Comedian Kelsie Huff on Boulder Fringe, the stand-up bug and insult-compliments
Although comedian Kelsie Huff's new production at the Boulder Fringe Festival is titled This Show Might Be Terrible, her past hits suggest it will be anything but. Known for her Boulder Fringe Official Encore Award-winning shows Bruiser and Huffs, Huff is also a successful stand-up comedian who heads the kates, an all-female lineup.
The darkly funny Midwestern comedian will be all over the Fringe fest. She's the host of tonight's opening-night celebration, will perform her show August 18 to 25, is teaching a workshop entitled "You Time! Personal Narratives in Stand-up Comedy" on August 19, and will host the nightly variety show "Big Time," which debuts tomorrow. In advance of her jam-packed Fringe schedule, we talked to the hilarious Huff about her new show, passing along the stand-up bug, and learning to embrace failure.
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Westword: Tell me about your new show, This Show Might Be Terrible.
Kelsie Huff: This show's a little bit more stand-up. I've done a couple of shows in Boulder and they've been a little bit more one-woman monologue shows, but in this one I am doing more stand-up. So there's not, like, a through line or an arc; it's just me and a whole bunch of jokes. But it is very much storytelling and pretty personal stuff about myself and my family and all that kind of action. It's the first time I've ever done stand-up at a festival, so we'll see how it goes. [Laughs.] I do stand-up all around Chicago, but the bar scene is a wee bit different than the fringe scene, so hopefully they'll enjoy it. Who knows?
Where did the name come from?
The producer, Emily K. Harrison, I met her years ago in Chicago, she used to live here. And we were sort of talking about how stand-up might not go so well, but we wanted to take a risk and try it, and she's like, "Oh man, this could be terrible." And I'm like, there we go! Perfect. It's just a little poking fun, that's how it started, but then I was looking at the actual material and a lot of my themes of stand-up, and solo performance, too, is going into being an awkward human being and having these terrible things happen to you; how it is not only hilarious, but it sort of makes you grow as a human being. So a lot of the themes are actually, like, terrible things and how they're funny. So it worked out well. Making fun of ourselves actually was part of the truth of the show as well.
What's your favorite joke to tell right now?
I have a new joke about, well, I have to be quiet because I'm at work and it's about work, um, [lowers voice] I have a new joke where there's a gentleman at my work who tried to give me a compliment and it did not work. [Laughs.] He told me, "You're so unique. Back in the day they would have burnt you at the stake." And sort of how the world of insult-compliments works. I sort of dissect how he says it and it's just this whole ten-minute story about our relationship and your relationship in the modern work world. It's just fun to tell. It's fun to try to put yourself in someone else's brain and try to work through those reactions on stage. That's such a good question because it changes all the time. That's one of the things that I dig about stand-up, that there is this in-the-moment vibe of it that changes constantly, like, constantly. There's a lot of audience reaction, audience participation. There is a complete breaking down of that fourth wall, and there kind of is in solo performance, but it's not the same for some reason. I feel like I can go out and sit on their laps as opposed to solo performance, where you can't.
Did you start out doing stand-up?
I came to Chicago and I started doing kind of what a lot of Chicago folks do, which is improv. That was really my first step into it, and then I went to Columbia College and I was trying to do improv and sketch comedy and I took a class with a Neo-Futurist, which is basically, they write their own stories and they do these tiny little one-minute monologues. And I fell in love with it. So I sort of took the improv and the sketch stuff that I did and I put that into doing one-woman shows for a long time. And then I got into stand-up just because I had an audition and they were like, "Hey, you should probably have more stand-up on your resume." And I was like, all right, I guess I'll do that. And I loved it. I just fell in love with it.
What's your process? Do you draw from your real life?
I do, yeah, everybody sort of has their own deal, you know? You have one-liner comics, you have sort of non-truthful comics, you have absurdist comics. And I do a little bit of that as well, but I do base it out of my truth and my point of view and what's happening to me and how I see the world. And that is also what I teach, too. Because a lot of times people who are first starting out in stand-up need to find that voice. You can't make jokes or make observations in the world unless you know where you stand in the world, so that's kind of what I teach and that's kind of where I come from. So a lot of it is definitely personal, but it's also, like, personal takes on pop culture. It's not just making fun of myself and my family, although there is a lot of that. It is pretty personal, I think.
