I keep seeing posters all over town for a new television show called The Blacklist and it’s a bit crazy-making because I wrote a musical about the blacklist (Such Good Friends) and this show called The Blacklist is about some fictional blacklist, not the real one from around 1950.
Makes one wonder whether anyone’s pitched a series about actual show business blacklisting. Do the networks carry a guilty conscience for, way back when, barring suspected Communists and those who refused to testify against them from the airwaves? Well, that assumes network executives have a sense of history that goes back further than the previous season. More likely, they just don’t consider a show about the scoundrel time a good idea.
Why? Because it’s so damned sad. A quick review of those terror-fueled times:
- Soviet expansionism led to massive fear about the possibility there were Communist spies in the United States.
- Senator Joe McCarthy waved a piece of paper and claimed it listed known Communists in the State Department.
- Congress held hearings. The House Un-American Activities Committee had the power to subpoena and question. Seeking headlines, they decided to search for Reds in the entertainment industry.
- Studio executives, worried that the public wouldn’t want to see a film or TV show deemed “Un-American,” set up a secret blacklist: People they wouldn’t hire because they’d been to Communist meetings, or refused to name names before the HUAC.
- This had the effect of forcing friends to rat on friends. And it spiraled to an extent where presence at a Communist Party meeting twenty years earlier wasn’t the only “crime.” All sorts of organizations were deemed subversive, including charities and ad hoc groups supporting racial justice.
Sounds like a load of laughs, don’t it?
Well, ten or fifteen years ago, when I began work on my show about the blacklist, I too thought the subject to be so sad, it needed an unexpected element to keep an audience engaged. It needed a load of laughs. If I created characters who were such incorrigible clowns, they’d crack jokes at the bleakest of times, then the true tragedy could play, leavened with levity.
Here’s something I always found odd: Mel Brooks (as producer) and Neil Simon both turned their experiences writing for Sid Caesar in the 1950s into popular entertainments. My Favorite Year and Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor provided lots of yoks, but largely avoided mention of McCarthyism, the nettlesome scourge of most television writers’ lives back then. Now, I’ve suffered through dramas about the period with nary a chuckle. And here I go complaining about a couple of masterful comedies with nary a tear.
The film, The Front, however, scratched both itches. Made roughly 20 years after the height of the Red Scare, it rewarded the viewer already familiar with the situation by casting a large number of actors who’d been on the blacklist. One imagines casting sessions in which they’re similarly impressed by two different actors, but the one who’d escaped the taint loses by a nose. The younger characters both went into musical theatre: Andrea Marcovicci a major cabaret singer; Woody Allen the librettist of this season’s Bullets Over Broadway.
The fictional TV show portrayed in The Front is a dramatic anthology (the most familiar example of this sub-genre is The Twilight Zone). Putting two and one together, I decided to make my show-within-the-show a musical comedy variety show, like Sid Caesar’s. In The Front, the main character isn’t in show business; he’s a bookie. Not a naturally humorous profession, but then, it was Woody Allen. I made my main character the star of the show – a little like Lucille Ball, a little like Imogene Coca. And her buddies her writer and director. That gave me three comic characters, dealing with the pressures of putting a live show on the air at the dawn of the television era. Such Good Friends starts as a distinctly un-serious bundle of frivolity. And then the reality of the blacklist creeps in.
Which means a far more dramatic second act. But, even while being grilled by the HUAC, the characters maintain their sense of humor. Not because I needed them to, but because dealing with stresses by cracking jokes is a big part of who they are.
So, a show depicting the effects of McCarthyism may never sound like a laugh riot. But in the case if Such Good Friends, that’s just what it is.