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


Blog

Bye, Bob!

July 18th, 2024

Back in my college days, we had a drinking game called “Hi, Bob.” You would turn on The Bob Newhart Show, and every time a character said, “Hi, Bob!” you’d have to do a shot. Given the number of entrances on that show, I don’t recommend this if you’re no longer college age.

Today being the day that Bob Newhart died, today is yet another time I wish I did a better job of keeping a journal.

Oh, I keep a journal. But I don’t write in it every day, and so I frequently miss the days and details of when something noteworthy happens. 

Like: the evening I met Bob Newhart and had a little conversation with him.

Wish I could remember more of what it was about.

Twenty years ago this October, I was a guest at the 10th anniversary event for the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach. Bob Newhart opened with a 20-minute set in which he was pretty damn funny, and then Richard Carpenter played and sometimes sang, accompanied by a 15-piece band, and different singers from the extended Carpenter family, doing lots of Carpenters songs.

Afterward, everybody lined up onstage for food, served buffet-style. I wound up right behind Mr. Newhart. The line was long and slow, so I think we actually talked for 15 minutes or so as we crept along, plates in hand. As I recall, we mostly talked about the food on the buffet line, with him eyeing the ham steaks with appreciation.

So, I can say I met him. Which is the sort of thing that happens a lot in Los Angeles and environs:  You just meet people. Some of them you just run into and wind up talking to, like Keanu Reeves and Tom Hanks and Bryan Cranston (in line at plays), others you’re doing something with (Giancarlo Esposito, Tim Robbins, William H. Macy). Sometimes you’re at the supermarket and you realize you’re talking to James Karen, who appeared in Samuel Beckett’s only movie but who people living on the East Coast from the 1970s through 1990s remember as “the Pathmark Shopping guy.” 

While my association with Bob Newhart was obviously fleeting and unremarkable, in another way my association was longer, that is, about 10 years. That’s because there was another standup comic from that era whom I knew better:  Shelley Berman. Shelley and I both taught in the master’s program in writing at USC. In the late 1950s, Shelley’s standup routine caught fire with a telephone routine:  Just him, on a stool, engaged in a telephone conversation, with us hearing only his side of it. Some years later, Bob Newhart did a bit like that, just him on a stool with a one-sided telephone conversation, but Newhart got more famous for it — and, to be fair, for records that were built out of quite different routines, and for two sitcoms that had nothing to do with that. But for years, Shelley would say, “He stole that from me.” Mentioning Newhart was not a good idea.

I don’t have any opinion about whether or not one can “own” an act with a one-sided telephone, and I should note that I also know a gentleman who absolutely swears that the idea for “The Terminator” was stolen from him by James Cameron. It’s that kind of town.

I just know that Bob Newhart made me laugh a lot for many years, with his standup routines, with his two sitcoms, with his brilliantly funny role in “Elf” and, for 20 minutes, at the Carpenter Center. Even when we were picking up our dinners, he made me laugh. I just wish I could remember in what way.

Unintentional hilarity of the day.

July 12th, 2024

Courtesy of a podcast:

Guest: I’m leery of absolutism.

Host: FOR SURE!!!

Mulling him over

June 29th, 2024

I had dinner last night with my good friend Shanna at a place with amazing Thai cuisine. (And that’s the restaurant’s name:  Amazing Thai Cuisine. So, yes, there sometimes is truth in advertising.) I had last been to Amazing Thai Cuisine just days before, with my fiancée, bringing a bottle of chardonnay for myself and ordering spicy duck salad with brown rice on the side. Tonight, feeling adventurous, I ordered the spicy duck salad with brown rice on the side, but brought a different label of chardonnay.

Discussion with Shanna turned to Martin Mull, who had died earlier that day, breaking my heart.

I loved Martin Mull. As a kid in the 1970s, I watched him on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Fernwood 2Night,” America 2Night,” and in various television or film appearances over the years, and bought all his records. One year, for Chistmas, I bought myself his album “Normal,” which remains my favorite, and then unwrapped my presents and found that my sister had bought me the same album. No doubt we both bought this because my love for Martin Mull was well-known in the family and because the album was available as a discounted cutout at the local Two Guys department store for a buck-ninety-nine. “Normal” was chockful of clever sing-along-able songs told from the point-of-view of a smart, sarcastic, judgmental 30ish man forced to suffer among rubes, but who wonders if it wouldn’t be easier if he were less clever and just went along to get along, swallowing his wit and urbanity. In other words, the Martin Mull character.  As a 15-year-old desperately not wanting to live in southern New Jersey with its greenhead flies and snapper turtles and traffic circles and dirt roads, who ached to get to wherever the cool intellectuals were with their impregnable aesthetics, this was exactly how I felt. Martin Mull summed it up in the title track, which I haven’t listened to in decades but can still summon up at will:

What say you and I get normal
We don’t have to be that formal
We’ll just sit and watch TV like others do
We’ll eat meat and mashed potatoes
Cut our hair so folks don’t hate us
Life is nuts enough just livin’ here with you

Let’s see who can be most borin’
You do the dishes honey, I’ll start snorin’
Get a mower, do some mowin’
Spend all mornin’ gettin’ it goin’
We’ll show everyone in town we’re not deranged
What say you and I get normal for a change

(Here’s the rest of the song.)

