"Be honest to yourself and always take stands. Don't be afraid to say what you think. You're not always going to win, but don't give up on a point just because somebody says you're wrong."
About This Interview
Jay Sandrich describes his philosophy for directing as "..move the cameras, don't ever move the actors. Make a scene work, then worry about how you're gonna shoot it." Sandrich is an Emmy-award winning director of such iconic television shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Soap and The Cosby Show. In his five-hour Archive interview, he talks at length about his earliest professional experiences, working as a Second Assistant Director and later First Assistant Director at Desilu on programs including I Love Lucy for much of its latter years and witnessing the tumultuous off-screen chemistry of its main stars. He acknowledges that his first lucky break was nepotism- being hired by Desilu because Lucille Ball remembered working with his father (Director, Mark Sandrich). He also speaks about working with director/producer Sheldon Leonard on programs including The Danny Thomas Show and The Andy Griffith Show, where his experience working with comic actor Don Knotts inspired him to make sure "laughs came out of the humanity of the character," rather than a laugh track. Next, he describes his experiences working with producer Leonard Stern on the sitcom Get Smart and his decision to leave that show after realizing he just didn't like producing as much as directing. He recalls teaming up again with Stern on He & She, where he learned the value of collaborative work between a director and writer: "I learned that sometimes you can bring writers in instead of shutting them out like some directors want and things work so much better. I can say as a director 'this scene isn't working' but I can't fix it. I don't have that ability to write the words." Mr. Sandrich details his long-term position as director of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a break he calls "the luckiest day in my career" and chronicles his directing style and philosophy, as well as the evolving role the women's liberation movement played on the show. He talks about the "disaster run-through" of the show's first episode, the clashes with writer/producer James Brooks on-set and the challenges of working with actors from very different backgrounds. He talks about the role of the director on a comedy series and some classic episodes like "Toulouse-Lautrec is one of my Favorite Artists," "Lou Dates Mary" and "The Last Show." Sandrich praises the managerial style of executive Grant Tinker and explains how MTM Enterprises came to be formed. Sandrich discusses working on Phyllis, and The Bob Newhart Show. He stresses the importance of casting for any director. He talks about his experiences on the program Soap, which dealt with non-traditional storylines, remarking on that show's controversies "it was like the whole American society was gonna crumble if this show came on the air." Regarding how he chooses a project he says, "with me, it's, do I like the script? Does it make me laugh?" Discussing directing, he says finding a good writer is key: "Now it's up to us to just make it better and not lose what the writer really put there." He discusses at length his work as the director of the popular 1980s-era sitcom The Cosby Show. He talks in detail about how that show was cast and its origin as being about the "war between parents and kids" as conceived by comedian Bill Cosby. He talks about his role in casting Betty White and Rue McClanahan in The Golden Girls. He touches on the changes in the role of a director on television and his belief that the key to good television "is to hire creative people who can write and direct" and then let them do their job without interference. He talks about being proud to have worked in a field where the comedy he helped create often got people through tough times and tough issues. Sandrich says the best advice he ever got about directing came from an actor, Dick Benjamin: that a director needs to know where a line came from, and what was behind it. "Emotion," he says, "is a very strong word in my vocabulary as a director." Karen Herman conducted the interview in Los Angeles, CA on December 4, 2001.
The career of Jay Sandrich, a leading director of American situation comedies, covers much of the first few decades of the sitcom. His programs have been characterized by wit, a supportive working environment, and care for his actors.
The son of film director Mark Sandrich, Jay Sandrich began his television work in the mid-1950s as a second assistant director with Desilu Productions, learning to direct television on I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, and December Bride. Later he worked on both The Danny Thomas Show and the Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1965, Sandrich put in his only stint as a producer, serving as associate producer for the first season of the innovative comedy Get Smart. He enjoyed the experience but vowed to stick to directing in future. He told Andy Meisler of Channels magazine, "I really didn't like producing. I liked being on the stage. I found that, as a producer, I'd stay up until four in the morning worrying about everything. As a director, I slept at night."
