I’ve spent a lot of time away from this blog because I’m building a career in theatre. However, I’m finding that the playwrights I come across when I’m reading plays or looking for audition monologues are many of the same names I’m seeing in the writing credits of the TV shows I watch. In a previous career as a TV historian, I observed many instances of theatre artists crossing over into American TV – or vice versa – and each time emigres were brought in to help shape or re-define the medium, carrying with them the necessary cultural cache to do it.
And here they are doing it again. Louis C.K’s web experiment Horace and Pete used the internet to deliver a fusion of TV and theatre which was hitherto unseen in the US, and he enlisted the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker in the process. While Baker declined the offer to be a staff writer on the project, the author of The Flick and The Aliens was instrumental in bringing her trademark edge of masochistic naturalism to the third episode of the mini-series (which begins with a 12-minute monologue by Laurie Metcalf), where she is loosely credited as consultant.
Louis C.K. eventually succeeded in getting an award-winning playwright to join his writing staff when he hired author of The Whale and A Bright New Boise Samuel D. Hunter to pen episodes of Baskets, a dramedy starring Zach Galafianakis that he produces for FX. Though far more conventional than Horace and Pete in form, Baskets nonetheless confounds expectations of tone for a series which led strongly with broad physical comedy before existentially breaking down each of the absurd characters. Hunter’s episodes go a long way towards this analytical deepening of the (sometimes literally) massive stereotypes established in the opening episodes.
Orange is the New Black writer Jordan Harrison is also a renowned playwright, with Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime under his belt. It’s interesting that a playwright concerned with digital technologies which change human-machine relations should be involved with a series that’s at the cutting edge of the electronic televisual experience. Having seen the play along with his Amazons and their Men, I can see how (for better or worse) the clipped art of TV writing has affected his theatre pieces, with both feeling like they cut away from a scene too early or, more importantly, that they need follow-ups.
Gina Gionfriddo is the playwright of Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn. She also wrote for Law & Order and Cold Case. Given the obscenity and offensiveness of her plays, it’s a safe bet she had to self-censor when it comes to satisfying the still-draconian standards of network television, at least where words were concerned. However, if you follow John Mulaney’s thinking (and who wouldn’t?), the two procedurals with their graphic depictions and explications of heinous crimes would be the perfect dwelling place for a writer concerned with the underside of human behaviour. But these are by no means pioneers.
The play format of early American television resulted in the employment of writers who both came from and subsequently went to the theatre, including Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose. Much of the immediacy we still associate with television came from it being written as a live, continuous experience by theatre-savvy artists in those years. Even when TV eschewed theatrical trappings, playwrights continued to enter the medium, such as Neil Simon, who worked on comedy vehicles for Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar in the late 1950s. Simon would later theatricalize this for Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
While we’re used to talking about writers from the movies coming to TV, we’ve traditionally overlooked stage playwrights who moonlight in the medium. In the 1980s, another Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet, author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, was ahead of the game when he penned an episode of the transformative cop show Hill Street Blues, before following this up decades later with military drama The Unit, which he co-created with Shawn Ryan of The Shield. The Hill Street Blues episode was before Mamet made the jump to cinema and well before great writers flocked to US quality TV. It’s easy to see playwrights who come to TV as Greek Gods who deign to push us mere mortals in the right direction, but the truth is much messier and speaks to exchanges of ideas between the two art forms which have always been around and are still in development.