By Jason Tanamor
Jeff Cesario is best known for his stand-up comedy. What people probably don't associate the comedian with are his mad writing skills. These were evident on the HBO series' “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Dennis Miller Live,” to which both shows Cesario had a role in creating. Of course, some of you may not even have heard of Jeff Cesario, but he’s been working his tail off nonetheless, which serves as a testament on how “into” his work he really is.
I've had the great fortune of following Cesario's career, and an even greater fortune of getting to know him personally. When Cesario agreed to talk to me again, not only did I listen, I learned.
Q - So tell me, how did “Dennis Miller Live” come about?
A - Dennis and I were friends from the stand-up circuit. He'd just had a more traditional syndicated talk show that ended abruptly, and Michael Fuchs at HBO committed to six episodes with only one caveat: he wanted Dennis to include a rant. Denny had, I would say, 80% of the show mapped out. I had no experience behind the scenes, but Dennis to his credit just said, "You know me better than anyone, produce this for me." Garry Shandling helped me make the decision to take the gig. I added a couple tweaks to Denny's very strong roadmap - have the show be about one topic, dim the lights from monologue to rant, use a big screen TV to collectively write - and we cut this new TV suit out of whole cloth to fit around Dennis.
Q - You had no idea if this was even going to work?
A - That was the thrill - there was nothing like it out there, we just made it up. The show lasted nine seasons on HBO and won a duffel of Emmys, most of them for writing. I did the first three seasons and it was intoxicating, tremendous fun. What most people don't realize is that "Dennis Miller Live" was the first cable series to beat network series for a major award, like lead actor or writing. This was '94, the cable industry was still giving out Ace awards and the Emmys were nominating cable shows but then ignoring them on Finals night. Occasionally Colleen Dewhurst would win for guest appearance on a made-for-cable movie or something, but when it came to mainstream TV, and the major awards, we were the first to beat the networks. Ever.
Q - Were there ever troubles along the way?
A - Well, we were really flying blind, but you know, Houston Control says "Launch," you get in the goddamn spaceship and go for it. I remember our first episode featured some intricate essay-like writing and Dennis was shockingly stalwart considering the intense pressure he was under. But afterwards he came off immediately, two feet off-stage, looked me in the eye and said, "It's too preachy, I'm a comic, we gotta up the jokes, Jeffro!" The next week I just kept hammering the staff, myself included, for jokes that we could weave around the topic. Plus, I was freaking out because we were trying to get big name guests, a task at which we mostly failed those first six episodes, but we had a bead on Brett Butler, who was white-hot from "Grace Under Fire." She'd commit, then uncommit, and back and forth, and finally, for the first time in my then-five weeks of producing, the hair on my back went up and I just told her people, "I can't wait any longer. We'll use her later in the season." And I hung up. Which was a great feeling until I realized, "I have no guest for Friday, and it's Wednesday."
Q - What happened then?
A - I got on the horn with Jim Miller, Dennis's brother, who was building a juggernaut as a manager of good young comedic talent, including Jim Carrey. Carrey was fresh off his amazing film debut in "Ace Ventura" and in fact was up in the mountains of Colorado shooting "Dumb and Dumber." But if you can believe it, the perception in some corners of the business was that he wasn't at the time the “score” Butler would have been. But I got on with Jim Miller and I said, "Jim, I need this, we'll send a truck up to Aspen, we'll write the bit for Carrey if he wants, we'll make this as easy and painless and non-time-consuming as humanly possible, pleeeeeeaaase, pretty pleeeeeaase!" And Jim Miller sighed and said, "Okay." Only THEN did I go to Kevin Slattery and say, "Can we get a truck up to Aspen to do this as a live remote?" And only THEN did I call Carolyn Strauss and say, "Uhh, Carolyn, no live guest this week, but Jim Carrey by satellite, I promise it'll be amazing!" So Slattery starts working like a madman on the truck, I dive in with the writers to come up with bits - mind you, it's now Thursday, we're on the air LIVE in 24 hours and we have nothing locked yet. But the topic was "Fame," and fortunately Jim Carrey is impossibly talented, and I fed him a simple, dumb idea he found funny - to insist fame was not affecting him and he was still a regular guy, but to then act like the biggest asshole celeb on the planet. And Carrey took that nub and worked out the bit in his hotel in Aspen. Meanwhile, I would pass Slattery's office and he's chewing someone a new asshole on the phone - "Blizzard?! I don't want to hear it! Get chains on the fuckin' truck and get it up to Aspen!" The truck makes it there, I kid you not, 90 minutes before air. We are way, way out on thin ice.
