Mary Connelly ’83 has helped to create a daytime variety program that brings a new level of sparkle and spontaneity to the format.
“Terrifying”is hardly how one expects a TV producer to describe her most memorable moment working on a daytime TV show. But that is just how Mary Connelly ’83 characterizes her most memorable moment as executive producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Connelly explains that in December of her first year working with DeGeneres she proposed capturing the spirit of the holiday season by creating a snow effect on the set. DeGeneres concurred, and so artificial snow (actually soap flakes) floated down. The effect was wonderful —until DeGeneres slipped on the flakes, went head over heels, and landed flat on her back with the cameras still running.
That night, Connelly was feeling awful about the mishap when a bruised and sore DeGeneres called. DeGeneres made light of the accident and suggested airing a slow-motion instant replay of the fall. The next day she showed the replay, freezing the tape at exactly the point of no return. When the show’s featured guest asked “where does it hurt?” DeGeneres drew a circle around her entire body.
Connelly learned an invaluable lesson about responding to unscripted and unpredictable events that inevitably happen: spice them with a touch of self-deprecating humor and incorporate them into the show.
In 1984, Connelly began her entertainment career as an NBC page in New York City answering phones, escorting guests, giving studio tours, etc. Fifteen months later she took a receptionist position at Late Night With David Letterman and rose through the ranks there to become a segment producer in 1991. She then moved to Los Angeles where she worked on Mad About You, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn.
During this time Connelly earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, and so came to the attention of Ellen DeGeneres. When Connelly received a phone call in 2001 from the company developing DeGeneres’ new show offering her an executive producer position, she jumped at the opportunity.
The pair collaborated for a year refining DeGeneres’ original concept for the show. Because Connelly came to the show free of entrenched notions—“I had never watched daytime television before working with Ellen”— she was able to think outside the box to help DeGeneres create a daytime variety program that would transcend the conventional talk show and bring a new level of sparkle and spontaneity to the format.
How does Connelly characterize her relationship with DeGeneres? Personal, but focused on the task at hand: “We are friends, we talk about things, and we laugh a lot.” Connelly notes that her job is to help DeGeneres achieve her own vision for the show.
On all of her shows Connelley encourages everyone to work as a team to try and achieve the same goals. Each show has been different, but all have been rewarding. From David Letterman in particular, she learned how to discern the host’s strengths and use them to enrich the show for the viewers.
Connelly notes that the four executive producers of The Ellen DeGeneres Show set the tone for each show and oversee every aspect of its creation and execution, including recruitment of guests, set design, talent management, approval of scripts, budget, and personnel matters. “The buck stops with us,” says Connelly. Each producer brings his or her own strengths to the operation, but while they work as a ”council of equals,” DeGeneres has the final word. At the same time, Connelly and her colleagues must also report to officials from the studio.
A typical day begins with a production meeting during which the team reviews and refines the show to be taped that day. Next comes a rehearsal. The actual taping that follows is done “live to tape,” meaning that taping is done straight through without interruption. Generally a show airs the day after it is taped.
The shows are scripted to some extent, but Connelly and DeGeneres like to leave some room for spontaneity: “That is what I find most fun; we try to make things real and natural.” By the time of the taping, much of Connelly’s work is done, but she stays on the studio floor, conferring with DeGeneres during commercials.
Connelly has found her college major of psychology useful in her dealings with the strong personalities, high pressure, and breakneck pace that she has encountered in her Hollywood career.
“I had a great time at URI,” she remarks, noting that many of her closest friendships stem from her college years. Her most vivid memory is the Commencement speech given by former URI President Frank Newman, who urged graduates to always continue learning—“that was great advice!”
She had fun “down the line” too. She was delighted to learn that her favorite off-campus restaurants, including Aunt Carries, George’s of Galilee, and the Coast Guard House, are still operating.
Connelly lives with her partner, singer/songwriter Julie Silver and their daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Silver Connelly, in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Silver can be seen in the upcoming film Then She Found Me starring Helen Hunt and Bette Midler. The entire family tries to visit Rhode Island whenever possible.
By Alan AxelrodPhoto Courtesy of The Ellen Degeneres Show