Realizing the Dream of Joyland: Writer Gary Morgenstein Zooms Back to the 1960s With a Gritty, Innovative Production

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Gary Morgenstein is a creative thinker of the highest caliber.

Whether it's innovating strategies to rebrand a network, spearheading publicity for original programming, or selling the world on a franchise concept that had waterspouts flying sharks into major cities, Morgenstein has done it all.

Since parting ways with Syfy in 2016, Morgenstein has pursued the literary life, authoring books, articles, plays, and even a rock musical.

His most recent novel, A Fastball for Freedom, is the second in his The Dark Depths series and just hit the bookstore shelves on March 25th.

A Fastball For Freedom Cover

The next target in his sights is writing and producing the serial drama Joyland, a gritty tale of conflict and families set in 1964 New York, illustrating the racial tensions that are all too familiar to today's audience against a backdrop of the ultimate age of determined American hopes and dreams.

In the unusual times we are living in, Morgenstein and his team strove to find non-traditional methods to produce a story that informs our present by looking to the past.

"[Joyland] opens in July 1964. A cop has just killed an unarmed African-American teenager. You say, 'Well, what has changed?'

"I mean, things have changed, especially in current history, but there's so much that is still unresolved that originated back in the Sixties."

There have been many projects recently that touch on America's history of racial injustice. However, Joyland not only has a new take on creating a TV show but an unexplored perspective.

"I wanted to do something different. My co-creator, Russell Friedman, and I both grew up in New York, and we didn't want to set a story about the Sixties in the South because so much has been done in the South, frankly.

"We wanted to look at it from a northern perspective, a New York perspective. I honestly think that when you talk about, for example, the civil rights struggle, the North always seems to get a pass, as if there wasn't segregation there.

"Yeah, the South was a nightmare, but I grew up in a segregated white working-class neighborhood in the Bronx.

"We also juxtapose it with the Catskills Bungalow Colony, which was a haven for decades -- generations actually -- for working-class and middle-class New Yorkers, mainly Jewish, fleeing New York, the crowded tenements, and living like a king and queen for two months for a few hundred dollars for a bungalow.

"[Russ and I] both have those memories. And what we wanted to do was to look at the Sixties from the ordinary person's perspective.

Marty Dent - Joyland (vertical shot)

"We have real people, and we will continue to have real people -- not so much famous people -- in the episodes. It's a lot of the little guy/little girl fighting back.

"There are no victims. There's prejudice. There's the casual bigotry, which, without history, you have to be able to say, 'This is how it was,' by explaining without justifying or excusing. There was that in those days.

"And we want to show intelligent people -- working-class, middle-class, upper class of all races -- trying to get what they want, fulfilling the hope.

"When we think of 2021, and we go, 'Oh yeah, how much has changed,' we're missing something really, really important.

"In the beginning, in the Sixties, like 1964, there was enormous hope. This was America, the Great Power. The most powerful nation on Earth. And, it was a Can-Do spirit.

LBJ - Joyland

"We will land a man on the moon within the decade. And Lyndon Johnson was passing sweeping civil rights legislation and was about to embark on The Great Society, which, among its goals, was to eliminate poverty and end racial injustice. Those are pretty ambitious goals.

"It did not work. But what we wanted [was to] make sure we have, in Joyland, the dark reality, the edginess. There's an urgency. But there's also a belief that we can do whatever we want to do, and we could change it.

"No one's in the throes of despair. They're exempt. They don't like what's going on. Certainly, if you're African American, you don't like what's going on, but there's also the undercurrent, the class structure of America.

"[This] is also very, very rarely touched upon. It's thought that we're a classless society.

"Like I said, I'm a working-class kid. No, there was a class structure, and there was an establishment which was not going to relinquish power.

Marty Dent - Joyland (horizontal shot)

"In the first episode, Marty Dent (Timothy Weinert), a paperhanger, is not allowed to use the bathroom. And my father said that happened to him on a number of occasions.

"And it wasn't because he was Jewish because most of the homes he was in were Jewish homes. It was that they didn't want his blue-collar cooties on the towels.

"You know, it sounds harsh, but it's true. So in Joyland, we want to show the folks taking on the power structure. Marty challenging the MPA and wanting to get an APA franchise.

"Julian Bass (Jamyl Dobson) [is] not only fighting for equal rights but also to grow his congregation and to get a seat at the table. 'Cause he's not going to be taken seriously.

Julian Bass - Joyland

In addition to challenging the class system and the first battle cries of the civil rights movement, Joyland introduces a host of strong female characters fighting for their own identities and liberties.

"[For] some of them like Tyra Bass (Roslyn Seale), we did a lot of research. She was the first black vice-principal in a New York City high school. We made sure that would be accurate.

"But Karen Lapidus (Ellen Adair) is the rich girl whose father doesn't take her seriously. She's gonna want to change that.

"And Deb Dent (Michelle Fahrenheim) wants to go to college and have a career.

"Edna Morton (Sandra Bargman), of course, who's pretty tough, wants to keep her business."

Edna Morton - Joyland

The marriage of sports and Brooklyn was the starting point for Morgenstein and Friedman in developing Joyland. Protagonist Marty Dent is a former basketball player who injured out as a young man, leaving so many possibilities unrealized.

"We thought we wanted it to be sports because both Russell and I, we like [sports], especially baseball and basketball. And we thought about what could save Brooklyn because we wanted to set it in Brooklyn, which we know.

"We thought we'd have to replace the Brooklyn Dodgers in the hearts of the fans, and we thought, 'Let's talk about the ABA (which will start in 1967) and bring a Brooklyn franchise to the ABA.' That's kind of where it flows [from].

"Sports is the great unifier. Even if it's fleeting, for that moment, when you're in an arena and the stadium, you don't really care who you're sitting next to as long as they're rooting right.

"It doesn't matter. It's as egalitarian as it gets. Especially New York City in the Sixties -- which was about to become the Fun City of John Lindsay -- where we're just circling the drain.

Kenneth Lapidus - Joyland

"Sports brought us together. It was the New York Knicks. It was the New York Jets. It was the miracle New York Mets. We want to aspire to that as well."

In the role of Creator, Morgenstein maintains that he isn't supposed to have a favorite character among the many voices he has created in Joyland.

However, when pressed to choose one that intrigues him most, he manages to narrow it down—sort of.

"I think, maybe Tyra Bass because she's such a wonderful character. I just love how she's being depicted by Rosalyn Seal, such a marvelous actress. And I just get a kick out of her straights.

Tyra Bass - Joyland

"I also love Aaron Dent because he's a fast-talking kid who really doesn't know what he's doing. He's faking it all along.

"There's a lot of really charming people. The actress Michelle Farenheim, who plays Deb Dent, is British. We have two British actresses.

"When I was at SyFy, I asked Charles Dance [when] I was working on Childhood's End, 'How is it that the British actors can do American accents so well, but it's not vice versa?' and he says, 'It's very simple. We grew up listening to your entertainment.'

"It's as simple as that."

Deb Dent - Joyland

Despite the terrible reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morgenstein recognizes that the technology that has emerged out of necessity is a sort of silver lining.

"Zoom was able to bring people together.

"We were working on this idea, and the pandemic hit. There's really nothing we could do. Eventually, we thought, 'Why not try to expand the Zoom medium?'

"[It's] for now, because we have no choice. And it was a very interesting experience.

Red Harrison - Joyland

"We have a wonderful director, DeMone Seraphin, who's an award-winning Broadway performer and Helen Hays Award nominee.

"And then we have a technical producer, Paul Litwak. We think he's such a genius because he's never really worked on a television show or anything in entertainment before.

"He worked for United Cerebral Palsy for more than thirty years as Head of Transportation. But he would do videographies, go to weddings, bar mitzvahs, communions, graduations, whatever, and so he was able to put this together. 

"I think our biggest challenge and concern was making sure you could follow the story."

Working within the confines of Zoom tech, Joyland feels very much like a staged reading or table read where the script's stage directions are read aloud by a narrator with the actors on screen reacting appropriately.

Karen Lapidus - Joyland

"[In Episode 1,] we used a lot of stage directions. I think in Episode 102, we're going to scale back a little bit on that because we're comfortable enough now from the response that you'll be able to follow it.

"So, for example, we have, 'Interior. Julian's office,' and you see the sign Church Office. Every other time we go to that scene, we won't say it. But we weren't really sure people would be able to follow us, and that was a concern.

With Morgenstein's background and interest in science fiction, it's not surprising that he views this project as something akin to the outside-the-box thinking Star Trek's Captain Kirk used to defeat the Kobayashi Maru simulation, the ultimate no-win situation. To do so, Kirk needed to change the conditions of the simulation.

"That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to change the rules of how to develop a television series. We're going to have all eight episodes of season one [released] monthly through October and showcase this to the industry.

"Instead of spending a million and a half dollars on a pilot, look what we were able to do for an awful lot less than that."

