Stand-up comedy is not just about making people laugh. It is about creating a connection with a group of strangers to evoke an emotional response and influence them; something critical to leaders at every level and in any organization. Comedian and Author Selena Coppock, is the artist behind Seen Better Days, a comedy album that hit #1 on the iTunes Comedy chart. She is ranked one of the 8 funniest feminists on Twitter and joins host Fran Racioppi to unpack the leadership characteristics required to stand up in front of total strangers and make them like you.
She showed the differences between improv and a team’s ability to hide your flaws vs stand-up, where there is no one but yourself to blame for failure. She explained how you pick yourself up off the floor, forget about the times the audience threw tomatoes, and grab the mic for another round.
Selena also highlighted her book, The New Rules for Blondes, where she and Fran challenged stereotypes about women, their place in society, and how we all can learn to shine if we believe in ourselves first.
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About Selena Coppock
Selena Coppock is a standup comedian, writer, author, and storyteller based in NYC. She is the creator and voice of @NYTVows, the parody Twitter and Instagram account that lampoons the New York Times Wedding section, the wedding industrial complex, WASPs, and courtship rituals of the rich and insufferable. She is also the creator and host of TWO WICK MINIMUM, America’s favorite and only podcast about candles.
In December 2017 she released her debut standup album, SEEN BETTER DAYS (Little Lamb Recordings) which hit #1 on the iTunes comedy chart.
In her day job, Selena is the Director of Editorial for the Princeton Review, where she leads a team in the annual publishing of 67 ready-to-print books.
In May 2013, she published her debut book, THE NEW RULES FOR BLONDES (HarperCollins), a collection of personal essays celebrating and subverting the blonde stereotype. Her writing has also been featured on Jezebel, McSweeney’s, Reductress, The Loom, xoJane, Huffington Post, TheFrisky, and she was a creative consultant to TVLand’s Younger.
She has been called a “dark horse audiences never see coming” by The Village Voice and an “impressive young talent” by the New York Times. Bustle called her one of the 8 Funniest Feminists on Twitter and TheFrisky ranked her one of the 25 Funniest Feminists on Twitter.
I like to think I’m funny. Some people may agree. Others, probably don’t. I’m certainly no comedian. There’s no way that I would make it in the New York City Stand Up comedy world. My guest in this episode is comedian and author Selena Coppock. Selena’s album Seen Better Days hit number one on the iTunes comedy chart. She’s ranked 1 of the 8 funniest feminists on Twitter. She joins me to unpack the leadership characteristics required to Stand-up in front of total strangers and evoke an emotional response. She showed me the differences between improv and a team’s ability to hide your flaws for Stand-up where there’s no one but yourself to blame for failure. She explained how you pick yourself up off the floor, forget about the times the audience throws tomatoes and grab the mic for another round. Selena and I discussed her book, The New Rules for Blondes where we challenge stereotypes about women, their place in society, and how we can all learn to shine if we believe in ourselves first.
Selena, welcome to the show.
Thank you. Happy to be here, Fran.
This is a throwback episode for me because I feel fortunate that we grew up together. I have to disclose this to the readers right off the bat. We grew up in this unique town outside of Boston. You don’t realize how insular that town was until you leave. I don’t even think you realize when you first leave, you realize that later on, probably now, many years past that. We grew up in this town where there were 10,000 people and 400 kids in the whole high school. There are 120 in my class. I remember that we had all of this focus on things like Division Six Sports that we thought were amazing. There were these rivalries with these neighboring towns. I can’t even talk to them. They’re from the town next door and then we had these first-world problems that we call like, “Who got a new car when they got their license?” I have to admit that I did get that new car. I immediately lost it when I left school and my mom caught me.
You leave this town and many years later, you start to appreciate a few things. One of the things that you appreciate is that some amazing people have come from that town. They’ve gone off to do some truly amazing things. We spoke several episodes ago in episode three with Jerry Remy. We told his story about going into his house growing up with him on the recliner. He was a professional athlete, the second baseman for the Boston Red Sox and the announcer for more than 30 years. You never knew that his dad was this guy who was impactful to everyone’s lives every night at 7:00 PM and continues to be.
We interviewed Chantel Calloway. Chantel was a student who was in my class who is the first black-owned board game in Walmart and Target for a game that she produced called Rhyme Antics. This was ten years after she robbed a bank because things were bad. She’s gone off to do some amazing things, has investments. I look at your story. We’ve kept in contact on and off over the years, not as much as we should have, especially when I lived in New York. We never met up except maybe once when I was about to leave. You are a comedian, an author, a podcast host, a publisher. You do all of these things. You have this amazing day job. Each one of these careers in itself, but you managed to find success in all of them. I said I need to get you on. We got to have this conversation.
I’m glad you reached out. I’m touched. Also, it’s funny because sometimes you do all these things you don’t realize how much you’re doing until someone lists them back to you.
You think, “I was trying to do the things I wanted to do,” right?
Exactly. When you think of the cumulative effect, “That’s quite a lot of things.” It’s remarkable.
Let’s start with the comedy piece. When I think about comics, I think about Ellen DeGeneres, Kate McKinnon, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman. These are huge names in the comedy space. We laughed and we loosely wonder about how they thought of certain jokes or how they thought of a story. I wonder, “How did they experience that? They’re able to tell this story that resonates in this way that makes me laugh. I would never have thought that.” We do take for granted the amount of work that it took for them to get there and to make those experiences funny. There’s an intense amount of pressure that I would imagine comedians go through to perform night-in and night-out just like we see with professional athletes. You see this a lot. You’d have to perform night-in and night-out at a certain level to get a response. Not to mention the incredibly long, hard road to even finding someone who’s going to put you on stage gives you the audience. You eventually produce an album and can get out there to improve your craft.
I think about the nine characteristics of elite performance as we define them on the show and in Special Operations Forces, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, effective intelligence, team ability, curiosity, and emotional strength. Becoming a comedian does require all of these traits. I want to frame the conversation with these core tenets in mind and unlock how you become successful in this competitive and subjective industry? You joke in your album that everyone has a dream of moving to New York City and becoming a stand-up comic. One publication that I read about comedy said that New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny, or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I am curious as to how you decide to leave this small suburban Boston town and come to New York City to pursue this dream?
