Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
Our free September 27th member Inside the Industry Guest Seminar speaker was Emmy Award-winning, one-hour episodic television and sitcom director Mary Lou Belli. Not only did Mary Lou teach us sitcom vocabulary and comedy rules, she wrote the book about it! Written along with fellow author Phil Ramuno, their book The NEW Sitcom Career Book – A Guide to the Louder, Faster, Funnier World of TV Comedy is a mainstay with many professional actors, coaches, at Samuel French Bookstores, and used internationally. I took Mary Lou’s Sitcom class and I was surprised what I didn’t know about sitcoms and their formula! Here is Mary Lou’s bio-
Emmy award-winning MARY LOU BELLI has been directing television for more than 20 years, including Monk and Hart of Dixie as well as Wizards of Waverly Place, Sister, Sister, Charles in Charge, Girlfriends, and The Game. She has done groundbreaking work in the field of web series, her first two – both award winners. She has judged film fests both in the US and internationally, including the Sapporo Short Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival. Mary Lou has been a lecturer at the Chautauqua Institute, and a panelist for Women In Film, the DGA, SAG, and AFTRA and the L.A. Times Festival of Books. She is the co-author of three books: The NEW Sitcom Career Book, Acting for Young Actors, and Directors Tell the Story which she co-wrote with fellow DGA member Bethany Rooney. Mary Lou teaches part time at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
The last time dynamo Mary Lou spoke to us was four years ago. We were lucky to have her as our guest speaker this year with her über busy work schedule!
Mary Lou began the seminar by saying, “Good morning everyone! I don’t do a lot of questions and answers. We’ll do that at the end. I teach. I am a director. I am a teacher. I’m a writer. I’m going to jump in. This is really about giving you a comedy session, so that you know more when you walk out than you did when you walked in. It’s not a test. It’s not about showing off. It’s not about you knowing the answers. It’s about us sharing. Consider this a ‘work session.’ After we finish this, we’ll do a couple of exercises where I’ll ask you to come up from the audience and you’ll see my methodology when I’m teaching. You know those history teachers that you hated because they grilled, grilled, grilled? That’s how I teach. I can teach comedy rhythms and comedy timing and recognize things that often occur on the sitcoms.
The reason that I wrote the first book, The Sitcom Career Book, is because I had actors who came to my set, as did my co-author Phil Ramuno who has directed over 300 episodes of sitcoms, and we found that good actors were not doing their best work. We said, ‘Okay…what do they not know that if they knew they would come and do better on our sets?’ This wasn’t because they were inexperienced. Some of them were coming with Academy Awards, Tonys….people who had huge stand-up careers. We said, ‘Okay…what can we teach them about sitcoms to efficiently use what little time we have on the set for their best advantage?’ How can you be selfish when you come to use your time wisely, not waste my time as a director and all of us together produce the best work we can?”
Mary Lou handed sitcom sides out to the entire room and had us do a “find the joke” exercise. Although it’s too detailed to take out of context here, it was very interactive and enlightening. When we were done with that, Ms. Belli gave us all “homework,” which was to go home and watch sitcoms. We were instructed to identify the jokes in each episode and to look for the types of jokes being used and listen to the jokes’ rhythms. Mary Lou encouraged us to watch the comic timing of actors like Jon Cryer and James Spader. An actor’s reactions to their co-stars are the key to comedy, she said, and cited Lisa Kudrow’s excellence at reacting on-camera and “staying in character but always thinking her next thought.”
Mary Lou continued, “Watch comic geniuses like John Ritter, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen, Carol Burnett, Jim Carrey, Charlie Chaplin, Sid Caesar, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers – and watch a lot of sitcoms! Any actor who tends to be good at sitcoms has rhythms that are there naturally, probably because they’ve been watching sitcoms! I go to universities and I hand out a piece of really difficult material. The kids nail it. Nail it! They’ve been watching re-runs of old sitcoms on Nickelodeon or Nick at Nite since they were little and they hear the rhythms. Take Boy Meets World. Who knew that Boy Meets World would teach the next generation of actors how to be funny? But it has!”
She continued, “The thing I love about comedy is that it evens the playing field. Do you know what that means? It means that everybody has the same chances as everybody else in a comedy because there is one thing more important than anything else. Do you want to guess what that might be? Being funny! If you’re funny and they’ve never seen you before in your life, or you’ve never even done a sitcom before, you might get the part over somebody who has had three series on TV.”
