Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Boston Comedy Q&A: Betsy Salkind

Betsy Salkind at M.I.T. Oct 22
Betsy Salkind came to Boston to get a masters in management from M.I.T. She left having discovered she was an extraordinarily talented comedian and didn’t want to be a bank examiner. She wrote one-person shows, performed improv with The Guilty Children, did stand-up – everything you could do to be funny.

When she left, she was no less diverse, writing for the sitcom Roseanne, acting, and creating her own versatile style of stand-up that spans the spectrum from politics to an impression of a squirrel eating a cracker.

She’s added activist to her resume, speaking out on behalf of child abuse survivors (Sacramento’s SB 33 bill) and against adult ads on Craigslist. For that last one, she led a protest outside of Craigslist’s San Francisco headquarters as Craig NewPimp. Oh, and let’s not forget author of Sunday School Bible Classics (see the video below). And ventriloquist dummy for puppetmaster Dot Jones (currently the new football coach on Glee)... you could almost do this all day.

She has been limited for a while by a hypothyroid condition cause by auto-immune problems (even that hasn’t escaped her wit – see the Betsy’s Unlicensed Medical Practice link on her site), but she’ll be back at M.I.T. on October 22 for a show at her alma mater.

I spoke with her by phone in late September.

Does the condition affect how you’re able to tour?

You know, I can still get it together for a show. It’ll be interesting now, because I’m traveling a lot of September and October. Which is new. Because for years I really tried to minimize how much I traveled because it just sucked the life out of me. So it’ll be interesting to see how it goes now that I’m feeling better.

It’s also allowed you to practice medicine on your Web site.

Oh, you’ve seen that? Unlicensed Medical Practice? I’m constantly continuing it.

Taking questions from fans and things?

I probably should.

And just give completely wrong advice.

Yeah. Well, yeah. I always say, I’m not a doctor, but…

We spoke about this for the Globe in 2005. You do have that sort of mix, you can do political humor, you can do silly jokes, you can do physical humor. And they’re not necessarily talents that many people can do, or that normally fit together well in one person.

That’s true. I don’t feel anyone would steal my whole act, for sure. That would never happen. And when I record stuff for TV, they’ll always chop it up and will take like one… they’ll always leave out one of those elements. Which is always kind of upsetting for me. But you’re right, it is kind of a weird combo.

You’re someone who, you couldn’t get an idea of who you are in that five-minute late night TV set. Is that problematic for you?

If I did a few more late night five minute spots, then yeah. I did tape a new special that’s currently being edited. I taped a half-hour but they’re only going to use 15, with three other comics.

You would b a particularly bad fit for one of those package tours.

I don’t know. I don’t think that’s true. There are other comics, Julie Goldman, for example, where we sort of share a world view but couldn’t have more different stage personas and ways of dealing with the material. And it just works great together. And I have that experience a lot. Because my style is so different from everyone else that it just kind of works as a contrast, I think.

There is someone here doing a showcase for female comics because he feels they still don’t get the same sorts of opportunities. It’s a standard sort of question, but where do you think that stands, as far as women in comedy?

I think it’s like women in Congress and women on the Supreme Court. Although I think it might be worse than women on the Supreme Court, because that’s up to a third now, I think. I think it’s pretty clear from what’s on television. There’s a lot of really funny women out working in the clubs now that no one’s ever heard of. So there are certainly talented women comics out there.

The other night I did this show, and I hadn’t seen at least half of the comics on it. And there’s always some gem I didn’t know about. So yeah. [puts on a mocking indignant tone] It’s a man’s world. There’s still that idea that if you have more than one woman, somehow it’s ladies’ night.

What I like about shows that have many women on them is, [people] get over the fact that it’s a woman comic, and they see that every woman is different, and they kind of get over the gender stuff right away and just listen to the material and enjoy that. But you still see in the clubs, they don’t call it “men’s night,” but it’s all men, or maybe there’ll be one woman. And if there’s more than one woman, it’s “ladies’ night.”