Mine started like a lot of people. I went to college in upstate New York Hamilton. I did improv there. Improv is a good on-ramp to a lot of types of comedy because you make it up on the spot. You’re collaborating with other people. There’s a fun team atmosphere to it. A lot of people stay doing improv. That’s the UCB, the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. Their whole thing is improv. From improv, I discovered stand-up. I found immediately, stand-up made much more sense to me. The solitary nature of it I like. There’s a community, but you’re up alone on stage, which I like. As far as brass tacks, why did I go to New York? It was after college. I lived in Chicago for one year doing improv and moving back to living in South Boston was hanging out with old Western home pals. I was working in publishing and I got laid off from my job. I was about two years into stand-up. I started in Boston in Harvard Square above the hall, which is where I came up.
If you’re serious about stand-up, you have to go to New York or LA. It’s wise to cut your teeth in a smaller market, figure out your voice, get comfortable on stage, get maybe fifteen minutes in your back pocket just so you have enough material to go somewhere else. It’s wise to make a leap to New York or LA where the opportunities are. It’s where you can get a ton more stage time. You can be hustling. When I got laid off from my job, my good friend, who was my boss at the time, Anna Thea, bless her heart. She was like, “Selena, you seem frustrated with stand-up in Boston and you work in publishing during the day. New York is the answer. There’s so much publishing, and there’s so much stand-up. Those are the two things you want.” I’m a firm believer that the universe will open up to you when you’re on the right path. It will make everything easy.
The year that I lived in Chicago, I was on the wrong path. It was difficult. Everything was hard. Random bad, frustrating things would happen to me. When I decided to move to New York, every door opened to me. My uncle was like, “I have an extra bedroom in my apartment on the Upper East Side if you’d want to crash.” I was able to do a freelance job to cover some money at the time. All these doors opened and I got my first job in New York, where I was a children’s editor for Barnes & Noble Corporate, which was such a fascinating job. You decide what goes where in a Barnes & Noble, how the buyers make their calls, to deal with British packagers, packagers from Italy. It was such a great job. The universe was like, “This is where you’re meant to be.”
In New York, it was such a great place to hustle in comedy because you can be out every night doing an open mic and then a show and another open mic. There are so many stages to get on. There’s so much to do. It’s such a buzzing community. I moved to New York in late 2006. I ran a show on Avenue B in the East Village for a while. It would rain through the ceiling. We were all scrappy, putting on shows anywhere you could have one. I used to run a show. I took some sketch writing classes at UCB. In my sketch class, we all decided to run a show together in the basement of a pizzeria on Monday nights at 11:00 PM.
Did you get an audience?
Yes, always. It was like, “Who’s coming out on a Monday at 11:00 PM?” We did. That’s why comedy in New York works so well because there’s always foot traffic. We call it barking where you go onto the street and you’re like, “Come on in. We have a comedy show,” to bark people into your show. There are so many degrading terms in comedy.
You don’t know who’s going to be there either. That’s another piece of this thing. I think about some of these clubs. The Comedy Cellar, Comic Strip Live, Gotham Comedy Club, The Creek & The Cave, which was in Long Island, which, rest their soul, they have since moved to Austin. You’ve seen it a lot online or on TV. Their best comics will go into these places and go up to 5, 10, 15 minutes to test new stuff or they’re in the crowd. If you’re an incoming aspiring comedian, it’s a small stage, maybe in the sense of it’s not big in the square footage, but you may have a real audience of A-list personalities who’re sitting right there in the audience listening to you.
You never know who might be there. I have a lot of friends who got their agent because their agent was there to see their client. The agent saw this person and was like, “Let me sign you too.” I remember when I got to the point where if you went to a comedy club or a show to hang out or to support a friend, you’re going to be asked if you want to do some time. You had to be ready to do some time and do okay. Maybe you’re working out some new stuff. You want to always be in the mix and always be like, “I’ll do five. I’ll do ten.” If the headliners are running late, somebody might be like, “Comedians are here in the back of the room, just do a quick set because someone is late.” You always got to have a set in the back of your mind which you always do. That’s the thing. You always have jokes swirling around in your head. You’re working on stuff. You have your notebook with you, of course. Some people would carry around recording devices. You’re always hustling, always running around.
Standing up on the stage, it’s alone. It’s just you, which requires a tremendous amount of courage. There’s got to be this sense of extreme confidence that I would imagine comes from preparation. Something we talked a lot about in the military. You have to train the fundamentals daily. You got to do the core task every single day to a foundational level. That preparation is what gives you the confidence to take on more difficult advanced tasks.
We’ve spoken a lot about individual requirements to perform in the heat of the moment. In other episodes, Laura Wilkinson, the Olympic gold medalist from the 2000 games, talked about it in platform diving where it was her, 33 feet in the air. At that point, just like you, you’re on stage because you’ve earned the right to be there and compete. Actual execution, there’s nowhere to look. Dr. Claudius Conrad talked about, in-surgery, there are zero margins for error once you put your hands on that patient. Jerry Remy talked about it with closing pitchers. There’s no one left. It’s you. You’re on the mound. You now have to perform. Results in these other professions, these non-comedy, athletic surgeries, I feel like they’re objective. Meaning that some tangible result is going to happen because of this person’s action.
Comedy to me seems subjective, where comedians have to evoke an emotion from the audience. They first have to create a connection when they get up there. They have to make that audience feel something that audience is going to express that feeling through laughter. That purely subjective piece of this, I feel like it can all be affected by anything. Your look, what you’re wearing as the comedian, and your voice.
You may get up there and someone says, “I can’t stand her voice. I don’t want to listen to this.” The temperature in the room. The mood, their blind date. “I’m on a bad date. I’m not having fun.” Whatever this person is up here telling me, I’m not going to take it in the way that I normally would. Their political affiliations, nationalities, gender, race, it seems like anything can affect the mood of the person receiving that.
I’m interested in knowing how you get up there when you come upon that stage. The curtain opens, you step out there, you grab the mic, the lights are in your eyes, you’re nervous, the audience is nervous. Nobody knows what they’re going to get on each side of that equation, but now it’s go time. You’ve said that there’s no feeling more powerful than standing alone on the stage with a completely unencumbered, microphone in hand, sharing your thoughts or experiences. Knowing that maybe you’re instigating change in some small way. What is that moment?
