The Leff Exchange podcast: A conversation with sitcom director Mark Cendrowski

Crafting a good joke requires hours of writing, rewriting, and experimenting. And then, of course, there’s timing and delivery.

Mark Cendrowski is an Emmy-nominated sitcom director who has worked at the top of the game for more than three decades. He has directed episodes for a wide range of sitcoms, including The Big Bang Theory, The Neighborhood, and Fuller House. In this podcast, Mark shares insights from his career, discusses why the creative process is all about problem solving, and talks about the time he and TV legend Betty White found comedy gold.

Scott: Let’s begin with how you got your start in the entertainment industry. What led you to Los Angeles and into the business?

Mark: It goes back to grade school days. I’m good friends with Dave Coulier, a stand-up comic, who played Joey on Full House. We grew up together and were class clowns in grade school. And then in high school we kept it going and ended up doing comedy shows to try and make money. I also had my dad’s 8mm camera, and I would make short little movies and try to get Dave to do things with me. I was always trying to make people laugh and have fun.

This continued after I went to the University of Michigan, where I majored in film and television. Dave moved to LA to start his stand-up career, and we stayed in touch and worked together whenever we could if he was back in town or if I was in LA. By the time I graduated, I decided to move out to LA and try and make my way into the entertainment business. I really wanted to direct, and after climbing the ladder for several years, I was able to do it.

Scott: How does one get their start in the entertainment industry?

Mark: That is the million-dollar question. I still go back once a year to teach at the University of Michigan, and that’s probably the number one question I get from students. I always say the hardest part is getting your foot in the door. If you’re talented, you have to be persistent, and you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal.

When you come to LA, it takes time to figure out the lay of the land of the business and how productions work. You’re learning what the layers are, what it’s like behind the scenes, and where your interests lie, whether it’s in production or in writing. When I started out, I did whatever jobs I could. I was a runner; I was a production assistant on shows; I delivered lunches; I got coffee and ran scripts to the stage. It doesn’t seem like much, but all that time, you’re learning because you get the chance to meet associate directors or talk to a grip or to an electrician and ask questions about how they got started and who they knew. It’s hard to get that break, but it can happen at any time. Some people get it right away because they happen to know somebody and are hired for a production. For others, it takes years of getting to know people and putting yourself out there. But I think in the long term, if you want to have a long career in something like television, you have to pay your dues to get your foot in the door.

The biggest thing I tell people, especially young students, is that it’s all about relationships. I’ve been hired by more people that I used to work with years before because they knew my work as a runner. When I got into the Directors Guild, one of my first jobs was with a producer who knew me as a runner; he knew I was competent, always on time, and worked hard. So when an opening came up, he said “You’re the guy I want to hire.” And that scenario continued. I ended up working for lots of programs and shows, and eventually those executive producers created their own shows, so when I started directing, they said, “Oh, we’d love to have you as a director. I knew you back then; I know you can do your job well.” It was all about keeping those relationships alive.

Scott: How did you get your first project as a director, and what was it?

Mark: It took a while. The first thing I did was work as a runner on The Merv Griffin Show, which is a name out of the past for a lot of people. And I eventually got into the Directors Guild through a boss of mine who became the president of Columbia Television, and then I worked my way up. The very first show I directed was called Malcolm and Eddie, with Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Eddie Griffin, the comic. I started out as the associate director. The show runner knew me and liked me and said, “If you do this for me, I’ll let you direct.” So I started directing, then became the house director for the show and then from there went on to do other shows.

Scott: Describe how a director of a sitcom differs from other kinds of directing. I think a lot of people probably have Martin Scorsese in mind when it comes movies. What’s it like for TV and sitcoms specifically?

Mark: Movies and TV are related—though, ultimately, they are two different animals. The biggest difference is that in movies the director is king; it’s his film, and he is the last word. In television, the director is not king—the executive producer is king. The way I always explain it is you have your owner of the show, and then you have the director who is doing the work with the team and creating the product. I do my cut, and I have everything in there I want, but I don’t have this final say on what stays or goes. If the executive producer wants to change something, he will change it to how he wants it.

