Mar 302015
 

Jeff Cohen

Terri and Erin quite eloquently posted last week about Clean Reader, an app which apparently "cleans up" any work of literature--that is, anything that contains words--to best appease the sensibility of those who feel some parts of our language should not be employed. I do not intend to address that subject directly, mostly because I think everything Terri and Erin said was so dead-on I don't need to add to it.

But.

I do think we've regressed somewhat in our use of language. In fact, we've regressed a number of decades, to the point that simply using certain words can be considered scandalous or politically inappropriate. I grew up on the idea that words were tools, that they could express any thought if used properly. I grew up on George Carlin, and to tell the truth, I thought we were over this stuff.

People remember the classic Carlin discussion of Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, but they miss the point for all the cursing. Yes, he goes out of his way to use all seven title words. But he doesn't do that just for the joy--which must have been palpable at the time--of saying them in a public forum. He's talking about the use of words, and why some have been segregated from the others.

It's a question of sensibility, and that's fair. The problem is when one sensibility decides to impose itself upon all others, which is what everybody thinks "the other side" is doing to them.

I believe in all words. I think each one has a use, and a specific one. Writers have been known to spend hours agonizing over a particular usage. To set aside some because they might offend others seems to me to be a poor use of resources. Some words are meant to offend. It's not the word's fault you're insulted. It's the thought behind it.

For the past 15 or so years I have been writing mystery novels and many of those fall into the "cozy" sub genre. The parameters of the "cozy" have been fairly well debated and I will not attempt to redefine the term here. But it is pretty universally understood that "bad language" is something that should be avoided in such works.

I don't have a problem with the idea of language fitting the form. I knew what I was signing when those contracts crossed my desk. I'm writing for a particular audience and that audience prefers not to see certain words. If I felt--as I did in my first published novel--that one of those words (often referred as a "bomb," which is sort of bizarre--does the word lay waste to entire city blocks?) was necessary to the story, I'd use it. Otherwise, I could find other ways to express the idea. I'm a writer. That's what I do.

(This is where I should say that I don't consider what I do to be "self-censorship." It's not like I'm dying to curse my brains out but rein it in for the sake of commerce. And my editors have never once asked me to change a word in order to appease anyone's sensibility. The changes we've made have been to make the book better. Period.)

But in some cases the whole breadth of the English language is necessary to the work. What has happened, particularly in comedy but certainly not limited to it, is that the giddy freedom Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and others helped create led to overindulgence. People swear without making a point just because they could. That's lazy. I'm not offended, except as a fan of comedy. Work harder. If the joke needs the word, use it. If it's just to show off how daring you are, I'm bored. It's 2015. We've all heard that before.

I don't believe in "bad words." As Carlin said, "There are bad thoughts. Bad intentions. But words?" He had a point. And that's the point.

Mar 022015
 

Jeff Cohen

It was difficult this past week to hear of the death of Leonard Nimoy. Like so many others, I was a pretty serious fan of Star Trek from its first airings (yeah, I'm old), and Spock1Spock always appealed more than the other characters to me. 

He had that conflict between his natural tendency to see everything in terms of cold, objective logic and the need to understand his human side, which would react to things more emotionally than the character might want to admit. He was a beautifully conceived character, but he wouldn't have worked half as well if he'd been played by another actor (as we've seen in recent years).

The need to keep raging emotions in check while understanding their importance was what kept the character interesting. And Nimoy, who must have understood him on a basic level, once told director Nicholas Meyer (Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country, among others) that he never played Spock as a character with no emotions.

Instead, he played the alien as a man trying to keep his emotions in check. That makes all the difference.

Yes, some of the plots were downright silly and the special effects on a TV budget and schedule in the 1960s could be laughable. But Spock was never anything but dignified and in the parlance of the time, cool. He could outperform humans on almost every level, but was content to live among them and observe. 

Leonard Nimoy brought that to the role. Did he bristle at being thought of as Spock and nothing else? On occasion, he did; it's true. But he did not disparage the role or the people who had embraced it, sometimes to the point of embarrassment. 

Hey. I was nine years old and it was Star Trek. Cut me some slack.

