (Family Guy and American Dad) and one mega successful film (2012’s Ted) that one writes, creates, directs, voices and, by default, stars in before the age of 40, is enough karmic largesse to make any of us believe that this quote could certainly come up in conversation to categorize at least parts of his meteoric professional rise.  Well, if not in his mind, than in ours – or at least mine.   And that is the point.

Mr. MacFarlane’s belief in himself to the nth degree and beyond is what has made him wildly successful and popular and this is responsible for his crude, tacky and, to me, mostly unfunny stint as host of the 85th annual Oscars.  It’s not hard to imagine his very same frat boy type jokes about Star Trek, boobs, Chris Brown beating up Rihanna, and 9 year-old Quvenzhane Wallis one day dating George Clooney going over really well to a group of his bros in his parents’ basement, as one reviewer stated, without a peep of protest.  The trouble is, and the reason for the backlash despite a rise in the ratings (and it was only a 3% rise from last year – not the gargantuan one being bandied about), is that he’s performing to an audience of a billion people watching the Oscars.  And a lot of that core audience are not his bros – meaning, straight white guys of a certain age – but includes ladies with boobs.  And gay men – who mostly don’t think too much about Star Trek, don’t care much about ladies breasts (save, I guess, the representatives of the Gay Men’s Chorus who shared the stage with Mr. MacFarlane in a climactic moment of self-loathing irony during the boobs number), and are certainly protective over Rihanna and little diva in training QW.

Eh, not sure the audience was loving it either

Eh, not sure the audience was loving it either

Still, and perhaps rightfully, Mr. MacFarlane made a choice to be 1000% himself on Oscar night even though he was performing not in (his usual medium of) voice-over and animation and, depending on who you are, he may or may not have made the right call.  What is inarguable is that in making his choices for the evening he chose to indulge in the exact mindset that brought him and his comedy to the worldwide center stage in the first place. – hubris.

Hubris:  an excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.

It takes a certain amount of hubris to succeed as any kind of creative artist in show business.  I mean, one big clue is the phrase itself – SHOW business, meaning half of your job is to SHOW who you are through what you do.  To SHOW it without hesitation, to SHOW it boldly, proudly and to anyone who chooses to look at it.  To SHOW it despite the naysayers and with unbridled confidence to the world at large even if you are insecure, nee dying, on the inside.  And even if you are and can’t hide it, you can at the very least SHOW THAT to your audience fully and endear people to you that way.

Seth (I feel as if all this pillaring of him allows me to call him that now) was like a giant id dancing around the stage on Oscar night.  Howard Stern on steroids.  But — do we want Howard Stern hosting the Oscars? (Oh, now don’t tell me he’s next year’s host?!)  This kind of act works great in animation or on the radio or occasionally on the stage in a book musical (see Book of Mormon).  But the Oscars are theoretically supposed to be about the movies.  Not a frat boys’ obsession with Captain Kirk or the boobies of ladies that you want to ogle.  Unless — they can be.  Which is what some (but not all) people are saying.  While the rest of us (okay, maybe just me) are saying:

Just because in your wildest fantasies you can do anything you want doesn’t mean you should do anything you want.  Just ask Mel Gibson and Chris Brown.  When some fantasies are beyond your wildest dreams, maybe there’s a reason you yourself didn’t think of them.

But hey, that could be just me.  In my own informal survey of about 40 of my college students aged 20-22, about 90% were perfectly fine with Seth, in fact they thought he was pretty fun.  This is also borne out by the ratings numbers – which did rise 11% in the key 18-49 demographic, a bottom line kind of thinking which could be all ABC and this year’s producers really cared about.  As for my students, primarily, it was the guys who were most enthusiastic but most of the gals didn’t seem to mind either.  This, however, did not sway me one bit.  Though it did make me feel a bit….well, out of the mainstream.  Which is how I’ve felt most of my life anyway.  And that’s absolutely, totally 1000% okay.  In fact, it’s actually great.  Which could also be my own form of hubris, albeit expressed in a different form.  After all, one person’s excessive pride or arrogance could be another one’s salute to their favorite body part of choice.  Which begs the question posed by Oscar presenter Jane Fonda post ceremony:  If you want to stoop to that, why not a list all the penises we’ve seen?

