Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Great stories in vice-presidential-candidate history, #1

August 13th, 2020

In 2016, when Kamala Harris was a Senate candidate and I was a state delegate with an endorsement vote in the California Democratic Party, her campaign invited me repeatedly to meet with her. They called me, they emailed me, they wrote to me, and they texted me. Repeatedly. Obstinate as ever, I refused to meet with her — just because I didn’t want to. I didn’t have anything against her; just didn’t want to, and didn’t appreciate the repeated invitations after I’d said, politely at first, no.

And so, I’m probably the only Democrat in the past five years in California politics who doesn’t have a photo with her. (It’s nice to be known for something.)

I have met at least one other vice-presidential candidate, though.

In 1988, my wife and our two roommates and I were fresh transports to Burbank from southern New Jersey. We were thrilled that Lloyd Bentsen, the courtly Texas senator who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate that year, under Michael Dukakis, was going to land at Burbank Airport — so close to our apartment! We liked Lloyd (far more than Dukakis), and were eager to meet him. One of the roommates and I hustled over there early, and I got right up at the front of the assembled crowd on the tarmac, against the rope line. When Bentsen descended from the plane, and started to work the line, right as he was coming across to where I was, the crowd surged forward, and as I stretched out my right hand to shake hands with him, my left hand, thrust forward by the crush of people, wound up firmly cupped and pressed over the entirety of his male apparatus. We locked eyes in a moment of recognition about the special moment we were sharing, his left eye twitched faintly and he moved on down the line.

When my roommate and I got back to our apartment, the other roommate, a young woman, asked, “Well, how was he?”

I replied, “Hung like a horse.”


July 28th, 2020

A couple of days ago, a group of doctors calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” made a number of what appear to be inaccurate claims about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Here’s a link to Politifact’s debunking of those claims. Setting aside why someone should trust a primary care physician and minister who has previously discoursed on alien DNA and demon sperm, one might wonder why we would gravitate to opinions from a small clutch of doctors in Texas as opposed to those of, say, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and an epidemiologist named Anthony Fauci with 50 years of acknowledged expertise in the field.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. Part of me thinks that if you want to take Hydroxychloroquine to prove Dr. Fauci and, well, me wrong — then have at it. I actually hope you’re right. I would love for you to be right. I just hope that if you’re trying this experiment you’re not someone I actually care about, because in that instance I sure as Hell don’t want to be right.

No, what I want to talk about is the uproar over Facebook and Twitter removing videos exhorting the claims of “America’s Frontline Doctors.” These social media giants are doing that because they believe the video is essentially an exhortation to suicide, and I guess for some reason, this morning Facebook got a good look at itself in the mirror and didn’t like what it saw. And so it and Twitter are shutting down the video wherever it pops up on their sites in a frenzied game of Whac-a-mole.

Which presents a problem for them. A problem of exposure.

Facebook (like Twitter, I believe) says their site is a platform and not a publisher; a platform merely hosts content for others, while a publisher necessarily adjudicates the relative merit of the content it publishes and therefore runs the risk of liability. If, say, the journal Nature publishes a scientific article, that’s because the editors and publisher of Nature believe it to be true. That applies to the Wall Street Journal, and CBS News, and the people behind OAN probably have talked themselves into believing it too. And so, in trying to take an active role now in adjudicating content, Facebook is blurring the line, leaving us wondering just what Facebook is. As we used to ask about Razzles when I was a kid, “Is it a candy? Or is it a gum?”

I’ll be interested to see where this goes. 2016 made it very clear that social media platforms have too much power, particularly in using algorithmic response to leverage mass action; in an earlier time, we would have broken them up already or regulated them. We went after comic books, for Pete’s sake, in the 1950s (with a House investigative committee), and we broke up Ma Bell when I was a kid, but Facebook and Twitter and, God help us, TikTok (which is a direct line to the Chinese government), are just doing whatever they like with no guiderails.

