TV Insights, Observations and Obsessions from the NYTVF
Check out our Q&A series with Fest Founder Terence Gray (and others), designed to provide submitting artists and TV fans with insight to the current development landscape. If you're thinking about submitting to the NYTVF, this is for you.
Shrink was an Official Selection in the 2012 NYTVF, where it won Best Comedy and the NYTVF Critics Award. In March of 2017, the first season premiered on Seeso. To celebrate the occasion, the NYTVF sat down with series co-creators Ted Tremper and Tim Baltz to talk about the multi-year journey from indie darling to TV.
Congratulations on Shrink’s premiere on Seeso. For those who haven’t seen it yet, can you give us a quick overview of what the show’s about?
TED: This show follows “Dr.” David Tracey who — after he fails to make a residency match — discovers that if he can administer 1,920 hours of supervised clinical therapy, he’ll become a clinical therapist. He pursues this new career rather immediately due in no small part to the fact that he is $586,000 in debt. He sets out gathering these hours by giving free therapy sessions out of his parents’ garage.
TIM: Ted really nailed it with his answer.
You both started out as improv/sketch performers in Chicago, and improv is a key component of the show. What role do you think improv plays in the overall fabric of the show? What are some key differences between improvising for the stage and improvising for the screen?
TIM: The original web series and pilot were completely improvised, and that yielded so much good material that we knew going into the writing phase of production that we'd want to lean on those techniques again to add value to our scripts. Seeso knew this about the original and was very supportive about us building space for it. Improv was leaned on a lot in the sessions in the garage and between David and Sue, since we wanted to reflect as closely as possible how therapy actually functions in the real world. Outside of those scenes, we used it when we had the time to build on our scripts and get alts. You learn quickly, though, that not every line needs an alt, and not every scene needs improv (if you like your script).
As for the differences between improvising on stage and on camera, the shortest answer is the size of your performance. The stage requires you to be bigger, in order to fill the space, make yourself heard by all audience members, and communicate your choices to all corners of the theater. The camera allows you the choice to focus your energy into much smaller movements, and communicate emotions and reactions subtly, if that's what you want. In practical terms, it's all about directing focus. On stage, it takes more movement and volume to shift an entire audience's focus to one particular spot on stage. On camera, especially in a close-up, you have the luxury of already having the audience's focus, so something as small as a raised eyebrow can draw attention and get a laugh.
TED: Shrink is definitively a scripted show, but due in part to the success of the original self-produced pilot, (which was 100% improvised), Seeso trusted us with building in room for completely improvised patient sessions. These sessions in most cases were just David (Tim Baltz) and the patient improvising whatever felt honest, interesting, and funny.
For me, improvisation impacts every aspect of production, from writing, to shooting, to editing. The spirit of, “Yes, and…” means to me that we will look at every idea as an offer to the project to be used as a springboard to find more and more (hopefully increasingly interesting) ideas.
I think the main difference between improvising on stage vs. screen is the breath a performer is able to give to a screen performance. Typically, the energy that is required of a performer onstage is much more forceful. You’re playing to a room with sometimes hundreds of people in it, so necessarily one must play to the rafters to a certain degree to make everyone feel included in the performance. (This is not to say that performing for screen is intrinsically more “valuable” or even more subtle — just watch TJ & Dave play at Town Hall in New York and you’ll see a masterclass in how to make a 1200 seat theater feel like a tiny Black Box show).
With improvisation for the screen, the distinguishing factor is that the performers don’t really need to be conscious of any of the mechanical aspects of being onstage. Things like vocal projection, and even physicality to a certain degree, can give way to allowing one to focus solely on her or his scene partner. I find generally is that the energy and awareness a great improviser brings to a stage performance tends to become much more focused and patient. (This is also due in large part to having Tim Baltz as one's performance partner. In improv, we say that the only goal a performer should have is to make your scene partner look good, and he’s about as good as it gets.)
When Shrink was an official selection at the NYTVF (in 2012), it was a short-form web series that had been re-edited into a traditional-length pilot. Now it’s a show on Seeso. What was the development process and journey from its beginnings to now?
TED: Just a bit of a clarification there — I had always planned on Shrink being a 22-minute pilot that would be submitted to the NYTVF. That was THE goal. I figured if we could get in, we might be able to get some traction in making a bigger and better version of it somewhere down the line. Obviously, I didn’t anticipate winning Best Comedy or the Critics Award, but that certainly helped get us some attention.
