I spoke with Emily Maya Mills about the upcoming RIOT LA Fest, and in the process realized that she is my comedy spirit animal. From doing stand up, character shows, and Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, to working with friends like The Birthday Boys and Birds of Prey, this lady is killing it on all levels, and remains a delightful human being! If you’re not hooked on her after this, there is no hope for you!
Serial Optimist: Is this your first Riot Fest?
Emily Maya Mills: No, I did last year. Last year being the first year, I did…Jackie Ventura…what’s the actual name of it? …Jesse Ventura’s something conspiracy something? It’s a character show that was all about conspiracies and conspiracy theories Sam Brown and I did like a very obscurely known, well, people know who Dennis Quaid is, but we did Dennis Quaid and his wife, who like have, in the last few years, gone insane and have been living from what they believe are “star whackers.” Anyway, it’s such an obscure story that like nobody knew what the fuck we were talking about it was pretty great. So we did, yeah, we did James Adomian’s show and then I did the Moth and I did a couple stand up shows.
SO: What did you enjoy the most about last year’s RIOT LA fest?
Emily: I think just proximity. It is a new festival and it’s a small festival but that’s what is always so great about new small festivals, is that you can actually walk to everything as opposed to when they start to grow and you have to shuttle or run around and figure out more intensely, I think because the smallness of it makes it so that you see every face. Every time you walk in and out of a theater you just kind of see everybody. That concentrated, communal aspect of it was amazing. So like if people are in from out of town you wouldn’t miss them, ya know? You’re not missing anybody. It’s like a big party.
SO: Besides performing, what are you looking forward to about this year’s fest?
Emily: Hella burritos man! No I’m kidding. I do remember there being burritos and tacos everywhere but I think that’s just ‘cause there were street vendors and I think there was some catering that involved burritos, and it was great. Besides performing? Honestly seeing people who are in from out of town and also being able to take the train. I love going downtown and I love going to the Downtown Independent because I take the Redline, and I’m from San Francisco and I love public transportation. I love being able to like not deal with my car, and I’m so excited.
SO: Are there any acts that you’re super excited about, any shows that you’re super excited about seeing?
Emily: Yeah, you know, there’s a couple of things that I heard of going on, let me think…there’s, let me work backwards. For some reason I’m really excited to see Todd Barry recor–, is he recording or doing an hour? I can’t remember. But I really like the opening acts he has and I think it’s just going to be a good group, and that immediately makes me think of like just real solid, smooth, masterful comedy, and it just seems like it’s gonna be a good room. And then there’s something they’re doing called the Rodney Dangerfield Awards, which, I have no idea what that is but the lineup looks amazing and it just seems comical to me. Just that I have no idea what that is and then have that be revealed, of what that is, and then what is the trophy for that even? Is it like a bulging eyeball? Like bronzed on a stand? I don’t know what it is, but it’s exciting. And then I’m trying to think…I’m excited about Personas because they are not so much stand up. I like characters, I like variety…I’m excited about character shows. And then there was one other kind of experimental show that I’m trying to remember. I should probably open up the website…
SO: Ok, while you’re doing that, what should people make sure to do in LA aside from the festival?
Emily: Like people who are…
SO: In from out of town…
Emily: Yeah! Oh, good question [not bragging, she totally said that]. I just got done with the walk in Griffith Park, which is like, sounds so cheesy, and it is very typical LA. But that hike and being able to sort of see this panoramic view of everything is amazing…And then, even New Yorkers that I know that I kind of drag out on that hike are like, “This is so LA and I could not be happier!” They end up having a great time in spite of it being so LA. And then, like, you know downtown it’s kind of fun, it’s a place called Cole’s…have you been here for a while?
SO: Um, since October.
Emily: Yeah, there’s a really great place that’s known for French dips but it’s also really great martinis and kind of like old-timey, almost cable car pub style things. Not a cable car, but it has this, like original early 1900’s kind of saloon vibe, and it’s been there forever and it’s just really good….And then um, ya know, get your tacos on.
SO: And burritos.
Emily: And burritos. Oh, I don’t know if it’s still happening, there’s this not very LA thing to do, but it’s down here; which is that there is ice skating at Pershing Square.
SO: Oh really?
Emily: It’s amazing! It’s like a tiny rinky-dink. But it’s, ya know, if you don’t remember what it’s like to fly on the joy of laughter like a child, go, ice skating ‘cause it’s, you never remember, it’s like roller skating, or anything else, you never remember how fun it us until you’re in the middle of it. And then to be in the middle of downtown ice skating is pretty fantastic.
SO: Is that an outdoor rink?
