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So the other day, I had a tremendous conversation with comedian extraordinaire Beth Stelling wherein we came up with a cure for cancer, solved world hunger and discovered the meaning of existence. But then later I found that my stupid recording device had a bug and that interview was lost to the ages. Beth was as sweet as she is reputed to be and spoke with me again the next time (two recorders going, this time), and we discussed much more interesting things like wildlife, the forthcoming RIOT LA Comedy Festival and award-based ambition. As we begin, Beth has just polished off some tapioca pudding, and I panicked and said I also had some tapioca, though I had not. I don’t know what my deal is, sometimes.

Photo by David Muller

Photo by David Muller

Beth Stelling: Yo!

Serial Optimist: Yo.

Beth: How’s your tapioca?

SO: It’s good, not great.

Beth: I got some from Trader Joe’s, and the balls are really big, the tapioca balls. My mom bought some tapioca at home over the holidays, and I thought, “Yeah, I’ll give that a go.” And it turns out, I like it. That’s on the record.

SO: On the record. “Beth Stelling Comes Out As Loving Tapioca”: That will be the twelve-point headline.

Beth: Thank you.

SO: You’re welcome. And thank you for doing this again, I’m so dreadfully embarrassed that this, uh—

Beth: Well, you know, stuff happens. I did this thing for Rainn Wilson’s SoulPancake and it was a collabo with the Oprah network, they were doing this thing called Super Soul Sunday, so I got called in and had to talk about all this deep stuff and answer all their questions. It was like a 30-minute interview, and I go to leave and she says, “Wow, that was amazing, thank you so much!” I was like, “Sure,” and then they were like, “Oh my God, Beth, it didn’t record, can you do it again?” They were very nice and they liked me, but it was like…you know what I mean? You have to recount your family member’s death and then be like, Oh you know what we didn’t get that, can you do it again? I’m not that good of an actor to actually—no, I’m sure I could, but it would make me feel gross, to actually try and reenact how I initially said the things.

SO: Well, I’m glad we didn’t go too dark—

Beth: We didn’t get too deep. I wouldn’t let you.

SO: I don’t think I’m capable of depth. So you’ve been very active today, hiking and bike-riding and the whole thing.

Beth: I know, my body is sore. Yesterday, I did my women’s dance class and I’m sore from that. I feel like my thighs are only getting bigger because they’re so muscular right now, but I need them to go down. I get it now when guys are ripped, they say they’re “swole.” Why don’t you just say swollen? My thighs feel swole, not the way I want them.

SO: Have you always been so physically active or…?

Beth: I took a break. A little ten year break. I think from age 17 to 27. I mean, basically when I was a junior in high school, I quit the track team so I could eat Graeter’s ice cream. And that was a whoopsie daisy. I ate a lot of ice cream, and Graeter’s is like so delicious but also the richest ice cream on the planet, so I gained some weight then and in college too. I played field hockey in college, but as I got more active in theater, I would come to less and less practices and eat more and more marshmallows. And so then that kinda stopped, there were some stints with some slow jogging and some rock-climbing. So I guess I always kinda fluctuated, and when I moved to Chicago I was pretty curvy-chubby, and that was in like 2007. And then it was like two and some change years ago that I started to ride my bike everyday and try to eat better. I did still bike in Chicago for the four years I was there to work, but it wasn’t until like the last year that I started biking everywhere to shows. When I moved here, I thought I’d stay in shape by biking to all my shows, but then there’s the hills and then also I can’t just show up to shows in my pajamas like I used to in Chicago because everybody’s got a damn camera. So something will pop up on Facebook of me looking gross. So then I started doing the bar method, which is like a ballet-based workout. I love it.

SO: Is that this lady’s dance class you mentioned yesterday?

