When director Beth Mccarthy-Miller was an intern at MTV back in the 1980s, she discovered that the channel’s top executives weren’t much older than she.
“It was like being in a giant fraternity house,” she says of the experience. “I was 22, and they were maybe 30.”
And what a fraternity! During her nine years at the channel, she worked various jobs, learning many facets of the business. And she cut her teeth as a young director who would go on to create classic episodes of Unplugged, working with such musicians as Elliot Easton of The Cars and the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame.
From there, she would team with Jon Stewart in his pre–Daily Show days, then segue into directing episodes of Saturday Night Live (for which she earned four Emmy nominations; she’s received 10 Emmy noms throughout her career, including one this year for Adele Live in New York City).
Across her long and productive career, she has also helmed such unforgettable live television as the first SNL show post 9/11, Janet Jackson’s halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII and NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! McCarthy-Miller was interviewed in 2014 by Amy Harrington for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. The following is an edited excerpt of that discussion; the full interview can be viewed at TelevisionAcademy.com/Archive.
Q: How did you get started?
A: I went to the University of Maryland, graduated with a major in radio, television and film; I thought I would go into hard news. I interned at CNN, which was a great place because you got to do a lot of hands-on things. But the day Indira Gandhi got shot, I decided I didn’t really have the stomach for hard news.
Growing up, I always loved music. My mom said my first words were singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I went to concerts whenever I could and deejayed all through college, too. My brother was a lawyer working for MTV Networks. He told me about this internship program, so I put in an application and was picked to be a summer intern in the acquisitions department.
Q: What was MTV like at that time?
A: I went there at the absolute right time. A job opened up to be the assistant to the line producer in the studio. We were there all day and all night, doing the veejay segments.
The great thing about MTV was, our bosses were less than 10 years older than we were — the head of production was maybe 30, and I was 22. You got paid no money. You worked crazy hours. But you worked with all your friends and you had the best time. And there were always tickets to something, so at least two nights a week you were going to a concert. The shows I have had a front-row seats to — I couldn’t put a price on them.
Q: Was directing already your dream then?
A: No. When I was starting out, I took whatever job got me more money. After starting as the line producer’s assistant, I would fill in for the control room PAs when somebody called in sick because it was an extra 10 bucks a day. Then I started filling in and got trained as an associate director. I started working as an assistant director and I loved it.
Then I got trained to be a producer on the floor, working with the talent and writing copy. I was doing both associate directing and associate producing, and then a full-time producer’s job came up. I was going to take it because it was more money. The two directors that I AD’d for, Milton Lage and Scott Fishman, said, “Please don’t take this job. You’re going to be a great director, and we want you to just hold on.”
It was a hard decision because it was like, “I can actually pay my rent and eat every month if I take this job. I don’t have to waitress anymore.” But I sucked it up and took their advice — it was the best advice anyone’s ever given me. A job opened up in six months.
Q: What did you start directing?
A: Simple stuff: one camera, two cameras. Then they’d have a band come in, and I’d do a three-camera music performance. Then all of a sudden, I was doing The Week in Rock. Every time something came up, I’d have to figure out how to do it.
Q: What was it like directing the Nirvana episode of MTV’s Unplugged?
A: I did a lot of Unplugged, and that is definitely one of my favorites. My AD, Joe DeMaio, and I were sent to Hoboken, New Jersey, where Nirvana was rehearsing. When we walked in, the band was on stage. Everything I’d been told about Kurt Cobain was that he was scary — “Don’t talk to him; you might make him angry and he’ll leave.”
Of course, I didn’t want to do anything to screw it up, so we gingerly walked in the room. We said, “Hi, we’re the director and the AD of the show.” They couldn’t have been more lovely. I got to watch them work out all the songs in Hoboken, then they came and did a full sound check and camera rehearsal at Sony [in New York City], where we shot it.
It was Kurt’s idea, all those flowers. Right before we let the audience in, I walked out to the set with all the candles and the lilies. I was standing next to Alex Coletti, the producer, and he said, “This looks really pretty.” I said, “It looks a little like a funeral.”
