Friday, February 4, 2011

GREAT writer, different medium

So, normally I blog fairly exclusively about all things bookish here, but a few nights ago Jon and I went out to hear a different kind of writer speak.  Academy Award-winning writer/director/producer James L. Brooks was at the historic Castro Theater to accept the third annual SF Sketchfest Comedy Writing Award.  For those who don't know, Jim Brooks is the writer/director of the films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets, and the recent How Do You Know, among others.  Additionally, he is the guy behind the classic television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons.  He is the only person to ever win Oscars for writing, directing, and producing a feature film debut.  And he has won more primetime Emmy Awards (19) than any other person in history.  In short, he's got a few accomplishments under his belt, and has had a significant impact on popular culture.

The program last night began with a conversation between Jim Brooks and his long-time friend and colleague Danny DeVito.  What can I say about Danny DeVito?  He was raucous, vulgar, indiscreet, and absolutely hysterical.  The two of them spoke, told stories, and took questions for nearly an hour and a half--much longer than I expected.  I'd like to repeat those stories here, but I really can't.  It would be irresponsible to post the stories DeVito was telling on the Internet.  I can't believe what was coming out of his mouth!

What am I talking about?  Well, there were several tales from the set of Terms of Endeament.  Danny starts, "Jim, I don't think you'll mind me saying...  I mean, there was...  There was tension on the set."  (Brooks begins to look nervous.)  He talked about how he and Jack Nicholson decided to head down to the location shoot in Texas and brighten things up.  DeVito proceeded to tell a story so mortifying for Shirley MacLaine that my mouth literally dropped open and stayed open for at least 30 seconds.  And from there he launched into a whole routine about Debra Winger.  Brooks was visibly uncomfortable at times with DeVito's, uh, candor, but you could see that his discomfort was warring with amusement and affection.  It was hard not to laugh at DeVito's antics.  The audience was roaring.  At one point, while DeVito was talking trash about Debra Winger, Brooks said, "You're crossing the line."  DeVito's response, "What line?  This is San Francisco!  They don't care."  

There was one Winger story I can repeat.  DeVito actually acted this story out, playing the role of Jim Brooks.  Apparently Debra was holed up in her hotel room refusing to come on set.  For two days.  The production was losing a ton of money, and nobody could do any work.  So, first-time director Brooks approached the hotel door with great trepidation and knocked gently.

"Who is it?"
"It's Jim."
"What do you want?"
"Uh... I gotta use the bathroom!"
(A beat.)  "Nice try."

But Brooks was quick to note: "If Debra Winger wasn't in that film, we wouldn't be talking about it today."  Again and again he made sure to praise the people he's worked with over the years, and he gives every appearance of being an honest to goodness mensch

Later, DeVito launched into a series of stories about wild, cocaine-fueled parties back in the 70's and 80's, causing Brooks to wonder audibly about the statute of limitations, and to preface all of his stories with, "If this were true..."  DeVito's comment, "What?  This is San Francisco!  They don't care.  You know how many mushrooms these people did on the way here?"  So true, so true.

One of my favorite topics that came up was their discussion of the late Andy Kaufman.  The tales they told were funny and bizarre, and it was clear that Kaufman had plenty of detractors back in his days on Taxi.  And it was also clear that Brooks could see why.  But, again, his genuine affection for the man and admiration for his talent shone through. 

After a pleasantly impressive Q & A session, the organizers of the Sketchfest presented Brooks with the Comedy Writing Award.  He and DeVito departed.  And the final portion of the lengthy evening was a screening of Brooks' classic film, Broadcast News.  I've seen this film at least 20 times, and it still stands up today.  (Incidentally, Broadcast News was just rereleased in a comperhensive Criterion Collection DVD that's well worth picking up.)

All and all, it was a fantastic night--the sort to remind you why it's cool to live in a big city, and why it's occasionally good to put down the books and get up off the couch.  But don't worry, I'll be back to the books with my next post.  :-)

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