Beth Stelling on Sexpot Comedy, writing plays and tiny failures
Los Angeles-based comedian Beth Stelling has appeared on Conan, recently won the Internet on Comedy Central's @Midnight and has a debut album Sweet Beth available from Rooftop Comedy. Stelling, who cut her teeth in Chicago's vibrant comedy scene, will be in Denver Friday to co-headline Sexpot Comedy's Ice Queens and Ice Wizards comedy showcase with Kate Berlant. In advance of the show, we caught up with Stelling for an early morning phone interview, punctuated by adorable kitten yawns, to talk about Ice Queens, the tiny failures of open mics, and co-writing her play Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.
Westword: Do you have any other shows scheduled while you're in town?
Beth Stelling: No. I fly in around 3:30 on Friday and I have to leave the next day. I love Denver and I should have made it longer, but I didn't. I told Jake Weisman I'd be on the third anniversary of his storytelling show, so I have to fly back to L.A. I wish I could stay longer.
Have you ever been to Denver for non-comedy reasons?
Yeah. When I was a kid, I went here on this random trip. Okay, well, for my mom's second marriage; she accidentally married this church organist.
Well, they got married on my ninth birthday, which was not a gift.
Eeesh. Churching it up in a starchy dress on your birthday?
Exactly. Anyway, they would do these choir tours in the summer. My mom was a music teacher, so she's very musical, and we went through Denver on a youth choir tour, doing this show called Faith Seekers, which was obviously a churchy thing. But I loved Colorado even back then. It was June and there was still snow on the peaks, and I saw little chipmunks. I got to throw a snowball! Since then, I've only been there for comedy. [Through a yawn] I love Denver. Oh, I also stopped here when I was driving from Chicago to L.A. I didn't do any comedy then, just visited friends.
You started out in Chicago, right? That city has been a great comedy incubator for a long time. There are generational waves of funny people who cut their teeth in Chicago and then blow up when they leave.
A lot of people come out there for Second City and IO, which both have so many talented comedians to claim.
Did you take classes there?
No. I always thought it would be funny to be sitting next to David Letterman one day and have him ask me, "Chicago, huh? Did you do Second City and all the regular stuff?" I always thought it would be funny to say "no."
Oh, boy. Don't blow that killer anecdote on Westword. You should have saved that for Letterman.
Well, if I do ever get on Letterman, he probably wouldn't talk to me. Who knows? I also mainly just do standup, and they're more focused on sketch and improv. Before I left Chicago, I did a little bit of long-form improv, but it was in the process of writing a play with some of my girlfriends, and then we all acted in it. It went to Soho Playhouse off-Broadway and Samuel French ended up publishing it. It was called Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. I love doing funny shorts and sketches, or acting in people's web series. Oh, I didn't really fully answer your question before.
About Chicago standup?
Yeah. It's a great place to build your act. There's not that much industry. How you start out as a performer can be totally different than where you end up; you can really evolve and try anything. No one faults you for your learning curve, whereas in New York and Los Angeles, first impressions tend to be more lasting because so many people move out to L.A. as a finished product.
Chicago might not have much industry, but there are so many places to perform and such an enduring comedy history there. I imagine there's more of a hometown market there than in Denver. It's bigger population-wise.
Yeah, but during my times in Denver, I've always been shocked. When I was out there last April, there was something happening every night, and it was all good. I think there are a lot of similarities between the scenes in Chicago and Denver. Your scene stays strong because a lot of the funniest people are still around. Chicago has to regenerate every few years. I read another interview where you talked about once you started a show, you preferred to work out new material there rather than at open mics.
Yeah, I got a lot of shit for that. A lot of the dudes in Chicago would give me a hard time about not doing mics. It's not that I think I'm better than anybody, or above open mics. It's not that I felt like I no longer needed to, I just figured that I'd rather risk bombing at a show than wondering what five grumpy dudes thought of my joke.
Yeah, it can undermine your faith in a particular joke I you trot it out at a mic where no one is there besides taciturn comics bummed about their own shitty sets. It's like giving someone a gift they don't want; whatever the actual gift is, it's going to seem worthless if people would honestly prefer to have the jukebox on.
Yeah, if it's a shitty joke, I'm going to find out. There's no audiences at open mics for a reason. It makes people so uncomfortable to watch someone bomb, it's like an audience's worst nightmare. It's like watching a tiny failure in its purest form.
Some comics do enjoy hanging out, drinking and taking in a tiny failure. But general spectators, who are still capable of empathy? Not so much.
There can be good intentions for people watching, but it's hard to draw a crowd. A lot of the people who seem like an audience are secretly working up the confidence to go up some time. Most of the times that I've gotten approached after a show by a dude, they'll act like they're hitting on me, but they just want to ask me how to get into standup comedy. Which is hilarious.
That's the lede they bury? What a weird pretense.
Right? Just ask me for advice. Don't make me feel uncomfortable or feel like you have to compliment my looks before you ask me how to get to get started in the biz.
So how did the Ice Queens show come together? Was that something that arose from High Plains?
High Plains probably has something to do with it. Kate and I were on the Reggie Watts show. Andy Juett reached out to me about a new series that he was doing. He told me the dates, and said that Kate Berlant would be out here and I said, "Great, that's exactly who I want to do it with." It came together pretty recently, like late December. I love Jordan and Troy, so I was excited to hear they'll be doing sets, too. I remember seeing Jordan on Arguments and Grievances and being blown away.
There's been some really cool shows lately at the Oriental.
What did you say?
Oh, god. The theater? The Oriental Theater? I realize that's not a phrase you can throw around out of context.
Oh, I know. I couldn't hear you over your phone beeping. The Oriental is kind of a classic name for a theater, though. There's an Oriental Theater in Chicago. Obviously it's dated. I was on @Midnight on Comedy Central and Chris Hardwick was reading my tour dates and he was like, "Sexpot at the Oriental? So many offensive things..." I don't think he even finished the plug. I realize it's a derogatory term for Asian people, but I can't change the name of the theater.
How do you feel about doing an unofficially weed-friendly event? Although I guess "unofficially weed-friendly" describes most events in Denver.
I'm cool with it. I did Andy Haynes's Midnight Run show here in L.A. and it's a show where you basically have to get high and do standup. It seemed like people had a good time; I definitely had a good time. I talked about Powerade for like five minutes.
Doors for the Ice Queens of Comedy showcase open at 7 p.m. Friday, January 31 for the 8 p.m. show at the Oriental Theater. Tickets are $15 -- and are also redeemable for a free large pie from Sexy Pizza. Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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