Kindred Spirits: Shaina Feinberg in Conversation with Joan Darling

Filmmaker Feinberg talks with actor-writer-director Darling, a pioneering force behind the camera in both TV and film.

Joan Darling, who just turned 87, is an actress, director and teacher. She was the first woman to be nominated for an Emmy in directing; she directed episodes of Rhoda, Taxi, M*A*S*H and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, to name just a few. She is perhaps most famous for directing “Chuckles Bites the Dust” for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It is still considered one of the best episodes of television to have ever been made. Joan and I met while we were both visiting faculty at Vermont College of Fine Art, and instantly loved each other. We speak often about filmmaking and life in general. Below is an excerpt of a recent conversation.

Joan Darling and Shaina Feinberg chatting on Zoom.

Feinberg: Joan, how would you introduce yourself?

Darling: “Hi, I’m Joan …? Joan Darling …?” Hear the question marks?

Feinberg: Haha! But would you say you’re an actor or a director or both … or …?

Darling: Well, both. You know, some pieces I want to act and some pieces I want to direct. I’m two different people. As an actress, I’m like every other actress, I’m like, “She got a bigger dressing room than me? Even though I have a bigger resume!” But as a director, I’m relatively sane. Once when I came back home after an acting gig, my husband said to me, “When is the director coming back?”

Feinberg: Is the director easier to live with?

Darling: Oh yeah, the director is somewhat sane. The actor is mad as a hatter.

Feinberg: When did you start acting?

Darling: I started acting when I was three years old, when my father asked me to explain to his business partners how to make scrambled eggs. And I went, “Oh! OK, first you take the egg and then you have a bowl …” I had so much fun doing that, my fate was sealed. What was the first thing I performed? Teaching somebody something! And I’m still doing that!

Joan in Arsenic and Old Lace. She asks, “What’s wrong with a little poison in your wine?”

Feinberg: So you acted before you became a director?

Darling: Oh, way before. I had no ambition to be a director. I paid no attention to it. All I wanted was to be an actress. I did a lot of acting in high school. And I loved it, loved it, loved it. There was something so compelling to me about acting. I think why I ended up a good teacher is because I really threw myself down to get every piece of information possible about how you do it well. I was endlessly working to understand how to do it well. I know the emotionality of an actress is sometimes just silly. And the vanity. And the desire to be the one, the best one. But I know not to suppress those things when I’m acting. Because it’s that automatic response that comes to you, unfiltered by a sense of appropriateness, that allows you to do the best work as an actor. Where you surprise yourself and do things you’d never thought of. By the way, I call myself an actress, not an actor. It’s a feminist protest. If we’re going to choose one word, one name — actor or actress — why not choose actress? I’m on a crusade on that one.

Feinberg: I love that. I have never thought about that. I always say actor for everyone. OK, so after you acted in high school, what happened?

Darling: I went to Carnegie Tech — now Carnegie Melon. That was the best conservatory acting school in the country. And then after my junior year, I went to New York and started looking for Shakespeare work. Then I realized, “This is as dumb as wanting to be a blacksmith in New York City.” There’s not a lot of Shakespeare work in New York City. Then a friend of mine taught me how to go out for commercials so I could support myself, and then I just was like every actress struggling to get a job, coming in second for a lot of Broadway stuff, getting understudy things.

“Where did all the time go?” asks Joan of herself in a pink polka-dotted swimsuit.

Feinberg: How did you not give up?

Darling: Oh, there was no way I wasn’t going to do it. I just couldn’t figure out how you got from here to there. But I wasn’t going to give up. And then I read for an improvisational theater, and I got into that. That was a huge hit in New York. It was called the Premise Players. It was George Segal, Gene Hackman. I was the only woman in it. It ran for four years. And then after I finished that, I went to California. I went to California and I couldn’t get an audition. I couldn’t get a job at first. I couldn’t. So I came home and went to live on Cape Cod.

Feinberg: You had so much perseverance!

Darling: Yes! Eventually I made it back to L.A. and I got cast in this series. And when I got to the set, the director was this kid in a cowboy hat. And it was Steven Spielberg.

Feinberg: Oh my goodness!

Darling: And I watched him and listened to him and went, “Oh, my God, this guy really can direct!”

Feinberg: Ha!

Darling: Now, coming back to the directing thing. God did not want me to be an actress. God planned for me to be a director. And I say that because all of these things I acted in kind of got lost. So I couldn’t use them to get more work. I did a play in New York, and I was really good in this play. We’re in a big theater building in the West Side. Every floor has a theater or two. Well, our theater was on the fourth floor and a week before we opened the show, the elevator broke. So no critics came.

Joan hanging out (left), and enjoying a giant margarita (right).

Feinberg: Ha!

Darling: They wouldn’t walk up the stairs!

Feinberg: Oh my goodness!

Darling: And these things just kept happening. I kept giving the performance that should have broken me through and then weird things would happen. So I went to see Norman Lear — I’d met him socially — because I wanted to do a 90-minute movie starring me on the life of Golda Meir. I go and pitch this idea to him. I tell him the whole story. And he said, “That’s very interesting.” He said, “I want you to tell that to somebody else.” And he called in his second-in-command and I went through the whole thing again. And then Norman turned to this guy and said, “I think she’s the one.” And Norman turns to me and says, “How would you like to be a director?” I said, “Well, I’m not a director.” He said, “Well, I think that’s what you really are.”

Feinberg: Wow!

Mary Tyler Moore in the legendary “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, directed by Joan Darling.

