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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Deeper Dish with Julie Brown

It was such a pleasure to recently chat with actress/comedienne Julie Brown, who first gained fame back in 1984 when she released her first album, Goddess in Progress, featuring such groovy tunes as "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun", "I Like 'em Big and Stupid", "'Cause I'm a Blonde" and "Earth Girls Are Easy". The last song was later adapted by Julie into the 1988 cult film starring Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and herself.

Some of her other television and film credits include Just Say Julie (her 1989-92 MTV show), Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful (her 1991 Madonna mockumentary), The Edge (her 1992-93 Fox sketch comedy series), Attack of the 5 Ft. 2 In. Women (her 1994 Showtime movie parody of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and Lorena Bobbitt), Clueless (both the 1995 film and the 1996-99 TV version), Strip Mall (her 2000-01 Comedy Central sitcom), Camp Rock (the 2008 Disney Channel movie), ABC's The Middle (in the recurring role of friend and neighbor Paula Norwood), and ABC Family's Melissa & Joey (as gym teacher Coach Dalman in addition to being a consulting producer).

Next month Julie will be appearing in Dear Santa, an original Christmas movie for the ION channel, and currently she is starring in Homecoming Queen's Got a Musical, a campy rock horror stage musical written by her and Kurt Koehler. It's running through this Sunday (November 10) at the Cavern Club Theater in Los Angeles (click here for tickets). I am so delighted to have the fabulous Ms. Brown here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.

What inspired you to write Homecoming Queen's Got a Musical?
I wanted to do it forever - but I didn't really have the time until my son went away to college, which happened last year, and that's when I started working with Kurt Koehler. It took us about a year to write it because we were both doing other things at the same time - Kurt does Chico's Angels and I was working on Melissa & Joey. And it's so much fun that I'm actually doing it. It kind of blows my mind.

So what's the show about?
We figured probably a lot of people who came to the show would know the song - and it's a story song - so we took it apart and we had to figure out how to tell that story and then make it into a play. The other difficulty is that it's about a school shooting, which in the '80s was ridiculous - but now it happens. So to try to make that not become horrible, we watched a bunch of movies from the '80s and we figured if we made it into an '80s horror movie and Debbie actually starts killing more people ridiculously, then when she's shooting people, it will seem just like part of her killing spree. And I think it does come off that way.

What inspired you to write the original song back in 1984?
In my act at the time, I was doing a Valley Girl because I was from the Valley. And then Moon Zappa came out with that song, and I was so crushed and bummed out. Oh my God, she stole my act! But then I thought, "Wait a minute! I don't have to stop doing that character - it's not like she owns the character." Then I started thinking like what can I do - how can I do music? I had done music in my act with my writing partner Charlie Coffey when we were in San Francisco so I spent about four or five months to come up with a really cool idea. And suddenly one day I was on the Hollywood Freeway and the whole song came to me. I was like "Oh my God, that's so great!" So I told Charlie and we wrote it together. I was a homecoming princess - not the queen - so I think that bitterness was there, and it gave me a lot of imagery for the song.

You mentioned that your musical is sort of a horror spoof of the '80s. Now you were in a horror film back then.
Oh yes, I was in the horrible Bloody Birthday. It's awful - but you know what's really terrible? That it hasn't really gone away. And I have a topless scene in it. Then when they brought the DVD out about two years ago, they wanted me for a commentary, and I said, "No! I'm not going to do anything to help this movie - nothing!" So the DVD exists without me.

Tell me about your new Christmas movie, Dear Santa.
Sam Irvin directed it, and I play the best friend of the girl who's the lead. It's super cute. The lead girl is kind of flirting with two guys, and one of them eventually claims that he's the son of Santa. So she thinks he's nuts. She's a single mom and I'm her best friend - it's a great part because I make jokes and I get to give her advice and I don't have to carry the whole thing. I just got to show up and be funny, so it was really, really fun.

Did you always want to be an actress and comedienne?
My family was in show business. My great-grandfather was an actor and a director, and my other grandfather was an editor. But my parents were like "Whatever you do, you can't go into show business." So I didn't think I could do it, even though I wrote plays all through high school. I thought I was going to be a scientist, which is crazy. I won the Science Fair in junior high - I know, it's so stupid. But then when I went to college, I enrolled as an anthropology major, and I did it for like a month. I went, "This is the most horrible, horrible thing I've ever done." So for a whole year I was just depressed and I freaked out and finally my really good friend from high school was at Valley College and she said, "Why don't you come over here. The theatre department is really fun." So as soon as I went over there and started being in the theatre again, I just told my parents, "I'm sorry. This is what I'm doing."