TIM: After the NYTVF, we spent 6 months developing it with Patrick Daly (our creative EP from Jean Doumanian Productions, now at Caledonia Productions), then pitched it in May 2013 to 8 different TV networks, and it was bought by PIVOT (which no longer exists). PIVOT owned it for over 2 years, and gave it back to us at the end of 2015. We then pitched to Seeso at the end of March 2016 and they greenlit 8 episodes pretty quickly after that pitch meeting.
Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Seeso -- how did you get your foot in the door, and what has it been like developing your own show with them?
TIM: First off, they're fantastic. They have great taste, they give great notes, and they've been incredibly supportive of our vision for the show, its characters, and how we wanted to incorporate our style of improv into the production process. Before we sold to them, I'd been lucky enough to work on seasons 1 and 2 of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ on Seeso, which is a semi-scripted show that uses improv in every scene. Based on that experience, and already trusting Evan Shapiro and Kelsey Balance's love of our project, it felt very fortunate to have Shrink land there. They just do a great job of respecting the vision of the creators and helping that translate into every phase of production. And probably the biggest thanks goes to Patrick Daly, our EP, who never let this project fall apart, even though it seemed like it was dead in the water no less than 7 or 8 times over the past 4 years.
TED: The development process with Seeso has been nothing short of fantastic. When we got the rights to Shrink back after selling it the first time, we met with Seeso and really hit it off. Kelsey Balance, their Head of Programming, worked at the first network that bought Shrink, so she was familiar with the project. She became our champion and oversaw every element of production with her amazing team.
The biggest benefit of working with such an artist focused network is that their role in collaboration was always on how to make the project as good as it possibly could be. Before working with Seeso, I had only heard horror stories of networks giving notes that were based around things like hitting demographics or appealing to advertisers, but with Seeso the thing I keep telling people is: they just want you to make your show. It’s really a beautiful collaboration.
You have both worked in television, both behind and in front of the camera. What’s it like to now be working on a show you created?
TIM: Surreal. And very fun. I love projects. I like getting obsessed with them and trying to get everything right. But making a TV show is a lot of work, and it takes so much collaboration with every department to pull it off. We were really lucky that every department we had was A+, understood what we were setting out to do, and helped elevate all of us. It was really, really special watching that in action.
TED: I’d say the biggest difference for me is the longevity that is required. When I was working at The Daily Show, it wasn’t uncommon to work a 100-hour week writing, shooting, and editing a piece. But then there would be some reprieve as you found your next project and geared up. With Shrink, because all of us cared so much about the project, we all worked more-or-less seven days a week from commencement of shooting in early September until we delivered the show January 26th, 2017.
One thing that Tim pointed out in his wrap speech was that the benefit of having such an amazing and committed team is when it’s your turn to hit the wall and feel like you can’t go on anymore, you just look over and see Patrick Daly (our Creative EP), or Kelsey Balance, or Chris Teague (our DP), or Khoby Rowe (our producer), Blaine Baker (our A-cam op), or MJ Allen (our locations manager), or Hannah the PA and think to yourself, “I’m the luckiest bastard on the planet. I better pick up my feet, do my best, and start making these people proud.”
How do you find the balance between keeping your original vision for a show you created, and implementing notes from executives?
TED: One of the beautiful ways that Kelsey and the team at Seeso (Evan Shapiro, Dan Kerstetter, and Patrick Toland) approached note-giving is that I somehow remember everything being offered as a question. They were never dictatorial. Beyond that, because there was such a tremendous amount of respect on both sides, there was never any conflict (that I can recall at least). On the creative side, we knew that if Seeso had a question, we definitely needed to investigate. Sometimes we agreed or disagreed about the resolution to the storytelling problem we painted ourselves into, but I don’t recall a time where we came up empty handed revisiting the material.
TIM: You always hope that, when you're creating something, everyone gets along and agrees 100% of the time. Myself, Ted and Patrick Daly had been thinking about this show for over 4 years, both independently and together. So, when we finally got to write it, all those ideas came together in the writer's room. You compare them, see what's analogous, see what you disagree on, have discussions about that, and then hopefully come to a better understanding of your vision. As I've already said, Seeso always respected that vision, gave us room to develop it further, and we trust their taste implicitly. So, the balance came more easily than we thought. But, when you do have to explain why you've written something a certain way, or why you want a character to do something in particular, it always helped us to walk through the reason in detail. Shutting down a suggestion completely never really helps you. A) It might end up being right. B) It might end up being right later on. And C) Even if it's wrong, it ends up testing your faith in your original idea and probably helps you make it better in the long run, or spurs you on to more brainstorming.
