But when the Melrose Park, Illinois, native landed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she had no intentions of a career in television. Her road to Hollywood began with a rather circuitous journey around a college parking lot in Chicago, during a blistering snowstorm; she was searching for her white Chevy Nova, buried somewhere beneath a mound of snow. With a Scarlett O’Hara–esque vow, Mancuso proclaimed she would never live another winter in the Midwest again.
“That was the reason I left Chicago,” Mancuso says with a laugh, “because I couldn’t find my Nova.”
Mancuso drove to Los Angeles with a couple of girlfriends. Within a few days after getting her first apartment in Northridge, she got her first job — a minimum-wage gig as an usher on the set of several shows — and set about completing her college work. After her first post-college job with a company that produced commercials, she went on to work as a script supervisor on the Showtime comedy Brothers, sitting in on rehearsals and spending long hours observing the directors at work — listening, but at the same time considering how she would do it.
She landed her big break behind the camera on another popular ABC comedy, Roseanne, where Mancuso eventually directed 51 episodes. She also directed episodes of nearly a dozen shows in the 1990s, including Ellen, Friends, and Dharma & Greg, as well as more recent sitcom favorites including Scrubs and 30 Rock.
Despite making it look easy, landing on hit show after hit show, Mancuso insists that “directing is a hard career to get into, and it’s even harder to create momentum. There is only one director per episode, and showrunners…”— the people who run the series and hire directors —“… turn to directors they’ve worked with before, and know will do the job well.”
While Mancuso’s back-to-back Emmys are indeed cause for celebration, she still sees a lot of room for industry improvement. Numerous stats bear that out. According to “Boxed-In 2015–16,” the latest study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women accounted for 12 percent of directors on broadcast television and only eight percent in cable and streaming TV in 2015, figures that have not improved in more than a decade.
On the phone a few weeks before this year’s Emmy Awards ceremony, Mancuso looked back on her groundbreaking career, while eyeing new opportunities that lie ahead for herself — and for burgeoning talent — in the evolving television landscape.
MEG WAITE CLAYTON: You rose from an on-set usher to directing episodes of Roseanne. How did that happen?
GAIL MANCUSO: After college, I worked for a production company that produced commercials. I did everything: the pre- and post-production, hiring the crew, script supervisor, assistant director. I learned a lot about editing. From there, I met an associate director who was working on Brothers, which had a script supervisor opening. By then, I had just had my first child. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go back to work so soon, but he said, “Look, this is an opportunity you’re not going to get again.” So I said, “I’ll take it, I’ll take it.”
The job of script supervisor is such an integral part of the director-actor relationship and the director-cinematographer relationship. You’re right there, listening to the director as he — in those days it was mostly “he” — is giving directions to the actors and composing his shots. In that job, I met [director/producer] John Pasquin, who was doing this new show called Roseanne. He wanted to bring me along as associate director, the next step up. You’re at rehearsals every day, working as liaison between the director and the camera crew. That’s where I got a good education on how to shoot a show, take it through editing, and put the show together. I learned from the best.
I did that for a few years. Then when the director left Roseanne for a new show, I asked Roseanne Barr for the opportunity to direct.
You asked her directly? How did you work up the nerve?
I just went up to Roseanne after rehearsal one day and said, “John has to leave to do a pilot, and there’s a slot opening up. I would like to direct that episode.” She said, “Well, go ahead.”
I credit Roseanne with the start of my directing career. Even at that early stage, she believed in me and knew I could do it. It’s so important to have that, someone who believes you can do it. Then after she gave me the okay, I thought, I’d better go tell the producers I just did that!
You hadn’t run it by anyone first?
I went to Roseanne — to the tippy top, and it was great. Even at that time, the showrunners and everyone were very supportive, including the crew.
It was a wonderful episode, called “Becky Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” It was one of the first shows written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who went on to create Gilmore Girls, and her writing partner at the time, Jennifer Heath.
Even though Roseanne gave you your first opportunity to direct, you mentioned that most of the directors at that time were men. Have your mentors been mostly men?
Most of the mentoring came when I was a script supervisor and associate director, and was basically watching how the directors worked their set. That’s how I would gather information, thinking how I might do it the same or differently, how I might augment what they were doing in ways that would better suit me.
And now you have two Emmys for Modern Family.
Yes! Very happy about that. [Laughs.]
You put yourself up for consideration. How difficult was that?
I’d been directing for many years, but had never done a submission. Maybe I grew up, maybe that’s why I could submit. It wasn’t the work itself before that. It was me. I didn’t think I belonged at the table.
I used to be kind of intimidated by submitting, but now I really enjoy it. It’s hard to submit. It’s a challenge. I take it very seriously. I’m so proud of the episodes, so proud of the work I do.
In the three years you were nominated, you’d directed multiple episodes for various series, so you had a lot of episodes from which to choose. How do you select which episodes to submit?
Sometimes it’s evident even when you’re shooting, and the “Las Vegas” episode of Modern Family — that won the second Emmy — was just a no-brainer.
