Writing ‘Sex and the City’: The Notecard Phase

I get really excited in the notecard phase of writing any book. This is when I’ve done a lot of research and broken down all my notes and transcripts into bite-sized pieces. I put each piece on a notecard so that then I can spread them all out on my bedroom floor while listening to music (probably some Beyoncé Lemonade this time), then put them in little related piles that will become my outline.

I like this phase because it gives me the feeling of control. Finally, I have gotten (most) of what I need from others, and now I can be alone with my thoughts and figure them out. It’s very satisfying.

Here’s a photo from this phase of my current book, which is about Sex and the City.

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And here’s one from Seinfeldia that I still think is funny.

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Candace Bushnell: You Need a Point of View to Be a Writer

sex_and_the_city_book_-_cover_artWhile researching my upcoming book on Sex and the City, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author of the book that inspired the series, Candace Bushnell. She said something that really stuck with me: “One of the reasons that I am a writer is that I do have a point of view. I have a real take. I feel like that’s what I was born with. Otherwise there’s really no reason to be a writer.”

If you find yourself with “writer’s block,” ask yourself: Why am I here? What am I trying to say? Presumably there’s something; if not, go do something constructive like cooking dinner or going for a run.

Adele Had the Best Worst Night at the Grammys (While the Grammys Just Had the Worst)

It takes guts to start a song over in the middle of a live Grammys broadcast, but Adele had the confidence to do just that. She sensed that she was off key during the first several measures of a tribute to George Michael, a slowed-down version of “Fastlove,” and she boldly stopped and started again, refusing to get things wrong in Michael’s memory.

Alas, it wasn’t enough to make it a great tribute. She sang beautifully, because she’s a beautiful singer, but everything about the conception was wrong: To honor a man who gave us rousing classics like “Freedom ’90” and “Faith,” the Grammys chose a slowed-down version of one of his lesser known hits, in the process stripping it of its campy fun—it is, after all, a paean to the joy of hookups.

And this moment wasn’t even the worst one for Adele during last night’s production. She seemed to be forced to shoulder the Grammys’ worst foibles, of which there were many: sound problems, ill-conceived productions, and, oh right, racism and lack of cultural relevance.

Adele’s most difficult moment of the night came, ironically enough, when she had to accept Album of the Year for 25 and Song of the Year for “Hello,” the biggest awards of the night. It should have been a triumph, but even she knew she didn’t deserve to beat Beyoncé in either category: Adele made a perfect pop album. Beyoncé made a tour de force in which she turned her personal pain into an allegory for the divisions of our nation. (Good to know the Academy refuses to learn from its mistakes despite a changing political climate; remember when Taylor Swift’s 1989, another perfectly beautiful pop album, beat Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly?) When they first announced this year’s nominations, it honestly felt insulting that Beyoncé would even have to “compete” with the likes of Justin Bieber (also a good album, but come on).

When 25 beat Lemonade last night, Adele graciously used her speech to thank Beyoncé (who had delivered yet another scorched-earth performance earlier in the night, baring her full, pregnant belly while dressed as a goddess, urging the nation toward healing with her songs “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”).“I’m very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé,” Adele said. “The Lemonade album, for me, is so monumental.”  She went on, acknowledging what the Grammys surely would prefer not to: that there was a racial element to this. “You are our light,” she said. “The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves. I love you. I always have and I always will.”

Later backstage, Adele still couldn’t get over it. She even broke her Grammy in half to give a piece to Beyoncé: “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” Adele asked. Apparently Frank Ocean—who kept his music out of the running this year due to the ceremony’s “cultural bias”—was beyond right. And it’s time we state the obvious: Kanye, sorry. You were right, too.

Upcoming SEINFELDIA Events

In the next several weeks, I’ll be in Georgia, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Oregon, and Staten Island talking Seinfeldia. Join me if you’re in the area!

Feb. 16-19, Savannah Book Festival, GA: Appearance.

7 p.m., Feb. 22, Museum of Jewish History, Philadelphia: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

11 a.m., March 8, JCC Greenwich, CT: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

7 p.m., March 14, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Portland, OR: SEINFELDIA talk and signing.