The Razzles controversy, you’ll be glad to know, was finally settled. Not just by me — at about age 8, I decided that it was a candy, because nobody should want to swallow gum! — but also by Tootsie Roll Inc. In weasely fashion, they’ve decided that “First it’s candy, then a gum!”

I expect a similar defense from Facebook and Twitter.

Not comical

July 27th, 2020

Last week, I did not feel great. Was, in fact, partially laid up here and there for days. Stomach virus? Or: was it weighing on me that Comic-Con was canceled?

To give you a sense of the role of Comic-Con in my life: I’ve been married to my wife only one year longer than I’ve been married to Comic-Con. Comic-Con and I have been an item since July, 1988; I got married the previous Halloween, so there’s not even a full year between these two anniversaries. Not celebrating the one felt wrong.

Oh, to be sure there was “Comic-Con @ Home,” in which the people behind the Con put together digital versions of what they could of the Con. And I give huge props to the very nice people who run Comic-Con for making the effort. Untold millions of people who’d wanted to attend for years and years (and years) were finally able to get some semblance of Comic-Con (even though that semblance essentially boiled down to watching prerecorded videos of people talking about comic books and, I guess, other, lesser, pop culture).

I too partook.

  1. I watched a panel covering the debate over who deserves what credit for the Marvel Age of Comics, Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. (On which panel former Marvel editor Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Stan, said the intellectual property was jointly created, but the brand was all Stan. He gets points from me re the brand statement — the way covers were designed and written with blurbs seemingly ripped from the sort of movie posters young people couldn’t resist in the 1960s, and the way the urgent, melodramatic dialogue separated the entire line from, say, the assembly line monotony of Justice League of America dialogue, in which every character, whether Batman or Wonder Woman, had all the personality of See Spot Run, Run Run Run — but re the IP, i.e., the characters and storylines, I’d have to point out that Kirby did that for decades before Stan, and also for decades after Stan, and Stan was part of that only with Kirby. Kirby invented whole genres of comics that are now generating billions of dollars of revenue, while Stan was succeeding mostly at promotion.)
  2. I started watching a panel on the recently deceased Denny O’Neil, one of the most influential comics writers. I knew Denny when I was much younger (as I wrote about here), and although I knew he wasn’t well these past few years, his death still felt like a shock, like another part of my own history slipping away. (One advantage of Comic-Con @ Home: I can watch the rest later.)
  3. And I completely loved the latest iteration of Scott Shaw!’s “Oddball Comics” slideshow. I’ve seen this presentation of the strangest, wackiest, lewdest, most just-plain wrong comics almost every year for 30 years, and can testify that this year was the best presentation ever. (Here, judge for yourself.)

But what made that so completely hilarious? Yes — Scott’s clever deadpan narration. And all the new books slotted in this year. But also: I was a little down in the dumps about not having a physical Comic-Con to go to — and so enlisted my friends Paul and Joe, who also love Scott’s show, and the three of us watched it at the same time and group-texted throughout. So: For those 80 minutes at least we had a more vibrant simulacrum of Comic-Con.

Because without driving down in a vehicle stuffed with friends and suitcases, and a suite we’d all be staying in, and cigars, and drinks and poker in the room, and meals around San Diego, and laughing our fool asses off for five days… it just wasn’t Comic-Con. I congratulate the Comic-Con organizers for making their best attempt, and they accomplished a lot, and a lot of people, including me, are grateful. Moreover, they made the entire affair free.

But it wasn’t Comic-Con.

The other thing I missed about the Comic-Con that wasn’t? Getting to spend hours pawing through thousands of glorious moldering old comic books. So I decided to pull out 15 of my own long boxes (about a third of my collection — er, “investment,” in case my wife reads this) and “reorganize” them.

Which not only made me feel physically better — but enabled me to make a list of the comics I’m going to look for at the 2021 Comic-Con. In person.

