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Vince Staten: ‘Dying words’ — One takes the high road, another goes low

VINCE STATEN • Jul 30, 2013 at 10:23 PM

Sam Simon has spent his life in comedy, beginning as a writer on the cartoon “Fat Albert.”

I met him in 1981 when I spent a week on the set of the ABC series “Taxi.” I was writing a story for the Louisville newspaper.

Sam was a staff writer and also the show’s warm-up guy, a thankless task for any aspiring comic since the audience didn’t come to see him and is usually surprised to find there is a warm-up act.

His job was to welcome the live audience to the show’s taping, tell them a few jokes, get them in a good mood, but not be too tough an act to follow. Don’t outshine the show.

He worked on “Taxi” for three seasons and formed a bond with “Taxi” executive producer James L. Brooks. So when Brooks created “The Tracy Ullman Show,” Sam tagged along. It was “The Tracy Ullman Show” that introduced the world to Bart Simpson, the perpetual fourth-grader.

And when Fox decided to spin “The Simpsons” off into a weekly series, Sam went along for the ride, a long and glorious and prosperous ride.

Thanks to comedy, Sam Simon is a wealthy man.

So when he got the tragic diagnosis of terminal cancer — he has three to six months to live — he sat down for a period of reflection.

What should he do with the remaining months of his life?

Sam decided to spend it giving away his fortune, mostly to nonprofits.

Reading Sam’s story in the newspaper this past week, reminded me of another terminally ill patient, a friend of my great friend Deborah.

Let’s call her Louise.

Louise had spent most of her life as a busybody and scold, the scourge of anyone who came in contact with her.

So when she got a terminal diagnosis, she too had a period of reflection. And she too had to decide what to do with the short amount of time she had left on this planet.

She took a different route from Sam Simon.

Louise decided that this was her opportunity to tell a few people off.

So as she ran into her “friends,” all of whom seemed to know of her diagnosis and treated her with kindness, she told each what she thought of them.

She was going out on a roll, with all her bridges burned, and she was happy about it.

That’s when she got a call from her doctor’s office: Could she please come in?

Perfect timing, she thought. She could tell them off because the pain pills they had given her were ineffective.

She told off the receptionist, then the nurse and started in on the doctor when he finally came into the room.

That’s when he looked at the floor and mumbled, “We made a mistake on your diagnosis.”


Kingsport native Jeannie Ralston, a 1978 graduate of Dobyns-Bennett, wrote the featured story in the Travel section of Sunday’s New York Times. It’s an account of her family’s hike on a remote section of the Great Wall of China. Her husband Robb Kendrick, a photographer for National Geographic, provided photos to accompany her article. Ralston is a freelance writer and the author of the memoir, “The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming,” about the lessons of life, love and marriage learned while running a Texas lavender farm.

You can read her Great Wall of China story on the New York Times website for free.

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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