Thursday, June 11, 2015

On Being a Focus Groupie

Focus Groupie

Perhaps it started when I was a kid at the mall with my mom and grandparents, pleading to let me sit on Santa’s lap.  So Santa leans in with his “Hey little boy what do you want for Christmas?”  Programmed to truth by hardworking Midwestern parents, I whisper, “but Santa, I’m Jewish.” “It’s ok, so am I” hushed the big red fake gentile.  

The takeaway: JewSanta got paid and thousands of children enjoyed Christmas.  Was this a turning point in my life suggesting that lying is ok?  Perhaps.  Bigger picture: role-playing has its advantages.  Since 2001, I’ve slid into over 100 focus groups in several cities.  I’ve been an alleged consumer of alcohol, banking products, jeans, laptops, watches, websites, cars, cellphones, cameras and condoms.  I usually say I’m an attorney when a market research company asks what I do for a living but I’ve diversified professions to keep it interesting and stay on the lam.  I’ve played a High School Gym Teacher, Investment Banker, Masseuse, Senior Housing Developer, Solar Panel Salesman, Sommelier,  and of course a typical New York Actor / Waiter.  I’ve feigned professions, exaggerated salaries, bragged about ownership of multiple vacation homes.  My mom calls me a focus groupie.

Initially I did focus groups because I needed more going-out money when I lived in New York yet they quickly became part of my starving artist’s variety hour.  It’s common knowledge that people lie in focus groups and some make a living this way.  For me these groups became the closest I could get to being someone else, without the jail-time or community service.  This was safe, compensated thrill-seeking during unemployment stints.  Focus groups are the Wild West for any gunslinger with an overactive imagination.  A friend called it “guerilla theatre” and asked if I ever considered acting.  I said stage fright and my intense fear of public speaking precludes me from acting – yet nobody knows you in a focus group.  They’re an unscripted playground, they’re real life - I’m the actor / writer / director all in one.  The part-time megalomaniac in me thinks perhaps I’m the greatest character-actor ever.   Step aside Giamatti.  

In one of my first groups in New York, I walked into a room where seven men in collared shirts and pleated khakis sat starring at my jeans and black t-shirt.  So I said, “Some putz at Starbucks spilled his coffee on my khaks and he didn’t even offer to pay for dry cleaning!”  A chorus of khaki-ed men harrumphed in commiseration.  Calling them “khaks” fortified my lie.  I deep-fried that lie by saying I rescheduled a job interview that day because without my favorite khaks I’m shit outta luck, followed by my diatribe about how the ubiquity of jeans and “informal-wear” as a major reason for the inevitable decline of the American empire.  It was a Dockers group about men who love khaks. I haven’t worn khakis since 5th grade when my mom said this is what the smart kids wear.

My therapist insists we explore the psychological roots of my “fetish“ as she calls it.  She lovingly scolds me for being a liar and manipulating people for my own personal amusement.  She’s partly right, but I never lie to family, friends, or lovers.  Sure, it’s admittedly self-indulgent, but I tell her it’s like being a prize fighter - I only battle in the ring.  Do I feel guilty that I’m knowingly polluting the results of a marketing enterprise designed to improve consumer products?  Certainly.  But it’s complicated.  Whoever I claim to be in these groups, I never lie about my opinions and I genuinely intend to better the product.  Do I need to own an electric car, the newest HDTV, or a pair of khakis to know what’s best for the product?  Not entirely.  The caveat is that I’m speaking as someone else.  Who said that someone else has to be a liar?

There’s a sense of power in duping a company into thinking I’m someone else.  A clandestine coup.  But let’s be honest, no one is locking me up for embezzlement or insider trading.  We’re talking petty larceny at best.  Though I’m no early adapter of every new consumer item, I enjoy seeing products in their gestational stages before the rest of the world.  I take pride in feeling I somehow contributed to their greatness. Perhaps it was a critique I made, an insight into a slogan, a question I asked or the bungled joke I made about how one cellphone looked so phallic and vibrated so effectively that my girlfriend might just let it ring for awhile then go to voicemail.

