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Comedy Texture & Character Evolution: The 2019 NBC Network TCA Winter Press Tour

The texture of the NBC progression within this year’s TCAs swells with the essence of the female focus, both in the texture of comedy and drama but also in the evolution of character.

Abbys [NBC] Led by Natalie Morales, this multi-cam comedy takes places in a watering hole created in said lead characters backyard with the inevitable cast of characters. Morales comments that she grew up watching NBC on Thursday nights.While there will inevitably be comparisons to another bar set series from the network, Morales says this structure is almost like “Cheers Theater In The Park” which is enhances by the fact that most of the cast all has sketch and theater experience. Michael Shur, responsible for creating “Parks & Recreation” and also the recent hit “The Good Place” says the biggest selling point of this show (or any for that matter) is “if it might be interesting”. As with most shows in terms of development, he says they “sort of become self fulfilling prophecies”. The draw for him is that it is set in someone’s backyard. He uses a point of reference that a comedic point could be “the regularity of a woman next door just because it is next door and has 7 glasses of wine before she goes to sleep” and also that “the characters sit in the same seats every day”.

Project Runway [Bravo] A stalwart of the cable landscape lineup, this continuation brings the structure back to Bravo and in doing so transforms it for a new generation. The mix of designer Cristian Miliano and host/model Karlie Koss really gives the show a renewed spirit. Miliano is an actual active designer and a winner of the Runway competition so combining this with the fashion show active Koss gives the show an immediacy like never before. Koss admits that she grew up watching this show and for her “it is surreal to be part of this next chapter”. She continues that a lot has changed in the world since the original show specifically in “as far as how designers have to think about businesses today”. For her, it is important that “we all have voices and can give feedback. Fashion is for anyone”. She says, “I first watched [the show] when I was 11 years old in St. Louis Missouri”. For her, “it is a platform and a way to show stories and a creative process, that talent comes from anywhere and everywhere”. For her, “the journey and experiences I have had…each one of us [here] is in the middle of our own multi-hyphenate careers. You have to be social media savvy. You have to know what you want to say. It is not a matter of just breaking out but also sustaining your career.” Cristian gives his perspective of the fashion business saying “I treat every designer as It reat my design team every day. I really feel I get too passionate.” That said, he continues, “It is amazing to see on this show, [people] create something from nothing. I think that is very beautiful to watch.”

Listing Impossible [CNBC] This CNBC show showcasing a texture of selling multi-million dollar homes and the angles needed to close may seem a little antithetical in the current market but it also displays the texture of ambition and goals. Lead agent and star of the show, Aaron Kirman tries to put it into perspective says “The struggles that the wealthy are up against are in many way not dissimilar [from everyone else]. His intern turned agent Neyshia Go, who is also highlighted on the show, keys into this essence of ambition: “The day she got her license her entreprenuerial spirit kicks in. Go explains it in her own way: “You need understand the buyer and seller but you need to know how to deal with the idea of of who the buyer and the seller is. ‘There is a shoe for every dirty foot’ which is what Aaron says.” Morgan Trent, also an agent on the show, has had a different trajectory having played professional football for a short time for the Cincinnati Bengals. He explains his career choice; “I played football. I played in the NFL. But I didn’t love football. I loved real estate.” He describes through the psychology needed in real estate versus say other businesses: “When we walk away, we know that they [the sellers] are on a losing ship. Usually those sellers wait until a year later [and then they come back]”.

Pearson [USA] This spinoff of “Suits” is a paradox of sorts. Gina Torres, a stalwart of the series, left the law based series to pursue other interests inevitably because the plot flow had begun a different way. Adding to that a little later, good friend and co-star Meghan Markle left to marry Prince Harry of England. But it was changing the structure and the focus in moving Pearson’s story to Chicago and setting it in the political arena. Torres explains: “My mind went to Jessica Pearson, this character whom I thought was in the rear view mirror, she wasn’t about walking the line but moving it. You can call [this development] a happy accident. You can call it a natural evolution. [But] now Jessica is in service to her own life and how that works.” Daniel Arkin, one of the exec producers of “Suits” and now the showrunner of “Pearson”. He speaks on the texture of the show: “When we set out [to do this show], we want to do it different than how we did ‘Suits’. Jessica Pearson is the link but we wanted this show conceptually to be more gritty and raw. Jessica was a chess player in ‘Suits’ but once you become the lead character, the story is not going to go very far if [that character] knows everything. People reject her for a change. Torres concludes the perception: “These are completely different people from ‘Suits’. Jessica doesn’t know who she can trust”.

