Awful/Lucky Martha Kelly
The Austin comedian and Baskets co-star has two ways of looking at her improbable path to fame
"I'm awful at interviews," says Martha Kelly as we sit down at Radio Coffee & Beer on Manchaca. And with that, this very successful comedian – winner of the 2000 Funniest Person in Austin contest, celebrated co-star of FX's Baskets with Zach Galifianakis, headliner of an upcoming episode of The Half Hour on Comedy Central, and actor fresh off filming a part in next summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming movie – unwittingly provides the perfect opening quote for an interview.
It turns out that she's just fine at interviews, but Kelly will tell you that she's awful at everything. In person, she's only a slightly less exaggerated version of her Martha character in Baskets. She dresses much better than the downbeat insurance agent she plays, and she smiles much more, but the real Martha has the same Eeyore-like fatalism that makes people find her endearing. She's not the kind of comic who burns nonstop jokes throughout a conversation. Rather, she's the kind who keeps apologizing and complaining and apologizing and doubting until the effect accumulates and you can't help but laugh.
How was doing improv on set with Galifianakis and Louie Anderson? "I'm deathly afraid of improv." How was this year's Just for Laughs festival in Montreal? "I spent a lot of time in my hotel room." How was your taping for The Half Hour? "I don't feel very confident." How was filming a Spider-Man movie? "I felt really uncomfortable." But while the Gloomy Gus surface is what many people take away from a conversation with Kelly, what emerges during our talk is a deep well of gratitude and faith in herself.
This is Kelly's third pass at being an Austin resident. The first, in 2000, when she moved here from L.A. and took the stand-up scene by storm, was marred by a bad drinking problem. Sober now for more than a decade, Kelly is actually grateful to Austin's hard-drinking culture for showing her a good time and also shoving her to rock bottom quickly. "My drinking would have become a problem no matter what," she says. "In some ways, it's good I came here and accelerated the process because then I got sober sooner." As she says this, it magically becomes day-drink o'clock, with the people around us tossing their coffee mugs in the bus bins and ordering up pints from the tap, as if to prove her point.
After getting sober back home in Torrance, Calif., Kelly returned to Austin in 2008 to develop her stand-up. During her second stint here, she developed a compulsive eating disorder. "I was getting evicted, my car had been repossessed, and it's weird that all that happened because of compulsive eating when it's supposed to be drinking that does that," she says. Realizing that she needed to be closer to her family and therapist – and some new anti-depressants that actually worked – Kelly bounced back to California again in 2012.
Then, just when she was feeling strong enough to give Austin one more try, she got a voicemail out of the blue from Galifianakis – whom she met as an open mic comic in Los Angeles in the late Nineties – asking her to be on his new cable series. Kelly agreed to stick around for the pilot, then the series when it got picked up, but then she left L.A. again. "Of all the places I've ever been," she says, "Austin is the only place that has felt like home. I fit in here."
At first, Kelly's latest Austin adventure felt lonely. The open mics were stuffed with comics she didn't know. "The first one I did when I came back was at Cap City [Comedy Club]," she says, "and I didn't do well. M.K. Paulsen was there and was really nice to me. Everyone else I didn't know and didn't talk to me. I remember seeing Andrew Dismukes kill, and I was like, 'Why does he get to be good at this and confident at 20?' Now I love him, he's one of my favorite comics, but at the time I was just flat-out jealous. But that's one of the reasons it's so fun to do comedy here: There are so many people who are dynamite."
Kelly's anonymity didn't last long, as Baskets aired to positive reviews, especially for her performance. She was interviewed by The New York Times and numerous other media outlets. In her 40s, after decades of plugging away as a stand-up, Martha Kelly was finally discovered.
Though Galifianakis advised her not to read reviews – "Because none of it's helpful," he said – she couldn't help it. "It had been 16 years and I just wanted to hear positive stuff, so I read it all," she says. "Anything negative about the show always hurts or makes me angry. Anything positive opens a bottomless pit of wanting more. It really does create a need for it, and I don't think it does anything good. Luckily, there's not that much of it, so it's not like it takes me all day to read positive reviews."
The notice she was receiving led to Kelly getting the call from Comedy Central. She filmed her Half Hour show in New Orleans over the summer and had to pull together new material quickly. "I only had 15 to 17 minutes from my pre-sober days that weren't terrible." But one thing Kelly likes about Austin is the abundance of quality stage time she can use to work things out.
"My favorite shows are either in front of a bunch of college kids who are really fucking excited about stand-up or a bunch of comics at an open mic working on new material," she says. Austin's nightly parade of such shows is a far cry from L.A., where only one or two shows a week fall into those categories for her. "I still only wound up with 25 minutes for the half hour, but they just air 22 minutes, so I guess they can throw out one joke." (The episode airs Sat., Oct. 1.)
Kelly was also invited to perform at the prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal this year. Her shows went mostly well but not perfectly, according to her. "I didn't feel like, 'Oh, I'm Johnny Hot Shit, here I am at your festival.' I felt like I snuck into the popular kids' party."
But the opportunity that surprised everyone, including Kelly, was a chance to do a small part in the upcoming Spider-Man movie from Marvel Studios. (She's not at liberty to say what the part is but does note that it could wind up on the cutting-room floor without changing the movie.)
"I thought that it was going to be a disaster," she begins in typical Martha fashion, "that they were going to be disappointed, because it's an action movie, and I don't have a wide range of emotion. But then there were a lot of extras for the crowd scenes, and some of them were families whose kids were on summer vacation and they drove across the country just to be in this scene. That's when I was like, 'I'm so fucking lucky to be here.'"
That's the other side of the coin that Kelly returns to again and again, the side where "awful" is replaced by "lucky" and "fun," and you see a lot more Winnie-the-Pooh in her than Eeyore. How was doing improv on set with Galifianakis and Louie Anderson? "I felt lucky to be in a room with two geniuses. It was so amazing." How was this year's Just for Laughs festival in Montreal? "It was really fun. Some of it was a struggle, but that's everyone's life. For me, the balance is more fun than struggle." How was your Half Hour taping? "I'd wanted to do it for more than a decade, and if they're willing to give me a chance, let them be the ones to say I'm fired instead of me saying, 'No, I can't do it.'" How was filming Spider-Man? "I felt so fucking lucky to be there."
After struggles with alcohol and eating disorders and depression, Martha Kelly appears to have found something new in Austin her third time around, something she always knew she'd find if she kept coming back: happiness.
"I feel like I should be a really happy, bubbly person to correspond with my good fortune," she says, her voice completely deadpan, "but I'm more of a this-could-dry-up-any-minute person who tries to enjoy it while it lasts. And if it does dry up, I'll still have the people I love, and I'll just figure out how to pay rent. And I'll still keep doing stand-up because it's fun whether you make money at it or not."
The Half Hour with Martha Kelly airs Sat., Oct. 1, on Comedy Central. Season 2 of Baskets will air on FX in early 2017.