Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with songwriter and playwright LORY LAZARUS
Lory Lazarus knows comedy like nobody’s business. How can anyone who writes the book, music, and lyrics for a colorful musical called Attack of the Elvis Impersonators not understand comedy?! But he’s not just a funny guy. He also is a composer, lyricist, playwright, and wears countless other hats including former stand-up comic and leader of a “mock ‘n’ roll” band called LaZOO. A devout Marx Brothers fan, he has played Groucho at various events. And there’s more — we truly haven’t even scratched the surface of the accomplishments of this prolific entertainer. What’s more, Lory has had an influential hand in shaping the lives of children around the world. Remember the big purple dinosaur named Barney? Lory wrote the first song ever for Barney & Friends called “Friends are Forever” sung by none other than Sandy Duncan. He then went on to write another two dozen songs for the TV show and later wrote for the Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog.
Pillow Talking caught up with Lory as he was preparing for the opening of his new Off-Broadway show, Attack of the Elvis Impersonators. This has to be one of the funniest interviews we’ve ever done. While the words below are a poor substitute for the off-the-cuff humor and hysterical laughing that occurred throughout most of the interview, we did our best to capture the spirit if not the insane tone. For that, you’ll have to see Lory’s work.
PT: Here we are with Lory Lazarus. Are you there, Lory?
LL: I am here physically, not mentally.
PT: (Laughs) Neither are we. (Stephanie) We are very excited to speak to you. As soon as I received the press invite for your play, I immediately forwarded it to Wayne because he loves all things Elvis. So we want to know about that and your other projects. We were laughing just reading the synopses.
LL: Thank you. I just had to roll up the car window here because someone just moved up in front of me. But ask away. Thank you so much for your interest. I really appreciate it.
PT: So why don’t you start with your background and tell us how you got involved in this crazy business.
LL: Oh, my God. As soon as I got out of the womb—
LL: —I loved anything crazy, wacky or insane. I was brought up on Warner Brothers’ cartoons and The Three Stooges – that kind of insane humor. And then in high school I was introduced to The Beatles and I read John Lennon’s book, In His Own Write. And his book just inspired me. I said if he can write totally insane, crazy stuff like this, so can I. So I wrote my first musical – it was called The Reunion of Sam and it’s about – I don’t know what it’s about.
LL: But it’s crazy. Basically, there’s two main characters, Dickie and Sam. Dickie is in the basement wearing a bear trap on his leg and they take turns going down to the basement wearing this bear trap.
PT: Oh, my gosh!
LL: So anyway, this musical, The Reunion of Sam, was done in a coffeehouse in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I’m from. And then I just started writing more and crazy things and here I am today, I guess.
PT: How old were you when you first started writing?
LL: I probably wrote my first short story when I was in third grade. It was called Oogie and Boogie the Goonie Ooblatches (ph).
LL: I progressed from there. In sixth grade, I actually was famous in my sixth grade class because I wrote a story called Y-Ball the Eyeball (ph) about a bunch of eyeballs rolling after me and my friends in a park in Milwaukee. It’s kind of like science-fictiony and horror, but it was insane all the way underneath.
PT: (Stephanie) Wow! What did your teachers think of you? Were they a little frightened? (laughs)
LL: (Laughs) Oh, God. . . yeah, I think so. I had one teacher in seventh grade, Mr. Moe, M-O-E. But he saw potential in me which was pretty cool. On a little Post-it where you had to be excused to go somewhere in the school – where it says “going to” – he tore it off and he wrote, “Lory, you’re going to be great one day.” I still have that somewhere. So that was pretty cool.
PT: Wow. Where do you get your story ideas from? Do you dream them and wake up and write them down? (laughs)
LL: No. I’ll just be going through ordinary life and see something that people will just take for granted, but I will see humor in the situation and I will write it down. I have a cartoon book about humorous condoms. It’s called prophylantics (ph).
LL: I’m looking for a publisher for that. I see zaniness all over the place. My best friend and best man at my wedding, Dave Tice, in Wisconsin, introduced me to the Marx Brothers. When I went to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee there’s a cinema there. And the first Marx Brothers movie I ever saw was Night at the Opera and I was smitten. Now I’m an intense Marx Brothers fan. In fact, I used to dress up as Harpo and Groucho.
PT: (Stephanie) We read that!
LL: I was hired out at parties to insult the guests. So I’m also a former performer.
PT: You did stand-up too, right?
LL: I did briefly in the mid-seventies. I was in New York and actually stood in line with Joe Piscopo, Mark Schiff, and Jerry Seinfeld before they became famous. They stuck with it and went through the rigors of going on at three in the morning and I just gave up. I had so many other interests performing with my acoustic guitar and my comedy duo. I just never knew what I wanted to do because so many things interested me.
PT: (Wayne) How did you come to write the music for Barney? (Stephanie) Obviously, you had to rein it in a bit for that.
LL: Yes, I did, I had to be sane.
