Fortune Feimster is currently at a big crossroads in her career. The North Carolina-born standup, improviser, and sitcom actor competed in Last Comic Standing in 2010, has regularly appeared on Chelsea Lately since 2011, and joined the cast of Tina Fey's Fox pilot Cabot College this year, not to mention her recent standup sets on This Is Not Happening and Conan as well as bit parts on 2 Broke Girls and Workaholics. With the end of Chelsea Lately in August and the fate of the Fey pilot still unknown, Feimster's new Comedy Central standup special — a unique mix of self-deprecation, Southern mother tales, and unexpected bouts of rage-yelling — comes at the perfect time for both new and longtime fans to check out Feimster in her element before she hits the big time. Ahead of her Half Hour premiere this Friday, I recently spoke with Feimster about her early years, joining Chelsea Handler's show, auditioning for SNL, and why making fun of yourself is the smartest way to gain power in the comedy world and beyond.
I noticed that your website bio mentions you were an entertainment blogger for seven years.
I was! I was doing exactly what you're doing right now for many many years. I fell into being a journalist — I did not set out for that, I just happened to run into someone who knew that I could write and just did it, and it was sort of like my day job as far as when actors or comedians are trying to make it and they gotta waitress — that was like my waitress job. But I got to talk to cool people and write, and it was in the entertainment business, so now that I'm on the other end of it I'm very glad I had that experience, because I know what it's like to be in a different part of the business and the fact that you guys wanna help us as much as we want to be helped, and it's a mutually beneficial relationship. [laughs]
Did you always want to perform when you had the writing job, or did that come later?
When I moved to LA, I didn't know that I wanted to a comedian. I came out here and got a job as an assistant and figured I'd just see what happens. I started doing improv as kind of a hobby — I didn't know where it would lead, and then all of a sudden the hobby turned into a passion and here I am.
So like the writing gig, you didn't particularly set out to do that — it just came together that way?
Yeah, it was not my plan. I mean I'm from a small town in North Carolina, so I didn't think you could actually make a living as a performer, that just seemed very very impossible. And I'm lucky because when I started at The Groundlings I loved the characters and coming up with silly sketches and I had a lot of encouraging teachers who were like "You gotta keep doing this," and then I discovered standup and it just changed my life. It was like finding that glove that fits, just Ah, this is it — this is what I'm supposed to do.
What was it like when you first tried standup, coming from a background in improv?
A big part of standup for the first number of years is getting comfortable onstage. The nice thing about improv is that it made me already comfortable — I felt like no matter what happened onstage, improv gave me this tool to dig myself out of any hole, like if I were to get nervous or stage fright or anything like that I was like I'll be okay – so I already had that experience for standup, it just felt so natural.
Now that you've established yourself as a standup, have you set certain goals for your career? Do you have a "game plan" now?
I've never really had a game plan other than I've just always been a hard worker, and I knew that you'll have no idea what's next and what job you're gonna get or not get, and so the only thing that you can control is how much work you put into it yourself. So for me, that's always been the priority — I'm gonna do whatever it takes to get better at this and hope that at some point someone sees it and they're like Yeah, I want that person working with me. That's pretty much my only game plan even now, because there are a lot of things still up in the air. I'm at a big crossroads with Chelsea Lately ending and I filmed this Tina Fey pilot that we're still waiting to hear about and so I just am kinda like well, whatever happens happens.
What was it like filming Tina Fey's pilot?
The experience was amazing. It was the first pilot I had been a part of as far as a scripted sitcom, and for me it was a magical experience because I was playing a character who was very similar to my own personality — a character I got to have a lot of fun with — and the cast all got really close really quickly, and then the fact that we had Tina Fey there for four days giving notes and just being awesome and encouraging, it felt like I was in some kind of Twilight Zone of awesomeness. I just tried to take it all in, because with pilots you never know if that's gonna be your last thing with that project, so I just try to be aware of what's happening and appreciate it. I still think that night, especially in front of a live audience, was one of the most memorable things I've ever done. The show just came together so beautifully and the audience was onboard and we were all close and I was really proud of what we had done. I don't know what's going to happen to it, but I know we gave it everything we had.
How did the Half Hour special come about?
I've been doing standup for a number of years — I started out here in Los Angeles at The Comedy Store and just kind of worked my way up through the ranks of the standup world. I got lucky when I got hired on Chelsea – she has such a huge fan base so I immediately got thrown into all of a sudden being a headliner. Which is good in a way because it's what people build up to for a really long time, and then it's also scary because I hadn't had that much time on the road as an opener, so I had to learn really quickly how to do a full hour of comedy and make it interesting and entertaining. And I got lucky that Comedy Central had seen me do standup and wanted me to be one of the people to do a Half Hour, and I'm really grateful because as a comedian you want to share your comedy with the world. So I hope people like it.
