My sister sent me a video clip of George Burns singing one of his old, corny songs. "Sugar Throat," as his wife Gracie Allen called him, wasn't much of a singer. But he was a great performer.
He also taught me how to be an award-winning editor.
The closest I ever came to George Burns was at Boston's Logan Airport. We had both arrived at the terminal on different flights. Burns, inveterate showman that he was, shook hands with everyone in the place, including me. "How are ya," he said, waving a big cigar. That was it.
But some years earlier I had heard him explaining how he got to be a show business star. He married Allen, a wonderful comedic actress, and the Burns & Allen team headlined vaudeville shows, then moved into radio and finally television.
Gracie was the funny one. She got the laughs. George was her straight man; he set her up with straight lines until Gracie delivered the punch line. A great team.
Burns didn't deliberately explain how to be a great editor. Instead, he once revealed what it took to be a great straight man.
It's simple, Burns said. The straight man just stands on stage next to the funny man (or woman) and does nothing. Maybe he holds a cigar. The funny man starts to tell a story. The straight man listens. Maybe he puffs on his cigar a little.
When the funny man stops talking to draw a breath, the straight man repeats the funny man's last line. For example, the funny man goes, "Blah, blah, blah. And then I walked upstairs."
As the funny man stops for a breath, the straight man says, "And then you walked upstairs."
This goes on until the funny man delivers the punch line. The audience laughs. And that's it.
Interesting, I thought.
I had just left the aerospace industry to become editor of Analog Science Fiction magazine. I quickly realized that writers would come to my office and tell me about the troubles they were having writing their latest story. I would sit back in my desk chair and fiddle with a pencil, in lieu of a cigar. The writer would unfold a tale of woe about the story he (or she) was struggling with. When he stopped to draw a breath, I would repeat his last line. To wit:
Writer: "Blah, blah, blah. But it just isn't working the way I want it to."
Editor (me): "Isn't working the way you want it to."
And the writer would resume his sad story. Almost always, inside of 20 minutes or so, the writer had talked out his problem and come up with a solution.
But he thought I'd done it!
Writers got very excited about finding the solutions to their problems. They'd even offer to take me to lunch. This was against all publishing protocol. Editors always pay for lunch. The editor has an expense account. The writer has only the income he earns from his writing, which is all too often pitiably small.
Anyway, the word went around the science-fiction field that I was a terrific editor. Writers could bring me their story problems and I'd solve them. They never tumbled to the fact that they had solved their own problem; all I'd done was provide them a sounding board while they groped toward the solution.
My late wife, who was for a time a professional psychologist, recognized what was going on. She told me that one of her freshman psych courses boiled down to learning how to listen to a patient and say, "Ah hah," in the right places.
Of course, once in a while I would offer a visiting writer a new idea for a story. They seldom took me up on those ideas. I wasn't known as an idea person; I gained fame as a "story doctor," an editor who could spot the problems in stories and fix them.
I won awards for being the best editor in the science-fiction field. Six Hugos, which are the science-fiction community's equivalent of Hollywood's Oscars.
And I owe it all to George Burns.
Bova's latest novel is "Power Play," a political thriller. His website address is www. benbova.com.