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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Natasha Leggero interview

Happy start of the Northwest Comedy Festival. Did you know it was happening? It's true. Ms. Leggero plays Yuk Yuk's (12th and Cambie) tonight through Saturday. I spoke to her nine days ago over the phone. We talked about her persona, critics, Woody Allen, and SpaghettiOs. Here is our conversation in all its edited glory.

Natasha Leggero

February 4, 2014

"I think you start to move out of the realm of comedy if you're really aware that everyone's suffering and you want to help everybody. Obviously you could do political humour. And I'm always interested in political undertones but comedy is just a place to make people laugh and present ideas that can make people laugh." – Natasha Leggero

Natasha Leggero: Hi, this is Natasha.

Guy MacPherson: Hello, Natasha, this is Guy in Vancouver.
NL: I can tell you're from Canada because you say Na-TASH-a.

GM: I'm sorry.
NL: That's okay. No problem. I like it.

GM: Na-TOSH-a. Is that better?
NL: That's how they say it, yeah.

GM: Na-Tosh-a. Spell it with an O then!

GM: How are you?
NL: I'm good.

GM: You've been here to the festival before, right?
NL: Is this the proper Vancouver festival?

GM: Well, you know what they do here? They always change the name.
NL: Why do they do that?!

GM: I think it has to do with sponsorship. And some different people are involved in running it this year.
NL: Oh, interesting. Yes, I've been there the first year it was around.

GM: I remember seeing you at Tom Lee Music Hall, I think. I can't even remember what year that was. You weren't as known as you are now, but I remembered you.
NL: Well, I hope I've made some progress in eleven years.

GM(laughs) Has it been eleven years?! Well then yes, you have. Do you tour much?
NL: I tour when I can, yeah. It's a little sporadic. But yeah, I've been touring. I always have my dates on my website. I've been doing some stuff in town, some acting work, so I had to be in town for that. That's what's great about being a comedian; you don't have to go on a proper tour, like a musician does where you gotta pack up the band and book cities next to each other and go on a bus and go on for six months. With comedy, you really can kind of go on the weekends.

GM: Some comics are just constantly on the road but I know you are an actor, too. It's nice that you're able to work around that.
NL: Yup.

GM: I know you were a child actor. Is acting your first love?
NL: Um, yeah, I guess. It was definitely my first instincts as a performer or creative person, was to act. I didn't really know about comedy then but my mother just got me into some acting class as a child; after-school program. And the theatre in my hometown, which was a regional theatre, needed a child to be in all these different plays, so they remembered me from my, I think it was my Catholic school uniform, and they remembered this girl who had this Catholic school uniform, so they called all the Catholic schools and found me. And I became a part of their theatre company from ages like 10 to 17.

GM: You just took to it.
NL: Everyone's always like, 'How do you do standup? It's the hardest job in the world!' I mean, if you need that much attention, this is not a hard job. (laughs)

GM: And you need that much attention?
NL: Well, I think with standups in general there is something that is driving them to go out night after night by themselves on stage, especially in the beginning when there's a high probability that it's not going to go well. And to keep doing that over and over and over again, sometimes a couple times a night for a decade – at least three of those years are probably not going great.

GM: Did the early years for you not go great?
NL: Well, I was actually pretty good from the beginning! (laughs) I mean, my first time on stage it was like still the best performance I've ever had. I don't know what happened; I just wasn't expecting people to laugh. So when they laughed, I couldn't even believe the feeling. I was also on an Ambien and had some wine so probably it was drug-induced! (laughs) But I just remember the laughter feeling like these waves rushing over me. It was kind of an out-of-body experience. The second time on stage, it was a terrible bomb.

GM: That's not uncommon to hear.
NL: Right. The thing about standup is that they say it takes ten years, and it definitely does take ten years, I think, but different people have different things they need to work on. Some people are just natural writers, and then they've got to work on their stage presence for eight years; some people it's just very easy for them to be on stage but they have to learn how to write a joke or learn how to connect with the crowd. There's just so much to learn. It's an art form. It's cool to be able to be a part of it and to have that opportunity to learn all that there is to learn about it.

