Beyond Vassar

Funny Bones

By Jessica Winum

Killing My Lobster. As a way of saying, "bumming me out," the words strike some as being funny, others as being, well, just odd. Different strokes for different folks. And that is precisely the point for the San Francisco comedy troupe that chose those wFords as its name; Killing My Lobster makes its point explicit with a slogan: "Funny can mean different things to different people."

KML comprises graduates from Brown, Oberlin, and Vassar, the latter being 1997 grads Maura Madden and Abby Paige. The group gives live performances in the Bay Area and produces comedic films, and they have garnered praise and awards such as Best Laugh Factory from the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Best of the Fringe Award at the 1998 and 1999 San Francisco Fringe Festivals. In January, KML had the notable distinction of being featured on Comedy Central Website’s Spotlight section.

Both Madden and Paige developed their comedic talents at Vassar–the former as a member of Improv and the latter as a Happily Ever Laughter cast member. Together they were instrumental in organizing Vassar’s semi-annual Women’s Comedy Night and the annual comic festival Menage í¡ Ha. After graduation Madden meandered out to San Francisco to work in a dotcom company and Paige traveled to Chile on a Fulbright Fellowship, where she researched political humor under the Pinochet regime. Madden joined KML in 1998 and Paige followed her in 1999. Both have day jobs to sustain their comedy passions. In December, VQ exchanged e-mails with the duo.


How did each of you end up becoming a cast member at KML?

MM: I was in Improv at Vassar. Dan Nuxoll ’97, who was also in the group, had a good friend from high school who used to come to visit. Her name is Mara Gerstein, and she went to Brown. She used to check out the Improv shows. In the summer of 1997, after graduating, I moved to San Francisco. I heard that Mara lived in the Bay Area, but I never ran into her until the next spring. It was late one night, at one of the few 24-hour diners in the city. She came in with a huge crew of people, all members of Killing My Lobster. They had just completed a show and were celebrating with hamburgers. Mara told me all about the group and the show they had just finished. I was totally jealous, because I really missed performing comedy. She took down my number and then didn’t call me for a month. When she finally did, it was to ask me if I might be interested in joining the group. I jumped at the chance. From the beginning, we all just clicked. Less then a year later, we convinced Abby to join the ranks. And since then, Susan Maguire ’99 has been involved with several shows as both a writer and a stage manager. She was involved in the first Women’s Comedy Night [at Vassar], and then kept the tradition going after we were gone.

AP: The first year or so after graduation was pretty bleak. I had no idea what I wanted to be doing or where I wanted to be doing it. I spent most of 1998 in Chile. I was given a Fulbright to study political humor as a form of resistance and protest during the Pinochet regime. My senior year had sort of burnt me out on both comedy and academics, so it was probably a pretty bad idea to go the other end of the globe to dedicate all my mental energy to both. But at the time it was a way to escape New York City, where I had sort of mistakenly ended up. Anyway, when I got back to the States I wandered out to San Francisco, planning to be here for just a short time. Maura and I hadn’t been in touch at all since graduation, but I knew that she was one of the few people I would know on the West Coast, so I sent her a postcard or something to announce that I was coming. She had been working with the Lobster for several months by then. I went to a show and sort of shrugged and thought, "Hmm. That was okay." She invited me to a rehearsal and I thought, "Hmm. That was okay." And then eventually I was asked if I wanted to try doing a show. And I was wishy-washy. But I decided to do it, cautiously. Really committing to working with the group was a very slow process. I think it took me about a year to really decide that it was what I wanted to do. By then I was sort of already doing it. I mean, I stepped back and I realized, wait, I’m still in San Francisco, I’m going to rehearsal five times a week and administrative meetings in my other free time, or even just hanging out with these people. Oops. I guess I already decided.


When did you start doing comedy?

MM: When I was little, whenever I was in a school play or an acting class, I was always cast in the comic roles. It usually meant that I had a smaller part than I felt I deserved, which upset me, but I always got the laughs, and I loved that.

AP: As is the case, I think, with most people who are involved in comedy, it starts as something like a coping mechanism. I’ve always been shy and as I got older I came to rely on goofiness to mask my discomfort around people. When I left for college I remember making a conscious decision to take risks socially more than I had before, to force myself to be more extroverted. It made the transition much easier. When I got to Vassar my student fellow (Brian Stampnitsky ’96) was just starting Happily Ever Laughter with a few friends and he encouraged me to audition. The audition itself was just awful. I just stunk. But for whatever reason, they took me. That was in October of my freshman year. It went on to be my primary extracurricular activity at Vassar and to really define my time there. Gradually I’ve learned to turn the goofiness on and off, so it’s no longer so much of a crutch for me socially, which is a blessing.


