The Haven
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The Haven

Showrunner School Part 2: The First Thing You Need To Become a Showrunner.

The Elaborate Set of “The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale” on Netflix

As I mentioned in Part 1: “What is a Showrunner”, everyone who winds up in the job takes their own path to get there. Some, like me come from the writing side of production. Others come in as directors, producers, studio and network executives and even personal mangers and agents have wound up holding the title. True to Hollywood, in production there is no one recipe for success and just when you think you understand how it all works everything shifts.

Trying to get a lasso around the “how to” of it all has been a little bit of a challenge. Since each map tends to be different, a “Five Easy Steps to Becoming a Showrunner” type of piece would be five bald-faced lies, so we won’t do that.

The road I know best is the one I’ve taken so there could be some value in that. Alas my wife reminds me, if you’ve known me for more than a day, you’ve probably already heard a retelling of my career. Also, after the first few beats of the story, 95 percent of readers would say, “Well that’s not my path, so this is pointless.” I don’t want you saying that, but I do think there are quite a few universal lessons I learned along that way that can help anyone who wants to be a showrunner look for moments and opportunities in their own careers that will make for significant rungs on the ladder.

So with that, I’ll do my best over the next few installments to tell some of my story and identify those universal opportunities hidden inside one very specific story. Let’s start at the part that has the least in common with everyone…

I started my showbusiness career as a standup comic in Minnesota. I had a public speaking class during my sophomore year in college at Hamline University, St. Paul where I was double-majoring in Alcoholism and Academic Probation. One day my professor pulled me aside after I had given a speech on President Andrew Jackson that included nothing at all about his life or policies but was a solid seven minutes on how powdered wigs were the original bald dude combovers.

The Professor wanted to let me know if I continued to make up my speeches with absolutely no research whatsoever, I would fail the class. I protested his assertion that I hadn’t done the work, but he quickly checkmated me by mentioning that Andrew Jackson didn’t wear a powdered wig. But then he surprisingly told me that despite my lack of effort, he thought my speeches were funny and I was very natural in front of an audience. He said he thought I should find an open mic night at one of the local comedy clubs and try my hand at standup.

I needed very little encouragement beyond that. I had been secretly wanting to try standup forever and all I needed was one person to say it seemed like a good idea. My first night on stage at the Comedy Gallery in Uptown Minneapolis was as nerve wracking an experience as I will ever have. Standing in front of a room full of older strangers with nothing but a too-big sport coat, a terrible impression of Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman character and written material shot from the lens of a college sophomore who hadn’t been sober in that calendar year. It seemed like a terrible idea the second I walked on stage. Somehow, though, it went well enough that the owner of the local Comedy Gallery chain, the late, great Scott Hansen, offered me a house emcee job at his weekend club in a Days Inn in Maplewood, Minnesota.

A lightbulb went on over my directionless self and from that moment, I immersed myself in comedy. I went onstage every night wherever I could. If I wasn’t getting paid, I went to open mic nights or hung out at clubs and asked for guest spots. One month into my career when I still didn’t have more than seven minutes of material, I went to my hometown of Cambridge, Minnesota an hour north of the Twin Cities and made a deal with the manager of the American Legion Hall to hold a monthly Standup Night. Then I immediately went back to Scott and his brother Tom who booked and managed all the Comedy Gallery’s touring business and gave them the rights to book and run the Cambridge American Legion in exchange for consistent work in their clubs in Minneapolis and St. Paul on the weekdays and on the road on the weekends. (How’s that for an early sign of a producer in the making?)

By my senior year in college, I was attending classes on Monday and Tuesday and touring Wednesday through Sunday. I never stopped studying and practicing the craft. I wrote nonstop and I studied great comics and great jokes. I read sitcom and comedy movie scripts. I watched countless hours of late-night talk shows, SNL and Comedy Central. On the day I graduated from college, I got handed my diploma and then hustled to my car to drive to Grand Forks, North Dakota for a gig.

For the purposes of this article, the rest of the early standup story is rinse and repeat. I worked nonstop. I learned nonstop. I performed around the country and appeared at some comedy festivals and on some basic cable TV shows. I was considered by the showbiz people who were concerned with such things someone to watch. Two guys named Gary Mann and Dave Rath told me I needed to move to LA so I moved to LA where I ate shit and worked and wrote and hung out at the Improv where I tried to befriend all the big-name headliners and comedy professionals I could. I asked them a million irritating questions and was lucky to have many answers. I didn’t know it then, but all that comedy obsession gave me the most important thing anyone who wants to be a showrunner can have.

THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO DO TO BECOME A SHOWRUNNER IS DEVELOP A CORNERSTONE SKILL.

Showrunning itself requires a broad knowledge of many, many parts of production and by the time you are a showrunner, you’ll have a better than passing understanding of most of them.

