Always Be Chloe-sing

Mary Lynn Rajskub on moving from 24 to stand-up

"Dammit, Chloe!"

Whenever Jack Bauer uttered that phrase on 24 – which was often – it meant go-time for the easily irritated, eye-rolling IT savant played by Mary Lynn Rajskub … and fun for everyone watching. Chloe became a fan favorite, and now her popularity is luring viewers into comedy clubs to see Rajskub do stand-up.

If you only know Rajskub from 24, that shift in occupation may seem startling. But the Michigan native, whose last name is Czech (and pronounced "rice-cub," as Scott Aukerman learned), is an alum of the alt-comedy scene in Nineties Los Angeles, a now-legendary explosion of talent that included the likes of Janeane Garofalo, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Kathy Griffin, Patton Oswalt, and Zach Galifinakis. Being in the midst of such company and having ample opportunities to take the stage gave this San Francisco Art Institute graduate (who discovered she could make people laugh while doing performance art) an in-depth education in comedy, which then propelled her into stints on the Odenkirk-Cross sketch series Mr. Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and the sitcom Veronica's Closet (where her character was also named Chloe).

Rajskub might well have continued to be known more for comedy had it not been for that second Chloe, who wasn't intended to be anything other than another background analyst at the Counter Terrorism Unit. But viewers took a shine to the snark that Rajskub invested in the role and trusted her to pull up the schematics that would save Jack Bauer's bacon, and not only was Chloe saved from the premature death that has befallen so many characters on 24, she wound up appearing in more episodes than anyone save Jack. And only Kiefer Sutherland receives billing above her.

The recent run of 24: Live Another Day shows the public still has a yen for the ticking clock of 24 – and for Rajskub's Chloe O'Brien – but in the years between the series' eighth season and this year's revival, Rajskub returned to her stage roots, first with a self-penned solo show, Mary Lynn Spreads Her Legs, about the accidental pregnancy that led to her marriage to Matthew Rolph and the birth of their son Val, and then with a new stand-up routine. She's been touring comedy clubs for the past few months and brings her act to Austin's Cap City Comedy Club this week. The Chronicle spoke to Rajskub minutes after she'd landed in Orlando for a series of stand-up shows.

Austin Chronicle: I was looking at your IMDb page yesterday, and my eyes just about glazed over. You stay so incredibly busy.

MLR: Yeah, it's kinda crazy, huh? [Laughs] It surprises me, too.

AC: Especially given that you're raising a kid. How do you balance your home life and work life?

MLR: It's strange that I'm touring at this point in my life, because I like to go to bed at 9:30. It's strange that I'm even going out at night at all. But it seems to be working right now, and when you do what I do, you go with what's working when it's working. And it just so happened that I was developing this stand-up in between acting jobs. I didn't really have anything that I could sink my teeth into, you know, 24 had been off the air, and I had had a bunch of little jobs but nothing that I could really get into, so I started with the stand-up and kinda had to commit to it. You kinda have to jump all in with that. And it's been great, but yeah, the touring is really not very fun with having a family, and I've been doing that since July, so it's getting real old. It's fun to get away and meet people and be in different cities, but then transitioning back into home life – I guess the way I do it is that I have a really nice husband, and then you prepare when you walk in the door, it's just all Mommy Time. You know, you just drop everything and crawl on the floor and get in a tent and pretend to be a cat, and it's like you never left.

AC: So I want to go back in your performance-art days. You've said in other interviews that when you were initially doing performance art, you weren't trying to be funny, but people were laughing. So when were you first aware that you were being funny unintentionally, and how did you make that shift to wanting to get laughs?

