Talking to Beth Stelling About Gender in the Standup World and Getting Her Start in Comedy

Beth Stelling has been making people laugh professionally for almost seven years with her signature quirky, laid-back style. Having moved from Chicago to LA a few years ago, Stelling has since appeared on Conan, @midnight, and all over the LA standup scene. She released her debut album, Sweet Beth, in the fall of 2012 via Rooftop Comedy. I recently caught up with Beth Stelling to discuss her first open mic, the advantages and disadvantages of being a female in the standup world, and the highs and lows of comedy.

At what moment did you first know you wanted to do comedy?

Well, in high school, I used to do this thing called speech and debate in Ohio. And in Ohio, there’s a category called “humorous interpretation.” Basically, you pick a play that’s funny, you cut it down so there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and then you play all the characters. Like multiple personalities. It’s silly. I was one of few women in that category, and it kind of mirrors standup in a lot of ways – just putting yourself out there. It takes a lot to say, “I am a standup comic,” to make your living off of it and also to say, “I think I’m funny enough to entertain a room of people.” So doing speech and debate gave me a lot of confidence in the beginning and it taught me a lot. There was a competitiveness about it and I worked hard. My friend Will Allen was in that with me and he was the first person that was like, “Hey, have you ever listened to standup?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.”

But I loved watching movies like Robin Williams Mrs. Doubtfire and Ace Ventura with Jim Carrey. I was a big mimicker and the youngest in my family so I used mimicking to make my mom and my sisters laugh. And of course, the “humorous interpretation” was very facial, very overact-y. So Will said to me, “Oh my gosh, you have to hear this guy,” and he burned me Jim Gaffican’s CD. And I liked it because obviously he’s a fantastic comic, so that was my intro to standup comedy when I was 18 or 17, I don’t know, maybe I was a junior.

It intrigued me and I thought it was very hard. I thought I would probably not be able to do it. My senior year of high school, I became the state champion of “humorous interpretation” speech and debate. I was also doing a lot of musicals. Then, I was going away to college and I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I didn’t do so well in AP Bio so it made me reconsider. I ended up auditioning last minute for the drama program at Miami University. I got in, and they gave me a little scholarship. Then freshman year, in Acting 101, they asked, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” Some people said certain shows or certain songs and act-outs, etc. I said standup. I wrote my little set the morning of because I had class late the night before and I procrastinate and also because I was scared to do it. I remember typing it up, it was like a half page, single-spaced in Word. I got through it in about two and a half minutes. And I was like “All right, that’s going to be it for me. I’m sweating.” But people were encouraging. I didn’t actually put together a full set until my senior year, three years later.

How did your first open mic go? 

The mic thing happened because people kind of got to know me as funny. I worked at this bagel shop called Bagel and Deli and this person who worked there was always cool to me and knew I was funny [and] was just like, “You know, you should just come crash our music open mic and do standup.”  So I worked up all my courage and I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” It was a Tuesday night and I shit you not, 75 of my friends came out.

Oh my God. 

[Laughs] Yeah, ‘cause they had all been listening to my bullshit for years so they were just, ya know, waiting. Basically, when I first started, I would sit down at my computer and type it all out and essentially memorize it. And it went SO well. I did it two more times before I graduated. It was a monthly open mic – March, April, May. Then, I moved to Chicago to be a theater actress. And then I quickly changed my mind and started standup five months later in November of 2007.

So, after you moved to Chicago, you started getting up every night type of thing?  

Yeah and also I got handed a show within my first year by Jena Friedman called Entertaining Julia. She moved to New York and was like, “Here, can you run this?” to me and Tiffany and Danielle Puterbaugh. We were handed a Sunday show, and we created a really fun, welcoming environment. So I did that with them, that was my thing. I didn’t actually do a ton of open mics, and I did get some shit from some of the Chicago guys for that.

Would you say you enjoyed that time coming up, or were you just focused on getting to the next level? Did you set any sort of timeline for yourself, or were you just in it every day not worrying about what happened?

