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


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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.

Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

Monday, July 31st, 2017

I was sad to awaken this morning to the news of Sam Shepard’s death. Shepard is one of those playwrights who reignited my passion for the theatre while I was in college. I had a copy of “Seven Plays,” which includes Buried Child, True West, La Turista, and other plays I’ve grown to cherish. At one point, desperate for cash, I sold that book back to the college bookstore — and, of course, found several years later that I just had to buy it again.

Shepard’s dialogue and prose were seductively plainspoken, but the meaning of his work was always deeper and more elliptical — something that, to me, made his writing a cousin to that of Cormac McCarthy. I strongly recommend his book of essays, The Motel Chronicles, and the excellent filmed stage production of True West starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which is available in full on YouTube.

I’m just sorry there won’t be any more.

The terrible prescience of “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

On this blog, I write about Donald Trump as little as I can bear; he already hogs too much of my day everywhere else, so I don’t want it here as well.

But I can’t resist linking to this terrific little piece that compares Trump, and his latest amanuensis Anthony Scaramucci, with a character in the 1992 film version of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” As this piece notes, the stage version doesn’t include the much-loved opener with Alec Baldwin, which has continues to serve as an unfortunate model for some. (Just this past week, someone in the business world brought the Baldwin character up to me — and was dumbfounded to learn that it isn’t in the stage version.)

Anyway, here’s the piece. It’s an all-too-true characterization of the current president of the United States.

Curtain for now

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Last Sunday night, this playwright had one of the best nights he’s ever had in the theatre. And I’ve had lots of great nights in the theatre, starting 40 years ago. My play, “Triptych,” which was running as part of the Hollywood Fringe, closed — but it closed to a packed house, tumultuous laughter in all the right places, and to this review.

Occasionally, when you’re the playwright and if you’re lucky, the people who’ve come to see your play look at you afterward with a new appreciation: “Wow. He can actually write.” They don’t say that, but you can see it in their eyes.  I got a lot of that on that night — and I also got a phone call the next day from someone who’s known me for a few years now, but who hasn’t known me as a playwright. “I was really impressed!” he said. “Have you written plays before?”
(Which made a lot of people who know me well laugh.)

I’m extremely grateful to my director, cast and crew, who took an emotionally complicated and dramatically deceptive — and risky! — new play and figured it all out in about four weeks and mounted it under the inordinate pressure that is a Fringe festival — where you get no access in advance to the theatre, where you have to bring in all of the props and set pieces, and where you have to be broken down and out within 15 minutes after every performance. While competing against 350 other productions for audience. That they could do all that, deliver and honest-to-God spot-on performance one could only hope for, and elicit laughs, was gratifying. (But not surprising — because I’ve worked with them all before, and know how good they are.)
My only regret was that the play had gone unreviewed. But then, as I mentioned above, I discovered today that the production got this review. The critic, Ernest Kearney, is a playwright, and a good one. The added benefit of having a good playwright review your play is the informed insights he might bring; in this case, Ernest is very smart about my play. He’s seen earlier work of mine; he’s right that I’m misleading the audience intentionally; he’s right that I’m “burying” the lead. I’ve had good reviews and bad reviews and dumb reviews. The best ones are the smart ones.
Today in my playwriting workshop, someone asked me what was next for “Triptych.” I don’t know at the moment. I may send it out to developmental workshops. But at the moment, I’m writing another, entirely different, play.

Poor plodding

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I find that I’m not as enthused about W. G. Sebald as his reputation would have it, or, at least, I’m not as enthused about his 1990 novel Vertigo as critical opinion would have it. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading my way through it, slowly to be sure, and trying to pick up why his work is in such critical favor.

Just now I picked it up and couldn’t find my place. Usually I’m good about remembering where I am in a book. I generally don’t use a bookmark because I like to make of this a little memory test for myself: Can I remember where I left off?  Tonight, I found my page:  43. Ah, yes. Our unnamed hero is on some sort of little tour with a friend he’s gotten out of the asylum for the day.

I read for a bit, then started to feel tired, so I put the book down. But before going to sleep, I figured I’d update my Goodreads status. I like the app because I use it to maintain a queue of books I’m going to read, and because by tracking the books I’ve read, or am reading, it helps me hit my annual goal of at least 26 books. I opened the app to enter my progress in reading Vertigo. And there was my last entry, showing where I’d stopped:

Page 46.

Three pages after where I’d just started again.

So I’d reread pages 43-46, and had absolutely no recollection of them.

Either I have Alzheimer’s, or I’m dozing off while reading this thing, or this is pretty dull stuff.