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Student-produced sitcom gets a schooling from Modern Family

How do you manage a rotating roster of 80 cast and crew members who already have busy lives? How do you deal with location constraints and bad weather? And who’s going to order the lobster suit?

These are just a few of the challenges facing the executive producers of Sidekicked, a student-produced sitcom shot at Northwestern University School of Communication this spring. The three-episode series was pitched, developed, and written by nine students in lecturer Carla Waddles‘ winter-term class Writing the Sitcom Series for Production. The story involves an anxious college freshman who is eager to escape the shadow of his famous high school friend (“it would sort of be like if Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son was on campus,” Waddles said), only to get to school and learn they are roommates.

Back in February, three of the students from Waddles’ writing class, Joey Capuana (C13), Rachel Pologe (C12), and Gregory Porper (C12), were chosen to serve as Sidekicked‘s executive producers. They—along with 10 other students with filmmaking chops—are now taking lecturer Erik Gernand‘s class Producing the Sitcom Pilot and Episodes. (The tandem classes were the brainchild of Waddles, who said she’s indebted to Gernand for “the way he’s now leading the charge.”) An additional 20 student crew members have also signed on to help.

“They are immensely busy,” said Gernand. “This is a hard production, because they’re basically making 45 to 50 minutes of film, which is a lot for a 10-week quarter.”

The project is being funded by a grant from the School of Communication. Dean Barbara O’Keefe and Department of Radio/Television/Film chair David Tolchinsky embraced the spirit of the unknown associated with any new creative enterprise. “If the episodes turn out great,” Tolchinsky said, “then the students will have a leg up as they enter the working world with a viable series. If they don’t—I haven’t read the scripts or seen a cut yet—they will still have had the opportunity to see how actual television writing and production works.”

Capuana, Pologe, and Porper used the RTVF General Auditions Database—a database of student actor auditions filmed each year to help student filmmakers populate their works— to help cast the series. They’re employing a single-camera shooting style, using a VariCam camera that belongs to the school. And, back in March, they got a little help from Hollywood.

Thanks to the efforts of School of Communication alumna Laverne McKinnon (C87), a consultant at ION Media Networks, Gernand was able to set up a trip to Los Angeles for the student producers during winter finals week. They spent eight hours on the set of Modern Family, observing the inner workings of one of the hottest shows on television.

“My favorite part of the visit was talking with Steve Levitan, who co-created the show,” said Porper, who described the executive producer’s close on-set collaboration with the director and episode writer. “They worked together on last-minute changes, looking for other ways to be funny.”

“That’s definitely something we are planning to emulate,” Pologe added. She was struck, she said, by the set design and the personal tenor of the cast and crew. “Everyone was so nice,” she said. “Ed O’Neill just came up and started talking with us.”

The students watched O’Neill, who plays Jay, Rico Rodriguez (Manny), and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons (Lily) wrap a scene. They met several other cast members and were warmly guided around the studio by production assistant Rachael Field (C10) and Neal Cornell (C06), a writer’s assistant for the show.

Before returning to Chicago, they also met Julie Pernworth, vice president in comedy development at CBS, Rob Golenberg, manager at Evolution Entertainment, and Theresa Kang, an agent at William Morris Endeavor.

“It was a great trip,” said Gernand, “and I think it’s definitely influenced the way the students have moved into production on Sidekicked.”

Upon their return to campus, Capuana, Pologe, and Porper held a table read in front of a small audience. “They started to hear laughs,” Gernand said, “so they could see what was working and what wasn’t.”

The Sidekicked script-writing process, Waddles said, was very collaborative, with students writing in groups of three to produce three 15-minute episodes. “They had to learn how to write as a staff,” she said. “That can be frustrating, because you sometimes have to give up control. Jokes you love can get cut. But you have to learn to give that up for the greater good of the room.”

She added that while Capuana, Pologe, and Porper are serving as executive producers on the series, a great many students have been instrumental in bringing the story to life, among them the writers Victor Fanucchi (C13), Allyssa Hynes (C12), Dan Ochwat (C12), and Jordan Roth (C13), and writer-directors Alison Ho (C13), Andrew Nissen (C13), and Alec Ziff (C13).

“There are so many students working hard on this,” Gernand said. “It’s definitely a collaboration.”

“They’re learning how to work as a group,” Waddles added, “learning how to be patient and let that dynamic take over. It works. It does work in the end. Even though there can be some nervous moments getting there.”

Sidekicked is now in post-production and an on-campus screening is planned for this fall. For more details, go to www.facebook.com/Sidekicked.