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Friday, September 26, 2014

My Favorite Hour (A 50s Memoir)

When I was young, quite young actually, I held a much coveted position as a staff writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. It was there I met and worked with some of show business’s most notable comic minds: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Ernest Hemingway (who only worked the first season) and the always hysterical Topo Gigio.

Originally called His Show of Shows, 47 writers good and true were hired and sacked before they came up with Your Show of Shows. Their Show of His, Our Show of 90 Minutes, A Show of Hands (offered by sponsor Ponds), Skippy’s Peanutorium were all floated and sunk before Sid himself came up with his Your Show of Shows. It was rumored that Mel Brooks came up with the first Your but in Sid’s autobiography Your Book of Books (not to be confused with Mel Brook’s autobiography Your Book of Brooks) Caesar dispels that notion:

“Everybody wanted a piece of the title. Woody Allen ran around for months claiming exclusive rights to the ‘of’. The ‘of’. Who wanted a stupid ‘of’? Oy!”

It was an amazing time and a rare honor, almost raw, to work with such show business luminaries and Hemingway, who mostly contributed fishing sketches and brought the beer. In fact, it is a little known story that the beer was what ultimately led to Hemingway's leaving the team. Sid wasn’t big on fishing to begin with, so most of Ernie’s work ended in the crapper, which led to contention between them.

The break came when Ernie (he despised being called that) submitted receipts for the beer. I’ll never forget Sid’s response: “Forty thousand dollars for beer!? For that I could have bought some Germans and brewed my own!”

When he found out Ernie was the only one drinking it he went through the roof. When we got him back down he kvetched: “This is the funniest thing you’ve submitted since you worked here. And it breaks my heart. I could almost understand import, but Coors?”
And with that, he had Woody Allen fire him. Hemingway was a big man and didn’t begrudge Woody for this; we all knew Sid hating firing people. Especially large, rowdy, drunken people, who liked firearms and shows of masculine physicality. He hated firing those kinds of people.

So Woody took the hit for firing Hemingway. Right cross to the nose if I remember correctly. Sent him reeling over a waste can. While hysterically distressing at the time, after Woody got out of the hospital, all fences were mended, primarily by his legal team of Pinchuck, Moosebine & Berkowitz. With the costly litigation, Ernie was driven into early retirement to enjoy his declining years in peace, I imagine. Don’t know what ever became of him…

Originally Neil Simon worked as part of a writing duo with Art Garfunkel. After the Hemingway debacle, budgets were slashed and belts were tightened (this after the disastrous belt slashing and budget tightening first attempt) and Art was let go. Sid had Mel fire him: I remember Mel’s exact woids, “Dis is television, we sell soap. There’s no place for Art in TV.” As we all know that was later expanded to motion pictures, music, literature and the stage.

Of course, Art thought Mel was joking and continued showing up for work until he finally noticed the sign on his office no longer read Garfunkel & Simon, but simply Simon. Infuriated, he grabbed his letters and numbers, storming off, but in his haste he forgot his punctuation which gave Simon the edge in the writing game and it has served him well if popular accounts are to be believed. Garfunkel moved onto other pursuits and achieved phenomenal success in dry goods, where punctuation is only a luxury.

Of course Brooks and Reiner were virtually inseparable, beyond all the time they spent apart, one hilarity after another except, oddly enough, at work. At home, at Solly’s Deli on 54th (not to be confused with Sauli’s Belli on 45th), on the subway, in the elevator for Christ’s sake, these were two of the funniest guys I ever met. I actually lost weight trying to eat with them because I couldn’t get any food past my trachea. Hysterical.

But then they’d show up at work and couldn’t rub 2 chuckles together to save their lives. It was amazing. Initially dubbed Writer’s Block on the Clock, shortened to Clock Block out of convenience, some suspected it was an attempt to hold out for bigger paychecks, knowing that if Sid fired them, invariably he’d have to have one fire the other one which would just get messy and cost more than just tolerating their shenanigans. Hard to imagine these two comic powerhouses on a career defining show unable to come up with a joke, but there it was.

