Summer 2017


Seven directors talk about the current state of TV comedy that ranges from blatantly slapstick to uncomfortably anxious

By Hugh Hart

Ken Whittingham works with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on Grace and Frankie. (Photo: Melissa Moseley/Netflix)

What do you mean funny … funny how?" That's how Joe Pesci's psychotic hitman famously quizzed Ray Liotta's petrified mob underling in Goodfellas back in 1990, but the question's only gained currency amid the ever-expanding universe of television comedy. In recent years, a convergence of forces have conspired to deepen, darken and enrich the contours of TV humor in ways that provide ample opportunity for tone-sensitive directors.

Definitions of television comedy have been stretched due in part to the profusion of non-network platforms that serve as hospitable venues for bittersweet half-hour shows generously flecked with depression and anxiety.

Alec Berg, the former Seinfeld writer who now produces, writes and directs HBO's sometimes-somber comedy series Silicon Valley, says, "It might matter for Emmy consideration whether something's a comedy or a drama but at a certain point, who cares? Was Breaking Bad a drama? Yes. Was it funny? I thought a lot of it was hilarious. Many shows in the comedy category now exist in this weird zone where they're a hell of a lot more dramatic than a lot of dramas."

But even as half-hour shows like Transparent and Louie skew toward dark-humored angst, light farce continues to draw appreciative viewers. The rat-a-tat screwball rhythm mastered in the political satire Veep, for example, sets an astonishingly high jokes-per-minute standard that rarely leaves room for a poignant pause. Modern Family co-creator/writer/director Steve Levitan, for one, believes in the primacy of clear-cut jokes, the more the merrier. "I remember telling our actors early on that we should do jokes the way a drug dealer escapes from the cops," he says. "You crack open the door of your car, drop the drugs out and keep driving. That's how we do jokes: throw 'em away and hopefully they're so funny the audience gets them and if they missed it, don't worry because there's another one coming right away."

DGA Quarterly checked in with seven television directors about what it means to be funny in the age of Peak Television. Coming at modern TV comedy from a range of backgrounds both traditional and offbeat, they describe techniques for navigating a wildly variegated landscape peppered with slapstick, pathos, improvisation and quirky locations.

Jonathan Krisel, center, is the ringmaster on Baskets, for which he is the sole director (Photo: Colleen Hayes/FX)

Finding the Jokes in Camera

Although the multi-camera format has experienced a precipitous decline in recent years, it nevertheless has proven remarkably durable in network series like The Big Bang Theory "Some people might think that's old fashioned," says Mark Cendrowski, primary director for the long-running CBS hit. "But for me, there's nothing better than a multi-camera show when it's pulled off correctly and you're making the audience laugh all the time."

Centered on nerdy roommates Sheldon and Leonard (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki) and their beautiful neighbor Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the show thrives on the give and take between gasping, laughing, hooting audience members and the stars onstage at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. Cendrowski says, "It's much more difficult to be successful in a multi-camera show, I think, because you're being judged constantly by the jokes you have on every page."

Veteran episodic director Ken Whittingham shot plenty of multi-camera shows early in his career but now favors single camera as a joke-telling tool. Boasting recent credits like Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Superior Donuts, Grace and Frankie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Trial & Error, Whittingham says, "I'm into doing reveals and funny camera angles and telling the story with the camera, which I think you can do more effectively in single camera."

TV comedy veteran Berg understands firsthand the virtues of multi-cam from his Seinfeld days. But when he teamed with series co-creator Mike Judge on Silicon Valley, Berg realized that single-camera filming would serve as the optimal viewfinder for fidgety software genius Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and his desperate startup team. "Tonally, the show's very dry," Berg says. "There's a lot of awkwardness. The characters are socially maladjusted. We find a lot of comedy in the pause and the 'air,' which fundamentally makes Silicon Valley a great single-camera show. You can't do that style of comedy in front of an audience, because if something is funny because it's quiet or awkward and people laugh, their laughter fills the silence. Silicon Valley is very much engineered to the single-camera style."

Modern Family's Steve Levitan also honed his talents in the multi-cam tradition, but after working on Wings, Frasier and his own Just Shoot Me!, he shifted gears and shot a $28,000 Spinal Tap-inspired mockmumentary pilot called Foothooker with hand-held cameras. "I saw the potential of using the camera as a sort of witness in the room," Levitan says. "I liked the fact that you could have a character looking at the audience, in the moment."

In 2009, Levitan and Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd refreshed the family sitcom format by directing their stars to demolish the "fourth wall" and confess their feelings straight down the barrel of the camera lens. "Reality shows were very much in vogue at the time, so shooting hand-held seemed like a way of making a TV show feel more real," Levitan says. "The Office was already doing interviews, but I think we were the first to have two characters at the same time. It's a wonderful device because the interviews allow us to jump through the exposition, or break up a scene or get inside somebody's head."

