Ken Finkleman and the Art of Being Derivative

Like many series of the mid-90s, 1996’s The Newsroom began as an imitator of The Larry Sanders Show. The latter show opened the door for the cruelty and self-absorption that are the hallmarks of great sitcoms since. The former was huge on Canadian television (and eventually aired on PBS), but it was just one of many series created by Ken Finkleman. Finkleman’s longtime avatar, George Findlay, served as a means of exorcising his own demons, and the shows were indicators of what comedy Finkleman was watching (usually modern experimental sitcoms). It’s fair to accuse Finkleman of being derivative, but his shows are much more than simple imitation.

If you’ve heard his name before, it’s likeliest because of his work in Hollywood in the 80s – he wrote the cult favorite Grease 2, and wrote and directed Airplane II: The Sequel. He found the studio system so dispiriting he soon returned to Canada, where since 1995 he’s produced bracing, barbed satire about a man named George Findlay.

In a 2011 interview, Finkleman explained inventing the last name Findlay when shooting pool in Winnipeg in the late 50s-mid 60s. If people knew his name was Finkleman, he faced anti-Semitic violence. So he went by Findlay, a goyische enough name to spare him a beating. His Jewish identity, and his thorough hatred of his origins in Winnipeg, are running themes in his work – episodes of The Newsroom and Good God involve old friends from Winnipeg appearing in Toronto to demand he confront his own past, and possibly spot them a few thousand dollars.

Findlay’s first appearance in a Finkleman series was Married Life, a clear descendant of Real Life (itself a comic takeoff on An American Family): a documentarian attempts to capture the day-to-day lives of a family. In Real Life, Albert Brooks’s protagonist, Albert Brooks, pushes so hard to create drama that he ends up setting the host family’s home on fire. In Married Life, Findlay (played by Finkleman) is so dissatisfied by the central couple that he hires writers for them, then actors to play them and himself, and allows the making-of-the-documentary to take a more central role than the original family story. It’s an early, embryonic work, but it demonstrates Finkleman’s interest in journalistic sensationalism and the comic possibilities of exploding boundaries between fiction and documentary.

In 1996, Finkleman created the series for which he’s best-known: The Newsroom. Set in a Toronto TV news program, The Newsroom took the toxicity of The Larry Sanders Show to a more respected world than late night talk shows. The pilot opens with an exchange deciding how to use people’s fear of piranhas to sell a news story about a train derailed in the Congo, and give it a local bent (“Perhaps one Canadian may have been eaten by flesh-eating fish.”).

Later in the season, George agrees to run year-old tape from an ebola (!) story for a new story about a different virus in a different African country, because “I just don’t think we have to paint ourselves into a factual corner over some footage from Africa.”

In addition to TV news, The Newsroom satirized many facets of show business. Canadian celebrities (e.g., Alex Gonzalez, Cynthia Dale, and David Cronenberg), appeared to spoof themselves (à la The Larry Sanders Show), and Findlay prioritized big ratings and sleeping with subordinates above getting the news out. By the end of the first season, however, it was clear this wasn’t just a ripoff (though it also leaned heavily on Fellini and Goddard). The season ended with a three-parter about George’s inability to deal with an impending nuclear meltdown, and his obsession with figuring out how to package it as a news story (“I’m guessing the audience is going to want upbeat … Replace the nuclear explosions with Cosby,” he tells the graphics editor). Finally, the fourth wall breaks, and the camera turns from the action to The Newsroom’s AD (or an actor playing him), rushing the story along so George can deal with his issues with his mother.

Finkleman’s followup, 1998’s More Tears, saw Findlay trying to direct a movie about right-wing politicians getting drunk and sexually assaulting and murdering journalists and cops. Here, too, he borrowed heavily from 8 ½, but Finkleman also began to dive deeply into what would be a running theme in his work: the fascist celebration of police, particularly funerals-as-patriotic-celebrations. This would culminate in an episode of his 2012 series Good God, in which Findlay produces a tribute to a fallen officer cut with footage of Nazi propaganda film (borrowing from and name-checking The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). This theme also makes its way into Finkleman’s interviews, like this one with Jian Ghomeshi (currently accused by, as of this writing, nine women of sexual assault and battery). Finkelman all but refuses to discuss his work, and instead takes the CBC to task for their coverage of a police funeral following tremendous police abuses during the G20 summit. He also compares the funeral to Nazi Germany, another of Finkleman’s obsessions: in The Newsroom, Findlay can’t have a conversation with his BMW dealer without accusing the salesman of being a Nazi, and in his 2011 series Good Dog, Findlay keeps bringing up Nazi collaboration with his girlfriend’s Austrian au pair.

Finkleman also works through more of his misogynist issues in More Tears, but with a little more self-awareness than the extremely typical misogynist male auteur. Findlay’s wife can only see what Findlay actually wants from women (vapidity and huge breasts) through his casting choices. In interviews, Finkleman decries his own inability to understand women, but he also rarely casts more than two recurring women per series, and almost never as a comic character other than a classic blonde ditz.