Do you remember your very first stand-up gig?
I was part of a comedy team with Charlie Coffey, whom I ended up writing a lot of stuff with, and we auditioned for a club in San Francisco. We had done this bit where I played Carol Lawrence eating coffee-flavored doo, and we had done it in a show at our acting school and then we performed it for this club owner in San Francisco and he hired us to do our act.

What was your favorite club to play at back then?
It was actually the first club that hired us. It was called Chez Jacques in San Francisco, and it was a gay cabaret. I loved it! Because suddenly I had all these gay friends and these gay performers and drag queens. That was pretty out there then. I mean it's not as out there now, but then it was like "What?!" It was just such a really fun, amazing world.

Was Happy Days your first professional acting gig?
No. It's funny, I was in that same club I was talking about. I was doing my act, and Lily Tomlin was in town and I asked her to come to my show. Somehow I called her manager - I was very nervy. I guess I was young so I thought, "I'll just try anything." And she came to my show, which was amazing. She was super-sweet and said, "If you're ever in L.A., call me or write me", so I wrote to her, and she gave me a part in The Incredible Shrinking Woman and I got my SAG card. That was the first job I had.

That's exciting.
Yeah, it was really exciting. And so sweet of her, right? She didn't have to pay attention to me.

And then you auditioned for Happy Days?
Well, I had this great improv class with Harvey Lembeck - Robin Williams first worked there and John Ritter and all these people. And this guy - the show's casting director - would come to the class, and he saw me there. And he brought me in to audition for Garry Marshall, and then I got the job. I think it was one of those auditions where you kind of have the part already, but I don't know if I knew that.

So how was your Happy Days experience?
It was weird. It was really fun, but they'd been on the air for nine years and were so established. And Henry Winkler - I've since worked with him and he's really sweet, but he was kind of full of crap right at that moment. He comes up to me and goes, "Hey, what are you doing for lunch?" So I was thinking, "Is he asking me out for lunch?", which was really weird, right? And then I go, "Well, I don't know", and he goes, "Well, I'm going out for lunch with my other friends." So he wanted to see me get excited to think he wanted to go out, but he didn't really. It was super weird. But since then I've worked with him - he directed an episode of Clueless that I wrote - and he's fine now. Maybe he was just having a weird "I'm the Fonz" moment.

Let’s discuss a few more of your other television and film appearances. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Any Which Way You Can (1980)?
It was weird to work with a monkey. We were shooting on this town square in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and everybody from around that surrounding area came down to watch the filming, so people were bugging me and asking for my autograph and that was my first experience of that. And I'm like "This is so weird. This makes me so uncomfortable" because I wasn't prepared for it. So I was like this little minor celebrity in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But the interesting thing is that I was one of three girls playing these bimbos in the movie, and the other two girls loved that people were asking them for autographs and stuff.

Laverne & Shirley (1982)?
You know what's really funny about that - the first episode I did I worked with David Lander, and in our show is his daughter, Natalie Lander. She's playing Buffy, which is amazing - small world. That was a really strange show, too, because Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams famously didn't get along at that point. So there was a lot of tension on that set. You were like "Why would they be that way? They're on a hit show." They weren't having a great time, so it was just a weird experience. And when you're a young actress and it's one of your first jobs, you go, "Is this how it is?" But it wasn't. And I've since worked with Cindy on Strip Mall, and she is such a sweetheart. So it's the same thing - maybe they were having a weird moment on that show.

The Jeffersons (1983)?
Oh, that was really weird. I don't know if Sherman Hemsley was doing coke - I don't know what was going on, but he had an impossible time remembering his lines. He was a really nice guy though - and I don't have any evidence of anything so I guess I really shouldn't say that, but it took a long time to shoot. It was fun though because I was playing a punk with spiky hair - the way I looked was really awesome.

Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)?
That was a much bigger experience because I wrote it. I was supposed to play the lead, but when it came down to it, they went "You're not a big enough star. You can't play the lead." So then they got Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum as a package - they were the names - they got them together because they were a couple at that point. I was really disappointed because I felt Geena did not look the first thing like a Valley Girl. I think she's good in the movie, but at the time I was like, "This is so not right." So I lost that part, but I rewrote it for me to play the second lead, which was originally the lead girl's gay best friend. So that's how it all happened. It was fun, but the other actors were kind of frustrating because it was my first experience of something I'd written and how people translated it. To me, I thought it was so obvious on the page that there was only one way to do it, but it turned out it was not obvious. When you write something, the director really can change it. I just didn't know how much it could be changed. I took the thing so seriously - and you're on the set with these actors and they're not taking it as serious as you are - so I think that was part of my frustration with them.

Strip Mall (2000-01)?
One of things that was really hard about Strip Mall was my son was five. So I had a little kid going into kindergarten. I originally wanted to shoot it in a studio like a soap opera, but then my manager convinced me to hire this director who was married to the guy running Comedy Central. Unfortunately, he wanted to shoot it with one camera, and I suddenly found myself at a real strip mall at two in the morning because we couldn't shoot it fast. I wish I could've enjoyed it more - but I was writing it and starring in it and directing part of it and editing it, so I was a little bit overwhelmed and also trying to be a mom of a five-year-old. But I did get to work with all these amazingly funny actors - like Amy Hill, Tim Bagley and Cindy Williams. It's kind of too bad it can't come back now with me having the perspective of how to do it.

Now are you a fan of soap operas?
I'm a fan of how funny they are and the melodrama of it. I kind of wanted it to be like Mary Hartman. It's really hard when you're trying to get something made, and there's all these people who get attached and you have their point of view to contend with. I didn't know enough to say "No" - to be really strong like that, which I would do now. Now I would go, "No, we're not doing that." But I just didn't know how to be that way then 'cause I think I was really scared of being a bitch. But now I'm not so scared of it. I'm so willing to be a bitch.

What has been your favorite acting role?
When I did Medusa, the satire of Madonna, that was one of the most fun things to actually perform. I remember when we were performing in Long Beach I had the feeling that this must be what it feels like to be Madonna because I had all these dancers and a giant stage and the lighting and music and stuff. And that was such a fun character. It's not like I was doing Madonna - it's like my point of view of her. But it was really, really fun.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
I would say don't take things so seriously - and buy Apple stock. Choose money over looks - but when I've tried it, it never works 'cause then I go, "Ugh, now I have to sleep with this guy." It sounds like a good idea, but it doesn't work.

In high school I was:

My favorite comfort food is:

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
Mary Tyler Moore - I freakin' loved that.

Today I never miss a television episode of:
The last couple things I've loved was Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey and Project Runway. I can't not watch Project Runway.

Did you enjoy being a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race earlier this year?
I really did. You know the funny thing about it which I didn't know would happen is how long it would take to shoot that show. And I realized later I should've thought about that because it was drag queens. They're going to take a long time to get ready and change - like a long time. To shoot one episode, I think I was there for two whole days. That's a lot! But it was really fun - and everybody was so sweet. Michelle Visage is fantastic and so cool. The drag queens were, too, but they were more shy than I thought they were going to be. I thought they would be like fierce and snapping their fingers and stuff and they weren't. They were really taking the fact that they were on the show and they wanted to win very seriously. So you felt like "Well, I gotta be kind of sweet to them when I give my critique because they're so vulnerable." That I did not see coming.

Three of my favorite movies are:
Groundhog Day. The Devil Wears Prada - I love Meryl Streep so much. And This Is Spinal Tap.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Jon Tenney. He played the boyfriend on The Closer. He seems really cute and like a real person and not just a hunk. When they're like "Oh, I'm just so pretty", that doesn't really work for me.

If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Meryl Streep. The Dalai Lama because I think he's really adorable and you'd go, "Will I learn something from him?" And Anne Hathaway because I would just like to see her spaz out which would be so funny.

What’s next for Julie Brown?
Probably The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun the Musical, the second version - because I want to do it again. This was I guess the workshop version. We'd never done it before so we learned a lot. There are little things I want to change, there are things Kurt wants to change. Then I'm going to to do Earth Girls Are Easy as a musical. Then I want to do another version of Medusa - like Medusa now - but I'm going to do a Kickstarter program for that because Showtime doesn't do stuff like that anymore. And they were the people that financed it before. So I figured since there's crowdfunding, hopefully I'll do that. And maybe I'll call you back then and you can write about it.

I would love to. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Thank you. It was really fun.

To learn more about Julie Brown, check out her website at You can also become a fan on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

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