Headon Emerson College In The West
by Michele Elyzabeth
If you live in Hollywood, California, chances are you could not help but notice the massive futuristic edifice which took residence at 5960 Sunset Boulevard. Standing tall in the heart of historical Hollywood, it is home to Emerson College since January 2014. Though Emerson has had a program in Los Angeles offering courses to its juniors and seniors since 1986, it did lack its own campus. Today it is the only institution in LA with its own building, which can house up to 217 students.
Founded in 1880, The Bostonian College, named after Charles Wesley Emerson, has evolved from a small New England school to a multifaceted college with an international prestigious reputation. Over the years, Emerson remained committed to its historical mission as a specialized academic institution for the fields of Arts and Communication. It was the first college to establish an educational FM radio station, WERS, as it did for children’s theater, and offer undergraduate programs in broadcasting.
The ELA Program in Los Angeles prepares students for a job in their chosen field. It provides students with an understanding of the industry beyond the classroom with internships in legitimate companies to become set designers, film editors, writers, stage managers, film and television producers, casting directors, talent managers, publicity directors, writers and journalists. Students live at the Los Angeles campus over a fall, spring or summer term to perfect their craft.
Under the direction of Morphosis Architect founder Thom Mayne, project leaders Shanna Yates and Aaron Ragan coordinated and executed the building’s $85 million construction. Comprised of two towers cleverly framed by a 10 story metallic cube, the residential tower and 5th floor terrace are bridged by a platform allowing easy access between the two sides. Among other features, it is equipped with an outdoor screen. The building offers state of the art classrooms, administrative offices, an indoor dining room, multi-level terraces with an outdoor dining area with BBQ, a gym, and a huge conference room which transforms into a site for private parties. On the ground level, the “Emerson Kitchen,” which looks like a cafeteria, has been created solely for the residents. As for the dorm, they have been designed for single and double occupancy with communal showers and bathroom facilities on each floor. The room temperature and window shutters are controlled by the overhead radiance system. The sleeping quarters strangely reminded me of Star Trek’s cells and, as much as I like the building, in my opinion, the rooms lack warmth and soul. But that’s just me.
Heading Emerson College in the West is “Friends” renowned producer and writer, an Emerson alumni himself, Kevin Bright.
Bright began his career in New York by producing specials for comedian George Burns, followed by specials for Johnny Cash, David Copperfield and Dolly Parton. He moved to Los Angeles in 1982 where he produced a comedy special starring Robin Williams and others, and in 1993 entered into a partnership with Marta Kauffman and David Crane resulting in the hugely popular series “Friends.” During that time, he directed many episodes, including the series finale. Bright went on to become the executive producer for the spin-off series “Joey,” which featured Jennifer Coolidge, an alumni from Emerson as well. After “Joey” was cancelled in 2006, Bright moved back to Boston working at his alma mater, Emerson College. Today, he teaches television production classes in the Visual Media Art Department, and helps develop the program for Emerson’s new LA Center. After my visit of the college, I sat down with Kevin for a chat about the expectations and future of the college.
How did you get involved with Emerson at the very beginning of your career?
Well, you would have to go back before I had a career. I attended Emerson College, so I am an alumnus. I graduated Emerson in 1976. At that point I moved to New York where I’m originally from, and I started my career in Manhattan. I worked for an independent producer of variety shows named Joe Cates. It was a very small company, and it was a place where, if you could display your ability, you could grow very quickly because there were only so many people to look at. About a year later, his line producer left. I had been promoted to production manager at that point and he decided that rather than replacing her with another line producer, to give me the job with the title of associate producer. And basically at the age of 23 or 24 is when I started. I became in charge of the production side of a very large network of variety shows for all three networks.
Would you say you had a special ability for it?
I’ll say that there’s something in the genes a little bit. My dad was in show business, he was a stand-up comic, manager and administrator within the entertainment industry. It wasn’t something that I was really driven about until I got to college. I didn’t know my whole life that this was something that I wanted to do, but once I made my choice, I was very committed and it was what my passion was. I think it’s a combination of luck, passion and talent that somehow makes things work.
So why did you choose Emerson at the very beginning and why?
I had applied to other schools, some I got into, some that I didn’t. But for me, I liked Emerson because one, I’m from Manhattan, so Boston’s another city and it’s not one of those schools out in the middle of nowhere where I’d be very anxious and bored. Their facilities were very good and their classes intimate in size. It’s a combination of things that made it the right place for me.
How has the school or its programs changed since the time you were there?
