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


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Sunday and Monday

May 27th, 2019
  • Having decided — again — that the play I was working on had been best served in its one-act version, i.e., that it should not become a full-length version, this decision being made after many months and endless pages of struggle to turn it into said full-length version, a version that I was having trouble believing one bit of, I turned back to a play I started this time last year, in the hopes that it would become my new full-length play. Fingers crossed.
  • Had some friends over last night from eight until midnight for drinks and cigars and snacks. Two of them are playwrights, one is an editor of TV shows and videos, and one is this universe’s foremost expert on “Star Trek.” We talked a lot about comic books and, naturally, “Stark Trek,” and a bit about theatre, and a surprising amount about Nancy Pelosi (impeachment now, yes or no?). I guess we’re all exhausted of talking about you-know-who in the White House.
    • When the subject of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination came up, I said that now that I’d watched all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones,” I had a new outlook. “Almost nothing that happened in the first seven seasons mattered in the end,” I said, “and the Democratic nomination is like that. I don’t need to tune in until next June.” One of the playwright friends said, “Yeah, backing one of the candidates now is like being all-in for Robb Stark.”
  • Started reading The Terror last night after midnight (okay, this morning). This is why I mostly don’t see movies or TV shows on books I’ve read or am going to read — it’s impossible to get the actors out of your head. I didn’t see the film version of “Anna Karenina,” but nevertheless Alfred Molina is now connected in my mind with that book, which was the most compelling novel I’ve ever read. Same with The Terror; even five pages in, it was difficult not to “see” Jared Harris on the page.
    • I also had an extremely sinister and upsetting dream — one in which I manage to evade some sort of creatures in a post-apocalyptic setting, but wind up running into a real-life person from my real life, someone I have studiously avoided for a long time now, and was forced to work with that person. Compared to my nightmares — in this case, the nightmare of being forced to work with this person again — no horror novel can compete.
  • This morning when I woke up I vowed to finally do something about the ever-running toilet in the master bathroom that had to be manually jiggered in order to stop running water. So I went and bought the part at  DoIt Center (yes, yes, it’s been renamed D.I.Y. Center, but in my household it’s still called “doit,” pronounced to rhyme with the first part of “soitently!”). Back home, it took about 20 minutes to fix. Well worth the eight weeks I put that off.
  • My son left for an overnight camping trip, and our other two children are already out of the house, and my wife works nights, so at one point the two dogs and I looked at each other like the last survivors on a life raft. They mostly prefer the other people and weren’t sure what to make of it being just us.
    • But given that they know I can still open the refrigerator door, they remain hopeful and attentive.
  • I was cautious in announcing any triumph in fixing that toilet, lest I get assigned any further duties. Proud of my strategy in delaying so long!
  • Washed some dishes. Not all of them from last night! — not the cocktail glasses or the rocks glasses or half of the snack bowls and plates — but enough to be seen doing it. Should get me through for now.
  • Now I’m sitting out back surrounded by loudly chirping birds oblivious to all the bad news in this morning’s paper, and I’m prepping another cigar, with hope in the air regarding this new play, a play based on an obscure, rarely named and somewhat disreputable philosophical condition. Fingers still crossed. I’ve cleverly entitled it “New Play.” (Might change that later.)

Expertise actually matters

May 24th, 2019

When you’re an historian, or present yourself as one, it’s expected that you know what you’re talking about. But it turns out that Naomi Wolf’s new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, is premised on her misunderstanding of a Victorian term.

Not only that — but Wolf learns of her mistake live, on-air, during a radio interview.

OUCH.

 

Up in a tree

May 24th, 2019

Treehouse

The phrase above means “in a difficult situation without escape; cornered.” Which evidently makes it a perfect place to catch an apparent burglar who’s built himself a swanky tree house, complete with fire pit, barbecue, lighting, and the kind of view you have to have let Harvey Weinstein touch you to get.

You wouldn’t think an accused burglar would set up roost in such a labor-intensive and permanent sort of dwelling. But that’s just how dramatic our housing shortage is.

