Groomed for Success: Beth Lisick on Sketch Comedy, feminism, and giving people a voice
Part One | Part Two
his is the second part of Alex Behr’s interview with writer Beth Lisick. Lisick also performs in “Groomed for Success,” comedy sketches with Tara Jepsen, which she and Jepsen started in 1999. They perform live, and the skits are on YouTube. Lisick plays Carole and Jepsen is Mitzi, a klutzy, horny, codependent couple with itchy-looking wigs.
Propeller: How did you come up with the characters? How did you first meet?
Lisick: Tara and I bonded on Sister Spit tour at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in the woods of Michigan. We decided to do some kind of comedy show together when we got back to San Francisco. A few years later, about 2000 or so, I was in a sketch group called White Noise Radio Theatre and we were doing fake stand-up comedy characters. I created Carole for that. An extremely confident lesbian. And then Tara saw it and thought, Whoa, what if Carole had a special friend?
Propeller: In your writing and your comedy sketches you’re open with your body. You’re nude and you do crazy things. The humor comes from this feminist perspective, but you’re not beating us over the head with being a feminist. It makes your writing and pieces more complex. You see the ridiculousness of being human. We shit and we vomit and it’s all kind of gross.
Lisick: I never had any experience growing up where I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. When I first took a feminism class at Santa Cruz with Adrienne Rich it opened my eyes because I didn’t have any first-hand—or wasn’t self-aware enough to notice— experiences with sexism. Of course now that I’m older I have more perspective and I can see why we need to talk about it and why it’s important to be a feminist. But as a younger person I was like, Can’t you just be human? I never strongly related to being female, actually. I never thought of myself as a girl or a woman.
Propeller: Because of having brothers?
Lisick: It could be—I was thinking about that because I just started realizing that the past year or two. I never walk around thinking of myself as a woman. It’s weird.
Propeller: You’ve been around a lot of radical feminists.
Lisick: I love those two words together. Yeah, being in Sister Spit I was able to see the injustice with queer issues pretty close up, so I got up to speed.
Propeller: Also, when you read in the news about girl shaming now, I wonder how you feel? You don’t seem to be modest about your body, or you’re at least willing to laugh at it, yet you must feel bad for these girls. It’s a strange dichotomy in which you’re a mature adult who’s choosing to be naked for humor, yet these teen-age girls might send off a photo that can ruin their lives.
Lisick: First of all, I’ve never been naked myself. (Strike that! I just got nude in a music video two weeks ago.) I always think of it as Carole. I’ve been doing that character for so long it’s like, Oh, well, Carole’s getting a little crazy. With the wig and the glasses—there really is a huge difference rather than a performance artist who’s using nudity—
Propeller: Like Karen Finley...
Lisick: I saw a show she did once where she was supposed to be naked, but she was having her period so she wore these saggy underwear with a big pad inside. It was great! I like nudity because everybody has their funny shapes. That’s where it comes from. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we went out there and we were just naked? Like say, we got kicked out of a locker room in a swimming pool, and we didn’t have our swimming suits so we’re just walking out naked and soaking wet. But I’m glad I’m not a teenager now with Facebook and Instagram and all that stuff. You do stuff you regret and it’s there forever. At least with us we said and did stuff and there’s no record of it.
Propeller: When you were talking today at the book reading, and what you’d want your parents to read or not read, do you feel like you can be as free as possible as you write and have no constraints?
Lisick: This is the first book where I told my parents that I don’t think they should read it. And I don’t think that they will. They’ll respect that. And if they want to read it, I don’t want to discuss it with them. I want that freedom.
Propeller: For you and your humor, it’s self-deprecating, but it’s also generous, so the audience is on your side. And other comedians who’ve come out of a similar era, are more like Neil Hamburger—
Lisick: We’ve opened for him before—
Propeller: His persona is totally hostile in a way that the tension increases exponentially because he’s not afraid of having people in the audience hate him.
Lisick: Now he must feel trapped in it sometimes. That was a real moment of sexism when we [Carole and Mitzi] opened for him. People were more than ready to go along for Neil’s thing, but for us—they were like, “Get off the stage, you cows,” and we ramped it up and got so disgusting. Carole can really get in a man’s face.
