Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

On Sisterhood in Comedy and Making People Laugh: A Chat with Morgan Murphy

Written by Kendall McKenzie
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If I were forced to name something I’m really nerdy about, it would probably be comedy. As a kid, I watched Comedy Central way more than MTV and used to do ridiculous things, like make make mix videotapes of the SNL sketches and stand up sets that my finely tuned preteen sense of humor had deemed particularly brilliant. This mild obsession continued into adulthood, and I still closely follow the work of comedians I enjoy. So when I was tasked with finding one to interview, Morgan Murphy immediately sprang to mind. 

Photos by Isauro Cairo   {multithumb popup_type=normal resize=1 full_width=1000}

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If I were forced to name something I’m really nerdy about, it would probably be comedy. As a kid, I watched Comedy Central way more than MTV and used to do ridiculous things, like make make mix videotapes of the SNL sketches and stand up sets that my finely tuned preteen sense of humor had deemed particularly brilliant. This mild obsession continued into adulthood, and I still closely follow the work of comedians I enjoy. So when I was tasked with finding one to interview, Morgan Murphy immediately sprang to mind. 

I first saw Murphy do stand up at Upright Citizens Brigade in LA about five years ago and immediately loved her deadpan one-liners, simply because they are really fucking funny. The woman just straight-up writes a good joke. A fixture in comedy for nearly ten years, Murphy has performed at countless comedy clubs and festivals, as well as on the Comedians of Comedy and Aimee Mann’s Xmas Extravaganza tours. She’s made appearances on Premium Blend, Last Call with Carson Daly, and Jimmy Kimmel Live and was cast in the films Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad. As a writer for Crank Yankers, she helped create those hilariously cringeworthy phone calls, and has also penned material for Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Recently, while she was visiting LA, I cornered her to discuss sisterhood in comedy, bombing on stage, and the best and worst parts of making people laugh for a living.

Kendall: So what have you been up to this year?

Morgan: At the end of April I performed at this festival in Portland, Oregon called the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, which was kind of exciting for me because I did the first one a few years ago, and I was born in Portland. It’s where most of my family is. I went to high school my senior year there. It feels very full circle. When I got to Portland [in high school], I was such a mess that I really thought I wasn’t going to make it through high school and college and beyond that, so it’s kind of nice to return to the city I became an adult in. And it’s a small festival, so it was buddies and friends, and pretty much people I really like.

I also shot a little part in a movie called It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and coincidentally, Zach Galifianakis is in it. I’ve known Zach for years, so that was totally random and fun to be able to do. I hope I don’t get cut out of it entirely.

Kendall: And you recently moved from LA to New York, right?

Morgan: I did, yes. About a year ago.

Kendall: How do you like the East Coast?

Morgan: I like it. It’s definitely an adjustment. I moved out to write on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which I thought was a cool opportunity, just to kind of be a part of the show from its inception. The biggest adjustment is being away from my closest friends, but otherwise, it’s just neat. It’s a good experience to have at least once in your life. I think ultimately I’ll end up on the West Coast just because it’s what I’m used to; it’s where I grew up. But New York is fun. My life feels very simple there: I go to work; I do stand up sets; I get the same bagel sandwich . . .

Kendall: Then you first started doing comedy in LA, I’m assuming?

Morgan: Yeah I started when I was eighteen, when I was in college, about the summer before my sophomore year. And I just started flipping through the paper, looking for open mics and showing up with my little notepad. There were a handful of people who became my good pals whom I started with, and then there’d be the same sort of vaguely homeless person you knew had been doing it for twenty years at the same coffee shops.

But yeah, that’s how it started, and I just kept doing stand up in LA. Not everyone tends to start there—I mean, that’s where I started because I was in college—but the best place? I think New York is a great place to get the most sets in, but LA is where I started, and it’s been good to me.

Kendall: So you’ve been at it for nearly ten years. How has comedy changed since [you began]? {mosimage width=600}

Morgan: I guess for me it seems like a lot more people are doing it. It’s like a cool thing for young people in their early twenties to do. I think people like Sarah Silverman and David Cross inspired a generation of young comics. And it seems as if there’re a lot more young girls doing it, and you can kind of hear the Sarah influence a little bit, which is funny. In general you can hear the influences in new comics right now, but eventually everyone figures out their own voice. It’s fun to see. It’s sort of nerdy and cool at the same time.

Kendall: Who are some of your favorite comics today?

