Take Yer Shirt Off!!!! Come on, Take It Off!

So I’m standing on the putting green this morning, about to tee off, when one of the guys in my foursome steps up to me, and, with a conspiratorial air, says: “Hey, we should get up a collection to raise enough money to get that Wendy Rhoades on your show to take off her shirt!”
It takes me a moment or two to process what he’s said. To actually absorb and make sense of the words that just came from this grown man’s mouth. This fellow isn’t some internet troll. He’s not a seventeen year-old high school junior looking for something to say. This is a peer of mine, in a sense—a fifty-one year old business man with high schoolers of his own.
I imagine he expected to get a smile out of me, or the old wink wink nudge nudge. Or maybe he figured I’d come back with an even racier comment of my own, and we’d end up arm in arm, just a couple of golfers talking smack about women as we walked to the first tee.
Instead, remembering the promise I made to myself when I wrote this piece two years back, I say the following: “That’s why I love country clubs. There’s nothing like some casual misogyny first thing on a Sunday morning. The actress who plays Wendy Rhoades, Maggie Siff, is a good friend of mine and a coworker. She’s a brilliant actress and woman. You should know it’s not okay to say something like that.”
I was met with silence. And then a half-chuckle. And then more silence, and we walked to the tee to play our round. Eventually, I made a joke about someone’s golf handicap, and the rest of the round went off without incident.
The most troubling part of this, to me, is that the man who said it isn’t a bad person. By that, I mean, he’s kind-hearted, good to his family, easy to smile. And he’s not an outlier. That comment or one just like it must be made on every golf course and basketball court and tennis court on a daily basis. And it’s this that troubles me: no one treats it like a big deal. In fact, my rebuke to him was probably much more a subject of conversation after the round, once I’d left. I can hear them, “Koppelman has a stick up his ass. Fucking Hollywood liberal. So, don’t play golf at a country club.”
This is all fine with me. I’m an adult. I can handle the cost of my words. But I really can’t handle anymore the easy and glib way in which men talk about women. Had he merely commented on Maggie’s beauty, or even if he’d said he wished he could get with her, I’d have told him no chance, but I wouldn’t have held it against him. Or us. But when you add in that this man proposed, as a joke, raising a fund whose purpose would be to lift her blouse, the entire exchange reaches the land of the disgusting, the cruel, the clueless.
And to me, it explains much of Donald Trump’s appeal. White men want a world wherein they are unchallenged, can buy any woman they want, can, out of the corner of their mouths, reduce women to objects whose breasts will be made accessible for viewing just as soon as a reasonable price is agreed upon.
As a white man, I broke the rules today. I refused to laugh along. I said something. But what I know is, I accomplished absolutely nothing except making myself feel better for about five minutes. After which, I have mostly just felt sad. The gulf is so huge. The misunderstandings so great. The chasm not one that can be crossed quickly, easily or without massive structural change. There’s no way that the gentleman who wants to pay to see Maggie Siff’s breasts has any idea why I got upset, why his expression of this desire is harmful, what it perpetuates. And I am certain that even if he were forced to sit in a seminar, he’d come out exactly as wrongheaded as when he went in.
The world he and I live in was built for us by people like us. It was protected for us by people like us. It is being guarded, even now, by people like us.
I guess the only solace I take is this: I found myself actually shocked to hear those words. That may be because I mostly spend my time with artists and writers and creators. Or it may be because I live on the ultra liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan. But it’s something. And it’s pretty much all I can hold onto now, while I wait for my generation of men to change or die off, and for the generations that follow us to find a way to be better.

REM Albums ranking

Rem is my favorite band of all time. As such, I get asked for my official rem album rankings from time to time. So here, for all time, is the list. This list does not merely represent my opinion. It is, in fact, definitive.

Automatic For The People
Murmur
Reckoning
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Document
Chronic Town
Live At Olympia
Fables
Green
Dead Letter Office
Accelerate
Around The Sun
Monster
New Adventures
Up
Reveal
Collapse Into Now

Drinkin’ Songs

I tell folks to make stuff and share it. It’s scary as hell to share sometimes. But, in the end, worth it. So here goes.

