Six years ago, Larry Doyle and his wife, Becky Lichtenstein, were living the California dream in a 1920s English Tudor home in sunny Silver Lake, a hip Los Angeles neighborhood. Doyle, a former writer for The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-Head, was toiling on screenplays and pitching pilots, while Lichtenstein had retired from real estate to raise the couple's kids (Ben, now 12, and twins Alice and Joe, now 7).
"We moved to this house, which was a little small, but it was conveniently behind what was supposed to be the best public school in Los Angeles," recalls the 52-year-old Doyle, best known for his novel, I Love You, Beth Cooper. "It turned out the school wasn't so hot."
When Ben was in kindergarten, the couple started searching for alternatives. "We were looking at different schools," explains Doyle, "and Becky, who had graduated from The Park School in Baltimore, was lamenting that the private schools in L.A. cost as much as Park but were nothing like it."
And the couple's search for a new home didn't go any better.
"In California, you can see the most bizarre houses," says Doyle, who hails from Buffalo Grove, IL. "We saw one house that had 800 Barbies in it, and the woman who lived in the house dressed as Barbie. In another house, I counted 50 cats."
Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, Lichtenstein's parents decided to sell her childhood home in Mt. Washington, an 1865, six-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, stone historic home once owned by Walter Patrick, the Johns Hopkins University chemistry professor who invented silica gel. Given the circumstances in L.A., Lichtenstein had an epiphany: There really was no place like her childhood home.
On a whim, she submitted Ben's application to The Park School. When he was admitted in 2005, the deal was sealed: They were moving to Baltimore.
"I had visited her childhood home many times before, and I thought it was beautiful," says Doyle. "Part of the selling point for me was Becky saying this house was perfect for her because it was the house she grew up in."
While the home was majestic—with its original stained-glass windows, soaring ceilings, and unique architectural details—it had its quirks like any old home, from sloping floors and inadequate insulation to no air-conditioning. Seemingly innocuous cosmetic changes led to bigger renovations.
"Before we moved in, Becky didn't like the wallpaper in this room," says Doyle of the living room. "Her mother warned, 'I wouldn't take that down if I were you.' But we took it down anyway, and the wall came with it." In addition to extensive plasterwork, the couple updated the kitchen, added a bathroom and a kitchenette to Doyle's office space, and installed air-conditioning.
"Before we moved in, we did $150,000 worth of work to make it livable," says Doyle.
These days, the home is a place where comfort and family come first. Interesting pieces of furniture and art offer focal points, such as a painting by comedian Red Skelton, an heirloom grandfather's clock, an old-fashioned shoe-shine stand refashioned into a coffee table, and prints purchased in a Paris flea market. One of the most distinctive rooms is a wood-paneled study that now serves as Doyle's office and has windows imported from England. But the home's most noticeable feature is the library's floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with titles, as well as scores more books in nearly every room.
"When I was a kid, every month at school we would get a flier allowing us to buy a book," says Doyle. "I was never allowed to buy any books because we could borrow them from the library for free, so why buy them? Now, I buy books whenever I want."
Furniture is not limited to any one period or style. Rustic Mexican-style wooden tables keep company with more refined pieces such as a set of leather and wood living-room chairs.
"Everything we have is from college or the Rose Bowl Flea Market," explains Lichtenstein. "I have a really hard time committing to furniture. We never have any problem spending money on permanent things in our houses, but we have a harder time bringing ourselves to spend money on couches. You spend thousands of dollars on one and then you see another one you like better." For Doyle, it's all about being comfortable. "I walk into a house and test the water pressure," he says.
Keeping it all in the family does have its disadvantages. "The only real problem with buying a house from a relative," offers Lichtenstein, "is that my family only felt like moving out what they felt like moving out—which is about 10 percent of what they owned. I still have my mom's velvet swing coat from the '60s."
But, of course, the best items are long gone.
"My parents had all this great pottery and art," says Lichtenstein, laughing. "They grabbed the Picasso lithograph off the wall and split." Adds Doyle, "Her brother's and sister's high school books are up in our attic, and, somewhat to my annoyance, her brother lives about a mile from here. He will come over occasionally and take stuff he wants and leave stuff that he doesn't."
Ironically, years back, when Doyle discovered his own Illinois home was on the market, he contemplated buying it.