Non-participation trophy

May 22nd, 2019

One of the fun things I get to do is serve on the board of a foundation that does things like fund local charities and civic groups, benefit the environment and the arts and animals, and give scholarships to college students. For more than 10 years, I was on the other side of that table, running a non-profit theatre and working to get funding from different groups; as you can imagine, it’s a personal thrill to sit on the funding side and play a role in supporting worthy causes.

A few years ago, we made a sizable donation to the DNA lab that serves several city police departments in our area; that funding helped ensure that rape kits got processed and criminals apprehended. We supported lockers in the local homeless shelter so that people without homes could safely stow their possessions while out looking for work. And, as I said, we give about 75 college scholarships each year, and hold a nice annual event where the recipients and their parents can come pick up an award, get their photo taken, and get some pretty good advice from community mentors. A few years ago I wound up on stage at that event with a bunch of those awardees, all of them nicely suited and gowned — except for one young man, next to me, who stood out a little awkwardly in plain clothes. It didn’t take me long to get the sense that he didn’t have a suit — that what he was wearing might be about the extent of his wardrobe. That’s a moment I think of often.

Usually, my friend and colleague David emcees this event. David’s career has mostly been devoted to fundraising and scholarships, and he’s provided invaluable expertise on those subjects. A week or two ago, David, who lives in a neighboring state, broke his arm badly and was advised by his doctor not to fly, so the foundation’s CEO asked me if I would consider emceeing this event. (For four years in a row, I emceed our annual appreciation dinner, where the appreciation was all mine whenever someone would laugh at one of my jokes.) Most years, I can’t make it to this scholarship banquet, much as I’d like to go, because it directly conflicts with my playwriting workshop — but the workshop was on hiatus, I love seeing college kids get scholarships, another colleague I greatly respect was going to be the keynote speaker, and, well, don’t we all believe that if you can help out, you should? So I said yes. They sent me a draft of the script, I looked it over, and I started thinking about how I might salt some really great crowd-pleasing puns in there, the kind that have been delighting my kids for decades.

Then, the Saturday before the event, my office had a flood.

The fill valve in the upstairs toilet had broken the previous night, leaving the tank endlessly filling and overflowing, soaking the entire upstairs including the landing and my office, and then pouring through the vents into the downstairs, and flooding the kitchen, the hallway, the main floor, the sales office, the server room, all three storage closets, and both bathrooms, and burning out the electrical in those bathrooms. I opened the back door to see a rush of water flow from the floor outside to the parking lot, and waterfalls cascading through the vents in the ceiling.

It’s been a big cleanup, and lots of consultation with insurers and remediators, and also realtors as we look for a temporary place to move to while this is all addressed. Getting a good look at what this was going to entail, I sadly called the foundation and begged off on emceeing the event. And when I say “sadly,” I mean it — I was looking forward just to attending, let alone getting to say a few words and present some awards to deserving young people.

Today was our bimonthly board meeting for the foundation, and I got to hear how the scholarship banquet went a few days ago. From all reports, it went great, with a nice full house of awardees and their parents and other special guests. At one point during the discussion about the event, which I apologized again for having had to miss, the foundation’s CEO got up and I got the vague sense that she was standing behind me to my left. I didn’t know why — until she handed me a box containing this.

NonParticipationTrophy

Yes, it’s a beautiful little award — with a spinning globe! — acknowledging me by name for serving as master of ceremonies for our scholarship banquet in 2019… the very event I’d had to miss.

I swear to you, I tried to hand this back — but they pointed out that it’s engraved. I offered to have it remade with the name of the actual emcee (the CEO herself, who from all reports was a total winner) but got shot down. I did throw out some jokes — “Hey, I need to not show up more often!” — but they insisted I keep this award.

Later, I started mentally compiling a list of other undeserved recognitions given by august institutions. Here are just a few:

  • “Citizen Kane” losing Best Picture to “How Green Was My Valley”
  • Jethro Tull winning the Grammy for best metal band (???) over AC/DC and Metallica
  • Henry Kissinger getting the Nobel Peace Prize over actual peaceful people

Some years ago I was awarded a presidential service pin recognizing my community service. I’ve never displayed it or worn it, because the president in question was George W. Bush. When Obama was in office, I did consider taking it out and displaying it, figuring that people would draw their own (faulty) conclusion. Now, needless to say, I won’t be showing that pin anywhere for the foreseeable future.

