7:00am PT by Jeff Schaffer, as told to Jackie Strause
'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Boss on Making TV Comedy in the Pandemic Era and Convincing Larry David to Return to Set
My tombstone will say, "Death by COVID … protocols."
We’ve been shooting both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Dave since the beginning of November. We finally had our first little production pause on Curb. It was a one-day pause to do contact-tracing after someone on set tested positive. None of our actors were involved. Once the person was identified, it then became a matter of, who was he in touch with? Those people had to stand down for a little bit — crewmembers take a paid leave and we find new people — and the shoot keeps going.
Unfortunately, you don’t always have that option if it’s an actor who you want to shoot with.
On Dave, we had a guest actor who tested negative a bunch of times who then tested positive. Our main castmembers were in a scene with him, so we shut down for 14 days. Actor to actor, when they’re not wearing masks and you’re doing a scene, the actor is a contact and the show shuts down. Every show is different, but Dave is a show with a small cast and a limited budget, so we don’t have a lot of options if our principals have to go into quarantine for 10 to 14 days.
When production geared back up in the fall, there was this feeling that we have these rigorous protocols and as long as our i’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed, we should be good. But now, so many different shows are getting hit. Since Thanksgiving, I’m hearing stories about this show and that show on pause and shut down. No one thinks they will make it through unscathed — you just hope it’s not someone so vital that it shuts you down.
It’s what I told FX before, but it’s becoming more and more true now: If you’re shooting in a thunderstorm, you’re gonna get wet.
And now everyone is getting wet.
When the shutdown happened in March, the last season of Curb was completely done and we had the finale left for Dave, which we edited remotely. Then I spent the rest of the shutdown writing. Larry [David] and I were writing Curb and there was a Zoom writers room for Dave.
We started writing Curb before COVID, and then when COVID happened we had to change some things. We had to make the decision about what era we were writing — before, during or after COVID — and the real factor was when we would be premiering. We figured we would be coming out in the fall of 2021 and we didn’t want what we were writing in March of 2020 to be so timely that it would feel dated more than a year later. So we made the decision to set the new season in a post-COVID world. COVID definitely happened and we definitely talk about it, but we were assuming that Biden would win and that things would be better by the fall of 2021. COVID is in the rearview mirror, but it happened. And Larry [the character] has opinions on all of it. (Laughs.) I can’t tell you which characters got COVID, but I can definitely tell you that we do examine peoples’ behavior during the COVID era.
Both shows didn’t go back into production until November, but we started doing protocol stuff and research into how to shoot in COVID in March for Curb.
In March our season 10 Curb producer Mychelle Deschamps was looking into finding a great testing service before anybody — one that I now use on Dave, too. Our producers went through every aspect of production and were way ahead of the curve. We were doing it on our own for a while before then talking to HBO, who said, “We should adapt these.”
We knew if we were going to entice Larry to come back during a pandemic we needed to have the strictest protocols. We had to convince Larry, “Here’s what it’s going to look like if you want to shoot. So … do you want to shoot?”
The fact that Larry is back on set is a tribute to classic writers syndrome. We already wrote the season; we did the hard part. So, let’s do the fun part! If we hadn’t already written the new season, there’s no way we would have done it. But we don’t want to sit on these scripts for even longer. So then it became a question of, how do we do this in the safest way possible? For Curb, our protocol is just above and beyond what is required.
We created a "Zone A bubble." Then we needed to figure out: how big is that bubble? It’s not just the actors and the people around the actors — it’s also the person who is driving the Zone A transpo van; the one PA who is allowed to go into an actor’s trailer. The people in the bubble get tested every day with PCR tests; we get the results back in eight to 12 hours.
I was testing five times a week for Curb and three times a week for Dave, and even though it’s the same lab that was processing it, Disney (for Dave) and Time Warner (for Curb) wouldn’t accept each other’s results. So I was getting eight tests a week, until they will now finally accept it. Every evening you get this little email from the lab testing company and you have to log in to see what it says. Every day is Christmas: "Hey, I don’t have COVID!" Hopefully.
Our crew has been amazing. You can’t make anybody do anything, but we have a social contract. We basically said, "We’re all one big family here and we love you all. We want to see everybody that we see on day one at the wrap party — the stupid virtual wrap party." Everybody wants to work and nobody wants to get anybody else sick. I think people have been super responsible. But you see the numbers rising. It’s never been easier to catch COVID than it is right now.
The hardest part now that things are getting worse and worse all around us is trying to balance two things. On one side of the scale is the health and safety of the cast and crew, and the other arm of the scale is the livelihoods of the crew. Is it safe to work? But if we deem it’s unsafe to work, then people aren’t going to get a paycheck. It’s really tricky. And it’s proving to be harder and harder to work and be 100 percent safe. After Christmas, we’re going to wait at least a week, and probably double test or triple test before people can come back to set.
Being back on set, the first thing that you think about is making sure everyone is safe. Then you start thinking about how this is going to slow us down and if we’ll be able to make our days. And then the third worry is, how am I going to communicate what’s funny while wearing a mask? When you’re screaming at someone from six feet away— you’re going to lose a lot of the nuance.
