If you caught David Letterman’s sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey last weekend, then you might have noticed ads promoting a special “sneak peek” at a series called My Life is a Joke.
Well, it’s not a series just yet. But it is something special — a televised look at five comedians at different points in their careers, not competing against each other for your votes, but striving for success on their own individual terms. And they’re all women. In comedy. In Chicago.
The special re-airs Saturday night on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Page Hurwitz Productions (the name should sound familiar to comedians and comedy fans from Last Comic Standing) put the quintet together on film, and Hurwitz told The Comic’s Comic that Oprah lent her Twitter goodwill to the show over the weekend. OWN said earlier this week that no additional episodes had been ordered. Yet. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Hurwitz said. “I’d really like to shoot some more episodes. This was a bit of a passion project for me and I think OWN could use a little comedy on the channel. So, we shall see.”
Here are the first five minutes of My Life is a Joke, which take you inside Zanies, Jokes and Notes, Chicago Underground Comedy, the Laugh Factory and Second City. Roll the clip!
Now let’s meet the five comedians showcased in the special: Lisa Laureta, Patti Vasquez, Natalie Jose, Kellye Howard and Jessica Joy.
Vasquez is headlining this weekend at Skyline Comedy Cafe in Appleton, Wisc., where she says the locals already are hyped up about the Green Bay Packers.
“The audiences are so funny,” she said. “They’ll do a slow burn on a joke and enjoy it. I love them here.” Watching the special, for her, was surreal. “My favorite line of the show was when Lisa thought she was going to get $50 for a show at The Laugh Factory: ‘$50? that’s two Shih Tzus!'”
“A few years ago, someone wanted to do a reality show just about my family, not about comedy,” Vasquez said. Being the family’s breadwinner, living with mother in the house, raising a child with special needs. It all seemed too intense for her at the time. But this time around, being part of a group of a comedians, didn’t feel so pressuring.
Vasquez did find she opened up to the cameras more during filming. “You’re vulnerable,” she said. “On Facebook and Twitter, I never post pictures of my sons, and now I put them on TV. My husband is a deer in the headlights” when the cameras turn on him. “But my mom is the star.”
Here is a clip of Vazquez’s mother offering advice on how to deliver a punchline about peanut butter.
Vasquez is a Chicago gal through and through. Her family immigrated to the city’s north side and stayed. “I love my city,” she said. Her home club is Zanies, so she’s happy they caught footage of her there. The Laugh Factory, new to the Chicago scene, still baffles her at this point, as she has performed all of her one-woman shows in that venue — when it used to be the Lakeshore Theater. “It’s very strange. It’s weird to me. My parents, when they used to date, they went there when it was a movie theater.”
If we see more episodes of My Life is a Joke, though, Vasquez would like to have the cameras follow her out of the Windy City — to see “the career, being on the road, all the writing of the material,” she said. “I’m hoping the show will elevate my profile, so people will know who I am. For me, I really want to show my family and what it’s like to raise a child with a disability, so it’s not pity. We’re not superheroes. We’re doing the best that we can.”
Vasquez loved seeing how her fellow comedians were portrayed, too. “I have such a girl crush on Jessica Joy,” she said. “I told her when we were filming that she had a perfect blend of Marilyn Monroe and Tina Fey.”
As for her own portrayal: “I think it’s funny that I’m the den mother. Is that code word for oldest person here? I understand it’s complimentary. But it sounds like I’m a tree trunk. Very stalwart. It holds up those tree branches very well, doesn’t it?” Then again, she added: “At Zanies, they call me the stalwart comedian…that’s been my home club for the very beginning.”
She knows it’s not the end, either. “There’s more of everybody’s story,” she said. “The cork board that my mother pulled that peanut butter (index card) off of…I’d been going back and forth from L.A. trying to pitch my series.” Where does that stand? And is it on film? “I can’t tell you what happened, but it’s in the can.”
“You do have to do this (stand-up comedy) with blinders on and run your own race,” Vasquez said. “I know I’m going to cross the finish line…You have to find your glory in your own way. If someone else gets a late show appearance or a sitcom, that’s great for them. And now I have to go get mine!”
