“Je suis Charlie”
Recent events in Paris attacking freedom of creative expression remind me all too well of my own battle for freedom of expression and creativity. I was studying writing at the University of Tampa, and while my experience is benign compared to Paris, it is a lesson in the ongoing fight for creative expression.
At the first class we were informed that we should choose who we wanted as teammates because the main project required a team of four students to write a sitcom pilot. Our final assignment at end of the term would be a table read of the script in front of the professor and our classmates. (Should you ever have occasion to try such a creative exercise, I assure you that you’ll come away with a great respect and awe for writers who write such scripts on a weekly basis. And, after my experience in the class, the fact that they often do it in teams is incredible to me.)
I recall thinking that it was a good thing that I could be part of a team because I didn’t want to face such a daunting creative challenge alone. It was a thought I would come to realize demonstrated the utmost ignorance.
What began with friendship, even great affection, ended with visualizations of unspeakable, delightful horrors: As I looked across the table, I could clearly see in my fellow Spartan’s eyes what they were seeing as they looked at me, and my thought was, Right back attcha bitches. I saw my head exploding and the contemplation of ducking so as to avoid the splatter of flesh and blood and bone fragments hurling about the small conference room. And I reached the point of inability to look at any of the three “ladies” without my imagination seeing breasts exploding like over filled balloons, eyeballs popping out and flying around free of gravitational influence while fingers suddenly elongated and launched like rockets while chasing flying eyeballs around, spurting blood throughout the room like spent rocket fuel.
The girls, now with faces featuring large, hideous pinkish red holes where eyeballs once presided, were in my imagined reality, now reaching for their eyes with bloody, fingerless knops while their jaws melted as though figures in a wax museum engulfed in flames. Finally, during our group sessions, my mind would snap reluctantly back to listening to these prissy shits with their petty observations and complaints. In retrospect, I can see that the seeds for the growing animosity were planted on the first day we met as a team….And grew faster than maidenhair fern in Miracle Grow.
My own not so bright idea came when I heard that I must become part of a group. I decided immediately on a proactive approach. I reasoned that my powers of observation would allow me to choose which were the most studious and creative and go after them. Yeah, right.
Perhaps I was subconsciously thinking that, as the oldest student in the class, I would end up like the awkward child on the playground and get chosen last, if at all. Somewhere in the dark corners of my mind I could hear the professor: “Isn’t anyone going to choose poor Vernon?” Then comes the voice from somewhere in the back of the room, “Who wants the old fart?” Stinking thinking was sealing my fate.
My first choice was a girl I knew — an actor who also worked as a waitress at a restaurant I frequented. Surely she would bring the spark of an artist and creative energy with her. Her enthusiastic acceptance grew my confidence. The next two picks were largely via process of elimination. I crossed off students already taken, those that were talking while the professor was speaking and those texting under their desks. I left the class after my team was approved by the professor convinced that I had the best team and the creative energy would flow red-hot and study like lava. Yeah, right. The days of rocket fingers, flying eyeballs and melting flesh were just around the corner.
Our first group meeting began with expressed consternation about the agony of coming up with an idea for a sitcom pilot. My “partners” took their turns bemoaning the great pain and brain drain from idea hunting. Not a single idea from any of them. My naïve anticipation that I would have to compete for my own idea, was just one of my misconceptions about this soon to become torturous collaboration. I had, it seemed, picked a group too lazy to pick their own noses.
Apprehensive as I was to pitch to them, their failure to put forward any ideas bolstered my belief that my idea could rock and get us an “A” in the class. I had already pissed off some prim and proper students by using artistic nude photos as the focus of my ad campaign for the advertising writing class; it was an ad campaign for magazines. I knew there was a chance that my sitcom pitch would kick up some more dust. However, it was my turn, so I jumped in the pool not realizing there was no water to cushion the hard impact to come.
Actually, I had written “Here We Go” as a short story and, I reasoned that we could convert it to a sitcom script and fulfill our assignment. That was the easy part of the pitch. Now came the part that I knew could derail the train to a glorious script breathing life into my characters: George, Evie and Consuela.
The premise of my script idea assured that it would be a pilot for adult oriented cable T.V. Yes, I was willing to collaborate and compromise as part of a team. But I wanted to make sure everyone understood that the one compromise I would not make was the premise. That was my baby and I either wanted to follow through on it or go with something else. I emphasized the point in my pitch.
