Beth McCarthy-Miller [Interview]
April 14, 2017 Leave a comment
We are continuing our unofficial Women of the Present showcase with an absolutely amazing interview with a truly inspiring female who has broken down so many barriers with her incredible skills and natural talent. This badass of a woman is the great Beth McCarthy-Miller.
For over a decade, Beth was THE director for what is arguably the greatest comedy series of all time, Saturday Night Live. Her professionalism and expertise shines through on the series, as well as the numerous television shows she has worked on to date. Seriously everyone, if there is a comedy series you love that has aired in the last 20 years or so, she has been a part of it. From shows featuring or old friends Scott Adsit and Kevin Brown like 30 Rock, to Parks and Recreation (also featuring our old friend Alison Becker!), she has been there for them all. We talk about a lot of them in our words with this fantastic director who has risen to the top of not only women in television directing, but in television directing as a whole.
Beth is an amazing and inspiring figure, and we are so honored to have her on the site today. So please enjoy some great words with the wonderful Beth McCarthy-Miller!
What initially drew you into the business you are in, and have had so much great success in? Was television always the world you wanted to be a part of, and what you aspired to excel in?
I loved TV when I was a kid, and we were not allowed to watch it too much, so I especially loved when I spent the night at a friend’s house and got to watch all the TV I wanted:) I wrote some of the assemblies we had in High School and most of them were comedic. I even wrote a spoof of Weekend Update when I was on High School. I was in plays as well, but I quickly decided I wanted nothing to do with being an actress my freshman year of college. I had grown up in a house where everyone LOVED music and I was no exception. My parents loved Big Band, crooners and loved Broadway musicals. I had 4 older brothers and 4 older sisters, so there was almost every genre of popular music being played in my house at any given time. I DJ’d all through college and majored in Radio, TV and Film, thinking I would go into hard news. I interned in news and decided it wasn’t for me. I was lucky enough to find out about an internship at MTV from my brother, Robert, and began working there in 1985, the summer I graduated from college. I was immediately hooked. It combined 2 of my favorite forms of entertainment: TV and music. I initially had no idea WHAT I wanted to do at MTV, but I just knew it was where I wanted to be. The next couple of years were happy accidents. I got a job being an assistant to the line producer at the studio that fall. I spent every day seeing the daily operations of a studio and MTV was a real factory of television. We shot every day, 5 days a week, doing everything from simple J wrap-arounds, to 1/2 hour shows and musical performances when an artist came by the studio.
I spent the next 2 years taking jobs for more money so I could stop waitressing on the weekends…no lie. MTV was a great place to get experience, but not a great place to make money :). So, when a job opened up to train as an Associate Director, I took it. When a job opened up to train to be an Associate Producer, I took it…and so on. But, when a full-time producer job opened up and I was about to take it, the 2 directors that I worked for sat me down and told me it was a mistake. They felt that I was going to make a great Director, and that I should hold out until a job opened up. They told me that I was next in line to get that job. I took their advice, and it was the best advice anyone has ever given me. My life and experience at MTV was invaluable. I learned so much from everyone I worked with and I was able to really get better at all of the mechanics of directing. I was directing all the time at MTV and I got to do so many different genres of directing. I did news shows, comedy shows, stand-up, music performances, interviews, and big live events on a regular basis. It was at MTV that I met Jon Stewart, directed his talk show and left with him when the show went into syndication. Jon is just so talented and so special, and I learned SO much about comedy from him. He is so smart and so generous and I was so blessed that our paths crossed. My time with Jon was a pivotal point in my career. I went to SNL after The Jon Stewart Show got canceled. I don’t think Lorne would have given me a 2nd look if not for the quality of the sketches that I had from The Jon Stewart Show.
You had an amazing run on Saturday Night Live that lead to some of the finest SNL moments in their history. What was it like to be a director for a show like this? I’ve only heard of the organized chaos that ensues, is this true? Basically, what does directing a live show like this entail?
