So, how does one go about bombing on America’s Got Talent, anyway? In case you were dying to know, there is indeed a set formula to be applied, which, if executed properly, will result in a killer comedy single chronicling the experience, a widely-read Huffington Post essay, and general acclaim from storytelling enthusiasts the world over.
Here to count down the AGT flame-out checklist is Melinda Hill, a wonderfully prolific comedian, writer, essayist, and all-around hilarity factory whose comedy career long predates reality television. Having already established a reputation for turning out whip-smart humor pieces on everything from acting in a Creed video to an accidental brush with bisexuality, Hill’s new single, Six Ways to Bomb on America’s Got Talent, recalls her brief brush with the talent contest juggernaut, and the subsequent bombing that played out on camera.
Not that such an undertaking has threatened Hill’s career– far from it. With her critically lauded Web series, Romantic Encounters going strong on My Damn Channel, and her weekly LA comedy show, “What’s Up Tiger Lily” (co-founded with Maria Bamford and Natasha Leggero) about to hit its eighth year, Hill is as busy as she’s ever been. Then, there’s the essay and single. Taking a brief reprieve from crowd pleasing, Hill caught up with us to chat about stand-up versus storytelling, her sad secrets, and why she has zero regrets about AGT.
On your latest CD, the storytelling style strikes me as being similar to that of David Sedaris, which is something of a departure from more traditional-style stand-up that most people might associate you with. Do you consider Sedaris an influence?
Definitely. Sedaris is a major influence on me. I’m a huge fan and I love that his underdog stories give all of us permission to fail out loud and laugh about it. I think he does such a service to mankind. Even his career trajectory is an inspiration: working a series of odd jobs until his late 30s then striking gold by writing stories about said odd jobs and spinning that into a career as the top satirist of our time with sold out storytelling appearances all over the world. I definitely want to be David Sedaris when I grow up.
As a performer, what do you think there are the benefits of reading stories aloud as opposed to stand-up?
Well, a lot of really great storytellers come out of the “Sit ‘N’ Spin” show at Comedy Central Stage, which is where this EP was recorded. Jill Solloway, who just wrote and directed Afternoon Delight, co-created Sit N Spin with Maggie Rowe who has a couple books and movies out now; Tracy McMillan had a piece there that became a viral Huffington Post column. These are some examples of great stories that have gone on to make great books and movies, which is always my goal—that my stories will take on other forms as well. For instance, my dating stories that I read at Sit N Spin became a one person show, my Web series is now a book, so that’s an obvious advantage of performing stories in general, just that they so easily spin into other forms of entertainment and no part of the buffalo goes unused.
Of course, while the same can be said of stand-up, I do think the storytelling audience is more willing to go on a journey that doesn’t necessarily have to involve a certain amount of laughs per minute, as traditional stand-up needs to have. So that’s freeing creatively, and certainly less pressure. That’s also why I love NPR, This American Life, Fresh Air, The Moth, and Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. I personally enjoy getting invested in people’s stories. I’m much more interested in what they’ve overcome and how they did that than listening to yet another boring stand-up set about someone’s greasy boner and balls.
That said, traditional stand-up sets are what have gotten me jobs on TV, so there are pros and cons to both realms. I do really love both. Also, I believe we’re here to help people so if I can do that with what I’m talking about on stage, I feel like it has a deeper importance than just making people laugh. If I was able to get through something horrific and talk about it and turn it into something positive just by talking about it, I’m helping other people do the same or helping them to know the same is possible. Just knowing that people survived something, I think, is comforting, and I’m always grateful when people talk about that stuff. I’m interested in connecting with both stand-up and storytelling audiences and I think the easiest way to do that in both situations is to just tell the truth– the emotional truth.
In this latest essay, you mention that, without laughter, stand-up comedy is just “a sad person talking.” I think this was a great one-liner, in that it was both funny and also incredibly revealing. Do you think sadness is a prerequisite to being funny?
Well, first of all, thank you Miss Emma! Secondly, I think all people have secrets and sadness that they’re not able to go around expressing, because it could jeopardize their jobs or social standing or relationships. Or they just don’t know how to communicate it. I really think it’s our job as comedians and storytellers to say what other people can’t. I think one thing it provides for audiences is a sigh of relief; it lets them know that they’re not alone with their sad secrets.
So what are some of your sad secrets?
That’s a great question! I’m not sure I have any anymore, because I’m constantly exploring them in my work. You should call this piece “The Sad Secrets of Melinda Hill.”
In the essay, you discuss the fact that your management team had tried to talk you out of performing on AGT. Do you regret not heeding their advice, or was it worth it to get this essay out of the experience?
It was definitely worth it! I got this essay and a new EP out of it, of course, and a column on both HuffPost and Hello Giggles. Personally, I got a lot more out of it than if I would’ve actually won America’s Got Talent. It was such a crazy, fantastic, horrifying thing to experience, so I’m really glad I said ‘yes’ to it. In some ways it was the ultimate American experience.
Have you heard from anyone on the show since the essay came out?
I sure have. Some of the people I was on there with reached out to say that they did enjoy the essay. A comic who had done Last Comic Standing reached out to me and said she really enjoyed it, which made me feel great, because I really admire her stand-up. Another current contestant on [America’s Got Talent] reached out – I can’t go into detail, obviously, but that was great, too. One high school student even told me that it helped him with his depression! A lot of people who haven’t even been on reality shows have written to me that it has helped or inspired them in some way actually, so that’s been really positive.
