Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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Draper Goes Zen? No Way

dongoeszenI’m going to fan girl for a moment. This past Friday, I was at a company dinner at a legendary restaurant in West Hollywood. Our group took up a long table against a wall in the back room of the establishment. About forty five minutes into the dinner, I looked straight ahead and noticed a man at the next table who looked remarkably like Jon Hamm.

Then I realized…it WAS Jon Hamm, sitting next to a handsome silver haired fox. Hot damn, it was John Slattery. There they were – Sterling and Draper sharing an antipasto salad and laughing it up – two days before the airing of their series finale.

So, it set the stage for a Mad Men weekend. I’m not usually star struck, but I’ll admit, I was beyond struck. You have to understand – I love Mad Men. I adore Jon Hamm and John Slattery. I’ve been putting off canceling cable until Mad Men ended its run.

Yes, to pun it up – I got to see “The Real Thing”.

As for the finale, I can get into every aspect of each character, but honestly I’m a little burned out these days to get into Peggy and Stan, or Pete and Trudy – or even Betty and Sally. I’d rather stick with Don – the man on the top of the hill with the blissful grin. Ha!

No way he’s really a changed, zen man. He’s the same old Don. He momentarily ditched the Bryl cream and went all loose and fancy free when he was testing cars on the Salt Flats (the ad man testing out the product for a possible future campaign?). But when it came right down to the meditation on the hill – the other side of the cathartic explosion – that hair was as slicked back as (and I quote Liz Lemon) a cartoon airplane pilot.

If he really shed the old Don, that man’s hair would be the epitome of “the dry look”, flying in the wind – his face unshaven. He’d have removed all Draper grooming from the equation. He may have been in a white shirt and khaki’s, cleansed and angelic, but Janie and the hair stylists knew what’s up. That’s the same old Don under all that Nag Champa.

The man who made that sad speech in the circle group was Don’s angel of hope. His dream of being on the shelf in a fridge was akin to being a bottle of Coke chilling, waiting for someone to open the door and drink him in. This was a metaphorical dinner for Don Draper’s ad man stomach. Don felt like a has been, left with nothing in his life – not even a creative idea. He was a caged animal, caught like game to mount over Hobart’s wall. He needed to shed himself of the old Draper to come back better than ever. He usually does this disappearance stuff. It just took him a lot longer, with many harsh, harrowing steps along the way, to get him back.

When he heard Mr. Cellophane man speak of his sadness over love and his inability to feel connected, Don not only responded due to being on common ground, but also due to the fact the guy was the harbinger for giving him a remarkable idea for Coke.

Yeah, Ommmm indeed, Draper. You were blissed out because you know you had your mojo back. That grease in your hair shows you’re still the same old Don.


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Writers Workshop Fatigue

Girls iowa workshopThere’s been plenty of discussion regarding last Sunday night’s episode of “Girls” when Hannah participated in her first Iowa writer’s workshop. Ah, it brought me back. All those writing courses and the interactive feedback sessions. The papers read aloud, the commentary you must be open to in order to improve as a writer. The whole, “getting out of your head” concept, and allowing in the critique of readers who’ve read your work, or have listened to it read loud in class. Ugh. Just plain…ugh.

When Hannah’s workshop scene uncomfortably revealed itself onscreen, I cringed with familiarity at the hyper critical snark of her classmates.  After many classes at the New School in New York and undergraduate work at my college, there was something useful, yet self defeating about hearing the reactions of my fellow classmates. On one hand, they provided productive suggestions, allowing me to hear a reader’s perception of my work. On the other hand, the critiques were given with a hint of ill intent and taken with bad feelings, especially if one’s skin wasn’t thick enough.

