Jeff Pearlman

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Austin Winsberg

#160
Where does life go after you've been canned from Punky Brewster? For this TV scribe and playwright, the answer is ... Hollywood and Broadway. POSTED June 25, 2014

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I love interviewing writers from different mediums.

From my end, it feels like a country artist comparing notes with a rapper; or Julia Roberts trading acting thoughts with, oh, Sylvester Stallone. There are so many processes that go along with the profession, and they cross over traditional creative barriers. Where do you write? How do you write? Where do the ideas come from?

Hence, today’s Quaz.

Austin Winsberg is a scribe, just like I’m a scribe—and the similarities end there. He has written for Gossip Girl and Still Standing, and was the creative mind behind  Jake in Progress, the TV series starring John Stamos. His biggest hit, to date, comes on Broadway, as the playwright of the runaway hit, First Date: The Musical.

Here, Austin explains how Punky Brewster and a lack of interest in snorting coke changed his life, and what it feels like to have a play—your play!—open up on Broadway. He talks actor egos and Carrie Underwood and, of course, Celine Dion.

Austin Winsberg, welcome to The Quaz: The Non-Musical …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Austin, so you’re responsible for “Blind Date: The Musical,” which opened on Broadway on Aug. 8, 2013. But I’m a tad confused—to quote a bunch of places, “The show evolved from a book by Austin Winsberg.” So, eh, how the heck did this happen?

AUSTIN WINSBERG: Well, first of all, the show is called “First Date.” Blind Date was that awesome Bruce Willis/Kim Basinger movie from the 80s. So, already, this interview is going swimmingly. [JEFF’S NOTE: This is a pretty embarrassing screw-up. I guess I could have edited out. But screw-ups happen]  Now, in regards to “the book.” The book in a musical is actually what they call everything that is not a song. So, in other words, the script. Or the characters and dialogue. It’s not a book like something you would buy on kindle or used to exist in something I believe was once called a book store. It’s just all the words between songs. To clarify, my writing partners on the project—Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary—and I, all sat down over several months and came up with the whole structure and idea behind the show. (The show is about a couple on a first date at a restaurant. And as they are trying to get to know each other, all of their past baggage and skeletons in the closet come to life on stage around them …) We came up with the basic framework, and funny song ideas, and who the characters were, etc. Then, I went off and wrote all the dialogue and scene description stuff and they wrote the songs. Sometimes I would write dialogue that would turn into lyrics. Or sometimes song notions would end up becoming dialogue. It was a very collaborative process between the three of us …

J.P.: So it’s Aug. 8, 2013, and your show is opening on Broadway. No, YOUR SHOW IS OPENING ON BROADWAY!!! What did that feel like? Emotions? Nerves? Were you petrified by fear? Overcome with pride? What?

A.W.: I think at that moment I mostly felt exhausted. It was all pretty surreal. We had an intense rehearsal process and then about a month of previews before the show had opened, so we had seen it with an audience about thirty times before opening. We also had done a three-month “out-of-town try-out” in Seattle. So, we were used to people seeing the show. But we were also in this intense pressure cooker of a work environment, and once you’re in that bubble, you kind of forget the enormity of it all. Which was probably good for me. Because if I stood there through rehearsals thinking, “Holy shit—we are about to open on Broadway,” I would have been paralyzed with fear and wouldn’t have been able to rewrite jokes every night during previews. As for pride—I’m a neurotic Jew who is very hard on himself and I always think I could and should be doing better. So, pride is not an emotion I normally feel. That being said, I tried very hard at a few points during the process to take a step back and enjoy the moment. Because if you don’t enjoy it—what’s the point of doing it in the first place? I remember the first time I saw the show up on the marquee—that was a good moment. The first time I heard the audience laugh at a joke I struggled for weeks to get right—that was also another good moment. Opening night, I remember sweating. And feeling very hot. And also a little emotional. I may have cried a little. Don’t judge me …

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J.P.: I know you’re from L.A., I know you attended Brown, I know you have a wife and two kids. But what’s your life path? How did you get from the womb to here? And when did you know writing was your thing?