But the beautiful little globe above with my name on the base? I’ll put that out for sure. I don’t deserve the award, but I’m proud to be associated with it.

 

The Dark Mite

May 21st, 2019

I’ve seen all of the Batman movies. This one is by far the most inventive.

Fred Willard 2 Night

May 20th, 2019
Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

 

Here at the headquarters of leewochner.com, we’re big fans of the comic actor Fred Willard, dating back to adolescence.  As an early and longtime fan, I just about passed out when Mr. Willard himself came to see a comedy of mine 20 years ago. He sat through it like an Easter Island statue, but then went around telling people it was the funniest play in town. (If only he’d told the right people. But anyway….) It’s difficult to express what a great tribute that was.

The first place I saw him was on Fernwood 2 Night, in 1977, a syndicated satire of small-town talk shows that was supremely important to the 15-year-old me because it was so utterly divorced from the overly slick and rampantly unfunny “normal” offerings on regular network television.  Its gimlet-eyed take on false glitz mirrored my own skepticism. Willard played Jerry Hubbard, a none-too-bright sidekick/announcer with a flair for the obvious, paired against the disdain of the host, Barth Gimble, played by the multifaceted Martin Mull. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the work of both men; I’ve got all of Martin Mull’s solo albums, and as for Fred Willard, I loved him in “Best of Show” and so many other things over the years, whether they were little guest appearances or sitcoms, or voiceover work on King of the Hill or wherever.

I used to know his wife, the playwright Mary Willard, in passing, and went to one of her plays in the 1990s at the Company of Angels Theatre, up the street from Moving Arts (which may have been why we were seeing each other’s work; that, plus our mutual membership in the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights). I had heard that she died last year, but hadn’t given it much thought. Then, somehow or other through social-media networks, a couple of weeks ago I came across a howlingly funny appearance by Fred Willard in a clip from The Jimmy Kimmel Show, a show I have generally found not-howlingly funny and have avoided like a traffic accident. Fred Willard was his usual deadpan self, and Jimmy Kimmel’s transparently radiant joy at having Fred Willard to work with lit up the entire bit.

All of this is by way of saying that I was delighted today to discover a piece in the LA Times about Fred Willard, and about his personal renaissance under Jimmy Kimmel. (Here’s a link to it.) Fred and Mary had been together 50 years, the piece says, and when she died last year he was left unmoored and wondering if he felt like doing anything at all. Since pairing with Kimmel, they’ve done about 20 sketches together. I’ll have to hunt those down. It’s nice to know he’s still out there making people, including me, laugh.

The end Zone

May 19th, 2019

Does it make any sense to keep making “The Twilight Zone”? I asked myself this today after ruminating on the episode I’d watched at half past one this morning when I wasn’t tired enough to go to bed.

Having now watched three episodes of the latest revival, on CBS All Access, I can say that, so far at least, it hasn’t added up to much.

  • The first was about an unfunny comedian who made a classic deal with the devil that ended badly. Two big problems with this:  it wasn’t enough to write the comedian as unfunny; no, he was made out to be pathologically unfunny — less funny than dental surgery. When you go to that length to make your point, you’re already off track. The lesser problem was that the episode led up to a twist ending, and that twist ending was one anyone could have guessed about seven minutes in. When you’re relying on a twist ending, the surprise had better be there. (Paging M. Night Shyamalan.)
  • The second was a remake of the classic episode where William Shatner is an airplane passenger tormented by the sight of a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Unfortunately, the fun part — the gremlin — was reduced to a toy that later washed up on shore and, again, the twist was apparent. So apparent that I just assumed it was a given.
  • The final one concerned five astronauts prepped for the first takeoff to Mars — who, while they’re on the launchpad and ready to go, hear that the world has had a devastating exchange of nuclear warheads. Should they complete the mission — or sit on the launchpad for 30 minutes, awaiting the nuclear strike? This one worked really well — until the very last moment, and an unsatisfying twist ending.

What’s the common problem? The twist ending. Which begs the question, Why all the focus on a twist ending? Is the device intrinsic to “The Twilight Zone”? Is it not “The Twilight Zone” if there’s no twist ending?

