Good Humor Man
Former 'Seinfeld' writer/comic Pat Hazell is funny, upbeat, generous, and, oh yeah, he lives here now
By Barry Pineo, Fri., May 26, 2006
Just close your eyes and you will start to see
Lazy lakes of gravy fill your plate tonight.
So on your way through life's buffet,
Why don't you save some room for a slice
Of American Pie?
theme song of the NBC sitcom American Pie
Pat Hazell isn't about the bad stuff. He's about the good stuff.
You might have already figured that if you saw The Wonder Bread Years, his one-man show about growing up in the Midwest in the Sixties and Seventies, at the State Theatre last year, and/or caught him doing stand-up as part of the Good Humor Men when they played the Paramount in December. But it becomes even more clear when you talk to this sitcom-writer/comic/playwright/actor about Katrina.
See, before it blew through, Hazell and his family had spent four years living in Mandeville, La., right on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. They evacuated before Katrina hit, but "we saw a lot of very, very difficult situations there," says Hazell. "We didn't personally lose friends. We have friends that lost friends; we have relatives that lost relatives. We saw a lot of bad stuff."
But as soon as the storm passed, Hazell and his brother drove a truck filled with cash and supplies into the heart of the emergency. They delivered hundreds of generators. And he was part of an organization that raised almost three quarters of a million dollars in cash and millions of dollars in supplies for relief efforts. When asked about his efforts, Hazell said, "The world can be an amazing place. At times like this, you realize more good than bad."
After the storm, Hazell relocated to Austin, where he lives with his wife and two small children in one of those classy Thirties bungalows just east of South Congress, within a stone's throw of the Capitol. And this week he returns to the State as a local, with a production of Bunk Bed Brothers, a comedy about two siblings who get together at a family reunion, which Hazell wrote with his friend Matt Goldman and in which he'll play one of the three roles.
Where's the Funny?
Hazell leads me through his very comfortably furnished living room, offers me something to drink, then takes me through a room where small children obviously play, out to his spacious, high-ceilinged office in the back. The first thing I notice, possibly because I'm looking for them, is the toys. "We're working on the second touring show of Bunk Bed Brothers," Hazell says with palpable enthusiasm. "The set is a time capsule, so I have to double a lot of the props. I have GI Joe sheets that will go on one of the beds. On all the shelves in their room there are games and toys and Banana Splits posters and black-light Bruce Lee posters. On the inside of the closet door there's a Farrah Fawcett poster. Here's their record player. It's not a close-and-play, but it's a Disney. The mom has to be insane because they've returned at 40, and nothing has changed! That's the leap of faith."
It's not much of a leap. The script is pure comedy, laugh-out-loud funny and tight as a drum, having been developed over 18 years. "Our first script wasn't really structured as a play," says Hazell. "It was two guys in a room playing Nerf basketball. We were a little afraid of the brotherly dialogue thing because we hadn't written that way. So as insurance we would have a chunk of stand-up in there; one brother would leave the room and the other would go on. Ultimately we discovered that our insurance policy was actually our crutch, and it had to go. Each evolution we discovered something new, making it more about this charmer who got by on his wit and really didn't make anything of himself, in contrast to his button-down, do-gooder brother. A modern-day Odd Couple.
"For theatre, it's unusually heavy with jokes and gags. People have told us it's like Must-See-TV, it's like a sitcom. And the experience has that kind of pace to it, but I read plays in high school that were called comedies in three acts, and there was a joke in each act, and I'm like, 'Where's the funny?'"
High school for Hazell was in Omaha, Neb., where his family settled after living in various places in the Midwest just before he entered junior high. His career in entertainment started with magic shows before he was 10. "I was the pick-a-card-any-card kid magician. I taught myself to juggle in my driveway and did some street performing. By the time I was in junior high I was hired by the local daycare center to come over and do a 30-minute show. I had 10 minutes' worth of material, but I did the same trick three times in a row. I thought, 'I'm in the business now!' And that's when you do your first show and you get $2, and you go, if I did this eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, I'm a billionaire!"
By the time he hit high school, Hazell wasn't a billionaire, but he was making a decent dollar off his magic and comedy. "Some people are lucky enough to fall into the big manhole of show business, and I was one of them. I convinced these restaurants in Omaha to let me do my stuff. Different nights of the week, table-to-table, deck of cards, coins, cups, balls, sponge bunnies, whatever, and I would go for about two to three hours a night. If there was a wait, I'd go to the lobby where the wait was. If the tables needed to be turned over, I'd go out and do a couple of tricks. I went to the local tuxedo rental and convinced them to sell me five or six old tuxedos because they were out of style. And I'm walking around at 17 and 18 like a riverboat gambler. I didn't really know that it was all working with so much synergy, but it meant I didn't have to work at the pizza parlor anymore. I didn't have to shovel snow. About five shovelfuls of snow, I go, 'You know what, I'm going to go learn a rope trick. I'm going inside by the fire. I'll see you guys when this thing's over.'"
As a mere pup of 17, Hazell won a contest to open for Rodney Dangerfield, one of many comics for whom he would eventually open. The next logical step: move to Los Angeles.
The Seinfeld Chronicles
"When I moved from Omaha to L.A., I decided to be a stand-up more," says Hazell. "I thought, well, nobody really knows me yet in L.A., I'm just going to drop the props a little bit. When I first did The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, that was just stand-up without any magic. That was a self-declaration of how I'm going to approach this. Well, the people from Omaha saw it and said, 'You didn't do the rope trick! You didn't do the thing with the tape-recorded card trick! What are you, insane? Those are your big hits!'"
