Tuesday, May 8, 2007

EXCLUSIVE: Our Interview With G.M. McGrath

The ridiculously funny and talented, G.M. McGrath, graciously agreed to give us an interview. For two seasons, George assumed the role of writer and sometimes co-star. We discussed his time on "Tracey Takes On", his career as both actor and writer in Hollywood, game shows, Pee-wee Herman, and 1970s fantasy female crime dramas. Here's a bit of what we uncovered.


How did you start in the industry? Your long list of credits include work as both writer and actor that spans over twenty years.


I grew up in Brooklyn, and acted in a lot of crazy things out of high school - Off-off broadway, Cafe la Mama, street theater. Mostly musicals - things like THE BLIND JUNKIE, THE GREAT AMERICAN SUCCER FAMILY, EVERYMAN AT LA MAMA. And I did a summer of children’s theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a children’s theater tour that went bad that got me to California. I was cast in New York, flown out to Scottsdale Arizona and found out the “national tour” was groups of three actors. a van and a map to public schools in some section of the country. I was coping till I woke up to find a new actor who had arrived overnight on top of me giving me a hickey. (It’s immortalized on my first California ID). Anyway, I didn’t have enough money to fly back to New York, and I had a few Brooklyn friends who had moved to Hollywood a few months before. I called them, they said I could stay with them (that is another story) and I used the money I had to take a cab to the airport and fly to Hollywood. I didn’t have enough to fly back to New York for so long that by the time I did, I was happy here in California. Out here I did some theater, some extra roles in movies, and then found a talent for improv when I joined the L.A. Connection, and eventually was asked to take the advanced class at the Groundlings -- and that’s where I started writing sketches for myself to perform in.

You were a writer for "Pee-wee's Playhouse". You even appeared in some of the episodes. What was the experience like?

Life-changing. Paul came to a show at the Groundlings to scout out talent and he came backstage and wanted to know who had written several sketches and it was me. We had never met before - he called me the next week and asked if I wanted to write a kids show with him and I said, “sure.” That was the official start of my writing career. I wrote the first season with Paul and 4 other writers - and I co-wrote the theme song when we were in New York - and I was Globey, the Cowntess, the Fish, a Flower, and on camera I played a cop once and then played Zyzzyballubah, the guy from outer space, in season two. We were a good match, and we wrote the second season back in L.A. and wrote Big Top Pee-wee at the same time. I was nominated for an Emmy both of the years I wrote the show, and all of a sudden I was more in demand as a writer than an actor. I got my own series before season three started, so I just went in and looped my puppet voices for the last batch of shows.

You were a game show contestant. You successfully won on "The 25,000 Pyramid", and appeared and won on "Password". Have you gotten more satisfaction being in show business or winning television game shows?

What a crazy question. Since my game show appearances were three days of my life, it would be so sad if I got more satisfaction out of them, wouldn’t it? Not that I didn’t love those game shows - they saved my life at the time -- when I won the $6700 on Password Plus, I got to move out of my bachelor apartment in the building where I was a maintenance man (don’t ask!) and when I won the $25,000 on the Pyramid I thought I’d never have to work again. I got rid of my ’66 Plymouth Valiant and paid sticker price (cash) for the first new car of my life, a Mazda 626 (which eventually went to Kathy Griffin). I had no idea you negotiated the sticker price, or that paying any other way but cash worked. So, they were three great days - and if I could have done more I would have, but I’ve liked the many thousands of other “career days” too.

How did you get contacted by Tracey to write for the third season of Tracey Takes On; were you aware of the series beforehand?

I was aware of the series, and knew her work even more from her Fox show. I guess they were replacing a writer from the previous season, and were meeting people just two days before the whole group was going up to Santa Barbara for their startup weekend at the Four Seasons hotel I think they were given my name by Carolyn Strauss at HBO who knew my old TV show I think - she knew I was a Groundling and wrote sketches. My agent called and asked if I wanted to meet them (I was dying to - I hated working on Shitcoms), Carolyn sent me tapes of the previous two seasons and I met them the next day. I think I was the last person to meet with Tracey and her husband Allan -- and I immediately fell in love with them - we spent a lot of the meeting laughing and discussing my smoking. I got the job and went off to Santa Barbara two days later. It was a match made in heaven - I loved writing for her characters, so I was very productive, and they liked me too. .

