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


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Critical response

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Tonight, my wife Valorie and I went to our friend Amy’s 50th birthday party at a club in Sherman Oaks.  Because our lives have been intersecting for more than 15 years, Amy and her husband Ross and Valorie and I have a lot of friends in common.

Still, there were some people there I didn’t know. One guy, Bill, asked how I knew Amy and Ross, and I explained that Amy is my business partner. I’ve also done a lot of theatre with Ross, who is a fine actor and director, but I didn’t go into that because the club was loud and it was a chore to have a conversation.

Bill said he’d known Ross for a long time, ever since they lived next to each other 32 years ago. Then he ventured that he saw Ross in “Cabaret” some years ago, and laughed at the memory, then added that he saw Ross in a show he did last year “across from Paramount.”

“Oh, what show was that?”

“I don’t know. Something with three people,” he said.

I remembered this play. It was called “Triptych.”

“How was it?” I asked.

“Not good. But you couldn’t blame Ross. It was the script.”

I didn’t tell Bill that I too had seen that play.

Because I wrote it.

Assorted good news

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

We’ve all heard the bad news. Occasionally, I like to share some good news here in a vain attempt to balance it out. Here goes.

  • Last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles fined almost 500 not-disabled people for using parking placards reserved for disabled people. Those who were caught had their disabled parking placards taken away and now face fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. This makes me absolutely delighted. My late brother-in-law was in a wheelchair his entire life, my mother now occasionally uses one, my brother is fighting Parkinson’s and has difficulty walking, and I have several friends in wheelchairs.  That’s who those placards — and parking spaces! — are reserved for. They’re not meant for people who just want to park a little closer while they run in to buy coffee — they’re meant for people who face real challenges getting into and out of vehicles and need to park closer and in wider spaces. I wish the DMV great success in finding and fining even more of these thieves.
  • On a personal note, my new play is moving along nicely. I knew you were wondering. Plus, my back is, well, back to fully functioning.
  • Earlier this week, the great band Devo was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While this is not as momentous as if the even more revolutionary and distinctive band Pere Ubu had been nominated, this is still well-deserved, and I rejoice in their nomination. Their rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” remains the superior version, far outclassing the first version, by those Rolling fellows. I hope they get inducted and only wish that Bob 2 had lived to see it, but I’m glad I got to see him and the rest of the band while he was still around.
  • Incredibly, another band high on my list was nominated at the same time. I have every Roxy Music album and listen to them endlessly. Ditto for Bryan Ferry’s solo disks — every one of them, except that one where he covered his own songs in a precious 1920’s style (no thanks); I’ve also got five or eight of Brian Eno’s albums and one of Phil Manzanera’s. The later Roxy Music albums are filled with beautiful yearning; the early Roxy Music albums are raucous and twisted, stuffed with songs that started fake dance crazes,  proselytized the delights of anonymous post-midnight pickups, and pledged love to a blow-up doll. When you can deliver an anthem built around lyrics like “Plain wrapper baby, your skin is like vinyl … deluxe and delightful, inflatable doll,” you deserve to be in a hall of fame.

So: There. It’s not all bad in the world.

Surveying my health

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

For four days last week, I was in the Mojave desert, parched, wandering, and bedraggled. The Mojave may have changed somewhat over the past hundred years, but in other ways it remains every bit as treacherous as ever. Luckily, in my travels there, I was able to find friendly watering holes when necessary, as well as the rejuvenation I desperately needed.

At a watering hole in the desert.

At a watering hole in the desert.

On Friday, freshly returned and physically replenished, and with a full day’s reacclimatization to the pleasant climes of Los Angeles, I opened my mail to find that someone had sent me a crisp two-dollar bill. The letter that came with it explained that I was free to keep the two dollars (as though they could have gotten it back from me!), but that the senders hoped I’d agree to participate in a health survey with the goal of better understanding the health needs of Californians and how to provide better care. I read the fine print to see who was behind this survey, and recognizing all the affiliated organizations as being in no way associated with Donald Trump or the Grand Ol’ Trump party or others who are hellbent on better understanding how to reduce the health of Californians, I decided to participate.

My reasons were several:

  1. Again, trying to be a good sport
  2. Hoping it’s in some way a middle finger to Trump and his co-conspirators
  3. I trust UCLA, who is conducting the survey, and I know people at First 5, which is one of the other organizations
  4. I actually had nothing scheduled for that half hour
  5. I was curious to hear what the questions would be and how I’d respond. Just participating, I figured, would give me a clue as to how I rank

What was not one of the reasons? The $2. Except for some poor unfortunate sleeping out on the sidewalk, I couldn’t imagine anyone exchanging half an hour of time, as warned in the letter, for two bucks. So… why send it? Because hard currency in an unsolicited letter gets attention, that’s why.

