Hayden Mauk on the set of "America's Most Musical Family."

Spinning Off

by Alexandria Lopez

Transferable skills lead to television career for alumnus

Hayden Mauk ’98 knows the power of the pivot. From the biology lab to the director’s chair, Mauk has leveraged his liberal arts education and the skills he developed as an undergraduate at Transylvania to establish a successful and rewarding Hollywood career as an Emmy Award-winning producer and director.

Transferable skills and the power of ‘yes’

A Lexington native, Mauk earned his biology degree from Transylvania while working full time at the Marriott Griffin Gate and playing hockey for the University of Kentucky club team. In his limited spare time, he was involved in Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, serving as the social chair, which helped him hone the people skills he uses daily in his work in the unscripted television industry. 

Mauk’s grandparents farmed beef cattle and his father worked in the horse industry, so Mauk initially assumed he would work with animals as well, pursuing an interest in veterinary medicine before discovering halfway through his junior year of college that he was allergic to cats. Unsure of his next steps, he moved to Nashville after graduation to help his family while considering his next professional move.

The trajectory of my career has all been based on saying ‘yes’. I just said ‘yes’ to things and figured it out.

“In 1998, I was looking at pharmaceutical sales, but the big companies had a hiring freeze,” Mauk remembered. “My grandparents asked me to help on the farm, so I did that during the day and took acting classes at night to be a better public speaker,” assuming that the skills he developed in his classes would be transferable to a sales role. 

Those acting classes eventually spurred Mauk’s next steps, although he narrowly avoided missing out on a career in the entertainment industry when he was offered a pharmaceutical sales job in 2000 that would have brought him back to Lexington — and kept him perpetually on the road, with a multistate territory and travel every two weeks. 

“I took the job, but didn’t show up the first day of work,” Mauk said. “I knew I didn’t want to do this, so I called and thanked them for the opportunity. They called me back and yelled at me, which just confirmed my decision to not take the job.” 

Around the same time, one of Mauk’s fraternity brothers, Chad Smedley ’98, was relocated to Newport Beach by his employer. Looking for a new adventure, Mauk accepted the offer to move to California with Smedley and another friend from Transy, Shawn Wheatley ’98.

“The trajectory of my career has all been based on saying ‘yes’,” Mauk reflected. “I just said ‘yes’ to things and figured it out.”

Hayden Mauk jumps in front of a fountain at the Paramount Pictures lot near Stage 4

Stepping into the industry 

When he landed in California, Mauk only had one connection in the entertainment industry — a friend of his father’s who worked as Dwight Yoakam’s farm manager. Mauk arrived on Friday and called his contact; by Sunday, he had backstage passes to Yoakam’s concert at the Universal Amphitheatre. 

Through a contact he met at the concert, Mauk landed what should have been a very brief job as a production assistant — two days on an IMAX film. He said yes, and “in two days, I had done more than the PA they had had for two months,” he laughed. “Two days became two weeks became four months.”

With his foot in the door, Mauk began building his professional network and working his way up the ladder, serving as a stand-in on sitcoms like “Inside Schwartz” and “The O’Keefes” while continuing to work as a PA. Eventually, on the advice of a fellow extra in the movie “Phone Booth,” Mauk began working four days a week at the Los Angeles Zoo in education, writing curriculum and doing stage performances of a children’s educational animal book, all while still working as an extra on his three days off. He credits his time at Transy and on his grandparents’ farm with the strong work ethic that has underpinned his success.

“Everyone starts at the bottom — everybody,” Mauk emphasized. “It doesn’t matter your talent; you’ll start at the bottom regardless. But I don’t know anyone in Hollywood who’s not successful who sticks in and starts at the bottom. As long as you’re a hard worker and fun to be around, there’s plenty of jobs in Hollywood.”

The gift of storytelling

In 2003, with budget cuts looming over the zoo, Mauk was offered a role as a production assistant on a then-brand-new ABC late-night talk show — “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” He accepted and eventually landed a full-time job on the show, where he stayed for two years. In addition to his PA responsibilities, Mauk was featured in several bits on the show, including announcing for one episode and acting alongside Don King — in a particularly memorable episode, Kimmel even aired a clip of Mauk portraying a villain in the soap opera “General Hospital.”