Gary Morgenstein

At its heart, Joyland is the next evolution of storyboarding, using the technology and platform available here and now. As the technology catches up with the ingenuity, content producers will have even more tools to do that, creating an entire series for their pitches versus a single, complicated, and often expensive pilot.

"It's simpler as long as people accept that this is the path we're trying to take."

Of course, the reality of filming through Zoom during a pandemic has its constraints and limitations.

"The sheer restraint of two actors in a scene who can't have that intimacy. By intimacy, I'm not meaning romantic or sexual at all. It's just being able to look at each other and look in each [other's] eyes and play off each other. Spencer Tracy once said that the key to acting is listening to the person you're in the scene with.

Joyland Logo

"And you need that. These actors, they're from television and theater and movies, so it's what they're used to. That took a while for everyone to get into the flow. [It might be a] simple thing like, 'Okay, which direction am I looking in? Where is the person I'm supposed to be speaking to?'

"So Demone just said, 'Stare straight ahead.' I think there [are some] framing issues. There's only so much you can do, and you can't let perfect be the enemy of good.

"At some point, I would say, 'Okay, it's not going to get better than that.' Because this is still our world we're playing in. Are people going to be touched by the characters in this story? That, to me, is the most important thing.

"You know, we had the virtual backgrounds, and we did a lot of research. [For example,] the Dent living room in Brooklyn in 1964. We had to find something that looked like a working-class, a little beaten up, right?

Joyland Living Room

"And there [was] a funny back and forth for, like, ten minutes, early in the first couple of scenes, in which there are police sirens. And Demone said, 'Are you sure those are the sirens from the Sixties?'

"And we're thinking, 'Well, I don't know if they really changed that much.' And we're researching sirens from the Sixties, 1964 versus 1984, and it was like, 'Really? Who's going to know? Guys, could we just move forward?'

"We took great pride in the production and tried to make it as accurate as possible and have sound effects that were not chintzy."

The irony isn't lost on Morgenstein that they spent a lot of time tweaking the historical accuracy of a show using Zoom to portray 1964. But Joyland is an evolving creature. As each episode is produced, Morgenstein and his team are looking .to expand the medium further

"In time, when we can, when the lockdown [measures] continue being lifted, we would like to film some actual scenes with a couple of characters. And weave them in. That would be wonderful.

As the sole inhabitant of the Joyland Writers Room, Morgenstein feels that it's a project that would be slowed down if the room was more crowded.

"I'm working in the Writer Room; you notice the singular. I wonder what [working with other writers] must be like. I don't know what [I'd] do. I'd be like, 'Go away! I know what I'm doing! Just keep pouring me coffee, that's all.'

"[If they were here] just here pouring me coffee, maybe bringing me some wine, then that's alright. But because I have the vision in my head, I see where it's all going to go. Whenever I write, I'm always surprised by myself.

"I know it sounds very precious when writers say this, so forgive me, but the characters take over. It does happen. It really does. I can't explain it. I know it's still my brain, but it just happens, which is also wonderful when collaborating with people, and you see the actors.

"We're motivated by these actors. Now that I'm seeing them and what they're bringing. And, of course, they're going to bring things to it that I wouldn't think of, all the nuances. [For example,] I was struck when Ellen Adair, playing Karen, saw the fire. When she saw the swastika, she just put her hand to her mouth—such horror.

A moment of horror

"This was 1964. Less than 20 years after World War II. Remember those times. 1964. Just after the Kennedy assassination. Just under two years from the Cuban Missile Crisis where we almost had World War III. It's so exciting."

"[Writing Joyland] is organic. I know there are writers who are so meticulous, and they know exactly every little thing. I know the last scene of the season finale, but I'm not that organized. It's all people running around in my head.

"When I started writing Fastball for Freedom a couple of years ago, [my wife] put up maybe what she called a Genius Board. It was like slates, and I used post-its, and I'd put all my notes there. She said it could help keep me organized.

"I spent an entire afternoon putting up post-its which I never looked at again. So I just... I don't know. I have ordered chaos in my head, which is kind of a metaphor for the 1960s. It was chaos, and it was ordered. But it was hopeful, you know? It was such a decade of promise, and you had people who inspired us.

"Think about someone like Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and I love Bobby Kennedy. During his sadly abortive candidacy in 1968, [at] campaign stops, he would quote George Bernard Shaw, who said, 'Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.'

"I think the Sixties was a lot of "out there." It didn't all come to fruition, but there's a lot of dreaming. And there's something to be said for dreaming."

Joyland Episode 102 will be released on the JOYLAND A New Series YouTube Channel on Monday, April 26th. The remaining six planned episodes of Season 1 will be released every month until October 2021.

Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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