Friday, June 26, 2009

Global Pop: Finding Michael Jackson in Albania

By RJ Eskow

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran in Huffington Post on June 26, 2009.)

Here's a small Michael Jackson story to place upon on the pile, one that illustrates the global reach and power of pop music.

Albania existed in totalitarian isolation from the rest of Europe for four decades. It broke with the Soviet Union during Kruschev's de-Stalinization reforms because its dictator, Enver Hoxha, liked Stalinism. Its only ally from that point forward was Maoist China, but even that relationship was severed after the fall of the Gang of Four and the death of Mao. It was illegal to even own a car there.

Like North Korea today, Albania was a closed country that allowed almost no foreigners in and let even fewer citizens out. Even listening to foreign media broadcasts was a crime. I arrived there in 1991 as one of the first wave of outside consultants sent there to help with reforms. People had already made improvised "cars" by welding windows onto the fronts of tractors. Saudi Arabian Wahhabi evangelists had already installed a loudspeaker and a muezzin at the local mosque, which had been unused for forty years. Although the government sent me to help with health care financing, it quickly became clear that they needed food and medical supplies far more urgently than they needed economic restructuring.

My host and translator was a warm and gracious physician who had learned his English by covertly listening to the BBC. He had been turned in once by a neighbor who heard the sound of English-language radio, and had spent a terrified day at secret police headquarters before being set free with a warning. The day I left for home I asked him what I could send him as a gift.

"Connie Francis records," he said. (Connie Francis, for those of you who don't remember, was a star from the pre-Beatles era whose big hits were "Lipstick On Your Collar" and "Where the Boys Are." )

Pop music's traces were faintly discernible elsewhere in the garrison country, too. When we walked into Tirana's only 'restaurant' - a barely-converted garage filled with card tables, folding chairs, and aid workers from everywhere in the world - Garth Brooks' voice was coming out of a boom box. And at a high-level diplomatic meeting some Albanians spoke of their country's best-known folk singer, saying that public use of English was so heavily forbidden that he had been given two years in prison for singing "Let It Be" at a folk festival.

"The last guy I heard singing it back home," I told them, "should have gotten five." They laughed - fortunately.

And when we went to see some remote medical clinics in the Sar Mountains, our car was stopped in remote villages by crowds curious to see a Westerner face-to-face. On one rock-filled road we were waved down by a gang of slightly-scary teenagers with dirty faces and rocks in their hands. When they saw me, the tallest boy -- evidently the leader -- reached into his pocket, pulled out a single glove, and put it on. He tossed back the lock of hair that fell across his forehead, in a gesture common to tough kids everywhere. There was a moment of silence. Then ...

"Michael Jackson!" they screamed. "Michael Jackson!" They kept talking as the doctor translated. "They want to know if you know Michael," he said. I didn't. They let us pass.

I won't claim that Michael Jackson overthrew Albanian Communism. He never met Enver Hoxha in epic battle, although that picture on the cover of the History album made it look as if he had. I was in Prague when Vaclav Havel tried to make Frank Zappa a minister in his government, but I wouldn't say pop music overthrew Communism there, either. I'll say this, though: it didn't hurt.

Was Michael Jackson the first global pop star? Crowds in India mourned the death of country crooner Jim Reeves in 1964. And it took me a while to realize that the singer on an old African record called "Chimiraja," accompanied only by a loosely tuned guitar and someone banging on a Coke bottle, was actually singing about "Jimmie Rodgers," the "Singing Brakeman" of country music.

Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933.

Popular music has always been global. But Michael Jackson became a worldwide star in the first era to have satellite communications. People didn't just hear his music. They saw him. They experienced him - or at least an aspect of him. Michael Jackson broke barriers of race, language, and nationality. His private behavior had a strong impact on some people. But his music reached billions, and it did some good in the world.

In whatever court he may yet face, even if it's only the court of public opinion, surely that counts for something.

RJ Eskow is president of Health Knowledge Systems in Los Angeles, CA.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gotham Jokewriters in the News

Our recently launched Jokewriters division received a nice plug from our friend Ellis Henican today in his Newsday column. You can check it out here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Now I'm Up All Night Without Getting Paid for It

By Laurie Kilmartin

This piece is the first in a series of comedic essays we will be posting on a regular basis from members of our Gotham Jokewriters group. Enjoy.

It was 8:45 PM on a Saturday night and the babysitter was not here. I had to be onstage, telling jokes at a New York City comedy club, at 9:15. I'd already left her a voicemail in my high school Spanish.

"Hola, uh, es la mama de William. Donde?"