So I called the number on the letter, and then the people on the other end called me back to verify it was me. The survey did indeed require 30 minutes and went without a snag. I answered some UCLA student’s questions completely truthfully, including how many times a week I get exercise (seven, because they were including walking), how frequently I eat fresh fruit (every day), do I ever vape (no), how many cigarettes I smoke (zero), if I didn’t smoke cigarettes then did I smoke cigars and how many per month (two or so), how much heroin I’ve ever used (zero), and whether I use prescription drugs such as oxycodone without actually having a prescription (I don’t), and when I had my last physical (6 months), and whether I’ve had blood work and a range of other tests (yep, as part of that physical), and so forth. They asked me everything except what I thought of the season finale of “Fear the Walking Dead,” which was truly awful and about which I would’ve liked to give them an earful. I got off the phone feeling incredibly fit and incredibly lucky.

The next morning I was still radiating peace and joy. I’d gotten out of that tricky out-of-state den of iniquity whole and healthy, and now I was back here eating my fruits and vegetables and being responsible and healthy and fit. Some of it is habit, sure, I reasoned, but a lot of it is also luck:  not being genetically at risk for the sorts of addictions that too many of my friends have had; not having (so far) been so unlucky as to have rolled snake eyes at the cancer table; having gotten hit at full speed and with high impact in a car crash on a freeway some years ago, yes, but having gotten out and walked away.

I was further savoring this moment in that next morning in my bathroom while brushing my teeth. I bent over the sink to rinse the toothpaste from my mouth, coughed — and threw out my back. I heard a *pop* and felt a harpoon of pain shoot up the lower right side of my spinal column. I grabbed onto the sink before I could fall over, felt my legs go weak, and steadied myself as the realization hit that I’d have to leave in five minutes to drive to Silver Lake to sit in a chair and teach my playwriting workshop for three-and-a-half hours… and then, after that, drive back.  I did make it, but almost all the rest of the weekend was spent lying in bed gobbling down Aleve, with the next day (today) being even more painful than the first.

Good thing it was on Friday night that I took the survey.

This episode, of lying about all weekend doing no writing, called to mind Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writing. Rule Number 5 is:  “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Yet again, Margaret Atwood is right about something.

So much writing (so little posting)

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

I wanted to get one last post in for September before ringing out the month, so this is that post.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing, just not a lot of posting.

Sometimes — frequently? generally? — I can do both. But lately I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my new full-length play, a play that I have been working on off-and-on for years, and what has helped me make real progress has been staying in the universe of that play. That means:  restricting my writing to being writing about that play. About those characters. About their overall situation. Even when I’m writing scenes and bits and pieces that I suspect won’t wind up in the play. So, in addition to the play itself, I’ve got a notebook full of scenes, and monologues, and notes, and other bits… and I think they’re adding up to something.

For most of my writing life, I’ve written more than one thing at the same time. Sometimes, I’m writing three plays at the same time. I’ve written my share of short stories, a couple of abandoned novels, dozens of terrible poems, innumerable essays and book reviews and blog posts and what-have-you, as well as about sixty plays of varying length and plenty of folderol and also lots and lots of advertising and marketing copy. I’m always writing something. So it’s been strange to restrict myself, as much as possible, to this play, but it’s a play I’ve wanted to finish for a while and I decided to make this change.

You know what else consumed some time? Well…. Last week I had promised to send a director friend the pages that I had so far. That means about 60 pages plus scattered notes and a general structure, with lines in the play that sometimes read “Scene 5. Missing.” or summations like “in this scene, X will do Y.” In other words, not a finished draft. I opened the file on my laptop to work on it and started to read it from front to back just to check that structure and see if it would be clear what was going on to someone unfamiliar with the project. When I saw what state it was in, I was alarmed:  What was this? It was a mess! I thought I had straightened all this out, and toned down the embarrassing lapse I had committed in presenting one of the characters as an obvious, unsympathetic, antagonist; not only was he clearly a two-dimensional villain, but things seemed to be in the wrong order everywhere. How had this happened? So I spent an entire evening two Fridays ago fixing all of that, smoothing out that supporting character and letting him have a fair point of view; moving scenes around; clarifying the general arc of the play; and then adding several pages of new copy over the course of the play. Satisfied, finally, I went to save it back onto the laptop into the directory where it should be…

And I found another version of the play, from earlier in the week, in that same directory.