Morgan: Comics today that I love are . . . I think Louis C.K. is just the best right now. He’s almost sort of intimidating to watch, when you see somebody who has gotten so good at stand up but also talks about things in a very honest way. And I get to see people like Dave Attell every night—that’s actually been another really cool part about moving to New York, getting to see these comics that I’d never see in LA. People like Nick DiPaolo, Colin Quinn, Ted Alexandro. I know you wouldn’t think that’s my sensibility, but those guys are fucking hilarious.

Kendall: What’s your favorite city to do comedy in?

Morgan: I love LA and New York, but they’re such a given, so I feel like if I had to pick a city outside of my home cities, definitely San Francisco. Primarily because there’s a woman there who has worked at the Punch Line Comedy Club for years named Molly Schminke, who knows every comic, and she’s really cool and very sort of ethereal and artsy in her own right. She was the first person to book me at that club—this showcase for new comics, and after that as feature, and then to co-headline—so San Francisco will always be special. I’ve driven up there when I was broke and, like, slept in a papasan after a completely irresponsible night, you know, and they’ve put me up on stage. It’s fantastic because the crowds are great. Great comics go there, and it’s been a place that, specifically because of the Punch Line and Molly, has supported me at every step and has been pretty incredible at promoting young comics. It would be great to be able to straight headline that club just by myself some day, if only to say that I’d gone through every single step there. And from more of a feminist perspective, it’s really refreshing to see women supporting other women.

Kendall: Is that something that there has been an issue with in the community?

Morgan: I don’t know that it’s an issue in that it’s, like, rampant, but I do think that it’s especially alarming when a woman seems to be even somewhat anti-woman. When women are hating on other women, it just seems so counterproductive. I definitely am almost going out of my way to try to have more of a tight-knit female community in comedy. In the last two years I’ve really gotten on that bandwagon. ­

When I started, I was very much gunning to be accepted by the boys’ club. That was what was important, and I felt like I wasn’t really a respectable comic until certain male comics gave me the thumbs-up. But now I think my best friends in comedy are women—Tig Notaro, Jen Kirkman, Natasha Leggero, Laura Kightlinger, Bonnie McFarlane—women whom I really respect, and I think are really funny, and it’s really nice to be able to have those friendships, but to also look at other women and go, "That person really wows me."  I’m going to go on a tour with Tig and Natasha, the three of us, and I think it’s just going to be a really great show, men or women aside. There’s something very fun and nice about that female camaraderie, and as much as you can hang out with the dudes and be part of that boys’ club, you can’t really replicate what you get with your female friends.

Kendall: Did being a woman make it more difficult or intimidating to start doing comedy?

Morgan: I think it makes it a little more intimidating to start, a little more difficult, but ultimately, once you prove yourself to your peers—not even really the audience, but your peers—and you’re sort of welcomed into the fold, it seems to be fine. To me, it’s not comics that are the biggest hurdles when it comes to being a woman in comedy. Once in a while you’ll find people who book clubs or people who book festivals and shows that have a tendency to be a little bit wary of putting up women. But also, when that’s the case, it tends to be something that everyone knows about ahead of time, and we try to accept it and go, “All right, well, this is not somebody that I’m going to try to win over.” As much as I think everyone should be able to go up everywhere, admittedly I’m not, like, picketing outside. If I feel like someone is skeptical of me because I’m a chick, I’m probably the last person in the world to bang on the door and go, “I’d like to prove a point!”

Kendall: I think audience members can actually be the most skeptical. I can sometimes just feel that doubt in the crowd when female comics go up. {mosimage width=600}

Morgan: Yeah, with audience members and even, like, bookers, you’ll get a little bit more of an unfiltered response. Comics are just surprised when a person they’ve never seen be funny before is funny all of a sudden, but audiences and bookers are surprised when a woman does well. I got off stage once in California, and the club owner literally said, “Look at you! A funny lady! Good for you!” Like in that condescending way where you just smile and nod and go, “Oookay . . . I’d like my paycheck please.” And that just becomes a story that you tell to people you actually like.

Kendall: What has been the most surprising thing about comedy, and what turned out to be the way you thought it would?

Morgan: I think the surprising thing for me is how many really funny people are not household names. I see comics who I go “God, that person is brilliant. They’re on top of their game. They’re funnier than 90 percent of the people on TV right now.” But if I were to ask anybody outside of comedy who they were, they probably wouldn’t know. A decent chunk of the time, it kind of seems like as hard as people work or as funny as people are, some really talented people are just not going to catch on, and some people who are mediocre are going to make millions of dollars and be household names. In some way, when you see the luck factor, it keeps you from being too resentful or comparing yourself to other people. That stuff is very unsettling, but it also reminds you that you have to do what you do because you like doing it. It can’t be a constant pursuit of fame or getting a TV show or movie.

