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Meet Tom Kramer of TomKramerfilms.com in all over Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tom Kramer.

Tom, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I knew since grade school that I wanted to write and direct television. As a freshman film student at Loyola University in New Orleans, I got a job as production assistant for a Dick Clark TV special shot in New Orleans and the following fall left college to work on “Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday” variety show. It was fun old-fashioned show biz: live TV featuring the biggest acts in Hollywood, a throwback to Ed Sullivan days. And it was cancelled after 13 episodes.
I went back to school one semester and made a short comedy film then left college for good to take my shot in Hollywood. That film got me the job as “filmmaker” on ABC’s “Fridays” late night comedy series. It was a dream come true: writing and directing some of the biggest stars and most talented people in show business. I’ll be the first to say how lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time with the right short comedy film. Sometimes I would have to go off by myself and cry out of gratitude for the opportunity.
It was an incredible experience but not representative of how Hollywood works. I’m told I was the youngest member of the Director’s Guild of America. My bosses (John Moffitt, Bill Lee and Jack Burns) were especially supportive and protective of my work and opportunity to make mistakes as a 20-year-old filmmaker. It was a great honor to have my films introduced on each show…”And now, a film by Tom Kramer.”

After “Fridays”, Moffitt-Lee Productions asked me to write and direct on the HBO series “Not Necessarily the News.” It was hugely successful and I shared in winning a Writers Guild and ACE (the cable Emmy) Awards for best comedy writing.

After some personal struggles with health and career, Moffitt-Lee Productions brought me on as writer and director on FOX’s “Totally Hidden Video.” I had never done hidden camera comedy before but discovered I had a knack for it. Over the next decade, I became probably the most prolific hidden camera person in town. I was Head Writer on 130 episodes on Candid Camera during which I had the unique honor of having dinner every Thursday night at the Smokehouse in Universal City with Allen Funt. Allen was the inventor and godfather of hidden camera TV from the golden age of television. Our private dinners together allowed me the chance to hear great stories, be mentored by a living legend and learn his experience with human psychology.

Over the years, I wrote and directed hidden camera shows for a dozen networks. I even lived a year in Istanbul, Turkey, making a hidden camera TV show for Turkish television. The show became a huge hit in the Middle East. I acted in one segment, playing an American Senator. It was a mistake however, because after that episode aired, I had to wear disguises on location so word wouldn’t spread about our show. Despite not speaking Turkish, our host being “kneecapped” by the Turkish mafia, and my having to occasionally hide from the Turkish police, it was the best year of my life.

I never followed the sitcom route but survived by working in non-fiction TV, starting the 3rd phase of my career.
Originally, I was known as the short film guy. Then I was the hidden camera guy. Then, after directing John Ratzenberger’s Made in America, I became the travel guy. After directing R. Lee Ermey’s “Lock n Load”, I became the gun guy, my last 4 shows have been science and psychology related so I guess I’m the science guy (apologizes to Bill Nye.)

Out of the blue, I was contacted by Larry David who asked if I would like to direct an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It was the second happiest call of my life. The first was when I got the the phone call telling me that my student film would be featured on the “Fridays” pilot for ABC. “Fridays” was the show where I met Larry David and 25 years later, Larry remembered me. I remember telling my wife the good news and crying, feeling like I made it back to the big leagues. “Curb” wasn’t the hardest show I did (due to Larry’s genius) but it was the credit that gets more attention than any other show I did.

My latest series is “Mind Field” where I work as Co-Executive Producer. It’s a show on YouTube Red starring YouTube star Michael Stevens. Sometimes we would shoot at YouTube Space in Culver City and it was like coming full circle. The fun variety acts on Dick Clark’s NBC show are now replaced by YouTube stars making their own channels. It makes me realize again how lucky I was to have the opportunity to make my films on that late-night television show many decades ago. Back then, there were only 2 outlets for short filmmakers: Saturday Night Live and Fridays. Today, everyone can just start their own channel and make their own whatever for the world to see.

My experience on YouTube Red inspired my new hobby called “Pismo Ukulele” which is a performance art in the guise of a ukulele tutorial. I get relatively few viewers but that’s not the point. “Pismo Ukulele” is something I’m doing just for my own enjoyment. I’ve committed 5 years to Pismo so that I am accountable to myself. I don’t have to deal with network notes, budget problems, talent egos, censorship, or impossible schedules. It’s just for fun and the reason I wanted to make TV in the first place.

Has it been a smooth road?
I consider myself very fortunate to have written and directed on some of television’s most iconic shows, to make my living doing what I love, and to work with many of my idols. But I had a lot of growing up to do along the way.