And when I opened that version, I found that in that one, I had indeed fixed that character, and straightened out the arc of the play — and also had written eight new pages that now weren’t in this new draft. Which also had five pages of new copy.

So, in other words, somehow… I have been working on this play in two different drafts. Updating them both. Adding to them both.

Am I busy? Sure. Distracted sometimes? You bet. But I don’t think I have Alzheimer’s.

After that discovery, which as you can imagine was not a happy one, I spent further hours straightening all of that out, at least preliminarily, so I could send the pages to my director friend. When you find you’ve got two separate suits you’re tailoring and then realize that really they should be one unified piece, it takes some ripping and tearing and redesign to make that work.

My goal is to finish a good strong draft of this play by the end of this year, and then have a reading in January. I should be able to do that, so long as I don’t start working on a third version of it.

In the meantime, now that I’ve written all of that other stuff going on in it, I should feel more secure in that universe, and able to post here more frequently.

A better Comic-Con, and the usual Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

This year the San Diego Comic-Con, which I returned from early Monday morning, seemed better planned than ever:  Although the event was as sold-out as ever, with an estimated 150,000 people packing the convention center and environs, there was a remarkable easing of the crush that has been squeezing all the attendees. How do you accomplish getting just as many people, but alleviating the sort of throngs we’re used to seeing in big-budget zombie flicks? You start by moving to RFID badges and requiring that attendees scan in, and out, of every passageway — thus eliminating all the counterfeit badges that, evidently, had been turning up. You move more and more events into adjacent locales, such as the Hyatt and the Marriott and the downtown library, thereby splitting up the horde. Finally, you work with the city to get the main thoroughfare closed to vehicles, and you restrict the main sidewalk to people with badges, thereby creating easier and more orderly passage for everyone who is there for the convention.

All tolled, it’s truly impressive how well-managed and well-organized this event is.

Because it was so much better organized, I was able to get into every panel and event I wanted to attend. In the past 10 years, it’s more of a crapshoot:  How early should I line up to see if I can get in? (Thereby missing other potential panels because I was in line early for something else.) This year? No problem. The result is that I went to more panels than ever, learned a lot, and had an all-around terrific time sampling from the wide variety of very well-programmed offerings.

I might want to go into detail here about some of those offerings later, but in the meantime, given my recent post here about the recently deceased Harlan Ellison, I thought I’d say that I went to his hastily organized tribute at the convention. I do not mean to poke fun when I note that the moderator spent much of his time choking back tears over Harlan’s demise (while noting that Harlan “hated crying” and would strenuously object were he there), and then devoted the first 23 minutes to an extremely mopey video from Neil Gaiman on the subject of how much Harlan’s writing meant to him. I am less of a fan, and didn’t enjoy my encounters with Harlan Ellison, so, as they say, your mileage may vary. Before arriving, I had been tempted to go to the mic during the inevitable Q and A and point out that Harlan spent a lot of time deriding fans (a visit to YouTube will help you verify this), fans being precisely the sort of people who were now attending this little tribute panel. But when I found out that his widow was seated in the front row, I thought better of it. She put up with him for 30 years; why add to her misery now?

What I will do, though, is link to three recent posts about Harlan Ellison on Mark Evanier’s blog.

Here’s the first one, in which Harlan insinuates himself front and center into someone else’s lifetime achievement award.  It seems like Mark thinks this is cute; I think it’s self-centered and childish.

Here’s the second one, in which Harlan runs around naked in front of other people because he believes he’s written the best sentence ever.

Here’s the third one, in which Harlan blows up a simple misunderstanding into an incident in which he’s physically threatening to beat someone, and urging the crowd to assist him. In this one, Mark, like some others, decides he’s had enough and keeps his distance thereafter.

I have a friend who suspects that Harlan Ellison was manic-depressive. That’s easy to say and impossible to prove. What it does seem fair to say is that he was a drama queen, and sometimes that was fun, and lots of times it wasn’t.

 

He had a mouth, and he could scream

Friday, June 29th, 2018

HarlanEllison

When I read yesterday morning on Twitter that the combustible writer Harlan Ellison had died, and then saw on Mark Evanier’s blog that he was sorely tempted, so tempted, to write his true (negative) feelings about Harlan Ellison but couldn’t bring himself to do so yet, I decided that nothing was keeping me from doing so, and from writing about my long-ago literary run-in with him.

