SHE SLAYS: EMILY MAYA MILLS ON HOW TO BREAK INTO COMEDY
How do you break into the comedy, really? It’s not like you can major in standup in college or look for gigs on LinkedIn after graduation. From the outside looking in, it may seem like the qualifications are: (1) be hilarious and (2) do it in front of other people. But as any comic will tell you, there’s a lot of work that goes into putting a set together, landing a gig on Saturday Night Live, doing sketch bits on Funny or Die and ultimately, making a living. So how does one become a comedian? And does being voted class clown count?
Lucky for us, comedy powerhouse Emily Maya Mills is letting us in on what it takes to be successful in the biz. The multi-talented multi-hyphenate just recorded her debut album of standup comedy, stars in sketch videos on Funny or Die, acts in shows like Orange is the New Black, Key and Peele and Parks and Recreation, performs improv and of course, writes. Here, she talks to PSTOL about how to get started in standup and sketch (even if you don’t live in Los Angeles or New York City), use social media as a workshop for material and which qualities every girl needs to be a sidesplitting success in the comedy game (hint: it has nothing to do with your looks).
Like with lots of artforms, comedy done well looks effortless–like someone with the innate ability to make other people laugh is just born stage-ready. That the mood is light and audience members are having a good time only adds to the overall sense of ease. But the reality is that comedy requires a lot of hard work. Since you don’t clock in and out, like you would for a nine-to-five, how do you go about doing the work that’s required to get good?
I have to have projects. I create structure by overscheduling myself constantly. I write, act, perform standup, do sketch and for years I was always on an improv team. For me, I really like the circut training, practicing many types of mediums. It can be chaotic because you’re not making a direct inroad to any of those mediums, but at the end of the day it makes you a better writer, performer and actor. If I was just an actor I would be atrophying party of my brain.
Try it all in the beginning to see what your avenue is going to be. I think it helps to study as many different concentrations as you can because ultimately you want to get strong in places where you are weak.
Or, if you want to get good exercise, focus on a few things that are complementary to each other, like standup and story telling. If you’re an improviser, try sketch because that will make you more well rounded.
I did all five things all the time, which is kind of insane, but that’s what worked for me. There’s no straight path to success in this profession. People take different approaches—it’s about finding what works best for you.
You’re a part of Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), co-founded by Amy Poehler, and where people like Kate McKinnon, Ellie Kemper and Aubrey Plaza have honed their skills. How did that happen? How does one get in with that crowd?
UCB, like Groundlings and Second City, are learning institutions. My start with UCB was a little serendipitous. I was running a theater for my day job at my acting studio. UCB moved to town and ended up renting studio space for classes. They mentioned they needed help, so I began to work as their house manager part time.
In order to get free classes through an internship, you normally have to you have to take classes and get a recommendation to get in the queue and go from there. But I was able to jump right in and start interning and taking classes right away because they needed help.
Lucky for me, I got to hang around a lot and that was really important in terms of community and family. That institution is very much part of my extended family for the past 10 years or so.
So UCB is more than a posse of funny performers–it’s a School?
It functions as an entertainment epicenter and entertainment institution. The theatre stands alone as a place that has great programming and where veterans get to do magnificent things. You have to be at a certain level to perform there. But there are house teams—people who come out of school and train in improv at different levels, then audition to get on an improv team and sketch teams.
UCB is the first and only comedy institution to be accredited, and they have satellite classes in NYC; it’s a training center in an office building with a collab/chillout space. It’s a really wonderful thing to have a place like this.
I read a quote from Lorne Michaels (the creator of Saturday Night Live) where he said something to the effect of, if you’re not involved with one of these institutions, then it’s very unlikely that hiring casting agents and directors will know who you are.
Basically, If you think you’re funny and this is what you think you want to do, then get your butt to UCB or Groundlings, to one of these places and get trained to make you funnier.
It’s a little harder for people who are not doing comedy in these places to get on the radar, but these are access points for that community. The main goal is to be doing. If you want to write, then write. If you want to act, then act.
I’m a huge advocate for classes. It can be expensive, but there are internship opportunities and things like that. Hands down, it’s a great opportunity. You get a foundation of certain art forms—it’s like going to art school. I consider it all a grad program. The teachers are professionals who are teaching in their time off between writing on shows and they’re so generous with information.
What’s your advice for girls who want to get into comedy, but don’t live in LA or New York?
Just because you can’t access these places, doesn’t mean you can’t you can make videos and write plays wherever you live. These little things that you do serve as training—and you can create any kind of training for yourself.
Do you have other advice for girls in particular, who are starting out in this field?
Starting off, you don’t need to think of yourself as a girl comic but as a comic. That stuff— injustices in the field or the world—will come up and you’ll be able to deal with that with articulation and maturity at some point. But when first starting off, it’s important to not necessarily have that be a part of the equation. As far as the nuts and bolts of getting started in comedy, it’s important to be a comic first and not be [distracted or put upon] by a larger psychological burden.
