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Anything Is Possible! Jonathan Stern Creates The Space For The Ridiculous To Become Reality

Posted By Spike Friedman, Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Jonathan Stern, Abominable Pictures president and PGA member, says it during a morning all-staff meeting. And then he says it again. And again. And then eight or nine more times as he talked about projects in states from the purely conceptual to the fully produced. Anything is possible. And after spending a day in their offices, yeah, this notion feels true. It’s possible to produce a dozen pilots in a year and pitch them to outlets ranging from the largest studios to insurgent new media platforms; it’s possible to finance a one-off comedy special housed on a bus; it’s possible to get Bradley Cooper to Los Angeles to shoot a major role in an eight-episode series on his off-days during a Broadway run. Anything is possible.


The problem with anything being possible is that everything can be in flux. "I neither thrive on, nor enjoy the uncertainty,” Stern admits when asked about how he deals with having so much up in the air. "That said, the panic? That drives me.”

Clearly.

Abominable Pictures has been staggeringly prolific of late, with work that’s showing up everywhere. Childrens Hospital is on Adult Swim alongside spin-off NTSF:SD:SUV::. Wet Hot American Summer found a home on Netflix. The Hot Wives series lives on Hulu. A series of officially branded Star Wars parody sketches After Darth will be all over YouTube through a collaboration with Disney affiliate Maker Studios. VR Rockstar is gunning to be a comedy that streams into Oculus headsets. The live comedy special Crash Test went to Vimeo first. Filthy Sexy Teen$ is on Fullscreen’s new streaming platform. Abominable provides the West Coast production services for HBO’s Last Week Tonight, and Paul Feig’s sci-fi comedy Other Space is on Yahoo, where Burning Love debuted before moving to E!.

"I like to think I’m format-agnostic,” Stern muses. "A given idea is not necessarily a movie or a web series or a TV series. It’s more: Let’s develop that idea and then feel what’s the right form for it. Sometimes it’s evident early. Sometimes we don’t know until we’ve shot and edited the piece.” He adds, "It’s a continuum of budgets as much as it is platforms. The difference between projects is often: How much money are you going to be able to make it for? Almost anything can be made at almost any budget.”

That flexibility has turned Abominable into a veritable incubator for some of the most interesting minds working in comedy. Rob Corddry, David Wain and Paul Scheer, among others, all have offices in the space, and Abominable’s production footprint is growing rapidly. "It’s like Jon has a little empire over there,” says Wet Hot American Summer writer Anthony King, "It’s a well-oiled machine. It’s made the process of low-budget production effortless.”


Some semi-related observations made while sitting in the editing room for an episode of Childrens Hospital that might help illuminate why Abominable’s work is so damn funny, but also might not:

• Cutting each episode to 11 minutes means that the overarching goal in a Childrens Hospital editing room is trimming length. This episode, "Horse-pital,” had a first cut clock in at more than 14 minutes, and it’s still past 12 when the session starts. As the team, comprised of show EP’s Corddry, Stern and Wain, editor Dean Pollack and assistant Sam Tinsley, rolls through the footage, the questions typically circle back to what can be lost without sacrificing jokes or clarity. Getting the show down to time meant the show was getting funnier, scene after scene.

• Wain in particular has an intuitive sense for sculpting set pieces. Sometimes this would lead to the closest thing to conflict in the room: Wain can throw out a potential fix in shorthand so abbreviated that everyone else has to catch up to what he means before they can see if it might work. After a healthy dose of banter and mockery from all corners, it usually does.

• During a lull, the conversation turns to politics. As I’m taking notes Corddry turns to me and asks if I’m going to make them all sound like Donald Trump supporters. I make no promises. That said, I can report there was no vocal support for Trump in the room.

• The entire cast of Childrens Hospital is excellent, but my word, watching Lake Bell do a run of throwaway takes is an experience that everyone should get to have once in their life.

• A show as silly as Childrens Hospital may not revere continuity in traditional ways. (This is, after all, a show where characters who die often reappear with scant explanation.) But the cutting process for the show is just as rigorous, if not more so, than longer-form comedy.

"Childrens Hospital has made me so much better in the editing room,” Stern attests, "because you truly cannot take any shot for granted when you’re chasing the clock at 11 minutes.”


Abominable grew out of Stern’s production team for Childrens Hospital, which in early incarnations manifested as something closer to an explicit parody of Grey’s Anatomy. The unintended (or hell, maybe intended) consequence has been a lot of funny women on the premises from day one. Beyond Bell, Erinn Hayes, Megan Mullally, and Malin Akerman all have been regulars for the preponderance of the show’s run. This parity extends behind the scenes where the bulk of the producers employed by Abominable, including line producer Franny Baldwin and partner EP Becca Kinskey, are women.

Despite gender parity on his production staff, Stern and his company still have questions about the issue of gender parity in comedy more generally. "Becca is always asking where are the women directors? Women writers?” says Stern. "So when it comes to the writers room, we really do make an effort to have women in all of our rooms. It’s easy to gravitate towards the people you know, so you have to make the effort to reach out, learn about, and read the samples of people you don’t know. When people only work with the people they know? You get those all-male groups. If you look a little outside your immediate circle, you get more diversity and then they’re part of your immediate circle. It’s not that hard to do, and you find great people to work with.”

The results of that approach are right there in the credits. For Season 6 of Childrens Hospital, one episode was directed by Bell, another was written by Parks and Rec scribe Megan Amram, while Rachel Axler received a pair of "written by” credits before moving on to serve as supervising producer on Wet Hot American Summer. Hot Wives is created and run by Danielle Schneider and Dannah Feinglass Phirman. Scheer cites Stern’s championing of Erica Oyama, the creative force behind Burning Love. "Watching what Jon did with her; saying ‘I believe in you, let’s get money for you,’ people then realized, ‘Holy shit, this person is amazingly talented.’ Now she’s written a handful of movies. She’s in demand.” Abominable is not just a boys club, and the work benefits accordingly.

