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Jokes are his Currency

TV comedy writer Rob Burnett, executive producer of The Late Show with David Letterman, has just launched a new sitcom on ABC.

Patrick Harbron/American Broadcasting Company, Inc.

This is a story about an amiable and reputedly brilliant TV comedy writer named Rob Burnett. What’s he like? What drives him? What are the points of conflict, if any, that animate his charmed-seeming life? We shall now attempt to lay bare the exquisite comic machinery purring away (one assumes) behind the gently worried brow.

Our opening scene: a very large, very pretty clapboard house poking above a canopy of Greenwich trees — the kind of house you might inhabit if, by the age of twenty-nine, you were head writer on The Late Show with David Letterman; if by thirty-four, you ran the whole shebang as executive producer; if by thirty-eight, you’d created your own TV show, Ed, whose nimble repartee drew comparisons to that of comic film genius Preston Sturges; and if by forty-four (bringing us to the present), you arrived at the brink of a career-capping success with a new sitcom, The Knights of Prosperity, for which you implausibly snagged Mick Jagger for your debut episode. That kind of house.

Stepping into a light morning rain, Burnett looks neither amiable nor brilliant but, in this instant, complicated. True, his marvelous head of curls suggests creative ferment, especially since the exertions of comedy have begun to touch it with gray. And he’s wearing very amiable clothes — blue jeans and an untucked button-down shirt. But hmmm, those traces of melancholy about the eyes, that hint of reserve about the mouth: Is it the rain? Some old wound that is the wellspring of his comedy? The writer loitering in his driveway?

Nope. Professional comics must deal with social pressures that are uniquely odd. Either they put up with those who laugh idiotically at everything they say, or, more commonly, they disappoint those who expect them to be hilarious all the time. As Burnett will soon confess, “People get upset with you that you’re not funny in the way they want you to be funny. Like, ‘Dance, monkey, dance.’ Well, you may not be ready to dance.” He recalls a golf outing with his father, who (as any proud dad would) mentioned offhandedly that his son writes for David Letterman. “So we’re playing golf with these two guys, and the only thing that was funny, basically, was my swing. And on the eighth hole, one of the guys says, ‘Hey, you don’t seem like you’d write for Letterman.’ I turned to the guy, like, ‘Hey, dude, it’s the weekend.’ What do you tell people? ‘Monday through Friday I’m writing jokes all day. I don’t really feel like it now.’ ”

The Burnett face is mobile, elastic, on the move. With a slight rearrangement of features, the complicated look departs and one of anxious merriment arrives. This seems the more natural expression — certainly the one that most befits his present situation. Burnett packs the writer into his Honda hybrid and sets off for Silvercup Studios in Queens, where the first episodes of Knights of Prosperity are wending through the birth canal. Anyone with a TV sitcom busy being born could tell you what a strange and jittery time it is. The network has sunk heaps of cash into the enterprise, and you must respond not only by summoning your brightest, wittiest, most competitive self but also by coaxing an indefinable magic from your ensemble cast. The American public, no infallible arbiter of what’s good, will then sit in judgment of your labors, fingers poised by the million on the remote control. This is the real monkey dance, the only one that counts.

On the other hand, you, along with your cocreator Jon Beckerman, have hit upon a goofily winning premise, one that seduced all four major networks and set off a major Hollywood buzz. ABC (the winning bidder) then green-lighted the pilot without so much as a napkin’s worth of script, and, when you aced that, ordered up a whole season of your as-yet-untitled show. Great news, exactly what you wanted, but then begins a torturous compositional marathon. This is how we find Burnett now: in rotating states of exhilaration and fatigue. “The hardest thing about television that people outside the business don’t realize is what it takes to do twenty-two episodes of these shows,” Burnett says. “It’s punishing.”

