Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cheer Up, Sleepy Jean


Just how popular were “The Monkees”?

Let me put it this way. Peter Tork’s little brother went to my high school. In Regina, Saskatchewan. In 1966.

When school let out, there were always a couple of carloads of girls from other high schools waiting to catch sight of him.

Not catch sight of Peter Tork, who lived in LA and more or less played Bass guitar for the original boy band. But to glimpse his little brother, who was 14, kinda nerdy and still went by the family moniker of Thorkelson.

I think dad was a math prof at the University and they’d just happened to move into town the same Summer “The Monkees” went Supernova.

Lil Bro pretty much kept to himself to the point the school paper took him to task for saying his previous high school in LA had been “more fun”.

The printed admonition urged him to take part in more school activities like sock hops and basketball games – which of course would have benefitted the Student Council by attracting those carloads of girls to pay their way in to such dances and games.

I was personally conflicted by “The Monkees”. On one hand their music was pure bubblegum. On the other, their TV show was by far the freshest and most anarchist creation on the tube.

Part sitcom, part musical, part weekly recreation of The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”, it constantly pushed the envelope of television creativity at the time.

Episodes introduced songs that would top the next week’s hit parade. Some featured wall to wall music beginning to end. The final episode of season one was a behind the scenes documentary of one of the band’s first concerts in Phoenix, Arizona.

So while my musical affiliations lay with The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, I had to acknowledge there was something special going on with that half hour faux band TV show.

The conflict was even deeper because at 15 or 16, I was a dead ringer for Davy Jones. (And Bobby Sherman too, but that’s another story).

Pretty soon I was cutting my hair to be more like his and buying the same shirts. I mean, let’s face it, with the distaff half of my high school addicted to “Tiger Beat”, resembling Davy offered certain –- uh –- advantages.

How popular were “The Monkees”?

Did you know Jimi Hendrix opened for them on their first concert tour? That songs scrawled set-side to be shot before the crew went into overtime topped the Billboard charts for not weeks, but months!?!

Do they leave a lasting musical legacy?

I don’t know. But I think we can end the debate about how Justin Beiber came up with his original haircut –- not to mention most of his dance moves.

When it comes right down to it, what appeals to teenage girls isn’t much different from one era to another, is it?

Davy Jones died today and though he and his band haven’t been in my thoughts for years, a lot of memories came flooding back.

Standing in line at the 25th Avenue Dairy Queen as “Last Train To Clarksville” debuted on my transistor radio.

Laughing my ass off at one of those Benny Hill inspired chase scenes set to “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.

Listening to “Daydream Believer” in the backseat of a parked ‘63 Dodge and thinking, “Y’know, these guys aren’t so bad.”

Mostly his passing made me realize that Life is really, really fucking short. Time passes quicker than you ever thought possible.

So make a point of making the most of every single day. Because it all too soon moves on. And us with it.

The City Of Samba

If this were a regular year, today would be the First of March.

I always have a problem with March.

March is the month that teases Canadians. We're sick to death of Winter by now. All that, "We love the cold!" bravado is wearing terribly thin and even the cup of morning coffee that reheats us comes with a chill of inevitable disappointment when we roll up the rim.

Every day the weather people with their sadistic grins promise that the "long-range forecast" indicates a warming trend. But it never arrives. And we know they`re demons dispatched by Satan to toy with our sanity.

There are sports reports from points South promising soft evenings of baseball, where only the beer is cold. But they're not here yet.

Elsewhere there is Mardi Gras and Carnival. Naked people in full debauch while we still climb into bed wearing our socks.

Oh, for five minutes in the City of Samba. It`ll get you through the day -- and maybe even the 3 or 4 weeks of icy ones to come.

(Expand to full screen. It`s like cranking the thermostat.)

The City of Samba from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 209: Wolfpack Of Reseda

It's heartening to see how quickly independent production, unfettered by the gatekeepers of traditional media, is propagating in the online world.

Netflix has a hit on its hands with "Lilyhammer", a thoroughly enjoyable Norwegian co-pro, that in the past would have struggled to find an audience in a bad time slot on a niche specialty channel given its multilingual format and laid back presentation.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan has announced he's following in Louis CK's footsteps soon, releasing his own comedy special packaged as an economical download.

And now, Fox Digital Entertainment, an arm of the far-flung Murdoch Empire, has released "Wolfpack of Reseda", a polished series billed as "The Office" meets "True Blood" available on the Fox owned MySpace and co-financed by South Korean car maker KIA.

Bit by bit, these ventures are revealing the business model for digital success. 

Network television production value achieved through the economy of scale provided by new technologies combined with a sponsor who can finance an entire series for the the cost of a single national TV spot while reaching an immediate world-wide audience.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with two producers prepping Canadian digital series funded in part by the Canadian Media Fund.  

They were trading ideas on finding the sponsorship they needed to top up their budgets since government funding didn't begin to cover their actual cost of production, let alone the bells and whistles that make a web series attractive to an audience with a vast array of quality material available to it.

And I have no doubt either series could deliver their specific demographic to a sponsor. It's just that Canadian companies still seem reticent to tie their brands to one particular title in the digital realm.

To be honest, there's no real connection between the content of "Wolf Pack of Reseda" and KIA automobiles that I can see. In fact, you're 12 minutes into the first 14 minute episode before you're even aware of a product placement. So the appeal for the company must be the fact that the series targets young people in need of a vehicle in the KIA price range.

Don't we have Canadian companies in need of reaching their potential customers? 

You can't tell me that Blackberry wouldn't think an online audience might be quite prone to sampling the benefits of all those tablets the company can't seem to sell.

Enbridge must be looking for a way to reach all those younger hearts and minds less receptive to their various pipeline plans.

From BC Ferries on the West Coast to Hydro companies in Ontario, there are a ton of corporate entities in need of sprucing up their public image and maybe making some online friends by sponsoring a few minutes of digital entertainment.

And we, as the creators of content, need to be reaching out to them as well. 

Whatever you felt about the web series produced with CMF support last year, you had to admit that by the time they all got to creating their online presence, they were clearly down to the last of the spare change and were making do with the bare bones necessary to be found in cyberspace.

On the other hand, the "Wolfpack of Reseda" website is as slick as anything that comes out of the Fox non-digital studios, featuring an impressive design (for a MySpace page) as well as such add-ons as a 12 pack playlist by well-known artists culled from the series soundtrack.

It's a potent reminder that unless we get away from government being the primary funder of Canadian web content, we'll never compete with the rest of the world.

Time to release the Corporate Wolves. And Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wolfpack of Reseda - First Bite - Ep. 1

Wolfpack Of Reseda | Myspace Video

Friday, February 24, 2012

Burying The Future

Pierre Juneau Peter Bregg CP_large

As I write this, a very old man lies in a mortuary visitation room in Outremont, Quebec. Over today and tomorrow, family, friends and probably not many of the public will drop by to pay their respects.

Perhaps the room will be silent, deadened further by the funeral home’s sound dampening carpet.

Maybe they’ll pipe in some Muzak. If that’s the case, I hope someone shows him the respect of making one third of it Canadian.

Pierre Juneau passed away last Tuesday, his death virtually unreported in English Canada for most of the day.

There’s a certain sad irony to that, since without the man, most of this country’s broadcast media wouldn’t even be here.

I probably first heard of Pierre Juneau in 1968 or 69. Most likely, I didn’t have a clue who he was and certainly didn’t know a thing about the Canadian Radio & Television Commission where he worked.

But my College roommate was an AM radio DJ in Regina named Colin Sanders –- “The Colonel” to his fans. And one of our buddies was Dave Warren, the only FM Rock DJ in the city.

Colin had to spin top 40 hits and hated the regimented playlist chocked with bubblegum as much as he envied Dave’s ability to play the full 17 minute version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and entire commercial free sides of the latest Hendrix.

But both of them were troubled when this guy Juneau decreed 1/3 of the music played on Canadian radio had to be by Canadian artists.

The rules applied to both their formats and neither believed there were enough bands or music to fill the quota. And even if there were, there was no way it could compete with what was burning up the charts from San Francisco, LA and New York –- let alone England.

This had the potential to be tragically, parochially embarrassing.

Only it wasn’t.


Within weeks, the airwaves were full of music from guys named Lightfoot, women named Buffy and even some coffee house poet from Montreal called Leonard who couldn’t actually sing -– but still...

We didn’t have a clue who they were. But their stuff was as good as the rest of what was out there and waaaaaay better than having to listen to Bobby Sherman or the 1910 Fruit Gum Company.

Within months, bands that had played local high school gyms before the ruling, like Winnipeg’s “Chad Allan & The Expressions”, had become Internationally known Platinum album artists forced to adopt the more appropriate marketing moniker “Guess Who”.

On July 1, 1971, I attended my first rock concert in Toronto at Varsity Stadium. It featured nothing but Canadian stars like “Lighthouse” and “McKenna Mendelsohn Mainline” and climaxed with Burton Cummings of “The Guess Who” (their marketing now formalized) belting the nation’s new anthem “American Woman”.

Screw that duplicitous bitch! We didn’t need to take whatever crap she was peddling anymore. We had our own!

Those of a mind might’ve wandered around the corner after that concert to catch some metal at “The Gasworks” which featured Kim Mitchell’s band “Max Webster” or a new trio called “Rush”.

And the creative explosion Pierre Juneau had wrought wasn’t restricted to music.

On your way down Yonge Street to that metal bar you passed theatres playing new Canadian movies by Don Shebib and Bill Fruet. And every mail box and telephone pole was plastered with posters announcing the debut of a “New Canadian Play”.

We had suddenly realized we were just as good as anybody else. Maybe we were even better than them.

Anything was possible.

Soon there were Canadian plays on Broadway and London’s West End. TV crews swaggered around town in ball caps reading “We don’t give a Fuck how they do it in LA!”

Dentists begged producers to put their life savings into movies.

We even had our own award shows called Genies and Geminis. The Music guys had already aptly labelled theirs the Juno.