A.W.: Wow. That’s a very long and intense question … Not sure I can give you all that info in the time allotted … But let me see if I can give you the Cliff’s Notes version. (BTW—do Cliff’s notes still exist? Or did I just age myself? And why were they called Cliff’s notes? Who the hell was Cliff other than the definitive slacker? Note to self—maybe there’s a TV show idea about this “Cliff” and all his notes. Like a comedic, period piece, origin story … How one slacker came to help an entire generation NOT read the classics … Sorry, where was I?) Okay, I grew up thinking I wanted to be an actor. My parents weren’t in the business, but I always loved being the center of attention. So, at a very early age, I convinced my mother to get me an agent. And I started auditioning for commercials and TV shows when I was about seven years old. My biggest claim to fame during this part of my life was being fired from Punky Brewster. They accused me of being “disruptive on set.” This may have had to do with the fact that I was madly in love with Punky. And that I told the director where to put the camera. Did I mention I was ten? And I still think the angle I suggested was better than what she was planning.

I started reading Variety when I was twelve. And I could you tell about every single movie that was in production or what show was on what channel at any time of the day … (I was basically a walking IMDB before IMDB. Why did I need all this information? I have no idea. I think it was like other kids memorizing baseball stats or something. Only I wasn’t good at baseball. I had depth-perception problems. Which made catching fly balls very embarrassing for me. And for everyone around me…) Either way—I was just endlessly fascinated by the business. All aspects of it …

When I was 14, I went to a very famous theater camp in the Catskills called Stagedoor Manor. My best friend there was already a “playwright” and he was winning all these young playwriting contests around the country. (Yes, this is really a thing …) I always liked making people laugh and writing sort of seemed like a natural extension of that. So, while I was still trying to get the leads in school plays and the occasional bit part in shows like The Wonder Years (never happened), I also started writing some plays on the side. Mostly to compete with my camp friend and show him I was cool, too. ‘Cause nothing says “cool kid” more then “young playwright’s festival winner.” That being said, I won the Los Angeles Blank Theater Company Annual Young Playwright’s Festival five times before I was 19. And writing just became a part of what I did, while still pursuing other things.

After college, I worked at New Line Cinema for a year, thinking that I wanted to be a studio executive. But it didn’t feel creative enough for me. (That and I wasn’t comfortable around all that blow. Am I allowed to say that on here? I’m not saying where the blow came from, or that it had anything to do with the New Line organization. I’m just saying, I may have seen some blow that year. And I may not have partaked. And I may have been judged for it by those who will not be named …) So, I left New Line and decided to be a writer. (It was, after all, the one area where I had gotten the most validation up to this point. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but when you’re not getting parts in even your school plays, maybe you shouldn’t then decide to make an entire career out of being an actor. Thus, writing became my full-time job …)

I convinced that camp friend to move to Los Angeles from New York. We started writing together and got staffed on our first TV show when we were 23. We wrote on two shows together. And I left the second one when I created and executive produced a show that was on ABC for two seasons called “Jake in Progress,” starring John Stamos. I have lots of stories from that time. But since you did not ask me about that, I will move on … Having a show on the air opened the door to lots of opportunities. And by opportunities, I mean writing lots of pilots and movies that have not gotten made. That has been a big part of my career—getting massively humbled while selling and writing projects that never make it off an executive’s desk … (While also taking gigs on the occasional show like “Gossip Girl.”) Which actually brings us back to First Date … Feeling frustrated with the whole TV development process, I thought maybe it was time to go back to my theater roots. And that’s really where writing a stage musical came from. Just the desire to have fun with some friends and try writing something different than another pilot that gets passed on by a network so they can pick-up someone else’s show that gets canceled after two episodes. And I actually think there’s some sort of lesson here. When you stop writing for “them,” and instead start writing for “you,” who knows what will happen? Best case scenario—I imagined First Date would play for a few weeks in some little theater in Hollywood. And yet, somehow it ended up on Broadway …

J.P.: I’m gonna throw a weird one at you: Of all the writers, producers and directors I’ve met in New York and Los Angeles, a solid, oh, 70 percent of them have been Jewish. And yet, we make up about 3 percent of the country’s total population. How do you explain this? Do I just have a Jew magnet? Do we own the media? Somewhere in between?

