Among the pleasant surprises from this year’s Emmy nominations was widespread love for series like “Abbott Elementary,” “The Great” and “The White Lotus,” which held their own in categories full of favorites lauded heavily at the SAG Awards, guild awards and last year’s Emmys ceremony. Still, all of these shows were critical darlings that fans and industry insiders alike could have predicted would pick up at least a nod here or there.
The true tiny-but-mighty nominee this year is Mary Lou Belli, who made it into the comedy directing category for “Baby Daddy Groundhog Day,” Episode 5 of BET+’s “The Ms. Pat Show.” BET is hardly a regular player in the awards conversation, nor is its streamer that launched in 2019. No one was more shocked by the recognition for “The Ms. Pat Show” than Belli, who has devoted decades of her career to projects that have been criminally overlooked.
“I’m so pleased. It was my big return to sitcoms,” Belli tells Variety.
A quick look at Belli’s filmography reveals a clear trend. Belli, a white woman, has gotten many of her most prominent directing credits on shows like “Sister, Sister,” “Eve,” The Hughleys,” “Girlfriends” and “The Game” — beloved Black comedies.
“D.L. Hughley was a huge, huge advocate at the beginning of my career. We hit it off,” Belli says. “I still have pictures of his wife holding my first child! We’re friends to this day.”
Belli first met Hughley as he was beginning to make his transition from stand-up comedy to acting. At the time, she was working as an acting coach, and Hughley was preparing to audition for a Denzel Washington movie. And while he didn’t nab that role, he did end up leading his own sitcom, where he brought on Belli to direct four episodes.
“It’s the fact that I respected the environment,” Belli says when asked why she thinks she found such success working in Black television. “I didn’t ever presume that I knew more than I did. And I was always respectful when asking things I didn’t know.”
“And with D.L., for example, it was a two-way street,” she continues. “He didn’t know about acting. He was respectful when I would [critique] him. We never patronized each other. I was entering a space where I was the person who hadn’t been there before, and I felt accepted, and I gave that back.”
As time went on, Belli’s creative community became similar to those of figures like Norman Lear and Kelsey Grammer — white producers who became known for championing Black voices in comedy. But that process happened organically. For example, Belli credits “Girlfriends” creator and showrunner Mara Brock Akil with making her a better director on the 20 episodes of the show that she helmed, which only led to more work down the line.
“Part of a director’s job is getting that next job. And when you get asked back, you’re reaching across with trust on both sides,” she says. “And BET has always been kind to me.”
Belli’s first significant project at the network was “Reed Between the Lines,” of which she directed seven episodes. The series was led by Tracee Ellis Ross, who Belli had first worked with on “Girlfriends.” After that, there was “Second Generation Wayans” with Damien Dante and Craig Wayans.
Around 2016, Belli stepped away from that world for a bit to try her hand at some dramas, racking up credits on shows like “Dynasty,” “Station 19” and “NCIS: New Orleans.” But a meeting with Patricia “Ms. Pat” Williams brought her back home to sitcoms.
“This was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Belli says of the first scripts she read from “The Ms. Pat Show.” The series, based on “Rabbit – The Autobiography of Ms. Pat,” follows Williams, a Black woman who now lives in a suburban white neighborhood after a painful childhood selling crack cocaine while suffering sexual abuse.
“I read [“Rabbit”] while I was doing the first season. I could hardly come to work the next day, because after I finished it, I wept and couldn’t stop,” Belli says. “And you realize: humor has been her solace. It has become her way out of intolerable obstacles that most people would never heal from.”
BET+ renewed “The Mrs. Pat Show” for a second season almost immediately after Season 1 debuted. And earlier this month, one week before Emmy nominations and one month before the premiere of Season 2, the series was greenlit for Season 3.
Given the breadth of Belli’s work throughout the years, Primetime Emmy Awards recognition seems long overdue. But Belli doesn’t see it that way.
“I feel blessed that I get to play now in both spaces [of comedy and drama]. I get heartfelt stories, and I still get to blow shit up!” she says. “I guess I feel like I’ve got it all. I have to tell you — I’ve been around a long time, and not everybody gets that opportunity or chance. I am genuinely humbled.”