Eddie and Eileen lay naked, partially covered by a sheet. With Round One apparently behind them, Eddie’s mind is back on business. He studies his notes from the A.A. meeting.
Eddie: I went with a dead wife.
Eileen: (nodding) That’ll play.
Eddie: Guy’s wife dies, he starts drinking, starts taking it out on the world.
Eileen: Right. Made you bitter.
Eddie: I’m a bitter man.
Eileen: Who can blame you?
Eddie: I loved that woman.
Eileen: She was your world.
Eddie: Then one day, just taken from me.
Eddie considers the question.
Eddie: (a beat) Hit by a car.
Eileen: Why’s that better?
Eddie: Disease creeps people out. They don’t want to hear the story. But no one worries about getting hit by a car.
Both think on it some more, then…
Eddie: (excited) Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!
Eddie: I got it!
Eddie: Hit by a drunken driver!
Eileen reacts enthusiastically.
Eddie: Do you see the irony?
Eileen: Yes. I’m not an idiot.
Eddie: Killed by a drunk, now I’m a drunk.
Eileen: I said I get it.
Eddie: I love irony.
Eileen: Irony works.
Eileen: What was her name?
Eileen explodes with laughter, laughing so hard, in fact, she accidentally falls out of bed (and out of frame). A grinning Eddie looks over in her direction.
Eddie: Do you see the irony?
Neely: There was far too much to cover in just one article. I wanted to get into your start as a writer in more depth, as well as talk about upcoming projects.
Neely: When did you know that you wanted to write?
Dusty: When my father told me he wouldn’t pay for law school.
Neely: How about the backstory on that one.
Dusty: (laughs) He always thought I was going to end up in Show Business, either as an actor or writer, or something. He always wanted me to be a writer. He thought I was funny and he thought I could make a good living out here.
Neely: You’ve got to be kidding!! This is the first time I’ve heard something like that!
Dusty: Oh, yeah. It’s absolutely true. At the end of my sophomore year of college I was starting to panic a little bit about graduating and coming out to LA and trying to break into Show Business. So I went home and figured I would make the announcement that every Jewish mother and father would love to hear – “I’ve decided to go to law school.” And there was this long pause and my father goes, “Yeah? Who’s going to pay for it?” (laughs) “I was kinda hoping you would.” And he says, “You’re going to Hollywood kid.” And that was pretty much the end of my law career.
Neely: What did your father do for a living?
Dusty: He was a car salesman and then he became a Veterans’ counselor.
Neely: That’s a rather extreme change.
Dusty: Not if you know him. He graduated from NYU with a degree in business and he loved to sell. When he was young he used to go through the South selling jewelry; then when he got a little older and met my mother, he went to work selling Chevys. He just absolutely loved it. I can’t tell you why, but he just loved selling Chevys. He was also a war veteran, purple heart winner and when the opportunity arose, he became a veteran’s counselor and worked with veterans who were having a hard go of it. He found great satisfaction in that as well.
Neely: And your mom… did she work outside the home?
Dusty: She was a travel agent and apparently one of the best ever. People would come in for a weekend in Atlantic City and end up booking a month in Europe.
Neely: Was she as supportive as your dad of your potential comedy writing career?
Dusty: She would have preferred that California was closer to New York, but yeah, she was. You know my childhood would never lead you to believe that I’d go into Show Business. I was always playing sports – that’s all I cared about, all I loved. Playing baseball and stick ball… I had no cultural inclinations at all. Then when I was sixteen, I decided to do something I had day dreamed about – I tried out for a play in high school, a play called “Summertree.” My parents came, not knowing what to expect. I was pretty good, apparently, and they just changed the way they looked at me from then on. After that I would say that this was what I wanted to do, that I wanted to go into Show Business; it just seemed that it was inevitable. Anyhow, that’s how they viewed it. I suppose there were times when they said “You know, it’s tough to break into Show Business.” But they never tried to talk me out of it and they were always totally loving and supportive about my decision.
You know how you always make your friends laugh before you do it at home, and I was no different. My parents didn’t know I had a sense of humor until long after it developed. I remember I was going to do this bit in a high school talent show – I was going to sing “The Impossible Dream” as Jackie Vernon, the wonderful comedian. Now my Jackie Vernon impression back then was pretty damn good and I remember starting to do it at the dining room table and I’ll never forget my mother’s laugh. I think it’s of the best memories I have. She was just absolutely flabbergasted. She laughed so hard out of pure enjoyment and absolute shock.
