Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "Desperate Housewives" consulting producer Jeff Greenstein.
Jeff Greenstein's resume reads like a cultural lexicon for modern TV comedy: "Friends." "Will & Grace." "Desperate Housewives." It's a fact, along with his six Emmy nominations (including a 2000 win for "Will & Grace" as "Outstanding Comedy Series"), that he attributes to his work mantra: "Are the people nice? Am I gonna learn stuff? Is the work going to be good? Am I going to get home in time to see my wife and son?" That, and a little luck, helped paved the road to his current gig as a consulting producer on "Housewives," where he helped creator Marc Cherry map out the show's current resurgence. I recently had the chance to sit down with Jeff at his Touchstone Television office, where we talked about his career, the demise of ESPN's "NFL Primetime" and his love of the sitcom format.
Brian Ford Sullivan: How did you get involved with "Desperate Housewives?"
Jeff Greenstein: Well, I know Marc Cherry from way back, when we both had writing partners and were both doing half-hour comedies for FOX. Jeff Strauss and I had a show called "Partners," and Marc and Jamie Wooten had a show called "The Crew," and we all went to New York at the same time when our shows got picked up. Then Marc and I reconnected a couple of years ago at Nicollette Sheridan's birthday party, and we sort of stayed in touch. And then this past spring, after I finished up work on "Jake in Progress," Marc called and asked if I wanted to join the staff of "Desperate Housewives." And it was like, you're a football player and you get the call: "Would you like to play in the Super Bowl?" "Sure!"
I thought it would be a great opportunity to work on a high-profile show with great people, and also grow as a writer. And having just done seven years on "Will & Grace," I was looking to change it up a bit. I felt like I had reached the apex of what you can do in multi-camera half-hours, and so the idea of trying my hand at a one-hour, especially one that can be dark and has a mystery element and serial plotting, I thought that would be challenging and fun. The guiding principle of my career has always been, "Are the people nice? Am I gonna learn stuff? Is the work going to be good? Am I going to get home in time to see my wife and son?" And in this case, the answer to all of those questions has been "yes."
BFS: What do you think the biggest adjustment has been going from multi-camera to drama?
JG: You know, it's interesting. The way Marc runs the show -- and perhaps also because many of the core writers on the show come from half-hours -- it's not wildly dissimilar to a half-hour. Obviously the content is very different, and things that would make you suck in your breath and go "no!" in a half-hour writers' room turn into plot on "Desperate Housewives." Like, "and then it turns out he's a pedophile!" Things that you might tend to shy away from -- material that's darker or dicier or edgier -- we embrace. You run INTO the fire. But the process isn't that different. The show is written collaboratively in a manner not unlike how we did it on "Will & Grace." We break stories as a group. And when we polish a script, there's a big video screen at the front the room, the script scrolls by, we pitch jokes, we pitch fixes. So it's hasn't been a tremendous adjustment.
BFS: So how is the show structured at the start of the season? Does Marc come in and say, "here are the plot points, let's fill in the gaps" or "here's where we're starting, let's make it up as we go along?"
JG: Marc had a couple of ideas about certain key things he wanted to do this year -- the hostage crisis, Mike's memory loss, things like that. And he had some of the central mystery in his head when we started. But the discussions for the first several weeks were very much about the overall arc of the year -- how to finish up last season's cliffhanger, and how to launch the mystery for this season. So we were encouraged to fill in the blanks.
In addition, there was a philosophical discussion about how this year should be different. Something I pushed for a lot, and something that was important to Marc, was that the show move in a more comedic direction. And I guess that's why he went out and got me and two "Frasier" writers to join the staff. [Laughs.] Marc wanted to make sure the show didn't lose that unique mixture of comedy and drama that made "Desperate Housewives" so special when it first hit. So when we break stories for the show, when we write scenes, when we talk about arcs for the characters, we're always looking for spin and perversity.
The other idea Marc brought in, which really paid dividends for us in the first couple of shows, was the notion of flashing forward six months in that first episode. That helped us a lot, because we were able to jump right in the middle of high drama, as opposed to having to ramp up to the wedding, ramp up to Bree and Orson getting together, ramp up to the conclusion of Gabby and Carlos's baby story. We were able to clear out the old business from last year and jump into new business a lot more quickly.
BFS: Do you think it's challenge to service all of the show's characters each week? Do some drive the overall plot more than others?
