2003-11-13 / Front Page
Doh! TV writer one of two grads honored
Co-producer of ABC shows, TV writer returns to South River
Doh! TV writer one
of two grads honored
BY JOLENE HART
SOUTH RIVER— While fulfilling his dream of becoming a television scriptwriter in Hollywood, Frank Mula became a success story in his own hometown.
The entrance to South River may not yet post signs heralding, "Birthplace of Frank Mula," but there are more than a few ways Mula has earned recognition as a local celebrity.
On Oct. 18, students at South River High School, Mula’s alma mater, held a homecoming parade with the theme of "The Simpsons" in honor of Mula, an Emmy-winning writer for the show.
Mula was unable to return to the borough to serve as grand marshal of the parade, but plans to make an appearance Wednesday, when he and alumna Candy Torres, 50, are inducted into the South River High School Hall of Fame. Torres, who was the subject of a November 2001 Greater Media Newspapers story, is an engineer for NASA’s International Space Station and is currently training to be an orbiter communications adapter.
"He was on the quiet side in high school. You’d never have known he would be a comedy writer," said Darlene Gliese, Student Council adviser at South River High School who graduated with Mula in 1968. Gliese nominated Mula for the recognition two years ago. "I remember him being very involved in the drama club."
According to Gliese, two alumni are welcomed into the hall of fame each year during a ceremony that also inducts students into a school honor society. Mula will be present for this year’s ceremony and will speak to Gliese’s students on Tuesday.
Mula was born and raised in South River and lived there until he moved to California to follow his Hollywood dreams at age 28.
Upon graduation from South River High School, Mula attended Indiana University and then earned his master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University. While working as a librarian in Burlington County, Mula sent jokes to Joan Rivers, who had her own television show at the time. Rivers was impressed with Mula’s talent and used some of his material on her show.
With this new-found appreciation for his comic material, Mula made the move to California, hopeful that he would find a job as a writer for a television program.
Mula ended up working for Rivers and later freelanced for Rich Little and the "Steve Allen Comedy Hour." "I worked for Joan and traveled with her for 10 or 15 weeks out of the year, just traveling and writing jokes," Mula said. "I remember going to Las Vegas, where I met Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle."
According to Mula, his first "big break" as a television writer came as a writer for the show "I Married Dora."
Since his early days as a television writer, Mula has worked with such programs as "The Martin Short Show," "Cosby" and "The Simpsons," as well as his current project, "Life With Bonnie," which airs on ABC.
"Working on ‘Life With Bonnie’ is interesting because Bonnie [Hunt] likes to improvise," Mula said. "We only have three writers on the show."
He said constant writing and revision moves each episode forward until the day of filming.
Mula is co-executive producer of "Life With Bonnie," and earned the same role as a writer for "The Simpsons" during seasons 4, 5, 10 and 11. In his role of co-executive producer, shared by many of a show’s writers, Mula aids in casting, set design and editing, as well as scriptwriting.
In 2000 and 2001, Mula won Emmy awards for Outstanding Animated Program (less than one hour) as a writer for "The Simpsons," a recognition that he shares with the show’s other producers.
According to Mula, the inspiration for episodes of "The Simpsons" comes collectively, evolving when the show’s writers sit down together to brainstorm.
"Writing is a long process," Mula said. He explained that writers first propose an outline, then feedback is given on the material and at least two drafts are created. "Changes are made every step of the way."
Mula said writing for "The Simpsons" takes place six months before the show will actually broadcast, which presents an interesting challenge for writers who are trying to keep the subject matter and humor current.
"We use a machine called an Animatic to preview the animation in black and white after we write a script. The Animatic shows every seventh frame of film," Mula said. "Only minor script changes can be made after it is animated, and they are very expensive."
Mula described meeting many other celebrities who come into the studio to record vocal tracks for "The Simpsons."
"The only time I ever asked for an autograph was when Stephen Hawking came in," he said. Hawking, a world-renowned physicist, has motor neurone disease and is confined to a wheelchair. "I also paid attention when Elizabeth Taylor appeared on the show. There were about 250 people who showed up to work that day."
Mula’s favorite experiences in television came when he worked on a sitcom called "Grand" in 1990, and again in 1996 when his own show, "Local Heroes," aired on Fox for seven episodes.
"I always knew I wanted to do this," Mula said. "I just didn’t think I’d be able to."
Mula’s memories of South River High School are highlighted by his performances with the school’s drama club — "a good experience and so important at that age," Mula said. He recalled a one-act play contest at the school, where his submission was chosen as one of four winners and was produced by students.
Mula expressed his appreciation for the recognition by his alma mater, and said that he would bring a cel of artwork from "The Simpsons" to give to the school at the ceremony on Nov. 19.
In the near future, Mula plans to finish a book he has been working on for the past 10 years and to continue producing "Life With Bonnie." After more than 20 years in the field, Mula still attributes many of his achievements in Hollywood to luck.
"You may see 200 people come through the door and be terrible, and then one person comes in and pulls it all together," Mula said. "To make a successful TV show, it takes good writing, good people and a lot of luck."