WHAT’S SO FUNNY?
“AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT
RYAN PAUL JAMES”
BY AMY WENDLE
Amy Wendle: How long have you been writing?
RPJ: When I really think about it, I’ve been writing for almost twenty years. When I was back in Florida taking acting classes, I used to write my own scenes, and then when I was asked “What play is that from?” or “What movie is that from?” I would lie and say I got the scene from a scene book. I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to be an actor. To my surprise, the other actors liked my scenes and the writing. I’ll never forget an actor asking me if he could borrow my scene book. I said that I lost it, but he could buy it at “Barnes and Noble”. I told him that I forgot the title, but it was green with blue writing on the front. Wouldn’t you know it, the next week he found a scene book that was green with blue writing on it. I figured that I should be honest after that.
AW: When did you realize that writing was something you wanted to do as a career?
RPJ: Nine years ago, I joined a theater company in Hollywood called Theatre 68. The artistic director, Ronnie Marmo, and I became close friends. I used to send him funny emails that he and his wife, Wendy would read. One day I was over at their house for dinner, and they suggested that I should start writing. I thanked them, but I didn’t take it seriously. Until one night, I was watching an old movie on TV. All of a sudden I got an idea for a play. I started writing it that night and couldn’t stop writing. Forty eight hours later I had written my first play, “Lost In Radioland”. I told Ronnie about the show, and let him read the script. He liked it, but wanted me to do more rewrites with a very funny actress Denny Siegel. After a few rewrites, Ronnie put the show up, and it was a great hit. It was during this process that I realized just how much I love to write. “Lost In Radioland” ran for eight weeks at Theatre 68, and it later got picked up by Theatre Palisades. We had amazing audiences, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I came away with a hit play and a new girlfriend, who would later become my wife, Melissa Disney.
AW: Tell me about that.
RPJ: (Laughing) Melissa and I were friends going into “Lost In Radioland”. I knew she was a great actress, so I asked her to be in the show. I’m often accused of casting her because I was interested in dating her, but that’s not the truth. It was after we were in the rehearsal process, that’s when I started asking her out. She’s an amazing woman, and I can’t believe that she married me.
AW: How has your marriage with Melissa affected your writing?
RPJ: She is so supportive, and really brings out the humor in me. I can tell her an idea I’m working on, and her laughter is all I need, to know that I’ve got a great idea in the works.
AW: Do you have a favorite play you’ve written?
RPJ: I really don’t, because each one has been such an amazing experience. “The World’s Worst Play, Ever” was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing and directing. “Desperately Seeking Love” was a very special experience for me, because it was my first Romantic/Comedy. Plus getting to work with an amazing cast with actors like Bernie Kopell, Mariette Hartley, Richard Horvitz, Deborah Geffner, Izzy Diaz, my wife and Katie Zeiner, who’s been in every show I’ve written. That was a special cast and an experience I’ll never forget.
AW: How did you come up with the idea for “What’s So Funny?”?
RPJ: I was writing a couple of scripts for a couple of television shows, and an idea hit me - “what if there was a play about a writer and while he writes, his ideas are being played out by actors”. I began to work with that idea, and before I knew it, I had a play that I was very excited about.
AW: How do you know if your script is good or not?
RPJ: I don’t know. On the day of opening night, I usually have a panic attack and I’m a nervous wreck. When I start to feel better is after I hear the audience laugh for the first time.
AW: What’s the lasting impression you want your audience to have when they leave one of your shows?
RPJ: I want them to come out feeling like they’ve just had a great time. When I write, I try not to write anything that’ll make the audience feel uncomfortable. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was somebody telling me they wet themselves because they were laughing so hard. Another compliment was a guy who felt like his wife dragged him to a play, and by the end of the show, he ended up having a great time. That’s what I want, people wetting themselves and realizing their wives are always right.
AW: Who is your favorite playwright?
RPJ: I’ve got more than one. Neil Simon can never do wrong in my book, and I love his style of writing. However, my favorite play is Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off”, but there is one writer that I really enjoy. I’ve recently struck up a friendship with Jonathan Lynn and I look at him as my mentor. I’ve watched his movie “Clue” well over a hundred times, and his British TV show “Yes, Prime Minister” was brilliant television. He has now turned “Yes, Prime Minister” into a play, and it’s some of the best theatre I’ve seen in a long time. For anyone wanting to be a writer or director in theatre they need to read Jonathan’s book “Comedy Rules”. As you can tell I’m a big fan of Jonathan’s, and I’m so honored to call him a friend.
AW: Where do you see yourself professionally in ten years?
RPJ: Hopefully writing for television. I feel like I’ve got some really good ideas for some TV shows. I also hope I’m still writing for the stage, and my plays are being performed all over the world.
“What’s So Funny?” will make its debut at Theater Palisades July 19, 20, 21, 27 & 28. ■
For more information on Ryan Paul James: www.ryanpauljamesproductions.com