This is a song I wrote with Michael McDermott. Adam Fears was kind enough to sing it. Drinkin’ Songs

And here’s one I wrote myself. Once again, Adam sings. Sometimes I Miss That Boy

James Blake and Domestic Terrorism, NYPD Style

I try not to be judgmental. But make no mistake; if you are talking about anything other than the James Blake video this week, I am judging you. Harshly. As a white male in his late 40s, I have no special standing to talk about Blake, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, racial profiling, any of it. I’ve never faced the business end of a policeman’s sap, never been thrown to the ground, cuffed or profiled in a way that demeaned me. Instead, police have been exceedingly nice and gracious to me every time I have ever interacted with them.

So in a sense, I have no unique perch from which to comment. But. As an American and a New Yorker, I have all the standing in the world; in truth, I have a mandate to talk about it. Because there, on that video, is absolute evidence that I am helping to finance and support a violent, racist regime of terror. Yes. Terror. I use the word advisedly, understanding exactly how much of a jolt it carries.

Imagine being a Black male in his early thirties, walking alone, wearing a hoodie—a four hundred dollar Vince hoodie even—on West Sixty-Seventh Street. Suddenly, you see a woman pointing down the street, and next to her, two policemen, guns at the ready. What emotion do you think you would feel? I’ll tell you—terror. And it would be justified.

In James Blake we have, it seems to me, the most useful tool yet with which to tell the story. And not just because Blake is a Harvard educated millionaire tennis player. But because this Harvard educated millionaire tennis player did not resist arrest, was not read his rights, was not even spoken to—he was just taken to the ground, harshly, forcefully, and cuffed. He was stripped of his freedom.

I watch the tape, and I am sickened. Heartbroken. I am heartbroken for James Blake and for all the Black men who have been treated like that without recourse, without video, without even the remotest chance that anyone in the system would believe them. I am heartbroken that we live in a city and country whose citizens know, at some deep cellular level, this happens, time and again to Black men in every city and state, yet who live in some kind of denial about it, barely letting it register as a conscious thought.

And I am heartbroken because I don’t understand how to affect change. I don’t even really believe that it can change. But it has to, somehow.

Blake himself has been heroic in his response, measured, strong, generous. I don’t think I’d be any of those if it were me tossed to the concrete like a felon.

Perhaps the fact that it has never happened to me is the very reason I can write about it, talk about it. Part of me believes that if I had been a victim like Blake or one of the countless others, I’d be out there on the streets in the shadow of this incident with a heavy club or gun of my own, ready to mete out my own brand of revenge as justice. Or maybe I’d just give up, the weight of all of it too much, and something in me would just die.

The Mayor and Police Commissioner have apologized, have offered to meet with him. I hope that happens. And I hope he tells them that it is not enough. I hope he tells them that it can’t go on, that this dehumanizing, institutional cruelty must end now.

I can hear their response, can’t you? That this was one bad cop, that it was all a misunderstanding, that a new sensitivity is aborning in the wake of this action. I can also hear how tinny it will sound, how empty, how cold. It’s getting late, too late, really, for this canned answer to still be coming off spokesman’s lips.

I try not to be judgmental. But I try harder to be human. And to see the humanity in others. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the NYPD that they try it too, now, before it gets even later.

Notes, Belonging and Birbiglia

This began as a journal fragment. I cleaned it up, added a few things, took out the names, because I wanted to share it.

