Ladies and gentlemen, today’s top-10 list comes to you from the home office in Northvale, New Jersey, just outside of New York, where Rob Burnett, David Letterman’s right-hand man, is hard at work directing an episode of Ed, the NBC series that he created with fellow Late Show alum Jon Beckerman.
Here are the top 10 reasons why Rob Burnett will probably be disappointed in the show.
10. This is the first episode of Ed that he has ever directed.
9. On the first day of shooting, he didn’t know when to yell “Action!”
8. The episode can’t be longer than 41 minutes. It’s already 44 minutes long, and he’s not finished yet.
7. Shooting was supposed to take eight days. This is day nine.
6. Before he can film one of the remaining scenes, he still has to write it.
5. Burnett hasn’t slept since 1984.
4. There isn’t enough time to do 99 rewrites.
3. Ed is up against American Idol.
2. What do you expect? This is television.
And the number-one reason why Rob Burnett will probably be disappointed in the show: He’s Rob Burnett.
At the moment, though, he’s trying to ignore any nagging doubts and avoid falling further behind. It’s a frigid Wednesday in January, and Burnett is occupying a green-canvas director’s chair on the set of Ed. The crew of 25 or so is crammed into Ed’s office in Stuckeybowl, the bowling alley in Stuckeyville, Ohio, where Ed Stevens runs a law practice. Burnett hunches forward, studying the playback monitor as a camera crew perches over Ed’s desk, filming a series of faded photos of Ed’s great-grandfather — kissing his bride as a young man, showing off a snowman with the kids. A stand-in sits behind Ed’s desk, wearing Ed’s blue shirt and holding a scrapbook in place. He looks nothing like Tom Cavanagh, the actor who plays Ed, but for this sequence, that doesn’t matter. A hand double will do while Cavanagh is working elsewhere on the set.
This is Show 315: Ed‘s third season, 15th show. And although Burnett isn’t quite finished, Show 316 began shooting today. Because the network shortened the hiatus between seasons last year, Burnett and Beckerman weren’t able to outline all of the episodes ahead of time and have been struggling to keep up. The schedule leaves even less room for polishing, perfecting, and obsessing than before. Not that it stops Burnett.
“This is the money shot,” he tells the crew. It’s the photo montage before the big finale. The shot seems straightforward enough, but after a half-dozen takes, it still doesn’t have the right feel.
“Close,” Burnett says before another round of takes. Faster, slower, zooming in, pulling back. He resorts to talking the camera operator through it, photo by photo: “Moving . . . holding . . . and cut.” Finally, Burnett gets the shot. “That’s fantastic,” he says. Then, sounding rather like Letterman, he jokes, “Someone’s going to win an award for this.”
Whenever Burnett and Beckerman write an episode, Burnett sees it played out in his head. He sees how each scene should look, how the music should feel, how the actors should speak their lines. If only he could make that show — in this case, Show 315 — a reality. The script, which he and Beckerman have labored over even more than usual, is “near and dear to our hearts,” Burnett says.
Two days later, he watches the entire episode for the first time. He’s aghast. “I looked at it and thought, ‘How can this be?’ The stuff I was laughing at on the set didn’t work,” he says. “I was so upset, I was beside myself. Here’s this great aspiration of mine to direct, and I thought, ‘That’s gone.’ It was one of the worst nights of my life.”
Those who know Burnett no longer flinch. In anticipation of that very reaction, Wendy Stanzler, the editor working on the episode, instructed him to watch it twice. His wife, Eunice, who prefers not to see the show until it airs on TV (formerly on Wednesdays at 8 PM, now on Fridays at 9 PM), assures him that he’ll feel better about things in a few days.
Burnett isn’t so sure. And to make matters worse, the script deadline for Show 317 is looming. Shooting is scheduled to begin in less than a week — the following Wednesday — and he and Beckerman are starting from scratch. They have no story, no outline, no idea at all what Ed will be doing. All they know is that they have never been this far behind.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Humor
You might think that the creative process would get easier for Burnett. After all, he helped create thousands of hours of television for Letterman as a writer, head writer, producer, and executive producer — first with Late Night on NBC and later with The Late Show on CBS — and helped Letterman win a remarkable five consecutive Emmys.