Neely: Where did you go to college and what did you major in?
Dusty: I went to Northwestern because if you want to go into Show Business, that’s the law. And I was a theater major until they asked me to leave the department.
Neely: Ok, I’ll bite. What’s the story on that?
Dusty: At that time the theater department was all about the classics; anything written in the 20th Century was beneath them. And me? I loved Neil Simon; I loved Murray Schisgal, I loved Herb Gardner – those were the things I wanted to do; those were the scenes I wanted to perform on stage. They wanted me to do Shakespeare. I enjoyed reading Shakespeare but, as you can hear, I don’t necessarily sound like a Shakespearean character.
Neely: No, I can hear that. You’re a little Tony Curtis and “Yondah is duh castle of my faddah.”
Dusty: Sure. So there were big discussions and arguments. And there was one particularly heated argument with a theater professor on the stairwell that didn’t end well. So I was asked to leave. I had started writing at that point, taking some creative writing courses and when I told the head of the English Lit department, a man named Elliot Anderson, that the theater department was trying to get rid of me, he said “Come over here.”
It was the best move I ever made because I got to work with Elliot who was an incredibly talented teacher. And I studied with one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met, Dr. Dennis Brutus who was a South African poet who fought apartheid and had spent time in South African prisons. He was just an extraordinary influence. Oh boy, I’ll never forget… he was such a serious man and his work was so impressive, everyone who took writing from him tried to impress him. Everything that was written in those classes was of such staggering significance, or so the writer believed. And me? I’m writing my dopey little funny short stories. And finally I go up to him after a class (it may have been the second or third creative writing course I had taken from him) and we knew each other pretty well at that point. What I was trying to do in those days was the kind of short stories that Woody Allen was writing at the time. And I just said to him, “You know I gotta tell you. I feel like a real horse’s ass. Everybody is writing these things that are so meaningful and I’m just a third rate college Woody Allen wannabe.” And he took me for a walk on Lake Michigan; we must have spent three hours out there. We had this amazing discussion about the difference between “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove.” How, if you pour eccentricity and neurosis into “Fail Safe,” it becomes a comedy, or in this case a satiric comedy; it becomes “Strangelove” because they’re basically the same story. Those were the most instructive three hours during my time at college; it was just incredible. I just suddenly realized what I was trying to do in terms of being a comedy writer.
Neely: Did you stay in touch with him?
Dusty: No, no. I didn’t stay in touch with him or any of my college professors. I don’t know why. It’s something I deeply regret. I guess just coming out here was a whole new world of challenges and problems. That first year there was some correspondence but after a while there was just nothing left to say. I know he ended up being the chairman of the department at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ll tell you what’s interesting… he led some sort of protest against Apartheid South Africa’s participation in the Olympics. I never knew about that until years later. He was such a modest man. I didn’t really understand what he had been through in South Africa and what a courageous personality he was until later when I read about him. When I was a college student it never even occurred to me to dig into the background of a professor. I just thought – hey, here’s this great professor who I kind of know is a civil rights pioneer in South Africa but the full extent of what he accomplished didn’t occur to me until years later and made me want to call him and touch base. But it never happened and he’s gone now, so it’s never gonna. (Note: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Brutus)
Neely: You answered most of my next question because it was about mentors and supporters. What other mentors have you had along the way?
Dusty: Everything I really know about writing a funny scene I learned from Del Close. When I was at Northwestern I spent almost two years at the Second City workshop. My college buddy, Bill Nuss, and I had been doing standup comedy in our spare time and a woman named Joyce Sloan, who was the associate producer of Second City came to us and said we ought to come down to the workshop. So we took her up on it and Del Close was the artistic director of Second City and one of the pioneers of improvisation. The man was an absolute genius and I learned more from him in terms of putting together a funny scene than anyone else. He always said “Don’t judge me now. Five years from now, after you’ve been writing for five years, you’re going to know whether I did a good job or not.” And I’ll be damned if five years later, I’m sittin’ there writing a scene and I thought of him and realized “Holy Smoke! He was right! It’s been five years.” He was just incredible. The man had problems, everyone who knew him knows that, but it never took away from what he was able to accomplish on a stage. There were times he was really out of it and he’s sitting in the back of the theater and me and someone else would be up there doing our little scene and it wouldn’t be going particularly well. And from the back we would hear this voice and he’d be trying to explain to us what we were doing wrong. He wasn’t particularly coherent and he wasn’t particularly articulate and then he said, “Dammit!” He came up and simply did it. He couldn’t talk about it; he just did it. And he had everybody on the floor. It was just so effortless for him. He was just incredible.