Now that you've done standup, improv, and sitcom-style acting, do you treat them separately or do they influence each other?
They're all kind of different. I want to come up with some kind of way to incorporate more of my characters into my standup, it's just a little difficult because my sketch comedy and characters are all really silly and very big kinda crazy characters, and my standup is more based in reality. It's still silly, but it's more observations and stories and experiences that I've had personally, so to mix in this more fanciful world with this more realistic world is a challenge. So they are quite different, but as a writer I still have to find a way to make things different and funny. I also have a light sense of humor; I don't get too serious…and it's so hard to find things that haven't been talked about before, you know? So that's the challenge — just opening your mind and thinking about your experiences and how you can relay those to people in a funny way.
How do you think your onstage sensibility has developed in terms of what you mentioned — keeping a "light sense of humor" and not getting too serious?
Well, my sense of humor is definitely self-deprecating, which some people are into and some people are not. Let's face it: I look different, I sound different, I'm a bigger girl, I'm a lesbian — I'm not this skinny traditionally pretty girl that's getting up there talking about like "Oh my boyfriend's such an asshole!" you know? I'm coming to the table already with a lot of differences than other people, so I would rather be the first one to play it out, because for me it's like taking that power of I'm going to say it before you can think it, and then it's okay for some reason. And that just stems from hey — this is what I look like, this is what I sound like, and I've been this person my entire life, and the way I was able to fit in growing up and not get made fun of is that I was able to make people laugh. I was grateful for who I was and I didn't make apologies for it, and I was aware enough even as a kid to know I was different, but you know, somehow find a way to make it okay — and that's what I try to bring to my standup.
You can't make fun of me — I'm going to make fun of myself.
[laughs] Exactly — I'm gonna take your power away and make you laugh at the same time, and you won't even realize what's happening. Some people find the self-deprecation very endearing because they're like "Aw she can laugh at herself, that's really cool!" and some people get frustrated by it and are like "Don't talk bad about yourself, why would you do that?" And that's just a personal opinion, I think, about how people feel about their own selves. Some people just don't want to make fun of themselves — it's too close to home for them. But for me personally, it's how I've been able to live my life in a way where I can be accepted and have friends and be happy, and that's just how I roll I guess!
As far as your standup, did you come right out of the gate with that attitude or did it take time?
I think I came out of the gate like that, pretty much. It's just kinda who I am — what you see onstage isn't much different than who I am in real life. And it's not a matter of I have bad self-esteem or don't think highly of myself. To me it's the opposite; I feel like I like myself enough to not care if I make fun of myself. I think that's a much better place to be, especially in a business where you're putting yourself out there every day. My stuff is online, my stuff is on TV, and when you put yourself out there like that you open up the possibility of getting made fun of, and you just have to have a thick skin and be willing to take in the good comments with the bad ones.
Speaking of thick skin, I read that you've auditioned for SNL twice. What was it like, and what did you learn from it?
I auditioned for that show at a very interesting time in my career when I was coming up at The Groundlings, and people from SNL had seen me and loved what I did and wanted me to be there, and there were some other people who didn't quite "get" it yet. That seemed to be the consensus at the time — I was getting a lot of people saying that they liked me, they just didn't know what to do with me. So I knew that was going to be an issue at Saturday Night Live because traditionally — and I think they're branching out more now with women — but traditionally, the women on that show were very, you know, none of them were super different as far as looks-wise or sexuality. So the last time I tested [for SNL] was about four years ago, and for whatever reason it didn't work out. But I never saw not getting it as a negative thing, because the fact that I grew up on that show and the fact that they asked me to fly in for tryouts in New York and go on the actual stage and audition in front of Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers and all the producers, to me that was a dream come true in itself. Of course it would've been cool to get the show, but there's a very very small group of comedians who will be able to say that they tested for that show, so it was an honor to do that. And then six months after my last test for them, I ended up getting Chelsea. Which is a whole different type of show and audience, but it ended up being such a great positive thing for me, so I just feel like everything works out the way it's supposed to.
And if everything works out with the new Fox show, you can say you bypassed SNL to star in the new Tina Fey show instead. Just skip the whole middle step.
[laughs] Well that was the thing; my dream was always to work with people like Tina — smart, funny women — I got to work with Chelsea, and then to have someone like Tina say that she wanted me to audition, that was like holy crap, how do you know who I am, and I can't believe you want me to tryout for your show, this is crazy. It's such a good feeling just to feel like, after all these years of putting in hard work, that these people you respect are finally starting to see it, and I'm finally at a place in my career where people aren't saying "I don't know what to do with you" — they're like "You're different and we like it, and we know exactly what to do with you."
Fortune Feimster's Comedy Central Half Hour special premieres Friday night/Saturday morning at 12:00am.