SO: Oh wow
Emily: Mm hmm, it’s amazing.
SO: So moving on from the festival, to just you, how long would you say it took before you started to feel like you were “successful,” and what to you does success in comedy mean?
Emily: That’s so funny, because you know it’s inherent in being a comedian that you never actually feel successful.
Emily: But I mean, like, I would say being able to feed myself, and house myself, has been a huge indication of like, I achieved a certain goal. That was the goal, to be able to feed and clothe yourself, you know? Create your financial livelihood based on your creative output, if I’m being honest, it’s a hard thing to do, but that’s like a, I guess…like parents, your parents realizing the first time they could point to you during something on the television. They’re like, “oh, I guess it is a real thing.” And then just the tone of their voice in their realization that like it’s possible, I think that was a really big moment for me. And then I don’t know like little things, like little things, like getting to work with childhood heroes. And then something as random as some person saying something like, “Wow you have the most twitter followers of someone who’s never done anything that I know of,” or like something like, “You have the most Twitter followers of someone who’s not somebody!” Which sounds like an insult, but I actually take it as a compliment because I have no stake, or, you know, I don’t have any like widespread recognition from being on a show or anything like that. So I guess that’s a fair tweet compliment.
SO: What’s your favorite kind of show to do, or what is your favorite kind of venue, or both?
Emily: Favorite kind of show? You know, I really like weird intimate venues. Like not that they’re the only ones, but they just, something about a challenging environment. I just did a show in a bookstore last week that was very brightly lit, and to be honest sometimes those are the worst the circumstances aren’t great and the lighting’s bad it’s inevitable that something won’t work, but when things like that, when moments like that do work, a handful of very attentive people who are there to appreciate whatever is going to happen in the space kind of thing, and then the actual, the weirdness of the space actually works out in favor of being sort of, like part of the creative experience, that’s my favorite. But then, when you can multiply that, like the clubs are interesting, they’re, they’re, when you have a lot of people, like the most amount of people in a comedy club to sold out shows, it can be the most straight forward type of environment to do comedy in. Then if you have like an intimate, and aaaaaaaa—–what am I saying? Non-traditional venue, that still is like as big as a comedy club. I did a cabaret, like a burlesque cabaret last weekend and it was like the size and the shape of a comedy club but there was something about it that was like…people were sort of there and ready for the like wry experience. So yeah, I like sort of offbeat venues.
Emily: I said a lot of words there.
SO: No, it’s fine, you said the right words.
Emily: Oh, cool.
SO: Can you tell people at Serial Optimist who are reading this a little bit about your one-woman show God Hates Figs?
Emily: Yeah, that show was a just really a fun collection of characters I would say, real weird. Real weird show. It was framed as an anthropological museum tour. Sort of like you’re given the feeling that you’re entering into this weird museum called the Museum of the Jurassic humanity…Jurassic Technology Museum, which is this, sort of, mind fuck. And then you get inside and the tour guide sort of introduces you to all these dioramas and all I can say is that somebody I met standing outside in line said that they saw the show and sort of said that all the characters are sort of searching for some meaning. And I think that that’s true, that’s probably the thru line. These lost souls searching for something to connect them to reality, and failing in some cases.
SO: How did you come up with that? Was it all characters you had done before or was it just a completely fresh idea?
Emily: Actually it was like a, it was characters, probably some that I had done and some that I had wanted to do, I think it was like the second character show that I had done and then I have one that’s bubbling up that I’d like to do next year where it’s like these ideas for characters start bubbling up and it’s like, to me, there’s a totally obvious interconnectedness, but then I don’t necessarily go out and state it, like with a story or thru line. So to me it seems completely obvious how they’re all related, but maybe it’s more nuanced than I think it is. So in that case it was characters that I had, maybe one I had tested out, maybe one or two I had tested out. Maybe one, actually one of them was like, I shot a video of a stand up joke that I had sort of took the main premise of it, and created an actual character. I shot a video for that. And then, I tend to just think about things for like a year and then they all seem pretty obvious to me in their relationship to one another and then it’s…it’s not overstated.
SO: You’ll be doing characters again at this year’s festival; do you prefer characters to traditional stand up?
Emily: No, I love them both! If I could do stand up all week long and then do some kind of character show once a month, because it takes a little bit more effort, I’d be such a happy, and that is how some months work out, I’ve been lucky in that way.
That’s perfect to me. I love doing characters, it’s just they require some theatrical presentation and some forethought and some time, or, ya know, that kind of thing. So I love stand up ‘cause it’s so lightweight, and I just love doing it, but then the character stuff is like a really fun and cool, mini play.
SO: What in your opinion is harder to watch, bad improv, or bad stand up?