Many years later when I was going through my unsuccessful screenwriter phase, I wrote a screenplay that had some connections to Star Trek, although it took place in contemporary America and didn't use any of the original characters because I wasn't stupid. I'd probably shudder to look at that piece of work today, but at the time I thought it was pretty good and I was hoping to get it noticed somewhere in Hollywood.

So I sent a letter to Leonard Nimoy asking if he'd like to consider directing the script.

To my astonishment, I received a letter (this was back when there were letters) from Leonard-nimoy-to-palestinians-and-israelis-live-long-and-prosper-in-two-states-2Mr. Nimoy's company saying he'd very much like to read the script. And you can believe that a copy was in the mail that very day.

I don't remember how long it took to receive a response, but I'm sure at the time I thought it was an eternity and I did my best not to pester anyone at Nimoy's company about it (I'm sure Josh can picture me waiting by the phone, only younger). But eventually another letter did arrive.

It's probably not a huge surprise that Nimoy passed on the script, since when you scan my IMDb page, you'll see I don't have one. But he did send a personal note.

He wrote, "I read your script with great interest, and your fondness for the material is evident. Although I am not going to proceed with it, I'd advise you to keep writing." I quoted that from memory.

It was a time when I needed any little bit of encouragement, and getting Mr. Spock to tell me I should keep writing did the trick. It was something he didn't have to do--most other Hollywood types would have sent a form letter or gotten an assistant to write the note--but he clearly saw that the script meant a lot to me, and wanted to connect personally. 

I never forgot that, obviously. 

Rest in peace, Mr. Nimoy. You were a good actor who had one iconic role, which is more than most get. You were a talented director, a good writer and I don't know much about photography, but I'm willing to bet you had some talent there too. You were kind to me at a time I needed it, and even though I tried to explain that the one time we met for about a half a minute, I don't think I sufficiently communicated that thought. Thank you. You will be missed.

 

P.S. There's a new contest going on! Win a free download of the audio version of  HeadThe Question of the Missing Head by E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen! See details here or here.

Feb 232015
 

Jeff Cohen

There's a lot to be learned for any kind of entertainer by visiting the theme parks in Orlando, Florida. And that's exactly what I'm going to tell the IRS when they ask how a dinner at the Sci-Fi Drive-In at Disney's 2015021795135923Hollywood Studios is a business expense.

It's true: A day spent last week at Universal Studios Orlando and then two days at Disney parks (Hollywood and the Magic Kingdom, which is a slightly intimidating name for a theme park), were more than instructional in the art of keeping a mass audience entertained, enthusiastic and wanting more. The two large corporations behind these resorts have done a great deal of research into what works and what doesn't, and it shows.

If you're a writer, a performer, a director, an editor... you get the idea... take heed. The experts are leading by example. Pay attention, and you can find a way to link the ideas to what it is you do.

First: Always create anticipation. There's a reason there are all sorts of distractions on theme park ride lines, and it's not just that the park operator wants you to forget you're on line for over an hour to get on a three-minute ride. No, the idea here is to plant in the mind of the audience the idea that this is going to be  awesome, so the wait is worth it. Entertainment along the way is part of the package--it makes you feel like the host cares about you, and builds up the experience to come.

Also: Make the audience member feel special. This still pertains to the line only. Both Universal and Disney have systems in place to make the guest feel smart and privileged by passing most of the simple peons on the line to more popular attractions. The differences in the systems are significant, but they have the same goal.

Universal Orlando allows some guests to bypass most of a line at especially busy rides (particularly in the Harry Potter sections, where traffic is highest), but you have to pay more for tickets that do so. It is sometimes possible to get nearer the front of a long line if you're willing to ride by yourself (without the rest of your party), but you then often bypass the pre-show described above, and in some of the rides, that the best part.

Disney's system, as usual, is better thought out. A Fast Pass option is available to all ticket holders. Special scanners at the entrance read the card. You can (if you have the Disney World app on your phone) select three rides the day before your trip and designate them for Fast Pass. Available times will be shown, and you choose. No more than three. If you don't have the app, you can do the same thing at the park at Guest Relations or Fast Past stations, usually near the really popular attractions.