Double Juno winner Drake poses with his trophies at the Juno Awards Sunday, April 18, 2010  in St. John's N.L.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

The year I produced the Genie Awards, Burton Cummings was nominated for some song and the show was at the Royal Alex, provided for the broadcast by owner "Honest Ed” Mirvish.

During the dress rehearsal, we had to run Burton's number several times because of some complicated choreography. He did the full song every time, each rendition pitch perfect.

The 2nd time through I noticed that Ed had come down from his office to an aisle seat, quietly clapping along with the music.

The 3rd time through some guy with an overcoat and suitcase wandered in and sat next to him. It was Juneau.

He must’ve been President of the CBC by then and I’m sure had been invited to the soiree. But he explained that he'd been out of town, hadn’t expected to be back and had given away his ticket. But he hoped if he came to the theatre he could buy one.

We were completely sold out. So I gave him mine.

Later in the rehearsal, I noticed all three of those men watching somebody else's number and considered that without Juneau Burton might not have had a career and without Ed we wouldn't have a show that looked as classy. Yet neither of those guys expected anything in return for what they gave the industry.

They just saw talent and found a way to support it.

I also recall thinking I should go over and thank them. But I sensed that might cause some embarrassment -- in that way people get uncomfortable being recognized for doing what we all know is just the right thing to do.

I’ve always believed that if we’d stuck with Juneau’s simple formula (one third of all broadcast content) the continuing success of the music business would have raised our film and TV industries to the same heights. God knows the talent is there.

But instead, we’ve devolved into a morass of Tier One, Category “B”, Minority Partner co-production nonsense where the only Canadians being employed are tax accountants.

For all their good works, even our Cancon heavy public broadcaster now programs fewer hours of Canadian comedy and drama than at any time in their 75 year history.

But at a simple to follow 1/3 of Prime Time, 1/3 of daytime, 1/3 of late night we’d have an industry twice its current size and productivity.

And imagine a Canada where 1/3 of the screens played a Canadian movie. The whole country would feel like Quebec.

But the bean-counters, the equivocators and the fair-minded burghers of regionalism or political expediency have carried us far from the promised land that Pierre Juneau first let us glimpse.

Without this man, guys like me would have never believed we could ever have a career in this country. And I can’t help feeling that when he is laid to rest this weekend we’ll really be burying what could have been our future.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It Cuts Both Ways


February 3rd, after short labor dispute, heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar closed the Electro-Motive plant it operated in London, Ontario, throwing 700 people out of work.

There was justifiable outrage across the country with many in the media laying blame for the job losses at the feet of the Federal government, a government that was branded as insensitive and uncaring.

Listening to some of that you’d think our current rulers were the most heartless, nasty people imaginable. And perhaps they are.

Or maybe it’s something else…

Many years earlier – 1988 to be exact – and almost to the month, a similar decision by an American parent company delivered a similar blow to the Canadian Television industry.

I was working as head writer (the term of the time) on the CBS series “Adderly”. We’d just completed our second 22 episode season and, given our increased ratings and low production costs, were quite confident of being handed a third.

Along with our sister Canadian series, “Night Heat” and “Diamonds”, we’d carved out a profitable late night niche on the Tiffany network. “Crime Time after Prime Time” was delivering a large audience eager to watch something other than talk shows.

But CBS had a better idea.

Their audience research had concluded that “Wheel of Fortune” spinner Pat Sajak had the makings of a crackerjack talk show host. So Pat was handed our time slots and we were history.


The three Canadian shows dropped employed about 200 people full time. “Night Heat” was granted a brief reprieve to shoot enough episodes to reach a more lucrative syndication level. But the cancellations were a body blow to the local industry.

Yet, nobody blamed the government.

No one in the media took anyone to task for not fighting for Canadian artists.

There was nary a mention of the loss to the economy or what might become of we, the most affected.

And after a full blown wake in which we both literally and figuratively laid our lead character to rest, we stopped crying about what had happened as well.

Life isn’t fair. Shit happens. Nobody owes you a living. Especially in the Show Business.

I’m sorry if that seems cold or cruel. But the reality is those 200 jobs didn’t "disappear”. They went somewhere else to be sure. Because Pat Sajak and CBS still needed writers and directors and a crew to fill the hours we had vacated.

And the same thing has happened at Caterpillar, who last Friday announced that it was creating 1400 new jobs in Athens, Georgia.

At the press conference announcing these jobs, (repatriated from Japan) a company official thanked President Barack Obama for creating a business climate where companies could finally bring jobs back to America.

He even promised that more were to come and most assume the Electro-Motive jobs will soon materialize in Muncie, Indiana.

So, who’s the real villain here? A corporate cozy Canadian Prime Minister or a Union friendly American leader who needs to get job numbers up in an election year –- even if those jobs go to non-union “right to work” states like Georgia and Indiana?

Individual companies and individual governments do what they think is best for them all the time.

But news outlets like CBC didn’t mention that Caterpillar announcement or President Obama’s apparent part in it. Instead it struck a different tone – or rather the same one that’s become tiresomely familiar over the past year.