Now Emerson has grown so much. I remember the first time I went back to see the college after it moved from its original home on Beacon Street to our incredible new facilities on the Boston Common. Comparing the television studio and everything, Emerson has just grown. It’s probably accepting twice as many students from when I went to the college. In 1976, there were probably only about 2,000 in the college, so it’s doubled in size in terms of the student body. And I would say we’ve probably quadrupled our real estate. So not only are the facilities better, but they’re bigger. They’re more expansive and very much on the professional side.
To come back to your career, you’ve had a very successful one, as we all know. I’m sure that even you yourself were surprised.
Oh yeah. I wasn’t expecting it to happen. It wasn’t something where I thought, “Oh, I always knew.”
You were able to successfully create one of the biggest sitcoms at the time.
Well, “Seinfeld” was on the air, but it was a different kind of a story and had a different kind of a feel.
The world could identify with “Friends.” “Seinfeld” is very New York.
And even though “Friends” takes place in New York, it’s up to date and modern. But I think the way we like to put it is we tell universal stories. We don’t tell stories that have big conceits to them. No aliens land on our show. A very memorable visual to me in “Seinfeld”was Kramer sleeping in one of his drawers while there was a Japanese businessman nearby. You would never see that on “Friends.” That’s just a larger concept and we tried to make it about stories and issues. We were always separated. “Seinfeld” was the show about nothing and “Friends” was the show about something. We never wanted to be a show about nothing.
We all identified with them. So you did this for 10 years, and it was extremely successful worldwide.
And continues to be.
You just released it on Blu-ray.
Yes, we did a Blu-ray release and we air an average of six times a day basically every place in the world, on three different networks, we’re on TBS, we’re on TV Land, and we’re on your local affiliate. And they show two shows a day each.
Did you get burned by doing television?
Well, I would say prior to me going to Boston to teach at Emerson, I certainly had reached the point of saturation where I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, and I didn’t want to jump into another show. It had been basically the culmination of 30 years of 60 hour weeks, and as you know, during part of my ten years at “Friends,” for three of them, I did two shows, and for two of my 10 years, I did three shows. We had “Veronica’s Closet” and “Jesse.”
You were a director and producer?
I directed and produced on all of them, but I didn’t direct every episode, so with “Friends,” I directed 60 out of 235.
So you did do “Joey” after that?
I did do “Joey.” I was committed, I loved Matt (LeBlanc), he’s a personal friend and I really believed in the possibility that “Joey” could be “Frasier.” That “Joey” could be the rare character that you do a spin off in a very different way and it could be substantially as good as the original, but it didn’t work out that way.
Do you have any idea why?
Yeah. There are a lot of elements to success as we discussed: luck, talent, timing and all those things, but it’s also about the right group of people coming together. All the stars have to be aligned, so the cast has to be perfect, the relationship between the producers needs to be perfect, and the relationship with the studio and network needs to be perfect. Everybody needs to get on the same page. And very often in television, the confusion of an idea is the result of divergent opinions about what that idea is.
I think from the beginning of “Friends,” there were a couple of silly little things like maybe the network telling us we needed an older person to be on the show to represent the older audience and that an older audience isn’t going to watch us because we didn’t have anybody that was over 40 or 50 on the show. We explained to them, that no, we didn’t want that kind of character.
But it was really from the beginning that everybody got on that same page with the actors that were chosen and the script. There was nobody that was saying, ‘Oh no, it should be totally different.’ That’s why it worked well, and then when the show became successful, they allowed my partners and I the opportunity to do what we do best and leave us alone. So that’s what success bought, you get left alone.
I read that you were also quite interested in variety shows.
Yes. The beginning of my career was all variety television for the first seven or eight years and I did a lot of country music shows before country was as big and cool as it is now. You have a lot of young people who are doing country music today. I did many shows with Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, you name it. There was also Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, and Loretta Lynn, all of them.
What do you think of the current reality shows?
Variety has gone to reality. It’s all these competition shows such as “X-Factor,” “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.” They’re all variety shows. They come from a very old formula that goes back to radio, really.
Do you think that these shows can produce stars?
Very rarely. It provides entertainment for the people who watch and money for the network from the sponsors that pay for it. There was a time when celebrities and personalities would dream to have their own show on television. If Justin Timberlake was willing to do a weekly variety show, it would be watched.
That’s a great idea.
It’s a great idea, but the problem is it’s not financially worth it to Justin Timberlake to do it. First of all, you can’t make as much money doing a weekly television series as when you do concerts. If you go back and look at a “Sonny and Cher Show,” you see how many little pieces there are that have to be worked out during the week. You have to shoot in front of an audience, have a concert segment, comedy sketches, and you have a zillion wardrobe changes. It’s a lot of work. They worked very hard. Why would you want to do that if you could do the same show every night and make three times as much money doing it? So it’s hard to find the motivation.
