Asbury University is 2,200 miles from Hollywood, but students in its sitcom production class are assembling a 30-minute television show just as it’s done in California.
Asbury students are rehearsing for the latest edition of “Friends Like You,” a comedy that will be recorded before a live audience on the Wilmore campus and then broadcast later on a Louisville cable channel. (Three October performances before live audiences have sold out.)
As in previous Asbury productions over the past 10 years, the episode is written and directed by professor Doug Smart. He worked as an associate director on network sitcoms “The Golden Girls,” “Newhart,” “Benson” and “Empty Nest” before getting his master’s degree and joining academia.
“Learning from a person who has actually done this in Hollywood has been amazing,” said David deMena, 20, the assistant director to Smart.
The primary goal for students is to give them “as close to an actual, professional workplace experience as I can give them in an academic setting,” Smart said. “The way we do it here is exactly the same way it’s done in Hollywood.”
The 16 crew members in the sitcom class and eight actors began rehearsals in early September. Live audiences will see the show in three performances, and the best portions from each will be edited for a show to air at a later date on WBNA-21 in Louisville.
Asbury is known for giving its students real-world TV experience. Students from the Christian liberal arts university have worked as broadcasters for the summer and winter Olympics since 1984.
But a sitcom production class is rare among institutions of higher learning, especially in the South. “It is definitely the only sitcom class in Kentucky,” Smart said.
One night’s rehearsal in the university’s $12.5 million communications arts center is relaxed over the course of two hours. Smart, 67, is gentle and encouraging as he tweaks the performances in each scene.
“This is supposed to be fun,” Smart said. “If the actors aren’t having fun, the audience will pick up on that.”
Aspiring actress Delaney Hart, 22, of Bloomington, Ind., said rehearsing for a sitcom is different than for the theater.
“In a theater show, you work on memorizing your lines right away. But with this, it’s more flexible,” Hart said. “The lines might change, so you’ve got to be flexible with it.”
Some people might think it odd that a nondenominational Christian school has a sitcom class. Many people of faith say Hollywood doesn’t share their values. Smart acknowledged that some people think “Hollywood is where Satan has his throne.”
“I tell my kids, ‘You should look at Hollywood as a mission field,’” he said. “There’s no reason that Christians can’t work there. In fact, we’d be better off getting into mainstream television, getting into mainstream movies. Hollywood movies and television used to reflect the Judeo-Christian ethic … which has since fallen by the wayside.
“Rather than go into Christian television and be this alternative little thing out here, we should go into mainstream television and be an influence there.”
Smart got into television at San Diego State University, where he met actor and producer Desi Arnaz, who was best known as the character Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.” As a visiting professor at San Diego State, Arnaz set up a student production company on campus in the 1970s that produced a show, just as Asbury is doing now.
After he graduated,, Smart was an associate director for “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and he later became an associate director on a string of ’80s and ’90s sitcoms.
Smart retired from Asbury last year so he could spend more time with his five grandchildren. But he agreed to write and direct one more episode of “Friends Like You.” He wrote original scripts for previous episodes of the show produced on Asbury’s campus.
Owens said Asbury will continue to do television productions after Smart’s departure.
Smart is enjoying his last hurrah.
“I don’t think learning and fun have to be diametrically opposed,” he said. I spent 20 years of my life doing sitcoms. Was that a frivolous career? Probably, but I made a lot of people laugh for 20 years.
“In a lot of ways, sitcoms are a mirror of society. Fifty years ago, it would have been ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ where you had the quintessential nuclear family: Mom, Dad, the kids, happy home. And the worst trouble the kids could get into was something that happened at school, or they lied to their parents.
“And now you’ve got ‘Modern Family,’ where the patriarch of the family is divorced, he’s got the immigrant trophy wife who’s half his age and he’s got the son who is gay and the daughter who’s an overachiever. Or the show ‘Black-ish,’ where Anthony Anderson plays a guy who feels his kids are mainstreaming too much, they’re losing their ethnic identity. What Desi told me is that you can say any political or social message you want through a sitcom as long as it’s funny.”
For Kari Brown, 21, of Gahanna, Ohio, sitting alongside Smart has been rewarding. She is stage manager on the set of “Friends Like You.”
“It’s been so much fun. I’ve loved every minute of it,” Brown said.