|« Yellowman: Exploring Color and Class||Chicago International Film Festival previews, The Ides of March, Real Steel, Puncture, The Way, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil & The Human Centipede 2 »|
Feature Thu Oct 06 2011
Elizabeth McQuern producing at Chicago Underground Comedy. Photo Credit: Tripp Watson
When I was given the opportunity to write about women in Chicago comedy, I knew exactly whom I wanted to feature. These five women were my first choice, not because they are better or more deserving than any other women in comedy, but because each of them has had a significant impact, in some way, on my own experience. Some of them are performers, some producers, some teachers, but they are all equally important, to me and to comedy as a whole. This is my homage to them.
Elizabeth McQuern was one of the first people I met after moving to Chicago. If not for her, I wouldn't have met most of the people that I did the first year I was here. She co-produces Chicago Underground Comedy, one of the longest running and most popular stand-up showcases in Chicago and freelances as a video editor, among other things. As a producer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, she is one of many unsung heroes of Chicago Comedy.
Will you talk about what your role in Chicago comedy is?
I'm going to pull a John F. Kennedy on you right now and tell you what this show [Chicago Underground Comedy] has done for me. This is all coming full circle right now. When I started doing this show four years ago with Dan [Telfer], I was a freelance writer. I was struggling with it and having a really hard time and not understanding why I wasn't really liking it. Long story short, this show has led to me having a career that I absolutely love.
There's no way I would have even started doing video editing except that Dan was like, "Hey do you want to be in charge of the camera?" and I was like, "OK." At first, we had to deal with Rooftop Comedy; I would just record the show and send it to them. Then people started asking for their clips and I realized that editing is really fun. The nice thing is, I'm in a position to just give to people. People want clips and help with editing, and if I have time I'll help people edit or whatever. I love that, because it's like, maybe they wouldn't be able to do that otherwise.
Pay it forward.
How would you be defined in comedy, if you had to be defined?
I guess producer/filmmaker, technically. But I also do photography. And directing and editing. The thing is, there aren't very many people who do what I do, and also, I can't do what I do without other people. Do you know how many years I thought about doing stuff like this, and lived in my little town and had no idea that, "Oh, you have to have a crowd of people around you, you have to have a peer group and have people who you bounce stuff off of and inspire each other, and all of that stuff!" I don't know what it's like in other cities, but this is such an awesome city and group of people.
Who/what inspired you to pursue comedy?
Well, when I was younger, the first stand-ups I saw who actually made me think, "Hmm, maybe this is something I might like to do," were Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho. They were two of the first young female comics who achieved national prominence (enough that I saw them on TV and in magazines, at least -- this was before the internet, kids), and it was clear they were speaking from their own unique viewpoint, talking about things they really cared about, and telling jokes that could only possibly come from their own mouths. There was nothing generic or predictable about them. They had their perspective and their identity firmly forged, and I thought that was pretty awesome.
Shortly thereafter, I was made aware of Maria Bamford, who also shares those traits, and who is just plain incredible. She's such a fantastic example of someone who probably has to do comedy for her life to make any sense. Why else would she have so many ticks and quirks and such an amazing way of seeing the world? What else could you do with that? Prime example -- her "The World Explained" bit, where she goes around the world describing various regions of the world in terms of the American stereotypes of what goes on there and what the people are like. (You sort of have to see it to understand it, but it's so great!) If she didn't have a mic in front of her mouth and an audience at her feet, what the hell else would she do with stuff like that running around in her head? She'd be the world's most miserable accountant or something.
What's different about why you moved to Chicago vs. what you're doing now?
Well, I had vague ideas of what I wanted to do when I got here, I had no idea the route things would take. I have always loved stand-up, like most people who are involved in it. Probably when I was 16 or 17 I felt like I might like to try that. It wasn't until about 20 years later until I finally did it.
Please talk about that.
I think I was 34 when I first did it... I thought for 20 years that I wanted to do stand-up, but when I actually went to do it I realized that I don't have the personality for it at all -- it's so nerve-wracking and I don't like being on stage. The energy that I had to expend to focus on that and do that... that's why, when we took over the show, I was so happy to step away from that. It was awesome, it led to great things, I'm still neck-deep in it, but what I do is this parallel thing, you know what I'm saying?
It's like an accidental career. A lot of people who grow up comedy nerds feel like stand-up is their only option.
Yeah. There are so many ways to be involved and be around it, and do it in a way that suits you. When I moved here, I was like, "OK, I want to get involved in comedy, somehow, and I want to be a writer," and now I don't write at all... there are all these other things. I was interested in photography and video in high school, but I didn't have access to it. I do remember hooking up two VCRs in my parents basement and dubbing tapes.
Like, editing clips together?
I was editing the commercials out of "Simpsons" videos. So that interest was always there, and for me, personally, things have worked out awesomely. Considering how many things I have working against me -- I'm not that social. I'm happy at home doing shit on my computer, listening to "Star Trek" in the background.
[Ever Mainard comes over to the table]
Can we talk about her [Mainard] and the unholy amount of hustle that she has?
(To Mainard:) My experience with you was that I had never heard of you, and the next day you were everywhere!
McQuern: Yes! I just want to say, while she was talking I realized that I have it so easy compared to these guys. The amount of nights I have to be out and the time I spend... I really couldn't do it, I'm just too old and tired for it now. I come to this show once a week, and I try to go to others... they have to put in so many more hours and hard work than I do, and I feel lucky for that and I have a lot of respect for them because of that.
Mainard: Likewise. I was really nervous about meeting you for the first time.
McQuern: That's crazy...
