When a top TV writer turns to off-Broadway

After a decade, Chuck Ranberg watches his play come to life

What's the latest challenge for a writer who has enjoyed success penning comedic scripts for TV's award-winning "Frasier?" In Chuck Ranberg's case, he looked to the theater.

Mr. Ranberg's "End of the World Party," currently running off-Broadway, successfully manages to combine a heartfelt story with a torrent of laughs.

Although this is Ranberg's first play, his writing took him in another direction a decade ago. Together with his writing partner, Anne Flett, he landed a spot on the writing team for the TV series "Kate & Allie." The pair met while studying film and television at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

"We both had office jobs at Lorimar [Entertainment in Los Angeles]. I was in post-production, and Anne was in publicity. We wrote a 'spec' script for 'Kate & Allie' when the show was brand new, and a friend of ours, a writer at Lorimar who took us under his wing, offered to send it to [TV comedy writer] Bill Persky. And some months later, out of the blue, he called."

Being hired meant moving to New York, where the comedy was being produced, and Persky was in charge. Working with him "was miraculous," Ranberg says. Persky's television writing credentials include such comedy classics as "Your Show of Shows," "That Girl," and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

After three seasons with "Kate & Allie," Ranberg and Flett returned to Los Angeles, and soon after, were part of another team that created a contemporary classic, NBC's "Frasier." That work yielded five Emmy Awards for the writers. Ranberg currently serves as a consultant on the CBS comedy series "Becker."

"I had given up ever seeing [my] play presented until Matthew Lombardo came along," Ranberg says. The theater director expressed interest in doing a version in Los Angeles, which led to subsequent productions in Los Angeles and Houston. Its current incarnation, at the 47th Street Theater, opened in early November.

The story traces a summer in the lives of five gay men who share a house on New York's Fire Island each year. "I started writing it around 1989," the writer says. "A lot of the feelings and emotions and events come from that time. And I've been tinkering with it over the years."

"The truth is, there are aspects of me in all these characters," Ranberg says. "We all went through a really crazy phase, he says, adding that "you outgrow it and realize that it's self-destructive."

Seeking out, and failing at, relationships is the common thread that weaves together the lives of the major characters in "End of the World Party." But however serious and touching the life stories in the play are, they are tempered with large doses of humor.

Ranberg's comedy-writing talents have matured over the years into one of the most acclaimed careers in contemporary television. He credits the brilliant ensemble that created the original "I Love Lucy" series in the early '50s, which included Bob Carroll, Madelyn Pugh, and Jess Oppenheimer, with "inventing the [situation comedy] form. It hasn't changed as much as you might think from what they did. However, today, writing staffs are huge by comparison. On a show like 'Frasier,' you'll typically have 10 or 12 writers."

He's learned how "a play is different. It was very freeing, creatively, not being restricted to the format of television, which is very strict. And it's a little more terrifying. If a TV show flops, a whole team of writers shares the blame. With a play, it's just you."

But the play hasn't flopped, and he hopes to adapt it into a film. He and Flett are also fielding a few development deals with Paramount Television for new series ideas. Relating what he has learned from the theater to the world of TV, he observes:

"It amazes me, after my experience with this play, that in television, where the stakes are so high, and so much money is devoted to it, that there isn't more time given to the development process, like in theater, where you might take a year to develop a script, and have some readings before you decide on a final cast."

Ranberg was part of the team that generated the failed sitcom "Encore! Encore!" which starred Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright on NBC a few seasons back. It's an example of a show that, he says, "had to go on the air even though it wasn't ready, because of all the deals that were in place. It was impossible, after a certain point, to say 'this isn't right, let's postpone.' Despite all best intentions, it just wasn't ready."

Asked if offers to write feature films have come along, based on the television success, he says, "a little bit. But generally not to write something original. Feature producers look to TV writers to do a 'pass-through' to add one-liners."

As for future theater projects, he concedes, "I'm not sure there will be [any]. The theater world moves so slowly. This one took such a long time to come together. I took the time to get it right because it's very personal to me. I might try another play if the right subject comes to me. But this really moved me, and I had to write about it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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