La Reina Del Sur [Telemundo] This hybrid of a telenovela has become a more straight high production series from Telemundo. While the US has made their version with “Queen Of The South” on USA, Kate Del Castillo was the original bad-ass. She explains: “We never thought it would be the success it would have been. It was shown as a telenovela. But I was exhausted. We had different conditions budget wise and we did our best.”. But in terms of returning to that mindset, she continues: “You forget the character. You forget what is going on. It has been fresh because they have been repeating the series.” Living in Los Angeles, she continually watches for shifts in the entertainment industry: “Things are changing slowly but they are. Every time I read a script there is a better role for Latinos and women Latinos. I have been living in Los Angeles in 18 years. When I first came here I already had a job in ‘American Family’ for PBS.” As to the possibilities in this new incarnation, she teases: “You can expect a lot of action. I am 8 years older and it hurts. But she is more mature. She is a mother. She is mature in that way but she goes for it.”

Busy Tonight [E!] Closing out the day before rushing back to do a new show that evening with Josh Groban, Busy Phillips is full of energy and confidance. She starts off:I have been an entertainer for 20 years but making my life very open on social media opened me up to a whole new type of audience. It felt like a natural progression for me.” In terms of building the show: “What we wanted it to be was a little treat for our viewers at the end of the night. I was sick of watching ‘Friends re-runs’ on the end of the night.” As far as her guests: “People surprise you. David Alan Grier was incredible. Patti LaBelle is one of my favorites. Julia Roberts was always a priority.” Tina Fey, producer extraordinaire, explained her openness to the idea of the show on E: “I really liked Busy. She floated this idea. I think what [this show] is is unique and smart. (she looks at Busy) You are not trying to be Jimmy [Fallon] or Ellen.”

By Tim Wassberg

Trading Quips & Reflective Structuring: The Winter 2011 TCA Set Visits – Feature

Perceiving the energy of a television show revolves around the set structure and notion of who becomes the fallacies and strengths of voice. Great design can help motivate a scene or interrupt it while character work sometimes overplays the necessary subtleties of the script. Ultimately each revolves as part of their own animal. A set becomes a personality or a show interweaving as a home which can be both comforting but also challenging.

“Cougar Town” as a motivating factor has evolved into a story of pure people which is reflected in the cool class demeanor on the Culver Studios lot. The bar lurks inside as does the interior of Jules’ house. The wine bar and the “lonely walk” occurs right outside. Here the core team huddles. As with earlier interactions standing around in the bar afterwards with Brian Van Holt (Bobby), Travis (Dan Byrd) and Andy (Ian Gomez)  shooting the breeze like “no big whoop”  at the local watering hole gives one the feeling of the camaraderie that abounds.

Bill Lawrence, always outspoken but fun and relaxed, is a force of nature…and never so much as with this show, which is its own animal, both straddling the notion of older viewers but with a youthful complex.

The show, he relates, “has nothing to do with what it’s about”. His great progression, he jokes, is that he “loves getting to know actors and then stealing from them”. One new aspect he highlights within the “Cougar” universe is that they have always liked “room bits” where people just sit around and blast one another which they have learned to support with “dumb games”. He admits that it is a “double-edged sword to have consistency” on the show. Moving towards a more business-structured perception, he does admit that being behind “Modern Family” is the test of maintaining an audience but that the big poll of their longevity will be at the beginning of next year. He says though they have to make the leap sooner or later. He also stands behind bringing in secondary characters, and not just for exposition, though he does attribute that he has “my own dumb philosophies about comedy”.

Courteney Cox, understanding the progression of Jules in her simple life, says that her character will “continue to drink and be a successful alcoholic” before adding that “Bill cares about the ratings”.

Jumping in Christa Miller, who plays Jules’ best friend Ellie (and also, in real life, is Bill Lawrence’s wife), says “I’m lucky because my bad traits my husband finds adorable” but that “Bill mixes it up every time.” Busy Phillips, who plays the younger BFF Laurie addresses the little snaking of chemistry she and Dan Byrd, who plays Jules’ son Travis, share, saying “I am not sure I want to kiss Dan because I’m like his hot cousin”. She continues that “he plays a bit older and I am a bit younger” so we are “a tight pair”. Byrd, by comparison, speaks of his character in the tones of “I am not wearing sunscreen and it makes me a little worried” continuing that “the way that things were shaping up I had to stop stewing in the background” which made it “a lot more interesting”.

Flipping the structure over to the CBS studio complex in Studio City which plays host to the set of NBC’s “Parks & Recreation”, the halls of Pawnee ring out true as star Amy Poehler shows us around the set (though the aspect of April hanging out in the background and giving out her business card was hilarious) before congregating into Town Hall.

Poehler describes her character Leslie saying that “she is of the same intelligence” but admits “in the first few episodes she didn’t have alot of game”. This new season for her “is evolving” since “we begin the show in triage mode with everyone looking to save their jobs”. In terms of the interoffice romances, she speaks that she doesn’t think the characters “are lonely” but agrees “that you end up dating the people you work with” because “they are like a community and relationships start to happen”. She continues saying that “this is a show where people actually have sex” though “Jerry is no saint”.

Dan Goor, the supervising producer, adds that the first part of the season revolves around Harvest Fest with some stand-alone structure though “it is nothing we can control”. He admits that the best aspect of the new episodes is “that we had time”. Speaking to the characters, he says they are “unlikely local heroes” but throws in that “Jerry does things that are a bit off”. Another tidbit of knowledge revolves around Pawnee’s sister cities in that they are “all sites of horrible tragedy”. He reveals that “Ron Swanson had never been out of Indiana” but “he drank the water and it made him sick”.

Nick Offerman, who plays the irrepressible Ron Swanson describes the season, in true fashion, stating “the harvest is a harvest of blood”.

Jim O’Heir, who plays Jerry, always get the short end of the stick, saying “they have my back when it counts” but relates that “every office has a punching bag” adding that “I have amazing talent that they don’t give a crap about”.

Aziz Ansari, the real life counterpart of Tom Haverford, believes his namesake just “wants to be that guy who owns a nightclub and make his own cologne” but “he lives in Pawnee”. If he could just have been raised in the nearby town of Eagleton, Ansari pleads, because “that whole town is a country club”.

Rashida Jones, who plays the emotionally divisive Ann, says that the idea of show rests in the fact that “they are interested in how people relate emotionally” but “you can feel why people end up together”. She decribes Ann as “a boyfriend girl” and adds “that she probably didn’t have many girlfriends but she wasn’t really looking”.

Adam Brody, who is new to the cast as transplant Ben Wyatt, explains that “it was all conceived before I got here” but that there are things about the two characters of Leslie and Ben “who have alot in common but don’t really know it at first”.

Switching into darker drama mode, the notion of “Criminal Minds” reflects in knowing how perpetrators think. With the new “Suspect Behavior” outreach which circles Forest Whitaker into the structure, the notion of spirituality and perception become necessary parts of the thought process.

The main set, like “NCIS: Los Angeles”, represents the mindset of the characters with a used old-world feel but with notions of Asian spiritualism abounding while technology wraps around it with a sense of foreboding.

Deborah Spera, exec producer of the original series as well as “Army Wives”, describes the team of “Behavior” as “a group of FBI agents within a red cell unit” who report to the Director only adding that “these groups do exist”. What makes “Criminal Minds”, as a concept, different from other procedurals, she specifies, is that “creatively we solve crimes from a psychological perspective”.

Ed Bernero, another exec who was formerly a night shift beat cop in Chicago for 10 years and has written and produced on “Third Watch” and “Brooklyn South” in addition to the original “Criminal Minds”, says that this crew of characters are already in the middle of their professions. Each of the shows reflect, he explains, their own interior lives but must balance the texture between familial and procedural. Looking at the characters provides a perspective in how they deal. Forest Whitaker’s character Sam is the sounding board while Janeane Garofalo’s Beth is a technical expert and Matt Ryan as Mick is the strategist. When you mix these people and their perception of a crime with someone like Michael Kelly’s character Jonathan who has been in prison and knows how it works, the breakdown of psychology takes on a different perception. Bernero admits that the team here is more interdependent on each other than the other show.

Whitaker, making his first foray into series television, says that he had been thinking about approaching the medium. He had been offered a few before. The kindling that he feels with this character resounds that the emotion hits his character in a very deep place. In terms of sitting within the set, he sees it as a safe zone, a “dojo” of sorts. Within this structure you can see people fight but also where they are going. As a challenge, he is always looking to interact with other actors. The missteps of character result, he says, in “great triumph” and reveal that every role has their own flavor.

Garafalo, having been seen mostly as a comedic performer, explains that it is all subjective adding that “there is something about dark haired people with deep voices and ambiguous sexuality that works well”. In terms of her character, she is “married to her job”. Approaching this kind of show does sometimes become reflective of a downer because “after dealing with a cadaver for a long amount of time, that will stick with you”. As far as facing off with Whitaker, her character sees her compatriot as “much more reserved and spiritual” who likes “stick fighting and throwing ryhmes” describing him as “a much nicer person”.

Kirsten Vangsness, who straddles both worlds of “Minds” as Penelope, describes the jumping as “nothing but cool”. One show is “evil ferrets” and the other is “killer clowns”. In interacting with the new team, Garcia can’t come in and be too familiar or it would “be weird”. She says “it’s like you’re a new third grader” because “you’re not going to be all out”. As far as the character’s fashion sense which has been undeniably scrutinized, Vangsness says her character lets her “freak flags fly” explaining that Garcia dresses like “a 7-year-old pirate from space”. Kristen likes to say she has a glam squad in real life and tells the team at the other show that “over here, we got a pool”.

Comedy, as a live idea, rounds out the perspective of set visits with the TBS brand with early morning perspectives of “George Lopez” and “Conan”, just steps away from each other on the Warner Lot.

Lopez begins the structure sitting on his wider broached set which plays inevitably slick next to Conan’s more home comfort digs. Lopez admits that since the shift that the comedy “has been a bit edgier” though now, with his later time slot, “I want to be the last person people pass out to”. He continues stating that “mine is the most diverse of any late night show” adding “it has a little more flavor” because “I don’t have a desk and I don’t use cards”. 33-years-old is the median age he hits and he agrees that “the one great thing about having my sitcom in syndication is that it is all over”. He seems happy that his was Justin Bieber’s first late night show though “I don’t think he was allowed to stay up” and recalls fondly about Usher pulling an April Fools when he asked about his three kids.

In terms of the late night shake-up, he says that he didn’t take it personally. Conan came on and they did a bit before they went to air which revolved around the beard. There is a aspect of cool synergy at times. His example is that Russell Brand went on “Conan” then came over and interrupted his monologue. The key for him in making late night “his” is that he is not worried about being funny adding that “it is not urgent for me” and that “I take it as it comes”. The host, he says, “should have the ability to listen” and that “that ability needs to be warm and engaging”. Lopez continues that he “grew up 8 miles from here but it might as well be a million”. He admits though that “there is a lot of things you can’t ask” although he was happy when “Denzel told me when he was 20 he was a garbageman”.

The biggest and most significant change for him was bringing in Robert Morton who had spent 14 years with Letterman, adding that “he keeps me on time”.

Morton adds that “it is good with the Conan lead-in to see the audience” though “we have tried to give our show a little more focus as far as comedy”. He is proud that “we are a lot stronger” with “a lot quicker pace”. One of the things that he learned with Letterman was “urgency”. He tries to keep here on a tight schedule. The writers get in at 8 or 8:30am which is the same time for the monologue guys. Production meeting is at 10am. For him, 95% of the show is created between 8 and 12. The strength he continues is that “we have a different voice”. The balance is that “the networks try to build the weight over us” but he says that they don’t “demand firsts or exclusives” moving more to “take chances with TV people who might be considered too bawdy”. Morton reminisces that, when he was first at 12:30am with Letterman, “we didn’t get anything” because “Johnny got everyone”. What Morton likes about “The Lopez Show” is that “the energy is fantastic” led by George who “has a clear voice” which allows everyone to know “who they are writing for” and “who they are booking for”.

Conan, by comparison, in his first set visit, has the benefit of experience and balance to enrapture within his new show. He says that the first meeting he had with TBS was a couple days after his summer tour. He wanted to recapture that feeling that they had on the road but also “create a lab for us to screw around and try things”. He admits that “the last year has been a crazy journey of discovery” but that “I think we are playing it out” adding “that this could be a game show in a year”. He jokes that “it is fun to be Mussolini at the top of the show every night” though he says that the Coco thing is “all Tom Hanks’ fault”. In terms of what happened in the past, he would prefer not to over think things and that this is “part and parcel from last year”. The people at TBS, he said, though have made it clear to him to do what he thinks is funny. He uses the example of playing the first show with Jack White. His motto is “if it feels that it might be funny at rehearsal, let’s try it”.

