Stars with clout often keep shows in Gotham
Shooting a sitcom in New York was a pipe dream for the executive producers of “Spin City,” starring Michael J. Fox. They never dreamed that they’d actually be producing the show right here in the Big Apple.
“We are lucky enough that Mike Fox, who is also an executive producer, had enough clout to say that the only way he was going to come back to television was if they did the show in New York,” says Bill Lawrence, executive producer. As a result, DreamWorks ended up building a sitcom soundstage here at Chelsea Piers.”
The three high-profile sitcoms being produced in New York this season are “Cosby,” “Spin City” and “Lateline.” “Spin City” is produced at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, while “Cosby” and “Lateline” are both at Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens.
The sitcoms that are produced in New York have been brought here because the stars of the show are based in New York and have the pull to convince network heads to produce the shows close to home.
John Markus, co-executive producer of “Lateline,” says one of the advantages of producing a sitcom in New York is that you’re not really in an industry town.
If not being a typical sitcom town is an advantage, it can also offer its share of hassles. For example, Joanne Curley Kerner, producer of “Cosby,” points out that it takes longer to get to a prophouse in New York.
“To get a prop in New York, traffic is a factor, whereas in L.A., you have a prophouse on the lot. In Los Angeles, the sitcom business is more self-contained than in New York,” says Kerner.
But as far as the pool of talent available in New York to work on a sitcom, Kerner sees no difference. “I’ve heard it said that people are better in L.A., but I don’t believe that at all. The similarity is the quality of people and their willingness to do a good job,” she says.
Producers say some of the disadvantages include being out of the L.A. loop, and not having access to full-time sitcom directors based in New York.
Kerner says the main reason “Cosby”– which recently began its third season — is produced in Gotham is that Bill Cosby wanted to be in New York and enjoys working here.
“I don’t think producing sitcoms in New York is a big trend. The center of the sitcom business is still in Los Angeles and unless you have a Bill Cosby or a Michael J. Fox, who can insist it be done in New York, then it won’t be,” Kerner says.
The pilot and the first six half-hours of “Lateline,” which has a 13-episode commitment, were produced in Los Angeles. But Al Franken, who is co-executive producer and star of the show, says he didn’t want to be away from his children for a whole season.
“I told Paramount at the very beginning that if I did a sitcom then it would be in New York even though it’s more expensive and harder in many ways,” he says.
“Cosby” producers looked at Chelsea Piers before deciding on Kaufman-Astoria Studios. Kerner says they chose the Queens facilities because of the size of the stage and because it was a full-service studio.
Hal Rosenbluth, president of Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens, says he sees the studio operation as an adjunct to Hollywood. “Hollywood is always going to be Hollywood,” he says. “The decision-making process takes place in Hollywood, and the majority of the indus-try is sitting there. I think we are getting a fair share of that business and we will see more shows in New York, from development through productionment. But I don’t see New York as a competitor to California.”
Like “Cosby,” “Spin City” is in its third season, and Lawrence says the biggest disadvantage is New York’s small sitcom production base.
“When you talk about post-production, building sets, and getting a director to come out here and live and be out of the L.A. loop, it’s a struggle,” says Lawrence.
Advantages include being able to shoot exteriors on location in New York as opposed to using fake backdrops, and having access to an untapped talent base. “We cast some people from New York but we also do a lot of our guest parts with New York actors, which is neat because there are some real talented people here that you don’t see all the time in sitcoms the way you do in L.A.,” Lawrence says. “You’re in a place where doing a sitcom is special. There’s not a lot of show business here. You get audiences that are happy to see a show filmed in the city, and your crew people are really happy to be working.”