The following piece contains spoilers about Childrens Hospital Season 7.
When it comes to giving their Eugene Ionesco-on-acid comedy series a cinematic flair, the Childrens Hospital team looks to cast member Lake Bell as their director.
The actress, who plays Dr. Cat Black on the Adult Swim comedy series, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival for her feature directorial debut In A World… However, she’s been the go-to gal on six episodes of Childrens Hospital well before she was an indie breakout. This year Childrens Hospital is looking to reclaim its Emmy reign with Bell’s directed episode, “Just Like Cyrano De Bergerac.” Childrens Hospital owned two back-to-back Emmy wins in 2012 and 2013 within the short-format live-action entertainment program category but last year lost out to Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns episode in which President Barack Obama appeared as a guest.
The Childrens Hospital staff first noticed Bell’s cinematic talents after catching her 2011 Sundance short Worst Enemy, after which they approached her to direct the episode, “The Boy With The Pancakes Tattoo.” That episode was one of six submitted when the series won its 2013 Emmy. This year, with the change of Academy rules, “Cyrano” is the only submission for the show.
When scripts are doled out, Bell tends to land the ones calling for an auteurish sensibility, and the stylistic punchline in “Cyrano” is how she stages a game of telephone between several parties who are feeding lines to Dr. Blake (creator/EP/star Rob Corddry) and his love interest Roxanne (Lindsey Sloane). It’s a hysterical string of sequences that takes the joke to a new level; even better than what Amy Heckerling pulled off with her prison game of telephone in the 1984 Michael Keaton film Johnny Dangerously. Bell shows myriad personalities transmitting one-liners to Dr. Blake and Roxanne as they make love (“I’m going to split your ass in two,” and, “I’ve been here waiting for you”). Bell accomplishes this through a series of divided blocks onscreen of the characters, a technique often seen on the TV show 24 and also in Ang Lee’s The Hulk. Keep in mind, Bell only has two days to prep and two days to shoot an episode.
To get it so that each character was framed just right, Bell says “I had to create a little choreography for each actor, so that when we broke the fourth wall, they’re all looking in the same direction for help. It was a fun visual. Everyone had to look the same exact way when they say, ‘I’ve been waiting here for you.’ They all had to do the same rhythm and beats to make the tile mechanism work.”
Whenever Bell gets to direct the series, which largely uses steadicam shots, she specifically requests a camera dolly so that she can create a zig-zagging timing between the jokes. Roxanne’s restaurant date with Dr. Blake, who has his prime Cyrano Dr. Ritchie (Ken Marino) seated behind him, served as a signature scene to use the dolly. It also came in handy when the camera segues from Dr. Ritchie to Dr. Blake and Roxanne during their sex scene. “The overhead post-coital shot I use here is one I enjoy, also seen in Worst Enemy and Into the World…” says Bell.
“After we gave Lake the script, she came at us with a complete edit in mind,” adds Corddry about ramping up the episode.
For a series that plays its comedy aggressively large from a handicapped, sex-driven hospital administrator played by Megan Mullally to Corddry’s clown-faced medic, Bell’s insistent direction to her actors, and even to its Corddry, is to play every scene seriously. The jokes are already built into the script.
“The joke is going to work a thousand times better if it’s not taken to the Nth degree,” she says. “Actually, on the show, you have to earn your right to be super goofy. But the place you start from has to be pretty real.”
Currently, she is in pre-production on her second feature The Emperor’s Children, which Noah Baumbach adapted from the Claire Messud novel about three Brown University thirtysomething alums during the moments leading up to 9/11.
“Lake is very intensive from the beginning more than anyone else,” Corddry says. “She thinks like a director on a motion picture. She’ll bring in certain images, clippings from a magazine in regards to show she’ll want to shoot the episode.” The creator/EP refers to an episode she directed that wound up being titled “Triangles” after Bell deconstructed all the relationship triangles in the script. “She brought in photos from noir movies where the swath of light would create a triangle,” he adds.
As for next season, Corddry says, “We don’t have the season running order yet. We decide that once we have all the episodes in front of us, edited.” Season 6 ended with Dr. Blake firing everyone and sending the entire staff home. When Season 7 starts, we find the doctor alone at work in the hospital, while also observing what the other medics do during their layoff time from the hospital. “The finale is a two-parter that is hard to tease,” says Corddry, “but it allows us to parody another genre.”
One of the show’s standard guffaws is how its never ever beholden to its timeline. Season 5 set the hospital’s location at an army base in Japan, while its usual locale has been Brazil. Although, it certainly feels like any U.S. city.
“Time means nothing on our show,” Corddry says. “After all, we’re a 15-minute show. The larger feeling you get is that anything can happen. We’re not bound to anybody or anywhere.”
To see Bell’s Emmy-nomated episode, click play below: