Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
Our guest speaker at the free September 27th Inside the Industry Seminar was sitcom director Mary Lou Belli. 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.” Recently, she was the American jury member at The Sapporo International Short Film Festival and Market in Sapporo, Japan. When asked about her experience there, Ms. Belli said, “It was nice. Actually, it was very, very clean and they flew me first class, [laughter] so it was great!”
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, “Thank you guys! I love coming here and this is my third time! I don’t know what the seminars are usually like, but I know that sometimes they’re just an hour and a half of Q and A. I get very bored with that. Not that your questions aren’t fascinating [laughter], but I feel that if you’re going to spend an hour and a half with me, you should know something when you walk out the door that you didn’t know when you walked in.”
To prove the point, 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 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. 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 Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Sid Ceasar, 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:
- 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!
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 for actors was evident. She is married to an actor and her son is an actor as well. She mentioned that her son had a national K-mart commercial running and said, “He is making more money than anyone in our house right now!”
To illustrate 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 forNYPD Blue twelve times before casting director Junie Lowry-Johnson hired him.
Lastly, I will say that as a veteran actor I was surprised by how much I did notknow about comedy before this event. I am now re-reading Ms. Belli’s book and am learning so much. Ms. Belli’s seminar has inspired me to learn even more!
You can visit Mary Lou Belli’s website at www.sitcomcareer.com