Actual Comic-Con at Home

Breaking with tradition

July 22nd, 2020

Any other year, I and between three and eight pals would now be tumbling out of a tightly packed minivan and into Comic-Con down in San Diego. But, this isn’t just any year. No, this is the year of the pandemic, when the Con is virtual (and, let’s face it, not really “the Con”) and I’m posting this blog from my bedroom. Insert sad-face here.

It is nice to see, though, that the convention center is missing us, too. Comic-Con has been held at the “new” convention center since 1991, so my relationship with the Con, which I started attending annually in 1988 predates that of the convention center. I hope we’re just taking a breather here and this isn’t the end of the relationship. I gather that the convention center feels the same way — hence this video.

Yes, I’ll attend some virtual panels. (At the very least, Scott Shaw!’s Oddball Comics presentation, tomorrow at noon.) And I recognize, in all fairness, that at least this year all eleventy billion people who’d like to go to the Con can finally get in. And although I can’t paw through hundreds of thousands of delicious decades-old comic-books at the Con, I did receive a couple dozen in the mail today courtesy of my pursuits on eBay. But what about poker parties in our hotel room? The virtual Con has no way to make up for that annual tradition!

What’s next

July 19th, 2020

This weekend, as with most weekends recently, has been consumed with straightening up my comic-book collection and working on my new play. I’m slowly running out of thousands of old comic books that still need to be paired with nice plastic bags and boards and carefully slid into comics storage boxes, and I also may finally be running out of ways to rewrite the same 119 pages, at least in a way that theoretically improves upon them. I’ve already got more delicious rotting old comic books on their way to my house, courtesy of eBay and Mercari, and at some point I suppose this play will be done.

This morning I had a very nice surprise on the weekly Pere Ubu live show on Patreon when the band’s manager, the smart and very talented Kiersty Boon, sang me happy birthday, which even earned a nod from David Thomas. Again, a nice surprise. If you’re not on the Ubu Patreon platform yet, you’re going to want to watch that and much here, so here’s the link. Earlier in the week, I had posted on Facebook that all I wanted for my birthday was a new-new Pere Ubu album (a new one having just come out a month or so ago), at which a fellow fan and friend remonstrated, “Oi, Lee! You’re such a greedy boy!” But on the show, Kiersty and David announced that there is now indeed a new-new Pere Ubu album available for download, proving yet again that when you want something, you should put that want out into the universe in order for it to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had wanted Donald Trump out of office for my birthday.

While doing my self-appointed chores today (laundry; work on play; straighten up more comics; complete the online Sudoku Mega; pick more avocados from our tree for my wife to barter at work), I still found time to take on a bunch of objectivists, libertarians and crackpots on the Facebook page dedicated to the late Steve Ditko, best known as co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and as an acolyte of Ayn Rand. The thread started when someone posted a lunkhead op-ed claiming that the nation had met its ruin because we weren’t adhering to the most extreme sort of religious evangelism, and equating protesters with rioters (never mind that the nation was founded protesters who rioted, and that most of us who have protested several times in our lives have never once rioted). When, finally, after much back-and-forth between myself and several other people posting, the original author admitted that he’d never even read the thing he linked to, for which he then got eviscerated by others, I declared victory and left the discussion. But not before one of the commenters assured us all that if he were in charge, this rebellion would be put down fast! I offered that Google could provide driving directions, should he gather the momentum, and that in the meantime he should beware paper cuts while reading those old comics.

Whenever I finish a TV show or movie or book, I get an email from Netflix or Goodreads asking me “What’s next?” Y’know what, guys? When I know, you’ll know. Let’s just leave it at that. Especially in 2020, no one knows what’s next.

Last night’s minor accomplishment

July 1st, 2020

Last night, playing “The Last of Us Part 2,” I had only 3 bullets and no health packs left, but was able to take out 5 paramilitary, 3 runners and 2 clickers. Pretty good, right?!?!?! Went to bed pretty proud of myself.

These days, we’ll take these accomplishments where we can get them.

Carl Reiner, R.I.P.