For Baldwin, Abominable’s strength comes from the relationships between collaborators. "Each of Jon’s relationships is unique,” she tells me, "and they’re all very important to him. He’s able to give his heart and soul to each project, even if he has a producer who is there to take over things he used to have to do. On a project like, say, Outvoted, which was a three-day shoot, he’s still there on the set. He’s still looking at scripts. He’s still looking over every budget. He’s just pretty amazing.”

She echoes this dedication in her work as Stern’s pragmatic other half. "We’re loyal,” Baldwin explains, "we hire the same costume designers, same production designers project after project.” Unprompted, she adds, "I’m not going anywhere. I’ve now been working with him since 2007. I get other offers and I don’t even consider anything. It’s like my family here.”

The office fosters collaboration, giving Stern a chance to brain storm and hash out every aspect of pre- and post-production with his producers.

"This space is a call to action,” Stern believes. "When Scheer and I find ourselves here at the same time, we plop down on the couch and get to the point where we’re talking about the projects that are floating around, the new ideas. That only happens because we have unstructured time together.” He goes on to say, "You can spend a weekend with a group of friends and collaborators and come up with so many great ideas, or things that would be fun to do. But I feel like a big part of my job is to move things from that ‘wouldn’t it be fun’ part of the conversation to ‘let’s do it.’”

Production services at Abominable are handled in house. Work can be done quickly without sacrificing quality. An internal shorthand language is shared between collaborators in every part of the process. It’s understood that every project has the capacity to scale up its creative and comic ambitions. Speaking to these advantages, Corddry states, "My favorite style of comedy is crystalized in Childrens Hospital. With the expansion of what qualifies as television, there’s more room to get away with this sort of absurdity. The question becomes, how much of this can we get away with? How mainstream can this get? How far can we go?”

As Scheer puts it, "You spend a lot of time in Hollywood taking these meetings. It’s basically the ‘water tour’ of LA. You go to an office. They give you water. You talk about your idea. They tell you they’ll talk about it internally. Then most likely, it fades away. When I first met Jon, I pitched him an idea and he sat up in his seat, and he said ‘let’s do this.’ He’s just different. He makes stuff happen more than any producer that I have ever worked with. He never lets anything die. He is a producer who gets people’s ideas executed.”

A brief anecdote that may illuminate why Abominable’s work is so damn funny, but also might not:

Sitting in an After Darth production meeting, prior to my even meeting Wain, he leans in, looks at me and narrates, "Sometimes at Abominable, even David Wain just pops his head into a production meeting.”

He walked away without saying another word.


Despite the volume and diversity of the content he produces, Stern deflects any attempt to pin down his comedic taste. "I don’t know how to describe what I find funny, but I know how to identify in myself what I find funny,” he says. "You get shown, sent and pitched a lot of ‘comedies,’ but I’m not laughing at them. There are lots of shows with the tone, shape and structure of a comedy, but eventually you have to get in touch with your gut and whether you’re actually finding the thing funny.”


Flexibility is, again, the implicit virtue here. Stern keeps a board in his office of all projects that are alive in his company, from mere concepts to in-production. Currently there are 37 items on it. It would be easy for Stern to lay out a comedic rubric for his company’s work. Looking at the success of Childrens Hospital, NTSF, Hot Wives, and Wet Hot American Summer, Stern could say that his comedic taste is absurd, quick hitting joke machines that mine the inversion of tropes and meta-commentary on the entertainment industry. But generalizing in that way would be limiting, inflexible. That wouldn’t leave room for Abominable to provide production services on a show like Last Week Tonight or branch out into using its production resources to support the work of documentary filmmakers, as it aspires to do in the future.

Of the projects on that board, the one about which Stern waxes most rhapsodic is Outvoted, a pilot written by Wet Hot American Summer scribe and former UCB Theatre artistic director Anthony King as part of the Fox incubator program. The show follows a Mitt Romney-type failed presidential candidate as he retreats with his family in the wake of electoral defeat. While this premise could be built into a joke machine, King, Stern and Scheer instead steered the piece towards a character-driven story along the lines of Veep, despite being produced on a new media contract.

"We worked on Outvoted as if it were a $3 million network pilot,” Stern declares. "It’s as legitimate to us; the money doesn’t get to decide how legitimate the project is.” Using a nimble new media contract, with relatively short shooting schedules and loose contractual attachments to secure Harry Hamlin as the lead, the cast was filled out with Abominable irregulars like Rob Riggle, Jerry O’ Connnell, Rich Sommer and Mookie Blaiklock. "One of the cool things about working with Abominable,” King says, "is that the people whom they work with want to keep working with them.”

The type of work that Abominable aims to create going forward is very much on Stern’s mind. "I think that the tone these projects share is not a mean comedy. At its absolute meanest, it’s making fun of media in a ‘meta’ way, but it’s not attractive to me to make fun of people. Outvoted, Last Week Tonight … those start working on a deeper level. Sometimes it can be just fun and sketches, but it can be deeper, about characters and the human condition. I think for a while, I’ve shied away from that, because it’s harder to write and do well. But I’m starting to realize that if you can crack that other nut, that can be very fulfilling.”

Maybe it’s a risk for a production team that has mastered small-screen absurdism to expand its footprint in this way. But having spent some time around Stern and his team, I’m fully convinced that anything is possible.

 

Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

- View all articles from the October/November issue of Produced By magazine



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