Tinseltown tales: Jack Kaplan, JM 1959, and his daughter, Deborah Pearlman, recently flew to Gainesville to speak with students. (Photo by David Zentz)
Scripting a life
By Boaz Dvir
Over plates of fluffy grits, scrambled eggs and steamy biscuits at the 43rd Street Deli on NW 13th Street on a chilly, gray Gainesville morning, Hollywood writer/ producer Jack Kaplan, JM 1959, and his daughter, Deborah Pearlman, play off each other like a veteran comedy team.
Pearlman, who directs Warner Bros. Television’s Writers Workshop in Los Angeles, recounts a story she heard on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”: Flying back from a tsunami relief effort, former President Bill Clinton offered former President George Bush Sr. the plane’s only available bed. When he woke up, the current commander-in-chief’s father saw the last Democrat to occupy the White House sleeping on the floor.
“He got used to that with Hilary,” Kaplan quipped without missing a beat.
“That’s what Bill Maher said,” Pearlman recalled. “Except your delivery was better.”
Kaplan, who flew in with Pearlman last month to speak with students and hang out with telecommunication faculty, has been delivering lines to television networks and movie studios for three decades. He has written scripts for the likes of Jim Belushi, Jack Lemmon and Michael Keaton. He co-wrote the film “My Fellow Americans” and worked on such TV shows as “Designing Women” and “Lime Street.”
Writing for the smaller screen poses bigger challenges, he said. “You have to artificially place cliff hangers before commercial breaks to carry over the audience. Plus, it’s almost like writing a one-act play on a weekly basis.”
Yet traditionally, TV writers received less respect, although that’s been changing in recent years. “The best writing now is done for television,” Kaplan said. As a result, more feature film writers have been migrating to TV, increasing competition in an already cutthroat field.
It’s so competitive, Kaplan has no idea if he’ll ever see his current work, including a feature, “Love Judge,” and a sitcom, “Bikini Medical,” on the screen.
Writing in this industry has always been a dicey enterprise. When they were children, Pearlman and her sister were constantly cognizant of whether or not their father was employed.
“When we went to the grocery story with our mom, we always asked, ‘Is daddy working?’ If he was, we’d get extra stuff,” Pearlman recalled. “If he wasn’t, we knew not to ask for anything.”
Her empathy for writers serves her well in her chosen career. Each year, she receives 1,000 applications for about 19 positions in each of her two workshops – drama and comedy.
“If I can help one writer, I’m happy,” said Pearlman, who worked for three years on the hit sitcom “Friends.” “It’s so tough to break into and then make it in this business.”
So why did Kaplan stick with it?
Among other reasons, he said, for the thrill of watching his writing come alive on the set.
“It’s a business of failure,” Kaplan said, “but when it succeeds, there’s nothing like it.”