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Photo: David Zentz

Paid to Laugh

For NBC’s comedy chief, things have a funny way of working out

The Office has a new boss. For that matter, so does every show in the NBC comedy lineup, now that the network has named Tal Rabinowitz, J98, to the post of executive vice president of comedy programming. In her previous job, as senior vice president of comedy development for Sony Pictures Television, Rabinowitz oversaw a string of hits, including ABC’s Happy Endings and Showtime’s The Big C, the latter starring a fellow Jumbo, Oliver Platt, A83. As NBC’s fall season kicks off, Rabinowitz is banking on a new passel of comedies. Among them is Free Agents, the workplace sitcom that—funnily enough—showcases another Jumbo talent, Hank Azaria, A88. High on Rabinowitz’s buzz-o-meter are Up All Night (about the travails of new parents, played by Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) and Whitney, a romantic comedy. “Her voice is hilarious,” she says of the lead, the comedian Whitney Cummings.

The journey to the top has been something of a whirlwind ride, and it began just days after graduation. “I had to make the toughest decision,” says Rabinowitz, a New Jersey–born international relations major who had studied abroad and worked for the British Parliament. “It was either teach in Japan or work for The Real World in L.A.” She chose the popular MTV reality series. “I thought, when on earth do you get two chances to enter the entertainment industry?”

It wasn’t all post-award-show parties and dinners at the Palm, though. She spent mind-numbing hours logging video of Road Rules: Latin America—a sister show to The Real World that followed twenty-somethings on the road—and transcribing every scene for the story department. “I think they were so excited that someone could understand Spanish.” When the show moved to the South Pacific, she was promoted to a position arranging product placements. A former Tufts classmate was working the Ponds account, Rabinowitz says. “So all of the products in the bathroom were Ponds. From the vacuum they cleaned up with to the plates they ate off to the sheets they slept on, everything had a sponsor. We had to outfit the entire house.”

But even as she was immersed in reality TV, the world of scripted shows beckoned. “I grew up watching television—I’m a total junkie,” Rabinowitz says. “Golden Girls, Cosby Show, MASH, Family Ties. I know every line Lucille Ball ever spoke.” She applied for dozens of jobs before her big break came. “One hiring manager called MTV looking for a reference and happened to speak to someone with whom I’d worked on The Real World,” she remembers. “Next thing I knew, I was an assistant in the NBC comedy department.”

Rabinowitz calls the rest of the roller-coaster ride “a bit zig-zaggy.” There was much second-guessing—“Should I finally take that job in Japan?”—and even applications to veterinary and law school, but she swiftly climbed the TV industry ranks, from Warner Brothers to Sony, before her return to NBC in June. “A lot of good people were very good to me,” she says, modestly crediting her industry mentors for her quick rise. “They kind of pushed me forward. I was really lucky.”

But it was more than luck, according to Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment. “In working closely with Tal over the past few years,” he said in a statement announcing her new position, “I found her to be one of the smartest, brightest comedy executives in the business who is also universally embraced by writers, producers, agents, and talent.”

So what’s the life of a power-wielding TV exec really like? “It depends on the season,” Rabinowitz says. During pitch season—summer and fall—she holds court with writers, directors, and actors who propose ideas backed by their studios. “Sometimes there’s network battling over scripts, but once it’s on your slate, you develop the story for the pilot,” she says. Come winter, all scripts—“sixty to eighty for comedy alone”—are in for editing and development. Late winter drops the ax while sending the lucky few to production. “You could be shooting up to eight pilots at once,” she says.

Then life changes again. Directors and producers are hired, followed by casting, which can turn frenetic. “You’re spending most of the day trying to protect your projects, because—don’t forget—you’re competing with all of the other networks who might want the same cast and staff. It’s a mad rush to get everything into place.”

Shooting begins in early spring. “You’re like a chicken with your head cut off, running from set to set to see what’s happening, what’s taking off, still making tweaks to the script or maybe writing something different or checking out wardrobe.” In late spring, pilots are in for last edits and screenings. At that point, she says, “the schedule starts to come together, we all go to New York for the final announcement, and then . . . you start over.”

As the final packages premiere in millions of living rooms, Rabinowitz keeps her fingers crossed and can’t help laughing at the sheer insanity of her occupation. “It’s like lightning in a bottle getting all of the pieces together,” she says, “but I love that every idea is different, every writer is different. I get to hang out with creative people all day, and there is a huge element of fun to it—especially in comedy. I always joke, ‘I get paid to laugh,’ and, really, that’s just the icing.”

Kristin Livingston, A05, is an editorial assistant in Tufts’ Advancement Communications office. She is at work on two novels: a young adult fantasy book and a Regency time travel romance.

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