The hit country music parody musical The Doyle & Debbie Show has come to roost at the New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Its composer-playwright, Bruce Arntson, is a native Minnesotan now trapped in the terrible, terrible winter climate of Nashville, Tennessee. Arntson sat down with the Daily Planet’s drama critic Basil Considine to discuss the genesis of The Doyle & Debbie Show and its upcoming movie adaptation.
Has the winter in Nashville reminded you at all of your old stomping grounds in Minnesota?
Yes. It’s snowing as we speak, the schools are closed today, the roads are icy … “Yes” is the short answer. It’s miserable!
Shall we start with The Doyle & Debbie Show?
It premiered back in 2006; you were the original director, correct?
Were you also singing in it?
Absolutely. I premiered it in Nashville and continue to perform it with Jenny Littleton. She and I and Matt Carlson (playing the bandleader, the third role) all first put it on upstairs in a sort of attic space in a coffee shop in Nashville, in front of fifty or sixty people.
How quickly did it start snowballing into something larger? You had that Denver show, there’s a fairly long engagement in Minneapolis going on as we speak, and it’s still playing now and then in Nashville…
Yeah, it’s still playing in Nashville and we did eight or nine months in Chicago at the Royal George Theater. It didn’t take much to fill that initial space [the cofeehouse] we were in, but it was enough to get it [the show] on its feet and show us what we had. We did about a month in June of 2006, then I took the summer to take a few songs out, add a few new songs, jiggered it around a little bit, then we brought it back out in the fall.
Not long after that, we moved into that honytonk in downtown Nashville called The Station Inn and did about a four-year stint there. Then we did a three-week run in Austin at the performing arts center there. That’s where the New York-based producers saw the show and put us in Chicago for the eight-month stint there. Then we went back home to Nashville…
When we haven’t done the extended runs on the road, we’ve always done at least one show a week in Nashville – if not more. It’s been constant since we first opened it.
It sounds nice and linear right now when you look back at it, but I presume at the time that this unfolded more in a “Hey, we got renewed for another week” fashion or something like that?
Yeah. We’ve kind of been doing it like a music act. I think of myself more as a musician than a playwright. Except for the extended, more theatrical runs, it’s kind of been booked in music clubs as a music act, even though it is obviously a play.
Sort of a “resident musician” type of thing?
Yeah … in the rapidly growing Gulch area of Nashville, we were [more or less] a band in residence, a house gig.
And that very long run at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago? How did that work out? You said that the New York producers [who saw the show in Austin] got the orginal booking; how long was that originally set for?
Four months, maybe – something like that. Then we ended up being there for eight months! Eight shows a week for eight months.
That’s a nice, respectable run.
Yeah, it was. It was a long time to be away from home, but we had a lot of fun.
Can you give us a quick sketch of how the Doyle & Debbie Show came to be? I understand that you were writing for a number of other things and that somehow the show came out of that…
Yeah, that’s basically how it happened. Having moved from Minnesota to Nashville thirty-five years ago primarily to be closer to the music business, I’ve been around the country music old guard for a long time. It was kind of just petering out when I moved here, but the Grand Ole Opry is very much still the last vestige of that old-school country music vaudeville. Porter Wagoner only died in the last few years and he was still hosting the Opry. I have friends that’ve performed at the Opry, and I’d go backstage from time to time and watch the mechanations there and how those old-timers presented the show and themselves.
While working on a biography show for Country Music Television, I’d be pouring over a lot of the footage of syndicated shows that were popular in the late Sixties [and] early Seventies, like The Wilburn Brothers Show, The Porter Wagoner Show, Pop Goes the Country…they all had those old-time [stars]. A lot of those old-time stars came up from dirt; they came up from nothing, and that was part of their charm. They’d do their impression of show business and it’d have an awkward yet charming approach, like “hillbilly vaudeville”. It’s easy to make fun of, but, like I say, I was also entranced by it as well. The longer I looked at the material, the more it was begging for someone to parody it.
A lot of people have done bad country music parody (because it is like shooting fish in a barrel), but when Jenny and I did it we were pretty well versed in that old-school country music, so we treat it with respect. The idea was to have satire combined with homage; hopefully, in Nashville, that [approach] would tickle people rather than piss them off.
Let’s talk about that part a little bit, since you mentioned that you revised the show after the initial starting coffeehouse run. Were there any songs that you took out or tweaked because you thought they were pissing people off instead of amusing them?
No, not at all. It had more to do with the pacing of the show – I needed an uptempo song where I had a ballad and things like that. It was more structural.