MLR: I think that's my funny but true way of saying that – how do I want to say this? – like I was just needing to express myself and I wasn't really sure what that meant because of my personality and just who I am. I always associated stand-up with, like, "Here's what's on my mind," you know, the really aggressive "Here's what I'm thinkin' about lately!" – and that just wasn't where I was coming from at all. I didn't even think there was a type of comedy that I could do. And I certainly didn't think that I could be the one to do it. So it was a process of discovering that, and fine art and performance art was kind of like a back door to comedy for me. I did acting in high school, and when I was a kid, I kinda knew that I was funny, but I never really thought about it because I didn't really identify, as I said, with stand-ups at that time. So it's not a typical path, like "Who are your influences?" or whatever. It was just me sort of exploring, can somebody be like how I am and speak the way that I speak and have a voice that's funny and strong?

AC: It's clearly worked out for you.

MLR: Yeah!

AC: So you went down to L.A., and you were in the whole alt-comedy explosion …

MLR: Yeah, and I think I had to do that organically 'cause I couldn't have just set out like, "I'm gonna do this." I was just really lucky that I met all those people, and it was a super-creative time, of people just doing shows 'cause they wanted to. I don't think I could have arrived with a stack of headshots and been like, "I'm gonna do this." I just was doing it because I enjoyed it and because I could, you know. I was in my early 20s and I was like, "I'm just gonna do this because I like it. I don't really know where it's going, but it's really the only thing that I'm interested in." And like I said, all those people, it was such a fantastic time. I felt like I really found my tribe of people.

AC: "Oh, these are the people I've been wanting to hang out with my whole life, the people who are doing stuff like me."

MLR: Absolutely. And it still is a little bit intimidating. Do you watch the show @midnight? The first time I was on it was with Chris Hardwick, of course, and Paul F. Tompkins and Kurt Braunohler. And it kind of brought me back to [my early days doing comedy]; it's a little bit intimidating because they're so verbal and clever and quick, and I came from a different angle. But at the same time, I definitely felt like, "Oh, these are the people I'm supposed to be hanging out with."

Even at art school, there was something about the people – I went to San Francisco and people were like, "I'm the greatest artist." I loved art school, but there was something about that people took themselves really seriously that I was like, "I don't understand this. I mean, I love art, but I don't really get where you guys are going with this." So when I meet somebody who's into comedy, and right away they have either a self-deprecating thing or a sarcasm or a hopelessness, I'm like "I get it. I get where you're comin' from." [Laughs]

AC: Can you point to any one thing as being your big takeaway about doing comedy from that time? Was there something that you feel like you learned or had reinforced in you that made it easier to do comedy later?

MLR: That's an interesting question. There's not one overall thing. It was a lot of stage time and a lot of experimentation and a lot of doing what you wanted to do. And that time, it was different – it was like the next wave of comedians that were kind of mad at comedy clubs, you know? And I didn't know any better, but all those people, like David Cross and Janeane Garofalo, they were really pointed against the system that they saw comedy as in the Eighties. You know, whatever it was, I was like, "I agree." It spoke to me, but I think it's because they were, you know, the whole idea of having a notebook onstage is kind of seeing behind the curtain, you get to see really what's going on with that person. It rides a fine line, like some of that stuff that's like therapy when people are onstage just talking – I mean, I love that, now, I'm not saying that's always ultimately the best comedy, but I definitely think you gotta come from that place.

AC: Tell me how you decided to do Mary Lynn Spreads Her Legs. Did you think of that as a stand-up piece or more of a one-woman theatre piece?

MLR: That was a theatre piece. There were a lot of really funny parts in that, but there were also a lot of dark and raw parts in it. I had a friend who ran a theatre, and he sat across from me in a cafe and made me tell him stories about my life, and he helped me develop it into a show – and by "helped," I mean forced me to improvise and rehearse, because I'm not big on rehearsals. So it trained me to go into character and say it the same way [every time] because I had never really done that before. I plucked the lighter parts out of it and moved them into my stand-up, because it's all from my life, but I think that was the version of the story that was more like the cathartic theatrical piece. It was really funny, but there were also parts that were like, "Whoa!" Like maybe I wouldn't say that at a comedy club, you know?

