Del Shores and Leslie Jordan to hold court in Philly

So what is a self-respecting gay writer, director and producer to do when his immensely popular TV show grinds to a halt?

If you are Del Shores and that TV show is “Sordid Lives: The Series,” you take your act, and sometimes a few of the cast members, on the road.

Shores will touch down in Philadelphia for “My Sordid Life,” an “unscripted” one-man show where he shares the real-life stories that have inspired his work — often darkly comical tales set in the white-trashiest parts of Texas, like the aforementioned TV series, the stage play it was based on and other productions, like “Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?),” “Southern Baptist Sissies” and “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife.”

His shows have been wildly successful, not only in Texas and the rest of the South, but also in more metro-leaning strongholds like Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Shores credits the success of his work to the fact that everyone knows someone like one of the characters in his plays.

“I find that no matter where I am, people identify with ‘Sordid Lives,’” he said. “They can see somebody in their family in these characters. So many people go, ‘Oh, I have a grandmother just like Sissy’ or ‘My mother is Latrelle.’ I go no, no, no … my mother is Latrelle. I base my characters on people I know. In my show, I basically say I am not a writer, I am a thief — much to the chagrin of my family.”

And while Shores was being completely candid, he admitted his show isn’t as unscripted as it used to be.

“I have scripted the show but it lends itself to audience participation,” he said. “So I can get off track and get right back to it. Sometimes those are the most fun moments. It’s a little bit of a blend of standup and theater.”

His show also isn’t very one-man at times. His June 20 performance at Plays & Players Theatre will feature longtime friend and “Sordid Lives” cast member Leslie Jordan.

It’s OK if you’re thinking it, because Shores knows from past experience that Jordan is probably going to run away with the show like a Southern hobbit clutching the one ring.

“It’s so funny,” Shores said from his home in Los Angeles. “Last night I walked out on stage — the Zephyr Theater is three-quarters — and he was sitting in a spot right behind me where the entire audience can see him and I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing behind me? I can’t have you there.’ Of course, he’s just magic in his reaction. It was quite wonderful. He’s opened for me in Palm Springs and we’re such kindred spirits. He is a hysterical man. I think it just heightens everything. The way it’s going to work in Philly is he’s going to hijack my show for a little while.”

Jordan, in acknowledging Shores’ talent, knows that following his act on stage is not easy.

“He’s been working it out in Los Angeles, and so it started I would go on first to warm up and then he said, ‘I can’t compete with that,’” Jordan relayed. “He is a wonderful storyteller but he doesn’t have the years of performing skills. I’m good up there. Many of his stories intersect with my stories because we’ve been best friends for years and years. So what we’ve got going now is that he tells a story and then I jump up with the rebuttal, which seems to be working pretty good. But he said the other night, ‘It’s still a scramble once you sit down.’”

Jordan added that he isn’t the only cast member from “Sordid Lives” that sometimes ends up joining Shores on stage.

“We’ve got five nights in New York on our way to Philadelphia where we’re performing with Rue McClanahan, who’s another scene-stealer,” he said. “I even have a little trouble with her. And Caroline Rhea, she’s a funny, funny lady. So I’m sure by the time we reach Philadelphia, it’s going to be a dog-and-pony show.”

“We’re doing several of those shows,” Shores added of the performances featuring Jordan, McClanahan and Rhea. “Sometimes Rue is with us and sometimes she’s not. It’s all family. We love each other. It’s not an act. What you see on the screen is what you get. It’s a love-fest with this troupe. We’ve been together since ’96 and Leslie and I have been together since ’85.”

Both Shores and Jordan find some solace performing with the cast members from “Sordid Lives” after the TV show stalled following its first successful season on Logo.

“It’s a really unfortunate situation,” Shores said about the show’s demise. “We gave them our best. It was their No. 1 show and 20-times bigger than any show they had ever had. They did order a second season, but Logo doesn’t own the show. A company called Once Upon A Time Film owns it and they are in violation of all the guilds in paying us our residuals. The series ran on Logo 271 times collectively. The actors and myself were not paid any residuals. So now it’s a legal matter. The first stall was that our foreign financier was not ready to come on board for the second season. That probably would have happened in good time. But it’s a non-issue now because none of us are going back to work until this situation is resolved.”

Shores also laid some of the blame for the fate of “Sordid Lives” on the Logo Network.

“Quite frankly, Logo has not stepped up and helped us. I’ve never worked for a network that has been less supportive. It sort of breaks my heart because I made a commitment to work for this gay network and I felt that I was bringing them something of quality. I was bringing them stars for the first time. And right now, I’m feeling very unappreciated. But you go on. You go forward.”

Much like Jordan’s participation in Shores’ show, he has his side of the “Sordid” story. As someone who’s spent more than 20 years working on both wildly successful and woefully obscure TV shows, some of which never made it past the pilot stage, Jordan knows the warnings that can signal a show’s end.

