Fall 2019


Funny Business

Seasoned sitcom pros Mark Cendrowski and Pamela Fryman discuss working with live audiences, calming actors' nerves and how to best bring out the humor of their material.

Directors Mark Cendrowski and Pamela Fryman (Photographed by Steven Simko)

Mark Cendrowski and Pamela Fryman don't run around in the same social circles, but from what mutual friends say about them, they're very much alike: amiable, quick-witted, authoritative-yet-nurturing personalities on a set. Together, they're akin to a Nichols/May routine—the patter is snappy and the chemistry infectious. Although Cendrowski is most closely associated with The Big Bang Theory and Fryman with How I Met Your Mother, their credits run long and deep, and they tout multiple DGA Award and Emmy nominations for their efforts. We pinned them down on the CBS Radford lot, where they are both starting new shows: United We Fall (Cendrowski) and Carol's Second Act (Fryman). This is an edited excerpt from their conversation. –Steve Chagollan

The Big Bang Theory (Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS)

MARK CENDROWSKI: I love the first year of a show because it's the new baby that you've got to mold and, hopefully, working with the executive producers and the writers, make it sing, make it come to life. And it's the most exciting time. It can be harrowing, too, when things aren't working or going well and it's like, "how do we fix this?" But the beginning of a show is always fresh. You don't fall into bad habits of "Let's just do the same thing again."

PAMELA FRYMAN: There aren't any habits.

MC: Right, there aren't any; you're making them up.

PF: You're trying to figure out a way to make all these people a family, and you try to figure out a way to make them all really want to come back tomorrow. So, it can be hard, it can be frustrating, it can be scary. But when it starts to work…

MC: It's very rewarding.

PF: And it starts to gel. We both love audience shows, and you get in front of an audience and people respond and you realize you're on the right track. And then you come in the next day with a new script and people are happy to be there and still on a high from the night before. Day after day you figure it out.
One of the great things when you're starting out on a new show is when you break for lunch; everybody just hangs out and has lunch together. And you find that usually people are so enthusiastic that even with scenes that they're not in, they're there on set watching. I've also noticed that the cast a lot of times is socializing in the beginning and they just get to know each other. And the more time you can spend almost not working in the beginning [the better], anything to breed familiarity and friendship. I mean, everybody's gotten a job, so it's such a wonderful time to nurture relationships.

MC: Very much so. And that's going to inform you later on working with an actor, knowing what they're like when you get stuck on a problem and a scene that they're having trouble with. Everyone's a little different and hopefully you know their personality by that point, and you can attack things that way.
[But I also] love working with people I know and like and understand me, how crazy I can get during the production.

PF: You never get crazy.

MC: Not crazy. That's a wrong word. I like doing different things. As a director, you try not to be up on this mountaintop yelling down. I've never understood people who yell a lot, and when you're walking on eggshells trying to do a comedy. I've seen some directors work that way when I was an AD and a stage manager, and everyone was tense.

PF: It's not the best breeding ground for comedy.

MC: So, I do the opposite. I try to make it fun. I love seeing a ping-pong table out there (on the Carol's Second Act set), and that's one of the first things I always do on a new show because, again, [it's] a communal thing that brings everyone together. It doesn't matter if you're an actor, executive producer or the craft service person.

PF: Yeah, you've got to make everybody feel safe and free to do their best work. Basically, the crew on this show is the same crew from How I Met Your Mother, the first season. That was 2005, and it's lovely when there's kind of a shorthand.

MC: I just want people laughing. I think that's an important thing you said, being "safe." You want to feel a safety net, especially for actors to rehearse, and not be afraid to fail and try things and not just be told what to do. They start pushing and they start trying things and you can always stop it or pull them back. But you want to be able to fail, even as a director.

PF: One hundred percent. And this is, more than anything, a team sport, and so you want to encourage that. And the best idea may come from the least likely source, and you have to be open to everything.
How I Met Your Mother was shot as a hybrid, which was kind of the first time that was done—sort of a multi-cam/single cam kind of thing. Nobody set out to break a mold. You read the script and there is sort of only one way to do this, so we always intended for it to be an audience show but it just couldn't be done.

MC: Did you play stuff back, though, for audiences once you edited the show?

