Sam and Rosie: An Odd Couple

I can’t defend Samantha Bee because the harsh, offensive language she used this week was wrong. I have been a fan of her show since it launched, but I actually think it has gotten progressively worse as she has allowed her indignation to overcome her humor. My sense for some time is that she is not currently at her best.

Indignation is the call to fight. Humor is the sword that slays dragons.

A strong producer could steer her back on track. I don’t see a lot of evidence she has one, and I think her talent is taking a hit as a result. If she looks to some of her peers and mentors, she’ll see where she may be losing ground on that illusive concept of “crossing the line.” I’d like to see her rebound because she does have a unique, important voice in our nation’s dialogue.

When Roseanne Barr launched her latest damning tweet, I believe she was in an entirely different universe of free expression.

Here are a few points on the false equivalency:

1) There is no equivalency between a random racist tweet and a few unnecessary hateful words deployed in the context of making a point about the morality of separating parents from children. Lenny Bruce pretty much died for this point. Context is inseparable from language.

2) Complain all you want about who should get fired or cancelled, but the two performers have different employers. It’s the employer’s decision to exercise a response to the free speech exercise of an employee or contractor. Had it been the same employer, there might be an opening to hypocrisy, but even then, don’t mistake what happened. These were considered business decisions.

3) If you want to know the true horror of our nation, do a few internet searches and see what some of Roseanne’s supporters are saying about the underlying truth in her remarks. The defensive outcry over an alleged double-standard does little more than fuel the fire of racism as some kind of macabre social norm too many people can easily dismiss as overblown. Racism is institutionalized hatred bolstered on ignorance. Celebrities choosing to fan that flame know what they are doing. To the contrary, you might find a few people defending Samantha’s rotten choice of words, but for reasons of emphasis, not denigration of gender. Again, context matters, particularly as a rallying cry. There are degrees of invective. The hierarchy stems from purpose.

Far be it from me to defend Samantha, but I believe her intention was motivated by a positive force of social criticism. She threw away that timely opportunity with a few poorly chosen words. Roseanne was just being herself, using her humor to irresponsibly reinforce a longstanding platform of inciting the biases of her base.

The two incidents are not the same. Far from it.

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Image: GQ

Jerry’s Kids Forever

Labor Day weekend for me will always be connected to Jerry Lewis. His annual 21 ½ hour live telethon raised more than $2 billion over 45 years for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He died last month at the age of 91. I miss him already.

Jerry meant a lot to me as a kid. I was an MDA volunteer from the age of 12. I used to help patients with mobility, assist with fundraising, and every year I would work the telethon in the local Honolulu studio. Satellite time in the 1970s was very expensive, so we didn’t get the national feed for most of the overnight hours. In those blackout periods our producers would put on a nonstop “telethon within a telethon” so we could stay on-air in synch with the east coast six hours ahead and the west coast three hours ahead. Pledges would come in all through the night. Jerry was with us in our hearts whether he was onstage in Vegas or we were broadcasting hula dancers. We did the show together no matter the separation of distance, and we loved the children at the heart of our mission.

I never met the man, but sometimes he would come on the non-broadcast feed between segments and talk to the remote volunteers, so I felt like I knew him. He would thank us for our help and tell us the telethon could not happen without us. I believe he truly loved the kids we served. He wanted to beat neuromuscular diseases in our lifetime. We haven’t done that yet, but we have come a long way. He gets credit for some of that, along with the dedicated doctors and visionary scientists whose groundbreaking work he helped fund. For a zany borscht belt comedian, that’s a long way to travel in a single visit to our planet.

Jerry took some heat for exploiting MDA patients in his depiction of their challenges. I never saw that. I saw a man devoted to curing a terrible, debilitating condition. He was a master of the stage, there is no question about that, but in the end I don’t believe the telethon was about him. It was about lending his name and global stardom to a cause that mattered. He didn’t have to do that. It was a choice. Of course it would come with some critique. He was pioneering new ground and taking creative risks that had no precedent. He might have said a few things wrong or missed the mark on occasion with a photo opportunity, but I believe he was committed to healing. He was a brave soul paving the way for a generation of viewers who learned how to turn their time into public service.

I learned a lot from Jerry and working with MDA. I learned how to work steadily through 36 hours of production from set-up to wrap. It’s hard to fathom what that meant in this age of digital media and 24-hour everything. Opportunities like that let you bond with strangers with enormous intensity that is over as quickly as it begins, yet can last a lifetime. Sometimes in the overnight hours, when I saw on the schedule board that our stage was about to go empty, I would gather some of the MDA kids and we would practice a few songs together, a Beatles tune or a Bob Dylan folk song. When the TV audience was at its smallest the producer would put us on the air. I played guitar and we would sing together in a half circle looking straight into the red light of the live camera.

The first time this happened was my first time on live TV. We were directly in front of the phone banks around 3:00 a.m. with maybe 100 people in the auditorium fighting sleepiness. I probably messed up some of the chords but the kids sang right over me. You forgot they were in wheelchairs. They were just kids singing like they were at a campfire. Afterward the kids asked me if Jerry would have been pleased with our performance. I took a chance and told them I thought he would. Today I know that for certain. They were Jerry’s Kids forever.

