Andy Ackerman ’78 talks about comedy, binge-watching, and learning to work with actors.
Andy Ackerman ’78 is best known for his work on Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Following his graduation from Santa Clara University, he first worked as an assistant editor on Welcome Back, Kotter, and then as an editor on WKRP in Cincinnati and Newhart. His work on WKRP in Cincinnati earned him his first Emmy. Ackerman has gone on to win twice more and be nominated an additional 14 times.
Following his work on Newhart, Ackerman began a run from 1985 to 1991 as editor for Cheers. He edited more than 100 episodes and also launched his directing and producing career with the hit show.
“How do I give Ted Danson a note without him looking at me like I've got six eyes in my head?”
In 1994, he directed his first episode of Seinfeld beginning in the show’s sixth season. In all, Ackerman directed 89 episodes, including such classics as “The Soup Nazi.” Seinfeld changed the look and feel of TV comedies. Although it was a four-camera sitcom shot largely on a soundstage, Ackerman’s efforts to make the show look more cinematic than the average sitcom have informed many of today’s single-camera comedies.
Ackerman recently visited the Mission campus as part of the President’s Speaker Series. Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Boyd Saum had a chance to sit down with him to talk about comedy, binge-watching, and learning to work with actors. Read an excerpt of their conversation below.
SCM: You talk about having a gift of an ear—being able to feel when something is right. Is this something you can train?
Ackerman: I watched a lot of comedies growing up. I watched old movies and TV series and I think, through osmosis, you just pick up an ear. It’s just like having a knack for music—you listen to a lot of music and you find things that register with you. There are certain rhythms to comedy that sunk in, so when I started working comedy, I would be looking for these melodies and these hooks and so on and so forth.
SCM: You’ve mentioned in interviews about watching I Love Lucy and thinking about how Desi Arnaz shaped how the process of comedy worked. What were some of the other early shows that shaped your sense of what comedy is?
Ackerman: The Dick Van Dyke Show was great because of the ensemble sense of its comedy—it combined family and office. And then shows like The Andy Griffith Show, M*A*S*H, and All in the Family were very simple and had a homespun humor to them. It was like comfort food to be at home watching, having a good laugh with these characters, and tracking their stories. It was something that I was immediately attracted to.
SCM: You watched comedy, but did you know anyone who was involved with film or TV when you were growing up?
Ackerman: I did have one friend growing up whose dad worked at Disney and that’s what actually got me interested, because my friend had a little Super 8 camera and we would go and make little end-of-the-world movies.
And once in a while [his father] would drive us out to Disney Studios, to the back lot there, and we would get permission and have this back lot to ourselves. We would use their old western town and do a five-minute shootout scene or something like that. It was really a lot of fun.
SCM: How do you balance your work? There’s the tension between the discipline of needing to work hard but then you’re doing comedy—you need energy and looseness.
Ackerman: It’s kind of a marriage of both. You know, there is discipline in the sense that you have very little time to do a lot—there’s a lot of watching the clock and preparation. Preparation is key, so when it comes time to rehearse and start shooting, all the eggs are in one basket. But at the same time you want to keep a loose energy and spontaneous quality. Somehow you have to find the marriage between the two, which is part of the fun of doing comedy—we’re there to make ourselves laugh and hopefully that will translate to the audience laughing.
SCM: You’ve talked about Cheers teaching you a lesson that you weren’t going to be able to control how things were going during the week. Are there other lessons that you would tell the young Andy Ackerman?
Ackerman: I would have gotten more involved with acting classes—learning how an actor thinks and their process. That was the biggest challenge for me coming out of editing. Editing is solitary—you’re in a room by yourself and you’re doing all the work, making all the decisions on your own until the director steps in and does his cut with you. After that it goes to the producers, the studio network, and so on, but it’s basically a very solo effort.
And then, as a director with Cheers, I knew from being an editor how I wanted things to look and what I wanted to end up with in the editing room, but I’d never said a word to an actor ever in my life. So, you know, how do I give Ted Danson a note without him looking at me like I’ve got six eyes in my head?
Fortunately I had a great relationship with the actors from my editing days and they cut me a lot of slack. They made fun of me when I gave them a dumb note. If I happened to give them a good note, they would pat me on the back and say, “Good job.”
Once I got away from the safety net of my Cheers family and went out to direct other things, it was a struggle—I found myself intimidated about how to talk with actors. It was a real learning process and I’m still learning because of all the different personalities involved and all the different styles and methods in the way the actors like to work.
SCM: I would think the sense of pacing and expectations has changed over your career. How different is it to do a sitcom now since your days editing Welcome Back, Kotter?
Ackerman: When I started, sitcoms were more like doing theater—they were slower, there was more dialogue, and things were allowed to breathe and take time, plot-wise, to play out. Over time, they evolved into more single-camera movements. It seemed like the audience’s attention span was getting shorter and shorter. We had to find a way to get them to stay and watch what we were giving them.
So part of that was making the camera more dynamic. Shows started to go from multi-camera, which is more of a theater presentation, to single-camera, where there’s no audience involved and four walls are represented—there’s no proscenium situation like with multi-cam. So you can be more intimate and more active and the writing is a little snappier.
And then, as things like YouTube came about, material was in smaller doses, so people were looking for five-minute versions of something, as opposed to the 20-, 22-, 24-minute versions.
So the writing—it started out as a novel and now everything is down to the short story. I don’t know if it’s attention span shortage or because there’s so much out there and viewing habits are different, but we’re no longer sitting in a room watching TV. People want a quick laugh on their iPhone so there’s all these different styles coming into play. I’m still making an effort, because I think there’s an audience out there, to bring back some of the older, traditional styles of situation comedies. And because I know my kids—when they’re at home and they have some free time, they watch reruns, shows from the 60s and 70s.
So there’s still a desire for those shows. And those are the shows that I like to do. I like the theater style and the storytelling. I love hearing the audience, having their participation. The laughter you hear, on my shows anyway, are audiences watching the show.
SCM: You talk about this short attention span and trying to do things bite-size, yet with the rise of Netflix and binge-watching, there is a recognition you can work with a much longer story arc.
Ackerman: That’s really fascinating to me because there was a time when we had “Must See TV” on NBC and America couldn’t wait till Thursday night to sit down and watch all of these shows that they loved and enjoyed. That doesn’t exist anymore. But what does exist, that’s related, is binge-watching. People wait all year long for those 10 episodes to show up and then they’ll watch the 10 episodes and love it. And then they sit and wait for a year to get the next 10 episodes. That’s the modern version, I suppose, of appointment television, with the twist of getting everything at once.
SCM: How much of funny is smart and how much of it is physical?
Ackerman: That’s an interesting question. It’s both—funny works with both. In the case of someone like Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, he was doing both. He would give a line a great reading, a smart line, and then he would top it off with a great physical move. He was one of those rare actors who could do both with pizzazz.
From a writer’s point of view, they’re telling a story and they want to find the most interesting and funny way of going about it, the freshest possible way. That’s where I guess the smart comes in—where you’re trying to find a different way of telling a story that we’ve all seen a thousand times.
But physical is always funny. I mean, you put the physical element in and, when you have the right actors who can pull it off, it’s just guaranteed laughs.