Q - And the broadcast went off with no incident?
A - Now, one thing you have to know about Dennis - he's a gunslinger. When someone walks in firing, Dennis's game goes up to match that. So Dennis knows Jim Carrey is his guest, he respects Jim, he wants to make this special, and he burns through the monologue, hilarious, you can feel it's an electric night, and Carrey comes on, via satellite, all gosh-shucks, I'm still me, fame hasn't affected me, and then a waiter comes in with a hot chocolate on a tray that Jim had ordered, and it's not the right hot chocolate. And Jim - from a sitting position, karate-kicks the tray out of the guy's hands 30 feet in the air and then goes nose-to-nose with him, just eviscerating the poor bastard. You could hear the crowd literally yelp in shock, then instantly start belly-laughing. It was amazing. After that moment Carrey took it even higher, and Dennis was thinking so quickly on his feet that I literally couldn't move. The next 20 minutes went by in 40 seconds. We won our first Emmy for that show.
Q - So much for being “just” a writer on the show?
A - I wrote and executive produced. Fortunately, I had an experienced co-exec named Kevin Slattery who knew EVERYTHING I didn't know - crews, schedules, legal, marketing, etc. Kevin handled ALL of that so I could focus on helping Dennis get a completely new-shaped balsawood aircraft in the air. I found that producing really meant exactly that - someone would walk in your office demanding something, and you would have to produce it. It was like weird, corporate magic. From the biggest issue to the littlest detail, all presented with the same level of intensity. One day it would be, "The President of HBO is on the line and he wants to know why you're doing a show about the Death of Liberalism!" and the next day it would be, "We're out of fucking Ding Dongs in the writers' room!" The fact that I took time formulating an answer instead of just blurting something out seemed to work to my advantage. It was mistaken for calm, I think, and people started to have some ill-placed faith in me. And let me say this right now for the first time publicly, especially after an additional dozen years in the business, I KNOW there had to have been meetings between HBO and Dennis and his manager Brad Grey at which HBO tried at the very least to add an executive producer with more experience than me to the mix, and to his credit Dennis, and Brad, said no.
Q - Writers, for the most part, typically work best alone. How was it getting a bunch of writers together to work one on project?
A - I was lucky to have great writers - Kevin Rooney, Eddie Feldmann, Ed Driscoll, Greg Greenberg, Mike Dugan, David Feldman (guys who had big egos as performers themselves and certainly a healthy opinion of their own work) - and these guys did the most amazing thing, they wrote stuff COLLECTIVELY. Now, most talk shows, writers get all the assignments every morning and go into their separate little cubicles and pound out ideas hoping when Host Daddy reads them all, he picks theirs. That's the process. We certainly did that first step, but then in addition, my guys were willing to sit at a table TOGETHER and write, rewrite, and judge each other's jokes honestly. Yes, at times it was like trying to write the Constitution by locking seven Irish drunks in a room, but the show, the material, and Dennis, were stronger for it.
Q - Why did you decide to leave Dennis?
A - I knew I really wanted to write narrative stuff. You can only write so many Boutros-Boutros Ghali jokes. I had written a Jesse Helms joke - he'd said something horrific and I wrote that he claimed "he was misunderstood through his hood" - and then a week later he said some other dumb-ass thing and we had to come up with another good Jesse Helms joke, and I thought to myself, "I don't think I can do this much more, I gotta pursue my dream."
Q - Is this how you got hooked up with Garry Shandling and “The Larry Sanders Show”?
A - I moved from "DML" to Larry Sanders and was officially on staff for one season, but prior to that, I always wrote monologue jokes for Garry, for Larry. Larry always did a full talk show monologue in most episodes, and Garry didn't want it to sound lame, he wanted good jokes. I had met Garry through Dennis, ironically, back when Garry guest-hosted the "Tonight Show" in the late '80s for Johnny Carson. Garry always complemented the actual writing staff by bringing in a couple of his own guys, and Dennis would help out. I'll never forget it, they were stuck on a Tammy Faye Bakker setup and Dennis said, "Let's call my friend Jeff." On the phone Denny gives me the set-up: Tammy Faye Bakker was looking for guest hosts for her talk show, and I said, "They decided on Joan Rivers because that way, they wouldn't have to change makeup ladies.” And Garry laughed and brought me in, and I started writing jokes for him. Judd Apatow and I wound up working on I think three Grammy telecasts and one Emmy telecast that Garry hosted. Great fun, and Garry was topnotch.
