Head of Programming, MTV
David Janollari grew up in Rhode Island. He was a popular guy who had a lot of friends. He went to Boston College for two years then transferred to NYU film school. He turned his sights on Hollywood, and a few of his loyal friends went along for the ride. David owes a lot to these friends, especially Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, Monica, and Ross. Do we need to play this out any further or have you figured out by now that Mr. Janollari had a hand in creating the hit show, M*A*S*H? Kidding, he was the studio exec who helped get Friends on the air.
David is as unique in his work philosophy as he is successful. While a lot of his peers work themselves into the ground, literally, David takes time off to recharge his batteries and clear his head. We’re not talking about a week or two, we’re talking years. For most, such a departure would be career death. But for David, well, he did end up Six Feet Under, the only difference was he was holding an Emmy!
In a career that has spanned nearly three decades, David has seen the business from every angle. He’s gone from studio executive to network president to cofounder of a successful production company to his latest endeavor as head of programming at MTV. In this excerpt from Hire Me Hollywood!: Your Behind the Scenes Guide to the Most Exciting - and Unexpected - Jobs in Show Business, David doesn’t hold back. He talks about the time Academy Award–winner Alan Ball delivered the perfect script, how a career-changing revelation occurred at Tavern on the Green, and how Jami Gertz and Tea Leoni turned down starring roles in one of the biggest shows in TV history. He even opens up about Jennifer Aniston’s taste in men.
You grew up in Rhode Island, which is famous for, uh, well, it’s famous for the fact that you grew up there. Was there a defining moment during your youth when you were drawn to the entertainment world?
I was one of those guys who always had a camera in his hand. I always envisioned myself in the entertainment industry. I think very specifically I thought I was a feature film director. That was kind of the goal. So I made little films and read Super 8 filmmaker magazines and even started a film club in my high school.
Talk about your first job.
Back in 1984, while I was a student at NYU film school, I got the proverbial “foot in the door” with Nederlander Television and Film Productions, which was an offshoot of the iconic theater organization. I was an intern in their TV department making forty bucks a week and did everything from getting coffee for executives to running errands to answering phones. It was an amazing experience because I was able to observe and learn and it didn’t take long for me to rise up through the ranks. After five years I became head of their development department and my career as a TV executive began.
Did you find that working within this organization known mostly for theater gave you a certain edge?
Approaching TV through theater was actually one of the things that helped set us apart from others in the creative community who were pitching and developing TV shows at that time. I was in a unique position to learn the business and forge relationships from a different point of view. At the time, we were attempting to develop and sell comedy projects. Because the Nederlander organization was rooted in theater, I had this entrée into theater writers, a niche pool of writers who weren’t necessarily being mined by Hollywood. I ended up working with playwrights Chris Durang and Wendy Wasserstein and the young up-and-comers like Marta Kauffman and David Crane.
So you met Marta and David while they were still playwrights. Thank you for pulling them over to TV. Could you imagine if Friends was a play on Broadway? [The scary thing is, you know someone in Hollywood just read this and thought, Friends on Broadway, what a great idea!]
(Laughs) You’re welcome. I was deeply rooted in the theater world and would see theater five, six nights a week. It gave me such an incredible base of understanding of a really particular group of writers and actors who had previously been untapped.
In 1989 you decided to forgo both the hustle and the bustle of New York and you headed out to Los Angeles. What motivated the move?
I realized that the business was mostly in Los Angeles. So I left my job with Nederlander Television and Film Productions when I was twenty-five and moved to L.A. I called a bunch of my contacts and had four job interviews set up, and I got four job offers. The one I chose was director of comedy development at Fox. I spent two years there, and that was a great way, in terms of profile and platform, to meet as many people as quickly as possible. I grew my profile in the community, and then Les Moonves, who was running what was Lorimar Productions, which would then become part of Warner Brothers Television, hired me. They had shows like Full House and Step by Step and Family Matters, and Les wanted me to get them a bigger comedy presence. Ultimately I spent six years at Lorimar and it was there that I got the opportunity to put on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and Living Single, among other hits.
Your New York relationships started to pay off as well. Talk about how Friends came about.
It was the early nineties and Melrose Place was the big hit on Fox at the time, and I loved it; I couldn’t miss an episode. I kept saying, “This is really cool, there should be a comedy version of this.” So Marta Kauffman and David Crane came up with Friends, and it was completely based on their circle of friends growing up in the early days in New York City. They came up with the pitch and it was truly one of the great pitches of all time. Because they came from theater they were very performance-oriented and they pitched like nobody else. We actually pitched it to Fox first because they were the younger-skewing network. They liked it, they got it, but they just didn’t step up to the plate and make the right offer, so we took it to NBC and there was just no looking back. That was the perfect home for the show. I don’t think we pitched it anywhere else after NBC.
Can you talk about the casting process?
As the development executive I was involved with every aspect of the show. Once the script was developed we had the daunting task of casting it. Up to that point in my career, casting Friends was one of the hardest shows I’d had to cast. Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston were the last two we found. Jon Cryer was first considered for the role of Chandler. He was very good. We offered the role of Monica to Tea Leoni and offered Rachel to Jamie Gertz. Both of them passed. We saw Courtney Cox as Rachel, but she kept insisting she was Monica. She’d tell us, I am Monica, I’m this mother figure in real life. And I remember looking at the producers at one point and I said, “Look, why don’t we just have her come in and read for Monica?” Then I got a call from them after seeing her and they went, “Courtney’s right. She is Monica.” The rest of the story everyone knows. The show went on to become one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. It was on air for ten years, won five Emmys and a Golden Globe. It sent the careers of the six principal actors into the stratosphere.
After Friends you headed up other big hits like The Drew Carey Show and Suddenly Susan. Then you made a pretty bold move.