GM: You being a performer prior to being a standup, albeit in a different way, was the area you needed to work on the joke-writing?
NL: I think just also me believing I could be funny and that just my own experiences of things and relaying them to be enough and just finding a way to be natural and be yourself. That's another issue. I think I got very lucky because I hadn't seen any comedians. I knew who, like, Rodney Dangerfield was. But I wasn't looking at my peers and seeing how great all these people were, especially the women, or else I would have probably been too afraid to perform. I would have been comparing myself to them.

"I think that your stage persona finds you, if you keep at it long enough. And if you're lucky, it can present itself to you as your evil twin." – Natasha Leggero

GM: When did you develop your persona of the sort of snooty, vapid, rich girl type?
NL: I mean I guess that's just who I am. (laughs) I think that your stage persona finds you, if you keep at it long enough. And if you're lucky, it can present itself to you as your evil twin. So it's definitely a part of you, and it's a part of you that you want to unleash and the part of you that you want to react to society, but it's not exactly you.

GM: I can tell talking to you that you're not the Tubbin' With Tash character or when you did the fake CNN interview about diamonds. That sort of character who looks down on people and doesn't really get that other people might be struggling.
NL: I think you start to move out of the realm of comedy if you're really aware that everyone's suffering and you want to help everybody. Obviously you could do political humour. And I'm always interested in political undertones but comedy is just a place to make people laugh and present ideas that can make people laugh.

GM: What interests me is you got your BA in Theatre Criticism.
NL: Is that what interests you?

GM: It does, being a critic myself and not getting a BA in it.
NL: It was one of those things where I wanted to get my degree. I went to acting conservatory in New York and my mother really wanted me to get a proper degree so I went to Hunter College. They didn't really offer anything much in theatre except criticism. So I started taking the courses and I ended up really liking it. I would go to the theatre and I would write critiques, sometimes scathing critiques, of things and I actually was awarded for it and the teachers really liked what I was doing. It was the first time I was getting praised for a scholarly thing. And also I think it really helped sharpen my critical mind. So when I moved to L.A. I kind of already honed that skill of criticism. So I just instead of directing it to Broadway, I directed it towards TLC.

GM: What are your thoughts on critics in general, having studied it yourself?
NL: I used to ask my teacher, I said it seems so mean to say all these mean things about people if I don't like what they’re doing. And he would always come back pretty relentlessly saying you should distrust those feelings and just go for it! (laughs) So I don't know. At the time it wasn't the clearest advice. But I'm sure that at the beginning of modern art, all of the artists who were part of a movement, were very critical of each other. I think it's how you get better.

GM: I think most people use the word 'criticism' as automatically negative when the intent might be constructive criticism or looking at something objectively or dispassionately.
NL: Right, but then also criticism as an art. Look at old Dorothy Parker play reviews. She's clearly scathing and also making jokes at the expense of how she feels people failed. So that in itself is entertainment. So then what? She shouldn't entertain because she doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings? I just think it goes against art. But that being said, though, one thing I try to do is have the target at least be... what's the word I'm looking for?... It's hard to make fun of someone when they can't do anything about it. But if someone can do something about something, I think you have more range to criticize.

GM: Like if it's a choice they've made.
NL: Right. Like due targets. Deserving targets.

GM: Everybody's a critic these days. Everyone has a blog, everybody's online.
NL: Not only that, everyone's published! I was thinking about that today because you read about young writers in the '50s and '60s and they had all their rejection letters sent to them. Now it's like just to be published, all you have to do is just log in to your internet. I was watching CNN last night and while the experts are talking, while the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair is trying to make a point, there's a Twitter feed coming on underneath him. I don't care what your Aunt Cathy has to say about Woody Allen's escapades. They're not an expert. Whatever they have to say is undoubtedly sentimental, not that learned, and just simple and small-minded. I'd rather listen to the man who's the editor of Vanity Fair.

GM: Any time they say, 'Tell us what you think,' I just change the channel. I don't care what the people think.
NL: They don't even say that anymore. Now there's just a constant feed coming up underneath the people. I think that's going to be the norm and I think TV is going to become like that as well – everyone's going to be commenting and chiming in while we're trying to take in whatever it is.

GM: It really pulls focus. You can't read something, process it, and give your full attention to what the person's saying at the same time. You'll miss parts.
NL: Yup.