Propeller: Your point was not to confront them directly but give them more of what they didn’t want to see?
Lisick: Yeah. In Everybody into the Pool and Helping Me Help Myself I had a desire to make myself more likeable—to show different sides of myself up to a point, but Carole wears her balls on her sleeve. Side note: I am self-deprecating as a person, or, rather, I spend a lot of time pointing out my flaws, but I really hate false self-deprecation, when you do it because it’s an easy way to get people on your side. For me, it’s walking the line between an honest terribleness about myself and not going overboard so that it comes across as, Oh, this loser just hates himself. I don’t hate myself, so it’s more just—the human stuff I’m into—but I think more people should be self-deprecating instead of pumping themselves up all the time.
Propeller: Does it come out of that Bay Area atmosphere of the 1990s where some bands didn’t practice much or take themselves seriously and some were, but there was a lot of humor in it?
Lisick: There’s something about it that’s in there. Being raised in the Bay Area postpunk culture of not thinking that you’re so great feels true to me. Also my parents are hardworking Midwestern Catholics, so you know how that is. Where I come from is a place and time where you don’t pat yourself on the back all the time and talk about how great you are.
Propeller: I’m an introvert, but I’ve also done a lot of performances with various levels of embarrassment afterward. (Getting yelled at as a racist and having yellow paint thrown at me at a San Francisco club for being in a Bollywood music cover band ranks high up there ...) But I also have friends, like you, who’ve written about or performed pieces about female sexuality, drugs, deviancy, etc. Some can roll with it and have made great careers for themselves—even becoming inspirational speakers. They’ve made an arc of wellness for themselves. But my friend Lisa Carver, who you know has performed subversively as Lisa Suckdog, says she’s dealing with a situation in which her autistic son is getting kicked out from a group home because of her artistic expressions in the 1990s. She said the owners mentioned her writing and performances as reasons why he can’t stay there. It’s that double standard toward women, especially, that always shocks me. You’ve chosen to just write and do what you want no matter the consequences, which I admire a lot. Did you make a conscious choice to do that? To be honest and open and to hell with other people’s judgments?
Lisick: Not till this book did I start to feel like I could be more open. And Carole has always been open for business.
Propeller: You created books with artists at Creativity Explored, a studio for people with developmental disabilities in San Francisco’s Mission District. Can you tell me about them?
Lisick: I have ten chapbooks that I organized around themes—friendship, love, death, inspiration, food, fashion—and it’s a series through this grant to do a writing project. They look great. The artists did amazing covers for them. They’re basically stories about hanging out with the different artists and conversations we had about those topics.
Propeller: I took an immersion journalism class in Portland in 2008, and I chose a similar organization—Art from the Heart—to hang out at. In talking to clients, some of them had a shame about themselves because they realized they weren’t quote unquote normal. But when I interviewed some of them, they talked about ordinary things. One woman used the profits of her art sales to go bowling with her boyfriend. One woman got her tongue pierced so she wouldn’t always bite her tongue. The people I talked to knew they weren’t part of the mainstream, and they knew they were taken advantage of sometimes—that was their awareness in life, whereas others were kind of in their own world. Doing repetitive things...
Lisick: Or people who aren’t verbal at all. For just over a year I went to Creativity Explored three to four times a week, and I found that everyone was so much smarter than I thought they were going to be. That’s the thing that amazed me. The self-awareness of so many of the artists and how much they see what’s going on. I miss going there.
Propeller: One woman at Art from the Heart told me her caseworker called her “retarded,” and she wrote a sad essay called, “The Eyes of Those Who Left Me.” She had found a family through the foster system, but got kicked out (her words) at age nineteen. It was the first story she’d written about her life. She wouldn’t have written it if it weren’t for the program at Art from the Heart. Are there artists at Creativity Explored who you’re especially close to?
Lisick: Yes, there were a couple who felt like real friends. I still text with one of them. Also, I used to always use the word “retarded” for dumb things like, Wait a minute, my sock is all retarded inside my shoe, but I stopped. So many people with disabilities have been hurt by that word, and they’re not reclaiming it to take back its power or anything so...
Propeller: Are you finding a similar group to work with in New York?