That’s the episode where the family is all in one hotel with adjoining rooms and comedy ensues. It’s a real old-fashioned farce that was applauded by critics and audiences alike.
It had all the bells and whistles. You know when you’re doing it, it just feels special. The way the dialogue runs off the actors’ lips. The way the scenes are cutting together. Just the flow of it. The electricity. You can feel it even when you’re filming it. You look for something that was a challenge to direct, a challenging episode and a good outcome, good feedback.
For my genre, comedy, the most important thing is that it’s funny. It should be funny! I look for funny that also has heart. Something that resonates with the audience. Like The Andy Griffith Show. Something that gives you pause, makes you smile, warms your heart.
What was it like going on stage and getting your first Emmy?
The first time was very exciting. There is nothing like it. It’s such an exciting slice of your life. I was with my husband [physician Brian Downs] and I’d bought tickets for my sons, JR and Jeremy, and JR’s fiancée, Michelle.
They tease the category right before the commercial break, so you get all nervous for that. Then you feel the cameraperson coming up right next to you when they’re announcing the nominees. I know most of those guys because I’ve worked with everybody so I was like, “Don’t shoot me too low. Don’t get below the chin.” I was even directing the Emmys from my seat. I couldn’t help myself. [Laughs.]
And then the name comes — what? — and you just try to get through it as fast as possible.
Do you prepare acceptance speeches?
I do an outline in case I have an opportunity so I’ll have something to say. I feel for people up there now, after going through it. You really don’t have time and you want to think of something slightly clever because it is on national television.
The first time they played me off, so I didn’t have time to thank all the people I wanted to get to — but I did get in my eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Bright, [“for teaching me self-confidence,”] and my parents [“for letting me watch all the Hitchcock I ever wanted”].
And the second speech was really funny. Was that prepared?
The second Emmy was even better because I never would have thought I would win twice in a row. That was crazy. I knew I was too emotional to connect with my cast. Matthew McConaughey was across the aisle from them, and believe it or not it was much easier to talk to him. He was gracious enough to engage with me.
Where do you keep your Emmys?
Right now they are in the bottom of the closet. Don’t write that because I was on vacation! They are wrapped in some sheets because I’m so worried. They are so big. They don’t fit in the safe deposit box, and you know if you lose them, I don’t think you can get them back! [Laughs.]
They are usually in our bookcase, nicely lit. They’re so pretty. I am so honored to have them, so thankful. It feels like such an accomplishment. I’m not shy about it. Really, I am just so happy about them.
That’s the glamorous part of the job …
[Laughs.] Yes, when you go to those events, it’s as glamorous as you think. But when it comes right down to it, it’s a hard job: a working director is always in a state of pre-production, production, or post-production. I’m often working on three episodes at the same time: I’m prepping something and then I’m hopping over to edit something I’ve already shot, or I’m actually in production, shooting. You’re always either researching for an episode or looking at cuts.
It’s minimum 12-hour days during the week, and I work on Saturdays and Sundays, too. It’s a hard, hard job, but it’s a great job. For me to be able to do what I love is the best, and that’s what I’m doing. I have fun. I go to work and I laugh every day. Really. You just laugh all day. It’s just the best thing.
So what do you have coming up this season?
I’m doing episodes of Black-ish, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and a new show called Great News, produced for NBC by Tina Fey. And of course I am doing more episodes of Modern Family.
Do you ever think about doing drama?
I do, and then I shudder at the thought! [Laughs.] I’ve done things that are a little more dramatic. That’s a whole other area of challenge. But there has to be a little bit of comedy in it for me. That’s my wheelhouse.
Any thoughts about stepping outside of television?
I’m doing feature film meetings and I’m reading a lot of screenplays. You have to be really careful choosing your feature directorial debut. It’s a very unforgiving world if you don’t get out there and have the first one be successful. I’m reading both indie film and commercial features. If I don’t find something that speaks to me or I can’t write something, I’m not just going to do a movie to do a movie. I want to do something I’m proud of, that I can sink my teeth into and have fun doing. I feel confident there will be something there soon.
I’m also very excited for TV. I’m developing a couple different projects, whether they end up on broadcast or cable television or Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or YouTube Red [YouTube’s new subscription service], it’s a very exciting time for TV, and a very exciting time for new directors coming up because there is so much content needed. The time is right for any talented director — male, female, transgender; black, white, Latino — to get their material seen on one of these many new mediums. I really do think it is the best time to get into television. I’m feeling very optimistic that the numbers are going to go up for female and minority directors.
You really think so?
I really do. I’ve personally cut back on my number of episodes to direct this season for two reasons. It makes openings available for other people to direct, and hopefully new people to direct, which I have seen happen on a show I direct a lot. It also gives me time to think about other shows I want to get on the air, and more time to work on projects I’m developing.
We need to leave room for others to get their breaks. It’s up to the executives as well as the current working directors to try to raise new people up and make room for others to get directing shots. If we raise each other up, that can happen.
Meg Waite Clayton is the New York Times best-selling author of five novels, most recently The Race for Paris.