Producer John Bard Manulis approached seven of his favorite playwrights last year with what he thought was great news—they were going to write for television.
Manulis was representing the Nederlander Organization on an ambitious project of his own devising: to revitalize television comedy with the highly inventive and idiosyncratic voices of such playwrights as Jules Feiffer, John Bishop, Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein and John Ford Noonan. Choosing writers in whose work the staid formulas of the sitcom were reviled and often turned on their heads, Manulis bravely went to CBS, home of The Jeffersons and AfterM*A*S*H.
CBS liked the idea. These feted authors were funny, and they represented the theatre—glamour and prestige. Feeling perhaps the confidence of being number one, CBS took the risk. “Now is the time to do something vital and new,” announced comedy V.P. Bob O’Connor, “to begin relationships with new people, with fresh ideas.” And from the Nederlanders the network purchased five episodes, christening the ill-fated venture The Comedy Zone.
Unfortunately the network’s confidence lasted about as long as station identification. “The trouble started right away,” recalls Christopher Durang. “The writers got together to create the show’s opening. ‘This is a door,’ the guest host would say. ‘Beyond this door sit some of the funniest playwrights in the country.’ The door would open and there would sit the seven of us in a kind of sweat shop, all laboring at typewriters, and in the middle there would be an ape, also at work. It’s not hilarious, but it wasn’t a bad idea. CBS looked at it and said, No—this image is too complex for people to understand.’ Jerry [director Gerald Gutierrez] asked, ‘What’s so hard to understand?’ But the producers just accepted this CBS dictum without question.”
The network came back with this suggestion: put the ape at the typewriter and have the writers look over his shoulder at what he’s writing. “I didn’t think the idea was funny, and I didn’t want to be in the shot,” recalls Durang. The other writers agreed. “Fine,” said the network. “We’ll just use the monkey.”
In this way the network began to package The Comedy Zone. Drawing on visual formulas recalling Laugh-In and Hee Haw, the show’s form favored Zany over Witty. Animated graphics were quickly paced, punctuated by the sounds of “zing!” and “boing!” and inevitably followed by the mechanical roar of the laugh track. Stick-figure children on a road sign pummeled each other with lunch pails. Short “filler” bits appeared irregularly. In one show, there were a half-dozen such bits concerning a beach bum who holds a seashell to his ear, only to hear something like “This ocean has been temporarily disconnected.” Yet under the packaging, much of the sketch material was taut and funny and offbeat—Jules Feiffer’s “Executives,” John Bishop’s “The Balled Writers” and Durang’s “Happy Anniversary, Darling” stand out. As a whole, the show seemed strangely schizophrenic, as if the network were terrified of the very originality it claimed to seek.
“The networks are so powerful,” reflects Manulis. “In the middle of the game they can change the rules and say, ‘We know we bought this kind of show, but we don’t think it’s working, and you have to change it.’”
As soon as the first two hours were shot, director Gutierrez (Isn’t It Romantic, Geniuses, A Life in the Theatre) was replaced by a television director, J.D. Lobue. The change, apparently, was made from the Nederlander end.
Says Durang: “Gladys Rackmil [Manulis’s co-producer] was panicking. She was always trying to guess what CBS would obiect to. Jerry was fired, not because, but in case, CBS didn’t like the show.” Rackmil was in Europe and could not be reached for comment.
Adds Manulis, “I conceived the show as a writer’s forum. Jerry came on board with the writers. Many of the actors had been avoiding doing television and joined because of the writers and because of Jerry. When Jerry left, that pyramid began to crumble. There was a morale problem. The writers feared that if CBS renewed the show they would be contractually locked in. Many people felt betrayed.”
Perhaps justly so. Says head writer John Bishop, “They came to us and said, ‘We’re going to give you a forum to write for television.’ We all looked at each other and thought. ‘But I don’t want to write for television.’ Then they said, ‘This is going to be different.’” The writers were promised the freedom to write in their own voices, and—as their names were prominently displayed at the start of every sketch—they felt a right to keep that freedom. But with Gutierrez gone, the writers faced more and greater obstacles. A Wasserstein sketch, “The Baby Shower,” was cut in half without the consent of the author. John Bishop continuously withdrew sketches rather than alter them, and Jules Feiffer stopped writing completely for a time. Durang wrote a satire on Ronald Reagan’s proposed “squeal law” that fell apart when Network Standards and Practices informed him that he couldn’t use the words “President Reagan” or even “the president” during primetime. Says Durang, “For me it became tremendous trouble to write for the show.”
At the same time, CBS began to press Manulis for more “accessible” material. “I couldn’t ask these writers to write ‘mainstream, ” says Manulis. “You can’t ask someone to be what he isn’t.” Other writers with television experience were brought in. “I tried to put my writers in between the marshmallows.” says Manulis. “It was a losing battle.”
The Comedy Zone was cancelled before the fifth episode aired. This badly orchestrated attempt to bring new writers to television was doomed from the start. The time slot, Friday night at 8:00, was, as Durang calls it, “the kiss of death.” The show might have stood a chance in the less pressured later night, where it could have shed its frilly packaging. It needed the time to find its voice and its audience. As it turned out, one can only speculate why the network gambled on a concept it clearly mistrusted from the start. And speculate we must—CBS declined to comment on the short, unhappy life of The Comedy Zone.
Laurie Winer, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, writes frequently about the theatre.
Three one-act plays developed in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s New Play Program are slated for production by PBS-TV. Louisville filmmaker Clay Nixon has adapted the trio as half hour television presentations, and ATL producing director Jon Jory and Nixon will co-direct. Newsweek critic Jack Kroll has been signed to host the programs. The three works included are Approaching Lavendar by Julie Beckett Crutcher, Bartok as Dog by Patrick Tovatt and The Eye of the Beholder by Kent Broadhurst. Airing is scheduled to begin in the fall of 1985.
American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge’s widely traveled production of Sganarelle, an evening of Molière farces, was shown on British television in late August, and comments from the press were enthusiastic. The made-for-television version, taped two years ago in London, will be shown in several other European countries as well.
Mime artist Lindsay Kemp collaborated with dancer-choreographer Christopher Bruce of Ballet Rambert on Cruel Garden, a dance drama inspired by the life of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The BBC production will air Nov. 8, 9, 25 and 26 on the Arts & Entertainment Network. Other theatrical presentations on A&E during November include George Furth’s comedy Twigs, featuring Cloris Leachman, on Nov. 25 and 26; and Sheridan’s 17th-century satire The Critic, with Hywel Bennett as the eccentric Mr. Puff, on Nov. 18.
Now Chicago-area fans of the Organic Theater Company’s long-running E/R Emergency Room can take their choice: The original company-developed piece is still on the boards at the Forum Theatre in Summit, Ill., and a network television version of the show is on the tube this fall with Elliot Gould. Early ratings for the half-hour CBS series were high.
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