Now, this isn’t the case with everyone. Writing workshops can be fun, inclusive and educational. Most of the time they are required for college credit, but in non-academia life, a writer will volunteer to participate in the self flagellation and come out like a dented can. Yet, there are good parts to the process. You can meet like minded people, create connections and even find a life long collaborator who will send you both into fame and success!  But sometimes it’s the opposite, and I’ve run into contrarian fellow writers who want to rain on your writers workshop parade.

One time, I had an article read aloud in class. Honestly, I cannot remember what it was about, but I do remember writing on how much I loved New York City. In one passage, I referred to New York City (or Manhattan) as being a “town”. It was a colloquial commentary, just to color the description of the topic at hand.

One person raised their hand and said. “New York City isn’t a town. It’s a city.”

The entire class sat silent.  I remember the silence felt like a ten minute pause. What do you mean, New York isn’t a “town”? Of course it’s referred to as a “town” in a jaunty little tip of the hat kind of way.

The quiet pause ended when my teacher, and various other students started singing “New York, New York, a hell of a TOWN”.

I looked at the guy.  “See?” I telekenetically said to him in my head, “A hell of a town. From the musical and film  “On The TOWN” containing a title referring to New York as a TOWN?”

I like good, constructive criticism and most of the time, I enjoyed it in this class. But, I’m not down with deliberate call outs that don’t hold up.

Sometimes, the critiques are personal. One time, I was in a non-fiction writing course where we each had to write a short memoir on our parents in the guise of our younger selves. In my essay, I mentioned an incident with my mother (who dealt with mental illness) and how it embarrassed me.  It didn’t embarrass me that evening, and it doesn’t embarrass me today, but in writing like a child, it embarrassed me when I was that child. The paper was read aloud by our professor.

One student remarked, “How could you be embarrassed by your mother over her illness?”

“I was writing about me as a child and how I was embarrassed by what she did,” I defensively said. And defensive I was. This was my story as a child. My mother. My feelings were on display within each sentence of this manuscript, as were all of our stories that day.

“I just don’t get why you are embarrassed by your mother,” she continued.

“That’s getting really personal,” I said. “This is my story about this moment as a child.” I continued, “Writing reveals icky things. If this article didn’t show proof on why I was embarrassed, then I didn’t do my job as a writer. This isn’t a family discussion, this is workshop. Don’t judge me. Judge the writing.”

When it comes to doling out comments that are more of a judgement of YOU than of the writing – it can really damage a writer. She shrugged at my response, but I still felt really crappy about the moment. It set me back on writing honestly about things that can be a tad brutal. Feedback like that can plant the seed of self doubt. It sucks. But it’s your responsibility, as it is mine, to not react that way. Brush it off. Seriously. Just. Brush. That. Off.

Part of the process of writing and the interaction of other writers is knowing the balance of good commentary and bad. You have to let the bad comments go, and let the useful ones stay – and I’m not talking about compliments. Even the ones that hurt can be jewels, but not if they are given out of ill will spawned from competitiveness or just for the sake of being a naysayer.

Sometimes writer’s workshops are terrific resources to get you writing. Other times, they make you believe you’re doing something about your writing, when in fact,you’re not doing much at all in the long run. Take a class, get what you can out of it, but don’t do what I did. Don’t take too many. Want your work read? Bring in friends, beta readers and editors. Those useful reviews aid you in getting something OUT THERE in print or online. In class, everyone is looking out for themselves. Everyone wants something published or read on NPR. They’re aren’t interested in your own positive outcome. Critiquing your work is allowing them to learn about their own writing – not yours. Slowly but surely, self doubt seeps into your head. This doubt leads to stunting the writing process. So I say…let it go. Don’t take it personally. Just let the words flow and have a goal.

I’m still chuckling at the self righteous snobs in Hannah’s class. How does anyone get any writing done with that self guessing, negative noise?  Go Hannah (and every writer out there). Take what you can, but don’t let them get to you.