PF: When we started, we would put the show together and have the crew and the actors, and as many people as we could fit in an audience, and we played it back so everybody could understand the rhythm of the show. And we could say, "We've got to open that up," or "We've got to tighten that up," and then we just sort of ran out of time after we did it a couple of times. But it was just enough for us to understand the rhythm. And it's one of my great regrets that we could never do an episode of that show with an audience, because it would have been so much fun. But there was no way.

MC: Breaking the mold was kind of tough because that means doing something…

PF: Yeah, you almost don't want to break the mold.

MC: Going back to I Love Lucy, it worked. I mean, it's a good mold.

How I Met Your Mother (Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS)

Comedy vs. Drama

PF: I'm not a drama director. I'm certainly a drama watcher. And it looks daunting to me just because it's not something that I do, and I just appreciate it so much. This is just a very different animal, and I really think it's a different temperature every day. And I'm sure this is the same with you that I will read a script and I'm like, "This is amazing, everything is going to hit"—and it will just be a bust and quite the opposite. So, it's a difficult thing to really know for sure.

MC: I think you're right. I have seen, though, where certain actors who are not considered comedic actors come in and there is a fear of "I've never done comedy, what do I need to do?" I will say, though, most good actors are going to get there, or you can get them there. But there are some who just don't understand comedy.

PF: It's like a music that you either hear or you don't hear, or you learn by listening to your fellow actors. You can kind of pick up rhythms that are like, "Okay, I get that."

MC: It was nice to see guest actors come in on Big Bang near the end because there was so little time, and everyone knew what they were doing. We were a well-oiled machine, and you better hop on and hang on and not come in going, "Well, I need a day to get into that and find out what my character is." I was like, "No, that's not going to happen. You better keep up the pace." And I think they'd see that rhythm and that music and once they jumped into it, it's like, "Oh, this is great. I love how you guys work."

PF: And it is true at the end. Usually they're like, "OK, that was the most fun I've ever had. When can I do it again?"
But I think you can [also] be really vulnerable on a sitcom stage when everybody's laughing at something and it's not you. It makes you feel like all eyes are on you and it can be wildly uncomfortable.
You can really hear it when people don't laugh. You can't imagine how loud that is.

MC: That is one of the loudest things you can hear. And time expands, and it is like, "What did I do wrong? How did I miss that?" And that hits immediately.

PF: You really put yourself out there.

MC: You're out in front of 250 people and it doesn't work and it's like, "Oh, I flubbed the line. That's on me." And that, I think, is what scares an actor.

PF: I have reassured (struggling actors) that we're not doing it live. And by the way, it's one scene at a time, one page at a time, one speech at a time, one line at a time. And we won't move on until we get it. If there is somebody who's specifically having a hard time and we're pre-shooting their stuff, so that they know that we have it, they can have the freedom to go in front of an audience and be loose and know that they're not taking up anybody's time. Anything you can do to just make them feel at ease. I think we both have that personality. It's sort of a nurturing instinct, just constantly giving them encouragement.

MC: I've always tried to remind actors, "Hey, we're kind of doing a play here. Don't think of it as a movie. We're doing a play with the safety net of "We can do it again." We get to do it as many times as we want. It's not like we're here for seven weeks and it's got to be perfect every night. No, you can push, and especially on a second take, which I love with the performers who get into the zone, where they can then do a second take and give you a different read, something that maybe you didn't expect, or didn't ask for.

PF: [Comic acting] can [involve] a lilt to the line. It can be timing. It can be somebody who just has a natural comedic bent—people who walk into a room and are naturally funny and sometimes they will just lend some of that magic to…

MC: …Everyone else. We experienced that with Bob Newhart coming on the show, everyone was so excited to have him. And he's a genius. Like I couldn't look him in the eye. I can't give him a note. And he brought everybody up. Everyone wanted to be as good as Bob.

PF: I worked with him on George & Leo a million years ago (late '90s). It was very interesting to watch his process because he's not always looking for laughs on camera. But there is a magic in him that is undeniable and just overwhelming.

MC: And the trust. He would ask questions.

