① Laura Hedli: What do you think about 10 seconds before going onstage?
Karen Ripley: I usually do a little spiritual thing. I’m not a religious person, but I’m pretty spiritual. I’ve had to become spiritual to survive in some ways, so: God is good. This is it. After all these years, I don’t put much pressure on myself.
Back in the old days, a lot of comedians, we’d be at Valencia Rose, and we would all line up at the bathroom. We’d get diarrhea, sick to our stomachs. And then that eventually goes away. You just go out there and go: This is who I am. This is what I have to offer. I could have rehearsed more, that’s true. But this is it. I’m not very phony. Does that make sense? I’m just: This is it. Fuck you. That took awhile – to stop taking life so damn seriously.
② LH: When you began your career, were you performing with a specific audience in mind as a lesbian comic, or were you creating with the idea that what you say will be relevant and funny to anyone who sees it?
KR: When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a comedian. When I was four and five and six, I wanted Lucille Ball’s job. Then, Harvey Milk said, “Come out, everybody come out.” I came out in ‘68. The fear was pretty paramount back then.
I had heard Tom Ammiano was doing some gay comedy in the city, and I thought: I have to talk about who I am. I can’t go on and go, “I’m going to tell you about my husband and my six kids. Haha.” I couldn’t do that. And did it affect my career? I’m sure it did to some extent in those days. But there were just some of us who said: No, we’re just coming out from the first time we walked onstage. This is who I am and it’s gay.
All of a sudden, I was unique and I was getting hired because I was gaaaay. And it was kind of fun. I rode that wave awhile, and traveled around to go to festivals and pride events. Then, all these gay comedians were coming up, and now there’s a plethora of them. I’m not unique anymore. I’m just a has-been. But the fact that it [the culture] went from being afraid to come out to Ellen’s TV show getting all these Emmys, shows things have changed.
But when I was first getting into standup, I didn’t go to straight clubs. I didn’t bother. Sometimes they’d say, “We’d love to have you guys because you’re so funny, but our clientele is straight. We don’t want to scare our straight clientele away.” So, fuck straight people. They had lots of comedy clubs, and we only had one. The general public hadn’t quite caught up. It certainly has now. All of a sudden, everyone is bisexual.
③ LH: What do you think the link is between comedy and storytelling for you?
KR: My whole standup has pretty much been one-liners. I did well at standup for many years. I was active in the gay community, and I got to hold a mirror up the community and go: “You hate men, but you wear dicks, and a suit. Don’t you see–?” And I would make fun of myself, of course. Which is old school. I grew up in the ’50s and a lot of the comics would make fun of themselves in those days. Then there was a movement, somewhere in there, the ‘70s and the ‘80s, where the comedy was: I’m not going to put me down. I’m going to put down somebody else, or celebrities – the Kardashians.
Then, I got to a place where I was stuck, probably in my 40s, when I wasn’t coming up with new jokes. I don’t know what it was. You kind of hit this ceiling where either you go to L.A. or you go to New York. You bend over backwards to get the right booker, somebody who believes in you. You live in comedy clubs. You’re out every night. It can be treacherous. It’s hard work and I admire people that do it.
I wanted to tell more stories. Things for me shifted a little. I started working with performer and teacher Annie Larson. We thought: Let’s do some stuff for the Fringe festival. We’d write little plays. Our first one was called Show Me Where it Hurts in 2005. We were fired up about the state of the economy. It’s two women, old, hiding out in a hobo camp in the ‘30s during the depression, and then it fast forwards to when they work for a Humongamart Depot. Which is a combination of WalMart and Halliburton. We wrote a show called Waiting for FEMA in 2006. I was so appalled at Hurricane Katrina and the treatment of the people living there that we wrote a show about two women stuck on a roof.
Then, I started working with David Ford and created Oh No, There’s Men on the Land! I just wanted to keep this idea of storywriting going because if I’m not creative, I get weird.
④ LH: Now you’re involved in the solo community and had a full run of your show, Oh No, There’s Men on the Land! at the Marsh in 2015. Do you think that solo lets you probe larger issues in a different way than comedy does?
KR: Oh yeah. You have a lot more to talk about. I don’t do a lot of characters when I do standup. In comedy, so much is opposites. Tall and short. Skinny and fat. Laurel and Hardy. Up and down. Fast and slow. If you’re talking really slowly and I’m talking really fast, it becomes pretty funny after awhile.
In solo work, it’s more hands on. I get to become the characters and stay in them longer and explore more. Usually, it’s the characters that are the comic outlet. And working with Annie – we knew each other in the improv group Over Our Heads – we were together about 15 years. We would teach each other voices and accents, and so it let me try on all these other faces. In Oh No, There’s Men on the Land! I do about 10 different people. Just a stance with a voice or a simple gesture can create a character.
The neatest thing I remember seeing was Lily Tomlin doing this old man and this old woman; he goes from smoking, and she turns and she’s embroidering. It was so beautiful, proof that it doesn’t need to be extreme.
Also, everybody on the planet lives inside of you. Everybody. I grew up on television. Everything I grew up on, feeding me in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were no black people, except somebody dancing with Shirley Temple, and there were no gay people, and there were no Chinese people on TV.
Years ago, I would say to my improv students, “OK, I want you to be an 80-year-old black woman.” And 90 percent of the students would go: “Oh, Imma go and collect the eggs from the chicken coup.” And they’d have a southern accent. They’d grab the first stereotype. And I’d say: “Oh, I forgot to tell you, you’re a Supreme Court justice.” And then it would be a whole other posture, a whole other voice. The occupation and all of the status in the world changes everything. Class means so much.
Now when I teach improv, my students don’t immediately go with the stereotype they saw on television. As I work with younger people, I can see the growth and the changes because television, theater, music – all these things – really do reflect and condition us in some way. It gives me hope that we’re heading in a better direction.
Some artists, I’m sure, feel handicapped by the fear of hurting others. So, I remind them that you have to work with your information, your struggles. The more personal, the more universal. I swear by that. The more personal you are about your life experiences, 85 percent of the people will go: I feel that, too. Show up and tell the truth and most people will go: Yeah, you’re right.