Wish I'd known that...

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;

- Pope

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Story of a Smelly Old Man

When I was 32 I got a job in an advertising agency art studio. Old Timers called it the Bullpen. There were a lot of old timers at that agency. People in the industry considered it a kind of retirement home for old art directors. These guys came up in the 60’s and 70’s. Some still wore their thinning hair long over the collar, had mutton chop side burns and hit on all the young chick interns and assistants. These were the days before computers changed everything.

I’d secured a permanent position in the bullpen because I’d had a portfolio of solid samples – samples I’d swiped from my wife’s job and lied about being my own. Also, I came dirt-cheap.

My station was a drawing table in a cubicle. The cubicle, in the back row, had 4 walls solid on the bottom, glass on the top with an opening where my ‘clients’, young assistant art directors, would hang out busting balls. The fellow who sat in the cubicle adjacent to mine was an old man, possibly in his 60’s but it was hard to tell because his face was badly weathered. He wore the same outfit regardless of the season – light colored dungarees and up top a plaid flannel shirt under which was always a long sleeved T-shirt. I said his face was weathered, like he’d been living on the street – which it was rumored he had in fact done for a time. His voice was a faint rasp that emitted from the back of his throat, toned by too many Camel no-filters. He resembled the old cartoon character Popeye the Sailor only more swollen in the face. Whereas Popeye had been a bald man this fellow had a generous, full head of hair worn in the style popular with 50’s greasers – the D.A or Duck’s Ass which was coiffed with the hair swept back and piled high in a pompadour which flowed back to a flip at the collar. He was an old man and it was old hair, gray but once blond and so the gray was stained with a yellow tint like fingers stained from too much nicotine.

Joe K was his name. The letter K not Kaye like Danny Kaye, the last name being some unpronounceable Eastern European garble of consonants and so he was simply Joe K. Joe K was clearly a charity case who got his in from some other old timer who must have known him in better days. It was not unlike our studio manager, a devout born-again Christian to engage in this kind of rehab work. This sometimes made me question my own fortune in getting the gig.

Joe K (pronounced jokay) didn’t perform much work. He often called out sick and had used up his yearly allotment of vacation and sick days by April. He spent his time carving objects from wood he would scavenge around the dumpsters of mid-town Manhattan. He worked with single-edged razor blades crafting miniature tugboats, railroad cars and other models to order for some of the old art directors. His hands were shaky and he’d often curse as he'd slice open a finger. He colored the wood with Magic Markers and then coat them with an aerosol lacquer that didn’t help his emphysema. He smoked at his desk all day long.

Joe K was a smelly old man. This was not a light whiff of body odor that you might expect on a co-worker after a day’s work. Joe K was epically stinky. The proper language to employ to describe the effect of his smell would need to be that used to describe the titanic struggles of history. It would take a Homer to do it justice. The stench was dense and invariable in its pungency. It had tang. It reminded me of chicken soup and freshly sharpened pencils. It changed the molecular composition of other air it came into contact with and had the power to linger suspended in place a full ten minutes after Joe had passed down a hallway. It was a stink with presence, a physicality that could be experienced like cutting across the wake left by a passing container ship.

Many of those who worked in or frequented the bullpen urged the studio manager to have a word with Joe K. We’d watch from across the room as the hygiene conference unfolded. Joe protesting that he showered regularly. It was recommended he wash his clothing with greater frequency and vigor. If he did, it didn’t help. We surreptitiously placed a half dozen stick-up deodorizers under his drawing table. Joe didn’t notice them. Neither did the stink.

One of our stock art materials in those days was rubber cement that had Benzene as a main ingredient. Benzene was a known carcinogen productive of irreversible central nervous system damage and testicular atrophy – it was listed on the side of the container. I would leave a large open can of it on my drawing table to scent the air. New Jersey Potpourri. I considered it a fair trade-off to be able to make it through the day. Maybe it was my karma payback for having lied to get in the door.

It was hard not to like Joe K. He had an innocence and exuded an innate positivity along with his wretched stench. When he did work he was good and knew his stuff. Old School. He would never learn to use a computer but he was accurate as hell with a ruling pen. On those rare occasions that he did shower he’d arrive at work, late, but with his head uplifted and his D.A. light and fluffy. It was heartening to see that old bastard in a good mood. It never lasted long.

Joe wasn’t aware that he had an aroma. He explained to me that he had lost his sense of smell when he was young after falling asleep in a bathtub full of beer. That’s hard living. With all that, Joe had a lady friend, a Miss L. who he referred to as ‘my angel’. I’m guessing this heavenly creature had no sense of smell.