AC: Was it hard doing that for five months? I mean, you had a long run.

MLR: Yeah! Yeah, it was hard, but it was good. I feel like it trained me to be a better performer. I was gonna keep going with that and do it in New York, I was set up to do that, and then I was like, You know what? This was amazing, but the heavy parts of it, I just wanted to let that go.

AC: Do you think of it as a transitional piece to the kind of performing you're doing now?

MLR: Yeah, I think so. I never really thought of it that way but absolutely. It trained me; it was like boot camp for the stand-up, which relates to what we were talking about. Maybe that was the therapy version that gives it that truth of where I'm coming from. But some of that stuff – I mean, it was all really good, it just got kinda dark in some parts. And I don't need to be doing that to a lot of people. We were talking in the car just now, people know me from 24, and it's already weird for them to see me doing comedy.

AC: So what do you do to ease them into seeing you from this different angle, this comedic angle?

MLR: Well, I started out at the beginning of the tour as a comic like, "I just want to get to my material." And it's funny, we talked about that alternative scene, they really made fun of that "Hey, how are you guys doin' tonight?" and that whole thing that entertainers do, so when I first went on the road, I was really averse to that. And then I realized where [the audience is] coming from. I pictured if I was going out to a club and I saw, like, Walter White up there, I'd be like, "What is he doing?! Why is he up there?" And I had to respect that they were the ones buying tickets and they were really excited to see me, but I needed to bridge the gap [between Chloe and me]. Then I learned to embrace it and really have fun with it. So now I talk to the audience and kind of read how serious 24 fans they are – and usually, it's pretty serious – and I just have fun with it. I talk to them and answer questions and have some jokes about my experience. And now that's kind of my favorite part of the show. Connecting with people and then segueing into the comedy material and personal stuff is satisfying, because people get this experience of seeing another side of me, and they also get to hear about 24 a little bit.

AC: So it sounds like you're not going the Leonard Nimoy route of writing your memoir I Am Not Chloe.

MLR: No. No! Really?

AC: Yeah, he wrote a book called I Am Not Spock. He got so locked into that character that by the mid-Seventies, he was like, "Oh, for God's sake, people. I don't have pointed ears."

MLR: Oh my God.

AC: So yes, you can find his book, I Am Not Spock. I thought, "Do you need to write I Am Not Chloe?" But it sounds like you're embracing it, that it's still fun for you to interact with the public on that.

MLR: Yeah, I think it has to be. I mean, talk to me when I'm 70, but …

AC: I know a lot of comics like to talk about the different kinds of audiences they encounter in different parts of the country. Have you found the audiences outside L.A. to be any different than the ones you had there?

MLR: Yeah, I'm always surprised to see who comes out, and a lot of the audiences that I was really scared of – people who maybe wouldn't even come to a club and who only watched 24 and don't know what to expect, you know – are some of my favorite audiences. 'Cause they almost don't even know how to laugh, they're just like, "Oh my gosh!" And I have to remind them, "You're not watching your TV right now. This is a live show." It's fun breaking through that. Of course, it's also fun to be around people who go out all the time and are comedy fans and maybe are gonna come to me and call me "Gail the Snail" [from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia] or [mention] Mr. Show – who know other things I've done. Comedy is exciting, too.

AC: So, obviously, I have to do some obligatory 24 questions, and I just want to say that I've really enjoyed your work and so have my wife and daughter. This probably tells you more about us than you want to know, but 24 became a family thing, even when our daughter was still in grade school, and there are so many family jokes we built around the show: "Dammit, Chloe," and Jack's magic bag that he can pull anything out of, which we call the Jack Sack.

MLR: [Laughs] That's so great. That's hilarious.

AC: So we want to know, did CTU have, like, the worst Human Resources Manager ever?

MLR: I know. Did you not do a background check on this person?

AC: "I see you've been a double agent and a mole, but you seem pretty trustworthy to me, so I'll go ahead and put you in charge of all this classified material anyway."