Another big difference in TV is that you’re doing the same process week in and week out. Every week, I’m doing a new episode of something, whereas filmmakers can spend two or three years on a film. They might spend six or eight weeks shooting, and then they go back a month later and do the reshoot. And then they have to spend six or seven months in editing and then redoing sound and promotion. It becomes a drawn-out process.

In contrast, the television world has a sense of immediacy—I create a new product every week. I’ve done shows where we finish on a Friday night and then two or three weeks later, I’m seeing the fruits of my labor because that show is on air, and hopefully we’ve got tens of millions of people watching it. It’s kind of amazing to think how quickly we can turn around something in television as opposed to a movie.

Scott: On a sitcom, what’s your role in shaping the story and the presentation of an episode? Walk us through the process of going from a script to shooting and then you how finish it up.

Mark: For directors, it should all be about the storytelling—that’s the bottom line. Are you trying to tell something that’s meaningful or poignant or touching or, in my case, funny?

As a director on a television show, you have to work in close conjunction with the executive producer or writer of the show. They’ll have their vision and thoughts on what something might be or should look like, and you have to mesh your vision with theirs. Your level of input also depends on whether you’re working on a pilot or if you come in during the fourth season of a show like The Office or Modern Family that already has its own style, and you need to fit into that. On a new show or on a pilot, however, you’re setting the standards and the look and feel of how the show should play out; that’s very exciting for a television director.

Most shows for network television are 22 or 24 episodes a year, and you do one show a week, though not in consecutive weeks. We do get weeks off to recharge our batteries because the process can wear you out quickly.

For a typical week, on Mondays, we have all the network people, people from the studio, producers, and writers come together, and we read the script out loud with the cast at the table read. This is our opportunity to hear people laugh and hear the rhythm of the show and see whether the story works. You can tell immediately whether people understand it or not or whether they followed along or the script was too long. Then, after the table read, we sit around and do notes. The executive producer and I will talk about what worked and what didn’t and what they’re thinking of changing. They might want to cut a scene out, or maybe they’ll take a scene and set it in the living room instead of the kitchen.

Then the network will come in with their notes and say, “Hey, this is good, but we think the B-story is flat,” or “It needs to be funnier.” Sometimes we need to recast somebody since the guest cast we have doesn’t quite fit what they envisioned. Then, that night, the writers start to rewrite using all the notes, and I’ll work with the actors and start putting the show on its feet with a little bit of rehearsing to straighten things out and lay the groundwork for how the show will work.

On Tuesday, we get a new script, and we start the process again. We will read it, and sometimes the writers have made huge changes, and sometimes it’s very little—maybe just some jokes and some tweaks. Then we’ll rehearse some more and fine tune it and have the show up on its feet. If there are some wardrobe jokes, we might make sure those props are ready.

At the end of the day on Tuesday, after rehearsal, we do what’s called a “run through.” All the writers and the producers come down, and they watch the show. At this point, they’ve heard the show at the table read, so now they want to see the show for the first time on its feet. We go top to bottom, and it’s usually a rough version; actors are still holding their scripts, they’re in their own clothes, and we don’t have all the props, but it gives you a sense of the show. From there, the producers will see what works and what doesn’t, whether the rewrites are funny or not, or what needs to change. Then, the writers do another rewrite on Tuesday night, and the same process happens again on Wednesday.

At this point, we’ve rewritten the script for the third time, and now we’re making it a little sharper. We’re trying to rehearse it so the jokes play up to pace, and if there are more props, we make sure we have them. Ultimately, we’re trying to make it as much of a show as possible because, at the end of the day on Wednesday, we do a run through again for the network people. These are the bosses and the people paying the bills, so they’re going to have an opinion. They want to see if things are working and if we took their notes from the table read. It’s a constant evolution of writing and rewriting and reworking.

Come Thursday, we bring in the technical aspect of the show—the cameras, booms, and sound. Now I’m blocking the whole show so we know what it looks like on camera. I’m giving all the camera assignments, making sure sound is working, and making sure music cues are there.

