Rachel Feinstein on Her Comedy Central ‘Half Hour’ and the Other Rachel Feinstein
Rachel Feinstein came to New York when she was 17. She did not go to college. She lived in Brooklyn. She shared her apartment with a band that called itself “Dicksister.” When Feinstein entered comedy, however, she found an outlet and crowd that she grew to love. Since then, she’s appeared on Last Comic Standing, had a Comedy Central Presents special, performed in Women Who Kill, produced an album (Thug Tears), appeared in numerous online sketches, done voices for Grand Theft Auto, and has begun to make more appearances on the acting scene.
Her second Comedy Central special, as part of their series, Half Hour, airs this Friday. I recently had the chance to talk with Feinstein about what it’s like to do so many specials, her sources for inspiration, and what she hopes to develop down the road.
Splitsider’s been really excited to talk to you about your sculptures for a while.
[Laughs] The other Rachel Feinstein [a famous sculptor] and I are always getting mixed up with each other. Somebody contacted me from Vogue, and they were like “We want to do a special story on you because of your amazing fashion sense.” I was like, “Really? I shop at Forever 21.” They sent me this long email about how they admired my bold fashion choices. I’m like, “Really, my blazers that I wear on stage?” But it turned out it was the other Rachel. We’ve both had that with each other. We know each other; we have mutual friends. We went to dinner a while ago. I can now tell which Rachel Feinstein they want by the nature of the event. If it’s any sort of Marc Jacobs showing, I’m like, “Oh they want the classy one.”
You should organize a big standup event and then just have sculptures.
That’s sort of how we first met, actually. We have this mutual friend, and when I first started, she called me out of the blue saying the other Rachel Feinstein was there. She was doing a standup show and Rachel Feinstein came to watch it. She brought me on stage, but the other Rachel Feinstein thought she was bringing her up to say something and we both started walking toward the stage. It was ridiculous. We’ve had every sort of wacky cartoon run-in with each other. We’ve both kept these weirdly aggressively Jewish names, but we don’t really have anything to do with Judaism in these weird different fields. But Vogue just uninvited me to attend my fashion honors night.
So, you had your Comedy Central Presents episode in 2010 and more recently you were in Women Who Kill. You’re not necessarily a stranger to filming specials. Were the nerves for this the same kind that you had for the first two specials?
With my first special, I was terrified. I was legitimately terrified. I was having fantasies that there’d be some kind of a fire so I wouldn’t have to perform. I kept having fire-related fantasies for some reason, probably because insurance would factor in and I’d still get paid because of the fire. I wanted that check. [Laughs] But as soon as I got out there and started my first bit, I just felt really happy. It was exciting. Suddenly I was able to take it in. I had that moment. Once you’re out there, you’re like, “Oh, these are the reward nights for all the rest of the stuff.” You forget that, because there are so many other technical things about preparing for a special.
But then you get there and you’re okay. There are nights where you’re at some dive and some drunken animal is screaming at you and then there are nights like that: where people are taking care of you and leading you to the stage like you’re some sort of princess, and your name’s written on the wall behind you. It’s not some bananas at a Chuckle Hut.
So yeah, I didn’t feel nervous this time, but I’m always a little nervous, like good nerves before. You always want it to be right, and it’s a lot of work ahead of time.
When you’re doing a show at smaller venue and you forget how to you want to tell a joke, it’s not life or death. You can rebound from that. But do you ever find yourself starting to forget a part of how you want to tell a joke during a special, and how does that go inside your head?
Yeah, sometimes. It’s not as much “forgetting,” because I know my material really well at this point, but I might screw up a line or say it wrong sometimes. In a regular show, people understand what you mean, but for TV you don’t want to say some sort of mangled version of what you meant to say, even if people get the gist. It’s just different.
So I did do that actually… My first joke [for Half Hour] didn’t come out quite how I wanted it. So when I was finished, I went back and did the whole entrance again and I’m so glad I did that. It feels silly to go back out and say the same thing you just said to someone, to make the same ironic points all over again and be like, “It’s me again!”