JG: Well, more than that, the challenge was to make sure the women get opportunities to be in scenes together. One of the things that came up in the early discussions was how to make the Susan/Mike vector intersect with the Bree/Orson vector, so that all those characters are caught up in the mystery. There was also a general feeling that last year, the women were too isolated from one another; they didn't have enough opportunities to interact as friends. You know, the poker scenes, the iced tea scenes. I know a lot of people have talked about how the hostage crisis episode was their favorite one this season, but my favorite was the one the week before, where we had all the girls swilling margaritas on the porch and getting drunk together. I just love that stuff, the women leaning on each other. We've made room for a lot more of that this year.
BFS: So when you first saw the show, before even working on it, what was your impression?
JG: I loved the pilot, all the way back to when it was just a script. I really admired its richness and specificity, the world Marc was able to create. Nicollette is an old friend of mine, and when I heard she'd signed on to play Edie, I called her up and said "good move, this is going to be huge for you." I knew the show was going to work. I didn't know it was going to go straight to number one, but�. [Laughs.] I certainly never thought I'd be writing for it. I thought, "I'm a half-hour guy, half-hours are going to live forever!" [Laughs.] But I was always impressed with the quality of the work on the show -- terrific performances, surprising story turns, great comedy moments, I just admired it from afar, never dreaming I would be part of the machine in season three.
BFS: Do you think going forward - in seasons four, five, six, etc. - the idea of having a central mystery every year involving these women will become more of an obstacle?
JG: I think the challenge is to avoid repeating yourself. We tried this year to make sure that the notes we were sounding did not resemble those in Season One or Season Two. Different characters are caught up in the mystery, there are different kinds of story turns. And then there's the challenge of wrapping each episode around a particular theme. This show has a very high degree of difficulty -- it isn't just about writing compelling stories and well-rounded scenes and good comedy. Every episode has a central theme which informs each plotline, and which is reflected in Mary Alice's voiceover. So far this year, we've had an episode about sabotage, one about getaways, one about fate... It adds an extra challenge to the writing.
BFS: Did you think there was a lot of external and/or internal pressure to make the show different this year as opposed to last year?
JG: I'm new here -- I can't really speak to Season Two except as a fan. I do know that Marc had a very specific set of lessons he learned from Season Two that he wanted to take to Season Three. The thing that's been so gratifying about this year is that not only have the ratings continued to rebound, but there seems to be a general critical perception that the show is stronger, funnier, better, more compelling this year than it's ever been. And that's particularly gratifying, because you kind of feel like your contribution is reflected in the show.
BFS: So do you have time to watch other shows?
JG: I have very idiosyncratic viewing habits.
BFS: Anything specific?
JG: Well, my favorite show isn't on the air anymore -- "NFL Primetime." I don't think there has been enough discussion about how the departure of "NFL Primetime" from ESPN has just crippled my viewing. [Laughs.] It was the best show on the air. Chris Berman, Tom Jackson... the show was funny and well-made and it was my favorite Sunday night viewing... [catching himself] other than "Desperate Housewives." [Laughs.] The new "Primetime" is just not as good, and the tiny little pieces of "Primetime" we see on "SportsCenter" only serve as a sad reminder of what could have been.
I also watch "Amazing Race." That's our family viewing hour -- my wife and son and I all gather around and watch it together. I love "Battlestar Galactica" -- I'm a big, big booster of that show. I love "The Class" -- great show. I read this morning they got a back order, which is wonderful, because if they hang in there, it will find an audience - it's well-cast and well-written and genuinely funny. I think "30 Rock" is criminally underappreciated -- to me, it deserves a lot more props. Their third episode, the one where Alec Baldwin sets Tina Fey up on a blind date with a woman, was probably my favorite half-hour I've seen this year. I hope they get a shot. What else... I watch "Lost" because I'm hooked on it, I can't help myself. Umm...
BFS: "Grey's Anatomy?"
JG: I'm not a regular viewer of "Grey's Anatomy." What else... this is making it sound like I watch a lot of TV. [Laughs.] That may be it. Oh, and I watch "Studio 60"... to make fun of it, although I hate myself for doing so. [Laughs.]
BFS: So how did you get started in all this?