Then on Friday, normally, we do the show for an audience. We’ll bring them in at 5 or 6 o’clock and shoot the show straight through like a play, with maybe a few pickups here or there. What attracted me to the multi-cam world where we still shoot in front of a live audience is that you know immediately if a joke works or not. That’s a great advantage to have in the creative process. The audience will give you immediate feedback, and then you can adjust as you go. If a joke still doesn’t work, we can rewrite it and try a different version of it right in front of the audience. Then once we finish the show, we have a complete episode, and it’s off to editing. That’s the basic week in a nutshell.

Scott: How often are you surprised on a Friday shoot when either a joke explodes in a way that you didn’t expect it to or it falls flat even though you were certain that it was going to work?

Mark: Every week there’s a surprise because every audience has its own unique personality. It’s the same thing in stand-up comedy. I can see a comic do the same set three times on a Saturday night where the 7 o’clock and 9 o’clock shows kill but then the 11 o’clock show falls flat. You know that it’s not the material because it just worked an hour before. The audience has changed; there might be a different vibe and a different personality, and something just doesn’t click.

When we’re shooting in front of an audience, I remind the actors that that will happen. Sometimes something we laughed at all week may fall flat, so don’t be surprised. But we can try a new joke, and we’ll get something new there that will work.

The reverse is also true. On The Big Bang Theory, we ran into a big problem where people knew the show and the characters too well, so the live audience came in so pumped to see this show that they were laughing at everything; they were laughing at stuff that wasn’t funny, and they were laughing at setups. When we were in the later years of that show, the audience would come in and laugh at a setup; that can throw people. Jim Parsons, who’s very meticulous in how he works, would sometimes break and say, “Wait, come on, folks, I haven’t done anything yet,” and that would break the tension a bit.

Scott: I’d imagine your background in comedy and performing has helped you excel as a director. What other types of experiences do you draw on that help inform your approach or make you more effective?

Mark: You have to draw on everyday life. You might take in something that you saw some actor do or say 20 years ago and put it in the back of your brain in case you can use it somewhere down the line, which I have. And I know how to take something that’s maybe funny and make it funnier or add a physical aspect to it. That comes from my experience doing stand-up and improv and working with a lot of great comedic actors who’ve done television.

You also have to read the room every day and know what your cast is like and how they’re feeling. Sometimes people are having a bad day, and you need to be conscious of that. It might mean you give them a little slack in the rehearsal process, and sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, “I know what’s going on, and that’s fine; I understand.” But come the run-through or when we shoot, we’ve got to put that aside, and they have to bring it. And actors understand that—they know that’s what they’re getting paid to do. In other cases, you might be dealing with casts that don’t like each other, but you have to remember that you’re all on the same team; that helps you get the best product at the end of the day.

Scott: You’ve directed hundreds of episodes over the course of your career. For The Big Bang Theory, you did some 244 episodes, and others have been one-offs. How does your approach differ when you’re part of a long-running show versus when you’re doing a single episode on that program?

Mark: The approach shouldn’t differ that much, in that you’re still trying to be the best director you can, and whatever has brought you to that point you want to keep applying.

The biggest challenge I find between a show that’s been on for a long time is that you have to keep it fresh. If you’re on the Friends set, they’re in the coffee shop and on that couch, and it’s not necessarily you have to shoot it completely differently, but you have to let actors bring something new to the table and be able to listen.

On a new show that’s just finding its legs or on a one-off, you want to mold it more. You want to move it around and try more things and take your time. For a show that’s been on for many years, you don’t have to rehearse that long; the actors know the characters and the writers know what kind of words to put in their mouths. I may only need a two-hour rehearsal for an established show, whereas a new show I may need six hours because the actors will have questions, and the writers may have written something that isn’t in the characters’ voices. As a director, you want to spend time talking with the actors and getting their feedback and set those boundaries by saying, “Yes, this works” or “No, this doesn’t work; let’s take it in this direction.”