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The Glue: Phil Hartman

Screenshot 2015-01-02 17.30.53 Picture it. SNL’s 1987-1988 season. I was fresh out of college, had a perm and Madonna’s music on the brain as I carried myself in big shoulder pads and big dangly earrings.  After a few NBC internships, I found work within the network’s Program Standards department. Within a year and a half after getting that BA, I was the assistant to the censor of the show. His name was Bill Clotworthy. The entire staff called him “Dr. No” because, well – he was the guy who had to say “no” to stuff.

I was also lucky to be there because back then, I was slightly obsessed with SNL. I loved the cast at the time: Kevin Nealon, Nora Dunn, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, A. Whitney Brown, Jon Lovitz, Phil, Dennis Miller and Victoria Jackson.  Characters like the Sweeney Sisters, Hanz and Franz, The Church Lady were extremely popular with catch phrases that were on the lips of comedy fans everywhere. Among all these fun characters was Phil Hartman. I had a very big crush on the man. I don’t know when it happened, but I do know why. He was the most sophisticated, the most mature of the entire ensemble. Plus, he had the ability to melt into  roles seamlessly. They used to call him The Glue – because he was a utility player that held a sketch together with his chameleon-like talent. The job was really fun – at least for someone like me who claimed herself a writer, and a fan of this legendary show.

Bill would always attend the Wednesday script read-through that usually lasted late into the evening. Thursday morning, I’d find a pile of scripts on my desk, split into two categories – the scripts that were dumped, and the scripts they were going to use. I’d type up Bill’s notes and file away the discarded scripts – but still read through them with curiosity.

Back then, writers like Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk graced the top page of various scripts, credited with sketches that were either accepted or rejected. I didn’t realize what a force they would become in the entertainment industry. Who knew that tall, lanky, weird looking red headed guy I’d see on his way to the Commissary would replace David Letterman on “Late Night”.  “That guy?!” I remembering saying when the network named Conan the new host of the post “Tonight Show” slot. “The guy I’d see in the hallways and elevators at 30 Rock who I would also see in my neighborhood?”  Yup. That guy. It was like hearing about that guy in Accounting you always run into whose name you never knew – suddenly get a big television show.  Who knew Odenkirk would be the dad of all alternative comedy with “Mr. Show”, “The Birthday Boys” and “Breaking Bad” (not to mention, “Better Call Saul”) ? And Smigel, the man who created Insult the Comic Dog and host of “TV Funhouse” cartoons for SNL?  He’s a legend.

Back to Phil. I’d see him from time to time walking around the building, or on the close circuit televisions where you could watch tech rehearsals Thursdays and Fridays while you were at work. During this time, I tried to keep a level of professionalism, curtailing from any kind of girlie fandom, or chatting on about how dreamy he was compared to the others. No. I kept it to myself, this lust for Phil. Yes, I knew he was married. In fact, he married his wife Brynn just as I started my job with Bill. In fact, it was Bill himself who mentioned that Hartman was on his honeymoon with his bride, and said so with an air of resignation, and a slight eye roll. Apparently, his wife was known to be difficult.

Perhaps my little secret was driving me crazy, but I spilled the beans to someone about my crush on Phil. Perhaps it was to another secretary I worked with – or maybe to Bill himself. Bill was (and is) a splendid, fair minded, personable man who, in addition to being a family man himself, was like a dad to us at work. So, I may have admitted it to him.

One day, Bill’s boss Rick called me into his office. I never really dealt with Rick, so this was out of the ordinary, but not particularly odd.

Rick said, “See that bag over there?”

I looked over and a Macy’s shopping bag was sitting there on the floor. There was a tennis racquet poking over the edge.  Rick was an avid tennis player.

“Can you please take this bag to Phil Hartman’s office?”

My heart skipped. What? I looked at Rick. He had a little twinkle in his eye. Oh, Bill told him. Definitely. Rick has his own assistant who could have done this. She sat right next to me. Yes. This task was deliberately assigned…to me.

Oh, hell yeah, I’ll take this down to Phil’s office.