You might think that Burnett could keep his artistic angst at a safe distance now, since he is, after all, president and CEO of Worldwide Pants, Letterman’s production company.
You might think that there would simply be no time for Burnett to agonize over the timing of a photo montage (not to mention the quality of the photos), since he serves as an executive producer on The Late Show as well as on Ed. But, as Ed’s childhood buddy Mike likes to say, “That’s a load of hooey.”
Turning ideas into something tangible, getting a show out of his imagination and down on paper and then on film, is an ongoing challenge for Burnett. The end result rarely looks the way it’s supposed to. And that, he concedes, is “heartbreaking.”
“With Rob, the glass is always half-empty,” says Ray Romano, the star of Everybody Loves Raymond, the top-rated comedy on CBS and a Worldwide Pants production. “When we talk, we’ll congratulate each other on our shows, but he’s never fully satisfied with his.”
Take the pilot episode of Ed, which Burnett and Beckerman wrote and rewrote (and rewrote) for NBC. The first time they saw it, they left the screening room in Los Angeles and immediately called Letterman in New York. Not out of some sense of euphoria or triumph. Out of panic.
“It’s over,” Burnett told Letterman. “We just wasted nine months.”
“Can we sue anybody?” Letterman joked. At least, it seemed like a joke. He suggested that Burnett and Beckerman get busy fixing the pilot the same way that they used to routinely salvage Late Show segments. “Get in there and edit the thing,” he told them.
It’s difficult to say who wears the pants at Worldwide Pants. Burnett insists that it’s Letterman, since every decision is based on his taste, his standards. Once, when pressed for a specific title by an industry directory, Letterman asked to be listed as “comptroller.” (The man does have an inspired touch.) It is Burnett who runs the day-to-day operation, keeping tabs on the company’s current shows — The Late Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Ed, and The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn — and developing new projects, including a sitcom, a children’s cartoon, and a documentary. And he does it all while writing, rewriting, or editing a 50-to-60-page script for Ed — every eight days.
Worldwide Pants was formed when Letterman made his notorious switch from NBC to CBS. Because CBS was so eager to land the late-night star, he was able to negotiate a rare deal: He owns The Late Show, and CBS pays Worldwide Pants a handsome license fee to deliver episodes of the show. Behind the silly name — Letterman’s idea — was a desire to retain the show’s talent. At NBC, a number of Late Night writers had jumped ship to work for Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
Because The Late Show and Everybody Loves Raymond keep Worldwide Pants’ pockets rather full, there is no pressure to churn out new shows. The staff is small by design. There’s Letterman, Burnett, and COO Jim Peterson in New York. There are two more people in development in Los Angeles (including Burnett’s brother, Steven) and a handful of legal and administrative staffers. Burnett can nurture a project as long as is necessary. Indeed, during the past eight years, the company has created just six shows.
Although Burnett and Letterman obviously want their shows to succeed, they don’t consider short-lived shows such as The High Life (one season on HBO) and Welcome to New York (one season on CBS) to be failures just because they didn’t manage to become Raymond-like hits. Rather, the two men chalk it up to being in a tough, fickle business in which failure is far more common than success.
The primary mission at Worldwide Pants is to make top-notch shows. “The company runs by a simple mantra,” says Burnett. “Will Dave like it? If not, we won’t do it. The world doesn’t need another mediocre TV show.”
The key to fostering quality? “Our philosophy is to find people we like, respect, and trust and protect them from idiots, who crop up everywhere in show business,” Burnett says. That means knowing when to be hands-on and when to be hands-off. While he rarely calls the set of Raymond anymore, for example, Burnett still conducts Monday-morning meetings at The Late Show and talks to someone at the Ed Sullivan Theater, often Letterman himself, just about every day. He and Kilborn speak every other week, on average. Burnett, who TiVos the Kilborn show, passes along feedback as well as the occasional idea. “I know their type of humor, which is great, but mine’s different, and Rob encourages that,” says Kilborn. “I’ve worked at a lot of places, and he’s one of my favorite people to work for.”