I think I had a better energy coming out the second time because I’d already done it and the crowd was really good and fun. I didn’t have a vaguely terrified look in my eyes; I came out really happy. I talked to somebody at Comedy Central who was like, “We didn’t notice at first, but once you did it again, it came out much better.”
What’s it like when you first come out on the stage in an event like that?
There’s this long walk to the stage and there are several steps down. It almost felt like walking down a runway. When you’re nervous, you’re aware of what everything in your body is doing. I was just thinking about my stupid arm and what my arm was doing. I felt like I was slowly displaying myself as I was walking down this weird long hallway and then three stairs. So I have that kind of ridiculous energy where you’re doing something completely normal that your body does all the time, like walking, but instead you’re like, “I’m moving my arms, what the hell is going on?”
But afterwards I wasn’t occupied with those sorts of nerves, so I’m glad I did it again. I wasn’t thinking about what my wrist was doing the second time I came out. I was just glad I taped a special and it probably felt a lot more casual.
How do you feel about your development since your last special?
There’s one joke in particular that I did in my last special, and I’m kind of glad now that it’s in a much better place. I think a lot of comics will tell you, sometimes you do something on TV and then it grows afterwards. It’s such a frustrating feeling because you feel like, now that joke is so much more than it was then. You look at it then and it almost feels like a premise or something. So that was satisfying to do something I really loved in the way that I wanted to do it.
You do amazing impersonations, particularly of your mother. What’s her reaction to that?
My mom likes it. She gets upset if I don’t talk about her. She’ll go, “Where was I in the talent show?” She calls it my “talent show.” She likes it, and she’s had all her staff at work watch it. In the first special, I talked about how she wants to be black. She likes the attention. In this special, I tried to bring in new people and voices and stuff. I have no idea how it’s all going to be edited, but I brought in some new situations and different characters.
You came to New York when you were 17, and I’m sure your appearance on Last Comic Standing was a big break for you, but what was comedy like before that for you?
I moved when I was 17. I started doing open mics around 20 or 21. The first few years were tough. I was just wildly bombing, you know. It was scary. And I think the hardest part for me was selling myself: going around and handing people my tape and asking for things. I’ve never been good at that. I always got fired from jobs where I had to sell clothes or convince people to do something like that, to like you in some way. So that part was hard. It just felt like you’re a kid and you’re trying to get people to like you. That was scary for me. Especially because most people around that time are in college and they have that built-in social network.
But I moved to New York right after high school with this guy and his band, “Dicksister.” I sometimes wonder what would have happened to my psyche had I not put it in the most traumatizing situation possible so young. So yeah, it was hard, but it was also really exciting. I got to meet some of the smartest, funniest people I know. I’m glad, in a way, because I didn’t have any other skills; I started so young and I started to meet all these interesting people and study comedy and watch them and talk to them and make an ass out of myself in front of them and try too hard and everything else I did. But it definitely felt like “Wow, this is a community I’m lucky to be a part of.”
And was there any particular point when you felt like you were finding jokes or a personality through standup that you had been looking for? Did you kind of have an idea of that right from the beginning?
I definitely felt like I was becoming myself through it. A lot of standups starts with stories about stuff they’re embarrassed about or ashamed of: rejections, all the different moments in people’s lives that they might want to erase. For comedians, that’s the beginning of a joke, and it’s what makes you distinctive from other people. So that’s what you’re searching for. So those kind of mangled misses and failures and messed-up moments, that’s your act. That’s the best stuff. So I definitely feel like I learned to accept myself through that, because I tell stories about things that used to make me feel weird or out of place, and now they’re jokes. They were exactly how I gained acceptance from random strangers.
That’s all any of us want.