Joe K. had an incredible knack for finding money. Change in a pay phone, bills on the sidewalk or in an old pair of pants. This latter must have been infrequent if it coincided with laundry day. For Joe, good fortune always traveled with bad for whenever Joe found money he was soon thereafter visited by some calamity usually in proportion to the sum found. A quarter on the sidewalk, a spilled cup of coffee; a fiver on the sidewalk, a thumb slice in the paper cutter that would take five stitches to close. One afternoon Joe returned from lunch, late, with a great find – an envelope stuffed with cash, probably drug money dropped in mid flight. We all urged Joe to look both ways when crossing the street. A few days later the black butterfly of Karma laid him low. While helping ‘my angel’ to move some suitcases from her attic to her basement, Joe missed a step and took a tumble. The suitcase hit the concrete floor of the basement first and sprang open. It was an old-fashioned Samsonite job with metal bands around its belly. These, of course, came free and Joe landed on one, tearing his rectum. Ouch.

A few weeks later Joe returned from convalescing. It was the beginning of the end. He’d also hurt his leg and since he couldn’t afford a doctor, he treated it by wrapping it tightly with an ACE bandage. That first day back Joe was tortured with a horrible itch from his crotch to his ankle. He bade me stand in front of him to block him from view of the ‘lady artists’ as he furiously scratched himself seeking relief. Was this itch a result of the fall? Joe recalled to me a similar itch about a year prior from a bad case of poison sumac. The sumac had responded to some ointment liberally applied and held in place by an ACE bandage, this same ACE bandage Joe had pressed into service after the tumble.

Joe was not good at laundry.

Soon after this Joe was diagnosed with throat cancer. It was rough but after a few weeks Joe was back at his drawing table. His voice box had been removed and he wore a thick muffler around his neck to hide the hole. It was disturbing to watch and hear him clean his blowhole at the sink in the bullpen. Once, he was in a really bad way with some sort of blockage of the blowhole. Studio Manager recommended he go to the emergency room. We learned later that the blockage had been a fly that had managed to somehow crawl under and up the muffler to the blowhole.

Joe still had his sense of humor and was a great kidder. He had this small vibrating device he’d hold to his neck which would amplify the air as it passed up his throat allowing him with some difficulty to form words and sort of be understood. He’d come upon you unawares and ‘goose’ you with the little vibrator. He always had a big grin on his face, which would twist in soundless laughter as you jumped.

Joe was a dumpster diver and would often visit a landfill down by the Brooklyn docks searching for discarded treasures he could refurbish to earn a buck. On one trip he was mauled by a pack of wild dogs. When returning home from the hospital he was mugged on the subway. He was targeted because he couldn’t cry out for help.

I lost track of Joe K after that.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Screenwriter's whine. (or, why is no one paying attention to my greatness?)

I'll admit to knowing exactly two screenwriters who have had works make it to the screen so let me confine this diatribe to fledglings and wish-to-be's.

To employ a seasonal paraphrase, "Why are writers different from all other artists?".

The question begs the opposite - "and how are they similar?". Musicians and visual artists (the ones for whom the term"artist" was once to me the only appropriate use of the word) seem to have a different relationship with their output. I read writers constant bitching that the one script they've managed to complete, and which is more often than not a polished first draft, isn't setting the world on fire or filling their bank account. I can't imagine a musician or painter considering a single example of their art as the one defining achievement they rest their futures upon.

Of all the creative dabblers, painters have the easiest access to an audience in the form of the community art show. My town hall has one and the stuff is uniformly crap. Perhaps one in a thousand will do the necessary continuous study and repeated work to elevate themselves to the next level - the selective local art gallery and then -?

Musicians might slip in an original song during a set of Dave Mathews staples and classic rock retreads but they too at least have some possibility of an audience. I know painters and musicians and it's never been my experience to meet one who played me one song or showed me one drawing or painting and had the attitude "where's the recognition based on this one thing".

Maybe it's because the only audience available to a beginning writer is either the internet echo chamber or Mom. Hey, writers, it may be the 10th script or the 20th or it may never happen. But it sure as heck ain't going to happen after 1. Get comfortable with the reality that it's a long haul. You might get lucky, and isn't that what American Idol is all about? The overnight sensation? But it's a lot more likely that tomorrow's superstars are driving around in a dangerously unroad-worthy van play a series of one-nighter's in dive bars.

Let the hating begin!

Your sometimes pal, ROger

Monday, January 25, 2010

Finding Your Audience

If you sing a silly song and children laugh and clap with delight, you've found an audience.

If the comedic recounting of your first anal experience fails to delight and entertain, you've not found an audience. And if you're trying out on the same audience who went for the song, you are in big trouble.

Your creative impulse is seeking an outlet. As detailed above, that outlet can manifest itself in a variety of forms.  The creative spirit can find issue through divergent channels. One artist maybe seek expression simultaneously in Music, Dance, Pictorial, Writing. Another through different aspects within a single art - playwrite, screenwriter, short fiction,(gasp) poetry. 

My creative impulse periodically asserts a need for an outlet in Performance. And I have unleashed the spirit at various points along the performance continuum - starting close to home by "cracking-myself-up", through being the center of attention/life of the party (acting out) up to performing onstage before a paying audience.

I discovered that your acceptance by an audience, how they embrace you and for what, may not be entirely under your control.