LL: A good friend of mine who, God bless him, he’s no longer in this world, but we met at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Theatre Department. His name was Steven Baltes and I stayed in touch with him through the years. He contacted me one day out of the blue and said he had met these people on a cruise ship who wanted to put together demos or previews of – actually it was going to be a purple teddy bear that came to life. But then it changed to a dinosaur. They had funding by some people in Texas. So they met Steve on a cruise ship and found out he played the piano and wrote songs, they wanted to hire him to write the first songs for what was going to be Barney the Dinosaur. Although Steve was a great arranger and piano player, he really wasn’t a writer. So he contacted me and said, “These people want to produce this thing about a purple dinosaur and it’s going to be starring Sandy Duncan. Would you like to write a song?” And I said, “Sure.” So I wrote a song for Barney and it was sung by Sandy Duncan.
PT: (Stephanie) “Friends are Forever,” correct?
LL: “Friends are Forever!” Yes. You’ve done your research.
PT: (Stephanie) Actually I have a twenty-year-old and I can think back to the days when I’d be getting ready for work in the morning and that was her absolute favorite show to watch. I couldn’t get her away from it! She spent a great deal of time listening to your song as well as the other songs.
LL: It’s weird. Sometimes when I see that Barney is being played in Argentina, Israel, and Indonesia, I think, Wow, I am affecting children all over the world! I didn’t think about that when I was writing these songs. But I am helping to shape lives and it means so much to me. It’s very cool. And Barney helped pay the bills in the mid-1990s when I was doing it and I’m very grateful for Barney the Dinosaur.
PT: And it allowed you to do other things like Attack of the Elvis Impersonators!
LL: You have to stick with it. Getting Attack of the Elvis Impersonators produced took me twenty years. You just have to be pleasantly persistent and not give up.
PT: Let’s talk now about the Attack of the Elvis Impersonators. It started with a song, right?
LL: I can tell you that, but I think what is more important is to tell you what the show I about. And then I’ll go back into the history. Is that okay?
LL: When people see the title Attack of the Elvis Impersonators, they think, well, I don’t know what they think. Ultimately, it’s about a burnt-out metal rock star and he decides to save himself by impersonating Elvis. By doing so, he eventually saves the world. There are several subplots but that is the biggie. Now for the history of the show – first, I saw a cabaret act and I think it was called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure.
LL: As part of this cabaret act, there was a skit about an Elvis impersonator. As I was sitting in the audience, I said, “That’s pretty funny.” And then I thought – because I have this demented brain – What if there were millions of Elvis impersonators and everyone was dressed as Elvis? Wouldn’t that be hysterical! So I set that aside and really never did anything with that. But that inspired me to write a song for my band, Lazoo, called “Elvis Impersonator” about a burnt-out heavy metal rock star who becomes an Elvis impersonator. So that was that germ there. Then things started getting really nutty. When I lived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, I walked by a religious artifacts store where they sell little plaster busts of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and stuff like that. Nestled between the Virgin Mary and Jesus was a bust of Elvis.
PT: (Laughs) Get out!
LL: This was in a very Italian, religious section of Brooklyn. I went – What is Elvis doing there? Are they worshipping Elvis also? It kind of freaked me out. And very soon thereafter an article came out in The New York Times Sunday Magazine called, “Among the Believers,” and it talked about Elvis as a religion.
LL: People were actually worshipping Elvis. There’s like the First Presbyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. People had altars in their houses. It was really crazy. I said, “I have to write this.” So I took all of these elements together and created my first draft, but not before my wife inspired me to do this! God bless her. It was just sitting around as an outline and I was working on all these other projects and writing for Courage the Cowardly Dog. After I sang my wife one of the songs as we were driving down the West Side Highway in Manhattan, she said—are we allowed to say a-s-s?
LL: Good. She said, “Get off your tush—
LL: —and finish writing this. It’s a hit musical.” So she forced me to – stood over me with a whip – no, just kidding. But she said, “You have this great thing, do it.” So I listened to her and had the first draft done within a month. So that’s the story of the history of the Attack of the Elvis Impersonators.
PT: A lot of our readers are writers, artists, lyricists, etc., and they are always interested in technique. Do you have a special technique when approaching a project?
LL: Wow – I don’t really think about it. But now that you have me thinking about it, my technique is to know the outcome first. This is probably everyone’s technique, but know what the final result you’re trying to reach and then work backwards from there. And just some old-fashioned playwriting stuff – the inciting incident, the developing action, and the point of no return and all that kind of stuff. I use all those corny things I learned in playwriting classes in college. And they’re all very important. And then the comedy just naturally fills in by itself. Like my play, The Urinal, it’s about a murder mystery that takes place in a men’s room on Wall Street.
LL: This guy is trying to hide a dead body and it goes on from there. I think anyone can write a good farce, but you have to know where you’re going with it.
PT: (Wayne) I don’t know about that. You are well-versed in comedy. When I did my film, Kissy Cousins, Monster Babies and Morphing Elvis, I swore I’d never do a comedy again because it’s so subjective.
LL: Well, you have to be really connected with the material to be real with it. In doing so, comedy just naturally comes out. The more invested you are, the easier it is for the comedy to come out. If you try to be funny, that’s when things fall apart and die.
PT: Has anyone ever said to you that some of your work is too over-the-top?