There’s been an endless supply of “Twilight Zone” remakes and remodels, including the original series, the 1980s series, the 2002-2003 series, the current series, the radio dramas, the comic books, the movie, the stage productions, the book of short stories, the magazine, and even the theme-park attraction. Clearly, the original version captured the imagination of the American public, and the brand identity has kept some value over the years. But if it all comes down to a twist ending that may or may not work (and generally doesn’t, any more), maybe this property isn’t too relevant any more.

But… shouldn’t it be more relevant now? Given that the news every day seems drawn from “The Twilight Zone?” Given that every announcement seems drawn from a space “between science and superstition”?

Usually, the original “Zone” did more than rely on a twist ending:  frequently, it gave us a morality tale. Why kill your fellow man to enrich yourself with gold, one episode asked, when gold intrinsically has no value? Does your insistence on a personal definition of beauty hold any meaning in a land of monsters? Are the monsters on Maple Street real — or, by imagining the worst, have you created them and become one yourself?

I was intrigued when this latest reboot, with Jordan Peele as executive producer, was announced. With “Get Out,” Peele revealed himself as someone capably equipped to represent the heritage of the series, “Get Out” being an ironic morality tale with more than one twist. The Mars-mission episode hooked me and truly worried me — I have to admit, until recently I’d grown passe about the threat of nuclear war — until, mid-episode, I became very aware that I was being manipulated with false frights and then, of course, the de rigueur twist ending.

If you’re looking for true, nail-biting, hair-on-end thrills, HBO’s docudrama “Chernobyl” is the show to watch. The twist ending? Somehow we managed to survive.

The final episode

May 19th, 2019

Tonight’s the last episode, and I’m eager to see what happens. Some other people have complained about the writing — that it wasn’t faithful; that it wasn’t what they expected; more likely that it wasn’t what they wanted — but I’ve found it harrowing throughout. The mad determination for seemingly righteous justice, and the actual injustice that results from that, is cruelly ironic, and an everlasting human theme — especially when it plays out against the backdrop of doomed love affairs. These six episodes have completely captured me, and I’m grateful for the reminder that while large events play out it’s always the people in the streets who suffer most.

So, thank you, for entertaining me, enlightening me, and utterly captivating me with the depth of your humanity…

… “Les Miserables.”

p.s. I hear some other drama comes to an end tonight as well.

The best show on TV

May 5th, 2019

What’s the best show on TV?

I don’t know, and neither do you, for two simple reasons:  We haven’t watched all the shows, and even if we somehow could (an impossibility, given the 500 shows in regular production), you have your tastes and I have mine.

But:  What might be the most moving show, the one that most seems to fit the concerns of right now? It might be “Les Miserables,” currently wrapping up a run on PBS.

It’s an outstanding production, one that doesn’t skimp on the horrors of early 19th century France, the Revolution now faded and forgotten, and the commoners filled with despair while that era’s 1% japes at their misery. While I watch “Game of Thrones” for entertainment, I don’t really care who sits on that iron throne — if anyone — but somehow I’m deeply invested in the equally fictional Jean Valjean and his determination to stay a good man in the face of cruel injustice masquerading as what’s good and right.

I haven’t read the novel, and I never may, but the first four episodes of this television adaptation have been absolutely riveting; the final two play out over the next two weeks. If you need to catch up, all the episodes are available here.

 

Lasting impact

April 14th, 2019

 

ScrewIranColoringBook

You see above you the legendary “Screw Iran Coloring Book,” written and published by me and my then-business partner, in 1980. Back in 2007 on this blog, I shared the story of how this came to be created (you can read it again here) and how we were unable to sell it at the time.  Since then, the thing was listed in The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, has somehow wound up in the collection of the Michigan State University libraries, gotten identified  as a “Head Comix” (which it isn’t), and is the subject of periodic unsolicited emails and phone calls that I get from strangers asking if they can buy a copy — which they haven’t been able to do for almost 40 years.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, I found some of them. Actually, while looking up in the “Anne Frank Room” (my wife’s name for a hidden storage space in our house) for something else, my 16-year-old came across them and asked me what they were. I had him bring them down, I held onto the four above, and I contacted the people on my decades-long wait list to see if they still wanted them. They did — and so yesterday I started shipping them out.