Mainard: When I first moved to Chicago, I was told to never ask for a show at Underground. They come to you. So I never emailed you or Dan, ever. Then the Lakeshore had their open mic auditions, right before they closed, and Dan just happened to be there. At the time I didn't really know who he was, and a couple months later he came into my Starbucks and said, "I've been looking for you, what's your email?" I gave him my email and nothing happened. Then, one day, I got an email about performing at Chicago Underground. I did it a few times and then I got asked to be a cast member.
McQuern: It's so simple. It's been this way the whole time. Dan does all of the booking, you just email him. He gets so many emails, he can't respond to every single one. He just gets bombarded with stuff. I'm so grateful that I don't have to deal with that.
It helps to just show up and do a really good job, if you want to get noticed. Half the battle is just in showing up and doing a good job, isn't it?
Mainard: Yeah, definitely... I just feel like Chicago Underground is the cream of the crop. Everyone knows Zanies, but there's a lively energy here, which I really like. I think just being able to have your own room is great, and I got so comfortable riffing on stage, it really helped build a character and helped me get comfortable. You see a lot of newer comics who really aren't comfortable yet.
McQuern: The whole reason that this show [ChUC] was created was because they weren't getting enough good slots at other, good shows. They decided to create their own home-base -- it's an artist-run show, we're all cool, comfortable and we support each other. We always want people to feel like this is the soft place to land, where you can experiment, push the boundaries and develop. If we're doing what we really should be doing, we should have nights where we hit the wall. The whole nurturing of the cast thing is a huge thing about ChUC to me.
I feel like that's just a thing about you that's good.
McQuern: Yeah, that's true. Lots of hugs and snuggling.
Who do you like in Chicago comedy right now?
McQuern: Well, I'm pretty psyched about our new Chicago Underground Comedy cast members, who we brought into the fold when six(!) of our cast members all moved to LA this summer. Those new comics are Joe Fernandez, Nate Simmons, Candy Lawrence, Ever Mainard and The Puterbaugh Sisters -- yes, we count them as two separate people, though they are fused in all our hearts. Our new cast members and a lot of the other new up-and-comers seem to have a lot of the DIY ethic, and are producing their own showcases, open mics, podcasts, and videos, which I have a huge amount of respect for. That's one thing I love about Chicago comedy -- it seems like everyone understands that you don't have to wait for someone else to give you an opportunity to perform or create -- you can develop yourself and support others and have a blast by making your own stuff. It's that hardy Midwestern self-reliance, or whatever, and it's really enriching the scene and keeping it very vibrant and exciting.
Rachael Mason teaching at Second City. Photo Credit: Alexandra Moskovich
Rachael Mason's was a name I knew long before I met her in person. Her reputation at iO and her work as a performer, director and teacher in Chicago preceded her; she has been an open-door source of support, advice and encouragement to everyone in the community from day one.
When did you come to Chicago?
Mason: In '96 -- the day after I graduated from college. My college troupe was like, "Let's go!" and a bunch of us came here. My college was a nerdy college. I went to Skidmore College, which has a huge improv scene. We host the National College Comedy Festival. I got to see all kinds of long form and short form and have people like Mick Napier and Kevin Mullaney and The State and all these crazy comedy troupes come and teach improv at my school. I was lucky to move with really good people. It turns out that everyone that I came here with, even though they're not here now, are all doing great things other places. It was nice to move here with a bunch of jerks.
So you landed one day after college...
...stayed on a friends floor for two weeks until I found a place and immediately started classes at Second City, iO and The Annoyance.
All at the same time?
At the same time... which now I tell people not to do. It makes your brain explode because they are literally contradicting each other. It made me crazy... I walked off-stage at one point during my level three with Mick [Napier] and was like, "I can't do it." My scene partner was so cool that he physically picked me up and put me back on stage. He went out into the house and put me back up on stage, and I never left. I started temping so I could see shows seven nights a week. I don't know how I used to do it. I tried to do it again recently and then I remembered that was, like, 20 years ago. I'd work two jobs, have rehearsal at night, get up for a rehearsal in the morning and then go to work again, eating a bag of Fritos for nutrition.
You were going at break-neck speed.
I was taking classes with better and better teachers. At iO there wasn't this... "rush through and then you're done." You were like, "I took level three with this guy, and now I want to take level three with this guy." I started to see the performers that I liked and learn from them. Eventually I started playing with them and started getting on better and better teams... my teams started getting better nights... then you get invited to write a show someplace... then you get invited to the Second City "invite only" auditions.
Did you have a grand plan?
I knew I wanted to work for Second City, but I didn't really know how to get there. I thought that my work would get me there, and it did. The hustling to get the work was fun... it was meeting Susan [Messing] or having a drink with Mick at four in the morning or doing Screw Puppies with Ed Fermin. Once I got hired by Second City, I still had to work in the box office because once you're touring you still don't make enough money. I was doing other shows too, so that by the time I was sick of touring for Second City and waiting for a stage, I had enough going on in my life that it wasn't the end of the world when I didn't work for Second City anymore. Then I got married and I wanted a little more security, so I went and worked at iO as a full time job with benefits. Running the iO training center was the best and worst experience of my life. When I had the baby, it was very hard to be there, so I went to work at an advertising firm in New York. I couldn't, because I had a 4-month-old in Chicago, stay sane. So I came back and Second City was like, "Why don't you come back to us?" Norm Holly and Jim Carlson and great people like that put me on full time at Second City. I'm teaching six classes at Second City now. I'm directing three shows and I'm in a show. I'm doing more at Second City now than I did when I was touring ten years ago.
Do you think that's something that successful people have in common? That they don't come with a specific grid of everything that they want?
