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April 27, 2016

Foundation Archive: Janet Ashikaga

Dan Wingate
  • Christina Gandolfo

Janet Carole Zeleznik - AKA Janet Ashikaga - never saw herself in Hollywood.

A shy and quiet girl from Queens, New York, a self-described loner who worked at the local library and majored in philosophy, she could not have imagined a career in which she would help to find the comedic tone of shows like Seinfeld.

But eventually she found that editing appealed to her. "I liked the detail work," she says. "And I enjoyed working in a room by myself. It was a good creative mix for me." So in the late 1970s — when few women were in the field — Ashikaga broke in, through perseverance and strong self-discipline.

"It was an exciting time because we were starting to go into different editing styles," she says. "We were going from a film base to a tape base. That was the biggest thing that changed our field."

Her first professional job as an editor would be for This Is the Life, a Christian anthology series; she would go on to win four Emmy Awards, three for NBC's Seinfeld and one for ABC's Sports Night.

Ashikaga was interviewed by Dan Wingate for the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television in August 2010. The following is an edited excerpt of that discussion; the entire interview can be viewed at TelevisionAcademy.com/archive.

Q: What was your first job in the industry?

A: It was at Javelin Films, and the gentleman that owned the company said to me, "I don't have anything now, but call me next Tuesday." And I did. Then he would say, "Call me on Wednesday," and I did. Ultimately he hired me.

I asked him why and he said, "I didn't know what else to do because you were just so perseverant that I felt sorry for you." The person I assisted at that time was Randy Morgan. Everybody knows Randy was a great television editor, so I started off on a really good foot.

Q: What were the editing systems like when you started?

A: It was just the upright Moviola. I still have the scars on my hands from things getting stuck in a take-up claw or something like that.

Q: Was all of your training on the job?

A: Absolutely. That's the way a lot of my generation got into the business — you could just bumble into it, meet a few people and everybody would take you under their wing. Nowadays the industry is getting kids who've spent tens of thousands of dollars in film school and, once out of school, not knowing which way to turn. It's a very different world.

Q: What was the environment like for women in editing at that time?

A: It could be difficult. It was very much a night-and-day difference between how the men were treated and how women were treated. There were shows where you knew that you had to be tougher than the guys. Otherwise it would always be, "Oh, you can't put up with this because you're a girl."

Q: Did you notice a time when women started getting more jobs?

A: Yeah. A lot of men who were still in the world of film thought that film was going to be there forever — that all they needed was a camera and an upright Moviola and their lives would be set. But women started seeing opportunities by learning to use Montage, Ediflex and other systems. And a lot of companies were starting to hire editors who knew the systems, as opposed to editors who had a great resume.

It was an odd way of getting work. But we got a chance to start editing and prove ourselves. It worked out incredibly well.

Q: How did you come to work on Seinfeld?

A: One of the things that led up to that was the Spectra system, which was one of the more cumbersome to learn. At that time all sitcoms were being done on this system. So I learned it and had that knowledge on my resume, but I had never done a sitcom.

The year before that, I had gone in for an interview for a sitcom and one of the producers said, "Whoa! What on your resume is a sitcom?" I said, "Nothing." And I looked around the room at the silent reaction shots of everybody and I said, "Is that a problem?"

Q: And yet you still tried out for Seinfeld....

A: Sure. I thought, "There's no way I'm going to ever get this job." But I met Larry David and quickly thought, "Oh, this is going to be the most fun ever!" We really hit it off, talking about the show.

I remember Larry saying to me, "What was your favorite episode?" I said, '"The Chinese Restaurant.'" He said, "Well, that was the episode the network hated the most." And I said, "Well, what do they know?" A little while later he said that was his favorite episode.

Q: Why do you think you got the job?

A: Larry Charles was one of the writers on the show and he asked me one of the best questions I've ever been asked: "If you're so good, why aren't you working now?" I thought, "Wow, good one."

I actually had a job that was just going to start, so I had a good answer for it. I left, and two days later I got a phone call asking if I wanted to do the show. That was it. It was a match made in heaven, and it was a great place to be.

Q: When you got the job, had you already been thinking about the Seinfeld editing style?

A: Oh, yeah. I think one of the questions they asked was: "What would you like to do editorially?" And I said, "Well, I think the show is a little stodgy." One of the reasons was that they loved the stage aspect of Seinfeld, having the big wide shots. I thought that the energy was dragging, and that editing — using closeups — could punch up the comedy,

Good comedy is very musical, and sometimes a joke works because of the rhythm. Once you upset that rhythm, you're upsetting the humor. People are very musical, and that's what they're responding to in a lot of comedy. When you slow it down, you're almost sucking the humor out of the moment. That's my own little theory.

Q: Describe Larry David.

A: Watch Curb Your Enthusiasm — that's Larry. He does not tell jokes on that show. He tells stories that evolve into great comedy.

I said to him one time, "Is there anything that you wouldn't write about?" And he said, "Like what?" And I said, "Oh, I don't know, like pedophilia." And he said, "Well, I wouldn't write about it, but if it came up in the writing, I wouldn't run away from it." And I thought, "That's a sign of somebody who's truly honest and unafraid as a writer." I had tremendous respect for him.

Q: How involved was he with the editing of Seinfeld?

A: Larry did something really interesting, which I share with young editors. He would watch the cut from the same distance as his television at home, as if it were on the air. You can immediately notice mistakes.

That was one of the things I started doing when I first started editing. I would take a VHS cassette home and watch it on TV. Suddenly you were the audience, and the mistakes were right there. That's a great tip for young editors — get out of the editing room or sit in another chair. Look at it from a different perspective and you'll see the problems,

Q: Were there any other editors on the show?

A: No, I was it. An editor took over when I left, and there was obviously one for the first two years that I wasn't there. On sitcoms you're it.

The fun thing about being the editor is that we are part of production. We're doing our jobs when people are shooting. We're part of the writing staff, if you want to look at it that way — we really are the last word in writing. Larry had my room ultimately right next to the writers. It was a testament to how that job is really perceived.

Q: Let's talk about some specific episodes. "The Parking Garage."

A: I don't know why [director] Tom Cherones didn't get an Emmy for it because he certainly deserved it.

It was shot on one of the tiny sets over at CBS Radford. He put a ramp on the end of the set, put big mirrors across the whole thing so it looked like the parking garage had a lot more depth. Then he told everybody, "Don't question me. When I tell you to move cars and cameras a certain way, just do it."

He knew exactly how to move everything so you never thought you were in the same place twice. You never thought that you saw the same car twice.

Q: What was the genesis of the episode?

A: Larry David went around asking everybody to tell him an obnoxious parking story... like the guy in the Mercedes who always takes double the space. And he tried to incorporate all those moments into this episode.

Later, he said to us, "What parking garage do you think this show is based on?" It was the Century City mall. Whenever you go there and try to find your car, you're convinced it was stolen.

At the end of this episode, they were all supposed to get into the car, start the engine and drive off. Serendipity struck because they got into the car, turned the engine and it wouldn't start.

They did a second take because everybody in the car had started laughing. In that take, the engine indeed wouldn't start and we did the slow pullback. It was a remarkable episode, from directing and writing and every other aspect,

Q: "The Big Salad."

A: One night I was working late with Larry and with Carol Leifer, one of the writers, and they were going out to get some dinner. Larry said, "Do you want us to bring you back anything?" I said, "Yeah, bring me a big salad." I kept working, and when they came back, Carol handed me this salad. I said thank you, and we went back to work,

Months later, I got dailies for a show that I hadn't gone to the table read for, called "The Big Salad." It was about George running into Elaine on the street and asking if she wanted anything from Monk's and she says, "Yeah, a big salad."

Later on, in the cab scene, George is in a really bad mood and Elaine's trying to figure out why — it was because he bought the salad and she never thanked him. So I got up, walked into Larry's room and said, "Thank you for the salad, Larry." It was one of those moments where you realize Larry was always thinking story.

Q: "The Contest."

A: From the get-go, that episode was really great. When the network sponsors heard what the content was going to be, a lot of them pulled out. Then when they saw the episode and realized the reaction to it, a lot of them wanted to be part of it when it reaired.

A funny aside happened during Thanksgiving dinner with my husband's family, who are all of Japanese descent. This was after the show had aired — a bunch of relatives were there, including one gentleman who teaches grammar school.

He said he wanted to use "The Contest" for the sex-education classes. I thought, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, because you can show it to a class and open them up to humor, which will then allow them to discuss something on a more real level."

When I went back to work the next day, I said, "Larry, you're not going to believe this. We're now an educational show."

Q: Did Seinfeld influence how other comedies were edited?

A: Yes, there was a snappiness to it. You didn't need to get everything in a particular moment — make people come back and watch it again and find something new and different.

Q: Tell us about Sports Night.

A: Aaron Sorkin was interviewing different directors, and a number of people came in thinking this was going to be just your basic sitcom. Aaron never saw it that way. I think it was Tommy Schlamme who realized this was something unique. The two of them hit it off incredibly well. Tommy visualizes Aaron's words — it's this perfect match of writer and director.

Q: What was it like working with Aaron Sorkin?

A: His room was just across the hall from me, so I worked very closely with him. A lot of times, because this was his first TV show, he would come into my room and flop down on the sofa and say, "Okay, show me something." That's how we would do editing.

Sometimes I would show him stuff even before a director had seen it, maybe because it was something really fun that I wanted him to look at.

Aaron had his own dance going on. I would say, "Aaron, do these lines for me," and he would say them in Aaron-ese. Then I would try to find those performances or create that rhythm.

You can look at any great showrunner and they have that — there is music to their words. He is very much a wordsmith. He was very particular about the words that were used because it all added up to something much bigger for him.

Q: After Sports Night was canceled, you joined The West Wing in its second season....

A: I was used to being the only editor on a show, like Seinfeld or Sports Night. Now I was part of a group, the third of three editors. Aaron was no longer across the hall from me. He was in a separate building. If you wanted to see Aaron, you had to make an appointment and go with one of the people in post. You couldn't just go by yourself.

There was a lot of control and structure I didn't care for it. I left the show after that first year and went to ABC's Bob Patterson, which was on the same stage as where we did Sports Night. That was canceled, and Tommy asked me to come back to The West Wing. So I went back. It was different by that point. It was a different environment, much nicer,

Q: What was the editing schedule like at The West Wing?

A: Difficult. We started out with three editors and went down to two. A lot of it was because Aaron was always behind in writing. Even if you had a third editor, it wasn't going to help because you were getting things at the last minute, which created its own problems as time went on. The schedules were really tight and challenging.

Q: Tell us about the episode "Twenty-Five."

A: That was Aaron's last episode, the one with lohn Goodman taking over and being in the Oval Office. I remember saying to Aaron when I cut it, "When you look at this episode, all the reaction shots that I used with John Goodman's scene in the end, that's a little piece of me saying goodbye to you."

It was really hard for me to do it because it was so emotional. He came back to me later and said he'd cried when he saw it.

Q: What do you think of television editing today?

A: Look at old episodes of Gunsmoke and compare where we are in editing — we've learned that people can absorb a lot more visually than they used to, so we can play around with a lot of ideas. We've come a long way.

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