What was the writing process like?

Every season started with a weekend at the Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara -- that’s where we chose the topics Tracey would “take on.” Then we came up with some ideas for sketches for the different characters that could fall under those topics. We went home with some sketch assignments, and met the next week. That process continued through writing the whole season - we would work at home, fax in sketches, get together once a week and table read what was submitted - if the sketch worked, some rewrite notes might be given. We’d also be filling in the shows, and see what topics still needed sketches or monologues and for what characters -- until we had the whole season of shows filled in. There were a lot of talented writers working on that show (Tracey herself being at the top of the list) and we each had our own style, and certain characters we had an affinity for. I loved writing Ruby Romaine monologues, loved writing anything for Linda Granger, I wrote quite a few Sydney Kross sketches, and Kay Clark - I either wrote or co-wrote with Tracey all of the Shaneesha Turner pieces. I wrote a few things for every character except for Janie.




Was the last episode, "The End of the World", thought to be the end, or was it left up in the air? Each character's story-line seemed to have been wrapped up.

I think it was thought to be the end after the fact. That topic was my suggestion - and I kind of regretted it afterward just because of that. Tracey planned to do another variety show for HBO and we got together the next year in Santa Barbara to plan for it, but it fell through. It was going to be a live show, in front of an audience, and they never found the right venue for it.

You were credited as the writer for Linda Granger's song "Danger in the Skies". Have you written songs before?

I did a lot of musical pieces and song improv at the Groundlings and a songwriter named Candy Parton asked me if I wanted to co-write a song she was working on for the soap SANTA BARBARA. I did, and joined BMI as a result, and have been writing songs for almost everything I’ve ever worked on since: the PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE THEME, and several other songs used in that series, about 30 comedy songs for my series ON THE TELEVISION, LATER WITH GREG KINNEAR, HOPE & GLORIA... I wrote a musical with Cheri Steinkellner and keep saying I’m going to write another one. I think I have about 60 or more songs in my BMI catalog.



Were you a fan of 1970s shows like "Charlie's Angels", and "Bionic Woman"?

I liked Charlie’s Angels when Farrah Fawcett was on -- I watched some Bionic Woman - but I wasn’t an avid viewer. In that genre, I liked Police Woman, and a lot of the male starrers - Mannix, Cannon, Kojak (I guess I had a thing for one-name titles). I think you’re asking because of my obvious love of Linda Granger -- I think I have an empathy for her career post-success and that’s why I can write for her.

You played aspiring screenwriter and massive Linda Granger fan, Jonathan Meade. How did you come to appear in the show?

I wrote that sketch, and always read the part when we did the table reads. Another writer said “I hope you’re playing this part” at one of those readings, and so I did. I ended up playing him in smaller parts in two other episodes.



What are you currently working on now?

I am writing a pilot for Darren Star Productions and Sony - and developing a kids show for the people that brought you the Care Bears and Holly Hobby. Oh bla di, oh bla da.


Any final words?

Please don’t shoot me. (Oh, sorry, those are my final words in this recurring nightmare of mine...)

I have worked with a lot of celebrities in my career -- a LOT -- and some of them are nice, or smart, or funny. And some are not. And some of them consider themselves writers as well as performers. I have NEVER worked with any star who is as good or better a writer than anyone they could hire. Tracey is a brilliant writer - solo or in collaboration as a partner. And she is definitely the most fun to be around. I love working with her, and I love her even when I’m not. If you’re going to be a fan, you couldn’t have picked someone more deserving. Good luck with the blog - I will be checking in.


Thank you George for giving us this opportunity. We wish you the best!
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