I also suspected that Mull, who was good-looking and whose character dressed well in a stylish but somewhat sleazy manner that said he knew what to do with a woman, was having lots of sex. So 15-year-old me was very interested in whatever I might learn from him, or at least from what I could learn from this character he kept portraying on TV and records.

On “Fernwood 2Night,” where he was a dimestore version of a local talk show host, Mull’s character, Barth Gimble, frequently got phone calls from what you’d assume were beautiful women, with us hearing only his side, which dripped innuendo. I always was trying to figure out what the woman was saying, trying to slot into my brain her side of a quick call centered around sex.

I shared all this and more with Shanna, and then she surprised me:  Martin Mull had been her client. “He was a very nice man,” she said. Shanna works at an accounting firm, largely for the well-known and the well-off, and Martin Mull had been a client.

The first time he came in, she said, she saw him coming and went to greet him in reception. He put out his arm and she thought, Wow, really nice, he wants to hug me! So she went in for the hug and he hugged her, and it was very nice, and then when they parted she realized that he’d actually been reaching for the door. Mortified, she ducked away and went and hid in the file room until he’d left.

But for years after, whenever he came in, he’d hug her. Now it had become a thing. And he’d add a kiss on her cheek.

I’m not 15 any more, but I still love Martin Mull’s act from then and in all the years since — but 46 years later, I also love this story about him, which was not an act… except of kindness.

A play for Keith

May 13th, 2024


Setting: Lee, 61, is sitting comfortably in a cushioned chair on his mother’s enclosed porch on a warm late afternoon. To his left is his friend Keith, a good-looking man in his late 60’s with warm eyes and a voice touched by honey and silk. Also present, Lee’s mother, aged 98, and her old friend Sue.

Lee (to Keith.): It’s nice to see you.

Keith (cheerily.) It’s nice to be here!

Lee sips coffee from a flowered teacup, part of his mother’s set that she’s used for thirty or forty years or more. Keith also has a cup, as do Sue and Mom.

Lee: Did you hear me on National Public Radio today?

Sue: I did!

Mom: I did too!

Keith:  Sorry, no.

Keith’s phone buzzes. He looks at it.

Keith (cont.): Sorry, I have to take this. It’s London.

He rises, phone in hand. He starts to walk inside.

Lee(calling after.): Keith, wait. Wait! Keith! Before you go!

Keith comes back in, barely.

Lee: Before you go. Didn’t you… die? I remember you dying. A few months ago. Didn’t you die?

Pause. Finally:

Keith (it dawning on him.): I… do remember that.

Lee: Me too.

Now no one knows what to say. 

Lee (Cont.): Go take your call, then we can talk. But you come back, hear? You come back.

Keith:  Okay.

Keith goes back inside.

 Mom: I thought he was dead. That’s why when I heard he was coming over I waxed the floors!

 Lee: Yeah, he died in January. I don’t think either of us expected it.

Sue: Who is he again?

Lee: One of my closest friends, for a period. We did a lot of plays together. I really loved him and miss him. I didn’t expect him to die!

Sue: Oh, nobody ever expects it.

Keith returns.

Lee (re the phone call.): Well?

Keith: It was nothing.

Lee: I was just telling Sue and my mom how much I miss you. Miss knowing you’re around. Really didn’t expect you to go.

Keith: No, me neither.

Mom: That’s what Lee was sayin’!

Lee: It’s nice that you came back to say hi.

Mom (to Keith.): Did you eat yet?

Keith: I’m good, thanks. (He gets up.) Well….

Lee: Well. (A beat.) Is it nice?

The setting melts away, and Mom and Sue with it. Now Lee and Keith are in a mausoleum of sorts: Keith’s final resting place as envisioned by Lee in this dream.

 Lee (cont.): Looks nice! For… y’know.

They walk down three steps, taking it in, and come to Keith’s casket, tucked around an inside corner. It’s open. Keith runs his hands over the fabric within.

Keith (with appreciation.): Velvet…!

Lee: Very nice.

Keith: Feels soft. 

Lee: (ruminating.) I just realized that Mom is dead too.

Keith: Really.