Mick Napier says you have to have a plan. I just think you need to have a plan B and C... you need to be able to do everything if you want to make a living. There's a lot of hustling to make a life in this job and earn money. My agent said to me when he first signed me, he was like, "You have to lose 20 pounds or gain 20 pounds." I was like, "What do you mean?" and he said, "you're right in the middle between the pretty girl and her friend," and I was like, "That's great!" and he was like, "No, that means you're competing with twice as many girls." It's like improv or stand-up, you need to pick one and focus on it. People wanted me to fire him, but that's a big life lesson... yes, I wanted to be cast but I also wanted to be me. So I dropped 15 pounds and went up for roles that Cameron Diaz got the part in. Come on, everybody... I liked it better when I was going up against Darlene from "Roseanne."
I feel like a lot of people would buckle under criticism like that.
You've got to be able to take it. This is the entertainment industry -- the improv industry and stand-up industry in Chicago are this beacon of light in a sea of, "Fuck you, it's about me." We need each other, and if we don't love that...
Chicago feels a little bit like camp.
It is just as cosmopolitan and metropolitan as New York but it is tempered by this Midwestern sensibility that makes it feel friendlier... mostly because the garbage isn't piled outside our steps. It's not as dense and vertical. The energy is dispersed, which is why it feels like camp. I love Chicago.
People often ask what's next -- when everyone is going to move.
I will move to New York and LA when I'm flown there... that has happened plenty of times... but do you know what else has happened? The show has gotten canceled, the producer absconded with the money, we weren't renewed... I've always come back here. You don't go to LA unless you are flown there and taken care of. Everyone who is there wants to do what you're doing and they have a leg up because they're already there. New York is the second most expensive city to live in. Since I have moved here I've auditioned for "Saturday Night Live" five times. Here. I've met Lorne Michaels in person. Here.
So you moved here and studied at all of the schools at once.
You have to learn all three schools of thought in order to define your own. All three schools are very different. I would even add Comedy Sportz to that list if you want a well-rounded education as an improviser. Short form is all the rage if you want a Second City job.
A lot of people have a plan of who they should meet, who will help them succeed.
Nobody is really going to help you. They'll give you advice. You might occasionally find the kind of person who will introduce you to their agent. Only you can help you by actively going out and meeting people and asking the right questions and having the talent to back up the meeting.
Can you talk about everything you did at iO?
I became the de facto counselor of that high school because I cared very deeply about Del Close. I was in The Lindberg Babies, one of his first shows. I took classes with him three times. I loved the man. When he died I felt responsible for carrying on his work. The last thing I said to Bill Arnet when I left iO was, "Keep Del alive." That is why I was at iO for so long. I loved a lot of what that crazy dude had to say. He did not think that women were valuable at all and he liked me anyway... [that] meant that there was pure potential in me to succeed. It was huge for me for Del Close, who hated women in comedy, to be like, "Mason!"
I wish I had been around for that.
It's as crazy as you've heard... it's all true. Everything you've heard about how crazy and awesome it was -- it's all true. Even the stuff that isn't true is true. I was doing classes, interning, waitressing, bartending, nightly staff managing... I finished conservatory with Del, playing on probably 10-12 teams at any given time. There still weren't a lot of women then, and that's what I wanted to do, so I had the luxury of being "the girl" on several teams. It was terrible. It ruined me.
Being on that many teams at once or being the girl?
Not being the girl... it was too much. It was one night of Harold teams and I was on all three teams. I started getting this reputation of being 15 minutes late because I was.
A lot of people take on as much as they can.
It's a mistake. Go through each [training center] and figure out where your wheelhouse and weaknesses are... continue on at the one place that supports that... you'll realize, "I'm an iO person or I'm an Annoyance person. But I have the capability now to play at all three places." Say no! That's hard for chicks because we're like, "Oh I got something!" Don't do too much and don't screw anyone on the team until you're not on the team anymore. Don't shit where you eat. It's very true in this tiny, tight-knit community.
What do you think is the difference between people who succeed and those who struggle?
People who succeed don't blame anyone else for their success or failure. [People] who fail deflect, ignore... their head is on a different game rather than the real game. This business is hard. If you have faith and strength and balls, it will be fine. Group mind is about playing like the people you're playing with. When the people you're playing with are eight dudes, you play differently. It's not some Lady Macbeth thing, it's not Shakespearean; it is just tuning into the minds of the people you're surrounded by. Women think that men don't understand them. Well, make them understand you.
I feel like it's less about being a man or a woman and more about showing up and being talented.
Yes! If someone throws elbows at you, you're an idiot to not throw them back.
Do you feel as though improv training helped you to be a little more bad ass?
Any balls I didn't already have I got from the sheer insanity of a tour-co schedule.
So what advice do you give to people...
I tell them to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Your path is your path. Only you give your power away. Don't kill yourself over the last shitty thing that happened. It's already gone. All you have is your energy to head into the next thing with. The less we get mired in "she said" or "I could have" the more free we are to be in the moment.
What are you working on right now?
I'm one of the only people who's teaching in all three acting programs at Second City. I wrote some of the curriculum for advanced improv and have helped re-write some of the curriculum for the other two programs.
There's a lot of re-vamping going on over there right now.
Second City is tired of hiring iO people. They want their training center to produce just as many hirees as iO does. Long form produces a very well rounded person. Second City is trying to pay attention to acting, character investment, scene heightening... they're not looking for a funny character actor anymore, they need to be able to do the other shit, too.
They've added stand-up, as well, right?
Yeah. They know that writing jokes is important. They know that solo accountability is important. They have clowning, movement, acting, dance... you name it, you can get it at Second City now.
