Joyland: Where America Comes Together

When we decided to create Joyland, our eight-part scripted television series set in the 1960s which will premiere on YouTube on March 22, we were confronted by a dizzying array of themes. What to choose from? Where to begin? So much of today’s polarization and unresolved issues began back then, from racism and social justice to class warfare and corruption. How do you select one issue without minimizing the importance of others? The ‘60s was a decade intertwined, a spider’s web of seismic history that would forever change America. We needed to find a unifying strand.

Sports.

Like music, where white teenagers first discovered African American rhythm and blues, and the beginnings of rock and roll, via the late-night radio which bigotry could not police, sports crossed racial barriers. For Joyland, we targeted basketball and, specifically, the formation of the American Basketball Association in 1967. 

As ABA fans remember, the league epitomized the anti-establishment of the ‘60s. Three-point shots and oh, that wonderful red-white-and-blue ball. The league gave players like Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown – both recurring characters in Joyland – opportunities when the NBA wouldn’t; both players were tainted by unfair point-shaving allegations. 

The ABA also had more Black players. There were no unofficial quotas nor uneasiness about whether white fans would support racially mixed teams. The ABA was run-and-gun on the court and off, a true social trailblazer for which it has not received sufficient credit. The ABA was a wild world full of larger-than-life personalities. In many ways, it personified the evolving sports pedigree of the times.  

Now we indulged in a little alternative history. Cut us some slack, this is drama. One of the main characters Marty Dent, a former New York Knicks star whose career was shortened by a mysterious car accident, dreams of resurrecting fading Brooklyn – and himself – by bringing a franchise to his beloved borough in the new ABA. Ever since the Dodgers left and all that mourning stuff.

Marty’s ally, his best friend and former Knicks teammate Julian Bass, is now a charismatic minister at the First Church of Christ in Brooklyn. Like Marty, Reverend Bass dreams of uniting the city through social justice as the civil rights movement sweeps the nation.

Both men will take on an establishment that is powerful, corrupt, and not about to let such interlopers enter.  We also lean into the intransigent hostility of the NBA versus the fledgling league. Let’s not forget that a few months before the New York ABA franchise was to debut in 1967 at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan, Knicks president Ned Irish sabotaged the deal, sending the franchise to Teaneck as the New Jersey Americans.

Oh yeah, Ned Irish is a fictionalized character in our series. 

New York in the 60s, soon to be Fun City, was a city slowly circling the drain until – at least briefly – sports teams such as the Miracle Mets, Joe Willie’s Jets, and the Knicks of Super-Cool Clyde Frazier breathed life into the five boroughs. The shared experience of rooting for the same team, no matter your race, ethnicity, yadda yadda, makes everyone a fan of that team for that one season, that one game, perhaps that one moment. Hope through sports if only for 48 minutes, nine innings, four quarters.

The theme of coming together despite the ugliness of the times is consistent throughout Joyland. We don’t respect much PC. Early in the rehearsal process, we reminded the cast that the show is through the eyes of the 60s. Don’t act shocked by language and mores as we are now. There was casual bigotry which was just how people talked, the caricatures, stereotypes. Joyland is all about showing how it was, not how we wished it had been. The viewer will make up their own minds.

JOYLAND TRAILER

The series opens in July 1964 as Brooklyn’s aflame with riots following the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a white policeman. Some things sadly don’t change. 

America was still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which marked the beginning of the end of our innocence. We were embroiled in a life-and-death struggle with the Soviet Union. This was two years out from the Cuban Missile Crisis when the planet nearly incinerated itself with World War 3. And less than 20 years after the end of World War Two. Blacks were second-class citizens, enforced by a police dog’s teeth. A woman’s job often consisted of asking her boss whether he wanted his coffee with cream and sugar. No one dared be gay.

To offset the gritty, sometimes ugly aspects of that tumultuous era which we set on the streets of New York, we reached back to our childhood memories of spending summers at bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains. For generations, working and middle-class New Yorkers, many Jewish, fled the “hot times in the city” for affordable sanctuaries away from the concrete parks. 

Now here’s a wrinkle. Until the country returns to some form of normalcy, we’re producing Joyland via the Zoom platform. Since the pandemic has slowed the development of television, we decided to pull a Kobayashi Maru. You Star Trek fans know what I’m talking about. For the sadly uninformed, when James Tiberius Kirk was at Starfleet Academy, he changed the rules of a supposedly no-win exercise. 

An acclaimed international cast from London to Los Angeles will perform within the Zoom technological Universe under the gifted hands of director DeMone Seraphin, an award-winning Broadway performer, and director. Once we’re permitted, DeMone will film actual scenes on-location and weave them into the production, aided by technical producer Paul Litwak.

So crack open a Ballantine beer and put on some Motown. Turn on Walter Cronkite, who might talk about a faraway place called Vietnam. Hey, take a very illegal toke. And come with us back to the tumultuous 1960s, where today began.

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Gary Morgenstein’s novels and plays have been featured in national media from The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, New York Post, Sports Illustrated to NPR. His sixth novel A Fastball for Freedom (“the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ of the series”), the sequel to his critically-acclaimed dystopian baseball-science fiction A Mound Over Hell (“1984 Meets Shoeless Joe”), will be published by BHC Press on March 25.

Russell Friedman began a 30+ year career as a television executive after graduating from the University of Maryland, where he studied Radio, TV and Film.  The Emmy Award-winning Friedman has worked for the Syfy Channel, USA Network, PGA Tour Productions, ABC Sports, NBC News and Specials, and ESPN in his long and varied career.

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