Exactly, acceptance from random strangers that shouldn’t matter. And also there’s been a lot of rejection from them too. It’s funny that you mention Last Comic [Standing]. I read everything on every message boards and there was so much anger. I remember one person, “Mr. Twatwaffles,” hated me. Every night on the message boards, Mr. Twatwaffles was so angry at me. He was just always in a real huff over me. Like, “She needs to be stopped.”
But yeah, I never had any other skills, and I was a wild failure at school: D’s, F’s… Just constant problems. There was never that one subject where it was like, “This she does well.” It was just wild, terrible, loud failing my whole life, and discussions and special therapists… panic over what the hell was going to happen with me. And then I got to do this thing that was actually really satisfying.
I kind of always wanted to be one of those people who was a scientist or a doctor and they were school-smart but made this noble decision to leave it all for the arts, you know? But I didn’t have that choice; I excelled at no other field. I went to like two days of college and I just ended up quitting immediately. I tried to apply to Hunter late, since I never took my SATs, and I ended up in some class called “Welcome to the University.” It was just about being at college. Basically for ESL students that just got to America. It was just like “You can make friends here!” I went to two days of that, and it was at 7 AM. It was disgusting. People just talked about the culture on campus. So I never went back.
Did you grow up with a lot of interpersonal skills, or were you more isolated and to yourself?
I had my friends and stuff like that, but I was a pretty depressed kid. I hated school. When you go back to that place every day and you’re doing badly and they’re not pleased with you, it’s not good for self-esteem all around. Even now when I go inside a school, when I smell a school, I’m just like “Oh god.” It brings me back to that constant feeling of dealing with it. I think I was definitely a depressed kid, like a lot of comics. I maybe used impersonating people and things to sort of get attention or make people laugh.
But I definitely had my people that I would hang out with. I had close relationships and stuff like that, but it was like my friends were doing well at school, and I would have to stay after. I was bad. Like in science, I remember we were doing an experiment where we had to dissect fetal pigs and I stole the pigs. I got another bad person to steal pigs with me. And then we went out at night, like really late at night, and we drank on the football field and hurled fetal pigs across it. We would creatively find the worst things we could do and just laugh. Anything we were expected to do, we’d mock it.
In the last decade there’s a big transformation going on in the standup scene, where women are finally being given actual space in comedy, and you’ve really come up during that transformation. What has been your experience with that?
You know, there are people who are going to be supportive and just see you as a person and a comic, and not a woman first. And then there are people who are going to come up to you after shows, and I talk with other female comics and the same kind of stuff happens to them too, and people will come up and be like, “Usually, I hate women, but you were great! I don’t think women are funny at all! But you were fantastic.” They’ll insult your entire sex and then say, “You’re the exception!” Or they’ll say, “Yeah, you’re one of the guys.” So that’s always confusing and sort of distressing, especially because it’s not like that’s my goal.
I think sometimes when people hear you’re a female comic, they expect you to dress like a Beastie Boy and to be like “I’m one of the men now.” Well, I’m definitely a woman; I have a woman’s perspective, you know? Whenever anybody’s like, “Finally, you’re in,” it’s like they’re saying to a black person, “Usually I don’t care for blacks, but you’re fantastic.” So that’s always confusing.
You’ll get those sort of things that certain people say that are frustrating, but there are also a lot of other people who don’t think like that. I’m excited for the point where it will stop being this wacky thing that I happen to be a woman and a comedian, where people won’t bring me on stage like it’s a wacky experiment. “We got a lady coming up!” or whatever it is. I’m looking forward to that day where it’s not considered “redundant” to have two women back to back on a show.
As if seeing two female comics back to back would be the same as seeing the same act back to back…
It’s just weird, because the comics I’m friends with that are women, our acts are all really different and our perspectives are all really different. People still do say that, “Oh, we just had a woman, so we can’t put up another woman. How crazy would that be!?”
But I do think you’re right. It’s getting a lot better, and I find that the less I think about it, the better. Most of the time, I’m not thinking about it because most of my friends are comics. And there are definitely a lot of opportunities for all of us right now, so I don’t feel like a victim at all. I feel like I’m having fun; I’m enjoying my career. I don’t look at it like, “Oh, I’m a woman, how am I going to handle this?” and I don’t want to look at it like that.