You make it sound wonderful and powerful, which in many ways it is, even if it’s silly stuff. I feel there are many directions I want to go with all of this. First off, let’s talk about the solitary nature of it. That’s my favorite part because I was in a sketch comedy group where there were three of us writing short scenes together. I’ve done that before. I’ve been in many improv teams. I’m sure this is going to make the improv community hate me. There’s so much dead weight, a lot of bad improvisers are able to kick around and they get hidden by the factor in a team. The team can pull them up and they can be terrible. They’re kind of covered by the team nature of it. I love that in stand-up, it’s just you. You’re on your own. That’s powerful and wonderful. It enables you to be nimble. In other formats, it’s hard. If the set isn’t going well, there’s nothing you can do about it.
If you’re playing your music and this audience doesn’t like your music, “Sorry, this is our music.” With stand-up, if you have all your material swirling around your head all the time, you can change course. You can start in with some pop culture jokes. This isn’t hitting. Maybe it’s older people who don’t consume the same media that you consume. You can pivot to maybe a more universal story of something funny that happened to you. I like that you can adjust. The longer you’re in stand-up, the more you can read a room immediately. The feedback is instantaneous and from that, you’re always sort of recalibrating. If you were planning on doing this seven-minute chunk that you’re working on, if you’re preparing it for a specific event, you’ll plow through and keep going.
If you are starting, you do your usual opening joke. You’re always recalibrating. “Is this hitting? If not, maybe I will go in this direction.” I love that you mentioned that it is subjective because that’s something that helps if you have a bad set, that helps to keep your head above water because you’re like, “This is subjective.” Maybe some people don’t enjoy the true story that I told or they’re not aware of this funny thing. The premise of the joke was not understandable. The joke itself didn’t work.
It’s nice that you don’t take things personally because it’s subjective. Many elements can affect it, as you were saying. For example, even where you are in the lineup if it’s an hour-long show and you’re in the beginning, sometimes the audience isn’t quite warmed up yet. The sweet spot is three-quarters of the way through the show. That is where you could be not even a great comedian, but if you go in that slot, it’s going to be an easier street than it is if you’re in the beginning.
It depends on whether the host of the show gets the crowd warmed up. A good host will take the show on his or her back and basically be like, “I’m doing all the work, you guys follow me.” It’s like being a tour guide or a counselor. A good host will make everyone’s sets go well because the host is getting the audience ready. They’re getting them worked into a lather. They’re setting expectations. They’re introducing them well. There’s an art on how to introduce somebody and bring them up on stage. If the host brings you up on stage and you’re feeling good and they’ve hit the introduction right. For example, you say what they’ve done before but the last thing you say is their name and then you bring them up. It’s got to be in that order. If it’s not in that order, everything gets screwed up.
When you go out there, there are many variables at play, even if the audience is close to you or not physically. If the audience is physically far away from you, I find the timing gets screwy. It’s hard to build that electric connection. The club where I started, The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, which is now in Inman Square, the stage is the size of a thimble and the audience is right on top of you. It’s perfect. That’s why COVID was decimating to comedy. The ideal setting for comedy is a COVID nightmare. It’s people on top of each other, right on top of you with a low ceiling. That is a perfect setting for comedy.
Laughing and spitting in people’s faces.
I feel comedy took such a blow because we all want to be in a dingy basement together. There used to be a club in New York where the stage was high and the audience was far away from you. We would talk about it in the green room and it would screw up you’re sometimes pacing. It was a long, narrow room. That can screw up your pacing because it seems like sometimes your jokes are almost like a wave. The wave has to crash over the audience. If it takes a long time to get out there, you have to slow down and be patient.
If you’re someone like me where I’m fast-paced and hyper on stage. That stage can sometimes screw me up. It took me a while to adjust to the pacing of that stage in particular. There are many things that you have to be mindful of. I’m trying to read the room, “What does this audience like?” You are mindful of like, “How should I do my pacing based on the spatial relations of the room?” You think about what you’re wearing, how you look. I started wearing glasses on stage years ago. I needed to. I needed to see the audience because I’m nearsighted.
I found that wearing glasses on stage helped me. The audience saw me in a different light because before that, I was a cute blonde girl telling jokes. There’s something about the glasses that I felt the audience saw me more as a contender. It’s tricky in stand-up. It is uniquely challenging for women in stand-up because people are able to consume comedy from somebody they don’t want to fuck. Sometimes that works. A lot of the audiences for stand-up, are guys. A lot more guys watch stand-up than women. If you’re a cute young woman, some guys don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear jokes from a woman who they think is hot. I know probably this is not kosher to say but I figured I’d be extremely candid because I’m pulling away from the world of comedy anyway. The glasses thing changed how I was perceived.
I have a friend who used to stand-up in his suit from work. That influenced the audience’s thoughts of him and how they saw him. You have to be mindful of what you wear. My stage persona was a little high-energy but also kind of rock and roll. I would often go to work in this one outfit and change for the night for my sets. You want to give the audience a shorthand to understand you because they need to understand who you are, your identity, what you’re bringing, and you go into your set.
Often, your opening joke is establishing who I am, introducing yourself to the crowd. There’s that template for jokes of like, “Here’s who I am. I’m a combination of this actor and this actor.” That’s often an opening joke for certain people when they’re green in comedy. It seems like a rookie move. It serves the purpose to introduce yourself to the audience and tell who you are. At first, they need you to take them by the hand and be like, “Here’s who I am.” Part of that is taking the audience by the hand is having that confidence or at least showing them, “You’re in good hands. I know what I’m doing. We’re going to have a blast, don’t you worry.”
I like this conversation about having to structure your content because most comedians develop their content. Not only do you have to develop it, but you also have to perfect it. You have to execute it. You’re responsible for this whole cycle. There’s not anyone else to blame, “They wrote me a bad joke.” You wrote the bad joke. You got up there and performed it. You have to go through this evaluation process to understand what is a good joke and what’s too much.
I want to ask you a bit about that because you got a couple of quotes here that I like because it ties back into how do you create a plan. You create a plan that matches what you’re trying to do. One of the good social commentaries uses satire to turn the issue on its head and make you think in a different way than you did before. That’s coming from you. We live in difficult times. It is polarizing in so many ways. Tensions are high. There are significant sensitivities around race, gender, politics, and the pandemic, to the economy.
