Professor Spotlight: That’s So Tarson
Photo Courtesy of Geoff Tarson
What began as a passion and pursuit to become an actor turned into the career of a lifetime for Geoff Tarson, professor in the radio, television and film department. From Rockland County, New York, Tarson took his Bachelor’s in theater to Los Angeles and came back an accomplished writer for shows like NBC’s “Suddenly Susan” and Disney Channel’s “That’s So Raven.”
“This woman that I met that, who was also a performer and improvisor, she and I were both interested in going to Los Angeles and took a class with this guy who’s a seasoned television writer, writing for shows back in the ’60s and ’70s, big sitcom shows like ‘Happy Days’ and this show my parents used to watch called ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ He was teaching a course out of his home for people interested in TV writing, particularly those who had an improv writing background,” Tarson said. “We both took it and thought, ‘Oh wow, our skills could actually cross over to comedy,’ because [when] you’re thinking about characters and writing lines of dialogue, you’re thinking about what will make a story interesting, conflict and humor.”
The knowledge and skill set acquired through the improvisation class prompted Tarson to slightly shift gears and start to dabble into the structure and inner workings of television writing while continuing to act.
“We eventually got a manager and we were lucky enough to get hired. [‘That’s So] Raven’ was actually our second job and ‘Suddenly Susan’ was our first, which was a show with Brooke Shields, Kathy Griffin and Sherri Shepherd,” Tarson said. “It was an interesting show; it was in its last year [when I was writing for it], so we knew it was a great first job to have but it wasn’t going to lead to more years.”
However, living in the “hub of the television industry” did come with its anxieties. “When you’re living in LA, you’re comparing yourself a lot to other people because a number of people that you’re around are in the industry,” Tarson said. “You feel a little bit like, ‘Am I in a good enough show? Do I have a good enough agent? Are my teeth white enough?’ Whatever you’re pursuing, you have that sense, which is ultimately pretty ugly.”
Tarson and his writing partner had an agent who was actively submitting them to shows, eventually leading to prospective job opportunities. When the initial meeting for “That’s So Raven” arose, Tarson had written a speculative screenplay, also known as a spec script, with his writing partner to show their ability to write and develop characters.
“They set up a meeting for us and we had written a spec script. Back then, the only way to get hired was to write your own version of a script of an existing show. You come up with your own characters, but it was their plot. Our spec script, which was given to the people at ‘That’s So Raven,’ was based on the show ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’” Tarson said. “I believe that it was the strength of that [script] that got us hired. I think we wrote with a sense of how high schoolers would see the world and the showrunner basically said that they wanted to steal our scene and put somewhere into the show.”
Initially called “Absolutely Psychic” with a lead character who was not played by Raven Symone, Tarson and his writing partner were hired for the first season of what is now known as “That’s So Raven,” Disney Channel’s first sitcom to feature a live audience. As a staff writer for the first season, Tarson had the privilege of being able to contribute to the character development and personalities of Raven, Chelsea, Cory and Eddie.
“There were about eight or nine writers all in one room and we would discuss things and we actually created the character of Chelsea, who was not on the show originally,” Tarson said. “We had to think about who she was going to be and how she would be different from the character of Raven, so I remember we came up with the concept of her being very into the environment and that she was a little insecure about doing the right thing and she was somebody who didn’t speak out as much; and Raven wasn’t that person, so it was a nice dynamic.”
Each episode of “That’s So Raven” was meant to not only be comedic but have heartfelt moments and character struggles. Tarson accredits much of the individual character development and path of each episode to the actors of the show themselves.
“A lot of the characters come from the actors and the table reads. After we heard them read the script, we would get inspired and find a new direction for the episode; it kind of came naturally,” he said. “One of our most successful episodes was the one where Eddie is on this basketball team and [Raven] has a vision that he’s going to fail a test, which would make him ineligible for the team. Raven realizes that in her vision, she not only saw that he got an F, but that she saw the answers to the test, and she’s got this moral dilemma of ‘How do I help him?’ They liked that she had a moral dilemma but they were also looking for a big comedy scene, so later in that episode we see Raven and Chelsea pretend to be window washers because Raven realizes that she’s given him the wrong answers and that’s what’s called the block comedy scene in the episode.”
“What I loved about episodic television is that you are all working together on this project and you create something and then it’s there – it’s actually shown and seen,” Tarson said.
Tarson moved back to the East Coast when there was rise in reality television and decided to get a Master’s in creative writing and use his experience in the industry to teach others the art of television writing.
“I saw that there were programs that were teaching screenwriting or TV writing and often, the professors that were teaching them didn’t have the kind of real-world experience that I did. So I thought, ‘Well, how would I go about doing that?’ and that’s how I started down that path,” Tarson said. “I studied more and I taught for a few years at another institution, which gave me the experience of, ‘Oh, this is what teaching writing is like,’ and I loved it and how creative students are.”
Since starting his current position at Hofstra in August of 2017, Tarson hasn’t stopped writing and is currently working on a web series along with some occasional playwriting and humor writing.
“What I tell students is that you have to be ready to shift roads because you just don’t know. Particularly in the business of entertainment, because it’s such a difficult business,” Tarson said. “You can make a career in it but you kind of have to be open to what is going to present itself and the business is changing so much that there may be a type of job or a type of show and it might be in a digital world that you didn’t think about years ago.”
“For me, it was a switch; I miss acting and I loved table readings for the script that we would do because they would always ask me to read parts since I had that background. I wasn’t on camera, but I was getting that experience and the actors knew that I was the actor among the writers,” Tarson continued. “Hopefully, I will inspire people who want to go into this career because I think it’s a great one.”