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March 2008 Archives

March 27, 2008

Cross Training

The Labrador Retriever puppy is not happy without his human family. That was the opening sentence in the book Diana and I had checked out of the Berkeley library to help us train our new two-month old puppy, Ubu. Little did we know it at the time but Ubu had his own ideas about “training” and they weren’t going to be found in any book.

I had been walking on the Berkeley campus the day before, and at the foot of Sproul Plaza, next to the “LESBIAN NON-SMOKING VEGTARIAN STALINISTS AGAINST THE WAR” table I saw a young woman seated, cradling a box of cute, black, furry puppies in her lap. I smiled at her, told her I thought the jury was pretty much in on Stalin but I might be willing to give him a second look if only for her sake. She smiled and pointed to the box of puppies and the hand written sign “free to non-Republican families.”

I shook my head sadly “no” and walked on thinking I would really love to have a dog but my parents won’t let me. And then I remembered. I don’t live with my parents anymore. I haven’t for about seven years. I live with a beautiful young woman, Diana Meehan, who I know loves dogs, cats, squirrels and oddly enough seems to love me although at this point in our relationship I’m probably after cats but before squirrels.

In about ten minutes, an excited Diana joined me on campus to help pick out our puppy. As we studied the box of puppies carefully we realized this was not going to be an easy choice. We met the mother, Frieda, a beautiful elegant canine. Father unknown but everyone suspected Rusty, a handsome roguish Labrador who lived off Telegraph Avenue and was tangentially connected to the physics department.

As we took each puppy out for a walk it became clear that we really wanted to take them all. Since our apartment didn’t allow any pets at all, it seemed the wiser course perhaps would be to just take one. And, it was clear that the one we liked best was this little guy who kept rubbing against our legs, almost like a cat and then looking up at us with those burnt-sugar eyes that said “take me home.” And,we did.

On the ride home Ubu sat in my lap as Diana drove. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Evidentially so was Ubu, who promptly peed all over me. Diana looked at me and smiled, “That means he likes you.”

Ubu was wickedly smart and his training proceeded at a rapid pace. He got “sit” and “stay” in one morning. He thought the idea of “lie down” was excessive since we already had “sit” and “stay” but he good-naturedly picked it up in an afternoon. At this rate we’d have to introduce Algebra and Geometry soon to keep him interested.

As far as being apart from his human family this was not a problem for Ubu because he never was. We took him everywhere. School, movies, restaurants. He had a unique ability to “get small.” And, when he would hear that command – (Ubu preferred to think of it as a suggestion) - he would slink quietly along the floor and when we got seated in the classroom, or the theatre, or the restaurant he would silently curl himself into a black furry ball and get under my chair.

Ubu carried a Frisbee in his mouth most of the time and was really a world class player. Diana had written on the inside, Ubu’s Frisbee and listed his telephone number, too. When we went to class together a lot of times he would walk me to the door and then go trotting off to find someone on campus to play Frisbee with him. He was direct, as are most Labradors and he would go up to someone he thought a likely candidate and drop his Frisbee at their feet or on two unfortunate occasions drop it on an art project and a senior thesis. Sometimes I’d be walking with him and we’d pass someone I didn’t know who’d say, “Hi Ubu,” and Ubu would smile back. “Who’s that?” I would ask. “Just a guy I play Frisbee with.”

Ubu was, what I would later hear described as a “lifetime dog.” As in once in your lifetime, if you’re lucky, you meet that dog who’s going to change your life. And Ubu changed mine.

I had always wanted to be a guy who had a dog. A big dog who was never on a leash but who would be controlled by – (Ubu preferred “respond appropriately to”) - affection and respect. I was trying to change myself from a city kid, sports-crazed and rigid, to a more laid back country boy. More mellow, more in touch with nature. And, being with Ubu and his energy put you in contact with those natural rhythms.

Ubu taught me to play. Just play. Not worry about winning and losing but making time and space disappear as I watched this creature totally immersed in every moment of his life. Never false. Fiercely loyal. Unabashedly affectionate and generous of spirit. Qualities I wanted in myself. Ubu always expected the best of me and I tried to live up to that reflection. He gave me confidence to be who I wanted to be. He taught me patience. He taught me to take time to smell the flowers. And, occasionally to piss on them.

