Ask an E.P.: The Girls Next Door's Kevin Burns
"Ask an E.P." is a new Movieline feature where we talk to executive producers, showrunners and decision makers about their work. They may be above the line, but they're not above sharing insights with Movieline.
For the first "Ask an E.P.," Movieline spoke with Kevin Burns, the Emmy-award winning executive producer of E!'s The Girls Next Door and Kendra (recently renewed for its second season). Kevin has produced over 500 hours of documentary and nonfiction programming, including two Lucasfilm documentaries as well as hundreds of A&E's Biography episodes. Kevin talked to us about bringing "real-life Barbies" to cable, creating conflict for reality television and staying out of Hugh Hefner's bedroom.
How did The Girls Next Door come about?
Mr. Hefner and I met through a mutual friend in 1994, but our friendship became professionally rooted when I did his Biography for A&E. I was working as a production executive at 20th Century Fox and I ended up doing three documentaries and specials with Hefner. In 2004, I was contacted by A&E, asking if I'd be interested in doing a reality show with Mr. Hefner. At that point, I had never even watched a reality show.
We initially thought the show would be an upstairs-downstairs with Hef, his friends and his girlfriends versus the staff. But I realized right away, that each of the Hef's girlfriends, even though they might have platinum blonde hair, had three distinct personalities under those hairdos. Each of the girls was very charming and in their own way, very goal-oriented. But the premise of the show, in the way we sold it to E!, was it's the girls in the life of Hugh Hefner.
Is there anything that Mr. Hefner does not want you to shoot? Are there certain rooms in the mansion that are off limits?
No, not at all. Early on, there was a sense of "When he brings girls upstairs, let's go into the bedroom." But you know what? I don't want to see that. I know a lot of people think they want to see that but don't really want to see that. I draw the line at showing people going to the bathroom or having sex. I don't think we push that envelope too far.
When The Girls Next Door first aired, I don't think people expected Hugh Hefner's girlfriends to be sympathetic. Is that something that you consciously tried to shape in the first season, with editing or story lines that might make Holly, Bridget and Kendra more likable?
When it came time to do The Girls Next Door, I didn't have much confidence that Hefner's girlfriends would be able to form multisyllabic words, and I say that because when I met with Holly, Bridget and Kendra, I realized how wrong I had been. When I sat down with Kendra, her goal was to become a massage therapist and she hoped someday to get married. Bridget's goal was to be a Playmate even though she had been rejected several times. She was living at the mansion as Holly's friend. She had a brother in Iraq, she had a master's degree and was going for another one. And Holly, to me, was just the most interesting and mature because she was the most sincerely dedicated to her relationship with Hefner. And coming out of his marriage to Kimberley Conrad, she seemed to be his soulmate.
I said to Hefner before we started the show, "You have the perfect trinity here. It was like in the Greek plays or classical drama, you have the brains and logic in Holly, the emotions in Bridget and the physical side in Kendra." I wanted the audience to know there was so much more to these women than the blond hair and the Playboy Mansion. These girls are actually very self-possessed, very determined, very strong-minded.
Were you expecting the audiences for Kendra and The Girls Next Door to be 60 percent women? Why do you think think that is?
To be honest, in the context of The Girls Next Door, what I call it is "Barbie Dolls Come to Life." It's Barbie's Dream House, Barbie's Car, Barbie's Fashions. They look impossibly beautiful like Barbie does. It doesn't matter that Ken in the world of Barbie happens to be 83 years old. Nobody cared about Ken anyway. People that watch The Girls Next Door are watching for Barbie.
These girls live in a carefree world, which was initially a concern. The network kept saying to me in the first year, "Well why don't we get them yelling, screaming and slamming doors, calling each other names?" But there aren't fights or door-slamming. If they did that, Hef would throw them out. He doesn't want to live in a world like that. The network was worried about how we'd create conflict but I was confident I could create conflict out of Kendra losing her shoes 15 minutes before she has to do a personal appearance.
The first four seasons were all very upbeat and fun: the girls taking scuba lessons, throwing theme parties or going to Vegas. And then, all of the sudden at the end of Season 5, we found out that Kendra was moving out of the house and got a sense that Bridget and Holly may not be back either. How did you plan the Season 5 finale so that it didn't seem hokey or false in the context of an otherwise positive and upbeat series?
I was sensitive of that because I didn't want to make it look like these three girls were dumping Hef, who had treated them so well, in one episode. So I took care to play it the way it needed to be played, which was Bridget was not so much moving out as moving forward to do her show. And Kendra was leaving to pursue a relationship, with Hef's blessing. And Holly I left ambiguous, with her leaving for the weekend for Vegas even though Hef talks to Mary O'Connor about feeling like he and Holly are growing apart. And I didn't know, because all three girls had committed to doing Season 6. I just wanted to leave the door open for Holly so that she could come back.
And now we know that Holly and Hef broke up. Holly and Bridget moved out of the mansion and now Hef has three new girlfriends. What will their roles be in Season 6?
It could be anything from the twins [Karissa and Kristina Shannon] being in Sofia Coppola's next movie, which they're going to be, to Crystal [Harris] perhaps, trying out to be a Playmate. The funny thing is the twins are so identical, it's very difficult to tell them apart. So much so that one of them has a driver's license and the other one doesn't, but [they] don't let the cops know that they switch off and no one can tell the difference. So one of them is going to get her driver's license.
How did the Kendra spinoff get off the ground?
Originally we thought Kendra was going to move out and live with two roommates and it would be something like Three's Company with her being a hot, hip-hop version of Suzanne Somers, living in a bachelorette pad and being on the scene. That's what Scott Hartford and I pitched to E! and what Lisa Berger and Jason Sarlanis were excited about. And then a couple weeks after we sold the show, she said, "I have a boyfriend now. Can he be on the show?" And I said, "You have a boyfriend?" And she said "Yeah, we kind of met at the golf scramble, and we e-mail each other every day." And I said, "Well sure, he can be on the show."
And about four weeks later, she says, "I got engaged last weekend." And I said, "Well, can we meet him? We've sold a television show with you, and we don't even know that he wants to be in it." And of course, Scott Hartford. who is my co-E.P., got on the phone with Hank [Baskett] and that's all we had to go by. We're Googling him to see what he looked like and what does he play and what team is he with and is he a nice guy? And on the phone, he seemed very sweet but he was kind of like, "Well, I'm not sure I want to be on television. I'll do anything for her. I'll support her in any way, but you don't have to include me. I don't have to be in it." And I said, 'You know, Hank, I hate to tell you but if we're doing a reality show with your girlfriend, you have got to be in it."
Do you think you'll have trouble getting The Girls Next Door audience to accept Hef's new girlfriends? What will happen to Holly and Bridget?
We're going to do an episode of Hef going to Las Vegas to see Holly in Peep Show, bringing Crystal and the twins. We're going to do an episode probably where Crystal and the twins invite all of the girls over to have a baby shower for Kendra. So Hef looks at everything as always an extension of his life. That's why Barbi Benton was always on the show. He doesn't think this stops. It's like a pebble in the water. It just keeps rippling outward. He's very proud of the success with Kendra's show and we're talking about doing a show with Holly and a show with Bridget and God bless us if we can pull that off, but I think that each of these girls has an audience. And all of these girls have become iconic and loved characters.