Emily: Umm…in my opinion, bad improv, probably because just it’s a half hour. If you start bombing out and then you can’t get it back, you’re watching twenty-five minutes of it. Where it’s like, with stand up, it might feel like 25 minutes to the person on stage but at least it’s only five to ten. It’s like ripping a Band Aid off and being like, “Alright! Got that done!” And also, you can recognize that an individual can have a bad moment or a bad set whereas like in improv, like a half hour, it’s like, I bet there’s six people, six different people, who then have to take a look at their lives and wonder if they’ve made the right decisions and so it’s like a lot, a lot of lives that are effected by that.
Birds of Prey: Suicide Girls Suicide Hotline
SO: Birds of Prey is your three-woman sketch group; how did that particular group of ladies come about?
Emily: Susan Burke was approached by a woman named Roxanne Benjamin, who at the time was a production management company she said, ya know, “I think you should put together a three woman sketch group.” And so, Susan, I think the legend goes that when she meditated on it that night, Lizzy and I are who she came up with. And it made a lot of sense. There’s a definite symbiosis, there’s a definite bond in the way that our minds work similarly and the way that they work differently. And also the legends goes that there was an earthquake the first night we met. I mean to write. Not the first time we met. The first time we met to write there was an earthquake and I think, uh, it means something.
SO: Well sure, yeah.
Emily: It was all us!
SO: The earth literally moved when you all met.
SO: Between stand up, sketch, writing, making funny videos, acting for television, do you have a favorite? And if so, what is it and why?
Emily: I could not say that I have a favorite because it shifts every time I’m doing something or I’m in a new space. I think that I sort of suffer a little bit from, like, needing a bit of a circuit training, or like, all-terrain type of experience. Because if I’m railing my head against a wall in one area, I find that like I can have a different experience by looking at a different medium. I think every time I do a character show, its because I feel like I’m somehow blocked with other stuff. And that becomes my jaws of life; just doing a show that shakes it all up.
SO: Do you ever feel like one suffers when you’re doing the other, like, do you feel that you’re less able to write stand up when you’re concentrating on a character show? Or does it all kind of just ebb and flow?
Emily: I think it ebbs and flows a little bit. I have the experience that one will loosen up the other. I guess I know people who feel like if they’re, say, writing a script script, have a hard time writing stand up, and that makes more sense to me. Like if you’re thinking in terms of a story and dialogue and that kind of thing, you’re not necessarily thinking of short one bite ideas or pieces. But I think that I don’t want to think that, which is why I’ll say no. Because I don’t want to believe that one causes the other to suffer; I want to believe that they all coexist and sort of compliment each other. But, I could be wrong. I could be fooling myself
SO: Let’s hope not. We’ll just say you’re right.
Emily: Yeah, I’m totally right, 100%. All the time.
SO: Do you have anything else coming up that you’re looking forward to that you want people to know about? Aside from riot fest!
Emily: I’m just excited about stand up, really. And I definitely am working on a script with my writing partner, who knows when we’ll finish that but that feels really good. And then otherwise, look out for me to hope this KIA commercial airs so I can keep doing my stuff! That is all that I have on the books ahead right now. I mean, Birthday Boys, I did a couple of sketches on the Birthday Boys last season and I’m really excited about 2014. Whether it’s because I end up creating stuff for myself to do or I get to do stuff that other people give me, I’m excited.
SO: Anything else that we missed?
Emily: No…I feel like, I guess what I just thought of was, I was in a small part in this movie that’s going to Sundance. It’s a short and it was really cool, and I feel like, even though I didn’t have a huge part in it, it was something I feel like I would love to give a nod to too. Why didn’t I say that before? It’s called “Verbatim.” It’s really a cool idea. So that’s coming up. And then, I was looking through the calendar to see, there was something else I thought was….Oh, Exploration Program in Electronic Comedy! That show! That’s by Kimmy Gatewood from the Apple Sisters, I just came across it at my first glance and it killed me. I have no idea what it is! But I love things like that. I don’t understand it! Electronic comedy and real lasers?! What the fuck?! It’s amazing and I love Brett Gelman and the Apple Sisters and so I can’t imagine what this is at all. Hosted by Carlala and the Funk, I mean what is happening?! And it’s at The Smell, which is like a real music venue. Oh, I can’t wait. So yeah, I’m looking forward to that too. Alright! We covered it!
SO Note: Emily Maya Mills will be performing in Persona! as well as Stand Up On the Spot with Jeremiah Watkins and Silly Putty with Dan St. Germain. For tickets or more information, please visit here, and follow Emily @emilymayamills!