“This is why I sat in front of the TV all of those years; I had been preparing for this. This is what I was meant to do.”
Kevin Bright, producer and director of the hit television series Friends; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, September 27, 2017.
On growing up with a father in show business and ants in your pants
As a child I was extremely hyperactive. I was far more interested in eliciting laughs from my classmates than what was being presented on the blackboard. And through that I found my way into a very deep relationship with the principal of our grade school that lasted many years. Phrases like “ADHD” were not used at the time. I believe the technical term used to describe my condition is I had “ants in my pants.”
My mother’s parents were from Hungary and Russia, and my father’s parents were Russian Jews. My mom was a housewife much of her life. There were three of us, so it was a busy house, and God knows we needed supervision. We lived in Stuyvesant Town, which is right in the middle of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Dad was always a funny guy. Everything had to be sort of orchestrated around some kind of a bit. He couldn’t give you your allowance. He would take a dollar bill, slap it on his forehead, and it would stick there. And so that’s how he would give out allowance. He had a stand-up comedy routine, but it got to a point that he wasn’t making enough as a performer to support his family. So he went into the administrative aspect of show business. I have vivid memories of going to Radio City Music Hall, especially during the time my dad was with AGVA [American Guild of Variety Artists] because that union represented the Rockettes. I used to think it was really special that we could go through the side entrance, and we didn’t have to have a ticket. I decided to make a film about him in 2007, Who Ordered Tax?, and it won an audience choice award at the Nantucket and Boston Film Festivals.
There is a tremendous wealth and legacy of Jewish people who have been prominent in comedy over the years. You could go back to the very beginning in vaudeville and talk about Fanny Brice, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, all of these great performers who were the sons and daughters of immigrants. During the hard times, the family would get together, and they could always make each other laugh. I feel a part of that legacy of all these incredible performers and writers and directors that came before me and kind of a kinsmanship with them.
When I was young, I was addicted to television
I loved Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy. I loved classic Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons. I loved Popeye, and I have probably seen the original King Kong more than 500 times in my life.
The second semester of my freshman year at Emerson [College], I took an Intro to Film course as an elective, and it hit me pretty hard. This is why I sat in front of the TV all of those years; I had been preparing for this. This is what I was meant to do. And I liked television at the time more than I liked film because television had tons of variety shows on, which was basically vaudeville, where my dad started. [The] Carol Burnett [Show], [The] Flip Wilson [Show], The Smothers Brothers [Comedy Hour], Donny & Marie, and The Sonny & Cher [Comedy Hour]. Those are the shows we watched in my house. So I had my mind set. I was going to work in television, and I was going to work in variety television.
Once I had discovered my calling I needed a place where I could grow and hopefully with others to guide me. It was at Emerson College in Boston where I met my teacher and mentor Dan Lounsberry. Dan was a producer in television creating such iconic American shows as The Lucky Strike Hit Parade and The Bell Telephone Hour. I remember in class that Dan took us through the process from treatment to finished product with one of his shows, The Many Faces of Romeo and Juliet. It showed me that good entertainment was timeless and it was all about finding a way to make a connection with the audience. After I graduated and turned professional, having Dan as my teacher and friend was a huge asset. He got my career started.
I was hired by Joe Cates for a three-month job to work on The Johnny Cash Christmas Special and Miss Teenage America. Three months eventually turned into six years, and that was where my career got launched. I only did variety shows during that whole time — nothing to do with sitcoms. Variety takes a very specific style of personality. You have to be good at comedy. You have to be good at singing. You should be a little bit good at dancing, too. You need to be a very diverse performer, so you can have different kinds of guests and create different kinds of palettes.
But, basically, variety died. I guess the last knock at death’s door was Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters [Show]. America had moved on and sitcoms took over. So I made a decision to move to L.A. I got hired to manage a first-run syndication sitcom. I also did two or three shows over at Dick Clark Productions. I worked for Chris Bearde, who was a former producer of Laugh-In, and then Allen Rucker, who is a friend of mine to this day, and Martin Mull created The History of White People in America. Allen and I were represented by the same lawyer, and he put us together. The History of White People in America was a satire, sort of pushing the envelope to bring white middle America out of its living room and into the world. By doing The History of White People, I set the template for a single-camera style of production.
On Friends: “It’s about that time in your life when everything is new, where you’re getting a job for the first time, you’re living alone for the first time, you’re falling in love for the first time.”
