Order of the Good Write

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


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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

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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.