Saturday, September 29, 2012

Confessions of a Sitcom Killer

For the past thirteen years, I have been leading a double life: by day, a mild-mannered researcher/editor/business writer; by night (and the occasional weekend), a cold-blooded killer—

a killer of sitcom characters.

It began in 1999. For the past couple of years, I had been performing in mystery dinner theater productions with a group of friends in Simi Valley, California. At the time, we had two scripts in our repertory, both of which followed the same simple formula: a couple of murders (with as many gunshots as possible), a liberal dose of comedy sprinkled with a few clues, a little audience participation, and a prize to the audience member who came closest to solving the mystery.

"I bet I could write one of these," I thought.

So I did.

My first mystery script began with a simple idea: what if none of the characters on Gilligan's Island were what they appeared to be? I threw in elements of The Love Boat, Speed, and Titanic, and set it on the Skipper's brand new (and much larger) ship, the Millennium Minnow.

The Last Cruise of the S.S. Minnow premiered in the spring of 2000. I was afraid some of the younger audience members wouldn't get the references. However, thanks to cable channels like Nickelodeon and TV Land, the sitcom characters of my childhood had become immortal—at least until I murdered them. In The Last Cruise of the S.S. Minnow, I killed off nearly half of the castaways.

And yet my thirst for the blood of innocent victims remained unslaked.

In the years to come, I would go on to gleefully slaughter beloved characters from The Addams Family, The Golden Girls, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and The Beverly Hillbillies. Why? Because it was fun, and because I could. Want to know why I could? Two words—


That's right, the law couldn't touch me—or so I thought.

Friends helped me market my scripts, and soon theatrical troupes around the country were performing them. I began to make money from the royalties—not enough to even think about giving up my day job, but at least I could say, "I'm a professional writer." I, along with several of my fellow sitcom killers, was even mentioned in an article in the Wall Street Journal. People began to sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately, some of the people who began to sit up and take notice were people who held copyrights to the characters I was killing.

Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that the copyright holders I'm referring to were not the people who created these characters. I could understand the creator of one of my victims being upset over the demise of a favorite character. However, the creators of these particular characters were, themselves, quite dead. (And before you jump to conclusions, I had nothing to do with their deaths; ironically, they died of natural causes.)

So these particular copyright holders had no particular sentimental attachment to my victims. What they did have was lots of money, which meant that they could afford lots of lawyers. How many lawyers could I afford? Exactly none.

So I gave up killing sitcom characters. Oh, I still write the occasional murder mystery script, but I make sure all of my victims are either my own creations or safely in the public domain. Somehow, it doesn't compare with the satisfaction of murdering an innocent sitcom character—for instance, a character like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

Now, there's a guy who's just begging to be a victim.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Helpful Hints

I'm a big fan of Heloise. I read her column every day in the Ventura County Star. However, I don't always agree with her household hints. In fact, I have come up with quite a few solutions to everyday problems that, in my humble opinion, beat the pants off hers. I have submitted several of them to her, but for some reason, she hasn't printed them. Here they are. Feel free to use them and pass them on.

1. Removing Permanent Marker From Clothing

How many times has this happened to you? You're busily writing something with a permanent marker—your name on a tool you borrowed from a neighbor, the address on a box of rattlesnakes you're sending to your boss, a mustache on a priceless portrait in the Louvre. Suddenly, you're distracted—by an irate neighbor, an escaped rattlesnake, or a French museum guard—and you're writing on your own shirt instead of the object you wished to write on! With permanent marker! Your shirt is ruined, right? Not necessarily. Here's what Heloise says to do:

Put a couple of white paper towels under the stain. Then, using a clear, nonfragranced, acetone-free nail-polish remover on another paper towel, begin to gently dab the stained area. Check the paper towels frequently to see if the color transfers onto the towels. Do not rub or use too much of the remover, because it might spread the stain. When you have removed as much as possible, put laundry detergent on the spot, gently rub it in and then launder. Let air-dry, and retreat if necessary.

Seems like a lot of work, doesn't it? Here's my suggestion: use the permanent marker to turn that ugly stain into a lovely design. Completely cover your shirt with polka dots, squiggly lines, farm animals—whatever. Let your imagination run wild. Your friends will be envious. "Where can I get a shirt like that?" they'll ask. "I'm afraid it's one of a kind," you will answer, truthfully.

"Very stylish!" they will say.

2. Removing Candle Wax From Carpet

This seems to be a common problem. Here's how Heloise suggests you handle it:

Fill a metal pan with ice and place it on top of the candle wax until it's completely frozen. Use a small hammer to break up the hardened wax. Pick up or vacuum the pieces. Then apply a dry-cleaning solvent on a clean cloth to get rid of any residue left on the carpet.

