I did a cable TV special years ago called “Comedy on Campus.” It was shot at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. A stepping stone at the time, plus I had the very good fortune to meet and work with a stand-up comic/comedy writer named Kevin Rooney.
Mr. Rooney had the kind of comedy career many of us covet: he was proficient and prolific, brilliantly funny on stage and on the page.
A brilliant writer.
So, he worked a LOT.
Kevin was the head writer for “Comedy on Campus,” and he wasn’t happy with the gig. I won’t name the star who hosted, who Kevin wrote for, so you can research it yourself if you have to know. I won’t kneel to the agenda-driven, insult-someone-randomly-online-for-the-clicks fad - it seems kinda tawdry don’t you think? But the star didn’t put any effort into his performance – and didn’t memorize the (funny) lines Kevin had written. I don’t think this person even looked at the script.
Rooney was understandably upset. Some people love the work. Some people just want the paycheck.
Regardless, I learned a lot from Mr. Kevin Rooney during our three days of rehearsals and the shoot itself. Here’s one: “We just had a writers strike,” he said. “I am a writer, but I can also go out and perform. So when there is a writers strike - and there will always be a writers strike at some point - when that happens I can find someone who will hire me and pay me to tell jokes. I will work.”
He sure did. Kevin passed away a short time ago. A real loss for the comedy community, for the show biz community and for those of us who knew him.
But his lesson stuck with me.
And here we are in the midst of another “writers strike.” Be honest: have you noticed? This one is about a lot more than one-liners on a late night TV show, which most of us haven’t watched for a decade anyway. This strike, which now involves SAG/AFTRA, the performer’s unions (I’m a member) will have a domino effect that impacts businesses way beyond Hollywood. Caterers, truck drivers, shopkeepers, makeup artists, techs, the list is endless. You might not see the ramifications now, and there are far too many issues for me to try and explain. It’s a puzzle with lots of pieces: Artificial Intelligence, streaming services, easy access to the Internet, how people will/will not get paid, all play into the current shutdown.
So, Kevin Rooney’s words echo in the theaters and clubs and arenas I’ve been working this summer:
“… I can always find work.”
Which brings me to the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, New Jersey.
Steve Steiner and Gail Anderson run the Equity Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, NJ. It really isn’t “Off Broadway” because it IS Broadway – it’s just been moved to a beautiful little community on the Jersey Shore, 90 minutes from Times Square. The shows, the actors, the directors, the tech, all of it is First Rate. It’s an amazing accomplishment - a 450-seat venue in a resort town that has suffered through hurricanes (not to mention Superstorm Sandy), floods and fires and bankruptcy and now sells out on a regular basis.
I live about 10 blocks away. I have been in the audience and I have been a performer and I’m continually impressed by everyone involved with The Surflight Theatre. Not just because I’ve had the very, very good fortune to work there.
During the pandemic, when anyone and everyone who performs “live” was given an unforeseen two-year sabbatical, Steve and Gail took the approach defined by the old theater adage: “The show must go on!”
They built a theater on an open space some 300 yards out the front doors of the Surflight. They erected a tent that blew down in a storm one night but was COMPLETELY REFURBISHED AND UP THE NEXT DAY which tells you all you need to know. They sold tickets and put seats in a social-distanced configuration and went on with the season.
They gave a lot of people in the theater world a job.
Heck, they even gave me a gig! It’s one of the perks of being a solo act. I can commiserate with everyone (one of my kids!) who are out of a job due to the strike, but as a comedian? I am lucky to have jobs!
My wife, who has worked as an actor, a producer and as a casting agent, has the same opinion as I. Which is that actors need work. So, the more opportunity the better. The Surflight Theatre gave cast members, tech crews, ushers, ticket takers and theater staff a job during a time when most theaters were closed. Most actors were out of work. Lots of theater people found other jobs.
But in Beach Haven? There was a theater season!
Like Kevin Rooney, Steve and Gail found a way to stay vital, important, and working, even when the world made live theater problematic at best.
I performed there early this month (July 3rd) and we had a great night. Let’s be honest: anytime I can do a show and be in my own bed a couple of hours after walking off stage is a DREAM COME TRUE!
Please be sure and look for my book, IRREVERSIBLE by Taylor Mason.
And I have a brand new podcast called STORIES UNLIMITED with Dave Kasey, the mastermind who gave us “Chester Cheetah,” the mascot in the sunglasses on all the Cheetos bags in your pantry. You can find STORIES UNLIMITED on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
Thanks for reading!