His work on late-night television prepared Mauk for his immersion into the unscripted television genre — a broad term that encompasses follow docs, docuseries, documentaries and live competitions — where he continues to work today. Eventually, he was hired as a casting manager for FOX’s cooking-competition show “Hell’s Kitchen,” starring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. 

“I was able to reach out and find ways to get people to come and dine who didn’t know the shows,” he explained. “I would go talk to anyone and get them to help us. It didn’t occur to me that some of what I was doing was a huge thing to do in Hollywood.”

Mauk transitioned from “Hell’s Kitchen” to another Gordon Ramsey show, “Kitchen Nightmares,” and continued to work on Ramsey’s shows for the next 10 years while also working on other productions, including NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” and CBS’s “Undercover Boss.” Each new position added additional skill sets to his diverse professional toolbox, preparing him for new opportunities and challenges.  

Mauk credits unscripted television for breaking down the barriers to entry that might have stymied previous generations of potential industry employees. With the quality of images available from easily accessed technology, like 4K phones, “you don’t have to be a professional or have professional-grade equipment to start telling a story. If you’re a good storyteller, you’ll find success.” 

As a showrunner today, Mauk describes the productions he currently works on — including the Outdoor Channel series “Feral” with chef Yia Vang — as “cultural anthropology through the lens of food.” 

Every single Day on set, nothing goes according to plan. So you pivot

“I get to know people, figure out what their story is, and help them tell it,” he explained, noting that he’s proud of the diversity of jobs he’s been able to hold and the ability these positions have given him to interact with people outside of his typical social circles. “I’m able to navigate those interactions due to my experiences at Transy. I can draw on them when something goes wrong and navigate the waters to help someone feel comfortable enough on camera to tell their story.” 

Hayden Mauk works with his crew to set up a camera shot in the forest.

Mauk also credits his time at Transy for giving him the ability to be flexible, a skill that’s essential in his business. “Every single day on set, nothing goes according to plan,” he laughed. “So you pivot.” 

The challenges that he faced in his undergraduate classes prepared him to think outside the box. “My professors let me take chances,” he said, adding that his biology professors were some of the first people to acknowledge and encourage his nonlinear thinking process. “Transy does a really good job of preparing you for critical thinking in the real world.”

The next chapter

Mauk is currently developing several new projects, including a scripted series about the mid-century and long-forgotten late-night “Faye Emerson Show,” which he is working on with his wife, Maureen, as well as a show on high-end design that he is developing with a former grade-school classmate.

He also has advice for anyone who wants to live the Hollywood dream: “Start at the bottom.” Mauk recommends jobs in local news and at marketing agencies to learn quick and effective storytelling. For those who want to work in the television and movie industry, opportunities abound in Hollywood and New York City, but also in less-expected markets, including Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago and Miami. Most importantly, remember that persistence pays off.

“If you want to get into this industry, take a job, say ‘yes,’ learn from the ground up, and stick with it,” he summarized. “I don’t know anyone who has stuck with it who is not successful.”

Hayden Mauk on the set of "America's Most Musical Family."

As Seen on TV

From food competitions to late-night comedy, here’s a sampling of the programs Mauk has worked on: 

  • ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”
  • Comedy Central’s “Too Late with Adam Carolla”
  • FOX’s “Hell’s Kitchen”
  • FOX’s “Kitchen Nightmares” 
  • FOX’s “MasterChef”
  • CBS’s “Undercover Boss”
  • NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior”
  • Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,”
  • Travel Channel’s “The Zimmern List” 
  • Travel Channel’s “Cesar 911”
  • Netflix’s “Fresh Fried and Crispy”
  • Roku’s “Que Delicioso”
  • Nickelodeon’s “America’s Most Musical Family”
  • Magnolia’s “Family Dinner”
  • Outdoor Channel’s “Feral”

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