On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is screenwriter Steven Rogers (I, Tonya, Love the Coopers). He talks about creating and writing Hulu’s limited series, Mike, chronicling the controversial life and career and heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson.
On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is Amy Schumer, who talks about her Hulu series Life and Beth. Schumer comes across much more low-key than she does when on TV interviews, very thoughtful and personable. Some of that, I suspect, is that she recognizes early on (and I’m very sorry to put it this way) how truly awful the interviewer is and needs her help. The only reason I say that upfront is so that no one turning in to listen doesn’t get caught off-guard and put off. To be fair, she acknowledges it up front, that she’s a TV writer, not a journalist. But still, that’s pretty clear right away. That aside, not every celebrity being interviewed under such conditions would be as gracious and helpful as Schumer is here.
I’ve been meaning to post this for a long while, since it was first posted in the New Yorker back in July. But for reasons inexplicable – since I dearly it love and find the piece hilarious -- I keep putting it off or forgetting. No More.
It’s a three-part, serialized short story, written by Simon Rich. He’s a frequent contributor to the New Yorker; was on staff at Saturday Night Live; wrote for The Simpsons, wrote the screenplay for the HBO Max original, An American Pickle that starred Seth Rogen, based on one of his short stories; and currently wrote the upcoming remake Wonka. But I most love his work for the TBS insane and wonderfully funny series, Miracle Workers with Daniel Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi, based on his short stories.
This particular story is from his latest collection, New Teeth, of which Kirkus Reviews wrote, “"Rich presents parody, absurdity, observational wit, the sudden shift in a familiar premise, and a surprising touch of sweetness and charm throughout... [New Teeth is] so consistently funny, so exceptional in its imaginative use of parody as to be near genius. A fertile mind provides many smiles in this entertaining collection—and more than a few out-loud laughs."
The story is called “The Big Nap.” It’s a film-noir type tale of a hard-boiled gumshoe who’s seen it all and is a bit world-weary when, against his better judgement he’s dragged into a case by a mysterious dame who claims that someone has gone missing who is very important to her. The twist on things is that the detective is a two-year old, and the mysterious dame is a younger girl he’s seen around after recently showing up. She's lost her toy unicorn.
Rich’s writing style is spot-on perfect, and he’s able to somehow make all the old detective cliches fit like a glove, that gives them a surprising freshness. Yes, it’s personal taste and all, but that’s mine. It’s also to the personal taste of my friend Treva Silverman who sent it to me, and who won two Emmy Awards writing for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, so I give it added points for that.
Here’s how the story begins –
The detective woke up just after dawn. It was a typical morning. His knees were scraped and bruised, his clothes were damp and soiled, and his teeth felt like someone had socked him in the jaw. He reached for the bottle he kept under his pillow and took a sloppy swig. The taste was foul, but it did the trick. Now he could sit up and think. Now he could start to figure out how to somehow face another goddam day.
He stared at his reflection in the mirror. He wasn’t getting any younger. His eyes were red and bleary. His scalp was dry and itchy. He was two years old, and soon he would be three. Unless he stayed two. He wasn’t sure if you stayed the age you were or if that changed.
He wasn’t sure about a lot of things. The only thing he knew was he was tired. Tired of this down-and-dirty life. Tired of trying to make sense of a world gone mad.
The client was waiting for him in his nursery. He’d seen her around before. She’d come onto the scene about a year ago, moving into the white bassinet down the hall. Some people called her Sweetheart. Others called her Pumpkin. But most people knew her by her full name: Baby Anna.
She looked innocent enough, with her big, wide eyes and Princess Elsa onesie. But her past was murky. The detective had heard that she came from the hospital. But there was also a rumor that she’d once lived inside Mommy’s tummy. It didn’t add up. Still, a job was a job.
“So, what brings you here?” the detective asked.
“It’s Moomoo,” Baby Anna said. “She’s missing.”
I shall say no more about the story. All I’ll add is that Rich sustains the tale wonderfully through three parts. You can find Chapter One here.
The other two parts have links at the top of the page, but just to provide another option, here’s also how to get to them --
For Part Two click here.
For Part Three click here.
It’s always a weird experience when a friend gives me something they've written to read for my opinion. If it’s a first draft, their expectations are sky-high, though since nothing is yet set in stone there’s a little flexibility for constructive comments. (I always call them "comments," rather than "notes" which sound far more imperious, a haughty checklist of things that Must Be Followed. But it's just comments, my personal opinion. It might be good, experienced opinion, but still opinion.) The tricky part is asking them how detailed do they want my comments to be? Because I say I can be cursory or go into great detail, which might be much more than they want. And most people say, “Oh, tell me everything and be totally honest.” Though what they’re thinking is that they want to hear me say, “Okay, I am being totally honest here – not since William Faulkner has writing moved me so much. And that’s my totally honest opinion.” Anything less tends to really annoy them.