Darling: Well, long story short, Norman gave me complete control of this project called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I didn’t know anything about cameras, but eventually Norman had me shooting it and editing it. He said, “I want you to edit it by yourself. That’s when you’re going to learn how to be a director.” So I did!

Feinberg: You did it all!

Darling: Yes! And I don’t know if you know anything about that show, but it became this incredible phenomenon. It was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Time and Newsweek. My agent showed it to some folks and they called and offered me a whole season directing. And my first thought was, “Oh, this is great, I can earn a living.” And then the second thought was, “Well, I’m not a director.” And then I said to myself — and this is probably the thing I’m most proud of — I said to myself, “You know what? There isn’t a woman getting up every day and going to work as a director. And so people don’t understand how great it would be for a woman to lead a crew or do any of those things.” And I knew I could do all of that! I decided to do it for one year, just to establish the idea that a woman can be a director. So I did. But I didn’t just do it for one year.

Feinberg: Wait. Joan I want to ask you about “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” It’s one of the most famous episodes of TV ever, ever. From The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Can you talk to me about that?

Darling: Well, so I was originally supposed to direct an episode with a wedding. Because I was a woman director, of course. But I found out about the script for “Chuckles” and I said, “Oh my God, I would love to direct that. Because I find death really funny.” And the producer laughed. So anyway, they always used to send the script to you a week before you were to direct. And when I got my script, it was the “Chuckles” episode! The director who was supposed to direct it didn’t think it was in good taste, so I got it!

Feinberg: Kismet!

Joan Darling riding horses in Peaceful Valley, Colorado.

Darling: Yes! So we started rehearsing the episode on a Monday. On that Wednesday, all of a sudden, in the middle of rehearsal, Mary [Tyler Moore] stopped and said, “Should we be doing this? I mean, is this in bad taste?” And I immediately said, “Look, let me tell you how I feel about it. I think there are millions of us who, when we were in high school and the soprano came to perform, we laughed, or we laughed in church, or at somebody’s wedding or something where we weren’t supposed to laugh. And then we felt bad about ourselves.” I said to Mary, “I think if Mary Richards [Mary Tyler Moore’s character in the show] does that, it would make all of those people who feel bad about themselves feel better.” And Mary stared at me and then went, “Let’s go to work now.” She had the power to shut that down. That was her company.

Feinberg: Yeah.

Darling: But she didn’t. And the other thing was, I knew we shouldn’t rehearse the funeral scene. I knew we should just mark it in rehearsals, but that we should wait to do it when the cameras were rolling. I knew that when we were filming it, if the actors laughed by the third line of the show, they were never going to stop laughing. So I stood on the set, and up came the line where they should laugh. They laughed! I knew in my soul how good that show was.

Feinberg: Let me ask you, Joan, how did you get over imposter syndrome?

Darling: I never felt like an imposter! I’ve always felt like, if I knew what the story should be, then I’d be fine. I never felt like an imposter, but I felt scared. I remember I pulled my car over to the side of the road when we were rehearsing that show and said to myself, “You survived your childhood. You can survive this.” But once a story’s in front of me, I’m just fearless.

Joan Darling in her solo show Joni vs the Bard: The Shakespeare Smackdown.

Feinberg: I want to ask, if you had one piece of advice for someone who was looking to direct, what would it be?

Darling: If you’re going to be a director, you need to know what it is you want the audience to understand. You need to settle on what it is you want the audience to understand from the piece of work. And what I say at Sundance Labs is you have to understand that your ethics are to your story. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter whether you’re frightened, doesn’t matter whether you’re angry, doesn’t matter whether people are stupid around you.

Feinberg: Great!

Darling: So that would be my advice. But also, I would say to somebody who wants to be a director to take a good acting class, because you can’t get a performance from someone if you know nothing about acting.

Feinberg: Oh, interesting. I wish you had a book of all of your advice and your stories. Joan, have you ever thought of doing one of those Master Classes? As the Master, of course …

Darling: I have no connection to those people who put them on.

Feinberg: Well, let’s find out who they are! Joan, thank you for speaking with me today!

Darling: Oh, I loved it. From the minute we met, and especially because I immediately looked at your work, I went, “Hello. I know you.”

Feinberg: Yeah, well, we’re kindred spirits.

Darling: Very much so. Very much so. One of the things you and I really connect on is that we’re mischievous. We like jokes. We like turning things on their head.

Feinberg: Yes! We do.

Shaina Feinberg is a filmmaker from New York City who specializes in micro-budget filmmaking. Her first film, The Babymooners, blends documentary and narrative fiction and was picked up for distribution by Screen Media. Her digital series, Dinette, which follows a group of female and gender nonconforming friends, was produced by BRIC Arts Media. Its first season premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 and its second season is available now. Shaina’s short film, Shiva, a hybrid of improvised comedy and real-life grief, premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and her follow-up, the 60-minute film Senior Escort Service, won the 2019 Visionary Award at Cinequest Film Festival and is distributed by Random Media. Her third feature, Blunderpuss, is about a clown who goes on an apology tour after a brief stint in rehab. In 2019, Shaina was named by Indiewire as one of 25 queer filmmakers to watch. She co-wrote and directed Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, an original series for Audible, and directed a second original series for Audible, Phreaks, which stars Christian Slater, Carrie Coon and Justice Smith. Her biweekly column in The New York Times, “Scratch,” is an illustrated look at the world of business. Her first book, Every Body, came out in January 2021 from Little, Brown.