It's said in Hollywood that getting a hit TV show on air is like trying to get struck by lightning. Kim and Eric Tannenbaum have been struck so often they shouldn't be standing.
Renowned for their business acumen, the couple is the driving force behind CBS's newest hit comedy, Two and a Half Men. In a TV climate dominated by reality, getting a sitcom on air is an impressive feat. But turning it into a hit is like finding the holy grail.
Last year, the independent producers also got UPN's The Mullets
and The WB's Run of the House
aired, though neither lasted a season. Now they are producing CBS's highest-testing comedy pilot, Center of the Universe, starring John Goodman. (The pilot, however, failed to seduce critics.)
All this in two years, since The Tannenbaum Co. debuted as a pod within Warner Bros. Television. Prior to setting up shop at WBTV, the duo ran the TV department at Michael Ovitz's Artists Television Group (ATG). They also headed Columbia TriStar Television, where Eric was president and Kim was senior vice president of comedy development.
In their 10-year history together, the Tannenbaums have an enviable track record. They developed The Ellen Show, The $treet
and The King of Queens. Even before they became a couple, back in the Columbia TriStar days, they backed such storied TV shows as Mad About You, Party of Five, Dawson's Creek
and The Nanny.
Stand and deliver
"What stands out is their tenacity," says Wendi Trilling, senior vice president of comedy development at CBS. "When they have a task to accomplish, it gets done. Whatever the mission, they will be relentless until it's accomplished. That takes a big burden off us."
The Tannenbaums' perseverance scored for CBS.
When Chuck Lorre and Lee Abramson wrote the pilot script for Two and A Half Men, they based the character of the lovable but roguish playboy on Charlie Sheen.
They even used Sheen as an example when they pitched the now award-winning show to CBS, although they weren't sure he'd come on board. But the minute they walked out of Trilling's office, Eric said to Lorre, "Why don't we get you in a room with Charlie?"
"That's where somebody like Eric earns his keep," Lorre says. "He had us in a room with Charlie in a few days. If Charlie had said no, this show never would have gone forward."
"The show had heart without being sappy and was smart without being full of itself," says Two
star Charlie Sheen. "It felt like real people in real situations."
Today, Two and a Half Men
has made the impending departure of Everybody Loves Raymond
less painful for CBS. It's also Warner Bros.' next chance to hit the syndication jackpot.
That huge potential tempts network heads to meddle with a show's formula; after all, hundreds of people's financial futures ride on it. But the Tannenbaums have that rare thing: the trust of those in charge. That keeps execs off their backs, says Lorre.
"I get passionate about work, and I can get defensive," Lorre adds. "A calm partner can help you immeasurably." The Center of the Universe's show runners, Mitchel Katlin and Nat Bernstein, agree. They say the Tannenbaums' unique partnership makes it easier to deal with them as a team. Sheen just calls them "groovy."
"There are a lot of times when you are talking to executives and you aren't sure if executive A is going to understand something executive B does," Katlin says. "But after years of working with them, we know if we are speaking to Kim, we are also talking to Eric, and vice versa."
Although their production volume can't compete with a major studio, the Tannenbaums are prodigious. From their offices in Burbank, they oversee Men
and Universe, while taking up to eight pitches a day. They are also planning a midseason show for CBS starring Jenna Elfman, also produced by Lorre.
"Those studio jobs are extremely taxing and draining," Kim says. "I know, at the end of the ATG and Sony days, I looked like hell and felt worse. Doing this has added years to our lives."
Like any powerful team, they specialize: Eric is the salesman, and Kim is the creative executive. "I like to say that Eric gets the glory, and I do all the work," Kim says, smiling.
"I do like to put things together, and Kim has excellent taste in material," says Eric, whose name has been floated as a prime candidate to become the next major-studio head.
At this stage in the game, when work and family are running smoothly, he's happy to consider all offers. But he quickly amends, "Right now, we really like this."