Bold, but exciting. I started my own production company with my friend Bob Greenblatt, who’s currently chairman of NBC Entertainment. Bob and I were sitting at the upfront celebration in New York at Tavern on the Green in 1997. At that time Bob was executive vice president at Fox and I had just put two shows on the Fox schedule. We were both at this party and we kind of looked at each other and said, “This should seem like more fun.” You know, I was running Warner Brothers studio and he was running the network. The demand of our jobs called for us to have so many shows in development, so many pilots, and we were both running around trying to service everything. It’s impossible to really get as much in the trenches as you’d like when you are spread so thin. We thought there’s got to be a better way to do this, to build a better machine that concentrates on fewer projects but gives those projects extra attention. So the idea for the Greenblatt Janollari Studio came out of that conversation.
You were developing and selling shows and also partnering with some pretty amazing talent. Tell us about your partnership with Alan Ball.
We signed Alan to an overall deal. We sat down with him to talk about the kind of shows he wanted to do and we turned him loose. He went off and wrote a pilot for a show called Oh Grow Up, which we sold to ABC. We made thirteen episodes, but the series was cancelled before all the episodes aired. That show was Alan’s baby and he took the cancellation really hard. Alan took a month off after the cancellation and went back to his home in Georgia. When he came back to L.A. he had the pilot for Six Feet Under written.
We ended up taking the show to HBO at around the same time American Beauty was nominated for best screenplay. The day after the Oscar nominations came out, HBO called us and said they wanted to make the pilot. Bob and I were shocked; this never happens. Usually a pilot has to go through an entire process before it gets picked up. We told HBO that we can’t just make a pilot; Six Feet Under was a big piece of business. So they stepped up and made a substantial deal. Chris Albrecht, who was president at the time, approved thirteen episodes. Bob and I were astonished; they weren’t even going to test it. They told us they loved it and wanted us to make the series immediately. That was a real conviction of passion.
After a good run, you and Bob decided to amicably part ways, and you moved on to become the president of the WB Network.
I became president in 2004, of the network, which was a joint venture between Warner Brothers and Tribune Broadcasting. I think I was, in a way, their last-ditch effort to kind of drum up some kind of success on the programming front. I wish I’d known how dire the situation was before I began. I launched shows like Supernatural and Beauty and the Geek, which were fairly big hits for the network, but ultimately, the network shut down in 2006 and merged with UPN to become what is now the CW Television Network.
So you took some time off and then started your newest venture as the head of scripted development for MTV. You were quickly promoted to head of programming. Are you enjoying it so far?
MTV is a new and fun adventure in my career. I love the brand, I grew up on the brand. We’re in a world now where the network has evolved largely into a reality destination and the idea is to get back to its roots.
So you’re going to start airing music videos again?
(Laughs) No, we’re getting back into creating more scripted content. Our theory is, let’s put the MTV brand on some scripted series and see if we can offer our audience, who looks to MTV to be ahead of the curve, some entertainment on all fronts.
What advice do you have for anyone out there wanting to be the next David Janollari?
If you are starting out and you want to be an executive in the TV business, there are multiple ways to go about it. Get a production assistant job any way you can. Get your foot in the door and start observing the process. You can learn a lot of things in film school but the practicality of how the business works and the dynamics between agents and producers and managers and how they all work together you really have to learn from inside to understand it.
What characteristics should a person possess who is looking to get into your field?
First and foremost, you really have to have a passion and you have to really believe this is what you want. This is a very competitive business, with a lot of people who want to be in it from every angle—actor, director, producer, executive. You have to be decisive. Identify what aspect you’re most interested in, then get on that track as soon as you can. If you go the executive route, you have to know that the business is filled with fragile yet strong egos. Actors and writers are putting themselves out there, and I think the mistake too many people make is that they need to speak the language of the artist as opposed to the language of the network or studio. You have to foster creative dialogue, and that’s something you learn by trial and error.
A lot of people in entertainment never unplug or decompress from the grind of the business. You have a different philosophy. Can you discuss your approach?
The theory is there’s more to life than just slaving away. I have traveled around the world numerous times. After the WB went down, I took a lot of time off. For the better part of four years I traveled the world extensively. It was fun and relaxing in a kind of “take a deep breath” way. I got to reconnect with friends and family. I was very fortunate that I’d done well enough in those years that I could afford to take off. I totally acknowledge that. I think it should be part of everybody’s thinking to some degree to really step back and enjoy and to take a picture of life. I think it only adds to your creativity. If nothing else, it refreshes you in a way that you can get re-energized and be creative again.
Last but not least, if Jennifer Aniston were a cartoon, would she date Beavis or Butthead?
A Day in the Life of David Janollari
The following is an excerpt from David’s schedule for one weekday in 2010.
7:00 AM: Woke up. Viewed recent cut of Teen Wolf, gave notes. Read recent draft of I Just Want My Pants Back (new scripted show in development at MTV) to prepare for casting session.
9:00 AM: Joined the daily commuters of Los Angeles for my trip to the office and “rolled calls” from the car.
10:00 AM: Development meeting with staff. Covered “weekend read” and status of projects in development.
11:00 AM: Attended the bi-coastal macro programming senior management weekly meeting via videoconference.
12:15 PM: Emmy magazine phone interview (from the car en route to lunch) regarding the rebranding and reconfiguring of MTV.
12:30 PM: Lunch with Randy Jackson.
2:30 PM: Pitch meeting with Bo Burnham, a young rising-star comedian. Great idea!
3:30 PM: Marketing update meeting with press and marketing department representatives regarding our comedy series The Hard Times of RJ Berger.
5:00 PM: Viewed Skins pilot cut to give notes.
9:00 PM: Jersey Shore wrap party.