Between More Tears and 2002’s movie Escape from the Newsroom, Findlay appeared in Foolish Heart and Foreign Objects, but neither is available anywhere I could find, so give a holler if you have a lead on either.

The events following 9/11 offered a tremendous opportunity for Finkleman to revisit his news satire and Finkleman went big with it. Escape from the Newsroom’s story about Atom Egoyan being taken hostage hostage is interrupted when CBC is evacuated due to a threat of anthrax in the building. The movie becomes a mockumentary, following Finkleman and actors playing his crew as they struggle to salvage their movie if Egoyan walks. On their way out of the building, the “producer” of The Newsroom asks Finkleman if he wanted the hostage storyline to copy The King of Comedy. “I didn’t want to copy anything!” Finkleman protests.

The scene becomes meta-commentary on the movie itself, as well as further anti-police screed: The producer suggests that CBC’s problem with the movie is Finkleman’s insistence on costuming Toronto cops as Nazis. “It’s too didactic for a comedy,” a “writer” protests. Finkleman responds with a didactic monologue about the history of police and Nazi uniforms, “uniforms designed by Hugo Boss and modified by Central American dictators and torturers.” When his producer insists that, post-9/11, he cannot be critical of the police on television, Finkleman responds by demanding they read a poem by Brecht. While Finkleman could “escape” from The Newsroom by breaking the fourth wall, his need to comment on the state of the news was inescapable.

Indeed, in 2004, The Newsroom returned, and was perhaps more vicious. The show’s anchor, Jim Walcott, briefly joins an American morning show, where he gets applause every time he references the troops or God, so he begins inserting them into every conversation. Finkelman also begins to borrow from The Office – the new season ended with a documentary crew entering the newsroom’s offices, and The Office’s talking heads rhythms punctuated the story.

The Newsroom’s to-date final season ended with another homage to Fellini, in the form of an animated story about a swan who becomes a woman (who dies because of her love for a man). As a character in an earlier episode tells Findlay when he (per usual) fails upward, “Don’t try to make sense of the sequence of events … There’s no clear narrative line to these elements. … No clear cause and effect. Just events unfolding in a relatively random way.”

Findlay returned in 2011’s Good Dog, rich, semi-retired, and trying to pitch a reality show about his life dating a thirty-year old woman. When the network tells him that the show would work only if he were living with his girlfriend, he immediately proposes she move in with him (Findlay is always willing to bend reality for TV’s sake). The show, a more-scripted ripoff of Curb Your Enthusiasm, had Findlay trying to fly to L.A. to get Larry David’s blessing to use the word “enthusiasm” in the title of his reality show. At the airport, a stranger recognizes Findlay from his work in The Newsroom. If you’re trying to reconcile the show-within-the-show, you could suggest that the man is referring to the documentary shot in the newsroom in its 2004 season. But it may also just be an admission that Findlay and Finkleman are not distinct individuals.

Good Dog has its moments, but it’s the least pointed of any of Finkleman’s work. It also reveals a major weakness: writing Gentiles. Findlay’s best friend Doug, ostensibly a Catholic, has all the traits and neuroses of a stereotypical Jew. Similarly, Noah, the protagonist of Finkleman’s only novel, Noah’s Turn, is ostensibly a WASP, but he obsesses over the Holocaust more than any WASP I’ve ever met – his obsession is matched only by Findlay’s, and Finkleman’s own.

The last series Findlay has appeared on, 2012’s Good God, returned him to a newsroom, now running a right-wing news network, based on the US’s FOX News. At its best, it is as insightful as The Newsroom. At its worst, it’s obvious and easy shots at conservative programming (though it may be fair to say that Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are difficult targets for satire, being themselves absurd), and more of Finkleman’s chauvinism (in one episode, Findlay takes a medication that causes him to hallucinate that attractive women in the office are naked and propositioning him for sex).

The show’s style borrows heavily from The Thick Of It, with its fluorescent lighting and documentary-style camerawork. It even creates its own Malcolm Tucker, the media conglomerate owner’s enforcer: he’s profane, always angry, and Irish (not quite enough distance from Tucker’s Scottish, though a confusing try). It also borrows Jim, Pam, and Dwight from the American The Office (any viewer of all three shows would identify them as distinctly Jim, Pam, and Dwight; not Tim, Dawn, and Gareth).  Finkleman again explicitly references Godard, having the three recreate the dance from Bande à part: “The movie? On YouTube. You’ve seen it? Let’s do it.”

Like two out of three seasons of The Newsroom, Good God ends with a disaster (not a nuclear meltdown or an unnamed global crisis, but the right-wing network orchestrating another American war). Finkleman hasn’t produced work since, though his twitter account indicates that failures in Canadian news reporting are still very much on his mind. He’s in his late sixties now, but it’s possible he has a few more series in him. One wonders what would give new life to Findlay. His next jumping-off point could be, if we’re lucky, something like Broad City, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or even - dare I wish - The Comeback. His satire is desperately needed.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the webseries Doing Good.

Ken Finkleman and the Art of Being Derivative