To cultivate an audience?
Maybe if you’re new, yes. But when you’re an established star, you don’t have to cultivate an audience. As I said earlier, television is not in the star making business. I think the cable networks are really in the business of creating new things, but network television still has not broken out of the mold of imitating what is successful. Reality shows are really the variety on television, and those shows are now an essential part of the financial landscape of network television because they’re cheap, and basically TV couldn’t exist now without them. They’re kind of a savior in a certain way.
Yet, most reality shows are anything but significant. To me, they entertain a level of stupidity.
It’s up to us now. If we stopped watching it, it’ll go away. I’m with you. They’re bad spirited. There’s bad mojo in reality shows.
Will you be returning to producing shows anytime soon?
I wouldn’t say that I will never make another television show, but that’s not my focus right now. I’ve made a commitment to Emerson College Los Angeles, and my position is Founding Director. Since I’ve been here, people have said, “I want to pitch you an idea, or I want to talk about a show.” But, I don’t want to talk about it, because I can’t do it. I know what that commitment is, and I’m not leaving here, so I don’t even entertain it right now.
What are your responsibilities at Emerson?
Basically, I run the whole building. I have responsibilities for the academic program and developing it, for developing a postgraduate program there and other types of programs. I’m responsible for community and civic engagement on the part of our students and representing the college, as well as the student internships.
At the end of the day, how many students get a job from their internship program? Do you ever call on your friends and say, “Hey, I have someone…”
I will do that on very rare occasions. I like to give the analogy that a career in show business is like a career in professional athletics. The analogy works because you’re aware of how many college students play one sport or another. They play baseball, they play basketball, and they play football. Look how many colleges there are, you couldn’t remember all of them that had a football team if you tried. How many of those students go on to play professionally and have a career as an athlete? Less than 1%. I would say that coming out of the experience of the LA center, I have no statistics to show you, because it would be something that’s very hard to track. A statistic that we do have is 30% of the students who go through the LA program end up moving to Los Angeles, so why are they coming here if they don’t have a job? I’m sure many of them come with the intent of getting a job.
Can you recognize the stars or the special gems in Emerson’s student body?
Well, here’s what I recognize: I recognize students that have the same fire within them that I recognized in myself. They’re not necessarily prolific, precocious talent that is ready to go, but they are talented, and they are committed and will work harder than anybody else. I think that is such a big part of success in television. If I know that there’s a job available, and I know a student who’s perfect for it, I’m going to try to help that student find that job. Right next door, our facilities coordinator just graduated last May from the college and was somebody who took my class several times. I knew this young woman, I knew what she was capable of, and I wanted to get her out here and so I hired her.
Are you a tough boss?
Oh yeah. No mercy. (laughs). For the people who work with me and for me that are doing their job and are working their jobs the way I think I work mine, then I think I’m a very generous boss. I’m not oblivious to other people’s hard work, and I certainly don’t try to take credit for it.
You have a beautiful space that you rent out to other people for events. What does it contribute to the college?
I think aside from increasing the integrity and the quality of the academic program out here, my two biggest missions are the engagement of our 4,000 alumni that live within the Los Angeles area, and the community of Los Angeles itself. This building allows us to bring the community together. Sometimes it’s renting the facilities depending on what the organization is, and sometimes it’s hosting important things for the community in this building. We make our facilities available to our alumni, or we host events such as panel discussions or speaker series that are still of interest to them. Renting our facilities to the community at large makes us a real part of the fabric of Los Angeles, and not some interloper from Boston. We invested a large amount of money because we believe in what this building means as a calling card to our alumni and to the city of Los Angeles.
All private funds?
Yes, all private funds.
Will you have regular fundraisers?
Yes, we will! There will be ongoing fundraising functions as we begin to develop programs that we’re looking for funding for. It’s not just the generic, ‘I believe in the college and I’m giving money,’ or ‘I’m supporting the building’ or ‘I’m putting my name on something.’ In the next two years, we’re going to be very focused on developing programs that can trigger fundraising.
At the end of our conversation, I had no doubt that Kevin Bright’s focus was Emerson College and that we would most definitely hear a lot about it in the coming year. LATF had one of their students for an internship during the summer and I have to confess that he was one of the best ones we’ve ever had. Obviously worth the tuition required. As for Kevin Bright, I would be ready to bet that he will reunite with television sooner or later.