June 30th, 2020

The obit just now in the New York Times for Carl Reiner details his many, many talents:  screenwriter, novelist, director, actor, comedian, political commentator, and probably a lot more.

What they don’t mention is what a great host Reiner could be.

As I wrote about here twelve years ago, I went to the memorial service for a guy I knew and liked, my writing professor Bill Idelson, only to discover that Carl Reiner would be the “emcee.” (Or whatever one calls someone who officiates a memorial service.) Of course it made sense in retrospect — Bill had been one of the writers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in addition to playing Herman Glimpsher, Rose Marie’s diminutive suitor on that show. (In an odd coincidence, about 20 years ago, I produced a play that featured Seemah Wilder, never realizing until he showed up that she was Bill Idelson’s wife. Yet another case of “everybody knows everybody.”) I wrote about Bill’s (highly entertaining) memorial service here.

In the years since, I’ve been following Carl Reiner on Twitter; he’s been amusing at times, and certainly life-affirming (he’s got a new book coming out, posthumously now, completed at age 98), and certainly livid about the current occupant of the White House.

But now I’m left wondering:  Who will they get to host Carl Reiner’s memorial service? Who could possibly live up to that standard? The only other Renaissance entertainer I can think of is Steve Martin.

Today’s awful insight

June 29th, 2020

If Trump drops out, we run the risk of Pence winning and the Dems losing the Senate.

If Trump stays in, we run the risk that he actually wins.

This is like the worst episode ever of “Deal or No Deal.”

Joe Sinnott, R.I.P.

June 25th, 2020

I was sad to learn this morning that Joe Sinnott had died. He was 93, and that’s a reasonable amount of time for anyone, but he touched my young life and left a lasting impression, not just as the premier inker on “Fantastic Four,” but also in my one personal encounter with him.

When I was 11, I met both Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott at the same table at Phil Seuling’s comics convention in NYC. I told that story near the bottom of this longish blog post three years ago, and how awed I was to meet Kirby — and how very kind Mr. Sinnott was to me. 

This was one of the most meaningful encounters of my life — the only time in my life I’ve been awed in anyone’s presence, matched with a moment of incredible kindness and attentiveness from his artistic partner. These guys were heroes to the men my age who were boys back then.

Later, I’ll update this post with the sketch Mr. Sinnott did for me.

Snappy answers to a stupid question

June 16th, 2020

Just now, I said to my wife, “Okay, I’ve got a call tomorrow night at 6, then we can do the grocery shopping.”

Her:  “What do we need to do the grocery shopping for?”

She starts to list all the food we have. At some point, I break in with, “We’re out of bread.”

She asks, “What are you going to use bread for?”

And that’s when I channel Mad magazine‘s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” It’s just hard to undo all that adolescent training.

  • “What was I going to use bread for? Oh, make a sculpture.”
  • “Fill my gas tank with it.”
  • “Patch a hole in the wall.”
  • “Attach strings and wear it as a mask.”

Finally, laughing, she says, “Okay, okay, that’s not what I meant. I mean, what do you need it for?”

I look at her crosseyed, because that’s the same question.

Finally, I explain to her that, yes, I am a bread eater. I admit it — I am someone who eats bread. She has somehow missed this over the past three decades, but it’s true and there’s no use hiding it. I am a consumer of bread.

Not only that, I eat bread in many different ways. Sometimes I will toast it and then put a spread on it of, say, butter or preserves — or both! Other times I will stick meat and/or cheese between two pieces of it, and may add mustard or some other condiment. I have been known to slide bread under an egg and eat it that way. Occasionally I will even stick bread into the oven with butter and garlic powder atop it, bake it for a little while, and then eat it that way. I’m sure there are many more ways that I eat bread.

“Okay,” she says. “We can go grocery shopping if you want to.”

“I don’t want to,” I say. “But we’re out of some things — including the bread.”

And then she tells me what else I could have instead of the bread. Evidently, we’re well-stocked on bread substitutes. Like, somehow, rice counts.