It is so hard to describe the incredible honor it is when Lorne Michaels offers you a job to work on one of the longest-running, most celebrated comedy shows of all time. It was the most exciting and terrifying experiences of my life. The show had been on quite successfully for 20 years before I stepped foot on it, and a large number of staff had been there for many years already; some since the first episode. So, it is impossible not to feel like a comedically large wrench being thrown into a very well-oiled machine. The first 4 months were really hard and I really felt like I would not make the whole first season. The saving grace is that there were SO many new cast and writers that we kind of felt like we were in it together and that helped so much. The show is such an unbelievable process and it is amazing that it gets pulled off every week. Every department is literally THE BEST at what they do…it would not get on the air if they were not. The sketches get written on Monday and Tuesday and the show gets picked on Wednesday night after the table read. Remember, there are more sketches picked than what you see on the air. We go into the dress rehearsal with 3-5 more sketches than what gets on the air. So, Thursday and Friday is rehearsing, building sets, making costumes, getting wigs, props, graphs, rewrites, and all the while, maybe writing a new monologue or cold open because one didn’t get picked or you are waiting for something that is happening in current events. (like a debate). Then, Friday night, I would spend half the night marking a script with every camera shot, cue, and element of the show in it. That script is what we all would start working off of on Saturday morning. Then, we would spend Saturday doing a run-through of every sketch and continually through the day getting changes and some rewrites. The evening starts with a dress rehearsal that can last over 2 hours, which is a full show with an audience. That show is done a little after 10P and then the process begins of picking the show for air. Once the show is picked, it is a meeting with notes and changes that you get out of around 11P or so. It is then a melee of set, costume, and script changes, notes galore, audience loading and all before going on the air at 11:30. One of my favorite things that Lorne always says about SNL is that we don’t go on the air because we are ready, we go on the air because it’s 11:30. There are several changes that happen all during the show as well. Sometimes, we make set changes and the AD is counting back from 10 and the furniture is being dropped into a set and the cast sits down literally 2 seconds before we come up on the air. Not every week is like that, but there are many weeks like that! SO…organized chaos is an understatement:) But, it helps create that magnetic energy that the show has every time you tune into it. And for the host, there is nothing else out there like it except for maybe opening night of a play? So, they do opening night of a different play every week!
Without trying to sound to vague, I have to ask a question about something I have no idea about on several levels….What is it like to be a woman behind the scenes of television? Do you ever feel like a lone wolf in your industry?
You know, I have been extremely blessed in this industry…I have always had both male and female mentors that have always encouraged me and rooted for me. I was lucky to be at MTV during a time where everyone was figuring out what MTV was going to become. I learned so much there and my bosses, who were young themselves, were creative, and supportive and it did not feel like there was a direct hit on me for being a woman. Having said that, I was treated differently by various people, crew and bosses possibly based on being a woman and also for being young . I started directing when I was 25 and when I started directing some of the bigger shows a few years into it, I was 27 on set with several men who were older than me and had been around and were accomplished. I definitely had to prove myself and was looked at differently until they saw me work. I would also deal with most of that stuff with a sense of humor, so I think I won a lot of people over that way, but I have been blessed to have just as many supportive, wonderful people in my corner as those who were not. It is a bit strange that in 2017 there is still the discussion that there are so few women that direct. It’s crazy to me. I love that there is a conscientious effort to give more women and minorities opportunities to direct. There are so many wonderful women that are doing incredible work directing right now in comedy and drama, and I am a full-on geeked out fan of them!
In your expert opinion, how has the world of show business changed for women since you first began or now hugely successful career? Are things better?
I think that the industry has definitely opened up more doors to more positions for women over the years. I think things are better. There is also SO much more content being made that there are just more opportunities for everyone! I cannot believe how many channels make original programming now, never mind all of the streaming services as well. I think that TV has been in a bit of a renaissance. You see actors that normally do just film taking these boutique TV projects and getting incredible acclaim for them. So many creative people are thinking a bit outside the box and doing different types of programming that is allowing some exquisite talent to don TV sets and streaming devices. Binge watching has also changed the business quite a bit. It will be interesting to see what evolves over the next few years, but I am enjoying getting to see some fabulous actresses doing incredible work on TV in between their movie schedules.
You have also been the woman behind the camera for several comedy specials for some of the finest comedians in the business, from Jim Norton to Bob Saget to Dave Attell, the list goes on and on. What is it like to direct a comedy special? What are some things that go into filming a special that the average viewer may not be aware of?
