LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - What really irks the producers of some of television’s biggest comedies? Who regrets that he was too lazy to write more episodes? Which producer’s family talks while watching his show.
Following are highlights from a roundtable conversation with Chuck Lorre (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Two and a Half Men”), Ryan Murphy (“Glee”), Steven Levitan (“Modern Family”), Doug Ellin (“Entourage”) and Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”).
YOU’RE ALL PULLED IN SO MANY DIRECTIONS. HOW DO YOU DECIDE
Chuck Lorre: It’s all about the writing. If the script doesn’t work, the show doesn’t work. So most of my attention is on that. The jokes have to work. After that, it’s not that tough if you have a great cast.
Ryan Murphy: (I do) all of it, really. I choose all the songs. That’s my favorite thing about the gig. There are different kinds of showrunners, but what I really love is choosing the vase and the buttons and really getting in there and creating a world. The hard thing about (“Glee”), production-wise, is that you have to choose things four months out because you have to clear the music and get the dancing going. That’s been the tricky part.
Steven Levitan: Your job will get so much easier next season when you can have any song you want because it lifts sales so much.
Doug Ellin: Our first season, we tried to get an Usher song and his label actually said, “Send over a $300,000 Bentley and we can talk.” I’m not even kidding! Now it’s gotten much easier. But, like Steve said, the first year was very difficult because no one knew what the show was. Now they come to me and want to break artists.
Lorre: We had trouble clearing the cha-chunk from “Law & Order.” I had to call Dick Wolf. He actually said, “That’s not my call. I’ll try.” And we got it, but it was ridiculously expensive. It was $5,000 a note, and it’s only two notes!
Levitan: We just paid a ridiculous amount of money for “Eye of the Tiger.”
Murphy: Did you have to pay a lot for the “Lion King” stuff (in the “Modern Family” pilot)?
Levitan: Yes. It was (ABC head) Steve McPherson actually calling Elton John and making the personal plea. We never would have had a prayer had it not been ABC.
Seth MacFarlane: We don’t even bother trying to clear Disney songs anymore. We just get the finger.
Ellin: I wish I did more episodes. I look at all of (these guys), and it’s truly ridiculous how many episodes they do. But HBO was both great and bad because in the beginning. (Executive) Chris Albrecht was like, “You can do as many as you can possibly handle.” I’m kind of a lazy guy, so why do so many? But the actors went from getting paid nothing to getting paid a lot and now that I want to do a lot more, they’re like, “Well, now we can’t do it because we don’t have the money.”
MacFarlane: How many episodes did you do the first season?
Ellin: We did eight the first season and then Chris just pushed me and we did 20 the second season and I thought I was going to die. Then he said, “Do whatever you want,” so I was like, “I’ll do 14, 12, 12 and 10.” Obviously now I look back and wish we’d done more. Now that we’re coming to an end, you realize you had so much good stuff with these characters and so much more stuff you would have liked to do.
WHEN ACTORS SAY, “I CAN’T SAY THIS,” WHAT’S YOUR REACTION?
Ellin: I hate that more than anything. A lot of times they’re protecting their characters or their own images. I’ve had discussions with them about it and usually I say, “Just trust me.” Sometimes it gets more vocal than that.
Levitan: There are certain actors where I’m like, “Trust me, it will work.” But fortunately, we went to great lengths to hire people that are very smart and very funny on their own. So if they’re having trouble with something, it usually means there’s a problem with the writing. I’ve worked with some troublesome actors who need to create trouble. Those are the ones you learn to tune out and placate.
MacFarlane: These are things I don’t have to deal with. I have a cast of people that come in once or twice a week, they’re there for an hour ... I’ve heard stories from other people who’ve run animated shows where you can have people who are extremely difficult, and it’s just not worth it. There are a lot of good actors out there. You can find somebody who is good and is not going to be a jerk.
TELEVISION. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SEE SOMETHING DIFFERENTLY
Lorre: We don’t. Charlie, Jon (Cryer), that whole cast has been extremely trusting for seven years. On the rare occasion that something is difficult to articulate — or the words or the rhythm (don’t work) — we’ll adjust. But they’ve come to trust us. And we have a different process, because we’re having run-throughs every day. It’s four days of seeing material on its feet before it gets shot in front of an audience. There’s a lot of time to work with it.
Levitan: I remember a scene with George Segal (on “Just Shoot Me”) many years ago. He was having trouble with a scene and I was telling him all the reasons why it was a great scene. We ended up filming it and I watched it on television and I’m like, “That was a bad scene and he sensed it but couldn’t quite articulate it.” After that — fortunately, it was pretty early on — when he said he was having trouble with a scene, I knew it wasn’t right.
Murphy: Sound. We work so hard to mix sound and then everything gets pressed and pumped and they just jam it up.
Levitan: My (criticism) is the sitcom-y joke that I let through. It’s a little dagger.
MacFarlane: When we’re mixing musical numbers and spending all this time mixing a 70-piece orchestra and trying to do it in an hour, you can’t get everything. You want to go back and fix it for the rerun, but once you start tinkering with shows that have already aired, you could drive yourself crazy.
Ellin: All of this stuff is why I never watch anything back. Once I’m out of the editing room and it’s mixed and done, I never watch it.
MacFarlane: You watch on TV, right?
Ellin: Never. Well, I can’t say “never” because my son’s been in a few episodes, so we get people over for his episodes and cover his ears for most of it. But I would rather watch “Family Guy” or “Modern Family” than sit and watch my show.
Levitan: I watch with my family and they’ll talk! Are you kidding me? And often, the stories are about them!