Foundation Interviews: Pamela Fryman
A little luck and a lot of hard work have made Pamela Fryman's career remarkable.
Courtesy Pamela Fryman
Courtesy Pamela Fryman
If you look at Pamela Fryman's career, you might get the impression that becoming an in-demand television director is fairly simple.
Just drive to L.A., make a call about a job, and — boom — next thing you know, you're directing hundreds of episodes of television's most-watched comedies, from Frasier and Just Shoot Me! to How I Met Your Mother.
But Fryman's success was no accident. Her talents include listening carefully to crewmembers and working fast while having fun. Empowering the whole staff is her style. "At the end of the day, I want everybody on that stage to take pride in what we did," she explains. And though as a director she's a leader, that doesn't mean it's her way or the highway. "Everybody's valued. Everybody's respected," she says.
Fryman was interviewed in May 2017 by Nancy Harrington for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire discussion can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: During high school you interned at The Mike Douglas Show, which taped in Philadelphia. Can you tell us about it?
A: I went to school with someone whose father was a producer on that show. And there was an internship program — for the second half of your senior year, you could work for a few hours, several times a week. But when I asked about the show, I was told they weren't accepting interns. But I never stopped asking.
I went down there for an interview, and they agreed. So I took the bus downtown a few times a week. I made good friends there, and they are responsible in a big way for everything that unfolded in my career.
Q: Did that pique your interest in a television career?
A: It didn't pique it — it defined it. It made it seem possible, even though I didn't think it was possible in Philadelphia. There were so few shows like that. But I kept in touch with the people from the show, and when I graduated college The Mike Douglas Show moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. It gave me an excuse to go out there. My brother was going to law school in California, and we drove cross-country. Then things just started to happen.
Q: What was your first job in the industry when you got to L.A.?
A: I arrived on a Tuesday, and from a pay phone in Studio City I called Patty Bourgeois, who had worked as the talent coordinator on The Mike Douglas Show. She said, "Come visit me." They were at NBC in Burbank. So I found a cab and went to Burbank, and my name was at the gate, which was one of the great thrills of my life. This was the week I turned 21, by the way.
They had changed The Mike Douglas Show to The John Davidson Show — Mike had gone to do something else. I went to visit Patty, and in the course of an hour or two, they asked if I wanted to be the assistant in the talent department. By the end of the day, I had a job.
Q: Did you have any interest in directing at this point?
A: No. I wanted to be a PA, and in some strange way that was a great thing. It helped pave the way for me because I was never looking to the next thing. I was totally immersed in what I was doing. I was so happy, so enthusiastic, so willing. When you are so willing to do anything for anybody with a smile on your face, they start giving you more to do. That's the way it went for me.
Q: Then in 1986 you were hired on The New Hollywood Squares.
A: This was another crazy thing. After the talk show ended, I was doing game shows — I was a booth PA, and I was lucky enough to get an offer to do this show. The New Hollywood Squares was important in my life for a few reasons. It's where I met my husband. And during that game-show era, I really wanted to get into scripted programming for no other reason than I loved actors.
I loved watching actors act, and I was also a fan of soap operas. I'd watched them with my mom — it was the thing to do back then. I was also working on awards shows. I was doing the Daytime Emmys as a booth PA and I told everybody, "If anybody hears of anything in daytime, I would love to be a script PA." And that ended up happening. I got a call for Santa Barbara.
Q: What were your responsibilities on that show?
A: I was in the booth. I was making sure the actors were saying the right lines and taking any notes the director or the producers were giving. It was a great show with a lot of talent, a lot of heart and a lot of funny. One of my favorite things was when they recast one of the actors, they staged a fight sequence. The character was knocked out and fell behind a couch, and when he got up, it was another actor. How perfect is that? That show changed my career.
Q: Because you moved into the position of associate director?
A: I did. Talk about the right place at the right time! If you asked me to pick the most important job in my career, that one would probably win. It taught me everything. You were in the booth one day, and then the AD took that show to editing. Spending all of that time in editing — being taught how to put a show together — was critical, and it also taught me how to work quickly.
Q: How did you end up directing your first episode of TV for Santa Barbara?
A: The executive producer asked me to do an episode, and I said okay, but not because I wanted to direct, but because how rude would that be to say no? I was wildly nervous, but I had the support of everybody. The cover of the script is still hanging on my parents' wall. I didn't do it expecting there to be another one. But it turned out that there was another.
Q: Then you moved on to episodic TV?
A: Not because I was longing to do nighttime — it scared me. It never even occurred to me that that was a possibility. But over the years in game shows, I had worked with an executive producer, Peter Noah, who would say to me, "You'd be a great comedy director." That made absolutely no sense to me.
But — fast forward — he was doing a show called Café Americain at Warner Bros., and he called and told me to come over to observe Jimmy Burrows. I said, "Thank you, but that's ridiculous. How could I possibly do that?" He said, "Because you're on the schedule. You're doing episode 15."
Q: It was a multi-camera show?
A: It was a four-camera, multi-cam show.
Q: Had you ever done that format before?
A: I had so not done that before. I cannot tell you how overwhelmed I was. But something really important happened to me on that show. We were camera blocking, and I set my shots and a wonderful camera operator named Joe Blaisdell, who's unfortunately no longer with us, called me over to his camera and said: "I'm shooting this, he is shooting this, maybe you want to shoot this …."
He was absolutely right, and it was wildly kind of him to point that out. I went back, we finished the scene, we went to another scene. I set it up and said, "Joe, does it look okay?" He looked at me and said, "Yeah." And I realized that I didn't have to know everything. That's one of the great lessons, and I was lucky to learn it then.
I thought I had to come in and know everything. It turns out that when you're lucky enough to be in that position, everybody who does all of those jobs comes in knowing what they do better than I would ever know. And you get to take advantage of that. It's not only lifesaving, it's empowering. Directors don't have to know everything.
Q: In 1997 you had a major milestone: starting as a director on Frasier.
A: Can you imagine that? I loved every minute of that show. That was like going to graduate school. And part of the reason I got asked back was because I was fast — and I was fast because of my time in daytime.
So many people will tell you that when you wrap on a Friday night, they don't say, "How was the show?" They say, "What time did you get out?" I knew how to keep things rolling. On this show, they were so good — they knew what they were doing. If you did it once, they got it and we would move on.
Q: And in 1998 you began directing 89 episodes of Just Shoot Me!
A: How lucky am I?
Q: How did that come about?
A: I got to know George Segal when I did a show called The Naked Truth. George then went to Just Shoot Me! I believe it was George — I will always love George — who spoke to [creator– executive producer] Steve Levitan about me. I met with Steve and ultimately ended up doing Just Shoot Me!
I did three episodes of Just Shoot Me! then three Frasiers, and I'd go back and forth. Can you imagine going back and forth between those two shows?
Just Shoot Me! was a dream. To this day, I see that cast all the time. Frasier was like the best dinner party you could ever be invited to; this was the best slumber party you could ever be invited to. It was fun and silly. We got the work done, we loved each other and it was a remarkable 89 episodes.
Q: Now we come to what is probably your career-defining show. In 2005 you started directing How I Met Your Mother. How did that come about?
A: During a pilot season, when I was reading some scripts, I was lucky enough to read that one. And I loved it. I was told to go meet [creator–executive producers] Carter Bays and Craig Thomas at a Starbucks in Brentwood. Every table had two young guys, and I'm like, "Are you Carter and Craig? Are you Carter and Craig?"
I finally found them, and I fell in love with them. They were so young, but they wrote a great script and we had a really great time shooting that pilot. It was a really different kind of pilot.
Q: What appealed to you about it?
A: Romance. It was cinematic and it was everything that I loved, going back to what I loved about soaps, what I loved about sitcoms. It was not only funny, but there were so many big moments in that pilot. It was the best of everything. But I didn't think it would get picked up because it was so great. If you have that good of a time, there's no way they're going to let you do it again.
Q: Did you know you were going to be the main director of the series from the beginning?
A: No, there wasn't a contract that said I had to do it, but that's what ended up happening. It was so much fun. It was a hard show to do sometimes, but it kept me interested and it made me so much better. They tested me every week. I would read the next script and I would say, "I don't know how to do this." And they'd be like, "Well you'd better learn." It kept me on my toes. It was never boring.
Q: How do you characterize your directing style?
A: I guess I'm open. I like things to seem like they're a group effort. I like to hear from other people. I like to mold things and yet stay out of the way at the same time. At the end of the day, I want everybody on that stage to take pride in what we did. It's not about me.
A good day is when you wrap and everybody feels like it was important that they were there. Everybody's valued, everybody's respected and it is a team sport in he truest sense of the word. I may have that title, but I'm not any more important than anybody else on that stage.
Q: What was it like shooting the How I Met Your Mother finale?
A: It was really emotional. The last scene that the five [lead actors] were going to do together was really tough. And as the real mother of this show, it was especially hard for me. All those tears that you see are as real as anything could be. When we finally got to the last scene — at the train station, where Ted [Josh Radnor] meets the mother — we were on a soundstage, there was rain and everybody showed up for that. That stage got very filled up with friends and executives.
My remarkable crew had been trying to get me to cry all week. At one point they acted like there was an emergency drill, and we all had to go to the lawn in front of the commissary. It was just to get me out, because they had put up a banner in front of the stage with my name and some very kind words on it. They were all staring at me and I was like, "I'm not doing this. I can't, 'cause if I start I'll never stop."
But when it came time for that last moment, saying "cut" for the final time was tough. I had a few words to say to everybody, and they gave me the yellow umbrella [that Ted and the mother meet under], which is now on display in my house. Many people have had their pictures taken with that.
Q: You've directed a fair amount of pilots in your career. What do you like about doing pilots?
A: It would have been so much easier to say, "What don't you like about doing pilots?" First of all, they're a gift. The idea that somebody writes something and takes that precious thing and hands it to you is just remarkable.
And at this point in my career, I 'm able to work with so many friends. You collect people along the way, and I've been fortunate to do pilots for people I love and respect. That part is so much fun. You get to take nothing and make it something. There are so many decisions to make to bring something to life. It 's fascinating and inspiring and overwhelming and challenging.
Q: Now you're involved with One Day at a Time on Netflix.
A: Yes.That came about because Gloria Calderon Kellett, who is the writer and showrunner with Mike Royce, was a writer on How I Met Your Mother. She invited me out for coffee, told me that One Day at a Time with Norman Lear was probably going to happen and asked if I would want to be part of it. Of course, I'd want to be part of it!
It's been a dream. It is a really good show, with spectacular actors and amazing writing. And I get to work with Norman Lear, who is in every casting session, warming up the audience, watching the run-throughs and giving great notes. It's been an honor to be a part of that show. I'm very lucky.
Q: Did you just say Norman Lear warms up the audience?
A: Absolutely. He talks about this moment in time — right now, never happening again — and that everything in your life brought you to this moment. Be so grateful for it. Those are words that resonate with me every day. He's remarkable, and the show is remarkable.
Q: What's your proudest career achievement?
A: That my phone still rings. That I still get offered the things that I get offered. That I'm not slowing down in any way. After all this time, people still want me to be a part of what they're doing. It means that I'm doing something right. That's what makes me proud.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018