I think when I realized there was room for me, I did. I realized, ‘Oh, there aren’t really that many girls doing this.’ There really weren’t when I started. I mean standup-wise ‘cause the improv world is big in Chicago. It was Jena Friedman and she moved to New York, Cameron Esposito, and myself. And also, Carrie Callahan. And the Puterbaughs of course too, but at the time they were really focused on their duo. I just realized there’s a place for me, and I was enjoying it so much because I was getting good feedback. It did come naturally to me and I was also coming from a performing background. I took it seriously but I’ve never really had a timeline. I do set goals though. I remember I said, “Some day I will perform at The Lakeshore Theater.” I remember my first gig at The Lakeshore, I opened for Mike DiStefano. He’s since passed, but he was a phenomenal comedian and person. I ran into him the day after I opened for him before our Saturday show. He bought my lunch, and he said “You’re really good, you should keep doing it.” The other goals were mostly venue-related, like “Okay, I’ll get up at Lakeshore, I’ll get up at Zanies, I’ll do a half-hour, I’ll get my first paid gig.” I did a half-hour before my first year of comedy was over, which is hilarious. Kind of inappropriate. I was very lucky, but there were also times when I felt very low.

I’m always interested in hearing about the low points because I think it’s encouraging that every really good comic suffered through them too. 

I don’t love this story because it sounds pretty cheesy but – three years in, I was feeling pretty low. I gained a bunch of weight, I was out late, and I was like, “I just miss my family in Ohio, why am I doing this?” And then a friend texted me that night and was like go pick up The Reader. And they do a “Best of Chicago” article. The readers of The Reader pick a comic and then the editors pick one, and the editors picked me for Best Standup Comic in Chicago in 2010. So then I was kind of like, “Okay, I guess I’ll keep on doing it.” It was reinvigorating.

Yeah, that must have been super affirming when you really needed it. 

Another time, I almost quit because there had just been some drama with these two other dude comics. I remember them heckling me at a fundraiser. I wasn’t strong enough for it. My boyfriend came and picked me up at the time, and I was just like, “I can’t do this any more. I don’t know how to handle that, I’m not funny.” They were pushing my limits and not in a positive way. Here’s the thing, no one’s exempt from that. Comedy can be very cliquey. Most of the improvisers in Chicago felt that way, like, “Standups are assholes. They don’t make it fun for us to come try. You guys think you’re the shit.” But I don’t believe that. For example, if someone wants to do standup, I’m like, “Yeah do it!” I’m never like, “Oh yeah, wait until you see how hard it is.” Because honestly, the first time, you may kill. I did. You’ve been thinking about it forever, you usually have some capacity to do it — it’s the long haul and sticking with it that’s tough.

But I think some old school comics don’t like the idea that someone can come in and try their precious art form without being on the grind, which is why I got shit for not doing a ton of mics. But my point was, “Why would I come to a mic to tell jokes to you, who I don’t care about? I don’t give a shit if you think it’s funny.” I’m not even saying that I was like, “I’m so confident, I know it’s funny.” It was just, “No, I’ll try it at my Sunday show to people who are in a welcoming, fun, funny environment, who are there to laugh. And if they laugh at it, I’ll keep it. And if they don’t, ‘Okay, thanks for letting me know.’” But I didn’t care about those few guy comics. And this is making it sound like I didn’t have a good relationship with the dudes on the scene, which I did. My album [Sweet Beth] is named after a nickname that Joe Kilgallon gave me. I had great relationships, but there is that bravado sometimes.

Yeah, sometimes I feel there are definite advantages to being a girl comic and then other times, it seems harder. 

