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Pam Fryman, Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris

The Paley Center for Media

An accomplished television director and industry veteran, Pamela Fryman has wielded her magic wand over a couple of sitcoms you may have heard of: Friends, Suddenly Susan, The King of Queens and Frasier, just to name a few. She’s currently the in-house director on How I Met Your Mother, and after seeing her in action on set last season—a total pro and so well respected by cast and crew—I just had to have her for our TV Summer School feature. So, without further ado, class, let’s get our learnin’ on...   

I'm in awe of your résumé. Can you tell us how someone ends up being a successful television director? What was your first job in the business?
Well, as a kid, I was sure that I loved to watch TV, so I got an internship when I was in high school. This will now really date me, but in 1977, I worked on The Mike Douglas Show, a talk show in Philadelphia. I grew up right outside of Philly and got to know some people there. I would do anything for them: I would get them coffee, whatever they needed, it didn’t matter. My first job, actually, was to pull the files of dead celebrities. But it was so thrilling to be around any place that had TV cameras. Back in those days—I hate to say that—but people came to do that show. I remember Robert De Niro was there, and I know John Lennon had done it. I just thought, Oh my God, how cool is this? I was 16.

TV Summer School

How did you move from there to scripted TV?
What I really wanted was to work on a soap opera. I used to watch soap operas. That’s what you do in college, and I thought, Hey, there’s a job in television that is 52 weeks a year. I was working on the John Davidson version of Hollywood Squares when I got a call that there was an opening for a booth PA on Santa Barbara, and I jumped at it. That is where it really started. That was dramatic television. It was actors. It wasn't washers and dryers.

I ended up getting promoted from a PA to an AD [assistant director] a short time later. That meant I was editing the shows, which is what this is all about. Once you really learn what editing is, [you see that] it’s the most important part of how a show goes together. [From editing], you can figure out how to shoot the show. So, I went from a PA to an AD, and then they were nice enough to ask me to direct.  After that, I went to Days of Our Lives for a year and then did General Hospital for a year. 

And from soaps you moved to sitcoms?
After General Hospital, I got a call from my agent to do a show called Muddling Through. And there was a girl on that show by the name of Jennifer Aniston. I was only supposed to do one episode, and I ended up doing three in a row. All the people there were very nice, and this girl is telling me about a show called Friends that she had gotten the pilot for. She really had such a good time, and during that three weeks, I get a call from my agent, saying, “We booked you on this show called Friends that hasn’t aired yet.” Jimmy [Burrows] had done the first few episodes, and I went in and did episode four. I already knew Jennifer, which was a great thing, and I ended up doing one more before it even aired. But I thought, It’s certainly cute, these people are pretty delicious. And long story short, when that show hit, I had it on my résumé.  

How I Met Your Mother

Cliff Lipson/CBS

How is it working on How I Met Your Mother?
It's a dream and so different from anything that I have ever done. I did almost 100 episodes of Just Shoot Me; I did Frasier, that was so spectacular, and King of Queens. I just thought, Pinch me. This is extraordinary. And now, here I am starting my third season of this show which has no [in-studio] audience, a lot of single camera, which has really stretched me as a director, and working with [cocreators] Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, who are unbelievably talented and just as excited about the show now as when we shot the pilot. Nobody is jaded, and everybody is appreciative of what’s happening to this show. It’s heaven. 

Are you still learning things, or is it already old hat?
You learn things every day [in this business]. Especially in the beginning, what I thought was a great thing to do was ask questions. All of the people that work on this stage are experts in their own field, and when you go up to a camera operator and say, "Explain this to me. Why is this better than this?" and sit up on a camera and feel what that feels like, people are so anxious to teach. It empowers everybody. It makes for a really great atmosphere. I never pretended to know everything. I still don’t know everything.

On any given week of How I Met Your Mother, what exactly are your responsibilities?
I’m reading the script and kind of breaking it down, I’m looking at the set, seeing if it’s shootable. We’re having rehearsals for the cast, trying to figure out where they should move, finessing their performance a bit.

Throughout the course of your career, have you ever felt that as a woman you were at any disadvantage?
I have to tell you, I don’t know why, but no. And I know it happens a lot. There are certain people I could probably point to who have treated me a little differently because I’m a woman. But it has not hindered me at all, and in some cases, it has worked to my advantage. It can be hell for some people, but I have to tell you, I do everything I can to push other women into this. We all have that responsibility.

What would you tell someone who wants to be you in 10 years?
The best thing you can do is learn everything you can from those who are willing to teach. The DGA is great, because it has a lot of wonderful programs in this town, but for me, it’s [all about] being on the stage and watching the people who are already doing it. Everybody lets observers come in, and I always thought that was the best way to learn. Also, watch these shows from home and break them down, and if you can get into the edit bay, do it, because that’s the most fascinating part of all.

Of course, you can go to school for this, but I didn’t do that. However, I know these days it’s much harder and the window was a little more open when I came through. Somehow, I was lucky enough to dive through before it closed. I feel very fortunate.