Your web shorts are really fantastic as well. I think the thoughts you just expressed really come through a lot in your shorts, particularly the candy one was hilarious.
Thanks! I did not come up with that title. You can never title things yourself. They called it “Dumb Girls are Hot,” which is obviously not at all what I would want, but I think when you watch it you can tell that the title is really ironic. Although I didn’t title it, it’s making fun of that notion.
But yeah, I try to just talk about what makes me laugh. I realized that I was going out and showing how guys would want to help me open a small wrapper of candy and I realized that I was accidentally saying a lot of things that people would usually be saying underneath, and that makes me happy. I always try to start with just the part that’s funny and it happens to include the rest of it.
And you’re going to be appearing in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, right?
Yeah! I’m excited about Trainwreck; that’ll be really fun. I do scenes with Amar’e Stoudemire.
Is your standup career separable from the acting that you’re going into now? Or is acting something that is just growing out of your standup career?
I think basically everything I’ve gotten is through standup and through the friends and people I’ve met through standup, so that’s obviously how Trainwreck happened and all the rest of that stuff.
Some people do standup to get into acting, and I hope I’m always doing [standup] my whole life. I definitely don’t consider standup a means to an end. I’d love to do more comedic acting and more of all this stuff that you saw. More sketch, more funny parts, more serious parts. Anything that’s challenging and good and has good writing. But everything that I’ve done came through standup. Basically everything came through comedy and the friends that I’ve met through comedy.
What would make you the most excited to do in the future? What would be like the one offer of something that you would be most excited to hear about?
I’m working on a show right now, so that’s kind of my dream project. So, getting that to the next level would be cool. I’d love to do my own show just kind of exploring all the stuff that you saw online – like sort of ridiculous social experiment type stuff and doing stuff where I can do the characters that I do onstage and just doing sketch, standup, all the kind of stuff you see and more of that. If I talk to you in two years and that’s what I’m doing, then I’ll be really happy. Just more of what I already do, but on a larger scale.
And I’d love to do an hour next and keep putting up these specials. The cool thing about the specials is that they’re kind of what make me grow. Like, “Oh, I got better this year I want to see if they’ll give me a special.” When I get the special, I panic like, “Oh god, this was a grave mistake,” then I grow a lot, very rapidly, because I keep looking at jokes in new ways and writing and figuring out and analyzing stuff that I had done and figuring out, “Oh, wow, this could be better here,” and then I type it up. So all that, those little assignments I get once I get something, I feel like I grow so much from them.
It’s cool because I get these things and then my first response is like, “Fuck.” Then I work really hard and panic to some degree and I feel like I’ve grown so much as a comic in that time preparing for that thing. So for me at least, I’m not a huge self-starter, but once I get something, that makes me be like, “Oh, shit. I don’t want to disappoint everybody.” So that’s cool.
I’d love to do an hour next so that I can be like, “Fuck, I have no hour, who the hell do I think I am? They want to give me this? That’s a foolish idea on their part!” And then make it happen.
Is there any kind of writing method that you go through? Do you have a method that’s unique to you, or is it very much like whenever you happen to sit around and think about a joke and write it out?
If something happens to me or I get a ridiculous story or something, a lot of stuff starts with me talking to my friends – other comics – and they say “Oh, yeah, you should talk about that.” We all do that with each other a lot. Then I think, “Yeah, how do I set this up and figure it out?” There are a lot of little challenges along the way to bringing it on stage and making it make sense there. But it usually starts from just talking about shit and venting about some ridiculous night, some awful thing that happened to you or some ridiculous insult that life has hurled at you. So, I guess it’s something like that. Like something painful or jarring or unacceptable happens, or you see something that’s unacceptable. It starts from that little anger or intense feeling of humiliation and then it ends up being your favorite joke.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.