What advice do you have for creators looking to get their work seen by the right people?
TIM: First, you have to make it. And try to make it the way you want it made. Then, put it up, send it out into the world, and collect feedback. Don't be afraid of that step. If your project is good, odds are there's an audience out there waiting for it. Then it's a question of finding the audience and the people who recognize that. You never know who's going to gravitate toward it, either. I've gotten jobs from the strangest projects far and wide because someone saw something and thought I'd be perfect for it, or they saw me in a sketch years ago and asked me to write for them based on the tone/style. If you're doing good work and putting it out there, it will lead to more. I wish I could recommend good hashtags, but I'm terrible when it comes to brand marketing.
TED: I feel festivals like the NYTVF are unbelievable in regards to getting your work seen. The NYTVF specifically. It’s not just that your work is getting seen by industry people, but coming to New York and having a reason to be there is a great calling card to agents, managers, etc.
The first meeting I had at The Daily Show happened when I was in town for the NYTVF, and my agents were able to tell Tim Greenberg — my future boss — that the pilot I made was in the festival. This gave him incentive to actually watch the thing. Three years later, when I applied to become a field producer, I was, “That guy who made that thing for the NYTVF,” which sometimes is all you need to get your foot in the door.
How did your experience at the NYTVF influence your career trajectory? Do you have any advice for creators looking to submit to NYTVF this year?
TED: Being part of the NYTVF has had a huge impact on my life. As an independent producer, it’s something that immediately gives you legitimacy. You can tell anyone, “I have a pilot in the New York Television Festival,” and (even if they don’t know what that is), it marks a kind of progress you are making towards turning your passion into your profession.
On a personal level, I’ve stayed friends with just about everyone I met at the NYTVF. I was the lead actor in a feature our screening partner directed. I directed the first series produced by NYTVF Productions. Terence, Erin, and Ian have become part of my family. It can get very lonely out there when you’re sitting in a studio apartment editing, but knowing that there’s a chance of living a life full of interesting work, wonderful creators, and you know you’re not the only person trying to live that dream, it keeps you going. There’s nothing else like it.
TIM: Very significant influence. I can remember getting back from the NYTVF in 2012 and thinking, "Man, this is all I want to do every year." It made me believe that I could work in television. And, specifically because our original web series and pilot were completely improvised, it helped me as a performer believe that I could translate the decade of stage comedy/improv skills to work in front of the camera. My advice to new creators would be: figure out your vision or your tone and do your best to accomplish it, take suggestions from all corners, and once you put it up take feedback from all corners, too. The feedback won't always make sense or help right away, but ultimately, it's all in service of making your vision/tone better, sharper, clearer. Stay open to advice from every direction, if you can.
Season 1 of Shrink is available to stream now on Seeso! Do yourself a favor and check it out: http://shrink.seeso.com
Check out previous downloads here:
NYTVF Alum Jorge Rivera | No Tomorrow Writers | FLOWERS Creator Will Sharpe | Comedy Central Insights - 5/6/16 | 2016 TV Town Halls Advice | 2016 Bento Box Interview | 2016 truTV - Marissa Ronca | NYTVF Best Comedy Animals Heads to HBO | Q&A with the Jamz | Alumni Q&A (Richard Keith and Erin Cardillo) - 5/29/15 | Alumni Q&A (Damian Lanigan) - 5/29/15 | Chicago Comedy Panel - 5/18/15 | Big Laughs at Just For Laughs - 5/5/15 | Alumni Q&A (Whatever Linda) - 3/27/15 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/27/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/19/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/6/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 7/30/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 7/24/14 | Rory Covey of My Damn Channel's Honchos - 4/10/14 | Drama advice from Siobhan Byrne O'Connor - 4/3/14 | NYTVF Alum Danny Abrahms - 3/21/14 | Drama Advice - 3/13/14 | Advice from Chicago - 3/10/14 | Unscripted LA Panel - 2/25/14 | Drama Development - 2/20/14 | MSN Development - 2/12/14 | Casting - 2/5/14 | The Network Development Process - 1/29/14 | History Development - 1/15/14 | Comedy Formats - 3/18/13 | A&E Pipeline - 4/3/13| Fox Script Contest - 4/10/13 | From Film to TV - 5/17/13 | Lifetime Unscripted - 9/4/13