But whether it’s an expert-level understanding of comedy, drama, game rules, directing, writing, editing, the business side of production, documentary storytelling or something I’m not thinking of right now because I’m just a simple joke farmer, every good showrunner has a core competency that serves as their personal divining rod through a multi-faceted production.

That cornerstone skill is the core language they use when interpreting all the other elements of the show. It becomes the guide through which problems are resolved. For me I’m always thinking about the finished product through my comedic lens first. Which is fine, because once it’s established you can wear all the hats necessary to Showrun, you’re almost always hired for your cornerstone skill.

As a showrunner, I’ve done clip shows, talk shows, game shows, reality shows, hidden camera shows, shows featuring clips of animals turned into sketches about game and reality shows… They’ve all had the connective tissue of comedy being at the heart of them.

I’d like to think I’m pretty good at most of the pieces of the overall Showrunner job. However, when it comes to comedy, in every facet from writing and telling jokes through the assemblage, organization and execution of comedic beats to creating the best platform and environment for talent to be able to execute comedy, I work at a level higher than all my other skill sets combined.

Your cornerstone skill is what’s holding everything else up in your management of the production. When the shit hits the fan and the show isn’t coming together the way it should, I always know the reason I’m there above and beyond all else is to make it funny. Once I remember that, I can funnel back through all the other elements of the production and start to work with the skilled people manning all the other stations and work with them through their part of the product to fix the problems with an end goal in mind. Let’s make sure it’s funny.

Moving forward a couple of decades and by way of a real-life example, in 2019 I was brought in to take over the Showrunning job on a show called BLIND DATE on the BRAVO network. The BLIND DATE format had been a campy fun hit in England and the US in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The premise was real couples would go out on, you guessed it, blind dates that were followed by cameras. When the stories of the dates were told on TV, goofy graphics and snarky thought bubbles guessing at the daters inner monologues appeared on screen to comedically highlight the awkwardness of the dates. It was a very fun, funny show that as my wife and I remembered it from our pre-parenting days paired quite nicely with tequila, pot and nothing to do.

In 2019 BRAVO ordered 65 new episodes of the show and I was brought in to take over the showrunning job after all 135 dates that would occupy those 65 episodes had been shot.

As often happens, there was a great group of reality/documentary producers who went to Atlanta, made the dates happen and did an amazing job of pairing up incredible characters, sending them out to a massive array of crazy locations and bringing back terrific footage that captured all manner of incredible dating mayhem.

When the show got to post-production (editing), there became a struggle to be able to bring the stories together in a way that would allow for the campy, goofy comedic side to come forward. The post-production team was running behind on delivery and I was hired to jump in as showrunner to see if I could help get things on track.

By the time I joined the show, the delivery problems had created a bottleneck in the edit bays, the schedule was in a great amount of flux and it was starting to affect the shows budget. While I’ve been a showrunner for some time and I can speak the languages of scheduling, budget and editing, none of those problems are in the wheelhouse of my “that’s why you hire KP” expertise. Thankfully I had some things on my side.

The post-production team, led by a brilliant Executive Producer and my now friend for life Danielle Weiss-Medina, was a first-rate group. Danielle and our post Supervisor Hailey Heinz were more than capable of getting the ship righted on the schedule and making the editor rotations work if the writing team and I could figure out how to get the comedy and the storytelling to work together.

The show already had a great group of story producers working tirelessly to deliver rough cuts of the dates themselves and there was a talented group of comedy writers working on adding the jokes. The problem was there had been a missing component somewhere in the process that kept the finished products from cohesively blending the story of the dates with the graphic comedic add-ons.

The second stroke of luck for me was just before I was brought in to Showrun, one of the writers and a Co-Executive Producer with me on THE SOUP, Lee Farber had been brought in to help fortify the comedy as well. Lee is a dual threat as he’s a great director with an incredible eye, but he’s also a first-rate comedy writer with a million miles of great jokes and sketches behind him on THE SOUP and other projects past. We didn’t know each other was in the mix when we got hired and the sigh of relief when I found out he’d be with me when I arrived, he probably could have heard in Stamford, Connecticut where the show was in post. The shorthand between Lee and I has been built over 15 years of working together and there is quite truly no one who I could ever want more working with me to make the funny work. Everything that went right from here out in the story, Lee should get credited with either thinking of or supporting expertly. Other than all of that, though, I’m not very fond of him and I feel that should be said.

The third thing I had on my side was my cornerstone skill of comedy. If I had been brought in to fix the schedule, I would have likely failed, but Danielle and Hailey had that. If I had been brought in to make the dates themselves play with more drama, I would have done ok, but Danielle and her producing team didn’t really need my help there either. I’ll say this again and again and again, the best showrunners let skilled professionals do their job and focus on being an asset to them even if it means getting out of the way. I was brought in to fix the comedy and use the rest of my showrunner skills to manage communication with the network, the studio and the talent in support of Danielle and a very big, very exhausted team so together we could deliver quality material quickly.