(Not everyone -- I have two talented friends who dearly love rewriting, Bart Baker and Rob Hedden. Rob actually loves rewriting so much it's almost to an obsession, to the degree that it’s become a joke, even Bart the Rewriter considers it hilarious. On the other hand, another friend always said he wanted a totally honest reaction, and after a couple of totally honest reactions for his work, I didn’t get sent any more. To be clear, it wasn’t that I didn’t like what he wrote – I did -- but the problem for him was that I didn’t think his first drafts were without flaws and needed no changes.)
Trickier, though, may be when a script or manuscript is finished, and in final form. If you see problems, there’s not much you can say. Because it really can’t be changed. So, how do you get across an honest reaction when anything critical can only hurt?
The most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever had to read was an early draft of a play by Larry Gelbart. Now, Larry was probably one of the great American TV-movie-theater writers of the 20th century. And that’s not hyperbole. Among his voluminous works were the Tony-winning Best Musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and City of Angels, Oscar nominations for Oh, God! and Tootsie, developing the TV series M*A*S*H for which he won an Emmy, the HBO movie Barbarians at the Gate, writing for the legendary Caesar’s Hour, getting 17 Emmy Nominations, being inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame and…and…and…and… (that's just the surface).
And it isn’t that I’m not at that level, but that I can barely even see it. However, Larry said he liked to give me his works because he knew I’d be honest with him. (I once asked if he had a hard time getting reactions from friends because He Was Larry Gelbart, and so they’d all be loath to tell him if there was anything they didn’t think was right? And he said, in all honesty, yes, and that was a problem. Because he knew drafts all need work, but no one would tell him what wasn't working. So, I felt an added obligation.) As I said, there was this one play he gave me -- and it was very good. And later got produced and got good reviews. But there was one scene in the early draft that I just didn’t think he got across the way he wanted. I was wary (the very low-key word) about how to tell him that, but he was appreciative with all the comments, and rewrote the scene. And it was better -- but…but (and this was the hellish part) it still didn’t work for me. So…er, um, ack, how on earth do I tell Larry Gelbart that?? When I give comments to writers, they always begin with “This is only my personal opinion.” But still… But I had to tell him, it was why he gave me the draft, and with much hesitancy and coughs and ahems I did. And he was appreciative, because that’s who he was. And addressed more changes. And happily the play got finished, was extremely good and got successfully produced.
I say all this because the other week a friend, Ed Zuckerman, gave me his new book to read. And when I say it was his new book, I don’t mean the first draft -- or even the final draft. But a hardcover copy because it’s just been published. So…aghh, what do I say if I don’t like things in it -- or don’t like it at all? "Wow, it was beautifully typeset!"
I first met Ed when we played in a weekly softball game of Writers Guild members. I tended to pitch much of the time -- and Ed is something like 6’17” (okay, yes, that’s an exaggeration, but from where I stand close to the ground, that’s how he seemed), so whenever he came to the plate, I would generally fear for my life. Usually, I prayed that we’d be on the same team.
Happily, Ed is an accomplished writer, and the book is very enjoyable. So – phew! My old concerns of pitching to him and seeing my life flash before my eyes disappeared. To put his talent is perspective, among his many credits Ed wrote on the TV series Law & Order for around 20 years, give or take. In fact, he co-wrote my favorite three-part episode for the show, their sort of version inspired by the O.J. Simpson case, which they called “D-Girl,” “Turnaround” and “Showtime.” But his credits go far beyond that, over 100 from series like Miami Vice to Star Trek: the Next Generation, JAG, Blue Bloods and a lot more, but over 50 writing credits from Law & Order. So, I knew he knows his stuff.
His novel, Wealth Management, is a financial thriller set in Geneva. It centers around three friends from Harvard business school whose lives have periodically crossed paths romantically and in their individual fields of hedge funds, international banking, and investments. And bit-by-bit, their personal and professional stories overlap with global terrorism.
What struck me is that Ed tells the story in an interesting way – moving between about a dozen characters, jumping the story around in chapters that are mostly no more than three pages. That gives the book a very cinematic feel, something I suspect was intentional because it keeps the story moving at a fast pace, which is important since a lot of the action is, in essence, about moving paper. But what I think he does best for my taste is give “backstories” to almost all the characters, and not just the main three – even including a very minor character, a Syrian street kid who does a bit of pick-pocketing, and so we learn how he got to that point. It’s not critical to the story, but it makes his character more real whenever he comes on the scene, rather than as just A Plot Point. All of this fleshes out the story a great deal, making it more involving, understanding motivations of most everyone, rather than knowing only about the main characters and relying solely on the plot to create interest.