Neely: How did you land your first writing gig?
Dusty: Bill Nuss and I came out here with the intention of breaking in as a comedy writing team. And of course, there’s no rule book for how to do that. So, we decided that we were going to go to as many comedy tapings as possible and sneak backstage and try to find somebody who looked important and give him a packet of our sample material. Most of the time we’d get thrown out; some of the time, someone would smile, like they appreciated the effort. This went on for a few months and nothing happened. This is absolutely true. There came a Sunday where I was finally officially broke and I had taken a job as an assistant circulation manager for the Los Angeles Times. I was supposed to report there Monday morning at 2:00 a.m. and I was looking forward to this as much as a root canal. I was just lying there in bed, just miserable, three hours away from having to put on my shoes and go do it. Sunday night, 10:00, I get a phone call from Bill. He says, “You’re never going to guess what just happened.” “What?” He says, “I just got a call from a guy named Alan Thicke. Alan Thicke is one of the guys we gave our packet to months ago. He’s starting a Canadian variety show and we start on it tomorrow!” It was absolutely amazing! We wrote on that show for about two-three months, it was a short order. We worked at his house on Mulholland. He was a very very nice man, very supportive. Of course it was before “Growing Pains,” so we really didn’t know who he was; he was just very nice. We wrote sketches up at his house. Here’s the funny thing. It was a Canadian variety show starring a guy who was described as the Canadian Donnie Osmond, so you know he performed the comedy great. (Neely laughs) We never saw any episodes. So the first writing job we ever had, we never saw it. In fact, to add insult to injury, the review in Variety misspelled Bill’s name and left me out it entirely.
Neely: Well, what came from that?
Dusty: Bill and I went our separate ways for a while. I started doing pilots and producing the occasional show. Bill first went to work at NBC as a development executive and then he ran a bunch of shows at Cannell, including “21 Jump Street,” and we’re working together again, but I’ll save that for later.
Neely: I ask everyone this question, but what do you read for pleasure? For inspiration?
Dusty: The Sporting News
Neely: Really? That’s the sum total of what you read?
Dusty: That’s it. I remember when I was younger I was about a third of the way through “Mansfield Park” and I swore to myself that if I ever got through it, I’d never read another book.
Neely: I take it you got through it.
Neely: So you never read another book.
Dusty: Nah, I’m kidding. There’s nobody currently that I find particularly compelling. It all seems to be about lawyers, spies or women finding themselves. None of that appeals to me. If something doesn’t have humor in it, I’m not really interested. And there aren’t a lot of good comedy writers writing fiction these days. You know, it’s funny. I just read this book that someone recommended to me called Playing for Pizza by John Grisham. It was very disappointing.
Neely: If you haven’t read The Dreyfus Affair” by Peter Lefcourt, you should. In its own convoluted, hilarious way, it’s about baseball. I remember that as a kid my reading habits used to drive my parents crazy. I was in love with comedy and especially the short books that Alan King wrote, like Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery. I was in a few comedy reading contests using his material (I didn’t win… ever).
Dusty: Alan King, the comedian?
Dusty: I have an Alan King story if you’re interested.
Neely: I’d love to hear an Alan King story. He’s gone now, but I adored Alan King and thought he was a very under used and under appreciated dramatic actor.
Dusty: I thought he was great. He really was a good dramatic actor. But he was also an executive producer of television and his company was coming after me hard to do a sitcom pilot. It was their idea, an okay idea, but I was going back and forth with them. So I’m visiting my then agent at William Morris and I’m standing outside the William Morris office when all of a sudden I hear a car screech to a halt behind me. I turned around and it was a giant limousine; out steps Alan King and the guy I had been meeting with at his office. Alan King points to me and turns to his guy, “This is the guy??” And the guy says “Yeah.” So King comes over to me and we start talking. We’re kidding around for a few seconds while he’s trying to get me to come do the thing, but after about two minutes he starts talking about his flight out to LA. He’s absolutely hilarious and he goes on for about 8 minutes and we’re falling down on the sidewalk. The next night he’s on “The Tonight Show” and I realized that he was using us as his out of town run. It was that exact act that he did on “The Tonight Show” the next night.