The great thing about rehearsals is that it’s your chance to explore and fail. I always tell actors, “You want to try something? Try it. If it doesn’t work, great. We know it doesn’t work.” That rehearsal space is our practice. If an actor feels safe doing that, you’re going to see them pushing boundaries, and that’s when you start to find the really creative stuff that pushes the envelope and makes you think, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before in a sitcom.”

On Golden Girls, when they originally cast the Betty White and Rue McClanahan characters, they were supposed to play the opposite. Betty White was supposed to play Blanche, and Rue McClanahan was supposed to play Rose. But Betty White was coming off of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and she had already played the sex-driven character, so she wanted to go the opposite way. They switched characters, and it worked beautifully.

Scott: Out of all the episodes you’ve worked on, which ones stand out? Do you have any favorites, and are there any that you’d like to distance yourself from—call IMDb and say, “Could you take that one off?”

Mark: Let me put it this way—I’ve already blocked out some episodes of shows that I’ve worked on, whether as a director or as an associate director, for various reasons.

But asking about favorite episodes, that’s tough. The final episode of Big Bang is always going to hold a special place because it was the ending of the longest-running multi-cam show in television history. The character of Sheldon was thanking people and getting very emotional, which was something you didn’t normally see in that show. And the look of the show was great. We did these great sets of flying to Sweden for the ceremony, and we recreated the stage of the Nobel Prize and had hundreds of extras in tuxedos and dresses. Plus, there was the emotional aspect of saying goodbye to something I’d spent 12 years doing, which was very special.

More recently, I did an episode of The Neighborhood last year. It was the first one back in production since the pandemic, and this was after the summer of unrest and everything with George Floyd. The team wrote an episode that dealt with Black Lives Matter, going to protests, and the fear of Black parents in not knowing where their child is but knowing there’s trouble out there. I am very proud of that episode. It came out very well and I think spoke to a lot of people in different ways.

Going back even further, I did an episode of a show called Ladies’ Man that Betty White was a part of. I remember I couldn’t look her in the face when I was giving her notes; she knew I was a little embarrassed, and so she put me at ease. We got along so well and were on the same page comedically.

The very first thing we did together on the show was a scene where she had to get up and speak at a podium in a little church hall. The set wasn’t really built yet, so the set dressers had a stand-in podium for her with a microphone on it. So we’re doing the rehearsal, and she walks in and stands up behind it, and she’s way too short for this podium. It is towering above her, and you can only see half of her head. She and I looked at each other and said, “This is perfect; we’re going to use this.” We ended up getting a 30-second bit of her walking up, realizing she can’t reach the microphone, so then she has to find something to stand on; then she gets a chair and finally makes it, and the writers loved that. We found an extra 30 seconds of comedic gold.

One of my other favorites is a run of about three or four Big Bang Theory episodes where Simon Helberg’s character, Howard, went to the International Space Station. We were able to recreate the space station through effects and everything and made it look like he was flying in space. After those episodes aired people were asking, “How did you do that?” A lot of people thought we went up on the plane where they shot Apollo 13, but we did it on stage, and the fact that it came out so well and that we were able to fool people made me very proud.

Scott: I watched one of those episodes in preparation for our talk, and I was wondering how you accomplished that because it looked real. When you see a scene like that in a script, how much fun is it to solve that problem or figure out how you’re going to do that?

Mark: You start talking beforehand with the set designers and special effects people about how to build something and what you need to shoot it. Then they can make suggestions, and it’s like putting puzzle pieces together because you think, “If we do it that way, I can’t shoot this” or “Hey, we could do it this way.”

For the space station episodes, we had Simon on a giant seesaw, basically. We built a special chair for him on one side of the seesaw so that it didn’t look like he was sitting. Then there were a couple of grips on the other side of the seesaw who would balance it and move it so that it looked like he was floating. Then we had the cameras on a giant gyroscope so they were actually floating, which gave the effect of someone floating in space. And the guys who designed the space station set made it all sectional so I could take out sections of the roof to get the booms or a wire in.