I feel we turn to comedy for an outlet. We look at comedians as somebody who can go up there. They have this creative license to say and do on the stage almost whatever they want. We don’t think about the fact that what they’re saying on the stage may be inappropriate or insensitive because we’ve been given this ability to go out there to make us think about things that we normally may not want to think about in a different light. Once in a while, you see the backlash that will come back on to a comedian for something that they may have said or did. You said that if a comedian chooses to write jokes about contentious issues, he or she had better play at the top of his or her intelligence and craft those jokes with a lot of care and imagination.
The problem with a lot of jokes about hot button issues is that they are sometimes written by comedians who don’t bother to consider the sophisticated dynamics. Are there off-limits topics? How do you approach these sensitive topics? I asked this because a lot of times in our conversations we talked about getting comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. How do you, as a leader, bring things up that people don’t want to talk about? It affects them and evokes an emotion that they don’t want to bring into the workplace. They don’t want to bring into their relationships. They don’t want to bring into their family. You have to have those conversations. Comedians do a great job of getting up there having conversations about the most difficult things. It evokes laughter from so many different people.
In comedy, every six months, we used to have a debate, “Can people make jokes about rape? Are rape jokes ever okay?” My theory has always been no topic should be off-limits. Everyone has been affected by different things. For one person, the Holocaust is a hot-button issue. For another person, it’s 9/11. For another person, it’s rape. For another person, it’s cancer. If you have an audience of 100 people, you can’t somehow not offend anyone. That’s an assortment of different traumas, histories, and issues people have been affected by.
You can’t please everyone, but what you can do is be mindful of your position in things and what is perceived as your position in things, whether you’re punching down. That’s a gold standard of comedy. We talk a lot about how you can’t punch down. That means wherever your position is within the white supremacist patriarchy where we live. It’s not much fun, not funny, and not enjoyable to punch down. I have a home and it’s not funny for me to make fun of homeless people in a way that is simply cruel, hurtful, and painful.
Ideally, the structure of a good joke is everything’s flipped around. Ideally, you’re being self-effacing. A funny joke for me to make that concerns a homeless person might be that I’m digging through the trash and a homeless person sees me and he’s like, “Get it together.” You need to be the lower man on the totem pole. This is why a lot of white straight men in comedy are like, “I can’t say anything anymore.” “PC police, come on and get me.” In a white supremacist patriarchy, they’re top dog. It’s hard not to punch down if you’re the top dog because everything is down.
I find the funniest jokes are ones where someone is mocking themselves. It’s like I-get-no-respect type of thing where someone is being self-effacing, someone being the butt of the joke and they are the butt of the joke. That’s my favorite type of stuff. On my album, I have a joke about filming a role on that TV show, Red Oaks, and how they reached out to me. They were like, “We’re looking for a trash bag.” I was like, “Got it.” To me, that’s the best form of comedy. The worst thing in comedy is when people who are not thoughtful or bright will try to hit on hot-button topics without understanding. Now, you’re punching down. You want to have 9/11 in a joke, but you’re already reinforcing the dynamic of what happened that day.
The funniest things are ones where it’s flipped on its head. I used to have a joke that referenced 9/11. It’s not a joke about 9/11. It’s a joke about how after Osama bin Laden was caught, everyone went down to ground zero to celebrate. I was like, “I can’t go down there. It’s too upsetting. My ex-boyfriend lives in that neighborhood.” I remember a guy came up to me after a show once and he’s like, “I’m from New York City. Don’t ever do that 9/11 joke again.” I was like, “It’s not even about 9/11. It’s about me being obsessed with my ex-boyfriend.” Sometimes, people can’t even parse what the joke is about. That’s a joke about a hot button topic that doesn’t work. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out, “Why doesn’t this work?” It’s usually because it’s being cruel to the people who already were victimized by this. The best type of joke about a hot button topic would be flipping that dynamic around. Does that make sense?
It does. It’s the presentation of it in a way that’s going to resonate with the majority of that audience. That’s probably the difficult part. You don’t know who’s sitting out there in that audience. You don’t know where to look, so you have to look across the whole audience and say, “I’m going to be okay that some people may not like this. There may be a part later on in this where this person who liked the first half doesn’t like something in the second half, but the other people who didn’t like the first will like the second half.”
There’s definitely this need for this self-reflection introspection to analyze your performance. That’s hard. I’m sure comics, like the rest of us, especially if you’re a type-A personality who puts a lot of work a lot of preparation into this set. The expectation every time you take that stage is, “I’m going to knock this thing out of the park. Everyone’s going to laugh their ass off. They’re going to love it.” You get up there and it’s just crickets. You’re waiting for the tomatoes.
I find stand–up to be so unpredictable sometimes. You can prepare all you want and you can have your set prepared. I’ve had shows where I walked into the show having a bad feeling. I was in a bad mood and I had a bad day, and then on stage, it was fire. It was some of the greatest sets in my life. On the other side of that coin, I’ve had sets where I’m feeling good. I’m so excited about these new jokes and the audience seems like they’re hot, then it is terrible. It’s hard to predict.
Especially sometimes, I would have a bad day and I would be zonked and exhausted and I didn’t want to do a show or set. It would end up being great and it was such a boost. It was like, “I’m so glad that I didn’t lean into that bad day and cancel the show.” It was often ten minutes on stage that would totally turn my day around. To go back to what I was saying before, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m some like shock jock who’s like, “Everyone’s going to get offended. I don’t care.”
My theory of comedy is people got a babysitter maybe and they came out and paid however many dollars. They’re drinking some overpriced Bud Lights. They are owed a night of enjoyment, pleasure, silliness, and happiness. I love silly stuff. I like stuff that’s fantastical. I love the heightening into an absurd degree with jokes. If certain comedians want to tangle with crafting a joke about 9/11, cool, good luck. The majority of my jokes that I like to do are fun, silly stuff that everyone’s included. They’re not mean to anyone in particular because I was always honored that people came out for a show and I want to give them a wonderful night and make them happy.
