Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2016 (April 13, 2016 at 8:00 am)

Writing for Television


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April 6, 2016 at 2:54 pm
By Jon Haller’02

[S16] Beloit Alumni, Leno, Allen
From left: John Pasquin’67, Jon Haller’02, Jay Leno, and Tim Allen on the set of Last Man Standing.

There’s always someone who scoffs when you tell them you’re a theater major. I can safely say now that person is an asshole. I don’t understand the mockery theater majors endure, as if we said, “I’m getting a degree in juggling.” Theater artists possess many skills and some can even juggle. Or at least mime it. Maybe I’m lucky. Not only can I juggle, but I got a kick-ass education in theater at Beloit and no other experience has contributed more to my job writing for television.

Even though my education at Beloit was shaped by many people, I want to single out two specific dudes: Rod Umlas and Bob Acevedo’00. Freshman year, a flier went up around campus reading “Auditions for Improv Comedy.” The sophomore who taped them up was a short man with a shaved head who could move like a monkey, do an impeccable Hitler impression, and make anyone laugh. This was Bob Acevedo. Over the next week, Bob cast an eclectic group of weirdos into his improv troupe. We immediately jumped into group storytelling, pushing our imaginations, honing our wits. At first, we took the name Freudian Slips. Then Internet research revealed a thousand other troupes with that moniker, so Andy Cameron’02 came up with the name Voodoo Barbie, apparently after the two things he loved most from his childhood.  

For the next four years, Voodoo Barbie met on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Weeks Lounge, creating characters and situations, telling stories and cracking each other up. We started performing in front of audiences and over time, we could fill Richardson Auditorium on a Friday night. Dan Barlow’03 would dress up in a cow suit and invite everyone in the dining hall to our show. Back then, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on campus, so if you were drunk, stoned, or bored, our shows were wildly entertaining. Bob Acevedo was proud of his strange and wacky circus. After his last show his senior year, we carried him out on our shoulders like Rudy.  

When I wasn’t doing improv, I was performing what we theater nerds called “The Work of Rod.” Professor Rod Umlas taught several theater classes and directed a play each semester. To this day, I’m grateful that Rod introduced me to some of my favorite playwrights: Naomi Wallace, Sam Shepherd, August Wilson. Rod read every play in the world and kept them all in a cartoonishly large stack of papers in his office. Over the years, I took each class he offered, but one that stood out was Script Analysis. As his students circled around a large table beneath the Neese stage and read scenes from Fences or Buried Child, Rod would ask, “which character is driving this scene, what does she want, how is she going about getting what she wants, what is the moment she has won or lost her goal?” Through this meticulous analysis of scenes, we learned two things: the essence of drama, and 15 people in a windowless room gets stinky.  

Thirteen years later, I’m on the writing staff of Last Man Standing. Every day, I sit in a room in Studio City much like that classroom beneath the Neese stage. The writers of the show, like Voodoo Barbie, are a wacky bunch. We’re forced to think on our feet and call out lines. We pitch stories, ideas, and punchlines and compile them into scripts. When a draft is finished, it’s time for Script Analysis. Under the guidance of our showrunner, we pore over each scene, tracking the main character’s goal, making sure that character is active, keeping the drama alive. Next, we hand the script off to an immensely talented cast who rehearses for the next five days. The writers watch each rehearsal, tracking the progress of the story, listening for what jokes work. Then we bring in a live audience to watch the taping of the show. It’s like putting up a one-act play. At times, a line or joke falters, and the writers must come up with a new one on the spot. In these moments, before a live audience, my job feels like the synthesis of those two schools of theater I learned at Beloit from Bob and Rod—understanding the tools of drama, while approaching it with a playful and improvisational mind. Damn it. I majored in juggling after all.  

Before he joined the writing staff of Last Man Standing, Jon Haller’02 wrote for 30 Rock. He lives in Glendale, Calif.


Connections

Theatre Nerds
“When I came back to Beloit for my 10-year reunion, the theater nerds were having dinner with our favorite professor, Rod Umlas, at a Mexican restaurant in Janesville. Rod brought a photo album with pictures he took from some of the plays we were in. There was a picture of me in Phone Noir, the last show of my senior year. I played a nymphomaniac cokehead who blows his brains out in the last scene (Rod always picked interesting plays). I had to perform that last scene in my boxers and one night, when I shot myself and fell back into the bed, my boxers flipped up, exposing me to some elderly ladies sitting in the front row. Ten years later, at that Mexican restaurant, Rod told me that play was sponsored by John Pasquin’67, a Beloit alumnus who went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon. I had been working with John for two years on Last Man Standing and did not know that A) we both went to Beloit, and B) he essentially sponsored my most humiliating theatric experience. When I got back to Los Angeles, I found Pasquin on stage, directing that week’s episode. I handed him a little Beloit sticker from the reunion and said ‘Thanks to you, some old ladies saw my junk.’”

Last Man Standing
“Back in 2011 when we were taping the pilot episode, I knew working on this show would be a wild ride. John Pasquin, who had directed Home Improvement and The Santa Clause with Tim Allen, was the obvious choice to direct the pilot. He’s a unique television director whose experience in film brought a sense of depth to the stage of Last Man Standing. Pilots are difficult because so many cooks are banging around in the kitchen. The show’s creator, Jack Burditt, gracefully waded through a storm of notes from the studio, network, cast, and Pasquin himself to make the script as sharp as possible by show night. There were a lot of late-night rewrites, but by the end of the final week of rehearsals, we invited 200 people to fill the seats of our audience and watch the live taping. When Pasquin yelled “action,” Tim Allen entered to thunderous applause. Tim’s onstage charisma and deft comedic chops were unlike anything I’d seen. He could make an audience roar with laughter with a look or a sigh. Hearing how that audience embraced him, I knew this show had something special. In January of 2016, we taped our 100th episode.”


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