GM: They did that last season on The Bachelor. It drove me crazy.
NL: That's a bad example of you trying to concentrate. (laughs)

GM: I can't concentrate on the bikinis if I have to read the Tweets!
NL: I hear you.

GM: Did being a critic help you when you were a judge on Last Comic Standing?
NL: Of course, yeah. Definitely. That advice the teacher gave me, it made me less afraid to say no. I had a feeling when I decided to do that job – because I was kind of in awe of Greg Giraldo and Andy Kindler and they're such masters, and I was thinking, 'How am I going to hold my own with these people?' because they're just so brilliant and they've been doing comedy longer than I have and who am I? I think I'd only been doing comedy for six years – but I just had this thought that I'm just going to say what I think is funny regardless of what anyone else says. And that's kind of the way I knew I could make the most of that situation.

GM: You'd only been doing it about six years, you said?
NL: I think so. 

GM: That is impressive and surprising. How did that gig come about?
NL: They just called me in for a meeting and talked to me and liked my thoughts on comedy.

GM: Did you get grief from the other comics?
NL: The sad part about a show like that, or maybe it's a good part, is a lot of people who are good wouldn't subject themselves to that regardless of screen time. So the kinds of people who were good who were doing it were very young or just inexperienced and usually not people I knew. That wasn't the case all the time. I mean, sometimes there were some good people. Some really good comics have come from Last Comic Standing. Amy Schumer was on Last Comic Standing. But I think she was very young at the time and she was a New York comic – and by the way I wasn't a judge then. But for a certain type of person, it's a great opportunity to shine.

GM: Did you have any awkward interactions later because they comics were working professionals you might have come across?
NL: Not really. I think everyone was pretty cool. The one person I said no to that I'm friends with now is Eric André. (laughs) He really could not have been cooler about it. For whatever reason, I wasn't liking his set that day. He called me right after and was like, 'I just want you know, I know that this is a TV show and you have to do what you have to do, and I still love you, and you're so cool, and I don't take this personally.' That's the dream response. And obviously Eric's hilarious. He was just super cool about it. He's probably the main person I'm friends with now that I had to say no to.

GM: You can only comment on the set you see in that moment. You may think someone's hilarious but they didn't bring it that day.
NL: Right.

GM: I read that one of your influences is Woody Allen, and you just mentioned him. Any thoughts on the latest craziness?
NL: I'm awaiting his response. On CNN, they said that Woody Allen is preparing a response. I think that'll be good. Hopefully it's in the form of a movie.

GM: That no one will go see now.
NL: No, I doubt it. The real sad truth is that there's nobody like him. It's not like he's one of the greats. I mean, he is one of the greats but in terms of what he's done for women in movies, there's nobody writing movies that are on that level of funny and on that level of exposing a woman's psyche and great parts for women. He's someone who's actually, maybe to his detriment, inspired by women. And I feel like most of the directors, especially in comedy, are inspired by men. They're inspired by the fat, nerdy version of them. They never got chicks so they want this out-of-shape dude who represents them and all man to triumph. So man is the hero. I think with Woody Allen's films the female is the hero. Kind of like how the females were in the '30s and '40s in the beginning of movies. And Woody Allen's obsessed with old movies. I just think that that's something that's really lacking in films.

GM: I read something yesterday by a lawyer who used his film, his art, as evidence against him. She used Manhattan, where his character dated a 17-year-old.
NL: But the thing is, being interested in having sex with a 17-year-old, which I would venture to guess most 42-year-old men would get turned on by that idea, is completely different than being a predator and molesting a 7-year-old. I don't think that's the same thing. But again, I don't think anybody will know. There's really no way to know. I can just say that I'm a huge fan of his films.

GM: Are you still doing Tubbin' With Tash?
NL: That's on a hiatus right now but perhaps we'll bring some more back. People definitely want us to.

GM: Yeah, they're ridiculously compelling.
NL(laughs) Thank you.

GM: Have you shot the pilot, Another Period?
NL: We shot the pilot. I'm also doing a special that I'm recording in April in Boston.

GM: A standup special?
NL: Yeah. For ticket inquiries, you can go to my website.

GM: Have you spent much time in Vancouver?
NL: Yeah, I love it. I was there filming stuff another time and it was really fun.