Jerry Lewis was an imperfect person as we all are, but he was an inspiration to me. He had no roadmap, no rule book, just a whole bunch of harebrained ideas and a ton of influence he put to work for something that mattered. He was dedicated, hard-working, wildly hard-minded about details, and a perfectionist. He gave of himself. He always made me laugh. Well, maybe not always, but most of the time. He was very funny, but of another time. I will never forget him. He was an original. Labor Day will always be his.

Jerry, dear Jerry, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The Little We See

I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.

If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.

I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.

“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.

Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.

Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?

All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.

One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.

The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.

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Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com

I Was On Fox Business Network

Varney 041714Last week I was invited to appear on Varney & Company, the midday (EDT) market commentary on Fox Business Network hosted by Stuart Varney. It was an opportunity to talk about my novel, This is Rage, and how some of the themes it encompasses apply to current tensions in the Bay Area around affordable housing, income inequality, and the more heated rhetoric of late around our ability to discuss and resolve complex social issues rather than pour rocket fuel on the fire pit.

I didn’t think the live TV interview would be a walk in the woods, and to be honest, I’m not unhappy with it. Varney said what he had to say, I said what I had to say, and I appreciated the near five minutes on-air to promote my book. The strange part for me was what followed. Here are a few of the tweets:

U VILE SOCIALIST COMMIE POS I FELT RAGE WHEN U WERE TALKING!

U R a SOCIALIST donkeyshit4brains COMMUNIST traitor U DO NOT BELIEVE IN CAPITALISM OR LIBERTY I wanted to reach thru screen n STRANGLE your ignorant ass!

Ken is a fool – his comment that if you are rich you should be happy to pay whatever is asked of you – priceless!!

And this comment, posted on my Amazon page:

Saw Goldstein on a Biz program and turns out he’s just another Jew who believes government is not stealing enough from us. Why are so many Jews of this collectivist mindset?

I am not sure what I said to upset those people to that extent, nor did I go on the show to talk about tax policy. My point was rather straightforward: when you hear an outcry, listen, and before you dig in your heels and fan the flames of a conflict, ask yourself if there is something you can do to ease the tension. I do think the repercussions of widening inequality will continue to be severe, not only on moral grounds but in the name of good business. Historically it has been the buying power of the middle class that fuels corporate earnings, and that middle class can remain strong only if income levels do not further polarize. To know my career historywhich was strangely not mentioned in the introduction to the piece, though I was carefully vetted for my credentials prior to the interviewis to know that I believe in our capitalist system and have been a fortunate beneficiary of investment and free-market economics. Were Varney and I really that far apart, or were theatrics applied to make it seem we were further apart than we were? Once I was labeled an outsider in the Fox system, was I simply fair game for rejection by the loyalist audience?

You have to wonder, if someone disagreed with my point of view, would it be ludicrous to expect a tweet like this from a genuinely concerned observer who might even choose not to remain anonymous:

Ken, rent control is not a solution that works in our economy, let the market decide prices or the system will fail.

Of course it would be utopian to expect that kind of exchange, but perhaps it is not meant to be by media design. Ratings follow the heat, and there is more viral value in stirring the pot than in civil discourse. As I explore in my own book, controversy can be a form of currency, whether organic or invented. If you don’t want to engage in the brawl, your voice may willingly go unheard. A recent piece in The Atlantic by Jon Lovett entitled “The Culture of Shut Up” noted the following:

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive—nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right—it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.

Lovett’s concern is that much of the manufactured outage emanating from entrenched media verticals aimed at driving inflamed social media response is antithetical to the free speech it is supposed to represent. I think he is onto something. An awful lot is being said, but how much of that speech is being crafted in considerable thought? If you do have something you feel is important to say, how willing are you to say it in a public forum if you know only seconds after the words leave your lips, strangers are at the ready to attack you, your character, and implications in any spontaneous string of words that may have slipped through your lips without the imposition of editing?

You bet, it’s scary. Want to know why a lot of people who might be good at public office have no interest in running for election? You must really have the courage of your convictions to say anything at all in a public forum, then have blubber-thick skin to weather the attack, and then the media-training skills to know when to hit back and when to walk away. Should the vitriol boil over, you might also worry whether any of those words could become expressions of violence, which curiously enough leads back to the very subject of my appearance on Varney: the outcry of people in the Bay Area being priced out of the housing market. Varney asked me whether this might become physical, to which I replied, I hope not. Some of it comes down to whether anybody is really listening to the authentic outcry, and whether they are playing it back as a media sound bite to amp up their numbers.

Can we have an intelligent discussion and debate about inequality in this country without throwing out memes like “class warfare” and “tax-the-rich socialism”? I think so. I like investing, I like motivating talent to achieve heroic goals, I like serving customers, and I like the longterm rewards that come from years of hard work. I also maintain a sense of empathy for those who are down on their luck, for those who are not in the right place at the right time, and for those who try hard but nobly fail at any endeavor. Are those radical views that cannot be reconciled when we talk? Well, if they can’t, maybe we shouldn’t talk. And there goes free speech.

When I sat in the little windowless room waiting for the prompt in my ear bud for the first question from Varney, I wasn’t thinking about tweets or memes or nasty reactions to my words. I was thinking about what he might ask me, and what I might say, and whether I would come across as credible. Maybe that was naive. Maybe I should be more worried about trying to exchange ideas where the intersection of those ideas is more valuable than what either of us might devise on our own. I had asked my dad the night before how to handle the interview if it got tough. He told me to just be myself. I think that was good advice. That’s who you see on the video. I’m okay with that.