Producer Bruce Ferber

I opened a door on a closed set on Stage 14 at Paramount Thursday, February 14, 2002, and walked down a long dark corridor. Then I turned a corner and stumbled on to a live shoot of the TV show Sabrina The Teenage Witch.

I ducked back into the corridor, gathered myself, and then casually slipped behind the cameras. The director yelled 'Action' and the scene began.

Six years ago, when I was new to Los Angeles, I worked for about a year as an extra on TV shows like this one. Eventually I got into the Screen Actors Guild through my background work.

Today I find producer Bruce Ferber and pull him aside for a chat.

Luke: "You started with Roger Corman?"

Bruce: "I graduated from NYU in 1974 with a degree in film, just after Martin Scorsese left. I didn't take one television course. Everybody wanted to be like Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. It was only when I came to Los Angeles, that there seemed to be so many more options in television.

"I worked in B movies. I worked for free as a production assistant on the Roger Corman film "Death Race 2000." From there, I segued to assistant film editing on such productions as "Cheerleaders to the Rescue" and "Black Shampoo," with the hopes of one day becoming a writer and feature director.

"I had a few friends who wrote for sitcoms. I'd written some screenplays but I'd never thought about getting into television. I'd always wanted to do movies. Back in the '70s, I don't think there were as many people coming out of film school wanting to write sitcoms as there are now.

"I wrote some spec scripts on the side. I gave one to a staff writer on a show at Paramount. He gave it to his friend. He gave it to Barry Kemp on Taxi... And soon I get my first freelance assignment as a writer for Bosom Buddies. I got my first staff job on the show House Calls. Then I worked on a car-wreck of a show, Star of the Family, that had some talented people on it like Brian Dennehy. He played a fireman, just like he did in his latest sitcom.

"I bounced around from show to show. It was hard to land anything on a quality show at that point. I did Webster, Jennifer Slept Here, Duet. Paramount signed me to a small overall deal. On Open House, I learned how to produce. I moved up through the ranks.

"I joined Home Improvement in 1991 and I worked on it for six years. That show changed my life. It ran eight years and went into syndication.

"As executive producer, you're the head writer. You're responsible for casting, editing, all aspects of the show aside from technical. Home Improvement was done before a live audience. That adds pressure. If you've got a joke that's been funny all week, and then you do in front of a live audience, and nobody laughs, you've got to come up with something on the spot.

"We used to have something we called 'The 50% makeup.' No matter what the joke was, if Tim Allen said it, they would laugh harder if it was a surprise. And the director would have to cut to reaction shots as the laughs rolled on.

"We used to get 20 people from the Universal tour on Wednesdays and bring them to the set. And we'd run through the whole show and see what they thought was funny. It was a sneak preview of how the bigger audience would react on Friday night when we taped the show."

Luke: "What was it like being brought on to Sabrina in its fifth year?"

Bruce: "It was weird. The show was in chaos. There were a lot of fences that needed mending. We had to move Sabrina from high school to college, which changed the whole feel of the show. We cast new people."

Luke: "It's a delicate process."

Bruce: "You have a million personalities in the studio and at the network that you need to make happy. Your star [Melissa Joan Hart] is used to a certain way of working and we want to make sure that she is happy. When I came in, I lightened her work load. They were doing five or six stories an episode and I do two. There were fewer scenes and fewer wardrobe changes. It was a more streamlined operation and she had more time to herself.

"We shoot 22 episodes a year. We shoot three days a week from August until February 15. The writers will come back in June."

Luke: "They say now that the best writing is on television."

Bruce: "If you look at the slate of drama pilots that have been ordered this year, and many of the writers are feature writers. Writers realized that you get more of a chance to tell your stories in TV. With features, they're working for Jerry Bruckheimer.

"It's harder than ever to get a show on the air but in terms of the subject matters you can write about, the boundaries are wider than ever. The problem is that when networks see a trend of what is doing well, they want to mimic it. The WB has a hit with Smallville, so now we have The Young Lone Ranger and The Young Batman. Chances are that imitations won't be as good as the originals."

Luke: "What part of your job grabs your interest?"

Bruce: "The writing."

Luke: "Do you ever burn out?"

Bruce: "Oh yeah."

Luke: "So what do you do?"

Bruce: "The good part is that you have three months to recharge every year. I took a year off after Home Improvement. What burns you out is producing the show week in and week out.

"For some people, they need the money. So that gets their interest. What should get you going is when you get an idea that turns you on."

Luke: "Are there any awards that you and your show have received that mean something to you?"

Bruce: "Yes, one for Home Improvement from an environmental foundation."

From Emagazine.com: A carton of recycled copier paper sits on the counter of the ER nurses' station. The cast of Friends pours milk out of a reusable glass bottle. Law and Order's Detective Briscoe asks his lieutenant to guess what the blue fleece found at the crime scene is made of. "Recycled plastic bottles," she responds. From props in your favorite star's hands to stories about energy conservation and pesticides, environmental products and themes are appearing regularly on America's most popular television programs.

It's not happening by accident. For 10 years, the Environmental Media Association (EMA) has been working to weave the environment into prime-time television programming. Created by and for professionals in the entertainment industry, EMA works with the stars in front of the cameras as well as the creative staff behind them to include environmental themes in scripts, show environmental products on sets, and make environmentally sound decisions in the studios.

"You can use popular television programs to get the word out, reach every group and every sector of the population," says Jennifer Love Hewitt, a Party of Five cast member. "If we backed the environment with the full force of the entertainment industry, I'm sure a lot of positive things could come of it."

Home Improvement won in the television comedy category for a story that included a description of emissions trading. It was an especially sweet victory for Home Improvement Executive Producer Bruce Ferber. "We had been nominated in a previous year for a segment where we put a brick in a toilet [to conserve water]. We were nominated alongside shows that had done episodes on real issues, like the destruction of the planet. It was embarrassing to be up there against them, so we were determined to come up with a real story line," says Ferber of his winning episode.

Luke: "Do you like to send messages on your shows?"

Bruce: "Yes. We send a lot of messages on Sabrina. Every show that we do tries to have a message about empowerment. We try not to be heavy handed. We do it funny."

Luke: "Is there a common thread through your work?"

Bruce: "Yes. As opposed to the Seinfeld ethic of doing shows about nothing, I do shows about something."

Luke: "If we were to make a movie about your life, what would the character arc be?"

Bruce: "A guy gets out of film school, thinking he's going to be a film director. He kicks around to the point where he's ready to leave because he's so frustrated. Then suddenly success comes [on TV sitcoms]. My arc is about realizing that I can do it."