A.W.: I certainly don’t think I can speak for all Jews. But I do imagine the majority of us have this “need to please” gene. And, like I mentioned before—“nothing’s ever good enough” syndrome. Maybe this comes from growing up in homes with challenging or critical parents. But I think we all desperately want to be loved. And get validated. And there’s no greater validation than being loved on the world stage. Or by having millions of people seeing your work and responding to your material. I also think we are gluttons for punishment. So some combo of wanting to be loved and needing to be persecuted at all times has driven most of us into this profession. It’s not healthy. And yes, I am in therapy. But at least I’m aware of this sickness. If the day comes when I can get most of my self-worth and happiness from something other than fleeting validation from the powers-that-be, we should throw a big party. (That I’m sure I will be judging while it’s happening. “This is really the whole party? Do I even deserve this? I don’t care if there’s three hundred people here all celebrating me. How the hell did that one person not show up?! I’m going inside. I have a stomach-ache. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten gluten.”)

J.P.: You were a writer on The Sound of Music Live!—the recent recreation of one of the all-time classic plays/movies. What was this experience like? How ambitious was the idea? What did you think of the ultimate product? And how many times did you think, “Fuck—Carrie Underwood ain’t no Julie Andrews …”

A.W.: I think the idea was hugely ambitious. A live TV musical? For three hours? And are you really asking me what I thought of the final product? Here’s what I think—there are lots of challenges with having to do something live. You have to do a general lighting scheme, so everything seems super brightly lit. You have to shoot it on video so it can be broadcast to the world live. Forget about any other aspects of the show—and already—it looks like a Spanish telenovela. So, the first thing you have to overcome is just the simple visual style. And for some people that’s a hard thing to look past. Especially in HD. But there was great care taken in the creation of all aspects of the show. And I think they mounted a production that was true to the intent of the original stage piece.

As for Carrie Underwood, I think she got very unfairly maligned. Seriously. For her first acting role—to take on a three-hour live show? I thought it was incredibly brave of her. And I think people were super critical of her without praising the sheer boldness and risk-taking involved. I think “Sound of Music” is a classic. And I think it was an admirable experiment. Anything that brings theater to the masses has to be applauded. At least in my opinion. Plus, the good news (at least I take it as good news), is that since the show got so many viewers—there’s going to be even more of them. (They’ve already announced live “Peter Pan” and “Grease” musical events …) So, whether people are watching because they love the musicals or because they treat it like some sort of guilty pleasure or potential train wreck—there are still eyeballs coming to something that is quintessentially theater. And I think that’s awesome. So, to be a small part of the project that started this trend is something I am extremely proud of.

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J.P.: According to your IMDB page, you have one acting credit, as “KPQU Joe” in “The Ugly Truth”—the Katherine Heigl-Gerard Butler non-classic from 2009. There has to be a story here. Please explain …

A.W.: Well, I used to work out at a gym next to a guy who was a producer on the movie. One day he told me there were lots of parts in the film for people like “writers and agents and stuff like that.” I think what he was trying to say, was, “You know, Jews like you…” He asked me if I wanted to audition. I thought it would be fun since I hadn’t done it in so many years. I went in and read some lines with the casting director. And sure enough, I got a call two months later saying I had a part. I didn’t know who KPQU Joe was, but I was really excited. Just like I was back at Stagedoor Manor. I remember the script arriving at my house, and me going through every single page looking for KPQU Joe. This was finally the big acting break I had wanted so many years earlier.

Finally, I get to page 96, and the first time KPQU Joe shows himself. And this was the description—I’m not even kidding. “In walks JOE, a balding nebbish.” This is what I had waited all those years for?! To play the balding nebbish?! This is how the universe or at least the casting Gods saw me? Apparently so … Needless to say, I did not let that deter me. And I spent three days on set reminding myself why I gave up acting in the first place. (Did I mention I’m a pretty terrible actor?)

