Spotlight on Mary Lynn Rajskub

Comedian/actress Mary Lynn Rajskub (pronounced “Rice-Cub”) may be best known as a star of the silver and small screen, but she cut her teeth in stand-up, beginning at the San Francisco Art Institute before relocating to the nascent alt comedy scene in Los Angeles where her awesomely awkward, expressive, and decontextualizing style found a receptive home. She was a cast member on two of the most critically acclaimed TV comedies of the ‘90s, HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David and The Larry Sanders Show. She also played Chloe on a little program called 24. She’s also quite adept with canvas (as a talented painter and not as the oft-rumored Mexican wrestling star Dulce Maria Garcia Rivas). Rajskub is a prolific performer, who has created a myriad of one-woman shows, the recent web series Dickie, and who will appear in the upcoming web series Dirty Work and the film Safety Not Guaranteed, not to mention her pantheon of cameos. Being a new mom with her first husband Matthew Rolph (c’mon, I kid) had kept Rajskub from clocking in a ton of stage time but this uniquely talented comedian seems to be positively luminous from a new perspective and for the great fortune of stand-up fans, Mary Lynn Rajskub is bringing her insight, POV, and shtick to Austin as part of the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. I recently spoke to the exceedingly gracious Rajskub, who called from a rather unusual local in Southern California and who, like myself, was fairly tickled by the absurdity of the situation.

Steve Birmingham: With your busy performance schedule and your recent calendar activity, it seems that you’re doing stand-up with gusto of late, and that’s a wonderful thing. And we’re certainly thrilled that you’ll be performing here at the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. What is the impetus for you regularly rocking the mic now?

Mary Lynn Rajskub: That’s where I came from.

SB: Absolutely.

MLR: Those are my roots and I actually started out in performance art when I was in art school and performance art sort of turned into people laughing at me and me making fun of myself. Don’t ask me which one came first. But then I met comedians and I was attracted to them years ago, just for their ability to explore their own personas and their own point of view onstage in a monologue form while engaging an audience. It sounds so silly saying it like that but that’s what was exciting to me. So I always did acting but most of my best jobs and best work kind of spring from me doing that. And that’s kind of the way it always was.

SB: And I understand that you performed stand-up throughout the run of 24. I guess to me, it just seems like maybe you’re performing a little more than I had been aware of. That just might be my own ignorance.

MLR: No, you’re absolutely right and I didn’t even answer that part of the question yet. I sort of went off on a little tangent there. Lately I’ve been sort of focusing in on [stand-up] because my life is so different now because I have a family, a son and a husband, which I never planned on having or expected to have. So I have this new excitement about exploring that material and it’s just a really good time for me because most people recognize me from 24 and [I’m] sort of coming off 24 and reading all these pilots, and I’ve been doing a bunch of different little projects and then it just occurred to me that you this is the time now for me to explore my own material. Time to get back to what I always did. That’s what I’m putting together is sort of the point of view, embracing my life as it is right now and it’s been really fun.  

SB: Well, that’s awesome. As you said, since your entry into stand-up was somewhat roundabout coming from a painting and performance art background, I’m curious if you had any special affinity for any comedians as a youngster growing up in Michigan?

MLR: I certainly watched a lot of TV. I wasn’t really exposed to comedy or art. And it also wasn’t really something I sought out, to be honest with you.

SB: Sure.

MLR: But certainly old Saturday Night Live with Gilda Radner and Steve Martin. I remember seeing Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show, just catching it. That was really new when I was young. I feel like it may have been when HBO first came out, the way it was filmed, and seeing someone stand onstage and perform such an engaging story and go into characters and be really funny and weird and moving. Like, that really blew my mind. And I was also interested in old Bill Cosby when you’d see his spots on TV. Of course David Letterman, just kind of showing this other side to humanity that you didn’t really see in the mainstream. I was like, “Whoa, there’s this other point of view that’s not just this… “

SB: Standard kind of thing.