So when Garry found out I was looking, he offered me a spot on his staff. I had done a Sanders script the season prior, when I was still on "DML," with Judd Apatow, and Garry had liked it. It was called "The Bump." My name had come into play on several episodes, whenever Larry was closing his show, he would always say something like, "I'd like to thank my guests Sharon Stone and Tom Petty, and my apologies to comedian Jeff Cesario, we ran out of time, we'll get him on tomorrow." And no one would ever see if I got on or not, because it was a complete 2-second throwaway. So I thought, "What if Jeff never got back on, and Larry feels so guilty for bumping him ten times that he vows to jam him into an already-jam-packed show come hell or high water?" Judd liked the premise and really energized it with a great ticking clock (and a tremendous flip-payoff to that beat that Garry came up with) and a great story line about Hank losing his dad and wanting to do a eulogy on-air. To this day, people still come up to me who are fans of that episode to say they liked it.
Q - How was it like working with some of your good friends?
A - Being on staff was amazing. It was like Narrative Camp. I would just go in every day and learn and learn, from Garry, from John Riggi the show runner (who's now on "30 Rock,") from John Vitti, a fantastic writer, and more. Peter Tolan wasn't on staff but still doing at least a script or two per season, and I loved reading his stuff because as deep and dark as that show was and his writing could get, Peter also never shied away from a great, big fat joke. Though I was a rookie as a script writer, fortunately I could bring a couple of other skills to the table. With my experience, I actually began producing the talk-show-within-the-show: I organized the monologues and pre-interviewed guests, and I think that helped that part of the show raise its game a little. I think I became a bit of cipher for Wally Langham, who played Phil the Jagoff Writer, and I'm secretly proud of that.
Q - You seem to have a bias for HBO. Did you sign a lifetime contract with the network?
A - Well, I just worked for two incredibly talented guys in Dennis and Garry who respected my work, which was a stroke of great fortune, and HBO, which was an unbelievably supportive bunch of people. These were my first two TV experiences, so even though I knew at the time they were great gigs it took me another decade to fully appreciate how good HBO was. They gave you a long, long leash. In fact, I could literally see Carolyn Strauss physically straining to keep her hand off the show, like Dr. Strangelove in the middle of his wheelchair-3rd Reich monologue. Carolyn, Michael Fuchs, Jeff Bewkes, Chris Albrecht, good people who just said, "Better let the talent run with it." I can't wait to get another project placed over there.
Q - Working is one thing. How was it like writing with Dennis Miller?
A - You couldn't ask for better situations, because whatever the public perception of them, both Dennis and Garry believed 100% in the strength of the written word and were ridiculously talented writers themselves, so they KNEW how hard writing a good joke was. They never, never once, pissed on a writer or casually laid the blame at "the staff's" feet when a joke went belly up. And for as cranky as Dennis could get about certain things he never once went off on a writer. He was a breeze to write jokes for. He used to say, "Don't worry about 'my voice.' Just write a great joke, I'll give it a Dennis Miller feel." That is an incredibly freeing thing to say to young writers. He didn't run his staff based on fear, he ran it based on respect. Dennis had a great eye for talent, too. He found writers in nooks and crannies other people never bothered to check out. And he loved to write as well.
Q - And Garry?
A - Garry was just unbelievably talented. Watching him break a story is what I imagine it was like watching Bill Walsh come up with a game plan during the heyday of the Joe Montana 49ers. I remember once Garry came into the writers' room after a week of us writing and punching and polishing, the day before shooting, and he said, "I got it - we need to start the story where it ends. That's the episode." And we tore the script up and started again and damned if he wasn't right. He was, honestly, ALWAYS right about story. Just an internal magnet in which he had complete trust. He always wrote past the story too, just out there exploring to see if where the story currently ended is where it should in fact, end. And as neurotic as he was about characters and their emotional roots, he also - I'm guessing from his great stand-up muscle - would hit a joke HARD when it was teed up. I remember an episode - "Hank's Jewish Roots" - which I believe was a Tolan script. Hank Kingsley decides he's Jewish and for the first time ever, Hank gets serious about it, he's not a silly puppet, he believes in the tenets of Judaism, he's not taking the yarmulke off on air, despite threats, despite camera angles that cut him off at the forehead, despite ridicule - Hank is finally making an honest-to-God STAND. And we were struggling with how we finally crowbar him out of it, and Garry said, "What if Artie walks in and says, 'Hank, the orange juice people called, they're pulling you as their spokesman.' And Hank immediately yanks off the yarmulke and says, 'Well, that's that.'" Such a big joke and a perfect ending for Hank.
Q - How much rewriting was involved on a given episode?
A - That varied. This was not a typical sitcom. Garry wrote from a dramatic template and just searched for the funny moments from that reality, or actually just let those moments bubble up. He had great faith in his cast as well, and built into the process run-throughs in which Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Janeane Garofalo, Penny Johnson, Wally, all of them - got to toss in suggestions. I think Peter Tolan and Judd Apatow had the highest batting averages - they probably hit 50% of the script on the first draft. Everyone else was down in the 30% range. I was at about 10%, at least the first half of the season. But John Riggi ran a great room, and punch-up sessions were always loose and invigorating.
Q - I think most people know you as a stand-up comedian. How is the writing process different for stand-up versus that of a television show?
A - Well, writing stand-up for myself is great, because I trust the guy delivering the joke. And I know I'll find something there, either on the page or in the ether between me and the crowd. I will try a lot of different stuff in my stand-up. For a while there, I was trying to be the cleverest guy in the room, and then around 2000 I realized how exhausted I was from that and how it ignored some of the things I'm good at organically, things I'd done earlier in my career but had let lay dormant because I thought I needed to be a perfect little monologist. So in 2000, 2001, I started getting into longer bits, some autobiographical stories, some voices, some character work. I'm amazed at guys like Greg Proops, Patton Oswalt, Paul Tompkins and so many others who just unzip and let 'er swing on stage, really, genuinely loose. And wildly funny. I'm still a “page” guy, but I'm exploring more and more.
As a stand-up, I'm the Guy - writer, director, performer. On a sitcom, I'm the guy helping the Guy. That right there brings a more supportive, collaborative attitude to the job. In either case, my job is to make "The Guy" look good. I always admired pianist Herbie Hancock, because he was one of the best sidemen in jazz and also one of the best leaders. I'm looking to be the Herbie Hancock of comedy.
Q - What do you prefer doing, stand-up comedy or creating/producing/writing for television?
A - Stand-up is such a rush, there's nothing like it. C'mon, people laughing at shit I made up? Then, to actually survive and realize I need to get better, and to actually feel myself getting better as a performer and a story teller, and generally, just getting better at being me on stage, it's ridiculous fun. Unless the opener sucks, then fuck what I just said. But to then create a show or a movie idea that was always just "living room" fun, until it actually happened for real on "Jack Frost," and my ideas came to fruition, and that's a whole other drug. I was one of four guys who wrote on the film, and I was the last. And I remember writing a scene, I had to do it in like, 25 minutes, for Kelly Preston and Joseph Walsh, commiserating over the loss of dad Michael Keaton, and I had her put marshmallows carefully in Joseph's hot cocoa, one, two, three - then to break the emotional tension, I thought, "why doesn't she just dump the bag in there?" And then like, ten minutes later, it's ON FILM and people are yelling "cut!" and "print!" and I'm thinking, "Holy shit, I was kinda only FIGURING that might be a good idea!" And then it shows up on the screen, and thank God, it worked. It helps to have Kelly Preston and Joseph Cross and Michael Keaton. I'm hooked, and I'm determined to make funny movies.
Q - You are a huge sports nut, particularly the University of Wisconsin, to which you share your opinions on "Rome is Burning" and "Sportalicious." How much fun is it to rip on today's athletes like Barry Bonds, Michael Vick and Martina Hingis?
A - I love the way you just tossed Martina Hingis on the bonfire there. The odds are small she'd find her way to this story, but what if she does? She's sitting there in a Ritz Carlton somewhere waiting on a $37 grilled cheese to get wheeled into her suite on a Mercedes Benz AMG drink cart and she reads that question and thinks, "Who the fuck is Jeff Cesario?" Oh yeah, I'll catch the flak, because no one ever thinks, "who's the guy asking the questions?" They just zoom in on the purported subject of the interview and blast both barrels. "How DARE he toss me in a dumpster with those two dickheads!"