I think about the words humility, resiliency, adaptability, and emotional strength. Can you accept that it’s going well or it’s going not? It’s easy to accept when it’s going well and it’s harder to have the humility to say it’s not. Resiliency because you got to stick with it. You can’t quit. You can’t say, “It’s not going well.” I think about when I was a young kid. I had to be about 8 or 10 and I was in a piano recital. I started the piece and about maybe 10 to 15 seconds in, I messed up and I stopped. I looked at the audience and I said, “I didn’t do that right. I’m going to start again.” Everybody laughed. In a way, as nervous as I was the first time, it took the nerves out because I messed up. You got to be resilient.
In stand–up comedy, you probably can’t stop and say, “I suck right now. Let me start over.” You got to have this adaptability to understand how do you change your set? How do you find something and identify it’s not working and then change it? The emotional strength to not lose focus. I think about bounce back. This concept of bounce-back that we talked a lot about where you have to have a short memory because you may do 1, 2, 3 sets a night.
As you talked about that drive, you get out there every single night and constantly perform. You can’t think about the fact that last night it went so poorly. How do you do that? How do you reset mentally and emotionally? Even if you’re on the verge of getting the tomatoes thrown at you and say, “I got to get up and do this.” Also, do not become complacent when it goes well because it’s easy to walk off the stage and have that euphoric feeling that you talked about, and then expect like, “The next time I get up there, I’m going to kill this crowd, too.”
To answer first and then metaphorically, sometimes people will say tough crowd and that will get the crowd to laugh, and then we’re all admitting to what’s happening. It shows like, “I’m aware of what’s happening. This isn’t going well.” Usually, you get one tough crowd per set, but I’ve seen somebody say tough crowd a few times during a set when it’s not going well. People will forgive you one thing and they’ll check in one time, but if you keep doing it, the audience now hates you.
I know some of the old pros. The old road dogs of comedy will say, “You never admit when it’s going badly. You just keep on going and you always act like it’s going well. Always keep your head up. Always act like it’s going great even when you’re eating shit.” I do subscribe to that somewhat, but I also think that sometimes, the audience wants you to know, “I’m here, too. We’re in this together. We’re all present.” Sometimes, a little joke or a little check-in can be fun where you’re like, “You guys aren’t from the East Coast?”
Metaphorically, I remember when I was young in comedy hearing, I forget if it was an interview or someone overheard it, but there’s that comedian Rich Boss, who’s funny. It was at a comedy contest, and some people had won the comedy contest and some people have lost, which is so absurd because how do you rate art? He said to them, “Congrats to those who won. Condolences to those who lost. Just so you all keep in mind, none of this matters.” I thought it was so great. He meant like if you won, congrats. Tomorrow, you might have a terrible set. If you lost, that’s tough, but tomorrow, you might have an amazing set. Everything is ever-changing.
When I got out of my head about comedy and bad sets is when I started performing a ton because if I have a bad set Tuesday, I got another show Wednesday. No one show is the be-all-end-all. That’s why the best place to be scouted for something is when you don’t even realize a big person is in the audience. My favorite shows were ones where I didn’t know anyone there. I had another show before, so I zipped in late, jumped on stage, and then left. Those are the most fun where you’re not in your head. It’s that repetition.
You learn stand–up ten minutes at a time and you can just do it no matter what. You’re doing it maybe 2 to 3 to 4. That’s when you get that mastery because you’re not so precious with it. Every show, “I got another show.” You develop a thick skin. If things don’t go well at your 7:00 Tuesday show, “I’m going to get up at 9:00 and maybe they’re going to like me.” You can’t beat yourself up over it.
It’s too bad because when you’re young in comedy, you don’t perform much and you don’t yet know that it’s not personal. It can be so painful. I remember taking the subway home after bad shows when I was young in comedy and it’s humiliating and painful. You didn’t yet have the thick skin to be like, “Screw them.” In stand–up, we often say, “Fuck them if they can’t take a joke.” You got to be resilient and have that self-belief of like, “I’m funny. I enjoy what I’m doing.”
Especially as a woman in comedy, I always felt it was important and powerful to represent women in comedy and to show audiences who didn’t think women could be funny. Often, I would walk on stage and I could see guys putting their hands over their chest like, “Let’s see.” That was such fire in my belly to be like, “I got to hustle and I got to do this thing because comedy does not belong to men. It is not simply for men. Everyone needs to be here and everyone needs to be represented.” I’ve had sets where it didn’t go well, but somebody might come up to me after and be like, “It seemed like a tough room, but I was with you and I thought it was funny.”
It makes you feel good.
One young woman who thinks that comedy is in male space and she saw a woman and she thought that woman was great, and that’s powerful.
You recorded the album called Seen Better Days, which is quite funny. I listened to it. Knowing you, it’s this chronicle of your life. You tell this bio in a humorous way through this series of stories. What was the driving reason behind the album? When we spoke in preparation for this, you told me that the album was a defining moment for you and something that you’re most proud of. How come?
I’m so proud of the album. It came out in early December 2017. It’s called Seen Better Days. I wanted to do an album because often in comedy, we talk a lot about having closers. You have jokes that are your big closing joke because you want to end as strong as you can. Often, the structure of a set will be you’ll do a tried-and-true joke first, you’ll put your new stuff in the middle, and then you’ll close on a tried-and-true because you want to go out strong. A lot of my closers are long and they’re drawn out.
I wanted to do an album because these old closers, I wanted to get them recorded for my own historical sake but also because these are closers I was tired of using and I was like, “I want to put these on the shelf in a formal way and have them memorialized.” After Donald Trump was elected, I was upset and I was heartbroken. I was like, “I need to do something to consume my mind.” I need to do something for me and have a historical piece where I can say, “Those are all these jokes that I used to do the whole time I was hustling.” I feel lucky.
I was connected to Little Lamb Recordings, which is run by Jason Lam and Shonali Bhowmik, who are wonderful. We recorded it at The Duplex in the West Village. It was so much fun and I’m so proud of it. It’s bonkers to me. Every month, I get a check because it’s streaming on Pandora, Spotify, and all this stuff. I always said I never did comedy to make money because if you do comedy to make money, you’re a fool. Some people’s definition of success in comedy is when comedy pays for their life.