Over time, Hazell became the opener for Jerry Seinfeld. "He took me on before there was a show or anything. I opened for his first stand-up special, Stand-Up Confidential, and I went out and opened clubs for him. At that time I still had the props in my act, juggling top hats and stuff like that. And Jerry there was a push, a mentorship suggestion. He said, 'The stuff's good, but you're a strong enough stand-up; you don't need the props.' And I kinda went, 'Well, but...' And he says, 'Honestly, I don't like waiting at the luggage return for your stuff. If you could just carry a garment bag and get on and off the plane.' It was a little bit self-serving because I had this box with stuff in it that we always had to wait a half-hour at the airport. But here's the real bottom line: People are coming to a Jerry Seinfeld concert; they're not paying to see me. If I don't score doing stand-up before him, I'm not going to lose my job because everyone's buying a ticket to see him. He gave me permission to take his audience and my sense of humor and take a chance. So I did that a couple of times, and he goes, 'Look, see? They don't even know about the Etch-A-Sketch and all the stuff you're hauling around.' So it got me writing more and relying less on gimmicks. It ultimately opened me up to monologues, which opened me up to dialogue."
Hazell, along with Seinfeld, Larry David, and Matt Goldman, were the original writers for the first season of Seinfeld's now-famous television show, known then as The Seinfeld Chronicles, but Hazell left after the first season. He continued his relationship with Seinfeld, warming up the audience for dozens of episodes of the show and for other shows as well, and got work writing on series such as Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. But what really dominated Hazell's interest at the time was Bunk Bed Brothers.
"I had produced Bunk Bed in L.A. at a very small theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard," says Hazell. "We showcased it for eight weeks, and we could barely get an audience because you're just battling against L.A. and the Lakers and sunny weather. In a miracle of happenstance we get an L.A. Times review, and it's a carnival review; it looks like I printed it myself. I call this pseudo-writing-agent that I had who had never sent me on a meeting, and I said, 'Listen, your phone is going to ring from today until I sell this thing.'"
Ultimately, Columbia Tristar optioned the rights to make a film of the play, and Hazell and Goldman began writing the screenplay. But they soon found themselves trapped in development hell. "We wrote one version; a year later we wrote another version. Four versions later, one was dramatic. They wanted it to be an important movie, and we're thinking, 'But it's not funny, and there's no bunk beds, and what is this?' It's like doing wash with everybody you know. It all comes out gray and maroon, and nobody wants to wear it. We're talking three-and-a-half, four years later, and along the way they have to keep renewing the option. So the option comes up, and Columbia Tristar is on the fence about it, and at the same time I've been doing warm-up for Seinfeld on the side, so Castle Rock and NBC essentially saw me every week. And the NBC people began asking, 'What are you doing, what's going on?' They wanted to take a meeting with me. And I was thinking, 'Oooo, a meeting, what's this about? A separate meeting all my own, without other people?'
"I have a piece of my advice that I often tell people in my master writing class: If you're pitching anything, the most important thing to do is listen. And the reason you listen is that ultimately they tell you what they want. So if you go in, and you've got the greatest idea in the world and say, here it is, it's Gilligan's Island, but it's on the moon, and if you just do this song-and-dance, dog-and-pony show, ultimately they go, 'Yeah, we've got something like that,' or 'We're going to pass.' But if they tell you in conversation what they want, and then you somehow in their own language say, 'Hey, what about this version of that?,' they go, 'Yeah, that's what we want!'"
What they wanted was a sitcom, and what they got was American Pie, based on Bunk Bed Brothers and not to be confused with the film, which came later and with which Hazell was not involved. "It was made into a pilot. They liked the pilot enough that they ordered five more episodes, so we made six episodes of the show, but they never aired. Warren Littlefield stepped down from the network at a critical time, and the new guy came in and didn't want the old guy's stuff. These six episodes are what we call Musty-TV, sitting in a vault at NBC. Only one episode aired by accident after a World Series game ran short on the West Coast, and it damaged the package so that we couldn't sell it to ABC or CBS because it wasn't a completely original, unaired series. So it was a bittersweet ending."
More Good Than Bad
Missed out on the monster success of Seinfeld, missed out on making the film, missed out on the sitcom. At this point, a lot of people would have thrown up their hands and called it a life, but not Hazell. He's the type of person who's always moving forward, always focused on the positive, on what's next. Ever since Omaha, part of his living has come from organizing corporate events for firms such as Ford Motor Company, GTE, and Verizon, and throughout the American Pie experience, Hazell worked on The Wonder Bread Years, which ended up touring the country for more than five years. He also has his own company, Sweetwater Productions, which manages his properties, as well as Good Humor Men and others. And now Austin is his home.
"My wife is a singer-songwriter. It's something she's rebooting because the kids are at an age where they're starting school and stuff. We've hiked to the Continental Club and the Saxon Pub. We get to the outdoor things at Güero's. Anybody who can't get involved in this town is either a shut-in or in an iron lung or something. You can't turn around without somebody saying, 'Here's a good idea for you.' So ultimately we've decided we're going to stay here for good and get the kids in school and settle down."
It's a good life, and that goodness is reflected in everything Hazell does. "When I present something," he says, "I present it with a lot of take-home. When you leave, you feel good, it's fun, it's funny, it's escapism, it takes you away from nightly news. You can release any kind of energy you have with laughter and create a sense of community. An audience that leaves Wonder Bread or Bunk Bed, they always go, 'Oh, that happened to me. Oh, I had that thing. Oh, my brother did that to me.' And that, to me, is when we've landed, because it reflects at least a little bit on their life. I'm really not a fan of going over the edge. I want people to be able to come with their wife or their grandma or their kid."
So shake hands with your newest neighbor, Austin, a really funny and, most importantly, good guy: Pat Hazell.
Bunk Bed Brothers runs May 31-June 18, at the State Theatre, 719 Congress. For more information, visit www.austintheatre.org.