PF: Somebody once asked me, another actor, to give a note to Mary Tyler Moore at the end of an episode of The Naked Truth because he felt that something she was doing at the end of the scene was sort of like pulling focus or whatever. And I just said, "It's Mary Tyler Moore, I'm not telling her." Like, "My God, that's Bob Newhart."
And, by the way, nine times out of 10, they take [those notes] more gracefully than anybody. They're looking for that.

MC: I think every actor is always looking for direction in a weird way. And I love it when you give them an area. You don't have to be so specific but maybe say, "You know, I think there's something fun here" and you see their eyes light up and they run with that.

"You can really hear it when people don't laugh. You can't imagine how loud that is." —Pamela Fryman

Interpreting the Script

PF: We're directors but we're also detectives, because we are going on stage saying, "Ah, I wonder what they meant when they wrote this?" With multi-cam, especially, there isn't a lot of time to say, "Oh, by next week, here's what we're thinking." We wrap one, we're given another script and, all of the sudden, we're doing it. We're just trying to figure out what people have in mind. And one of the luxuries of being on the same show for so long is that you get better at knowing what they were thinking, but it's absolutely a wonderful thing when it's time for notes and they say, "Oh, we're thinking about this." And, "Oh my God, fantastic, let me show you this." It's just an open dialogue.

MC: Yeah, once you get to know the writers better, it frees you up to hopefully elevate material on stage, where something that was funny at the table and now, let us show you a different one, too.
Now they're not going to laugh when they see it on its feet. But, it's a great thing to have a confidence and show them a little something else and to bring material up a little more and we maybe solved the problem.

Director Teams

PF: They're everything and I hit the jackpot with (1st AD) Michael Shea, who is a wonderful director in his own right.
I should be saying, "Michael, just go off and direct on your own." It turns out I'm not that nice a person. I just got my hooks in him because he makes everything better. He makes me better at what I do. He has a way of having total command of the stage and yet being so beloved by everyone. He is warm and funny and wonderful, but he can get people to be quiet like that. It's a very hard job. He also is the consummate scheduler. He will schedule out a day, and I look at him and say, "How did you know I was going to finish that at 2:15?" There's no way. I can't tell you how important he is. He's everything.

MC: The whole team. Trickles down.

PF: (2nd AD) Chris Hyssong. This show and every show I do works because of the job that they do. It just makes my job not only easier, but it makes me look like I'm better than I am.

MC: Yeah. They are your right hand and they save you.

PF: And they somehow know right before you know.

MC: Right. I was fortunate enough too with (1st AD) Anthony Rich. We had worked together here and there for years. But then on Big Bang, it was just the melding of the minds. I'd go, "I don't want to see a schedule. Just keep me moving and make sure I need to be where I am." We would finish something at 3:45 and he would just slide the schedule and it was like 3:45. "Oh, okay I get it." He understood where I was coming from. I think that's the biggest thing, that sense of anticipation.

Network Comedy in the Streaming Age

PF: It kind of throws you, because I've now done some things for Netflix, things for Amazon. I'm constantly going, "Wait, we can do that?" "Wait, we're only doing six episodes," or "We're doing eight episodes?" The business is obviously changing; the rules are changing daily, and it's kind of fascinating.
I don't know that there's anything that I could tell you why it's better today because I can do [things I couldn't do before]. I think good comedy is good comedy, and it stands the test of time.

MC: Yeah, if it's funny, it's funny. You can still laugh at an old Three Stooges or a Marx Brothers movie. Good comedy will sustain. I guess in some of the writing (in cable) you push now because you can and you couldn't do that on network, and still can't.

PF: Sometimes it's funny and sometimes it's not.

MC: [Streaming platforms] don't want a standard family sitcom, with the couch in the living room. They'll push it.

PF: And the casts are certainly more inclusive, which is a great thing. From that standpoint, things are changing in a great way. And, so we can tell more interesting stories, but the mechanics of the job are still: We're going to start here, we're going to end here, and we're going to try to make this the funniest.

Two prominent directors from shared experience discuss craft, approach, collaboration and the state of the business, with DGA Quarterly as a fly on the wall.
More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly is the Conversations issue, featuring discussions about filmmaking history and craft between directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Fryman and Mark Cendrowski, Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick and Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde.