Thursday, January 04, 2007

Andy Kaufman Explained

A while back I wrote a post highlighting a rambling Andy Kaufman monologue from an episode of Taxi, and arguing that Kaufman hadn't rehearsed. The commenters, along with more viewings of some of Kaufman's own routines, convinced me I was wrong: that's just the way Kaufman liked to deliver his lines. But I was still wondering why Kaufman was doing his own thing in that particular episode, whereas in most of the episodes he delivered his lines in a more disciplined way. Well, I've figured it out; I incorrectly assumed that the episode was directed by the show's regular director, James Burrows, but it turns out Burrows was away that week and the episode was the work of one of Paramount's contract directors, Jeff Chambers. Apparently Burrows leaned on Kaufman to tone down his Foreign Man schtick and say the lines without all the halting and hesitating, while a guest director let him do what he wanted (or at least couldn't stop him, whereas Burrows could). Another minor TV-geek mystery solved, and one of the few cases where the identity of the director makes a tangible, clearly-visible difference in the tone of a sitcom.


Jorge Garrido said...

Hmm... I never thought sitcomm directors had that much control over creative decisions, like a movie director.

I saw an episode of Seinfeld directed by Jason Alexander. Intrigued, I looked up Seinfeld directors. There were three. Alexander directed one episode and two other guys did the rest. Unimpressive.

Then I reliazed I hadn't noticed any discernable difference in the show's tone.

Did the role of sitcom directors ever change? Or was it the same in the 90s as when Taxi was on the air

Tor Y. Harbin said...

Or perhaps the tone of "Seinfeld" wasn't meant to change. Unsurprising that a show about nothing would have a consistent tone.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Jorge, directors of TV sitcoms don't usually put much of an individual stamp on the shows, but they do make a difference at the margins. That Taxi episode isn't particularly different from any other episode; it's just that some of the actors are doing things that they wouldn't have done if the regular director were there. So James Burrows stopped Andy Kaufman from doing some of his schtick (and when Burrows told Kaufman to do something, Kaufman would listen), whereas the guest director either let Kaufman have a little more freedom or couldn't control him the way the regular director could.

With Seinfeld, obviously a change in directors didn't impact the show like, say, the departure of Larry David. But it did make some difference at the margins; the first director, Tom Cherones, was more okay with Jerry's tendency to crack up and smile during other people's speeches, whereas his replacement tried to get Jerry to keep a straight face. Little things.