I used to subscribe to that and I thought, “Once I can quit my publishing job and only do comedy and that’s how I make my money, then I’ll be successful.” Within a few years of thinking that way, I decided, “No, that’s not how I think because I never want to demand that my art pays for my life.” You stop enjoying your art when you do demand that. There’s a great book by Elizabeth Gilbert that’s about all this called Big Magic. It’s such a phenomenal book. Have you ever read that?
It’s a fantastic book. She talks a lot about demanding that your art pays for your life and how that’s a recipe to resent your art. I did the album and I’d been in stand–up at that point for over ten years. I was like, “I’ve seen dudes who were in it six months do albums. Why am I sitting on my hands? I deserve to do an album, too.” I was never motivated by the money but one time took a trip to Aruba, all expenses paid only for my album and that was the greatest trip ever. I was like, “I didn’t do this for the money, but when I do get the money, it feels nice.” It is powerful. Every month, I’ll be like, “I worked so long in stand–up and this is the payoff.”
It’s a piece of work I’m so proud of because the beauty of an album, unlike a book, is you write the book and then it goes to copy edit, and then it goes to a legal edit, and then you and your editor work on it together and maybe chop out some chapters or rewrite chapters. It’s such a long road. It takes three months to be printed and distributed. The technology nowadays, it’s so remarkable. I recorded the album in late July of 2017 and I just chilled for the month of August.
Our high school classmate, Jenny Kendall, passed away right around that time and that derailed. I couldn’t focus on the album at that point and I was like, “Who cares? I’ll get back to this when I get back to it.” In theory, you can turn around an album quickly and get it out there. It could be topical jokes or it could be current stuff and it’s out there to be consumed. That is neat that there’s no delay when you’re doing an album. Whereas with a book, there is a delay. These might be things that you wrote a year ago. Now it’s on the printed page and you’re like, “Oh, yeah. I remember saying that.“ With an album, I love that it can be so current and you’re like, “These are jokes that I wrote two months ago. I recorded them in an album and then released them.” It’s a miracle.
I’ve heard that when people write a book, by the time it goes to print and gets released, they hate the book. That’s when they know, “Maybe the book is ready to go because I hate every part of this thing.”
By the time The New Rules for Blondes came out, I was like, “If I have to think of another blonde pun, I’m going to die.” I wrote that book on weekends and at night. It’s a slow road when you’re writing it while you’re working full–time. I felt like I was writing that book forever.
I read the book.
I’ve been enlightened by reading this book and I do have to admit that I’m probably not the target demographic for it. It is called The New Rules for Blondes: Highlights from a Fair-Haired Life. I learned a tremendous amount about the process of hair coloring and how to properly condition my hair. I’ve been doing it wrong. I thought that the conditioner went to the scalp, but it goes just to the ends of the hair.
That is truly the most powerful takeaway from that book. I feel like it says a lot about the quality of the book. All my friends, when they read it, are like, “I’ve been conditioning my hair wrong.” I’m like, “I know.” Granted, everyone has a different hair texture, so there are some people for whom they got to slather on conditioner the whole way. A lot of people should not be conditioning the roots. They should only condition the ends. I’m so glad I was able to pass that on to the people because when I learned that myself, it was a game-changer. I had great hair in high school and that’s when I learned that. I was voted best hair at my high school graduating class. There was some stiff competition at Weston. There were a lot of girls with some good hair.
There’s another part of this book that we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about. The real focus of the book is to subvert stereotypes and it’s to reject the negative connotations about being blonde. These are the blonde jokes that we hear about being clueless, naive, and gold-digging. The book empowers blondes and women in general by advocating that women can be self-sufficient and they can follow their dreams. They don’t need to become boxed in by these stereotypes that have been thrust upon them by society.
There’s a section in the book and I’ll quote you here, “Light-haired ladies have faced patronizing pre-judgment since time immemorial. We’re living in an age of intelligent, self-sufficient, gutsy blondes, and blondes of today need not be defined and inhibited by the tired blonde stereotypes of yesteryear. The modern blonde should strive to be informed, self-sufficient, and above all, not helpless. This information will help you achieve that.” I thought there were a lot of great lessons out of that book for that. It’s extremely impactful to empower women to say, “I am amazing and I don’t care what everyone else says.”
Fran, I’m so touched that you got that book because I feel like a lot of people read that book and didn’t get it. I’m impressed that you got it. One thing in that book that I was excited to touch on, and I did so in a tongue-in-cheek, fun, and silly way, was the notion of, especially if you’re a blonde woman and you’re cute, people don’t take you seriously. They think you’re inherently unserious. A similar way to the way that a lot of women’s writings are dismissed as chiclet. It’s important to be able to see that and sense it, but then dismiss it.
I studied abroad with a girl and her whole mantra was, “I am who I am without apologies,” which became my mantra and I hope she doesn’t mind that I stole it. Some people aren’t going to like you and some people are going to like you, but you’re allowed to do your thing, be happy, and be unabashedly you. Who cares if people like that or don’t, or understand it or don’t, or agree with it or don’t? That also connects to stand–up too. You’re not going to be for everyone, but the people who love you and who understand you, that’s great. That’s one reason I am so inspired by Hillary Clinton. She knows a ton of people don’t like her and she does not care. She’s roaming the woods and drinking her Chardonnay. She’s a woman of such great accomplishment and she’s done so much in her career, but her resilience I find so inspiring. I feel like I’m all over the place with this.
We don’t shy from difficult conversations on show. These are important things. They’re important things for leaders. They’re important things for people who want to build more meaningful relationships with their families, spouses, significant others, and business context. You have to be able to have these difficult conversations. You talked about it in the context of the comedian who gets up and makes the joke about the uncomfortableness of the situation, which then disarms everybody.
We talked about this in episode seven with author and journalist Cleo Stiller, where she wrote a book called Modern Manhood. It’s about how to be a good man in the #MeToo environment in this era, where you’re referencing with male comics, where you don’t know what you can say. “Am I saying the right thing? Am I looking in the right way as somebody? Are they interpreting what I’m saying as being sexist or elitist? Are they now going to accuse me of saying something that I didn’t even know I did? How do I act like me? What is me? I didn’t even know what me is now. What am I supposed to be?” You get into this whirlwind where you have no idea sometimes as a man how to act.