On set, I’ve always used a walkie for pitching lines and notes in the scene, because I can talk quieter and you can hear the tone of my voice. And Larry and I have a pretty good shorthand, so where shooting on Curb has changed the most is that everything takes a little longer.
There’s just this annoying thing in the air — a background distraction. There’s always the distraction of the mask, the distance; the camera crew has to leave because the set deck crew is coming and you can’t have that many people around. Everyone always has to remember to stay apart from one another. You have to fight years and years of instinct of walking up to someone and talking to them, like approaching your DP or AD or having everybody put their heads together to say, “OK, what are we doing next?” Now, you are doing that while someone is screaming, “Six feet apart!”
On Disney sets, if you’re talking to an actor who isn’t wearing a mask, you have to wear a mask and a face shield. On the Time Warner set, a mask is fine. There are those little differences. So now I’m wearing a mask over my mouth, a face shield over my eyes and I’ve got headphones on my ears — I’m basically a ball gag away from full gimp suit.
And now, there are way more people on location. There’s a whole new division —a COVID squad.
They are the people who are making sure everyone is six feet apart, who always have a new mask or hand sanitizer, and who are always wiping things down. There’s also a COVID adviser on set, to monitor the people who are doing the testing. There’s a lot more infrastructure.
Then there is lunch. At a table that used to fit six or seven people, two people are now allowed to sit at each end. But the one bonus of COVID might actually be eating less. Going to get junk food at Craft Services is now like buying a pack of condoms. If you want something to eat, you have to go to this Crafty tent and look another human in the eye and mumble, “I want the Cheetos and another brownie.”
But the truth is, once you get back to the work, it all sort of feels pretty normal. You get used to it. I always felt very safe because of our testing regimen. Of course, the thing we now know more clearly is that testing, no matter how frequent, does not prevent anyone from getting COVID. It just tells you more precisely when people have COVID. And now that it’s literally all around us, even with all this testing, people are still going to catch it.
I’m shooting two all-location shows during a pandemic so, I clearly have a death wish! Every day when I get home, my wife says, "Shower in the outdoor shower." That’s our house protocol.
All of our main locations were happy to have us back, which I was surprised about. But we also have been able to give restaurants money and be another stream of income for that industry. We have a lot of scenes in restaurants in Curb and that’s been a nice way to help out businesses in the community. One thing we have to do now, which is so weird, is that we have to restore restaurants to what they looked like before the pandemic, like removing all of the plexiglass and six-feet-apart signage.
We also took a look at our schedule and moved scenes that have a lot of people indoors to the end of the shoot. Scenes like a big memorial service or music event were circled and pushed to April. And, if we’re not ready to shoot then, we’ll push to the summertime. We have the luxury to do that.
It’s a real Jenga puzzle and the producers bear the brunt of that rescheduling. When a piece gets pulled out, it’s really hard to put it back together. Before we had to pause on Curb, I was already rescheduling because a guest actor from another show had to go into quarantine. What you can shoot is changing on a daily basis. And it’s easy to do that stuff if you’re a stage show. But we bought the locations. You can’t always get that location back or get it back at the same time as the actors. We also have to buy second locations because there has to be enough room for everyone to be on set but socially distanced. There are more vans, more makeup trailers. Everything is more expensive in every department across the board. But this is the risk that everyone was willing to take so that people could have something to watch after a long day of … being at home.
Doing an improv show teaches you how to be very adaptable. We’re used to making lemonade. But at the same time, Dave [Burd, aka Lil Dicky, the star and co-creator of Dave] is very insistent that he does not want to make a season of the series that’s compromised. And with Larry [creator and star of Curb], that same principle is endemic. In spite of all of the stuff, on both shows, we’re still trying to make the exact show we wanted. It’s not always easy, but no one is willing to compromise on the vision of either show.
In the end, like any distraction, you just have to put it to the side and make the best show you can. It’s crazy, but it’s still super fun to do both shows. You’re doing a scene and Larry is saying something that you never thought you’d hear come out of his mouth and you forget you’re wearing a mask — and then you try to drink through a straw while you’re still wearing it, and you remember! But this is what we wanted. All of the protocols and all that stuff, ideally, was designed so that Larry could make the show that he wanted to make, and we’re still doing that. So in that way, I think we’re super successful.
People just need to do the simple things. Don’t travel. Wear a mask. Stay apart from people as much as you can. Don’t enter long-distance spitting contests. It’s amazing how those simple things can cut down on the transmission of this virus. I saw this graph showing the difference in Los Angeles in general and the entertainment industry, and it’s crazy how good a job these set protocols have done. But they’re not foolproof. I don’t think anyone thinks that we can skate a clean program anymore. The water is rising so fast around us, and I don’t think the vaccine is going to affect shoots for a while. But I don’t see the industry shutting down again. It’s crazy to say, but apparently we’re "essential workers." That’s a weird feeling. We’re obviously not essential in any way, shape or form. But, that’s what it is. So let’s just go try to make some really funny shows and make people happy.
Jeff Schaffer is executive producer on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and the co-creator of FXX's Dave. The shows are filming seasons 11 and 2, respectively, in and around Los Angeles.