MLR: Yeah.

SB: I understand you have three older sisters. Growing up did your family seem funnier than most or…?

MLR: No. There’s a lot of comedians who will say, “oh, there’s so much joking around in our family.” I mean my dad is hilarious. Actually my mom’s pretty funny, too, now that I think about it. But I never thought about it like it was so funny. I would say more so, there was a lot that wasn’t said and wasn’t talked about. So now I have an opportunity to talk about my family life and sort of figure it out and figure out what’s funny about it.

SB: I was wondering if you could share one of your fondest memories of living with Sarah Silverman and Tracy Katsky?

MLR: [Laughs] You’re so funny. I love that you know that. How did you hear about that?

SB: Just from researching you and perhaps you mentioned it on WTF with Marc Maron.

MLR: Oh, right, okay. I didn’t want to repeat myself because I think it was on WTF because Marc Maron dated Tracy Katsky and I think we said it on that show, but I had a bed in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment. And I really felt like both of those girls, Tracy and Sarah, kind of took me in and were my real girlfriends because I was living with these older male comedians at the time at this house in Sherman Oaks that their manager was paying for, for these older standups. They smoked pot all day and there was a lizard in the cage in the backyard. The girls kind of took me into this apartment in West Hollywood and Sarah had just moved from New York, so it was a really sweet sort of, creatively fertile time. And I just remember being able to hang out with girls, listening to music, and learning how to cook. We were all in our 20’s so it was like, “Let’s try to cook a meal!” We’d borrow each other’s clothes. It was very sweet because I didn’t really have that sort of college experience.

SB: Did you move down from the Bay Area to LA with Jerermy Kramer?

MLR: I did and that’s when I say “the older male comedians in Sherman Oaks.” I can’t believe… your research is amazing. Nobody mentions Jeremy Kramer. I was just thinking about him yesterday because I was at a comedy club and he always had this way of clapping. Like when someone’s bit isn’t going well and they’re bringing up some topic and they’d get no response— Jeremy would always be like a single clap, like a supportive clap at the back of the room. And I had the urge to do that last night and it totally made me think of him because was a fixture on the comedy scene. And he was in the Bay Area after having been in LA. He came up in comedy with Jane Curtin and Robin Williams, people like that, and what I imagine was an awesomely exciting time in comedy. So he was a great person to hang around with and go to shows with.

SB: I wasn’t going to mention this because it sounds kind of shitty to say but I’ve actually never caught 24, which makes me feel like I missed a pop cultural touchstone but I just don’t watch a lot of TV. But again, I always really appreciated your stand-up and performing.

MLR: Are you kidding? That totally means a lot to me. You brought up the crux of what is so interesting about me hitting the stage right now because I would say three-quarters of the audience just sees me as Chloe. So the first two, three minutes when I’m on stage people are just looking at me like, “What is she doing? Why is she talking like that? That’s Chloe.” I think a lot of people would look at me when I first started going out and doing comedy again. I had comedians looking at me and going, “What are you doing here? Why are you doing this?” They were kind of mad like, “You made it, don’t come back here.” But it’s not really about that. It’s like, “No, I get to do this again and it’s wonderful.” But I love that you’ve never seen 24 because I have this smaller audience that knows me from comedy and then this larger audience that’s only seen me as Chloe. So it’s pretty cool trying to figure that puzzle out.

SB: Cool. And you’re on some great bills for the festival. So, I’d like to think that a lot of Austin is mostly going to be coming out to see you do stand-up instead of gawk at a character, but you never know.

MLR: Aw, yay! I love that.

SB: Without hyperbole, I believe the early to mid-‘90s underground or alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles stands amongst all the other great historical art movements. I know that can sound over the top but I feel that way. Can you talk about that period and your view from within such an inspired community?

