50 years after her first appearance on Broadway, Elaine May won a well-deserved Tony Award.
When Betty Thomas walks into a room, you know it. She commands attention with her confidence, her booming voice, and her quick wit. It’s infectious. In addition to being an overall badass, she is a two-time Emmy winner, having the rare distinction of winning in both acting and directing categories. Thomas is also one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, having helmed Howard Stern’s Private Parts, The Brady Bunch Movie, 28 Days and many more.
A few hours before returning to The Second City Mainstage for the epic Roast of George Wendt, Thomas joined students at the Harold Ramis Film School for a Q&A led by HRFS chair Trevor Albert, and here are the pearls of comedy wisdom she passed along.
Re-Tool, Reload, Repeat
Thomas got her start at Second City not on the Mainstage, but as a server. At the time, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and John Belushi were the ones on stage, and Thomas recounted how there was no better education than seeing the same show, every night, with minor adjustments.
“I had seen or heard their show probably a hundred times, and I started to understand their process of self editing,” she explained. “Things that would kill one night wouldn’t necessarily kill the next night, and that was an important lesson to learn.”
Seize Every 6-Foot Opportunity
Thomas did make it to the Mainstage in 1973, where she honed her improv skills, until eventually heading to LA…and a lot of auditions, where she discovered that being a six-foot tall blond helped her stand out, explaining, “I didn’t shy away from my height, and how could I?” Thomas embraced how other people identified her and used that to her advantage to land small TV parts, eventually landing a starring role on the hit TV show Hill Street Blues.
“That was my directing education,” she told students. “After four years of playing a character, you’re kind of acted out. I started focusing my attention behind the camera–why they were doing this, how they were staging us.”
Be Your Own Biggest Advocate
After seven years on Hill Street Blues, Thomas made her way behind the camera by means of a full-out fabrication. “I found myself at a tennis club with a reporter from Variety,” she explained. “He was asking me what I was doing after Hill Street, and I panicked. ‘Umm, I’m going to direct a Hooperman.’ I lied. I was full of shit. Next week, front page of Variety: ‘Betty Thomas to Direct a Hooperman.’”
When the show’s executive producer called Thomas to call her out, she owned up to the lie. He gave her a shot anyway, inviting her to direct their Christmas episode, “because no one wanted it.”
Do Your Homework
Thomas spoke fearlessly about the job she’d never done before, but had spent years mentally preparing for.
“So I got the Hooperman job–now I actually had to direct the thing,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to show up and be a wallflower. ‘Oh, maybe go there; walk down camera here.’ I wanted that all figured out beforehand, or else I would lose them.” She paid two stand-ins $25 to come to the soundstage on a Sunday so she could rehearse and block all the movements ahead of time.
“On Monday, I was ready. I had my plan in place. I already had tape on the ground for the actors. What could they do but get the cameras ready?”
And a director was born.
Enrollment for the Harold Ramis Film School’s 2018 Winter session is now open. To learn more, visit www.ramisfilmschool.com or follow along on Facebook and Twitter using @RamisFilmSchool.
Heidi Weitzer is a writer and director living in Chicago. She is currently a student at the Harold Ramis Film School. She has placed in the Shore Scripts Contest, the Austin Film Festival and the Chicago Screenplay Contest. She makes dark comedies and has never met a green screen she didn’t like.