This sitcom vet talks about cutting Man With A Plan and How I Met Your Mother.
By Dayna McCallum
The art of sitcom editing is overly enjoyed and underappreciated. While millions of people literally laugh out loud every day enjoying their favorite situation comedies, very few give credit to the maestro behind the scenes, the sitcom editor.
Sue Federman is one of the best in the business. Her work on the comedy How I Met Your Mother earned three Emmy wins and six nominations. Now the editor of CBS’ new series, Man With A Plan, Federman is working with comedy legends Matt LeBlanc and James Burrows to create another classic sitcom.
However, Federman’s career in entertainment didn’t start in the cutting room; it started in the orchestra pit! After working as a professional violinist with orchestras in Honolulu and San Francisco, she traded in her bow for an Avid.
We sat down to talk with Federman about the ins and outs of sitcom editing, that pesky studio audience, and her journey from musician to editor.
When did you get involved with your show, and what is your workflow like?
I came onto Man With A Plan (MWAP) after the original pilot had been picked up. They recast one of the leads, so there was a reshoot of about 75 percent of the pilot with our new Andi, Liza Snyder. My job was to integrate the new scenes with the old. It was interesting to preserve the pace and feel of the original and to be free to bring my own spin to the show.
The workflow of the show is pretty fast since there’s only one editor on a traditional audience sitcom. I usually put a show together in two to three days, then work with the producers for one to two days, and then send a pretty finished cut to the studio/network.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an editor on a traditional half-hour comedy?
One big challenge is managing two to three episodes at a time — assembling one show while doing producer or studio/network notes on another, as well as having to cut preshot playbacks for show night, which can be anywhere from three to eight minutes of material that has to be cut pretty quickly.
Another challenge is the live audience laughter. It’s definitely a unique part of this kind of show. I worked on How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) for nine years without an audience, so I could completely control the pacing. I added fake laughs that fit the performances and things like that. When I came back to a live audience show, I realized the audience is a big part of the way the performances are shaped. I’ve learned all kinds of ways to manipulate the laughs and, hopefully, still preserve the spontaneous live energy of the show.
How would you compare cutting comedy to drama?
I haven’t done much drama, but I feel like the pace of comedy is faster in every regard, and I really enjoy working at a fast pace. Also, as opposed to a drama or anything shot single-camera, the coverage on a multi-cam show is pretty straightforward, so it’s really all about performance and pacing. There’s not a lot of music in a multi-cam, but you spend a lot of time working with the audience tracks.
What role would you say an editor has in helping to make a “bit” land in a half-hour comedy?
It’s performance, timing and camera choices — and when it works, it feels great. I’m always amazed at how changing an edit by a frame or two can make something pop. Same goes for playing something wider or closer depending on the situation.
MWAP is shot before a live studio audience. How does that affect your rhythm?
The audience definitely affects the rhythm of the show. I try to preserve the feeling of the laughs and still keep the show moving. A really long laugh is great on show night, but usually we cut it down a bit and play off more reactions. The actors on MWAP are great because they really know how to “ride” the laughs and not break character. I love watching great comedic actors, like the cast of I Love Lucy, for example, who were incredible at holding for laughs. It’s a real asset and very helpful to the editor.
Can you describe your process? And what system do you edit the show on?
I’ve always used the Avid Media Composer. Dabbled with Final Cut, but prefer Avid. I assemble the whole show in one sequence and go scene by scene. I watch all of the takes of a scene and make choices for each section or sometimes for each line. Then I chunk the scene together, sometimes putting in two choices for a line or area. I then cut into the big pieces to select the cameras for each shot. After that, I go back and find the rhythm of the scene — tightening the pace, cutting into the laughs and smoothing them.
After the show is put together, I go back and watch the whole thing again, pretending that I’ve never seen it, which is a challenge. That makes me adjust it even more. I try to send out a pretty polished first cut, without cutting any dialogue to show the producers everything, which seems to make the whole process go faster. I’m lucky that the directors on MWAP are very seasoned and don’t really give me many notes. Jimmy Burrows and Pam Fryman have directed almost all of the episodes, and I don’t send out a separate cut to either of them. Particularly with Pam, as I’ve worked with her for about 11 years, so we have a nice shorthand.
How do assistant editors work into the mix?