We talked about this concept of the man box, these preconceived notions that society has put on men. You talk a lot about brunette women, too. The relationship between blondes versus brunettes, which is quite funny, and who has the upper hand in different situations. That resonated with me because it made me think about the preconceived notions that the man box sets where you have to say, “I have to act this way. If I don’t act this way, then somebody is going to think that I’m ‘not a man.’” What is that really?
I think about gender equality. You referenced gender equality in comedy. I think about a lot of what Cleo talked about in finding the path to gender equality is through becoming good humans. When we create an environment where you have to be a good man and you have to be a good woman and we’re going to do these things in these two separate pillars, we can’t get there. When we come together and we say, “We’re going to focus on being good humans, who are going to do what’s right regardless of the gender,” then we can bridge that gap. I’m interested in your thoughts on that because you are a self-proclaimed feminist, which is amazing in how you’ve tied that into the book and into your comedy, and you’ve talked about it here. I’m interested in your thoughts on this good human concept.
I’ve had some conversations with my more conservative friends about notions of maleness and notions of femaleness. There is a misapprehension that the goal of feminism is women can do exactly what men can do, as though it’s some oppression of men and boosting of women. The goal of feminism is to get rid of these rigid notions of what is a man and what is a woman because they’re not doing anyone any favors. You were explaining the man box. The man box denies men their humanity. It denies them the ability to emote, be vulnerable, and cry. It demands that they be the breadwinner and that they handle the physical brutality. That is negative for men and women alike.
One of the points in the man box is, do not be like a woman.
That also puts in a hierarchy where men are at the top and women are submissive to that. It would be embarrassing to be like a woman. It would be embarrassing to have any traits that are considered feminine such as being emotional, being open emotionally, or vulnerable. That’s not bad for everyone. It’s so important to hone in on being a good human and reject the stereotypical, those rigid notions of male and female, and who’s allowed to be what.
I have a number of friends whose husbands are stay-at-home dads. Sometimes, I’ll tell it to more conservative friends and they’re like, “The woman’s the breadwinner and the guy just stays at home.” This is a great trend. I love that I know so many families whose structure is that, but some older people are thrown for a loop. It’s too bad because from what I see, these guys love being home with their kids. They love not having either responsibility for the financial future of the family be only on their shoulders. The women are go-getters and they love going out to work.
Everyone needs to be permitted to do what works for them. For me, I don’t want to have kids and some people disparage that or they’ll be like, “You’re not a real woman if you don’t have kids.” The whole women are maternal and women want to have kids. Plenty of us don’t. It’s so important that we broaden the notion of, we can all just be good humans. Maybe for some people, that means you’re a woman and you have kids. For some people, that means you’re a woman and you don’t have kids. For some people, that means you’re a man and you stay at home. There are so many different pathways. It’s so important to try not to judge anyone’s pathway like, “That works for them. Cool. Let it ride.”
Can we challenge a couple of other stereotypes? I’ve created a rapid-fire segment where I’m going to throw out some stereotypes about blonde women that I pulled from the book, so I didn’t make these up, and I’m going to try to stay quiet. I’m going to throw them out and you can refute it or you could acknowledge it. You tell me the first thing that comes to your mind while we run through this list.
I’m scared I’m going to get myself in trouble.
Number one, light hair presumes idiocy.
Yeah. Sometimes, I look at The Real Housewives of whatever city and there’s a whole lot of light blondes in there and they’re not having the super in-depth convos.
Number two, blondes will catch your eye and they’re easy targets.
Completely. I feel like often, especially in comedy, if somebody wants to portray someone as a stupid bitch or a Karen, it’s always going to be a blonde. People love to dog on a blonde.
Photos of blonde women on social media generate the most click traffic.
This is true. My friend used to work in social media and he would say if he wanted to have an article that people click on it and it will go viral, they would often put a completely unrelated photo of a blonde woman next to it. It’s bonkers the way that works, but it truly does in the algorithm.
Last one. Barbie was a party girl.
Yeah, she was 100%. I wonder if there is some correlation between being a young girl who plays with Barbies and being in a sorority. I don’t know. For me, that was the pathway truly both things.
I got to give you one more because I just thought of it. Blondes are not to be fucked with.
I agree with that, too, depending on the kind of blonde. In the book, I talked about the warm blonde versus the icy blonde. I feel like there are blondes to not be fucked within each category because the brassy blonde, she’s trashy and she’ll fight. The icy one, she’s probably a WASP and she will stare you out and make sure you don’t get into the country club.
You have a good story in your album and in the book, too, about chasing down some folks after they thought you could be taken advantage of and attempted to rob you.
It was truly one of the greatest nights of my life. It was the night before Thanksgiving. Everyone’s like, “Let’s go meet up at a bar and bump into high school people.” This guy mugged me. He was on a bike and he took my purse. It was like an out-of-body experience. I remember being like, “My purse,” and then I chased him down, knocked him off his bike, and got my purse back. It was like I’m in the Boston PD and they were like, “Oh, my God.” I’m sure that this guy thought I was an easy target. I was wearing high heels and I was probably visibly drunk, out for the night. I’m sure this kid sized me up and was like, “Nice. Here we go.” He was bewildered when I fought back.
He didn’t expect that. Nobody expected it. You didn’t even expect to react like that. It was an immediate emotion. “I’m going to go after him.”
That’s the thing. People love to say, “If I were ever the victim of a crime, here’s what I would do.” You don’t know. You have no idea how you’ll react. I was stunned by myself but also extremely proud of myself.
In comedy, like in so many things, you can’t go at it alone. You need some support structure. There’s this audience factor to this and there’s your personal brand. You talked about your voice. You talked about having to figure out who you were and how you presented yourself. We talked about audiences in episode five with Emily Sandberg Gold. We talked about it various times since then as well. You have to define an audience based on who you are and not necessarily based on what you think people want to see and how people may perceive you.
It’s more impactful to have an audience of ten people who are there to listen to what you have to say versus 100 people who don’t care what you have to say. That’s probably most true in comedy because of that instantaneous feedback. If you have 100 people in the room who don’t care what you have to say, it ends up that being that awful set. If you have ten people who are laughing their heads off and engaging with you, then it can be the greatest time even though it’s less people. How have you thought about defining your brand and defining your audience? What’s that process look like? That’s a long process.