What is it that attracts you to the art of comedy?

MM: First of all, making people laugh is just plain fun. That’s the main thing. I’ve done a decent amount of straight theater, and I enjoy it, but with comedy, the reaction to your performance is immediate and tangible. If the audience isn’t laughing at certain things, you know you’re in trouble, and so you have to try to make it work right then and there, which is intense. You modify your performance to suit the audience’s needs. In comedy, you’re creating a world onstage and inviting the audience to participate. In straight theater, you create a world onstage and just allow the audience to watch. Both are a challenge. With comedy, the "third wall" (the mental division between the audience and the world onstage) begins to crumble. There is a very powerful connection between you and the people in that dark room. When a show is going well, you are completely feeding off of all of this energy – energy from your fellow actors, and energy from the audience. You build something together, which is awesome. And the joy of making people laugh is, for me, unmatchable.

AP: I guess I think that the human sense of humor is sort of an inborn reminder of how small and insignificant we are. It’s like a built-in gauge of humility. And yet because we don’t really know what laughter is or how it operates, it’s also proof that we’re these miraculous, mysterious beings. As much as I love it, though, I struggle with comedy. It’s an inherently critical way of seeing the world, and because of that it can be cynical, petty, destructive. At its worst I think it acts as sort of a defense mechanism, protecting the small, cowardly parts of us. Don’t get me wrong, people need defenses. I need them. But cynicism doesn’t offer alternatives or any kind of hope. I think the best stuff reveals vulnerability—either in the comic or in whatever he or she is making fun of. My favorite jokes uncover the lies that we tell ourselves and others, and that society as a whole perpetuates. I think that’s part of what was so exciting about The Kings of Comedy, and I think it’s part of what’s great about a lot of women comedians—Carol Burnett, Gracie Allen, Lily Tomlin, Moms Mabely. A joke can be this beautiful affirmation of what’s true. That’s what I’d like to be able to do.


What does the slogan "Funny can mean different things to different people" mean and how is that interpreted in KML’s comedy?

MM: The world does not share a common sense of humor. In Killing My Lobster, we perform the things that make us laugh as a group. But even within that group, there are varied senses of humor. We just try to offer a lot of different things for the audience to watch. At Vassar, a lot of the comedy was very dark and edgy. Our stuff has a goofier feel to it, and I personally have more fun performing goofy stuff. And as it turns out, other people seem to think that our stuff is funny, too. Which is nice.

AP: I think the extent to which we collaborate and the lengths to which we go to respect each individual sense of humor in the group is part of what makes Killing My Lobster unique. That’s what the motto is about. We aren’t together because we have a single, monolithic comic sensibility. It would probably be easier if sometimes we did. It makes communication extraordinarily important, at every step in the process. It requires a real appreciation of comedy, even comedy that you don’t really get. You have to be able to look at a joke or a bit and say, "I see what’s going on there. I’m not laughing, but I see why you are." And for some reason I think we’re all able to do that, to be cracked up just as much by jokes that we don’t really get as those that are tailor-made for our sense of humor.


What do you feel is comedy’s role in helping people to think about and discuss controversial issues such as racism, sexuality, gender, sexism, classism, and politics?

MM: I think the best comedy is surprising, and when you surprise an audience, you force that audience to look at something in a new light. In that way, comedy can be used as a tool to inspire discussions and debate about the problems of our society. It can illuminate certain discrepancies and maybe even suggest solutions. But I don’t think that all comedy needs to inspire fierce discussions and political change. Sometimes, comedy just helps us cope with the fact that we live in an imperfect world. I admire people who have an agenda when they perform, but for me, the politics is secondary. The jokes come first.

AP: I do think that humor can ease tensions and create dialogue between people. Jokes are ways of admitting weaknesses, expressing fears, and revealing deep dark secrets. Or ways to point those out in others. But I think also that most people don’t deeply consider their reasons for laughing or not laughing at different things. So my professional opinion is, I’m not sure. It definitely can have a role, but I think that role is as dependent upon the audience’s desires and intentions as it is upon the motivations of the performer.


Do you feel that because you are women in the field that you have a special role or that the field is especially challenging?

