Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key (Photo: Comedy Central)

In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

As a production designer on shows like Key & Peele and Workaholics, Gary Kordan is responsible for setting the stage for jokes—literally. He creates sets and places props for sketches, crafting worlds that neither take away from the jokes nor distract from what’s happening on screen. The A.V. Club talked to him about what exactly this entails, and just how much it costs to build a pirate ship.

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The A.V. Club: What is your job, and how did you get into the production world?

Gary Kordan: I am a production designer primarily for television. When I’m hired on a project, I get a script or a basic description from the showrunners or the directors, and that can pretty much say “interior room” or “interior restaurant.” And my job is to hire the crew, put the entire art department together, put together a vision of what that room is, pitch it, start designing it, start building it, make it happen within the budget, and make it look amazing on camera.

Each script you get for a half-hour project probably has 23 or 24 scenes in it, so you’re doing 24 original sets from scratch as a production designer with your entire crew and hopefully blowing everyone away.

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Key & Peele episode 307 from gary kordan on Vimeo.

AVC: Are you mainly doing sets in a studio or are you on location?

GK: It’s all over the place. Most shows that I do will be in the studio for three or four days a week and then out in the field for two days.

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For example, today, we’re shooting in a cool section of Los Angeles called Los Feliz on Vermont Street, and we’re at four different stores for four different scenes. But our art department had to come in hours and hours and hours before the crew to augment them, to change the set dressing, make the look of the store work for the scenes, change out all the artwork that isn’t cleared, and just beef up the look so it looks great and natural on camera. We’re almost leapfrogging as a scene is shot, because the art department is going back and returning the store back to the way it looked when we showed up. And then the next day, we’ll be on soundstage on one of the sets that we built prior. So it’s a little bit of both and it’s all over the place.

How I got my start was crazy. I was in art school in New York City at the School Of Visual Arts. In my junior year as an illustration fine arts major, there was a class canceled. On the bulletin board in the hallway was a sign that said interns were needed at CBS, and I had an epiphany at the moment of, “I could be an artist but also work in film and television?” I hadn’t even realized it before that point. I called and got the interview, and it was interns for The Joan Rivers Show, which was a daytime talk show.

Because I was not the kid coming from a communications school, I quickly stood out and was able to start doing little hand props, little art designs, working with the art department at CBS, working with Joan in the writers’ room and coming up with cool elements that she would use on her show or in her monologue. And then from that point, it was all in. When the show ended, I just started doing off-off-Broadway, satellite media tours, things for MTV and VH1, and I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been a production designer and art director since my junior year of college, which is why I didn’t go back and finish. But that’s what I have to carry around. I didn’t finish art school.

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You want to know something terrible? I’m someone who’s been now a production designer on all these TV shows for two decades. I feel like I do stuff that people care about, but when I reach out to the school, they do not care about me because I didn’t finish. I’m not even considered an alumnus. Every once in a while, I’ll see a poster of people who have done stuff that went to that school, and I’m like, “Hey, I’ve done stuff.” But I didn’t finish.

AVC: “Hey, I won an Art Directors Guild award.”

GK: Exactly. I need to send them that picture.

AVC: You’ve worked on a lot of different projects, but recently, it seems like you’ve been focused mainly on comedy.

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GK: Pretty much 99 percent of my career has been working in comedy. Scripted comedy, sketch comedy, variety. I think it’s half that producers and talent and writers gravitate toward me, and also, I gravitate toward them because I understand as a production designer what works and what doesn’t and how to achieve the vision.

Workaholics Episode 307 from gary kordan on Vimeo.

AVC: What does work?

GK: My philosophy has always been, the more realistic a set design or a prop or element is that the art department creates for a comedy, the funnier it is on camera because it’s a realistic setting. So when a script comes in and it says “interior apartment,” I research and try to create something that looks as real as possible, almost like if it was from a dramatic film or television show, and then just up the ante on the details.

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With the details, many times, we’ll put little hidden jokes or jokes that only the crew would understand. We’ll hide little props or things for actors to find and play with in the scene, and then that enhances the comedy.

It’s the same thing with props. I always make sure that they look real, feel real, and seem aged. An item’s got all the wear and tear on it that would make it look realistic because I believe that the viewer finds it funnier than if it were bright colors and jokey.

I, as a production designer in our art department, don’t want to compete with the script. We don’t want to distract from the actors or the comedy in the script. We want to, with costumes and lighting and props, make the scene look as realistic as possible, which then in turn makes the dialogue even funnier.

AVC: You did Time Traveling Bong with Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs. That had a really good dumpy apartment, so good job.

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GK: Yeah, on Time Traveling Bong, that was a dumpy New Jersey apartment.

I’m glad you bring that up because Time Traveling Bong was shot in 12 days, including two days in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the 1600s scene. And we prepped it in three weeks. I had never worked with the director or the creative director before, and they were all from Broad City in New York. They came out to L.A., and I got hired to be the production designer. We had 15 days to prep and 12 days to shoot. So the way I started with that show was that I took over an entire wall in the production office and just loaded it with visual research. All my visual research was real elements from history and real-looking apartments because we didn’t want the apartment to look right out of a college dorm room, and we didn’t want it to look too expensive for their income. So we found this mix of vintage pieces and thought about how their two lives are merging together, and they’re trying really hard to put Christmas lights on the wall because they’re trying to be young people in their 20s.

That visual research on the wall helped us always create the sense that we were as historically accurate as you can be on a Comedy Central show about a time-traveling bong.

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AVC: Were you just creating interiors, or did you create the bong too?

GK: Everything. Everything. As the production designer, I’m handed a 30-page script, and I’m in charge of everything, not only the graphics and the set designs and the posters and the signage and the locations—both in studio and outside—but also, of course, the bong.

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Sci-fi is a dream come true for someone in the art department, but it’s also very challenging because we’ve seen it all. How do you compete with everything you’ve ever seen from The Martian to Star Wars and still make it look like cool sci-fi?

For the bong, we found a cool model for a bong and then went to one of my amazing vendors here in Los Angeles called Alex In Wonderland, and they mold everything. On Workaholics, they did my dragon that was kidnapped from the front yard, and they’ve done a ton of my past props.

It was sort of a weird, sci-fi, cool bong, and we had about 12 of them—some that were broken, some that were Lucite so we could drop them, and some that were real glass so you could smoke them. The transferring and handling of the bongs became a very important part of that show over 12 days, and not getting them lost with the checked luggage. Where the bong was at all times was super important.

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AVC: What’s a good-size budget for an episode of a show?

GK: Budgets are always different, but Comedy Central’s budgets—it’s laughable how small the budget is on a show like Key & Peele or Workaholics or Time Traveling Bong. You’ve got to be crazy to take the job, and then you have to keep a straight face when you hear what the budget is.

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Workaholics episode 320 Production Designer Gary Kordan from gary kordan on Vimeo.

On something like Key & Peele, budgets are sort of like—you’re going to laugh and be shocked, but for set dressing, it would be like $1,500 a sketch. And then maybe sometimes we would get $6,000 for construction. We would do two sketches a day on Key & Peele, so 10 a week. In one day, you’re building sets on locations and studios, and you’re spending $7,000 a day at most to pull them off because you’re doing 86, maybe 90 sketches a season, so you’ve got to divvy it up and go, “Okay, you want a pirate set that looks real that looks like a $100 million feature.” I had probably $2,000 in set dressing and maybe $6,500 for the construction build in that location, and we made it look like a real pirate shanty bar with moving parts and a stage and all this seating. The only way we could do that is that we would scout it and draw it out perfectly so that when the camera was on, the set that was being shot, that’s all they got. If they had moved the camera or tried to turn around, there was nothing there. We just ran out of room, we ran out of money, and that’s the set they got. So that’s on the lower end.

When I’m on a soundstage, building big sets, we could spend up to half a million dollars on building all those sets and set-dressing them and everything that’s outside the windows. You either have a half a million dollars or more to spend on a soundstage or you have $1,500 to spend on a sketch of Key & Peele, but both have to look just as good.

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Betas Set Build Time Lapse (office) from gary kordan on Vimeo.

AVC: The work you did on shows like Betas and Just Add Magic seems like it was toward the higher end of that budget.

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GK: We shot Betas at Culver Studios on Stage 3, and we had a huge expense account so we were able to spend some serious money. On the video section of my website, I have a time-lapse that you’ll love. It’s the building of the office of Betas over the course of 30 days, but I time-lapsed it and edited it down to three minutes. You can see 80 people working on that set and other sets, building them all simultaneously from empty soundstage to the first shoot day. It’s something really cool to see what the art department does because I don’t think people even realize when they watch television and movies that most of the time there are sets on a soundstage.

For Just Add Magic, same thing. We have a store, a house, an attic, a bunch of bedrooms, a kitchen, and all these sets are standing onstage at L.A. Center Studios here in L.A., on Stage 1, where they shot Mad Men.

AVC: What’s the deal with rentals? In the Key & Peele pirate sketch, for instance, you probably had to rent a bunch of nets, a violin, and so on.

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GK: That’s why the art department usually needs three or more trucks.

On Key & Peele, for example, at the beginning of the season, we would get a packet of 80 or 90 scripts. We have to break them down and start scouting the locations and figure out what we’re going to build on a soundstage and figure out what we’re going to shoot out in the world and augment. Then a buyer and set decorator start finding all the set-dressing elements at all the prop houses in Los Angeles, and then simultaneously, the construction department starts building all its stuff. When it comes time to shoot, one truck is picking up all the stuff at the different vendors throughout Los Angeles. The other truck is on location unloading, building, set-dressing, and then the next day when we’re off to the next set, the other truck is returning everything we just rented.

