Laurie Kilmartin: From AOL to TBS.


laurie k posterLaurie Kilmartin has been in the writers room of Conan for eight years. But back when she started in 1987, Late Night TV was controlled by men. From years of grinding mics on the road to writing a New York Times bestseller, Kilmartin has played by her own rules. Hilarious, irreverent and one of the finest stand-ups in the country, Kilmartin will be appearing at the Sierra Nevada Big Room in Chico, CA on December 1st. Join us for a deep dive into the current fires in California and comedy talk with Laurie Kilmartin. Tix available here:

Laurie: Hey DNA, how ya doing?

SUSC: I’m up here in Chico with family.

Oh my gosh.

I can’t stop reading about it and I’m stunned. If this was happening in New York City it would be non-stop coverage on the news, ya know? It’s crazy.

Not to get into a competition between Northern and Southern California fires, but we are getting most of the bandwidth. BBC to NBC everyone is talking about Paradise or Pleasure, depending on whom you get your info from.

Mortifying. It’s unbelievable. The LA Times, and I should probably check the chronicle, but the Times did a great article today laying out the timeline of how it happened.

Yeah. We have a truck full of supplies and have been going to shelters and hearing people’s stories. You often hear the media say “it’s incomprehensible.” And, it is. There’s no way to comprehend it. Everyone up here is just moving through it day-by-day. My wife’s grandparents, aunt and cousins lost five homes. And  I have know so many who have also lost everything. I have one buddy who work up surrounded by fire, tried to escape by vehicle and then abandoned it and ran 12 miles to get out.

Aaack. How’s he doing?

He got third degree burns on his hands and the side of his face. But in the spirit of Chico, I saw him Saturday night rocking out to one of our favorite bands at a fundraiser.

What’s up with the LA fire?

It seems to be contained. Some people are being kept from their homes. But we only had like one day of really bad air here from the fire and then it went back to regular polluted air. I mean just the plume from the fire was like over 200 miles long.

Yeah. I did a show in SF on Friday at a temple and the air was so bad people had their yarmulkes over their mouths. But Chico is down to 500, or however that system works.

I read that 150 is when you need to wear a mask.

Thank god I’m a smoker, I’ve been training for this my whole life. My lungs are an Olympiad. So. . . I’ve been reading and watching interviews with you all morning. So, comedy question. In the Bay Area there is a formula. You work your way up through open mics, showcases and the clubs and get to the top of the food chain. Then, you move to LA or New York and start sending in packets to get your jokes and hopefully your set on Late Night shows. When you were starting out in the late ‘80s did you have any idea how things worked or were you making it up as you went along?

When I started the goal was to move to Los Angeles. The idea back then was to get to feature status and get out before you just stay there forever. But when you look back at it, the people that didn’t move and bought houses made a good financial decision. I never felt like I made it to the top of the top of the food chain. I feel like I made it to the side of the food chain and I topped out, perhaps, and I moved to New York. One of the first guys to go from SF to New York was Don Perazo(?), they Ray James followed and Jim Earl. They started a new trajectory. That wasn’t anything anyone was doing until those guys started it. That would be the late ‘90s. Pretty much everyone I started with moved to LA as soon as they could. Which was like 5 years of stage time in the city (SF).

Actually through one of your interviews I got turned on to Earl & Lang.

Oh, Lang & Earl?

Uh, yeah, sorry, dyslexia. I don’t want to give the wrong top billing.

It’s amazing in comedy how much talent there is that is not 1%ers. Names that just never floated to the top. When you started in the Bay Area who were your contemporaries, comics you rubbed elbows with?

I started with Greg Baron, Margaret Cho, Tony Camine, Karen Anderson, John Boyle, Steve Brunner. . . 

That’s a great graduating class. Nowadays you can be a touring comedian and stay in constant touch with your friends. When you started it was the dawn of the internet. Did you feel isolated driving around the country in your car? Was it a more solitary life back then?