Right now for a comic writing sports stuff, it's like Europe when they discovered absinthe. It's crazy, you begin to believe it will never end. I have mellowed to the point where I'll choose silly over caustic many times, just because, hey on some level, everybody's just trying to get through the day, you know? But if someone really obviously deserves it, I'll try to find an angle that feels like it's mine and is a bit fresh. This last week on Sportalicious the headline was, "Bonds Enters Not Guilty Plea Telepathically Through Now-Giant Cranium."
Q - Is there a certain method to your writing mayhem?
A - I used to write religiously and sort of follow a "who-what-when-where-why?" approach, which is great for nailing rock-solid jokes on virtually any premise. But the last five years or so in my own stand-up, I've consciously gotten away from that, just in an attempt to say only shit that really pops in my head, only stuff I really feel. I want to relax and find the most natural path to what I think is funny. Put it this way, I've got both fart jokes and a tracheotomy bit in my act now, and it's freeing. They're there because I think they're funny. It was kind of scary at first when I couldn't come up with a joke on a subject, because I would NEVER give up in the past, I was just like a pit bull latched onto a premise even if there was no meat on it, it was just instinct. But now I just go, "You know something? I don't really care about Viagra. So guess what, no joke there."
Q - You’ve always been my favorite interview because of your wealth of information and the stories you share. Will there or has there ever been a sitcom for Jeff Cesario?
A - Not really. I had a sitcom script deal at NBC that didn't go to pilot. Here are possibly two reasons I didn't get into that world:
1. I was always interested in writing and producing my own thing and consequently never developed relationships with the guys in the TV trenches who are today's sitcom creators and show runners.
2. I never thought there was much about me or my act that translated easily to the sitcom form. I always thought I was more of a talk show guy, or some sort of hybrid show, or hell with it, just go act in someone else's thing. Even now I wouldn't build a sitcom around me, but I'd write something I felt passionate about and then see if there was a part in there somewhere for me.
Q - Let’s just say you were given your own show. What would that entail?
A - Legally because of the strike I'm not allowed to pitch, even to you. That's only 1/4 joke. I have a single-cam spec script I've done that I think is solid and I'd love to sell it and sneak in there in a small juicy roll as a guy on the down escalator. And I'm working on a very unique talk show concept with Joe Furey and Adam Felber, two insanely talented guys. But beyond that, you're gettin' nothin' from me, pal, or I'm sure someone will have it bastardized on YouTube by tonight and getting 400,000 hits because they've put a 19-year-old nearly naked coed in it.
Q - Being a writer, is it hard to see your work changed in the creative process?
A - That's just a muscle you have to develop, one that might be a little harder for stand-ups to exercise. But the simple answer is this: If I respect who's changing it, I'm on board 100%. If I don't, it's trouble. Like, no sweat ever working with Dennis, or Garry, or working dialogue on "Jack Frost" with Michael Keaton. Stupid fun. That wasn't even work. That was spitballing over coffee. So to keep the ulcers to a minimum, I try to only work with people I respect.
Q - Do you ever feel like the writing changes are for the worse and NOT the better?
A - God, yes. I've had people completely eliminate punch lines. Just not know it was the punch line, not know it was the LAUGH, and just take it out like a soft peach in a produce fridge. But again, nowadays, I just figure, "They're the ones making the call, so it's their call. Now, go home and try to work it so I'M THE GUY makin' the call."
Q - What’s on the burner for you now?
A - The two TV projects I mentioned above, plus a simple roundtable idea and two movie scripts - one I'm hoping to sell to a director who has expressed interest, as soon as the strike ends, and another I'm trying to raise money for and shoot myself. I can't give you any details or I'll have to jump off the roof of the building next to yours and fly into your open hotel room like Matt Damon in "The Bourne Ultimatum" and then snap your neck.
Q - All right then. How can people learn more about you?
A - My sports website, Sportalicious.com. It's more of a blog that I get to freshen once a week, every Tuesday. My DVD, “You Can Get a Hooker Tomorrow Night,” available at JeffCesario.com.
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous."
By Jason Tanamor