BEHIND THE MIC
Two and a half years ago Mary Gallagher took my Level One Stand Up Class and she later encouraged me to teach a one off class about developing a set for Late Night TV. Through a lot of hard work, Mary will be making her late night tv debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in April! This is our interview about her career and the process. Enjoy!
TOM CLARK: You are a fellow Wisconsin-ite like myself, did your comedy career start in Wisconsin or elsewhere?
MARY GALLAGHER: Yes, Tom, I did start in Wisconsin, too. What a fertile field that turned out to be for us. Comedy, for me, started there:
In college, in Green Bay, I created “The Flying Napkins” with my friend Amy. We were Green Bay’s favorite comedy duo. At least we were famous with us, but I guess we were catching on, because we started getting good bookings. We opened for Pauly Shore and Sam Kinison. It was 3,000 men yelling, “Show your tits or get off the stage!” After that experience I knew I could handle anything! Moving to Los Angeles was going to be easy...
TC: Tell me a little about your journey into stand up. I know when you initially moved to LA and you were an actress and improviser, but were you also doing stand up during that time?
MG: I wrote and performed a lot of one-person shows in college, but I think I was just preparing to eventually do stand up. When I was 20 years old I saw Wayne Cotter do an incredible set on Letterman, and I knew one day I would be a stand up.
After college I went to The Second City in Chicago and studied improv. I met Michael Markowitz there, the comedy genius behind the movie Horrible Bosses and the TV show Duckman, among many more, and he taught me how to really set up a joke. We became friends, and I followed him out to Los Angeles where I started taking several stand up classes by people like you, Judy Carter and Mike Marino.
A few years later, I became a host at The Improv bringing Seinfeld, Gaffigan, Silverman, Galifianakis, Kashian, Pardo, Robinson, Regan and other big names — like you! — to the stage. It was thrilling and I learned more hosting than I did doing just a set.
I didn’t know what an incredible opportunity I had been given at the Improvs, so after my acting career took off, like an idiot, I stopped doing stand up. I did keep performing live onstage, though, as a character I created named Shelby Grant (“Sisters for Celibacy!”). It was super fun, but it wasn’t stand up. I was an actor and improviser that was occasionally “performing” stand up.
Then I took a 10-year break from stand up, and raised my daughter. But during that time I was still thinking about stand up, writing stand up, watching stand up and talking stand up. Then — 4 years ago I walked into Flappers Comedy Club and saw Barbara, the owner, and I told her I was back. I started that day and instantly knew the timing was right. I knew I couldn’t work the road because of my daughter, but I could get up around Los Angeles a lot. What a learning experience stand up has been for me.
TC: When you took my stand up class in September 2015, you were very motivated to do a late night set. A lot of people of course are, but you really put in the work. I know you worked with some very talented comedians who assisted you in the process. What did you learn from them and what did you yourself learn about your act along the way?
MG: From you I learned what a long road it can be and how to stay committed and flexible with the process. I also learned to visualize from watching you. Because I knew you—and this sounds silly — because you were also from Wisconsin, I felt a kinship and that gave me confidence to know I could do it. Isn’t it funny how we use whatever gives us the courage to do something? It’s like I find ways to trick myself into being brave. After I took your Late Night TV workshop, I went home and printed out screenshots of late night TV audiences and I put them all over the wall. I would do my set to the photos. (Yes, I was actually like Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy. But I didn’t use giant, life-size pictures at least)
And then my friend Scott Vinci and I would stand in my living room and introduce each other as though we were doing a set on late night TV. At one point I was going to go buy a red curtain and hang it behind us... I still gotta go get that for Scott. My goal is to get him on TV now.
And you are absolutely correct there are so many people who have made stand up a successful opportunity for me. I am the opposite of an island. I thrive on collaboration, kinship, and criticism. I actually like getting other people’s opinions and like hearing criticism. It helps me to grow (even when I don’t agree with it, there is something within it for me to learn). I have a thick skin.