There are two phrases you hear daily on our public broadcaster when discussions turn to the Harper government. “Well, they have the numbers…” or the more despondent “They have a majority so they can do what they like…”.

The odd thing is, despite many recent years when another political party had majority governments, I don’t remember hearing that sentiment expressed.


But now it’s there all the time, as if something has gone horribly wrong with the country. That reached a peak last week with a similar burst of outrage from the son of a former Prime Minister.

His remarks sparked the following response from Andrew Coyne, editor of the National Post…

“…as if the Conservatives believed they had not only the power to pass legislation, but the right; as if this were the sort of thing any democratically elected government might do. Imagine.”

Yet CBC gives the continuous impression that events like Electro-Motive or the housing crisis in Attawapiskat would not have happened if we were governed by those of a different political stripe.

Like maybe – Brazil….

crying chief

This is a photograph of the Chief of the Kayapo tribe, breaking down as he’s told that Brazil’s socialist President Dilma Rousseff intends to go ahead with a hydro-electric dam that will flood his people’s ancestral home, forcing more than 40,000 of the country’s aboriginal population to be resettled elsewhere.

You’d think an environmentally concerned broadcaster like CBC might have covered this story. But they haven’t.

There’s a similar irony in their concern for the loss of Canadian jobs when they regularly schedule programming like “The Tudors”,  “Camelot” and “Coronation Street” that don’t employ many or any Canadians.

For me and a many other veteran Canadian artists, there’s a particular sting in the fact that five hours a week on CBC are unavailable to Canadian media workers because that time is reserved for the same guy who once killed our jobs –- Pat Sajak, back on “Wheel of Fortune” because his talk show was a disastrous failure.

But what’s most interesting about all this is that our national broadcaster, while claiming it is there to serve ALL Canadians has opted for a philosophy that Clay Johnson, author of “The Information Diet”, describes as “Pizza is better than Broccoli”.

That means that their job has become providing affirmation of what their core audience already believes. Not the news. Not reality. Not perspective.  They simply make sure the people defeated in the last federal election still think they’re “right”.

And who among us really wants to be informed when we can simply be told that we’re right. That we’ve always been right. And those who don’t share our vision are horribly misguided and stupid and wrong.

It’s smart marketing. But is it really what we should get from a public broadcaster?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 208: The Dream Factory Malfunctions

jersey shore

Those of us who make fictional TV have sensed from its inception that there was something malignant about Reality television.

Initially we felt we might be taking it a little too personally. The thing kind of flew in the face of all those years of training and apprenticeship that usually went into being able to call yourself a professional artist.

On Reality shows, actors were replaced by people who were tired of going through Life as neighborhood douchebags.

Writers were less those who could craft confrontation or suspense than replicate it on about the level of a high school production of “Twelve Angry Men”.

The ranks of producers and directors mostly seemed to be stacked with misogynists who had a sadistic streak.

In a recent interview, Joan Rivers former manager describes a conversation with Donald Trump, wherein the celebrity industrialist bemoans NBC failing to see the merit of his perfect “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant –- O.J. Simpson.

There are also some juicy bits on how all that money raised for “charity” is really handled.

By now, we’re used to stories of reality stars behaving badly, ending up in jail, doing porn or simply spinning off the rails into a drug or alcohol induced haze.

More than a few have killed themselves either during or after their 15 minutes of Reality fame.

And let’s be honest, if you or I came to the realization that after years of being a showrunner, rock star or revered athlete our only career option was a cheese ball reality show, we might go looking for a sturdy length of hemp ourselves.

But it now seems the argument can be made that the muddy ripples of the Reality TV swamp have begrimed more than just those who work in it or see it replacing the fare their own Dream Factory once produced.

I guarantee what follows will leave you helpless with laughter. But it also reveals an ugly truth you know in your heart can’t be denied.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Kid

I grew up around baseball. My dad had been scouted by the White Sox and invited to training camp. An invitation he turned down to sign with a different team taking on some guy named Hitler.

After the war, getting on with life took precedence, but he still played for hometown teams and coached my brother and I in Little League.

He was a Yankee fan through the DiMaggio, Mantle and Maris years, so I became one too. 

One winter, he got us through the long wait for Spring Training with a record that featured the Voice of the Yankees, Mel Allen. Somehow the vinyl skipped the needle back and forth, making Mel call random plays you played out on the baseball field game board on the cover. Remarkably, you could go a whole nine innings without Mel ever repeating himself.

When the Minnesota Twins came along, they were the geographically closest Major League team so I tried rooting for them for a while. But it didn't take.

Late nights, the ionosphere would beam Detroit Tiger games in perfectly clearly on my transistor radio, so I tried them on. Again, it didn't take.

In 1967, I went to Montreal for Expo67, where everybody I met seemed to root for the Red Sox. That almost took. But not quite.

My love for Montreal did take hold, however, so when they got a Major League franchise two years later, becoming one of their first fans just seemed the right thing to do.

The Expos, like all expansion teams, mostly stunk. But they were on television enough to really follow. And a couple of years later, they drafted a player who would become their first real star -- Gary Carter.