You can't argue with someone you looks THAT good

.. and you can’t argue with someone that looks THAT good

The night after the Oscars I moderated a panel where a different sort of hubris was the star – a more life-affirming positive kind.  This occurred when three successful graduates of our program – one director-writer, one writer-director and one younger screenwriter – spoke to our current students about their paths to whatever professional good fortune they were now enjoying.

The stories were all the same.  A larger than life and seemingly illogical belief in your ability to “succeed”, a fierce dedication to the kind of work that you wanted to do, and an almost inhuman amount of enthusiasm and good humor along the way that caused people to want to be around you.  These kinds of strategies brought one of our grads a seven-figure plus studio sale on a script she wrote – one of the hottest scripts on Hollywood’s Blacklist.  It brought another alumn numerous on-camera network commentator spots that exceeded his wildest fantasies because it was nothing he ever desired, plus the ability to direct what are now five feature films.  It also has given the third the opportunity to support himself as a paid screenwriter for 20 years, writing numerous studio assignments and taking time out to direct a few of his own independent features, all the while living a more traditional life of husband and father during that time.

The new secret to success?

The new secret to success?

As I sat and listened to their stories I thought about my own, and that of many of my friends in the business.  Times and technology have changed but the basic scenario hasn’t.  Belief in oneself despite what the world is telling you, an almost superhuman work ethic, and willingness to, at least at some point in your life, occasionally be the kind of person others want to be around.

I guess, in the end, it’s all sort of a form of hubris.  The decision to make is:  do you want to use your powers for good – or for evil?

Starting Over

Thirty years ago I attended the Grammy Awards when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” won album of the year and I  watched as Lennon’s widow and sometime collaborator, Ono, walked across the stage to accept the honor.  The irony of the moment was not lost on us attendees or the many millions of people watching worldwide.  The monster hit single being played from the recording as she made her way to the podium was Lennon’s “Starting Over” and its message of new beginnings was especially poignant.   Lennon had been murdered a year before at point blank range in front of his NYC apartment building right after the initial release of “Double Fantasy” and his death required that not only his wife but his legion of worldwide fans would somehow have to heed the advice of the song and begin to finally and fully absorb the shock of living in a world where one of the most iconic artists of that time – or pretty much any time – was gone.

Click for full video

As the very petite and very soft-spoken Ms. Ono stood at a clear podium that seemed to engulf her very presence amid thunderous applause that definitely engulfed the very room, I remember thinking three things  – a. “how is she doing it?”  b. “she’s so much smaller than I imagined” and c. “it’s sad that this is what it takes for people in this business to forgive you for some large perceived misdeed (in her case it was  the lingering unjust accusation that she had caused the break up of the Beatles).

As for part b. —  well, most very famous people are not as “larger than life” as they appear to be – both physically or in any other way – and in terms of part c. – human beings are often much more comfortable if we can blame a person or an institution for something we didn’t want to happen instead of blaming ourselves, life or the fickle finger of fate more commonly known as bad luck.

But as for part a. —  I’m still trying to figure that out, though I’m much closer to the answer than I was in 1982 – a time when I was sure I’d be spending the rest of my life with the music industry person I was dating whose personal history did not include one long term (or even short term) happy relationship. What was I thinking?   Hell if I know.  (Though if you really think about it you probably can guess).

But what John Lennon knew at that time and probably before most of the rest of us did, is that starting over is a way of life – a state of being – something indigenous to the human condition, and often to the sometimes inhuman condition, known as show business.

This week a student who was about to graduate college and venture out into the world for the first time without the safety net of academia came to me fairly terrified and only a little excited about the prospects that lie ahead.

“I feel like it’s going to be like starting college all over again, only different and scarier,” said the student while trying not to fidget.

“It is,” I answered, all smiley and knowledgeable, “except instead of paying with money you’ll pay in a lot other ways.”

