written by Sarah McLean
I recently spoke with Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and author Mary Lou Belli. If you’ve watched TV in the past 30 years then you’ve probably seen a show she’s directed. Her scrolling list of IMDb credits include: Sister, Sister, The Hughley’s, Girlfriends, Monk, The Game, Hart of Dixie, and NCIS: New Orleans. We talked about the relevance and relatability of sitcoms throughout the years, what can make (or break) a show, the importance of writers, and her take on streaming services and the resulting changes in our viewing habits. I hope you enjoy Mary Lou’s candid and insightful responses.
You’ve directed many different shows for different networks. I’m curious about your experiences on set. While you’re working, can you tell if a show has ‘it’ and the potential to be a success (notwithstanding studio head decisions)?
I always know if material is truthful and if the material strikes me as funny when I read it, it usually is to an audience as well. And as to your question of whether it has potential to be a success, notwithstanding studio head decisions, you can’t separate the two. Producer and network decisions can make or break a show beginning with who is chosen to act, direct, production design, shoot, and all the other things that go into making a show. You can start with great material, and it may or may not end up being great… but it doesn’t work the other way around. No amount of help with elevate mediocre material.
How do actors, writers, directors, and the network help and hinder the process of making quality sitcoms that can endure the test of time?
That is many questions rolled into one. Actors can bring to life words on a page, and the director can, using all the tools of her trade, tell a great story, and a network can give the product a great shot by programming and advertising it so it becomes a hit. As for enduring the test of time, if it is good, it has the chance of lasting. I teach film acting to teens during the summer, they relate to good material, whether it’s Bewitched or The Big Bang Theory.
What do you think makes an audience click with a comedy?
IF they relate to the subject.
Why do some shows seem inherently better than others?
Because they are.
The popularity of sitcoms (single and multi-cam) has ebbed and flowed since the 1950s. Why do you think they’ve never gone away?
Good writing and people want to laugh. I think there have been trends by networks and studios to think different was better rather than better was better. I also think that the skill level of the writers hasn’t been consistent. But when good writing meets a great cast and director, and it is well programmed, there it flows, and the ebb is over.
A lot has changed in the world and in entertainment since the sitcom entered our lives. How do you see them affecting/being affected by changes in society? Are they accurately reflecting what we experience in real life?
Good sitcoms are a mirror: Let me answer with relevant show titles: All In the Family, MASH, Married with Children, I Dream of Jeanie, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Girlfriends.
What trends do you see happening in scripted comedies?
I don’t predict trends, I do notice when there are more single camera shows rather than multi – and not all of them need the more expensive single camera format to tell the story. Then I question why that decision has been made.
What are your thoughts on all these “reboots” to classic sitcoms we’re now seeing?
If it’s good, great, if it’s not, then networks should be finding better material.
As someone who’s directed many multi-cam sitcoms, why do you think they often get looked down upon as “lesser” comedies? Many people seem to prefer single camera over multi-camera because they feel they’re more authentic. What’s your take on this?
My take – the folks who program recognize that single looks better, and it does… but what they don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter to an audience. They just want to be engaged. Steve Levitan, and I’m paraphrasing, said he never had an audience that wanted to talk about a camera shot. He has an audience that wants to laugh. He’s right.
Netflix is cutting in to the traditional TV market. Do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing for sitcoms, seeing how Netflix used older sitcoms to create our binge-watching habits and are also creating their own original multi-cam shows? Do you think sitcoms can stay relevant with this new type of viewing?
There is always room for quality. And folks will not stop viewing. They may just view differently.
How do you think other streaming sites, like Amazon and Hulu, and online content (from web series to longer comedies) are affecting the traditional sitcom?
They want to make money, they will hopefully do that by assessing what is relevant to their audience.
What is your favorite thing about directing sitcoms?
Getting to tell a funny story, working with actors and writers, and hopefully elevating what is on the page to even more excellence.
What is it that drew you to sitcoms as opposed to hour long shows?
Someone offered me a job, I kept learning and growing, and it payed well. And it was a great schedule to allow for raising a family.
Are you looking to direct more hour long comedies and dramas or single camera comedies?
I am looking to do good work, and I have made an effort in the past 5 years to move to dramas and single camera. The challenges are greater. I love the stories, and with my kids nearly out of college, I am free to travel and choose to devote more time to my career. That being said, all my training as a sitcom director, i.e. timing, pacing, working closely with actors, has informed the work I do as a single camera director. I have found that doing 1 hour shows is ten times harder and ten times wore rewarding. It is still directing, it is still storytelling, it’s just a bigger challenge so the sense of accomplishment is greater when you do it well.
Anything else you want to add?
Yes. Over my career I have seen something that works brilliantly but is not employed often enough, and that is experienced writers mentoring younger ones. With the right combination of the two it is MAGIC… the lesser experienced learn from the more seasoned. It has to be the right combo, but everything needs to be in a collaborative business. I have seen this partnership launch talented young careers and utilize older wisdom and experience to full advantage.
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I love her last point. We shouldn’t rely on under-experienced writers (and that goes for producers, directors, et al.) to figure things out “as they go” on such a large scale. Yes, learning from your mistakes is beneficial, but we can cut down that learning time drastically by being more receptive to “on the job training” and the willingness to actively help out those a few tiers below. At some point a new crop will need to replace the old guard and the more prepared they are the better.
My thanks to Mary Lou for taking the time to answer my questions. She had a lot of great insight that most people aren’t privy to on a regular basis. I think one of the key take aways is this: different isn’t (necessarily) better. Better is better.
To find out more about Mary Lou Belli, you can visit her website.