One night a few years later when Diana and I were both working as waiters in L.A. I got a call at work from the LAPD Station on San Vicente off of Sunset Blvd. Ubu had somehow gotten out of our apartment and had gone out looking for us when a Good Samaritan saved him by pulling him off the street. And, they were holding them there.

I rushed out forgetting my wallet with my I.D. and when I went to pick up Ubu they wouldn’t release him to me. “How do we know he’s your dog?” The desk sergeant asked. At that point Ubu who was chained to a brick in the wall in the next room heard my voice and started howling. Then there was a crash and then the sound of a chain scraping the floor and then Ubu came out into the front room.

He had gotten so excited when he heard my voice that he’d literally ripped the brick out of the wall and was dragging it behind him as he came to me and knocked me over with kisses and hugs. The cop looked at us rolling around on the floor together each making high-pitched squeals of delight. “Okay, I believe you. He’s your dog.”

Yeah. And, I was his guy.

March 28, 2008

There Is No “I” in Team or in Comedy

I was nearing the end of what I believed to have been one of my most profound parental lectures. A true teaching moment between myself and my then 11 year old daughter Shana. One she would remember forever. Perhaps passing on its wisdom one day to her own children. That time when her dad successfully linked together two of the seminal thoughts at the core of his personal philosophy: “It’s not the size of the man in the fight. But, the size of the fight in the man.” Elegantly linked with the equally profound, “When the going gets tough the tough get going.” I was about to explain how “you learn more about citizenship on the one yard line than in all the civics classes that you’ll every take” when Shana raised her hand and tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.

“You know, dad, not everything in life can be reduced to a sports-metaphor.”

I thought about that for a moment. And, then replied: “Yes, it can.”

Perhaps this deeply held belief is an attempt to justify the thousands of hours I put in, in dank lonely gymnasiums – a hundred dribbles with the right hand, a hundred dribbles with the left. No going home until you sank ten foul shots in a row, some nights it seeming like I’d have to sleep there. Or, an attempt to justify the painful wind sprints at the end of baseball practice. 100 yards, then ninety, then eighty ‘til everyone in sight was throwing up including people on the sidewalk who just happened to be walking by.

But, as March Madness overtakes my life once again. And, I thank God for my assistant Heather, who remembered to order the full package of mega-madness games for me on Direct TV. As I watch little Belmont take mighty Duke down to the final second. And, Davidson slay Georgetown. I am reminded anew of the wisdom of my sermon. And the straight line that connects a successful sports team to a successful television show.

I’ve played on good teams where we would be down 4 with 30 seconds to play and in the huddle everybody would be thinking, “I wonder who’s going to step up today and save us?” And, somebody would.

I’ve also been on bad teams where we’d be up 11 with 3 minutes to go and we’d all be secretly thinking, “I wonder how we’re going to find a way to screw this up?” And, we would always find a way.

A good team, like a good show, comes into being when the separate individuals working together create, in essence, another separate higher entity – the team – the show – which is better than any of those individuals can ever be on their own.

“Family Ties” was a very successful situation comedy. And, in almost every respect it functioned on a day to day basis like a well-run, well conditioned basketball team.

The show was performed live each week in front of a studio audience on Friday night. That was our big game. Everything we did during the week at rehearsal, our practice, was designed to get the cast, our team, in a position to perform successfully during that big game on Friday night.

We began our work week Monday morning at 9am with the table read of that week’s script. If you were late we started without you. When you arrived we didn’t make you run laps but you had to wait for a natural break in the script, a time-out, before you could be inserted into the line-up. A subtle reminder that no one was above the team.

Our rehearsals were closed to studio and network people. Closed to managers and agents. Only the people on the team allowed. That included not only the actors, writers and directors obviously, but, also our crew. Camera operators, dolly grips, craft service. Our family was large. The set was crowded. But, team members only.

We lived and died as a team. At our opening night parties at Chasen’s everyone on the cast and crew list and their families was invited. No above-the-line below-the-line split. Everyone’s children were welcome. Pets if we could sneak them in. It takes a lot of people to make a winning team. Everybody’s contribution is important.

