Executive producer Ben Silverman’s name may not mean much to you, but if you watch TV you know his work.
I was watching NBC’s “Running Wild with Bear Grylls” last week when I saw the name Ben Silverman for a second. I asked Nicole Nye, vice president of marketing at Olson, if that was the same “Mansome” guy with whom I did a startribune.com/video when Silverman was here to be a keynote speaker at the advertising behemoth’s second annual North By Midwest marketer summit. “Ben is an executive producer,” Nye confirmed.
His other executive producer credits include “Mansome,” “The Office,” “The Tudors,” “Ugly Betty” and “Biggest Loser.” When I chatted with Silverman he was excited to have lined up “The Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik as a co-host of the “Candid Camera” reboot that started airing on TV Land last week. Silverman’s also thrilled about “Jane the Virgin,” scheduled to debut on The CW in October.
I had to exclude my pal Soledad O’Brien, also a keynote speaker, because I wasn’t told the Starfish Media Group founder would be available. “Cold baby. Very, very cold,” wrote @soledadobrien to me on Twitter. O’Brien has other Twin Cities projects about which we can talk later.
Silverman is smooth, and I’m not just talking about his skin. We got into a range of subjects, delving into the incredibly stationary hair of comedian Will Arnett, while the executive producer and I agreed to disagree about who didn’t value whom in the Arnett-Amy Poehler divorce. (I’m TEAM Amy.)
Q: Who’s the biggest executive producer in Hollywood right now?
A: You always have to give credit to the old school guys, who are still playing the game at the top level. People like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Brian Glazer, those are two who stand at the forefront. The guys I aspire to be.
Q: When you were a little boy did you say to yourself “When I grow up, I’m going to be an executive producer”?
A: When I was a little boy I luckily had a momma and dada who loved me so much they would tell me I could be anything I wanted to be and I loved TV and movies. I was a latchkey kid, my parents divorced when I was young, and my mom did not have an issue with me being raised by “I Love Lucy” and “Odd Couple” reruns. It worked to my advantage and I could tell you, even then, that Desi and Lucy produced “I Love Lucy” and Garry Marshall produced “Odd Couple” and Neil Simon wrote it. I was reading the credits and wanted to be in showbiz and a producer, even as a little kid. And I would read different stories about the people who starred in show business and wanted to go that route. Being the son of an avant-garde composer, I also wanted to find a way to make money in the arts, and avant-garde chamber music doesn’t really pay the bills.
Q: So you don’t have a family fortune that you are blowing through?
A: Wish I had a family fortune. If family fortune means getting to pay your sister’s rent and your niece’s schooling, I guess that’s a way to blow a family fortune.
Q: Is there a common thread between “The Office,” “The Tudors,” “Ugly Betty” and “The Biggest Loser”?
A: Absolute common thread. … I have a new show coming out this fall which I am so excited for everybody in Minneapolis-St. Paul to check out, which is called “Jane the Virgin.” My next great show. It’s coming on Oct. 13, on The CW, produced in partnership with my friends at CBS. When I talk about what’s so exciting about “Jane the Virgin,” I talk about it in the context of “The Tudors,” a historical epic for Showtime; “The Office,” an unbelievable single camera comedy I did for NBC; and “Ugly Betty,” which we made for ABC; and “Biggest Loser.” I think the through-line of all those shows is quality. It’s not about a specific genre — one’s a reality show, one’s a comedy, one’s a drama — it’s about the quality level imbued in all of those. As I look at building a career I think consistently about not only quality but the stories I want to tell, I want to watch, and how can you do the best versions of them. What I love about “The Office” is that it reinvigorated the comedy genre in general. What I love about “The Tudors” is that it transformed the ability to tell historical drama. Now every single network has a historical drama. When I put “The Tudors” on, there wasn’t one single historical drama on TV. There wasn’t even a Western being made. When I put “Ugly Betty” on the air it was about the Latino voice, an entire segment of the population that wasn’t represented on television, and her ugliness was not just related to her pigtails and braces but to her immigration struggle, and her father’s, and being somebody who spoke the language in a country that was new to her. With “Biggest Loser” it was the first time you’d seen aspirational positive reality. Every other reality show had been so negative and mean. All those shows have a real consistency of quality and an aspirational, positive, happy vibe to them. You lose yourself when you’re watching them.
Q: Who plays Jane?
A: Gina Rodriguez, a superstar, a young gal I found out of a Sundance movie called “Filly Brown.” Get ready, America, for Gina. She’s a badass Puerto Rican girl and she is so real and so precious. She was my first choice from the moment we greenlit “Jane.” Just like America Ferrera, who we had to champion to the network, like Steve Carell who was unknown when we put him in “The Office,” I think Gina’s the next great Silverman find. A true gem and a real [actor], empathetic. She also say this: I’m not a size zero, I’m not a size 2, I’m a size me. I just love that kind of energy.
Q: Do you see parallels between “The Tudors” and Congress? Hear me out here. There’s this preoccupation with sacrificing others for their own ambitions. For example: We’ve got a problem with drones that needs to be addressed before there is an airline disaster, and yet they’re talking about suing the president?
A: When we did Henry VIII or “The Tudors,” and I first pitched the show to Showtime, one of the things I said was: This guy’s penis changed the course of history. I was coming out of the Clinton presidency, so there may have been a little of that. What we’re also trying to emulate with Henry VIII when I created the show is that it needs to feel like Henry is Tony Soprano, like his court is the West Wing. I absolutely was thinking, how do you have Thomas More and the king’s advisers all pushing and pulling and preying on him. How does this guy [with the] reputation of a sadistic, woman-killing ogre be more three-dimensional and true? Part of that was casting a great-looking guy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but it was also playing to the fact that all of the political horror going on today, and the paralysis of contemporary American government, was going on even when it wasn’t a president. It was a king and the choices he made he could do unilaterally but came with repercussions and issues and alliances and treaties that he never really understood or had the patience for. There is a total parallel between everyday Washington and everyday court in the time of Henry.
Q: So which character are you on “The Tudors”?
A: Knowing that most of them get murdered, you’ve got to opt for being the king. But Thomas More was the king’s conscience and he was played by Jeremy Northam, brilliant British actor, he was fantastic. But unfortunately like most of Henry’s close associates, ended up dead. It’s hard to pick one but he certainly was the one who had the deepest sense of empathy and humanity in Henry’s world. I also love that we originally cast Henry Cavell [but he] was a little too unknown. I’m glad we found him. There’s no greater validation than the guy you found being cast as Superman.
Q: Which character are you on “Ugly Betty,” then?
A: I don’t really relate to Vanessa Williams’ character or America Ferrera’s as much as I would to Eric Mabius’ character, the son of the owner of the magazine that Betty takes place in. He’s a sweet, smooth-talking, gray-suited … wait a minute, I’m a sweet, smooth-talking … . He would be the one I related to most and he would tell me occasionally he was imitating my moves as I would walk and talk on a cellphone through the set.
Right about now, I was getting the wrap sign from his people. Looking at my remaining questions, I decided I wanted to dive into his movie “Mansome” when Silverman said, “You don’t want to ask me who I was at ‘The Office?’ ” I told his people not to mess with me if he’s altering my script.
A: If I have to look at “The Office,” Darryl who ran the warehouse was clearly having the most fun and was 10 times smarter than Michael Scott, Carell’s character, ever was, but I also really loved Packard, our traveling salesman because he was having the most fun of anyone in his history of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Q: You’re very Mansome …
A: Thank you.
Q: If I could get you to rip off your shirt right now, how much manscaping would be revealed?
A: I am luckily somehow a rarity of a Jewish boy from New York City, with Eastern European grandparents; I am relatively hairless. It’s natural. I don’t know what to say. I do shave. I am not a body groomer, haven’t had to be. Up until now, I’ve been described as having soft, baby skin. It’s a blessing. And I don’t use moisturizer that much. It just happened.
Q: How many products did it take for you, starting with rolling out of bed and then out the door?
A: Even though I made a great movie, “Mansome,” which you referenced with Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Morgan Spurlock, I’m a productless guy. I don’t wear colognes, antiperspirants. I don’t smell, right? [He said to an assistant] Not a smelly guy. No hair product, didn’t even use shampoo today. I swim in the ocean a lot which I think is the great body preserver.
Q: You mention Will Arnett. How much hair has been sprayed and drawn on that man’s pate?
A: Will definitely has pretty good hair and he is one of the more handsome men in comedy. He does have hair, though, at times that looks as though it hasn’t moved in six or seven months. There are moments where I’m looking, the wind is blowing 90 miles an hour and Will’s hair does not look like it’s moving an inch. He clearly has some magic trick … Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtle encased in turtle blood.
Q: I don’t like a man who doesn’t appreciate Amy Poehler.
A: Maybe Amy didn’t appreciate him. There are always two sides, come on, be fair.
Q: Would I know the titles of any shows you passed on being executive producer; big hits?
A: I certainly have just missed being connected to a big hit many times, but it was more likely I was passed on than I passed. I’ve gotten a lot of nos. I don’t necessarily say a lot of nos.
Q: Are Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady surprised the cast of “Big Bang” is looking to get paid?
A: [Laughs] Exactly. The cast of the “Big Bang” absolutely deserves to get paid. It’s the No. 1 show on television in every platform it airs. They really hit it out of the park. I’m lucky enough to be working with Mayim Bialik right now on my new version of “Candid Camera,” which [rolled out last week] on TV Land. I am thrilled the “Big Bang” has finally finished its negotiations and is going back in production because the more Mayim Bialik on television, the better for me.
Q: These big salaries aren’t going to kill that show, are they?
A: Three-year deal. They’re golden. There’s enough money they could have paid ’em $2 [million an episode]. I should have negotiated for them.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch Fox 9’s “Buzz.”