Camaraderie keeps comedy cooking for helmer Cendrowski

There are several hypotheses as to why “The Big Bang Theory” has busted out this season to become primetime’s No. 1 comedy, but inhouse director Mark Cendrowski has his own reasons.

The helmer brought in a ping-pong table to stage 25 on the Warner Bros. lot when the series first launched three years ago. Sure, it could also be that all the actors — Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar — have developed a winning chemistry and that the writing from Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady and others remains stellar … but don’t discount the table-tennis axiom.

There are downtimes during rehearsals, and once they get into Ping-Pong, everyone gets sucked in,” says Cendrowski, who has directed all but a handful of “Big Bang” episodes during the show’s three seasons.

“We had a tournament, drew names out of a hat and then everybody comes together. You can go a whole year without knowing certain people like grips, but now you’re partnered with them, and it led to some great camaraderie.”

And on a recent day before the holiday hiatus, Cendrowski was working with Parsons and offering suggestions for a scene in which the actor is forced to crawl out on a ledge. Exactly when and where to feign fear were a couple of pointers the director discussed with his actor.

Cendrowski might not know astrophysics, but he’s got a sense of what makes a good laugh.

He’s comfortable around comedians, having befriended comics while patronizing the Comedy Store early in his career.And those friendships have helped him understand what makes each comedian unique, as well as the best way to find a willing ear for his advice: Make it come from a place that’s about making them funnier, and not from a place that’s competitive.

Starting out as a stage manager and then moving up the production food chain to director, Cendrowski has been behind the camera for nearly 15 years in one capacity or another, having helmed several seasons of “Yes Dear” as well as a episodes of other laffers, including “George Lopez,” “The King of Queens” and “Still Standing.”

While Parsons and the cast have been what the public appreciates about “Big Bang,” those on the inside offer much of the credit for the show’s success to Cendrowski, a Michigan native who has guided the performances and helped the actors — along with Lorre and Prady — find out what makes them tick as part of their geek-filled universe.

I try to steer actors and give them starting points,” he says. “For certain scenes, I want to offer a slightly different look or angle.”

An ability to think outside the traditional sitcom production status quo has elevated Cendrowski from a director-for-hire — with TV a writer’s medium and helmers often a secondary thought — to an integral part of the show’s success. Actors trust Cendrowski, and, as Galecki says, “He has both a confidence in himself, and a confidence in us.”

For a scene where Galecki, Parsons and the guys were in the middle of desert and stoned on “magic” cookies, Cendrowski not only suggested using a crane to shoot from overhead but also thought that having them climb on a few rocks would play better than if they were just lying around.

In a landscape where many sitcoms are single camera and shot on location, “Big Bang” remains something of a reminder of a golden age of TV. With the show shot in front of a studio audience, Cendrowski says the actors feel the energy of the audience, and that theater-like atmosphere often amps up their performances. He’ll shoot a few pickups during the week and then air them on tape nights to allow the assembled aud to feel part of the production process.

Our show goes back to the old days. This is still shot like a play, and our characters like to be in their element,” Cendrowski says.

Cendrowski and Galecki hit it off right away, as the two share Midwestern roots. While Galecki says it’s important for a director to have a firm hand on where a story should go and how the actors should interpret specific scenes, being open to suggestion is just as vital.

My favorite thing about Mark is that he’s not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know yet.’ That is something priceless with a director,” Galecki says. “If they’re bullshitting and you ask a director a question and they make something up because they don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know yet,’ you’ll never trust them again.” Parsons says Cendrowski’s presence every week has been an essential part of the show’s growth.

I thought if we ever got someone new here for even one episode, it wouldn’t matter how good they are, a language barrier would exist,” says Parsons on the stability of having a singular voice and vision. “It sneaks up on you having Mark here every week. You don’t really think about it, but he’s our working voice.”

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