Beth: Yeah, that’s what I call it. I like to let people know exactly where I am and what I’m doing when it comes to my workout. And if any paparazzis snap any pictures of me, y’know…

Photo by Zac McKeever

Photo by Zac McKeever

SO: Is it easier to get outside in L.A. compared to Chicago? I know, as a Southern California native, I tend to take the weather for granted, but if you come here from a much colder place…

Beth: No, I did bike through the winter originally, I had a lotta jokes about that. But basically I just used my best judgment. If I looked outside and it was frickin’ freezing but the roads were dry, I would go bike. And then if there was a ton of ice or sludge or whatever, I wouldn’t because I thought I would slip over my little wheels. And here it’s warmer, and I will say that it wasn’t until like my first year living here that I started realizing how much cool nature stuff’s around me. I started going to Griffith Park more and hiking there, but it took me a while I think because it can be kind of scary, but now I go all the time by myself. My mom hates it. She thinks I’ll get eaten by a wolf or a snake, but that’s because I took her hiking and we saw all those things. Which I never see on my own, but then I’m with my mom and we see these two wolf-looking coyote things cross right in front of us and she’s like, “Let’s go where the people are!”

SO: So your mom is still in Dayton, Ohio?

Beth: Yeah, she’s kicking it in Dayton.

SO: Well, they have wildlife there, right?

Beth: I mean, one time my mom said a coyote walked into the Quizno’s, but other than that. I don’t think he was there to order a sandwich; he just lost his way from the hills and vales. There, there’s all kindsa of bobcats and dogs…and ants. That’s the silliest answer.

SO: So, RIOT LA. You’re doing a show with the Power Violence guys?

Beth: Yes. I’m friends with the Power Violence guys. They’re super fun and wild, like punk rock funny dudes, so it’s a wild time. I usually get to do their show every now and again. They have tons of people that want to get on that show, so I don’t do it tons. I usually do their birthday shows or special celebrations. I performed for Whit’s last birthday, I did a twenty-minute long dance. I made it a little too long, but it was really fun to do. It was not a striptease dance or anything, all platonic. A friendly birthday dance. I changed costumes a lot. Whit had gone out and celebrated a little too much the night before, and I don’t think he normally does so he was hurting a little, so I was doing costume changes between every comic. Which was fun, I was channeling Sarah Jessica Parker hosting the MTV awards. Very similar: Power Violence and the MTV movie awards. I think that’s what she hosted when she wore all those outfits.

SO: I believe so. That sounds right to me. And you’re also doing a RIOT LA show with Todd Barry. Have you performed with him before?

Beth: I have performed with Todd; he’s a very cool dude to be around. I would always run into him my first several trips to New York to do comedy. He pops up at a lot of shows. He’s so funny and original and really has his voice down. Which seems like I’m stating the obvious, but so many people work towards that for so long. He is more of a household name now, and people know what they’re seeing when they go to see Todd Barry: Very dry in an over-the-top way. I think this is a showcase so it’ll be a handful of comics, and we’ll all do 12-minute sets. It’s very exciting.

SO: I know, that’s my one major complaint with this fest, that there is so much going on that I can’t possibly see it all.

Beth: It’s tough deciding what to go see. I saw they added the Rodney Dangerfield show, with Kate Berlant, and she’s is a good friend of mine and I’m a big fan of hers. But I think she’s also doing Midnight Run. And I’ll probably go down early and get caught in The Lot and get free beer. I’m going to get lost like when you go into Urban Outfitters and don’t know which piece of lace or which charms to look at first. Also Handsome Coffee is gonna be there and Mike Phillips is a good friend of mine, so that’ll be great.

Modern Comedian: Beth Stelling

SO: So I wanted to talk to you some about your episode of Modern Comedian.

Beth: That happened as a result of the Power Violence guys had a Modern Comedian about them and a couple other great people, and Scott Moran, who does those and who’s also a comic, I think he started to get some emails saying, “Where are all the women?!” And so he went to Sam Varela, who books a lot of stuff and is Marc Maron’s assistant, and he was like, “Who do you think?” and she attached my name along with several others. Scott got a hold of me, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m totally down!” I was so excited and I loved doing it. We did a live show in New York for the New York Comedy Festival, with like Bonnie McFarlane and a couple other subjects.

SO: Was there a screening or…?

Beth: They screened Rich Vos’ episode, which was the newest one, and these new things where a comedian just sits there for four minutes. Like these little portraits that are video. Basically like watching somebody who doesn’t have a cell phone sit alone in a restaurant. It’s actually really cool to watch.

SO: I saw that you tweeted that it’s your boyfriend’s birthday, is that right?

Beth: Yes, it is, he turned 31. You liked that tweet?

