America loves its television. While this notion may seem obvious to most, as both the television and movie epicenter of the world still reign in Los Angeles, California over a century since the film industry began, the current numbers regarding the amount of media and television consumed by Americans are astounding to say the least. In just one week, the American television industry produces approximately 3,000 shows worth of programming. Almost entirely gone are the days of scrolling through seemingly endless cable channels searching for anything remotely entertaining and interesting to watch, as streaming giants Hulu and Netflix continue to increase subscription rates in addition to DVR technology and on-demand services allowing for both casual and binge watching. As Americans we highly value television and film as forms of entertainment, and as consequence, jobs within these industries are extremely competitive, and once respect is garnered the roles of producers and showrunners can also be highly lucrative given the amount of money Americans spend on these forms of entertainment each year.
Among the many that try to make it in this difficult field is Michelle Nguyen, one producer making waves throughout Los Angeles as well as the greater television industry, thanks to both a relentless work ethic and an uncanny ability to understand what audiences want when collaborating with some of the biggest names in comedy. From working as a producer with comedy legends Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld on The Brian Regan Show to producing numerous shows released by Netflix, Nguyen has created a successful niche for herself within the hard-to-penetrate industry by adapting to various creative roles and not being afraid to pursue her passion.
Personally, Nguyen would consider her role as a producer for NBC digital’s Hidden America with Jonah Ray to be one of her more challenging but special experiences in television. A comedic homage to Anthony Bourdain’s widely popular Parts Unknown series, Hidden America’s development consisted of Nguyen working closely with creators Jonah Ray and Troy Miller in order to find particularly interesting places and guests like Weird Al Yankovic across the US and turn the idea of traveling into a comedic experience for audiences. “There’s something that is so pleasurably challenging about driving a comedy travel show,” Nguyen recalls. “I found that sleep had to wait and that the scrappier me had to come out. With a show like that, you quite often just have to lean in to it and trust your instincts. The comedy, the challenges, and the traveling all together is what made the show so fulfilling.” Not only fulfilling to those behind the project, Hidden America has been hugely popular since its release in 2016, receiving a 7.1 on IMDb.
The role of a producer can be ambiguous and difficult to define, especially for audiences watching television. From a viewer’s perspective, the behind-the-scenes work of the director and cast are easier to imagine. For instance, comedian Ricky Gervais as well as Greg Daniels served as the primary producers for the American version of The Office, originally being a British mockumentary comedy which Gervais created. It was well known by the public that Gervais had created the show, but much of the work that went into changing the details and characteristics of the series for American audiences was unseen by the masses. Both producers adapted the show over the first two seasons as it became increasingly clear what American audiences liked, and what they didn’t find funny. As is such, a producer largely oversees the creation and filming process from start to finish, making sure every aspect is running smoothly in order to create a final product that aligns with the message and vision of its creator. “Where I work at Dakota Pictures, what’s fun is to help craft a show, project or feature from the ground up. It’s quite a thing to see each project take shape,” states Nguyen. “In comedy specifically, producing is very much knowing how to build all departments, and bring them together, for each individual project. Apart from the production stage, which I would say is the eye of the storm, as an Associate Producer, I’m creatively involved early on in the development of a project and then I get to lead the project through to delivery.”
While television is generally subjective, regardless of content, comedy shows, in particular, are some of the most difficult to produce for due to the selectivity of humor among different subcultures and types of people. An outfit, punchline or gag may be received well in some regions and not in others, or might be directed towards a specific age group. The tangibles of what makes a good comedy are hard to pin down, but over the course of her career Nguyen has developed specialization within the genre, foreseeing how audiences and critics might receive aspects of a show and changing them if necessary. “The sort of focus and thinking on their feet required by myself and those writers, directors and actors excites me. There’s often an improvisational aspect to comedy and television comedy specifically that makes working alongside those creative minds as the project evolves in their hands incredibly mind blowing,” expresses Nguyen. While comedy and jokes specifically might be hit or miss depending on the viewer, it is that same sort of unstructured nature of comedy that inspires Nguyen to continue bringing her best to the table, or film set in this case. “There is rarely a set way of producing a project and working toward finding the best way to go about every situation is gold,” says Nguyen. Through consistent collaboration and producing on projects such as The Brian Regan Show as well as Writer’s Block, a short film starring Jane Lynch that was critically praised at film festivals across the country, Nguyen has been able to network her abilities through application. Within an industry like film, consistent work is sometimes the best form of networking, with word spreading fast. Nguyen explains that as a producer, if the director, writers and cast feel confident about a given project, then a producer’s job has been done well. This is easier said than done, and with many moving parts cultivating into one final product, a fair amount of revision, problem-solving, and critical thinking needs to take place on-the-spot, making the role of a producer incredible stressful yet rewarding.
Given that Nguyen has accumulated years of experience in a field where so many have found difficulty finding sustained success, she is quick to state for aspiring producers the importance of both continued ambition and finding useful applications of one’s abilities, or in other words, finding gaps that need to be filled. “The important thing is to develop your skills and be able to define them in a way that makes you an integral force,” says Nguyen. “In my case, I work to contribute in as many areas as I can, especially in areas I see a big need for it. And as cliché as it sounds, you get what you put into it.” With this being said, audiences should expect more projects coming to their screens that bear Nguyen’s work as a producer. The pristine product we see on Netflix, Hulu or cable was at one time just a concept, and without the long hours put in by producers like Nguyen, Americans wouldn’t be able to enjoy the level of high quality programming we have grown to expect.