My solution is much simpler: just cover the spot with a footstool. Of course, if it's in the middle of the room, someone will probably trip over it. "Why the #@$% would anyone put a #@$%*&! footstool in the middle of the #@$%*&! room?" they will say.

If this happens, just smile and say, "Didn't you know? Everyone is putting footstools in the middles of rooms these days. It's the latest thing."

"Very stylish!" they will say.

3. Removing Chewing Gum From Hair

Personally, I have never had this problem. I don't chew gum, and I left most of my hair in the last century. Even when I had hair and did chew gum, I never got gum in my hair. However, judging by the number of times Heloise has addressed the issue over the years, an awful lot of people do have this problem. (How does this happen, anyway? Do they take the gum out of their mouths, decide to put it back in, and suddenly forget where their mouths are? Or does the gum come from someone else's mouth? I don't even want to think about it.)

Anyway, Heloise suggests you "use peanut butter (smooth, not crunchy) and work through the hair." Even if it isn't crunchy peanut butter, this makes no sense to me. Now you've got chewing gum and peanut butter in your hair. I'm not sure which is worse.

My suggestion is to simply put on a hat, leave it on your head until your next visit to the barber or hair stylist, and let them deal with it. They are trained for this sort of thing. With a hat on, no one will ever suspect that you have a big wad of gum in your hair. Also, hats are very stylish.

If you often get chewing gum stuck in your hair, you might want to consider wearing a hat whenever you chew gum. Of course, you will probably end up with chewing gum stuck to your hat. But if that happens, you can just tell people, "It's the latest thing."

"Very stylish!" they will say.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Good Villain Is Hard to Find

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

—Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Richard the Third

This week I read in a BBC news story that British archaeologists believe they may have found the remains of King Richard III. They're pretty excited about it. A member of the Richard III Society was quoted as saying, "It is such a tumult of emotions... I just feel happy and sad and excited all at the same time. It is very odd." Odd indeed. First of all, I had no idea Richard III was missing. It seems pretty careless of the English to misplace one of their kings like that. Second—

There's a Richard III Society?

I looked it up. It was founded in 1924 with the goal of setting the record straight about one of England's most misunderstood monarchs. Apparently there is no evidence whatsoever that he was the hunchbacked villain portrayed by Shakespeare, no evidence whatsoever that he systematically murdered members of his own family to get at the crown. Apparently he was just a regular guy (well, regular king) with a touch of scoliosis who was the innocent victim of a vicious slander campaign.

This is so wrong.

The world needs good villains. What good is a hero without one? What would Superman be without Lex Luthor? What would Dorothy be without the Wicked Witch? What would Luke Skywalker be without Darth Vader? (I mean, of course, apart from the obvious fact that he'd never have been born.) What would all of those Disney princesses be without their respective wicked stepmothers?

The answer, of course, is "nothing."

Come to think of it, who needs a hero? There's no hero in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Richard the Third. There is only Richard—one of the greatest villains of all time.

Every actor worth his salt wants to play Richard. Or her salt. In 2003, Loretta and I were fortunate enough to attend a historic all-female production of Richard III at Shakespeare's Globe in London. Kathryn Hunter was simply brilliant as Richard. As one reviewer put it, "Miss Hunter makes a superbly evil King with a wry sense of humour and her gender is never an issue."

That's what's made Richard so appealing to actors and audiences for nearly four hundred years—that perfect combination of superb evil and sly humor.

So please, please, please stop trying to rehabilitate my favorite villain. I'd hate to see him relegated to the status of an ordinary king. I'd much prefer to remember him as Shakespeare's "poisonous bunchback'd toad," with a sense of morality—and humor—as twisted as his spine.

What's more, I think he would prefer it, too.

"A murderous villain, and so still thou art."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Good Weekend

Last weekend should have been a great weekend. After all, it was Labor Day weekend—a three-day weekend, and you can never have too many of those. Add to that the fact that we were visiting our friends, Ron and Judie Kewish, in Arroyo Grande. We always have a wonderful time when we visit Ron and Judie, and there's the bonus of getting to spend some time on California's beautiful central coast. Finally, we got to see another of Ron and Judie's always-excellent mystery dinner theater productions.
So why wasn't it a great weekend?

I first met Ron and Judie Kewish in 1996, when the three of us began performing mystery dinner theater with John and Roxanne Diesel in Simi Valley, California. John and Roxanne were old hands at this form of theater, but it was a new experience for us. No stage, no proscenium, and—except for entrances and exits—no blocking. Just a dining room where actors roamed freely among the tables, delivering lines during scripted scenes and improvising with the audience in character during scene breaks. We started out performing a couple of scripts from Samuel French, but once we understood the formula, Roxanne and I began writing scripts ourselves.