SO: I did, I starred it and everything.

Beth: Oh, thank you.

SO: I know you’ve talked about this a lot elsewhere, but you guys are still doing the long distance thing?

Beth: Yeah, we’re still doing the long-d. We went to a New Year’s dinner with some Cincinnati friends because that’s where he lives, and they were like, “Jeez, how often do you guys—” Y’know, I’m not offended by people asking about it, like “Stay outta my business!” Because I really don’t care, obviously; my stand-up is about my life. But it is funny how people, just the way they ask a question, they want you to give up on your relationship. They just like wanna chip away at it, just a teensy. The truth is people are just super-jealous that we only have to deal with each other once a month, and the way we deal with each other is just have a bunch of sex and then like, see you later. We’re supportive of each other when we’re apart. At the dinner they’re like, “How do you guys make it work? Isn’t it so hard?” and I said, “I think everyone’s just jealous because we see each other once a month and it’s great.” And one guy’s like, “Yeah, that does sound pretty good.” And the girls are like, “No, don’t say that!” There are pros and cons to everything. Everything! You can convince yourself it’s a good idea to date a comic because you’re a comic; you can convince yourself it’s a good idea to date a civilian because you’re a comic. You’re gonna do whatever you want. Everybody can be like, “That guy’s a real dickhole and he’s given everyone and STD!” and you can be like, “Yeah, whatever.” And then you get herpes. That’s never happened to me thankfully, I’m just saying. I don’t have herpes!

SO: That’s on the record? You’re going to go on the record with that?

Beth: Don’t write that you said a question or anything, just me in all caps: I DON’T HAVE HERPES.

SO: Done.

Beth: It’s not an advertisement, just a pure statement of fact. I have to do that 50 First Jokes thing tomorrow (Jan 5) and I’m scared.

SO: Oh, I wish I was there for that. Who else is going to be on that, do you know?

Beth: Yes, it’s going to be forty-nine other people.

SO: Right, so just start at one and move through the next forty-nine. This will be published after that show, so do you wanna tell your first joke here?

Beth: I dunno what it is yet!

SO: You don’t?

Beth: Of the year? It’s the very first joke of the New Year.

SO: Oh, that’s right, jeez. Whenever I hear the name of that show, I think it’s the first joke that you’ve ever written ever.

Beth: Oh, that makes sense. The very first joke I ever wrote where I was like, “Ooh that’s clever,” was when I was in grade school and we were driving to my grandma’s in Louisville and I saw a sign that just said Nameless Creek, and I said to my mom, “Is that one that Lewis and Clark didn’t get to?” So that was one of my earliest quips. Another one was when my mom asked me, “Did you have a sub today?” a substitute teacher, and I said, “No, you packed me a PB&J.” Subs were so hard to come by, I was like why would you fuck with me like that.

SO: On the record as your earliest material.

Beth: On the record. Another one was, in kindergarten, I just excused myself from class, told my teacher I had an early dismissal. And then I went out and sat in the courtyard. My grandparents were living with us at the time, looking after us, and then my teacher figured it out and they found me in the courtyard. And they were like, “What were you doing?” and I was like, “I just needed a little time to myself.” Like a grown up person when I was little.

Beth Stelling on Conan

SO: Were the people you grew up with surprised that you went into show business or did it seem like something you would do?

Beth: Yeah, it seemed like something I would do. When I was little, I was into it and into high school.

SO: I wanted to talk some about your days in Chicago. Is there anyone still out there that you think should move to L.A.?

Beth: There are some Chicago stalwarts that will make it work from there, and that’s fine for them and that will make them happy. I will say that there does seem to be like this feeling like you can totally make it work, but not if you wanna have your own show and film it in L.A. But if you want to just be a writer and perform, you can do it in Chicago or Ohio or wherever and make it on the road. But people I feel should be out here, especially because I used to run a show with them and would be great here—we did it at the Meltdown for Fourth of July—would be the Puterbaugh sisters. They each do stand-up on their own too, but they usually do a dual act. The three of us hosted a show, and it was a really fun variety show, and it’d be great if they come out here. They were responsible too for me coming into my own and becoming more confident on stage and having more fun. They would do really well out here, they’re both very talented and funny. I think they’re deciding between New York and L.A., so I guess it won’t be long before they leave Chicago. Every few years, there’s kind of an exodus, and I can think of a few that are already coming this way. That being said, I’ve lost track, I don’t know all the comics in Chicago.