I explained my idea in detail: Evie and George are newlyweds but she is already five months pregnant on the wedding day. Apprehension and anxiety over impending fatherhood, coupled with his frustrating relationship with a strong-willed mother-in-law, Consuela, fosters hilarity in dialog and action. (I take a deep breath at this point in the pitch because here it comes…here we go.)
The concept derives from the T.V. show I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arness, were creative geniuses. However, they fought battles with the censor of the day over content. Silly things such as not allowing them to be in one bed together. In those days censors were powerful squashers of creativity.
As I was taught to do by writing professors, I posed a “what if” question. What if the censors were sent home? What if they weren’t allowed any authority? Of course, today this is reality: It’s called cable television with many shows leaving censorship in the dust. So I decided to write a story loosely based on “I Love Lucy” without censors. My short story was born.
I pointed out that, obviously, this concept would involve explicit material – sexual situations and offensive language.
“If you have any problem with that then let’s not do my script. I have no problem with going for something different; let’s hear your ideas. I just don’t want to get in this one and then have any problems with the premise and what it entails; this will be a sitcom for adult cable T.V. audiences. I do not want to change that.”
I was about 90% sure that they would respond to my little speech with a thumbs down and let’s move on with our search.
In retrospect, I should have known there was no way they would reject my pitch. Of course not; this was their chance to avoid doing the work of coming up with an idea. Something I would come to realize they didn’t have the chops to do even if they had the energy and work ethic. The vote was unanimous and work on “Here We Go” began.
We were several weeks along – much too far to turn back or change concept. I was doing almost all the writing with the actor chiming in with an occasional half scene or two. George, Evie and her sharp-tongued mom, Consuela, were alive and creating comical mayhem with censorship left behind. The scenes were delightfully rude, crude and worthy of cable T.V.
My teammates murmured to each other and occasionally offered up a corny line here and there for consideration. I was not expecting Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Lucy or Desi, but I was disappointed when the girls didn’t even seem to try. They apparently became bored with the whole process and decided they would turn our meetings into bad soap operas. But a soap needs a bad guy…I was the bad guy.
One particular meeting felt very different right from the beginning, and not in a good way. It was obvious that some sort of meeting had occurred without me (I suspect the actor initiated this mutiny of Spartans). They agreed that I was “going too far” with the adult nature of the script. They did not want to just modify the script but to take it decidedly in the direction of mainstream, primetime. Exactly what they knew from the start I did not want. Pearl Harbor had been bombed; war declared.
The group began to challenge me at every turn. At one meeting the actor presented a performance worthy of a bad night at community theater. She adopted the most sanctimonious tone. With all the self-righteousness she could muster, I was lectured about the need for standards in content and concept.
Fuck you, I thought as she droned on.
She spoke of her righteous standards as an actor: She would never, for example, do a nude scene, she claimed.
Okay, so stay in your waitress job and do your overacting in some small, dingy, half- ass production of Music Man or some such shit.
Writer, Stephen King, points out that when one decides to write, that person leaves polite society behind. Of course he is referring to the genres of writing for adults. But writers who have been labeled as unfit for reading and had their work banned and burned (Yes, even right here in the good old USA that my dad fought for) is long and proud: Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut and so many others. And, for that matter, the list of great actors who have appeared in nude scenes as part of artistic expression is likewise long and distinguished.
Je suis Charlie.
The animosity was open and the body parts hurled around the room, and the wax figures melted before my eyes (I still had mine). I reminded the “genteel ladies” that they had agreed to the concept and content at our first meeting. Deaf ears fell off and flopped to the round, dark wood conference table like red fish leaping from the aquarium.
“There’s no need for a ‘fuck you’ in this scene.”
“Why are you using the word ‘penis’?”
“Okay, I replied, “Let’s change that to big, giant goddamn dick. How’s that?”
“Why did you decide the baby is a boy? You didn’t check with us first.”
“Well, I had a choice and decided that you’d no doubt like a dick. But allow me a rhetorical question: What the fuck difference does it make to this story? If you want a pocketbook there instead of a pecker, by all means slap it in there.”
Let us pause for a moment and take a look at part of the opening scene. Just to give you an idea of what this war was all about:
EXT. OUTSIDE FRONT DOOR TO LIVING ROOM—AFTERNOON.