MLR: Well it absolutely was my experience and I take for granted that I look around and everybody I hung out with has had their own success in different, unique ways. I was at some of the first Tenacious D shows when they were first coming up with that. I was at Mr. Show when they were showcasing it for the industry. I watched that happen and it was so…I think I would just stand there bouncing, like jumping up and down with so much energy, because I had never… and I don’t think I ever will experience anything like that again— just watching what I was watching and watching Mr. Show actually get made from those live shows.

SB: And being on it.

MLR: And being on it and it was such a unique, visionary thing and I got to be around all those people. It was Jeanine, Kathy Griffin and…

SB: Sarah Silverman.

MLR: …Sarah Silverman, Julie Sweeney, there was all these different legs of it. There were people I hung out with and then there’s, “Oh yeah there’s Julie Sweeney, too, and Patton Oswalt and…”

SB: Paul F. Tompkins…

MLR: Totally.

SB: I read about a lot of venues attached with that scene: Onyx, Pedro’s Grill, Café Largo, Un-Cabaret, Hot Cup of Talk, Incognito, Think Tank, and the Mint. What were your regular haunts and where did it feel like ground zero for you?

MLR: Well you actually [laughs] kind of mentioned them all. I mean Onyx and Pedro’s, that was before Largo. I remember walking into Largo and almost crying because I was like, “They have a sound system that works and they have like a light that’s pointed toward the stage,” because I was used to going up at Border’s bookstore or the Big & Tall shop. Even the Onyx coffee shop, there wasn’t a stage there. No one was really paying attention. There was a show that took place in a Laundromat, or there’d be the bar on the Sunset Strip that never stays in business, that changes every two years, where I ran an open mic with my friend. We’d pack the place but there was no real microphone, but I loved it. I loved every second of it. But I remember walking into Largo and being like, “Oh, somebody actually built a stage and had an audience that was there to listen,” and that was sort of a step up. Un-Cabaret was a very good venue with a very attentive audience. And there was the Belly Room at The Comedy Store was like…

SB: Upstairs.

MLR: …Yeah, upstairs, which was one of those kind of miserable, yet wonderful places.

SB: Yeah, The Comedy Store was like a big old funhouse with its cavernous…

MLR: …Yeah, it’s so weird; I was just there two nights ago. I was like, “Wow, I haven’t been here in years.” For some reason I’ve been doing the Laugh Factory and the Improv but I haven’t been doing The Comedy Store. And there’s new clubs, there’s a club called Flappers in Burbank. Another thing that’s been fun for me, making an effort, when you said I’ve been going up a lot lately, I never really did mainstream clubs. So that’s something that I’m kind of making an effort to do. [After a mechanic speaks with Mary Lynn] My tire is jacked! I’m sitting at the car dealership [giggles] talking to you.

SB: I’m sorry to hear about your tire. Car crap is so inconvenient.

MLR: I parked at the airport at the terminal because I was late getting into the airport and my husband had told me the cool garage that we’d parked at before and I drove past it. Then I drove into the Delta parking lot because I was late. And so when I got back my tire was flat and the guy had to find me. You know what I mean? Like drive into the airport, in the terminal, into the parking garage. [Laughs] It was bad.

SB: Another thing back in the day, Jenine de Shazer…

MLR: Oh my gosh, I love your research. You’re amazing. Yeah, Jeanine de Shazer took tons of black and white photos when nobody else [did], just because she was at every weird show. I think we were all at the same shows, multiple times a week for a few years there and she was at every one. She wasn’t a performer, so she just started taking pictures. I haven’t talked to her in years. We hung out. She’s great.

SB: Right on. I rather enjoyed your web series Dicki on the My Damn Channel site. Will there be a second season?

MLR: There is. We’re sort of negotiating I guess. It’s not really negotiating; it’s just kind of figuring out logistics. I think we’re going to do some more on My Damn Channel.

SB: Sweet. Was that show consciously influenced by Strangers With Candy?

MLR: You know, it wasn’t but what happened is I made a last minute decision to put that wig on. And I think putting that wig on made her more sketchy. I feel like if I took the wig off…and also for the sake of the web series, the very first episode is just Dicki doing all that sexual dancing stuff.

SB: Which was hilarious.

MLR: The thing I’m really proud of is if you look underneath all the sketchy stuff (I mean Strangers With Candy has real weird relationships that are underneath it all, too), I think if Dicki continues, in the development of that, it really is about her weird relationship with her mom and all that stuff is very real to me but I think we really made her more wacky because I didn’t want it to be depressing. So, it’s like riding that line between what’s really happening but making Dicki really happy about it. Like, she’s just in her own world and she doesn’t get it. So the series, as it goes on, will be sort of her discovering like, oh, like [laughs] when she shows her… her uh…

SB: A-hole.

MLR: Her a-hole, thank you, it’s riding that line for comedy’s sake. But you really would believe she would do that. So she’s got to be wacky enough. She’s like, “Oh, that’s not cool?” Underneath that, it’s really a girl trying to break out of like, “Oh, I just kind of didn’t do all this and now my life is moving on.” She’s really trying to connect with the world.

SB: And that comes through, and please don’t think I was implying that it’s some way derivative of Strangers With Candy.

MLR: No, I think you’re really smart because I’ve thought that. I love that you have seen it and are paying attention to that. It’s great.

SB: Also, you’re so gifted at non-verbal communication; I hate to just say facial expressions. But when Dicki, after she’s posted the photos, is just walking in the parking lot with her Big Gulp, reacting to the leers that she’s getting, there is, I thought, a strong undercurrent of pathos and wasn’t just over the top. Also, I guess, the web series Dirty Work (about a crime scene cleanup crew) comes out soon on “the patented platforms of Fourth Wall Studios.” What is that show’s tone like and what exactly is a “patented platform”?

MLR: That’s a really good question. I would have to bring a Fourth Wall representative on the call to explain it [laughs]. But I read this web series and funnily enough, they were looking for a Mary Lynn Rajskub type and my agent was smart enough to say, “Why don’t you just ask Mary Lynn Rajskub?” Right away, the script was really different. The characters were great, and the tone was dark and hilarious, but they have really real relationships. And then the platform thing, they have these things built-in, like trading cards that pop up for the characters and cell phones would leave you a message from the characters. I mean we just shot it and I’m really not even sure how much will end up working and making it into the show. But I think they’re really making an effort, and that’s sort of their thing at Fourth Wall is to have all these different, digital whistles and bells that will enhance the series—that the character would leave you a message or you would see different endings or bonus materials if you watched it a certain time…

SB: Could you contrast that creative freedom online with an experience like CBS’s [2011] How To Be A Gentleman? I didn’t catch any of the two (plus one) episodes before it got yanked (and I guess there are six episodes that never aired). I know David Hornsby and Kevin Dillon were the leads but I honestly don’t understand not giving a show with you, freakin’ Dave Foley and the great Rhys Darby a little time to find an audience. What were your feelings about that experience?

MLR: I’ve grown to really understand the business because I came up with, I would say, a chip on my shoulder of, “They don’t get it!” because a lot of my comedy was fueled by my real angst and real neuroses and it took me years to be like, “Oh, the casting director’s on your side.” And everybody who makes these things, their heart and soul goes into it and they try to make good stuff but at the end of the day a show like How To Be A Gentleman is a property. It’s trying to get a certain number at a certain time and it’s nothing even personal at the end of the day. Choices were made to focus on Hornsby’s character and Kevin Dillon’s character because they thought that people could understand that quickly and identify with, “Oh, it’s a buddy thing,” where as I always thought, “Rely on the family, rely on the show as an ensemble.” And of course give it time to grow. It was getting better but it’s a fight because it’s very hard for all those elements to come together on such a large, large scale. And we followed The Big Bang Theory. I think that show How To Be A Gentleman probably would have stayed on if it had been on ABC or NBC and changed and found its audience. But because we were the property that went up after Big Bang Theory, you know, we didn’t really have a chance. Again, the attention that you have to that is fitting my experience perfectly because I went from that, within three days after that being canceled, to a digital awards event but then I also went to the premiere of Easy to Assemble and the after party had all these people I knew, all these people I didn’t know, and it was just filled with this vibrant energy of like, “Oh yeah, we can do whatever we want.” And I met the guy who did the music for it and it just felt like a real creatively fertile, “we’re putting this together the way we want to put it together.” And it has so much more of a hands on [experience]. Almost to the point you can throw anything up there and you shouldn’t because you can have very under-produced things on the Internet. But yeah, I had that experience as a complete contrast. But having said that, again, I don’t dog the traditional network sitcom thing because it still is the Holy Grail in a sense. That’s like buying a lottery ticket [inaudible]. And I think digital is just like the opposite end of the spectrum where you can experiment and you can put it out there and something really odd will find its own audience.