MLR: Right.

AC: So were there tropes that got reused, like somebody you thought was a good guy is really a bad guy, that you all on the show noticed and made fun on the set?

MLR: Yes, of course. That's part of the beauty and the – I don't want to say there's anything hard about it, but there are those things that are repetitive that are, "Okay, we've got to set this up again." I don't know if you've heard this, but I've done a lot of those press conferences with all the producers and everything, and one of the things they talk about is, they came up with the idea for the show, and then when the pilot got picked up, they were like, "Oh, shit, now we have to re-create this." That's why I think it was so groundbreaking at the time: It was a completely new concept. And they didn't know that each year it would be like, "Oh God, we have to do the same concept, but we have to do it better because we have to keep it going," and how complicated that became. But for all the things that are cool and smart about the show, you kinda have to slide by all the things that are like, "Yep, there's another mole …"

AC: Or that pesky little atomic bomb that went off in the middle of L.A.

MLR: Oh my gosh. Right? We were all aware. Even in those times where like the atomic bomb went off, and then it would cut away to a scene of just people talking, you'd be like, "A bomb just went off!" But there were other story lines that had to move forward as well. I mean, Bill Buchanan just popped into my head [head of CTU in Los Angeles in seasons 4-6]. That guy. There were days where I would be at the conference table just looking at [actor James Morrison, who played the part] and be: "I'm sending you love right now," because he had so much exposition, and you were like, "Oh my God, this poor guy." 'Cause he'd have to recap in his speeches what happened that last week and make it sound natural and like he's just giving information. I mean, I'd just be sitting there with my papers and be like, "Thank God it's not me that has to [do that]."

AC: It's like Michael York in the Austin Powers movies. He's called Basil Exposition, because that's all he does. It's the boss who always has to recap everything.

MLR: Yeah! [Laughs] Exactly.

AC: All that considered, Chloe comes out amazingly well as somebody whose character really evolved over the seasons. I mean, Jack has to be the tortured, competent super-agent every season. There's not too far you can take him except to have him grieve a little more over whichever lover or friend that he lost last season. But Chloe – for somebody that you thought at first, "Boy, she's never been in a relationship, or she'll never be in one," Chloe had lovers and marriages and a kid and was really able to grow as a character, to the point where this last season, she really wasn't the snarky, sarcastic character she started out as. She was much more the tragic do-gooder. Does this make sense to you?

MLR: Yeah, you've touched on something that's been the constant surprise for me. For as much as [the role's] like, "Okay, I'm pulling up the schematics again," there's this whole other side to it that's like this gift that keeps on giving. Where I started on the show was as Computer Nerd No. 3 in the CTU, and my character was annoying at first, and they really didn't like me. And then it was, "Oh, wait a second. She's pretty trustworthy." And it was like this prism that kept turning and having different sides to it, right up until this last round. It was exciting but scary when they announced it was coming back. It was like, "Oh man, of course I'm gonna do this, this amazing part of my life, this huge show," but then when I read the first script, it was like, "Oh cool, I didn't know you were going to go there with it." There was a whole other thing for me to play this year, and that was great.

AC: All right, I have to ask: Whose idea was Chloe's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo eyeliner this season?

MLR: You know, that was a group collaboration. I mean, by the end of it, I was over it, but she had to be extreme and in the script, it didn't – that was a hair and makeup and wardrobe choice. that we all made together. It's like my version of "What would I be like if I were in that situation?" [Some people were] worried that it was too much like [Girl With the Dragon Tattoo], and I was like, "You know, this is a general Goth [look], sort of Everyman's version of putting on the black leather and the black eyeliner, and it worked.

Mary Lynn Rajskub performs Nov. 12-15,Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm; second shows Friday & Saturday, 10:30pm, at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. For more info, call 512/467-2223 or visit www.capcitycomedy.com.

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Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24, stand-up, Janeane Garofalo, Keifer Sutherland

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