An Interview with Steve & Mark O’Donnell
Steve and Mark O'Donnell
Steve O’Donnell has written for David Letterman, Chris Rock, Jimmy Kimmel, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons. Mark O’Donnell has written many books and plays, including the novels Getting over Homer and Let Nothing You Dismay. He won a Tony as the co-author of the musical Hairspray. This interview was conducted over the phone, with Mark in New York and Steve in Los Angeles, shortly after their mutual fiftieth birthday.
STEVE: Why don’t we begin by asking crassly and blatantly why anyone would care to read this interview? I guess there may be some interest in show business, in which we are involved in a… not visible way.
MARK: I like to joke that my autobiography will be called My Life near Show Biz.
STEVE: Yes, we’re in the vicinity—though perhaps, like the underground tunnels that connect the worlds of Disneyland or Disneyworld, we’re like anonymous costumed cast members shuttling from one enchanted castle to another ride, like Pirates of the Caribbean. Let’s also be frank about the freak-show angle about our twinness, though I have to believe that even that alone isn’t quite enough to sell it. There are other twins who’ve exerted some fascination in show business and much more famously, such as Mary Kate and Ashley—and by the way, we should figure out which of us would be Mary Kate and which of us would be Ashley later.
MARK: Philip and Julius Epstein—
STEVE: The guys who wrote Casablanca. There was some other guy involved, but he was just a “uni”—that is, a non-twin.
MARK: The Sklar brothers… Well, you’ve won, what? Four Emmys? Five?
STEVE: Well, I like to think of myself as a sixteen-time Emmy loser. It just keeps me more humble. Yes, I was lucky enough to garner a few statuettes because of the outstanding reputations of Dave Letterman and Chris Rock, whom I’ve worked for. But there are other twins who are arguably more interesting than you and I. The Hee Haw twins—the Hager brothers, Jon and Jim, who I believe still perform. Perhaps they still pick and perhaps they still grin.
MARK: I was overseas, in Ireland, when Hee Haw was in its heyday, so I don’t know the Hager brothers.
STEVE: You got to meet one of the Shaffer brothers, didn’t you?
MARK: Right, Peter and Anthony Shaffer, the twin playwrights—Amadeus, Sleuth, Equus.
STEVE: I guess I think we should get to the more sensational aspect of our relationship—the fact that we’re twin brothers from a large family of ten brothers and sisters, working-class Cleveland, offspring of a welder and a… homemaker, who were themselves the offspring of immigrants. And, that most profound as well as lurid portion of the equation, that you’re gay and I’m straight. There’s a carnival-act aspect to that, but it opens the doors to more profound questions. Nature versus nurture, environment versus heredity… all that stuff.
MARK: And I’m left-handed and you’re right-handed, though that’s not quite as provocative. You’d think there would have been more farcical complications in our lives, but we haven’t had any of those mistaken-identity sweetheart mix-ups. Well, there was that time in Harvard Square a woman came up to me—an actress you’d performed with—and gave me a big kiss, and then as she realized I was someone she didn’t know, she gave a little scream.
STEVE: Yes, little screams have been greeting us through most of our lives. We were identical enough in our first few decades that we could switch classes in school, and I remember once in study hall where the appropriately named Claudia Panik sized me up and decided I wasn’t you, and let out a scream.
MARK: So maybe that’s what led us into show biz. The Beatles feedback…
STEVE: Well, don’t you think the fact that we were the youngest of ten would be more conducive to show business, because show biz is a silly career, it’s not practical?
MARK: Yes, we were indulged.
STEVE: And as we frequently like to give credit where it’s due, every one of our siblings is funnier than you and I, but they were much too decent to pursue making wise-ass comments and getting paid for it.
MARK: And we got lucky breaks, like the scholarships to Harvard, with the Lampoon and the Hasty Pudding, which led to, well, at least thinking about living on the East Coast, and maybe a career in show biz. Did you know you wanted that then? You went back to Cleveland and moved furniture and wrote greeting cards. Was that your apprenticeship as a writer?
STEVE: I think sometimes things are happening and you don’t acknowledge that they’re happening. The fact was that I was always interested in the story of things, and the visuals of things, and the fun presentation of things. We always liked jokes, the funny papers and comic books and Jonathan Winters. You don’t necessarily think you’re going to do it for a living. I didn’t take the future very seriously as a kid. I imagine it may have to due with being Roman Catholic or fatalistic, but also, the fact is we weren’t very driven, our folks didn’t lean on us to do one thing or another. When they said “Stay out of jail and keep your name out of the papers,” I think they were sincere about that. They just hoped we could earn enough to pay the bills from month to month, and not get too many permanent scars.
MARK: And also, when you’re a kid, that was like your job. Even in college I remember thinking, College is a good gig. But it took graduating to make me realize some kind of livelihood would have to be maintained.
STEVE: That’s the subject for a whole other interview that doesn’t have a lot to do with our straightness or gayness. As a kid, I think I had a sort of sheltered Panglossian attitude, that everything was the way it had to be, that the cop was a cop, that the pictures in the books were exactly the right pictures to be there. It didn’t occur to me that I would move out of the kid status and assume an adult life. I knew Mom and Dad had once been kids, but in the universe I lived in they were always the way they were.
MARK: Yes, not plot but backstory.
STEVE: Yet there was just enough belief in reality to be slightly peeved to have missed things that happened before we were born. Denny and Tony had a duck? We didn’t get to see the duck? I felt a little cheated.
MARK: I know you like to quote that E. B. White line, “Come to New York only if you’re willing to be lucky.” We both came here with no particular prospects or promises, just that foolhardiness of youth that doesn’t think about how difficult it’s going to be.
