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Interview: Melinda Hill

Melinda Hill
Courtesy Photo

With the release of her latest comedy album, The Accidental Bisexual, Melinda Hill has cemented her status as one of the rising names to watch in the world of stand-up comedy. With time spent training alongside the legendary improv troupe The Groundlings, Hill embarked on a career in comedy over nine years ago that has led her to appearances on Reno 911, Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. She currently co-produces the comedy show What’s Up Tiger Lily? every Monday night at Hollywood Studio Bar and Grill. Hill recently sat down with SanDiego.com to talk about her new album and the worst experience she's ever had with a heckler.

When did you start doing stand-up comedy?

Melinda Hill: I started doing stand-up nine years ago, and I did improv and sketch prior to that at The Groundlings.

Are you from L.A. or did you move there?

I moved to L.A. from Lawrence, Kansas.

Were you doing sketch and improv in Lawrence?

No, I was studying creative writing and was doing plays and acting stuff. I’ve been doing acting stuff since age 14. It kind of went acting, improv, sketch writing and then stand-up.

Do you remember the first time you did stand-up?

I had an acting teacher who told me, ‘You should pursue comedy because you’re accidentally funny.’ (I'm still not sure if that was an insult or a compliment.) I’d be earnestly performing these serious scenes in acting class and everyone would be laughing. Meanwhile, I was getting cast as all these crying, broken girls in independent movies and as Crying Motel Girl in a Creed video, while simultaneously playing Irina in Chekov's "Three Sisters" at night which involved even more crying. So when I started doing comedy it was such a relief to not have to cry any more and to get to be fun and light! Ironically, doing stand up led to being cast as Crying Biker Chick on Reno 911, a character who fell off the back of a motorcycle and couldn't even talk because she was so choked up. Anyway, a comedian pal in acting class introduced me to a booker at the Comedy Store by saying that I was a comedian. I was instantly booked on a show two weeks from that date, which forced me to write a set, having never done stand up before. So that's how I got in, basically on a referral and a lie. It was a packed show and for some reason it went well. Plenty of times after that it did not go well, so I feel lucky that the first response was good which encouraged me to keep doing it. That is still how I do everything, by the way, with an unrealistic deadline. My process is set the date for the show, then promote it, and lastly, write it.

Would you describe the adrenaline rush of stand-up as being similar to sketch and improv?

I’d say sketch and characters felt a lot safer for me as did acting, just because you’re usually onstage with a bunch of other people and/ or you’re in a character, so it has nothing to do with you as a person. So if the audience doesn’t like that character it doesn’t matter, because it’s not you. Stand-up is different because it’s just you, even though you might be doing a heightened persona and exaggerating things; it’s still you. So the pressure is on in a way that it’s not when you have a whole talented sketch troupe up there with you or the armor of a disguise of any kind. It is way more adrenaline because it is very vulnerable to expose your truth and your point of view to a crowd of strangers and yet I think to most comedians it's easier to do that than to have a one on one conversation. It's a special and wonderful sickness, feeling comfortable on stage.

What’s the worst heckle you’ve ever received?

