Here I was, all set to devote today’s entry to the thoroughly relevant and explosively graphic account of my sexual exploits, when I find that there’s no point. With everyone focused on the witty banter between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, I would just be “pulling a Groucho.”
If I don’t accomplish anything else of value this week (and it seems pretty likely I won’t), I would love to launch the phrase “pulling a Groucho” into the media ether. As far as I know, “pulling a Groucho” was coined by my friend Tony Sheehan, who–he would be the first to remind you if you didn’t like a joke pitch–has worked for 23 years in TV comedy, on shows ranging from Barney Miller to Tracy Takes On, before joining Something So Right. “Pulling a Groucho” refers to the really poor timing demonstrated by Groucho Marx when he capped 50 remarkable years as an icon of stage and screen by dying in the same week as Elvis Presley. Talk about blowing your exit. (If “pulling a Groucho” is too lumpen for your tastes, Tony suggests the higher-brow “pulling an Aldous.” Everyone over a certain age remembers what they were up to the day President Kennedy was shot; far fewer recall with certainty what they were doing when British author and drug experimenter Aldous Huxley passed away. Hint: same thing.)
“Pulling a Groucho” does not, strictly speaking, have to mean dying at an inopportune moment in the media cycle. The term could also apply to other overshadowed activities–the debut of a worthy work of art, say, at the precise moment when the Zeitgeist is shifting in the opposite direction. (Who recalls, for instance, the name of that charming French classic that came out the same weekend as Star Wars? Not I, of course, but I’m pretty sure there was one.) However, in order for “pulling a Groucho” to have maximal impact, it needs to suggest the obliteration of a life’s work by a media obsessed with something more immediately compelling.
Most unfortunately, “pulling a Groucho” is not something you can just do. With war in Albania out of the question, there is almost no Groucho President Clinton could pull that would save him from his latest situation. Not even a steady drumbeat of dying world leaders–Mandela, Yeltsin, Sinatra–could slake our thirst for more information about the intern. But, with Clinton’s luck, I wouldn’t rule out an asteroid.
Anyway, back to television. Is it possible to love what you do and still find it excruciating? This question occurred to me last night when I went to see the filming of my friends’ upcoming sitcom for Fox. No reflection on the show, by the way–it has a brash and funny workplace ensemble, featuring a terrific cast (Vivica Fox, Duane Martin, Jon Cryer, and Elliott Gould), and has the additional distinction of being the only upscale interracial sitcom being made these days in Hollywood. (It’s a lingering embarrassment that network comedy is so completely segregated, with second-rate “black shows” ghettoized on the weblets [WB and UPN] while nary a black face turns up between 8 and 10 p.m. on the Big Three.)
No, what’s most excruciating about sitcoms is the actual making of the stuff. I’m not talking about the writing, which I love, or the rehearsal process, which is intense and all too brief but also fun. I’m talking about “show night,” the once-a-week extravaganza in which the actors perform lines of actual comedy before actual people in a studio audience while cameras roll, over and over again for upward of seven hours. Not that it can’t be diverting, especially if you’ve never seen the process up close. And while you’re out there on the floor, pitching away on jokes that aren’t landing or suggesting minor bits of business or restaging, it can be consuming to the point of exhilaration. But let the novelty wear off, stand back a few paces from the action, and it’s hard to deny that a sitcom filming, like all births, is painful to behold.
Last night is a case in point. The shooting moved smoothly, guided by an excellent director. The actors knew their lines and aimed to please (believe me, not always a given). The producers, Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss (“the Jeffs”)–who gave me my start on the lamentably short-lived series Partners and are famous for the warmth and enthusiasm of their sets–generated their patented atmosphere. Food teemed on the craft service tables. Tasteful ‘70s soul blasted from the loudspeakers during lulls in the action. Even that most annoying of fixtures, the frantically spieling “warm-up comic”–on hand at all tapings to keep up the audience’s flagging energies–was a serious cut above the average. And yet, when 22 minutes of material are strung out over take after take, with resets and reblockings and relightings, for a period longer than any section of Wagner’s Ring Cycle … Well, the mind begins to wander.