“I'm going to break one of my own rules: I'm going to take off my jacket. Guys, this is a no-no,” said Max Mutchnick '87 to his audience, packed into the Bright Family Screening Room on April 5. “Clothes matter. You would not believe the difference a white shirt can make.”
This was the first of many pieces of advice Mutchnick doled out to the students who came to hear him. The Emmy Award-winning alumnus, Emerson Board of Trustees member, and creator of the hit series Will & Grace returned to campus to speak about his most recent CBS comedy, Partners, which was canceled after six episodes last fall.
“I thought it would be great for me to come to Emerson and talk about this disaster that I produced,” Mutchnick said.
He brought with him a PowerPoint presentation filled with information to help illuminate the process of getting a show on network television, and to pinpoint the moments where Partners went wrong.
Created by Mutchnick and his writing partner David Kohan, Partners centered on the relationships between four main characters played by David Krumholtz, Michael Urie, Sophia Bush, and Brandon Routh. With the tagline “four friends, three couples,” Partners was autobiographical; the characters Joe and Louis were based on Kohan and Mutchnick.
Throughout his presentation, Mutchnick repeatedly addressed the theme of following your heart and listening to your instincts, especially when something feels wrong.
“You always want to be in a position where you're following your gut,” he said. “And if you don't, it can backfire in a big way.”
“Casting. Is. Everything. A good script is only as good as the actor that gets his hands on it.”
Mutchnick expanded on this by discussing the casting process for Partners. “Casting. Is. Everything,” he said. “A good script is only as good as the actor that gets his hands on it.”
To illustrate the importance of matching the right actor with a character, Mutchnick played screen tests of the actors who auditioned for the four main characters in Partners. For each character, Mutchnick showed audition videos of the runner-up followed by the actor who got the part. Most of the time, he preferred the runner-up, but was pushed into choosing an actor the network thought would bring in more viewers and more money.
“It flies in the face of the thing that's most important, which is your gut,” he said.
Mutchnick’s presentation — punctuated with questions from the audience and laced with constant laughs as a result of Mutchnick's quick-witted humor — flowed more like an easy conversation between Mutchnick, students, and occasionally Kevin Bright ’76, co-creator of Friends and an executive artist-in-residence of the Visual and Media Arts Department, who sat in the back of the room and occasionally commented.
When a student asked or answered a question, Mutchnick threw them hats emblazoned with the Partners logo. “I've got a thousand of these things,” he said. “That's incentive for you all to ask questions. You get a $4 hat until there are none left in this bag.”
Both Bright and Mutchnick noted their disdain for the pilot testing process, which entails a group of viewers turning a dial up or down to correspond with their positive or negative reactions as they watch the show.
“It's a horrible, flawed experience,” Mutchnick said. “It was not a fun experience to watch those dials go down. It's like a hyped-up experience of what it's like to be hated in high school.”
Mutchnick and Bright both noted that neither Will & Grace nor Friends fared well during their pilot tests. “This stuff shouldn't matter,” said Mutchnick, “but it does.”
Mutchnick clicked through his presentation, showing the behind-the-scenes process of bringing Partners to life. Production schedules, “writers' huddle” videos, photographs from the set, results of the pilot testing, and the first night's ratings all flashed across the screen.
As he went through each step of the production process, Mutchnick offered advice to the aspiring writers, producers, and actors in the crowd.
“You’ve got to watch out for that Emerson ego,” he said. “Nobody's going to think you're cute when you come to LA.”
He also reassured audience members that their talent and hard work could take them far. “Do believe in yourself,” he said. “Great ideas get made. Don't believe that you don't have a shot. Everyone in this room has a shot.”
Mutchnick is now working on an ensemble comedy he created with Kohan for TBS called Clipsters, about six 25-year-olds working in a barber shop in Worcester, Massachusetts.