In 1971, he signed on as regular director for the relationship-oriented, subtly feminist Mary Tyler Moore Show, beginning a long-term partnership with the then fledgling MTM Productions. Directing two thirds of the episodes in the program's first few seasons, he won his first Emmys and worked on the pilot for the program's spin-off, Phyllis. In an interview for this encyclopedia, he spoke glowingly of the MTM experience: "[MTM chief] Grant [Tinker] created this wonderful atmosphere of being able to have a lot of fun at your work--plus you were working next door to people who were interesting and bright. And there was this feeling of sharing talent...."
Sandrich went on to work as a regular director on the satirical Soap and eventually created another niche for himself as the director of choice for The Cosby Show from 1985 to 1991. Meisler's article painted an appealing portrait of the director's relationship with the star and with other Cosby production personnel, quoting co-executive producer Tom Werner on the show's dynamics: "Although we're really all here to service Bill Cosby's vision, the show is stronger because Jay challenges Bill and pushes him when appropriate." Sandrich was proud of the program's pioneering portrayal of an upper-class Black family, and of its civilized view of parent-child relations.
During and following Cosby's run, Sandrich directed pilots and episodes for a number of successful programs, including The Golden Girls, Benson, Night Court, and Love and War.
Although he ventured briefly into the field of feature films, directing Seems Like Old Times in 1980, Sandrich decided quickly that he preferred to remain in television. "The pace is much more interesting," he explained. "In features you sit around so much of the time while lighting is going on, and then you make the picture, and you sit around for another year developing projects. I like to work. I like the immediacy of television." Asked whether there was a Jay Sandrich type of program, Sandrich ruminated, "I don't know if there is, but I like more human-condition shows, not really wild and farcy, although Soap gave me really a bit of everything to do.... Basically, I like men-women shows.... I go more for shows that have more love than anger in them." Certainly most of his programs have lived up to this inclination.
For many of his colleagues, Sandrich has defined the successful situation-comedy director. "I think it was Jay who first made an art form of three-camera film," said producer Allan Burns (quoted in Meisler), referring to the shooting technique most often used for sitcoms. Although he was modest about his own accomplishments, and quick to note that good writing is the starting point for any television program, Sandrich asserted that he cherishes his role as director in a medium often viewed as the domain of the producer.
"If there's a regular director every week," he stated, "[television] should be a major collaboration between the director and the producer--if the director's any good--because he is the one who sets the style and the tone of the show. He works with the actors. And a good director, whether he is rewriting or not, he is always making suggestions ... and in many cases knows the script a little bit better than the producer because he's been seeing each scene rehearsed and understands why certain things work and why they don't.... So when it's a regular director on a series, I think it's not a producer's medium. It is the creative team [that shapes a series]."
In his early 60s at this writing, Sandrich still worked frequently but denied that he was any longer the king of pilots for American comedies. "I think Jimmy Burrows is the king," he said of his former protégé. "He's gotten so many shows on the air. No, I think I'm the dowager queen or something by now."
-Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat
Kuney, Jack. Take One: Television Directors on Directing. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
Meisler, Andy. "Jay Sandrich: Ace of Pilots." Channels (New York), October 1986.
Ravage, John W. Television: The Director's Viewpoint. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1978.
JAY SANDRICH. Born in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A., 24 February 1932. Educated at University of California Los Angeles, B.A. 1953. Married 1) Nina Kramer, 1953 (divorced, 1974); two sons and one daughter; 2) Linda Green, 1984. Started career as second assistant director, I Love Lucy, Desilu Productions, 1955; then first assistant director, I Love Lucy and The Danny Thomas Show; director, MTM Productions, from 1971; currently director, primarily for television. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1971, 1973, 1985, and 1986; DGA Awards, 1975, 1984, 1985, and 1986.
TELEVISION SERIES (selection)
1965-70 Get Smart (producer) 1967-70 He and She 1970-77 The Mary Tyler Moore Show 1972-78 The Bob Newhart Show 1975-77 Phyllis 1976-78 The Tony Randall Show 1977-79 Soap 1977-79 Benson 1984-92 The Cosby Show 1985-92 Golden Girls 1988-95 Empty Nest 1992-95 Love and War (pilot only) 1993-94 Thea 1994 The Office 1995-96 The Jeff Foxworthy Show 1996 London Suites
Seems Like Old Times, 1980; For Richer, For Poorer, 1992.