You don’t need to not talk about being a girl or abandon your gender. When it comes to being a comic, first forget about the question about whether women can be funny because it’s a really silly question.
Word. We love your sketches on Funny or Die. How did you get linked up with Funny or Die opportunities?
It’s a community thing. I first got involved when Funny or Die first started—and even to this day, a lot of people came out of UCB to create those sketches. There’s a huge amount of cross pollination there. Any Funny or Die thing I’ve been in was because someone said, ‘hey we’re shooting this thing.’ A lot of opportunities come from being part of the community.
You’re also part of a sketch comedy group, Birds of Prey, which did Suicide Girls Suicide Hotline on Funny or Die. Why is it important to have a crew to perform with—why do that in addition to doing standup on your own?
It can be more fun to collaborate. Collaboration exponentially increases what you can get done because everyone brings different skill sets. Even in writers rooms, it’s common for professional writers on television shows to work with writing partners or as duos. And often that’s because they’ve figure out who has what strengths and they compliment each other really well. It’s not seen as a deficit to work with someone else, but a strength. Writing partners are sought out [to write TV shows] for that reason—because they’ve figured out who’s good at story structure and who’s good at writing dialogue and so on.
What’s the key to successful creative collaboration?
The biggest thing in collaboration is that there are there are no dumb ideas. You can’t take offense. Always be open to ideas. Also, you don’t wanna be too agreeable either. If you share vision and accept other ideas, you’re going to get a much stronger result. That’s done in business as well. Products and innovations are more successful when created by a group than when created by an individual.
What about flexing your muscles with Twitter or social media? How important is it to build a profile as a performer via Twitter?
Especially with Twitter and comedy, it kind of becomes an opportunity to workshop ideas, like an open mic because the format is perfect for writing jokes.
It’s a quiet vacuum. You’re not actually getting laughs, you’re getting likes. Sometimes you’re in the zone on Twitter, sometimes when you’re not in the zone on Twitter and you can feel like you’re flailing in that medium, in a way. Of course, then it’s like—why are we doing this? This garbage, it feels like such a waste of time.
If you’re a comedian and you write a tweet that’s not fall-down funny, then it seems like it could be open range for people to judge whether you’re funny or not. It’s gotta be frustrating.
When people are past the tipping point of Twitter fame, they can crap out a garbage tweet and people will still eat it up. It’s a critical point in which the tide is forever in your favor. And knowing that is the one thing that makes me feel better. I can’t beat myself up too badly if ‘ve done eight live shows that week and I’m finishing up a script and a tweet I wrote seems half-cooked to me.
Sometimes I see things [I wrote] and think, ‘that was a half thought, it wasn’t a perfect tweet.’ And that’s OK. I like to treat it as a notepad—then it’s not as much pressure. Even if a tweet is not the most important thing that the world needs to hear, at least it’s something I’ve got it down that might develop into something more later.
What are some traits a girl needs to thrive in comedy?
It seems so nebulous, but confidence. You need to have confidence or you need to be willing to find it, particularly in comedy. The main thing as far as finding your voice and knowing you’re funny is believing you are funny and standing by that. Especially in comedy it’s too easy to think that someone else knows better than you do—whether or not you’re funny—that can never be the case.
It might take you a long time to really develop your voice and get good, but you’re never going to do that if you leave it up to others to decide if you should be there or whether or not you are capable of developing. Everyone’s capable of developing.
What about apologizing for saying something funny? Why is it important to own what you say, even when people get sensitive about the topic?
That’s super true for standup. And when you’re on stage, you can apologize even without words. The minute you apologies with with your eyes, face or body, it’s over—and it’s no longer funny. There’s something unapologetic always about comedy. Of course, that doesn’t mean be a dick either.
So aside from confidence, what are other traits comedians need?
A willingness to listen and learn and study and be studious. It’s one thing to throw things at the wall and get a laugh. But it’s another to be able to recognize where format, structure, patterns come into play. It’s important stuff.
I had points in the course of my development—and I’m still developing—where I don’t want to be coached by, say, a boyfriend. I’ve always had a thing where I want to do and learn myself and I don’t want anyone else to show me.
First, you’re not weak by accepting the teachings of another, especially for standup. There’s a college for improv and sketch, but there’s no college for standup. The communities where people get together, write together, coach each other, hold each other accountable to be smarter and better at writing and developing structure—those communities foster better comics.
Cities like San Francisco and Chicago (where Second City is based) have a collegiate atmosphere, but it’s really just peers holding each other to a standard and getting together and fostering community and purposefully growing and studying.
Another trait a comic must have is work ethic. You are your own boss. The path [to success] might not be clear but the one thing that is certain is you will only get there if you don’t walk away. That’s difficult because there’s always the possibility you could be happier doing something else. You only get to have it if you keep showing up.
The people who you see that are considered the greatest, they studied everything they could. they are very smart people.
Finally, enjoy it and be a fan of others. Lightness will take you a long way.