The takeaway: I can feel like a big deal and save time and I don't have to pay extra. It's about pampering (at least in their minds) the audience. 

A quick last note on lines: The wait times are posted outside each ride at both parks. They are almost always overestimated, giving the guest a treat when the wait doesn't actually take quite that long. Another pleasant experience that cost nothing.

And: You have to deliver an experience. The audience is primed and ready for something to happen after all that waiting (or, not waiting). Just the build-up won't satisfy. Make sure your product is superior, because all the smoke and mirrors in the world won't mask the fact that you haven't been trying hard enough.

For the author, this means not letting plot get in the way of character. Not writing dialogue that simply delivers story points and no personality. Constantly entertain.

Say what you want about the theme parks--they're garish, some of them are getting a little ragged around the edges, the commercialism is as blatant as it can possibly get. All that is true. But do they entertain? They sure do. And if I earned in one year what one of those parks takes in for french fry sales in one day...

We can all take a lesson.

Feb 162015
 

Jeff Cohen

WINTER GARDEN, FL--I'm taking a few days to enjoy not being in New Jersey in February with my family, so this dispatch is being typed a while early. If somehow it has become irrelevant in the interim (like if the film business suddenly vanished this week), my apologies.

So the world is going to Hell in a Buick Regal, Jon Stewart has left us bereft, Brian Williams... I don't really care... the presidential election (U.S.) is a mere 21 months away, you should just get your kids inoculated for goodness sake, and the publishing business is no doubt preparing to lose its collective mind over some new tome that is, invariably, not mine. Okay. Let's discuss what's really on our minds.

OscarsjpgThe Academy Awards.

Six nights from tonight, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences will hand out some trophies and there will be the inevitable overuses of words like "courage," "amazing," and "best crew in the business" in acceptance speeches.

I have no desire nor ability to accurately predict the winners of said statuettes, but I will be riveted to my couch, loving every minute of the interminable ceremony. I love the spectacle and the sheer goofiness of it all, so don't call my house during the Oscars. We're occupied. Or pre-occupied. Or something.

While I still object to the idea of more than five films nominated for the best picture category (that's just pandering and it's silly), I did make more of an effort to see those movies than I normally do. Eight films, and I saw seven, since I have no interest in the sniper thing, mostly because I've never seen a Clint Eastwood movie that didn't need a half-hour cut out of it simply for pacing.

So here are my impressions, for the remarkably little they're worth. Your opinions may certainly vary:

Birdman_trailerBirdman: I'm told that one either loves or hates this film, and I firmly fall into the latter category. What others saw as bold and inventive I saw as pretentious and showy. I didn't care about any of the characters, thought the shot-in-in-one-take gimmick was distracting, and had to take painkillers to undo the damage of the almost-all-percussion soundtrack. I have no problem with Michael Keaton winning for his performance, because I really like Michael Keaton and think he should have won for something else.

Boyhood: A snorefest of the highest order. Again, a gimmick that's impressive, but does not necessarily translate into the great film others believe they've seen. Instead, we get people just sort of hanging around for no particular reason and they get older as it goes on. Okay. The 7-Up documentaries are considerably more compelling, and those people are real.

Grand_budapest_hotel_c371The Grand Budapest Hotel: I am actually not a fan of Wes Anderson because there's only so much arch I can take before I go into painful withdrawal symptoms. But I liked this one better than most, the cast is came and it's nice the Academy is recognizing something that at least tries to be a comedy once in a while. Like most films, this one suffers from not having enough Bill Murray.

The Imitation Game: Biopics are a rough genre. If it's not a documentary--and by definition it isn't--the filmmakers will be criticized for inaccuracies that are inevitable when trying to make a piece of popular entrainment (in other words, a good movie). So this one is better than most, and suffers from the same problems as others: It's reverent without being absolutely accurate, is really made to show off a performance rather than a story, does so well, and ends up being fairly forgettable when all is said and done.

Selma: Another biopic. Sort of. The first movie to portray an actual human Martin Luther King Jr. and that is admirable. It tells a specific story without trying to be a one-stop-shop for the Civil Rights movement. It has a distracting cameo by Oprah Winfrey (probably to help it get made) and only pays a certain amount of lip service to Dr. King's flaws, which isn't a huge problem. It's compelling and watchable, if a bit slow in spots.

