Summer 2010: Register

Jason Kirschner in his office

Jason Kirschner 95C

Paige P. Parvin

Funny by Design

Jason Kirschner is Dave’s ‘Late Night’ artman

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

It’s Monday morning at 11:30, and Jason Kirschner 95C has a problem: Bill Murray broke his foot skiing.

Murray is the guest on today’s David Letterman show, and the director wants to make a comic bit out of the actor’s injured foot by providing a sling where Murray can rest it during his appearance. As the production designer for the Late Show with David Letterman, Kirschner’s job is to devise said sling.

“This is to elevate his foot?” Kirschner is saying into the phone. “And a little ottoman wouldn’t work?”

Apparently not. The show tapes at 3:30 p.m. and the clock is ticking. Kirschner rapidly sketches a few slings on a drawing pad, then paces around the upstairs warren of CBS offices behind the Letterman studio in the heart of midtown New York, stopping in the doorway of art director Mark Erbaugh 95C. Erbaugh is searching the Internet for foot slings.

“This is what we do—we have to interpret the idea and make it happen,” Kirschner explains. “It has to be somewhat iconic and recognizable, because it might only be on the screen for three or four seconds.”

Since the Letterman show tapes on a widely recognized, seemingly unchanging set, you might think being the production designer wouldn’t be all that challenging. You would be wrong. Today, it’s a sling for Bill Murray’s foot; last week, it was assembling thousands of helium-filled balloons so the Mythbusters guys could see how many will actually make a human float; before that, it was creating a twenty-foot-tall piñata filled with candy so a stunt driver could drive a city bus through it. Of course, the famous backdrop and set have to be continuously maintained.

“Most days, it’s a lot of fun,” Kirschner says. “You learn how to think fast and solve problems quickly.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Kirschner started Emory as a math and science major, on his way to becoming a computer programmer. One night he was up working at three in the morning while two classmates were having a heated argument over who was the better Star Trek captain—Kirk or Picard. “I changed my major to theater the next day,” he says.

At that point Kirschner was already working on designing and directing plays with Theater Emory, including Little Shop of Horrors and The Wizard of Oz. Department chair Leslie Taylor encouraged him to pursue set design.

By 12:45 p.m., Kirschner and Erbaugh have identified a few options for cushioning Murray’s foot. One is a ferret hammock. Another is making the sling themselves with materials in the studio shop; Kirschner works with a sizeable team of carpenters, scenic painters, and stagehands. He sends a prop shopper out for the ferret hammock.

After Emory, Kirschner pursued a master’s degree in scenic design at Brandeis. During his third year, he landed an unpaid internship at the Letterman show. “It really shaped my career,” he says. Later, when working as art director for the Conan O’Brien Show, he got another call from the production office at Letterman. That was eight years ago. Kirschner and his wife, Heather, a veterinarian, have three-year-old twins, Sydney and Abraham.

“I really liked working in theater, but there is a different element of excitement to TV,” he says. “It’s a real kick to work in television. And the Letterman set is iconic, it’s instantly recognizable. I’m pretty proud to be working on it.”

Around 2:30 p.m., Kirschner and his team try out a couple of foot slings, dropping them into the set from the ceiling. One is the ferret hammock, but it is furry and polka-dotted, so it doesn’t look quite right. The props crew also made a version out of some black carpet stapled to strips of wood, but Kirschner finds it unsightly.

So with twenty-four minutes left until the show, Kirschner runs back up to his office and makes his own with scraps of foam wrapped in canvas, held still with two wooden dowels. “I taped them together and had the props crew place grommets in the corners to hold the thing up,” he says. “Our director okayed it and hung it—unfortunately in front of the audience. We really try to avoid that.”

Minutes later, Bill Murray limps onto the set and takes his seat with Letterman, the two bantering back and forth about his injury. “I think we might have a thing. Do we have a thing?” asks Dave, and the sling drops from the ceiling as if by magic. Murray settles his foot comfortably into it, and the show goes on.

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