Joe Keenan is the LA-based writer best known for the most celebrated farce-heavy episodes of Frasier, as well as a trilogy of award-winning novels set in the world of gay theatre in New York City: Blue Heaven, Putting on the Ritz and My Lucky Star. He recently brought to the stage Everybody Rise, a satirical rewrite of showtunes based on the Trump presidency. Mike Ross is a NY-based dramaturg, children’s book author and member of the BMI Lehman-Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. They recently spent an afternoon in conversation together in New York, on the eve of the east coast debut of Everybody Rise.
Mike Ross: Just for context, Joe, we’re sitting down to talk about your Trump-satirising cabaret, Everybody Rise, at a location three blocks north of Trump Tower, which was the slightly fictionalised setting for your book Putting on the Ritz.
Joe Keenan: Champion Plaza, yes.
MR: That whole novel was an incredibly thorough takedown of Donald Trump, written in the early ’90s, before anyone had any idea where this was all headed.
JK: Well, of course nobody had any idea where it was all headed. I mean, it was peak Trump in the late ’80s with Trump Tower, and the Trump Princess ship, whose floor plans I used as a model for when I had to write that whole setpiece.
MR: How did you get access to the floor plans?
That was part of Donald Trump’s introduction to New York. He was a crook and a liar from the get-go
JK: They were printed in New York magazine. They did a whole cover story about the Trump Princess that included floor plans. And the main joke was that this guy was an incredibly vulgar, stupid person’s idea of what taste and opulence look like. It couldn’t be more crass or worth mockery. I mean, I still haven’t forgiven him for Bonwit’s. He built Trump Tower on the site of Bonwit-Teller, a landmark department store that had been there forever. They had these beautiful stone friezes on the front of the building, and part of the deal was that they had to be preserved and given to the Metropolitan Museum. He had his guys come in and demolish them in the dead of night, because it’s cheaper to demolish than to preserve. And that was part of Donald Trump’s introduction to New York. He was a crook and a liar from the get-go.
MR: And now he’s back in your work again, in Everybody Rise.
JK: It’s an evening of songs. We did it once in Los Feliz, we did it again in Studio City, now we’re in New York. The idea, ideally, would be to do a run of it. At least a weekend run, if not open-ended, for at least six or eight weeks. I’ll tell you the whole genesis: I had trained as a lyricist. I did the NYU program – is that still going?
MR: Oh, yes. Basically NYU and BMI are the Pepsi and Coke of New York theatre up-and-comers. I’m currently at BMI.
JK: Well, in the ’80s, I did the second cycle of NYU. At that point it was only 16 students. We would meet at Mary Rodgers’ house and little Adam Guettel would trot through the living room. You got used to writing under pressure. And it could be very frustrating because you’d be handed assignments you’d find hard, because this is not something you ever would have chosen. Is that still the case at BMI? You get given things and you say, “I wouldn’t write this song”?
MR: It’s funny you ask that, because every year we have to write a song for Blanche Dubois, in A Streetcar Named Desire.
JK: We had to do that too.
MR: Yeah! And they put it at a moment where it’s impossible to musicalise, so you get a lot of these musical monologues about “Oh, I sure am delicate and Southern!”
JK: What’s the moment? We had the paperboy.
MR: Oh, that’s actually exciting. There’s conflict there! It’s a seduction song! Ours is when Stella has just gone back to Stanley, and Blanche is left to kind of ruminate. It’s a lot of songs like, “Men! They’re so savage! But one man was nice!” It does make you better, I think.
JK: Arthur Laurents was even worse. Arthur, who was the meanest queen since Bloody Mary, would assign his own work for us to musicalise. He would assign us to write songs for The Way We Were. And then you would go to his house, because God forbid he should come uptown, and you would sit in his living room, and he would tell you why it was awful. Anyway, so I did have a background in musical theatre, and I had fun writing lyrics for my own books occasionally. I wrote a rhyme for Elsa Champion’s opening number in Putting On The Ritz, “I Sing”: “When misfortune swoops / When your spirit droops / When the person cutting your hair says ‘Oops.’”
After working on Frasier, I would work on this breast cancer benefit called Les Girls, which has gone on for 20 years now. Peri Gilpin [who played Roz in Frasier] started it, and I started contributing a number to that every year. And of course in 2015 when Trump entered the presidential race, I said, “Well, it has to be a Trump song this year.” I was even actually nervous that he would drop out before October. So that first song is in Everybody Rise. I was looking for a sort of global song about this guy, and who he is, and I realised, from Chicago, there’s “All I Care About Is Love”, and it became “All I Care About Is Trump”. “I don’t care about the common man / Human rights / Not a fan / I can’t deny / All I care about is Trump! / (He’s who he’s here for).” That’s his introduction to the audience.
MR: “He’s who he’s here for” is great.
JK: The next year, when he was still around, the song became “I’m Still Here”, and Richard Kind did it. Then the morning after the election, I was flying to this hotel for a benefit. And we sat there, bleary, packing, watching the election results, and got on a plane to stay three blocks from Trump Tower, and at that point I said, “This is not something to write one song a year about. This should be an evening.” And what I’ve discovered from the experience of doing it in front of an audience is that although we all read about this guy way too much, and we watch him in the news and in our feeds, it’s not often that we get to gather as a group and check in with each other. There’s an alchemy when a roomful of people watch this show together that doesn’t happen when we’re staring at Saturday Night Live on our TVs. It becomes what theatre is – it’s a group experience. And now for the “I’m Still Here” that I wrote for Richard, he begins the song, and then the actor pulls the wig off and says, “I can’t do this anymore.” And the song becomes about the audience. It becomes “We’re Still Here”.
