Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Comedy Writers Fantasy Camp

When we left our intrepid reporter he was preparing to fly off to Los Angeles in pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge pertaining to the arcane arts of story, character and the ever so important punch-line. Okay, so that doesn’t really make me very intrepid. The only genuine danger I faced was leg cramps due to being shoe-horned into an airplane seat for hours.
Traveling is full of interesting moments. Airports contain a diverse collection of people. One of my favorite individuals from this trip was found in the boarding area of my connecting flight in Dallas. This guy was amazing. If he had shown up on the set of The Sopranos they would have sent him back to wardrobe to tone it down. His hair was lacquered into perfect swoops and curves doubling as a helmet in case someone wanted to hit him with a blunt object. His pinkie ring was large enough to conceal a pastrami sandwich. The diamond bracelet on his right arm matched well with the sparkling necklace he wore on the outside of his multi-colored open at the neck untucked shirt. When the attendant called over the intercom for a Mr. Dino Gianetti I am pretty sure mine was not the only pair of eyes to immediately swing in his direction. Yes, it was him. (Author’s note: the name was changed not to protect the innocent, but to protect me in case he was being moved into witness protection and I run the risk of being whacked for having seen him) He paused to shrug into his purple velveteen sport coat and ambled over to the desk to pursue his upgrade to first class. I was sorely tempted to approach him and ask, “Please say it. Just once. Can you please say baa-da-bing?”
Another unusual aspect of my travels actually made me feel safer. Some sort of military or law enforcement dog was on the plane with me. At least if we crashed were carrying our own survivor sniffing dog. I lingered close to the dog for a while before boarding so he cold get a good clean hit off the Classic Club Sandwich I’d eaten for lunch. If the worst came to pass I wanted the highly trained olfactory senses on that animal tuned in but good. I need him tearing around with just one thought in his canine brain… “bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon.”
The design of the weekend was to have us work as if we were really staff on a sitcom. A small group of actors performed a single scene. It was pretty bad. But it was bad on purpose so we had more of a task ahead of us as we re-wrote it. The guy running the seminar wrote it. He is very adept at writing good scenes as he has written for “MASH”, “Cheers”, and “Frasier” among other highly popular shows. He gave us this stink burger in order to hone our own skills.
Each group adjourned to their writer’s room complete with cookies and Diet Coke. My group worked with few breaks from around three in the afternoon to a little after midnight discussing story, character and sprinkling in funny bits. I have to admit it did not feel like nine hours dedicated to one task. If I’d spent that same time frame doing my real job it would have ended in an emergency room visit, either for the victim of my unhinged tirade or my own need for psychotropic meds to avoid attempts at self-immolation.
It was a great experience and since it is the Thanksgiving weekend I wish to thank some people. First, Mom, the original supporter of my odd hobbies and dreams, who helped with the financial burden and a forty-six year old man asking his mommy for money adds an embarrassment price to the monetary one. Next, I thank my wife for being the continuous support system for my inexplicable desire to be a writer which so far contributes $40 a month to our family budget. I thank Ken Levine and Dan O’Day for creating the experience worthy of the cash and self-esteem expenditures. I thank my group of fellow writers for teaching me things and causing frequent fits of laughter. Finally, I thank the staff at the Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant a couple blocks from my hotel who made it possible for me to eat without having to sell my plasma to afford the hotel restaurant food.

Christopher Pyle was amazed to receive something akin to a fan letter from a genuine comedy writer, a guy who wrote for The Simpsons, after he read my blog post about the weekend. If you wish to deflate Chris’s ego please write to

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There are different kinds of smart

