In a little over a decade, production designer Gary Kordan has left an indelible impression on the world of TV comedy, bringing exciting, audacious style to such series as Workaholics, Idiotsitter and the Chris Hardwick-hosted game show @midnight. From his early work, to his recent efforts on the ultra mini-series Time Traveling Bong and the acclaimed sketch series Key & Peele, which recently concluded its five-season run, Kordan has worked tirelessly to bring a higher visual standard to television comedy.
Standing on Stage 1 of LA Center studios, where he’s shooting children’s fantasy series Just Add Magic, Kordan notes the history of the space he’s in. “It’s where they shot Mad Men,” he says, with great reverence. “But also Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2.” It’s an ironic intersection, for someone attempting to bring the gravitas of a Mad Men or Game of Thrones into a different arena. Below, Kordan speaks to his career-defining experiences on Key & Peele and Time Traveling Bong, his uphill battle in reworking the parameters of TV comedy, and exciting new possibilities in the Golden Age of television.
Is it bittersweet to look back on Key & Peele, now that its run has concluded?
Yes and no. There’s a real pride in the work we did, and then there’s also the feeling that we can’t believe we pulled it off. I look back at the work we did on all of those sketches, and I don’t know where I found the energy, the creativity, the stamina and the general ability to keep it straight.
We would start the season with a packet of 90 sketches, and we would shoot them in seven weeks, so I look back with an amazing sense of pride of how they looked, and how I pulled them off, but at the same time, I’m sort of glad that they called it at five seasons. I couldn’t leave that show because I was so a part of it, but at the same time you’re so ragged and exhausted at the end that you’re like, I cannot do another sketch.
How challenging is it to work on a sketch-based show, between the range of content required and your rapid-fire production schedule?
It’s very challenging because when we started Key & Peele, the template for sketch comedy was sort of like, it really doesn’t matter what the sets look like, or what the background looked like, or even what the sketch looked like, as long as it’s funny. When we started that show, we decided that we were going to make every single sketch look as cinematic as possible. We created that challenge for ourselves.
You’ve spoken previously about an unfortunately thoughtless aesthetic in TV comedies. How exciting is it now to be working in this Golden Age of television, where it seems that all the rules are being rewritten?
When I work with older producers that have been producing shows for a while, very often there’ll be a sense—it’s not directly said, but it’s implied—“It doesn’t matter what it looks like. You don’t need to put that much dressing, or we don’t need a scenic [designer] to age it. No one cares.” And I know what my aesthetic is, and what my crew is capable of, and I fight so much during prep on a new show to say, the sets are going to look real, they’re going to be aged, they’re going to look like HBO.
I just put myself out there, and sometimes you get into a little bit of a fight, and you say, just because it’s comedy doesn’t mean it can’t look as good as Game of Thrones. And then what happens is that they see the monitor, and they see the sketch air, and they hear the feedback—and they then trust the fact that I had a vision, and the art department, working in conjunction with all of the other creative departments—in particular, with Key & Peele—made it look like cinema. And then you never go back and create a crummy one-wall flat with one coat of paint, and go to Target and buy a couch and a plant, and think that that’s acceptable.
In terms of design, where do you think this assumption came from, that comedies require something ‘lesser than’?
I look at sitcom sets from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and they were very simple; then I look at sitcom sets from the ‘70s, and they had a little more texture, a little more layer. And then all of the sudden, the ‘80s and ‘90s came, and you look at those sets and it’s just sort of like, one coat of paint, everything came out of the showroom, and there wasn’t the attention needed for detail. I think that comes from, “it’s all about the actor, it’s all about the script, and it’s all about if it’s funny or not.” Here’s what I hate—when producers or people in production, they have this little phrase that they say, which is sort of like, “Well, Gary, if anyone’s paying attention to the color of the couch, we’re not doing our job.”
And I despise that, because I’m like—the color of the couch, the details on the end table, the color of the wall, the aging of the coffee table, with all the mail and junk food on it, enhances the realism of the comedy, and you believe the actor, and you then laugh harder at the sketch because it’s not Saturday Night Live, it’s not Mad TV, it’s not I Love Lucy. It’s something that looks like a drama, I believe this character, and yet they’re cracking me up. So I’ve always gone towards that, and I honestly don’t know why anyone else in the industry would not go in that direction.
