By Daniel Petrino
Through her darkest and most triumphant times, veteran stand-up comedian Vanessa Hollingshead could always find stability in comedy
If you watch comedian Vanessa Hollingshead perform, you’ll quickly discover her off-color comedy comes, in part, from two things: her wacky personal experiences and coping with the obstacles of life.
On a personal level her husband, Lucien Hold, the former general manager and talent coordinator at Manhattan’s Comic Strip Live, passed away in 2004. And on a professional level, it took her years to accept the fact she turned down a $260,000 deal with The Drew Carey Show. Through these things and everything in between, Hollingshead embraced the one constant in her life: the ability to make people laugh.
She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind, to be a little offensive or even turn The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” into a modern day hip-hop extravaganza.
With the release of her new DVD An American Anglomanic (filmed at Gotham Comedy Club in New York City) and a ton of tour dates that have her crisscrossing the continent — Reno, Anchorage, Montreal to name a few towns — Hollingshead had plenty to talk about when Punchline Magazine recently caught up with her.
When you see someone walking on the street and they fall, is your first reaction to laugh, help them up or ignore them?
Help them up. Seriously.
Does that make me a horrible person that I’d laugh and then be like, ‘Oh, do you need help?’
No, that makes you a guy. I used to make a joke about the Germans. They have a very odd sense of humor. Germans would be like, [in a German accent] ‘You know I was playing with my friend and then what I did is I kicked him down a flight of stairs and all his leg was broken. It was good fun. Haha. Just to watch all his falling and the bones jutting out. It was so funny to see his legs all mangled like that. Ya ya.’
Everyone’s got different types of humor. English humor is very dry; Italian is usually very warm; German is very cold.
I watched your comedy special and the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” rap is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
Everyone loves that.
So do you have a favorite piece of your own comedy?
When I get news jokes funny those usually becomes my favorite. But I like the harder jokes– the jokes that are a little bit more edgy, that once the audience loves you, you can get away with. There was one joke I used to do when I was trying to get pregnant and it went something like, “If I knew it was this hard to get pregnant, I never wouldn’t have had all those abortions.” I’ve never had an abortion, but you know, I was never able to get pregnant, but I used to love doing that joke because that just came out of left field.
There’s one where I talk about Dr. Phil. I say, “Dr. Phil has got to get down to the Middle East and help these couples out. None of them get along with each other!’ Can you imagine him down there? He’d be like, [in a Dr. Phil voice] ‘Now listen Haamil, I think it’s commendable that you want to bring your wife to a full and complete orgasm, but it’s gonna be next to impossible when she’s missing her clitoris.’ Those are the jokes I find funny.
Do you almost see comedy as therapy?
Almost? No. I would most definitely say it is. Four days after my husband died, I was onstage doing comedy. The audience couldn’t see my eyes were completely bloodshot from crying. We were both troopers. He was really a trooper. I knew he wouldn’t want me to be single for too long, which I’ve been, and I know he’d want me to be up on that stage performing. He’d be saying, ‘The show must go on, honey. You’re gonna have to keep going.’
So at that very dark period of my life, which I wouldn’t even wish on Hitler, the audience was literally loving me back and keeping me alive and they didn’t even know it. I had to work moment to moment so for that hour I had to forget that Lucien was dead. It was very therapeutic. If I was in a lot of pain, I was always able to make it funny.
When did you realize you wanted to do stand-up comedy full time?
I was always funny. I was always like Lucy — crazy things have happened to me my whole life. The first time I did comedy I talked about how I lost my hair because I used hair straightener that was made for black people. I was like, ‘Wow. This stuff stings.’ And I had just started a new job. I walk in the office with like, a turban and I needed money to get a wig so I went to my boss and said, ‘Please Mr. Groomberg, can you lend me money to get a wig?’
‘Well, put it on my credit card, honey,’ he said. ‘Just don’t tell my wife. She’ll never understand. Those are the things that have happened to me my whole life. And I talked about that on stage just for a few minutes. I was very nervous but I managed to get a little chuckle. I just felt like I was at home. And I’ve always used laughter to get through every dark period of my life
Is there a venue you enjoy performing at most?