"The problem with it was it was a crappy little Levitt home," he says. "I was going to move in for six months, write a book, and write off the cost of the house." Instead of writing in the house, Doyle pays homage to it in I Love You, Beth Cooper, inspired by a dream Doyle had in which he spontaneously announces his teenage crush while giving the valedictory speech at his high-school graduation. The book's protagonist, Denis Cooverman, lives at 706 Hackberry Dr. in Arlington Heights, the actual address of Doyle's home when he graduated from high school.
"Although the reader wouldn't know it, I use that house as a mental map for my writing," says Doyle, who also adapted the novel into a screenplay by the same name. "The things that happen in the house and the geography of how Denis, the main character, gets from one place to another are the house I grew up in. When he runs to his room, I describe the path that I took to my room."
Taking the path to Baltimore is what ultimately helped Doyle find success at the book store and the box office. "One of the things that happens in L.A. is that, theoretically, if you are there, it's easier to get work," he says. "But I had been in a cycle of being constantly auditioned for jobs I didn't get. I got on a list of people who would get called in for comedy, but I think I was also on another list of people who couldn't get hired for those comedies no matter what the ideas. I'm sure it was because my two movies [Duplex and Looney Tunes: Back in Action] were both disasters." Despite spending years rewriting and revising scripts and screenplays, Doyle became frustrated by both the marketing process and by projects that didn't sell.
When the opportunity to move away from Tinseltown presented itself, Doyle lept at the chance, along with Lichtenstein. "I realized if I could move away, I wouldn't be involved in as many of these projects."
Being in Baltimore has given Doyle time to pursue personal projects, including the career-changing Beth Cooper, for which he won the 2008 Thurber Prize for American Humor, another teenage torpor novel Go, Mutants! (which came out in paperback in August), and a collection of his comedy essays from The New Yorker and The National Lampoon (Deliriously Happy: And Other Bad Thoughts), which hits bookstores in November.
At an early age, Doyle was destined to write. He found inspiration in, of all places, his father's closet. "I used to spend a lot of time in my dad's closet because he had Playboys back there," says Doyle, laughing. "Then, one day, I found these two old clippings of short stories he had written for an Irish newspaper. He wanted to be a writer, but he had dropped out of school in eighth grade and had taken a correspondence course."
From the get-go, Doyle showed an affinity for comedy writing. "In eighth grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Bone," remembers Doyle, who counts Donald Barthelme, Woody Allen, and Robert Benchley among his literary influences. "She had some skin condition, and she would be talking to you, and she would be scratching her right forearm and would leave dust all over your desk. But, anyway, she had us write short stories. I remember one where I had died and my mother wrapped me in tin foil because she didn't want to pay for a coffin."
After graduating from University of Illinois with a degree in psychology in 1980 and a master's degree in journalism two years later, Doyle's first writing job was for United Press International wire service, where he became a medical reporter. In addition to writing about AIDS and the Tylenol tampering scare of the '80s, one of his big stories was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
"I saw the launch and the explosion," says Doyle, who manages to be funny even while talking about tragedy. "It was one of those weird journalism moments where I'm calling to say. 'It exploded,' and they say, 'Do you have confirmation on that?'"
In 1995, while working at New York magazine, Doyle caught up with Lichtenstein (whom he had met years before) at her ex-boyfriend's wedding. "At the wedding, she said she thought no one would marry her now. I wrote on a card, 'I will marry you any time.' Shortly after, I realized I meant it."
At the time they started dating, Lichtenstein was living in Chicago, and Doyle was in Brooklyn. "He had this super-cute apartment," recalls Lichtenstein. But not everything was what it appeared. "I found out only after we were married that the first time I visited, he had called for help from one of his friends who was a set designer in L.A. She decorated the place for him right before I came. Before that, he didn't have even the most basic furniture—he had literally never unpacked."
At their current address, Doyle defers to Lichtenstein for not only decorating, but also for carrying on age-old family traditions such as riding a mattress down the central staircase. "We have three children, and there were three of us in my family," says Lichtenstein. "Sometimes, I do have childhood flashbacks."
But Doyle does not necessarily endorse all of Lichtenstein's trips down memory lane. "When Becky's family was driving to their house at the top of the hill, their mom used to let them get on top of the Volvo and ride on the outside of the car," says Doyle, as Lichtenstein shakes her head. "There are a lot of things we used to let kids do that we don't let them do anymore."
Defends Lichtenstein, "But she only went like one mile an hour, and it was really fun."
Regardless of what gets passed on, history is bound to repeat itself. "The kids have already told us they love it here," says Lichtenstein. "They have already made it clear that they are never leaving this place."