The story goes – Rick was chatting with Phil at that previous Saturday’s SNL after party. Phil was an major hobbiest – always finding something new to do during his off time. Boating. Surfing…now it was tennis. Rick was there to supply him with some of his old equipment. So…off to the 17th Floor I went!

My stomach was churning. “It’s not a big deal, you idiot. Calm down!” I heard my inner voice say. “You’ve seen him so often in the elevators. He doesn’t give a damn about you. It’s not a big deal. You are just an assistant going into the office of your idol and handing him some tennis stuff. Don’t sweat it.”

I got off the elevators on 17, and walked through the dark, dingy lobby to the offices that were almost as dark and dingy – but more like a college dorm kind of dingy. Lots of weird posters all around.  Toys, boxes of goodies, food was layed out on tables in the main room where there was a big communal table where I guess all the writers and cast would work, riff, eat, bullshit until they could compile a decent show by Saturday night dress rehearsal.  I was familiar with the SNL offices. Many errands were run there – but not to Phil Hartman’s office.

There was the hallway – the one where all the offices were.  How would I address him? Phil? “Oh, Hi, Phil. I work with Bill, Phil. This is from Rick. Bye Phil. Thank you Phil. I love you Phil.”

And then – suddenly – there he was. I didn’t even had much time to think of more greetings. There he was, hanging at the doorway of someone else’s office I approached him.

“Phil?” He turned around and smiled. “This is from Rick Gitter.”

“Oh! Thank you!”

“Sure!” And that was it.

He walked into his office, and I turned around to head to the elevators with my ears burning from the aftermath of composed freak out simmering below the skin. It was one of the coolest moments of my life. That – and meeting Michael Palin of Monty Python in Hair and Makeup at Studio 6A before he went on to guest on Letterman.  But that’s another story. This is my story about Phil and that brief moment. Here’s hoping he’s acting like the glue in that great sketch with Jan Hooks in that great comedy show in the sky.


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A Little Bit of the Full Goose Bozo

With the latest results of the toxicology reports in, we now know that Robin Williams was sober when he took his life on August 11th. All this info provides some kind of closure, but it doesn’t help the sadness of losing this great talent.

I found the above clip from his 1978 HBO special “Robin Williams at The Roxy”. He performs a version of himself forty years in the future. It’s so sad. Although he went on to have an illustrious film career, he didn’t quite make it to 40 years hence. However, his brilliance shines through, revealing one of his famous quotes on holding onto that spark of madness to keep you alive. So sorry he let go.


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‘Transparent’: Any Viewers of this Show Out There? Please Speak Up….

A scene from 'Transparent' now streaming on Amazon.

A scene from ‘Transparent’ now streaming on Amazon.

…I need to talk it out!

I write this blog post bleary eyed and consumed. I binge watched this fascinating dramedy last night, stopping around 11pm when I had to get to bed. But, the characters and the story made my mind bounce with ideas. Screw sleep. I watched some more. Now I’m tired and consumed with the weird, dysfunctional world of the Pfeffermans.  Has anyone seen Transparent? Jeffrey Tambor is extraordinary as Mort, now Maura, a father, after a life of hiding, decides to come out as his authentic self and live his life as a woman.  As he defiantly reveals himself as Maura, he has to handle his fucked up family’s reaction (mostly positive – one negative) – where, thanks to flashbacks, the weakened groundwork for emotional sink holes were laid down a long time ago.

With every episode running through my head, mishmashed with subtext and psychological elements so deep,  it feels downright icky going into the rabbit hole with this loving, passionate, twisted family lost in a whirlpool of change.  I’m still trying to let every twist and turn sink in before I can even deconstruct the complicated elements of this clan, the multi-faceted mishegas.

Jill Solloway is a genius in creating this fascinating story.