Aug. 2, 2014

Last night, I grabbed the 2, then the F down to Mike Birbiglia’s house in Brooklyn, where he and a bunch of his friends read Mike’s new screenplay aloud. As I set off for his place, I was miserable; I knew the subway ride was going to be long, and the night was–it was an NYC August special, hot, rainy, muggy–the worst subway weather imaginable. I also knew my wife and teenage kids were home and available to hang out, and I was tired from a long week, so, even though I am a huge fan of Birbigs’, I wanted to bail.
But when another working writer, a peer, one you respect, asks you to listen to his script, you go and listen to his script.
Man, was I glad that I didn’t bail. The script was strong—funny, smart, tender. And Birbigs’s friends, some famous actors, a few sketch comics, a radio host, were excellent performing the parts. They really brought the characters and situations to life.
That was great. But it wasn’t the thing that really made heading down there worthwhile. What made the night memorable was the feeling in the room, the way these artists came together, and the spirit in which they did, to help another artist gain perspective on his work. .
Looking around the room, at the performers but also at others, directors, actors, podcasters, teachers, poets, there to listen, I realized: I belong to this tribe. These were my people. They were creators, risk takers. And they were so generous in the way they approached the process.
Having been on Birbiglia’s side of a table read, I know how intense, nauseated and panicked you can feel as your screenplay is about to be exposed. As a screenwriter, you never feel as naked as you do when it’s being read aloud for the first time, without the benefit of a musical score, tight editing and sound effects to help it along. And it can be tense for the actors too–reading something they haven’t had time to prepare, trying to inhabit the essence of characters they haven’t had the chance to think about.
But the vibe in the room wasn’t tense at all. It was comfortable. No one was competing with anyone else. No one was judging anyone else. And then, at the end, I watched as Mike invited everyone there to talk to him about the script, about how he could make it better, about what worked and what didn’t work. He was so calm, almost serene, his ego very carefully put away.
By welcoming the criticism, by the warmth of his manner, Mike created the possibility that he would actually get honest feedback. Everyone saw that he wasn’t threatened, that he wouldn’t bite back if someone suggested a cut or told him there was a part of a scene they didn’t understand.
As a result, there was a kind of magic in the way we all communicated, honestly but with respect, love even, and above all, empathy.
In Hollywood, the note-giving process is rarely like this. It is freighted with so much other junk, possessiveness, power issues, the threat of one of us losing his job, that almost nobody gives or receives a note without some rancor creeping in. Mistrust is the real lingua franca of the back and forth between execs and writers in the notes game because there appears to be little reward for telling the truth. “Listen to the notes and tell them you’ll think about it,” an agent might say. “Hey,” a studio boss might tell a creative exec, “get her through the next pass quickly, and let’s have a closer lined up to follow.”
But last night at Birbiglia’s, the exchange of meaningful ideas on an already high-quality script, had nothing in common with that.
I spent years as a blocked writer. And like most blocked writers, a ton of that had to do with criticism, I’m sure, with my own perfectionism, with my fear that I was without talent, without that essential, ineffable gift real artists have.
Looking around the room at the collection of real artists, the brutal subway ride receded completely. I knew that all these folks had overcome some version of what I’d overcome. They had all felt like frauds at one point or another, had all wanted to be better than they were, had all battled the urge to quit, live a normal life, hide the best of themselves. And somehow, they were able to fight it, to push through, to live this life, the life that had them at Birbiglia’s house, in this wonderful creative circle, helping another artist, just like them, to get the most out of himself that he possibly could.
When I was first trying to write every day, when each sentence felt like a war, sometimes I’d dream that I’d be a part of a community like this. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, didn’t have any evidence it existed, but I knew I needed to find it. Riding home from Mike’s house, I smiled and thought that each step along the way, each day I managed to put something on paper, each rejection I absorbed, was my passport, the very thing that allowed me to be welcomed in, the very thing that confirmed I belonged.

