Find the Funny
Three decades in pursuit of the TV sitcom
By Karyne Levy
He’s a director. He’s a producer. He’s racked up Emmys through his work on such hit shows as “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Frasier,” and recently, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And, despite the fact that he’s basically a quiet, modest guy, Andy Ackerman ’78 is a loud spokesman when it comes to Santa Clara University.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, for his education Ackerman followed in the path of his uncles: from Loyola High School in L.A. on to Santa Clara University. His wife, Betsy, is a Santa Clara alumna, too, and Kelan, their oldest daughter—one of four children—is a member of the class of 2007. But Andy Ackerman didn’t originally plan on studying communication at Santa Clara and making a career in television. In fact, at the time, the major didn’t even exist. “I started out as an accounting major,” he says, but he decided to forsake accounting for a degree in general humanities. Why? “I always kid Father Locatelli about this: The moment he taught me accounting, I knew it was a bad idea,” he says. “So he takes all the credit for my career.”
Ackerman got involved in the early stages of the TV program at SCU, becoming somewhat of an assistant to John Privett, S.J., who offered a single TV production course in the Theatre and Dance Department. By 1978, that department had enough students and courses to offer a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts, with an emphasis in television. “I was one of a dozen students who took the very first two or three classes,” Ackerman says. “And it just felt like a second home; I had the keys to the TV studio and I basically just hung out. It was great.” He says that he had so much fun while at Santa Clara being a self-proclaimed “studio rat,” that he decided to pursue something fun after graduating: producing and directing.
His first job in TV came after eight months of networking, six hours of sitting outside the office of an associate producer for “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and bluffing and then earning his way into a gig as assistant editor. And one week before his 24th birthday, Ackerman won his first Emmy—for editing on “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
It was with “Cheers” that Ackerman made the transition from editing to directing. And as director, it’s a sense of family that draws him to the work. “I like finding a show that you can nurture,” he says. “Cheers,” “Frasier,” and “Seinfeld” (for which he directed almost 100 episodes) have all been “fantastic ensemble vehicles,” he says. “It’s all about the chemistry.” That, and the writing, especially when it comes to comedy, as well as having actors who can find just the twist that will make a scene click. His mantra: “find the funny.”
This past year Ackerman embarked on a new project starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” for which he is executive producer. As for his other hit, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” when we sat down to talk in May, it wasn’t certain whether the show’s star, Larry David, would be doing another year or not.
For each episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” there is no script, only an outline, and the show blurs the lines between fiction and the reality of David’s life. David, whom Ackerman describes as “one of the funniest men on the planet,” is also the one to thank for bringing him into the “Seinfeld” family. When Ackerman and David—the show’s creator and writer—met back in 1994, “Seinfeld” had been on the air for about four years. But already Ackerman was a rabid fan.
“I kind of jokingly said to Larry, ‘If you ever need help on that little show of yours, let me know,’” Ackerman says. About three weeks later, David called him, set up a meeting with Jerry Seinfeld (over breakfast at a diner, naturally), and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.
Though studio production facilities were only in their infancy when Ackerman studied at Santa Clara, he made the most of them while he was here; the reel of material he’d put together as a student helped win him a chance to prove himself on “Kotter.” So when it comes to offering advice to those aspiring to work in television and film, he says, “Really believe in yourself. I can only speak from experience: If you really think you can do something, then it’s going to happen.” Take advantage of the nurturing environment and wonderful facilities Santa Clara boasts, he says. “Develop your talent. Learn by doing. Learn by making mistakes.” Which is what he has continued doing as director and producer. “You’re always learning,” he says, “you’re always making mistakes.”
—Karyne Levy is a writer/editor for the Office of Marketing and Communications.
Designing costumes for film and TV is a big job and a huge joy
By Sarah Stanek
When Hope Hanafin ’75 works on a movie, she knows she will be on screen every second—or rather, her award-winning costume designs will be. And though she wasn’t a theatre arts major, or even an art major, at SCU, her Santa Clara education paved the way for her career.
Hanafin earned her undergraduate degree in religious studies, which fit with her interest in social activism and peace. “It was the most direct access to politics and the issues I cared about,” she says. She was also a residential assistant in the residence halls and an active volunteer, but theatre was never far from her mind. She studied and performed in plays throughout her time as a student. She did little work behind the scenes, however; in fact, she says, “I only walked into the costume shop for fittings.”
After realizing she wanted to work in theatre, Hanafin chose to study costume design even though she had no training. And, attending New York University’s MFA program on scholarship, she learned the practical craft along with the more challenging work of designing from a script.
“My first year in graduate school was very difficult,” she says. “I wasn’t a ‘fine artist’ or a technician. In my second and third year, I took off. I had a different perspective on history, on all kinds of things.” She credits her classical, broad liberal arts education from SCU as one of the keys to her success.
Research is tremendously important, whether designing for contemporary or period costumes. “It’s not about shopping, it’s not about fashion. It’s about characters and storytelling,” Hanafin explains. Being able to read, understand, and make decisions about scripts and characters—skills she says she definitely gained at Santa Clara—gave her a big creative advantage.
Following her graduation, she worked as a costume designer for operas and theatre in New York. She then worked as an assistant designer before becoming the head designer for films and television. Film work has turned her into an almost full-time Californian, although she maintains her union status and a residence in New York.
Hanafin has twice been nominated for Emmy Awards, for HBO’s biopic about FDR, “Warm Springs” (below) in 2005 and ABC’s “Geppetto” in 2001. She has been nominated five times for Costume Designers Guild Awards, twice this year in the same category, and won once, for “Geppetto.” In 2005, New York Women in Film honored her achievements in costume design with a retrospective film and exhibition of her work.
On a set, Hanafin selects every piece of clothing and accessory worn by actors and extras, and she coordinates with hair and set designers to create a fully realized environment—which might be the imagining of a fictional village, a recreation of a historic moment from the 1970s, or a portrait of a timeless American town.
She says she is truly grateful for her work, which on any given day can be rewarding, competitive, challenging, and uncertain. “I’m responsible for every piece, but the puzzle is different every time.”
—Sarah Stanek is a writer/editor for the Office of Marketing and Communications.