The first step is even finding your voice. I remember when I was young in comedy, people would talk about finding your voice and I never understood it. It took me it took me years. Often as a woman, especially based on how I was raised, I found it almost hard to feel like I deserve the audience’s time and I deserve the microphone. Some people burst into comedy and they feel like, “I deserve to be here. You got to pay attention to me.” For me, it was a long road to feel entitled to this audience’s time. At least for me, it took a couple of years to even find my voice, find the stuff I like to talk about generally and find the way I like to be on stage.
There’s mechanical stuff of like, “Do you lean against the stool? Do you bring a drink on stage? Do you not? What do you wear?” The larger idea of that of like, “How do you find your people? How do you make sure that your people who would like your comedy are able to find your comedy?” I always admire people, especially eons ago. Dane Cook was the king of Myspace comedy. He’s promoting himself on Myspace and connecting with people. I have friends who would take email addresses at the end of the show and create an email list to inform people. There are so many ways to promote yourself.
It can be hard to find your audience, but now because of social media, it’s changed the way that an audience can find you, which is cool. I’ve had people find me in so many different ways. I have a Twitter and an Instagram account where I pretend to be the New York Times wedding section called NYT Vows. I’m always so amazed by people who will find that, enjoy my jokes, and get my persona on there. I’m always so excited when anyone wants to enjoy my comedy.
I remember years ago, I used to run a show at The Duplex in the bar area. One time, we were about to start the show. Me and my friend Laura co-produced a show called Bitchcraft. I went over to these people who were sitting at a table by the bar and I was like, “Just so you know, we’re going to start a show in about 30 minutes.” In the bar area of The Duplex, usually, people expect piano, show tunes, or karaoke and we were a live show. These people were like, “We’re here for it.” I was like, “You’re here to see my show and you don’t know me?” Often, I have low expectations. I don’t know anyone enjoying my stuff. I find it so cool and lovely. It’s such a wonderful way of connecting with people and a wonderful way to feel understood. To me, the most wonderful thing in life is feeling understood, feeling like people get you, and they get your jokes.
That success is earned. Do the hard work.
Years and years. Comedy is something you learn ten minutes at a time over the course of decades. It’s such a long slog. There’s no such thing as an overnight sensation. The person probably put in the work quietly for so long. I’ve known Sarah Cooper for a long time, who is blowing up with her Trump lip-syncing. She was hustling in the New York comedy scene for a long time. She wrote two books. Opportunity meets preparation and there you go. You can do a 45-minute set or an hour-long set because you’ve been working towards this for a decade or 15 or 20 years.
We got to close out. I want to get from you the three things that make you successful every single day. We quantify this in terms of the Jedburghs in World War II. The fact that they had to do three things consistently every single day as the foundational element of their jobs. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they did these three foundational elements every day, it didn’t matter what challenges came their way. They could be successful and find solutions to those challenges because they were grounded in these three core things. What are the things that you do every day to be successful?
I know this first one is not unique and it’s shared by a number of your guests, but make your bed every morning. I remember my dad teaching me that and it is a game-changer because you’ve accomplished something and also, everything looks better. I’m a total neatnik and into having things be clean and organized. For me, I have to go outside a little bit every day. I know people where it’ll be a gorgeous day and they want to stay in and watch a movie. I would break out in hives. Especially if the sun is out, I need to be out.
Every day, I try to be upbeat, positive and also be aware of what I want coming into my life. I enjoy being on Twitter. Sometimes, especially in the morning, I’m like, “I can’t watch certain things on Twitter.” If there’s an auto play of a police with a violent scene, I can’t watch that. I try to be aware of what I’m consuming and participating in as far as even media or portrayals of violence. I find that hard to take. Make a bed, get outside at some point, and try to be upbeat and positive is what I think about every day.
Thank you. We talked about the nine characteristics as defined by Special Operations Forces. We’ve talked about how everybody who is an elite performer exudes all nine of these at various points in time. I classify everybody at the end of this show. For me, when I look at you, I think about adaptability and the ability to adjust one’s behavior to the situation because you have demonstrated this in comedy. There’s this always-changing world, these new themes, and these new inflection points, and you have to constantly draw on those at the moment in front of an audience. You have to be adaptable, but then also in your sets over time. To be successful over such a long career as you’ve had, you have to be able to constantly be adaptable and iterate. You have a series of podcasts, Two Wick Minimum. I want to mention it, which is quite funny all about candles.
It’s not a joke. People usually think it’s a joke that I have that podcast, but it’s a real podcast.
We can find the audience members who liked The Jedburgh Podcast and Two Wick Minimum. That would be even more wonderful.
The Venn diagram is a sliver.
That overlap might be small. You’ve been involved in a lot of other projects. We didn’t even talk about your day job as a publisher and how you have your real work as director of editorial. That’s truly impactful to change the lives of young adults who are studying for the SATs, looking at colleges. These are publications that you’re kicking out every year and you’ve been there for years. That’s truly amazing, and you’re an author. That takes an incredible amount of adaptability. You mentioned opportunity. You find opportunity, analyze it, and then chart a path to seize it. Despite these opportunities and adaptability to succeed in different fields, you’ve remained true to yourself. You know who you are in the heart and you stick to that. That, to me, is the definition of elite talent. It’s truly remarkable. I thank you for joining me on the show.
Thank you so much, Fran. I had a blast. This has been a wonderful conversation. You do your homework. I’m so impressed by you.
I make it easy.
This has been fun. Thank you. This is all fascinating. These tenets of this elite performance are neat.
We’ll do it again.
- Selena Coppock
- Twitter – Selena Coppock
- The New Rules for Blondes
- Jerry Remy – Previous episode
- Rhyme Antics
- Barnes & Noble Corporate
- Laura Wilkinson – Previous episode
- Dr. Claudius Conrad – Previous episode
- The Comedy Studio
- Little Lamb Recordings
- Big Magic
- The New Rules for Blondes
- Cleo Stiller – Previous episode
- Modern Manhood
- Emily Sandberg Gold – Previous episode
- Dane Cook
- Twitter – NYTimes Vows
- NYT Vows – Instagram
- Sarah Cooper
- Two Wick Minimum – Apple Podcast