Life in the Laugh Lane
Comedy writer Larry Doyle is again in demand in Hollywood where making a living from laughs can get you down.
It’s an odd but telling moment during his induction weekend into the Illini Media Hall of Fame. Larry Doyle is in the midst of success most writers only dream of, but, when asked to pose for a magazine story, he doesn’t want to smile.
That’s curious because Doyle (BS ’80, psychology; MS ’82, journalism) writes comedy. He does it well. Doyle has slung ink for some of the funniest gigs in recent times: The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head, The New Yorker, Esquire.
Granted, at this moment Doyle, 49, is standing in a claustrophobic subterranean passageway below the University of Illinois, but that’s no big deal. As a student he spent two days in these tunnels with a friend to see if they’d be discovered (they weren’t). Besides, he says, this is pleasant compared to the steam tunnels.
“When I smile I look like an 8-year-old learning how,” Doyle tells the photographer. In one newspaper photo of himself, he adds, he actually looks dead.
Everyone laughs when he says it, but there’s insight here. People who know him puzzle over how such a serious man writes comedy. His wife, Becky Lichtenstein, a stay-at-home mother, calls him a “big softie” and an “amazing” father (they have three children, the oldest 8 years old, in Baltimore), but a clown, he is not.
“Dour,” Lichtenstein says. “That’s a good word for him. Dour.”
He agrees. Compared to other comedy writers in Hollywood, however, Doyle says he’s one of the happier ones.
“I’d say that most comedy writers are simultaneously cynical and incredibly romantic at the same time,” he says. “And so it’s like they’re constantly getting their heart broken by humanity. And maybe that’s where the humor comes from. I don’t know. But I do know that they’re not what I would call happy. Some of them are kind of happy.”
His wife attributes the irony partly to the fickle nature of the entertainment industry. In their 11-year-old marriage she’s seen him succeed but also write multi-million-dollar failures. Doyle remains a “huge romantic,” she says, but he can’t relax.
“He’s a worrier. His parents were (Irish) immigrants. So he has that. Never feeling like you can rest easy,” she says. “Even when he’s got three things going and they’re all good, he won’t let himself rest easy because he’s worried about them falling apart. With the way some things have turned out, I guess he’s justified.”
The laugh business is harsh. A newspaper detailed Doyle’s recent visit to a San Francisco bookstore to sign copies of his new comedy novel, I Love You, Beth Cooper. Sales are strong, but on that day only one person arrived for the event. (“The traffic,” Doyle joked, according to the Baltimore Sun. “It must have been the traffic.”)
Nevertheless, Doyle asked if the woman still wanted him to read from his novel. She said yes. He obliged and read aloud for 15 minutes before she left without buying the book.
* * *
Raised near Chicago, Doyle was a news reporter for six years after college before comedy started paying the bills. He and Neal Sternecky—they co-created a comic strip in college—were hired by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate in 1989 to revive the late Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo.
The revival caused a stir, and they were invited to The Today Show, but, as Doyle recounted on one Internet blog site, Pogo fared poorly (he blamed the writing) and the effort was dropped.
About that time, however, after several rejections, The New Yorker finally gave Doyle reason to smile. In 1990, the magazine published his piece, “Life without Leann,” about a man who enlists a support group to win back his ex-girlfriend, Leann, more than 500 days after she dumped him. The piece endures, and was recently featured on National Public Radio’s This American Life. Doyle still writes for the magazine.
He went on to work for National Lampoon, Spy Magazine, and the TV show Beavis and Butt-Head before he joined New York Magazine in 1994. Events turned again in 1997, however, when Doyle learned on his honeymoon that his boss was fired. Doyle quit upon his return.
Ultimately, the subsequent plunge into unemployment led to a more lucrative career—Hollywood. Doyle was in California freelancing a fake profile of Beavis and Butt-Head characters for Rolling Stone when he heard that The Simpsons, a Fox television show Doyle had watched for almost a decade, wanted new blood.
