Sitcom has become a dirty word, and Lew Riley thinks that's a shame. After all, he points out, Shakespeare and Moliere wrote sitcom, too.
Riley writes comedies; to him there is no sweeter sound than that of an audience laughing. Every time he sets out to write serious drama, in fact, comedy creeps in.
Take his latest play, "Hyur Edukashun," which will premiere tonight at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center. It started as a drama about self-assertiveness, but by the time he was finished, it was part farce, part romance--and mostly comedy.
Maybe that has something to do with Riley's ability to find humor in his own experiences. "The General Is Coming! The General Is Coming!"--which he wrote in 1980--is a military comedy that grew out of his stint in the Army. (And not everyone finds humor in that situation.) In 1984, he based "Game Show" on his experiences as a contestant on "Password" and "The Joker's Wild."
He describes "Hyur Edukashun" as "a thinly veiled reminiscence" of his six years as an applied writing instructor at Cal State Fullerton, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's in communications. "The names have been changed, however," he added with a laugh.
Riley has taken a lot of literary license with the characters who staff the English department at his fictional Hargrove College. The deliberate misspelling of the title indicates the tongue-in-cheek spirit of his script.
The three-act play, about a shy secretary who falls for an idealistic professor, includes a carnivorous cheerleader, a pedantic professor and a licentious librarian, along with a variety of easily recognizable teaching types, he said.
Still, "I have fond reminiscences of Cal State," he said. "They were very good to me."
Riley described himself as shy and said teaching forced him to be more outgoing. He also found that he could use his sense of humor to enliven what can be deadly dull subject matter: "I could teach people the difference between 'less' and 'few,' and make it interesting."
"Hyur Edukashun" is the fifth of Riley's comedies to be staged by the Ana-Modjeska Players in Anaheim and the fourth to make its debut there. "The General Is Coming! The General Is Coming!" and "Game Show" have been published and crop up on community theater bills all over the United States. It is still exciting, he said, when a royalty check arrives in the mail and he learns that one of his plays has been produced.
"When you get a royalty check, whether it's $89 or $500, it's just the idea that someone else is doing your work. It's just gratifying to know that it's been done."
A resident of Brea, Riley has been on the board of directors of the Ana-Modjeska Players for five years. He appreciates the willingness to take a chance on original work.
Casting can be difficult, he said, because actors are often hesitant to audition for an untested script. He understands the skepticism: "A lot of originals tend to be vanity productions."
But that initial staging is invaluable for the playwright, he added. "You can see what works and what doesn't work."
Riley makes himself available to work with the cast and director during rehearsals, which in turn give him a chance to fine-tune the script. Betty Stromquist, who has been associated with the theater group since it was founded in 1969 and who is serving as producer of "Hyur Edukashun," said it has been extremely helpful to have the playwright in attendance.
"He does have excellent suggestions, and he's open to suggestions, too," she said.
Riley is already at work on his next play, a TV satire called "I Want It Wednesday." He recently signed with an agent, who is submitting his work to TV production companies.
"My motto," he said, "is 'I hate to write but love having written.' When I sit down and finish something, I look at it and think, 'This isn't a bad job.' It's just that excruciating pain of sitting down and staring at a blank page.
"Thank God for coffee."
Leave it to a comedy writer to provide his own tag line.
"Hyur Edukashun" will play at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 28 at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, 931 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Tickets: $6. Information: (714) 634-9238.