R&B crooner Robin Thicke may still be nursing his wounds following his divorce from actress Paula Patton, but not everyone in the family is having down days. Uncle Todd Thicke, who happens to be the executive producer of ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, is riding high on his career success in the wake of the long-standing ratings juggernaut’s 25th season premiere on Oct. 12.
Since its debut in 1989, AFV has focused on wholesome, family-friendly programming that made viewers want to grab a friend and share the laugh-out-loud funny clips long before they ever knew what “viral” meant. It’s a perfect fit for the married father of two who maintains a happy home life even while admitting to a “relentless” work ethic. But while Thicke, whose famous family includes brother Alan Thicke, may not have all the answers on work-life balance (“You’re asking me a question the Dalai Lama is struggling with!”), he does have plenty of advice to help young professionals break into TV writing and blow past the competition.
Name: Todd Thicke
Position: Executive producer of America’s Funniest Home Videos
Resume: Moved to Los Angeles from Canada and began writing Candid Camera, Animal Crack-Ups, Growing Pains and others, while also earning an Emmy nomination for The Wil Shriner Show. He is also the composer of numerous theme songs for TV shows, including The All New Let’s Make a Deal and Split Second. In 1989, Thicke wrote the pilot episode for America’s Funniest Home Videos and is currently the show’s executive producer.
Birthday: July 8
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
Education: Attended the University Ontario and earned an honors degree in English literature from York University
Media mentor: Gary Marshall (Happy Days, Mork & Mindy) and Lorne Michaels
Best career advice received: “Do you what you love and work harder than everyone else and surround yourself with good people. I’ve just watched that from everyone, whether it’s Steve Jobs or Lorne Michaels or President Obama.”
Guilty pleasure: “Doing interviews; we’ll leave it at that.”
Last book you read: Current list includes Hard Choices, by Hillary Clinton; Decision Point, by George W. Bush; Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King; and Justice, by Michael Sandel
Twitter handle: @RealToddThicke
How did you get involved with America’s Funniest Home Videos?
I’d come from Toronto, Canada, and I thought that I was some hotshot writer. I was writing a bunch of different pilots that year, and I had a lot of things in development. I had a late night show on ABC that I was doing and I’d also been working with Vin Di Bona on a couple of projects. He showed me this reel of videos from Japan and said he wanted to turn it into a show. I looked at it, and it was spectacular. I’d never seen anything like it, and I said, ‘I have to do this show.’ Then, when we finally got to the studio… I was standing by the script table with Bob Saget during the pilot, and we were going over script notes and looking at changes, and we put on some of the reel just to show the audience while we were fixing some things in the corner. And the laughs were so gigantic and so spectacular; we just looked at each other and went, ‘Wow, lightning in a bottle.’
So what was it about the show that excited you the most?
It was so cutting edge and, in fact, it still is. But I’d never seen those kinds of real moments captured before. It was so spontaneous; it was fresh. It was real and honest and funny. I met with a bunch of friends and I’d show them my reel, and we’d write some jokes together and try to figure out what the tone of it was. And everywhere I’d go people would just respond to it immediately.
How do keep the show fresh and exciting after 25 years?
With Season 25, we really wanted to reaffirm our commitment to America and to the family. We are about values and morality, and we have a real positive point of view. That never goes out of style. At the heart, we have heart. We always make it funny — always, always, always. But deep down, we have heart, and that’s the longevity of the show. We’re the most honest show in America. I love reality TV, but we all know it’s manipulated and scripted and contrived. But we’re not. We go for the genuine, real moments. And I think that resonates.
Do you worry that with reality TV, or even shows that play to our less moral sensibilities, there won’t be room for a show like yours?
I think there’s more room for us and need for us now than ever. AFV is more relevant now than it ever was, especially in light of all of those other things. Our audience is age 8 to 80, or 2 to toothless, on a Sunday night — where else can you do that? What other show can group family together, or friends or strangers even? And we’re both old school and high tech. We’re old school because we care about America and family and values. And we’re high tech because we get videos now of what’s going on in America’s family — I’ll get one and watch it in the morning and it’s date-stamped yesterday — and the delivery is so immediate now that everything is fresh. Everything looks brand new.
Why did you decide to transition to producing, and do you miss writing?
When I started, I was trying to do a lot of things in show business. I was an actor, then I was a singer. I was a songwriter, and I did standup comedy and improv. But I wasn’t very good at most of those things. I was OK, but I started working with people who were really, really good at those things. And I thought, realistically, where do I shine? And it was writing. That’s when people cared. Now I kind of bridge the two. I love to sit and work with the writers and write jokes and build the show, but I also have other production and business things that I need to do, so I sometimes have to step back. I love to sit with a bunch of funny, smart people, though, and pitch jokes and pitch ideas and concepts, so I keep popping in and out of the room. Sometimes, and this has been a terrible thing for me, I walk by the writer’s room, and I want to go pop in and sit and write with them, and I hear them laughing and working and I say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to interrupt what they’re doing.’ When you have really smart, talented people, you let them do what they do.
What’s the best way for someone interested in breaking into TV writing to get in the door?
It’s the same advice for every business and anyone breaking into anything: Do what you care about; do what you love. Work harder than everybody else. Work with other good people and get ideas and energy and thoughts from [them]. For writers, you have to not be too precious about your work. It will change; it will morph; it will be cut and edited. And you’ve got to keep rewriting it and hold it together and address everyone’s thoughts and notes to get [your team] on board while staying true to your project. And you’re going to get a million notes, and not all of them are going to be good, but you have to address them anyway. Keep an open mind. Writing is rewriting. I’m always rewriting to keep things short. How can you say the most in the fewest possible words? You have to get right to the essence of what you want to say. But you have to let it go, too, at a certain point. I would polish and keep doing it forever, but there’s something about a deadline that makes it ready.
What are the most important skills that someone needs to have as long and successful a career as you’ve had in the industry?
Well, you do need your passion and to follow your heart. You have to be resilient and not be afraid to fail or have bad ideas, and learn from your mistakes. A lot of people don’t. And I’m such a believer in working harder than everyone else because if you’re fantastic at what you do and you work 10 hours a day and I’m fantastic at what I do and I work 12 hours a day, I have [the edge].
How do you balance your personal life with working harder than everyone else?
How do we balance it all? And I’m a real family man. I just love my family and want to spend so much time with them, and I have. And then there are the times when you’re just on a huge work thing. It’s very difficult to balance. It’s not like there’s a solution like, ‘Oh, here’s the answer, and now it works fine.’ And then I realize, also, that it’s good for my kids to see the effort that it takes to be a success, the resilience that it takes. It’s a constant struggle. I’ve got good kids, though, and my career is good. But I’m a mess.
Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Follow her at @AndreaWillWrite.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.