Friends executive producer Kevin Bright, 59, was born and raised in New York and graduated magna cum laude from Emerson College, where he has taught since 2006. He is the founding director of Emerson’s new Los Angeles Center on Sunset Boulevard, which celebrates its official opening on March 8. He began his career as a producer and director in New York and moved to Los Angeles in 1982, producing specials that starred some of the biggest names in comedy and eventually working on Dream On, In Living Color and The History of White People in America. He became one of the creators of Friends and directed more than 50 episodes, including the series finale. After its phenomenally successful 10-year run, he created the short-lived series Joey as a vehicle for Matt LeBlanc. In addition to teaching at Emerson, he created a film and television program at Perkins School for the Blind. Bright and his wife live in Brentwood, Calif., and own an apartment in Boston near Emerson
Emerson has students who don’t fit into any prescribed mold. They’re all out of the box, very different and very innovative in the way they think and approach things.
Well, you can only go to Emerson LA for a semester, and you have to come through Boston (though there will be other programs, particularly for Los Angeles locals).
Yes, he actually arranged a second mortgage for the building and will be teaching a class in “Jumping the Shark and Avoiding Teeth.”
The weather. Our home. And the relationship between mountains and ocean. You can go to the beach in the morning and, if you wanted to, you can be on the slopes in the afternoon.
Emerson is one of them. Perkins School for the Blind is the second. And then I guess O Ya.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Initially, they think, “That’s a really dark joke for Kevin, and it sort of has no punch line.” Or they think it’s not actually teaching filmmaking but theory. And to that, I say, “Come see what we’re doing. It’s amazing.”
Besides me? [Laughs.] Max Mutchnick, Jay Leno, Jennifer Coolidge, Henry Winkler, Denis Leary, Maria Menounos, Steven Wright…the list goes on and on.
That’s probably an even longer list.
I wish he had. I was teaching, and I could’ve gotten a deal. But my son was the type of student who functioned best in a very structured, intense academic environment, and BC was a better fit for him.
Yes, I do. I always like to tell my students, “I don’t have any more room in my life for drama.” I would hate it if I had to go from the drama of my life and then go to work and immerse myself in more of it. But my dad was a vaudeville comedian. I’ve been around comedians all my life. And even at the beginning of my career, I was moved by comedy and variety shows. I grew up on Andy Williams, Flip Wilson, Sonny and Cher.
I think it’s stuck somewhere in between. I was raised in the Borscht Belt, and I spent my college years in Caroline’s.
Wow. I’ve worked with so many brilliant people—Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, so many great stand-ups. But it starts to become personal, as opposed to objective, so I would say Martin Mull. He’s so phenomenally brilliant, and he speaks to comedy on everybody’s level, no matter what your intellectual reference is. And he doesn’t try too hard.
Right now, they’re in my garage in a box. They were in my apartment here, and they’re going to be in my office in the LA Center. But the paint literally hadn’t dried before the students arrived, so I haven’t been able to move anything in permanently yet.
Cast member from Friends whose career trajectory surprises you the most?
Lisa Kudrow. I never expected that she’d be a producer. She was always extremely intelligent, but I just didn’t see it, and now she’s an executive producer of Who Do You Think You Are? It’s such an amazing idea for a show, but I really expected comedy from her. Web Therapy, too, is really innovative.
She is not.
OK, I take it back. No one can stop Elvis. Seriously, I don’t think she is, despite how much the whole world wants her to be. When I see those headlines, I just feel like that’s a horrible place to be. Makes me think, “I’m so happy I’m not famous.”
Thrilled. He’s so great, and that’s a very hard thing to pull off: playing yourself but not yourself, a fictionalized, enhanced version of yourself. But you know what? We couldn’t have pulled Friends off with six other actors. It was really the chemistry of those six individuals. We saw many other people for those parts. In fact, when we were casting it at first, it was sort of like, “Is there something wrong with the script?” Because we couldn’t seem to find actors that fit. It’s rare that you catch lightning in a bottle, but if you watch the first run-through, it was like they’d been together for 10 years. And then they sustained it for 10 years.
The executive producer is responsible for every single aspect of the show, creatively, financially, acting as leader of the crew, a conduit to the studio and the network. It’s all-encompassing, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a writer/executive producer or an actor/executive producer. It’s a tremendous amount of work. So it’s especially tricky for actors, because if you’re really fulfilling that role, you’re not going to sleep much and maybe not look very good on camera.
Well, it’s changed, but directing television, it used to be that you were kind of the guest of the week. The director changed regularly. But in any case, the job was to understand what the producers wanted, what the concept of that episode was, and not try to reinvent it or put your own touch on it, which is exactly what a film director is supposed to do.
When Dream On got picked up for a second season. It was the first time I felt like there was some security. I was used to finding a new job every three months.
Dolly Parton, because she’s so real. If she came to your house, she’d probably end up cooking the dinner.
Shooting in front of a live audience, because that’s where theater and television blend. Usually, you do television in a vacuum, and you have to depend on your own instinct or the opinions of a small group of people who are heavily invested. But when you go in front of a live audience, and a joke flies, and you don’t hear any laughter, you can tell yourself all you want that it’s funny, but you’d better go change that joke. It’s like walking a tightrope.
The hours. Unless it’s the only thing you want to do with your life, you miss out on a lot of important things.