Find the Funny

Andy Ackerman ’78 advises taking advantage of SCU’s facilities, in order to further develop your talents.

Find the Funny
Busy man on campus. Andy Ackerman, joins Brian Adams for a conversation in the SCU television studio.

He’s a director. He’s a producer. He’s racked up Emmys through his work on such hit shows as “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Frasier,” and recently, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And, despite the fact that he’s basically a quiet, modest guy, Andy Ackerman ’78 is a loud spokesman when it comes to Santa Clara University.

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, for his education Ackerman followed in the path of his uncles: from Loyola High School in L.A. on to Santa Clara University. His wife, Betsy, is a Santa Clara alumna, too, and Kelan, their oldest daughter—one of four children—is a member of the class of 2007. But Andy Ackerman didn’t originally plan on studying communication at Santa Clara and making a career in television. In fact, at the time, the major didn’t even exist. “I started out as an accounting major,” he says, but he decided to forsake accounting for a degree in general humanities. Why? “I always kid Father Locatelli about this: The moment he taught me accounting, I knew it was a bad idea,” he says. “So he takes all the credit for my career.”

Ackerman got involved in the early stages of the TV program at SCU, becoming somewhat of an assistant to John Privett, S.J., who offered a single TV production course in the Theatre and Dance Department. By 1978, that department had enough students and courses to offer a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts, with an emphasis in television. “I was one of a dozen students who took the very first two or three classes,” Ackerman says. “And it just felt like a second home; I had the keys to the TV studio and I basically just hung out. It was great.” He says that he had so much fun while at Santa Clara being a self-proclaimed “studio rat,” that he decided to pursue something fun after graduating: producing and directing.

Chemistry 101

His first job in TV came after eight months of networking, six hours of sitting outside the office of an associate producer for “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and bluffing and then earning his way into a gig as assistant editor. And one week before his 24th birthday, Ackerman won his first Emmy—for editing on “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

It was with “Cheers” that Ackerman made the transition from editing to directing. And as director, it’s a sense of family that draws him to the work. “I like finding a show that you can nurture,” he says. “Cheers,” “Frasier,” and “Seinfeld” (for which he directed almost 100 episodes) have all been “fantastic ensemble vehicles,” he says. “It’s all about the chemistry.” That, and the writing, especially when it comes to comedy, as well as having actors who can find just the twist that will make a scene click. His mantra: “find the funny.”

This past year Ackerman embarked on a new project starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” for which he is executive producer. As for his other hit, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” when we sat down to talk in May, it wasn’t certain whether the show’s star, Larry David, would be doing another year or not.

For each episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” there is no script, only an outline, and the show blurs the lines between fiction and the reality of David’s life. David, whom Ackerman describes as “one of the funniest men on the planet,” is also the one to thank for bringing him into the “Seinfeld” family. When Ackerman and David—the show’s creator and writer—met back in 1994, “Seinfeld” had been on the air for about four years. But already Ackerman was a rabid fan.

“I kind of jokingly said to Larry, ‘If you ever need help on that little show of yours, let me know,’” Ackerman says. About three weeks later, David called him, set up a meeting with Jerry Seinfeld (over breakfast at a diner, naturally), and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

Though studio production facilities were only in their infancy when Ackerman studied at Santa Clara, he made the most of them while he was here; the reel of material he’d put together as a student helped win him a chance to prove himself on “Kotter.” So when it comes to offering advice to those aspiring to work in television and film, he says, “Really believe in yourself. I can only speak from experience: If you really think you can do something, then it’s going to happen.” Take advantage of the nurturing environment and wonderful facilities Santa Clara boasts, he says. “Develop your talent. Learn by doing. Learn by making mistakes.” Which is what he has continued doing as director and producer. “You’re always learning,” he says, “you’re always making mistakes.”

—Karyne Levy is a writer/editor for the Office of Marketing and Communications.

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