Sometimes I feel like a consumer warrior fighting back at a system that ultimately persuades the public into purchasing often unnecessary products or appealing to consumers’ inadequacies to lure them into an acquisition.  Advertising agencies and market research groups are hired by companies that manufacture products to find smart, clever, effective ways to get the public to say “YES I need that in my life.”   We’ve seen Mad Men, we know how it works.  Sure, it’s a laughable paradox that I’m in these groups helping them improve the product yet still feel like I pulled one over on the system.  Either way, I have fun and get paid.  Jury is still out whether Don Draper would hire me immediately or put cyanide in my scotch.

In these groups, creating the backstory is key.  Who am I when I walk in the door?  If it’s a group on high-end banking products, my pastel-colored sweater is wrapped over my Yale-educated shoulders and I shan’t forget boasting of my glory days as a kickass coxswain on the rowing team. 

Although backstories often involve bowing to stereotypes, inverting them is more thrilling.  In an all-male group about beer, the moderator showed a poster-board depicting two men drinking in a bar.  One participant said he would “never be get caught dead in a fag bar” as another participant added “homos drink appletinis or something fruity like that.”  I’m heterosexual, but my hand shot up.  “I’m a fag.  I love beer, rock’ n’ roll, kicked ass as a strong safety in high school football and could probably drink both you pricks under the table anytime!”  They felt so uncomfortable that the moderator had to awkwardly switch topics.  After the group, the shmucks apologized and told me they each had a gay friend.

In real life I tend to be a soft-talker, but in focus groups I can transform into an opinionated lion.  So when moderators tell participants to ignore the one-way mirror where company sponsors sit and observe, out comes my signature move as I lean back in my chair, fold my hands over my head and look into the mirror with a well-oiled smile & wink combo and declare what I believe is the company’s next brilliant slogan.  Seating so comfortable why move to the bedroom” for Volvo’s new luxury sedan however wasn’t such a hit when I got reprimanded by the moderator for needing too much attention.

With the ladies I can be a bit shy occasionally, but once this adorable brunette with a face I wanted for my new alarm clock sat next to me in a group on flavored vodkas.  We tasted several vodkas and my “trying to get me wasted on our first date?” joke somehow landed.  During the tasting I stood up and toasted “to new beginnings and first dates.”  After a perfect first kiss hours later at a bar down the street, she predicted our glorious future together but first she has to dump her 6’8” bodyguard for a famous rap star boyfriend.

Sometimes creating a temporary fake identity brings responsibility and unexpected guilt.  I still owe Diane a call from a year ago because she thinks her 23 year-old daughter would be a great fit for an internship at my successful civil rights boutique law firm.  She approached me after the group about her daughter and then again in the elevator on the way out and I felt awful lying / denying the opportunity saying that civil rights just aren’t the hot legal market they used to be.

I’ve also learned that despite the fun of lying for sport, honesty has unexpected benefits. I once got into a group on smartphones when I owned the beta-max of flip-phones.  This sexy female moderator asked our all-male group what we want in life.  Most of us said a great family, wife, job, money.  Standard.  The last guy said, “duh, a threesome.”  Everyone laughed.  He got the moderator’s number when the group ended.

And the food, oh the food.   It’s nothing Sam Sifton or Thomas Keller need to know about but I love anything complimentary.  Some people are shy about accepting the food in focus groups.  I shamelessly feast.  I’m a big fan of continuing to eat throughout the discussion, often getting up a couple times to get another sandwich or something.   I interrupt the discussion to ask if I can get anyone anything.  Another cookie?  Top off your coffee? 