Lee: Yeah. One month before you. But she was 98! Sue died a long time ago; I always liked her.

Pause.

Keith (eyeing his coffin.): Well….

Lee: Nice seeing you, Keith! Didn’t think I’d get the chance. Be well.

Keith: You too.

The setting shifts again, to the morning of May 13, 2024. Now Lee is in his bed, having just awakened.

Lee (To us.): Hah! I guess I got to do one last play with Keith. (A beat.) Although given the chance, I would’ve done better. Given them more to say to each other. It was just so nice to see him that we didn’t need to say much.

                                                      BLACKOUT

By any other name

April 21st, 2024

One of my neighbors, a middle-aged Latino in his front yard on the block behind my house, introducing himself while my son and I were walking by with our dogs:

“My name is Jose…

“But people call me Tony…

“Neighborhood Tony.”

Oh. Of course.

Dearly departed

March 22nd, 2024

Every time Facebook prompts me to wish Happy Birthday to a friend who’s dead, I rush over to their Facebook page to confirm that, yep, they’re still dead.

Nevertheless, it’s a friendly reminder every year of how much the dead friend meant to me.

I just wish I weren’t piling up so many of them in recent years.

Missing persons (in bands)

March 20th, 2024


I was excited last week to go with my son and a friend to see Buzzcocks and Modern English in concert at a smallish club here in Los Angeles. I’m a fan of both acts, and while I’ve seen Modern English several times, I’d never seen Buzzcocks.

Thing is:  I still don’t think I’ve seen Buzzcocks — and never will. “Buzzcocks” as we know them, are gone, their lead singer/guitarist/songwriter dead and his beautiful pitch with him, his role now filled awkwardly by their former bassist. I think of this incarnation as Buzzcock, singular. Buzzcock is enthusiastic, but he isn’t a lead guitarist and he certainly isn’t a lead vocalist and he clearly isn’t a frontman, because he doesn’t know how to get the audience going or how to command attention or even how to dress the part, looking very much like he’s a bloke who wandered in from the pub. He and the three fill-ins will, though, play most of the five songs you know, minus one of their hits because even he knows he can’t hit those notes. 

(The opening act for the evening, by the way, was The Reflectors, a young San Diego band whose members appear to be about one-third my age. My 21-year-old son disagreed, stating that I can’t accurately ascertain youth anymore, and that to him they looked to be in their 40s. “Even the 15-year-old Latino bass player?” I asked. “Oh, well, not him,” he replied. 

I do have some advice for the band:

The Reflectors’ drummer kept stretching to hit his cymbal in a way that I can confidently predict foreshadows a future rotator cuff injury, having one myself. It’s no fun. Maybe pull that drum kit together a little more. Which is what the drummer for Guns ‘n Roses once advised a drummer friend of mine; she said it worked miracles.

Second bit of advice:  Maybe vary the songs a bit. So that, y’know, 45 minutes sounds like there are individual songs in there. As my son said, “They need to find a new beat.” Exactly.

The final bit of advice:  If you’ve got two “lead” guitarists who both play the same three chords at the same time, fire the blond one who doesn’t sing and split your fee three ways instead of four. Instant payday!)

As for Modern English, my interest in them stems primarily from their keyboardist, Stephen Walker. I’ve been listening to this band for 40 years, and I can tell you that most of what’s interesting is coming from Mr. Walker. Modern English’s music is primarily power pop — a harder sound than mere new wave — but what sets it apart is the fills and the soundscapes and the occasional leads that Stephen Walker adds to everything. I like their songs, but it’s their sound that gets me, and that’s mostly Stephen Walker. I advised my son to watch the keyboardist when the band comes on, because that’s where it’s really happening.

So imagine my distress when the band came on without Stephen Walker, their member throughout their history.

Or their lead guitarist.

Instead, it was lead singer Robbie Grey, and their longtime bassist Michael Conroy with some drummer and a guitarist. And no keyboardist whatsoever.

Meaning that it didn’t really look like or sound like Modern English. (Even though, evidently, they’ve sampled some of the keyboard effects.) This was more like post-Modern English.

Their other members are still on their website, still listed on Wikipedia, and on their new album… so I dunno what’s going on. But I sure missed them!

All of this got me to think about music acts that are on tour. Are they really those acts?

I like The Stranglers, but I won’t go see them again, because, again, to me their keyboardist was essential to their sound and he died during the COVID pandemic. Now there’s only one original member left (a bassist again!), and I think of them as The Strangler. Singular.

Echo and the Bunnymen put on an erratic show, given the proclivities of their erratic frontman, but I recall the band as a foursome. Now there are two Bunnymen:  the singer and the guitarist. Is that really Echo and the Bunnymen?