This one is trying to find that personal narrative, so trying to find your voice and your truth and how you can translate that into stand-up comedy. I think a lot of people have a story to tell, everybody does, and I think using that to translate into stand-up is what I'm really focusing on, like how to make a punchline with your story. It's not just, like, I woke up today and I brushed my teeth and this thing happened to me, although that's what it is. It's how to use that point of view and use that as a structure of a joke and also to formulate who you are as a character, but the character is obviously yourself. How to heighten yourself in the world of stand-up. So that's the goal. Also, what I think is gonna be super radcakes is that the people who take the workshop, if they so desire, I am gonna be hosting "Big Time," which is the late-night show, so we're gonna have an open mic night one day, so hopefully everybody who takes the workshop will get their three minutes of glory at "Big Time" as well.
What it really is about is building your confidence. So these folks, who, maybe they're performers but they've never flexed their stand-up muscles. Or maybe they've never performed before; that's so great to see. I have seen these people take a workshop similar to this one and just find their voice and find how powerful and funny they are. Especially women. I mean, women are a little more intimidated. It's a different environment, so finding their voice and watching them watch it, oh man, it's so fun.
What make you want to help other people tell their stories?
I do this show called the kates, I do a lot of women-centric comedy stuff, probably because I was one, or am, I still am. [Laughs.] But I remember being a kid and really loving humor. I would watch Eddie Murphy's Delirious over and over and over and I remember going to recess and trying to retell the story, and there were curse words, so this one little girl called me a slut. So I was a slut, because I said this. I thought slut was hilarious for years. I had no idea what the difference was. And I feel like there is sort of this stigma sometimes, especially, like, teenage girls. They stop using that voice, they stop thinking they have the power. And to tell a joke in front of a room full of drunk strangers is powerful. I think I just got the bug and I want to pass it on like a virus. And I do think that people do have that story, and connecting to an audience that might relate or see themselves in a reflection of that story is super-powerful. And I don't know, I just like people finding that. Maybe I read too much Joseph Campbell, but I think going back and finding your story and then splurting that story out to your tribe, there's something so human about it.
What was the first time that you did stand-up?
Oh, my gosh, it was horrible. I actually did stand-up when I first came to Chicago. I went to a sports bar in Wrigleyville and I was eighteen years old and I was like, I'm gonna rule! And I basically got up at this open mic and all these drunk frat dudes were just yelling "Show us your boobs" and things like that out at me, so that was real bad. That scarred me for a while. I didn't do stand-up for a very long time. But now I can handle that. Years later, I can handle that story very well. It taught me how to work a room, even an aggressive room. I try to remind myself, sometimes you gotta start loving those moments of failure. Because stand-up comedy you never know, it could be the greatest night of your life, or you could wanna kill yourself. Once those lines start bleeding together and you can start kind of liking the failure or liking when the joke just gets silence -- that's when I think you're really invested. You gotta fight a little bit, and you gotta kind of love the fight. Kelsie Huff will host the opening-night celebration, complete with the "All You Can Artist" buffet, starting at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Lazy Dog Lounge; tickets are $5. An after party follows in the Fringe Central Beer Garden.
This Show Might Be Terribleruns August 18 at 4 p.m., August 19 at 5 p.m., August 20 at 9:30 p.m., August 22 at 9:30 p.m., August 24 at 7:30 p.m., and August 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the East Theater at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Tickets, $10 for students and seniors and $12 general admission, are available at the door or in advance at boulderfringe.com. "You Time! Personal Narratives in Stand-up Comedy" runs from noon to 3 p.m. on August 19 at Naropa. To register, $45, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 917-495-2277.
"Big Time" will end every day of the Fringe Fest, starting tomorrow and running through August 25. It's free at the Folsom Street Coffee House.
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