From South Hill to Sesame Street

For Scott Preston ’80, success is all about relationships. 

By Scott Livingston Beemer

Losing his job might have been the best thing to happen to Scott Preston’s career. “I got into HBO right out of college,” he recalls. Ten years later he was invited to work on a new show for HBO’s fledgling comedy channel, which would later become Comedy Central after merging with a rival channel.

“I was very nervous,” he admits. “I’d never done a TV show before. They said, ‘Don’t worry, none of us have either.’”

After 26 episodes, the show wasn’t picked up, and Scott was told, after 10 years with HBO, that they no longer had a job for him. Then, serendipity struck. “A month later, they hired me as a freelancer for more money than I was making on staff.”

Although he was working primarily as a producer at the time, Scott wasn’t sure it was the best fit for him.

“I was just doing a bunch of stuff, not really sure where I wanted to end up,” he says. “I was 30 at the time, so I was probably a little old to still be confused in that sense.”

He landed his first TV directing gig, a children’s variety show called Weinerville, after getting a call from a former colleague who had become an executive at Nickelodeon.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not a director,’” Scott remembers. “I was so scared I barely knew which seat to sit in in the control room, but I figured it out and thought it was pretty cool. I enjoyed it so much more than producing. As director, I can work closely with a producer and make something great, and at the end of the day I can walk home.”

Since then, Scott has directed many shows for children and for adults, everything from educational programming to reality TV — The Chris Rock Show, Da Ali G Show with Sacha Cohen, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, The Montel Williams Show, The Emeril Lagasse Show, to name a few. Working as a freelancer has given him the flexibility to choose his projects and set his own schedule — up to a point.

“The funny thing about freelancing is that you either have no work at all and don’t know where your next job is coming from — and you feel like you’re never going to work again — or you’re trying to do four things at once. But it’s fulfilling because every day is different.”

In 2010, Scott won his second Daytime Emmy Award in the category of outstanding direction in a children’s series for his work with Sesame Street.

“I’m one of seven directors,” Scott explains. “When the show gets nominated for the Emmy, it’s one particular episode that gets submitted, but the entire team gets the Emmy.”

Between Sesame Street’s child performers, muppets and muppeteers, and all the necessary puppetry and recording equipment, a great deal of effort goes into directing every single shot.

“We do it a little bit at a time because we have to move so many pieces around — more than what you’re seeing,” Scott says. “It’s a great challenge. It’s also really fun. I walk out of that studio, and my jaw hurts from laughing.”

In addition to entertaining and educating the preschoolers that make up its core demographic, the show also aims to keep parents interested. “That’s the big mission,” Scott says, “because we feel that kids learn so much more when their parents are engaged in what they’re watching.”

For Scott, who used to watch the early seasons of Sesame Street as a child, the show has stayed true to its roots, and that — plus the incredible talents of the performers — helps make the magic of the show so convincing. When young children walk onto the set to meet Elmo, Scott says, both the puppet and the performer, Kevin Clash, are in clear view.

“Kevin is this big, kind of imposing figure in a way, with his deep, baritone, strong voice. When he goes into the character, a kid will just sit there looking at the puppet the whole time — doesn’t see Kevin at all.” Scott even finds himself doing the same thing: “I’ll walk up to the puppeteers to give them directions, and they’ve got the puppets in their hands up in the air, and they’re standing right in front of me, and I’m talking to and looking at the puppets. And the puppet’s talking back to me — sometimes with some rather colorful language,” he laughs. “I barely talk to the actor. The illusion is complete.”

In addition to Sesame Street, which shoots for two months out of the year, Scott has worked on many other shows in the past few years and has built an extensive résumé of different projects during his years as a freelance director. One of his most notable projects was directing The Daily Show (now known as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), which he worked on from 1997 to 2000. In December 1998, the show’s original host, Craig Kilborn, left in order to host The Late Late Show on CBS. In January 1999, Jon Stewart took over as host.

“Craig was the perfect pretty-boy anchor parody,” Scott recalls. “When they decided to bring in Jon, we were concerned because Jon doesn’t look or seem like a newsman. How could he be a parody of an anchorman? But Jon came in and turned it into something different, something quite phenomenal.”

With Jon Stewart as host, The Daily Show began to move in a new direction. By the time Scott left the show in 2000, Stewart had developed a strong rapport with the cast and crew. Stewart’s Daily Show also displayed a sharper focus on politics and current events, which would enter the national spotlight at the end of that year with the show’s acclaimed coverage of the 2000 presidential election and its aftermath.

“He’s also the sweetest guy in the world,” Scott says of Stewart. “First thing he said to me was, ‘Give me the names of all the crew guys.’”

Ultimately, says Scott, that kind of attitude is the key to success.

“It’s all about relationships,” he says. “Work with really good people, treat them decently, and give them encouragement and respect, and it shows on the screen.”

With that principle driving his work, Scott finally created his own company five years ago: Preston TV, based in New York City.