(Top) Melina Matsoukas, with her Insecure star Issa Rae, says she "talks about inspiration for each episode beforehand"; (Bottom) Steve Levitan lines up a shot with his Modern Family cast. (Photos: (Top) Anne Marie Fox/HBO; (Bottom) Tony Rivetti/ABC )

Shaping the Performance

While TV comedy stars traditionally exercise strong territorial claims on characters created in the writers' room, there's a new generation of writer-actors who require sensitive handling from directors tasked with shaping their performance. Melina Matsoukas, primary director for HBO's prickly romantic comedy Insecure, collaborates closely with the show's creator and star Issa Rae by drawing on her experience directing hyper-dramatic music videos for pop divas Rihanna ("We Found Love") and Beyoncé ("Formation"). "When I think of the women I've worked with on my music videos, it's always been about somebody else's brand," Matsoukas says. "The piece had to stay true to their vision, and that's very similar to what I'm doing on Insecure. This is Issa's story based on her experiences."

When Rae takes off her writer-producer hat to play a scene, Matsoukas makes sure her star stays focused. "I usually talk to Issa about the inspiration for each episode beforehand," Matsoukas explains. "Once I know what's going on in her head, I keep her in the acting space when we shoot so she's not looking at herself. You can't really give yourself up as an actor if you're constantly looking at yourself. As long as I know the intention going in, I can make sure we stay on point."

Desultory half-hour FX show Baskets features Zach Galifianakis as unemployed French-trained clown Chip and his high-strung twin Dale, who are stuck in dusty Bakersfield with their meddlesome mom Christine Baskets (Louie Anderson). The show's sole director, Jonathan Krisel, tailors his approach to suit the stars' temperament. "I've learned that Zach likes to do his coverage last," says Krisel. "He wants everybody else to go first because he's finding the beats, finding the rhythm, finding new jokes, gathering all of that so by the time we get to Zach, he's got it worked out."

By contrast, Krisel says, "Louie is usually raring to go right out of the gate. I might tell him, 'Don't rehearse this, I don't even want to see what you've got in mind,' because what he brings on the first take is usually so crazy and funny. Different actors have different rhythms. My goal as a director is to let these guys get their best work out. We already know they're the funniest people. How can I help them get there?"

Beth McCarthy-Miller acquired nerves of steel during her 11 years directing Saturday Night Live. Moving on to serve as go-to director for 30 Rock, she now applies lessons learned from Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels to helm everything from HBO's dark Divorce to ABC's perky workplace sitcom Good News.

At SNL, circumstances compelled Miller to become a master communicator. "I'd have Jerry Seinfeld as host one week and John McCain the next, so I had to talk through sketches with all different kinds of personalities," she says. "I learned that the most important thing when you give a note is that there's got to be a good reason for it and you need to be able to back that up: 'Here's why it's going to be funnier if we do it this way.' Maybe say it less angry and more apologetic. Faster is always funnier. Or, 'Say this at the end, because that's the joke and it'll work better at the end of the sentence. Or, 'After you say the line, turn to the other lens and give a reaction.' There's all kinds of things I do on set to make a line funnier, depending on what's going on in the scene."

On Silicon Valley, Berg subscribes to what he calls The Price Is Right school of comedy. "The idea is that it's better to be way under the line than a tiny bit over," he explains, "so a lot of my directing has to do with asking actors to do less." The core cast doesn't need much reminding, but when guest actors come on the show, Berg says: "They want to get laughs. But so much of the comedy on our show is underplayed by these unassertive characters that when somebody comes in from a four-camera show and performs at a sort of normal comedic level, it feels like they're doing Kabuki theater! I tell them, 'I know you want to score, but trust me, just do less. Do less. Do less. Just be real.'"

(Top) Beth McCarthy-Miller, far left, maintains focus on location for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, with Ellie Kemper and Tina Fey; (Bottom) Mark Cendrowski, center, stays on point on the set of The Big Bang Theory. (Photos: (Top) Eric Liebowitz/Netflix; (Bottom) Michael Yarish/Warner Bros.)

Setting the Visual Tone

Classic network sitcoms favor interior locations efficiently confined to proscenium stage sets. Funny dialogue and sight gags take precedence over visual atmosphere in The Big Bang Theory, for example, which prides itself on cutting to the chase. "It's a colorful show, bright and to the point like a video game. We don't start on a stock shot of the house, play some music and follow someone walking inside to set the scene. No, it's like 'swoosh' and bang, you're into the next scene."

But many new half-hour shows now ground their characters' antics in exterior locations loaded with character. Baskets director Krisel takes his visual cues from British working-class auteur Mike Leigh and Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. "We're going for this very raw, stripped down, dusty California feel," he says. "I love the beige, tan, stucco world where the sun bleaches things out to the point that it can look somewhat ugly. Our show is about a somewhat ugly family living in this kind of gross, sun-bleached world. It's also about finding the poetry and cinematic beauty in all of that."

Insecure, filmed largely on location in South L.A. and Inglewood, challenges director Matsoukas to channel her gifts for the kind of vivid color and quick-cut imagery showcased in her hyper-dramatic music videos. She says: "I've tried to create a comedy that doesn't look like any other comedy. Maybe traditionally in TV there has been a kind of formula that says, 'Oh, comedy has to look this way, it has to look super bright.' But the way we shoot Insecure is motivated by the mental state of each of our characters."

