Comic Beth Stelling talks Lalaland and being back in Chicago to record debut

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Beth Stelling
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  • Beth Stelling
Returning to Chicago for the first time since she skipped to Los Angeles ten months ago, comedian Beth Stelling—aka the Reader's 2010 vote for best stand-up comedian—is recording her debut album tonight and tomorrow (Fri-Sat 7/20-7/21) at the Comedy Bar on the near-north side. Released by Rooftop Comedy Records and due out late summer, the album is a collection of four years of stand-up she honed during her stay in Chicago.

Stelling anticipates the album will act as a mile marker for her stand-up career. Not only will she finally have her old material recorded—she told me many of the jokes are nearly three years old—but she also looks forward to writing new material and strengthening a routine that the LA scene's already begun embracing.

I chatted on the phone with the deadpan comic about her return to the city where she cut her comic teeth, how the comedy scenes in Chicago and LA compare, and how incredible it must have felt to be on a Refinery29 list of the 30 hottest people in Chicago under 30.

Kevin Warwick: So, how about LA?

Beth Stelling: It's great. I love it here. I visited over the years when I started getting better at telling jokes. I'd take a week trip to LA and a week trip to New York. I'm now coming up on five years of doing stand up in November. So probably my third year, I spent a week in New York and a week in LA. And in my head, I was deciding.

It was going to be one or the other? Did you initially move to Chicago to get your feet wet knowing you were going to move to one of the coasts? Was that the plan?

I went to school in Ohio and studied theater. And I always knew I was going to go to Chicago because it's where I wanted to start. But I knew there was a possibility that I would leave for New York or LA. But in the back of my head, I knew that it depended on how well I did at whatever I chose to do.

And as far as coming back to record the album in Chicago, what's the reasoning there?

I feel like if I did it in LA, I would have a lot of comics' support, but I've been here like ten months? And I've thankfully picked up fans. I do clubs and small shows. And there has definitely been people who have expressed interest and been like, hey, it's nice to meet you. But not to the extent that I had spending four years in Chicago.

So it was kind of like I had to go where I feel like the audience could just get on board with me right away.

Plus, I'm sure everyone will be excited to see you after ten months.

It's kind of unbelievable that I haven't seen some of my closest friends in ten months. It doesn't feel like that at all. Because I think it was pretend that it hasn't happened—like I've just been on vacation. But yeah, it's going to be good to see all those people.

My friend Mary Hollis is one of my best friends in Chicago. She made copies of posters for me, and was going around and putting them all over Chicago. They walked into a Thai restaurant next door to the Playground to see if they had a community board, and I guess the owner lady, the small little Asian gal, was like, "Who missing? Who missing?" And they're like, "Beth's missing. She's been missing for ten months."

And how did you get hooked up for the album? How did that come about?

I had been on their radar for a while, and then two summers ago, I remember being up in Wisconsin. My friend Keith Alberstadt was recording his album with them. And Cameron [Esposito] recorded an album with them. And then they asked me, and I was just like, yeah, I don't need to. You know what I mean? I don't think anybody is going to purchase that. And then at the San Francisco Comedy Festival, Roof Top hosted me at the Purple Onion. They recorded it, and then I spent some time with them at the office and, and we ate a lot of candy. It was fun, and they I asked if I would consider doing an album? And I was like, OK.

That Purple Onion set was great.

Thank you. Even though I'm sure everything's very subtle to everyone else, I feel like that's kind of like the, not the "new me," but I feel like that's where I am in my stand-up.

[Check out a ten-minute clip of the set at the bottom of the interview.]

Definitely. Comparing that set to old videos, there was totally more confidence and and a more swagger.

And just a little more energy. So that's where I am—I'm a little closer to me. Even though I never like practiced or chose a persona. I kind of performed how I felt at the time. It's cool to be where I am now, in that sort of spot with my jokes. Even though sometimes I will be performing, and I'll kind of go back into that low-energy subtlety.

So yeah, [Rooftop] was like, let's do it. Even though I feel good about my material, having been out here now for ten months, I first had to prove myself. So I was pretty much doing all my material over the last, at least, six months. And I feel like just this month I've been so sick of it. And starting to be like, I got to scrap it and start over, which is terrifying. But also that's one more reason to do the album. I loved my material before, but I'm now real close to hating it.

Because you've been doing it for so long?

Yeah, because I've been doing some of the jokes for years. The great part of it about it is they can grow and evolve, you add tags and tell them differently. But I just want to capture it how it is and move on.

Sometimes I don't realize how long I've been telling something until I comb over YouTube and try to get things down that make me want to barf. And I'll be like wow, that's from '09. It doesn't seem like a long time ago, but that's three years. It's totally time. Some of them are still great—that's like the weird beauty of it. And then honestly, because I know a lot of close friends and comics will be in the audience, I'll open with new material, so I can be like, hey, it's OK. We're going to laugh a little bit. But remember these old bits? Let's give them a good laugh too.

How's Rooftop releasing the album?

I'll benefit the most if people buy it off rooftopcomedy.com. If people buy the hard copy, it gets sent to them, but it also it starts an immediate digital download, which is nice.

And of course, you were named to Refinery29's list of the 30 hottest people in Chicago under 30.

Lists are silly, but I'm always happy to be on them. Just two days ago, I was working the register at Intelligentsia, and some girl was talking to her friend as I was ringing them up. And she goes, "If you've been on Refinery29, you've made it." I told her I had been on it, and she was like "What?!" I was like, yeah, when I lived in Chicago, I didn't even know what Refinery29 was. I just got an e-mail with some questions. Congratulations. And she was like, "I'm looking it up." I'm like, yeah, I work in a coffee shop. I've made it.

How do you think the Chicago and LA scenes differ?

Everything seems better after having lived it, but I was first anticipating that it would be a little less friendly here. I thought it would be a little more competitive. But honestly, I've been met with nothing but kindness. There's the alt scene and then there's the club scene, and most of the people I'm around swing between both. I think everyone's working on bigger projects. And I think the difference too is a lot of your friends all of a sudden start writing for, you know, MTV's ridiculousness or Parks & Rec. All of your friends start writing.

That's one of the draws.

Yeah, you're surrounded. Tonight I'm doing a show with Pete Holmes and Neal Brennan of Chappelle's Show. And then there's Jake Weisman and Dave Ross, who are like, two alt comics who work really hard and put on shows—everybody's working. And it's like that in Chicago too, and I do think people underestimate the opportunities that you still can get in Chicago. You know, Hannibal's got late night, I was on a TV show for like a second—it was a silly cop drama, but I still got on a TV show, know what I mean? Mary Hollis, my best friend in Chicago, she's on Boss. Those things can totally happen, it's just more common out here.

I wonder if it's a little bit more cutthroat. People respect talent, but maybe they're willing to call you out.

Anybody can all of the sudden get scooped up to have their own Comedy Central show, but I think people really take pride and enjoy hanging out with others they think are really talented, because, you know, maybe they might get a part on their show. That's not to say that their relationships are fake, I just think that it's important for people to support each other, because you never know.

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