When he started there in 1997, Doyle earned twice as much as he ever had but he was also terrified, surrounded by a dozen other brilliant writers from former prosecutors to people holding doctoral degrees. He pitched jokes out of turn and interrupted senior writers. Finally, his agent warned Doyle that he should listen more. He did, and his original 13-week contract was extended.
Doyle wrote on a Slate magazine diary, posted online soon after his extension, that he bought a house in Hollywood Hills after he made the cut and then told the guys at work.
“Congratulations,” one of them joked. “You’re fired.”
“Every day at The Simpsons,” Doyle wrote, “is one laugh after another.”
In time, however, Doyle’s plans changed. He was a hot commodity in Hollywood, with a wildly successful TV show on his resume, a deal to write a new TV show pilot, and also having landed movie stars Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore for his movie screenplay, Duplex. Sensing opportunity—and trying to remain fresh—Doyle left The Simpsons after four seasons to chart a new path.
It was a promising move. Around the time Doyle started The Simpsons, Greg Daniels, a former writer for the show, and Mike Judge, creator of MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head, co-created Fox’s successful TV show King of the Hill. By 1998 Forbes magazine estimated each of their worths at more than $50 million.
Unfortunately, Hollywood fortunes also fall. Duplex and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, another movie Doyle wrote and co-produced, were “gigantic bombs” after their fall 2003 release, he says, and lost tens of millions of dollars worldwide. His pilot wasn’t picked up, and a series of Looney Tunes short films he produced weren’t released.
In addition to being associated with failures—in Hollywood, Doyle says, you are your latest work—he also found himself rebuilding his reputation after reacting angrily to how his scripts were altered. He quit Looney Tunes, and he was regarded as a trouble-maker.
“You’re supposed to quietly undermine your enemies” in the movie industry, he quips, instead of saying what you think. He adds, however, that he did then have an overly “privileged” view of his role in the movies.
Then 45, Doyle also felt the pressures of age. Screenwriter Burt Prelutsky wrote in a column for Writer’s Guild America that jobs disappeared when he turned 50. Agents suggested makeovers and cutting shows such as M*A*S*H from his resume. He eventually earned a staff position—at age 59 becoming then the oldest TV staff writer—but not before building debt and considering suicide.
Doyle kept writing, but his career cooled. At his wife’s urging they moved to Baltimore, her hometown, into her parents’ former house. Free of Hollywood demands—pitch meeting after fruitless pitch meeting, as his wife describes it—Doyle concentrated on writing. The result was I Love You, Beth Cooper.
The 249-page, coming-of-age novel about high school seniors was originally conceived as a screenplay, but his movie agent didn’t think it would sell. Another agent, however, encouraged him to try something different: Write a book. He wrote a 100-page outline and sent it to several publishers that bid on it, including HarperCollins, which promised to release it in spring 2007 if he finished in time. Doyle made the deadline, finishing in four months.
The book was well-received. Barnes and Noble kept it on front shelves for four months, and it has received generally good reviews, particularly on blogs. More importantly, at least in Hollywood, it received an “A” rating in Entertainment Weekly and was featured on national morning television. A movie house purchased the book, and the film is tentatively scheduled for release this spring.
That means Doyle is no longer the guy who wrote Duplex, but the guy who wrote a good book. He just completed a TV pilot deal with Jerry Bruckheimer’s company, which is producing the pilot for Warner Brothers TV, for the Fox network. The prospect of his book becoming a movie promises financial security for at least a couple of years, along with hope that this time the movie will be different, more like him.
“(Being the book author) gives me a little bit more sort of moral authority” in making the movie, Doyle says. “They’re more likely to defer to me on things just because I wrote the book.”
He’s asked if he’s happy. Doyle pauses, then says something that his wife, hearing it later, couldn’t believe.
He’s satisfied. There’s still reason to worry, Doyle adds. Deals fall through. He’s not ebullient. Not glowing. Not even smiling. But he’s content.
By Dave Evensen