I realize now that I was way too naive and nowhere near mature enough to handle my success or the temptation to do drugs in an atmosphere where it was practically part of the job. After Fridays, I went into a huge depression, moved back to St. Louis where things got worse. I attempted suicide and then barely survived a near fatal car crash. My recovery was very difficult and long, taking a year to learn how to walk again. But I moved back to Los Angeles determined to get work. It was not an easy time. For a while, I panhandled, squatted and lived homeless in Hollywood on a mattress I found in a trash bin. For several months I secretly lived in an office at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, using a key I still had from my days on “Not Necessarily the News.” Over the years I estimated that I spent 2 years learning to walk again from accidents, 1 year in treatment centers, and another 2 years in halfway houses. I might have been one of the few network television directors who had to “sign in” and “sign out” at their residence. A combination of addiction, depression, childhood trauma and chronic pain from accidents was a tough combination to battle. But through it all I was blessed with friends and family members who only wanted the best for me and gave me another chance. My last relapse ended in 2002 when I was invited to be a client at the Chabad Residential Treatment Center on Olympic. Chabad is a Hasidic Jewish organization but they took me in for free, despite my not being Jewish. I have been involved with Chabad ever since, writing their newsletter and several Jewish musicals for their clients to perform on holidays. My time at Chabad, all the therapy and support changed my life and since then I have been passionate about helping homeless people and struggling addicts. Getting sober was without a doubt the biggest achievement of my life. It opened up all kinds of opportunities such as getting married, traveling, and once again pursuing my career in television. I have achieved long term success, even though small, by the fact that I have no backup plan.
Most smart people would have left show biz and gotten into a less stressful, more secure type of career.
I dropped out of college for my big break in the biz. I have no diploma, no other experience and no other interest to pursue.

Over the years, my priorities have changed to pursuing work on more positive projects even though it means less employment. I created, produced, and hosted a TV series for the Recovery Network about addiction.
My most gratifying project was making the documentary “The Best Thing to Do Before I Die” about my best friend Mark Curtis who was dying of cancer. Mark started as a writer with me on Fridays. It was a very amateur film in many ways but from the heart and helped me deal with my friend’s death.

I am not the confident, immortal whiz kid anymore. But I am lucky to have survived long enough to use my experience to mentor people who are just starting out.

So, let’s switch gears a bit and go into the TomKramerfilms.com story. Tell us more about the business.
My “company” is me. I work as a freelance writer, director and/or producer on television shows that need someone of my talent. My shows have been an extremely eclectic mix of late night comedy, hidden camera, science, adventure, stunts, and sentimental biographies. It makes me hard to classify and hard to sell. On the other hand, my career has been extremely varied with rich experiences shooting all over the world with people I would otherwise never meet. I can pretty much rearrange my resume to fit almost any show I’m up for.

It used to be that being a writer, director and producer set me apart. Nowadays, the business is full of people who not only writer and direct, but also do their own camera, sound, editing, and set design. Without a doubt, the younger crowd in television is more technically advanced than ever before. My biggest strength is probably my writing experience that is helped with real life events and variety of genres that I’ve worked on.

In doing reality TV, I am one of the few producer/directors who have had the experience of starring on a reality show, as one of 5 men living for 40 days and nights in a remote Benedictine monastery on TLC’s “The Monastery.”
So not only can I emphasize with what a cast member is going through, but I have a monastery full of monks praying for me.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Television is becoming more and more niche. When I started, there were 4 networks. The worst rated show’s ratings would be bigger than the biggest show on today. On the other hand, there are tons more shows and networks around that didn’t exist years ago. But even though there are more opportunities today, the business is tougher: smaller budges, shorter shoot schedules, and longer hours.

There will always be demand for entertainment, whether it’s in the form of movies, TV or internet. If you can write and create good product, you’ve got a great chance of succeeding. If you can create while being kind, all the better.

In the future, more and more TV shows will be produced specifically to be seen on your smart phone. This means
picture and sound quality will be secondary to concept. Budgets will be so small that television staffs will be comprised of 2 people: the showrunner and the runner. More people will get hit by cars while crossing the street while absorbed into whatever is entertaining them on their phones.

Contact Info:

  • Address: Tom Kramer
  • Website: TomKramerfilms.com
  • Email: Tom@TomKramerfilms.com
  • Instagram: pismoukulele
  • Facebook: Pismo Ukulele (Facebook group)
  • Other: Pismo Ukulele (on YouTube)


Image Credit:

Curb Your Enthusiasm photos by Claudette Barius

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