Barbara Gray: The Interview

by Tony Bartolone

Staff Writer

pLAywriting in the city

The world of stand up comedy can be a harsh place. It can also be the greatest place in the world. One of the hardest things about pursuing comedy is defining success for yourself apart from the more secure career options shoved down our throats. Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” This is something every comedian must learn.

It was nice to have a woman’s perspective on the subject of the business of comedy. Disparaging statements are still being made about female comics, and it is hard to believe that in our modern life this prejudice exists. While there is no denying that there seems to be less women doing comedy (which is changing every day), it is absolutely wrong to say women are not funny. Nearly every woman I’ve ever been friends with is funny. We are living in a post Bridesmaids/Tina Fey world.

Barbara Gray is proof that women are funny. If you don’t believe me, you can see her this weekend at The SF Comedy & Burrito Festival (or catch her back in LA or on the road).

Tony Bartolone: First and foremost, what is this Comedy & Burrito Festival all about? 

Barbara Gray: I’m really excited to be a part of the first ever San Francisco Comedy and Burrito Festival. San Fran is one of my favorite cities to perform in, and any festival that has burrito in the title is obviously after my own heart. Ameen Belbahri, the creator and co-producer of the fest, is one of the best guys I know and really has his finger to the pulse of the alternative comedy scene. (Wait, is it to the pulse or on the pulse?) It’s going to be an incredible weekend full of laughter and farts, because burritos make you fart and farts are funny always.

TB: Where are you from originally?

Barbara Gray: I was born in southern California but raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake’s not exactly a comedy mecca, so I didn’t have much exposure to live comedy aside from unintentionally bad community theater. I was able to catch some of the bigger standups when they came through, but I truly fell in love with comedy through television. I remember specifically one of the first shows that really drew me in  was Strangers with Candy. I was a freshman in college, and my best friend and I were roommates. Late one night we were flipping the channels, and we just came upon this strange show. And I fell in love with it. It was so different than anything I’d seen before. I think the stale culture in Salt Lake made things like that stand out more so. I only ever did one open mic in Salt Lake, years before I moved to LA or actually became a comedian, where I made jokes about shaving things into my pubic hair. So what I’m saying is, my comedy is pretty much the same. I’ve realized now that at least 50% of my jokes are vagina-based. Maybe that’s my way of revolting against growing up there. I’m sure growing up non-Mormon in Salt Lake formed me in a different way… Right now I am trying to go back and write about growing up in such a unique circumstance.

As I started to get more obsessed with comedy, I would read show listings in LA or New York and have this aching feeling that I couldn’t be there to see countless shows every night with comedians that I love. I moved out to Los Angeles to work in the film industry in some capacity and just to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I consumed epic amounts of comedy and made UCB my home for the first year or two of my life there. After serving as a beer girl at a show and going to many open mics where I wouldn’t get up, I finally started. And I met all these other amazing people who were in their mid-to-late twenties who had also just started getting serious about standup, and we formed a community. The first year of really doing standup was one of the best years of my life. Everybody was so excited to not only have discovered the thing they love doing, but to discover so many great and supportive people who were there for the same reason. We are all now over the honeymoon stage and trying to figure out what the fuck comes next. But we will all share the memories of the first years together, getting drunk and having fun and going to each others shows all the time and seeing each other every single day and just having total boners for comedy and for each other. It’s a very special feeling that I am completely blessed to have experienced. A lot of people talk shit on the LA scene – I have heard a lot of people say it’s cliquish or the opposite, that people are “too nice”. If it’s a clique it’s just because we all saw each other every single day for years straight, so yeah, we bonded. It’s a comforting thing in the big bad world of Los Angeles.

TB: When did you fall in love with the art of making people laugh?

BG: My family is funny, my dad especially, and I grew up listening to his stories at the dinner table. He and my mom have had some ridiculous experiences, and he always had a great way of storytelling that I’m sure influenced my comedic timing growing up. We would listen to Bill Cosby’s ‘Himself‘ on road trips, and I remember sitting in the back of the car between my brother and sister as we all laughed and repeated it – “Dad is great! He gives us chocolate cake!” I guess I fell in love with making people laugh because I love laughing. I laugh all the time, with people, or alone, I’m always finding something that’s funny to me.

TB: Who are your biggest influences in comedy?

BG: Amy Poehler is pretty high on the list. I think she may be the funniest woman alive, not to mention she seems like a sweet, well-spoken person. Amy is just pure comedy – Parks & Rec is such a great program to showcase her abilities – physical comedy, wordplay, deadpan. After her I would say Louis CK, which is so obvious, everybody wants to be him. His honesty is what I am striving for in my own standup and I think it’s really the key to pure comedy. Not to mention that he’s basically breaking completely new ground as far as his TV show and the way he’s now releasing material… he’s not just another standup, he’s a revolutionary, and that gives me the biggest comedy boner of all. I also have a deep love of British comedy, shows like Peep Show, I’m Alan Partridge, Mighty Boosh, Darkplace, Nathan Barley, The Office. The British Office is the closest to perfect of any television show I’ve seen. I enjoy the setup of British television more than US – short seasons, where it’s just chock full of all the best stuff, and generally only a few seasons for each series. I think cable in America is starting to head that way a little bit. Oh I can’t forget Chris Lilley either, who made Summer Heights High and Angry Boys – his transformation in his characters is something I would love to emulate someday.