It’s a bit of a military-style experience because we can’t have loss and damage. You have to return the stuff as it was rented. You have to check in the barcode. You have to make sure that it’s not stained or ripped or broken. You don’t want to tell your producer that you broke a cable or you ripped a couch or you lost a lamp because loss and damage is something we just can’t afford on television shows. It’s like the circus or a big rock tour. Everything gets unloaded, built, performed, struck, put in a truck, and then is on to the next city. Every day.

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AVC: How big is your team on a shoot like that?

GK: On Key & Peele, I had probably 13 people.

The way it breaks down is that there’s me, an art director, a set decorator, a buyer, an art department coordinator, a prop master, a prop assist, set dressers, and scenic painters.

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On Key & Peele, it was pretty small, but then on something like Betas, or Just Add Magic, you’ve got bigger crews because they’re better-funded shows. You have construction departments and you have greens persons, who are in charge of all the greens and trees and things like that that are usually what you see outside windows or hiding gear. That’s always the nightmare of the art department, when they show up on a set and there’s thousands of yards of cables and things like that, and they’ll say, “What can we do to hide this?” Thankfully, the greens person is there to hide it with trees and bushes and leaves and things like that.

Key & Peele 201 from gary kordan on Vimeo.

AVC: What did you do for @Midnight?

GK: I designed the set for @Midnight. I had done a pilot with Tom Lennon and Ben Garant—a sci-fi pilot for FX. Eddie Izzard was in it. It was great. It was a really fun pilot. It didn’t get picked up, but while we were on set, I think they liked what I was doing. So they were like, “We’re doing this pilot. It’s called Twitterdome. It’s a cross between Twitter and Jeopardy! We want it to look like Mad Max but also Jeopardy!, and we’ve got a few thousand dollars to do it. Will you design the set?” So I designed a great sketch for them, then I did a bunch of renders, and we shot the pilot. This is a few years ago. Tom Lennon was the host. “Weird Al” Yankovic was one of the guests, and it was fantastic. So good.

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Image: Gary Kordan

Flash-forward to maybe eight months later when Comedy Central picked up the pilot of Twitterdome. They changed it to the name @Midnight and made Chris Hardwick the host. So then my job was to figure out how we keep the dome vibe and the floating-elements vibe and make a cool set design that looks like Jeopardy!-meets-a-cool-talk-show vibe. So I designed and built the set for season one and part of season two. They’ve since done a redesign, but my involvement was creating the look and the branding for that first season.

AVC: It seems like part of your job is figuring out how to instantly convey something. If I’m flicking through, I have to instantly understand @Midnight is a game show, or that Key & Peele is doing a sketch on a pirate ship.

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GK: It’s also about doing thorough research to figure out what has been done before. How do I put a fresh twist on it, and how do I challenge myself to not let it look like anything that’s ever been done before? At the same time, on something like @Midnight, you have to design a set in a way that can be shot with multiple cameras, where the colors are going to work, and figure out where the audience goes. Can we get a clean shot of the contestants? Or can we get a clean shot of the pirate ship or the guys in the crowd looking up at the woman coming down from the second floor? It’s simultaneously about making it look good and then making it shootable on the day.

Image: Gary Kordan

AVC: And making it shootable quickly, probably.

GK: Right. It needs to fit on a truck and be prepped in a day or two.

For example, on the first season of @Midnight, we loaded the set in on Monday, and we built it Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, they did lighting, focus, and rehearsals, and on Thursday, they shot the first few episodes that aired on television. So you cannot have, on a Tuesday afternoon, an “oops, I never thought of that” moment or an “oops, that’s not going to work” moment. You’ve got to figure it out because you can’t lose a day. It’s $100,000 of loss if you mess up a set design, and they have to push a day if the set doesn’t work. You just have to be on it and lose a lot of sleep.

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AVC: You did the set for The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail, but that’s an existing room in the back of Meltdown Comics. How do you make an existing room work for TV?

GK: Not only an existing room but probably the ugliest room in all of Los Angeles. It is essentially the storage area in the back of a comic store. I did season one and season two, and then this July, I’ll be doing season three with them.

The first time I saw that room and they said, “Here’s where we’re shooting the show”—it’s low ceilings with beams; ugly, terrible white walls; and a few lights that were screwed into the ceiling for the stage with a black backdrop.

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Image: Gary Kordan

What I did was I worked with the poster illustrator at Meltdown Comics, whose name is Dave Kloc, and he is probably, at the moment, my favorite poster illustrator. He’s designed every single Meltdown poster since it started. For people that don’t know what Meltdown is, it’s a space owned by Chris Hardwick in the back of Meltdown Comics, and the biggest comics in the world form there nightly, and no one really knows about it except for those people in the know that know about it.

Anyway, Dave designed a mural based on space and then we made sure it was a cool vibe, that it would look good on camera. I figured out how to take his mural and turn it into a 3-D, camera-friendly set that skinned the entire walls of the back room with LED lights and 3-D elements. We could shoot it quickly, and the day that we shot the last episode, it could all come down, and the walls could be painted white again, back to the normal Meltdown look.

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That show is a really fun, collaborative challenge for a production designer.

AVC: It’s also like, “No, don’t take it down. Leave it up. It looks nice.”

GK: That’s what I said. I was heartbroken because he actually painted on the wall. Dave actually picks up his physical paintbrush, and I build a 3-D render so he knows exactly where everything is going to go, and he has three or four days over the weekend to paint his mural on the wall. Then we come in and build on top of that and make it a 3-D element. If one day Dave becomes the most famous artist in the world, it will be a real tragedy that under those white walls are his massive murals.

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Image: Gary Kordan

AVC: When they’re not filming the show for TV, the weekly event still happens, but they just perform in front of a shitty Meltdown banner.

GK: So shitty. But he did that banner, too. That’s a plain canvas that Dave did also, and it comes from upstairs and goes back downstairs and they hang it. There’s something charming about that, and that banner is actually the inspiration for the set design of what we do on television, but we have, well, not much more but a few dollars more than what that banner cost.

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AVC: What does a real room need to look TV-ready? If you walked into The A.V. Club office right now, what would you have to change to make it look good on TV?

GK: If we were doing a TV show about you, I’d have to do my research to find out who you are. Are you the cool indie girl? Are you the more hippie type who has macramé and Etsy-type things everywhere? Are you the rocker girl? Once I understood who you were, the first thing I would do is figure out what the color palette is. We’re going to paint your walls so they’ll look great on camera but also give people an indication of who you are. Are you pink, are you lavender, are you black?

AVC: Are there colors that don’t look good?

GK: It depends. We try to avoid white walls because there’s nothing you can do with it. I always try to make sure that whatever color I use has a gray tone to it because it looks nicer with blue. Blue gray looks really good on camera.

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Gary Kordan Production Designer from gary kordan on Vimeo.

Anyway, once I understood who you were, then I would look at your desk and look at your elements and try to figure out how to make them all match but not look catalog. I’d use the same color palette but switch all your items out for things that make it look like you found them over the course of going to indie stores and online and made yourself. That starts to enhance your character. Then it’s about what’s on your desk, and then we would go shopping for you and figure out, are you into vinyl, are you into Star Wars? Whatever it is. We start to populate your desk with those things. What kind of books do you read? We would make sure the books on the shelves represented who you were, and then we would talk to the director of photography and the director and figure out what the shot is, and we’d move all your furniture around to make sure they can get a good shot that’s flattering on camera, not only of you but of the space.

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The next day when we are done, we would take all that stuff away, put your stuff back, paint your walls back to white, and you’d never know we were there. Many times people say, “Leave this stuff. This looks amazing. I want to keep it.” But again, it all goes back to rentals. A lot of our stuff is rentals, and we have to return it.

I’m going to find out who you are, and then we’ll come do your office.

Image: Gary Kordan

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AVC: You’ve done a number of stand-up specials, like Patton Oswalt: Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time. What do people want out of a stage set for something like that?

GK: Very simply, they do not want the background to compete with the comic. The challenge with that set was that it was Patton Oswalt’s stand-up comedy special during Comic-Con at the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego. I had to design a set in Los Angeles that wouldn’t compete with Patton, that had some texture and some color changes, and that would just be an interesting design in the background and not compete with his stand-up comedy. I had to be able to pack it up in L.A. and drive it down to San Diego.

The night before our live show, Metallica was playing at the theater. Their load-out finished at 4:30 in the morning. The art department was there at 4:31. We started building the set, laying down the floor, making it all perfect. Then by 10 a.m., 11 a.m., the set was up, talent started showing up, and we did camera, lighting, and audio. Those departments load in all day. We rehearse all day, and then Patton did two shows: 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. At 10 p.m., we were breaking the floor down, breaking the set down, putting them in boxes and heading back to Los Angeles. That’s the story of the art department and what a typical day is like for something like Patton Oswalt.

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I haven’t thought about that in years. That was insanity. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. That’s how insane that was.

AVC: What do you have coming up that’s exciting?

GK: I just did an ABC pilot that just got picked up called Downward Dog. We shot that in Pittsburgh and it stars Allison Tolman from Fargo. That happens in the fall.

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Next month, I am doing a Reggie Watts Netflix special. It’s sort of like the Patton Oswalt special, where it’s like a studio audience with stand-up comedy and I’m building the stage for that.

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Key & Peele Stage Build Time Lapse from gary kordan on Vimeo.