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Q&A with Aisha Tyler

Aisha Tyler may not be the complete package, but she comes a helluva closer than the average human. The Dartmouth grad's appeared in recurring roles on some of television's biggest hits, including Friends and 24, hosted Talk Soup back when that meant something, appeared in films ranging from Balls of Fury to the forthcoming Black Water Transit, demonstrated her knowledge of Asian action cinema while filling in for Roger Ebert on his signature movie-crit show, and even kicked ass on Celebrity Jeopardy. She won't be satirized on Saturday Night Live for her dim-wittedness anytime soon.

What's next for Tyler? A new talk show in the pilot stage, which is getting such a push from ABC, the network producing it, that she had to cut short her summer standup tour -- a jaunt inspired by Aisha Tyler Is Lit: Live at the Fillmore, a Comedy Central special now available in an expanded DVD edition. Fortunately, though, she saved enough time to headline two shows each tonight and tomorrow at Comedy Works South, as well as to take part in the following Q&A, which seems likely to make even more geeks go ga-ga over her. Them's the breaks...

The conversation begins with Tyler tracing the roots of her standup career back to his college days. Next, she gabs about the way a Writer's Guild strike led her back to the microphone; previews the talk show; discusses the balance she tries to strike between topicality and timelessness; notes her latest forays into directing for Will Ferrell's FunnyOrDie.com site; waxes rhapsodic about flicks from Hong Kong; dishes about the work for which she's most frequently recognized; and praises the immediacy of live comedy of the sort she'll deliver tonight.

Westword (Michael Roberts): How old were you when you first got interested in doing standup comedy?

Aisha Tyler: I was actually almost an adult, really. I was definitely one of those kids who had, like, a prized collection of old Steve Martin albums or the kind of sweaty Redd Foxx vinyl. I didn't really grasp that you could make a living at standup comedy until I was probably in college. Dartmouth used to do this once-a-month comedy club -- a comedy performance in the student union. And it would usually be some no-name guy, but it was usually really funny, and me and my friends would go, and I just loved it. I loved that you would leave after a half-hour and your stomach would hurt, your face would hurt.

That was really kind of the first time where I thought, oh, wow, this is something you could really do for a living. Even though I had been doing sketch and improv since high school, it had almost been like a hobby for me until that point. And then, Steven Wright came and did a concert at Dartmouth, and I went by myself and watched the whole show. And that reinforced the whole idea.

WW: So while Steven Wright was an influence on you, it was as much the atmosphere of the whole comedy scene as anything else that pushed you in the standup direction?

AT: And the experience. The experience of watching live comedy can be very transporting. People who've only seen comedy on television, they're really surprised when they see a live show. I've had a lot of fans say, "This is my first standup comedy show, and I didn't realize it was going to be so amazing, so much fun." There's something about laughing in a room full of people in front of someone on stage. It's just this involuntary, extraordinary feeling. And I remember feeling that feeling, too, and it being awesome. So I don't know if it was the atmosphere. It was really the experience, the actual experience of going to a comedy show, that got me excited about possibly doing it myself.

WW: Of course, there's a contrast between going to a show and being the person on the stage. And it strikes me that a person doing standup may be more vulnerable than just about any other kind of performer, because the odds complete humiliation are so high...

AT: Absolutely.

WW: Was it difficult to get on the stage as a standup for the first time difficult? And was that fear of disaster omnipresent at first?

AT: You know, it's interesting. Every comedian will tell you that their first set is their best set, and I think it's because they don't know quite what to expect. You've never experienced failure, so you don't have a sense of what that would feel like. I'd done a lot of sketch comedy at that point, and improv, so I wasn't afraid of getting onstage at all. I think I had an unfair advantage in terms of that. I had a million nervous tics and I looked at the ground and I was totally weird and skittery, but I wasn't really nervous in a traditional sense, because I'd been doing all kinds of different performing onstage at that point.

Why comedians will tell you that their first time was their best set is because you have no expectations. Any laugh you get is a bonus. You've never gotten a laugh before, so if you get one kind of half-hearted chuckle, you're like, "I'm a genius! Boo-yah! Richard Pryor who?" You know what I mean? So I got a couple of half-hearted little titters and after that, I was hooked. Completely hooked.

WW: You got away from standup for a while, and then you returned to it in recent years. And I understand that the Writers Guild strike was an impetus. Is that right?

AT: I was just talking about this with an actor-friend of mine last night. There was nothing going on in town. A lot of productions were shut down, and there's a real pace and nature to reading scripts and looking at projects and meeting with people. And then it all had come to a halt. So I just had the opportunity. It wasn't so much the impetus as the opportunity to get back out there. I hadn't really left standup behind. I was just so busy doing television that I wasn't really able to get away and tour with any kind of consistency.

