Friday, March 18, 2011

Things I Learned At PaleyFest 2011...

There are few better times of year for television heads like me than the Paley Center for Media's PaleyFest week of celebration! I was living in Los Angeles for about five years before I started attending, which is really just too damn long, though I spent a good amount of my childhood in their New York branch, when it was still known as the Museum of Television and Radio. I used to go into their library and watch old episodes of I Love Lucy or the special panel discussions that I had been unable to attend (Days of our Lives). Sometimes I'd just wander around the gift shop and dream of the days I might have a show in their archives.

This year I only attended a few of their such panels, ones I was covering for Examiner, but though my time there was short, it was mighty! You can learn a lot from attending a Paley Center for Media panel, be it about your favorite show or favorite television actor, but also from time to time about how the industry works and about creativity in general. And if you are an artist yourself-- even if you don't work in this medium-- you will walk away inspired to go out and continue creating your own work.

Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have the best Hollywood relationship that you never hear about. Though she play his b*itch of an ex-wife on Parks and Recreation, Offerman admitted to still being as in awe of her today as he was when they first met. He said he was such a fan of her comedy, and called her one of few queens of that industry, that he would always say "When I grow up, I want to work with my wife." And when he actually gets to, whether it's them screaming at each other or making out just as violently, he can't believe how lucky he is to live and work with such a talent.

Stalking pays off! When asked who some of her comedy idols were growing up, Aubrey Plaza pointed right to her co-star Amy Poehler. She was in high school when Poehler was on SNL and used to watch and learn from the master through her television set. She went on to take part in UCB shows and classes, just as Poehler had done years before, and she even got an internship at SNL-- in the art department, but still close enough to feed off the strong energy. Plaza joked that Poehler never talked to her once at SNL but clearly the proximity helped nonetheless. She was inching her way closer, and now she gets to act opposite her!

Scheduling conflicts are often responsible for launching new actors' careers or introducing new audiences to long-tern talents. Back in the day, so to speak, Timm Sharp was offered a role in All the Real Girls, a role that he turned down because he wanted to do Undeclared instead. Danny McBride ended up getting it and look at how far he's gone since then! But also the Supernatural producers wanted to bring Loretta Devine back and had written a very specific scene in "Devil's Trap" where the Winchester boys went to get her advice and help. She was booked on a film set and couldn't break away, though, so Eric Kripke started to think it would be great to see the male counterpoint: a grizzly friend of John's from way back when. And thus Bobby Singer was born.

James Franco may be the coolest teacher ever-- but also the scariest. On the set of Freaks & Geeks, Franco was known for a number of things. First and foremost was sitting on set with his head down, immersed in reading really big, really dense books such as Proust. And he would often make the other cast members read them, too. But he also taught them other, slightly cooler things, like how to open beer bottles and how to beef up. Even back then he was a very method actor, and he was very serious about his craft. He created a whole elaborate back story for his character of Danny, including that he had been physically abused in his childhood and therefore didn't want to have any physical contact with even his girlfriend today. That let to a really tense and horrible adlib at the time that makes for a great story now: in a scene with Busy Philipps that had her grabbing his arm, he reacted by smacking her hard across the face and yelling "Don't you ever f*cking touch me!" Judd Apatow still has the footage.

Not all of Young Hollywood has to be doomed! Lucas Neff was quite literally plucked from obscurity by Greg Garcia to star in his newest TV sitcom last year. He sent in an audition tape from Chicago, where he was working odd jobs (in fact, he had just cleaned his first toilet about a week before), and everyone from Garcia himself to his wife who walked by while he was watching and said "I like him" (which he said never happens, to the network loved the fresh-faced kid. They flew him out to L.A., and he was so unjaded by the whole thing he sat in the FOX waiting room and took pictures of himself with the various network stars' posters lining the walls. That kind of wide-eyed optimism was how Garcia knew he had something special for the role, and now that it has been a year of starring in his own show opposite some true legendary thespians, Neff is still just as humble as ever. He joked that he didn't even know where the Ivy restaurant was, in regards to wanting to be famous instead of simply a working actor. "You see how fame destroys people these days, and I'm not eager to go down that road!" Neff clearly has a good head on his shoulders but also still feels the rush of excitement whether he's heading to set or out to an interview, which keeps his love of the craft his true focus.

Comedy is best when it's a collaboration. Some writers (myself included) are very solitary, introspective people. They may be quiet and reserved-- not quite shy but at least private-- as a person, protecting their creations. Community's Dan Harmon shared that he was this way, going so far as to just have a whole "Howard Hughes thing" going during season one, when he'd lock himself in his house and crank out scripts. But it was only when he opened up and allowed others in, no longer fearing lack of control or whatever that his characters really came into their own and felt more real. They began to take on new traits and develop different sides to their personalities than perhaps he had imagined. This was in part because of his other writers lending their perspective but also the actors themselves adding bits of their own creativity in and adlibbing classic lines like Jim Rash's "Those aren't thumbs" or Donald Glover's "Set your phasers to love." Raising Hope's Greg Garcia said that his characters are as much his actors' as they are his for the same reason. They grew and evolved and embraced weirdnesses beyond his wildest imagination. "I like to be surprised, too, so I don't think too far ahead," he joked about plot points and story arcs. But in reality, sometimes you can't plan too far ahead or you limit the level of authenticity and miss out on some truly unique gems others may bring to the table to enhance your initial ideas.

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