Do you have any clubs or a sort of circuit that you frequent?

I don’t. Because I’ve been really focused on writing this year. I wanted to finish some projects – I’ve been writing this play – I kind of stopped pursuing the work and just kind of took every gig that came my way. Which turned out to be pretty good. I’m still working regularly. I’ll work anywhere. The M.I.T. gig will be weird because it’s actually in a lecture hall. A huge lecture hall. I think there’s over 300 seats in it.

Many years ago, my very first one-woman show was done in a lecture hall at M.I.T. It was called “Master of Science,” and it was just about all the ways that science is really fucked up. My opening act was an actual rocket scientist. Ed Crawley.

Did he do comedy?

Well, the gig that we arranged was that he would start doing one of his rocket science lectures and then I would come in and kind of interrupt and say, “What the fuck? I have this room,” and then argue about whose room it was.

Will he be making his return?

No, but I may have a special guest comedian.

That begs the obvious next question, which you probably can’t answer.

Yes. One of my favorite comics from when I lived there.

How much time do you spend on political causes like SB 33 and the CraigsList adult listings?

From 2003-2006 I lived about 90 minutes from Sacramento, so during that time I did comedy at night and spent my days organizing and lobbying the CA legislature. The Craigslist thing was just a few days this summer, but I can always find time to squeeze in whatever I want to get involved in. And I love creating comedy about political stuff. I do a lot of fundraisers and benefits so sometimes the work is all the same. One of my comedy influences was Dick Gregory, whose book Nigger was really important to me. It was about his transformation from comedian to civil rights activist and so it always felt perfectly right for me to be both a comic and activist.

Salkind as Craig NewPimp (in the tie)
Could you see yourself going into politics as a profession?

Only as an advocate. If I ever tried to run for office there'd be a lot of video of jokes I'm sure some people would find offensive and inappropriate (which might be good for my comedy career. Hmm.) I would like to be a children's civil rights organizer.

Do you find people don't realize how close to the real story your Sunday School Bible Classics are?

The ones who realize it the most are the seminary students and ministers/rabbis. The ones who heard the stories as children at church or temple or religious school find some parts surprising and might think I made them up. The ones who had no religious education at all (I've only encountered two so far) find the stories just plain horrifying and not at all funny. I guess the rest of us were so indoctrinated, that although most of us thought something was a little off about the stories, we accept them as part of the culture and now enjoy the new perspective on them.

I once debated a (religious) biblical scholar on a radio show who is not used to being confronted with some of the more obscure stories ("Jephthah's daughter," which is kind of like Abraham and Isaac, except God doesn't intervene and he actually kills his daughter; and "The Priest and the Concubine," which starts with a gang-rape and ends with genocide). His only argument was "you have to look at those stories in a larger context." I'm still trying to figure out what context is large enough to justify those things.

What else do you have in store for them?

I wrote and illustrated eight stories. Only two have been published. Three more have been adapted to video. The whole collection is being prepared for epublishing (for the iPad - which is color and hi- res). I was hoping it would be ready for the holiday season, but I don't know the epub date. The original book, however, makes a perfect
Xmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa gift. It's available on Amazon and on my site, and if you order through my site you can have it signed to whoever you like.

I'm also working on a new book which I'm very excited about, and my play Discontinuation Syndrome is in development. The play is a comedy about depression in which Depression (a character) and Eli Lilly (the maker of Prozac) battle for custody of a depressed woman in the court of Judge Mental.

Have you watched your old comedy partner Dot Jones on Glee? What do you think of the character?

I do watch Glee and am so excited for Dot. The character is a lot like her: strong, athletic, scary when she wants to be, but really a big softie with a huge heart. Doing Dot Jones & Peanut with her is among the most fun I've ever had on stage. I just found a tape of a show we did in 1997 with Deb Doetzer (also a Bostonian) that includes a spoof of Mamet called "GlenGary GlenScrabble." The video quality is terrible, but it's hilarious and I plan to post it online.

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