There are still three more episodes on my queue to view. It’s taking all my energy not to watch these at work. (My entire team is in France for a conference, so things are slow) But word to the cubicle dwellers – streaming this show is really, really NSFW.

Any ‘Transparent’ viewers out there? Please comment!  I want to start a conversation.


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Comedy Takes Another Hit

Screenshot 2014-10-09 21.24.14

My lasting memory of Jan Hooks goes back to when she was a cast member on Saturday Night Live. I worked at NBC for the network censors who edited the show, and had some nice privileges. Rehearsals were open for my viewing, cast members and weekly guest hosts would roam the hall like Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Mark Harmon, Paul Simon, Alec Baldwin, etc.  Many a Thursday afternoon lunch hour would be spend watching a famous musical guest rehearse from the ninth floor level where the balcony seats are – rock stars like Keith Richards, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Sting, The B-52’s, The Sugarcubes, David Bryne and James Taylor – to name a few. And yes – I had my grubby paws on a department allotment of Dress and Live tickets to the show – which I would use on those weeks when my boss didn’t give them away to friends or family. (Did I mention I attended the dress rehearsal of Robin Williams’ last SNL hosting stint? I’m sure I did.) Not a bad job to have, I thought.

I had always admired Jan Hooks and the ladies of SNL. Since I had to go to studio 8H to give various things to my boss – messages, scripts, paperwork – I would run into her and other cast members. (Phil Hartman was my main crush, man I worshiped the ground he trotted on). Jan’s work on the show was memorable. She and Nora Dunn teamed up to do a sister lounge act that always flowed with a silly melody that landed always with “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”  She played a hilarious Tammy Faye Baker, and was a supreme impersonator of characters that fell into the white trash category.

Back in the late 80’s, when I had that gig at Program Standards and was seeing Jan Hooks and her then boyfriend Kevin Nealon around the hallways of 30 Rock, I managed to find a small studio apartment on West 83rd street near Central Park West. My first place. The thing about the upper west side is that many member of SNL’s staff lived around there. I used to see Jan, Kevin and Conan O’Brien walk around the area whenever I took walks to Central Park. And you have to understand – back then – Conan was just a writer on the show. He wasn’t the host you all know today. Back then,  he was that tall weird looking red headed guy who worked on the 17th floor. I was shocked to hear that this tall red headed goofball was hired to replace David Letterman on ‘Late Night’. If you can imagine, for a moment, being at work and the guy you see but don’t know from Accounting gets the job of replacing your idol on a talk show. That’s what I was feeling.

One lasting memory of Jan was the day I moved into that studio apartment on West 83rd. I was pushing my stereo cabinet across the street, vulnerable to the cars that could drive through, trying hard not to rattle the glass doors on that ugly thing. I looked behind me for a moment – over at the sidewalk. There was Jan Hooks, who always looked vacantly at me at work, looking at me the same way as I huffed it toward my brownstone. Did she recognize me from work? Who cares.  It wasn’t long before she would leave the show. She disappeared for a while. She had a recurring role on Designing Women, and years later took a hilarious turn as Jenna Moroney’s mother on 30 Rock. I had heard she was ill for some time. Sad she left us so young.

Rest in Peace, Ms. Hooks. “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley!”

 


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“Bang…Zoom!” Using What I’ve Learned in Improv to Write

bangzoom

Any lovers of comedy improv out there? Maybe you know the concept of word association (or A thru C) – the technique improvisors use when a suggestion is shouted from the audience. If anyone here has ever gone to ASSSSCAT 3000, a popular show at he Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York (where I studied a few levels of improv) and L.A. – you know the drill. Someone shouts out a suggestion, and a monologist takes it, thinks of what it reminds them of and breaks it down with story telling, allowing the group of improvisors to capture elements of a story to create totally out of the blue scenes.

This is how I write on days when my day job is out of control, and I just need to convert my thoughts through the creative portal to my fingertips so I can write. I look at interesting items on the web or ideas that come into my head and do an A thru C: Where This…reminds me of This…which brings me to This…which starts a story based on what I’ve whittled down from that idea.