SO: When you were making the decision to move out of Chicago, was New York ever on the table as an option?

Beth: Yeah, but I think I just had it there as a decoration on the table. I was pretty definitely gonna end up in L.A., it’s more like the endgame. Also I remember Kyle Kinane being like, “New York is great if you wanna take a ten thousand dollar detour.” And New York is great, there’s no doubt about that, and people who live there are gonna stand by it and it’s awesome. But for me, I enjoy the weather here and the city and the scene and the opportunities I’ve been given. I did live on the East Coast for about two months, and it was really cool to see the New York scene, and everyone was really cool and welcoming and I did a lotta good shows, good sets, had a really great time. And one of my jokes was joke of the week in Time Out New York and now it’s in the running for joke of the year. The voting for that ends on Monday, January 5th (sadly, before this you guys will see this interview—ed.)

SO: Is the whole rivalry between L.A. and New York, is that still a thing?

Beth: Yeah, I think it’s still a thing, for sure. But like I said, I was just on the East Coast for two months and everyone was really cool to me. I got stage time, I felt comfortable there, so—it sounds conceited, but if you’re a good comic, all that won’t affect you. Like New York comics say L.A. comics are so fluffy and don’t have any depth, but the people they’re saying that about are usually actors and actresses who do stand-up on the side and it’s like an extra audition for them every week. And I like to act but stand-up has always been my main jam, so I feel good about that. I get some shit from friends like, “You should be out here next to New York because that’s where real comedy happens,” but no one’s violent about it. And sometimes New York comics come out here and bitch, like there’s not enough stage time and it’s a pain in the ass to get from show to show, but I’ve never been one of those comics who needs to get in a certain amount of sets per week. Not to sound like I’m perfect, but I usually just take what I get and I’m happy with it. Sometimes it’s two shows per week, sometimes it’s four, but that’s good for you.

SO: Right, and you really hit the ground running when you came out here.

Beth: Totally.

SO: And I’d say a lot of that probably has to do with that attitude, of just like, do the work, don’t sweat anything else.

Beth: Right. That’s when people get in trouble; we all compare ourselves to other people. But social media still helps with that: “Oh, I’ll just check up on this person—” It doesn’t have to be a sense of competition, but like, “We started together.” But you can’t be going in and looking at all the things they have, because the internet is the devil sometimes and then you get sucked into that. And it’s not that you have to be self-centered, you can keep up with what others are doing and try to be supportive. But just know that what you’re doing is enough, and what you’re looking at is not their diary but their résumé, which is Facebook. If you looked at their diary, it might be like, “I still wet the bed and I miss my mom.” And you’ll be like, that sucks, or that’s great. So you don’t ever really know what’s going on with anybody with social networking, so you can’t be going around comparing yourself.

SO: Can you tell me that one story again, that was in the ‘lost’ interview, about when you were kind of in that moment of self-doubt…?

Beth: Oh, yeah. So, I’m about six years into comedy now, and when I was in Chicago, I was three years in. And I think I was just kinda depressed and sad, and it was probably winter or just cold, and I was just like, “What am I doing?” And I missed my family and was really wondering why I was doing stand-up anymore. And the next night—and I know it sounds dramatic that it was the next night, but I seriously think it was that night—somebody texted me congratulations and to go pick up the Chicago Reader, and they do the best of Chicago and this was 2010, and there’s like an audience vote and a critics’ pick, and I was critics’ pick for best stand-up in Chicago. And I was just like, “What? I guess I better keep doing it, I’ll stay a little bit longer.” So basically, I said yesterday that I’m motivated by awards and then you promised me you’d make me an award.

SO: Yes, that is right here on my to-do list: ‘Hand-make Beth an award.’

Beth: Sometimes when you’re feeling down or low, it’s nice to have a little pick-me-up to keep you going. It can be anything: it can just be a framed paper saying “You’re the fucking greatest.”


SO Note: Follow the fucking greatest Beth Stelling @BethStelling, buy her album Sweet Beth on iTunes here, and be sure to see her at RIOT LA this week!