MR: Something that’s often frustrated me with SNL’s treatment of not just Trump, but the administration as a whole, is that they believe just showing you the thing is a joke.
JK: Yeah. We know, we watch the news. Just getting up there and doing it in a wig…
MR: You need to heighten it. And your version of heightening is to have these showtunes, these lyrics, that even if we’re just watching them onstage, we’re getting more from. Our neurons are being stimulated. Something is going somewhere.
I had friends who were dying, and I realised, “I’m writing a soufflé, I’m writing a frothy musical comedy”
MR: Not unconnectedly, a big reason I love your books isn’t just that they make me laugh. It’s that there’s kind of this inherent poignancy to them. Blue Heaven is set in gay Manhattan in the late ’80s, and AIDS just never enters into it. It’s such an enjoyable, lighthearted book, at a time when things maybe didn’t feel so lighthearted. How intentional was that when you were writing it?
JK: I mean, AIDS was very much affecting my life at the time. I had friends who were dying, and I realised, “I’m writing a soufflé, I’m writing a frothy musical comedy. This is like a Fred and Ginger movie.” It’s meant to be. And also the model was Wodehouse. Wodehouse wrote Joy in the Morning while interned in a German prison camp.
MR: I did not know that.
JK: If you’re going to write escapism, you can’t include that from which everybody is trying to escape. And the most welcome, and tear-inducing, comments I got on the book were from people who were sick, and were just really happy to have something that would make them laugh. Gay AIDS fiction was incredibly necessary, but people who were going through the thick of it didn’t necessarily want to experience it when they went for a book to take their mind off it. There’s no point in a Fred and Ginger movie where Ginger says “Hang on, I just felt a lump in my breast.”
There aren’t as many paedophiles in history as this priest found to line up to fuck a twelve year-old boy
MR: I can’t necessarily find gay literature that I feel reflects me. I would say the biggest gay book of the past decade or so, other than Call Me By Your Name, has been this book A Little Life that you may be familiar with.
JK: Yeah, I’ve read A Little Life. [laughs]
MR: Right, so, that is not a happy fun-time read for gay men in America.
JK: You don’t have to be gay to hate that book. [laughs] There aren’t as many paedophiles in history as this priest found to line up to fuck a twelve year-old boy. And you also get to the point where you’re like – does this woman know any gay men?
MR: And then there’s your book about these broke gay scammers who are doing everything they can to make a dishonest buck in New York where they can’t afford the rent. But they’re enjoying theatre, and there is happiness in their life. And fun! My favourite joke in all of Blue Heaven is four words, albeit you absolutely need the context to understand: “‘Yes!’ Gilbert said, heterosexually.” And I was like, “This I identify with”, but it’s crazy that I had to go back to 1988 to find that.
You’ve spoken a lot elsewhere about what makes good farce – everything has to be logical, everything has to be sincere – but I was wondering if you could talk a little about what you feel makes a strong sitcom.
JK: I think the main thing, for me, is that the relationships are rich enough that you have a lot to explore. It’s what made Frasier so good. And the other crucially important thing – I mean, it’s Writing 1.01: What is your main character’s drive? Frasier wanted respect, Frasier wanted to consider himself a good person, Frasier wanted to help people! Frasier was very lonely and wanted to find love. Frasier wanted a good relationship with his brother, but he always wanted to best his brother. Frasier wanted to heal the relationship with his father, and that generational and cultural void that separated them. It’s not just the same thing each time. If he’s always looking for love and every week is just another date, that gets old. So that variation made the character work, and you could really do a whole bunch of stories. And of course the other characters were equally rich.
MR: I know you’ve often said that your favourite farce you did was “Out With Dad”, because it has a sweet moment at the end. But for my personal taste, my absolute favourite is “The Two Mrs. Cranes”, because every character is in on the take and has a very active want.
JK: That was a lot of fun.
MR: And it’s about their wants. You believe it when Martin says he’s an astronaut just to…
JK: To fuck with them.
MR: To get back at his kids, yeah.
JK: Because he’s been told, “Get out of it, you can’t keep up with us, old man.” And he wants to show he can keep up. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the joy of farce is that once you have the situation nailed down, you don’t have to write a joke. Niles can get roars by saying “I owe you a big one.” It’s all straight lines made hilarious by context. Much easier to write.
Mike, I have to head off in a minute for a meeting. I wanted to walk there because I like walking a lot. A question for you: do you write stationary? Do you find anything that helps you?
MR: It’s technically a yes and a no answer to your question – I get a lot of writing done on the train. I’ll get on the Q, which I’m at the north end of, and I’ll ride it all the way to Coney Island. And in doing that, I get at least a thousand words of whatever I’m working on. Are you telling me that you write and walk and dictate?
JK: Yeah, I do everything walking. All the books were written while walking.
MR: Really? Well, that’s fascinating.
JK: All the songs, all the lyrics, all script scenes, everything. I don’t concentrate as well sitting still. You know, a lot of writing’s like, you’re trying to listen to the radio, and when it’s going well, you don’t feel like you’re coming up with it so much as overhearing it. And so to tune the radio, it really helps me to walk. C