Mary Lou Belli knows she’s the longshot to win the Emmy for outstanding comedy director, and that’s fine with her. After all, she’s up against some marquee names, including Tim Burton (“Wednesday”), Bill Hader (“Barry”) and Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). But here’s something only she and Hader have in common among this year’s nominees: A back-to-back nomination.
Belli was also nominated last year for BET+’s “The Ms. Pat Show,” which in 2022 gave BET one of its first-ever major scripted series nominations. This year, Belli repeats that feat with the standout episode “Don’t Touch My Hair.” It’s quite a moment for the longtime director, having finally been recognized after decades in the craft. I had to call her up and hear more about it.
“I’m so, so pleased and honored to bring some light to a multi-cam show, but especially to Ms. Pat and Jordan Cooper, who created the show,” she tells me. “The stories they’re telling are so unique. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’ve never done it for the awards or the recognition. I mean, I’m honored, especially to be nominated with these heavyweights. But now, so much of my time when I’m not directing is about advocacy. So, if I can shine a light or create a space where another woman or a person of color can be successful, that’s my win.”
Belli is a firecracker, and I mean that in the absolute best sense. Get her going, and she has a lot to say. I love chatting with fascinating industry veterans like that, and Belli boasts quite a unique story. When Belli began directing TV in the 1990s, there still weren’t many women in the game. She started on shows like “Major Dad” and “Sister, Sister,” and then several teen shows from Peter Engel Prods., including “USA High” and “One World.” But she had previously worked as an acting coach for comedian D.L. Hughley — so when his sitcom “The Hughleys” went on the air, he asked her to direct. That led to gigs directing sitcoms like “Eve,” “One on One,” “Girlfriends” and “The Game.”
Again, Belli is the first to admit that she’s a short white lady directing some of the most popular Black sitcoms on TV. And she knows that sounds unusual, but she has done the work (and by the way, as often the only woman in the room during her early career, she’s no stranger to the importance of representation).
“There wasn’t a deep enough bench quite yet,” she says of those early days. “I think it’s the way I handled myself in that arena. And it’s the same way I still handle myself — which is respectful and not pretending I know more than I know, and leaning on the people who are supporting me who might have a more authentic voice or might be more appropriate storytellers. Now, mind you, I think BLM [Black Lives Matter] taught me now that it isn’t necessarily ever their responsibility to teach me so I do a huge amount of educating myself on stuff I might not know. Having lived in this arena for a long time and BET, especially, being a loyal supporter of mine, they always know that there won’t be a misstep from me, and that I am honored to be in this arena.”
Until “Ms. Pat,” Belli had actually moved away from comedies, directing more dramas like “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Black Lightning,” “Station 19” and “Sweet Magnolias.” But she has also focused more of her energy teaching at USC, where she was on the faculty between 2010 and 2018, and co-authoring books including “The Sitcom Career Book and Acting for Young Actors.”
“For me, being a teacher has been as important as being a good director,” Belli tells me. But don’t get her wrong — she’s still looking forward to the Emmys. “I wouldn’t bet on me in Vegas,” she says. “Would I like to win? Of course. Will I write a speech? Of course, because that’s the professional thing to do. Will I have my shoes on so I can quickly walk up to the stage? Probably not.”
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