I also didn't want to take a lot of gigs and then blow them out, which happens a lot. You take a project and then you get a movie or you get a television project, and then you have to cancel everything, which actually happened to me this summer. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to protect my relationships with club owners and not pull out of dates. Fans get really excited to see you and then you can't show up. So it was more that I was laying low a little bit. And then I got this long break, and I thought, I've got all this time. It'd be awesome to get back out on the road. And I did that all last year, and it culminated in my comedy special.

WW: You mentioned "this summer." Have you already had to postpone some dates?

AT: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was hoping to tour into the fall, and then I just got a new TV project, and I've had to cancel or postpone a bunch of dates.

WW: Is that the talk-show project?

AT: Yeah.

WW: Can you tell me a little bit about it?

AT: We're hard at work, all of the TV monkeys cranking away on this project. It hasn't really taken form yet, so there's not a lot to tell other than that the show's not going to be a typical talk show. It's going to be about comedy. First and foremost, it's going to be about comedy. It's not going to be an Oprah or a Tyra. It's going to be driven and fully focused on being a hilarious hour every day with lots of produced pieces and sketches every day. That's a lot of what I did on Talk Soup. We'll have celebrity guests and we'll do lots of stuff like that. But it's really about making a very, very funny hour of social and political commentary every day.

WW: That certainly sounds very ambitious. It's a lot easier to sit down and chat with someone about their new project than it is to come up three new sketches each day or something like that. Is that prospect daunting to you? Or are you looking forward to the challenge?

AT: Oh, I'm looking forward to the challenge. I love to be busy and I love to be challenged and I never go out thinking, I think I'm going to half-ass this today (laughs). That's not how I think. I think the opportunity to do something new comes around very rarely in this business, and you really have to be your own toughest critic and challenge yourself to do something different. And in the conversations we've been having about the show, every day we wake up and say, "Why are we doing it this way? And can we do it better?" And yeah, it's going to be a challenge, but why go out and do something lame? Might as well set out to do something brilliant, and then maybe it'll fall back to good, rather than set out for lame. Because you know what you get when you set out for lame? Super-extra-double lame (laughs).

WW: I understand that ABC involved. Has there been any determination at this point whether it's for the network for syndication? Or is that all up in the air?

AT: We're just going to make the best show that we can, and then we'll see.

WW: Did getting out on the road as a standup help inspire the talk show? Did the ideas feed off each other in some ways?

AT: Not so much that as maybe doing the special. That was my first production under my own shingle and I loved it. It was an incredibly burdensome job. I had producing partners, but I did everything. I scouted locations. Every hire, every design choice came down to me, and it was an incredible amount of work, and I loved it. I loved that huge burden of trying to put a project together, assembling all the pieces. And again, with the special, trying to do something that was different and original. A lot of times, what people will do is turn in an hour of their material, but we wanted to do more. We shot a longer special, we went out and did extra behind-the-scenes stuff, we shot a featurette, we made a music video. It was like, how far can we stretch this dollar? How much more can we give people above and beyond what they're expecting? And I found the production process and the experience of being a producer really exhilarating. So that's probably more of where it came out of. Like, "It would be great to do this every day."

WW: In terms of the material you used for the special, what kind of things did you want to focus on, and how might that have been different from the material you might have used during your first period as a standup?

AT: I think you're always evolving as a standup, and so when you do a special, that hour is your best hour in that moment. You know what I mean? It wasn't like a retrospective. It wasn't like, "Let me plug some bits in from year three and give people the broad swath of my comedic development, bah-bah-bah." (Laughs.) It was like, what's the best set I can turn in right now, and it's snapshot. So there's a part of that set that are more classic bits that people love and know and always want to hear, and there was a lot from that special that had just been written six months prior to shooting the special.

You don't want it to feel too temporal, you don't want it to feel too much of its time, because then you won't be able to go watch it in the future. But at the same time, you just want to do the best show you can on that day, in that moment. And I think it was. I think we were really happy with how it turned out. We shot even more than ended up on the DVD and let some things go that we're keeping for the second special. And now I'm into an entire new hour. So if they've already seen the special, it's all new, all new material.

WW: Obviously, political material has to be very topical. How quickly do you cycle through things and move on to the next thing?

AT: I'm not a political comedian in the traditional sense. I'm not like a Lewis Black or anything like that. I do sociocultural commentary, and that's more overarching. It lives longer. It has bigger ideas than just what happened yesterday. And you're right. When a joke's so topical, they don't really get the chance to build and live a life. When you see a classic comedian like a Richard Pryor or an Eddie Murphy or a Chris Rock, they've built those bits, and those bits are big, and they live. And it takes time to really craft a bit and polish it and make it perfect. It's almost impossible to do with political material.

I love politics. I have graduate degrees in government and politics. But it's just a different kind of comedy. And it sometimes can divide your audience. So my stuff is much more personal and a little more about the world. And I'm writing all the time. But an awful lot of it is finding a great bit and turning it into something spectacular.