Very lonely. Also, I didn’t want to hang out. Being female that put me in a precarious situation. I did not want to worry about my safety. I would just do a show and leave. I met knew people every week and I didn’t want to hang out. I met knew people every night and I didn’t know who they were. That’s not a good scene to get buzzed in. I would go back to the hotel and it was super lonely. When AOL became feasible and something you could put on a laptop, which was also a new thing, I started doing that. It was like $1.99 a minute or even $2.95 a minute, crazy expensive. I realized I couldn’t live without being online. I was in chat rooms like 7 hours a day and then I would do a show at night. I spent all of my feature money on AOL fees. If you can imagine the internet costing a couple of hundred a week.

To circle back to the formula. Comics today have a good roadmap how to get from the open mic to writing for a show. Even if most of them won’t complete the journey, the road is paved. When you were grinding it out across the country, did you see an opportunity to write for Late Night? What was the first opportunity that presented itself to you?

I didn’t see myself as a joke writer. I didn’t even see myself as a writer. I never thought about what I was good at, I just tried to continue getting work. I never thought writing was a strength. Of course there were hardly any women writing for Late Night, so it seemed like only a job guys did, for other guys. Guys on Late Night and guys wrote for them. It seemed like a closed society. And then when Colin Quinn got his show he hired a ton of comics he knew. One comic in particular I knew was a terrible writer and had never written a joke in his life. I’m the type of person when somebody is way worse that I am in life I’ll think, “Maybe I’ll try it.” I’m not the type who see’s somebody doing really well and thinks, “I can do it better than them.” I’m more, “I know I’m better than that guy.” So that really helped me to get the confidence to get a job on the show. I kept sending ideas to Colin. I asked if I could email him ideas and he said, “Yes”, probably thinking I wouldn’t. I pummeled him with ideas. I would spend all day writing them. I spent weeks only writing. This was like 2004 so there weren’t a ton of newspapers on the internet, mostly Drudge. So I would get the Times and The Post and the Daily News and sit in a café and read them all and write ideas and send them to Colin. I think he gave me a job just to stop the emails. I had a job for a week on the pilot and when the show was picked up, I had to go through the whole packet process again. Finally I got hired and that was my entry level job and it took off from there.

I just did math, by long hand, but if you started in 1987 and you got hired in 2004 by Colin, that’s 7 years of grinding mics to get your first TV job.

Well maybe the pilot of Tough Crowd was 2002, so 2004 was the last year the show was on the air.

Ah, so only 15 years to get to the entry level job. Easy.

It’s a long time to do stand-up, for sure.

I’m older. I didn’t start stand-up until to my 40s, and now 12 years in, I’m surrounded by comics who are more than half my age who are ready to move to LA and write for shows. And, I always think, “What are you going to write about? Where’s the experience?” Not that people aren’t smart and creative, but jeez. Did you find your 15 years doing stand-up served you well on Tough Crowd?

Yes. Also that show was so peculiar that it starred and featured comics and it was about comedy. Which was perfect since that was the only thing that I really knew about. So I was writing for people that did the same thing I did and who were like me. That helped me get the confidence that I can open a word doc and fill it with words and they’re not terrible. I broadened my horizons that I could write for other stand-ups. But I needed an obvious door to open. I didn’t pound on a door you couldn’t see. I opened a door that was labeled, “If you’re a comic, this door is for you.”

How did getting a paycheck for writing become writing a New York Times best seller? Was it new territory to write a long form novel?

It was really a bunch of essays about parenting. So, it’s not a novel. I don’t know if I have that in me. At least not with my current attention span. It felt like a series of stand-up rants that had to work on paper. It wasn’t a huge shift. The essays are no more than 800 words long and I just try to pack them with as many decent jokes as I can. But it’s a different thing to write a book. It’s a different kind of self-hate and recrimination than stand-up. You have to turn it in when you think it’s not done and you can’t work on it anymore. In comedy you can always continue to work on your jokes. Even if you put out an album and you come up with another way to tell that joke, you can still work on it and make it better. But once your book is published, it’s over and you can’t fix it. When I do book readings I’m like, “Ohhh, why didn’t somebody catch that this sentence could have been structured better.” It’s a pain that never end.

You have the 25th Anniversary Edition to look forward to where you can make all the changes. You just have to wait 15 years.


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