Wednesday, September 06, 2000

Sitcom producer has serious stories to tell, too




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        If the son of longtime Cincinnati civil liberties attorney Allen Brown ever produced a TV series, I'd expect it to be a drama like The Practice or I'll Fly Away.

        Something inspired by his father's famous friends or clients: Larry Flynt, Ku Klux Klan member Clarence Brandenburg or the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

        Maybe it would be based on Allen Brown's tireless efforts for the American Civil Liberties Union or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

        Farthest from my mind would be an African-American sitcom, UPN's buddy comedy Girlfriends, which premieres Monday (9:30 p.m., Channel 25).

[photo] Comedy writing/producing team Mark Alton Brown and Dee LaDuke.
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        But not to Mark Alton Brown. The son of the retired attorney is executive producer of the adult sex comedy with Erlanger native Dee LaDuke, his TV writing partner for 11 years.

        “It's not unusual for me to be working on an African-American show,” Mark Brown says, “because we were one of the few Cincinnati families back in the 1960s that had African-Americans in and out of our house all the time, and I don't just mean working for us.

        “Some of my earliest memories are Dad dragging me to civil rights marches and holding picket signs, when I really didn't know what was going on,” he says.
       

Veteran writing team
        The Tristate duo, who wrote 20 Designing Women episodes, were hired to help creator Mara Brock Akil (Moesha, The Jamie Fox Show) shape this Sex and the City-style comedy. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) also is an executive producer on the series, which is being made by his Grammnet Productions.

        “UPN felt Mara needed experienced show-runners to help her through the process. We have sort of mentored her,” Mark says.

        Tracee Ellis Ross (Lyricist Lounge, Lifetime's The Dish), Golden Brooks (Linc's Place), Persia White (The Last Action Hero) and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Jill Jones star as twentysomething women comparing notes on guys and sex. (Not necessarily in that order.)

        “When four women get together, I know they talk about sex, among other things. But this isn't just about sex,” Mark says.

        “They also speak openly about race,” Dee says, “which I think is very ground-breaking.”
       

Best friends, too

        When Mark and Dee aren't discussing Girlfriends, they often talk about their combined family back home in Cincinnati. Mark's father, 81, married Dee's Aunt Roseanne in 1986.

        The writers, both in their mid-40s, have been best friends since they met at the New Morning School at the Clifton Heights Friar's Club in the early 1971.

        “We were rebellious youth,” says Dee, whose father worked for Erlanger Lumber.

        “And it was really hard to be a rebellious youth when your father is Allen Brown,” Mark says.

        They studied theater arts at Webster College in St. Louis and ended up in New York.

        Dee worked her way up at Nickelodeon from receptionist to program director, where she helped launch Double Dare, Hey Dude and the Nick at Nite “classic TV” format. Mark tried acting, did MTV publicity, and wrote Double Dare game show questions.

        “Then one day Mark said, "Let's see if we can write a half-hour comedy and sell it.' We didn't have a clue,” Dee says.

        They wrote a Designing Women script, which caught the attention of someone at Columbia-TriStar in 1989. They moved to Los Angeles, and wrote for short-lived shows like Sugar and Spice and Living Dolls. They joined the Designing Women staff for its final two seasons (1991-93).

        They also wrote Michael Rispoli's My Guys, canceled by CBS after two weeks (1996), and UPN's brief Reunited comedy (1998) starring Cincinnati native Julie Hagerty. Mark had attended the Walter Eyre School of Drama in downtown Cincinnati with Julie in the 1960s.

        “But she didn't remember me,” Mark says.
       

Movie projects

        Between sitcoms, the Tristate natives have written several films, including Jackie's Back, Lifetime's 1999 mock-documentary with Robert Townsend, Whoopi Goldberg, David Hyde Pierce and Bette Midler.

        They have two projects close to home, if they can find investors or the right studio.

        Ashley Judd has agreed to star in Rudell, their feature film about an Appalachian mother working at White Castle after her husband abandons her. It will directed by Kristi Zea, the Oscar-winning producer for As Good As It Gets, who scouted locations here last year.

        “We have just got to find financing to get a green light (for production),” Dee says.

        Mark also has pitched movie studios a movie idea about his father's defense of Mr. Brandenburg, whose conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969. The civil libertarian successfully argued that Mr. Brandenburg's 1964 Klan rally comments about blacks and Jews were protected under the First Amendment.

        “It's basically a movie about the conversations of my family, about a Jewish attorney defending a KKK member,” he says.

        Now that's what I expected from Allen Brown's son.

John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202. E-mail: Johnkiese@yahoo.com.