On The Bill Simmons Situation…

I have a ton of empathy for Bill Simmons right now because I too was once sacrificed at the alter of ESPN’s broadcast partners. This was about ten years back. My creative partner, David Levien, and I got a call from a producer who said he had an idea for a series that ESPN loved, if only they could find someone to really figure out the story and write it.
The show was to be a drama called The Fix that would be set at an NCAA division one school; the story of the season would be how and why a college football game would be fixed.
Levien and I went up to ESPN and had a terrific meeting. They loved our take on the idea and wanted to hire us to be the creators and executive producers. It was at this point, that we asked the question: “but guys,” we said, “are you ever really going to be able to put a show like this on the air?”
The head of programming (who’s no longer there) turned to the room and said: “if you guys write the pilot you are talking about writing, we will green light the season.”
“But what about the NCAA?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Being young(ish) and fascinated by the premise, we agreed to write the pilot. We turned it in, the head of programming called us. “I love it. You delivered. We are going to make it. Come to the office tomorrow so we can officially do this, but go to sleep tonight knowing you are going to be running a show for me.”
Next day, we head back up to ESPN. But the faces we see ringing the conference table are far from buoyant. We know before the Head of Programming even begins speaking.
“Can’t green light the show, fellas. NCAA negotiations are coming up.”
“But…”
“Broadcast partners. We had thought they were okay with it. But when they read it…”
“You showed them our script?”
“The point is: we’re sorry. How would you like to write a show about poker?”
 And that’s how we ended up creating Tilt, which they did green light and air. (Truth is, the invitation to write a poker show happened a few weeks later. The rest is exactly how it went down).

When Simmons got suspended this past week, I immediately flashed back to The Fix. He made the same mistake we and the head of programming did. He forgot that ESPN will never really bite the hand that feeds it. Sure, some of its news shows might feature a bracing look at the story, and Olbermann might make a smart, cutting remark or two, but if you cross some imaginary line, make it personal somehow, call attention to the real hypocrisy at play–you will be smoked.
ESPN will always act in its self interest, as the top people at the network define the term. That doesn’t make the company unique, or evil, at all, that’s what companies do. But ESPN holds itself as something more, as a journalistic organ, as an institution that challenges the PR machine.
Earlier this year, ESPN dropped out of the concussion documentary that they were supposed to do with PBS. And now, they’ve silenced Bill Simmons.
They may say it’s because he violated a journalistic principle by calling Goodell a liar without a smoking gun. But as rational adults, we have to know that’s not why they did it. They did it because he got personal with a broadcast partner, they did it because he has the biggest microphone, the biggest audience, they did it because they need to reassure the NFL that they want to be back to business as usual just as quickly as the league does.
Look: I am not objective here. I have known Bill for 13 years, I write for Grantland, Levien and I made a 30/30 that Bill executive produced, and I host a podcast on the Grantland Network. Beyond that, I am a huge Bill Simmons fan. I think he changed the way sports are covered, the way a whole generation of people watch sports, the way those people talk about sports. I am also a dedicated ESPN viewer and have been for longer than I can remember. ESPN is an important part of my life–that 30/30 is, obviously, an ESPN program. I love ESPN. Which is why I wish they had seen this moment for the opportunity it actually was, instead of taking the opportunistic easy way out and impressing Goodell and the NFL with how they discipline even their most valuable employee when he steps out of line.
I haven’t spoken to Bill about what his plans are. I hope he’ll be back, writing and running Grantland, as soon as his suspension is up. And I hope that he will not modulate his approach even a little bit. Because if this incident changes the way he does his job, then ESPN, this place I value so much, will have cost itself a great deal more than just its journalistic credibility.

Permission Granted!