SB: When did you transition from more conceptual pieces to feeling like you’d found your voice?

MLR: That’s been pretty recent. But like you said earlier, I always did stand-up while being on 24 but it was always here and there. And I’ve only just now focused in on my, “You know, I’m kind of a woman now.” I have more of a complete worldview and I never really had that because when I started out I was terrified but driven to go onstage. So I would just say my name and get laughs because I was so nervous and I would use that as a persona. And now I’m realizing, “Oh, I have other things I can talk about and it’s okay to do that.” And all my experience has sort of given me the confidence because I have done so many weird rooms, because I have kind of explored, not my dark side, but it’s just easier for me now. I just have a better perspective.

SB: Excellent. Your one-woman show Mary Lynn Spreads Her Legs was candid about having difficulties with your pregnancy and the first six months after your son Valentine, who’s now three, was born. Not at all to suggest self-indulgence but how much of performing that material is for your benefit or well-being? And also, have you happened to envision a day when you may have to explain the hilarity of abandonment and infanticide to your son?

MLR: [Laughs] Oh my gosh, you’re so on it. Thank you, I appreciate it. I think that part of doing that show was a real stepping-stone to doing what I’m doing now because that show was hilarious but it was also really dark. So it had genuinely funny moments but if you exaggerate stuff for comedy’s sake, there was stuff in that show… I yelled in that show that about my now husband, “You were my rebound fuck.” And that was kind of a deep, dark seed of a thought that was in the back of my mind that I just shoved out to existence and it really was the cliché of a one-woman show: It was very cathartic but after doing it for a few months I was like, “I don’t want to say that anymore. I don’t need to say that anymore.” So now I’m just having so much fun with talking about our relationship in a way that’s lighter and more fun.

SB: Nice. Well you definitely, from checking out your vlogs and the recent stuff you’ve done, you do seem like you’re in a really positive, productive mindset. Which is, again, just delightful to see. In closing are there any comedians you’d recommend we try to keep our eyes out for?

MLR: Yeah, well he’s already kind of known; I’m doing a show called Mash Up with T.J. Miller who’s great. He’s pretty well known now. There’s a woman named Christian Shirm who I recently met and she is really fantastic. We have a monthly show we’re doing together and she’s really inspiring to me. Who else? I’m just meeting all these new people and I don’t know everybody’s names. Maybe I’ll get back to you on that.

SB: Well, Mary Lynn, thank you so much for your time. It was a real pleasure chatting with you and we look forward to having you here in Austin for Moontower.

MLR: Thank you, me too. You’re so great to talk to, thank you so much.

The Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival Proudly Presents Mary Lynn Rajskub

Thu, April 26th at Stateside at the Paramount 8:30PM

Fri, April 27th at ND 8:00PM

Sat, April 28th at Scottish Rite Theatre at 10:30PM

Purchase Tickets Here. You can also get tickets and badges at the Paramount Theatre box office or by calling 512-474-1221.

The box office is open Monday – Saturday 12pm – 5:30pm and is closed on Sundays.

Follow Mary Lynn Rajskub on Twitter.

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