Checking In With Martha Kelly, the Funniest Person in Austin 2000
I met Martha Kelly on her first trip to Austin in September of 1999. She was here for the HBO Aspen Comedy Festival auditions, and she was one of 12 finalists culled from the 108 comics who started the day. I had to follow her in that evening's showcase, and as I stood backstage at Esther's Pool, I found myself listening intensely to her set instead of preparing for mine. There were spaces of taut, extended silence during her lengthy setups, only to be followed by seismic waves of laughter set off by her wickedly funny punchlines. One bit that stuck in my head involved a guy who was trying to hit on her while they made their way through Los Angeles traffic. At a red light, he finally asked her if she wanted to go out for coffee. "Coffee?" she replied, "Why don't I just show up naked at a shallow grave and you can push me in?" Such surprising twists at the ends of her bits are like comedic gut punches; they catch the audience unaware and leave them reeling with laughter. A large part of the surprise comes from Kelly's unlikely appearance and stage presence. To put it bluntly, Martha Kelly looks a little plain. Her short stature, long straight hair, prim glasses, and slight hint of red lipstick give the impression of a nice, quiet librarian. But don't let that sweater around her waist fool you. Beneath the nondescript façade is a cold, dark streak of cynical comedic genius that inspires awe and laughter when it strikes.
Shortly after the HBO showcase last fall, Kelly left her native Los Angeles and moved to Austin. Taking advantage of the plentiful stage time and nurturing Austin environment, she quickly became a fixture on the scene. And when the Funniest Person in Austin contest rolled around in April, Martha Kelly quietly blew the competition away, emerging as the clear winner with back-to-back dynamite sets. I caught up with her recently in the small apartment she shares with four large cats.
Austin Chronicle: It's interesting that someone who seems so shy would feel compelled to share so much on stage. Does being onstage give you more confidence or power?
Martha Kelly: Yeah. I don't think I'm shy once I know people, but when I don't ... I mean, it's so much easier to write something and then try it out and find out that it works. Then you can go onstage and say something that you know will be funny and will make people like you, as opposed to just trying to talk to somebody. It's just easier, and people treat you differently. People who don't know that I do comedy think I'm shy, kind of a dud, and I don't have the wherewithal to prove them wrong. It takes me a long time to get to know people.
AC: When did you first try stand-up?
MK: I was 25. I went to the Laff Factory open mike and you had to stand in line all day and you got three minutes exactly. It went really well the very first time I did it. So then I went back the next week and I got spooked, I thought, "I'm not going to be able to do as well!" I did different material that wasn't funny; that didn't help. I don't think I've ever bombed that hard, ever. People just stared at me. Completely silent. Not even sympathy chuckles. I didn't do it again for another year.
AC: How did the next year go?
MK: Not well, so I didn't do it for another year. I did that for like, four years. I kept wanting to go back, but I was too scared. Then I decided I was just going to have to do it. There was this coffee-shop open mike in my neighborhood ...
AC: This was in L.A.?
MK: Yeah, Culver City. It was right before my 30th birthday. They had this lottery system, so I figured, "I'll just go sign up and I probably won't get picked." But I did get picked. So I went to the liquor store and got a 40-ounce. My sister and her boyfriend lived in the same neighborhood, so I went over, "I got picked, I got in!" So they came. I drank the 40-ounce in the parking lot and went in. I think that was the first time I did actual jokes instead of ...
AC: Stream of consciousness?
MK: Yeah, and it went well. So I kept going back. From the time I was 18, I knew I wanted to be a comedian, but I was just scared to try it. And first I thought, "Well, I should go to college and get a degree." That didn't pan out.
AC: So how did things go for you in L.A.? Did you have a day job and do comedy at night?
MK: Yeah. I was working as a secretary, but I was sort of laid off/let go, you know, they would give me a good recommendation type of thing. So I collected unemployment for three months and just did comedy every night. Most of it was in front of like eight other comics in some shitty coffee shop. But when I started, I had horrible stage fright, so getting up all the time really helped with that.