I want to take clowning!
People ask me what the moment I knew I was in the right place was; mine has nothing to do with me. I was parking at Second City and I saw Dean, who teaches clowning class, leading a bunch of people out into the parking lot holding cups of water... I see Dean take a sip and spit it out and then I see everyone do it. I'm working at a place where we take people into the parking garage to practice spit-takes! That was the greatest moment of my life. I can't even tell you what it was like to see 18 people spitting into the air, practicing different ways to spit. It was the best thing I have ever seen in my life.
When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
The real defining moment when I knew I wanted to be a performer was watching my brother sing at the Metropolitan Opera. When did I know that I could do it? Being Sicilian, there's the kids table and the adults table... if you want the adults to pay attention to you, you have to either do something serious or something funny. I was the one with the tiny hat doing the kick line... when I realized I could make them giggle I realized I could make other people laugh.
Are people born funny?
You can't teach someone to be funny. You can teach someone to do a serious, committed relationship scene, thereby producing funny.
So you believe that you're born with it?
"It" is relative... and yes, you are born with it. Just because I don't like someone's comedy doesn't mean they don't have "it." Everyone has "It" to somebody.
How has parenthood changed things for you?
Viola Spolin invented these short form games to help children be more in the moment in scripted drama. If we embrace the work with a child-like sense of play, we'll sit down and stack blocks in the corner and all of a sudden it's three hours later. The idea of play has taken on a new level to me. What is it to really hit a game and play it -- to really find the nuances in playing a game... he and I can play together for hours.
Does teaching or writing or performing take precedence?
It goes in phases. Right after the baby I was missing it a lot. Teaching was giving me a performance vibe because you have an audience. Then [Susan] Messing was like, "Come do Messing With A Friend," and after that it was like, "Oh my god... now we're doing the Playboys and getting the band back together." I used to do ten or 12 shows a week because I had to. Now I get to do shows because I want to. I know that sounds shitty... a lot of people would kill to do 12 shows per week, but I'm done with that now. I'm interested in my six classes a week and my four shows a month.
Who is your favorite actor?
I love Robert Deniro, I love Al Pacino, I love Marlon Brando -- I'm old school. I grew up watching the TV that my parents watched. I love black and white movies and old school musicals. My favorite record was "That Niggas Crazy." My dad was like, "Here, this is funny, listen to this." I worshiped Gene Wilder, who led me to Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr... I loved Phyllis Diller. That was a time when women had to be ugly to be funny. Phyllis Diller was a gorgeous woman who had to dress like some kind of crazy person. There were two types of women...
The sexy one and the funny one.
Right. And I loved them all. It was hilarious, but why? Why did they have to do that? Jerry Lewis needed his Dean Martin, I get it. Abbot needed his Costello. Just like Sid Cesar needed his Imogene Coca and George Burns needed his Gracie Allen. Then you have French and Saunders and "The Kathy and Mo Show."
That is one of the first things I ever watched on cable TV.
I saw that after I saw French and Saunders and was like, "They're the poor man's French and Saunders." Whoopie Goldberg's show, directed by Mike Nichols, changed my life. I learned later that it was directed by Mike Nichols, and that's why it was so awesome.
Do you think it helps to be interested in a little of everything?
Unequivocally yes. Your job as an improviser is to devour culture. One of my favorite improvisers is a guy who teaches robots how to think at University of Chicago. He is a scientist. That's the craziest, nichest thing.
There are a lot of improvisers in engineering and science fields.
Charna always says that Improv is not checkers, it's chess. And that's true. It's a thinking mans game, so smart people are drawn to it. Comedy requires a smart person, comedy requires a person who can point out what is funny and interesting about life, despite the fact that we are all dying. My personal feeling is that the modern day comedian is the latter day philosopher. Philosophy is dead and we are the people left to comment on modern day society. It takes a smart person to be really good at that, not just to point out whats funny about the difference between vaginas and penises. Dell said we should learn the truth at the end of a comedy show. That's big.
But if you're not having fun....
...then you're the asshole. It's like the zen quote that life is pain, and once you acknowledge that... comedy is hard, dying is easy. Once you accept that, you can have fun.
Is there anybody that you want to play with who you haven't yet?
I think the person I want to play with next I don't know yet. They're coming up. I've already gotten to live out some of my improv fantasies. I think the next player I want to play with I will meet in a level one class and be like, "You're the next thing."
If someone wanted to go out, right now, and see you perform?
The third Sunday of every month, I play with the Playboys at Second City at 8 o'clock.
Susan Messing in Messing With A Friend. Photo Credit: Alexandra Moskovich
Susan Messing is an improv legend. When I enrolled in the training program at Second City, every teacher and coach that I had told me to go see her show, Messing With A Friend. I took their advice and was instantly enamored. Her stage presence and improv chops give me chills and I would consider myself lucky to, one day, be able to study under her.
I was ordered to go see Messing With A Friend during my first week of writing classes at Second City and I fell in love with it.
That makes me happy! I'm just having fun. I finally realized that if I have fun, they have fun. That took me about 17 years to figure out. I'm a slow learner. Who did I play with, do you remember?
Oh, she's a piece of work. I think in the first scene she probably pulled a tampon out of me... she starts that way. And then you have to heighten after that. Emily is a little crazy.
But that was such a good learning experience for me as a new improviser.
That makes me feel so good, because there's a little snotty me sometimes... if I'm awake and alert, it's going to be a good show. If I'm not, then it's really fucking hard. If you could see me driving to a show sometimes... I'll drive to the theater like, "I have to teach and do my show tonight!?" Sometimes I'd much rather be high on my couch watching an episode of "The Bachelorette." I have to talk myself into it sometimes, and when I do I have more fun than anybody.