TB: What was the moment you decided you want to be a comedian?

BG: I don’t know that there was one defining moment – I didn’t grow up thinking it. I grew up wanting to be an actress or a filmmaker, always performing or making something. I didn’t realize that comedy suited me, really, until I actually tried it, even though it had been a constant throughout many of my theater and performance experiences. My first open mic went well and wasn’t the horror story you usually hear. I went to a lot of open mics and got comfortable in the environment before throwing myself in. And now I can’t imagine what my life would be like without it. I have never had more fun than being on stage or writing with my friends. And really, having fun is my main pursuit in life, so it just follows that I would want to do comedy professionally I guess.

TB: Why are you a comedian?

BG: This is a great question and one my mom asks me a lot because I think part of her secretly wants me to become a dental hygienist and start pumping out grandbabies.  Part of me secretly wants that too sometimes…I’m only now getting to the part where I realize that being a comedian is hard. It can be very grueling to be funny every single night. It’s a very bizarre way to live your life. It comes to feel normal when you live in LA but then you go somewhere else and people’s jaws drop when you tell them you are a comedian, and you realize, “Oh, this isn’t an everyday thing for most people.” I guess I am a comedian because I love laughter – I feel that it is one of the purest expressions we have. Laughter has no pretense – you cannot force it. It’s just your body reacting to something naturally, usually before you even have time to truly process it. I see this again and again when someone famous gets on stage, and no matter who the fuck they are and no matter how much of a benefit of a doubt you give them, if they are not funny you will not laugh. You can’t make it come out, I mean, a real laugh. I find that kind of beautiful, it’s a very pure expression.

TB: Is it hard being woman in the stand up world?

BG: No.

TB: Why do you think there are more male comedians than female?

BG: That is an interesting question. I’ve heard the theory that in our evolving process as humans, men had to evolve with a sense of humor in order to attract women, since men are gross and hairy and have to work to earn a woman’s affections, and since women are soft and have nice lady parts they didn’t evolve with a sense of humor as much because they didn’t need to. And this does make some sense to me…it’s taken humanity and society a loooong fucking time start realizing more than just one type of person is capable at something. I think women were just told for so long that it was men who were the ones who could be loud or funny that it took a while until we ladies realized that a sense of humor was something we were allowed to express as well. Because of this I think females can sometimes get away with things on stage that men can’t – if any guy had the amount of dick jokes that I have of vagina jokes, he’d probably be considered a hack. But I’m not considered one (as far as I know), and I think it’s a tiny bit of payback for females being ignored for so long as truly funny beings. It’s kind of the same thing that women are allowed to be a bit more sexually aggressive than men are now…we’re on the way to evening the playing field.

TB: Why do you think people say women aren’t funny?

BG: The only people who really say or believe this just haven’t been exposed to a truly funny woman. It’s silly, this questions being thrown around so much.  Of course, females and male comics are different, just like females and males are different, in general. “Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina” to quote that kid in Kindergarden Cop. I love funny women because, not to diss the fellas here but, the female comics I know seem to have a distinctive voice that can stand out moreso than the males. I also think a lot of female comics have more natural confidence than the male comedians. You have to have a little extra gumption and fearlessness to start as a female comic.

TB: Do you have any comment on news stories of certain people declaring that women are not funny?

BG: Not really. Really, at this point, the fact that we’re even discussing it should be old news. I guess it can be kind of fun to prove people wrong when they wince at a “comedienne” coming to the stage (for the love of God, can we ban that word from the English language?). Having something to prove lights a fire under your ass, so maybe I should be thankful for these ridiculous ongoing discussions for giving me something to fight against.

TB: What is your ultimate goal in the industry?

BG: Honestly I want to do everything. I want to produce television, mainly, but I also want to make documentaries and continue doing as much standup as possible. I just want to get really good at standup and make a show that will make some people laugh, when it comes down to it. I want my career to be Louis CK and Amy Poehler’s lovechild, with Tina Fey as my fairy godmother, and I want to make a telvision show on the BBC that crosses over to the states. That’s totally doable right?

TB: How do you think of comedy in terms of career? Do you need a good business sense or is being funny enough?

BG: A good business sense helps…I wish I had more of that. My business knowledge/care is almost detrimental to me – my love for comedy is large so I have felt bad putting a number on it as far as money goes. Though now that I have come a little farther and have began getting paid more, it feels really fucking good to actually get paid for doing comedy. I think my growing urgency to do what I love to do and get paid for it will hopefully equal out eventually. I’m lucky enough to have managers and people who will be the ones to mostly handle the business side of it because when it gets down to it, business is too serious for me.

TB: Closing thoughts?

BG: Thanks for asking questions that I haven’t even really asked myself…it’s so easy to get bogged down in the day to day grind of trying to make your dreams come true. Having a chance to look at the whole picture is rare and a good reminder as to why I’m doing this crazy, fucking thing in the first place.

Follow Barbara Gray on Twitter: @BabsGray