First Gig Worst Gig

Melissa Stephens

Melissa Stephens

Making a grand if belated full-length UK bow, please welcome Melissa Stephens. From Georgia via California, big improv troupes and telly (acting on Key & Peele, writing for Brett Goldstein's Soulmates) and now, finally, the Edinburgh Fringe. Fingers crossed. Plus there's a London warm-up at 2Northdown on July 29. But what is that show?

"Over time I realised that a lot of my jokes that got the most laughs were things about my cringeworthy family, the wild South, and my bizarre perception and actions," Stephens explains. "Hot Dogs & Tears has material that I did from very early on and then a lot of new stuff peppered in. It's essentially been brewing for a while.

"In LA it's hard to book stand-up gigs and to find a gig that will let you do a full hour of material if you aren't famous. It's always a hustle to just do a tight 7-10. I've heard from English comedians that LA is a lot more cutthroat in terms of vibe."

A good comedy bootcamp, though?

"It's gifted me a helpful set of tools to deal with any environment, from bombing, to not getting enough stage time, to doing a show with an idol or enemies.

"So, after doing that hustle for many years and starting my own shows, I yearned to do more, and I heard about people going to Edinburgh, loving it and doing an hour consecutively for a month. It was a dream of mine to have that opportunity. To see what would happen to me and the material if I got a chance to really see how an audience outside of LA responded to me."

And to do that well, help was enlisted. A founder member of LA's IAMA Theatre, Stephens approached their artistic director Stefanie Black with the show idea, and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. "They mainly do plays," the comic explains, "but their mission is new work, and this was new work, just done by a comedian and in a different format.

Melissa Stephens

"I first did a series of workshops with the stuff that had always gone well in my sets to see if all of my jokes worked as a cohesive show. Then I got going on planning to go to the 2020 Edinburgh, and we all know what happened there..."

Indeed - not a lot. Stephens has been busy anyway though, working on several intriguing TV projects in various stages of development, "writing my first feature that I want to direct," and eagerly awaiting the next stage.

"I don't act anymore but the one thing I missed during the pandemic was performing stand-up," she says. "If all goes well, I'd love to come back with the next hour I'm working on."

Right now though, let's soar on back to the City of Angels.

First Gig?

I think it was at a place called the Downtown Comedy Club and the year was 2009. I had been doing improv in LA since 2005. We travelled like 10 miles to downtown Los Angeles. Garrett Morris was the owner or running the club and I knew him from SNL which made it even more nerve-wracking. I went with some of my actress girlfriends from IAMA as moral support - which I would never do again. Wait till you're good to invite friends.

Here is my career in a nutshell. I wanted to be a serious dramatic actress. I moved from Georgia to New York and went to drama school. No one ever really took me seriously and when I moved to LA everyone said I should do comedy. I went to [improv hotspot] Groundlings and started on the journey to what I thought was going to be SNL. From there I got into [Groundlings'] Sunday company but was booted and never made it on to SNL.

Ouch. But you turned up on TV elsewhere?

I worked as an actor regularly from being on shows like Californication to Key & Peele. I tried UCB [another improv institution: Upright Citizens Brigade] and was constantly trying to get people together to do improv shows all the time. It was so hard to get people committed and booked and I could never control if the show was funny.

Exhausted by this I decided to try stand-up and started running a show at UCB for [the Zooey Deschanel co-founded platform] HelloGiggles. I wasn't a complete newbie in the comedy community so it was a lateral move but I think people secretly have feelings about improv sketch comedians moving over to stand-up.

I started doing comedy when all things were coming up COMEDY in LA. Funny or Die was born, Facebook, Channel 101, HelloGiggles, Instagram, podcasts, webseries, etc. Everyone in Los Angeles was running around with wigs, costumes, bits, cameras all trying to make something that went viral or was funny. Usually it was neither, but it was a great testing ground to fail.

At the same time in my stand-up shows I was also bombing and sometimes doing great, it was a real mixed bag. Regardless of the struggle and questioning myself all the time I never went back to improv or sketch.

Favourite show, ever?

The Jen Kirkman Dysfunctional Christmas Show at The Improv in West Hollywood. I love Christmas (hint: you'll understand if you see my show). Jen is a friend and her audience is the best and so is she. She did a sketch of a Hallmark Christmas movie parody, and did a set; Chris Franjola, Morgan Murphy, and Merrill Markoe were also on the show. Everyone was different and hilarious. It felt like I had graduated as an adult into comedy.

