Spotlight on TV director, Mary Lou Belli
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Excerpt from The New Sitcom Career Book
written by my pal, the two time Emmy award winning director, Mary Lou Belli and
Comedy comes in three. A pattern is created with the first two items. The audience is fooled when the third item is not the expected completion of the pattern.
The audition is an actor’s job interview. He or she shows up, resume in hand, at an appointed time to meet someone who has a job to offer. Similarities with job interviews in the real world end there. Getting a normal job is based on experience, job aptitude, education, salary requirements, and personality. NOT IN SITUATION COMEDIES!
Getting the Job—Actor
In sitcoms, an actor has to audition, which determines two things: Are you right for the part? And are you FUNNY?
Being right for the part encompasses a lot of things. The most important begins and ends with how you look. Most people might think that means how beautiful. It is not that simple. A dynamite actress may audition for the “best friend” part. If she’s prettier than the lead actress (whose name just might be the title of that new show), she can kiss that part goodbye!
Being funny is next. Rick Kushman of the Sacramento Bee describes “Friends” as “One of TV’s most consistent comedies throughout the years, partly on the strength of funny and just-goofy-enough writing, but mostly because the cast is so special. They each have that precious gift of comic timing…”
It is no coincidence that many sitcoms have been developed for stand-up comedians. Hollywood descends on Montreal’s and Aspen’s annual comedy festivals in search of new talent. This may not be tapping the most experienced acting pool in Hollywood, but it usually guarantees the laughs. Bruce Hills, COO of Montreal’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival tells us:
In the late 80’s, network talent executives realized that the Just For Laughs Festival was one-stop shopping for them. Within a couple of days, they could see the best stand-ups from around the world, including the best unsigned talent from North America. Basically, we scout all year round and take the pulse of comedy around the world and present them with the best of the best. Over 70 deals have been cut here at the Festival, involving every major studio and network in the U.S.
British actor Adrian Lester (Primary Colors, The Royal National Theatre Henry V) told us about his first American sitcom:
I think you can tell a lot about a culture by what makes its people laugh. I spent a while doing nothing but watching all the sitcoms I could get my hands on. I had to learn very quickly to put away the classical theatre muscle and work on my funny bone.
We do not mean to EVER minimize the art of acting. We have great respect for those who are gifted artists and practice their craft with intelligence, creativity and integrity. But good acting is not enough on situation comedies. “Dying,” as the saying goes, “is easy. Comedy is hard.” Okay, you are a talented actor. Can you act and BE FUNNY?
Al Martin of the New York Comedy Club talks about his club’s connection to the comedy scene:
We get great diverse audiences here from all over the country. It’s the same people who watch TV so it’s the perfect place for people to try out material. We get new acts, top acts who are rehearsing material for HBO or The Tonight Show, or comedians who want to test material before they go to a major venue. It’s a great place to be seen.
Before the Audition
So how does that interviewer (casting director) know if you are “right for the part” and FUNNY? …By your audition. Casting director Patricia Noland (Married …With Children) explains what she likes about being a casting director: “My favorite part of my job is working with the actors. It is a real joy to nurture talent, and help to launch a new career or participate in moving an existing career to the next step.” Nolan also cautions,
I think one of the most common mistakes an actor makes (especially a novice one) is to confuse the audition in a casting director's office with that of an acting class. Although it is perfectly okay to ask a question or two if the material isn't clear to them, they need to come prepared to do the scene, and not expect us to coax it out of them, or even coach them for any length of time. Oftentimes, we see many, many people for each role, and time just doesn't permit us to do that preliminary work. I've had actors flat-out tell me "Well, I read it over once, and I didn't really get it, so since I knew I was coming in to see you, I thought I'd just wait and let you walk me through it.” NO! After I see what an actor has prepared, I often do have comments or suggestions, but only in a tinkering kind of way - not in a let's-build-it-from-scratch way. Actors need to realize that our job is to see many people (cast a large net) and then narrow down the choices we think our producers will respond to the strongest. Of course, this is why many agents and managers would prefer to bypass this step altogether, and have their clients go "straight to producers.” I've found overall, however, that the best producers auditions are the actors who have come in for me once, taken some small direction (be it a wardrobe suggestion or a small adjustment – “Let's try it again, and take about half the anger out”), and then have the confidence to really nail it in front of the director and producers.
An actor auditioning for a sitcom will often get only a few pages of the script. Known as sides, these pages are an actor’s guide to the story and character. An actor will go in and read the sides (consisting of a part of a scene, an entire scene, or multiple scenes) with the casting director, reader, or an actor who has already been cast.
Sides come from one of the versions of the script…and there have been many. A sitcom script starts with a story premise that is developed into an outline. This process starts about 6 weeks before the show goes into full production.
Many scripts are completed before actors show up for the first episode of the season. One writer or writing duo turns the outline into a first draft, often known as the pre-table draft. As writer Keith Josef Adkins (Girlfriends) remarks, “The first draft is written by one entity. It comes to the writer’s room, and it’s read aloud by everyone. Then we begin pitching on jokes, arcs, etc. in order to shape it for the table. The point of this is to make sure the script feels and sounds like the TONE of the show. With so many writers, each one is bringing their very specific flavor and personality to the show. Although this is encouraged and gives the show its juice, ultimately each script must feel as if it is birthed from one mother.”
Here are six of my photos from my art series, "You Once Sat Here." Abandoned chairs and sofas in L.A. (and Italy) tell their story.
view them all here.
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