Emmy-nominated producers learned lessons on the fly
There’s no school for bringing up a child, from the kind the stork brings you … to the kind you raise on network television.
Variety is hosting Primetime Emmy Elite: The Showrunners Breakfast, an invitation-only chat with several nominated exec producers, at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills today at 8:30 a.m.
Because showrunner school doesn’t actually exist, the top exec producers from this year’s Emmy-nominated comedies and dramas had to learn their jobs the hard way. But that leaves them as qualified as anyone to describe what the useful lessons would be.
That is, after they start you off with a joke or two.
“You know what they never teach you in showrunner school?” says “Breaking Bad” exec producer Vince Gilligan. “What it’s like to lose a man. What’s it’s like to stare into his frightened eyes. To hear him choke out his wife’s name with his last, dying breath. No, they never teach you that in showrunner school. Oh wait … maybe that’s police academy.
“Actually, I never went to showrunner school. It probably would have helped, though. I hear good things.”
Robert Carlock, exec producer alongside Tina Fey of three-time defending Emmy comedy champ “30 Rock,” also jokes about the concept of showrunner school, before pointing out that it could be a pretty useful asset.
“First of all, they don’t teach you how to answer questions about showrunner school because showrunner school is supposed to be a secret,” Carlock says. “Second, being a showrunner means knowing enough about every aspect of production so as not to be a useless idiot while working with staff and crew who have been doing their jobs for decades. So the one thing they don’t teach you is everything.”
Some of the important lessons from showrunners sound like they might be jokes … but aren’t. Steven Levitan of “Modern Family” says that a big thing he learned on the fly was “how to tell an actress that the network insists she tape down her nipples.” (He adds that his favorite moment as showrunner was “telling an actress that she can take the tape off her nipples.”)
“There will be very, very little time to go to the bathroom,” adds “Curb Your Enthusiasm” exec producer Jeff Schaffer. “And if you shoot on location, you might as well plug it all up like a hibernating bear.”
But above all, the multitasking element — or more precisely, the breath and depth of multitasking required — seems to be the primary puzzle piece.
“It’s just as much about being a manager as it is being a writer,” notes Damon Lindelof of “Lost.”
“To be a showrunner, you have to know everything: Writing, production, post-production, casting, budgets, music, wardrobe, props, transportation, makeup, catering and camera,” says Clyde Phillips, who has left “Dexter” after four seasons to spend more time with his family in Connecticut. “Or at least people need to think you know everything. It’s all about making decisions and moving on.”
Adds Robert King of “The Good Wife”: “Any one function a showrunner performs is highly doable; the difficulty is doing them all simultaneously and over 11 months.”
Ultimately, a successful showrunner lives off the same philosophy that got him to that station in life in the first place. Just as writer’s block is best viewed as an opportunity rather than a barrier, showrunners come to embrace the uncertainty of what lays before them — to learn “how to take risks with the story that might kill the franchise but without which things become predictable,” as “The Office” kingpin Greg Daniels comments.
“I learned — and continue to learn — the job from Ryan Murphy, who is the best of the best,” says “Glee” exec producer Brad Falchuk. “He taught me that there really is no playbook to showrunning. You pick up all of the info and insight you can; then you just kind of have to take a leap of faith.”
And then … breathe.
“It’s a just a television show,” reminds “True Blood” boss Alan Ball. “It’s not worth getting sick or going crazy over. It’s not a replacement for actually having a life.”
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse | Tina Fey and Robert Carlock | Brad Falchuk | Jeff Schaffer | Alan Ball | Vince Gilligan | Steven Levitan | Greg Daniels | Robert King | Clyde Phillips