If you want to know why some comedians go overboard in asking fans and followers to vote for them in Comedy Central's annual "Stand-Up Showdown," then just look at the recent record. Jeff Dunham topped the vote in 2008 and finished runner-up in 2009, and got himself a ventriloquism sketch series on Comedy Central. Last year, season two Last Comic Standing finalist Tammy Pescatelli vaulted to the top. And that helped her launch her own hourlong reality/sitcom on WEtv.
A Stand-Up Mother premieres tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific following the debut of the new Joan and Melissa Rivers series.
Pescatelli spoke with me recently over the phone. But first, let's take a peek at the series. Roll it!
So that's the skinny. She's from Ohio, her husband is from Brooklyn, and they picked up and left Los Angeles for Meadville, Penn. — "The good thing about it is that it has nothing to do with show business," she says — to live closer to her parents and other relatives.
Each segment of the hour, however, opens with a small bit of Pescatelli on the road performing stand-up.
Walk me through this — which came first, moving to Pennsylvania, or getting the TV show? When I met you in Las Vegas in 2008, you were still in L.A., right?
"I got pregnant, the writer's strike hit, and we got out of L.A. We were back and forth," she said. "Things started to get clearer and clearer that the baby didn't belong in Los Angeles."
What does that mean? "He couldn't figure out his gang affiliation. His favorite color is green. No. He didn't have family out there. My job is going on a plane and going somewhere. Telling jokes is second. There was only one of us at home with the baby."
Pescatelli said she had bought a house in Meadville years ago. "Ever since Last Comic," she said. "I had hoped my parents would retire here." But she, her husband Luca, and son little Luca could have ended up in another big city entirely. "We actually got a place in New York. It was in Brooklyn. And a house means a body-length away from my mother-in-law, so no." That wasn't going to happen."
You'd lived on camera before for Last Comic Standing, in a house even, but your family hadn't. Did you have to train them or prep them beforehand for living in front of camera crews?
"That's why I'm the creator and the executive producer of the show. My son is not talent. It's not like I'm Kate Gosselin making my kids get on camera. It's not his job to propel my career. He was minimal. You'll see clips of him, but he was minimal. My husband is an actor. He gets it. My parents and my mother-in-law I tried to shield, but they ended up being in it because they're bigger personalities.
"Granted, this is a reality sitcom and that was a competition show, but I know the burden and reality of editing. Shocking, that I'm exposing the reality of TV. American Idol is fixed!"
"It's not a documentary. They can't follow you around for 24 hours for five months. And I had two friends die while we were (filming), and we couldn't follow me around to funerals. That wouldn't be fun."
We know from seeing Dave Chappelle and others that it's possible for a working stand-up comedian to live in a rural town far away from L.A. or NYC, as long as you have steady work. Have you found that the move has changed either the quantity or quality of your road gigs? In one scene in the premiere, your manager, Anna Babbitt, is calling you to get out to Hollywood for an audition.
"It's tough for me in a lot of ways. Number one, I worked my whole life to get out of towns like this. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. Chappelle can do it because his wife stays home. Usually when a female comedian leaves Hollywood, she stops being a comedian. That's where the struggle comes from. I'll keep spinning these plates as long as I can. I'll keep getting on planes.
"I take probably 85 percent of the offers I'm given. Last year I worked 32 weeks, but a week could be one day on a coprorate account. I worked a lot. My problem was I worked throughout the process of filming, and you book yourself out so far in advance, when we finally started producing the show, I'd booked the entire fall quarter.
"My family, they'd have three days off. I'd fly to Boston or wherever and do the gig, and come back and be exhausted. That will never happen again.
"There's no ego thing out here, too. That takes you down a peg. When you talk to your neighbors and say, 'I'm doing a show,' that's great. They say, 'That's great, have you mowed your lawn. The grass looks long. It's ruining the neighborhood.' I feel my act has grown exponentially…here it's just real stuff. I hear about people getting laid off, the salmonella. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me real. I'm really good at convincing myself of that."
It must help that on WEtv, you're paired with another female comedian in Joan Rivers.
"Yes, and I was so blessed that the network chose to give me a fantasy lead-in. To have her to lead in is just an honor."
Have you seen her series?
"I haven't seen her show. But I have seen her movie (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) four times in the past month to remind me it has been done. To remind myself when I feel like I'm going to collapse.
"It's tough, too, Sean, because she is a legend. To be in the same category but not be in the same category is a tough comparison. I'm not Joan Rivers. I'm not kidding anybody….but it's really exciting. It also opens you up to a lot of criticism, not that I pay attention, especially when it comes from your own mother."
Being on WEtv might be tough to pull in male viewers like me, though, right?
"That's what I'm afraid of. I tried to balance my audience, and not just be a female comedian. When people accuse me of only talking about being Italian, I take it as a great compliment. They didn't even notice I was a woman! Maybe I can bring them a new market. I didn't think (the series) was too chicky."
Did I see Ant in a clip from a future episode?
"Yes. I pulled in a lot of favors. Pat Cooper, Kathleen Madigan and Ant. Three of my besties. Some great comedians."
As someone from Cleveland now living outside of Pittsburgh, did you have any trouble as an Ohioan loving Pennsylvania?
"My brother got a job coaching here. He's a football coach. The Browns are so non-existent anymore as a football team, so now there's no bitterness with the Steelers. But if they were competitive, we would have a rough time."
You mention the Joan Rivers documentary. Do you feel like she did in that film, in terms of trying to fill up the calendar with gigs?
"The economy hit comics hard. And when they were filming it, that was the heart of the economic breakdown. People don't want to pay money unless they love you now. They go specifically to see their favorites. Period. They might get dragged by somebody else to a show or club." She said stand-ups are competing with celebrities, reality TV people and even Internet stars for gigs. "There are also humorous people, not comics, who get huge on viral video. Bo Burnham is very funny. But then there are people who aren't comics who perform and they con the comedy clubs into booking them. You have to be actually funny for people to pay to see you twice. Anybody will go to one show. Unless they're stalkeing you, and then they'll pay and sit through three shows."
You say that as if you've lived it.
"Yeah. I've seen it happen. Last Comic brought a lot of weirdos out of the woodwork."
So did you watch LCS last summer?
"No. One of my 'kids' that I love the most, I feel like he did really well, Tommy Johnigan. But no, I'm usually working. When I'm not working, I'm trying to pay attention and do mommy duties. Unless I'm ignoring him by going on Facebook." She confessed to spending lots of time on Facebook.
How do you feel about Twitter?
"Some people Twitter too much. I wouldn't like you even if you told me all that stuff about you in real life."