The Letterman endorsement is good enough for Chris Albrecht, head of HBO, Worldwide Pants’ development partner on The High Life and Raymond. “I’ve always been impressed with the creativity and imagination of the people who work for Dave,” Albrecht says. “They’re not only uniquely talented, but they’re also able to produce the same tone and quality as Dave. When you’re looking for somebody to be in business with, you look for somebody who gets it. And they get it.”
Creating something that’s worthy of a cultural and television icon such as Letterman is a “gigantic responsibility” fraught with “an enormous amount of pressure,” admits Burnett. Like a lot of creative people, he has absolute confidence in his artistic vision yet a gnawing insecurity that he’s forever coming up short. Rather than being counterproductive, though, his fear — of embarrassing Letterman, embarrassing himself, embarrassing anyone on staff — is a constant source of motivation. A kick in the pants, if you will.
Not that he needs one. Burnett is a curiously casual overachiever, a shy sort who makes wry, self-deprecating comments practically under his breath. He’s wired where it matters: upstairs. And he readily knocks himself out. “His schedule is unbearable,” says Timothy Busfield, who plays Ed’s older brother and is a co – executive producer on the show. “He works harder than anybody here.” Burnett puts in 12-to-18-hour days, something that he has done since joining Late Night as an intern fresh out of college. In those days, he would get up at 5 in the morning, work with a buddy on a screenplay for three hours, and then go to work at Late Night. He wouldn’t get home until late that night. “He has the stamina of a crazy person,” says Barbara Gaines, a Late Show executive producer. “I don’t know how he does it.”
But Gaines thinks that she knows why he does it. “He has all of these images in his head that simply have to get out. It’s like a dream come true for him to make this show,” she says, meaning Ed. “He’s doing what he loves.”
Even if it doesn’t always sound like it. A case in point: the following Wednesday morning, a week after the scrapbook shoot.
[Interior. Beckerman’s office]
Burnett enters, studying a piece of paper. It’s the Nielsen overnight ratings.
Beckerman: How’d American Idol do?
Burnett: Incredible. He recites the numbers. Beckerman’s expression turns from deadpan to incredulous.
Beckerman: That’s more than Friends. That’s like the Super Bowl.
Burnett: This is what we’re up against tonight.
Beckerman: We’re dead.
Burnett: We’re going to get killed.
Take Two: Partners for Laughs
Burnett’s wife and his editor were right, of course. By the time he had watched Show 315 a second time, he did feel better about it. Perhaps Marc Buckland, a former co – executive producer on Ed, had the right idea when he suggested that Burnett refrain from giving feedback on footage for 48 hours. The show wasn’t ready, but it was salvageable. After working alongside Stanzler for the entire weekend, he upgraded his assessment to a near boast: “It’s definitely not the worst one we’ve done.”
Even so, by Wednesday morning, Burnett looks like hell. Pillow-sculpted hair. Bloodshot eyes. Flying by the seat of his pants. He was up editing until 4 AM. “This is mile 24 of the marathon,” he says. Instead of heading home, Burnett checked into the Holiday Inn up the road, crashed for three hours, and shuffled right back into his Northvale office at 8:30. It’s a squat brown-brick building with narrow windows, located down the block from the Stuckeybowl set, which is next to Ace Hardware on Paris Avenue. The DMV looks more glamorous.
Miraculously, Show 317 is under way. Burnett and Beckerman have decided that Ed will sort through his feelings for Carol Vessey, his high-school crush, and Frankie, his new crush, in a lucid dream — one in which the dreamer controls the action. This is a favorite topic for Burnett, who has lucid dreams himself. He and Beckerman wrote just enough scenes yesterday for the shooting to get started today. It’s their worst nightmare, though — shooting a first draft, or close to it. “In our case, doing a weekly TV show like this is usually about nothing more than making compromises,” says Beckerman. “And that’s painful.”
There are two Rob Burnetts, explains Busfield. One is witty and easygoing, a joy to hang around with. The other is, well, not as much fun. Burnett the perfectionist. “That’s the writer in him, the taskmaster,” says Busfield. “He wants the show to be great all the time.”