Carter entered the minors as a shortstop and got his ticket to the Show two years later as a catcher. By the time he made his Expos debut, he was mostly known as "The Kid" because he played the game with all the joy of a boy who'd skipped school to get in a game on some sandlot.

Gary would be an All-Star seven times with the Expos and elevated them to a team worth watching almost single handed. But after a couple of years, I started cheating on he and the Expos for the expansion team that had moved into Toronto. That fan relationship stuck and probably will for life.

But I still got a few kicks from watching The Kid. I finally got to see him play live in one of the semi-exhibition "Pearson Cup" games the Expos and Jays played during the late 70's or early 80's before he was traded to the Mets.

Those were games that meant nothing but Carter gave them his all. And he never stopped smiling.

Then in 1986, he came to bat in Game Six of the World Series with the Mets one out from elimination. Determined not to be the last out, he managed a base hit and was the Met player standing on first when Mookie Wilson's ground ball dribbled through Bill Buckner's legs to guarantee a game Seven and set up the Mets first World championship.

That's how The Kid played. He just never quit. He never stopped smiling. And he had class.

So much class, he returned to Montreal for his final season. Hit a double in his final visit to the plate. Went into the Hall of Fame as an Expo despite his history in New York and even made his Cooperstown acceptance speech in both French and English.

I hadn't thought about Gary Carter for a lot of years when I saw his picture in the paper about a week ago. He looked worn and gaunt and far older than his 57 years. The Kid was down to his final days, brought low by an inoperable brain tumor.

But he was still smiling.

And he'd vowed not to let death chalk him up as an out until he shepherded the University team he now coached through their opening day. 

He kept his word.

The Kid died today. And while losing someone so young and with so much still to give is sad, those who watched Gary Carter play are left with hundreds of great moments and great memories.

They're also left with a vision of one of the world's greatest smiles. A smile filled with the joy of doing what you love and loving what you do and never giving up.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 207: The Happy Secret

Ernest Hemingway was once asked to speak to a group of writing students at an American college. The excited professor in charge asked the novelist what advice he had for his little band of struggling artists.

Hemingway’s answer was as terse as his prose, “Stop Struggling.”

The things we believe are the most difficult are often the easiest. We just need to start by getting out of our own way.

Here’s how…

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Honesty of Actors


I love actors. And not just because I used to be one. It’s that there’s a desire at the core of the profession to discover the truth and communicate it fully to an audience.

Much as they giggle at the old adage, “Acting is about honesty – once you can fake that you’ve got it made” it’s as far from the actual work as you can get.

Yeah, they drive writers crazy from time to time. We writers are the prospectors of show business, the truffle hogs who unearth the rich veins of comic or tragic gold. But in the end it’s actors who make somebody else want to pay for what we’ve found.

And let’s face it, without them we’re all writing books –- and earning a lot less money.

The honesty of actors also cuts through the bullshit of those who approach cinema as a form of art filled with more hidden messages than the Sgt. Pepper Album. Those pasty faced geeks who invented semiotics and the auteur theory.

This week I unearthed an anecdote from one of my favorite films “Lawrence of Arabia” about one of my favorite moments from that movie, the Arab cavalry attack on Aqaba.

Volumes have been written about that movie and the magnificent performance of Peter O’Toole in the lead role – many of them by those pasty faced geeks.

In the process, they’ve lionized its images into meaning far more than was intended and at least in one case, what was the reality.

Here’s Peter O’Toole…

“There was a famous scene of a charge in which my face was described by Time magazine as with a look of ‘messianic determination’ as we charged.

The day of the charge, we were given Moroccan plow camels, who had never had a human being on their hump. We were doing a mile down a shale hill - 50 camels and 400 horses. It was going to be very dangerous indeed. So I went to the caravan which Omar and I were sharing. As you may know, Omar is a gambling man. He was looking very solemn.

He said, ‘I’m working up the odds, Peter, whether or not the camel will fall over, or whether I will fall off the camel. The odds on the camel falling over are 6:4 against, but the odds of me falling off the camel are even money.’ I saw the sense of that so I asked, ‘What do you intend to do?’ He said, ‘I’m going to tie myself onto the camel.’

I thought, well, I don’t really fancy being adhered to a camel. So I said, ‘I’m not going to do that, Omar. I’m going to get drunk.’ And Omar said, ‘Oh, I’m going to get drunk as well.’ So we got a bottle of brandy and two bottles of milk and we drank the brandy and the milk. And of course by this time we were supremely confident of doing anything. So he was tied to the camel. Off went the rockets – Boom! - and the camels, out of sheer terror, bolted.

And that look of ‘messianic determination’ on my face was, in fact, a drunk actor.”

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Grey Power

grey power

“Idle hands are the devil’s tools…” – Geoff Chaucer (more or less)

There’s been a lot of talk about Seniors in Canada over the last few weeks. This came after the government announced it was considering changes to the way our pension system works.

Nobody knows what those changes might be yet. Maybe the retirement age will rise from 65 to 67. Maybe payments or benefit packages will be reduced. We just don’t know.