Kendall: It almost seems unsettling yet oddly comforting at the same time.

Morgan: Absolutely. It is comforting. It reminds me that, like, my favorite thing about stand up is just being around other comics and sharing that sensibility and riffing and being idiots with people who think the way I think and laugh at the same shit I laugh at. You know, if I had to choose between having more money or my friends, I would go with my friends.

Kendall: Have you had a night where you just completely bombed? Was it the worst thing ever or not really a big deal?

Morgan: It starts as the worst thing ever, and then it becomes less of a big deal, but it’s always painful. I think when you first bomb, it’s just humiliating and awful and gut-wrenching, and then eventually ends up varying between you having distain for the audience—like “fuck them, they didn’t get it”—and complete disappointment in yourself. It becomes less a general horrific event, and more about what your part in it was. There have been a couple of nights where I haven’t done well and thought, “Shit, I shouldn’t have gone up. I’m pissed off about some stuff today.” You go onstage, and you realize you let personal shit affect you and start beating yourself up for handing that over to an audience. But then once in a while you’ll eat it, and you’ll kind of laugh at it all because you’re like, “Well, I’m doing this stuff that I really like, and it seems to go well most of the time. They’re just not having it for some reason.”

But honestly, when you first bomb, it’s just heartbreaking.

Kendall: It seems like it would be the absolute pits, but also kind of inevitable. Everyone’s going to do it at some point—that’s how you learn what shit’s funny and what’s not. It’s just a really sucky editing process.

Morgan: Oh totally, totally. The first time I really tanked it on the road in front of hundreds of people was in 2001. I was an MC, and I ate it and, like, immediately called my mom. I mean, you call your mom when a boy breaks up with you—that’s what it felt like.

Kendall: What’s the best and worst thing about your job?

Morgan: Aw, man . . .

Kendall: What?  Is that a super generic question or just hard to answer?

Morgan: Well, there’s gotta be an answer, but it’s hard to find. In all honesty, the best part of being a comedian was finding people who shared my sensibility and my sense of humor. Like, Tig Notaro curated this festival this year in Washington, DC, and it was so fun. And there’s a small festival in Brooklyn Eugene [Mirman] does, and one in Portland, and to me, those are my favorite ones to do because they’re all about just hanging out with your friends and people you like and doing comedy. I mean, if you’re not having fun doing it, then what’s the point? The best part for me is definitely the camaraderie and friendships that I’ve made and getting to be around some [of] the funniest people in the world on a consistent basis.

And then the worst is, I think, having to acknowledge that you are just there to make other people laugh. Like you owe an audience a certain experience, and you may have to compromise what you would like to say to make sure people don’t leave miserable. And as much as I would like to say that I always stick to my guns and do exactly what material I want to do, there are certainly times where I’ve clenched my teeth and said, “Well, I’m going to give them more of what they want than what I want, because they paid to get in here, and they don’t seem like they’re into my favorite stuff.”  {mosimage width=600}

And then also the constant pressure of like . . . what’s next? Of having to continue to write and perform and produce and create and figure out where that’s all going to go. Some people, their goal is to have their own TV show or hour special. When you don’t have a concrete goal—at this point in my life I don’t quite know what the next step is—you tend to question why you’re doing this and what you’re doing it for and if you even have to have a concrete goal. I guess that’s a little bit more of an existential problem, but it comes up for me. I think in general I’m in a very transitional place right now.

Kendall: I feel like that’s currently a very pervasive feeling for a lot of women our age, no matter what career (or lack thereof) we have.

Morgan: Yeah, I recently tried to summarize what I was doing onstage, and I realized all I really am doing is being twenty-eight years old. I am being a twenty-eight-year-old woman going through experiences that some twenty-eight-year-old women go through (and some people go through when they’re fifteen, and some people go through . . . when they’re thirty-five). But my experience is my experience and that’s all I really have right now, and so much of it is uncertainty and a complete lack of adult qualities that I think I’m supposed to have already.

Kendall: Oh God, I can relate.

Morgan: I’ve, like, tried to start talking about that stuff, and it’s been really interesting because I don’t want to bore people to death—and I feel like in print it would come off horribly boring—but on stage I at least try to get into some sexual details to mix it up and give the people something to think about on their drive home.

Kendall: Well, you know, you have to keep it zesty!

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