When it’s not, Burnett blames himself. He speaks of the cast and crew with a sense of awe, as if he doesn’t understand their craft any more than they understand his idiosyncratic ways. Cavanagh’s uncanny ability to duplicate his exact intonation and gestures in multiple takes. The day that Sabrina Lloyd, who plays Frankie, cried real tears on cue. Justin Long, who plays Warren Cheswick, an Ed-like high-school senior. “Justin’s our atom bomb,” says Burnett. “We drop him in a scene, and he explodes.”
By early afternoon, Burnett is back on the set, still finishing up Show 315. In this scene, Cavanagh sits at Ed’s desk, writing on a yellow legal pad. Despite sleep deprivation and an unforgiving schedule, Burnett is in a playful mood. He jokes with Cavanagh and the crew until the production hits a snag: The notepad that they’re using doesn’t match the one that was used in earlier footage, and for some reason, no one seems to be able to rectify the problem. Burnett explains the shot for the umpteenth time. What exasperates him is that he held a morning meeting so that everyone would be prepared. Now this. “If I have to say it again, you’re going to see a man have a heart attack,” he says. His chuckle can’t mask the edge in his voice.
“Ed is like their child,” says Nellie Stevens, Burnett’s assistant. Like any first-time parents, Burnett and Beckerman have a hard time letting go. As one crew member says, “Other writers are afraid to come to this show because they know how involved the creators are.”
The writers on Ed usually don’t last for more than a season. Part of the reason is the show’s distinctive voice. “We want to delegate, and we try to delegate,” Burnett says. “You have to when you’re doing 22 episodes a season. But when we do, it’s not the same. It’s like a signature. We sign our names a certain way.”
Burnett faults himself for not developing the writing staff and lightening his workload. “It’s my own deficiency,” he says. “For me, writing is a very personal experience, and I haven’t found anyone other than Jon with whom I can sit in a room and be productive. He and I are shooting at the same target.”
What they’re aiming for is an offbeat romantic comedy, or, to put it in Late Show terms, what Burnett calls “Viewer Mail with kissing.” After CBS passed on a half-hour sitcom pilot of Ed in 1998, the network let Worldwide Pants pitch it elsewhere. That’s when NBC stepped in. The fact that Letterman had left NBC in a much-publicized rift back in 1993 didn’t prevent the network from teaming up with his production company. Karey Burke, executive vice president of prime-time series at NBC, had known about the project for years and was intrigued. The show was unconventional, funny, and “surprisingly sweet coming from a couple of Letterman cynics,” she says. With the network’s help, Burnett and Beckerman developed it into their first show, a one-hour comedy series, which is a rarity on television. Despite modest ratings, NBC signed the duo to a development deal in November. “They’re at the top of the list in terms of people you’d want to develop prime-time comedies,” Burke says. For their next show, they’d prefer a shorter format. Maybe eight minutes long, suggests Burnett.
Ed Stevens is a charmingly goofy lawyer who returns to his hometown of Stuckeyville to start fresh after his life in New York falls apart in a single day: After getting fired (he left a comma out of a brief, costing his firm around $2 million), he comes home early to discover his wife receiving a rather personal delivery from the mailman. Back in Ohio, Ed buys Stuckeybowl, resumes his law practice, and vacillates between igniting and extinguishing the torch that he holds for Carol. If the premise sounds familiar — New York professional moves to quirky small town — that’s because Burnett was inspired by Northern Exposure, another unconventional, well-written ensemble show.
The Ed episodes often grow out of Burnett and Beckerman’s friendship, which grew out of long hours collaborating on The Late Show. Not surprisingly, the humor on Ed is Lettermanesque. In fact, during the first season, Letterman, whom Burnett asked to be an executive producer, would read the scripts and occasionally add jokes. In one episode, Phil Stubbs, Stuckeybowl’s imaginative and impractical huckster, decides to start a new catchphrase, which Letterman provided: “Shave my poodle.” The silly $10 dares between Ed and Mike trace back to a cross-country plane ride in which Beckerman dared Burnett to meow like a cat until an older passenger turned around. Burnett meowed. Practically everyone on the plane turned around — except the intended target. “We said, ‘Oh, man, that’s gotta go in the show,’ ” says Beckerman.
