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THE FINAL STAGE - The Dean of Sitcom Line Producers, Vic Kaplan, Reflects On 40 Years On Set

Posted By Chris Milliken, Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Over the decades, producer and PGA member Vic Kaplan has been on hand for some legendary moments in television. From his early days bringing copy to Peter Jennings’ news desk to producing stand-up specials with Robin Williams and sitcoms with Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres and Louis CK, Kaplan has enjoyed a storied career as a producer, filled with iconic and groundbreaking television and lots and lots of funny shows. From his office at his latest show on the lot at Hollywood Center Studios, he shared some reflections on an expansive career in TV production.

Currently producing Disney’s KC Undercover, Kaplan says he has finally arrived at his last show. Ironically, given the breadth of his career, Undercover is only his second children’s show--in the years leading up to it, he produced just about every other flavor of television.

Kaplan began his career in New York, where after graduating from New York University with a degree in TV production (where his path sometimes crossed with fellow students Martin Scorsese and Michael Wadleigh), he began working at ABC News as a desk assistant to Peter Jennings. He recalls sometimes crawling on the newsroom floor during live broadcasts to bring the anchor his copy. Subsequently, he moved on to various live TV productions in New York—concerts, news, soap operas and sports broadcasts.

He admits that at times he wasn’t sure of his trajectory in the early days, remarking that he “took lots of jobs, lots of opportunities, didn’t know what I was getting myself into ... I just wanted to see what it [was] like.” He jokes that in terms of selecting projects, he caught the instant gratification bug long before it became part of popular culture. He’d jump to new projects from week to week and “didn’t have time to reflect” on a direction. Although his early interest was in sports, opportunities pulled him in other directions, “like a great wave.” Fortunately, he found his work in live events to be a useful calling card; so much material at the time was shot and broadcast live or with minimal editing.

Kaplan fondly recalls the work culture of the era. Working in production “was about the community and being able to mesh with others.” Producers we were consistently helping each other in the 1970s— Kaplan often enjoyed the security of having his next job lined up before his current gig ended. He laughs, “I didn’t think there was going to be unemployment!”

His experience in live TV led to producing comedy, which turned out to be a prelude to a career in the genre. He produced the live sketch show Friday’s, the early competitor to Saturday Night Live, which featured Larry David and Michael Richards as well as great music from the era. The show was a perfect fit thanks to Kaplan’s experience producing live TV. But he admits that a live sketch show came with its fair share of challenges, as the volume of material to learn in a week made for some tense days on set. But as he says, “That’s what live TV is about.”

Eventually he made his way to the West Coast after a visit to Hollywood, where he recalls his jaw dropping at the number of shows in production. After speaking with ABC, he worked out a move to Los Angeles after almost going into live sports broadcasting in New York. But LA’s own abundance of live programming provided a good feeling that he could sustain his career.

Indeed his “major calling card” of live television experience opened doors to producing a range of music, sketch shows, late night TV, and stand-up specials in the 1980s. He produced music specials for HBO with bands like Fleetwood Mac and stand up specials with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis and Dennis Miller. Producing those events, he learned the essential importance of making sure the venue was familiar, comfortable and a place where “you know you’re supported.”

A slew of sitcom pilots also came his way in the 1980s and from those, “the first show to really blossom” was the innovative, genre-busting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Kaplan calls it one of the most enjoyable series to work on, recalling that “Garry made me laugh every day.” He also praises the unique nature of the show and Shandling’s artistic vision which he says “was remarkable.” His collaboration with Shandling wasn’t limited to the sitcom; Kaplan returned to produce The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special, a program modeled after The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson specials. On that show, the character Larry Sanders was born.

More TV comedies followed, with sitcoms in the 1990s like ROC, Get Smart and Ellen. Brought on to the second season of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom as an executive producer, Kaplan recalls it as a show which had “great expectations.” In the third season, those expectations were fulfilled when he produced the show’s historic coming-out episode, “The Puppy Episode.” “There was a lot of trepidation around what [the episode] was going to be,” both at the network and throughout the industry, and  of course, “there was a lot of emotion” on and around the set. But he remains proud of his role in holding the show together during the experience and of the Peabody Award honoring the episode. The producer keeps a framed picture of Ellen and the show’s writers in his office, with the text of the episode’s script on the frame. In an office that’s sparsely decorated, it stands out.