He and Beckerman have been battle-tested, if a bit frayed, by the rigors of Ed. An hour-long show of sneaky complexity, Ed ran for four seasons on NBC — never with stellar ratings but with a solid core of passionate fans. The title character, Ed Stevens, is a fast-track New York lawyer whose life turns on a misplaced comma. The error costs his firm $1.6 million and Ed his job; when he goes home to tell his wife the bad news, he finds her in bed with the mailman. (“Neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night could stop him from having sex with my wife.”) Ed beats a dazed retreat to his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio, where he purchases the bowling alley, sets up a law practice in it and romances his high school crush.

Ed was a comedy of ideas rather than simply a string of jokes. A favorite episode of Burnett’s finds Ed in the midst of a life crisis while two supporting characters represent conflicting philosophies: One has discovered Thoreau and vows to simplify his life, and the other, after a brush with death, vows to “do everything.” Layered, contemplative comedy is usually the province of books and movies. “We had a very lofty target, which I don’t claim we hit all the time, or even often,” Burnett says. “It was almost too ambitious for a TV show. We tried to take very small feelings and moods and ethical dilemmas and shine a light on them.” The workload exacted a price. “We just found that writing twenty-two hour-long scripts a year would swallow us up. I’d be in the attic forever writing, all the time writing. I had no life. And what’s weird is you stop having things to write about because all you’re doing is writing.”

As Burnett glides down North Street, a truck heaped with sod backs into his path. “That would be a good way to end the interview,” he murmurs, “if we just clip this guy.” Burnett veers around the truck, graciously allowing the interview (and The Knights of Prosperity) to continue. “This new show is a whole different animal,” he says. “It’s much more superficial, honestly. It’s a half-hour, and it’s just supposed to be funny.” Unsatisfied with this humble sketch, he pauses to reconsider. “Well, there’s a little emotion to it. It’s not purely silly.”

The premise is this: A night-shift janitor named Eugene Gurkin, played by Donal Logue, is struck by a depressing reality after a colleague dies while pushing a mop. Eugene’s life is headed nowhere; his long-held dream of owning a bar is fast receding. Sitting in the scuzzy old bathtub of his one-room flat in Queens, he’s morosely watching an E!-style TV show in which Mick Jagger shows off his baronial pad on Central Park West. Then the brainstorm: Eugene will assemble a band of downtrodden friends, blue-collar dreamers like himself, and plot a heist of the rock icon’s gaudy valuables. Gurkin and his knights will spend the entire season trying to crack the Jagger fortress.

Sitcoms typically have no premise at all. “Even Cheers, there’s nothing inherently funny about a bunch of people in a bar. Friends, you have a bunch of friends. Seinfeld, a bunch of people. Everybody Loves Raymond, it’s a family. See what I mean? They’re generic setups that you then find comedy in. And we thought, ‘What about having a comedic premise that would drive the show and drive the stories, and would even have more of a beginning, middle and end?’ ” Knights, then, would be the first sitcom to mimic season-long dramas like 24 and Lost.

But the idea took some evolving. It began not as an idea at all but as a desire to make use of a supremely talented actor. Donal Logue, stocky, unkempt and Harvard-educated, excels at character roles in hip, small-budget movies and is often compared to Philip Seymour Hoffman. But he’s best known as Jimmy the Cabdriver in a popular series of MTV spots and as the dad in the sitcom Grounded for Life. “We always felt we could do something great with Donal if we got the chance,” says Beckerman, Burnett’s creative twin and fellow Letterman vet. When the actor became suddenly available, the networks were “salivating” after him, but Logue only had eyes for the B&B team with whom he’d worked on the Ed pilot.

The initial plan was for Logue and crew to rob a bank — “not the Ocean’s Eleven guys,” Burnett explains, “but the Ocean’s idiot guys.” Then came a serious blow: Burnett and Beckerman got wind that NBC was developing a show called Heist, basically a dramatic take on their premise. “We felt we couldn’t then go out and pitch a comedy version of guys robbing banks. That seemed lame when the whole town was in the throes of Heist. [Heist was canceled last spring, soon after it began.] So we went back to the drawing board and asked, ‘How can we make this better and different?’ And we came up with, ‘What if they’re robbing a celebrity?’ I think the first words were, ‘Let’s rob Kevin Bacon.’ We immediately thought, ‘This is much better than robbing a bank.’ ”

Burnett and Beckerman liked their idea well enough, but they had only the shakiest confidence that it would succeed. Burnett says, “I remember being on the plane on the way out to make our pitch, thinking, ‘This is such an unusual idea that they’re either going to go for it or they’re going to kick us out of show business — escort us to the show-business door.’ ”

It’s a testament either to Burnett’s modesty or his insecurity that he still thinks he might be evicted from show business. After all, he’s an authentic power in this rather cutthroat game, both as a five-time Emmy Award-winning writer-producer and, strangely enough, as an executive: He’s president and CEO of Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, the production force behind Everybody Loves Raymond. “I’m either insecure or realistic, depending on how you look at it,” Burnett says. “The year Jon and I developed Ed for NBC, there were about a hundred writers who pitched ideas to the network. About sixty of those pitches got script orders.

Twenty-seven of those scripts were made into pilots. Eight of those got on television. And Ed was the only one from that class that saw year two, let alone year four. I say this not to pat myself on the back, only to point out that the odds are enormously against you at every turn.”

Burnett’s biography conforms perfectly to his art — essentially wholesome, with no appeal to cynics or sadists. This is a man who, seeing his wife (Eunice) and young children (Sydney, Lucy and Charlie) cry at the end of Charlotte’s Web, had a character on Ed rewrite the ending of the children’s classic to make it more upbeat. He grew up the son of a dentist and a housewife in North Caldwell, New Jersey, the bucolic model for Ed’s Stuckeyville. Middlingly shy, Burnett was more observer than performer. (Performance was reserved for the athletic field, where he excelled at soccer and baseball.) Habitual close study of the human animal — its moods, manners and speech — proved a source of endless amusement to young Burnett, who would “feast” on conversations overheard in public. Woody Allen and Albert Brooks were his chief influences — especially Brooks, whose fuddled Everymen are just the sort of character Burnett loves to set in motion today.

“I found from a very young age that most of the good things that happened to me in life, be it with a career, with a girl, with anything, usually came out of being funny,” Burnett says. “Jokes became my currency.” After graduating from Tufts University, he took a brief and fruitless detour into community journalism: “I quickly decided, maybe it’s easier for me to make stuff up.” Burnett spent his early twenties interning at Letterman. While still a nonentity there, he submitted jokes for the monologue. After one of them made the show, veteran writer Jerry Mulligan said to Burnett, “That’s the perfect joke. I’m so jealous that I didn’t write it.” Burnett chuckles at the memory of that joke, which Letterman recycled many times over the years. “Dave is saying, this guy comes up to me on the street the other day and he says, ‘I’ve watched you every single night for the last eight years.’ ‘Oh, that’s great. What’s your favorite part of the show?’ And the guy says, ‘Oh, you’ve got a show?’ ”

Burnett’s admittance to the Letterman stable of writers bolstered his confidence but little. “I remember my first writer’s meeting. I was deathly afraid,” he says. As he listened to the jokes ping-pong around the room, he thought, When this is over, I’m going to excuse myself and go open up a deli. I can never be as good as these guys.

Letterman has a distinctive comic sensibility — neurotic, quirky, with hints of self-loathing and misanthropy. Burnett’s writing demonstrated a flair for the neurotic-quirky while leavening the dourer aspects of Dave. Even so, “I felt like I was going to get kicked out at any moment.” The pop-psych explanation is that raw fear brought out the best in Burnett. When he became executive producer in 1996, critics noticed that Letterman seemed less put-offish, that his show began to find its old mojo. “Under Rob Burnett,” wrote James Wolcott in the New Yorker, “the Late Show has regained some of its former funkiness.”

At Silvercup Studios — home of The Sopranos and Sex and the City — Burnett slows before his assigned parking space, where a yellow cone discourages people who are not Burnett from parking. With the Honda still in motion, he opens the door and deftly plucks up the cone. “I’ve become good at this,” he allows. “Everyone develops his own skills. This may be my only skill, right here.”

Inside the massive brick building there’s an excited, big-time hum. Down on the set a fresh episode is being filmed. A small town’s worth of writers, actors, directors, producers, technicians and assistants bustle to and fro, and one is suddenly struck by the laboriousness of TV comedy, the strain and worry that go into setting jokes aloft. One is also struck, however, by a sense of bonhomie among the cast. It may help that none of the accomplished six-member ensemble — Logue, Sofia Vergara (Hot Properties), Lenny Venito (The Sopranos), Maz Jobrani (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Kevin Michael Richardson (ER) and Josh Grisetti (stage work) — are household names. “No one’s a big star,” Logue says between takes, looking proudly janitorial in his blue uniform, “so there’s no craziness.” Richardson, who plays a massive security guard named Rockefeller Butts, adds in his honeyed baritone, “So far we’re all having a blast. No jerks. No divas.”

Mick Jagger, of course, is not here. The trickiest aspect of the show is that he committed only to the pilot, to be broadcast in January. Burnett and Beckerman never dreamed of Jagger for the celebrity part in the first place; the idea was ABC entertainment chief Stephen McPherson’s. Thinking Sir Mick would turn them down flat, B&B said, “Sure, go get him.” But Jagger liked the script and added jokes of his own. “It seemed an impossible thing had fallen into our laps,” Jon Beckerman says, “and it was then our job not to screw it up.” His and Burnett’s first phone chat with Jagger, to hear Beckerman tell it, reduced them to children. “Rob and I were talking over each other and laughing like idiots — acting like anything but middle-aged TV professionals.”

Jagger, on the other hand, behaved impeccably throughout his involvement. But he didn’t make things easy. Burnett and Beckerman had to film him in New Zealand, trying to make Auckland look quite like New York. And they were given a scant five hours. “I remember when we were doing the first shot, I thought, ‘We’re going to know in the first ten seconds whether this whole show is gonna work.’ The first thing he did was great. Jon and I looked at each other without saying a word and just kind of smiled.” The Jagger scenes do come off amazingly well — including a cleverly edited shot of dogs paddling about Burnett’s Greenwich pool, which is also supposed to be New York. The problem is, fans will want and expect more Jagger, and more Jagger is not forthcoming. It’s a sensitive point.

“Mick is the Godot in our Waiting for Godot,” Donal Logue remarks — a neat way of saying the show isn’t really about Mick Jagger anyway. But what will viewers say? (The title was changed from the punchier Let’s Rob Mick Jagger to the present Knights, a decision much criticized in the TV press. Yet it’s a sensible decision: If there’s a second season, the misfits presumably will rob somebody else.) Burnett confesses to a slight anxiety over the Jagger question. “The thing is, this cast that we have is so ridiculously strong that I think it would be a mistake to lock in completely on Mick. I mean, Mick is phenomenal. But directing the pilot with this cast, I felt like I was driving the world’s fastest race car.”

Mick or no Mick, Burnett and Beckerman have built into their sitcom a pleasing dramatic tension. Will these tattered and likable knights succeed in their quest, or will they fail? Burnett himself claims not to know. The same question, and answer, could apply equally to the whole Knights of Prosperity concern. Burnett is philosophical about the future — the show’s and his own. “As hard as it can be, every single day I feel extraordinarily lucky to be a writer and a director. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I’m amazed that people let me do it, let alone pay me to do it. And yes, part of the motivational force is the fear that one day someone will tap me on the shoulder and politely ask me to leave show business. Until then, I’m gonna keep writing.”