There is some crossover as I run focus groups in my personal life.  I poll friends and family about decisions big and small.   I recently purchased a pair of man-boots with the creative assistance of some females.  So much to learn just by asking.  Who knew that Anna thinks men who wear heels are effeminate but flip-flops are manly? Erika threw me for a loop when she suggested something red or purple because men who take risks are more desirable.  But thanks to my mom who validated my ultimate man-boot selection when she confirmed that with the Wallin Bros. Amsterdam boot, I could easily go Friday night fancy restaurant, dive bar, or last minute Bar Mitzvah.  Well done ladies.  

The truth is I still enjoy lying for sport - only when it’s a victimless crime.  It’s the getting away with something that gets me off.  Through the years my addiction has grown stronger, but unlike most junkies, there is no methadone in the land to quash my fix.  It’s much more difficult to qualify for groups these days, every focus group is a new experience, a bump in my wallet, another reason to thank JewSanta.  Having recently moved to Los Angeles as a single guy, it’s possible I could meet the love of my life at the next co-ed group for small business owners who use energy-efficient light bulbs.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ready To Die

Recently I heard a few stories of friends’ friends’ friends, all men in their 30s and 40s, who died instantly from aneurysms.  Fucking awful.  Freaked me out. 

I was driving home one night on the 405 thinking if I get an aneurysm and cause a major crash and delay traffic I’d feel so shitty.  LA traffic is bad enough without my aneurysm. 

Later that night around 2am, I had a pounding headache on the left side of my brain and I tossed & turned like a cold-spot addict searching for more cold spots in bed.

Then a sharp tightening in my upper thigh / groin region started up.  Nothing penile thank God, just the femoral artery.   But I’ve seen enough shitty horror movies and my brother is a doctor so I felt confident that if something severs the femoral artery it’s Kaddish. 

Then I thought what if I have an aneurysm and die in my sleep?  Nobody will find me for weeks and I’ll sit there rotting away and they’ll have to put together the pieces of my life like a Law & Order episode, the Criminal Intent one with Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. Fucking loved them.
Detectives Eames and Goren enter the one-bedroom apartment. 

Two female Paramedics are waiting inside.  They’re gorgeous brunettes, one looks like Emmanuelle Chriqui and the other like Rashida Jones, maybe it’s actually just them because I think they’re shooting something together some cool Indie thing in Silver Lake so they totally have time for this. 

Rashida tells the Detectives “this cute guy talked to his mother twice a day and she called 911 after he didn’t call the next day.  The property manager opened the apartment and we found the body an hour ago.  Why can’t I find a guy like this who doesn’t have to die?” 

Emmanuelle makes a sad face to Rashida, “Me too.”

Detectives Goren and Eames head straight for the bedroom, where the body lays.

EAMES:  For the apartment of a corpse it sure smells like lavender and fresh lilies. 

Paramedic Girls are heard off-screen, “Lilies are my favorite.”

Goren stands bedside, inspecting.

GOREN:  No signs of struggle, no strangulation, no entry wounds.  No evidence of a homicide and there’s no sleeping pills so doesn’t seem like a suicide.  He died in his sleep.  Probably an aneurysm. 

EAMES: What makes you say that? 

GOREN: One hand is clutching the left side of his head and the other his femoral artery.  Classic aneurysm.

Eames opens the closet and goes through a chest of drawers and opens a closet.

EAMES:  Everything is perfectly folded and organized.  His dress-shirts are color-coordinated.  And no wire hangers.

GOREN:  Clean linens.  Puffed pillows.  Trimmed nails.  He’s perfectly shaved and looks like he recently showered or is just the type of guy that’s always freshly clean.  (Intense) The aneurysm was the least organized thing in his life.  And his death.

Eames and Goren move from the bedroom to the living room.

Eames looks impressed, even inspired by the way everything seems to have its place in the apartment.

EAMESI’m impressed, even inspired by the way everything seems to have its place in the apartment. 

GOREN(Perusing bookshelf, picks up a book or two) Interesting.  Quite a diverse interest in literature.  Looks like he only read the 1st chapter in each book.  Probably had ADD but compensated best he could. It’s alphabetized by first letter of the title disregarding articles A, And and The.

