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Paul Rudnick: "Is This Going To Be Funny?"

From Insights, 2002
By Sarah Johnson

 

Paul Rudnick is a rare anomaly in the literary world, someone people might call a "triple threat," for he is an accomplished screenwriter, playwright, and novelist. He has defined himself as an author who has a knack for observing real life situations, unafraid to tackle such weighty issues as politics, homosexuality, AIDS, and even women's obsession with shopping—not too bad for a man who started his writing career covering the auctioning of Joan Crawford's eyelashes.

Rudnick was born in Piscataway, New Jersey, in 1957. At the age of five he wrote an essay declaring himself a playwright, although he had yet to see a theatrical production. This creative venture would eventually be supplemented by an undergraduate theatre degree from Yale University. In an interview for American Repertory Theater, Rudnick spoke about the opportunities afforded to him at school: "My advantage and part of my success was being around the Yale School of Drama. I may have been writing badly, but it was a way to learn something. I would make these enormous mistakes, but I learned how not to make the same mistake twice. I was anxious to get out into the world because I believe that comedic technique can be learned; you just have to practice it" (Shawn Rene Graham, The Naked Interview, 9 Sept. 2001. http://www.fas.harvard.edu).

Immediately after graduation Rudnick fled to New York City to pursue his love of writing. He spread his style across what he termed "America's giant entertainment sewer," writing articles that nobody else would touch, such as beauty shows and women hawking Eva Gabor wigs (Lynn Hirschberg, "Sweet Talking Guy," Rolling Stone, 22 May 1986: 41 42). Throughout the following years his journalistic career bourgeoned, encompassing not only better assignments, but also more high-profile names. He penned articles for Vanity Fair, Spy, The New York Times, Vogue, Time, and Esquire, as well as performing the role of columnist in Premiere magazine (under the pseudonym Libby Gelman-Waxner).

The success of his journalistic ventures allowed him focus on his original Yale intentions: play-writing. In 1982 Rudnick made his off-Broadway debut with Poor Little Lambs, his first work produced for the stage. The comedy recounts the antics of the Whiffenpoofs, an all-male singing group at Yale, and starred young Kevin Bacon. The New York Times review claimed the play's plot "trite," but that Rudnick "has a terrific ear for undergraduate locker-room chatter" and "a killer instinct for wisecracks" (Frank Rich, "Theatre: Rudnick's 'Poor Little Lambs' of Yale," 16 March 1982, C11). Despite this criticism the play was well received and subsequently optioned by Hollywood; unfortunately it remained in development limbo until the rights were returned to Rudnick.

Rudnick followed this initial critical encounter with Cosmetic Surgery, a one-act comedy; however he was still unsatisfied. Rudnick reported his feelings to Rolling Stone: "After Poor Little Lambs I wrote some more plays that I hated, and I just thought, 'There's something wrong here.' Everything I wanted to write about was not coming out in play form, so I decided to try a novel, and I loved it" (Hirschberg, 41 42).

Rudnick published his first novel, Social Disease, in 1986. It satirized the downtown Manhattan club scene with much witty banter and juicy pseudo-gossip. The year 1989 saw the publication of his next novel, I'll Take It, where Rudnick delved into an issue dear to his heart: shopping. Critical reaction was generally favorable; People magazine reported that "Rudnick sings a wonderful song of shopping and familial love and solidarity" (Joanne Kaufman, "Review of I'll Take It," 11 Sept. 1989: 35).

In the 1990s Rudnick returned to writing plays, gaining more attention and acclaim for I Hate Hamlet and Jeffrey. The former was inspired by his own Greenwich Village apartment (once owned by the late John Barrymore) and made fun of the pretensions of "high art." It opened in 1991 to fairly acceptable reviews, with New Yorker claiming "Mr. Rudnick is a competent writer of comedies" (Oliver Edith, "Barrymore Returns," April 22, 1991: 89) The Boston Globe said it "is a funny little play, the kind of nicely entertaining comedy Broadway doesn't seem to have much patience with anymore" (Kevin Kelly, "I Hate Hamlet Is Mischievous Good Fun," 24 April 1991: 45). However, the run of the production was hampered due to tantrums thrown by star Nicol Williamson, and it closed after less than 100 performances.

The production of Jeffrey was a different story. It tackled two societal taboo subjects: homosexuality and AIDS. The story details the life of a young, gay man who is terrified of dying from AIDS and makes the ultimate safe choice: to abstain from sex. Rudnick, as a gay male himself, understood the fear that permeated society and the character of Jeffrey. He claimed "only money, rage, and science can conquer AIDS, but only laughter can make the nightmare bearable" (Jeffrey, New York: Plume Publishing, 1994: xi). Jeffrey conquered audiences and critics alike, winning an Obie Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and the John Gassner Award for Outstanding New American Play. Rudnick's star was on the rise and Hollywood noticed.

Rudnick was not new to the screenwriting scene, providing uncredited script doctoring for the comedy hit The Addams Family, writing for Sister Act under the pseudonym Joseph Howard, and finally receiving screen credit for the sequel Addams Family Values. Now, however, he was invited back to adapt his own long-running hit play, Jeffrey, for the screen. The immense success of the adaptation cemented his status in Hollywood, and his delicate, down-to-earth touch with the homosexuality theme of Jeffrey placed him as the perfect candidate to script a new movie.

The film In & Out, loosely based on Tom Hanks's 1994 Oscar acceptance speech, was to be the first mainstream Hollywood comedy to tackle the subject of homosexuality. Through the story of a high school English teacher who is "outed" on national television by a former student, Rudnick carefully juggled the themes of acceptance and growth, interweaving comedy and serious issues into a single structure.

It is that style and grace that allows Rudnick to create characters and situations that are in one sense completely farcical and in another so transparently genuine. Rudnick continues his literary career in both Hollywood and New York, most recently scripting a screenplay, called Isn't She Great, based on the life of Jacqueline Susann. Throughout it all, though, his infusion of laughter is prevalent. He told SplicedOnline.com that "I am a big laugh whore. So when I write anything, I just always think, is this going to be funny?" His work attests to the fact that the answer is "yes."


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