LL: Yes. Which is why I can never get them produced.
PT (Laughs) That’s not true!
LL: It is. I send them out to theatres and no one wants to do them because they are so outrageous. But my modus operandi is to make people laugh. The world is so crazy and twisted and so many nasty things going on that people need to be diverted and entertained and to feel some lightness in their hearts if only for one night. Even though Attack of the Elvis Impersonators is about this burnt-out rock star and has this theme, there’s also so many funny moments in it that hopefully it will make people laugh. Farce is my thing and obviously Elvis impersonators taking over the world is a farce.
PT: What do you think is different about this play than your others vis-à-vis being produced. What was the magic bullet for you?
LL: The magic bullet was finding someone who loved the show and put money behind it. That is the ultimate magic bullet. And then finding an amazing and incredible director who is brilliant with comedy – Don Stephenson. I am so blessed to have him directing this play. He knows comedy inside and out. He’s really taking the Attack of the Elvis Impersonators to the next level.
LL: O-M-G! The cast of this show is just incredible. Our director hand-picked just about everyone in the cast – people who he has worked with before – people who he says have a funny bone. That’s the most important thing. [People] who can be real but know comedy. Every actor in this show is brilliant with comedy, and they can act, and they can sing and they can dance. If people don’t come out and see this show, they are nuts. You have to come out and see this show!
PT: We are really looking forward to it! We have seen many of the plays Don Stephenson directed including The Producers and A Comedy of Tenors at the Tony Award-winning Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
LL: Oh, my God, really?
PT: Yes. We review the productions at Paper Mill and we gave Don a big shout out in our review.
LL: Once he was chosen as the director, my wife and I went out to see A Comedy of Tenors. We were hugging each other because we have such a gem as a director. What he did with that beef tongue… [in A Comedy of Tenors]!
PT: (Laughs) That was hilarious!
LL: That was his idea. He adds his own little things to Attack of the Elvis Impersonators – some things that I didn’t even think of that he’s added and has taken it to the next level of funny. Don – if you are listening – you are amazing!
PT: Interestingly enough, we were going to mention A Comedy of Tenors to you. We have seen a lot of farces later including What the Butler Saw and Exit the Body. We think farces are cyclical and are coming back in force.
LL: Sick-lical – as in sick things? (laughs)
PT: (Laughs) That, too.
LL: It’s interesting you mentioned What the Butler Saw. When I first saw it, it was done at my college way back in the seventies. Now everyone knows how old I am by saying this – and after seeing all the Marx Brothers movies and What the Butler Saw, that inspired me to write The Bris. The Bris is about a man who has to be circumcised on his wedding night because he finds out that his newlywed wife has a suicidal phobia of foreskins.
PT: (Laughing hysterically) (Stephanie) Oh, my Gosh! (Wayne) That’s awesome!
LL: Yeah. It gets crazy after that. I’d sure like to get that one produced, too.
PT: We would LOVE to see that!
LL: I’ll let you know if it ever happens.
PT: In terms of stand-up, what were some of your influences?
LL: Wow, I don’t know about my influences. Can I tell you who I thought were the best at stand-up?
LL: I loved Sam Kinison. He started doing that screaming thing? He was so outrageous.
PT: He was great!
LL: Robin Williams, of course, when he first came out. I really like the old classic comedians – Milton Berle and Bob Hope. Bob Hope really knew how to deliver a line.
PT: Yes, he did.
LL: And, of course, Woody Allen, especially when his movies came out in the seventies like Annie Hall.
PT: (Wayne) I loved Bananas.
LL: Yes, Bananas. He was a big influence.
PT: What advice would you give up-and-coming writers and playwrights?
LL: My only advice would be don’t ever, ever, ever give up. I think Winston Churchill once said that. You know on those late night infomercials and you see Tony Robbins and his theories of gaining wealth and power?
PT: Yes. He’s the ultimate motivator.
LL: My philosophy is like a Tony Robbins-type of philosophy. Know what you want and take massive action towards it and believe in yourself. It’s the law of attraction. That’s my philosophy.
PT: We can’t wait to see your show. Perhaps we can meet you and get a pic for the blog?
LL: Absolutely. I’ll give you a hug. I assume we’re wrapping this up now. Is that where the energy is?
PT: (Laughing hysterically) No! We want to talk to you for another hour!
LL: (Laughs) Another hour?
PT: We wanted to kill time until your wife finishes shopping at Whole Foods.
LL: No, actually I’m the one who is going shopping at Whole Foods. My wife is with a client working her magic. I’m the one who is going to do the shopping.
PT: Ahhhh. Okay. In that case we have one last signature question that we ask everybody. We are dying to know your answer.
LL: Don’t die!
PT: (Laughs) We’ll try not to. If you were to sum up your life and career to date in one word, what would it be?
LL: Whoa! Wow. One word?
PT: One word.
LL: (long pause) Insane!
PT: (Laughs) (Wayne) I would have been disappointed if you said anything else!
LL: Maybe insanity is a better word.
PT: That’s great! We can’t wait to meet you and see Attack of the Elvis Impersonators!
Go see Attack of the Elvis Impersonators by Lory Lazarus!!