GEORGE IS ATTEMPTING TO CARRY EVIE INTO THE LIVING ROOM. HE IS HAVING DIFFICULTY GETTING THROUGH THE DOOR WITH HIS PREGNANT WIFE:
Okay, okay. I gottcha, girl, I
EVIE IS ROCKED BACK AND FORTH AND NEARLY DROPPED.
Put me down, George. You’re going
to drop me and this baby. Put me
down. Put us down, damn it.
GEORGE STRUGGLES TO KEEP CONTROL.
It’s okay, I gottcha, I gottcha.
No you don’t. Put me down!
GEORGE FINALLY MANAGES TO GET THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR AND ENTERS THE LIVING ROOM STILL CARRYING EVIE.
GEORGE KIDS EVIE AS HE CARRIES HER AROUND THE ROOM.
Okay, my lovely bride, here we are.
Home sweet home. Now, let’s start
consummating this here marriage!
Just put me down, I think we’ve
done all the consummating we’re
going to do until after this baby
GEORGE TWIRLS EVIE AROUND, TRIPS AND FALLS BACK AND ON THE COUCH.
Whoa! Come on honey, it’s our
BEGINS TO SPEAK SPANISH.
No Jodas conmigo, tu bastardo
(Don’t screw with me, you horny
You know I don’t know what that
It means “Don’t screw with me, you
It sounded better in Spanish.
I kept writing the way I planned. They made a few changes just to be doing something, and with a priority to bug me. I countered with more content sure to make Larry Flint flinch and provide more material for hot-tempered arguments. Might as well stir the pot and have some fun watching their hissy fits.
And then it was time: Our table read date arrived. Our nightmare war was almost over. As we took our seats at the long table in front of fellow students and the professor, the actor was reading Evie, and I reading George, so we sat down next to each other. To my right and sitting at the end of the table, was a Spanish-speaking student I had recruited with the professor’s permission to read Consuela. Another member of the team stood at a podium with the assignment to read description. The remaining team member was content to do what she had done all along…nothing.
The actor seized on a chance to take a jab before the adventure ended. We were well taught what a table read is. Readers are expected to put forth at least some acting qualities, but it is a read and nothing more. Yet, just before the reading began, she turned to me and with as frigid and indifferent a tone as she could muster said, “You know the scene where George and Evie kiss?”
“Yes, I wrote it.”
“We’re not going to really kiss. Do you understand?”
Tits exploded, eyes leaped out, fingers flew off.
Well, what about the scene where they have sex? Aren’t we going to jump on the table and go for it? You moron bitch from hell. I’d rather kiss a cottonmouth moccasin.
“Yes, I know.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.” The booming voiced professor said in his way to quite the class and bring us all to attention. He was well aware of the arguments between us and had stayed out of it other than to declare that there would be no censorship in his class. (The true God bless him forever.) I suspect he was secretly enjoying the conflict.
The actor had one last whack to take at me:
Just as I was about to begin the read, she suddenly stood up and announced to the class: “We want to apologize in advance for the vulgarity.” She resumed her seat with a dramatic flair and satisfaction that was more than I could bare. Ever mindful of the professor’s presence and desperately wanting an “A” I had strained to keep my wits and use restraint. But now I could not hold myself back. I stood quickly just as she was placing her butt back in the seat as if it were her broom stick.
“No we do not apologize for creativity. If you’re offended, too bad.”
The actor spoke with the authority of a stern parent: “Sit down and shut up.”
I looked directly into an impatient expression on the professor’s face and sat back down.
As soon as we began, everything changed. The actor read with the conviction and talent of a seasoned performer. Her voice rolled out over the mesmerized audience. Her clean articulation was complete with all the right pauses and groans in all the right places. I instantly knew that I needed to hyper focus on George’s antics and frustrations. I had to raise my game to match her. No question, she made me better.
I did the writing, but this girl brought those characters to life in front of the class. From the timing we displayed, the almost musical delivery between us, you would never guess the intense disdain that lurked below the surface. Our Consuela seemed likewise lifted: Her Spanish spiced with a tanginess that held our audience like a just caught fly ball.
When we were done, and the applause abated, I heard the voice of the professor say simply but firmly, “Good read.” The “A” for the assignment was solidified and I was on my way to graduation. I turned to our Consuela and profusely thanked her, waived to the teammate who read description with perfection. Caught in the moment, I then turned to the actor and said,
“You too,” she said without looking at me.
We turned our backs to each other and walked away.
I’ve said all that to say this:
Never apologize for creativity.
Je suis Charlie