MM: Men continue to dominate the world of comedy, which can make things more challenging at times. But it’s not like that in our group, which is part of why we love it so much. The "special role" that I see myself having is to be an example to other funny women out there. By succeeding, even on a small scale, we get to show people that men don’t need to be dominating the field. Ladies are funny, and just by being out here and making people laugh, we help to make room for other funny ladies.

AP: We’re extremely fortunate to work with men who deeply consider how women are represented in the group’s work and who respect the ways that our humor can differ from theirs. It’s something that’s very consciously considered in the writing, rehearsal, and performance process. Unfortunately I think that’s a pretty unique situation. But, yes, it’s different for women, absolutely. I always feel frustrated when someone comes up to us after a show and says totally incredulously, "Wow! The women were really funny!", as though such a thing is totally unthinkable. And these are people you know, and whom you know to be intelligent and thoughtful. A lot of them are women! For me, that’s the hardest part, coming up against this hard-core proof of the sexist attitudes that people don’t even know they have. I mean, people don’t control what they think is funny. It’s a completely subconscious mechanism that makes you laugh at something. If you don’t think women are funny it’s not necessarily because you’re a shameless, flaming misogynist. It’s much more subtle than that, therefore, much more difficult to bring into people’s consciousness, let alone change. But really good comedy works on a deeply subconscious level, so I think you can touch that part of people, force some kind of recognition of the way they think. But I also realize at some level that even if I’m super duper funny, there are going to be people who I just can’t get to because I’m a woman. That does infuriate me. And it’s painful to come up against those attitudes in myself, too. Not so much feeling them as looking at my writing and thinking, "Wait, why did I just assume that this character should be a man?", or walking out of rehearsal kicking myself and thinking, "Why am I playing that character so . . . masculine?" It can be a challenge to find a funny way around that first impulse without feeling like your just making some token feminist gesture.


What do you think it is about KML that has turned it into such an acclaimed and award-winning group?

MM: Everyone in the group is really funny. And everyone is committed to producing work of a very high quality. We spend an insane amount of time rehearsing. And performing. And hanging out. We’re all best friends, and I think that audiences can tell how much love and respect we have for one another, and how much fun we have performing together. And I think we’re all smart people, and we want to produce smart comedy. And I firmly believe that smart comedy can be absolutely goofy.

AP: Well first of all, I would like to note that we have gotten our share of bad reviews and "constructive criticism"; acclaim is always hard-won. That said, frankly, I think it’s how much we like each other. Talent is important. And so is drive. I think we have both of those. But when you’re talking about ten to twelve people living and working and collaborating together almost every day of the week, I think it can only come down to how much we care about one another. I think that that trust is palpable when we’re on stage together.


What significance does being in the spotlight on Comedy Central’s Website have for the group?

MM: It’s a great opportunity for us to reach a new audience. It’s nice to be recognized by the people at Comedy Central, and to be given a venue to show our stuff, even if it’s not national television. We were featured on their Web site as the Spotlight artist, and we had our own section. We gave them a number of short films, as well as some flash animation pieces, some audio bits, some text, and some sort of a Web frame for the whole thing. So it’s given people an opportunity to work on projects that we’ve put off for a while. I think it’s going to be awesome.

AP: The Spotlight is a relatively new feature on the Comedy Central Website; I think they’re still figuring out how to utilize it. But because of that they gave us a lot of latitude and in a lot of ways let us define what we would do. We really wanted to take the opportunity to create new work and see what we could do in a different medium. And I think we’ve done that. We’ve shot new films, there were a few Flash animation pieces, there were daily features and weird on-line games. Besides being a showcase for new and different work by the group, it’s also a nice little bit of recognition for us. I mean, we don’t really have a good idea of how many people will have seen it or what it will have meant for us professionally. Certainly if somebody with some kind of authority in the entertainment business saw it and decides to give us a million dollars to act stupid on TV once a week, I’m not sure we’ll say no. But mostly it’s personally gratifying to get some kind of larger-scale recognition and exposure.


Did your time at Vassar have anything to do with your current success as comedians?