My assistant, Dan “Steely” Esparza, is incredible! He allows me to show up to work every day and not think about anything other than cutting the show. He’s told me, even though I always ask, that he prefers not to be an editor, so I don’t push him in that direction. He is excellent at visual effects and enjoys them, so I always have him do those. On HIMYM, we had quite a lot of visual effects, so he was pretty busy there. But on MWAP, it’s mostly rough composites for blue/greenscreen scenes and painting out errant boom shadows, boom mics and parts of people.
Your work on HIMYM was highly lauded. What are some of your favorite “editing” moments from that show and what were some of the biggest challenges they threw at you?
I really loved working on that show — every episode was unique, and it really gave me opportunities to grow as an editor. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were amazing problem solvers. They were able to look at the footage and make something completely different out of it if need be. I remember times when a scene wasn’t working or was too long, and they would write some narration, record the temp themselves, and then we’d throw some music over it and make it into a montage.
Some of the biggest editing challenges were the music videos/sequences that were incorporated into episodes. There were three complete Robin Sparkles videos and many, many other musical pieces, almost always written by Carter and Craig. In “P.S. I Love You,” they incorporated her last video into kind of a Canadian Behind the Music about the demise of Robin Sparkles, and that was pretty epic for a sitcom. The gigantic “Subway Wars” was another big challenge, in that it had 85 “scenelets.” It was a five-way race around Manhattan to see who could get to a restaurant where Woody Allen was supposedly eating first, with each person using a different mode of transportation. Crazy fun and also extremely challenging to fit into a sitcom schedule.
You started in the business as a classical musician. How does your experience as a professional violinist influence your work as an editor?
I think the biggest thing is having a good feeling for the rhythm of whatever I’m working on. I love to be able to change the tempo and to make something really pop. And when asked to change the pacing or cut sections out, when doing various people’s notes, being able to embrace that too. Collaborating is a big part of being a musician, and I think that’s helped me a lot in working with the different personalities. It’s not unlike responding to a conductor or playing chamber music. Also having an understanding of phrasing and the overall structure of a piece is valuable, even though it was musical phrasing and structure, it’s not all that different.
Obviously, whenever there’s actual music involved, I feel pretty comfortable handling it or choosing the right piece for a scene. If classical music’s involved, I have a great deal of knowledge that can be helpful. For example, in HIMYM, we needed something to be a theme for Barney’s Playbook antics. I tried a few things, and we landed on the Mozart Rondo Alla Turca, which I’ve been hearing lately in the Progresso Soup commercials.
How did you make the transition from the concert hall to the editing room?
It’s a long story! I was playing in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and was feeling stuck. I was lucky enough to find an amazing career counseling organization that helped me open my mind to all kinds of possibilities, and they helped me to discover the perfect job for me. It was quite a journey, but the main thing was to be open to anything and identify the things about myself that I wanted to use. I learned that I loved music (but not playing the violin), puzzles, stories and organizing — so editing!
I sold a bow, took the summer off from playing and enrolled in a summer production workshop at USC. I wasn’t quite ready to move to LA, so I went back to San Francisco and began interning at a small commercial editing house. I was answering phones, emptying the dishwasher, getting coffees and watching the editing, all while continuing to play in the Ballet Orchestra. The people were great and gave me opportunities to learn whenever possible. Luckily for me, they were using the Avid before it came to TV and features. Eventually, there was a very rough documentary that one of the editors wanted to cut, but it wasn’t organized. They gave me the key to the office and said, “You want to be an editor? Organize this!” So I did, and they started offering me assistant work on commercials. But I wanted to cut features, so I started to make little trips to LA to meet anybody I could.
Bill Steinberg, an editor working in the Universal Syndication department who I met at USC, got me hooked up with an editor who was to be one of Roger Corman’s first Avid editors. The Avids didn’t arrive right away, but he helped me put my name in the hat to be an assistant the next time. It happened, and I was on my way! I took a sabbatical from the orchestra, went down to LA, and worked my tail off for $400 a week on three low-budget features. I was in heaven. I had enough hours to join the union as an assistant, but I needed money to pay the admission fee. So I went back to San Francisco and played one month of Nutcrackers to cover the fee, and then I took another year sabbatical. Bill offered me a month position in the syndication department to fill in for him, and show the film editors what I knew about the Avid.
Eventually Andy Chulack, the editor of Coach, was looking for an Avid assistant, and I was recommended because I knew it. Andy hired me and took me under his wing, and I absolutely loved it. I guess the upshot is, I was fearlessly naive and knew the Avid!
What do you love most about being an editor?
I love the variation of material and people that I get to work with, and I like being able to take time to refine things. I don’t have to play it live anymore!