TV director has real 'Modern Family' in River Forest

Up for an Emmy, Gail Mancuso has part-time home here to be close to family

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By Megan Dooley

Staff Reporter

You've seen her work on Roseanne, on Friends, and more recently, on 30 Rock. She's done Scrubs, Rules of Engagement, Gilmore Girls, and Ellen. Her resume reads like a TV Guide listing. It seems there aren't many popular sitcoms from the past 20 years that she hasn't had a hand in.

So it's not news that Gail Mancuso has lately been hard at work directing the critically-acclaimed hit ABC comedy Modern Family. Or that she has just been nominated for an Emmy.

What's odd and surprising is that Mancuso lives, at least part of the time, in River Forest.

Mancuso isn't a River Forest native. She grew up just west of there in Melrose Park. Several years ago, Mancuso and her husband, Brian Downs, who works in Valencia as a physician but grew up in River Grove, decided they wanted to spend more time with their families near Chicago, and bought a house in River Forest. "We try to schedule chunks of time to be in River Forest," she said, though their careers are based in California.

At this moment, Mancuso is getting some celebrity-worthy attention for her nomination. She is one of five people nominated for an Emmy this year in the category of Outstanding Director for a Comedy Series.

"This is my first nomination," Mancuso said, in a phone interview from her primary home in Valencia, California. She's only submitted a handful of entries in the span of her career, but this episode stood out.

"This one felt right," she said.

Mancuso's referring to "Slow Down Your Neighbors," one of the Modern Family episodes that she directed, and the one that won her the nomination for an Emmy, a highly coveted award for primetime television. The awards show airs on Sept. 18.

"My entire family is just thrilled. We couldn't be happier for her," said her brother Gary, a Realtor at Remax in the Village and a full-time resident of River Forest. He said he knew from the start that Gail would go on to do great things with her life, and watched her excel in the television world from day one. "She just seemed like a natural, from her first job as an usher...And she just worked her way up through the ladder," he said. "I don't think we've seen the end of her success."

With 20 years, dozens of different shows, and hundreds of individual episodes under her directorial belt, Mancuso's a veteran of the television industry. Today, she's juggling her role as one of the directors for Modern Family with the rollout of another TV series she's directing called Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. It's based on the life of female comedienne and talk show host Chelsea Handler, and stars Laura Prepon, of That 70s Show fame.

The show is a bit edgy for NBC, Mancuso said. "But I think they're ready for some edge."

Mancuso didn't have too much of an edge back at the earliest stage of her television career, when she worked as an usher, seating audience members on TV talk show sets. But eventually, she found it. She went on to be a script supervisor, which is where she got her early exposure to directing.

"It's a really cool job," she said of being a script supervisor. "You really get an eye for how shows are shot, and how to talk to actors."

Not only that, but she was working directly with directors, and it wasn't long before she got a gig as associate director on a popular show. And then came her big break.

The show's main director had to go work on the pilot for another show, leaving an opening for a new director. Mancuso put her brave face on and approached the show's star. "I'd like to take that slot," Mancuso told her. "And she said, 'well go ahead.'"

The woman was Roseanne Barr, star of the long-running series Roseanne.

"That was my break," Mancuso said. "I was hired the next season as a full time director."

She credits Roseanne with that first big break, plus a combination of good luck and good timing. It was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which could only have happened at that moment in time. "We were all really young. We all hung out together," she said of the cast and crew. "We were just all really, really close. That situation rarely happens anymore, where a show's on the air for that long."

She's worked on far too many shows to name in the years since, most of them 30 minute sitcoms like Modern Family.

The show is shot documentary-style, which is part of what makes it unique and part of what garners so many laughs. At its core, the show features simple, everyday ideas that just about anyone can relate to. "There's a certain rawness to it that's wonderful," Mancuso said.

And as with Roseanne, the people are what make the experience extraordinary.

"The entire cast of Modern Family is so pleasant, so approachable," said Mancuso. And of course, funny. "You go to work, and you laugh all day when you're doing a comedy," she said.

Mancuso is not terribly hung up on the outcome of the Emmy's. She's proud to share the spotlight with two other Modern Family directors who are nominated in the same category.

And if she wins?

"I'm not even thinking about that at all," she said. Instead, she's focused on what this means for other women directors, and little girls with big dreams.

"I think this is one of the first years that three female directors have been in the same category, comedy, and I think that that's really a wonderful thing," Mancuso said. "I'm hoping that this shows young girls everywhere that there's an opportunity for them to pursue a directing career, or a writing career, or a career in television, because great things can happen. It's not just for men."

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