When Bruce Helford decided to take the wheel of the FX sitcom Anger Management, his biggest challenge wasn’t working with Charlie Sheen, who had just gotten fired from Two and a Half Men during his early-2011 "Winning!" meltdown. No, the biggest hurdle facing the veteran comedy producer was that, if the show was any kind of success, he’d have to make a whole lot of episodes in a short period of time.
Make that 100 episodes. In two years.
"I came off three years of kind of quasi-retirement where I was just hanging out with my kids, getting them ready for college and all that," said Helford, who has helmed hit sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show and George Lopez, about where he was in his career when Lionsgate, the studio that produces "Anger Management," and Debmar-Mercury, the company that sold the show to FX, came calling. Because of his experience producing sitcoms, he didn’t feel like he’d be intimidated by the challenge. "Where a lot of guys probably would have been really daunted and I think a lot of guys probably turned down the project because it seemed too hard to do, I was thinking, 'How do I do this? How do I make this viable? How do I do this without killing everybody?'"
The deal was pretty straightforward: If the first 10 episodes of Anger Management reached predetermined ratings levels, FX would pick up another 90 episodes automatically, with the episodes needing to be produced in the span of two years so it could go straight into broadcast syndication. And, oh by the way, the budget for each episode would be half of what Helford was used to on the broadcast network level.
Most broadcast network shows are well into their fifth seasons before reaching that "magic" 100-episode number that makes it attractive for syndication; cable shows take even longer. In an industry where even cable networks make season-to-season judgments on whether to renew their shows or not, the arrangement was unusual.
Debmar-Mercury had been negotiating these sort of deals with cable networks over the last few years, with some shows getting the 100-episode order (Tyler Perry’s TBS comedies, Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet?) and others dying after 10 episodes (Comedy Central’s Big Lake).
But because of Sheen’s star power (and despite the tiger blood phase, or maybe because of it), it would have almost been an upset if the first ten episodes didn’t reach the audience levels FX set in order for the rest of the deal to kick in. This was something that Helford thought about from day one, and he structured how the show operates to mimic how it would be when the 90-episode back end would start.
Unlike the Perry and Ice Cube shows, a new episode of Anger Management would be aired almost every Thursday night for those two years, meaning that "we have the production machine literally eating us up week after week. So, we have an even more difficult road to hoe," said Helford. "I talked to the gang. I talked to Tyler Perry’s people and when I watched those shows I felt they were rushed. Tyler’s a really talented guy and he’s capable of really great work. I felt the TV shows were being turned out probably too quickly and I had to figure out a way to avoid the crunch and lose the quality. There’s no value to turning out 100 episodes if they’re not good enough for syndication."
Instead of setting up a shooting schedule where three episodes a week were shot, which is what the other shows had done, Helford set up a structure where two shows were shot per week for six weeks, and then the actors would take six weeks off in order for the writers to create more scripts. The two-per-week schedule gave the writers more time to make adjustments than the three-per-week model did, but less time than the traditional one-per-week network schedule would, which was just fine with Helford.
"I totally believe that the old model of taking a week to do a show like the networks still do is absolutely a waste of time and I always felt that," he said. "I always felt it was overkill. We overthought things, the actors were over-rehearsed for the episode and everything else. We just made the work fill the time, even though we felt crazy busy, it was just one of those things where it was an excess of time to produce it. That I’ve always felt. I had a belief that doing it faster would actually make things better because you have more spontaneity, which proved true."
In most multi-camera sitcoms, after a beginning-of-the-week read-through of that week’s script by the cast (the "table read"), the script would go through revisions before going to rehearsal, and changes could be made even right up until the episode is shot at the end of that week. This was one of the areas Helford felt could be compressed. "The truth is, once I hear it at the table I can make virtually all the changes I need," he said. "I know where the problems are immediately. What we do here is we read at the table like the day before [an episode is shot]. That night, we go and make all the changes and then we’re ready to shoot."
Even though Anger Management is a multi-camera sitcom, shot more like a televised play than like a movie (which is how single-camera sitcoms are shot), there is no studio audience like there is in most multi-cam shows. Because of this, a typical episode can be shot in two days instead of the one long day most studio-audience sitcoms take to shoot (the laughs are generated by a live audience that views the edited episode). Most weeks, an episode is shot on a Monday and Tuesday, and the next one is shot on Thursday and Friday.
"What we do now is literally we read at the table, we make adjustments that night, the next day or Monday or whatever, we have the director put a scene on its feet. We watch it again, we make changes, the actors go off and get into makeup, we all come back together when the cameras are ready and we shoot it and we throw that scene away. We’re done, we go to the next scene."
According to Helford, that keeps the actors fresh and keeps the scenes more spontaneous, despite the fact that they do more takes than the average multi-cam sitcom. The extra takes are because the actors are finding the scene and where their characters are in it while filming, instead of endlessly memorizing and rehearsing. That’s helped the actors hone their characters much more quickly than in Helford’s previous experiences. "Normally, in a sitcom by the time I get to about show 18 my actors have figured out the character and now I’m following their lead on how they’re playing it. [Here, by] show three my actors had it because they were forced to."
Of course, it helps when your cast contains veteran actors like Sheen, his father Martin, Barry Corbin, Brett Butler, Shawnee Smith, and Selma Blair. "Charlie is amazing," said Helford. "He’s got a facility for learning lines like I’ve never seen."
Meanwhile, there are two groups of writers getting the stories in shape--"breaking" them by figuring out the scenes in each story, and how the scenes fit into each episode’s three acts--and tightening up scripts. According to Helford, when the actors are back to shoot their 12 episodes in that six-week block, "we try and have eight scripts completely ready to shoot. Then during the shooting of the last six, then we are writing four more. We’re writing four during the course of the shooting is what I guess I’m saying."
During the shooting, one group of writers is situated on the soundstage making adjustments while the other group is back in the writers’ room working on future scripts. "We’re there to make changes for the actors and to laugh and to watch over what’s being shot and all that while the other room is still working. So, we’ve got constant work going on with some of the writing staff. Then I get involved in the rewrites of everything that I’m not in that room for." He rotates which writers go down to see the show being shot in order to keep morale up during the show’s grueling schedule.
All of this takes organization, and Helford cites his line producer, Kent Zbornak, for helping him keep the trains running on time. He also cites a lesson he learned while shooting the first ten episodes, involving a big-name actor that they were hoping to get for an episode, but couldn’t. "We said we’ll just write the episode at kind of the last minute if we have to because it was such a great get and a great story. He ended up not doing the show. So then, we had to break a new story and write that and we literally had to write it in two days." The lesson? "If you’re going to build an episode you don’t really want to build it around an outside star. It’s not as important, honestly. The Debmar-Mercury model is aimed more towards syndication and syndication doesn’t care whether you have stunt [casting] or not."
As for the challenge of working with the mercurial Charlie Sheen? Even the folks at his previous show testified that, before he had his 2011 meltdown, he was about as professional as anyone they worked with. Helford appreciates what Sheen brings "because everybody always looks at him like, 'You’ve got to deal with him.' It’s like no, no, no. He’s one of the guys who makes it very possible. He has tons of input about how we shoot, what we’re doing and all of that. Charlie is one of the unsung heroes."
[Images: Frank Ockenfels/Michael Becker/Byron Cohen/Prashant Gupta/Jordin Althaus/FX Network]