One person who
would never have a problem writing the “What I Did on
My Summer Vacation” essay is Joe Keenan, who
spent several years crafting his wildly funny and
farcical new novel, My Lucky Star (Little,
Brown and Co., $24.95), during the downtime between
producing and writing episodes of the megahit sitcom
Frasier as well as the acclaimed new CBS
comedy, Out of Practice.
My Lucky Star is Keenan’s third
novel—following Blue Heaven and Putting on
the Ritz—to center on the harebrained
schemes of gay-boys-about-town Philip Cavanaugh and
Gilbert Selwyn; this time around, they run amuck in
Los Angeles and cross paths with a closeted movie star, his
eccentric family, and a troublemaking Hollywood madam.
As in Keenan’s previous P.G.
Wodehouse–inspired books, it’s up to
Philip’s writing partner, Claire Simmons, to
save the day when all seems lost.
Over cream puffs
at a bakery in Hollywood, the transplanted New
Yorker—who still doesn’t drive after more than
a decade in Los Angeles—talked about finding
time to be literary while working as a TV mogul, a
balancing act for which he credits success to his partner of
24 years, Gerry Bernardi, who Keenan says
“manages our lives well enough so that I
don’t have to do anything but write.”
What inspired the first of these novels?
I had been a big Wodehouse fan when I began
reading him in my 20s right after college. I loved his
books—I loved how funny they were. Up until
that point I wanted to write comedy for the stage, and
reading Wodehouse, I saw for the first time that a
good novel could be funny—as funny as a play
and funny in ways that a play couldn’t be. There was
so much you could do with language and prose that you
couldn’t do with a dramatic work, where your
vocabulary is restricted to the way people actually
talk, rendered entirely in dialogue. And he had so many
terrific literary jokes—description jokes,
narrative jokes, tonal jokes—I thought that I
really wanted to try that.
So one summer,
when I was at NYU in their musical theater department
between semesters, I went home to live with my parents and
worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield. I was writing these
long letters every day, six or seven pages, to Gerry.
And I had nothing to say because my life was so
boring. So I thought, If I can write six or seven pages of
prose a day, why not try a story? And I started
writing what I thought was going to be a short story
about a guy and a girl who get married for the gifts. And
after I had written three chapters, and I’d only
written the first scene, I realized it was going to be
a longer work than I’d thought. So I wrote the
first three or four chapters of My Blue Heaven over
that summer, and then I had to put it back in the
drawer because I was back at NYU. But between
semesters I’d take it out of the drawer. After I
graduated, I’d written about half of it, so I showed
it to someone in publishing who said it was very
good—now go finish it.
The first books are certainly informed by a musical
theater background. I still remember that song
about the New York Post in one of them.
That was an actual song I’d written for an
off-off-Broadway revue when I was 22. And then I
needed a few lines of a song for Philip and Claire to
sing at a party, so I figured no one was ever going to hear
that song in another context. [Laughs]
Whereas this book seems like something you
couldn’t have written until you’d
come to L.A. and worked in the business.
I liked the idea of doing a book out here, but I hate
research and I’m totally lazy, and I’m
always afraid of getting the details all wrong about
something. So I thought until I’d lived out here for
a while, I really couldn’t write a novel about
Hollywood. I set my novels in New York because I had
lived there, and I knew the geography, and I could
understand what my characters were moving through.
People often point out that for quite a while the gayest
characters on television were Frasier and Niles.
Not literally, but they were metrosexuals a good five or
six years before the term was coined.
How set in stone were those characters by the time you
joined the show? Did you have any say in shaping them?
Things were evolving. It was only the second season of
11. I did seasons two through seven and then came back
with Christopher Lloyd [the TV writer, not the actor]
to do season 11, the final season. I don’t know
that I had any impact on the characters individually because
it’s an extremely collaborative form, but I
certainly did push the show towards exploring comical,
farcical gay themes. I think more than anything, my
contribution to that show was to import farce storytelling
into it, because they hadn’t done a farce the
first season. The first show I produced was
“The Matchmaker” [where Frasier tries to set
Roz up with a coworker whom Frasier doesn’t
know is gay and who thinks the date is with Frasier],
which was a very farcical story, not unlike the plots of my
books. And people liked that episode a lot. It won a GLAAD
award; it was nominated for an Emmy. It became part of
the repertoire of the show that they would on occasion
play with farce.