I would be late for my spot if I didn't leave immediately. I wrapped my one-year-old son in a blanket and ran for the car. The babysitter and I communicated via I would write an email in English and convert it to Spanish. She would do the same, in reverse. I thought we were good for sabado. Damn. Merde?

I had four fifteen-minute sets that night, at three different comedy clubs. My final set ended at about one a.m. In theory, William and I could hang out in the car between spots, but while I was onstage, I'd have to hand him to somebody. I pulled up to the club at 9:12. Five or six comedians were standing out front. Some I knew, some I didn't.

My last show as a non-mom was the night before I delivered. "Hey!" I shouted, flipping on the hazard lights. "Can anyone sit with the baby? I'll pay you twenty-five bucks and I'll be back in twenty minutes." A comic named Maggie slid into the back seat.

"Thanks," I said, handing her the diaper bag. "Now, try not to kidnap him."

"You're no fun," she said. Maggie rode with us for the rest of the night, pocketing about a hundred dollars, which was not much less than me.

This wasn't supposed to be my life. I wasn't going to have kids. When I got pregnant by accident, I was forty and single. But also bored. I took a "Hey, why not?" approach to motherhood. My belly became a prop that I took on the road. We had a good time, the fetus and me. Indiana, Texas, Montreal. We flew to Alaska in my fourth month and L.A. in my eighth. My last show as a non-mom was the night before I delivered. When the baby came, I lost fifteen minutes of material.

And my lifestyle.

Comedians have the best lives. I used to stay up until four a.m. and sleep until whenever. Now, most mornings I wake up like the amnesiac from Memento. I have no idea where I am, or whose child is crying. Next to my bed is a helpful Polaroid of my son, captioned with the words: "You are his mother and his diaper needs to be changed."

William's dad is also a comedian. We took the baby on the road when he was six months old. My boyfriend would do his set, then run back to the green room, where I was waiting to pass him the swaddled baton. The emcee would kill a few minutes onstage until I arrived. It worked because there were two of us.

Now the baby is older, and there's often just one of us.

The boyfriend and I usually work alternate road weeks, but recently we each booked separate gigs during the same week. Neither of us could afford to cancel. We figured it would cost less for me to take William to Michigan than for my boyfriend to take him to North Dakota. I found a sitter online. She came to the hotel at seven p.m. I debriefed her on her mission as I saw it, which was to keep my son awake for as long as possible so I could sleep in the next morning.

"He's gonna start yawning in an hour. Don't buy into it." "He's gonna start yawning in an hour. Don't buy into it. If you cave and put him to bed, he's gonna wake up at six a.m. And that can't happen because I will be dead by Sunday. I need you to keep him talking until eleven or so."

"Like, sleep deprivation? For a two-year-old?"

From the tone of her voice, I could tell she was not completely on board.

"Of course not! That's a torture technique. Jeez. All I'm saying is, when his eyes start rolling back into his head, point out the window and yell, 'plane!' That's it. Now, if he happens to spend the next thirty minutes looking for a plane that isn't there, well, that's his choice, isn't it?"

"Uh huh."

"Five or six times over the course of the evening should do the trick. And you don't have to say 'plane' each time. 'Firetruck' works. If you really want to keep him hopping, try 'Daddy.'"

I returned to the hotel at 1 a.m. I'd done two fifty-minute shows. I was tired.

"What time did he go to bed?" I asked.

"A little before eight."

Being home is hard, in a different way. After William was born, I cut back on the road work and took a day job writing for a now-defunct website. We had health insurance and the basic bills were paid. But I was in a frustrating position as a comic.

After William was born, I cut back on the road work and took a day job writing. Sunday-Thursday spots in New York City don't pay much, or at all. But they are the best shows to try out new material. There is no pressure to kill. And new jokes get fine-tuned for the weekend shows, which do pay. That system worked great before I had a kid. Now, I had to hire a sitter for those nights. And all of a sudden I was out $10-$50 dollars every time I did a set. I went from eight to fifteen development sets a week to about two.

My growth slowed, despite the fact that I had so much more to talk about. The problem was solved for me in January, when the day job ended. Now I'm back on the road, doing long sets where I have plenty of opportunity to sneak in new stuff. The corporate benefits are gone, but so is the stagnation.

And the boyfriend and I have settled into a groove. When we're both in NYC, we perform on alternate weeknights, or one of us will do an early set, and race home so the other can make a late set. We spring for a sitter on weekends and the occasional miercoles o domingo. My schedule's not the same as it was during the non-mom days, but is anything?

Laurie Kilmartin performs on top daytime and late-night television shows, and previously served as a staff writer for Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn and CBS’s The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. This piece originally ran on on June 18, 2009.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Was JFK's Ted Sorensen The Greatest Presidential Ghostwriter?

By Richard Korman

Peggy Noonan scripted Ronald Reagan; Louis Howe fed words to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the annals of presidential ghostwriting, you could make the case that Ted Sorensen is the greatest ever. He penned some of the signature rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and served as a key writer and advisor during Kennedy’s senate and presidential terms. Imagine helping Kennedy craft his bestselling Profiles in Courage, drafting JFK’s memorable inaugural speech and writing a critical memo to Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The recently released paperback version of Sorensen’s memoir, Counselor: A Life Lived at the Edge of History, has much to admire and amuse, including instances where Sorensen says Kennedy’s speeches bombed and quotes from Jackie Kennedy on the ways she asked Sorensen to revise the draft of his post-assassination biography of JFK.

Partly blind from a stroke suffered several years ago, Sorensen deserves a prize just for getting this final book finished and into print. He is what he always was: a brainy public servant, a complex Midwestern liberal, a loyal member of the Kennedy family court. By his own admission he never tires of talking about JFK. His book contains several chapters on writing, including his suggestion that ghostwriters maintain a “passion for anonymity.” Although much ghostwriting these days takes place under short-term financial arrangements, such transactions never bear as much literary or political fruit as the longer relationships of trust and respect such as Sorensen shared with JFK. As my ghostwriting friend David Kohn has said, “bad chemistry produces bad books.” The opposite is also true.

Sorensen has said that JFK’s assassination cut short his career as a top public servant. Afterwards, Sorensen chose to live the rest of his life in the half-light of JFK’s unfinished term. In doing so, he almost trivializes accomplishments that would spill off the page of anyone else’s resume, such as hundreds of top writing credits, decades as an international attorney and advisor to foreign heads of state. By choosing to see himself always as JFK’s man, Sorensen’s descriptions of his non-Kennedy endeavors take on a kind of poignant irrelevance. No matter. This book’s behind-the-scene accounts will interest anyone in writing or politics.

Richard Korman is the editorial manager for

Monday, June 8, 2009

Introducing Gotham Jokewriters

New York’s premier practitioners of funny business

We at Gotham Ghostwriters are proud today to announce the launch of Gotham’s jokewriting division, New York’s only business-focused comedy writing group. GOTHAM JOKEWRITERS will offer premium, custom-tailored comedic writing and coaching for executives, politicians, and other thought leaders.

We decided to make humor writing our firm’s first dedicated practice area because, well, you asked for it. In fact, ever since Gotham Ghostwriters went into business, one of the first questions we get from the elite clientele we deal with — after we break the news that we don’t draft Batman’s speeches — is whether we know folks who write great jokes.

These business, political, and cultural leaders are out to get more than just a few laughs. They know that in today’s cutthroat competition for mindshare, true wit can be a powerful way to break through — to go beyond merely gaining attention to get traction with discriminating audiences. In particular, our clients know that humor, when done right and used well, can enlighten as well as entertain — crystallizing important issues, exposing common fallacies, and even revealing essential truths.

The problem is, most serious public speakers don’t know where to look for sophisticated comedic writing. Try finding a listing for that on Google or Craigslist. Seriously, even most top PR firms don’t know where to turn. They may know someone who knows someone who writes for a late-night talk show. But do they know how to write for you — or your audience?

GOTHAM JOKEWRITERS was formed to fill the funny gap in the knowledge marketplace. To that end, we have recruited a stable of elite comedic writers who specialize in the high art of funny smart. We have considerable experience working with serious people in serious forums and a deep understanding of how to use humor as a means to a larger end — be it making a point, making a pile of money … or just making your colleagues wet their pants.

Our team has written for just about every big name in American comedy — including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Chris Rock. We have also helped a wide range of influential public figures in business, politics, and culture funny up and stand out — such as Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Donald Trump, and Katie Couric.

Beyond writing jokes, our team will focus heavily on helping clients with their delivery. We know better than anyone, after decades of stage experience, that the key to connecting with an audience is confidence. If you trust that you have great stuff, that it’s true to your voice, and that you can deliver it comfortably, you’re 90 percent of the way home. To reach that level of confidence, you can try the traditional approach and stock up on peach schnapps. Or, if you’re smart, you’ll hire us.

We encourage you to learn more about our stable of writers and our services on our new Jokewriters page:

We’re confident you will see the value of what we do and how we can help companies and organizations like yours stand out, sink in, and enhance your brand. As we like to say, listen to us, and they’ll remember you.