Martha Kelly has taken the comedy world by surprise with her celebrated performance on the FX show Baskets. A self-professed non-actor, Kelly has performed stand-up on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Comedy Central. She’s lived in Austin off and on for the past two decades and won the Funniest Person in Austin contest in 2000. She’ll also be performing stand-up at Moontower this year. Here Kelly discusses her love of animals, L.A.’s late-Nineties stand-up scene and improvising with Zach Galifianakis and Louie Anderson.
I know you’re a big animal person. Tell me about your first pet.
I had pets growing up but I wasn’t a great animal person then, so it might be less sad to tell you what my first pet was as an adult. There was a lady in the neighborhood who had kittens. I said I’d go look at them but changed my mind since I didn’t think I was ready to have pets. I went to her house to tell her I couldn’t take the kitten, and then I ended up taking two of them.
When did you first think about doing stand-up?
I was in college was when I started thinking about trying stand-up. I would go to the open mics and watch before I tried it. Seeing other people be terrible helped me work up the nerve to do it.
I was probably 24 or 25 when I did the open mic at The Laugh Factory, around ’93. They make an announcement when it’s your first time on stage, so the crowd is on your side. And it went well. I went back the next week and did totally different material, and it went as badly as any stand-up has ever gone. I didn’t do it again for a year, did it once, bombed, didn’t do it for a year, and then kept doing it once and bombing for the next four years.
I started to do it all the time in January of ’98 at this coffee shop in Culver City. That’s when I met Zach [Galifianakis] and Tig [Notaro] and Maria Bamford. A lot of people at that time were going there so it was really fun. And I started drinking a lot before I would perform, which also helped.
The coffee shop was called Peterson’s, and they had an open mic every Tuesday. The majority of the audience was usually the other comics, which was actually a really good thing because they paid more attention to what you wrote than how confident you were. Everyone wanted to write new stuff every week because you wanted to be funny for your friends, and also they’d already heard your existing material. So it was really good for making you write every week and — also the drinking helped with this — getting past the nervousness. Other comics watching didn’t care that I wasn’t confident; they were just wanting to hear jokes they might like — which they didn’t always — but it was a really fun and a good environment for new stand-ups.
Other than Largo, there weren’t many shows where you would get a real audience, but there were a lot of open mics. There was a period where I was going to four or five open mics a week and writing a lot, and a lot of the time it would be really painful just eating shit, but it’s good to be going up that much when you’re new.
You’re a self-professed non-actor. How did Zach Galifianikis talk you into doing Baskets?
Zach left me a voicemail saying, “I’m doing this TV show and wanted to know if you wanted to be on it.” And he said in his message, “You probably won’t want to do it, but if you think you do, let me know.” I didn’t even know if it was a series or an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
He had asked you to do that before?
Yeah, he wanted me to go on Kimmel with him one time a few years before and pretend to be his assistant and he was going to yell at me. And I was afraid to do it.
I was also not at a good spot in my life. I was the heaviest I’d ever been, with an out-of-control eating disorder and depression, so I thought, “I definitely don’t want to go on TV in this condition”. But then I thought maybe he’s talking about a series. Having a part on a TV series can help you get stand-up work.
Once I got the script, some of them had some stuff that I found insulting, and I sent Zach an email that said, “I know I already signed the contract but I don’t want to do this.” Because I felt like — and if this seems like it’s offensive to the actress who played this part, please edit it out — but you know the character on The Drew Carey Show with the crazy eye shadow and the crazy hair?
I just was like, “I don’t have enough self-esteem to want to be on TV at any cost.”
So what changed?
I didn’t hear back from him right away, and I started to feel really sad. Well, initially I felt relieved because I was so scared to do it, but then I felt sad so I wrote him and said, “I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity. I don’t mean to be a hard ass; I just don’t want to be humiliated.” And he wrote back and said, “You know you don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. You can change lines if you want to. And if anything, I want your character to make more jokes at my character’s expense. This is supposed to be fun; I don’t want you to feel bad. And please also keep in mind that this is a character you’re playing; this isn’t you.” And then he said, “Try not to think too much, your brain can’t handle it.” [Laughs]
And then I felt fine. I felt like that stuff is all my insecurity and low self esteem flaring up, and that Zach and the director Jonathan [Krisel] are good-hearted people who aren’t trying to make a show where someone’s going to feel like they’ve unwittingly become the butt of every joke.
Most of the characters are over-the-top in one way or another. I feel like you come off as the nicest character on the show.
Well, thanks! The only thing that still makes me feel weird is that even though the clothes are not anything I’d wear, my hair and makeup is basically how I wear it in real life. And the direction that I got for any acting — in quotes — was, “Just say it how you would say it if it were you in this situation.” So it still is weird to me. If people feel a certain way about that character — for instance, that she’s a doormat or as someone Tweeted me, “She’s like Eeyore.” — it’s hard for me not to be like, “Well, is that how I really am?” Because I was playing a version of myself. It’s weird, but it’s such a sweet and fun and lucky situation to have gotten to have. Even if people do think I’m Eeyore, I still feel like I’m so fucking lucky I got to do this.
Being relatively new to acting, what was it like working with strong improvisers like Zach and Louie Anderson? It must have been scary and a little daunting.
Yeah, it totally was. On the pilot, Louie Anderson was just there one day. It was the second or third day of shooting — we shot it in a week — and that was also the day that Louis C.K. got there. And that day of shooting with Louie Anderson on the pilot, the whole time I just felt like, “I’m doing a terrible job. I shouldn’t be in this. They’re probably going to fire me.” It was really, really intimidating, and then I just got in a self-centered, self-loathing loop in my head that I couldn’t really get out of.
But then the rest of the time…I did my own stunts because the stunts were all very tame, but the one where I crash into the scooter at the end of the pilot episode, they were really nervous because it would be a pain in the ass to do more than one take of that because the scooter would be fucked up. They wanted it to be a fast, hard hit. And so I did it the way they wanted and they were so relieved that then I felt like, “I guess it’s okay I did a shitty job the day before with Louie Anderson.”
I was so in my head during the pilot. But during the series everyone on the cast and the crew became friends. So then even though I would end up freezing and they’d have to cut a lot of times, I felt like I was friends with everyone, so it didn’t feel like the shame spiral I felt on the pilot. It was hard not to laugh. And there were several times where I would laugh and try to cover my mouth or turn away from the camera. Which didn’t really help; they’d still have to cut. They definitely both improv-ed a lot of funny stuff, and I tried not to laugh. They didn’t care that I was terrible at it. Zach would say more than once to everybody that “Martha’s improv go-tos are ‘Well,’ and ‘Umm.'” And that’s true. I can’t improv.
Now that it’s out, how do you feel seeing all these reviews that talk about your performance being one of the highlights of the show?
I feel like Jonathan and the writers are the reason that people feel that way. This is gross to say, but I’m not super confident as a stand-up. But I have had sets recorded that if I watch them I feel like, “I did do a good job. I did my best, and it was what I wanted it to be.” But with acting, when I watch the episodes, I feel like I don’t know what anyone is talking about. And it’s another reason I feel really lucky. This has turned out to be such a sweet experience. It really is the writers — Jonathan and Zach were two of five writers — they wrote stuff that was really easy for me to do just as my semi-robotic self.
During shooting, Jonathan and especially Zach would always say, “Hey, this is supposed to be fun! Don’t stress out about it.” I’m really happy that anyone says anything nice about my imaginary acting. And it was really fun to do it. And it enabled me to buy a brand-new Hyundai Elantra.