J.P.: Why do you think we care so much about actors? Being serious, Austin. A fireman can walk by and we pay him no mind. A teacher, a police officer, an EMS worker—meh. But show me a man or woman who pretends to be someone else on a screen or stage, well, break out the confetti! Why?

A.W.: I think actors reveal the universal truths and the deep-seeded emotions that most of us are too afraid to feel or let out in public. By standing out as individuals, they are speaking for all of us. Oh, who am I kidding?! Actors are pretty people, damnit! And everyone likes looking at and being around pretty people. Plus, most of them are way more charming and funny than the rest of us. Until you spend actual time with them. And then you realize that they are bottomless wells of need and insecurity who will suck you dry with endless conversations about themselves. And their latest headshots. And whether or not they should switch agents. Or go on that yoga retreat they’ve been thinking about. Or… (Honestly, I’m exhausted even writing about this question. And I am friends with some actors. They’re not all emotional vampires…)

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

A.W.: I think these moments are actually both the same. I found myself in the audience several years back at the rehearsal for a live episode of American Idol. The people I was there with were friends with one of the producers. He came over to us while we were watching the contestants perform their songs (sans judges), and asked if any of us had any funny quips or critiques that Paula Abdul could use while she was talking about any of the performances on the live show. I came up with some snappy barb in the moment and then forgot about it. I went home that night, turned on the TV, and sure enough, Paula Abdul said my joke while she was talking to one of the contestants! Watching Paula Abdul say my line on American Idol in front of 20 million people may have been the greatest moment of my career. In retrospect, the fact that I got that excited about Paula Abdul saying my one corny line on American Idol also has to qualify as one of the lowest.

J.P.: You were a consulting producer for many episodes of Gossip Girl. I’ve watched a bunch of TV shows being filmed and I’ve often thought the same thing—yaaaaaaaawn. “Let’s shoot that scene again. And again. Now from this angle. Wait, once more.” Do you enjoy working in television? If so, what’s the appeal?

A.W.: I love working in television. First and foremost, because of the pace of it. Movies and theater take years and years to happen (or not happen). With TV, it’s such a machine. It needs product. Which means, everything happens much faster. So, you know very quickly if a pilot you wrote is getting made or not. Or, if you are on a TV show, you have an entire crew and actors waiting on a set. And they have to shoot something on Thursday. There’s no going back from that. Once the thing is in motion—it stays in motion. Until cancelled by an outside force. So, there is only so much “group think” and noting that can happen. But at a certain point—they just have to shoot something. So, you actually get to see your words being shot. And that can be very gratifying. Also—TV is a collaborative medium. It’s not just you alone in a room all day, trying to force yourself to sit down at your computer. Most TV shows have writers rooms and you get to go in and bond and laugh and come up with stories and eat great lunches with a room full of supremely talented people. So, if you enjoy being social and you’re not a total hermit, you get to flex your creative muscles while also being around other people at the same time… Finally, TV is truly a writer’s medium. They say film is a director’s medium. But in TV, the writer or “showrunner” is the one in charge. So, if you get to that level, you are actually overseeing all aspects of production. Not just writing, but casting, editing, costumes, etc … It truly feels like the one place, other than being a film director, where it can be your vision up there every week. (Or at least close to it, depending on how many notes you get from the studio and network …)

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J.P.: How do you write? Where do you write? When do you know if something’s great and brilliant, vs. liquid crap?

A.W.: I always start with an idea. Then I let it dance around in my head for a while. Then I get several people’s opinions on whether it’s worth pursuing. Then I second-guess it. Then I get depressed. And then if I still can’t let it go, I start writing up some form of an outline or a pitch document. Once I have a solid story and structure, and only then, will I actually start writing a script … I usually write at home. Unlike a lot of writers, I actually need silence to write. Unfortunately, that’s getting harder and harder since I have a 3-year-old who’s bedroom is literally right next door to my office. And another kid due in two weeks and counting … So, for me, the hardest thing at the moment is just shutting the door, silencing the outside noises and trying to focus. Which is made harder by the fact that all I really want to do at this point is just play with my kid … As for “great” and “brilliant”—I’m not sure those are thoughts that ever go through my head. I do go through a phase where I feel like it’s coming together and the script feels like a version of what I set out to do. For me—that’s probably the best moment in the process. Finishing a draft of something and thinking—“You know what, I don’t totally hate this …”

