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Tracy WeisertSynopsis by Tracy Weisert

I have been host to our guest speaker, seasoned sitcom director Mary Lou Belli for our free Inside the Industry Seminars more than once and this veteran actor (me!) finally took Ms. Belli’s sitcom class last year.  Boy, am I glad that I did!  I learned so much!  As an actor and personally, I have been told I was funny all my life.  In Ms. Belli’s dynamic class, I was surprised….and frankly embarrassed, by what I did not know about the classic sitcom formula!  Coincidentally, right before I took her class, I had booked a fun two day co-star role on the final season of the TV show MONK playing opposite Emmy winner, Tony Shalhoub.  Ms. Belli was directing a MONK episode the next month, so it felt great to be taking class from a current working television Director!

A former actor, Ms. Belli now has over 100 television episodes to her credit, as well as the Emmy award-winning documentary, “A Community of Caring.”  Ms. Belli has also published the definitive book on the language and rules of sitcoms. The Sitcom Career Book – A Guide to the Louder, Faster, Funnier World of TV Comedy, which she co-wrote with Phil Ramuno, is a mainstay for many professional actors and coaches internationally.

Ms. Belli 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.  Actually, I am working on my third book with another Director friend Stephanie Friedman called Directing Television.  Today we’re going to learn.”

“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 it.  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?”

Ms. Belli 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, to look for the types of jokes being used and listen to the jokes’ rhythms.  Ms. Belli 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.”

Ms. Belli 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.”

Here are some of Ms. Belli’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.
  • 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
  • Punchline
  • Feed
  • Payoff
  • Mislead/Turn
  • Alliteration
  • Stage directions

When Ms. Belli 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.

Ms. Belli’s respect and love for actors was obvious. She is married to an actor and her son is an actor as well. When she spoke to us in 2008, she mentioned 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!”

To show that it takes patience and tenacity to be a professional actor in Los Angeles, Ms. Belli 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, all attendees who had wanted to get up on the stage and read with Ms. Belli had.  That was about 80% of the room!

I am now re-reading Ms. Belli’s book and am learning and retaining so much. I also look forward to taking Ms. Belli’s sitcom class again because it inspired me to learn even more! Another exciting six week class begins on Saturday October 9.

Inquire about Mary Lou’s upcoming class, The Sitcom Career Class, beginning on October 9, 2010.

You can also visit Mary Lou Belli’s website.

Follow Tracy on Twitter- @TracyWeisertLA
Email Tracy, or find her on IMDB