If I had one quibble, it would be that it with three main characters and covering so many other characters – all of whom are easy to follow – I wished on occasion that it focused on just one or two main characters to feel more grounded with them on where the story was going. But ultimately, that’s not what this story is. It’s meant to be a whirlwind affair to keep you wondering, filled with various surprises. And in the end, the three main characters do create a foundation to it all.
The larger point being that it was a pleasure to tell Ed. Not that it mattered all that much, since, in fairness, the book has been published regardless of what I said. But I know that should we ever find ourselves on a baseball field again, and I’m pitching to him, there’s a good chance the bat won’t come flying at me.
To anyone interested, the book is available here.
I wrote this yesterday on social media, but it bugs me enough to repeat it here, and expand on it a bit. Though many may consider this all very minor, and in some ways it is, I'll explain below why I want to address it.
On Saturday, I went to the Writers Guild Theatre to see the new version of Pinocchio. And the movie aside, I can't believe that although, at the top of the end credits, they give credit to the writers of the few, new songs, as of course they should -- they bury the team who wrote the classic songs also used in the new movie (including the Oscar-winning Best Song "When You Wish Upon a Star," which is virtually the theme of the Disney empire -- which, in fact, is sung at three different points in the new movie), only mentioning the songwriters at the very end of the 6-minute final credits (at which point most everyone watching the movie has stopped and gone away), as if they were just background source music bunched together, quickly scrolling by. Even you can even read any of the names in that long list you're lucky.
And this presumes that people watching the movie even get that far. Most of those in a movie theater leave after the names of the main artists in the closing credits have scrolled by, and most people streaming films at home stop watching when "The End" shows up. That's why the major artists generally are listed early.
I should note that at the Writers Guild Theatre, people actually, really do sit through most credits. But even they left long before very end of the credits. Six minutes of reading the credits for the legal team, bond company, caterer, back-up painter, colorists, production assistants, several hundred members of the special effects crew and more, before getting to the people who wrote the Oscar-winning Best Song and other classics has its limits. Only about 10% of the audience was still there at that point.
This is somewhat like if they did a remake of The Sound of Music and added a new song, crediting the writers of the new song up front and dumping Rodgers & Hammerstein at the "oh-by-the-way" very end.
Actually, here's a real-world example. A few years back, there was a Broadway stage version of the movie musical High Society. To flesh out the story a bit for the stage, the producers had another writer compose a few new songs. It will not shock you to learn that not only did they not bury the name of Cole Porter, who had written the songs for the movie, it was one of the things they heavily promoted. In fact, "heavily promoted" is an understatement. On the cast album, "Cole Porter" is the only named mentioned. No one in the cast, not the director, not the new songwriters, nobody. ONLY Cole Porter.
(Fun Fact: a 12-year-old Anna Kendrick made her Broadway debut in the show and got a Tony nomination. But like the rest of the cast, she didn't get mentioned on the album cover. Just Cole Porter.)
For the record (no pun intended...), those songwriters would be Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith.
In fairness, no, they are not in the same level of fame as Cole Porter, but then few are. But we're not talking about promoting Pinocchio with the songwriters' names, just merely mentioning them when they will be seen.
And no, this is not critical in the great scheme of life. But I do think in works of art and entertainment it's important that people know who created them. Especially, admittedly, to me. I'm a writer. And also, as readers of these pages know, I have a great affection for musicals. So, to bury the names of the songwriters who helped make Pinocchio a classic seems to me silly, unnecessary and petty, when all you had to do was list "Classic songs written by" right under the credit of "New songs written by."
And also inexplicable. Particularly since those are the songs you go into the theater humming -- and leave humming. The new songs fit fine. But I can't tell you exactly what they are or even remotely how any of them go. I can, however, tell you how "When You Wish Upon a Star," "I Got No Strings" and "Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an Actor's Life for Me" go -- as well as "Give a Little Whistle" (which was not used in the new film, along with a few others).
So, in honor of Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith -- let's go out singing them.
How on earth do you bury the credits for the writers of these songs...??!
Along with the joyously lively, if devious song from 'Honest John' as he tries to convince Pinocchio not to go to school but take to the stage and be famous instead --
And though "Give a Little Whistle" wasn't used in the new adaptation, it remains one of the more memorable songs from the original, when Jiminy Cricket teaches Pinocchio about dealing with his conscience when in trouble.
And finally, of course, the song that won the Academy Award as Best Song and became the theme for All Things Disney. And to give added credit, it's sung memorably by the voice of Jiminy Cricket, Cliff Edwards who had been a big radio star in the 1920-30s as "Ukulele Ike" (and his career went on beyond that) --
On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is Liz Meriwether, who created the series New Girl, was also showrunner of the excellent Hulu docudrama limited-series, The Dropout.. She talks about how she drew fresh blood to chronicle the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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