comedians you should know

The Undeniable Uniqueness of Alison Leiby

Illustration: Franziska Barczyk

This week, we’re highlighting 24 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual list “Comedians You Should and Will Know.” Our goal is to introduce a wider audience to the talent that has the comedy community and industry buzzing. (You can read more about our methodology at the link above.) We asked the comedians on the list to answer a series of questions about their work, performing, goals for the future, and more. Next up is Alison Leiby.

What would your Real Housewives tagline be?
“[Crunching sound] Oh, we’re starting? Sorry, I’m eating pita chips.”

What of your work do you think you’re best known for, and what of your work are you most proud of?
Right now, those are the same thing. I think that currently, most people know my solo show, Oh God, A Show About Abortion. It’s a project I’ve been writing and performing for a few years, and then I had the terrible “good” luck of being in the middle of my first Off Broadway run when the Supreme Court stripped away abortion rights for millions of people. I didn’t plan this. I do not want this. But I have to admit to myself that it does feel good to have something I’ve worked so hard on be a part of an important political conversation. This devastating loss of rights puts the show in a spotlight. And while the show will not move the needle politically for those against abortion, it has been a deeply wonderful experience to receive messages and notes from audience members who saw the show and felt relieved or included or actually excited to have their abortion experience or opinions reflected back at them. And the show has a lot of jokes. That’s the part I’m the most proud of.

Tell us one story from your childhood you think explains why you ended up becoming a comedian.
When Wayne’s World came out, I watched it probably a hundred times. I had memorized it, even though half of the jokes went way over my 11-year-old head. We were at the beach and my family was talking about ordering dinner one night. My mom asked everyone what they wanted to eat, and I knew a Wayne’s World quote opportunity when I saw it. So my third-grade self said to a room full of adults, “I’ll have the creamofsomeyoungguy,” an iconic line from the film when Wayne and Garth are ordering Cantonese food with Benjamin. I of course had NO idea that was a joke about sex or cum (or if it was insulting to the AAPI community, which I now think it must be, but I’m not a member of that group, so I don’t want to weigh in on its cultural impact). I just knew it was the perfect time for this joke I had watched dozens of times. I definitely got laughs, even as my family did their best to stifle those. And thus, a lifetime of chasing that feeling was born.

If a network green-lit a semi-autobiographical series for you to star in tomorrow, what would your character’s name and job be?
As a woman nearing 40 who grew up in the golden age of rom-coms, I have to say magazine writer, the job all women want and have. And I don’t know what name could possibly compete with the undeniable uniqueness of Alison.

If you had to come onstage to just one song for the rest of your life, what song would it be and why?
Through my Cherry Lane runs, I’ve been coming out to Santigold’s “Can’t Get Enough of Myself,” and it’s pretty great.

Tell us everything about your worst show ever. 
Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, a New York comic I knew asked if I wanted to do a benefit show at a bar in Westchester. I got to the door and told the guy checking people in, “I’m one of the comics.” He replied by saying, “But you’re a woman.” To this day, I have no idea if he was joking or that was an earnest reaction (he was a supercool guy, obvs). I figured he was just some friend of the guy running things, but it turns out … he was the guy running things. And this giant restaurant was filled with people who were his friends.

The host of the show was some guy I had seen around in New York, and I can’t say I was a fan. I forget the rest of the lineup, but it was all men and me. The crowd was pretty good. I was finally up and the host, of course, brought me up without asking my credits or what I wanted him to say, and he just said, “Your next comic is a wooooomannnnn!” and then mispronounced my last name. Fine. Whatever. Two sadly common occurrences. Once I was at the mic, the guy from the door, a.k.a. the producer of the show, got onstage with me, grabbed a chair, and parked himself right behind me. I said, “What are you doing?” and he answered, “Just taking in the view, sweetheart.” I think he was trying to “compliment” me, but … no. I wanted to just tear him a new one onstage, but the 150 people in the crowd were his friends. If I really went after him they might turn on me and make the next 14 minutes brutal. So I jokingly said, “Well, I’m facing the crowd and can’t see you, so I have the best view in the house.” It got a decent laugh, and then I turned around off-mic and said, “Get the fuck off this stage.” He did. And I went on and had a good enough set.

When the show was over, he came up to me and said, “That thing we did was really funny.” I stared at him and said, “Fuck off.” He tried to tell me he was helping me up there. It was just one of the many times in this industry people see you as a woman, and therefore not a good comic, or even a comic at all.

Nominate one comedian you don’t know personally who you think is overdue for wider recognition and why.
Brittany Carney makes me laugh so hard whenever I see her on a show. She has such a unique and fun point of view and joke writing style. She’s working on a new hour right now that I’m super-excited to see.

When it comes to your comedy opinions — about material, performing, audience, the industry, etc. — what hill will you die on?
You should make comedy that you think is funny and you’d want to watch.

What’s an embarrassingly earnest goal you have?
Oh, God, this is going to sound so cheesy, but it really is true: I want a young woman to see my comedy and be inspired to do comedy herself. That’s why I’m in this industry. I could recite Janeane Garofalo’s Comedy Central Half Hour (or whatever it was called back then) when I was younger. She made me laugh and she made me not only want to do this, but also think I could. To be that for someone else, I mean, what could be better?

What is the best comedy advice, and then the worst comedy advice, you’ve ever received, either when you were starting out or more recently?
Best: “Perform in as many different places as you can.” Do alt rooms, do club rooms, do shows in the city, do shows out of town, do packed houses, do rooms with two audience members. Not only will you learn to adapt and pivot, but more importantly, you’ll also bomb a lot. And getting comfortable bombing and learning from those bombs, that’s probably the best thing you can do to get better at comedy.

Worst: “Having a day job means you aren’t totally committed to comedy.” There is absolutely no one way to do comedy, and I always had a day job early on while pursuing this career because I wanted comfort and health insurance in my life. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.

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The Undeniable Uniqueness of Alison Leiby