But that hasn’t stopped calls for immediate panic and the usual pictures being drawn of Seniors as the helpless victims of cold and insensitive politicians.

Now, a lot of this doesn’t directly concern me because I’m in a profession where you don’t retire. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Screenplay was 75 years old. This year Christopher Plummer, now 83, is nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

And if 40 is the new 30, then it would seem the new 60 arrives somewhere around age 80.

I’m not saying that gives the government the right to reduce its obligations to those who’ve spent a lifetime paying taxes. I’m just saying that more of us seem fully functional a whole lot longer.

Food for thought when you’re part of an industry that declares you virtually out of fashion and unemployable at 50 (35 if you’re an actress).

And yet, despite all that, most of us just keep going, often doing better work in our later years than we’ve ever done before.

So you begin to wonder if that isn’t true of other people as well.

There’s also a toughness and resiliency to Seniors that belies the “victim” label so many seem eager to apply. And I’ve never seen that as clearly as I did at a meeting I attended last night.

old duffers

I live near what was for decades the busiest golf course in Canada. The city has now grown around it and it remains both an ecological and recreational jewel.

But the place has fallen on hard times of late. In addition to an economic downturn, there’s a lot of competition from more modern courses, some designed by icons of the game.

And that has local developers and a cash strapped city looking at a solution that could solve all of their needs.

Now, the fate of this place also does not directly concern me. I quit playing golf at the age most men take up the game. Back then I said I quit because I already had enough anger in my life.

These days when people ask why I don’t play, I tell them it’s because I’m heterosexual. The line elicits derision from the guys and an appreciative smirk from their wives.

So a story in the local paper that the city was considering closing the course as well as its money losing restaurant and banquet facilities shouldn’t have aroused my interest. But it did.

Something about the list of ongoing massive losses seemed way out of whack. My talents may be few, but they include a keen nose for bullshit.

So I went to the public meeting on the matter where I witnessed the truly inspiring power of the Canadian Senior.

The mayor and council were arrayed at the front of a school gym packed with golfers, shiny suited lawyers with their developer clients and enough Seniors to imply there was a half price buffet.

The politicians spoke first, providing spread sheets, financial statements and internal studies that proved they’d done everything humanly possible to staunch the bleeding. But their efforts had been for naught. There was no hope of recovery.

The shiny suited lawyers nodded in professional sympathy. The developers hovered like hungry wolves and tried not to publicly lick their chops.

I had to agree with the politicians. I’ve seen my share of cooked film budgets and the city documents sure didn’t fall into that category.

The floor was opened to input from we the public and the golfers sprinted to the microphones, passionately advocating for “the good of the game”, “civic pride” and even reminded the council to “think of the children”.

Then the first of the Seniors shuffled up, unfolding a thick sheaf of papers. He’d been an accountant and over the next five minutes, in a soft spoken voice, he tore the carefully constructed spreadsheets to pieces revealing all their hidden concoction.

He was followed by a retired marketing executive with an equally thick document detailing the city’s abject failure at selling the benefits of playing the local course.

They began a parade of long retired management consultants, former golf course owners and others, little by little revealing massive mismanagement and what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated campaign to slowly strangle a once thriving business so its death would not be mourned by most of the community.

It reminded me a lot of how the government has overseen the last 20 years of the Canadian film industry.

When a woman reached the microphone with a file folder she’d culled in a week from 45 years of newspaper archives related to the course, I suddenly realized what I was witnessing.

These people had time on their hands. Lots of it. But they were still as bright, as perceptive and as productive as they’d been during their working lives. So they had used that time and those skills figuring out what was really going on.

They were masters of Google. Knew all about Groupon. Lived on the cutting edges of social media. And they piled document on document in front of the mayor and his council that simply couldn’t be ignored.

As the politicians sagged, the developers slunk off to their BMWs and the lawyers and their suits seemed to lose their glister. This wasn’t going the way any of them had planned or expected.

I had to leave before the slow clap of appreciation began, but you could feel it coming. And as I drove home I considered what I had witnessed.

Maybe we turn people out to pasture well before some of them are ready to go and maybe the decision of when you throw in the towel and apply for the government payout should be your decision and yours alone, not driven by a parliamentary edict.

Maybe we also need to stop evaluating people based on the weaknesses that unavoidably come with age and start figuring out how to access the strengths and wisdom that remain.

But mostly I took comfort in the realization that whatever our government decides to do, it will face the toughest scrutiny from the people most effected. And they are nowhere near the powerless, shrinking violets some would have us believe they are.

These folks have a life’s worth of experience and they’ve got a whole lot of free time in which to now use it.

If idle hands are the Devil’s tools, I really don’t want to be the guy pissing them off.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 206: Gotta Keep The Party Going!


A few years ago, my agent asked me to come down to LA during pilot season and I arrived on Super Bowl Sunday.

I was staying at one of those short term residence complexes with all the amenities required for a pre-existing neighborhood experience. As such they were hosting a Super Bowl Party with a big screen, full service bar and buffet of goodies.