There’s this place called Therapy Bar in New York City and it’s completely gay, all gay guys, and they are the most supportive, loving audience and probably the brightest. They’re the ones I can really let it rip with. I love small and intimate places with bright audiences, but not with a crowd that’s too cool for the room. With bigger rooms, I feel like I can’t experiment so much and I feel like I have to be larger than life.
You get enormous applause in bigger rooms and it’s all great, but there’s something wonderful when you can connect with people that have had horrible lives, that have always felt like an outcast, that never see themselves in a good light. When you can make them laugh, that always makes me feel good. I used to be very heavy. Then I lost weight and then I had drinking problems. So it’s so great to go into clubs and talk about these things and have people identify.
So what do you do to psyche yourself up for a show?
I usually say, ‘It’s your quirky way of seeing things’ and I try not to drink too much coffee — cause usually I talk really fast. When I did the Comedy Central special I really had to cut down on the coffee that day because I was a nervous wreck. I just say a little prayer like, ‘Please God, just be with me tonight.’ And sometimes you separate; there are times in comedy when you’re performing so much that when you’re on stage performing your inner critic comes out.
It leaves your body and you’re watching yourself performing and you’re thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life? Where do I get the nerve that for the next hour I’m just gonna talk and these people are gonna actually listen to what I have to say? And what do I have to say? And if I do that joke one more time I’m gonna throw up. I can’t stand it. What’s happening? I feel like a fat slob today.’
How did your family respond to your decision to pursue comedy as a career?
My dad passed away so he never knew about it, but he knew I wanted to be an actress. And my mother was like, ‘Oh, well, you know I should pay more attention to you, shouldn’t I?’ You’re gonna wind up like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. You’re just gonna kill yourself, aren’t you?’
My mom actually heckled me for drugs in a show. Heckled me. She came to see me once and I was talking about how she likes to smoke pot. My mother stood up in her seat and said, ‘She’s right. I like good grass. If anyone has some good grass, tell me.’ Without missing a beat I said, I hope everyone can see why I do comedy.’
What comedians have inspired you?
Probably the biggest influences were Richard Pryor and George Carlin. And I had the opportunity to meet Richard Pryor and he told me I was funny so I felt like I had arrived. I loved the way Richard Pryor would take his real life experience and make it funny and the way George Carlin understood language and words and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him. But I loved English comedy as well because I’m half English; so part of me loved Monty Python and Eddie Izzard.
Do you ever watch yourself on television?
Yeah, I do. It’s painful, but I do watch it. I’m always thinking, ‘Do I look fat? Do I look like I have a double chin? How’s my hair? How’s my timing?’ I just pick myself apart.
Do you have any advice for aspiring comedians?
First off, they need to understand that you’ll be married to comedy. If they really wanna be a comedian, they can kiss a lot of life as they understood it goodbye. They have to be prepared to be lonely, to be on the road and to write a lot. And you need a very thick skin and a very strong ego.
You should also keep to yourself and stay a little mysterious. I didn’t get involved with any men, I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t doing drugs. I just knew what I wanted and I just kept my eye on the prize. In two years I was finally able to make a living at it. I had four development deals but I made some horrible mistakes.
I turned down a $260,000 deal to be on The Drew Carey Show because another network wanted to use me for The Billy Club and they ended up never making the show.
I beat myself up for five years after that. But I just had to forgive myself when I made that huge blunder. Since then, I never looked back and I ended up getting TV shows and good things have happened to me. “Life is about the journey.” I remember Lucien saying to me. Vanessa, if everything should fail, if everyone should let you down, you have a skill. You can do this until you’re 65 years old. You can make people laugh.”
I remember just feeling so bad about myself that I didn’t get famous. I’ve traveled all around the world and I just love what I do so much. Now, it’s not so much about getting famous as it is about wanting to be remembered and respected for what I did– for being a true artist.
For more info on Vanessa, check out www.vanessahollingshead.com.