After all, nothing ever stopped Ellison from attacking anyone.

In my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction, I read what there was of Ellison to read. Here’s what that meant:  short stories, his intros and outros to other people’s short stories in “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions,” and comic-book adaptations by other writers of his work.

That, plus 27 teleplays, looks like the bulk of his work.

He wrote a couple of dime paperbacks when he was young, and what the Internet is generously calling “novellas” (one of them weighing in at 91 pages, no doubt with wide margins), and… not much else in a writing career that theoretically encompassed 60 years.

For many years now, I have checked in on the Ellison oeuvre to see what I’ve missed, or to see if that long-promised “real” novel would finally get finished and printed, or if the “Last Dangerous Visions” collection of short stories (again, by other people) would ever get printed. Nope, and nope.

There is no law that writers should write a lot, and sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Harper Lee famously wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and infamously had her poor first draft, “Go Tell A Watchman,” published by her caregivers just before her death. Ralph Ellison, justly acclaimed for “Invisible Man,” struggled to finish a second novel; his posthumously published “Juneteenth,” cobbled together from drafts and notes, did nothing but harm his reputation. But the difference between those notably unprolific writers and Ellison is that they weren’t so mouthy about their supposed status as great writers. Ellison was a poseur.

As a teenage writer, I started to get published. I published some non-fiction first in amateur, non-paying markets (comics and science-fiction fanzines), and then started to get published in actual paying markets. In addition to news and features, I was writing a lot of essays and reviews, mostly, as I recall, of music, comic books, and science fiction. Somewhere in that span of time from about age 14 to 18, I got into a literary feud in print with Harlan Ellison.

I wrote something that was published.

He wrote in a response that was published.

I wrote a reply that was published.

And so on.

And so on.

I don’t remember where this was published, and I don’t remember even what it was about. But what I do remember is that I was in a tit-for-tat with a well-known, television-appearing, minor-celebrity writer who was extremely well-known and lauded in genre fandom circles.

And who was I? I was a 16-year-old kid typing away in his parents’ basement.

And at some point in all of this, something occurred to me:  I was 16. He was about 44. It was cool picking on him and having him respond… but why did he have time to do this? Shouldn’t he be writing? And, toward the end of my Ellison-debating, Ellison-reading stint, I started to ask, Shouldn’t he… grow up?

And that’s what happened: I grew up.  He didn’t.

One week when I was an undergrad studying writing, my fiction professor got called away for the week, so he hired me to substitute-teach one of the class sessions in his absence – an absolute thrill! – and I assigned the Ellison short story “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man!” because I remembered it fondly and because we hadn’t read any science fiction. The class dutifully read that assignment and whatever other story I assigned and we discussed it. When the professor, a widely published writer who won the Pulitzer and who still frequently publishes in The New Yorker, returned, he wanted to talk to me about that Harlan Ellison story I’d assigned. And here’s what he pointed out:

The Ticktock Man is a straw man, set up to be easily knocked down. You are set up to disagree with him from the beginning; he makes no great case for himself; and in the end, he is proved to be a hypocrite.

Easy.

And by easy, I now mean: adolescent.

That’s about when I realized that Harlan Ellison’s life work was adolescent. It could be fun, in the way that good low art and good popular art can be fun, but it couldn’t be grown-up. It wasn’t serious. It didn’t require any work on the part of the reader. Everything was easily handed over, and quickly, for instant gratification.

The truth wasn’t that Harlan Ellison had plenty of time to argue with a pimply boy 30 years his junior (although he did). The truth was that it was a priorityfor him because that’s how adolescents are. And that adolescence, which I don’t think he ever shed, informs all of his work.

Because, really, what is his legacy? F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of schlock – the Pat Hobby stories are really terrible, as are many of his other short stories – but, BUT, he did write “The Great Gatsby.” Isaac Asimov was a genre writer who wrote about 300 books all tolled, but some of them are magnificent, and leave a last legacy – certainly the Foundation books, and some of the Robot series.

Really, what is Harlan Ellison’s legacy? Writing a good episode of “Star Trek” (which he was on record as hating) and a good episode of “The Outer Limits.” Editing the two “Dangerous Visions” collections of others’ work. Having a run-in with Frank Sinatra that became a set piece in a magazine article 52 years ago. That’s more than most of us get, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify the fame that he worked so hard to establish and keep.  And it’s not enough to make up for all the goddamn arrogance.