They actually made Hemingway look funny, putting a little hat on him and a big squeezy red nose. This of course after he had passed out drunk again after offering up his latest version of his fishing joke. He didn’t discover his get-up until he passed a mirror on 55th St South, whereby he punched a newsy and caught a hack to Trader Vic’s on 44th St W. Interestingly, he forgot to remove the offending apparel and ended up in an impromptu rendition of HMS Pinafore at Elaine’s.

To counter Clock Block, Sid had Alice Bluhearty, the network stenographer, follow Carl and Mel around and transcribe their conversations. Their first season contribution in fact came from 7 elevator rides, 3 breakfasts, 9 lunches, 12 dinners and a traffic jam on 9th St. One of their most memorable routines, that escapes me at the moment, came from them waiting for a prescription at Schwab’s on 97th.

A couple of wonderful guys, inoffensive to work with and brilliant to hang around with – sadly, owing to the remarkable trajectory of my career, I haven’t had opportunity to keep track of their work. I hope the industry has served them well.

And little Woody Allen; 2 first names and everything. Woody was the closest one to me age-wise, we were both the young upstarts and the subject of much ribbing, a little hipping and some spining from the other guys on the staff. After some particularly vicious shinning from Neil, Woody moved closer to my end of the conference table while castigating him, “Very mature, Neil. No, no really quality stuff. I’m beginning to understand why everybody thinks they took the wrong name off your door…”

I remember one particular crunch where we needed a punch-line for the Near-sighted Boxer sketch. Reiner kept suggesting the Boxer knocks himself out, while Brooks just kept repeating “Nibbles” (ultimately the line we went with). I’ll never forget at one point Woody looked up at me, as he did most people, and said, “Uh, could you pass me that pencil?” And I did. A defining moment in my writing career to be certain.

Woody was a chick magnet and he seemed to always have one or two stuck to his shirt or trousers. Often they would become the source of material for the show as we would peel them off and make them wait for Woody in the green room. Sid often said, “If comedy doesn’t woik out for you, you could become an adult haberdasher…”

In his autobiography Sid recounted, “When the show finally cancelled, Woody gave me a lovely double knit jacket with two blonds stuck to the sleeves. I only wear it on special occasions. Usually when the wife is out…”

At first I thought Sid had hired Topo so Woody would have someone to be bigger than, but the first week Topo made it clear he was settling for no sizism or rodent bias, or he would scurry. I came to feel he held something, some deep dark secret, some ineffable shame over Sid, and I wasn’t alone in this: Woody, Neil and Ernie all expressed similar sentiment. The way Sid let that cute little fuzz ball walk all over him made us sick to our stomachs, except for Woody, who got sick to his pancreas, leading to another hospital visit.

Once, while Woody was hospitalized for a pancreatic enema (Panema) Sid became incensed at my perfume joke, telling me in no uncertain terms, “It stinks!”, while the term Simon used was Fragrant. Eager to please Sid, I set about rewriting it, removing many of the “Nose” references. As I typed furiously, I felt a tap on my shoulder – it was a boy from Western Union with a telegram for me. It read:

To: Simmons

Writing Staff – Your Show of Shows

Re: C. – Topo asked me to inform you - You’re Sacked
That is all

Hemingway



Monday, September 22, 2014

Aloft

Deranged didactics dumbing down
Waylaid wearing world’s weight
Drawing deeply designers drown
Worried wonder why we wait
Rigid reason rejects renown
Insane insistence ids inflate
For fulsome fearsome faces frown
Constant cries commiserate
Seeking solace spirits soar
Heartened healthy heads held high
Majestic minds meander more
Worried we wait, wonder why
Entreat excitements eyes explore
Freed from fear from fetters fly
Elate ecstatic evermore
Satisfaction’s soaring sky

With wings we waft
Seek sojourn soft
Detritus doffed
Afloat aloft

Cumulous caressing cloud
Far from fervor friendlies float
United untamed unbowed
Reason’s wrecks remain remote
Even empathy endowed
Resolute resisting rote
Disappointment disavowed
An aerial antidote
With wings we waft
Seek sojourn soft
Detritus doffed
Alive aloft



©2014 simmbiosis 8/27/14

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nature Preserves/First Period

Nature Preserves

I sat at my desk, struggling to conclude my kid’s version of the Stephen King period piece, Carrie. My publisher, Garfunkel & Schuster, had been relentlessly dogging me owing to my rapidly approaching deadline coupled with the fact I hadn’t submitted a single page after 3 months while burning through my Advance, Movie Rights Advance, TV Spin-off Advance, and the pawning of the furniture in their reception area. It wasn’t going well.