JG: Let's see... I went to Tufts University in Boston. I entered the school as a computer science major, and through a strange series of circumstances ended up with a degree in film and dance. [Laughs.] I moved out here wanting to be a film director -- I thought I was going to make movies. But that didn't happen as quickly as I'd have liked. [Laughs.] So for want of anything better to do while waiting for the world to awaken to my talent, I started writing a screenplay with my college friend Jeff Strauss. We labored on this 125-page behemoth for several months. Meanwhile, my girlfriend at the time was working as a placement counselor for a temp agency, and she got Strauss a job as a secretary at ABC, and at the time they were doing a lot of interesting shows. They were doing "Moonlighting" and "thirtysomething" and "Perfect Strangers" and "Roseanne" and "The Wonder Years," it was a great time for the network. And so we saw these really interesting half-hour scripts go by, and we were like, "Hey, these are shorter!" [Laughs.] So we thought, "well, let's write some TV spec scripts and see if we can get anything going."
So we pulled together some spec material, got an agent, did a few freelance episodes, and then in late '89 we got our first staff job, on HBO's "Dream On." We met with Marta [Kauffman] and David [Crane], who'd recently moved out here from New York, and just clicked with them right away. And I learned everything on that show. I mean, I credit Marta and David for teaching me how to write, because I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I'd never studied writing. I learned everything I know from those two. So I ended up staying on that show for five years.
After that, we had a foray into development which went nowhere, and then one day Marta and David called us about doing punch-up during the pilot week of a half-hour they had written called "Six of One" [the original title for "Friends"]. And we had so much fun working with them again. I remember David saying, "God, if there were only some we could get you guys on this show." And through the dogged persistence of our agent, we managed to get loaned out to "Friends" for the first season -- with the proviso that during that year we write a pilot for Universal, the studio we were under contract to.
So we then proceeded to have the year of years. I mean it was like being strapped the back of a rocket ship, being on "Friends" for that first season. And with no time to go through development, Jeff and I just said, "let's write that show we always talked about writing, the one about us." So that was "Partners," which was unabashedly about our relationship. It was with Jon Cryer and Tate Donovan and Maria Pitillo, and it was about two guys who were best friends and business partners -- in their case, partners in an architectural firm -- and how their relationship changes when one of them gets engaged.
We wrote that pilot for FOX, and miracle of miracles, it got picked up. So we went straight from working on the number one show on television to running our own show. That was just a great year. I loved the show; I loved the work we did -- but unfortunately we were doing the show for the wrong network. FOX didn't know how to sell it. So it got cancelled after one season.
After that, we wrote a couple of ill-starred pilots, including "Getting Personal," which led to Jeff and me splitting up. But then a few months later Jimmy Burrows, whom I'd worked with on "Friends" and "Partners," called me about joining the staff of "Will & Grace." I came aboard during Episode 4, and ended up staying for seven years. I ran the show for Seasons Five and Six, consulted in Season Seven, and then decided I needed a change of pace. So I went over to Touchstone to run the second season of "Jake in Progress." That was a great experience. I wish they'd aired more than one episode, because we made some great ones.
BFS: How many did you end up doing?
JG: I think eight. You know, it was a peculiar situation. One of the reasons "Jake" got picked up was because ABC needed a companion piece for the Heather Graham show. And when that show failed to open, and we did equally mediocre behind it, we were told, "we love the work you're doing, just keep making episodes, we'll find a place for you on the schedule." But then after a couple of months the network just shrugged and said, "we don't know where to put you." It's too bad, because as I said, we made some really strong episodes which are now sitting in a cardboard box somewhere on the Disney lot. [Laughs.]
BFS: Moving forward then, you said you're working on a pilot. Would you ever go back to half-hours now?
JG: Oh, sure. In fact, the pilot I'm writing for CBS is a multi-camera half-hour. You know, a lot of ink has been spilled over what has become of the half-hour sitcom. I remain confident that the form is not dead. I watch "The Class," it makes me laugh, I care, it's a great show. I don't think that audiences have given up on that medium. I do think there were a glut of shows in the late '90s that were too similar to one another. You know, they were all about the neurotic misadventures of urban singles in a New York consisting entirely of white people. So as a result people thought, "well, I've seen that." But I believe that the next show with a strong and unique point of view is going to burst onto the scene the way that "Roseanne" or "Cosby" did.
You know, as much as I like the current crop of quirky, single-camera half-hours -- "The Office" and so forth -- I go back and I watch "Will & Grace" in syndication, and it is just rippingly funny in a way those shows can't dream of being. Like, you know that if you tune in for "Will & Grace," you're going to laugh for 22 solid minutes. I just don't see a show like that show on the air right now. So, like I said, that's what I'm going to take a swing at.
BFS: As far as "Desperate Housewives" goes, if you had 30 seconds to tell somebody why they should watch the show, what would you say?
JG: I would say, "your friends are right, it IS great this year!"
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: TBA