The show’s unabashed heart also comes from Burnett and Beckerman, who turn out to be a couple of romantics. “Sometimes I secretly wonder if moments in the show make Dave’s skin crawl,” admits Burnett. “Because it’s a realm we never explored on The Late Show.”
Put him and Beckerman in a room — or adjoining offices, as is the case in Northvale — and they’ll chew on high school, crushes, dreams, the meaning of life. Which brings us to Show 315. After taking a life-span-estimation test, Ed becomes obsessed with his mortality. He learns that he should live to be 83 and frets over how best to spend his remaining 50 years. He meets Peter Evashavik, a renowned artist who has a train wreck of a personal life. He’s self-absorbed and thrice divorced. Evashavik wants a legal contract that would deter anyone from destroying his art, even after he dies. Which matters more, Ed wonders: your life or your legacy? It’s an interesting question for Ed, who isn’t much of an artist. But it’s a far more interesting question for Burnett.
“Jon and I talk about this all the time, and it’s a question that makes my head spin,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, your life is so great, you’ve got this TV show.’ Yeah, but the past three years of my life have been sucked away by this show. So it’s confusing. We literally have no lives outside the show, and here I have the best wife in the history of the world and the best three kids in the history of the world. And Jon has the best fiancé e in the history of the world. Last week, I worked 96 hours. That’s nutty. I have this friend with a normal job who works 9-to-5 and does quite well. He’s got a great life and a great family. But you know, I have this creative side that has to be realized. And I may never have an opportunity like this again. Right now, this show is our life’s work. This is the thing we’re leaving behind.”
Rob and Dave’s Demanding Adventure
“Dave, if you’re watching at home, it looks like the fake heart surgery paid off!” — Rob Burnett, while accepting the Emmy award for best variety, music, or comedy series on behalf of The Late Show in 2000.
Burnett’s career path is an inspiration to interns everywhere. Eleven years after starting with Letterman in 1985 as a 23-year-old intern, he was executive producer of The Late Show and president and CEO of Worldwide Pants. Of his intern days in the Late Night talent department, he says, “I was an assistant to an assistant to an assistant.”
Burnett, who graduated from Tufts University in 1984, soon began writing jokes on the side for comedian Wil Shriner. One night during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Shriner told Johnny Carson, “I’m in this big movie, Peggy Sue Got Married, and my wife is worried that I’m going to get a big head. But I’m going to have my people call her and tell her not to worry about it.”
Carson laughed. “That’s funny,” he said.
Burnett, who was watching with his buddies in his Brooklyn apartment, had written the joke. He turned to his friends and said, as if he couldn’t quite believe it, “Johnny Carson thinks I’m funny.”
So did his boss at Late Night. Letterman encouraged Burnett, who had been hired as a researcher, to send him material, which began making its way on the air. “Rob, because he’s Rob, did more than a normal researcher,” recalls Gaines, one of four employees who have been with Letterman from the beginning. “From the get-go, he was creative and had something to say.”
Burnett joined the writing staff in 1988, and four years later, at just 29, he became head writer. It’s the most difficult job there, he says, because you’re responsible for coming up with enough material to fill the show five nights a week, 44 weeks a year. One of Burnett’s gifts, Beckerman says, was “turning funny ideas into actual pieces.” Burnett ran the writers’ morning meeting, edited the ideas into shape, then headed into Letterman’s office to pitch dozens of items: Dave-on-the-street segments, monologues, jokes, top-10 lists. “You get used to hearing ‘no’ a lot more than ‘yes,’ ” Burnett says. No one is tougher on material than Letterman.
Over the years, though, no one has developed a better sense of Letterman’s taste than Burnett. His Will-Dave-like-it? radar is “on the money 98% of the time,” says Gaines. “I can’t remember when he’s been wrong.” For Kelly Kulchak, in Worldwide Pants development, Burnett functions as “a filter for Dave.” A large part of the job, Burnett says, is freeing Letterman to concentrate on his top priority: The Late Show. “Asking me if I like something is the same as asking, ‘Will Dave like this?’ ” he says. Letterman and the staff still turn to Burnett for ideas, whether it’s for a drop-in by Regis Philbin or an appearance by Steve Martin.
