Martha Kelly Embraces the Fear

The first words out of Martha Kelly’s mouth when she sat down to chat with me before the taping of her Comedy Central Half Hour were, “Has anyone ever had a nervous breakdown on stage? Well, maybe this will be the year.” During our conversation, Kelly, while speaking just a couple of notches above a whisper, kept returning to the theme of fear. Her fond memories of starting comedy in the late 90s with peers like Maria Bamford and Tig Notaro, her excitement in being selected to film a Half Hour for Comedy Central, and the joys of being on set with the cast and crew of the FX series Baskets, were tempered with the acknowledgement that for her, all of this can be really scary. That’s what makes Martha Kelly an interesting comedian to watch. You can feel her discomfort. Her awkwardness is palpable. Tension builds with each setup until the punchline hits, delivering a moment of relief to the comedian and audience alike until the next joke begins. This process is on full display in Kelly’s Half Hour, which premieres Friday at midnight on Comedy Central. I talked to Kelly about her early days in comedy, getting sober, and the biggest thing to ever happen to her in standup.

You currently live in Austin.

Yeah. I’m from a suburb of LA called Torrance. I started standup there and then moved to Austin in 2000. I’ve moved back and forth between LA and Austin a few times because my family is all still out in LA.

Is Austin a good city to be in for an actor/comedian?

It’s great for working on standup. It’s super fun and there are a ton of great new comics who run shows. There’s a lot of good stage time in front of real audiences pretty much every night of the week. I would love it if industry people would go and watch all the shows and comics there because they’re so good and I also don’t want any of them to move away. I’d rather people see them there and give them jobs there. But people always move.

Is that because Austin is a difficult city to establish a full-time career as a comic?

I think so. I think it’s also that people get to a point where they think, “I should take a stab at New York or LA.” There’s more industry and both of those cities. I think people want to push themselves to…I was going to say, “Try the big time,” but because of the nature of the industry I don’t know if there is really a “big time” anymore.

You started doing stand up in 1998 when a lot of clubs were closed or closing after the 80’s comedy boom had imploded. That was an interesting time to choose to start comedy.

There for sure wasn’t a comedy boom, but weirdly there were a ton of open mics within this area that I lived in in the west part of LA near Culver City. I used to go to four or five open mics a week. There was no audience, but it made you write new stuff all the time because you were only performing for your friends. It was also good for getting over the fear of a small audience. I used to do a room in Hollywood run by Frank Conniff from Mystery Science Theater 3000 called “Frank’s Chop House.” It was in the back of a burger place. No people ever went except for comics. It was painful, but it was good because, a few years later when I started doing the road, if there were 10 people in the audience…a lot of comics will psych themselves out saying that there’s not enough energy or enough people to work with, but compared to Frank’s Chop House, ten people felt like a huge crowd. Some things about starting then we’re good, especially meeting Zach [Galafianakis], Tig, Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian. There are people that I’m still good friends with today that I met in ‘98.

When you started out, which was scarier, a room full of people or a room with no people?

I used to get drunk before I would go up, so it wasn’t that scary no matter what. But I would say a smaller crowd is definitely scarier. The first big crowd I ever performed for was the Funniest Person in Austin contest in 2000. It was at Cap City in a packed room with 250 people. That was one of the funniest shows I had ever done up to that point.

You decided to get sober over a decade ago, right?

December 20th, 2003. I held out for almost all of 2003 and then threw in the towel.

Was that a career decision?

It was an “I’m going to end up living on the street and killing myself” decision. I was not a high-functioning alcoholic. The only reason I wasn’t homeless is because my parents had been paying my rent for a few months. I remember seeing a guy under a bridge, clearly living there, and realizing, “That’s where I’m going.”

Did your standup change when you got sober?

For the first year and a half to two years I hardly did it. It was too awkward. Even though I knew a bunch of people, I was too uncomfortable socially before and after. I opened for Maria Bamford at a club in Sacramento and it was really painful. I was so nervous and scared onstage. But after a while of being with other sober people I started doing standup again and it’s been more fun than it ever was when I was drinking. I used to hate doing it. The only time I liked it, even when I drank, was right after I got offstage. Everything leading up to that I hated.

You’ve been getting a lot of praise for your role on Baskets. Is this your first time acting?

Yes, not counting dumb videos with friends or high school drama.

I read that Zach told you did he didn’t even care if you’ve never acted before. He just wanted you to be you because that would be perfect for the show.

Part of that I think he said for my benefit, not because it was a hundred percent true. But he and Jonathan Krisel made it the least scary thing you could do. It’s the easiest, most overpaid, fun job in the whole world, so it shouldn’t be terrifying. But if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Have you caught the acting bug now?

I have a bug for getting money for nothing. I’ve done a couple of small roles since we’ve wrapped Baskets. But I feel like when I’m doing it, even with Baskets, that everything I’m doing acting-wise is just garbage. But I know that I tried my best and that’s all you can do. And I love the money. But with standup you get to feel immediately whether you did a good job or not. The act of standup is more fun than acting, but the things that come with acting, like spending all day with a bunch of really talented people, I like that part of it.

The Half Hour is your first big comedy recording up to this point. What does the opportunity mean to you?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for over a decade. It was the most exciting phone call of my whole life, probably. I didn’t even know I was being considered, but my manager had sent them a set. When she told me I was going to do it I could not fucking believe it. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever gotten to do with standup.

Martha Kelly Embraces the Fear