BY LINDA MENDOZA
KICKING BACK: Whether Linda Mendoza is directing single-camera or her current gig
on The Wanda Sykes Show, the important thing is getting the best performance.
Several months ago, I directed The Mark Twain Prize for PBS. Bill Cosby was this year’s recipient, and as we were doing a walk-through at the Kennedy Center, Mr. Cosby started quizzing me about my qualifications. What other shows had I directed? “Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Scrubs and recently, a multi-camera pilot for Disney,” I answered, certain that my resumé would impress him, if just a little. It didn’t.
“The Chris Rock Show,” he snapped. “Isn’t that just cutting cameras?” Just cutting cameras? I thought to myself. “Well no, not really,” I replied to the iconic comedian. “There are a lot of other elements that go into the show.”
“Don’t television directors do one or the other?” Cosby continued.
“You mean multi- or single-camera or episodic versus variety?” I asked.
“Any of them,” replied Cosby.
And therein lies my bone of contention. The Mark Twain special is a multi-camera variety show, as is Fiesta Latina (which I directed at the White House in October) and Wanda Sykes’ new talker, which I also direct. But during my career I’ve directed plenty of single-camera shows too, like Scrubs and Bernie Mac, and feel perfectly comfortable going back and forth between both formats. I’m a Latina, 25 years in the business with what I think is a pretty respectable resumé. But when people ask me which has been harder—being a woman or being a Latino in television, my answer is “neither.” I’ve experienced more discrimination trying to go from single- to multi-camera and from directing variety shows to episodic than being Hispanic and female put together. This business likes to pigeonhole people. Even the esteemed Heathcliff Huxtable questioned my ability to do both.
But Mr. Cosby’s questions made me think about my career and how I’ve struggled not to be pigeonholed. And let’s face it, I am Latina, which hasn’t eased the way. You would think I’d be a natural fit for Ugly Betty, wouldn’t you? But while I directed one ALMA Award-winning episode of the series I didn’t get the job again because the network said I didn’t do one-hour TV. Similarly, while directing an episode of Scrubs I had an ABC executive say to my agent, “She really doesn’t understand comedy.” And that same week, Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence tells me, “That’s why I hire you Linda, because you really get the comedy.”
But having just started my latest job as director on The Wanda Sykes Show, Mr. Cosby’s comments also made me realize how much directing multi-camera shows is not just about “cutting cameras.” Of course, what they both share is a commitment to getting the best performance out of the talent. But the truth is, directing multi- and single-camera, or a variety show as compared to an hour series, uses a different set of muscles. The thing about single-camera is that you break down every scene and location, how many setups you need per scene to cover all the different angles and what the best way is to tie those shots together. I try to envision what the whole thing will look like. In multi-camera I put all those elements together at the same time and have to figure out the best way to utilize those six cameras at once.
For most people it’s really difficult to slip back and forth because you get typecast. I guess I got to do it all through perseverance and by going the extra step. If I hadn’t kicked butt on the first Bernie Mac episode I directed, it would have said that I couldn’t do single-camera. But pulling it off was a big thing. Bernie hired me and always said I was his “double hitter,” because he was hiring a Latino and a female. He said he got “two points” for that.
In fact, my whole career has followed a somewhat unorthodox trajectory. I grew up in Detroit watching Petticoat Junction, The Brady Bunch and, of course, The Partridge Family. I can still tell you the Sunday night lineup of shows. But it never occurred to me to pursue a career in television. Instead I went to Wayne State to study sociology. I fell into TV the way many women of my generation found their careers: through a man. After being dumped by my boyfriend I moved to California to get away and landed my first job in the office of Peaches Records on Hollywood Boulevard. Then I got my next gig as a phone page at Metromedia Channel 11. All I can say is that it was the most short-lived page job in history—three weeks. Because I had some computer experience they hired me full time at the station to schedule the engineers. Eventually I transitioned into production and worked my way through a series of jobs—production assistant, script PA, script supervisor, and associate director.
At one point I figured I was destined to do variety for the rest of my life, but doing Bernie Mac and then Chris Rock opened the bird coop. And I tried to learn everything I could. When I got the job on Bernie Mac, I signed up for acting lessons with Stella Adler and took courses in scene and character study. (You try doing that with a day job and a young kid at home.) I’ll never win an Emmy—for acting anyway—but I went there to be a better director. And recently, I started doing stand-up to turn on the writing side of my brain. So one night I got up at a comedy showcase while I was directing two variety specials by day and completely blanked out. Why do I take on so much? My husband says it’s one more thing to do so I don’t have to spend time with him. Not true.
Like the Mark Twain awards ceremony, directing Wanda Sykes has its specific challenges. The ‘W’ in her name is a big, standing set piece that turns into a bar. So every week I bring in a stand-in to check the lighting. I make her sit in the space where Wanda will sit and adjust her hair or her position to make sure there’s no shadow. But inevitably when Wanda gets into the space there’s a shadow or the ‘W’ is turning and hiding someone’s face. It’s all about timing.
And luckily, I’ve had good timing in my career. But ultimately, whether I’m directing an awards show, a late-night talk show, an hour series or a sitcom episode, it’s about the content. Not just cutting cameras.