Because part of having a cornerstone skill in comedy is knowing how comedy is best developed, I decided quickly that the process had been lacking a creative meeting where the writers were able to see the dates through the eyes of the producers and mine the comedy collectively. In those meetings, I asked the producers, before playing the cut, to tell the story of the dates and set the writers and me up for who the daters are, what we should expect of them, and tease anything that happens along the way that we should pay special attention to. Then we would watch the rough cuts of the dates together. Comedy is triggered by information. You need to see or hear something happen to spark a joke and there had been a vacuum of information at the initial creative stages prior to my arrival. Once the producers and writers started dialing in with each other in the clip meetings, we could feel the tide turn. The producers had been combing over the material and they knew everything about the daters who were most often huge, often ridiculous but lovable characters. The producers, who had become invested in their daters and stories, turned out to be great at setting it all up and giving us a comedic hook to hang each date on.

After each date had played, the writers and I would pitch jokes, ask the producers questions searching for hidden gems we didn’t see that may help amp up the funny and we’d settle on a comedic narrative for the dates that the producers and editors could work off in the next cut while the writers wrote the jokes that would now work in concert with the story. That step of adding the clip meeting got us out of the gates with a new and more defined creative direction as a team. Before long we were delivering episodes at a much more efficient pace and getting positive feedback from the network.

As we were working on a very tight clock with a dwindling staff and finances because postproduction was supposed to be starting to wrap up just a few weeks after I arrived, I’d be lying to say it all went smoothly from there out, but things got easier.

We worked on the communication between the comedy forward writers and the story forward producers. The communication with the editors on how to implement the timing of the graphics, flagged as problematic by the network, improved as well. On top of all that, our narrator across the series was comedian Nikki Glaser, whom I’ve been fortunate to know for quite some time. Having Lee and I around who have spent significant time working with comedians and through working with the team of writers to make a the creative more uniform in format with an eye on making it “sound like Nikki”, we were able to fine tune Nikki’s voice over scripts and help craft something that was more signature to Nikki’s comedic style.

One very big part of my cornerstone skill is that since I started out and still perform as a comic, I share an outlook with a lot of the stars of the shows I work on because of that shared background. In many ways, we speak a common and somewhat unique language. It’s part artist, part psych-ward patient, part the noise a badger makes. The skill I developed to make it useful as a showrunner is an ability to take the needs of production and translate it into that common language I share with the talent. Likewise, the ability to translate the thoughts of the talent back to the production and often, the network and studio executives has proven incredibly valuable on every production of which I’ve been in charge. (That’s foreshadowing a future lesson, by the way.)

To close-up the story of BLIND DATE, while all the big pieces of storytelling, editing and delivery were in more than capable hands before I showed up on the scene, the fine tuning of comedic elements like timing, tone, word arrangement and how to communicate the development and execution of comedy, my cornerstone skill set, were missing from the equation and that’s what was gumming up an otherwise very well-built machine. My cornerstone skill was what was needed to get the show un-stuck, but that skill combined with my years of experience incorporating comedy into the much larger machine of production in the right places and doses is what made me a good person to do the job.

As an epilogue, BLIND DATE was a bit of a hit for Bravo and we were prepping to go back to Atlanta to shoot another 65 episodes in 2020, but then COVID made it a horrible idea to have strangers dry hump in hot tubs on TV. Stupid COVID.

To get back to the original point, comedy does not need to be your cornerstone skill to be a showrunner. You just need to find the right cornerstone skill for you and develop it to a very high level. There’s a very nice guy named John Quinn who lives around the corner from me and every single time I don’t get the Showrunner job on a game show, I later find out John got it. John knows and understands how game shows work at an incredible level. We worked together once on a game show pilot and while we were developing the rounds, I couldn’t believe his encyclopedic knowledge of every rule and every type of game that had ever been created. How the rounds worked, how the shows themselves performed creatively. He’s got his cornerstone skill in spades.

And then there’s this guy I lived with for a short period when I had just gotten my first writing job in Hollywood. He was an actor and writer who was obsessed to an intimidating level with drama, character and story. Even if it was a commercial audition he was studying for, he broke it down, questioned motivation, found places to elevate it. When everyone else was drinking and screwing off, he was reading and writing scripts, tormented by some quest to get better at learning every aspect of how drama worked and how character applied to story. His name is Taylor Sheridan. I’m not sure where he got off to, but whatever Home Depot he’s working at, they’ve got a dude with a serious cornerstone skill.

In the next installment, we’ll move forward into my first writing jobs, learning the hard way about what the hell everyone else does on a show and finding out how to be an asset to them and the show.

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K.P. Anderson

K.P. Anderson

TV Writer/Producer. Putting thoughts in a new place.