Like a lot of California companies, the service staff was Mexican. And as the residents cheered on their teams, knocked back cold ones and foraged the snack trays, the serving and bussing was done by people who didn’t have much personal connection to either football or the traditions of the day.

Later that night, I looked out my window to see a crowd of that same staff standing at a bus stop across that street that only saw a bus every two hours –- and less frequently on a Sunday.

At seven the next morning, they were all back at work.

Now we’ve all had shitty jobs. And no doubt all those people were happy to have some cash coming in. But you couldn’t escape the fact that a lot of us wouldn’t be living as well if they weren’t living as poorly.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about the “Spartacus” TV series is how it not so subtly draws the comparisons between our own time and the slave driven society of ancient Rome.

The world’s always been populated by predators and the preyed upon. And the sad reality is that all great societies only got that way through the suffering of others.

But we like to think we’re different. We’re more progressive. We’ve eliminated things like slavery.

Only we haven’t.

Last week, the New York Times ran an expose on the world’s richest company, Apple, juxtaposing their massive profits and world changing advancements in technology with the inhumane treatment of those who make their product.

Now Apple is far from the only company enjoying the benefits of manufacturing their product in China. But it’s clear they’re in a position to push back and make a difference.

But they don’t.

And as a result, neither does anybody else.

Indeed, an Apple exec responding to the Times article admitted that his customers are far more concerned about getting a new iPhone than working conditions in China.


Some of those users even insist that they own Apple products because it makes it easier for them to build a better world.

Only that’s not working.

This week, the Canadian Prime Minister will visit China to promote greater trade. In the past, he’s been very vocal about human rights violations by that country. This time most are expecting him to tone down the rhetoric because we need the jobs and the Chinese market.

Like that guy at Apple, Stephen Harper knows we care more about our own hides than those being flayed so we can enjoy lower prices at Walmart.

Apple first adopter. Walmart Shopper. No matter where you sit on the economic scale, you’re still not where those poor bastards are.


Recently, Al Jazeera, a news organization maligned or ignored by most of our own mainstream media debuted a series of programs about modern slavery.

They are powerful, thought provoking and hard to watch. But you need to see them if only to realize that what is happening in other parts of the world could, oh so easily, happen here.

That US Pilot season I attended turned out to be very good for Canada, with several series moving here. Where they stayed until it got cheaper to shoot them in Louisiana, Australia or Bulgaria.

There will always be someplace where people are desperate enough that they’ll live worse so you can think you’re living better.

Think about that while you’re watching the Superbowl. Drinking out of plastic cups that were real cheap for a reason. Wearing that team jersey you couldn’t believe was such a steal.

Try to pick out which of those million dollar commercials are selling you things made by millions of people who will never have one evening in their entire lives as flush as the one you’re having.  

Enjoy the Super Bowl – and try to Enjoy Your Sunday.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Having That Moment For A Moment

beer league2

Nobody pays that much attention to beer league hockey.

Mostly they’re made up of guys just trying to stay in shape. For every guy who’s still got the moves from his teens, there are a dozen who are clearly over the hill.

Some played a little Junior. One or two got a sniff from a semi-pro team. But they all had a moment in pre or post-puberty when they shone and wondered if they might one day play in the Bigs.

That possibility is long dead now. They come to the rink to hang with old friends, get away from the wife and kids, forget the crappy day they had at work.

A few want to maintain the same waist size. Several more look forward to the couple of cold ones and plate of wings that button the night.

In Canada, they’re the economic backbone of recreational hockey. Whether its two in the afternoon or four in the morning, these gaggles of guys are paying for ice time that keeps the rinks open and reasonable priced for the kid teams.

They fork out thousands each year to buy new equipment and sticks. They rent goalies. They fund the sports bars or pop for the case of 24 that gets kicked from one to another across the dressing room floor as they get their wind back.

But there’s always a moment, when somebody recounts the night’s one special play or they go silent watching the NHL highlight reel on the big screen over the bar, when you know they still wonder what it would’ve been like to play in front of a crowd or been that guy mobbed by jubilant teammates.

We all want that moment. Just one time. Just to know if it feels as good as we’ve dreamed it must.

This Sunday, during the Super Bowl, Budweiser will run a commercial featuring those guys from the Beer Leagues.

It was filmed in Port Credit, Ontario, a blue collar town where the Air Canada Arena where Toronto’s Maple Leafs play is just a white dot across the lake.

And while it’s just another commercial shilling beer, it’s really about that moment those guys have always wondered about.

For every Canadian guy, and anybody else who’s never touched their dream, it’s a very special moment.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

They Always Need Indians


There’s a scene in the opening moments of the Coen brothers semi-masterpiece, “Barton Fink” where Fink (the writer) goes to see studio executive Ben Geisler. Their conversation begins thus:

Geisler: Ever act?
Barton: Huh? No, I'm…
Geisler: We need Indians for a Norman Steele western.
Barton: I'm a writer.
Geisler: Think about it, Fink. Writers come and go; we always need Indians.

