Rachel Dratch Returns Home for the Women in Comedy Festival
Exactly one week before her homecoming, Rachel Dratch appeared on Saturday Night Live to reprise her role as Denise alongside Jimmy Fallon’s Sully, the “Boston teens.” The sketch saw the now-grown teens escorting their college-bound daughter (Kate McKinnon) on a tour of Harvard Yard. The setting was fitting; days later, she’d participate in a Q&A with Pam Victor at the Brattle Theatre, paces from the actual Harvard Yard.
Dratch was in town for a headline show in Lexington, the Boston suburb where she grew up. Substituting “Live from New York” for “Live from Lexington, Mass” is something few entertainers can claim — Dratch included. It is the first time she’s performed in her hometown in decades, possibly since childhood. “I don’t even know that I’ve ever performed in Lexington,” she comments after finishing the Cary Memorial Building improv performance, located in the town’s central business district. “I’ve done high school graduation speeches, but even that wasn’t Lexington. It was out-of-town, they had to move it.”
According to Dratch, the colonial-style Cary Memorial Building was used during her upbringing for town meetings and civic events, not standup routines or improv comedy. And, indeed, the converted performance hall is something out of Leslie Knope’s Pawnee. There’s a massive Revolutionary War mural right in the lobby entrance as well as marble statues and tributes to the Lexingtonians killed in battle. An inscription over the entryway reads: “Lexington consecrates this hall and its emblems to the memory of the founders and the defenders of our free institute.”
Inside the auditorium, Dratch stands practically offstage, stifling either laughs or a nagging tickle in her throat. Watching the next generation from her perch — a chorus of voices, characters and scenarios ringing against one another — she beams. She’s like a proud language teacher observing her class converse in foreign tongue, only interjecting to tweak something about the grammar or offer a note about customs. Then her tremendous, effortless command is obvious.
Afterwards, Dratch mentions the return home was “super fun, I had a good time.” She pauses before laughing. “I think the audience did too.” Applauding her co-stars’ work, she reiterates: “I thought it went really well, especially since we’d just met.” In that sense, it was truly an improvised show: Kirsten Rasmussen is from Second City Toronto, Shelley McLendon from Portland, Oregon and so on. They’d been brought together that day as part of the eighth annual Women in Comedy Festival, which is held throughout Greater Boston.
The festival’s crucible of talent is impressive. Beyond seasoned names like Dratch and Lizz Winstead, the week-long showcase spotlights all sorts of different acts. On any given day, comedy fans catch sets from a local veteran like Kelly MacFarland, and newer voices like the Haim-meets-Lonely-Island mashup, Femmedy Trio. Recently departed Saturday Night Live cast member Sasheer Zamata kicked off the festivities at the beginning of the week inside the Somerville Theater alongside her comedy partner Nicole Byer.
(In their Somerville green room, Byer describes Boston as “a little rude… with Big-City-syndrome,” while Zamata looks at her phone. This was after Michael Che asserted Boston’s the most racist city he’s been to, but before a fan was ejected at Fenway Park for hurling abuse at Adam Jones.)
The setting of Dratch’s event is special, however. All the restaurants within walking distance of the hall are packed with locals going to the show. As she steps on stage, she recognizes and embraces the local vibe: her high school clique has a row, and her nonagenarian aunt is also in attendance. “In a way, I was really nervous since I knew (mostly) everyone in the audience. But… that made it fun because they were all happy to be there.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s White House ascent, an all-female comedy lineup feels sadly audacious, if not outright political. Whereas Byer acknowledges becoming more topical since the 45th president’s surprise election, Dratch is reluctant to acknowledge an influence: “I try to block out politics to do improv. I’m so absorbed with the ‘Trump-of-it-all’ in my spare time, that I’m not too focused on ‘what’s my agenda’ for the show. I sort of blow it off in my mind.”
Indeed, one reference aside during the show, she keeps her act Trump-free. (Later, she’s asked: would you ever run for public office? “No… Amy Poehler would be awesome. She’s just kind of fearless in the face of the BS that comes her way,” she responds, before adding, “but I do not think she would want that job.”)
As the group’s rhythm settles in, she improvises a character, a reporter from National Geographic, as well as a Lexington cop busting teens throwing a party in Willards Woods. The call-out to the local park gets a huge crowd response, with the cop perfectly capturing that specific townie flavor, like a spiritual cousin to Denise. (With a gentle “no,” she sidesteps audience calls for Debbie Downer.)
Her trip home was fleeting. Before the show, she goes to Demoulas Market Basket to pick up a cake. Sheepishly, she carries the cake — labeled RACHEL COMES HOME — through the aisles and checks out. It’s the sort of image of what her life might have turned out like had she never left. During the Q&A, she remarks: “I moved to Chicago… to know that if I tried [improv] and it probably wouldn’t work out, then I could go back to Boston and become a therapist. That was my plan.” It’s a compelling alternate scenario: Rachel Dratch: counselor, licensed psychiatrist – maybe even based in Cambridge – traveling home on the weekends to visit with her family in Lexington. Demoulas cakes.
Massachusetts has produced seven presidential contenders since the 1950s. It’s also responsible for an outsized number of high-profile comics (Dratch, Poehler, Steve Carell, Mindy Kaling, etc.), second to maybe LA – and Canada – but few others. When asked for her personal theory on Greater Boston’s tendency to raise high functioning, successful comic personalities, she demurs: “Children of immigrants are usually pretty funny, I guess… And something about being on the coast, more of a worldly view. When I moved to Chicago, I noticed the local news was truly the local news. But coming from Boston, the local news would cover international things.”
Over the past year, Dratch voiced the titular character on ABC’s just canceled Imaginary Mary. It was fine, but not exactly the showcase she deserved for her offbeat, sometimes strange breed of character work. To be sure, Hollywood does not appreciate her in a way Lexington does. Still, she’s carved an enviable niche for herself: beyond SNL, she’s recently made guest appearances on the likes of Last Week Tonight, Broad City, The Simpsons, and Angie Tribeca. The ultimate pinch hitter. (She chronicles this trajectory in greater detail, including her exodus from 30 Rock, in her 2012 memoir.)
After her Lexington show, and Harvard Square Q&A, she’s gone again. It’s a quick visit. “I don’t really have any haunts here anymore, unfortunately,” she says.
Photo credit: @WICF