In London I was doing a TV show called The World Stands Up. First thing when I arrived at Customs they have you fill out this card that asks you if you’re there for work or vacation, so I put "work" and the guy at Customs goes, ‘What’s your profession?’ and I said, ‘I’m a comedian.’ and he goes ‘That’s a horrible profession isn’t it?’ and I go, ‘No it’s a great profession! It’s bringing me to London!’ And then he goes, ‘What about when you’re standing there and everybody hates you and they hate your jokes?’ And I was I like, “Well, it’s no crushing people’s dreams at the border.’ And that was kind of an omen of the things to come. So we’re taping this sold out show in this huge theatre, it was probably the size of The Wiltern. The thing about London is they love to heckle, that’s part of their culture. So I’m in the middle of my set and this guy yells from the balcony, ‘Show me your tits!’ We are taping a TV show and this guy heckles me! I'd done stand up on TV in the US many times and never encountered anything like that so it totally threw me. It felt like a punch in the stomach, like surreal. So he continued to yell some other things, and I wanted to run off stage, cry, or start yelling back at him but I didn't know what to do because I was getting paid and it was being taped so I didn’t know if I was going to be fired if I responded or walked off. Like I didn’t have any idea how to handle this situation and I was only about 10 minutes into my 20 minute set. I tried to move forward and I think I started the same joke about three times, I was lost, I couldn't even remember my act. Meawhile, he was being thrown out of the building by security and a whole scuffle was happening in the balcony. Then something just took over, and I took a deep breath and said to everyone, ‘You know what? I’m going to go back and do that bit again, because that guy ruined it. So here's how it goes...’ I just re-told the bit and I finished my set with a plastic smile like everything was great. I got off stage and the producers hugged me. The other comics were so sweet and supportive. They edited the show and the set looks great, there is no trace of a heckler, a scuffle, me losing my place, or anything. It looks flawless. If I had started crying, run off stage, yelled obscenities or otherwise freaked out, they would not have been able to use that footage. It was a great lesson to me that no matter what happens in a taping or a show, just be a professional, keep your composure, and act like it’s going amazing.

Do you go out on the road much?

I don’t do a lot of gone-for-six-nights road gigs, just because I do a lot of TV and film here in town. Although I did go to Hawaii three times last year to do my show. It's a living.

When would you say you found your voice as a comedian?

Well it’s definitely changed. I’ve done four completely different hour long shows, so it’s still evolving, but I would definitely say at least five years. There's no short cut to finding your voice, it's just putting the time in and trial and error.

How long have you been working on the material that’s on The Accidental Bisexual?

Some of those stories were like eight years old and then some of them were very new. Other ideas didn’t make the album for whatever reason; like they weren't ready yet so I ended up further developing them for my next show. The Creed story is one of my oldest pieces of material; it’s literally nine years old and one of the first stories I ever told on stage. Are you already working on another show? I’m now doing my current show called “Marriage Material” and it's an interactive dating show that explores the idea of nourishment versus comfort, in both food and dating. I’ve done it at the Comedy Central Stage and U.C.B. Theatre, and just did it in Maui and Honolulu and I’ll be doing it on Monday nights in Los Angeles before the Tiger Lily show. We’ve been working on it for seven months and I’m working with a production company to develop it as a pilot. There's also interest in it as a feature film and a book.

How would you describe a comedy show like What's Up Tiger Lily? to someone who’s never seen it?

The reason Tiger Lily is great and has been going strong for four-and-a-half years is because it’s consistently a great line-up and it’s free. The same comics you’re seeing at the Improv and Largo for forty or fifty bucks, you’re seeing at Tiger Lily for free every Monday, like Dana Gould, Paul F. Tompkins, Jen Kirkman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Laura Kightlinger, Blaine Capatch, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., Nick Kroll, etc. Andy Kindler comes in and does Tiger Lily before he goes on Leno or Letterman, Jeffrey Ross tests his roast jokes on the Tiger Lily crowd. So it’s almost become superstitious for some comics, it’s just a really good energy and a fun scene. The backbone of our show is our booker, Jazz Ponce, who gets the best established comics each week as well as the promising newcomers. She is a comedy aficionado, out at the shows every night, watching videos and keeping the show running strong. I think one day she'll be booking a late night show like Conan, or whatever she wants to do. She has a true talent and gift for putting together a great show and it wouldn't still be going strong without her.

Do you have any rituals when preparing for a show?

I eat really healthy, exercise, and meditate twice a day. I make an earnest effort to refrain from having enemies, interactions with toxic people, or engaging in drama and negativity because it drains my energy. I think preparation is everything, when I do a show I leave nothing to chance. Some people are very improvised on stage and I’m very written. Which means word for word I know exactly what’s going to happen. I definitely am a worker bee, I write every day for two hours minimum and I put the work in. The results are ultimately out of my hands due to many factors but I find that when I do my part things go consistently better than when I don't. Seems obvious and simple but it really works.

Does Melinda Hill have a message for the children?

If you go on a date with someone and afterward they don't contact you for five months, break up with them. It's called self-esteem.

The Accidental Bisexual is out now on Stand Up! Records.