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Creating Comedy

08/10/2015

Producer Ryan Cunningham 02 FAV loves working with Amy Schumer, Louis CK and other exceptionally smart comedians.

“It’s important to work on shows you enjoy watching,” says TV and film producer Ryan Cunningham 02 FAV. “Between rough cuts, dailies, sound design and everything else, I’ll end up watching stuff 30 times before it actually airs, which would be incredibly painful if I didn’t like the show!”

Fortunately for Cunningham, she’s completely enthralled with the comedians whose shows and specials she spends most of her time producing – people like Louis CK (Louie, FX), Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer, Comedy Central) and Jon Glaser (Delocated, Adult Swim). “Amy is absolutely awesome,” she says – “humble, smart . . ..  She invites collaboration and has zero ego, which is not always the case. Louis is really great as well. He’s less interested in collaboration because he has a very specific vision for his show, but he’s very fair and he’s a good guy.”

The term producer, Cunningham explains, means different things to different people. “It’s kind of a weird catchall title,” she notes. Her work as a producer includes consulting on scripts during pre-production, working on set during shooting and overseeing “pretty much everything that happens from the moment the camera stops rolling to the point when a show airs” – from editing, visual effects and sound design to music, color correction and mastering.

Cunningham co-owns her NYC production studio, Running Man, with her husband Troy Thompson, who she met at RISD when she took a finishing workshop he was leading for Film/Animation/Video (FAV) seniors. After she graduated, they worked together before they eventually started dating and then got married and had a daughter, who’s now three.

Making it 
So, how did Cunningham land so many high-quality, high-profile projects? “It’s not just talent,” she says. “It took 10 years of hard work to get my foot in the door. No one is going to walk up and offer you a million dollars to direct a film right after graduation. First you need to work on a crew and learn how to collaborate.”

Knowing how small the industry is, Cunningham understood that it was important to earn a reputation for dependability. She began interning when she was still an undergrad at RISD, making connections with people in the film and television industries via recommendations from professors. That’s how she met Geoff Adams 83 FAV, an alum and former faculty member who produced the live-action segments for WGBH that aired as part of Arthur, the hugely successful animated series for kids. 

“I worked as a boom operator, an assistant editor . . . I did archival research, whatever was needed,” Cunningham recalls. “I ended up getting my first full producer position with WGBH’s The Electric Company and winning an Emmy.”

As her reputation grew, the job offers starting coming in more steadily. Now, in addition to working on Inside Amy Schumer and Louie, she recently completed a soon-to-be-aired Schumer special for HBO and produced a full-length feature film called 3rd Street Blackout, a romantic comedy about a couple struggling to communicate after Hurricane Sandy left NYC without power for days on end.

Cunningham says that her experience at RISD has everything to do with her success as a producer. “I was exposed to every element of film production and post-production,” she explains, “and that knowledge of all the details helps me tremendously now.”

She also notes that she worked extremely hard as a student. “RISD is what you make of it,” she says. “I took every available class and worked as a TA pretty much every semester. FAV is a great major because it allows you to do so many different things: costumes, set design, props, cinematography, visual effects, graphic design, title design, photography. And there are so many different paths you can take when you graduate.”

Cunningham can’t say enough about the importance of interning – both as a means of figuring out exactly which direction to go in after graduation and as a way of making personal contacts in the industry. She hires a RISD intern at Running Man every summer – this year it’s rising junior Selene Means 17 FAV – and takes her role as mentor very seriously. (“Our interns are here to learn,” she notes, “not to get coffee.”)

One of Cunningham’s favorite moments as a producer is getting to see that first rough cut. “Sometimes it’s exactly what you imagined, sometimes it’s a total surprise and sometimes it’s a disaster,” she says. “But when it’s beyond what you expected, it’s thrilling. That happens a lot on Inside Amy Schumer. The sketches are just brilliant, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see things from a woman’s perspective.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, Film-Animation-Video, entertainment

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At RISD there's nothing unusual about suddenly finding a doorknob on a tree trunk, shown here across from Carr House,
the charming home of Student Life offices and the student-run Carr Haus Café.