If anything solidified Burnett’s place as Letterman’s go-to guy, it was Letterman’s decision in 1996 to replace his longtime executive producer, Robert Morton. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno had overtaken The Late Show in the ratings, and morale — particularly Letterman’s — was down. Letterman fired Morton and asked Burnett, who was developing the Ed pilot, to put the project on hold. “For the first time in Dave’s career, he was getting beaten up in the press,” says Burnett. “After he hosted the Oscars, it was open season on him, and it was very difficult for him and me and everybody. The show was in free fall, but we managed to recover, largely because of Dave. When he’s comfortable out there, it doesn’t matter what material you give him. He’s the funniest man in the world.”
Several years ago, Letterman stopped giving interviews to the press. Burnett does the talking for him now. After Letterman’s sudden open-heart surgery in 2000, it was Burnett who provided the public updates. During last year’s tug-of-war between CBS and ABC over Letterman, it was Burnett who explained Letterman’s side of things, Burnett who eventually told ABC thanks but no thanks, and Burnett who told CBS that Letterman was staying put.
Unlike some long-standing colleagues whose relationship with Letterman has remained purely professional, Burnett has become friends with his boss. “We’re like war buddies,” he says. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Letterman has had Burnett over for dinner and taken him to an Indy 500 race. They communicate almost daily — by phone, never by email. They share not only the same sense of humor and high standards, but also the same conflicted feelings about their chosen profession. “He’s not a showbizzy guy, and neither am I,” says Burnett. “For some people, show business comes naturally. Not me. I have always been shy about it, and it creates this little tempest inside. You have the urge to write things and put jokes out there in front of millions of people, but you’re embarrassed to be drawing attention to yourself. Dave feels that way too.”
Of Laughs, Life, and Legacies
[Exterior. Parking lot — night]
Frankie: Peter Evashavik seems kind of pathetic, doesn’t he?
Ed: I don’t know if he’s pathetic. He’s made sacrifices.
Frankie: But you always think of people like that — with tons of talent and success — as having these great lives. But you can see he’s miserable.
Ed: True, he’s miserable, but he’s leaving something behind. He’ll be remembered.
Early on in Show 315, Ed researches his family in hopes of finding relatives who lived beyond the age of 83. Later, he receives a scrapbook from someone who had known his great-grandfather Samuel H. Stevens, who lived to be 101. He wasn’t rich, famous, or powerful, but “where others sipped at life,” the woman writes, “Samuel gulped it.” He was married for 53 years, he was beloved, and he was known for a Friday-night tradition: Neighbors came over to stomp grapes. “The wine was never much good, but it didn’t matter,” she goes on. “Samuel created a life where all that mattered was the stomping.”
As Ed thumbs through the scrapbook, you hear the woman reading the letter. As she finishes, the camera lingers on a photo of bare feet ankle deep in grapes — the money shot. Ed picks up a notepad, where he has sketched Peter Evashavik’s tombstone, along with the epigraph, “His art was his life.” Inspiration strikes, and Ed jots down his own: “His life was his art.”
The show ends with Ed gathering his friends in the Stuckeybowl parking lot at midnight. He unveils a kiddie pool filled with grapes. Everybody jumps in. Everybody stomps.
The episode airs the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day. As usual, Burnett is in Northvale, doing rewrites with Beckerman. At 8 PM, though, Burnett turns on the TV in his office. He wants to see the words “Directed by Rob Burnett” before getting back to work. But he keeps watching, and the more he watches, the more flaws he spots. A scene needed rewriting. The woman in the photos didn’t look old enough to be Ed’s great-grandmother, despite her wig. The music didn’t swell enough at the end.
He calls Busfield, who tells him that he is being a typical first-time director. “The show looked great,” he says to Burnett. “You should feel proud.” The next day, Letterman tells him the same thing.
But the call that matters most comes at 9:01 PM on Wednesday, right after the photo of Samuel H. Stevens and his fellow grape stompers dissolves into a photo of Ed surrounded by his friends in the kiddie pool, which fades to black. It’s Burnett’s wife, Eunice, on the line. “She was crying and laughing,” he says. “It was very sweet. It was one of those few moments of pure satisfaction.”
In spite of the episode’s imperfections, Burnett is proud of his first attempt at directing. Calls it “a career highlight.” He likes to imagine his children coming across it one day in reruns.
The irony of it all — the fact that he nearly killed himself to make a show in which Ed realizes what really matters — isn’t lost on Burnett. “The truth is, I look at the way that my wife leads her life, and she’s like Ed’s great-grandfather. She’s really good at life. So is Jon’s fiancé e, Nell. And right now, Jon and I are very bad at life. But this is our little Valentine to them, our way of saying in the middle of this madness that we remember what’s important, and we’ll find the opportunity one day to show them.”
Even as he says this, the calls and meetings and deadlines are piling up. It’s the Friday morning before Presidents’ Day weekend. There’s a music edit to review, new scenes to write, and a season finale to figure out. Sounds like the makings of another weekend at the office.
Maybe next weekend, though. A while back, Burnett promised his family that they would go to Vermont for the holiday weekend. February was far enough away then to make the trip seem like a good idea. Now, of course, the trip couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time. It won’t work. Can’t work. But it will. When his wife and kids pull up outside the office a few hours later, Burnett is walking — no, stomping — out the door and getting in that car.
Maybe Ed isn’t the only one who learned something this week.
Sidebar: Before Everybody Loved Raymond
Ray Romano still remembers the call. It was a Saturday in 1994, one week after his appearance on The Late Show. It was a disappointingly quiet week. No buzz about his appearance, which for once he thought had gone pretty well. That is, no buzz until Romano’s wife called him in from the backyard. Rob Burnett was on the phone. “The first oddball thing was that this was Saturday, okay?” says Romano. “The second oddball thing was that he was calling me at home. That never happens. Everybody goes through your manager.”
Burnett told Romano that Worldwide Pants was interested in signing him to a development deal to make a sitcom. “Rob said, ‘If anybody else calls you, please consider us,’ ” Romano says. “I wanted to tell him, ‘Nobody is calling!’ “
Phil Rosenthal still remembers the interview. He was being considered to be cocreator of Romano’s show, and he flew to New York for a Worldwide Pants meeting. Letterman insisted that Rosenthal sit behind his desk, while he and Burnett and then – executive producer Robert Morton sat across the room. “Dave had just done the show, so he was in sweats and a baseball cap with a cigar,” says Rosenthal, now an executive producer on Raymond. “They treated me as if I had the job already. Dave said, ‘Just don’t embarrass us.’ “
Rob Burnett still remembers the doubts. He and Letterman weren’t interested in doing a run-of-the-mill sitcom, and Rosenthal had a long sitcom ré sumé . “It made me nervous, to be frank,” Burnett says. “Once I got to know Phil and started reading the stuff he was doing, though, I realized that this guy wasn’t going to hurt Ray. He was going to help.”
Today, Everybody Loves Raymond looks like the perfect marriage of talented writers and a talented cast. In the first year, though, there were creative differences, bad ratings, and a lousy time slot (Friday nights at 8:30). “There are always arguments about the right direction for a show in the beginning,” says Rosenthal. “But I was allowed to take the notes I wanted to take and ignore others and make the show what I thought it should be: a well-made classic type of sitcom.”
Of course, CBS stuck with Raymond, the ratings improved, then exploded (thanks to a new slot: Monday nights at 9), and the Emmys started pouring in. Burnett can’t recall the last time he gave notes, which is how it’s supposed to work. “My feeling now is that it’s their show,” he says. “Even if Phil and Ray decide to do a show entirely in black and white and in slow motion, they have earned that right.”
In addition to generating a lucrative syndication deal, Raymond has paid off for Worldwide Pants in another important way. “It’s not only a successful show critically, but also commercially. That’s the holy grail,” says Burnett. “Before Raymond came along, we were in danger of becoming this boutique company that did cool projects that didn’t actually succeed. But we had no interest in being in the ‘noble failure’ business. The success of Raymond absolutely helped put us on the map.”
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore.