When advertising executive Marshall Karp decided to try playwriting in 1979, he read every Neil Simon comedy. "One thing I learned is that certain characters can get away with murder," says Karp, 60, whose Simonesque play, "Squabbles," opens at the Huntington Beach Playhouse June 21. "An elderly curmudgeon-like Walter Matthau from 'The Sunshine Boys' can say anything and get a laugh. Put the same words in a 30-year-old mouth and people will want to smack him."
Karp took heed and envisioned his protagonist as a crotchety coot. Then he asked his wife a loaded question. "I said, 'What would happen if your father lived with us and my mother moved in?' And she said, 'My God, that would be a disaster.'"
The idea provided the premise for "Squabbles," which pits cranky ex-cabbie Abe Dreyfus against an equally crabby in-law. The battleground is the home of their respective children: "I couldn't exactly throw [my mother] out in the cold," Abe's son-in-law says.
"It's the middle of July," Dreyfus retorts.
The humor feels Jewish, as do the protagonists, though they're never explicitly stated to be so.
"I just couldn't escape my roots," Karp explains during a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. "I could have said the characters were from Pakistan, but they still would've had a certain amount of Jewish rhythm."
Karp's roots go back to a working-class home in the industrial city of East New York, N.J. His father owned a candy store; his mother sent him to yeshiva to please her observant émigré father. "But my neighborhood was largely Irish and Italian, so I felt uncomfortable as the only kid with the 'beanie' getting off the bus," Karp says.
He switched to a public high school in the ninth grade, majored in English at Rutgers University and accidentally stumbled into an advertising career. In a scene reminiscent of Neil Simon, the then-21-year-old Karp was sleeping late one morning when his father dropped the Sunday New York Times on his head and intoned, "Section 9, Help Wanted." "So I opened the paper and I went, 'Accounting, no, advertising copywriter -- why not?'" Karp recalls.
The copywriting job led to an illustrious career creating commercials for clients such as Coca-Cola and PaineWebber. But by 37, Karp was frustrated with the ad biz. "The punishment for being a good writer is you're put in charge of the other writers and told not to write," says the exec, who then decided to try playwriting on the side. To learn how, he read more than 50 plays by authors such as Simon and Woody Allen.
Karp was shocked, three years later, when a 1982 New Hampshire production of "Squabbles" generated a Hollywood buzz. "Suddenly, I went from being an ad guy who wrote in his spare time to a writer who was in demand at all the networks," he says.
He kept his day job until 1987, when CBS hired him to create a sitcom, "Everything's Relative," starring a then-unknown young actor named Jason Alexander. Alexander -- who played a neurotic New Yorker -- was the antithesis of George Costanza, the schlemiel he'd eventually portray on "Seinfeld." "He was polite and respectful," Karp recalls. "But he didn't have much more hair."
After "Seinfeld," Alexander remembered his old friend when he agreed to direct Karp's semi-autobiographical screenplay, "Just Looking" in 2000. The comedy-drama, set in 1955, tells of a 14-year-old Jewish boy determined to witness "an act of love" on his summer vacation. It's loosely based on the summers Karp spent with relatives in Queens, where, like his protagonist, he joined a kids' "sex club" to exchange information about the facts of life.
Like "Squabbles" -- which has been produced in more than 500 theaters worldwide -- the humor is both Jewish and mainstream. "I think of my work as universal life experience as told through Jewish eyes," Karp says.