STEVE: Well, there is some kind of a second sense, some guess at what your abilities are. I thought maybe I’d get a job in advertising, or at a magazine. Charles Schulz, the Peanutscartoonist, used to say that cartooning was a job for—
MARK: —for the “Fairly.” Fairly funny, draws fairly well…
STEVE: Exactly. That might kind of be true for comedy and TV writing. You’re Fairly Smart and Fairly Artistic, but you’re not going to be a fine artist. Not deathless literature, but entertainment with as high a reverberation as you can go for.
MARK: I think of that W. C. Fields movie where he’s a circus sideshow barker, and he’s showing off a drab pair of twins, and one’s the World’s Smallest Giant, and the other’s the World’s Tallest Midget. I’d like to think I’m an artsy writer who’s comic and you’re a comedy writer who’s artistic.
STEVE: Well, that’s very nice to say. I would also cite the chicken and the egg, which came first, and what leads to what, that’s another deep question that we are the peculiar poster boys for. We’re five minutes apart by technical age-reckoning only, we were conceived simultaneously, but the fact that I was born first might weirdly bear on the fact that I’m heterosexual and you’re homosexual.
MARK: Yeah, you were domineering as a kid, and there could be chemical influences, too, even in the womb, who got what placenta.
STEVE: That’s what I’m saying, chicken or egg. Did Dad and the older brothers spend a little more time with me, and that had an effect, or maybe in their animal intuitions did they sense they had more in common with me?
MARK: Well, what we share is a Midwestern sense both of dubiousness and good nature. That may be what leads to a lot of comedy writers’ becoming comedy writers. Good nature and skepticism.
STEVE: I agree with that, and of course we have way much more in common than distinctions. But the fact that I had a couple micro-ounces on you meant that I was born first, the larger of the two babies, and have remained the larger of the two. Then there’s the sociological element, the pecking order of the family, that you were the tail end of the line, I think you have a term for it—
MARK: Low man on the scrotum pole. Yes, and though people say, “Ooh, you’re both comedy writers!” and even though I wrote for Saturday Night Live, I gravitated toward books and theater, and you toward TV, even though you write beautiful prose and draw really well.
STEVE: I still think the significant question is why two different paths were taken by two people with similar upbringings.
MARK: Yeah, but in our day-to-day life we’re not so wildly different. When I visit friends and make jokes about their bric-a-brac, they say, That’s just what Steve said.
STEVE: Yes, I acknowledge that, but why are we conducting this interview? What insights are we supposed to be offering here?
MARK: Well, we’re talking about what it’s like to be writers, as well as to be brothers.
STEVE: I don’t think anyone cares about that.
MARK: I assume the people who read this are likely to be writers themselves. Well. I aspired from early on to write a novel, to be in the New Yorker, to be on Broadway, and at least in a fleeting way, I got all those things. Is there anything you’re burning to do that you haven’t yet done?
STEVE: Hmm. To write any complete work, be it a book or play or movie, that is most purely oneself, with as few compromises and outside interferences as possible…
MARK: You and Letterman were a good match. Those Top-Tenbooks were on the best-seller list—
STEVE: Well, they weren’t technically books. Even the Timeslisted them under “Advice, Miscellaneous and How-To.”
MARK: But they were continuously funny, and as comedy goes, they had a kind of poetry to them.
STEVE: Well, that’s nice to say, and I appreciate your mentioning the “Top-Ten List” as my little asterisked entry in the record books of comedy, even though it was a perfectly ordinary idea that has certainly gotten its use and re-use and re-use—
MARK: You couldn’t have dreamed of being a Lettermanwriter as a kid, but it was a perfect realization for your sensibility.
STEVE: I felt giddy and exalted when I got the job. Our high-school guidance counselors—who, we might as well say now, in semi-print, were scandalously incompetent—did have that one chestnut about “Find that thing you do well and go out and do it.” I felt that with Letterman.
MARK: I just met Jimmy Kimmel and his staff. They seem like a great bunch—you seem well-matched there too.
STEVE: Yes. I think he’s going to be more and more appreciated as someone who’s quick and smart and funny. There’s so many problems to juggle in the first year or two of a TV show, especially when there’s a lot of higher-ups to please. Art Made Tongue-Tied by Authority.
MARK: As I went from Off-Broadway to Broadway, I was amazed at how much more interference you get from people with, or should I say, in suits.
STEVE: All that micromanaging of sitcom scripts where all these points are made, nineteen times out of twenty they fail anyway. I think they ought to let the individual voice speak more. They have nothing to lose, even by their own venal standards—Catwoman has two dozen writers working on it, and you don’t necessarily get a movie that’s two dozen times better.
MARK: That’s why I love writing novels, even if only a few thousand people read them. Here’s my soul, I hope it appeals to your soul.
STEVE: That’s always the best approach. Address a reader you imagine to be a lot like yourself.
MARK: John Waters likes to refer to focus groups as “Fuck Us Groups.”
STEVE: That’s why you love John Waters. Oh, before we wind up— also, maybe we should mention the utterly mundane aspect of our childhood was that we could be partners, we could play off each other.
MARK: Like Gallagher and Shean.
STEVE: Abbott and Costello.
MARK: And we covered more ground. And we inherited the older kids’ books and toys, so in some ways we got ten lives as well as two. It gave us more background, more data.
STEVE: They may be so. And I absorbed musical theatre, Pogo, Peanuts—all those things from you…
MARK: You gave me Bob Dylan, I gave you Noel Coward.
STEVE: Yes, you gave me poetry and I gave you, well, I guess, Carl Perkins and trains and Woody Guthrie. And the Battle of Gettysburg, as rendered in Crayolas.