So…The internet universe has given me a suggestion – The New Yorker cartoon you see before you.  And here I go.

Alice Kramden reminds me of “Bang, Zoom” the comment Ralph Kramden would shout on The Honeymooners to Alice when she really burned him. This reminds me of old timely television, black and white with a dial you had to get up and turn in order to get one of the seven channels available for viewing. Pre-cable. Pre-satellite. Pre-DVR. Pre-Streaming. Pre-anything. Okay – maybe not pre-anything. There was FM radio back then, after all.

It reminds me of the old basement in our old house in Ardsley, New York – fully furnished with a mid-century flair (as we now know it), some old furniture, a bar for cocktails and the lingering smell of mildew. It’s where I watched old re-runs of The Honeymooners with my dad on a Zenith color television that resembled a piece of furniture. It’s likely my father purchased it back in the early 60’s long before I was born because there was never time before 1983 that it didn’t exist in my life. That old wooden thing with the dial and the coffee ring stains and the rough speaker cover with straw and silver threads was a mainstay in our household. It was the kind of old television that would blow a bulb (just like a lamp would blow a light bulb), meaning my dad who have to take it to our backyard neighbor – who happened to be a television repairman – to replace it.

As television advanced, and cable television gave humans more choice to fry their brains on any given night, my dad was hesitant to let go of the old Zenith. It cranked out a lot of hours of reruns of the Honeymooners, or original airings of CBS Saturday night shows like All in The Family, The Jeffersons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (I still feel the cool chill of the basement when I hear the first moments of “Love is All Around”), The Bob Newhart Show or Carol Burnett.  After a while, I defied my 11pm Saturday bedtime and snuck out of bed to watch Saturday Night Live to laugh at John Belushi flipping burgers (“cheeze boiger!”) and marvel at Gilda Radner’s character creations, Lisa Loopner and Rosanne Rosanna Danna.

I remember watching that TV one evening in 1982 when a special report broke into regular programing to announce Belushi was found dead at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Damn. John Lennon had died only two years before. It was rough to see another bad boy John leave the planet. When Beatle John died, I was devastated. When SNL John died, I was really pissed off.

The television set and the basement reminds me of Saturday afternoons watching  The Wonderful World of Disney and NY Mets baseball. I can’t remember what I saw during the Disney hour, but I remember the lull of the Shea crowd putting me to sleep.

I can remember the days when my dad still smoked cigarettes in a red pack that were not Marlboro. To me, the smell of the sixties (which I barely remember) and the seventies is a mixture of cigarettes and toast – old car smell that has the fragrance of a thousand old smokes permeated in the threads. It’s not a bad aroma.  In fact, it’s a comforting one. Although my dad quit the habit when I was still quite young, I can still see the swirl of the smoke streaming from the smoldering cigarette waiting in the ashtray as he took out his guitar to play House of the Rising Sun or his favorite Spanish classical piece Romanza.

But it all comes back to the television. As we entered the eighties, and that old TV set started to lose color, contrast, horizontal and vertical strength, I pleaded with my dad to get a new one. Finally, finally – he broke down and purchase a brand new color  set (now long since thrown out) to replace the old Zenith.

“Why, why do you want to hold on to that old television”? I asked him the day before he walked into Crazy Eddie’s to buy that brand new fancy one.

“The memories!” he’d say. “The Saturday night television. The baseball games. Jack Parr. Laugh In. I watched all those damn shows.  But most of all…I watched a man walk on the moon for the first time. And then a second time. And then I’d watch the the rest of the Apollo mission. This television showed me outer space.”

“Bang-Zoom….to da moon, Alice!”

He must have heard Ralph Kramden say that a million times on that old television. And then he watched a man actually walk on the moon.

Yeah. That television was a keeper. Sorry dad.