Neely: And you didn’t go and do his show, right?
Dusty: Nah. I didn’t do it. I had a lot of options.
Neely: What have you been watching on television? Are you a network or cable guy?
Dusty: Not much. I’m sorry “24” is gone; I enjoyed it. I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I love “30 Rock,” “The Office.” What am I forgetting? I like Penn and Teller’s show a great deal. Boy it’s sad, isn’t it. That’s about it.
Neely: Well, it’s not bad. It’s almost all comedy. There’s actually some good comedy on now. I particularly like “Modern Family.”
Dusty: I’ve heard that’s good. I just haven’t sampled it. I’ve got the major league baseball package.
Neely: Well your time is taken up. And of course football is now starting.
Dusty: Can’t wait.
Neely: As far as I can tell, your last steady gig was a few years ago on “Entourage.” What have you been doing since then?
Dusty: Ah! Getting back to Bill Nuss. About a year and a half ago, maybe even a little longer, Bill calls me up and tells me that Les Moonves has agreed to grant him the rights to do the Broadway musical version of “The Honeymooners.”
Neely: (laughs) I didn’t know there was one.
Dusty: There isn’t one yet. We have finished co-writing the script, the book – I have to get my Broadway lingo straight. We co-wrote the book which has gotten terrific reaction and we’re about half way to bringing this thing to Broadway. We’re also serving as producers, though other producers with Broadway backgrounds will be joining us as we go. Out of town theaters are circling for the out of town run; top directors, actors…
Neely: Who’s your composer?
Dusty: Steven Wiener and Pete Mills. They are absolutely fabulous. They’re both ASCAP winners and Richard Rodgers Award winners. They are just incredible. We’re really rounding the clubhouse turn in terms of the score. We’ve got about two songs to go and so far we’re in love. When people hear this thing, I mean we just have all the hope in the world. We think we have a hilarious book and a great score. Investors are lining up and it just looks really good.
Neely: Where are you going to workshop it?
Dusty: It’s a conversation we’re having, in fact, next week – where in New York to workshop it. That would precede the out of town run which could be in any number of cities: San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco, even Seattle.
Neely: I would really love to see this. Any possibility you could send me your script?
Dusty: Absolutely. Anybody who wants to read this thing, I send it to them because I just love getting the reaction.
Neely: I live and die for theater.
Dusty: It’s funny. I always loved the theater and having this opportunity to finally go back to New York and work on Broadway is just a real thrill. It’s been a lot of fun working with Bill again. We stayed close friends over all the years and we’re just having the time of our lives.
Neely: What a wonderful cap to a wonderful career.
Dusty: I hope it’s not the cap!
Neely: Good point. Well it’s an amazing cherry on the cake.
Dusty: I agree. It came so out of left field.
Neely: Why do you think Moonves singled you guys out?
Dusty: We’ve known him for a long time. I’ve written pilots for him; Bill has too. We used to socialize occasionally; play in the same poker game. I mean there’s a lot of value in making people laugh; they remember who makes them laugh. I think Les always knew we were a couple of funny guys. And he obviously knew how we felt about “The Honeymooners” franchise. It’s our favorite all time show. I think he felt comfortable. From what we’ve heard, a lot of different people have approached CBS over the years to try and get the rights to the show and have been turned away. I think Les felt comfortable giving it to us and we’re very grateful. He needed to find someone he trusted because CBS is a royalty and profit participant in the musical.
Neely: I think he made the right decision. I really love your writing and I hope to see more. There’s not enough laughter in the world, and you made me laugh.
Neely: Dusty, please thank Bill for sending me the script to “The Honeymooners.” I laughed until I cried. You guys really nailed Ralph and Norton and found the perfect “fish-out-of-water” plot to highlight both their strengths and incredible weaknesses. I love that this is a rock solid old school musical with songs and story and characters and plot. It’s about the American Dream featuring characters we grew up loving. I hope you’ll keep sharing it with me as it makes its way to Broadway, because I have no doubt that that’s where it will end up. I just hope that there will be tap dancing (I love tap dancing). Keep us all posted.