Addendum. The British writer Christopher Priest, who to my immense delight once commented on this blog, legendarily took Harlan Ellison to task for his hypocrisy in never completing “Last Dangerous Visions” while holding all the other writers’ stories hostage. His popular piece demythologizing Ellison and recounting the “Last Dangerous Visions” nightmare is available for free reading here. I recommend it.

25 years of drama

Monday, October 30th, 2017

maweblogo201129

Two Saturday nights ago, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of Moving Arts. But, actually, it’s tonight that’s the 25th anniversary.

I won’t go into our history again — I did that five years ago on that earlier commemoration; you can read that history here — but I do have to note a few changes, and one constant.

  1. Tom Boyle, who was a big part of that founding, and of many years of my life, died a couple of years ago. I miss him and think about him most days. I’d love to talk to him about the current political situation, or the recent crop of movies or TV, or just play a game or share a drink, and I do try to imagine how those conversations would sound, but my imagination is a poor substitute for Tom himself. Because he was smart and funny and loyal, he was everything I look for in a friend. I’m glad I got to spend as much time with him as I did before he finally pierced the veil and stepped into the beyond. I will say that his death has made me appreciate my still-living friends even more.
  2. Since that post of five years ago, we’ve gained some new board members who have done a lot to move the organization forward. We’ve actually got cash in the bank. (Which should in no way deter you from making an end-of-year contribution — we’ll always need more, and cheerfully accept it!) At times in the past, the cash in the bank was about five bucks. Now, in 2017, we’ve got more than five bucks. Significantly more. It’s not a buying-a-house-in-Los-Angeles amount of money — nowhere near — but it’s not five bucks. That’s saying a lot for a small-theatre company in Los Angeles.
  3. Probably a year (maybe two?) after I wrote that 20th anniversary post, we were incredibly fortunate to land a new artistic director, Darin Anthony. He’s a talented director and a visionary leader and it’s my pleasure to do what I can to support him. Everybody else on the board feels the same way. He wants to do big things, and he’s inspiring the rest of us to help him.

Here’s the constant (and you saw this coming):

Twenty-five years later, we’re still doing new plays. Sometimes I ask myself if I ever envisioned, in 1992, that we’d still be here in 2017. I don’t know. I do remember wondering in February of 1993 if we’d be there in March of 1993. That was tough — and there have been many, many other financially tough times — but we’ve gotten through them all, and in some ways we’re doing better now than ever. And we’ve got big plans for the future. It’s an exciting time for Moving Arts.

Was it five years ago, on our 20th anniversary, that Steve Lozier and some others produced an event at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax that featured celebrities doing roles from our first production? I can’t remember any more. But I do remember what we did two Saturdays ago:  We held a big house party in the Hollywood Hills that featured five short plays fully staged at different locations within that house. They were all new plays; the venue was packed (our biggest turnout ever for that event); and there were so many people having such a great time, myself included, that I actually sent out to get more alcohol delivered from the local liquor store. All of the plays were fun, and so was the event. At some point, I repaired outside up on the hillside terrace behind the house to share Cuban cigars with two other playwrights and have drinks and just talk. That cemented the evening for me:  new plays, great fun, and camaraderie among smart creative people.

That’s what we’ve been doing for 25 years: birthing new plays, and bringing smart creative people together. Every day you get to do that sort of thing is a celebration.

More about Shelley

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

Here’s the excellent obit for Shelley Berman, from today’s Los Angeles Times. Yesterday, I said that the infamous “Comedian Backstage” documentary had cost him a lot of money — note that here Shelley is quoted as saying it drove him into bankruptcy.

The piece also pays greater attention to his acting career, which was where his performing career began, than I did.

Reading this today also reminded me of something else, a side note of sorts about Shelley’s time at USC.

Eight or 10 years ago, in the graduate writing program where we were both teaching, USC transitioned Shelley into emeritus status. The university had gotten more than a few complaints from students in his humor writing course, and this would allow him to stay associated with the program and the university, and to participate in special events and seminars, while removing the rigors of an actual regular course. And, of course, it’d allow the university to stay associated with a legendary comedian.

But that left the question of who was going to teach humor writing. The dean running our program asked for a recommendation, and without hesitation, I said:  “Mark Evanier.”