He likes to think of “Conan” as a start-up show but balances that with the fact “that I have come up with alot of people” and that “changes the dynamic”. He admits “that personal relationships play a role” and “that there is that feeling on a personal level especially in the tumult in the past year”. He continues though that “you come to a point where you say ‘I am not interested in being on TV forever” but adds “that there is nothing like walking away from ‘The Tonight Show’ to show the aspect of being on-air”. He places the concept of a joke in his ideal of “if I am having a fun time, I have no dignity” and then goes on to state how he auditioned for “The Late Show” when he was 29. He had the ear of the young people but says that “what has not changed is that people in their 20s are still happy to see me”. He chocks this up to “nothing by design” adding that “there is an innate silliness to me”. He admits he was always attracted to that type of comedy but now “I have a 5 and a 7 year old and getting them to laugh is a workout” adding that “I am not afraid to fall down” but “I am not able to grow up”.

He describes “Conan” as “a topical show but not relentless about them”. He reminisces that, at the end of his stint on “The Tonight Show”, “I said something like ‘All we are here to do is have fun on television’ which resonated with me”. He likens it to the statement that “the economy’s stupid” and “let’s not overthink”. Alot of people came over from the last gig with him adding that “we’ve all been through something in the past year”. He explains now that “there is a pirate ship mentality to the show which creates a strong dynamic” figuring that “TBS reached over the side and pulled us on the boat” which “is something we will be eternally grateful for”

David Letterman, Conan says, “called and said ‘I haven’t checked in on you but I wanted to make sure you were good'” adding that the long time host of “Late Night” is “not a blabbermouth” but said “it was nice to get a call and he didn’t owe me one”. Conan addresses the entire “Tonight Show” controversy saying “we all know what happened” but “I just try not to think about it too much” adding that “it was very strange as I wasn’t used to be a media story”. He continues that “the day after the show ended, we [he and his wife] left for Santa Barbara the following morning” adding that “two cars followed us all the way to the hotel”. He jokes that “I am not Brad Pitt or George Clooney but I am blessed with my DNA” but says “when I walked into a restaurant that day, everybody applauded”. Conan then more somberly states “this isn’t [about] a job being applauded in restaurants”, rather “these shows have been the organizing principle of my life”. He says soon after returning from that trip, “I called my assistant Sona” and “we met at a Marie Callender restaurant”. He explains that “I hosted ‘The Tonight Show’ on a Friday and we were there on Monday” continuing that “that was my new headquarters”. The reality he notes is “it was a juxtaposition that summed up the madness”. While he admits that “I loved picking up my kids during that time”, “you could see that I was determined” and “I needed to be in a harness”.

The most amazing thing for him about the last year is that “the campaign didn’t come from anything” adding that “we ended ‘The Tonight Show’ with ‘Freebird'”. The tour, he admits, “started as a small thing with just me and The Legally Prohibited Band” but then “everybody wanted to buy a ticket even though nobody knew what it was”. He reluctantly agrees that “I don’t remember a year when I was working harder” continuing that “I grew a beard because I hate shaving…and I stopped shaving after ‘The Tonight Show'”. Addressing the psychology of the situation, he says “I think you grow a beard when you go through something”. He recalls Jeff Ross, his exec producer, calling him into the office saying “Is that beard going to stay or go?”. Conan prefers he says to “take it a day at a time” adding that “it might fall off”. Someone said to him that for him “the most interesting thing in the past year is going through the psychological shift”. Conan himself thinks that “we have very creative fans that have gone through something and we use it as a bumper on the show”.

He agrees that “the business is transforming” which everybody in the room is facing. His goal is “not to do it forever but do it to the point where I have nothing left to say”. He doesn’t want to disparage his time though at his former network saying “I had alot of amazing experiences with NBC” and “it meant alot to me to be part of it.” He admits “there are times where I mourn the boss” since “there is a whole body of work which I feel really detached from” though he admits “there are some [people] I never need to see again…on a human level”. “It feels strange to me”, he continues, “as great as things have happened to me, I was a little bit sad” because “I am a very suspicious person” yet still “a ‘shut up and do your job’ person”. For him “anything that feels over the top brings out the Irish Catholic in me”.

Conan is just happy to move past this period in time, moving more to focus on “Did they like my show last night or no?” and “to just see where it goes”.

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