Joe Keenan confers with Stockard
Channing on the set of Out of Practice.
On a Monday morning in October, the cavernous lobby of the Chateau Marmont, Hollywood's legendary hotel perched above Sunset Boulevard, is all but empty. I have no trouble identifying the figure seated on a couch typing at his laptop as Joe Keenan, author of two comic novels, Blue Heaven (1988) and Putting on the Ritz (1991), and, more recently, the Emmy Award—winning writer and producer for six seasons on the TV show Frasier.
When Keenan rises to greet me, he explains that he's at work rewriting the script for an episode of his new fall show, Out of Practice, a sitcom starring Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler. Ratings for the previous week's episode were down, and cast and crew are worried CBS will cancel the show. Keenan has to get to a writers' conference at Paramount by noon. That gives us a couple of hours to talk about the project that matters most to him at the moment: his third novel, My Lucky Star, which takes place in contemporary Hollywood, with a scene or two set at the Chateau Marmont, and which Little, Brown will publish in January.
With his blond, blue-eyed good looks, the 47-year-old Keenan rather resembles a wholesome Midwestern farm boy—or perhaps an innocent Amish lad, a character invoked in one of My Lucky Star's more cunning narrative devices. Then, too, Keenan's solid six-foot frame and open features suggest something of his literary idol, English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, as a younger man.
But looks can be deceiving. Keenan actually grew up in a working-class Irish-Catholic family in Boston. As a "tiny homosexual," as he puts it in an autobiographical lecture he's delivered on occasion, he wrote short plays and was lucky enough to attend a camp that let him stage them. At his all-male Jesuit high school, he met other students who shared his passion for the theater. He wrote light sketches and songs imbued with a camp sensibility and a fondness for tasteless puns. His all-singing, all-dancing version of Oedipus Rex included a song called "Hey There, You with the Scars in Your Eyes."
He received a scholarship to attend Columbia University, but dropped out in the middle of his junior year. As an English major, he was spending too much time acting in plays and taking elective writing classes while avoiding less alluring required courses. In his mid-20s, he was accepted to a master's degree program for musical theater writers at NYU, despite lacking a bachelor's degree. One summer between semesters at NYU, he decided to try his hand at a short story. He chose Wodehouse as his model. "I greatly admired his rigorous plotting and his comedy of escalating chaos," says Keenan.
What started out as a short story became his first novel, Blue Heaven, published as a trade paperback in 1988 by Penguin, which three years later released Putting on the Ritz in hardcover. Marketed primarily to a gay audience, these two novels—about the comic misadventures of aspiring writer Philip Cavanaugh; his unscrupulous former lover, Gilbert Selwyn; and their brainy pal, Claire Simmons—developed a strong if largely cult following, including many straight readers. Part of their appeal was that these defiantly light-hearted novels ignored the weighty issues that concerned other gay writers at the time, such as AIDS, homophobia and politics.
Blue Heaven attracted the attention of the creators of Cheers, who invited Keenan to Hollywood in 1991 to discuss ideas for a new sitcom. He wrote a script about a movie star in 1930s Hollywood called Gloria Vane, which, to his astonishment, was produced as a pilot at a cost of some $2 million in 1993. NBC failed to pick up Gloria Vane, but the producers of Frasier were impressed enough to hire Keenan as a staff writer starting with the show's second season.
A full-time job in television left little time for writing fiction. "Frasier ccupied me for 10 months of the year, and there was only so much one could accomplish on weekends," says Keenan. He spent nine years on My Lucky Star, the first two devoted just to working out the intricate plot. First, he had to contrive to get nonentities—Philip, Gilbert and Claire—involved with major movie stars.
Second, since these major movie stars are fictional characters, how does one fill in their back stories without awkward digression? The author, in the voice of his ever-polite narrator, Philip, imagines that there might be a reader—personified in an isolated Amish teenager, Amos—who has never heard of these famous people. For the sake of the hypothetical Amos, he details the careers of aging has-been actress Lily Malenfant; Lily's more successful actress sister, Diana; and Diana's narcissistic son, Stephen Donato, a closeted male action star.
For verisimilitude, various real Hollywood celebrities have walk-ons, like Harrison Ford and Anthony Hopkins. Did Keenan ask their permission? "No, but I made sure to cast them only in a favorable light."
Keenan's greatest challenge was to figure out how to get his heroes out of the fix they're in by novel's end, when a mean-spirited district attorney is about to charge them with a host of crimes, including impersonating a police officer and abetting male prostitution. This required Keenan to construct his story with all the care of a classic fair-play detective story. At this he succeeds brilliantly.
While Keenan, like Wodehouse, seeks only to amuse, a significant plot line in My Lucky Starhinges on a less than funny cultural reality. Despite the growing presence of openly gay characters on TV and in films (the daughter of the family portrayed in Out of Practice is a lesbian), today no male action-film star would dare admit he was homosexual. "He would risk losing his straight fans. It would be box-office disaster," says Keenan. "I suspect the situation will eventually change, people will be more accepting, but that's the way it is for now."
Unlike Wodehouse's man-about-town, Bertie Wooster, Keenan's characters have sex lives, yet in Blue Heavenand Putting on the Ritz he drew the curtain at the bedroom door. My Lucky Star crosses that line with an outrageous and hilarious gay sex scene. The text gives fair warning beforehand: "Those of you reading this aloud to small children might find this a good time to tell them that the big strong masseur rubbed the handsome actor till he felt all better and who wants ice cream?"
I drive Keenan to Paramount Studios before his scheduled meeting. On the way, the author sings musical comedy lyrics he's composed that are, no surprise, witty and clever. When I ask about possible film interest in My Lucky Star, Keenan points out that the liberties the novel takes with a certain beloved Hollywood icon present "a huge hurdle."
With its Spanish-style architecture, little changed from the 1930s, the Paramount lot has the air of a college campus on a quiet day. Nothing is happening on the set, but Keenan is an enthusiastic tour guide. We walk some distance to reach the sound stage where Out of Practice is filmed before the traditional three cameras in front of a live audience. Despite a trend in TV series toward a more realistic, feature-film style, as in Sex and the City, Keenan likes this approach because it reminds him of live theater.
He's perfectly happy writing and producing teleplays and will continue to do so as long as his talents are wanted. And, of course, TV pays so much better than writing fiction. Keenan enjoys his large house in Studio City, where he lives with his partner of many years, but he says he'll have no regrets if the work should run out and he has to give up Hollywood. "I prefer to write fiction," he admits. Since a month later CBS approved a full 13 episodes of Out of Practice, that prospect isn't imminent.
TV or not TV? remains the question as Keenan says good-bye and rushes off to his noon meeting. Though comic novels rarely hit bestseller lists, what if My Lucky Star reaches the broad audience he and his publisher are hoping for and it earns him enough to resume fiction-writing full-time? Finally, even if Keenan has all the time in the world to write another novel, how can he possibly top My Lucky Star?