An actor asked how acting styles in sitcoms have changed and cited the shows Friends and The Big Bang Theory. Mary Lou said, “Those two are pretty close (in style) although they are a little bit more subtle. On The Big Bang Theory you have a really big range. The range of Johnny Galecki going pretty subtle and then Jim Parsons going huge, but we have other shows that are way more subtle and that are less than.” The actor then mentioned, Raising Hope to which Mary Lou agreed, “Yes. Perfect, perfect. Raising Hope is a good example where it is much more subtle and much more real because it comes from the situation and we’re not hitting the jokes on the head. Of course, even within The Disney Channel, just because you’re going in for Disney, don’t think it’s going to be huge. The Wizards of Waverly Place was not The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”
Here are some of Mary Lou’s tips for actors who are auditioning:
- Jokes end in downward inflections. “It gives the audience permission to laugh.” ‘Valley girls’ have upward inflections.
- Don’t ever criticize the material you are reading.
- Never criticize your own performance.
- Comedy has to be sharp/clean. Think staccato.
- Don’t talk too much in the room. Don’t ask questions just to ask questions.
- Props are okay to use with her but maybe not with other directors.
- Do your homework. Memorize the scene but hold your sides during the audition.
- Know key lines and key reactions in the script so your head is not buried in the sides.
- When you deliver one-liners, make them sound as much like the real you as possible. You’re probably funny!
Some of sitcom comedy rules are:
- Don’t move on joke
- Comedy comes in 3s
- Ks and Ps are funny
- Dick Van Dyke’s- “Think Yiddish, talk British.”
Sitcom vocabulary included:
- Run of 3
- Set up
- Stage directions
Producing self-content and networking –
An attendee was concerned that as an actor he didn’t want to be a ‘starving artist’ but needed to be employed in a day job to be ‘self-sufficient’ financially. Mary Lou replied, “I think that you have to look for a (day) job that allows you to audition and possibly a job where you can network within that job. Example – Nannying…”
She continued as she told us, “I have a friend who got 40% of her (acting) jobs the first 2 years she was here because she was a great 2nd baseman and a lot of TV shows have baseball teams. I think it was the ER baseball team. She wasn’t on ER but they needed a 2nd baseman, so she came in as the ‘ringer.’ What I’m saying is that there are different ways to network.
What I didn’t talk about in that (Sitcom) book because it wasn’t as prevalent is that you guys are living in this age of creating your own work, for view, for free. Literally, anybody can do it. I walked into my son’s agent’s office and they said, ‘Oh my God. That thing on YouTube is hysterical!’ I said, ‘What thing?’ ‘You know where he plays himself and his ‘twin’ brother.’ He was nine years old at the time! [Laughter] They said, ‘Do you know how many hits it has gotten?’ So my son had done this thing with his Mac computer which had a camera in it. He didn’t know how to edit, so he shot it in order, so he would put his hat on as the evil twin and say a line. Stop it. Turn the camera round, take off the hat, go to the other side of the room and say the line back to himself. I’m telling you that anybody can create product and put it online. Then, what your currency becomes if you don’t have a great agent, great manager or getting submitted and getting auditions….is if you have something that has a half a million hits, that’s currency. It’s better than a good agent because you can write, “Hey! Look at this! It will make you laugh and it’s gotten a half a million hits…’ There is no casting director in the world who will not play that. If you’re not sure that it will be funny of get a half a million hits, just put a cat in it.” [laughter]
When Mary Lou was asked about the background actors on her television shows, she said, “I actually think of background artists as artists. It’s not as easy as it looks.” She went on to say that she appreciates background actors who know where the camera is at all times and know enough not to upstage the principals in a scene.
Mary Lou’s great respect and love for actors was obvious. She is married to an actor and as she mentioned, her son is an actor as well. When she spoke to us in 2008, she said that her son had a national KMart commercial running at the time and said, “He is making more money than anyone in our house right now!”
She told us, “Everything I learned as an actor, has informed me as a director. Everything….and it separates me from the people (directors) who just move the camera, so with 90% of my jobs, I come back because of the actors. I’ll just tell you this. Within the first two days of when I was on Hart of Dixie, the Executive Producer and creator of the show got seven texts from seven people I had directed that said, ‘Bring her back.’
To show that it takes patience and tenacity to be a professional actor in Los Angeles, Mary Lou told us the story of an actor she knew who auditioned for NYPD Blue twelve times before casting director Junie Lowry-Johnson hired him.
By the end of our fast paced, sitcom learning and information packed seminar, the room was abuzz and I know my mind and creativity were on fire!
I have re-read Mary Lou’s sitcom book and again have learned so much. Taking Mary Lou’s sitcom class was inspiring. I wanted to learn even more! Mary Lou will be teaching the Sitcom Career Class and The Actor’s Workout in early 2015 and will be in Atlanta teaching the weekend of November 14-16 at the Atlanta Workshop Players.
You can visit Mary Lou Belli’s website at www.maryloubelli.com Thank you delightful Mary Lou!