One of the characters in that show, Mike Massimino, was an actual astronaut who completed several missions to outer space. He was our tech expert and explained things like how fast you would move in space. He said, “You have to realize that if nothing stops you, you won’t stop. There’s no friction, so you would keep going forever. So if you’re in a space station, you better brace yourself to stop from smashing into a wall.” As an actor, you can use that information, and Simon was able to pull that off beautifully on set.

Scott: What has it been like shooting during the pandemic when production resumed? How have you adapted, and are there any approaches that might last beyond the pandemic that have been more productive?

Mark: It was tough at first; it’s still tough. A couple of weeks after things shut down, there was a meeting between the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the actors, and all the unions to put together panels on what it would take to get back to work successfully and safely. They came out with a 35-page bible that included things such as how to keep people six feet apart, who was allowed on stage, and the number of extras you could use. The biggest part of it really came down to testing; we need to get everyone—cast and crew—tested days before they come on set. But then you ran into problems. An actor is going to take their mask off when they’re interacting with other actors. Are they going to kiss? Can they hug? We’re still learning. All these protocols were put into place and are still changing every day.

We rehearse with masks on all the time, and if you need to hug, for instance, we’re not going to do it until we’re rolling cameras. No one from outside is allowed on the stage. No one from outside the studio is supposed to get in without a clear test and a temperature check—and we’ve been successful for the most part.

I was on the set of The Neighborhood this year, and we thought we were going to have to shut down one day because one of our sound mixers had a positive test that morning. Luckily, there was another sound mixer who happened to be on the lot that day that we were able to grab, so we didn’t have to shut down. But then later, it turned out our sound mixer had a false positive. It just shows you the domino effect that goes into place.

Moving forward, I think you will see some things stay in effect; it’s not going to suddenly change. Normally, a multi-camera show would shoot in two days, on a Thursday and Friday. Now, it takes three days, but there is some benefit there. The studios may realize it’s more expensive to shoot that extra day and have that many more crew members, but you may be getting better quality out of it.

You may also see Zoom stay in effect. Normally, I would go into an editing room with the editor and assistant editor, and we’d be in there for hours. Now, the editing-room process is done through Zoom. My editor will pull up all my choices and all the things we shot and share it like in a giant Zoom classroom. And instead of having all the writers come in every single day, we may leave writers at home longer and only have a core group come in while the rest are on Zoom. I think that process will stay in place.

Scott: After everything you’ve accomplished, what kinds of projects are you looking to do in the future? Are there any kinds of projects you’ve had on your list for a while and you’re thinking now may be the time?

Mark: I’ve had a little bit of a development deal with CBS productions. What’s nice is that I’ve been able to pitch ideas to them. So, I’ve got a couple of things out there right now that are, as we say, in development.

I’m also still doing pilots. The biggest thing for me is I only want to work with people that I like or know. I don’t want to have to resell myself to someone new who may know my work a little bit but doesn’t know me. It’s nice having a shorthand when I’ve worked with a Chuck Lorre or another producer I’ve worked with before that knows me and knows my style. You can get a lot of BS out of the way up front and cut to the quick.

I do think I’ll always be involved with comedy. People ask, “Do you ever want to do a movie drama?” And I think it’s much harder to make people laugh. There’s a saying that, “Drama’s easy; comedy is hard.” A lot of actors will admit that—they don’t like doing comedy. And to me, that’s what I love best. When I think about getting paid every day to try and make people laugh, it’s a great job.

The first show I worked on as a stage manager was a thing called What’s Happening Now? It was not the original What’s Happening. They brought it back direct for syndication, and we were shooting out at this little studio out in Glendale. We had a great writing staff and a great crew, and it wasn’t a network show, so they didn’t have that many cares about us. We were like the inmates running the asylum, and we had so much fun—we played Ping-Pong, and we went out drinking afterward. It became a family, and we had a blast. I was a young kid at that time, and I remember thinking, “God, I can’t believe I’m getting paid this much to do this.”

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

Leave a Reply