Okay, I didn’t say that last part because I’m not that cynical and I try to be encouraging in the same way I like to think John Lennon would be.  But part of taking on any new project; stretching yourself to try or be anything you never were before; or even reinventing that which is already there, means a change in strategy.  It means looking at it with fresh eyes.  It means pulling out a blank slate and pretending you’re brand new at it.  Or – if you’ve never, ever done it before – it’s asking yourself the basic questions that all aspiring people, especially creative ones, need to ask.  What is my goal (nee objective) and what is the best, though not necessarily fastest, way to get there?

the evidence of hard work

This question is at the core of teaching in the arts.  As a screenwriting teacher it often comes down to what does your hero want; what are the obstacles in his or her way; and in the end, does he or she get it or don’t they get it?  Really good actors know that they’re reading a really good part in a play, movie or TV show if their character is actually DOING something about GETTING something, rather than just thinking about it, and that even though this thing they’re after might be difficult or near impossible to get, what the audience will be mesmerized by is the journey that this actor will personify.  They know, as do writers, that what’s really interesting is not so much the ending but the struggle to get there.  If something is too easy to get then it’s not worth watching.  If the goal is not worth pursuing or not particularly mesmerizing (which doesn’t mean it has to be lofty), then why are we wasting our time anyway?  And what all writers and all actors need in order to make the goal, the obstacles and the ending convincing is -– drum roll –  you guessed it – a beginning.

give yourself the green ight

The actor and writer always need to start somewhere in order to do their jobs.  It’s the question every creative person must take on and forge through in the fictional world of the “story.”  And just as each new story starts at some point so do the many and various cycles of our lives.

Certainly, this territory has been covered before in numerous:

  • a  Self-help books
  • b. Oprah episodes
  • c. Places of worship and
  • d. Psychiatrist’s couches across the country.

But for some reason it’s easy to forget this simplest of facts when dealing in our real lives.  It’s normal to be uneasy when you’ve never done it or lived there before but it also has the potential to be more exciting than anything you’ve ever experienced.  (Note:  I believe this applies to every situation except death and bungee jumping).

  • Start a new job?  Oh God, what if it sucks?  Or worse yet, if I suck?
  • Begin a new relationship?  I’m getting nauseous at the idea of letting one more person in my inner circle who is going to screw me over unless, well…they really know how to scr…I mean, fit into my inner circle.
  • I can’t move to a new _______, begin a new __________, or even venture into another ________    _________ without some kind of assurance that I won’t be met with failure, hurt or disappointment once again.

Well, as Samuel Beckett once advised, “Fail.  Fail better.”  Or as an acting teacher once proclaimed to me, “do you know what FAMOUS MALE MOVIE STAR and FAMOUS FEMALE MOVIE STAR had in common?  They BOTH loved to audition.”  On this last point, I didn’t believe it about the movie stars either but I have since had it confirmed by several sources so I’m fairly confident that it’s true.

Long before he co-created “The Simpsons” but long after he created the seminal 1970s TV situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” James L. Brooks wrote the screenplay for a film called — wait for it —  “Starting Over.”  It was a sort of comedy/drama about a divorced man who falls in love but somehow can’t get over his ex-wife.  Candace Bergen, who up to that point was consistently cast as the beautiful but not terribly three-dimension female heroine in various films, played the unforgettable, somewhat twisted ex-wife and it was with one specific moment of reinvention that she redefined herself as a comic actress, the kind she will forever be known for, like in the hit series “Murphy Brown.” But before “Murphy Brown” there was —

No one had ever seen Bergen like this – foolish, off tune, and, when it came down to it, real and funny because she was bold enough to play a crazed ex-wife as…well… kind of crazy.  By all accounts it could have been pretty crazy career-wise…

As crazy as it probably seemed to many a decade later for someone with the pedigree of James L. Brooks (who had since become a double Oscar winner for writing and directing a little film called “Terms of Endearment”) to spend his time co-creating a TV cartoon series that started as a sort of throw away segment on an early half hour Fox comedy series called “The Tracy Ullman Show.”  Something three generations of college kids (and counting) have grown up on called – “The Simpsons.”

And he’s got a sense of humor to boot…

That’s high class starting over but in no way imagine that on some level it wasn’t the same blank page or screen or new life chapter we all face many times over.  When you begin you don’t know what your “Simpsons-like” ending will be – or if you’ll even come close to having one.  All you know is the blankness of the beginning and that you’re scared shitless.

To put it another way – and as crazy as it might seem — sometimes the secrets of life can be simplified to a half century old voiceover from an old 1960’s TV show like “Star Trek.”

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I’m no Trekkie but those are, I think, our marching orders.  Over and over again.  However, if you do run into any tribbles, it’s probably best to not say hello and just keep walking.