After Ellen, Kaplan continued shooting pilots and sitcoms until landing at Louis CK’s HBO’s multi-camera venture, Lucky Louie in 2006. Kaplan admits he expected to retire after what he anticipated would be something as unique and funny as that series, which he calls “one of the funniest shows ever done.” It looked to be a fitting end to his skills and experience after decades of comedy and live TV. Lucky Louie was, he says, “hardcore multi-camera” filmed in front of a live audience, “with sets that were raw like The Honeymooners.” Unfortunately, Louis CK was a few years away from making his stripped-down conception of the sitcom stick, and Lucky Louie didn’t make it to a second season.

Kaplan admits to coming out of semi-retirement to work on his previous show and KC Undercover. Today he’s producing the final season of the latter series, having a good time working with a collection of writers he’s known since the ‘90s.

Vic Kaplan (center) meets with members of his day-one team,
painter Rick Webb and medic Andrew Spackman, at Hollywood
Center Studios.

Reflecting on his work, Kaplan readily offers some insights into what’s made him effective at the job. He calls it a matter of gathering the right personnel, which in turn provides a good deal trust. “The team that you bring in as a producer,” he says, “the entire crew, people who are fabulous at what they do … [they] help bring your confidence.” A great crew “brings the best to the table and they’re there to collaborate.”

Kaplan is frank but optimistic—a frequent combination among producers—about the challenges that come with producing any project. “Looking back, you go through periods of time where you don’t think you’re going to make it. You think that a project is not working out, and all of a sudden there are these positive forces that all come together and make a success out of an experience that you didn’t think was going to work out.”

Kaplan has seen a multitude of changes in television over so many years. What has changed the most? Beyond the obvious evolution of technology and style, he recalls the benefits that come with a smaller, more intimate producing community, with its culture of forwarding jobs to colleagues when they needed the work. But there are changes that Kaplan readily welcomes, like the fact that a whole TV series can be available at one time; he loves binge watching. Similarly, he is excited about the incredible variety of contemporary content produced over so many platforms and agrees to the notion that we are in a golden age of TV.

Across the ever-changing aspects of production, technology and style, Kaplan views a few things as constant features of successful producing. From multi-camera sitcoms to live specials to projects for the internet, Kaplan calls “enthusiasm and hope” the essential ingredients in producing nearly anything. And of course, another constant is passion for a project—the fact that “You love doing it,” he summarizes and “You hope that it’ll be the next big thing.” As a producer, working with a writer who has created something unique and special, it’s “doubly exciting” when the show does become a hit.

For those navigating their early steps in Hollywood, Kaplan offers a seasoned perspective. “It’s hard to be judgmental when starting out,” he observes. “Opportunities will present themselves in different ways.” As much as anything, he suggests, a career is about being open to fate. “In the end, it’s impossible to know where you’ll end up. It’s about meshing with the universe and seeing how your personality meshes with others,” as well as understanding how you affect your collaborators. And of course, practical knowledge is essential. Arm yourself with a grasp of the basics of producing different types of shows—for instance, what they typically require as far as locations, hours, and personnel.

But there’s no mistaking the centrality that people—the relationships and trust—hold in Kaplan’s account of his own career. “The people that I met carried me through it.” Recounting his trajectory, even Kaplan seems surprised at the volume of unexpected memories of projects and people that continued to pour out--specials, writers, colleagues, moments with colleagues. “There’s a great connective tissue that’s there,” he smiles, “You can’t see it. But it’s there. It’s a pot of stuff that ended up a career.”

This final stage of his career has also brought other unexpected gifts that come with decades of working in the industry. He loves seeing familiar names on credits, like production assistants he hired on Ellen now producing shows themselves, calling it “one of the finest moments, feelings that I have…It pays the job back.”

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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