Do you like funny? What about funny movies? Or funny books about funny movies? Jeff Cohen’s Comedy Tonight series is another of those series that made me wonder “Hang on, whatever happened to that?”
And then I actually met Jeff at Malice Domestic last year and realized that hey, I can probably just ask him and he won’t hate me! (He’s very nice. You should all go say hi to him at Malice this year, where he’s going to be Toastmaster.)
1. Tell us about the Comedy Tonight series. What was the premise? Who were the characters?
The main character of the series is Elliott Freed (a name I borrowed from the first story I ever wrote, when I was in college), who sells his only novel to Hollywood, hates the movie that gets made out of it, banks the money and buys a one-screen movie house in his hometown. He calls it Comedy Tonight and shows only funny movies there, one classic comedy and one contemporary (I had a lot of fun making up the “modern” movies). And then for some reason he started having to solve murders that happened in or around his theater. Go figure.
He mostly interacted with his staff, which consisted (when the series began) of two people. Sophie was a high school student who worked the snack bar and various jobs around the theater. She was going through the process of trying on identities and never really got them right. But she was her own person and eventually ended up being promoted to manager of the theater before she was about to leave for college.
Anthony operated the projector, a real-film oldie model that Elliot himself couldn’t always tame. Anthony was a film-making student at Rutgers (a program with doesn’t actually exist, but what the hell) and worked at the theater for walking-around money and to see the classic movies.
Elliot also had an ongoing relationship with his ex-wife Sharon, a doctor who left him for another doctor and then had second thoughts. Their divorce was amicable and Elliot still carried something of a torch for his ex. It was never clear whether that was ENTIRELY reciprocated, but things did develop. For one thing, Sharon had to get over the fact that their divorce settlement required she pay Elliot alimony.
2. Why did it end?
The publisher felt sales were not… encouraging enough to offer a new contract for more books. We did then launch (under the name E. J. Copperman) the Haunted Guesthouse series, so my editor Shannon Jamieson Vazquez and I were able to continue working together for some years after that. So it wasn’t all bad.
3. Would you ever resurrect the series?
I did, in fact, resurrect the series (sort of) in a short story I wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2017. The story, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!” dealt with Elliot and his ex-wife Sharon rushing to the hospital for the birth of their child. And then Elliot sees something in the storage room he shouldn’t see… As for further novels, I started one once but there is no publisher and no, I’m not the type who would self-publish, largely because I think I would be remarkably bad at it. That said, the books are available under the auspices of Irvington Publishing, which means I self-published them when the rights reverted to me. So I have some basis in thinking that I’d be bad at self-publishing because you didn’t know about them, did you?
4. Does anything from the series show up in any of your other writing?
I actually borrowed the town of Midland Heights (which I made up) and its police chief Barry Dutton from my very first mystery series feature freelance reporter Aarron Tucker. I’ve used Chief Dutton a couple of other times in books that haven’t been published. Yet.
The idea was always to have a protagonist who would attack the problems of the world armed with a sense of humor. That started in the Aaron Tucker series and kept going through the Comedy Tonight books, but really has been part of what I’ve done in all 25 (so far) published novels I’ve written.
5. Did you have any plans beyond what was published? What were they?
I had started a draft for the fourth novel (some of which went into the AHMM story) where Elliot would have been searching for the lost footage from the Marx Brothers 1932 Horse Feathers and ended up being accused of a murder. But I don’t think I got beyond 50 pages when the series was canceled.
6. What are you working on now?
I did just finish a short story extension of the Asperger’s Mystery series that I’m told will publish in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in May of 2020. So be on the lookout for that! And my agent is shopping around five (5!) other books written since the last Guesthouse novel was finished a while back. That’s all I can tell you right now.
Today I’m going to start revising a manuscript that my agent thinks needs more plot. He’s right. (I like character better than plot; I’ll admit it.) So we’ll see where that goes.
Thank you so much for being my first Dearly Departed interview of the year, Jeff!
Jeff Cohen started writing at a very early age but his mother took the crayons away and washed his work off the living room wall. Since then he’s grown up (sort of) and written 25 published novels, two non-fiction books on raising a child on the autism spectrum, two (soon to be three) short stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, numerous magazine and newspaper articles and a grocery list that’s generating a lot of interest in Hollywood. He lives in New Jersey with six million other people, including his wife and children. And a dog.
Is anyone else delighted to learn about the Copperman pseudonym? Who’s TBR list just grew by a mile? Have you read the Elliot Freed AHMM short story? Let me know!