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PRIME-TIME TV

The set mom on 'How I Met Your Mother'

October 19, 2008|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

For FOUR seasons, CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" has been driven by discovering the identity of the woman who gives the show its title. But talk to anyone who works on the Monday night comedy and there's really only one mother that counts -- Pamela Fryman.

The 49-year-old director has nurtured the series since the pilot and Monday she's behind the camera again for the show's highly anticipated wedding between Ted (Josh Radnor) and Stella (Sarah Chalke). The sitcom veteran is noted not just for her lengthy list of comedy credits but also for her uncanny manner with co-workers -- even when they turn out to be Britney Spears or Suzie the chimp.

"She knows the exact right way to talk to 50 different kinds of people from different worlds," said show co-creator Craig Thomas last month on set, minutes before the chimpanzee appeared for her scene. "She makes everyone feel they've been heard and respected and she can connect with anyone. And I think today you'll see that she can even talk to monkeys. She's like Crocodile Dundee. She can literally charm and tame animals as well."

Suzie is a newscaster -- a new colleague of Robin's (Cobie Smulders) now that she has moved to Japan, seeking a higher rung on the career ladder. The scene called for Robin to read the news while Suzie wreaks havoc with, among other things, marshmallows. Later, the chimp piggybacks onto Robin as they end their newscast, but Suzie -- clearly a diva -- went off script and straddled Smulders diagonally across her back instead.

As Smulders frantically tried to reposition her costar, Fryman jumped out from behind the monitors -- with proper care not to startle Suzie -- and said: "Stay like that. I think it's funnier."

After several seasons on "Frasier" and "Just Shoot Me," and shorter stints on "Two and a Half Men," and "Friends," Fryman is a well recognized judge of funny. She's managed to succeed in an ever-shrinking genre in which it is challenging for any TV director to make a mark, let alone a woman. Although she acknowledges encountering the occasional bully, Fryman says she owes much of her opportunities to men, such as Peter Noah and Jimmy Burrows, who believed in her before she even knew what directing was.

Thomas and his partner, Carter Bays, hired her for their first pilot the same day they met her. Best friends and writers together on "Late Show With David Letterman," Thomas and Bays had never run a series when CBS decided to give their show a shot four years ago. They envisioned the comedy, as a traditional sitcom, filmed with four cameras in front of a live audience.

Problem was, they wrote the show like a one-hour drama, with 60 scenes instead of the typical 10 -- something that argued for a single-camera like "My Name Is Earl" or "30 Rock."

"We all thought this was a sitcom," she said. "But when you pull it apart and you see that there are 60 scenes, you realize that the audience is going to be very bored," Fryman said. "And where are we going to put all the sets? We just couldn't do this as a regular multi-camera sitcom."

Fryman's alternative was to create a one-of-a-kind hybrid that combines the lively effect of multi-camera coverage, like "Two and a Half Men," and the editing and cutaways of single-camera comedies, such as "Scrubs."

CBS and 20th Century Fox Television, which produces the show, fretted that the show wouldn't fit with the rest of CBS' Monday night lineup. But Fryman thought the combination was necessary to capitalize on the show's comedic moments, as well as its heart and sentimentality.

"Sometimes when you do the show without an audience, you lose some of that energy," said Wendi Trilling, CBS' executive vice president of comedy development. "But because of how much we respect Pam and trust her, we listened to what she said."

That she has earned that level of admiration from the industry's powers that be is mind-boggling to Fryman, who says she became a television director by accident.

She moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia when she was 21 years old and worked as a secretary and production assistant until she landed a job on "Santa Barbara" as an assistant director.

"Each of those jobs I thought, 'I'll do this forever,' " said Fryman, the mother of twin 16-year-old girls. "But somehow there was always somebody behind me saying I should now go there. And I would think, 'Oh, please, don't make me do that.' "

Veteran writer-producer Noah nudged Fryman toward directing sitcoms by offering her a chance to do one episode of "Cafe Americain" in 1993.

"As a good friend of Pam's, I was aware that she possessed in abundance two key qualities that would stand her in extremely good stead as a sitcom director: she was extremely funny; and enormously personable," Noah wrote in an e-mail. "The first quality speaks for itself -- a comedy director should possess a comic gift. But the second quality is nearly as important."

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