WW: Given your new project, are you going to have to put acting on hold for a while? Or are you continuing to pursue roles?

AT: I think it's all of a piece. I'm going to have less time to act that I did before if the show gets on the air and we're doing it every day. But I'm directing a series of short films right now for FunnyOrDie.com over the summer. I'm doing three. And I plan on doing more directing in the future on my hiatus, or on my hia-tie, I think is how they pronounce it (laughs).

WW: How would you describe the FunnyOrDie films?

AT: Well, if people have seen the first music video I did for my special, we're doing two more comedic music videos like that. This next one is a very cool, kind of '70s era, blaxploitation music video. It's very funny, about a girl and a car. And we don't know if she wants to have sex with the car, or if she's just in love with the car, but it's a very dirty song about a car. We just shot that on Tuesday and we're cutting it now. It's in post now. And we're going to do another kind of '80s era video, sort of a take-off on Bullitt, so that's going to be a lot of fun. And then I'm doing a longer, comedic action short at the end of the summer. If people want to know the flavor of what I'm doing, they can definitely watch that music video, because I directed that video. And I'm definitely planning on doing more feature directing.

WW: I happened to catch the episode of Ebert and Roeper, when you filled in for Roger Ebert, and if I remember correctly, your video picks were Infernal Affairs and Oldboy.

AT: Yes!

WW: Will people be seeing the chop-socky, Asian-action influence in any of the videos and shorts you'll be making?

AT: Definitely there are all kinds of '70s, '80s and Hong Kong influences in almost everything I do, some smaller and some larger. In this next one, it's definitely influenced by independent and blaxploitation films of the '70s, and the same thing with the piece we're going to do after this. The comedic action short we're going to do after this is just my dream baby. Really, if I could just make and direct and act in action movies the rest of my life, that'd be ideal. So we're putting together a larger comedic piece that's going to be essentially five minutes of straight action.

WW: Of the TV shows you've done in the past, what are the ones people you come up to talk to you reference most often? Is it still Friends?

AT: I have a lot of fans from Talk Soup who got introduced to me then and loved the show. And then, obviously, Friends. And there's a big Ghost Whisperer contingent. But it's amazing the diversity of how people find out about you. And now that the special's been airing on Comedy Central, there's a lot of enthusiasm from people who just met me then, just got to know me from that.

WW: Can you recognize the ones who fell in love with you from Celebrity Jeopardy coming a mile off?

AT: (Laughs.) We do get that! We do get that, which is nice. Because I'm three for three on my celebrity game shows. I won the celebrity Weakest Link, and then I was the winningest celebrity on Celebrity Password, and then I won Jeopardy. I may have to retire with my three belts (laughs).

WW: I only saw the Jeopardy episode, and it was clear to me that you were taking it very seriously. You obviously didn't want to come in second to Tom Bergeron....

AT: No, there was no way going home like that. I love Tom; he's an angel. But there was no way I was letting that guy beat me (laughs). I'm a very laidback person in most of my life, but I am very competitive and very driven. I was studying for Jeopardy, which is an impossible task. You'd have to read the entire Internet, pretty much. But I take that stuff very seriously. It's hard when you hear from friends you went to college with, and they're like, "Oh my God, how much money did you spend on your degree? How couldn't you have known the answer about Nicole Richie?" And I'd be like, "I was studying Renaissance architecture and physics principles and then they ask me about Nicole Richie?" I completely froze on that one. But in the end, I triumphed, which was nice. And I got the hard stuff. I got the Beta Centauri and things like that. I came through when it was critical (laughs).

WW: On your website, I read about a film you're in called Black Water Transit. Is there a release date on that yet?

AT: It's supposed to come out this year. I know that's what they're saying on IMDB Pro. And we've seen trailers on it, and it looks amazing. But the director who directed it is notoriously meticulous in his post process, so it's taking a while.

WW: So it's not a holdup from a distribution angle?

AT: I don't think that's it at all. The director is Tony Kaye, and the last movie that he made he took a very long to finish as well, American History X.

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WW: And that came out a lot of years ago [specifically 1998].

AT: Exactly. He cut a trailer for it in the fall, and we love the trailer, so we're really excited to see the final project. It looks very cool.

WW: Clearly, you've got a lot of irons in the fire. But is one of the nice things about standup is, the feedback is so instantaneous? Whereas any feedback you get for a film like Black Water Transit will come months or years after you finished working on it?

AT: Absolutely. I think that as an artist, there is something very electric and satisfying about having that immediate interaction with an audience. That experience. It's something I really love about standup. It's not that I forgot about it. It's just that I had taken such a long period of time away from it that when I came back, I was like, "Ahh, I forgot that this is such an awesome feeling, such an awesome experience." And it's also my chance to spend time with fans, which you don't get in film and television. You get to individually see people and meet them and talk to them. And I like that just as much as I like getting up onstage.

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