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A son of Maplewood fulfills his childhood wish: to write comedy.
By Nick Humez
After an absence of 14 years, "Crocodile Dundee" is back on the silver screen, this time in a story set on the West Coast. Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski once again play Mick and Sue, now parents of a precocious lad named Mikey; they're in Hollywood, investigating some shady dealings at a movie studio. In the process, Mick Dundee behaves with the charming mix of bravado and naiveté that created a generation of Paul Hogan fans in the 1980s: combating a mechanical snake at Disneyland, stopping in the middle of the freeway to rescue a skunk (and, yes, wrestling an alligator).
The script of Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles is the film debut of writers Matthew Berry and Eric Abrams, who've been collaborators on comedy scripts for television together since they teamed up at the Newhouse School's telecommunications program at Syracuse University over a decade ago.
But for Abrams, the desire to become a humorist goes back even farther than that. It started when he was eight years old and saw Steve Martin on television in an episode of Saturday Night Live. From that point onward, he says, "I knew I wanted to write comedy."
Abrams is the son of investment banker Andy Abrams and his wife, Cathy, proprietor of Cathy and Company in Maplewood Village; his brother, Rob, is a cancer researcher at the Sloan-Kettering
Institute in Manhattan. Both boys went to Columbia High; when Eric was there, he wrote a humor column for the Columbian, and took a film class, which nudged him further towards a career in TV and movies.
At college, Abrams and Berry met by chance in a TV production class. "We both needed to pair up with someone," he says. "I was the editor of the humor magazine and (Berry's) roommate wrote a humor column. So we were like two dogs sniffing each other out. We had to make three five-minute programs with continuity, and out of 500 projects, we scored highest." From then on, they worked as a team as a matter of course.
Long-lasting humor script- writing duos are not uncommon, Abrams says. "Plenty of teams go on together for a long time. What's unusual about this one is how different we are." The dialectic is not without its heat: "A lot of times there's arguing back and forth," Abrams admits. "Sometimes we horse-trade. But we feel that the stuff we do together will be better than what we do separately."
Abrams and Berry moved to Los Angeles the week after graduating from Newhouse in 1992, and in Abrams' words they "kicked around for awhile" before landing a spot in the highly competitive Warner Brothers workshop in 1995. (Theirs was one of 22 acceptances from a field of 800 applications.) Among their projects that year were scripts for episodes of the TV sitcoms Kirk, (“Kirk Unplugged,” in which Kirk thinks he’s inadvertently shut off an old man’s life-support system at the hospital where his sweetheart works) and Married...With Children (“Live Nude Peg,” in which Al goes with his buddies to an amateur night at a nudie bar and becomes infatuated with one of the women, unaware that it is his own Peggy in disguise).
After their one-year Warner Brother contract, however, Abrams and Berry elected to go back to freelancing. “Usually we either write a script and have our agent send it out,” Abrams explains, “or else a studio will send out the word that ‘We’re looking for a good teen script,’” or whatever is required for the next project. Next comes a “pitch meetings with the studio management at which prospective writers will make their pitch for their idea to fill the bill.
Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles was “atypical,” says Abrams, “in that Hogan and I had the same agent, Philip Morris. We made a blind pitch – an Olympics story – but Hogan said no, he wanted to stay in the U. S.” So Abrams and Berry suggested a crime story set in Hollywood instead, and Hogan agreed.
Writing a script is very different from a 9-to-5 job, Abrams adds: “When we get an assignment, we asked ‘when do you want it?’ and one way or the other, that’s when we get it done by.” As a deadline approaches, he says, “It’s typically an 80-hour week.” He punctuates stretches of intense work with recreation such as his April vacation in New Zealand on a Habitat for Humanity house-restoration project. Meanwhile, earlier this year the Newhouse School inducted Abrams into its Hall of Fame, an honor that he is surprisingly modest about.
Future projects include “a comic mystery set in Memphis in the 1970s.” Abrams says he and Berry are writing it on spec: “We wanted to finish it and then pitch it.”
And what advice might he offer to young writers considering making a career of it? “Definitely do it,” he said emphatically. “Be prepared to work hard; write something every day – it’s the only way to get better. And write something original every day; most of us go through our lives by rote. Writing is solving problems: ‘If I put this person here, how do I get them out of this room?’”
Above all, he says, don’t forget that “they can’t keep you down forever if you’re good.”
Nick Humez began his writing career in 1974, collaborating with his brother on a book designed to teach Latin through shaggy-dog stories and one-liners.