You’ve seen Gary Kordan’s art on television, though you probably never noticed it.
And that, in Kordan’s eyes, means a job well done.
Kordan is a 2016 Art Directors Guild Award-winning production designer and is considered to be a front runner for the Emmy in the field of variety/sketch production for his work on Comedy Central’s Key & Peele. He recently designed sets for the feature film What Now? Starring Kevin Hart, and you’ve seen his artwork on @midnight, Key & Peele, Workaholics, Teachers, Those Who Can’t, and dozens of other shows, as well as behind some of your favorite comedians during their hour specials (most recently Patton Oswalt, and Reggie Watts). Literally behind them, because his specialty is designing and creating sets for comedy shows and sketches, where his knack for gritty realism provides a backdrop befitting a big budget Hollywood spectacular, and creating sets that subtly complement’s the humor in the foreground.
“Comedy is hard for a production designer,” Kordan said in an interview with The Interrobang. “You have to understand the dramatic and powerful undertones of the script so you can make it look like a drama or a super real-looking scene. Realism makes the scene funnier. “The key is to make sure that the set design is not competing with the comedy, that there’s nothing distracting you from how funny it is,” he said.
With Key & Peele, Kordan created such disparate settings as the brown-hued interior of a pirate shanty, the interior of the White House, and a re-creation of the blood-strewn Saw torture chamber. In each case, the authenticity of the setting helped elevate the overall quality of the scene … albeit it in an understated way that did not overwhelm the comedic sensibilities of the sketches.
In addition to his work on Key & Peele, Kordan has worked on Ilana Glazer’s Comedy Central miniseries Time Traveling Bong, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival and with Comedy Central’s Workaholics. Later this year, you’ll get to see his designs for Netflix’s comedy special for Reggie Watts. “With Time Traveling Bong, we had three scripts with very basic instructions – the characters land in ancient Greece and there’s a sexy orgy; Ilana Glazer is in the rack in 1600s Plymouth, Mass.; We’re in Gary, Indiana, in 1965. Now my goal is to make those scenes come to life.”
Kordan said he typically has a couple of weeks to work with the writers and his production team – including a set director, prop master, construction department, set dressing department, and others – to make that vision a reality. “As a production designer, you never feel more alive than when you’re given a script and given 15 days to pull it off and make it a reality,” Kordan said. To make it work, Kordan said it is essential to work with the writers and performers to get inside their mind and gain a clear vision of the setting. That can involve challenging them, he said. “My responsibility as a production designer is to confront those people and say, ‘This character has been living in your head for years. You wrote this character. You wrote this script. Now let me help you bring it to life,’” he said. “I get in their face. Let me come to your house. Let’s go through your garage. Send me pictures of what you’re thinking, where this character lives, what you think this scene should be. If you have something at home that you think fits the scene, bring it in; let’s use it. Help me define what these characters are. And the minute they do that, we are able to co-design together.”
This process is particularly important when working with comedians, who understand the nuances of timing and pacing and have refined those details in their stand-up routines. Kordan said the key to success is to develop that same level of attention in creating the set. When that happens, it can take the piece to a different level. “The best part of my job is working with a stand-up or a comedic actor who has a script or an idea, but he doesn’t know if he can pull it off or afford it. The best feeling is when I look it over and say, ‘I know how we can do this.’ It gives them the freedom to think bigger and better, and come up with something more outrageous. It opens the door to better things,” he said.
Kordan stumbled upon his career in production design when he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He was studying arts and illustration because “I was no good with math and didn’t like gym class.” One day, he saw a flyer advertising an internship with CBS and he applied. He was brought on as an intern for The Joan Rivers Show, getting his first taste of working with a comedy icon. Rivers would become a mentor for Kordan. “A few days after I started, Joan needed a poster made for a bit. She said, ‘Have that new intern art student do it.’ And that’s how I started.” Kordan went on to do work for MTV, VH1, and The Food Network, building a business based on the referrals of happy clients. He moved to Los Angeles and found his niche working with comedians. “I feel like I understand the comedic mind,” he said. “I’m not about to get up on stage and do stand-up or anything, but by spending so much time around them and working with them, I’ve come to understand what makes them tick.”
He prides himself in his eye for detail and his commitment to stark realism. He wants to make sure that none of his work looks like what you might see in the average sitcom. “Nothing really looks like it does in a sitcom. Nothing is ever that clean and pristine,” he said. “I work to make things look real – to look gritty and intricate and authentic. When I’m on a set and it doesn’t look real, it feels like it’s not real life. I’ll say, ‘Let’s make these walls look like they were painted in 1997,’ so there are some areas that are more faded, or add fingerprints and grit. Because that’s how things look in real life. Real life isn’t clean.”
In other upcoming projects, Kordan will be working on a pair of pilots for ABC, Downward Dog and Randall & Hilda Are Not a Couple. He will also be working with Melissa McCarthy on her TV Land project Nobodies.
“Sometimes I think about how different my life would be today if I didn’t see that that flier on the wall,” Kordan said. “I’d still probably be living in New York City working with paints and pencils. It’s really pretty amazing how life works out. I could never have imagined doing what I do for a living back when I was in high school.”
Some of Gary Kordan’s work including video and drawings can be found at his website. Here’s a stage build time lapse of one of the many sets Gary designed for Key & Peele.