My friends Scott Vinci, Andy Rider, and Cara Rosellini and I are always talking jokes and sharing our comedy goals. I always ask them to write out their goals and send them to me. I have a theory that because stand up is a solo venture onstage, it should be the opposite offstage. We have a joke writing group and we give each other feedback. Scott Vinci also taught me to be consistent with my hair and clothing onstage. Lou Dinos taught me to just do my five minute set over and over until I am so sick of it... And then, keep doing it some more. And not to change it! I have been working my current five minute TV set for almost four years, and resisting the temptation to move on from it until it was ready. Karen Rontowski taught me to wear the same outfit I was going wear on TV several times to get used to it. (She also told me I was ready for late night TV and it was because of her that I sent in my tape to Colbert.) Matt Donaher taught me to make the camera rehearsal at Colbert to also work for myself, and look around and get comfortable. Brian Kiley showed me how to put together a late night writers packet, record the audio and listen to every set no matter what, how to write the perfect joke (I have not learned it yet, but watch him do it consistently) and he also taught me what it means to be a professional. He’s the king and also the nicest and most gracious comic I’ve ever met. And Jerry Seinfeld taught me (not personally) that you don’t wear sneakers onstage! (But you can use those sneakers to run the Fairfax High School track in Hollywood before your late night TV appearance which he did before Carson, and so I did, right before Colbert).
TC: Part of the process of booking a late night show is sending them a video of what material you want to perform, what do you recommend to people who are sending a video for the first time? (i.e. how long of a video, content, etc)
MG: My set was professionally shot by a club, and a little under 10 minutes. I finally understood why I was paying for so many sets and that kind of pisses me off that some clubs charge the comics for their own sets, but I did it happily. And now, I get to perform at places where they hand me my set at the end of the night on a thumb drive! The rich keep getting richer. But you gotta do it.
TC: When I did Conan, I had to go back and forth about three times to get my final set and it took about 9 months from first submission to shooting it. Can you talk a little bit about the back and forth with the booker and any frustration or doubt that you felt along the way?
MG: I remember you sharing that with us in your workshop which I would recommend to any comic who wants more knowledge on how to get on late night TV. I found it fascinating! For me, I had my manager send in a tape to Colbert. And when we didn’t hear anything back for several weeks, I asked him to call and ask for notes. I heard the booker gives comics notes, and I wanted to hear mine. So when he called, he got her on the phone and he asked if she had a chance to check out my tape yet? She said she hadn’t… but because my manager, Kurt Patino, is the nicest and coolest guy ever, she got into a conversation with him about me and she said she was going to go find and watch my submission. A few days later she calls my manager and says I’m booking Mary Gallagher on the show. We were dying!
TC: The day of shooting a late night show is always incredible and surreal and you got to share it with your daughter which is awesome! Can you talk a little bit about the experience of being on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert--before, during and after?
MG: Um, is this ride over? Because I am still on it. On January 11th, I couldn’t believe I was told I booked Colbert (even though I posted on my facebook page thirty days earlier on December 11th that I would be on Late Night TV doing stand up in 2018, so that’s weird… Ha).
After that I had about a 6 weeks before I taped my set and thought about it all the time and got up every night that someone would let me, all the way up to the day I shot it. My daughter understood that I would be gone every night for the first time ever in her life. I met, like, 50 new comics who helped me get stage time and got into all these great clubs that gave me time too. And, I kept doing my set at home to photos of Stephen Colbert’s studio audience.
The best part of the whole thing though was picking up my daughter from school and telling her the day I found out (she loves Stephen Colbert because of the Cartoon Trump) and taking her along to the taping. It was so awesome… At one point in my dressing room that was fully stocked with food and drinks, I see her eating a giant gourmet jar of honey with a spoon like it’s soup. She was bouncing off the walls like a drunk monkey. My manager and I were cracking up.
And, the walk across the stage to my mark on the Ed Sullivan stage, where Paul McCartney and Wayne Cotter — who did that set I loved so much— was a feeling I will play over and over in my mind. (Actually I’m doing it right now).
Thank you, Tom Clark!
Mary Gallagher (marygallagher.tv) is a fellow Wisconsin-Tom-Clarkian. She's a comic, actor, writer and cartoonist and friend to all (even mean people). Check her out at @myfriendmary on twitter and instagram.