Stand-up is an inherently personal form. Most often it’s you up there, using your real name, sharing real thoughts about your real life. As a result, every comedian has to navigate how much of themselves they are going to give the audience, especially as comedy has become more confessional. Beth Stelling, a fantastic stand-up and writer for Crashing and I Love You America, started comedy knowing she wanted to tell stories from her life but had to figure out her boundaries in real time on the job. She’s grown as a comedian partly by learning what she wants to withhold.
Finding that balance is the subject of the sixth-season premiere of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. We talked about one of Beth’s earliest stories and how her comedy evolved from there. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
How did you think about this day at Wet & Wild [Water Park, in Orlando] with your dad before you became a comedian?
It’s hard to say, because this was one of the first story-jokes I told when I started at 22. That’s how I found out I was funny, by making my field-hockey teammates laugh, telling them stories about my dad, my stepmom, and my time in Orlando. I got laughs from my family stories with my friends, so when I wanted to be a comedian, I was like, Well, let’s try those.
Did you talk to your dad before writing about him?
No. His attitude on it is, “They’re your stories. You do your thing.” The relationship with my stepmom, I wouldn’t ever describe it as horrific, but it’s just not great. My siblings and I were never like beaten, but we were put in dangerous positions and awkward moments and tense, alcohol-infused situations. Thankfully, it’s just not in our genes to have addiction problems.
How does talking about it help you?
I don’t know if I necessarily felt voiceless at the time, but in some ways I was. With my stepmother, I couldn’t go, “Hey, are you drinking and driving right now? What’s in the cup?” I’m just buckled in the backseat, making my sisters laugh by fake-humping her from behind. Was it my way of processing it? I think so. Things with her were awkward, and I usually search for times where I was put in a weird position and try to make it funny.
I’ve heard you talk about how you feel conflicted about being a storytelling comedian. How has your thinking about this evolved?
I’m 100 percent okay with it. For a while it was like, I don’t want to be a Moth person. Not like that’s bad, but the Moth is usually looking for one-offs from humans that have one incredible, life-changing story. But comedy’s evolved and there’s something for everybody, and more than ever, my people kind of find me. Of course, in a comedy club, you have a lot of seats to fill. I’m popular in some markets more than others, and so I can feel when it’s like 30-70, 50-50, 80-20 my people.
When I saw you a few years ago, you were doing jokes about a relationship in which you were assaulted. I believe you eventually stopped talking about it onstage. What did you learn from doing that material, and how did you end up deciding to stop?
I put stuff in my act about that because it is how I process or deal with something — I felt like it was out of my nature to not talk about it. But ironically, I had to force myself. It would make my hands shake and I would often put one hand in my armpit. I had a lot of support. I had loved ones say, “It was difficult to watch, but I’m glad you’re okay talking about it.” Then I went to a healing-trauma program in Tennessee called Onsite and worked through a lot of this. You don’t leave these places cured, you just take steps in the right direction. But one of the takeaways was: Some things are sacred. Your life doesn’t have to be an open book. It just took someone telling me, “You don’t have to.” Oh, I don’t?
What changed once you decided to keep some things to yourself?
I grew even more confessional, in some ways. This new hour has more sexuality and sexual things, and it really made me uncomfortable. Took me a while to be like, I’m a grown woman. This is what I’m talking about. It’s gonna connect with people. I still get in my head about being dirty. If I stop myself, it’s my mom in my head going, “Bob Newhart didn’t have to be dirty to be funny.” And I’m kinda like, You didn’t see him live. He was probably up there talking about jerking off and pussy. But dating other comics and talking about personal life — seeing feelings hurt, having feelings hurt — I have a different perspective on how much you share.
Going back to the Wet & Wild joke, has audience reaction changed the way you understand it?
You should never read the comments, but sometimes I do. And I think once some person wrote something like, “Where is the punch line?” And I wrote back, “My punch lines aren’t meant to be found by everyone.” I stand by that.