Two theater writers from New York by the name of Marta Kauffman and David Crane wrote the script for Dream On, and the three of us started working together. I remember the day we were sitting in my office, and we had a particularly satisfying week on Dream On, and Marta said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just keep doing shows like this together?” And we decided we should and could, so Dream On was not done yet, and the three of us formed a production company together, and we made a deal with Warner Bros. We were going to be the golden children from cable. We were going to bring hipness to primetime. They said “Make us something like Dream On! Come on, do your Dream On thing!”
Marta, David, and I were three ex-New Yorkers who had spent the important transition time of our lives after college in Manhattan, and, at that point, your friends become your family. So that was really the simple pitch of Friends. The one-liner was, “It’s about that time in your life when everything is new, where you’re getting a job for the first time, you’re living alone for the first time, you’re falling in love for the first time.” It’s simple, but it’s relatable and universal.
My favorite part of working on Friends was editing, and I loved adding the music. Friends was the first sitcom on television that used real music. We used the recorded masters of the original songs. Up until that point, sitcoms would use a sound-alike. Believe it or not, it would be cheaper to go into the recording studio and record a sound-alike than to use the original song, but Warner Bros. had a music division, and so why shouldn’t we have synergy and cross-promote each other? So I met with Howie Klein, who was the president of Reprise Records, one division of Warner Bros. Records. We were able to make a deal for a soundtrack record with a lot of excellent contemporary artists, and we were allowed to use it on the show in any way we wanted.
We filmed in front of the largest live audience of any sitcom at that time. We had 300 people in every show. It was the way we kept the fans happy, and, also, it was the sound of the audience that we wanted. The more laughs you got and the more you stay away from that laugh machine, you make it sound authentic.
We always used to say, “The greatest reward that we could ever have is to be the I Love Lucy of our generation.” But, you know, that’s kind of a lofty dream while you’re still making the show. And at the time, there was no internet, and there was no Netflix, and there was no Hulu, and so we imagined that Friends would go into syndication and kind of take that normal route. Well, this second life and third life of the show has just been incredible, and Netflix is definitely responsible for it. It really has found another audience, and in two years , it’s going to be the 25th anniversary.
Show business is difficult, but Marta and David and I were able to stay together for 15 years and make 10 years of Friends. That is far longer than most marriages last in this town. We always had each other to lean on. And we had different skill sets and different points of view to bring to the table, but we always had a rule that passion wins, so it can never be two against one. That collaboration of working with two such talented people for a long period of time was my favorite thing about Friends.
On life after Friends
I was doing Joey for two years, but the whole vibe had changed. I don’t think we were all on the same page on that one, and what should have been another Frasier unfortunately failed. So after the experience of going from Friends to Joey, I needed to take a break. Jackie Liebergott, who was then president of Emerson College, said to me “Why don’t you come to Boston for a semester and teach?” And one semester turned into six years because it recharged me, and it transcended Friends in the sense that I wasn’t just doing another television show, I was actually helping young people find their own voice, find their own Friends, find what they wanted to do in television. And I could teach them something that academics couldn’t, which was the professional way of doing things, the expectations, the pressures, all of those things that go into making a television show. My class was like a real-life experience, and we made a pilot every semester. While I was in Boston, I also got involved with the Perkins School for the Blind, and I created a filmmaking class for their students that was very successful and ran for three semesters.
My wife and I produced a film about one of my Perkins students, Michelle. It’s a feature film called Best and Most Beautiful Things and is about the first five years of Michelle’s life after she leaves the oasis that is the Perkins School for the Blind. Michelle’s struggles of finding out who she is as a young woman and what her place is in the real world are really identifiable. It is a movie that speaks to everybody and says, “It’s okay to be yourself.” Michelle said, “If a blind girl can do it, anybody can!” That got me really excited about making documentaries again, and so now I’m shooting another documentary that I’m about to go back to South Korea to finish.
On Dolly Parton and Charlie McCarthy
So Dolly was one of the hosts of a show I did called 50 Years of Country Music. She was also one of the performers for President Jimmy Carter at a show I did at Ford’s Theatre. I remember her being the most real person. She never threw a star fit of any kind. She was not pretentious in any way, and I remember walking out during the show to the back alley behind Ford’s Theatre, and there’s Dolly drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with the crew. I like her story of coming up from poverty to become a country music queen.
I have an original Charlie McCarthy retail dummy. I think McCarthy set the tone for a lot of acts that followed, including Wayland Flowers and Madame, Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, and Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody. They all owe a debt to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.