Jason Hsiao changed careers as a result of the Internet boom and bust. He ended up in New York City as a Production Assistant on the Television show Crank Yankers. There he found a love for comedy and TV production. He has gone on to work on other comedy programs with David Spade and Colin Quinn. Keep reading to find out about the life of a freelance producer and how humbling, but rewarding TV jobs can be.
*This interview contains explicit language.*
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in television?
JH: I originally lived in the Bay Area and worked in business consulting. Then I jumped ship for the tech world, worked at this little start-up and did the boom and bust of the whole Internet bubble. I went out to New York because there was nothing left to do in San Francisco. I still wanted to do something in business or have the chance to work with creative people as I did at my start-up. My first break... I ended up working on this Comedy Central show Crank Yankers. Basically, hilarious prank calls reenacted by puppets. I started on that as a PA (Production Assistant). I literally was doing the coffee, the copies. I was driving around Manhattan trying to make deliveries. I went to a good school. It was humbling. I mean, I went from the posh world of working in business consulting where I was getting flown all over the country with an expense account, to finding myself in the frozen section of a grocery store trying to pick out what would make good puppet barf.
CCB: Was it a goal of yours to work with comedians or did that happen by chance?(Jason has worked on several shows with comedians such as Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, The Showbiz Show with David Spade)
JH: I ended up working on that show because a friend of mine actually worked on that show and he hired me. In some ways it was a little bit of who you know. I enjoyed working on that and the producers kept me around as I showed I could do more than copies and coffees. I really enjoyed working in comedy and those were my initial connections.
CCB: How did you learn about producing?
JH: In this business there isn't any kind of lateral move into it, everyone has to start at the bottom. It doesn't matter what you majored in or if you went to a good school. In some respects going to a good school sometimes works against you because people almost get more competitive against you. If you're good you can move up pretty fast. It's not quite as structured as your typical corporate business. You really learn everything on the job, try and find mentors, and keep working your way up.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a TV producer?
JH: There are so many different types of producers.
CCB: What kind of producer are you?
JH: There are two main types of producers; the more logistical producers who deal with budgets, schedules, all the details.
CCB: Are those the line producers?
JH: Basically it's production management. So, it's line producers, production managers, production coordinators. The other half is the more creative producers who in television often come up as writers and sometimes directors. I was lucky I was able to make a jump over to the more creative side. Really there are so many different facets of what need to get done and so many different shows. There is no typical day.
CCB: What are your responsibilities as a producer?
JH: The responsibilities change during different parts of the production life-cycle. Basically though, I deal a lot with working with writers, helping assign what needs to be written, then figuring out what and how we want to shoot, and then figuring how to make it all come to life. My biggest thing recently has been getting involved in post-production and working with all the editors to get everything cut together.
CCB: What are you currently working on?
JH: Right now I'm working on this award show called Big in 06 for VH1.
CCB: What is your involvement with that show?
JH: It's such a huge show and staff. I'm actually more involved on the logistical side of things. It's really getting involved in budget, schedule, and hiring the teams. It could be anything from figuring how to get our whole team and crew in and out of the building, how we get our set built which includes all these video screens and crazy lights. Our talent, how we are going to rehearse with them and make sure they are all happy.
CCB: Is that a live show?
JH: It's what they call live to tape. They shoot it as if it's going to be live, but they actually air it the next day. They kind of do some tweaking to it.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a TV producer?
JH: What makes the TV industry different from working in film or theater is that TV is a writer's medium. If you want to get into TV on the creative side you have to be a really strong writer. Not everyone but most people make their way up on the creative side as a writer. Film and theater sometimes there are writer/director types but usually whoever writes the script they hand you a check and say thank you very much, we'll talk to you later. They take your script and do whatever they want. If you want to be on the creative side you have to write every day. If you want to be on the more logistical side of television you have to be extremely detail oriented.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming TV producers?
JH: Breaking into the industry takes a little bit of luck. Whatever opportunity you are given whether it's steaming a drape or having to file some production reports, do everything like you are the best at it. You may think that you went to a good school, you're smarter than that, or you could handle a lot more than driving a crate across town. It's not until you can show that you are trustworthy enough to drive that crate across town that they will give you something more important. It's more about trying to find ways to earn people's trust. My two rules I always tell new hires... you're allowed to fuck up once at something, but not twice. And never have to be told something, anything, a second time.
CCB: As far as finding opportunities?
JH: I should say that 80% of the business is in Los Angeles. I'd say the rest of it is in New York. There's probably little to nothing outside of that unless you want to go into local news. The first step would be to figure out how to get to either LA or New York. From there it's all perspiration, trying to get from one job to the next.
CCB: Can you talk about Dirty Stinkin' Politics? How that developed and what you hope it will become?
JH: That's a show that I pitched to Comedy Central last August. It's a political comedy. It's a character, story based comedy about Winston and Forrest, a rightwing guy and leftwing guy who end up in New York because they are working for these two senators who got their own debate show. It is how these two guys have to deal with real life (NYC)... instead of politics on paper (DC). Like it doesn't matter how liberal you are... how do you deal with that homeless guy taking a shit in your foyer everyday?
Once you pitch it they work with you to develop the idea, they being whatever network it is. Then when they think it's in a good place if you haven't written a script already they have you write a pilot script. Then you go back and forth until it's in a place they like it and that is where I am now. If they like the script they order a pilot and then you get to shoot one episode. I'm sure with that they focus group test it and circulate it internally and if it's something they feel fits their network and you are lucky they will order a season's worth of shows.
CCB: How do you decide what types of projects you work on?
JH: I don't always necessarily have a choice. Sometimes you can go a few months looking for your next project. Sometimes it's whatever is available or whatever I get offered. But other times you’re kicking yourself for having to turn down great opportunities. It's all about timing. If you happen to be in demand, then from there it's the people who are working on it. It's the type of show. I'm still probably somewhere in the middle. I'm not all mighty powerful enough to have my choice of twelve projects to work on.
CCB: What is life like as a freelancer?
JH: It's not for most people and sometimes I wonder if it's for me. Sometimes you get six calls in one week. Sometimes you go two, three, four months and there are no shows around. You don't get health insurance. It's pretty unstable. But, that is what you sign up for if you want to be on the production side of television. There are some more secure things like if you go to LA there are some production companies. I'd say most people are freelancers who work on the production side of television. If you want something more stable, you could be, say, a staff accountant at the network.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
JH: There are so many different types of people that work on a show. You have every personality and as a producer you have to work with everyone from directors, writers, line producers, network people, executive producers, and PA's. It's learning how to deal with every type of personality and make everyone happy. On the creative front how do you take a creative idea and get everyone to buy into it. How do you take everyone's thoughts and come up with one final product.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
JH: You work to put together a show and you have an audience of hundreds or thousands of laughing people and it's being seen by, hopefully, millions of people. The fruits of your labor are very evident. Sometimes you get a chance to work on shows for a good cause like I worked on this concert for Katrina and a show for World AIDS Day.
CCB: What are your career aspirations?
JH: The dream is to make it up to Executive Producer. The dream from there is to be a creator of a hit show.