At that point, Mark had been writing funny stuff for about 40 years already, and knew just about every comedy writer or comedian in LA and beyond; also, he was a generalist, which was important for a program that wanted you to write in many different disciplines. Mark had written sitcoms, jokes for standup comedians, variety shows, animation — and comic books. Many, many comic books. This was my opportunity to get a comic-book writer — someone who works with Sergio Aragones, no less! — onto the faculty. I reached out, he was interested — and he got hired. Mark proved popular with students,  just as quick on his feet as I promised he would be, and reliably entertaining for the dean.  He also had good taste:  He took immediate dislike to the new director of the writing program — who was later responsible for its collapse.

This is the same program where I got to study under Robert Pirosh, who wrote for the Marx Brothers on “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races,” and Jerome Lawrence, who co-worte “Inherit the Wind” and “Mame.”  It’s where I got to work with and socialize with Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream.” And it’s where I got to know Shelley Berman. And it’s where I met the woman who started booking me as a teacher at writing conferences, and who talked me into starting a playwriting workshop.

For about 25 years of my life, that program was a good thing. Shame somebody had to come along and ruin it.

Shelley Berman, R.I.P.

Friday, September 1st, 2017

shelleyandlee

 

I was sorry to learn just now of the passing of my former colleague Shelley Berman. Sorry, and not sorry.

Sorry because he was a terrific comedian and comic writer — a very clever and entertaining man who made me laugh a lot, in person, and on TV.

Sorry because he was struggling with Alzheimer’s and had stopped performing about three years ago. To the extent that I knew Shelley, he was all about performing, so I can only imagine how it felt to him to stop.

Just hanging around in our department at USC, you could pick up great writing tips from other writers. Shelley’s weren’t exactly revelations, but they sounded especially good to a playwright like me, because we knew Shelley worked in the spoken word, as we do. Here’s something I posted on this blog 10 years ago:

Tonight, as I was standing at the copy machine violating Harold Pinter’s copyright (sorry, Hal — just a few pages, I promise), Shelley came by and started sharing the advice he gives his class. The essence is this: shorter sentences are funnier, and beware of actors who add extra words to your lines. Whether or not you already know these things to be true, they sound truer coming from the mouth of Shelley. For 10 minutes I felt that I was getting a private lesson in comedy writing from an expert. Some of us see Shelley every week and we don’t think twice, and I understand that. But just this once it occurred to me that I was talking to Shelley Berman.

I had that feeling because, of course, I grew up seeing Shelley Berman on The Merv Griffin Show or the Mike Douglas Show, doing his telephone bit or some other bit of standup, and laughing my teenage butt off.

Later that year, I flew to Las Vegas to catch Shelley’s act in a casino lounge, which I wrote about here. Two things that I didn’t put in that brief profile:

One was his extraordinary anxiety. At one point, he called out from the stage for a drink. It looked to me like, at age 82, he’d lost his place (which, of course, all of us do — but we’re not on stage) — so he called out to a waitress to bring him a drink. About one nanosecond later he followed that up with, “Is it coming? Is anybody bringing it??!?!?” And I caught a flash of extreme dislike from the bartender and the wait staff that told me this wasn’t the first time this had happened. He got his drink, recovered and carried on, and finished very very well — but I at least didn’t forget the earlier moment. Which also called to mind this episode, tactfully summed up in today’s Variety obit:

In 1962, Berman participated in NBC’s documentary-style television show “Comedian Backstage,” where cameras followed him as he prepared for and performed his nightclub act. The cameras caught Berman becoming angry when a telephone backstage started ringing during his act, which dimmed his popularity for a time.

Yeah, that’s one way to put it. The way he put it — to me and to many other people, for 30 or more years — was that it was unfair treatment, that the club had been expressly told to turn off all phones (of course), and that this (temporarily) ruined his career and cost him a lot of money.

The other thing that I didn’t put into my piece here 10 years ago — and I’m surprised I didn’t — was this. I said that Shelley very kindly seated me next to his wife, Sarah, for his act. If you are an artist of any sort, the very best thing you can do in life is this:  Get an adoring spouse. An adoring spouse will make all the difference. She (or he) doesn’t always need to adore  you, but if she can adore your work, you’ve got it made. I say this from experience. Throughout the show, Sarah roared with laughter at everything Shelley said — not to shill, but genuinely. She absolutely loved his work, and loved him. Sarah and Shelley were together for 60 years, and I have no doubt that she is a very big reason he had such a long, and large, career.

 

 

“We didn’t have to talk”

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Smith-My-Buddy

Patti Smith’s terse but beautiful remembrance of her close friend Sam Shepard.