Do you have a pre-show ritual?
I hang out with my friend and we just talk. There's no zip zap zop going on. Usually, the last thing you end up talking about is the first thing that happens. That's why you can't say to your friends before a show, "Let's not have walk-ons" or whatever, because "no" means "yes.".. it will just end up happening. You may as well talk positively. I just say, "You know what the one rule is," and sometimes I'll say, "Do you want to be like-minded in the first scene, so that we're sharing the same energy?", in case I haven't played with them. I just catch up with their lives. These are people who I've always wanted to play with or who asked me to play with them. I might know absolutely nothing about them as a human being or I might know everything. With people like Rachael [Mason]... I think I've played with her more than anybody. I'm in my sixth year at The Annoyance. Before that I was at iO and before that it was at Second City. I've been doing this for about eight years.
How did the show start?
I had gone down from 11 different shows all over the city to 11 shows at the Annoyance a week... down to eight shows at Second City... down to getting married and having a baby and doing no shows a week. I thought, obviously, my priorities are going to shift and I can't just shit all over Chicago -- I would really have to make a conscious choice. I was raised drinking the Kool-Aid and group shit... and I said I don't give a shit about doing an Armando and I don't want to do a Harold anymore. I just want to play. I just want to put people in worlds in and see what happens. Isn't that improv? So that's what I did. I thought, and I still feel, that it's unbearably arrogant to have a show with my own name in it... but I did it. It gave me a selfish opportunity to play with people I've either always admired or miss or whatever the case may be.
Isn't that when success happens? When you just do what's fun for you?
Yeah. I think that needs to be the core of all this work. It can't be so I will get x, y and z. if there's nothing else in the world but this moment... that's the other thing, too. In life I'm always setting up five shots ahead, like a pool player. I'm responsible for keeping someone alive, I'm responsible to keep class moving, keeping my house maintained or whatever it is that day... It might be the only time -- except when it's late at night and I'm hanging out by myself and just decompressing -- that I can just be in the moment. It's the only time that I can slow down time and taste my food. I'm like a dog, I eat until my stomach explodes and I don't even know what I ate. If anything else, it forces me to make that the most important thing in the world. That's the problem with Chicago sometimes; there's so much available to us that things turn into just another show, just another class, just another rehearsal, and you can't treat it like that. That's why I started playing everywhere; when I only worked in one place, I got involved in the politics and the bullshit and things that didn't matter.
How do you keep from becoming over-saturated?
The very simple answer for that is that you can take a break and get a life. If you have the luxury to have a real life, go get one. It's only going to inform the work. Take a class that you perceive has nothing to do with improv, but it's going to make you really happy. I don't care if it's knitting or gymnastics. Do something that's out of your comfort zone and stupid and fun... it will end up supporting this work. The less you care, for some reason, the more it happens.
Improv is unlike anything else in that way.
It goes against rational thought and life. In life, if you don't want to do something, you can say, 'Fuck this shit, I don't want to do this, I'm a grownup." In improv if you don't like it, I shove your face into it until you do. You made that choice, so it has to be right, and my job is to make you more right, not to take it back. That would be ridiculous.
To see someone do improv well... it's such a fleeting moment.
The cool thing about improv is that the audience discovers it sometimes a synapse before we do. Comedy isn't always a surprise. It's please, sweet Christ, do more of that shit you've been doing. If you're worried about the moment, you're not in the moment. You've got to smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it and fuck it.
Words to live by. When did you come to Chicago?
I went to Northwestern, I graduated in '86 and I've been in Chicago ever since. I've worked in New York and L.A., of course, but Chicago is home. This is my power base. After Northwestern I started at iO.
Pretty much. I'd heard of this thing called improv. It was like the bastard cousin of anyone's creation. It was a joke. Nobody improvised, and certainly very few women stayed at iO.
Who influenced you as a funny person?
My Dad. He was the funniest man I've ever met. He was dry-as-dust funny. You almost had to look at him twice to see if that was a joke, and it was. "I Love Lucy" inspired me. My parents' divorce inspired me. Northwestern inspired me because I was such a bad actress... when I discovered improv I was like, "Oh my god, I don't have to ruin class at Shakespeare. This is great." I was always unintentional comedy.
That gives all bad actresses hope.
Improv is what made my acting good, not my acting classes. Now that we're no longer the bastard cousin of creation, they need us. Three quarters of what you're auditioning for is going to have improv in it. My bad acting inspired me to say, "There's got to be something better for me."
What do you think is the difference between people who handle rejection well or realize that they need to try another venue, and those who don't?
I don't know. When you don't give up, things happen. And I'm not saying don't take a break or find another way to showcase your need to express yourself. For example, there are bad improvisers who become incredible directors and writers. There are great improvisers who can't do sketch.
Who do you like in comedy right now?
I always think Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler] are brilliant. I don't watch comedy. I watch bad reality TV and documentaries.
Are you a fan of "Jersey Shore"?
I can't. It only takes three minutes to figure out "Jersey Shore." I watch "Survivor." I want to see how people have to work as teams, even though it's all about lying... that's fascinating to me. "The Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" series fascinate me. The idea that 25 people would compete for one person's attention that they don't even know... is insanity! It's a sociological study of the human condition. "Real Housewives.".. why?
Have you seen "Downsized"?
I like "Downsized." No offense, but I don't really miss sitcoms or commercials, even though I was doing them. I don't want to inadvertently steal something from a friend of mine who is writing for "Colbert" or who did something on "The Daily Show." I don't want anyone to ever come up to me and say, "I saw that." I'm sure everything has been done, but I find life, even fake real life, more inspiring for comedy.