Rashida sadly sighs to Emmanuelle, “Awww, I love readers.”

EAMES:  Any books on depression or anything?

GOREN No.  A few of the freshmen year existential must-haves and a truly Semitic collection on this shelf.  Not exactly the mind of a psychopath. 

Goren tilts his head toward the shelf of Jewish books.

GORENMaybe the guilt got him. 

Eames smirks.  Goren is funny when he wants to be, because he knows stereotypes.

GOREN:  Did you check the laptop for search history?

Eames opens a plugged-in, perfectly charged open laptop on the table.   

EAMES Nothing bad here.  No porn at all.  The last websites he visited are,, and   And the only other history before that is researching charity websites about orphans in Jersey.  This guy was a saint.  

Goren removes a sharpened pencil from his coat pocket and uses it to pick up a tissue from the garbage and inspects it.

GOREN: Or was he?  Looks like some type of glandular secretion.  Could be evidence of a depraved sex act?

EAMES: It’s probably just a tissue from when this guy wipes stray kitten’s noses.

Eames points to a framed photo on the wall of a stray kitten in an alley and the deceased bending down with a tissue.

Goren tosses the tissues towards the trash as Emmanuelle and Rashida both quickly dash to catch it.  They each snag a side and engage in a sexy tug-of-war over the kitten-sneeze tissue.

Eames walks to the bathroom and opens the cabinets.

EAMES: Ritalin, lots of floss, and a few too many bottles of sunscreen, SPF 290.  Everything is perfectly arranged and this bathroom is so clean for a man.

Eames pokes her head behind the toilet.

EAMES:  It’s spotless.  Who is this guy? 

Eames walks to the living room and runs her finger over the table and bookshelf. 

EAMES:   No dust anywhere.  Marry me.   

GOREN(Intense, sooo Goren) It’s as if he stayed awake for hours and cleaned his entire apartment, knowing he was ready for death.  Like he foresaw the aneurysm.

Goren grabs a notebook from the kitchen table and gently tosses it to Eames.

GOREN:  Eames, look at this. 

Eames reads aloud:

Fuck all you hoes. Get a grip motherfucker. Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I'd never amount to nothin', to all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin' in front of that called the police on me when I was just tryin' to make some money to feed my daughters, and all the niggaz in the struggle, you know what I'm sayin'?  Uh-ha, it's all good baby baby uh…

EAMES:  Quite a poet.  Such struggle he experienced in his life.  Might be the beginning of a suicide note he never finished. 

EAMES:  Or a letter he was writing to his mother. 

Emmanuelle and Rashida stand at the window, arms around each other’s waists.  They peer out longingly and together they sing:

You know very well who you are.  Don’t let em hold you down, reach for the stars.  You had a goal, but not that many.  ‘Cause you’re the only I’ll give you good and plenty.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Education of Jasper Goldberg


DANNY (37) stands next to BRADY (38) as they enter and ascend a staircase in a Brooklyn brownstone.

DANNY: Who lives here again?

BRADY: Ali’s friend Sarah and her wife Heather. They’re on vacation in Greece and we’re checking on Jasper twice a day since we live so close.

DANNY: They can afford a trip to Greece but not a dog-sitter?

BRADY: Guess they prefer Jasper to stay in their home rather than tear up someone else’s furniture.

Brady opens a 2nd floor apartment door and they enter. 


Danny looks around at framed pictures of Heather and Sarah that fill the apartment.

DANNY: I’ve never seen more photos of a happy couple.

BRADY: They met in college and been togetherever since. They’re so happy it’s insane.

DANNY: Seriously though every photo is the two of them either kissing or smiling or floating on a cloud somewhere.

BRADY: Ali and I joke we want their relationship, but keep my penis.