I was distracted. For a guy that can compose piano concertos while writing alliterative lyrics, philosophical studies of the foundation of human linguistics, creating intense visual artwork and watching hardcore midget/donkey porn, that is no small admission. Most people are hard pressed to accomplish anything with midget/donkey porn on.

As a child of the media age, I thrive upon distraction; there’s always some noise happening somewhere near. Of course many bemoan such attention stealers; understandably, narrow focus in this broad range is difficult at best. But I can usually pull focus and force the issue (with midget/donkey porn this is essential), thus achieving amazing things under the strangest of conditions.

But I was stymied. I had spent 3 weeks trying to sanitize the scene where Carrie impales herself on a crucifix screaming “Fuck me Jesus, fuck me Jesus!” before Robin – muse and editrix – pointed out to me that that scene was from the movie The Exorcist and was thus not germane to the original assignment.

My agent, Morrie (Moose) Berkowitz, was near apoplexy, so I stopped taking his calls, prompting him to come by unannounced and wail out on my driveway for hours at a time until Ilsa next door complained. Moose – he hated that name – countered by playing recordings of her yapping, yowling curs back at her, prompting her back inside to fume.

Of course none of this helped so when I heard a knock at the door I was prepared, so I thought, for anything. I threw on a robe, Robin’s it turned out, so it acted as a tight-fitting mini-toga, and stormed to the door.

“I got it, Morrie, Garfunkel wants his lobby set back…I’m on the phone as we speak…”

I held my dead cell phone to my head and squinted to make it look like I was trying to hear over the distant, encroaching sirens. I looked askance; this wasn’t Morrie.

Indeed, upon my porch in the middle of Godridge, 3:00 in the afternoon, stood not my agent Morrie but a very distressed looking zebra. “I’ll call you back…” I said to the phone, then let it slip from my fingers to the runner on the foyer linoleum. The zebra watched as it hit the floor then looked back up at me, puzzled. I’m sure I must have been something to see there in my wild haired, red-eyed, mini-toga thing.

Now, I’m fairly open minded; I work hard to avoid too much bias in my perspective. But even at my best I found it hard to reconcile a zebra soliciting door to door. I thought, “Jehovah’s Witness?” then quickly dispelled that notion in favor of solar retrofitting. I noticed he didn’t have a clipboard. Our eyes met.

“Uh, can I help you?” It was instinctive I suppose; I have pretty much always spoken to animals as if they could not only understand human, but Americanized English human. He looked at me imploringly, but I suspect didn’t decipher the nuance in my query. The sirens neared, accompanied now by the sounds of thoroughly unhappy people, lots of shouters.

The zebra (Eddie his name apparently) looked over his shoulder at the sounds of the nearing people then looked back at me, hopefully. I looked past him at the still street and could hear the local Godridge chopper and about 30 different sirens all closing in, fast. It took me a beat, but I got it when Eddie looked down at his hooves then back up at me.

The Welcome Mat.

Damn, he had me. Originally purchased for hookers and drug dealers, it had fallen into recent disuse owing to dearth of funds resultant to its original application coupled with Advance profligacy. I looked at him, then pulled the door open as I stepped aside. He wiped his hooves on the mat then stepped in graciously. I showed him into the dining room then closed the door.

He stood there, kind of embarrassed, which made me a little uneasy as well – some situations are more difficult than others to muster small talk in. I almost asked if he’d like a seat, then realized I didn’t know if I’d want him to stay that long. I didn’t even know what he was being pursued for. Perhaps he had mal intent. I took a cautious position.

Eddie looked at me with what I would characterize as gratitude – but later turned out to be gas - and then looked around the place. Most of my minor work he gave a quick look at, he actually snorted at Crucifried but was clearly more enamored of Robin’s Meth Odd painting over the firepit/TV hole, viewing it from different angles, adjusting the light for better representation.