Q: How did it go?
A: We shot the show and it was beautiful. Every time I saw Kurt perform “In the Pines,” it just gave me chills. We finished shooting; the audience loaded out. Kurt came into the control room because he wanted to see some of it. We rolled a couple of the songs and he said, “Everything looks great. But there are some moments where I’m smiling and I’d like you to put them in the show.”
I said, “Oh, the lighter side of Kurt Cobain?” And he said, “My manager told me to.” Then he walked out.
I thought I had upset him, but he ended up loving it. We looked through the footage of his closeups, and there’s literally one song where, afterwards, he does this crazy fake smile. We put it in. He was clearly appeasing his management.
Q: How did you end up directing The Jon Stewart Show?
A: I was a senior director at MTV at the time; they would come to me with pilots, and I did quite a few of them. Eileen Katz, who was running comedy development, asked me to meet with Jon. She said, “You’re going to love him.” I had shot his stand-up before; I thought he was super funny.
So Jon talked to me about this late-night talk show. I said, “I’m in,” and we did a pilot. Then we started shooting it at the MTV studios two days a week. It was so much fun, and Jon became a very close friend. I learned so much about comedy from him. He taught me what’s funny, what’s not, what you should go for, what you shouldn’t.
Q: Then you heard about an option to work on Saturday Night Live and another to work for David Letterman. How did you make the choice?
A: I wanted to do more narrative. I loved shooting the single-camera comedy sketches, setting up funny locations, looking at sets, getting the actors to do what I needed. I felt like Saturday Night Live was that next step for me.
Q: Did you make any changes when you came on?
A: I definitely shot the music differently. We had a new, young cast doing sketches that were a little more pop culture — when we did an MTV parody, I would take the cameras and make them hand-held, because that’s the way the show was shot. It took a while for [executive producer] Lorne [Michaels] to like it and to get used to it.
Q: What was it like working with the casts?
A: I loved my casts. I was so lucky, working with incredibly talented and super-funny people, being able to mold ideas and performances and make things happen — so much fun.
The first time Will [Ferrell] and Cheri [Oteri] did the cheerleaders sketch, you knew it was magic. The first time I saw Molly [Shannon] do Mary Katherine Gallagher at the table read I was like, “This is the most interesting character I’ve seen in a long time.”
I was lucky enough to be there for More Cowbell [a sketch with Christopher Walken and Ferrell as a cowbell player]. I was there for a lot of iconic, unbelievable moments. Moments where I was laughing so hard I could barely call cameras.
Q: What do you recall about directing the first SNL episode following the 9/11 attacks?
A: I’ve said this many times, Reese Witherspoon is a frigging rock star because she got on a plane and she came and hosted the show. She didn’t bail on us. Lesser people would have. And the show was unbelievable.
That cold opening makes you realize that Lorne’s the master. Lorne had a vision of what he could do to pay tribute to everyone, and what he accomplished was that we told everybody, “We’re in this with you. We feel your pain. We feel the same way, and we want to try to give you a few minutes to not think about it.”
Q: How so?
A: By having Paul [Simon] sing “The Boxer” with all the firemen and policemen on stage along with the police commissioner, the fire commissioner, Lorne and [Mayor] Rudy Giuliani.
I had a moment right before dress rehearsal — we were way behind schedule, we had to rehearse with Paul Simon, and the audience was waiting to load in — it was insane. I was trying to make sure I could get everybody’s face in the shot, and then I had this moment where I couldn’t breathe. Looking at these guys who’d all lost friends and family — it was just devastating.
I went into the bathroom and sobbed for like four minutes. Took a deep breath, washed my face and went back out and did it. I loved how we opened the show. It was really meaningful and powerful, and I think it was the reason why we were allowed to do the show that season and that people felt okay about laughing.
Q: Let’s talk about some of your other work. You directed Janet Jackson’s halftime performance at the Super Bowl in 2004.
A: She’s an unbelievable artist. Justin Timberlake was doing a European tour and literally flew into Houston on Thursday, walked out on stage, rehearsed with us and then flew back to Los Angeles. His girlfriend at the time was having a birthday party for him that Saturday night. Then he flew back to Houston that Sunday afternoon — landed 45 minutes before the halftime show. It was crazy.
Q: And the wardrobe malfunction?
A: Janet, her wardrobe person and her choreographer had come up with this bit where Justin sings the last line [of “Rock Your Body”] — “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song” — and on “song” he was going to pull off this breakaway skirt. She’d have a unitard underneath, but he’d tear off the skirt, wide shot, pyro[technics], out.
On Thursday, when she was rehearsing, the skirt kept coming loose. So on Friday when we were at off-site rehearsals, Janet came to me and said, “I’m not sure if I’m going to wear that skirt, so I don’t know if we’re going to do that bit.” I said, “Well, I’m going to be on a head-to-toe shot for it. If you tell me you’re not going to do it, I can cut to something tighter. But if I don’t hear from you, I’ll be on a head-to-toe shot for that line.”
Q: How did it proceed?
A: Come Sunday, we hadn’t heard anything from her camp. We were doing the halftime show and we got to that part. I’m cutting cameras — not even looking at the camera that I just cut to — just looking at what I’m going to next. I’m about to cue pyro and I cut to the head-to-toe shot, getting ready for the next wide shot, when suddenly the whole back row gasps.
Apparently her wardrobe person came up with [the idea to have Timberlake rip her top instead of the skirt]; Justin literally rehearsed it once in her dressing room before they went on stage. One mistake was that he was supposed to pull it off on “song,” and he pulled it off on “end.” So [her nipple] was out for like two seconds instead of 15 frames. There was a red lace thing that I think was supposed to stay on
No matter what anybody believes, MTV [which produced the show for NFL broadcaster CBS] knew nothing about it. We knew about the tear-away skirt. We didn’t know anything about the other thing.
Q: What happened afterwards?
A: Janet was devastated. My stage manager was on the side of the stage, and Janet was sobbing. They put a blanket around her and she left. Immediately — literally within 30 seconds — the NFL was doing a press conference, chastising MTV and saying that we held them hostage. I was deposed by lawyers.
It changed the face of television. You can’t do anything without several-second delays anymore. I don’t think it was as huge a deal as everybody made it. If it weren’t for DVRs and YouTube, a lot of people wouldn’t have seen it. I didn’t see it, and I was directing it.
Q: You directed the live episodes of 30 Rock. How did technical considerations influence the writing?
A: I begged Robert [Carlock] and Tina [Fey] to keep the script short, because on a normal 30 Rock you’ve got anywhere from six to eight to 10 minutes out of the first cut. I was like, “We can’t do that live.” We had to make sure we could get somebody to the next set on time.
But these were intricate storylines that intertwined, and you couldn’t just cut part of it. [Fey and Carlock] came up with the great idea of Julia Louis-Dreyfus stepping in for a flashback sequence. Julia played “Flashback Tina” and was hilarious. She had a ball and was so happy to be there — she couldn’t have been more gracious and lovely. That gave Tina [as Liz Lemon] time to get back for the last scene with Alec Baldwin [as Jack Donaghy].
Tina’s the one who wrote that line when Jack says, “How come you look so good in your flashback?” And she’s like, “My flashback is Seinfeld money.”
Q: You directed The Sound of Music Live! which spawned a new wave of live theater on TV.
A: I was really happy with the way it turned out. I think what it said to everybody in broadcast television is that there’s not enough on television for a family to sit down and watch together. That’s one of the reasons it was such a huge hit. Everyone I talked to watched it. That’s why shows like The Voice do well, because everyone can watch. The 8 p.m. sitcoms today, you can’t watch with a young kid anymore.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring television director?
A: There are lots of ways to succeed. I didn’t come up through the ranks of DGA; I came from a completely different world.
Study the craft. See what you like and don’t like about other people’s work and think about what you would do. Take any work that you can get. And take advice and help from wherever you can. If you have a passion for it, you have to go for it.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2016