7 p.m., March 16, Staten Island HillelSEINFELDIA talk and signing.

The Most Feminist Super Bowl Ever

Saturday Night Live was onto something with this year’s version of its annual mock Super Bowl ad for Totino’s Pizza Rolls. In it, Vanessa Bayer’s traditional wife worries about feeding “my hungry guys” for the “big game” … until she meets Ted’s sexy sister Sabine, played by Kristen Stewart.

Not only was it by far the funniest take they’ve ever done on the Totino’s ads, but it also anticipated the overarching cultural theme of the next day’s Super Bowl: Gender roles out, equality in.

For several years, the drill was this: Super Bowl happens, a bunch of disgustingly sexist ads run during it, there is a brief outcry, then everyone goes back to their lives. But this year, we had Audi musing about equal pay in an affecting—if still a bit patriarchal—ad in which a father hopes for future equality for his young daughter.

Hulu ran an ad for its upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s feminist-themed dystopian novel. Lady Gaga gave us what was likely the campiest halftime show ever and, despite truncating several of her hits to fit the time slot, included the entire “Born This Way” spoken breakdown full of call-outs to acceptance of all genders, sexualities, races, and nationalities: “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen …” Even GoDaddy, once known for its ads objectifying women, dialed it down and included a subtle nod to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

It was easy to get distracted by the two gorgeous ads that saluted immigrants, um, coincidentally at the exact time our president is trying to keep some out. (Check out the 84 Lumber and Budweiser spots if you haven’t.) But at a time when women’s issues are under attack in Washington, this year’s mainstreamiest celebration of capitalism and macho brute force said, “We’re with her, and her, and her, and her.” As the Totino’s (very clever) Twitter account said after the SNL bit: “Hey, it’s like we always say: pizza rolls, not gender roles.”

This Video Gave Me Hope

Maybe it will boost your spirits a little, too. My sister’s partner, Sean Skyler, who also happens to be one of my favorite singer-songwriters, wrote a beautiful song about THESE TIMES WE LIVE IN, and he shot a video for it at the Chicago women’s march this weekend. I was at the Big Show in D.C., but I consider this a perfect memento of the day just the same. For an extra shot of progressive hope, read Rebecca Traister’s piece on The Cut, “The Future of the Left Is Female.”

We Are All Political Writers Now

Like many of my colleagues in the pop culture writing business, I had a career crisis after the election: What, exactly, was I doing with my life? Was it enough to write about TV, music, and pop culture history? Should I be breaking important political stories instead, or at least writing scathing commentary about the state of our society?

By the time I emerged from my post-election stupor/denial/insomnia nightmare, however, it was clear that what I do for a living is just fine. Because any subject matter, at least now, can become a scathing commentary. Every subject matter bends back toward the black hole that is now our U.S. government. Maybe it’s because our incoming president is an “entertainer” that I find myself quite able to write about him while staying in my expertise lane; after all, I covered the man for a few years when The Apprentice was a hit. But maybe it’s just because literally everything seems tainted by the mood of the country.

My first three assignments of 2017 have all been about Trump-related issues in comedy, television history, and pop music. Meanwhile, there was that great Vanity Fair review of Trump Tower Grill that had our future president fuming—and absolutely serves as both a thorough restaurant review and a political piece for the ages. And now there’s this delightfully snide TV listing (!) for Trump’s inauguration, which ran in the Scottish Sunday Herald and treats it like a dystopian drama that couldn’t possibly be real life. We are all political writers now.

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Drake’s Real Rap Debut (on ‘Degrassi’)

Before Drake was Drake, he was Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, best known for depicting Jimmy Brooks on the excellent Degrassi: The Next Generation. This totally addictive teen show, which continues with yet another generation of young characters on Netflix, hit its first heyday in the ’80s as a cult favorite after-school special, and another one in the 2000s with The Next Generation, which aired on The N in America, a now-defunct teen network.