How do you maintain your own voice?
Keep learning. Your voice evolves. All you have to do is make sure your voice doesn't become rigid. If it's a sociological study of the human condition, our job is to watch it, not judge it. I'm sure that my attitude towards things comes out in my opinion, but that's not the goal. If I'm writing for funny, that's one thing... but most of the time, I'm just playing.
When did you start teaching?
Seven years after I started, maybe? I first started at The Annoyance. Mick had me teach a "woman" class and I was like, seriously? I have to teach women, not people? It pissed me off until I remembered that the women at The Annoyance are pretty evolved. And then I asked to teach for Charna at iO and she said, "You have to be a coach first," so for a year and a half all I did was coach. I coached three teams at the same time. That's all I did... I just kept making up the gayest-ass exercises and using these people as guinea pigs and Charna bought it.
I knew about you before I had ever met you, just from studying improv. Is it weird for you to be approached by strangers?
No! We're all just different generations. I'm hoping that we can all play together one day. We just have to make sure our table manners are in line. Honestly, I'm glad I'm not kicked off stage. I'm still waiting for the day that someone says I'm a hack and pulls me off stage. We all feel like that. It never goes away.
Do you have a teaching philosophy?
Whoever doesn't have fun is the asshole.
Please talk about that.
This is the thing: you are responsible for your fun. You can't blame anyone for your misfortune. I've had people write me from all over the country going, "When you said that, it just hit me hard," and I'm like, "I learned it 17 years in, I'm just trying to save you time." If I'm having more fun than anybody else; is it anybody's fault if I have fun? We need semantics that talk us into shit because every day we talk ourselves out of things... this all comes from my epiphany. If it worked for me, maybe it'll work for you guys. I'm a slow fucking learner.
Is that true? Or are people just super hard on themselves?
People are super hard on themselves. And when they get really frustrated, they get defensive and judgmental and blame everybody else. That's just what life is. The more you can own your own path, blinders on; that helped me so much. It doesn't matter what other people do. I remember the Tribune wrote something about, "I don't understand this about Susan Messing... she's just as funny as anyone else... why isn't she famous?" I didn't start this shit to be famous.
Is that offensive?
It's not offensive. If someone's idea of success is a sitcom... maybe I'm not their definition of success or their cup of tea. I kind of think that, the more I persevere and don't die, the more infamous, and I don't mean "she's infamous" -- that would be more arrogant than a show with my own name in it. But, the more I keep moving forward, the more I've got to evolve. If you like it now, watch me in 2020. In 2020 I'm going to be so good... I know I'm going to get on a Harold then. I have nine more years to get my act together.
Thank you so much for hanging out with me.
Oh my god, if you're dumb enough to ask me these questions, I'm smart enough to answer them. I don't think in terms of career. I just wake up and try to get through the day, and do what I can.
What have you not done, that you want to do?
I want to be a race car driver and a hockey goalie. I want to dance at my kids' wedding. I want to get cuter.
I've never walked away from a show and thought, "Messing looks awful..."
Oh, good then.
Ever Mainard and Kelsie Huff. Photo Credit: Alexandra Moskovich
Kelsie Huff works more than anyone I have ever met. I can't remember specifically how or when we met, but her work ethic and consistency have always impressed me. Her high energy and quick wit make her a pleasure to watch on stage and her intellect and respect for her peers make her a pleasure to work with, off stage.
When did you come to Chicago?
I moved here right after high school to go to Columbia College. Being a small town girl living in the big city, I saw a lot of exposed "El" wieners my first year, you know, until I got my bad ass street face on. I came to Columbia to study radio broadcasting -- I thought it would be exactly like Good Morning Vietnam, you know without the war but all the fun! It was nothing like that, so I focused more on theater and that's when I was introduced to improv and sketch comedy and solo performance. Sometimes I still pretend to be a radio host though, mostly in the shower and mostly on Sundays.
When did you realize you were funny?
This is a bummer answer, but I grew up in kind of a booze-filled home and I took on the role of "tension-easer", if that is a word. Comedy helped me and then it just became a part of my personality... and it got me the role of Merlin in my 6th grade play, BAM! I was always drawn to the comedic acting roles and then found improv and sketch in college. Then I saw the Neo-Futurists, and my world was changed. I saw that you could make the very personal very funny -- it combined writing and solo work. I was sold.
What do you think makes someone successful in this business?
I think that is very different for different people. I come from a pretty blue-collar background so I approach comedy like a job, because I think it is one. That means you have to do the work. Talking about it and doing it are two different things. You have to make a writing schedule, you have to book shows, you have to see shows, you have to continually take workshops and classes, and you have to market yourself. I think showing up on time and not being an asshole is pretty helpful... having said that, I still have a day job... so what the fuck do I know!?
What do you think is the most common mistake people make when trying to succeed in comedy?
I think my answer is kind of a life thing, not just a comedy thing. Thinking "it" (whatever "it" is) must happen right now, and when it doesn't happen on the time frame you want -- getting super duper angry or sad or blaming others or whatever it is that you do. Just try to enjoy what is happening, right now. I am always looking to be a better comedian, to learn, to expand. Always. I think it's great to have this ambition, this drive, but sometimes it means you (and by you I mean me) aren't really absorbing everything. My therapist says that I need to listen to the white noise... most of the time I'm thinking about jokes when she says this though! Just have fun, it is work but it's the best job ever. Chill out and have fun.
How do you respond when people talk about your crazy work ethic?
I would say those people probably don't see me on Sunday afternoons eating giant bowls of cereal and watching 16 hours of "Dr. Who"!
What advice would you give someone who just got to Chicago and wants to pursue comedy?
Try everything and see shows and read (not comedy stuff, read books) Take classes all over the place -- improv, sketch, stand-up, non-comedy stuff. Keep learning. Learning forces you to find your voice, your perspective. Find a group of comedy freaks you connect with and hit up shows and open mics together. If you don't fit into the current comedy institution(s), make your own space and just do it. Don't talk about doing it, do it. My experience was to do all female shows to find my voice first -- Beast Women, the kates, the Fem Com class, the now defunct Muffin Basket Cases. They were great stepping stones for me.
Do you have one specific goal that you want to achieve, that you haven't yet?
I would like to stop picking out my eye lashes. I can't seem to stop!
Do you plan on staying in Chicago, indefinitely?
I am not moving out of Chicago, unless I need to go in to the witness protection program. I've seen some things.
What is your favorite type of performance to do?
Solo performance and stand-up. I don't like sharing the stage... jokes! I really love writing as much as performing and I think solo and stand-up is the best of both worlds.
If you had to pick one element of this business that best suits you, what would it be?
Stand-up and solo shows are my faves... I just love performing my own words. Taking what I thought from my brain juice to a notebook to a microphone and getting laughs (or not) is really addicting. I really love it, it's one of those things that if I don't do it for a while, I start to feel weird. That addiction probably should concern me a bit more.
When did you do your first solo show?
I did a whole bunch of monologues with the now defunct Box Theater Group -- all ladies from Columbia College. Those pieces lead to my first show, HUFFS, which was produced at the Royal George Theater in 2005. I really just wanted to see if I could do it. I had no expectation at all, but people showed up and I got some decent reviews and then Emily K. Harrison from square product theatre in Colorado invited me to bring HUFFS to the International Boulder Fringe Fest. And I haven't shut up since!
Talk about your involvement with the Lincoln Lodge and teaching the FemCom classes.
Well, I took both FemCom classes right when they offered them and loved it, I met some really great performers that I still work with. When Cameron [Esposito] had to scale back on teaching, because she's getting all famous and stuff, she asked me to take over the level one classes. I think she liked what I was doing with the kates and knew I had a similar drive to see women succeed in stand-up. Of course I said yes. I love the mission of the class, which is simply to create a super safe environment for women; allowing them to find their voice and write jokes based on their personal truths. I really feel like this class is changing the Chicago comedy scene. Not to make it seem like a big deal or anything but it's comedy revolution... no bigs!
Who do you like in comedy right now? In Chicago, or otherwise.
It goes without saying I dig watching all the women of the kates grow into stronger comedians. I also love to watch Jamie Campbell, Jeanie Doogan, Amy Sumpter, Kristin Clifford, Alexandra Tsarpaslas, Will Miles, Andrew Halter, Cameron Esposito, Ali Clayton, Brian Henning, Josh Hanson, Emily Lake, Ever Mainard.... oh jeez... so many more that I just can't think of right now! I miss watching Beth Stelling and Ken Bernard -- YouTube helps. Outside of Chicago I can't get enough of Mike Birbiglia and Maria Bamford and Louis CK. Oh! My friends introduced me to the canceled BBC show "Pulling." I know I'm years behind everyone... but that shit is my new jam. So dark and so wickedly wonderful. I also super dig "Parks and Recreation." OK, I can't think of anything else but I know I'm forgetting lots of stuff.
What projects are you working on right now?
I am trying to get through all the recipes in my Getting Started Weight Watcher Cook Book; it's not going well. I am also trying to get involved with the college booking scene. I would like to take my solo shows to universities -- I really dig that environment. I am also hoping the kates outreach program starts expanding, that's run by Kendra Stevens, Amy Sumpter, and Sarah Weidmann. Other than that I am just trying to continue to do the work, to keep getting booked. I think working is how you get really good, so I am going to keep on writing and holding microphones.
Ever Mainard and Kelsie Huff. Photo Credit: Alexandra Moskovich
Ever Mainard, while the youngest and newest to the scene, is certainly no less driven or talented than the four women in her company. She performs almost every night, runs an open mic, co-produces a bunch of shows and is consistently generating new material. Ever Mainard will, without a doubt in my mind, be famous in five years.
How did you wind up in Chicago?
I was going to go to school for bio-chemistry and then I changed it to general studies so I could get into a theater school... that's when I decided to move. I found an apartment on Craigslist and by the time I flew back home from finding my apartment, I had gotten a scholarship to study theater.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
I came to Chicago right after I turned 21. I knew from a young age that all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was comedy. My parents would wake me up for "Carol Burnett" and "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV." It was a weird family gathering and a weird way to bond. I would mimic those characters... so doing characters was really natural for me. When I was 18 I joined an improv troupe. I come from small town in Texas, so it was really just a couple of weirdos doing short form games. Then I started taking classes in Austin and was like, "Hey you're doing this wrong." They were doing long form and we were doing short form. I researched people that I liked and people told me about Second City and iO. I was doing improv and standup in Austin and Temple, where I'm from.
You were doing all of that at 18?
Right. But what's your world view when you're 18, right?
Is there footage of that?
There is, somewhere on a VHS. I might have deleted it because I was too embarrassed. There's also footage of me doing a character named DeeDee. I did a lot of character standup when I was younger. I lost some of that when I moved up here because I was so intimidated... I guess I just thought of the mean, sarcastic standup. For about a year I was afraid to do this, and then I went to a couple of open mics and people were really nice!
I feel like a lot of people have this image of that '80s standup guy who is mean from the stage.
Yeah! That's exactly what I thought!
But everyone loved you.