Lisick: I’m doing something with a friend who teaches poetry to people with dementia at the New York Memory Center—the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. And that’s another thing in my little zone—developmentally disabled people, people with dementia—kind of the outsidery populations. It goes with my view on things—and with Porchlight—having people who aren’t normally given a voice or whatever, to work with those types of people.
Propeller: I also talked to a staffmember at Art from the Heart. She said something that will probably resonate with you: “I look at everyone’s lifestyles. They all have different ways of learning. I get to know the people, not just their disability. Every diagnosis has a lot of variability...This population is not encouraged to make relationships and interact with each other, but the crux of Art from the Heart is relationship building.”
Lisick: One of things I loved about being there is that I wasn’t expected to do anything except observe and engage when I felt like it. Complete permission to watch people. I loved seeing all the different kinds of friendships at the studio. One of my favorite moments was when these two artists spotted each other from across the room. They made this great performance of walking toward each other very slowly like they were going to duel or minuet or something, and then when they got face to face, one grabbed the other’s head and planted a big kiss on top of it like a Mafia don. And then they both turned and went back to their separate tables to work without ever saying a word.
Propeller: How do you feel about those famous Tube Bar prank phone calls, the Jerky Boys’ recordings, or Amarillo Records’ Great Phone Calls?
Lisick: I always feel bad for the people who are getting pranked. I used to do prank phone calls in middle school—and there was one I should’ve put in my book, but didn’t. We used to find names in the phone book that were like “Matt and Alex whatever.” We’d call up and almost always in the suburban area the woman would answer the phone, and we’d be like [adopts a faux-sex-kitten voice], “Hi, is Matt there?” [interrupts herself] Isn’t that horrible? Horrible! [faux-proper-suburban voice] “No, he’s not. May I ask who’s calling?” [faux-sex-kitten voice] “Never mind . . .”
Propeller: Oh, man!
Lisick: We were thirteen or fourteen, we thought it was great. It was so terrible. Now I’m like, Oh my god, how could we have done that?
Propeller: In 2004 you wrote and recorded a piece for the “Spies Like Us” episode of This American Life. In the midst of eavesdropping on a drug dealer through your baby monitor, you also talk about class and race.
Lisick: Everybody on that block [in Berkeley] was African American except for us, and now it’s changed. One neighbor, a black guy, loved to talk about black people versus white people. “Black people are like this . . . White people are like this . . .” One time he was like, “What’s that called when you white people all have sex with each other at once?” People hate talking about race stuff, they get so uncomfortable that they’re going to say the wrong thing, and I’m totally fascinated by it.
At my son Gus’s school last year in Brooklyn, he was the only white guy in his class. There’s so much segregation in the public schools there. White people totally stick together in Brooklyn. We live in Prospect Heights, but his school is referred to as the “black middle school” in Park Slope. We walk by all these white families going to other schools, and we walk with the black people to our school. Would I be a better parent if I lied about our address to get him into the school with more white people? I’m glad my kid goes to the school he goes to instead of where all the parents are like us, creepy white artists and writers with freelance jobs. Racial issues. I could go on.
Then Lisick drove away to an actor’s party in a downtown Portland hotel, squeezing one more chance to be with friends before a red-eye flight to New York. I forgot to tell her about seeing Kim Gordon backstage at a Sonic Youth concert in Portland one time, scamming my way through friends of theirs. I was drinking one of Sonic Youth’s beers and wearing a friend’s oversized white t-shirt with the silkscreened words, “I [heart] Old People.” I raised my hand to say hi to Kim, maybe even opening my mouth to talk. She gave me a brief, head-to-toe withering look of fashion contempt and walked past. Now I can retire that story. I’ll tell Lisick the Nirvana story another time.
Part One | Part Two
Beth Lisick is the author of five books: the memoir collection Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames, the New York Times bestselling comic memoir Everybody Into the Pool, the gonzo self-help manifesto Helping Me Help Myself, the story collection This Too Can Be Yours, and the performance poetry/story collection Monkey Girl.
Alex Behr recently interviewed Steve Almond for the magazine. Behr’s essay about performing in the “Mortified” series ran in our Winter 2010 issue.