– I recently saw a stage actress I know in an episode of a popular TV series. This was a new experience for me. I’ve watched any number of writer friends hold forth on talk shows, and I’ve even tuned into David Letterman to see a band whose members I know quite well. But all those people were being themselves, more or less, whereas my actress friend was pretending to be someone else. Of course she was in one sense wholly herself (I knew her smile in an instant/I knew the curve of her face), and the part she played drew deeply on her familiar energy. Nor was she made up in any deceptive way: she looked like the person I know. Yet some uncanny transformation had nonetheless taken place, and I found myself to be more than a little bit disoriented as I watched her on the screen.
Perhaps it’s the sheer realism of TV itself that disoriented me, the fact that we turn to it in search of information as often as for amusement. Live theater is far more mysterious, for the paradoxical reason that the actors are physically present, in but not of the same space. Watching a play is like looking at a painting in a museum: the painting itself is real, a corporeal object that you could reach out and touch if the guards would be kind enough to look the other way, but it’s not the “objectivity” of the canvas with which you’re concerned. A TV series, by contrast, isn’t mysterious at all. It seems as real as life itself–unless you happen to know one of the actors, in which case the boundaries quickly grow blurry.
By the way, I sent the actress in question an e-mail saying that I’d seen her and was impressed. She wrote back as follows:
There I was, all 15 or 20 seconds worth, in the most unflattering closeup. I wanted to put a paper bag over my head!! At least my acting, what little screen time I had, was truthful. And….I had a pimple right in the middle of my forehead!!!!!! AAAGH!!!!!
Remember that the next time you wish you were a TV actor: all you see are the pimples.
– It rarely fails to surprise people when I tell them that I almost always know how long it’ll take me to write a given piece. (In fact, I think it disillusions them.) The part I forget to mention, though, is that the clock doesn’t start running until I start writing. I rarely get blocked, but I sometimes find the prospect of writing so disagreeable to contemplate that I stall for as long as I possibly can.
I don’t know why I do this. It isn’t as though writing were physically painful, after all. Nor do I do it all the time, or even very often. Most of the time I face the blank page the way Marcus Aurelius might have faced the guillotine: I get up first thing in the morning, climb down from the loft, boot up the iBook, and go straight to work, knowing that there’s no point in forestalling the inevitable. Yesterday, though, my brain switched into Maximum Stall Mode as soon as I started thinking about my “Second City” column for this Sunday’s Washington Post. I haven’t the slightest idea why I kept putting it off. I knew what I was going to write about and I knew what I wanted to say. Yet not only did I wait until the last minute to start writing, but I actually went so far as to blog instead, having previously announced that I was taking the day off from “About Last Night” in order to write my column. Obviously I was in the clutches of Benchley’s Law: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it is not the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
Fortunately, my editor in Washington called at two o’clock and asked, very gently, what time I’d be filing, immediately followed by a friend who reminded me that we were planning to get together to choose a pair of frames for my new glasses, and when did I want to meet her? The combined effects of these calls brought me to my senses, and the column was finished and filed by 4:45. And yes, it took exactly as long to write as all my other “Second City” columns.
Go figure. Please. And after you do, tell me what you figured out.