My wife Valorie’s immediate suggestion was to put them on eBay for $25 each. I told her that one of the people on the list, who’d waited more than 10 years for a copy, had already immediately sent me $25 via PayPal as soon as he got my email. That seemed like too much — I was just honored by the interest of people who wanted it — but he insisted on sending it. (And I’ll tell you in a minute what I spent that on.)

I’ve got those four copies above remaining. If you don’t already have one coming to you via express mail from me, and really really really want one because you just can’t get enough of the chuckles sure to be brought to you by this 40-year-old hostage drama, let me know — I might part with another one or two. Side note:  the art by Rich Mayone, whom I’m back in touch with via Facebook, really holds up; I think his Jimmy Carter (seen on the back cover above) is lightyears better than Neal Adams’ version in that artist’s Jimmy Carter coloring book from the same period.

So, what did I spend that 25 bucks on?

JamesWarrenBioTwo weeks ago, I finished reading the new biography of comics publisher James Warren, written by Bill Schelly. (You can learn more about that book here.) I was interested in the Warren biography because I’m always interested in the business aspect of the arts (being an artist who is also a businessman), and because as a teen I had read my share of Creepy and Eerie, and had lusted over the horror- and comics-related merchandise I couldn’t afford in the back of my neighbor Donny’s copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The book was just about unputdownable for me, partly because of Warren’s story (determined climb from poverty and obscurity to publishing success; major setbacks; big rebuilding; then a final bankruptcy and the mystery of what had happened to Warren, and why he hadn’t even tried to save his company), and partly because so many people I’ve known in my life were name-checked:  comics conventioneer and distributorPhil Seuling, artist/writer Walt Simonson, Famous Monsters editor Forrest Ackerman (upon moving to Los Angeles in 1988, I want to the Ackermansion and spent the morning with him), writer Don McGregor, and many others… including Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad (both the comic book and the magazine) and of Help!, an influential humor publication published by James Warren and that, legend has it, led to the naming of the Beatles’ second movie.

In the 1980s, I did a fair amount of writing for The Comics Journal, including reviews and essays, and, when they assigned them, interviews. For the magazine’s landmark 100th issue, I was assigned five interviews, and one of them was with Harvey Kurtzman. The last time I took a look at that interview was 12 years ago — because I found it reprinted, without my permission and without any payment or even notification, by Fantagraphics Books in a big oversize book of theirs about Kurtzman. I alerted my attorney, who sent them a demand letter, we got back a letter from their attorney, and there was a settlement — which included a copy of that book and, finally, more than 20 years after publication, a copy of the printed edition of something else I’d written for them and had been asking for a copy of ever since (as they had promised).

As I was reading the Schelly biography of James Warren, and noting the references to Kurtzman, and then noting that the publisher was Fantagraphics, and then learning on Wikipedia that Schelly had also written a biography of Kurtzman himself, I got a strange feeling, one that Google confirmed.

Yep. I’m listed three times in the index of the Kurtzman biography.

So I spent the 25 bucks, plus a little more, on ordering that. I used the money from a 39-year-old writing and publishing project of mine to get a copy of a book referencing another three-decade-old writing project of mine.

In my life, I’ve written filing cabinets full of stuff:  plays, essays, book reviews, short stories, news stories, interviews, opinion pieces, and lots of corporate writing. At this point, it’s clear what will last:  the stuff related to genre. The books that have survived the millennia are those that were most cherished by adherents; monks fleeing fires or infidels grabbed what they thought was most important. Well, nobody loves their stuff more than fan boys. My good friend Larry Nemecek is this universe’s foremost expert on Star Trek; he’s a bestselling author and international lecturer on the topic. Given my own experience in my little corner of the comics world, where people will wait decades to lay hands on an obscure underground coloring book, or will endlessly reprint a brief, bad interview of a major comics figure conducted by a callow youth, I now believe that of all the well-known people I’ve known in my life, Larry will be the one with the most lasting impact. His maps of the Star Trek universe, and his many years of magazine coverage of every rivet and bolt on all the various incarnations of the Enterprise, will live on and on. As will, I hope, my writing about comic books.