“Barton Fink” is one in a long parade of films satirizing how movies get made. Every working writer has a favorite in the genre.

That’s because we’ve all been party to studio or network meetings equally as ludicrous and watched cherished projects fail in development while the execs shepherding us green-light something of awesome ineptitude and loathsome bad taste.

And so we repair our rejections with laughter, healing by realizing we’re far from alone in defeat while enjoying the insider truths of “The Player”, “Adaptation” or “Get Shorty”.

In time, we get back in the saddle, knowing there are truly talented development people in many of those executive suites and this time we might get lucky and end up paired with one.

But even then, another of Ben Geisler’s lines echoes, the exec’s answer to Fink’s question about where to find a fellow writer…

Geisler: Jesus, throw a rock in here you’ll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink -- throw it hard!

Deep down we writers sense that they don’t really like us.

For all the platitudes about the primacy of “The Word” there is a palpable resentment toward those who can actually access it.

Maybe that comes from too many long weekends lost to a pile of mediocre pilot scripts. Maybe it’s never getting a shared credit despite all the notes and spit-balling plausible act endings.

But writers often suspect the executive class would prefer doing without us if they had their druthers.

Yet despite that resentment, almost all network and studio execs will take writers into their confidence to rant on somebody they despise even more –- actors.

viola davis

For every Viola Davis heartfelt and inspirational “Dream Big. Dream Fierce.” there are a thousand stories execs slaver to share –- about the ones who are “difficult”, “certifiable”, “impossible to satisfy” or “still in the closet”.

The tales reported on TMZ pale to insignificance when compared to what a studio or network executive will share after a sip of Grey Goose.

In their eyes, Charlie Sheen is the norm not the exception.

And maybe the resentment of actors is honestly earned as well.

Maybe it’s because the audience embraced them even though the producers couldn’t get their hair right. Maybe they made lines work that had been officially branded “stilted” or “on the nose”.

You get the definite impression they’d be happier if they didn’t have to deal with actors at all.

And, as the 20th Century came to a close, they finally got their wish in the form of “Reality” television. But that led to an even larger revelation about the workings of the studio/network mind.

For the disdain for creatives was now clearly extended to contestants in what became a veritable open season of humiliation and degradation.

Simon Cowell became the model for “judges” empowered to ridicule people whose worst crime was not knowing they weren’t as talented as their family and friends had always insisted.

People were broken both emotionally and physically by stunts and survival games, mismatched roommates and chatty lovers.

No marital secret, private dream or unspoken desire was spared as network executives worked their way to the bottom of the morality barrel in search of higher ratings.

Since the invention of show business, it’s been well known that you don’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of the audience and that there’s a sucker born every minute.

But as the 21st century dawned, it seemed like television executives had decided they must live by those two adages instead of rise above them.

Little wonder that to date a dozen reality show contestants have subsequently committed suicide – including one in Canada.

There are some who feel the coarsening of network programming can be traced to reality shows, their success giving executives the confidence to program series in which heroes resorted to torture (“24”) or were revered for their ability to purchase hookers (“Two & 1/2 Men”).

And then something happened this week to make me realize it is someone else who actually tops the Hollywood hit list.

The audience.


As the audience abandons network programming in droves, the people running the show are exposed as either having no taste or completely caught up in a blood frenzy of depravity.

It’s as if they’ve become that last bad comic in a Comedy Club. The one tasked with insulting the remaining patrons until they finally leave and the place can close.

A few days ago, gossip site TMZ provided details on an upcoming episode of NBC’s “Fear Factor” which was to feature contestants forced to down a cup of Donkey Semen followed by a Mule Urine chaser in order to remain in the running for a $50,000 pay-day.

The episode, titled “Hee-Haw, Hee-Haw” had already been network developed, vetted and shot. The final cut had been screened in Burbank, given the Peacock net’s seal of approval and scheduled.

At no point did anybody seem to question whether any lines had been crossed.

But no sooner had the show premise been publicized than someone at NBC’s ownership group, Comcast, made a call to NBC’s head office.

Weekend “discussions” were held and the episode was pulled.

A short time later, the network threatened to sue a pair of contestants who’d gone public with further details of the shoot, recounted here…

You have to wonder how far gone the folks who decide what airs at NBC really are that nobody considered Jizz-gargling might be an inappropriate Prime Time activity.

Or what might have transpired if somebody from ownership hadn’t called to ask what the definition of “entertainment” really was these days.

I know it could be argued that the networks are in a difficult position right now. Their cable competitors get away with language, visuals and subject matter deemed inappropriate for the big four.

Except, I can’t think of any example where a cableco has sunk quite this low.

So maybe the reason so many other NBC series are struggling, some even finishing behind Spanish language soap operas, is not merely that their development people have run out of ideas.

Could it be that what we’re really seeing are people who hate having to serve the needs of an audience in the same way as they hate having to serve those of writers and actors?

Who does that audience think they are!?! What right do they have to be as single-minded as writers or as demanding as actors?

Don’t those people watching know who’s really in charge here? Have they forgotten who are the cowboys and who are the Indians?