From All in the Family to Modern Family:
Game-Changing TV Comedy Direction

December 3, 2011 A DGA 75th Anniversary Event

Over the past 12 months, the DGA’s rich history and the legendary work of the members was been put on dazzling display. The Guild’s 75th Anniversary celebrations were a showcase of the game-changing work of directors and their teams whose creative vision has changed the way audiences the world over perceive the moving image. This special celebratory year came to rousing close on December 3, with the final 75th Anniversary event From All in the Family to Modern Family: Game-Changing Comedy Direction. The evening featured directors behind some of the best-loved comedy series in television history: James Burrows (Cheers), Pamela Fryman (How I Met Your Mother), Todd Holland (The Larry Sanders Show), Jason Winer (Modern Family), and Ken Whittingham (The Office), who engaged in a rollicking conversation moderated by DGA Fifth Vice-President Thomas Schlamme (SportsNight). 

DGA President Taylor Hackford welcomed the capacity crowd to the Guild’s Theatre One in Los Angeles saying, “It’s been a whirlwind year and this Guild has so much to be proud of.”

75th Anniversary Committee chair Michael Apted took a moment to thank everyone who made the year’s festivities a success, particularly the diligent work of the 75th Anniversary Advisory Committee. “We finish off the year with a special treat,” said Apted. “One of the most treasured of all genres, tonight we celebrate television comedy.” 

Schlamme, a major figure himself when it comes to groundbreaking television, called the genre an incredibly underappreciated art form. “From my POV, television comedy is a high-wire act and tonight we have some of the best aerialists in the business.”  

The evening followed a format of three separate clip packages in where each of the panelists selected a piece from their own work, as well as a clip from a show that was a personal game-changer for them. The DGA Theater was alive with laughter being treated to memorable moments from The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Taxi, Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm in the Middle, The Office, How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family. 

In keeping with the Guild’s yearlong showcase of the legendary talent of its members, Schlamme also introduced two special tribute videos from two of the great cornerstones of the medium,  directors John Rich (All in the Family) and Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H). 

Asked about his influences, Burrows — himself a living legend in TV comedy — said “Jay Sandrich was my mentor. Jay stood up and fought for what he believed, just like John Rich stood up for what he believed. That was an inspiration to me. You have to fight. You have to die with your boots on.” 

Jason Winer was heavily influenced by Burrows’ work, citing Taxi’s “Reverend Jim’s Driving Test” episode as “my favorite piece of television as a kid. The staging is exquisite, and Jimmy works in a reverse to make a multi-camera show feel single-camera.”  

Pamela Fryman also credited Burrows with having a large influence on her career. “I benefited from tremendously when I came on to a show like Frasier or Friends and Jimmy said, ‘She’s ok, she knows what she’s doing.’ That was enough for everyone to relax.”  

Taking a cue from Fryman’s selection of a scene from The Cosby Show, Schlamme asked Whittingham if he ever found himself pigeonholed as an African-American director.  

“It is hard to get out of that niche,” Whittingham admitted. “Being an African-American director working only on African-American shows, my agents were very comfortable with me staying in that position. But I didn’t grow up just watching African-American shows, I was very clear about comedy and knew I could direct anything.” His refusal to be stereotyped led to an offer to direct Scrubs, followed by Malcolm in the Middle and The Office. 

In an evening full of comic highs, perhaps one of the most endearing high notes was Todd Holland’s earnest thank you to the director’s teams. “I almost choked on the set of The Larry Sanders Show and my 1st AD literally saved my life. He actually performed the Heimlich. So I’d just like to thank all our director’s teams. I owe you my life!” 

The evening’s discussion ranged from casting, to studio battles, and also featured an in-depth discussion on the directorial approach, visual dynamics and the narrative structure of single-camera shows as opposed to multi-camera shows.  

Winer described his work on the multi-camera show Modern Family as, “dancing with the actors.” Whittingham noted a similar approach for The Office, where the camera serves as the role of documentarian, “we stage it in a way where both cameras can pick up the coverage, but it’s all done at the same time.” 

Schlamme wound down the evening by looking to the future and asking the panelists to share where they felt TV comedy was heading. Burrows was quick to reply. “I’ve been through the death of the sitcom three or four times. It may fade in and fade out, but it will always come back.” 

Pictures & Video

Still photos by Byron Gamarro

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