Spring 2015

The End of the World (as We Know It)

What happens when you're in the middle of directing an episode and the show gets canceled? Director Eric Appel says look on the bright side—you'll be home in time for dinner.


ME AND MY MONKEY: Appel with a cast member of Animal Practice. He says if it were up to him, he'd have a monkey on every set. (Photo: Courtesy Eric Appel)

For those unfamiliar with who I am (everybody), I'm an episodic television director, and each year I work on several network comedies [Selfie, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl]. As a TV director, you never know which particular episode you're going to be assigned, and where that show falls in the season can have a great effect on your experience. For instance, the first few episodes of a new series can be challenging in that the crew is still getting used to one another, the cast is trying to figure out their characters, and the network is giving tons of notes after each table read. If the show has found its groove and has started airing but the ratings are bad, the vibe on set could be pretty grim. What happens though, when the show gets canceled while you're in the middle of directing an episode? Well, that sounds like a particularly awful situation and it's also exactly what happened to me a couple of years ago while I was shooting a very funny but short-lived NBC show called Animal Practice about a veterinary hospital.

It was Thursday morning and we were on our second setup of the day. Despite the negative press and declining ratings, we were having a lot of fun on set because there was a monkey in the cast and you can't not have fun when there's a monkey around. Crystal is a capuchin monkey and she was always on set, even when she wasn't shooting. You'd be sitting at video village and there would literally be a monkey on your back. It was awesome! If I had it my way (and could afford her astronomical day rate) I would bring Crystal with me to every show I worked on.

So there's about five minutes left in this lighting setup and I'm probably reading some kind of intellectually stimulating article on my iPhone (read: playing "Angry Birds"), when the writer of the episode leans over and shows me the screen of her phone. It's Deadline Hollywood and the headline is "NBC Cancels Animal Practice."

"Wait a second … did this just happen?" She nods, yes. "Does anybody know yet?" She shakes her head, no. "Cool, cool, cool … I'm just gonna go hit the bathroom real quick." Truth is, I wanted to be anywhere but there when that news started spreading, and I love excuses to get out of awkward situations. There isn't necessarily a good way to find out that you're losing your job, but I would guess that the weekend is probably better than when you're about to shoot a scene where a crazed hunter is chasing two characters around the hospital while they're carrying a live turkey that's also shitting on the floor between (and during) takes. Oh, I forgot to mention that it was the Thanksgiving episode, which somehow makes things even worse. HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYBODY!

Sure enough, about 30 seconds after I pretended to use the bathroom so I could go outside and call my wife, everyone had heard the news, and when I got back to the stage we all sat around commiserating, waiting for the producers to come make the official announcement, which they had had every intention of doing before Nikki Finke's lightning fast scoop hit the Internet. "Toldja!"

So after the bad news broke, everyone was told that "we are going to finish this episode, which will definitely air, and on Monday they will begin dismantling the sets. Please don't steal anything." I should note that the sets were packed wall-to-wall with pet food and supplies and it could have easily turned into Supermarket Sweep, so "please don't steal anything" was a valid thing to say.

Naturally, everyone was very sad and it was hard not to get wrapped up in it, even though it was only my fourth day on set and everyone else had been working there for several months. I may or may not have said out loud, "They can't do this to us!" because hey, you've gotta be a team player.

But now came the real challenge; we had to finish the episode! Sure, the show was canceled, but as a director, it was my job to rally the troops and get everyone to push through the pain and turn in a funny episode. The viewers at home don't know how the sausage is made. They see only the end product because none of that other stuff should be ending up on screen. The "behind the scenes" stuff needs to stay behind the scenes. I've experienced situations where actors didn't like the way a scene was written, and it was my job as the director to make that scene work for them so they could turn in a performance consistent with their character. I have also been on sets where an actor was sick as a dog, and I had to creatively shoot around his puffy eyes and death rasp so nobody at home noticed anything weird (when the actor is sick, the character can't necessarily be sick) but this was definitely the first time I had to direct an episode in which the entire cast could have easily just thrown in the towel, because in all likelihood, it would never end up airing—which it didn't, unless you're a Hulu subscriber or bought it on iTunes (thanks, Mom!).

It actually worked in our favor that the scene we were about to shoot was so insane. "OK, so I know you just lost your job, but try to remember to round the corner a little wider when you're running with the turkey, and if you get shit on … just keep running. Gobble gobble!" It was one of those truly bizarre situations where you just have to laugh.

In the end, I turned in an episode that I was very happy with and I remember laughing a lot in those last two days of shooting. Sure, every time we wrapped an actor it was for the series instead of the episode, and with that came speeches and goodbyes and tears, but we all realized the absurdity of the situation and decided to have fun with it. We had to.

I guess that's my big takeaway from the whole situation: As a comedy director, no matter what happens on set, you have to find the humor in it … and also, if everyone owned a capuchin monkey, maybe there would be no wars. They're amazing at defusing uncomfortable situations.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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