Writer and producer for network and cable television since 1981, including situation comedy, drama, documentary and daytime drama. Auer has taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design since 2003 and currently serves as chair of the Film and Television department.

Roger Ebert Loved Photoshop

In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the most severe insult one character can hurl at another is “Critic!”  Actors are certainly fond of saying that never at any time or anywhere in the history of the world has a statue ever been erected in honor of a critic—whereas they have of actors.  I don’t know if that’s true, I have friends who are actors (yes, I admit it), and they are notoriously sensitive about people who write nasty things about them, or even good things for that matter, because even the good reviews are never good enough, but I think they may be correct.


Which brings us to Roger Ebert.  I have no idea whether or not a statue will ever be raised in his honor, but I suspect if any critic has a shot at it, Ebert does.


Ebert was important to me for a number of reasons.  Not being from Chicago, I never read his reviews in print, but I did watch him on TV, starting with that seminal show Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel, which morphed into At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and through his subsequent show with Richard Roeper.  I have a particular fondness for the first version of the show, mostly because the mid to late 70’s was an exciting time for movies.  Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, and Speilberg anyone?  And not the let’s-see-if-this-movie-will-win-us-awards phase of their careers, but the early, fun stuff when they were redefining American film (along with Schrader and De Palma and Allen and…you get the idea).  I’m not saying I was a fan of all these filmmakers, but when you look back at their body of work, and the actors that were just starting (Streep, De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Keaton) it would be hard to name another time when movies were as exciting.  Sitting up in the balcony, taking it all in with us, was Roger Ebert.  He never told us what to think, he just shared his reactions and invited us to agree or disagree with him.


There was something so ordinary about Ebert.  I mean that in a good way.  He was like that guy in college that you went out and had a beer with after you saw three movies in a row.  I admired Siskel, but I never felt that way about him.  To me he seemed more like the kind of guy who, sure, would go see three movies in a row with you, but then afterwards he’d order some kind of fancy wine the name of which only he could pronounce.  I have no idea whether or not that was the case, as I never did get a chance to meet Siskel., but I did spend some time with Roger Ebert, and I know he was a regular guy because he helped me with a gag gift for my brother-in-law. 


Ebert came to The Savannah Film Festival in 2004, and by all accounts he had a good time with us.  Heck, when you’re getting an award with Peter O’Toole, pretty much everyone is guaranteed a good time.  It was a fun year.  Ebert even wrote about it: www.rogerebert.com/festivals-and-awards/savannah-film-festival-citizen-kane-still-holds-secrets


The day he left the festival, I arranged to have breakfast with Ebert, and although we were interrupted several times (including by Peter O’Toole), he did his best to give me his undivided attention and we had a great conversation.  I was most eager to discuss his review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film that had been released earlier that year and one that had divided both the critical community and the movie-going public.  Ebert’s response to the film was reasoned and even-handed.  I have included a link to the review (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-passion-of-the-christ-2004), and as you read it, try and remember how angry and vehement the public discourse over this movie was.  Ebert did an amazing job of sorting it all out.  I remember staying away from the movie for a while because I simply did not want to be attacked if I either liked it or didn’t like it (people were that opinionated), and it was only after I read Ebert’s response that I felt brave enough to go to the theater.  I remember thinking, hey, if worse comes to worse, I’ll simply refer people to Ebert’s column.  As we discussed this, he told me that he believed it was a film the late Gene Siskel would have greatly admired, and that as he watched it and wrote about it, that thought was very much with him.  It was apparent he still keenly felt the passing of his fellow critic and friend who died in 1999.  It was a touching moment.


So, why did Roger Ebert love Photoshop?


Well, to be fair, I can’t say with absolute certainty that he loved that software, but I can say with absolute certainty that he loved one particular piece that was created using it.


A little back story.  My brother-in-law Robert loves movies and often calls me after seeing the latest release.  I mean like in the car on his way home.  This is slightly irritating because he is the kind of avid movie fan who sees a movie the weekend it opens, usually the very first showing, too, and I’m lucky if I make it to the theater by the second weekend.  All in all I would say that Robert sees more movies than I do, because if a movie tanks at the box office, it’s gone before I can even think about trying to see it.  That generally works out poorly for Robert and well for me, although he missed John Carter last year and I saw it (okay, I have to confess: I liked it).  Now I’m not going to say my brother-in-law’s taste in movies is deplorable (especially because I liked John Carter), but I think even Robert would say he is more generous with his assessment of films than I am.  Our verbal back and forth on the phone gave him the idea that we were some sort of low rent Siskel and Ebert, and that we should have our own show.   Since most of my rebuttals to him consisted of the words “You’re wrong,” I never fully bought in to that, but I’ve seen worse things on TV, so who knows.  One thing I could always count on was Robert being able to quote Roger Ebert’s reviews.  He truly respected and admired him, which is why, when he learned that I would be meeting him, he took a photograph of himself and his daughter Katie standing in front of Windsor Castle (they had lived in England for a while), a photo of Roger Ebert he found in a magazine, combined them through the magic of Photoshop and then asked me to get Ebert to autograph it.


I was somewhat reluctant to do this, but the image was so cheesy and funny (Ebert was giving his trademark “thumbs up”) that I knew I had to try.  As our breakfast was coming to an end, I pulled out the photo with some sort of lame explanation about a brother-in-law in a mental institution and it would be a thrill for him if…  I was all ready to make a comparison similar to the sick kid and the Called Shot in The Babe Ruth Story, but as it turns out, that was unnecessary.  As soon as Ebert saw the photo, he roared with laughter.  He asked for an explanation, I told him, and he cheerfully asked for a pen.  He signed it” Robert: Windsor was a gas!  Thumbs up!  Roger Ebert.”


Roger Ebert may never get a statue put up in his honor, but the signed photo of him is encased in a glass cube on my brother-in-law’s mantle, and it is a sort of memorial to a man who loved movies and helped many of us watch them a little differently.  Because it is displayed so prominently in my brother-in-law’s home, it feels like he’s part of our family.  I hope Roger Ebert would have like that.  I know I do.

Phylicia Rashad plays tetherball

Television is nothing if not eclectic, and aTVfest, SCAD’s first festival dedicated to the frenetic world of network and cable TV certainly proved that.  There were panels and master classes on all things television, from pitch to post, from actors to zombies.  Great guests, great conversation, and a great time 


Our inaugural honoree was Phylicia Rashad, who was given a career achievement award on the final night of the festival.  I had chatted with her earlier that day after a master class she gave for our performing arts students, and she projects the same calm center of the storm she did when she played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

Talking to her, I couldn’t help but think of tetherball.


Makes sense, right?  Have you ever played tetherball?  It’s a game where a rubber ball on a rope is attached to a tall pole.  The object of the game is to get the rope wrapped entirely around the pole clockwise (or vice versa), while your opponent tries to do the same thing against you in the opposite direction.  When you get the ball tight against the pole, you win.  I don’t think there was ever any chance of tetherball becoming part of the Olympics, but if it had, it’s the one sport I might have had a chance to play for the U.S.A. 


So what’s the Phylicia Rashad-tetherball connection?


One gets the feeling that should an announcement be made that a giant meteor was headed towards earth (hey, it could happen…oh, that’s right it did earlier this year in Siberia), Ms. Rashad would make sure that everyone around her was wearing a helmet, had supplies to last a few weeks (including a flashlight and batteries), and had brought along a few good books to read.  Unruffled. Tranquil.  In control.  That’s Phylicia Rashad, and those were the very qualities that made her character so memorable on Cosby.  Cliff could be silly (but never lose his authority), Theo could go off on crazy tangents, Denise could get distracted, and so on, but at the center of the family, the solid pole that let others lose their cool but who never lost hers, was Clair.




What Phylicia Rashad did as an actress playing off of Bill Cosby and the kids was remarkable, and as the years go by, her comic timing just looks better and better.


I would argue that the best comic moments are rooted in truth, and in comedy, if you veer away from reality, you just can’t get away with as many outrageous moments as you can in drama.  When circumstances get out of control and emotions run high, people break the rules of normal behavior and we laugh because they act in unexpected ways.  Clair Huxtable was a constant reminder of what was ultimately expected of her family, and we loved it when she brought them down to earth.  My personal favorite line: “Cliff, you know at the end of that movie, they shot Old Yeller.”  Comic punctuation at the end of an already fun rant from Cliff about how he protects his daughters from the guys that come calling.


The Cosby Show made television history for many reasons, but the ultimate reason it will be remembered is because it was funny.  And it was funny because it told the truth.  And at the center of that was the cool, clear, levelheaded Clair Huxtable played by the cool, clear, levelheaded Phylicia Rashad.




Whom Do You Love?

Trends in film and television come and go.  That’s the definition of a trend, I guess. 


Only Adam Sandler lasts forever.


It wasn’t long after sound was introduced to movies that musicals made their appearance.  You won’t get a long (or short) history of the musical here, but it’s fair to say that, all in all, it really is an American art form.  We got there first, more or less, all the way back in 1866 with a play called The Black Crook.  Musicals have been in, they’ve been out, and now they’re sort of back in again.  Les Miserables was a hit, Into the Woods is on its way, and it’s safe to assume that before the 2016 Summer Olympics, Wicked will finally be in production.  Then there’s television. Which brings us to Smash and Nashville, two of the most expensive shows on TV.  One of them is doing well and there is every reason to believe it will be back next year, and then there’s Smash. 


Smash was the one to bet on going in; a deep Broadway pedigree, a really, really talented cast, a top-notch production team and Steven Spielberg’s money.  These were people who knew how to put a show together.  Nashville looked interesting, but there was also the danger of it becoming a second-string Dallas with a couple of interesting songs on the soundtrack whenever pretty people fell into bed.  Of course after Friday Night Lights, most of us were going to check out anything with Connie Britton in it, but did we really want to hear that annoying cheerleader from Heroes sing?  As it turns out, we did.  She may be auto tuned, but it works.  But here’s the thing: it works for reasons that have nothing to do with it being a musical but for reasons that make every successful musical work.


Confused?  Let me simplify.  It all comes down to the question: whom do you love?


There is a truism in writing, and I suppose in life, too, that the thing that we love defines us.  How many times have you watched a movie or TV show and said why on earth is she with him? 


In Smash, the main character is a naïve but exceptionally talented singer/actress named Karen who, against all odds and the scheming of some really nasty people that you only find in the theater and on the faculty of Ivy League colleges, gets the lead in a show on its way to Broadway.  The fact that she’s playing Marilyn Monroe and she looks nothing like Marilyn Monroe (even with a wig and a lot of padding) only adds to the fun.  What doesn’t add to the fun, and what, in my opinion, has fatally damaged the show, is whom Karen chooses to love.  Over and over.  First there was her fiancé, Dev, a character who made Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh look like the president of the Optimists’ Club.  Then came Derek, her abusive director, and now there’s Jimmy, a too-brilliant-for-this-ordinary-world composer/actor/alcoholic/stoner.  She fell for them one and all, and the creative team on Smash is asking us to emotionally invest in a woman who does the equivalent of seeing a Mack truck come racing toward her at 95 mph, and then steps in front of it in order to get the license plate so she can report the violation to the police.  People like this don’t survive in the competitive world of the theater.  Heck, I’m pretty sure Karen wouldn’t even survive in middle school.  I’m waiting for the revelation that she escaped from some sort of institution for the perpetually stupid and that they’ll recapture her at the end of the season—maybe just as the curtain is going up on opening night and Jimmy, the too-brilliant-for-this-ordinary-world composer/actor/alcoholic/stoner, gets to play her part as well as his own.  Which is every actor’s dream anyway.  Maybe that would finally make his petulant, whiny character happy.


Enough said about Smash.   Except that almost everyone in it deserved a better show, especially Katharine McPhee who plays the Girl Without A Clue.


Then there’s Nashville.  I have no idea whether or not this is a realistic depiction of the country music scene, but I will assume that because it’s on TV that it’s about as truthful as most of the campaign promises we’ve heard over the years.  But it doesn’t make any difference, because it has engaging characters doing crazy (but just this side of believable) things, songs that enhance the plot, and a love triangle that affects not only the three people involved, but a whole mess of other people that are in their lives; husbands, kids, business partners, mothers, fathers, and pets.


The triangle consists of Connie Britton, the auto tuned cheerleader, and a guy who the credits insist is Charles Esten, but who I remember as Chip Esten, one of the better improv comics on Whose Line is it Anyway?  He plays Deacon, a very talented musician who has struggled with fame, the lack of fame, alcohol, and apparently a razor that doesn’t really work.   Am I the only one who wishes that some of these guys on TV would make up their minds whether or not they actually want to grow a beard?  You just want to go up to them and say “Hey, it’s been three months now.  I don’t think that thing is going to come in.  Here’s some shaving cream and a Gillette Fusion.” 


But it doesn’t make any difference, because Deacon is a stand-up guy who treats Connie Britton well, he treats the auto tuned cheerleader well, he treats his colleagues well, he treats his family well, and his favorite movie is Old Yeller.  What’s not to like?  I’m not saying it’s right for Connie Britton to dump her cheating husband, or the auto tuned cheerleader to dump her pro quarterback husband, but other than that whole Is It Or Isn’t It A Beard thing, Deacon is a far better choice for each of them.  You can understand why they love him, and that makes for good television.  And that, class, is why I think Nashville works and Smash does not.  It’s that simple. 


There’s an old joke: what do you get when you play a country western song backwards?  You get your wife back, you get your truck back, you get your dog back…  I watch both of these shows every week, but boy, do I wish we could play Smash backwards and get back some of the good stuff that was lost along the way.

King of the Oscar Contests

We kicked the awards season off early here at SCAD.  Silver Linings Playbook, Amour, Flight and Buzkashi Boys all played at the Savannah Film Festival.  All have done well as end of the year prizes and “best” lists have been compiled and announced. 

And here we are now as the movie awards season winds down.  The critics have all had their say, various film festivals have given us some real contenders, and the guilds (SAG, DGA, WGA) have all been heard from.  Even that very strange event known as the Golden Globes may have had some effect this year.  Not because they’re real awards, but because by giving Ben Affleck and Argo prizes, they denied what was assumed to be a clear path to the Academy Awards for Stephen Spielberg and Lincoln.  The thinking here is that this may have caused some Oscar voters to stop and say, hey, you know, some of those other movies that have been nominated were pretty good, too—maybe I should take another look at them.

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