DANNY: I think couples put up happy photos as reminders that they were once happy and when the shit gets worse which it always does they look at the photos during arguments to say “hey stop yelling at me fuckface look how happy we were on vacation 3 years ago before all this shit happened.”

BRADY: Whoa that’s some deep cynicism there buddyboy.

Dog barks in the background. Brady and Danny walk through the apartment to the kitchen.

BRADY: Hey Jasper!

JASPER (adorable 1 year old brown Cockapoo) is thrilled to see humans. Brady and Danny take turns petting Jasper as he jumps up and down and up and down and...

DANNY: What’s up little guy!

Brady refills Jasper’s food / water bowls as Danny looks on the fridge and sees more photo magnets of the happy couple.

DANNY: They don’t like look Goldbergs.

BRADY: Not all Jews look--

DANNY (interrupting): --YES WE DO!

BRADY: But you semites all smoke weeeeeeeed.

Last word lingers on as Brady reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a joint from a box that is clearly a marijuana paraphernalia box.

DANNY: Heeeellll yeeeaaaa. What kind is it? If it’s indica I’ll quickly transform into a couch.

BRADY: They usually have sativa.

Danny inspects the label on the pot container.

DANNY: Ha! It’s called Bruce Jenner. Guess it makes you rethink everything in your life.

Brady & Danny getting high, blowing smoke in Jasper’s ears, being high and playing with Jasper.

DANNY: This is really good stuff. Who lives here again?

BRADY: Ali’s friends Sarah and Rachel. No Sarah and Beth. No, Sarah and Heather. (BEAT) Shit, if Ali finds out I got zonked in the middle of the day she’ll give me the 3rd degree for not cleaning our apartment or doing anything other than getting zonked in the middle of the day.

DANNY: Everyone always gets the third degree. What’s the 3rd degree anyway? Can you imagine how much worse the second degree is? gets worse right, like a burn, or murder charge?

BRADY: 3rd degree murder is chill like you probably killed a rodent or something.

DANNY: 2nd degree murder that’s real murder. Blood and death and you’re going to Sing Sing or Rikers but not long enough, like enough to get raped a couple times but not commit to Islam.

BRADY: 1st degree murder is definitely the worst, like you killed someone with your bare hands in front of a kindergarten class during show’n’tell.

DANNY: So third degree ain’t that bad. (BEAT) Nature calls where’s the bathroom?

BRADY: Down the hall second door on the left.

Danny walks off-camera.

Brady is sitting on the ground starring off in silence - then takes a spoon from the counter and stares at his reflection in it and moves it up and down and around.


Danny opens the bathroom door and enters but forgetfully leaves the door open. He walks to the toilet and unzips. CAMERA to his back - as he pees he looks around. Stack of New Yorkers on a shelf, feminine beauty products, framed pictures of Heather and Sarah on vacation in several places.

Jasper runs into the bathroom and stands near Danny, looking at him.

DANNY: Jasper what are you doing in here? I’m pissing go on get outta here. 

Jasper doesn’t budge.

DANNY (waving his hand): Jasper go on.

Jasper turns and walks out of scene.

Danny keeps peeing as he looks around and sees a framed photograph of Heather and Sarah. He muses at it for a second.

DANNY (calling out): Jasper buddy come back. Come here! 

Jasper comes running back and stands near Danny.

DANNY: Good boy! Sit.

Jasper sits, eagerly looking at Danny. Danny continues peeing and starts to shake - his head is turned talking to Jasper.

DANNY: Jasper let’s be real here dude. You live with two lesbians so I’m doing you a favor here. Maybe you’ve seen a dildo before if they’re into that but most likely you didn’t connect the dots.

Danny does a final shake then turns around and faces Jasper, dick dangling and exposed.

DANNY: Here you go little guy, this is a dick. The first you’ve ever seen and very likely the last you’ll ever see.

Jasper cocks his head (pardon the pun) and looks curiously at Danny’s dick.

Jasper barks.

                                                                FADE OUT.