GM: Any more roasts coming up?
NL: I don't know. No, not that I know of. I haven't heard.

GM: You were on the one when everyone was telling Sarah that she was old. She was unhappy with that.
NL: I think with a roast it's just really hard to figure out any angle, especially when someone's virtually unroastable like Sarah Silverman. So I think people are just kind of grasping at whatever they could come up with. I don't think anyone really thinks she's old any more than they think that I'm a prostitute.

GM: Exactly. But that doesn't mean she didn't feel stung by it. She's an actor over 40 and here they were pointing that out. Even though it's a roast, and we all know the rules of the game, you can't help your feelings.
NL: I just think there's a double standard. I think that men who are 40... Everyone's talking about Jimmy Fallon, new kid on the block. He's 40. It's just a different perception of men. I think that's changing. I think we're entering the century of the woman and I'm pretty excited about it. It's just going to take a little bit of time for the perception to change. Women got a later start in a lot of ways. I think that Sarah and all women really have nothing to worry about in terms of how they're perceived. I think it's changing rapidly. I mean, comedy stars who are female are all over 40 so I don't really understand what the big deal is. And people are looking good until they're older than 50, especially if you take care of yourself. I think sometimes it takes a while to even have something to say. I'm actually more interested in what a woman who has some life experience is saying than what a 22-year-old's saying. It just doesn't even really register with me. Like Taylor Swift. What am I going to do with that?

GM: This kind of ties in with the Tweeting and Woody Allen, but your Pearl Harbor joke that was supposedly controversial, if you read Huffington Post, does that just make you sad for humanity?
NL: I think it just goes towards the thing I was saying that everyone now gets to say something.

GM: But the fact that they even choose to.
NL: Well, people are bored. Most people aren't artists. Most people don't get to express themselves through their thoughts and through their ideas and through their talent. So people are probably bored and they want to have a say. And a lot of people aren't that intelligent. Or they don't have a great developed sense of humour. So they find something to be outraged with. And by the way, I'm not saying that vets specifically aren't intelligent or don't have a great sense of humour; I'm saying people in general don't have an outlet so they like to get enraged by things. So that was just an easy target.

GM: I guess it was. But it does speak to their intelligence and their ability to process information or to understand where the joke is.
NLOne of the main problems as society becomes stupider and stupider – I think Harold Bloom said this – is people's inability to understand irony. (laughs) As people’s ability to understand irony diminishes, so does their ability to take a joke.

GM: So when it hit, did you have to sit and think about how you combat it or did you just go write your response?
NL: I definitely thought about it and talked to my manager about it. They represent Bill Maher and were like, 'Let me see what Bill Maher does.' Because usually these responses just make it worse. You can never win, essentially is what he's saying. But then I sent him the response and he was like, 'This is just so to the point. I think you should publish it.' And all I ever wanted to do was just get some of my fans on Twitter to fight with the people who were sending me death threats! I didn't think comedians would care or anything so it was just kind of nice that it spoke to people.

GM: I guess the flip-side of the culture we live in is that the life cycle is pretty quick. Or was it that your response really quashed it?
NL: I just got a letter yesterday from the vets' fund that I donated to saying that they completely understood what I said, they got the joke, and they kind of apologized for people's behaviour, and they said they were very grateful to me for raising awareness for their fund and for vets. It's a really nice letter and I think it just definitely makes everything come full circle.

GM: Does it give you pause in the future about what you will or can joke about? Not that you made a mistake, but it was perceived in a way you didn't intend it.
NLRight. Obviously you don't want to hurt people. Again, it's not their fault. If people don't understand things and they can only process things on a literal level, it does hurt their feelings. And that is sad. You don't want people to be in pain. And people have lost their family in the war and they read something like that, and it looks like I'm making light of it, and they haven't studied comedy their whole life, and they live maybe sheltered existences, and they've given up everything to fight for their country. Obviously it's painful that it hurts people, but you just have to be yourself in the same way that they're being themselves. And I guess the smartest person wins! (laughs)

GM: That's a measured and charitable response that you can see their side of it, too, even though you disagree with it.
NL: Everyone's doing the best they can! You can't blame people for only thinking literally, really.

GM: So your response, then, is just to point it out to them that there was no harm meant, here was the joke, and get over yourselves.
NL: I suppose. 

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