A director looks to ease the strife of modern life with laughs.
To say that Ken Whittingham has been busy would be an understatement.
In the past year, the red-hot director has notched episodes of black-ish, Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, Speechless and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — and he has much more on tap for 2017.
His secret? “As soon as I’m offered a show, I research it diligently,” he says. “I find out who the writers are, try to understand their sensibilities and determine what kind of a comedy and characters we are working with.”
A winner of five NAACP Awards for his work on Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and The Office, Whittingham has had a diverse career that includes directing stints on Everybody Hates Chris, Entourage, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Middle.
As a kid growing up in L.A., Whittingham loved the slapstick of I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Benny Hill Show. He later gravitated to Richard Pryor’s topical humor and socially responsible sitcoms like Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons.
His first break — a job in the CBS mailroom — led to various gigs as a stage manager and, then, as assistant director on Malcolm & Eddie. “I didn’t know anyone in the business,” he says, “so once I got my first shot at directing, I knew I had to be a little better than everybody else.”
These days, he’s proud of the work he and his team are doing on ABC’s black-ish. “Our show offers the perspective of a successful, post–Bill Cosby black family,” he explains. “It does a great job of tackling some of the challenging issues that face us all. I applaud [creator–executive producer] Kenya Barris for approaching these topics head on.”
A father of three, Whittingham often draws on his own family life for details and tonal accuracy. “As an African American, I see a lot of issues addressed on the show that parallel my life, so there is always a chance to collaborate with the writers and offer my perspective.”
Issues aside, if you want to direct sitcoms, Whittingham says, you need to have a funny bone. “You’ve got to look at life from a comedic point of view. Modern life is so stressful. If you can make people laugh and help them forget their worries for a while, you have really accomplished something.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017