The Theory of Everything: Biopic. The last one on this list (again, no sniper here), and very much of a type. See everything I said about The Imitation Game above, and it'll pretty much be true. Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance, as did Benedict Cumberbatch. He probably deserves to win an award. But Michael Keaton. And in this case, the odd thing: Not enough science. We're not really clear on what makes Stephen Hawking the phenomenon he became.

Whiplash-ScreamWhiplash: In my mind, the best of the bunch. I'm no fan of modern jazz (particularly when they try to play it too darn fast), and would rather face a firing squad than a prolonged drum solo (See: Birdman), but this film made me care and put me on edge. It's really a monster movie, with J.K. Simmons as the monster, and doing a remarkable job. Miles Teller as his terrified and singleminded protege is equally good in a less flashy role. I'll be rooting for this one knowing it has zero chance of winning the prize. 

My family also, as has become our custom the past few years, saw the animated and live-action short films (but not the documentaries) nominated in those categories. (They're probably playing somewhere near you, and you should go.) It's not as interesting a bunch as last year's, but the consensus around the homestead here is that the Disney animated short Feast will win, which is okay but not as good as if  MV5BMTQ1OTY3NjAwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDQ5ODMwNDE@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_A Single Life would. In live-action, we're rooting for  Fa65177db7c31c8cb0096e419633efa4Boogaloo and Graham, knowing that something more depressing like The Phone Call has a better shot.

Either way, after this all-too-brief sojourn into warm weather and theme parks is over, we'll be back at home, wearing lots of clothing and watching the far-too-long awards ceremony. 

It's one of the best nights of the year.

 

P.S. If Jon Stewart's Rosewater had been nominated, it would have come in second after Whiplash. I certainly liked it better than whatever's going to win. You should find it on Netflix or elsewhere.

P.P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in four days. Spring is almost here.

Feb 112015
 

Jeff Cohen

And then there's the news you only wish was fake.

It was announced and confirmed today that Jon Stewart will be leaving The Daily Show sometime this year. And while I see the logic and good sense that goes into that decision, my initial reaction was the same as most others I've seen.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

For the better part of two decades, Stewart has been the safety valve holding the sanity of thinking America from blowing off and putting someone's eye out. And as he's grown into the job, he's become simply the best at something others have tried to do and never come close to equaling.

Plus, there goes the tiniest hope I had of ever being interviewed on The Daily Show.

It seems somehow unfair that Stewart will leave but Fox News gets to stay on the air. One can only hope that there will be a replacement host for The Daily Show, and my vote is in for Jessica Williams. Be bold, Comedy Central.

But whoever comes next should be very different. There's no point in trying to duplicate what Stewart has accomplished. It's as if Derek Jeter isn't going to be the shortstop of the Yankees anymore and someone else would have to step in to... what?

Crap. I forgot.

The world is going to be a less funny place soon. While one wishes Mr. Stewart well in whatever it is he decides to do next, it's hard to believe he'll be the best in the world at it. To watch that man build up a head of steam on an issue and then let loose with some of the smartest comedy on the planet was (and still is, for a while at least) a thing of beauty.

If you're incredibly lucky, you get to do that once.

So here's the thing: Thank you, Jon Stewart. You did something important and you did it amazingly well. You kept it going for a long time and it never wavered in quality. You were fair (yes he was, right wingers--there were Obama and Clinton jokes), you were honest and you were hilarious. That ain't easy.

And replacing you? Not possible. 

Jan 212015
 

 

Josh Getzler

Last night, Amanda and I took the whole family—eyes a-rolling and smartphones in hand, to see Selma in commemoration of MLK Day. And for two hours we were all gripped. There are all kinds of discussions and online complaints about what was added or emphasized or neglected in the story of the conflict, marches, and violence in that period of the Civil Rights Movement. But honestly, they were beside the point, and I think one of the real strengths of Selma the Movie was that the decisions Ava DuVernay made ultimately cast great relief on the biggest of the issues. It’s a big, broad, statement movie, and it works.

