Directors: Look Who's Working

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About two years ago, Craig Tanimoto made the jump from creative to director, and, as these things go, it's worked out rather well. Not only does he have his own production company, Los Angeles-based Japanese Monster, where he's not wanting for commercials work; he's also a co-executive producer of Baby Bob, the CBS sitcom (spun off from the Freeinternet.com clutter-busting commercials character), starring Adam Arkin, Joely Fisher, Elliott Gould - and, of course, thanks to the miracle of mouth replacement, a talking baby. Which is not to say that this Viacom production, a midseason replacement whose six episodes have already aired, is any good. In fact, it's been ripped so many new ones by the TV critics it could be the guest speaker at a proctologists' convention. "I was kinda bummed when the reviews first came out," Tanimoto says placidly. "Then when we saw the ratings after the first two weeks, it was like, 'I'll be damned!' "

It turns out the talkative tyke may have legs to match his mouth. Averaging out the ratings for its six installments, in April Baby Bob was the No. 20 show in America, according to Tanimoto. "One week it beat Frasier," he shrugs. "The critics don't like it, but the general public loves it. CBS is pretty much calling it a hit. Hey, the critics originally hated Seinfeld." No one is going to confuse Baby Bob with Seinfeld, needless to say, even if they do an episode about a nasty nanny called the Poop Nazi. Nevertheless, though the jury was still out at press time, the smart money was betting on Baby Bob getting renewed for a full season. In which case, Tanimoto may direct a few episodes. So far, he and his co-exec producer and Baby Bob co-creator, Rob Siltanen, CCO at El Segundo, Calif., agency Siltanen/Keehn, are keeping a fairly low profile. "I don't watch a lot of sitcoms, I don't really know what people like, but I'm trusting what the network is doing and it seems to be working," says Tanimoto. "We do have a say in the show, but we've decided we should just sit back and learn." Michael Saltzman, head writer/exec producer, who had a huge success with Murphy Brown, runs the show, explains Tanimoto. "We go through the table read and the walkthrough and we're involved with a lot of the Bob stuff, to help keep the character of Bob true. We were involved with a lot of the casting, and since I helped develop the way Bob's effects work, I was in on that, too."

Quite a story. If the show is picked up for even a season, by the viciously competitive standards of TV sitcom land this is like finding the Holy Grail as the surprise toy in a Happy Meal. The backstory's pretty good, too. Tanimoto, now 38, grew up in California and was a UCLA communications major. He's a fourth generation Japanese-American who speaks no Japanese, but he has a nice running joke on his reel, which has the words "Tokyo office," followed by kanji that says, in effect, "We don't have a Tokyo office, just kidding." All his relatives were in internment camps during WWII, and one aunt was actually born in a camp. Tanimoto started at Bozell/Minneapolis as a copywriter, then spent 12 years as an art director, first at Clarity Coverdale in Minneapolis, then at Wieden & Kennedy/Portland, then at TBWA/Chiat/Day/L.A. "I had wanted to direct for quite a while," he says. "At Chiat, I just decided I was going to do it."

He took a sabbatical, did a USC summer film program and made a short film that toured the festivals. "Then I mortgaged my house and made a spec spot." This 1998 Infiniti spot is still on his reel, with good reason. It's so polished you'd never guess it was spec, and moreover it milks a great idea, in which a stingy rich guy who's hit by a bus has an epiphany and starts giving away all his possessions - but damn well not his Infiniti. "It was too expensive when we were bidding it out, it was like a million-dollar spot," Tanimoto recalls. "I figured, let me try something big, not the locked-down camera that first-time directors start with. We went all out, closed roads, rerouted buses and had like 100 extras on the street. It paid off."

Lee Clow let him direct several small campaigns, and Tanimoto was on his way. Then, in 2000, he was really on his way when he left the agency with his creative partner Siltanen to open Siltanen/Keehn. "I had an understanding with Rob that I would direct some of the spots," Tanimoto says. Their first campaign was Freeinternet.com, which today is just another dead and forgotten dot-com, but one that left a very healthy legacy in the form of that talking baby. The campaign, as you may recall, was an unmitigated smash. "I'm just so fortunate," Tanimoto says helplessly. "It was beyond my wildest dreams. It was on Good Morning America. It had four segments on Entertainment Tonight. It touched a pop culture nerve." And Tanimoto, as co-creator and director, was sitting in the catbird high chair. "I started getting a lot of calls," he says. Shortly after, he broke his official ties with Siltanen/Keehn and opened Japanese Monster with his producer, Shira Boardman, "but I still do a lot of my work with Rob. I guess he's my biggest fan and I'm his." This is quite convenient, since Siltanen's sustaining business is Gateway Computer, for which Tanimoto does much of the directing, and which stars a talking cow, thanks to the miracle of you-know-what. This may be Tanimoto's biggest problem - what if he gets pigeonholed as the mouth replacement guy? "I can only hope not; we had the talking baby, we thought we'd try a talking cow," he says almost defensively. What if the Gateway cow is turned into a sitcom? "People have actually suggested that. I don't know, it's weird. They're always asking us if we have any other ideas . . ."

In the meantime, does Baby Bob enhance his commercials career? Tanimoto feels it's too soon to say. And despite the fact that his foot is so firmly in the TV door, "I think features is where I'd really like to be," he insists. "But my first love right now is still commercials." He's also looking to add directors to the Japanese Monster roster.

Whatever one thinks of Baby Bob, the story has a nice sense of symmetry - "It went full circle," says Tanimoto. "First it was advertising on programming. Now it's programming surrounded by other ads. It's kinda cool." Has a spot he directed appeared on the Bob show? "No, not yet. That would really be weird. I hope it happens."

No doubt it'll be the talking cow.

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