How many pharmaceutical researchers with pre-med degrees from Duke have gone on to a career in stand-up? You can count them on one finger—Retta, who delivers the sass as Donna Meagle, pro-dater, Benz-lover, and stalwart employee of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department.
Originally from New Jersey, Retta worked as a contractor for GlaxoSmithKline in North Carolina until she embarked on a stand-up career to prevent her soul from dying. Now we get to enjoy her each week, talking straight to Ron Swanson, Leslie Knope, and any other helpless creature who crosses her path. Recently, Retta kindly took my call as she drove around Los Angeles, her current home, and talked chemistry, brokeassedness, whoring with foreigners, and the filming of season four of Parks and Recreation. She’s now my best friend and Twitter bud. Jealous much?
How did your very first stand-up show go?
I had been doing open mics for a year in North Carolina. A talent agency was looking for two acts for their roster, and held a showcase. You have to sell 10 tickets before you can sign up—it was a total scam. So I sold them to a bunch of people at work, and I had an audience full of scientists. It was at this ballroom at a Marriott. I was so nervous, I drank an entire six-pack of Bud Ice. I peed six times before I went on stage.
So did you win?
It went well. I essentially won. Well, another guy won but he brought his whole church. But after the showcase they contacted me and said “we like you.” And the emcee ran a comedy class and asked me to take it. He said he wasn’t going to charge me for it. So I started taking the class. I didn’t know anything, you know, like funny always comes in threes. All that stuff. I learned how to write.
Who else was in the class?
Jon Reep was in that class. And Jeff Richards from MADtv and SNL.
Anything from your days at Glaxo make it into your material?
Well, the scientists were very supportive. They still email me when they see me on something. I found humor there, but it never turned into material. I was a contractor there, so I wasn’t a regular employee. To keep myself from going crazy, I’d wear a baseball cap in the lab and I’d listen to my headphones. It took a long time for chemical reactions to happen, so I’d stand there for a long time in my hat, my hood, my headphones, and my lab coat just dancing. I did a lot of dancing.
One time, the VP came though with a bunch of executives and they came around the corner and I was dancing my ass off. My boss was leading the tour and later told me that they all heard me singing as they walked by my lab and he almost had a freaking heart attack. I said, “It’s ok, ‘cause I know the VP! I went to church with his son!”
What female stand-ups do you admire?
Maria Bamford. Jackie Kashian, Trish Suhr, Christina [Pazsitzky] from that show about the comics—I don’t watch it [Last Comic Standing]. I just did a show with her the other night. And Tig Notaro.
What is it about these women that you respond to?
I love Maria’s characters. I believe every one she does. Tig will take you on a ride, and you kind of don’t realize you’re at a comedy show. I don’t like when I can hear that comedy cadence, that drives me fucking crazy. They are telling you by the way they talk when you are supposed to laugh. The audience is smart, they know. The girls–it’s like you’re at a dinner party and someone’s telling a story.
So after North Carolina, you moved to LA. How was that?
It was a nightmare. I was temping. I leased a car and drove it out here and they totally came and got it. At one point I shared an apartment with friends from college who were in law school at the time. There was an ant problem, and we broke the lease. I slept on the floor of a friend’s studio. I had bought an ‘84 Mustang on a friend’s credit card so on weekends I drove it out to freaking Temecula to visit another friend just to get a break.
What was your big break in LA?
I submitted a tape to The Jenny Jones Show. She was having an all-female comedian episode. So I did that, and got my college booking agent. I was pretty poor, and had spent three months on the floor, so being on the road wasn’t so bad. When I got back, I got my own studio. And the Mustang’s back window had fallen in, but it was a convertible, so whatever! If I didn’t have the friends I had, people would have thought I was a homeless person. But I still had enough to catch happy hour once in a while.
How did Parks and Rec happen for you?
My manager called and said they were casting a pilot. Octavia Spencer and a lot of other of my “types” were there.
From reading the script, did you know the show would be a hit?
I knew Amy [Poehler] from SNL. And I was obsessed with Paul Schneider as an actor. I knew Greg Daniels did The Office. I thought the script was funny. I’d done so many pilots, I never got my hopes up. Even now on season four, I say ,“Don’t get too excited, it can all go away!” I don’t focus on the future. I’ve enjoyed the ride. I don’t even tell my parents when an episode is on. Well, my mother, she can’t stay awake past nine and she doesn’t know how to work TiVo. My brother called and said, “What the hell? My friend says you’re on a show?” And my little brother won’t blow smoke up my ass. He’ll call and say, “Yeah, I saw your movie but I got a half-price ticket.” But he loves the show. Every Friday he basically texts me the script. I read them at the table read sometimes, and we laugh.
Donna is a dating expert. Are you?
I’ve had my whoring periods. When I first moved to LA I was a dirty whore.
What type did you tend to go for?
It tends to be foreigners. It’s hard to find man in LA, so I just go to tourist destinations and pick up foreigners. I love the French. I’m a sucker for a man with an accent. And surprisingly the Israelis are very charming. You’d never know they like the colored girls, but they do!
What would Donna’s online dating handle be?
I think she’d go…Benz-ita.
What would yours be?
Retta would be Frog-lover.
How is the taping of season four going?
We just finished the fourth episode. I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s fucking hilarious. There’s an episode with Joan Callamezzo [Pawnee Today’s passive-aggressive host played by Mo Collins] that was so brilliant in the table read. It was so funny, I can’t wait for it to air. And…Donna and Tom have a bonding moment.
I knew it! I can’t wait for the new season to start. Are you doing any stand-up while you’re filming?
It’s hard for me to commit to shows because I wrap late, but I still do stand-up occasionally. It’s hard to travel. I’ve had to cancel so many shows that I stopped booking them during the week. So no, I have nothing to promote. Ooh, put my Twitter name on there!
What is it? I tried to find you!
It’s @jokediva. People can never find me. I don’t know why I’m trying to be all incognegro.
Parks and Recreation returns to NBC for its fourth season on Sept. 22 at 8:30 EST. You can follow Retta on Twitter @jokediva.