So let’s go ahead and talk about rape. Since you brought up the subject of rape jokes in the single, I’m curious to get your personal take on what is probably one of the most polarizing topics in comedy right now. How do you approach writing about something like this?
Well, the rape joke in this particular essay is a social commentary on religious figures and celebrities who get away with rape and sexual harassment, so it’s not exactly your typical rape joke. I can’t pretend to know that experience; I can’t speak to how horrible it would be. That particular joke is satirical and speaks to some atrocities in the religion I actually grew up in — Catholicism — but nobody’s let me do it on TV yet. AGT was on board then they said no way. That made me re-think my whole set to something which was a lot more people-pleasery and not exactly who I am today as a comedian. I don’t know, do you think I should have done it anyway?
Yeah, sure! What would they do, pull you off the stage? That would only have made you a folk hero.
Right? That’s so right. [Laughs].
Were you able to write about the experience so soon after it happened? Was it difficult to distance yourself from it to find the humor?
I started a Kickstarter for my Web series Romantic Encounters immediately while I was still in New Jersey doing America’s Got Talent, so I just gave myself something else to completely focus on for the time being. A Kickstarter is no joke. It takes all of your attention and energy like nothing I’ve ever done, so it was a perfect project to distract myself from AGT. I couldn’t even think about AGT until the Kickstarter was over. I managed to raise quite a bit for my Web series, so that was amazing, then we went immediately into pre-pro and then production and post, so I couldn’t really think about AGT until months later, actually. And after that first night I was on the show, I never Googled myself or read any of the comments again so I stayed pretty well insulated from whatever was happening with it.
I’ve always been an avid journal-er, too. I always write first thing in the morning after meditating, so I had tons of notes from the experience as it happened but I didn’t revisit them until I actually wrote the essay. It normally doesn’t take me that long to write an essay, but with this one, it took about six months of several drafts to really whittle it down to the thing it is now, which is a satirical and absurd list of ways to bomb on America’s Got Talent. There was a lot of sending it off to writer friends for notes and reading it out loud at various shows, and all of that helped it to become what it is now. When Sit N Spin booked me toward the end of that process it was perfect because it gave me a concrete deadline to finish it and after I read it there I considered it finished, case closed, and I moved on to other projects.
It’s been very therapeutic and cathartic to release this EP and sort of have a positive place to put my experience in a box because initially it was really traumatic, obviously. And that’s why it required so many drafts too, I think. I didn’t want to shy away from how horrible the experience was or make excuses or blame anyone or even defend myself. I didn’t want to make a happy ending or talk about what I’d learned or tie any kind of a pretty bow on a wretched experience. I just wanted to take people on the journey of what it’s like to bomb on national TV, which is probably a secret fear for like everyone in the world- public humiliation.
Knowing what you know now, would you still do the performance all over again, if given the chance? Would you do anything differently?
I have no regrets and I’m so glad I did it. It was such a weird experience. Honestly, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, except… I think I would have definitely done my rape joke. [Laughs].
Since you brought up your Web series, Romantic Encounters, let’s talk about that a little bit. Are the episodes based on actual events that have happened to you? Would you consider it a hyperbolic take on your own dating life?
Yes, they are based on actual events. The character is a heightened persona and the events themselves are fictional – but that said, it’s almost easiest to write what you know.
In addition to that, you’re also involved in a number of comedy projects. How do you manage to keep equal amounts of attention devoted to each?
I just try to do my best to show up to all of them, and to delegate where possible. Really, it’s something of a challenge. I usually never feel like I’m doing enough; I sometimes wake up in a panic going, I need to be doing more! I’m definitely a hard worker, and some might say a workaholic, but I try to stay focused [on everything]. One thing that really helps me is to eat healthy and to exercise– I don’t drink, I run and meditate and that helps a lot. The rest is just showing up.
Oh, this really helps me, too: I tell myself that it doesn’t have to be good; it just has to get done. That allows me to give myself permission to do it imperfectly. That’s really how I get so much done: I just take the pressure off myself for it to be perfect. If I felt like something had to be really good before I put it out in the world, I would never get anything done. A lot of times, you find that so much in the first draft is actually more useable than you thought. I like to just write it all out, in a vomit draft, including mistakes and all.
Did you just call it a “vomit draft?”
Yeah, but I didn’t come up with that. It’s like a writing term; I’m not sure who came up with it. Psychologically, if you have a first draft, you know you already have something, and it’s so much easier to do a second draft than a first draft.
Beyond the realm of chintzy reality television, how do you want to keep evolving your work from this point forward?
I’m currently writing a series with my friend, Maria Bamford, and I’m also writing a book and a movie. Also, Adam Franklin and I have new interview series coming out this month called All Growz Up, which is a spin-off of the podcast that I’ve been doing with Jillian Lauren. In this series I interview comedians behind Tiger Lily, which is my LA comedy show, and I ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up and what their secrets to success are. I’m obsessed with biography TV and how people got to where they are so it’s been really fun for me to do this. There are so many great people left to collaborate with, and so many great actors and comedians to write for, so I’m super excited. I never really think about what’s next in terms of projects, I just live my life and tell the truth about it and it usually ends up somehow becoming a thing. So the evolution is organic and sort of contingent on my growth and experiences as a human, which usually just involves getting out of my own way enough to be a channel.