This is a bright guy sitting across from me in my office. Early 20s. Funny. Charismatic. Clothed and framed out of Elvis Costello’s 1978 closet, and so suffused with post-ironic, post-modern, geek-cool that every word he speaks is loaded with world-weary wisdom and nerd-fighter hopefulness at the same time.
He’s here for advice. We’ve never met before. Lately, I’ve been asked to do this more and more. I usually say no — if I didn’t, I’d be doing it all day. But when I say yes, it’s because the young artist is serious, has a creative practice already, is doing good work, and isn’t really just asking me to make introductions in the business for him/her.
This fellow is accomplished. A peer. He’s been working as a writer and director since he quit college to take a job at a cutting edge web-video comedy site and is now, before his 25th birthday, making six-figures a year. And he’s talented.
So when he reached out online and asked for a half-hour to help talk through a career dilemma, it was an easy decision to say yes; I was looking forward to it. I’ve made the same ask to more experienced people throughout my creative life, to experts in various fields, to mentors. And I’ve gained a ton through that kind of exchange. When the timing is right, it’s a pleasure to give back in the same way. What I always hope is that the young artist has an agenda, specific questions, a reason to want to make the connection.
This young man has all that. He is on time, clear-eyed and has given thought to what he wants to discuss. He lays out the career dilemma, and it’s a familiar one. He’s trying to decide, essentially, how to manage the balancing act between creative freedom and financial comfort.
I listen to everything he has to say. Try to process all the details. He tells me that he loves the work he’s doing—making digital content for a network, half-hour shows, short segments, mini-series, that he has tremendous creative freedom within the form, but that the company is trying to lock him up for a long time. And that his ultimate goal is to make movies. I ask him some questions about his lifestyle needs. He answers honestly — that he’s gotten used to the money, that it’s enough, he doesn’t need more, but he’s not really ready to walk away from it. We get granular about the work—and he says that the freedom to make what he wants to is ideal. The only drag of it is that the company has proposed a very long term deal, and he’s afraid this will stop him from making the movie he wants to make. He’s already written the script, can shoot it for a budget. We discuss what would happen if he quit the current gig. He says he’d have to work at Starbucks. I ask him if waiting to make it is going to kill him, if he can somehow do both at the same time. He allows that he can, that the company might give him an out, that they are sympathetic. That he doesn’t really want to leave. Just doesn’t want to be committed for more than a few years.
I understand the position he’s in. And my advice is that he makes sure the term of the new deal is short—two years, that he bank money during that time, reduce lifestyle so he can save, and then, if he wants to leave to make movies only, he should.
He thanks me. Says that this seems exactly right. But it’s clear something is bothering him. Finally, right before he stands, he says it. “I just thought…I hoped that you would tell me to fucking bag it, to quit no matter what, to work in a Starbucks if I had to so that I could make my movie right now. I wanted you…”
He wanted me to be the version of myself that he knew in six second bites, the version that encourages people to chase their dreams, that calls people out on their excuses. He had this idea of what he needed to hear based on an imaginary dialog we’d have, one that he had already had with me in his mind.
I see the disappointment on his face. Instead of begin jingoistic, ignoring the realities he laid out for me, I had tried to actually listen, to figure out what would be best for him in this specific moment. I had been reasonable. He needed me to be unreasonable, unyielding, deaf to his real life. I wasn’t. So I was a let down.
He’s as nice as could be when we shake hands before he leaves my office. And afterwards, as the late afternoon sun starts to fade, I sit there and try to make sense out of the situation.
What this bright young man was looking for was permission. As together as he is, as active and creative, he still doesn’t understand that he’s the only person he can look to for permission to be exactly who he wants to be. My job, in this sort of exchange, is to take him at face value, to avoid ladling my values onto his predicament, to use my experience to give him the best advice based on what he tells me he wants. That’s all I can do, all I can be.
When I am making the Six Second Vines, I am talking, primarily, to myself, to who I was when I was a blocked artist, and I am talking to you, too, if you need a little push, a little encouragement, a little bit of evidence that it’s possible to do what now seems impossible.
And I am talking to this young man too. But what I am trying to tell him, you, and, most importantly, myself, is that none of us need anyone else’s benediction, recognition, permission to live exactly the creative life we want to live. Only we know what steps we need to take; only we know how drastic, how desperate, how urgent those steps are.
You are the only one who can give yourself permission. I am the only one who can give myself permission. And this young man is the only one who can give himself permission. And that is great news. That is freedom. If we let it be.
We just need to listen to ourselves, to speak honestly to ourselves, to permit ourselves. And then, we are off and running.