Out of nowhere and for no actual reason besides Degrassi‘s awesomeness (and Drake’s current blossoming romance with Jennifer Lopez), I had a passionate online discussion about Degrassi, and specifically Drake’s time on it, with some friends (thanks, Pamela!) and my sister, Julie, who got me into the show back when she was in her early 20s and I was … older than that. But being in my early 30s did not make me immune to this show’s charms, and I wasn’t the only adult watching. Because it was Canadian, it dealt more honestly than American teen shows with major issues like gun violence (Jimmy was paralyzed in a school shooting), sex, drinking, sexual assault, class differences, and abortion (The N originally refused to air a character’s decision to get one). The actors were playing closer to their age than most American teen shows, which tended to employ actors pushing 30 to play high schoolers. They were also far more diverse. And this all made the show very compelling to watch.

One of my favorite set visits ever when I worked for Entertainment Weekly was to Degrassi. I spent several days there, roaming the halls of the actual former school building that served as the set. Most sets are sets—they have no fourth wall. But Degrassi was actually in a school building and felt like school. The halls had lockers. We ate in a school lunchroom. I sat on the steps of the school to interview the erstwhile Aubrey Graham—already Drake-charming and uncomfortably flirty at just 17.

To honor Drake’s rise, I give you his first rap performance on Degrassi. The show had a lot of music (there’s an epic Battle of the Bands episode pitting the boys—Downtown Sasquatch—versus the girls—Hell Hath No Fury), and the kids were all legit talented. But Julie and I both remember watching this and going, Whoa. I think he might be really good.

R.I.P. Grant Tinker, a Goddamn Legend of the TV Biz (Who Actually Deserved to Be a Goddamn Legend)

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I looove this pic of Mary and Grant at the Emmy Awards. ’70s Glamorous.

TV executive Grant Tinker died this week, but I hate describing him with such a generic, dismissive label. He was an advertising man and a producer, the guy at the head of MTM Enterprises and later NBC. But none of these descriptions do him justice, either. So let’s try one more time: His rare combination of business acumen, creative instincts, respect for writing and vision, and his old-fashioned decency made him a goddamn legend who deserved to be a goddamn legend. There. That’s at least a little closer.

You could go your whole life enjoying many of the products of Grant Tinker’s genius without ever knowing who Grant Tinker was. He was a vice president at Twentieth Century Fox Television in 1969 when his then-wife, actress Mary Tyler Moore, was putting together a new show for CBS. He spotted the talent of writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who were running the innovative high school drama Room 222, produced by Twentieth Century. He asked the two to take a crack at whipping up something for Moore—the result was the beautifully crafted Mary Tyler Moore Show.

“I hired you because you did stuff that seemed to be in the real world,” he told Brooks and Burns. “And that’s what I want this to be.” Tinker would have to fight CBS executives to secure his producers the right to do (mostly) what they wanted with the show: They pitched Moore as a divorced woman starting over. CBS balked and even asked Tinker to fire Brooks and Burns. (Divorce was still a big deal in 1969.) He refused to do so, but the team-MTM worked out a relatively harmless compromise by making her character a single, professional woman getting over a breakup. The divorce didn’t have to be the point, per se. They made a show that was not only a classic, but also a watershed moment for women on television—she may not have been divorced, but she was a professional, single woman who took birth control, stayed out all night sometimes, and never bothered to get married in the seven-year run of the show.

Tinker wanted his wife to have the career she wanted, a sadly remarkable trait for the time. CBS’s then-vice president of development, Fred Silverman, told me in my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted that Moore and Tinker were a formidable business team: “They knew exactly what they wanted to do and they were going to do it. After that the network threw its hands up.”

MTM Enterprises became a gold standard for TV studios over the next two decades. Their series included The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart. The studio lot on Radford Avenue was known as “Camelot” because of Tinker’s insistence on creative autonomy for his producers.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Tinker is that even though I talked to dozens of people about him for my book, not one said one even slightly negative thing about the guy. This is in Hollywood, mind you. All they had were tales of generosity, goodness, fairness, and principles. When I talked to the man himself, he was a forthcoming gentleman, the real deal. He will be missed, but his influence lives on in every great show you see today.