I don’t like The Eagles, but is it still The Eagles without Glenn Frey? Even when you’ve replaced Glenn Frey with his son, Deacon Frey — who has now left the band anyway? Who’s going to be the next Eagle? Glenn Frey’s great-nephew?

I’ve seen The Beach Boys many times, dating back to the 1980s both on the beach in Atlantic City and at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and since then in Dallas in 2012 for their 50th anniversary tour and a few years afterward in a concert in Pasadena I was helping to promote. What’s touring under that name now is enjoyable, but it’s not The Beach Boys. There’s not one person named Wilson in it (understandable given that two of the Wilson brothers are dead and that the third sadly has dementia), it’s got one longtime replacement Beach Boy (that’d be Bruce Johnston, who by this point has earned the title Beach Boy having joined the band in 1965) and it’s got one actual key member of the band:  Mike Love. Is this the Beach Boys?

I know that seeing what’s left of these bands provides some real enjoyment to many people. If nothing else, it’s a chance to hear the songs you love played live. And in some cases, the replacement players are terrific. Poor Phil Collins can no longer play drums due to nerve damage, but I can tell you with authority that his son is a sensational drummer who manages to replicate his father’s drum sound and style while bringing added power. 

But I do wonder: If Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr went on tour as The Beatles, how would we feel?

What if Micky Dolenz toured as The Monkee? And, actually… he kinda does, and puts on a great show. But shouldn’t he change the lyric to: “Hey, hey, I’m the Monkee. People say I’m monkeying around….”

Not drinking with Bukowski

March 10th, 2024

I’m at a small-bore writing retreat somewhere in a small town in middle America at a string of scrubby individual motel rooms like one used to see, or still sees in resorts near, say, Big Bear, California, where each room is its own little building. Nearby there are classic decaying school buses, shallow puddles, patchy grass, and what looks like a rundown convenience store with some gas pumps.

I’m standing out there with my fellow five writers when our special famous writing guest walks up: Charles Bukowski. He looks the same as from all the photos we’ve seen. Except he’s wearing crocs. And he’s not drinking or smoking. Also, he isn’t ornery, just contrary. And useless as a writing instructor. When it comes time to read the first attending writer’s work, we settle into a circle of chairs and Bukowski decides that he will read the work aloud with her, and when he does so, he reads his parts as he imagines various characters would sound, filled with bellicosity for men or an off-putting flutiness for women. He’s putting his all into his terrible theatricality, at the expense of understanding any of the material. He’s so delighted by his own performance that he goes on far too long, leaving the rest of us to worry that he’s never going to get to our own material — although I’ve begun to think that I don’t want him to read any of mine anyway.

Recalling all the well-known people I’ve met in my life and never got a photo with, when we break and start for some reason to move into the surrounding woods, I ask Bukowski if I can take a photo with him. (I don’t use the word “selfie” because I hate the sound of it and because I’m sure Bukowski will mock me for using it.) He says, “Sure. Let me show you how it will look,” and takes my phone and starts taking photos purely of himself, framed by the trees and murky pools of water. I say no, that I want to be in it too, and he reluctantly allows this. The other writers stand around in judgment because I wanted a photo.

Somehow or other, we’re now inside in a cafeteria and Bukowski is getting passive-aggressively interviewed by a reporter. It’s clear she doesn’t like him and now I don’t either. Where did his fire go? Is this really the person whose novels I gobbled down, maybe 15 or 20 of them? Where’s the fun? Now she’s remarking to him that he hasn’t written a book in 20 years, and why not? And I think, Well, for one thing, he’s been dead for 40 years. Then it hits me: Waitaminnit, he’s dead!

And then I woke up.

Poleaxed

February 7th, 2024

That’s how I feel about the death of a friend of 30 years, someone important in my life.

More about this when I gather myself up from it. (Probably this weekend.)

Glad I got to speak with him recently. At least I can say that.

Popular for whom?

January 30th, 2024

Popular Mechanics sent me an email promising to show me “How to Use a Tape Measure.”

I thought I knew how to use a tape measure, having used one since I was, oh, probably 6, and having grown up with a father whose company was always measuring and building things — like schools, gas stations, and roads and bridges.

But Popular Mechanics advised me that “There’s more to it than stretching it out and making a mark.” So I figured I’d open the email to learn more.

Never mind that I hadn’t subscribed to this newsletter of theirs, and in fact hadn’t even realized that Popular Mechanics is still being published. (Even if only digitally. Is there a print version? Who knows? I don’t.)

So, sure, I thought, count me as a click. I didn’t ask for this, but I’ll take a look.

Clicking to read produced this:

Leading me to wonder, if Popular Mechanics, a publication that’s been around for 122 years, hasn’t yet learned how to build readership through the internet, why should I trust them to show me how to use a tape measure?