There came a frenzied knocking at the door. Eddie looked up concerned. I looked at him, “Relax. I’ll see who it is…”

“There’s an escaped zebra on the loose!” He was a pudgy little bald guy. His name patch declared him Pete.

“Well, that would be consistent with escape.” Pete eyed me suspiciously – what was I up to? I elaborated, “Being on the loose and all.” He wasn’t buying it, so I turned it back on him and the wild-eyed contingent swarming the street beyond his pudgy suspicions.

“How could you lose a zebra in Northridge*!?”
Pete was on the defensive, right where I wanted him, “I didn’t lose it! They had it for the Farmer’s Market. On loan from the Zoo…”

Ah, the weekly Farmer’s Market at the Fascist Center. In the media pit, Eddie knocked over The Simpson’s Season 14 with a crash while nosing around the DVDs. Pete looked up concerned. I covered.

“The Fashion Center** is 2 miles away. How did it get all the way over here? Presuming it is…” Now Pete was annoyed. He scrunched up his pudgy face, then shoved his hand in his coveralls. “Crash. Down on Plummer. Just trying to warn people.” He scowled at me then turned back to the busyness on the street beyond, his voice trailing off, “Asshole.”

I closed the door and went back in. Eddie was watching The Great Escape. I brought out the Fiddle Faddle. Don’t think I’ll ever finish that adaptation…

*what infidels call Godridge
**what conservatives call the Fascist Center



First Period


A lonely little girl lived in a town not far away. Her mother was very sick and had no one but her daughter to help her. Like her lonely girl, she was very lonely as well. They only had each other.

They lived on a quiet street in a small house with two stories. As they had no TV, they would often amuse themselves telling and retelling those stories. The little girl had a special room all to herself, under the stairs, where she could think about the stories and other things her mother wanted her to.

Her mother had a bad sickness, it made her see things that weren’t there and think people who were pretty much average were instead very, very bad. This more than any other thing kept her from having friends; she was afraid of people and that made them afraid of her too.

The little girl was like her mother in that she was afraid of people. The kids in her town didn’t understand why she was afraid of them and as most kids most places, were too selfish to care enough to find out why. So they teased her. They called her names, threw things at her and did things to embarrass her, to make her feel even worse than she did.

It worked and she sunk into her mind where she could be accepted, where she could be liked. Unlike other girls and boys who had to use their bodies to move things, she was able to move things with her thinking. The problem came in that she had the most power to move things when she was angry.

It came to pass that when her feelings got hurt, other people’s bodies got hurt too. This did not help her get more friends. And as she had none, one would be more.

When little girls become big girls, their bodies change much like when babies become little girls: they get bigger in places; they get stronger and smarter and faster. When little girls become big girls they become able to make babies. Their bodies change to allow that to occur. The girls at her school knew about this. The little girl didn’t.

She found out at school. First period, in the gym, she found out in a most embarrassing way. The girls at school saw fit to embarrass her even more; they mocked, called her names, threw things at her. This made the little girl cry. She was very sad. When she understood that her issue was normal for girls her age, she was relieved, but very unhappy.

She asked her mother why she never told her about this, why she was allowed to go to school not knowing. But her mother was sick. She told her daughter that the issue of her concern was the result of her bad behavior, that she was a bad girl with bad thoughts. She made the little girl go to her special place to think on her distress. This made the little girl very unhappy.

Things began to move about.

One of the girls at her school felt bad about making fun of the little girl. She had her boyfriend ask her to the prom, a big deal in any girl’s life. The little girl didn’t believe him; she thought she was being tricked. But her classmate’s boyfriend did not give up and finally the little girl agreed to go with him.

One of the girls who made fun of the little girl could not go to the prom for that very reason. She and her boyfriend came up with a way to really embarrass the little girl. She blamed the little girl for her not being able to go to the prom. She did not see her part in her problems. They would come to haunt her.

The little girl, in a dress she made, enjoyed the prom. She and her classmate’s boyfriend were even crowned king and queen of the prom. Then the mean girl and her meaner boyfriend played their trick on the little girl.

So she killed them all.

The End