One of the most powerful scenes was when President Johnson appeared before both houses of Congress to urge them to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The kids understood extremely intensely what had gone into getting the President into that room to make that speech.

As we were leaving the theater, one of the kids mentioned that this evening was going to be the State of the Union Address. They know that Amanda and I watch it every year, talking to the television, keeping score of the points the president makes (ANY president) and when he falls flat. How often the Speaker or the VP falls asleep, how often one side or the other stands and claps. But this time, we’re watching a little differently, thinking about how inconceivable it would have been to both the majority of the marchers in Selma in 1965, and the people within and without politics trying to stop them, that a president who looks like Barack Obama could be giving a State of the Union Address.

Now it’s time for us to go watch. We’ll get back to publishing next week.

 

Jan 122015
 

Jeff Cohen

The Golden Globe awards (ha!) were given out last night , and Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday, so the usual group of self-important fun-free flicks will gather up all the honors on the way to a glittering night of unremitting bordom relieved occasionally by a funny comedian (but Robin Williams is dead, so that's a problem) or the anticipation of a jaw-dropping faux pas. I love the Oscars, but this is not an especially interesting year. I'm writing this before the nominations are announced, but I'm already bored. Imagine.

But that led to another train of thought, which is the real reason I asked you all here today. 

Believe it or not, Hollywood is not the only place where awards nominations are being pondered by anxious people placing far too much importance on their chances. Yes, it's nomination season in the mystery book world, too, and if you think people like me (that is, any author who actually managed to get a book--or two--published in 2014) aren't thinking about such things, well, you are adorable. 

There has been much made in various social media outlets (that's what we communicate on these days, kids--outlets) about the proper etiquette for authors to "remind" readers (and voters, we love voters!) that their brainchildren (books) are eligible for various honors. And it's a sensitive issue, seriously.

On the one hand, we don't want to appear to be relentlessly blowing our own horns, to be campaigning outwardly (is there a way to campaign inwardly?) for a crass pat on the back and an ingraved something or other. We don't want to alienate readers, who are kind enough to read our work and hopefully to like it, by becoming annoying one-note singers constantly blathering on about how you should vote for our stuff.

But on the other hand, we really want those nominations.

Writers work in a vacuum. (I'll leave a space here for the inevitable Hoover joke.) We work by ourselves, basically for ourselves, laboring away at a story that didn't exist until we decided to make it real (ish). It can take months. Or years. And all that time, we have precious little, if any, feedback. We honestly don't know if what we're devoting our time and creative energy to might actually be any good. Or not.

So yes, we crave a little ego stroke now and again. And again. We even get one, occasionally. The complimentary review. The thoughtful email from a reader. The Amazon sales number we check with some regularity (is every 6 minutes "some regularity"?). 

The awards? Well, you have to be nominated, and that at least allows the writer imagine, for a few weeks, what it might be like to win the contest. Some actors remove their names from eligibility because they say artists shouldn't compete. I say, bravo to them. But my name--both my names--are staying right out there because I want to get that affirmation. There, I said it.

So here's how I have decided to deal with the campaign-but-don't-campaign conundrum: I will mention in this forum--because I'm guessing you decided to read this blog of your own free will--that both Question of Missing HeadTHE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD, by Jeff Cohen and E.J. Copperman, and Final coverINSPECTOR SPECTER, by Copperman alone, if such a thing is possible, are indeed eligible for the Agatha Awards given at the Malice Domestic conference, and my personal favorite (because it recognizes humor), the Lefty Award from Left Coast Crime, this year held in Portland, OR. If you are a nominating voter for either of those presitigious awards and have read and enjoyed either or both books, I would greatly appreciate your consideration.

But because I really do want to be fair about it and because I really don't want to seem incredibly avaricious and self-centered, now I'll invite other writers whose books might be eligible for an award this season to comment here and tell us all about it/them. Please do so. I'm sure everyone who reads this blog would be interested in knowing. We'll look below for your comments.

I encourage all those who can to fill in those spaces on the nominating forms. Whether or not one of the books pictured (subtly) above is included in your choices. Because this is about what the readers really like.

