Saturday, August 11, 2012

What does a showrunner do?

Hi kids. It’s time for some bonus Friday questions. What’s yours?

Reader John asks:

Ken, what's the hardest type of character for you to write for while making them sympathetic? To me, it seems as through character like Becker, or going way back, Phil Slivers' Ernie Bilko are more difficult to handle, because you've got a character who's jammed full of bad personality traits, but who the audience is still supposed to be rooting to succeed (as opposed to the bad personality trait character in the Frank Burns mode, who's going to get his by the end of every episode).

Actually, the hardest characters to write are the ones who are intrinsically good and have a minimum of flaws. When characters are duplicitous, conniving, lascivious, cowardly, vain, self centered, overly ambitious, lazy, or a Scientologist – now you’ve got comedy gold. Case in point, on MASH it was infinitely easier to write Frank Burns than Father Mulcahy. And if the flawed characters are funny that really takes the curse off of them.

Most actors get that. But some don’t. They’re always lobbying the writers to make them nicer because they constantly want to be seen in a good light. What they can’t seem to comprehend is that “nice”= death in comedy.

How many people would watch THE ANGEL IN APT 23?

From Brian comes a question I get frequently.  It's worth repeating the answer:

What exactly does a show runner do?

He oversees the entire production and essentially provides the voice and creative direction of the show. He hires the writing staff, the crew, the directors. He is in charge of the show’s budget. He approves and breaks the stories, assigns them, rewrites them, and decides when the scripts are ready for distribution. He does all of the casting. Deals with the network and studio. Approves sets, wardrobe, music, the Christmas party, opening titles, webisodes, and in single-camera shows tells the director the style he wants.

During runthroughs he has final say. He can ask for scenes to be re-blocked and override a director’s acting notes. He then has final say on the rewrites. If an actor isn’t cutting it it’s his call to fire him.

During filming of a multi-camera show he determines whether a scene still needs more takes or they can move on. On single-camera shows he is either on the set to make that call or can demand a re-shoot if he’s not happy with the dailies.

He also oversees the editing. The editor and director put together their first cut and then the showrunner is in control. He can change that cut at will, if the show is long he determines what gets cut. He then supervises post production – sound, color correction, music.

If the show has a laugh-track he oversees that process as well.

On the one hand you’re thinking, “Wow! How great! He has tremendous creative control.” On the other, you’re thinking, “Jesus! That sounds exhausting. And he has to turn out a show a week? How the hell does he have time to do all of that?”

Answer: He doesn’t. And that’s the real art of showrunning.

16 comments:

Ane said...

Next question - how do I become a showrunner? ;-)

Jonathan said...

There does seem to be a connection between likability and popularity in comedy, as the actors suggest. Just ask Dabney Coleman, King of the One-Season Critical Success. Bilko, for example, always ended up broke because he never kept the money he took. One way or another, his conscience always won. Obviously, it isn't always true, but flawed characters in comedy generally need redeeming qualities to be popular in the long term. (Frank Burns and Milburn Drysdale are exceptions to that rule, but note how cartoonish they were, especially comparing Burns to all the other characters on the show.)

Jamee said...

And if you're Tina Fey, you also star in the show!

philosophymom said...

Gomer Pyle -- uber-nice *and* funny, but criminally dim. It's harder to think of a nice, funny, *smart* character/persona...

Bill said...

A follow-up question to your showrunner answer: if the showrunner is so important--really the most important position on a show at a given time--why is "showrunner" not an "official" credit? As opposed to executive produce, supervising producer, producer, etc. I get that the showrunner usually has one of these titles, but why not specifically identify the person in the credits? The only reasons I can think of are (1) the showrunner doesn't really care, as long as s/he has some sort of producer credit (which I presume is what really gives more money/prestige); (2) credits are a union thing, and there's simply not a "showrunner" credit as identified by the respective union; or (3) "showrunner" is just a title arising from historical practice/custom, and it's never been thought of as an "official" title.

Can you shed some light on this? Also, given that people are becoming more and more aware of showrunners and their importance, do you foresee "showrunner" ever being a "credited" title?

Anonymous said...

Even more so, the colorful sidekick, bad or "dumb", deceitful or crazy, just must be more fun to write than the main character who has to be somewhat "normal". I always assumed it would be more fun to write the Ed Norton side of a Honeymooners skit than the Ralph Kramden; ditto with George or Kramer vs Jerry who seemd to end up basically giving them set-ups alot of the time; who wants to write for Richie when it's so easy to do something with the "Fonz" (before shark) and so on.
There are great exceptions, of course, like "Frasier", when he and Niles are in the room together, they are just a perfect fun crazed unity, each takes turns at being either George or Gracie.

cadavra said...

Another follow-up question, Ken. You said the showrunner does all the casting. I've always understood that the network gets heavily involved in casting, including guest stars, even to the point of vetoing certain actors for the most specious of reasons. I assume the more successful a show is, the greater the showrunner's power is, but still: just how much freedom does (s)he have in selecting actors, both regulars and guests?

Joey H said...

Nice+funny+smart=Bob Newhart

Ralphie said...

For some reason I always think "gopher" when I hear "showrunner" so I always thought he was probably the lowest guy on the food chain on set. Imagine my surprise when I found out different!

-Ralphie

Mike said...

Your answer about showrunners inspires a follow-up question that I've wondered in the past. When people that used to run the show but have since left the series come back to pen the series' final episode or something, do they have more of a showrunner's-type say in the final product than just an average staff writer would? Like for the final Cheers and Seinfeld episodes, the Charles Bros. and Larry David, respectively, came back for the final episodes even though they were no longer calling the shots. Would they have had more of a showrunner's-type role in that situation, do you suppose?

Mike

Anonymous said...

And just an answer to Bill, with the caveat that I've never, ever come anywhere close to having any insider knowledge about this kind of thing: But I wonder if it's because "showrunner" sounds relatively lame as a credit. It *sounds* like kind of a fake title, you know? Whereas "executive producer".....that carries some panache. Again, just a guess on my part, but I don't think you'll ever see "showrunner" become an official title, because "executive producer" just sounds a lot better.

Mike said...

BTW, this is Mike again. Just hit "post" too quick.

EricWGray said...

Acknowledging the showrunner beyond an executive producer credit... is often accomplished with - "Created by ..."

Marty Fufkin said...

My first break for a big national radio network was running errands for various producers and hosts during live broadcasts and tapings. I called myself a "showrunner" because I thought that's what a showrunner was -- someone who did all the running around and grunt work. Oops! Little did I know...

The first time I came across the "real" definition of showrunner was here on this blog. I still don't understand the title, though. I know, he "runs the show". But still, to me, a showrunner sounds like someone who runs out and gets the take-out for the writers. I would think that a more apt title would be "producer", but I suppose the real producer does something else altogether (probably nothing more than producing notes to the showrunner and writers?).

Dana Gabbard said...

Marty Fufkin, the problem is title inflation and a proliferation of folks with various producer titles which often are nothing me than contractual obligations. Maybe somebody had a series committment that was used to place a show -- that person gets a credit and paid something onan ongoing basis although they really did nothing creative (except in a business 101 sense). So the phrase showrunner came to be used to make it clear who called the shots and wasn't just an empty title.

Brian said...

Hi Ken,
I read an interesting article by Vince Gilligan about how when he pitched Breaking Bad, it was similiar to a show called Weeds on Showtime but he didn't know it and that was good, because if he had, he might not have had the courage to pitch it. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/07/15/vince-gilligan-on-how-breaking-bad-almost-didn-t-happen.html
Has that ever happened to you on a show or on an episode?