MM: Before I came to Vassar I wanted to be an actress or a writer. And then I arrived in Po-Town. The first time I saw Improv, my first semester freshman year, I thought, "I can do that." And the next semester I auditioned and got in. Performing in Improv was invaluable training for me. Getting up onstage without a script and having to make people laugh is a crazy thing to do. Group dynamics were hard sometimes, especially as one of the few women in the group. So it toughened me up. But it was also incredibly fun. I learned a lot from the people I was working with at Vassar, both in Improv and in the other comedy groups. The Menage-a-Ha shows my junior and senior year, which involved Improv, Laughingstock, and Happily Ever After, were great collaborations. And finally, the Women’s Comedy Night that Abby and I organized our senior year with Jessie Klein ’97 was an incredible experience for me. It was the first time I wrote material for myself, and it was a great success as an eye-opening event. I had women coming up to me and saying, "Thank you for that show. I didn’t think that women were as funny as men. Now I know they are." It was shocking to hear that sentiment coming from Vassar women, but it made me realize how pervasive these "women aren’t funny" stereotypes are. And it made me realize that the best way to combat those types of stereotypes is to just go out there and make people laugh.

AP: I was a Latin American Studies major at Vassar, and I was totally in love with what I studied. I feel so blessed to have been able to do that. I was really entrusted with my own education. Which meant that I was able to seek out all kinds of stuff that no textbook—or even professor—would’ve led me to. That was how I ended up doing academic work on comedy—comedy in Cuban cinema, political cartoons in Mexico, and ultimately the work on political humor during the Pinochet era. The amazing thing about that kind of an education is that you leave college not just with the tools for a career, but with the tools to be the person you want to be, however corny that may sounds. Of course the fact that extracurricular organizations received such healthy support at Vassar, and we had rehearsal and performance spaces we could use, and we had a supportive, friendly, sometimes coddling audience, made it possible to experiment. Maura and I organized the first Women’s Comedy Night during our senior year, which was our first experience of doing comedy with only women, and it was a phenomenal experience. Susan Maguire ’99, who is hilarious, was in the show. That kind of thing is a major challenge to put together in the real world. There we had very few practical worries. We were able to concentrate on the creative process. It’s great that we got pampered like that; now everything takes money and massive amounts of leg-work.


What kind of work have you done in film?

AP: We’ve both done a bunch of film work, starting with student films at Vassar. Since college most of the film stuff we’ve done has been Killing My Lobster-related, starting with The Blue Hole, which we shot in the spring of 1999. It’s a weird little movie about three friends stuck at a mysterious Northern California tourist attraction. In the past two months we’ve shot four shorts, which were on the Spotlight section of Comedy Central’s Website in January. Those projects were especially exciting. Three of them are based on favorite old sketches; the fourth was entirely improvisational, shot in a San Francisco office building over the course of a full day. So we were essentially improvising for like 10 hours. It was great. It’s totally different from performing live. We’ve been creating a lot of new material for this Comedy Central site, and it’s been a lot of work, but it’s been good for us to break the routine of writing and rehearsal for the stage shows.


How does working in film differ from live performance and which do you enjoy more?

MM: It differs in so many ways. I love doing both. When you’re doing a film, or when we’re doing a Lobster film, in particular, it’s like being at a weird party. All of your friends are around and you’re trying to make them laugh, except they’re filming it. So you get to work in this very intimate way with a group of people. But the nature of film requires you to develop reactions in an instant, instead of over time, which is a huge difference. And everything is out of context, and out of order, so it requires a different type of concentration and energy. Of course, no one is laughing because they don’t want to screw up the sound. So you have to have faith in your performance more than you do with a live show. A live show requires a huge amount of preparation as an actor, and then you do it and then it’s over. But the ephemeral nature of it is what makes it so precious. And showing your work to a new group of people is so exciting. So for right now, I am happy to be able to do both.

AP: Part of what I love about comedy is the extent to which the performer is in dialogue with the audience. Your choices vary entirely according to how the audience is reacting to you. So I love the immediacy of live performance. The seems to be a sincerity and vulnerability to it that I like. Which is probably why it’s so much worse to sit through a bad play than a bad movie. Film offers a lot more possibilities, obviously. You have complete control over the timing, you direct the audience’s attention to wherever you want it, you shoot the whole thing in a swimming pool filled with chocolate sauce. You can’t do those things on stage. It’s just an entirely different medium. It’s a shame that people even think they’re related, actually, because I think they probably are about 2% similar and 98% completely unrelated.

How do KML shows evolve?