Of course, I would like to know if I have a chance at an award to put on my mantle. Because I don't have a mantle, and would have to price one in the coming weeks. That would be okay, believe me. I've always wanted a mantle.

So let's get the game started. Who's going first?

Jan 122015
 

Jeff Cohen

1. I will not follow your cat.

2. I will not follow you just because you follow me. I have to know who you are. I'm funny that way.

3. I will feel free to post about my books and urge you to buy/nominate/vote for them.

4. I assume you will feel free to ignore me if you don't want to read stuff like that.

5. I will use Twitter to say stuff I think is funny. If you don't, that's entirely your right.

6. I will occasionally say political stuff. Again, your option is to block, ignore or argue with me.

7. I will block you if you get personal in your arguing with me. I won't get personal arguing with you.

8. I still won't follow your cat.

9. I will follow famous people--if I respect their work--and try to get them to notice me. Isn't that what Twitter is for?

10. I won't follow people I know to be dead. 

11. I WILL follow some people I know to be fictional, if they're entertaining about it.

12. My baseball-to-posting ratio will be higher on Twitter than elsewhere. I'm an impulsive fan.

13. I do not expect you to follow me unless you want to. 

14. I will post about television, movies, sports (well, baseball), current events and things other than books. 

15. I will not post to anyone in my family, because none of them has a Twitter account.

16. I will check my Twitter account multiple times per day.

17. E.J. Copperman's account will be checked every once in a while.

18. Maxie Malone has a Twitter account. That almost never gets checked.

19. I will follow other authors, especially if they're actually friends.

20. I will not pay much attention to the number of followers I have. Perhaps I should.

21. I will follow the President of the United States. The fact that he follows ME confuses me a little.

22. I will block you if you try to impose your religion, political beliefs or sports affiliations on me. If you just want to state what they are, that's your business. Don't tell me what to do.

23. I will not always use "cozy" language on Twitter. I don't really have a problem with any word in the English language, depending on how it's used.

24. If you use one of those un-cozy words to insult or provoke me, I'll block you. I don't use them that way.

25. No. I'm not following your cat.

Jan 052015
 

Jeff Cohen

New-year-2015

(That's me on the right!)

Personally, I have little to complain about with the year just ended. Yes, there are tweaks I'd have made here and there, not everything was perfect, but professionally and personally, I'd have to rank it among the better years, particularly of late.

But 2014 was a disastrous year for comedy.

In the course of those short 12 months, we lost (among others) Sid Caesar, Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers, Jan Hooks, Mike Nichols, David Brenner, Rik Mayall and possibly the most painful of all, Robin Williams.

Living comedians weren't exactly having the best of times, either. Ask Bill Cosby (who in all likelihood has not deserved to have great times for some decades now). 

The Colbert Report ended its nine-year run. Craig Ferguson left The Late Late Show with no immediate announcement that he will be continuing his incredibly subversive take on a talk show anytime soon. 

And late in the year, a relatively stupid stoner comedy from the guys who brought you Pineapple Express actually started a real international incident, to the point that the President of the United States had to answer questions about a Seth Rogen movie at his year-end press conference. There were threats of violence, although to date none has been perpetrated, thank goodness.

There were no comedy films (particularly non-animated ones) in the Top 10 of the year's box office grosses, according to a web site devoted to such tallies. There were all of three in the Top 20. Then you have to drop down to #34 to find another, and get to Dumb and Dumber To, which is a comedy technically in the sense that it isn't a drama.

Things were somewhat better on television, as has been the case for a number of years now. Discounting popular (if somewhat predictable) tired standbys like Two and a Half Men (who's the half-man now?), TV comedy has settled into a sort-of uncomfortable but sporadically interesting groove with such cool-but-funny shows as Veep and Transparent

But as with most things, once the TV business settles on what is the new exciting thing, it replicates that thing mercilessly until you're sick of it even when it's done well. Veep  begets Alpha House which is a variation on House of Cards which in turn leads to... who cares by then? I believe it was the radio comedian Fred Allen who once said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

So with the end of 2014 comes a sincere plea: Let's hope there are more laughs this year. With everything else that's going on, we could certainly use them.

Happy new year, everybody!

Pitchers and catchers report in 46 days.