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NE Ohio native-television writer to speak at Cleveland Stories Dinner Parties

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Every time you have laughed at your favorite sitcom, or guffawed over a funny scene, or chuckled over an actor’s one-liner, keep one thing in mind: All that humor is born in another place – off set, out of the lights, away from the cameras.

It’s the writers’ room, and it’s where Dan O’Shannon lives.

O’Shannon, a Euclid native who grew up in Painesville, is a veteran television writer with a resume of credits that includes “Modern Family,” “Frasier,” “Cheers” and others.

Tonight – Thursday, Aug. 12 – he is set to participate in the Music Box Supper Club’s Cleveland Stories Dinner Parties series, a Q and A with notable folks from a variety of walks of life.

O’Shannon, who has a place in Lakewood but is a Hollywood fixture, is a 1980 Riverside High School graduate. O’Shannon’s current project – with Mike Olszewski, a veteran Cleveland radio and television personality and college instructor – is very Cleveland-centric.

Combing through a lot of photos and footage, they have created digital, 3-D sets of Cleveland television-kid shows from decades ago. They can host the shows from within the digital sets.

O’Shannon – a fan of Cleveland cultural history – collects and carefully categorizes old Cleveland radio recordings from the late 1950s to the 1980s.

“I collect and collect and collect,” he said.

It’s a fun side project, but his day job is as a writer. To write one episode of anything is an accomplishment. To keep a show going, to evolve characters and keep the jokes fresh takes creativity, stamina and collaboration. You have to know when to keep going – and when to end things.

“As a viewer I would have felt that about some of the shows,” he said about shows possibly going too long. “But for someone who worked on the shows they all … ended at the right time for me.”

He worked four years on “Cheers” and five each on “Frasier” and “Modern Family,” among others. He won a handful of Emmys as a writer-producer on “Modern Family.”

“I didn’t have a favorite,” he said. “So I didn’t have one that I looked at and go ‘That one was my favorite.’ Each one of those was special to me because they happened at different times in my life.”

“Cheers” was his first really big show, he said, while “Frasier” remains special because he spent three years as head writer and had a fantastic cast and terrific writers.

It also was brilliantly smart, a comedy that could deftly weave references from classical music, wine, pop culture and literature – and make it all relevant. The show, which aired from 1993 to 2004, stars Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce as psychologist brothers whose tastes often run to snooty levels while their father, played by John Mahoney, is a down-to-earth retired cop who knocks them down a peg. Jane Leeves plays the woman Niles loves from afar, and Peri Gilpin portrays a colleague of Grammar’s title character who equals his wit – less with charm but just as sharp.

“We got to do a lot of experimenting. We had no interferences from the network and studio; we could do whatever we wanted,” O’Shannon said. “We got to experiment with storytelling.”

The genesis of that process starts in the writers’ room, where stories are generated. Subsequent drafts can be more solitary, he said, done in a home office or coffee shop or wherever.

“Once it’s back in the writers’ room then we all break down the story and reconstruct it and play with it until every last comma is where we think it should go. Then the actors come and work on it and we realize we need to work on it even more. The majority of the work is collaborative.”

Then there is the “Newhart” finale. O’Shannon came up with it.

In the show – which ran 1982 to 1990 – Bob Newhart plays an innkeeper. In the original, separate series, “The Bob Newhart Show,” Newhart plays a psychologist.

“Sometimes the answer is ‘I don’t know; it just popped into my head,’ ” he said. “But that one is easy: I pretty much just stole it from the ending of “St. Elsewhere.” That’s the show that ended with the entire series having been the vison of one of the characters. I went into work and said ‘Hey, we should do that with our show.”

“Stole” is a harsh description. “Inspired by” might be more accurate here. In “St. Elsewhere,” the entire series turns out to be the creation of a young autistic boy’s dream. The “Newhart” final scene – which aired May 21, 1990 – meshes both shows by bringing back Suzanne Pleshette, who plays his wife in the earlier series. The couple wakes in the middle of the night, and Newhart tells her he had this crazy dream about being an innkeeper surrounded by quirky characters.

O’Shannon was working with writing partner Tom Anderson, who is from Willoughby. They had met doing amateur nights in the early ‘80s. The show was supposed to end soon, and he pitched it as the last episode. But “Newhart” ended up being picked up for one more season. In the meantime he and Anderson jumped over to “Cheers.” The producers decided to leave O’Shannon’s ending, and it goes down in television history as one of the best.

That was a special moment, one for the ages, one of the times when O’Shannon captured the magic.

“Sometimes you just know ‘I’ve got something special here and I’ve got a roomful of people and we’re all vibing together.’ And then you take it to the cast, and if you’ve got a show like ‘Frasier’ or ‘Modern Family’ you can make something really good into something really amazing.”

In television more than film, he said, writers are hands-on and have a lot more say about a show’s direction. They can try a speech with a character leaving a room, instead of standing still, for instance. Those tweaks might seem minor, but they are made to garner a few more laughs.

A few laughs are sure to come tonight.

More info: “To Hollywood Back with Great Behind the Scenes Stories”

Doors for Music Box Supper Club’s Cleveland Stories Dinner Parties opens at 5 p.m. Show starts at 7 p.m. Prix fixe optional dinner (salad, penne and meatballs, dessert) is $20. Music Box is at 1148 Main Ave., Cleveland.

I am on’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. And tune in at 7:05 a.m. Wednesdays for “Beer with Bona and Much, Much More” with Munch Bishop on 1350-AM The Gambler. Twitter: @mbona30.

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