Shortly after Ron and Judie moved to the central coast, they started their own mystery dinner theater company: Murder In Mind Productions. They began by performing the scripts we had done together in Simi Valley, and when they needed more, they asked me to write new scripts for them. Eventually, they made a name for themselves, attracting audiences from all over the central coast and as far away as Bakersfield. This year marked their tenth season.

Mark Brunasso's first performance with MIM was in 2006. He played Joey Jitters, an over-caffeinated member of the Al Cappuccino gang in a parody of the Sopranos. It wasn't a large role, but Mark made the most of it, and he quickly became an invaluable member of the MIM troupe. What made Mark invaluable was his versatility: as the victim, he could get more laughs than anyone from a death scene; as the killer, he could fool everyone with his cherubic expression; as the detective, he could handle even the rowdiest audience with ease.

My favorite of Mark's roles was Tiny Tim in Dickens of a Murder. I loved the way he would rhapsodize over "turkey, with stuffing, potatoes, and gr-a-a-a-vy!" Earlier this year, in SLO Legal, he channeled William Shatner in an unforgettable rendition of Sinatra's It Was a Very Good Year. And in MIM's latest production, Pirates of Pirates' Cove, we were looking forward to seeing him reprise the role of Ben Gay, a part he also played in the 2008 and 2010 productions of the show.

The dismal state of the economy these past few years has made life difficult for many of us. The economy has been especially hard on MIM. Each year, more and performances have had to be canceled due to lack of attendance. Finally, this summer, Ron and Judie made the difficult decision to close MIM. Although they will consider reopening if and when the economy improves, last Sunday's performance of Pirates of Pirates' Cove was, in all probability, Murder In Mind's final public performance.

Unfortunately, Mark Brunasso could not be there. Three weeks ago, he died of heart failure.

So it wasn't a great weekend, but it was a good weekend. We had a nice visit with Ron and Judie, went for a long walk on the beach, and enjoyed the show. Jeff Lee, another MIM stalwart, stepped into Mark's role with only one rehearsal. His portrayal of Ben Gay would have made Mark proud.

After the show, we all—Ron, Judie, members of the MIM troupe, Loretta, and I—raised a parting glass—

to Murder In Mind,
which may return,

and to Mark Brunasso,
who will be remembered.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mad About Science

This week, I'm going to talk to you about science. Now I know what you're thinking: "Are you kidding? This is an election year. The Republican National Convention just ended. The Democratic National Convention is next week. Why on earth aren't you discussing politics?" I have two very good reasons. First, in my opinion, science is a much more interesting topic than politics. Second, it's definitely a safer topic. These days, if you take a position on anything even remotely political, you can be sure that at least half the country will jump down your throat. Besides, I'm pretty sure that there are at least twice as many blogs about politics as there are people who read them.

So let's talk about science.

Science has accomplished some pretty amazing things. Only a month ago, it gently and precisely landed a vehicle the size of a minivan on the surface of Mars. But, as amazing as that is, it's still only rocket science. And rocket science, when you get right down to it, is just everyday, humdrum, run-of-the-mill science. And I'm not talking about everyday, humdrum, run-of-the-mill science.

I'm talking about mad science.

When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me an old microscope that had belonged to my father. I used to love looking at stuff through that microscope: bugs, leaves, pond water. It wasn't a very good microscope. In fact, the only thing I could ever see was the reflection of my own eye in the lens. But that didn't matter. When I looked through that microscope, I imagined myself to be a scientist—and no everyday, humdrum, run-of-the-mill scientist, either.

A mad scientist.

I never saw myself as Dr. Frankenstein. Even in my imagination, I never had the hubris to believe that I could create life. I would have been perfectly happy to be one of those minor mad scientists who accidentally grows a giant lizard in his laboratory. Then, when the citizenry came to me for help because "Stompy" was devouring the city, I would tell them why he was so big (radiation), and how to stop him (flamethrowers, a large dose of electricity, and lots of explosives).

I have tried to ignore all of the political brouhaha this week. Instead, I have been reliving the happy, mad scientist dreams of my childhood, while catching up on episodes of Dark Matters. A friend recently turned me on to this trippy, Ripleyesque program on the Science Channel, and now I'm hooked. In each episode, John Noble (who brilliantly portrays one of the greatest mad scientists of all time on Fringe) presents three "Twisted But True" reenactments of real-life mads gleefully going about the business of building death rays, transplanting monkey brains, reanimating corpses, and otherwise "tampering in God's domain" (as Ed Wood so eloquently put it).

If, like me, you're tired of politics, check out Dark Matters. It's more entertaining and more educational than any political speech—not to mention more factual.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must get back to my laboratory. "Stompy" is getting hungry.