AC: Does it just seem impossible to make it in L.A., even if you're funny, because there are so many comics? What's that like on a day-to-day basis, trying to get a break?
MK: Everybody's in this holding pattern of shitty open mikes at coffee shops, and then every two to four months you get an industry showcase. Sometimes industry people do show up, but because all you're doing is the shitty open mikes at coffee shops -- I mean, I realized when I came here for the open call for Aspen that I didn't have enough experience to do my best in front of large crowds and that was a big part of why I moved here. But everyone kind of lives with this hope, like, twice a year there's Montreal or Aspen, so there are two times a year that everyone thinks, "Maybe this'll be my ticket out!" I think in L.A. right now there's a mentality that favors castability in terms of what you look like and how young you are. That's much more important to most casting people than ...
AC: Your material?
MK: Yeah. That's if you're in L.A. If they think you're from somewhere else, though, they think, "Hey, I haven't seen this person. Maybe there's something good about her." But if you live in L.A., they think, "Well, I've seen everyone good in L.A. So if you're here and I don't know who you are, it's because you suck."
AC: So how did the move to Austin start taking hold in your mind?
MK: Well, when I came here for the open call, I had a really, really good time. But it was partly because I had a crush on this guy; I thought he was the greatest thing in the world, so that made me want to justify moving here. And then he visited me in L.A. and turned out to be kind of a jackass -- I mean lovable, but only "as a friend" lovable. After that, well, I'd already started telling my friends I was moving here, so then I had to. People said, "You don't really have to!" But the more I thought about it, I was like, Ten years from now, I could still be doing nothing but these coffeehouse open mikes. There are all these really angry people out there. Every time the festival auditions came around, they got pissed off if someone who had been doing comedy for six months got to go. I understand that, but I didn't want to have that happen. So I figured if I moved to Austin, there is actual quality stage time here and real people and I thought I would have a chance to get better at stand-up. Here it seems like people care more about becoming a good stand-up, not, "Oh, where's my TV deal?" They seem more supportive and more direct. If they don't like you, the odds are they'll let you know that, not just in a passive-aggressive way ... It's easier here to like people and trust people, and it's more fun to hang out and get drunk.
AC: Were you surprised at how quickly you rose to the top of the Austin scene? How did that feel?
MK: I had mixed feelings about even entering the contest ...
AC: Me too!
MK: It's weird pitting comedians against each other when it's already inherently competitive. I mean, I find the title and the whole concept of anyone being the funniest person in Austin to be ridiculous and kind of embarrassing. When I entered, I thought, I just want to make it to the finals, and then I thought, I just want to do my best, but a week before the nights that I was in it, I didn't have a job, and I knew I wasn't going to have rent. It could lead to other opportunities, so I started totally focusing on that. Then I really, really, really wanted to win; "I need the money for rent! Maybe I can get work after that."
AC: And you did; two nights later, you were waitressing at the Velveeta.
MK: [Laughs] Yeah, that was fun though. I like waitressing at the Velveeta, but I think I'm fired, unofficially.
AC: What's that line you have about lousy tippers?
MK: I know I'm a bad waitress. But giving me a lousy tip is like beating a retarded child. It might be satisfying, but no real learning takes place.
AC: That's excellent. What's your ultimate goal? Where do you see yourself headed as a comic?
MK: I'd like to become better at it and then get a chance to do a spot on one of the late-night shows doing stand-up. I'd like to do the road, but in a limited way. Partly because of my cats and partly because it's a miserable way to live. Being in Austin is actually the first time since college I've been really happy, I love the lifestyle here, and I don't want to trade that in for living in hotels and being isolated. I want to get better at comedy, do it on TV, and then maybe after that start playing the lottery.
AC: Anything else you'd like the good citizens of Austin to know about Martha Kelly?
MK: I need a job! Is there any way the Chronicle would run a picture of one of my cats instead of me?
Martha Kelly opens for Victoria Jackson this weekend, May 26-28, Fri-Sun, at Capital City Comedy Club. Call 467-2333 for info.