TV showrunners who mix business, pleasure
Growing number of married couples who work together"Pathetic."
That's what Jackie Marcus Schaffer thought when her husband, Jeff Schaffer, kept feigning illness during a romantic Christmas dinner in the French Alps -- just to slip outside and chat with buddies back home about his NFL fantasy football team.
Today, she can thank that behavior for the couple's FX series "The League."
"Here was this man standing in the snow, pathetically screaming on the phone," Jackie Schaffer recalls. "It was so ridiculous, it was laughable. I thought, 'This is entertaining to watch, and I can't be the only woman to go through this.' "
The result was a comedy about a group of guys in a fantasy football league -- and the women forced to deal with them. Married for two and a half years and together for almost five, the Schaffers pitched their idea to FX and their first collaboration as writer-producers was born.
The Schaffers are part of a growing community of couples successfully navigating the balance between showrunning and romance. From Michelle and Robert King on CBS' "The Good Wife" to Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess at CBS' new cop drama "Blue Bloods," there are now at least five shows executive produced by married couples.
"We definitely get into some fun and strange melding of personal and work life," Jeff Schaffer says. "We'll be talking, and Jackie will be like, 'We have to do notes on this show, get notes from the composer -- and really, you couldn't put the toilet seat down?' "
"After you have worked a 16-hour day together, it would be nice if your partner and fellow showrunner didn't fall into the toilet," his wife quips.
Couples have always played a big role in television. Although they didn't always get credits, Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen were critical in creating their iconic comedy shows with husbands Desi Arnaz and George Burns.
In the 1980s, producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason ("Designing Women") and Diane English and Joel Shukovsky ("Murphy Brown") were major players, while Bonnie and Terry Turner presided over 1990s hits "That '70s Show" and "3rd Rock From the Sun."
These days, "Good Wife" executive producer Michelle King says she couldn't imagine working with anyone but her husband of more than 20 years, Robert.
"The job is pretty all-consuming," she says. But if only one of them were working the long hours required of a hit network show, the other would be forced to bear the brunt of parenting their preteen daughter.
"The League's" Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer
The Kings have found a natural division of the various tasks required of showrunners.
"Michelle has taken more quickly to TV structure," says Robert King, adding that his wife "has a pictorial sense, working on wardrobe and makeup," as well as breaking stories and casting. His responsibilities include editing, sharpening character development and draft writing.
The fast-paced schedule of broadcast network production might add to the stress for some couples, but the Kings find it a relief, because they can't stew over differences of opinion.
"Decisions have to be made fast," Robert King says. "If we were working in cable, we'd probably get into more fights."
"It's kind of like life," Michelle King adds. "We fix it in post."
Mark V. Olsen, who created the HBO plural-marriage drama "Big Love" with husband Will Scheffer, admits he makes little divide between the personal and professional.
"There is no balance for me," he says. "Will is a little bit better about carving out a private niche. I'm less able or less interested. The reality is work -- and the work is reality. It is a singular life and it is total."
The work/life symbiosis couldn't be more evident than in Scheffer and Olsen's actual wedding ceremony. On the eve of the November 2008 election, Olsen said he "felt the writing on the wall" with California's Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriages just months after a court had deemed them legal. In production at the time, the pair had made plans for a simple ceremony, but deadlines kept getting in the way. So days before the election, Olsen and Scheffer got married in one of their editing rooms.
"Our editor was the witness," Scheffer recalls. Prop. 8 passed, but Olsen and Scheffer have one of the 18,000 same-sex marriages still legally recognized by California.
Together for 20 years, Scheffer believes their work is "kind of a spiritual child of ours." Writing a show about three very different yet linked marriages that constantly face insurmountable odds seems a natural for the couple, considering their approach to their own partnership.
"People say, 'I would think you'd want to kill each other,' " Scheffer says. "And of course we want to kill each other."
"Through our relationship, I have learned to value something that is important for me to keep in the show, which is the whole idea of conflict in a relationship," Olsen agrees. "Don't look at that as dangerous. Conflict is not just an opportunity to grow, but makes life interesting. I tell our writers, 'Do not be afraid of letting these people have a real conflict that might seem impossible to solve. This is good stuff.' "
"Big Love's" Mark V. Olsen, left, and Will Scheffer
"At the end of the day, it's a man and woman in a room looking at each other with sex on the table," Burson says.
Together for 17 years, married for about five years, Burson and Lipkin have two young children. Burson shot the "Hung" pilot and had a C-section delivery of her son within days. Lipkin remembers that, when they met with writers and directors once the show got picked up, "Our son was in the room in his bouncy seat."
The biggest drawback? "It can be fatiguing to have to disagree with the person you love," Burson says. "Also, because you know them so well, you know their issue with it before they say it. It's exhausting to have to agree." She adds, "We're former playwrights, so words are very important to us. Many times we have to battle it out."
Both have bells on their desks they can ring to call a "time out" as they fight for their version of a certain word or line.
Despite that, Lipkin believes, "We are both doing things we love and we get to do them together. We're passionate about what we do, we share in the same experiences and we can definitely relate to what we are going through on a daily basis."
Jackie Schaffer agrees. A film producer before she began working with her husband, she prefers the intensity of her partnership.
"It's just so great to see the value of that discourse," she says. "It eventually makes a better creative product."