Laureta just finished with another “client” before getting on the phone late Friday. “I had a big Belgian shepherd in the tub at the time. And then the second time, I had little King Charles on the table clipping nails,” she said. So, haven’t earned enough gigs to cancel out the day job just yet. “Hopefully that will be remedied soon, but we’ll see.”
Laureta watched the special Sunday with Natalie Jose at a mutual friend’s place. She acknowledged she wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed onto the project.
“I was just like, ‘eh, whatever’ at the beginning. As we got closer and closer, I started to get nervous. Because reality shows don’t have the best reputation. All I could think about was Real Housewives, and I didn’t want to rip anybody’s hair out! Page and everybody reassured me, ‘No, not that kind (of show).'” Then after seeing the hour on TV: “It was a lot less unbearable to watch, which is huge compliment to them because I hate to watch myself…Keep in mind, comedy changes very fast, and life changes fast, so some of that is out-of-date.”
Jamie Masada just happened to be at The Laugh Factory the night of your audition? Masada managed to get on camera a couple of times during the hour.
“Yeah, that was a weird walk-through,” Laureta said. Did you talk to him afterward? “He walks by and says ‘Funny girl,’ then walked right past and talked to one of the other girls, then walked upstairs. That was it. That was the only interaction.” That was in October. Now, in January, Laureta is looking forward to her “second Rising Star at Zanies,” a chance to prove herself to the club’s booker as a regular feature act. She said Vasquez “also is being very helpful” with advice and potential gigs.
Laureta’s boyfriend received screen time, too, in the home they share. But there’s no competition there, she said. “We do different types of stand-up. Usually, when people are booking. They’re like, ‘Shit, we need a girl on the show.’ Or someone with weird characters. So those are the shows I get,” she said. “We’re not competing for the same thing, usually. Even when we are, may the best man win. If you know what I mean.”
Originally from Colorado, Laureta moved to Chicago to train with the city’s venerable sketch and improv centers. She came to New York City a couple of years ago with her last iO Harold team. What she noticed that summer weekend: “How different how everybody thought of improv. ‘Those people are from New York, those people are from Chicago, those people are from L.A.’ We’re all nerds. It was very weird.”
If she gets the chance to appear on future episodes, she says she hopes viewers will see how it really is in comedy. “This is the truth of it,” she said. “So just more of that. And keep the no fighting. It would have to be made up. We have enough drama in our lives trying to do this, so we don’t need to create it.”
“I write a lot. But it would be really, really boring to watch me writing” spec scripts and sketches, she said. “It would just be a lot of close-ups of dogs.”
Did you have any reservations about signing up for a reality TV look at comedy? “I think I had some reservations,” Jose said. “Not a big reality TV show fan, you know. And I think certain things come to mind when you think of that, but this is a docu-series. I was actually pretty happy with it. I thought they put me in a nice light. I think I was in it the least of anyone, but I was kind of OK with that. The other thing is, the other ladies had more dramatic story lines.”
Her narrative had her biggest worry centered around when and whether to let her father see her perform stand-up for the first time. In a scene offstage before that ever happens, we see him express concerns that by doing comedy, she might die young of a drug overdose. He cited two male comedians as evidence.
Natalie said of her father now: “He never goes to see stand-up. He has no concept of stand-up comedy, really. So that doesn’t surprise me. My parents barely watch TV or movies, so they’re really out of it.” Did they watch the special on OWN? “They did, they did. I think they were happy with it. My mom was nervous. My dad was happy about how he came across.” Did they learn anything more about what you do as a comedian? “I guess they went from zero to knowing something. Also, they think of the biggest names in that field. They don’t just think about the normal artists doing it. Who’s the biggest name I can think of to reference it? Yeah, maybe I’ll be addicted to speed at that point!”
Since filming in October, she felt as though she began picking up more booking. “I did nine shows in December. That was a lot of shows for me,” she said, “with everything.” Everything includes a day job and gigs with three different bands.
What message about comedy or about herself would she like to send through additional TV episodes? “All I cared about watching the premiere, was hoping I came across as naturally funny. It can be so awkward during filming, especially if you’ve never done it. I don’t think I was even talking in my regular voice at the start. So that’s the goal, to be myself as much as possible, and be funny. My work won’t let me film here, so I have my own obstacles to overcome, in my story lines.”
“And I’m the ‘normal’ one.”
Do your parents still worry about what path comedy might lead you down? “I’m sure they think it’s more, if I get famous, or if the pressure builds,” she said. “I don’t think they think, at this stage, I’m going to Blowtown before every show.”
OWN’s logline about her: “Kellye, a funny and fierce African-American engaged mother of two, finds her voice as she opens up about the recent death of her daughter.”
She had watched a few documentaries about comedy and comedians before joining this project, including Phunny Business, a film about the saga of All Jokes Aside, a black comedy club on Chicago’s South Side. “I thought it was very honest,” Howard said.
When it came time for her close-up on camera, she said she agreed because of “my respect for Page, as a producer. And Page, too, was a comedian. She knows how we speak and how we move through this industry. And then to be part of something so epic. We’re all women and we all have a story to tell. And we all tell it so comedically.”
She watched the special last weekend “with probably about 30 of my family members and friends.” Howard said afterward: “I think it was amazing. It displayed exactly what we wanted it to display. I especially liked the way it depicted me. The truth that I try to tell when I’m onstage…my daughter and what I went through with her. The pain and how I needed it to be seen.”
Howard said some of her relatives cried watching it, because they had seen so much personal growth out of her. “I’m completely different from how they may have thought I would have turned out,” she said.
How so? “I was that girl who got kicked out of two high schools growing up,” she said. “I was that girl who kicked ass and asked questions later.” Even in young adulthood: “I still was a quick person. Quick to react. I never really sat back and thought about a situation. When I had a daughter, I was forced to think.”
Did you have any doubts about trying the new material about her in the middle of your club set, instead of working it out first at open mics? “I just felt it was appropriate to do. The hell with it! Hopefully it worked. If it didn’t, they would have caught my failure on TV. Hopefully it works, and it did, because it was a joke that was near and dear to me.”
What message do you hope to get across to viewers, whether they’re comedians or merely comedy fans? “Comedically, I hope to inspire people to be themselves. Be open. Be free. Don’t let the mishaps and troubles of life get them down. Because I had to push forwad. I think my message as a comedian is to just keep moving forward, by any means necessary.”
Joy needed a bit of help from a friend to watch the special’s first airing on OWN. “I’m in New York City right now,” she said, “in an airbnb, and we don’t have cable. My roommate put her laptop facing the TV and Skype’d it. So i got the general gist of the show.”
Joy is in NYC this weekend performing as part of Baby Wants Candy’s 50 Shades! the Musical at the Gramercy Theatre. “We did it in Chicago, it was a huge hit.” After this weekend, they’ll take the show on the road to New Jersey.
On the OWN special, you see Joy at work, onstage and heading to her screen test audition inside 30 Rockefeller in NYC for SNL, but not the screen test itself. For obvious reasons. Joy said she’s an “open book” and that producers could film pretty much everything else. “I didn’t want them to contact SNL,” she said. “I didn’t want them, not to, like, mess it up for me. I didn’t want to be,’Here I am for my audition, and here’s my camera crew!'” After her preliminary audition a couple of months before, she received the phone call for the screen test. But, no one-on-one with Lorne Michaels afterward. “They didn’t have me talk to him, so I knew pretty much right away I didn’t get it. Plus, I saw the other auditions.”
“Kate McKinnon was in my group,” Joy said. “She blew it away so hard, so there she is. Her audition was so good. I can’t hate on Kate.”
As far as what she hoped people would see via My Life is a Joke: “My personal goal on the show was to show that sketch comedy is different from stand-up. Because I know a lot of people who came to see us at Second City were expecting to see stand-up. (So sketch), that’s my voice on the show. The other girls are always like, ‘You should try stand-up! You should try stand-up!’ I try to stand tall and proud that it’s OK to just do sketch.”