AP: We’ve been producing about three stage shows per year, sometimes four. Each production runs for three to five weekends and includes anywhere from 12 to 20 sketches. Those sketches are produced in the first few weeks of the production process. People bring the material they’ve been gathering and we meet and give feedback and play around with ideas and basically just try to make each other laugh. Usually we try to build a show around a theme, which we use to guide our writing (Killing My Lobster Races the Dead (death), Killing My Lobster Pants on Fire (lies/deception), Killing My Lobster Throws a Hissy (anger), Killing My Lobster Packs a Lunch (work)). Usually the whole process only lasts two or three weeks, though we all try to keep writing even when we’re not in production. The collaboration really starts happening once rehearsals begin—that’s where scripts really get transformed. We make mistakes or discover nuances or disagree on details, and those are the things that get incorporated into the sketch. We rehearse five or six times a week. Weekday rehearsals are usually for three hours after work; then we do four hour rehearsals on Saturdays and Sundays. Things pick up, of course, in the last couple of weeks. Then we usually do four or five hours every day. During the run we just do one rehearsal a week to keep things fresh, run over problem areas, and try out changes. That’s in addition, of course, to doing the administrative and promotional work necessary to keep the group on the map. We assemble mailings, maintain a mailing list, send out press releases, put together press kits, take press photos, print posters and go all over town putting them up, maintain the Website, organize fundraising efforts. So it’s a lot to do in addition to a day job. And trying to maintain normal relationships with each other and people outside the group. It’s a lot, but when we have a little downtime, I miss it.


Do you both have jobs outside of KML?

MM: I’ve had a series of jobs since moving out here. My last job was as an associate editor at an adventure travel Website. But I got dot-comed and now (in late December 2000)I’m unemployed.

AP: Ah, the day job. Talk about a reminder of how small and insignificant I am. When I first came out to the West Coast I temped. I didn’t think I’d be here long enough to make a permanent job make sense. Then for a long time I was the office administrator at a little massage school in Berkeley. That was a great job to have while I was getting settled here. In November I started working for a children’s software developer. I’m writing dialogue for the characters in a CD-rom game for little kids. I have no idea what I’m doing. I do a lot of nodding and cautiously tossing around computer lingo—upload, interactivity, user interface icon. I feel like a pygmy who just got plopped down on Wall Street or something. But it’s new and different and creative, and one of the other Lobsters has worked there for some time, so they understand that essentially I have another job. You can only like even a really good job so much when you know there’s something else you want to be doing. But I’m happy in my current situation. I’m balancing everything.


What are your plans for the future, both within and out of KML?

MM: Killing My Lobster is planning three San Francisco shows for next year: spring, summer and fall. Each one of those shows will have completely original material. We may or may not take one or more of those shows on the road. We hope to shoot some more short films, perform at strange venues, and we’ll keep trying to get the L.A. people to come and see us. Outside of KML, I want to write more solo material and write a screenplay for a feature length comedy. And I’d like to try doing stand-up, but there aren’t a lot of great venues in San Francisco for stand-up. So that may just have to wait until I decide to move back to New York, when and if that ever happens.

AP: I’m still operating very much in the short-term, as I have since I left Vassar, so I’m not really working on plans for the future, so much as I’m working on structuring my present life and cultivating vague fantasies about where it might take me. I’d like to make a living doing comedy. I’d like to live a life not circumscribed by the San Francisco public transit system. I’d like to move back home to Vermont eventually. But for now, I’m most interested in improving as a writer and performer, which means I’m trying to learn focus and discipline. That’s my current project: consciously structuring my life in a way that will encourage creativity and make my work better.


What advice would you give to a young comedian who is about to graduate and hopes to follow in your footsteps?

MM: You absolutely have to keep performing. If you have people that you love working with, start a group after graduation. Or do stand-up. Or play banjo on the street in the freezing cold until someone shuts you up with a contract. Whatever. Just don’t give up.

AP: First I’d say, don’t do something that’s related to what you want to do—do what you want to do. Martha Graham said something that I try to have guide me in my work. I almost know if by heart, so hopefully I won’t completely misquote her, but basically she says that there’s a vitality, a life force that’s translated through you into action. And because there’s only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium. It’s not your business to determine how good or valuable it is, nor how it compares to other people’s expressions. It’s just your job to keep the channel open. You don’t even have to believe in yourself or in your work. You just have to stay open and aware of the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. I’d say that. I think it has something to do with creating the kind of life where you can allow those feelings and inspirations to lead you. I’d also say that if anyone figures out how to do that, I’d really appreciate it if they’d give me a call, because I haven’t the slightest.