Going back to the earlier two examples, children's song and anal comedy, an audience, even a receptive one, may not accept a particular performance from you. They may be a comedy club audience, who have showed up for "filthy night", your material may be as ribald and naughty as any, yet they don't accept it from you. You prepared, did your homework, worked on the content, the jokes and the delivery but somehow it doesn't work coming from you.
Something about you and the material, the genre just don't click. When you find your material and your VOICE brings it alive for others, you can feel it working and it's a beautiful thing.
Maybe it's the difference between creating for the sheer joy of it and creating on-demand, even if it's on demand for yourself.

If you are creating to a purpose, most likely a commercial purpose, identifying your audience may be a more murky matter. In the example above of the children's song, make it a children's book, who would you the author logically assume your audience to be? Children? More likely an associate editor in her mid-twenties with a master's degreee in Literature and ambitions to shape the culture as a gatekeeper of what reaches and influences little minds.

Finding your audience always starts with you, with what moves you and in the performance thereof what is most authentic to your strongest impulses.

Here's a quote from Emerson:

"The reason why any one refuses his assent to your opinion, or his aid to your design is in you: he refuses to accept you as a bringer of truth, because, though you think you have it, he feels you have not given him the authentic sign".*

I guess wherever your authors voice finds it's truest efflorescence, it'll mean something to someone.

your pal, roger

*Emerson : New England Reformers

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Learnin' the hard way

I started to write in 2007. I haven't received any payment for a word I've ever written. So I don't call myself a writer. As soon as someone is willing to trade money for what I write, Tada: writer.

Until then, this.


I'm eager to get on with my life as a writer for movies. So eager that I'll take any seemingly legit opportunity that I can either scare up or that finds me by whatever channel.

Last May one found me.

I  got hooked up with a TV pilot writing gig last year by a contact from the world of stand-up comedy. It seemed promising but ended up as a total shit storm for which I will never see a dime. I emailed my 30 Rock spec script to the producers and they liked it.  We took a meeting. Two young people who had a mysterious third partner who was never available to meet. These were the “producers”. They had a legit director attached, a guy who has done a lot of Letterman and Conan segments. He was at the first meeting and that was a big draw for me.


I wrote a 36 page pilot based on their bible and they loved it. I never heard back from them for about three months. Then I get a text saying the project is still on and they have a connection at Lionsgate who loved the project but was thinking of it as a 1-hour project for Showtime. So I expanded my 1/2 hour to a 1 hour which now also featured a new lead character which it was said John Turturro was interested in playing.


I hadn't seen the name director at any of the meetings since the first and so I asked about him. As it turns out, the three “producers” had LIED about having funding, there was no money and the director didn't appreciate being lied to and having his time wasted so they had a big blow-up and director-man bolted. It would have been nice if this crucial piece of information has not been kept from me before I re-wrote the 1 hour pilot AND an additional 10 page "teaser" script - which was all they had the money to film now.


But, they maintained that their connection to Lionsgate was legit and they were going forward with casting and filming. I was extremely pissed off as you may well imagine and was just on the verge of telling these kids to go fuck-off. But then, I went to sleep and awoke the next morning with the thought "maybe this is just par for the course. Maybe this is as good as it ever gets in show biz". And so I decided to see it through to the end - whatever would be the outcome.


They announced that the casting and filming would go ahead as planned.


They ran an ad on CRAIGSLIST!!! The ad stated "Major network sitcom casting this Friday" with a character breakout and followed by the phrase, "No compensation available".


Needless to say the ad was flagged and had to be pulled as total bullshit but not before getting a few dozen responses. So CASTING WENT FORWARD! WITH CRAIGSLIST RESPONDEES!!!


I attended the casting session, which was like being in a bad comedy about , well, casting a movie off of Craigslist. Imagine the worst community theater actors that ever appeared in your hometown production of The Music Man. Some of these people couldn't speak English, some were downright scary.

And best of all, the "producers" had not prepared enough copies of the scenes for all the "actors" to read. And since I was the only person with even a shred of experience I was enlisted to read opposite these hams. The “producers” didn't even have enough copies of the scenes printed for me to read from. One of the  "producers" a small woman with ADHD was actually handing out copy for these people to rehearse outside, then would call them into the audition, realize that I didn't have a copy of the scene to read and would simply switch the actor's scene - "I know you just rehearsed this outside but we don't have a copy for Roger so just read something else". Then the other "producer", ADHD's boyfriend announced that his tiny video camera had run out of batteries - he hadn't even brought along a cord to plug it in.


I left that night feeling that I had just been a party to a terrible hoax. The people auditioning must have also felt something was amiss. Many refused to sign a release as they feared the whole sorry mess would end up on Youtube.


Weeks passed and I finally get an email from ADHD telling me that a "rough  cut" is now up on Youtube and would I look at it and see whether I though it was ready to be shown to Lionsgate.


I looked.


They had simply had all the "actors" IMPROV it. Didn't use a word of what I had written. In fact had completely changed the concept and the characters.


The moral of this story? There are many.


First - Know who you are getting into bed with.

Second - Make sure you have protection.

Third - Make sure the money is in place first.


All good advice for either a screenwriter, or a prostitute.

Your pal,