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Careers Rewritten in German

The ironies aren't lost on these Americans. Considered dinosaurs at home, they've found new life coming up with scripts for dramedies they can understand only with the help of subtitles.

June 02, 2002|PAUL BROWNFIELD

Art's Deli in Studio City is where you can often find, at midmorning on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday or Wednesday, television comedy writers with free time. They are middle-aged or older and still funny, even if they have been forced into a particular kind of Hollywood exile, their lives settled in the comfortable San Fernando Valley hamlets of Encino, Sherman Oaks and Studio City.

Lenny Ripps moved to Los Angeles in 1976 from Baltimore, after breaking into the business selling jokes to Joan Rivers. In the writers' rooms on sitcoms like "Bosom Buddies" and "Full House," Ripps, a friendly, roundish man you want to adopt as an uncle, earned a reputation as a tummler: Yiddish for someone who makes a lot of noise. And why not? He was, he reasoned, in the quantity business--pitching 50, 100 jokes a day, bad one-liners after good ones, all building what Ripps calls "the road" to the joke that would end up in the script.

Ripps did this, even though he stutters, an impairment that has abated since he was a child. "I made myself faster than anyone else," he says of competing for laughs in the room. "So even with the stutter I'd beat them."

Because he can't stop himself, Ripps has jokes for the work he does now, as a Jew writing for German television.

"I don't pay taxes, because I list it as reparations," goes one.

In a subterranean world that seems lifted from a Coen Brothers movie, a loose collection of "older," and mostly Jewish, sitcom writers is working for German television. The series are not called "Will & Grace" or "The Bernie Mac Show"; they are called "Ritas Welt," "Nikola," "Alles Atze" and "Mein Leben & Ich." The writers speak by phone regularly with an excitable German TV producer whose nickname in German is "Seni," which sounds like "Zany." He is 42, a former musician and psychiatrist. His real name is Christian Munder.

Script drafts fly back and forth over the Internet, the writers e-mailing from their San Fernando Valley homes and Seni in Cologne, where he oversees production of a Friday night block of sitcoms that air on the commercial German television network RTL.

A few times a year, Seni travels to Los Angeles for meetings with writers. He stays at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip. He could stay at a ritzier place, at a Four Seasons, but the Marmont, with its old Hollywood elegance and new Hollywood crowd, better suits the aesthetics of a Cologne sophisticate.

In turn, the writers find Seni amusing, trustworthy and smart--refreshingly unlike a network executive.

This is, evidently, one of the unexpected byproducts of a global electronic village: You can be 53-year-old Lenny Ripps or 58-year-old Ed Scharlach or 58-year-old Paula Roth, and still matter, creatively, by entertaining German television viewers.

To call the shows sitcoms is a tad misleading, because it suggests that Ripps and Roth have to know how to craft a joke, or a story, in German. In fact, they don't speak the language, and the shows, shot on film without laugh tracks, play less like sitcoms than dramedies, the laughs more situational than joke-driven.

"I do try to stay away from very quick patter, because the German language does not lend itself to quick back-and-forth repartee," Roth said. "Their nouns tend to be descriptive of what the object does."

Roth helped create "Mein Leben & Ich" (Me and My Life), a new series about a cynical, brooding teenage girl named Alex. In a former life, Roth wrote for "Laverne & Shirley," "Happy Days" and "Perfect Strangers." Then she turned 50, and things changed. "Suddenly there I was, a 51-year-old writer who had not worked on a hit show for a year, who had an unsold pilot, and I looked behind me and there were a whole lot of other writers waiting to take my spot."

Like Ripps, Roth recognizes that being unwanted in Hollywood but wanted in Germany is a bizarre twist on a 20th century phenomenon--Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe and reinventing themselves in Hollywood as purveyors of mass entertainment.

Ripps isn't a son of Holocaust victims, but he is the child of Jewish parents who wouldn't, he remembers, buy anything made by Krups, a German maker of small appliances. So there was a certain unease about this new line of work. "I needed to acknowledge to them that they're Germans and I know they're Germans," he said recently. His colleagues in Cologne, Ripps said, expressed horror and guilt about an event that occurred before they were born.

He needed to hear the guilt expressed. "As long as they have that," Ripps said, "I'm happy."

"Nikola," set in a Cologne hospital, centers on the romantic and professional tensions between a nurse and a high-handed surgeon. " Welt" (Rita's World) stars comedian Gaby Koster as a supermarket checkout clerk. "Alles Atze" (Always Atze) stars Atze Schroder as a brazen store owner in the German city of Essen-Kray. He has a Turkish sidekick.

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