“I knew we were in trouble when Logo had us on the air and I was touring 45 cities for this book I wrote, ‘My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,’ and my producer wondered what it would cost to get an ad on Logo during the show. It was $300. I thought, ‘My God, we suck!’ Logo is a brand-new network and I’m not putting them down. They loved our show, but they can’t afford it. We had Emmy winners. We were all willing to jump in and give them a season. Rue said she made more in one episode guest-starring on one show she did lately than she did on a whole season for Logo.”

Shores said even though he could get over his differences with Logo, it’s hard for him to buy into the network’s financial struggle when he knows how they spend their money.

“I could patch up with Logo, I think, if they were willing,” he said. “All it would take would be Viacom to support Logo and Logo to support the show. I don’t think Logo is the problem in the big picture. I believe that Logo thought ‘Sordid Lives’ was an important show to them, but Viacom is not financially that supportive of Logo. It’s like, ‘Here’s 5 cents, make a show.’ We made ‘Sordid Lives’ for an unreasonable amount of money. It was just unheard of how I made the show: I had to write all 12 episodes and shoot it at a rapid pace like a movie. We shot 12 episodes in 35 days and got all kinds of performances. The actors worked for very little money and, of course, we were expecting to be compensated through residuals. The response had been fantastic, but now the fans are not happy and they’re dropping their tier package that has Logo. Many of them switched to Direct TV just to get the series.

“The final straw for me was that I was willing to not include Logo in what I perceived as the reason the second season was not happening. However, when Logo was given the opportunity to help buy the series and get it out of Once Upon A Time’s hands, they did not. And a little later, they bought reruns of ‘The Sarah Silverman Show,’ according to the trades, for $400,000 an episode, which is $4 million. They could have gotten ‘Sordid Lives’ back for a fourth of that and owned the show. Their license fee for ‘The Sarah Silverman Show’ is $1.2 million. Logo paid $275,000 per episode for “Sordid Lives.” They’re paying more for reruns than they paid for first runs of ‘Sordid Lives.’ So you can see why I’m a little bitter.”

Jordan’s view of the work and the financial goings-on is not as bitter. He said he enjoyed the marathon filming of the show … for all the wrong reasons.

“We went to Shreveport, La., and shot the first season of ‘Sordid Lives’ and we really connected,” he said. “Shreveport is just a cesspool of vice. It’s a gambling town but you can’t gamble except on the water. So they have their enormous hotels and you go over to the gambling boats. We had so much fun that when the second season became sort of iffy, it was Caroline Rhea’s idea to head out and see what we can come up with.”

Even if the show did pay residuals, Jordan knows from experience that it might not have been the boon that most of the actors expected.

“Some of the actors were disgruntled that we weren’t getting paid residuals and that’s not Logo’s fault,” he said. “That’s the production company. It gets very convoluted. The difference is, if ‘Will & Grace’ runs on a rerun on some bigger cable station, I get about $300. Well, you don’t see that money for months. Then I had some other little series that was running on cable and I’d get $5. I’d get checks for 20 cents. It’s amazing the difference. For these actors to be so disgruntled because they’re not getting residuals, they don’t understand. They’re probably going to get 2 cents per episode. It just got ugly and I hate when that happens.”

Jordan added that all the legal issues around the show probably mean it won’t ever be back on television.

“Del is such an optimist, he’s holding out hope,” he said. “But I know when a project gets a little bit of a stench on it, if there’s ever lawyers involved, no one is ever going to come near it. I just don’t think they have the money to step up to the base for a second season.”

In the meantime, Shores said he is more than happy to carry on the “Sordid Lives” torch in his show.

“It’s one way of continuing the franchise and it’s also a way of making income right now,” he said. “I was just creatively crippled for a little while because I gave my heart and soul to ‘Sordid Lives: The Series.’ I’ve enjoyed being in the spotlight; I didn’t think I was going to. I do love to be in control and direct. Once you step on that stage all by yourself, it’s pretty frightening. I’m really comfortable with it now. I’ve connected with my fans in a way that I had never have [before]. I’m really loving it. I seem to be getting a really good response from it. It’s just a nice change after many years of being behind the camera.”

But don’t expect that change to be permanent. Shores said his bumpy ride with “Sordid Lives: The Series” hasn’t forever soured him on writing and producing his own projects.

“As long as people will watch me, I’ll keep doing this as well,” he said about his one-man shows. “But I’m not going to abandon writing. I do still own the franchise of ‘Sordid Lives’ stage and publishing. So no matter what, they can’t take that away from me. I’m writing a play called ‘A Merry Sordid Christmas,’ so that will be fun.”

Del Shores and Leslie Jordan perform at 8 p.m. June 20 at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St. For more information, visit www.delshores.net or call (215) 985-0420.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].