(Jean Shepherd Is a humorist and author who wrote, and appears in, "The Great American Fourth of July And Other Disasters,'' a one-hour comedy teleplay which will air on "American Playhouse" Tuesday on Channels 20 and 30.)
Have you ever wondered when a guy is writing a comedy if he laughs while writing it? - Well, naturally, I can speak only for myself in this curious department of human endeavor, but there are times when I'm hard at work writing away when suddenly I'm so convulsed by the sheer brass audacity of my humor that I have had to pause in my work for a moment of calm, or maybe a cold shower.
Take, for example, when I was putting together the scene in "The Great American Fourth of July And Other Disasters" where the enigmatic, star-crossed Ludlow Kissel sets off his mysterious black bomb which unleashes a maniacal projectile that screams around the neighborhood and finally homes in on its target. Well, halfway through, I got the giggles so much that they quickly turned into hiccups, which I hate.
THE NEXT thing I knew, I was in the kitchen gulping nine swallows of water without breathing, sucking half a lemon, with six drops of aromatic bitters (an old bartender's trick learned at the knee of a Pennsylvania Avenue bartender who claimed be once cleared Calvin Coolidge of a bad case), all to no avail. That Is, until my wife, Leigh, suddenly yelled in from the next room, "The
IRS is on the phone. They have a few questions." I lurched heavily against the sink in a paroxysm of fear and the hiccups were gone.
Suffice it to say, yes, I do quite often laugh out loud when I'm in the throes of composition. Finally, when shooting begins and you see what a real pro like Jimmy Broderick can do with your lines and a slow, exasperated Irish take, I wonder why writers bother to write anything other than comedy, ever.
In fact, one day my little film family: the old man (Jimmy Broderick), young Ralph (Matt Dillon) and Mom (Barbara Bolton) were playing out a scene in the kitchen, discussing washrags, when the sound man started laughing so hard that he had to be sent out of the building to cool off. A couple of minutes later, we began the scene again and this time, not only the sound man, but the costume lady got to laughing so hard that another take was spoiled. It took us the rest of the day to get a second scene on film.
NATURALLY, putting together a complex film is not all fun and games. It can get pretty bitter in the trenches, with egos exploding and conflicting concepts crashin against one another. You get the feeling that you're in the main cage in the center ring of the Ringling Brothers' big top with a bullwhip in one hand, and a chair in the other, keeping the battlers apart.
But those moments are rare, thank God, and I suppose inevitable, given the natures of artistic egos and all.
On a personal note, I must say I'm very grateful to PBS and the "American Playhouse" series for giving me an opportunity to try out some experimental ideas in comedy and for their great encouragement and hands-off policy all through the process of creating "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters." I hope a few in the audience find themselves with a case
of hiccups during the show.
But all kidding aside, from beginning to end this has been a great and warming experience, especially the moment when the toaster blew up and . . .