Matsoukas filmed one seduction sequence entirely in deep indigo and black. "We wanted to take a stylized approach, hide some things in the shadow to make it more intimate and sexy and real," she says. "If you've ever been in a studio, they tend to be smoky and dark. I try to think about all of that when we do the color timing of our scenes."

Matsoukas also tailors camera moves to suit the show's key characters. "Issa lives in this unstable mentality with her relationships and her work," says the director. "She finds herself in a lot of awkward situations so I mimic that with the camera work and use a lot more hand-held in Issa's setups." The star's best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) calls for a different look. "Molly's very confident in her corporate workspace so we usually go with cooler tones and static, composed camera work for her scenes. My approach for the series is all about creating different worlds for different characters."

Traditional sitcoms rely on a clear-cut division of labor. Directors coax the funniest performances from actors who deliver scripted jokes supplied, and sometimes tweaked, on set by the show's writers. "I'm the last piece in the puzzle," Cendrowski says. "It's my job to establish trust between the players on the stage and what's coming down every week from the writers."

But many contemporary comedies feature performers with improv backgrounds who regard the written word as a jumping-off point. "On The Office, we'd do the scene as scripted and then go, 'All right, let's do a fun run,' meaning everybody does whatever they want to do for two or three takes," says Whittingham, who's also directed such improv-friendly sitcoms as Parks and Recreation and The Mindy Project. "We might just keep going if the stuff we found was funnier than what's on the page." However, he adds, "Some people are good comedic actors but they're not good at improv."

Berg became adept at catching improvisational lightning in a bottle when he directed actors in Curb Your Enthusiasm who made up their own dialogue within a tightly structured story outline. By contrast, Silicon Valley cast members usually stick to the script. "The show's so technical, if an actor says something the wrong way or changes a word here or there, it's not accurate Berg says. "So once we've done this insane amount of research and written the dialogue, a lot of that stuff is set in stone."

Within that framework, Berg welcomes cast member ad libs. "Our actors are very nimble at finding places in the script where they can improvise a little bit, then dovetail back into the script as written."

Krisel has come to embrace improvisation as critical to his TV-making process. "For us it's not 'Hey, we wrote this script and now we're going to shoot this dialogue,'" Krisel explains. "We have the script in our back pocket, but comedy to me is like clay: you have to move it around because the timing and the words are so important, you have to play with them every single time."

Alec Berg, in black hoodie, keeps things lively while filming Silicon Valley (Photo: Frank Masi/HBO)

Making the Pathos Sing

Modern comedy depends on directors to hone the tone, tamp down oversized moments or brighten bleak ones according to the story and its theme. In Black-ish episode "I'm a Survivor," star Anthony Anderson's character Dre returns to his Compton stomping grounds, and director Whittingham took pains to ground the comedy in home truths. "That episode was important to me because, like Anthony, I grew up in L.A. and it was a struggle when I was a kid," Whittingham says. "Money was tight, same as all my friends, but then we all grew up and some of us succeeded. You move to a better house, send your kids to college, but 90% of your friends don't have that. So I brought nuance to the story because we didn't want Dre acting like he's better than his friends. At the same time, we didn't want to project this image where Dre's friends come off looking like freeloaders trying to use him. It's a very fine line."

On Great News, director and executive producer Miller exercises a light touch steering stories about an ambitious news producer Katie (Briga Heelan) who's perpetually embarrassed by her uninhibited intern/mother (Andrea Martin). "I love balancing reality with absurdity on this show," she says. "We go right to the edge of being too broad."

Great News grounds many of its jokes in the challenges of being a woman in the workplace. "That subtext is really important to me," Miller says. "I love being parts of shows that have strong female characters because I think women are really funny." Having directed Tina Fey (an executive producer on Great News, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig, Miller says: "It's been great to be a teeny part of this beautiful metamorphosis. It's getting to the point where people are funny instead of 'Oh, that girl's pretty funny.'"

Artful juxtaposition drives much of the brooding comedy now commanding cable and streaming services. Krisel adroitly summarizes the Baskets sensibility as "slapstick drama." He elaborates: "At times, the show almost makes fun of pathos because when people struggle with anxiety or worry about feeling left out of the family, it's in these moments of intense emotion that you might trip over something because you're so inside your own head. When people feel vulnerable, they make slapstick decisions. We're trying to make that funny but at the same time honor the real emotion of the situation."

Working on Insecure, Matsoukas braids together heartfelt relationship drama and witty social commentary experienced through the eyes of the black schoolteacher by day/closet-rap artist by night who anchors the show. "I never really saw myself as a comedy director, and I still don't," Matsoukas says. "I see myself as a director. With Insecure, we deal with racism and not fitting into certain worlds, which can create a lot of anger. But instead of just getting mad, we find comedy in the obstacles Issa faces as a character in the show, and which people of color face every day in real life. Sometimes, humor is the only way we get through the day."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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