We didn’t know what the reaction would be, honestly. We were a little hesitant that first couple of weeks or the first part of the run, since it’s also social satire and cultural satire… There’s a song called “God Loves America Best” that basically makes fun of that uber patriot country song that celebrates the warrior. There were a couple of songs about that during the Gulf War and the Iraq War, so… Would there be any hardcore right-wingers in the audience pissed off at us? We didn’t know [when we started], but the answer was no. We’ve had but a handful of people walk out on us over the years because of that kind of thing.
Is there any one song that seems to be associated with the walkouts, say “Barefoot and Pregnant”?
There’s rampant sexism in the show, without a doubt – it’s satirizing sexism. When you take a song and lift it out of the show, of course it’s misogynistic as hell – but the idea is that my character, Doyle Mayfield, is a relic of the past. (Not that we don’t have sexism or misogynism today.) Back then, these guys would be on TV and Dolly Parton was constantly having to bite her lip with Porter Wagoner making sexist jokes right on camera. A lot of what my character does is take all of that sexism, that old-school attitude, on his shoulders.
If the balance is done right, then it’s funny and not annoying. If the balance isn’t right, then the show looks sexist. The idea is that we’re satirizing that aspect of those old-timers.
Now that the show’s been cooking and sizzling for the last seven or eight years now, do you have anything else in the pipeline?
Actually, I’m working with a buddy of mine who’s a film director on a Doyle & Debbie movie. We’re in the early stages of that; we have a screenplay that we’ve budgeted, and we’re beating the bushes for collaborators and investors. That’s where my time is taken up at the moment.
Is that something where you’re trying to expand your current triple-threat status as writer, star, and director, or are you trying to delegate some of that away?
[Laughs] No, actually. Film is a good medium for me; I’m not an actor who goes out and auditions for other roles. I wrote the role of Doyle, really, around the things that I can do and away from the things that I’m not so good at. With the film, there’s enough time [to keep doing these things myself], as opposed to television or something else that recurrs on a regular basis, so that you’re constantly having to write and would need a team of writers.
With film, you have the time to craft a whole raft of songs for a show or movie and get them the way you want before you go into the studio. [Also] it’s a real mom-and-pop sort of operation, a real low budget effort. If we went to Hollywood, they would recast my role, I’m sure. [laughs] They’d take me out of it immediately, because I don’t have the reputation or a bankable name. [In the end] it’s the same way we did the Doyle & Debbie Show: for fun as much as anything, to see what we can get away with on no budget.
Do you have a target audience or venue? For example, do you see this going to a certain type of film festival, or do you just want to get it out to video?
In a perfect world, it’d have a theatrical run or release, but who knows. With a low budget, you can recoup in so many ways nowadays, with Netflix making television shows and movies and all the cable channels. For all those cable channels that make movies, they basically spend that amount on one show; there’re a lot of avenues that it [the film] could go.
In a perfect world, I’d love to have a theatrical release that spread like wildfire throughout the planet. [Laughs]
Hopefully not burning it down.
[Laughs] With the original, we didn’t know that it would escape from the coffee shop, either, so these things do happen.
Whatever happened to those songs that were cut from the show?
A few of them are relegated to the dustbin of country music history, [but] one has made its way into the movie.
You’re a Minnesotan who’s been in Nashville for an awfully long time. Are there bits of that background that you find are still surfacing or coming up in ways that surprise people?
I love it here for so many reasons [and] I love the culture, but if you grew up in Boston, no matter how long you live in Minneapolis you’ll still feel like you’re from Boston. That’s how I feel, too. I go home regularly to Minnesota every other month or so, to see my mom, and you carry that culture with you. They’ll never see you as a true Southerner, but as a writer that gives you a real advantage: you’re immersed in a culture that you’re still very objective about it. You have a perspective on it that someone who’s deeply steeped in it would have a harder time seeing.
A lot of great books are written by expatriates who come from somewhere else and have a more accurate or more unique take on a new culture. I think I get a little bit of that advantage with Doyle & Debbie from coming from another planet like Minnesota.
One last question. When you come back to Minnesota, are there any comfort foods that you seek out that you can’t get or can’t get the same way back in Nashville?
You know, I don’t miss lutefisk. [laughs] There is a nacho pizza place near my hometown called Zorbaz; that’s my comfort food when I come home. It’s not that they don’t have it here [in Nashville], but I don’t eat that crap here. [laughs]
Read Basil Considine’s review of The Doyle and Debbie Show, which runs through March 29.
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