But, having had my heart broken so many times with projects that I thought were very good and ended up not getting made, I try at this point to not put any expectations behind it when I send it in to the powers-that-be. I always believe in putting my best foot forward. But as my therapist has reminded me numerous times, the only thing I have control over is the work, not people’s responses to it. And executives always give notes. This is their job. THEY WILL NEVER NOT GIVE NOTES. So, if the notes are light, I think the executives are brilliant and I’m pleasantly surprised. And if they have lots of notes, I instantly turn on the thing I liked just the day before and now convince myself it’s riddled with problems. Honestly, the hardest part of the whole process is remembering what it is you liked about the project in the first place. And then fighting as hard as you can to maintain those small things that initially got you excited while also being a team player and showing everyone that you can adapt and incorporate all of their thoughts into the work … without totally watering the thing down … and making it feel completely generic … which has happened to me a few times over the years while trying to be a “good guy” and make everyone happy. Which, consequently, ends up making nobody happy.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH AUSTIN WINSBERG:

• On IMDB, it lists your “alternate name” as Austin Garrett. Um … what?: This was my stage name when I was a child actor. My first agent told me Winsberg sounded “too Jewish.” True story.

Rank in order (favorite to least): Book of Mormon, Joe Montana, The Greatest American Hero, napkins, cake pops, Joan Rivers, Peter Criss, veggie burger, “Holding Out for a Hero,” hiking, Brian Cashman, Easter Sunday: The Greatest American Hero, Book of Mormon, cake pops, “Holding out for a Hero,” Joan Rivers, hiking, Easter Sunday, napkins, veggie burgers, Peter Criss, Joe Montana, Brian Cashman. (Did I mention I don’t really follow sports? And yes, I had to look up Brian Cashman. But not Joe Montana. So at least give me a little credit for that.)

• Five favorite movies of all-time?: The Shawshank Redemption, Parenthood, Groundhog Day, Defending Your Life, Annie Hall.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Taylor Momsen? How many rounds do it go?: That girl would kick my ass so hard. I’d probably take it on the chin in the first round and then go home, whine to my wife and take a nap.

• Would you rather name your daughter Leighton Meester Winsberg or Blair Walforf Winsberg?: Thankfully, I have a boy with a second boy almost here. So I don’t have to answer that question. Having seen some of the Gossip Girl message boards, there’s no winning in getting involved in that fight …

• Celine Dion calls and offers you $15 million to write her new play, “Celine Dion Eats Goldfish then Worships Satan While Pooping on Stage.” You have to sit next to her every day for a year and also eat 10 pieces of her dead skin daily. You in?: I’d hate to ever consider myself a “sell-out,” but … I already have a ton of ideas for what I would do with that project … even without the $15 million. (I mean—who wouldn’t go see that show?!) The dead skin part kind of throws me a little, but these are the sacrifices we make for our art …

• My cell phone recently dropped in a toilet filled with piss. What was I supposed to do?: The same thing happened to me at the podiatrist office. In a water tub. I shudder to think about the feet that were in there before my phone dropped in. That being said, my cell phone is the fourth most important relationship in my life, right behind my wife, my child and my mother. So I dove right in to grab that thing just as if a family member was drowning. If I could have given my phone mouth-to-mouth, I totally would have. Unfortunately, we were not able to revive it. And I ended up giving my phone a proper Viking funeral.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: That’s all I ever think when I’m on a plane. Mostly I just try to close my eyes and go to a happy place. Or take Xanax and drink lots of alcohol. In which case—I recall nothing.

• Your college roommate was John Lloyd Young, the actor. Can you tell us one thing about him that’s never been written?: He makes a mean cornbread?

• This is my all-time least favorite song. Your thoughts?: Steve Winwood is my uncle (twice-removed), so it wouldn’t really be appropriate for me to comment.

  • Christopher Bates

    This guy is hilarious!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life