Directing comedy specials are a BLAST!!! Especially when it is someone who you are a fan of or love! The real trick to directing a stand-up special is all about rhythm. Every comedian has a style and rhythm to their comedy, and if you can get into that rhythm, directing the cameras becomes almost easy. I spent a lot of time with Jon Stewart in my younger years and we did a talk show together. When I did his HBO stand-up special, I knew the rhythm to Jon’s delivery so well by then, it was easy for me to direct the special. It was a process to decide the look of it and come up with all of the aesthetics of the shoot, but once we went live on the air, it was all about rhythm. When I don’t know a stand-up’s work as well, I really love to go see them perform a few times and watch tape of them because it really helps me see the rhythm, cadence and structure of their joke telling. It also helps me get familiar with the material so I know when it’s about a facial expression, or a big physical move, or a dead stare to punctuate the joke. All of those things enhance the performance if you can nail it on camera. But, the hard thing is to not start laughing and get caught up in the show. That has happened to me more than once! You start enjoying the show so much that you lose your rhythm a little. Jon, Dave Attell, Chappelle and Wanda Sykes made me laugh so hard at certain points that I forgot I was working for awhile:) There have been so many more that made me laugh really hard during the show that it is hard to stay focused. I love seeing the different styles comedians have and how their particular delivery really enhances their jokes. Daniel Tosh was so much fun to watch how his pauses and style add to his jokes and of course Jerry Seinfeld could read a phone book and make me laugh….
In the last few years, you have managed to direct for a plethora of some of the best television shows of our time. I would love to ask you about every single one, but I know you are a very person and don’t want to hold you up, so I will just specifically ask about one…Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I adore this show, and feel like it is a true inspiration in regards to women in the world of entertainment. So, how was your experience on this show? Was the making of the show as fun as it is for us to watch it?
Well, I would follow Tina Fey into a burning building carrying Robert Carlock on my shoulders, so doing that show was a no brainer. I was such a fan of Ellie’s and she had done some stuff for me earlier in her career, so I was SO excited to work with her again. And, what can you say about Titus??? Ridiculously talented and incredibly funny. It was an absolute thrill to work with Carol Kane, a comedy legend and I love anytime I get to work with Jane. That show helped me get through mourning the loss of 30 Rock. It was a lot of the same players and crew, so that was like a bit of a reunion. That show is so brilliantly crafted…well written and superbly acted….it is easy to come along for the ride. I love getting those scripts because I literally laugh out loud while reading it. It is so much fun to shoot those episodes. I just did one for Season 3 that is terrific, written by Tina, and guest starring the fabulous Maya Rudolf. It is spectacular:)
When you look back on your amazing career thus far, what would you say you are most proud of?
I don’t know how amazing it is, but it is hard to point out one particular thing. There have been certain hurdles that I have jumped over in my career that I am amazed I got through with little scarring…the 1st SNL I directed, the live 30 Rocks, The live Sound of Music, The Superbowl Halftime Show. I am really proud of the work I did in my early years at MTV like Unplugged, The Jon Stewart Show and some of the Video Music Award shows I directed. I am really proud that I survived SNL and lived to tell the tale…I really loved the live 30 Rocks and was unbelievably honored to be asked to direct the 1 hour series finale. That meant so much to me and the show was incredible. I was really proud of the way The Sound of Music Live came together and was so thrilled to work with all of those incredible artists. I tried really hard to make that seem filmic and it was exciting that it spurred so many other live events like it. I think that the 9/11 telethon that I did just a few days after the towers fell was one of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking things I have ever been a part of….and I am proud that it was beautiful, poignant and extremely successful in raising funds for all of those lives who were affected. I am hoping my most proud moment is yet to come!
What is next for you? Anything we should be looking forward to in the near future?
I am knee-deep in pilot season. I am shooting one right now fro Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone’s company for Fox and right after, I am doing another one for ABC. So, I am REALLY tired:) Just kidding…it is all good and I am so excited about both projects. They are really funny scripts! After that, I am shooting a few other things like an episode of Divorce for HBO and The Good Place for NBC until the middle of June and then it’s summer vacation!!! My husband is a school teacher so we preserve that time to all be together.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
My son’s school has a talent show every year and I asked my 11 year old if he wanted to participate. He first said no and then he said maybe. I asked him if he wanted to sing (because he actually has a great voice) and he said “no”. He told me that maybe he would tell jokes because “you know Mom, everyone at school thinks I’m pretty funny”. That made my heart happy to know that he appreciates humor like I do:)