Key & Peele and Time Traveling Bong are constantly surprising in their visual flourish, and the very specific, detailed worlds you were able to create. Is there something exciting in working on projects like these, where it feels like anything is possible?
I think there’s a level of being a bit insane that goes with this. I very often pass on shows that are a courtroom procedural, or take place in a nice house. But then when they say, “Ok, we are going to shoot three episodes of a time travel show in 12 days, with three days of prep—including traveling to Boston for two of those days—and we’re going to do it for very little money,” there’s something inside of me and my crew that says, “Oh, we have to take on this challenge. This is what makes our adrenaline flow; this is where we can go crazy with research. We can really battle it out and just fight for the best thing.”
And then it’s over, and at the end of the day, no one really knows how much my budget is, or how much money I spent, but if people really knew how big the budgets were on Key & Peele and Time Traveling Bong, they wouldn’t believe it, or I would think that there’s many people who wouldn’t even take the show because they’d be like, “There’s no way I can give you what you want for…”
Time Traveling Bong consists of only three 22 minute episodes, and in this unusual format alone, you can feel the experimental energy you’ve described. Would you equate your experience on TTB to that of shooting one short feature film?
It was insane, and yes, it did feel like we were shooting a little low-budget feature. Interestingly enough, it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where they aired it back to back without commercials, and it played like a ninety-minute feature. And it was beautiful—I never get to watch a premiere of my show on a movie screen at a film festival. So right there, it was a short film, but the way we approached it was very much deeply rooted in research and not trying to make it look like anything that had been done before with film or television.
We challenge ourselves—because we’re fans of all these genres—to do the proper research, make it look different, and then add a million layers of grime and little details. We actually had some fun secret jokes hidden in the trash heap that we built in Sun Valley. We filled it in with Broad City t-shirts; we had a Flat Ronnie from the Howard Stern Show, we had tons of little details that no one has ever seen on-camera, but we do that to amuse ourselves and keep each other challenged.
Which set piece in Time Traveling Bong was the most difficult to execute?
It only plays for a few seconds, but the trough—the gross, green, disgusting slimy trough—we built the exterior of that with a hatch on location. [Paul W. Downs] climbs in for a foot; cut to a sound stage, where we built an inclined trough on steel deck, 20 feet high. We had Nickelodeon slime that was aged and tinted to look dark green; we added hypodermic needles, and tissues, and tons of disgusting elements to it. We had a kiddy pool at the bottom of the trough to catch all the slime, we wrapped the whole stage in plastic, and as he climbs up, our special effects coordinator turns a hose on and blasts him with dark green, disgusting Nickelodeon slime, over and over again.
The entire one side of the trough was built with clear plexiglass, so we could get all the shots from the side. So keeping that clean, having it go off without a hitch, not having it leak… And we didn’t have time for resets, so we had one costume, one clean trough, and we had to get it in the first take—he gets a hypodermic needle in him, and then he continues to climb, and then, boom! We’re in the next set that we built thirty-feet away from that, which was the future set—the white rooms—where he comes out of the hatch and tries to rescue Ilana. All those scenes, and the trough, were shot in one day. Eleven hours. It was what you call a ‘Fraturday’—it was Saturday morning when we were finishing. [Laughs]
How would you summarize the Key & Peele experience?
I hold Key & Peele so close to my heart. For a production designer, for every amazing looking show like House of Cards, there’s hundreds of others that people are just working on everyday where no one notices the production design. For me, to have been able to work on a show with amazing people, and create something that people will not only remember for the comedy, but for how great it looked, could be a once-in-a-career opportunity. Mad Men—for the rest of his career, the production designer of Mad Men, [Dan Bishop], created a look that people noticed the production design for, and that’s so rare in the industry.
I’ll never be able to repeat Key & Peele, and to be honest with you, I don’t even think I’d want to do another sketch show, ever. I think I’ve done it. I think if a job opportunity came up to do another sketch show, I think I would have to pass, because I don’t think that anybody would fight as hard as we did—the creative team of that show—to make it look as good as it was funny.
I’d love if at some point (in the future), somebody, said, “What was cool about Gary’s work is he never let comedy look like what people think comedy looks like, and in some small way, maybe raised the bar.” That, to me, is a legacy.