I was doing a show with comedians I admired, and I also felt like I belonged. It was warm and people were ready to laugh. I did a bunch of stuff about my family and Christmas time. It was all new stuff about how fucked-up shit happens to me at Christmas. Shockingly, so much happens at Christmas because that's the main time I visit home.

Some of those jokes are in my show and some of them have turned into a TV show.

Melissa Stephens. Copyright: Dean Chekvala

Worst gig?

I was in London because my husband is British. This was 2016 or 2017 or 2018; what is time? We were in London to get a break from family because holidays are a lot. I was still operating under the operandi that doing as many shows as possible is important no matter what the show is because that is what makes you a serious comedian. I was also curious if I was funny somewhere else besides LA.

Mainly it's my fault for doing a show on New Year's Eve in a Holiday Inn. That sounds like a terrible idea no matter what country you're in. I arrived and the host was very quirky and felt like he had been doing this show for 30 years but never performs outside of his own show. But this show is his kingdom.

Were there many in his kingdom, that night?

My husband and friends were there unfortunately, and they were half the audience besides a few tourists in the hotel. This was helpful for me, because it's like LA shows in that getting an audience is not an easy thing. No matter the zip code. I felt like I was a nuisance to the host whenever I tried to speak to him. He was very busy getting ready for the show or getting bits ready, it was a frenetic energy. Which didn't really match the fact that no one was there.

I generally try to get there early, help, meet everyone, get the lay of the land but I could feel the impending doom. No other comedians were there for me to chat to, which felt weird. There was a party of four in the front row and my husband and his friends. Nightmare, honestly. I texted a British comedian friend who seemed to confirm my fears about this show and host. I sat in the back of the room and waited to do my set. I couldn't leave even though I was desperate to.

I got up and did my set. It wasn't great. I didn't enjoy it. Then I sat down after in the back. The next comedian or the host - I can't remember I blacked out - started doing bits that interacted with the audience. That's when I was like 'I gotta go. This isn't for me.' [But] there wasn't enough audience for that.

It was too sad. It was almost New Year's and I think I had a yeast infection. To top it all off we went and had a bad British version of an American diner experience.

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

Jen Kirkman and Baron Vaughn. Baron was one of my first stand-up comedian friends. I knew him as an actor first and when I told him I was going to try stand-up he was so encouraging and gave great guidance. He always said yes to doing my shows even when he was clearly way more talented and out of the show's league.

Jen and I knew a lot of the same people for so long but I didn't meet her until the San Francisco Sketch Fest of 2017. I've loved hearing about all of Jen's experiences as a comedian and how she does it her way. It's been a great opportunity for me to finally relate to another comedian with similar trials and tribulations in the business.

And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?

Bookers because they wish they could be comedians. Comedians because they wish they could be rockstars. Agents because they wish they could be human.

Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?

I used to perform this sketch where I tried to get into cardboard boxes like a cat. I still love it. It's hilarious. It bombed.

Melissa Stephens

And what's the most underrated onscreen thing you've done?

Finding The Asshole.

I created FTA with Tom DeTrinis who is also premiering his comedy hour in Edinburgh this year. I had had this idea for years and when I met Tom it all finally came together. It was a perfect match. Tom and I both created and acted in it and then I wrote and directed the series.

I had been making stuff for years, but I had never directed anything. I've always been drawn to making higher-end comedy in the production design, value, and the tone. When I finally got the chance to direct, I realised that I had a very specific style as a director that I had been curating for years.

Finding The Asshole is weird. It's bizarre. I am so proud of it because I made it for no one. I made it because it made me laugh. I made it with my friends who I love working with. I wasn't trying to please a studio, producer, or network.

I create the best when I'm coming from that place. My Edinburgh hour came out of that. FTA didn't go viral and very few people have seen it, but it did get into [film festival] Slamdance! Which is exactly the world in which it belongs. Enjoy.

Any reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions stick in the mind?

"Is that really true?"
"You're really funny for a girl"
"You make overalls sexy"
"I have an idea of how you can punch that up"
"That could be funnier if you did _____"
"Great job, I'm glad you were funny. I was scared you wouldn't be"
"How do you do it?"

How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?

Depends on the day you're asking. A good day, I love it. I'm challenging myself and I know who I am as an artist. I focus on where I can find joy and flow in my work.

Bad day, I'm behind. I started directing too late. I'll never be hired for another writing job. Health insurance. I'm awful and a fraud. Compare and despair. The list keeps on repeating.

Melissa Stephens: Hot Dogs & Tears previews at London's 2Northdown on 29 July: Tickets

And her Edinburgh Fringe run is at the Assembly Rooms Powder Room from 4-27 August

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