My role in all this corresponded, almost directly, to that of coach and general manager. I hired and fired. I approved salaries and staff positions. And, I was on the court every day at practice trying to find the keys to success. To find the way I could put everyone in a position to get the best performance out of them on Friday night.

I never played well for coaches who yelled and screamed and diminished their players. And, I’ve never seen anyone play better because they were scared. I did best under coaches who were even tempered. Well prepared. Good teachers who were also willing to listen. And, learn from their players

After each run-thru we would all sit around the kitchen table. Cast and crew. Writers and directors. And, the first question I would always ask the actors was - “What isn’t working for you?” “Where do you feel uncomfortable?” “How can we help?”

I would then explain what we as writers were trying to do – our game plan. Point out where I thought that we had failed. And, where I thought we could still succeed with our original plan if we perhaps just made this or that adjustment. But every actor on our stage knew they would never be asked to say a line they didn’t want to say. On the other hand they knew they could never say to me, “I won’t say that line.”

In front of the audience on Friday night, after a successful scene, I would run out and hug the person who had done the set-up, not necessarily the person who had landed the big joke. The idea being that a laugh on our stage belonged to all of us. That we all had on the same team jacket that said Family Ties. That sometimes you don’t get that laugh all by yourself. Not without a beautiful bounce pass of a set-up from a fellow actor.

Most successful coaches I knew adapted to their players individual styles. And, I tried to emulate that. Mike Fox got ready for the game on Friday night in a much different way than Michael Gross, for instance. Mike Fox liked to dance around what he was going to do in the actual game. Pick his spots on the floor but hold something back. Going at three quarters speed in rehearsal but always focused. (His three quarters being most actors’ personal best.) Not do too much pre-planning. Leave room for the brilliant improvisation of the moment. Mike Fox knew when he was going to dunk. But, not whether it would be a windmill or just a one hand jam.

Michael Gross was more methodical, if no less effective. Two dribbles, stop, turn, off the backboard. Swish. Same way every time. Deadly.

Particular and wonderful chemistries developed on the floor. Meredith and Michael Gross had extraordinary respect and trust in each other out there. The small smile of appreciation on Michael Fox’s face when he received a large soft volleyball of a floating set-up from Justine Bateman, always made me smile. And, Tina Yothers, not to be denied, mastering the back door. Holding her own and then some with this gifted ensemble.

The trust just bred more trust. On and off the court. Crew members became more confident offering up their opinions about everything from scripts to costumes. The actors knew how much we loved them. How much we wanted to win on Friday night. And, we never went off to do a re-write without complete appreciation of how much faith they had in us.

I remember once being on a Wednesday of a show to be shot in 48 hours and the script, still not making very much sense. And, still not being very funny. After our kitchen table talk I saw Mike Fox very relaxed making dinner plans thumbing through Variety. “This script sucks,” I told him. “You don’t seem worried.” He looked up at me and shrugged, “It’s only Wednesday.” In the morning we had a new script. A good one. Mike looked at me, “What’d I tell ya’?”

We played 180 games together over seven years. They weren’t all gems. But, like any good team we always gave it everything we had. And, we learned from our mistakes. And, we got better. And, we also won a lot more than we lost. A lot more.

Awards and accolades flowed for every one of us. Emmys for acting, writing, for our camera crew. Salary increases. Security. Financial and career-wise. We would always be those “guys” who were on that winning team. And, that good feeling and good will has stayed with us.

When my book came out in February everyone in the cast came to New York to be with me for a wonderful reunion on The Today Show. It was the first time we’d all been together in almost 20 years and it was heartfelt and very emotional. Watching Michael Fox show pictures of his 4 kids to Tina Yothers showing pictures of her 2 kids to Michael and Justine showing pictures of her 2 kids to Tina and Michael is one of the enduring moments of my life. As we were hugging our goodbyes Mike Fox laughed at me and smiled. “Check your Amazon numbers in the morning.” I did. My book had gone up about 1000 places. My team came through again.

At the end of the seven years “Family Ties” voluntarily went off the air. And, we went off as the #1 show on TV that week. We cut down the nets on stage 24 and moved on with the rest of our lives. Always to carry with us the blessing of what we had gone through together. What we had achieved. As a team. And, we went out with a “W,” which was only right.

About March 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Gary Goldberg in March 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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