We live in a screen-bound age of Netflix, binge-watching, and “peak TV.” Tableau spoke with three alumni whose work in the entertainment industry keeps us tuned in: Bob Daily, AM’86, executive producer of the CBS comedy Superior Donuts; John Leverence, AM’69, senior vice president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which awards the Emmys; and Courtney Saladino, AM’08, the head of film and television for Junction Entertainment, where she develops and produces scripts for Jon Turtletaub, the director of National Treasure (2004), While You Were Sleeping (1995), and Cool Runnings (1993).

How did you end up in your current job?

Daily: I grew up a TV junkie, obsessively watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show on WGN every night as a kid. I should have realized that there was someone writing those stories, but I don't think it ever occurred to me as a career path. I briefly considered going into academia, but after getting my master’s, I realized academia was not for me. I remember a professor telling me my writing style was “too conversational,” and I thought, “Maybe he’s trying to tell me something here.” I became a journalist for a number of years in Chicago and wrote for national publications, and then some friends convinced me to move to LA and try my hand at television writing.

Leverence: Some of my teachers at Chicago were interested in popular culture—Westerns, classical and hardboiled detective stories, science fiction, etc.—which was almost heretical for a legacy school like Chicago. I got interested in formulaic literature, so the Western, the classical detective story, the hardboiled detective story, science fiction. After I left Chicago I got my PhD at the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I came to California to teach in the radio and television department at Steven Spielberg’s alma mater, Cal State, Long Beach.

I heard about the Television Academy job by a serendipitous coincidence, through a friend who was working there who thought it would be a good fit. So in the fall of 1979 I talked to the people at the Television Academy and told them about myself—they were very impressed that I went to the University of Chicago, I have to tell you—and in January of 1980, I was hired to run the Primetime Emmy Awards.

Saladino: I grew up here in LA, so I’ve always been around the business. But I got my undergrad in comp lit, and I had come to Chicago thinking I was maybe going to eventually get a PhD and teach. After I went through the MAPH program, I decided I don’t want to just talk about movies —I actually want to make them. So that’s why I came back to LA. I certainly had no idea when I came into the business that I was going to be a producer. I thought I wanted to direct. That was because I love filmmakers and felt like I had a strong point of view, but after getting some experience and working for some of the best producers in the business, I realized that what I really wanted to do was what they were doing.

How does your humanities background help your work?

Daily: When I decided I wanted to be a television writer, I approached it from an academic background. I would watch episodes sitting in my apartment in Chicago with a legal pad, outlining the episodes scene by scene—what is the act break, what is the narrative arc of the story, and how is that carried out by the writer? I would very critically watch episodes and try to teach myself story structure.

When I was writing for Frasier, I remember one episode I wrote a Philip Glass [AB’56] joke. Frasier is probably the only show on television where you could actually write a Philip Glass joke. I definitely made good use of my humanities background then.

Leverence: The three-legged stool of structure, function, and value was the way we were taught to think about the humanities, the arts, and the creative process—an education that serves one well no matter what professional path it might lead to, and it’s particularly useful to me with the work I do here, with the aesthetic products that are coming off the studio assembly line, one after another. 

Saladino: It made me more of an active viewer, both as an audience member watching a film and as a reader of material. When I’m looking at a shot or a sequence in a film or on the page, I’m thinking, why that choice, and what does that choice reveal about the story or help the story or maybe not help the story? What are the ways in which it challenges you as the viewer, or doesn’t challenge you? How does the craftsmanship of the material affect you, or does it have an effect?

What advice do you have for other alumni who want to work in entertainment?

Saladino: You’re going to be told no far more times than you’re told yes. It’s a business of rejection: you are constantly being told no for any number of reasons that make no sense to you. You just have to say, “OK! On to the next thing.” The other piece of advice I'd give is to remember that while we love cinema in all its artistic glory, at the end of the day it’s the entertainment business. Having business acumen is invaluable. 

Daily: Almost nobody has the same path. I’ve worked with people who were playwrights, and I’ve worked with a lot of stand-up comics; I worked with a brilliant writer who has written four novels. I came in from journalism. When I’m looking to hire people, I love finding people who have had life experiences before they became a television writer that they can draw on. They’ve worked in offices, they’ve had crappy jobs, they’ve traveled. Ultimately, you have to have something to write about, so I think people who have led a life outside of the entertainment industry are more interesting writers.

Leverence: Persist.

 
Photo Creds: 
CBS, Sarah Hirsch/Television Academy, Shane Gurney

Comments

How can I get a hard copy of the issue featuring Hollywood Humanists?

Hi Cherie -- send us an email with your address to humanities@uchicago.edu. We'll send a copy to you.

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