Right, I think there are definitely stages of that too. When I started, I said, “I’m a clean comic.” Not that I didn’t say anything bad, but when I was taping and putting something up, I said, “I’m not gonna talk about a ton of lady stuff, I’m just gonna be funny.” And now, I feel like because I’ve established myself more and I know myself more, I allow myself to. Because I am a woman. But I remember making the effort early on to just be a comic and not like, “It’s my job to talk about this kind of stuff.” I also witnessed girls using their femaleness in an exhibitionist, shock way where there was no joke at all. Like here’s why I’m so crazy or so drunk or such a slut.

But I think it’s easier being girl. Because it’s all a bunch of white dudes and they have to work harder to be different. It ebbs and flows with how many women are on the lineups in the shows I do. I went to a show the other night and there weren’t any women on the show, and I found myself getting a little bored and annoyed with it and then I realized, “Oh, it’s ‘cause I’m not on the show. I wouldn’t be annoyed if I was on the lineup.” It would be nice if there were more women on the lineups, it’s really important. But that also backfires too if they’re just putting a female on to diversify the lineup, and she’s not ready because then it just perpetuates it.

Yet, if I look back on some of those shows that I was put on early, as the only girl in 2008 or 2009, I would cringe at my material and how I delivered it. But I was given the chance to get better. It’s such a tired conversation, the whole “are women funny?” thing because it comes down to the odds. The odds are that you might not find the one girl on the lineup funny, but you have five other dudes on the lineup to choose from — three of which you might not find funny, but two were good, so now dudes are funny [Laughs]. But overall, yes, I think it’s easier being a woman. Of course, there are definite hard things about it; I don’t want to sound cavalier about it. But in general, the fact that you can stand out immediately is a positive. The fact that you have to represent an entire gender, however, is difficult. I find women in comedy to be really supportive of each other and I find that all comics are pretty supportive of each other in general.

At what point do you feel you grew into your self as a comic and started feeling really comfortable? 

I would say, over many years, of course. It’s been a gradual process. Last November, I did an hour at Meltdown, and that was the first time where I had an hour with people coming out who were familiar with me. I was very much myself and people got me. That was a really cool moment. But it was when I got a review this past November where I was like, “Yesss, now we’re both there.” So, my answer is, six years in [Laughs]. This lady, Kris McDermott, said, “Beth Stelling has an amazing ability to use really well-constructed jokes conversationally and make it feel like you’re just sitting around with a friend.” This sounds weird ‘cause it makes it sound like I’m reading about myself, but I was like, “Cool! That’s what I want! I like that. That’s what I want to be.” That was this past fall. I was always trying to figure out who I was as a comedian. At first, I was quiet, deadpan and, now, as I’ve gotten better, I’ve become a little closer to my personality.

What’s your writing process like?

I certainly don’t sit at a computer and type it into Word. Not saying it’s bad if people do that. I will think of something funny, jot down the idea, and then try it on stage. That’s pretty much it. Something will happen to me, and then I’ll do a show that night and improvise it. There’s like this part of mind that won’t let myself bomb. So when I tell a story, I always make sure there are laugh lines throughout. I always have little safety nets when I’m improvising to make sure it’s funny. And then sometimes I will take something I’ve tweeted and make it into a joke.

What’s been your favorite moment in comedy thus far?

I don’t know if this can be called a moment, but I will say I had one of the greatest times ever taping Chris Hardwick’s show, @midnight. I was on with John Dore and Rory Scovel, who are comedy pals of mine. It was super special.

Who are some of your favorite comics right now?

Ryan Singer, Ahmed Bharoocha, Tiffany and Danielle Putarbaugh, Megan Koester, Kate Berlant, Johnny Pemberton.

Where can people come see you next?

I’m headlining The Oriental Theater with Kate Berlant in Denver on January 31st. I also run a bi-weekly show with Julian McCullough, Sean O’Connor, and Brent Sullivan. It’s at a church in Highland Park called The Church on York. It’s the first and third Monday of the month. It’s music, comedy, and there’s food and drinks and it’s really fun.

Photo credit: Tyler Ross

Talking to Beth Stelling About Gender in the Standup […]