Yeah. I mean, everyone pretty much likes each other here. When you're younger in the scene, you don't really have a reason to dislike anyone. And you really don't as you grow, either. If I were to have a party, I would still invite everybody. It sounds weird, but it's a really cool community here. I was scared, but then I moved up here and did Second City and most of iO. I got so busy with stand-up and doing sketch festivals, I just started going down whatever road was in front of me and being persistent.
You're like a steamroller.
I knew coming up here what I wanted to do, and... things have gotten in the way... it comes to a point where either people will understand that you're giving as much as you can or not. It's a selfish career, but it really doesn't have to be. That's why I love to do fundraisers. Standup is very selfish.
Performing in general can be a selfish thing, but if you're good at it, you're also making people forget about their own lives for a minute.
But people here, I've noticed, will take a three-month or a six-month or even a year long break and then just get right back into it. I understand, but at the same time, it's hard to stop when you have momentum.
Do you ever hate performing the same stuff over and over?
I started getting really tired of the jokes that I had. It's really about starting fresh, I feel. I do so many shows that it's sometimes hard to write, so I'll improvise a set, or improvise off of a joke... I'll get more jokes out of that. Then I'll sit down and write again and try to write a whole new set.
So it's like a rotation?
Yeah, I rotate out my jokes and when I can't rotate them all I can't do a show anymore. I like to start fresh, is what I'm saying. So... the way to not get bored or hate yourself is sometimes starting new.
Can you walk me through a day in your life?
I open, which means that I get up at 4:30 every morning. I lay in bed until 4:45. This morning I didn't even brush my teeth; I squirted toothpaste into my mouth and slugged water. I sloshed toothpaste water in my mouth for three blocks before I spit it out. I was so late. I work for eight hours, and then I go home and try to relax until about 3. Sometimes I shower, sometimes I eat, I check email and messages. I take a nap 'til about 5 or 6, get up, take a shower, eat something and go to a show. Then it's back home, three-hour nap, getting up and going back to work. I have a 30-minute break every day, and it's literally just me scarfing down food and trying not to cry because some lady is yelling at me about Splenda.
So what is your comedy schedule like?
I do "Shit Show" open mic on Monday nights. It's really fun. Rasa, my co-host, and I got really bored with regular open mics. Tuesday is Chicago Underground Comedy. Wednesday is the Wood Sugars.
Talk about the Wood Sugars.
I was approached about a year ago to do a voice on their podcast and we riffed really well together. They invited me back, and that led to me getting my own podcast, Dates With Ever. That morphed into a video-cast, and now we're doing our own live talk show. Now I'm an honorary member of the Wood Sugars, and we've started putting our own showcase together. We were having it at Mothers bar, and we called it MILF... I also do the Starving Artist project. It's really cool to see how many people you can affect and help. There's Comedy Cares... we're doing one for PFLAG and the Broadway Youth Center. I improvise with Jack Ferrell and Strange Soldier. We had a run every Thursday this summer. I love doing the kates, and those are usually on Friday or Saturday.
You're very good at self-management and self-promotion.
You have to stay on peoples' radars. I don't care if you don't like that, I'm talking about my shows. You're not promoting me. I will promote myself until somebody else does. People get mad that I stick my stickers everywhere. I have a lot of stickers in this city.
Any plans to leave Chicago?
I feel like I have a year, two years tops left here. Maybe more. I don't know what's going to happen. I feel like there's a lot more learning and a lot more I can do before I move. I would love to have Chicago as a home base, but there's not enough industry out here. If I was a touring comic and I could get paid enough to just tour, I would live here forever.
Strange Soldier (with Jack Ferrell) is working on a Christmas play. It's been a lot of production-heavy stuff too, now... like booking and learning that route. I was pretty used to running Comedy Cares, but I've never produced a play before. This will be a new adventure. Thankfully it's just Jack and me performing with a light and sound guy.
What's the ultimate goal?
Oh my gosh. Well, it's changed from being a cast member on SNL, which I would love to do. I would love to be a touring comic. I would love to be Ellen or Wanda Sykes status. You know who they are, you know they do stand-up, they're doing voice over and commercials... they're both in movies. I would love to be the Ellen Degeneres equivalent of Kristen Wiig. I want to be in movies, but known for stand-up.
I feel like you showed up one day and two minutes later you were everywhere.
I had one show at Underground and then I got asked to go audition for Just For Laughs... then I got asked to be a cast member at ChUC. Things escalate quickly when you're on the right path, I think.
Who do you like in the Chicago scene right now?
I love the Puterbaughs. I loved Beth Stelling. She was such a motivator and so positive. I really like my co-host Rasa. She's really funny. I like Adam Burke. I recently saw Joe Kwazala, and I hadn't seen him perform in a while. He's super funny. Lisa Lauretta. I love Anthony McBrien. I give him a hard time, but I think he's so goofy and funny. Andy Flemming, I love him. Candy Lawrence. I could watch her for a while.
What do you think is the key to success?
Being present, being professional, and not being a jerk. Be respectful of other people. I may not get your comedy, but it doesn't mean I'm going to be an asshole to you. Having talent also helps, and evolving. People who aren't evolving start giving up. There are a lot of people who didn't start out the best, nobody does. It's just about growing... you get to a point where it's very scary and you wonder what's going to happen. People quit. I'm just trying to straight hustle.
The common thread among these five women is that they are all insatiable in their work ethic and drive. Each one of them came to Chicago with a purpose and have succeeded in spades, creatively and professionally. Each one of them is committed to the work that is critical to their own success, but perhaps more importantly, they have each blazed the trail for generations to follow and for that, we should all thank them.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.