Being called an intellectual is often thrown at people as an epithet. Think back to your school days. Was the “smartest” kid in class looked upon with respect and considered to be cool? My guess is “no”. Smart people are often the butt of jokes and the preferred target of bullies. Until they design a new software system and make more money in a three year period than the entire population of western Europe, excluding the Principality of Monaco (Prince Albert II is not only not in a can, the dude is stinking rich).
The definition of intelligence does change as the culture changes. Several years ago Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist who may have been beaten up as a child for being an egghead, put forth a theory he dubbed Multiple Intelligences. Professor Gardner listed seven kinds of intelligence. To boil down an entire career into a single sentence, different people are intelligent in different ways. Man, I did that quite easily and it didn’t take years of research and more money than Prince Albert II spends on yacht wax.
There are times I wish I had a different mode of intelligence than I have. I am about as useful around the house as a guy who likes to write eight hundred word humor columns for a newspaper is around the house. That was a crummy analogy. Maybe I don’t even have the linguistic intelligence I thought I had.
When I have a clogged drain I go down the street and enlist the help of my plumbing Zen Master, Warren, to get the water moving again. When I have computer issues I go to my computer whisperer Seth. Whenever I need help of an artistic nature I go to She of the Pen and Brush, Sarah. I do not feel bad about seeking their help. They have skills and are willing to share. The problem is I have no skill to pay them back.
Really, when will they possibly need to know such marvelous facts like 20% of all species of mammals are bats, the theme to the Batman television show starring Adam West was written by Neal Hefti who also wrote the soundtrack music to the film Lord Love a Duck starring Roddy McDowell, and if trying to traverse a large expanse of ice covered pavement it is best to imitate the way Roddy McDowell walked when performing in the Planet of the Apes movies (it really works, try it). That is the coin of the realm in my world. Pathetic isn’t it?
I was probably destined for this from an early age. When I got home from school in the afternoon I wanted to watch Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas on television. Many kids my age would have been playing in the backyard. Maybe building elaborate roads in the dirt or using a magnifying glass to immolate ants to pass the time. Others would be shooting baskets in the driveway or tossing the pigskin around the vacant lot. Not me.
One particular memory has me watching Merv and Red Skelton is a guest. He does a marvelous physical comedy routine which would not be considered politically correct these days about a guy advertising a brand of Gin and getting properly toasted as he drinks more and more of the product. I immediately went outside, turned on the hose to get a good supply of water, and proceeded to work for an hour or so to perfect the spit take.
This set of priorities stuck with me through my college years. My very first year at the University of Kansas I made sure my class schedule was constructed so I could walk home to my tiny apartment in the student slums in time to see the midday rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show on KSHB, Channel 41. Reading St. Augustine and Machiavelli in my Western Civilization class could wait. I had to get my education on prat falls and bald jokes.
Fast forward to now. I am a 46 year-old school administrator who writes jokes in a notebook he carries most everywhere he goes. But that is not all. I am about to climb on a plane and fly out to Los Angeles to participate in a seminar. Is it a seminar about reaching severely at-risk students? Is it a seminar teaching me the latest methods for improving reading comprehension across the curriculum? Nope. I am spending loads of money to be locked into a hotel ballroom learning how to write sitcoms from one of the guys who wrote for Cheers.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The News Just Keeps on Coming

The election is over. I have to admit I was a bit of a political junkie over the last several weeks. I found myself going to lots of different websites to load up on information. I listened to a bunch of podcasts from iTunes which center on various issues and aspects of the presidential campaign. The televisions in my house only receive three channels so I often stayed at work to watch cable networks as they examined and parsed every conceivable aspect of the upcoming vote.
There was definitely a point where I reached overdose status. The day before the election I settled into my chair and fired up the internet and found I did not have the energy to go to my bookmarked political sites. Before I even new what was happening I found myself on a sports website. It turns out obsessing on the presidential race had saved me from some emotional stress. How is that? I’m a Chiefs fan.
Like a Western European Hedgehog rousing itself after hibernating through a tough Finlandic winter I poked my head out of the political news cocoon I had surrounded myself with and found there was a whole world out there I had been oblivious to for some time.
I was going to use the more typical bear in my hibernation analogy, but one of the things I learned as I went whizzing around the non-politically interested internet was bears do not actually hibernate. Their metabolism does not sufficiently alter to qualify for true hibernation status. I am sure this will come as quite a surprise to Yogi and Boo Boo who will no longer need to swipe quite so many pic-a-nic baskets to sustain them through the Jellystone Park winters, much to Ranger Smith’s relief.
Here is one news item I had missed. The Swiss Constitution has been amended in order to protect a certain segment of the native population. This on the surface sounds very positive. It is almost always a good thing to have government stand up to protect the down trodden. The odd thing is this segment of the population can literally be trodden down. They were referring to plants.
The Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians (and I am quoting from the Wall Street Journal online here) “to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.”
I am a pacifist by nature, but if remaining neutral and never having to worry about running a war means you now have to spend your time creating panels to discuss the inalienable rights of begonias I may have to re-think some things.
Before going on I have to take a moment and try to picture a conference room full of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians. What a wacky place it must be. The philosophers are in their corner arguing if the Hemlock plant feels guilt for the murder of Socrates. The lawyers are considering a class action lawsuit against John Deere on behalf of wheat. The geneticists are bunched up discussing how to engineer a rose by another name which truly does smell as sweet. Finally, the theologians are debating if they had been pre-destined to be stuck in this room, if it was a matter of man’s free will or if it was a little known circle of Hell.
What sort of conundrum does this pose for Swiss vegetarians? Think of the poor potato. Peeled, boiled, mashed, and slathered in butter all for the personal amusement of some hominid who shamelessly uses the fact that he possess a few measly things the potato doesn’t (central nervous system, powers of cognition, and opposable thumbs) to subjugate the entire race of Solanum tuberosum (for those of you who do not remember you Linnaean nomenclature that’s the Latin name for potato).
Since Florida does not have to spend this November recounting ballots one community is looking to deal with another problem. Deltona, Florida is concerned about too many bugs. To deal with this they are going to bring in a large number of bats. According to Bat Conservation International, a charter member of the Association of Groups Nobody Ever Thought Existed But Do, bats can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in an hour.
A neighboring city is now contemplating bringing a large number of owls to keep the bats from taking over their airspace. This is called the “Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” method of species control.
It truly is amazing what was going on in the world while I was spending all my time with Wolf Blitzer.

Christopher Pyle hopes the Swiss laws pertaining to plants are not retroactive. While visiting Hilterfingen Switzerland in 1982 he decapitated (a.k.a. picked) a flower.